Thursday, June 25, 2015

An unexpected trail encounter

Hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the mountains of North Carolina is a different experience from hiking the Appalachian Trail.  On the latter you're sure to meet other hikers several times every day. As you hike the MST you might come in contact with tourists on or near the Blue Ridge Parkway, but unless you're hiking with friends or family the 'in-the-woods' hiking tends to be a solitary experience.

At least it had been for me ... so far.

Today, as I hiked the section of trail between Balsam Gap and the Nantahala National Forest, the treadway looked to be very seldom used.  There were full grown weeds popping up where feet should have trampled them, yet they were untouched.  There were rocky sections where all the rocks a hiker would step on were moss-covered.

It was early afternoon.  I was meandering among the upright weeds and mossy rocks, pushing my face through plenty of pristine unbroken spider silk, remarking to myself that it had surely been two or three weeks since the last person walked this way when ... voila!  A wonderful apparition appeared (see photo above). 

Not only was it another hiker, it was an MST thru-hiker!  Lorie Hansen was within three days of finishing her cross-state trek.

Of course we had lots to talk about, covering MST topics ranging from the scary 2 1/4 mile Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks to the fresh new piece of trail coming down from Waterrock Knob, which Lorie missed because her trail guide directed her down the Parkway.

We talked about bears and mutual MST acquaintances, and of course we exchanged notes on what each could expect in the next few miles.  Finally we exchanged photos and then headed our separate ways, back into our respective cocoons of solitude.  Here's the photo Lorie took of me.

That was a delightful encounter.  Meeting Lorie made my day.  And that's saying something, because the day was chock full of interesting experiences.  It began with this delightful mountain summer sunrise:

I started the day hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway for six miles, passing through Pinnacle Ridge Tunnel early enough that the tourist traffic was non-existent.

I encountered hillsides covered with blooming mountain laurel and flame azalea,

and came across this remarkable specimen of Bowmans Root, also called Indian Physic and sometimes Fawns Breath - Gillenia trifoliata is the botanical name.

Usually this perennial is much smaller and more spindly.  This plant was like a cloud of five-pointed stars.  At the time I was thinking that it would be the highlight of the day.

Then I walked the MST through the woods for about seven miles back to my starting point.  Before I met Lorie I encountered another rarity.  On the Appalachian Trail maintainers often adorn their work with the "AT" logo.  Here I found my first and only example of such a Maintainer's mark on the ...

At the end of today, when I was back to my van, I explored two access trails.  My 'mission' this summer is to hike this mountain section of the MST via a series of out-and-back day hikes, much the way I did the Appalachian Trail.  And I've made it part of that mission to scout out as many of the access points as I can, so that prospective day hikers who come after me can have as many options as possible.

Along this seven mile stretch of MST I found two access trails.  One follows an old abandoned road that passes under the Parkway.

Parking for this access trail is at Standing Rock Overlook.  Here's the standing rock itself--an impressive natural monument.

The other access point is a less used but clear trail that follows a stream up from the Parkway just below the Village of Saunook Overlook.  In my last report I had mentioned the Hood Road access, which is about a mile east of Balsam Gap, and the actual starting point for today's hiking.  On the other end the MST comes within sight of three Parkway Overlooks--Grassy Ridge Mine, Licklog Gap, and Doubletop Mountain.  The last access point covered in this report is where the MST eastbound enters Nantahala National Forest.  It does so on an old forest road that comes out to the Parkway at this 'T'-shaped barrier.  There is not a paved overlook here, but there is room for a vehicle or two to park.

Before hiking and reporting on more of the MST eastward to Asheville and Mt. Mitchell, I had to return home to take care of personal business including several unexpected twists -- two flat tires (yes, not one but two), a mal-functioning air conditioner in my condo, and an a possible Post Office mail problem.  All the business is taken care of now, so look for more MST reports in the very near future.

Here's a map of the Parkway - MST hiking covered in this report, with the red 'pins' marking places where I took photos.

MST - Balsam Gap to Nantahala National Forest at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Back on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Waterrock Knob to Balsam Gap

Looking west from Waterrock Knob, the beginning of a new hiking adventure

One year later, almost to the day, since I left the MST to take a shortcut to the Appalachian Trail at my favorite spot - the Roan Highlands - I'm back to hike some more of North Carolina's distinctive state-wide trail.

The Mountains-to-Sea trail is one of a dozen or more state-wide trails in the United States, but I'd argue that no other state offers the degree of diversity that this trail has.  This nearly 1200 mile footpath takes the hiker from the palm trees of Topsail Island and the shifting sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge to the sub-Alpine forests atop the two of the three highest mountains east of the Mississippi River.

Like the Appalachian Trail, North Carolina's state trail is blessed with a long section along the high ridges of the Appalachian chain.  It follows the Blue Ridge, often using the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor, for about 350 miles.

Following the MST west to east, you hike from Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountain National Park to Devils Garden Overlook before leaving the Blue Ridge for good and dropping 2000 feet into Stone Mountain State Park.  Here begins a trek through Pilot Mountain State Park with its eerie monolith (reminiscent of Devils Tower in Wyoming) and then Hanging Rock State Park.

Next the trail takes a newly constructed route along Elkin Creek into the quaint town of Elkin.  There's a refreshing walk through this thriving downtown district full of quaint shops and restaurants, then the trail follows the Yadkin and Haw Rivers, passing north of Greensboro on trail along the shores of their watershed lakes and the Eno River, taking the riverwalk through the elegant historic town of Hillsborough, and trekking the long uninterrupted woods trails beside Falls Lake north of Raleigh. 

From Falls Lake Dam northeast of Raleigh the trail gets on a nearly forty-mile continuous paved greenway with several stunning footbridges over the Neuse River that make a continuous off-road experience along the river from Raleigh to Clayton.  Next comes a Greenway through Smithfield, and after that the extensive nature preserve called Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center, all along the Neuse River.

From there the foot trail carves a delightful arch through the coastal plain in an area with more environmental diversity than almost anywhere else in the USA.  This 350 mile section of trail has its own name:  The Coastal Crescent Trail.  I could go on and on about the distinctive natural and historical sights that the hiker explores along this section and beyond to the Outer Banks, but I've rambled too much already.

So ... back to the Mountains.

The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea trail is well-supported, well-run organization with hundreds of dedicated volunteers who are constantly working to build more trail and improve the hiking experience.  The hike I'm reporting here begins at Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway where volunteers have just opened a new two-mile section of trail at above 5500 feet of elevation.  It begins here at the Waterrock Knob visitor center parking lot ...

... with this tacit invitation to plunge into the wild.

It descends a long series of well constructed steps ...

... and follows the side slopes with grand views of the parkway below and the country beyond,

coming out at Fork Ridge Overlook on the Parkway.  After a short walk along the parkway I was glad to plunge back into the woods at Scott Creek Overlook.

The weather was hot.  It was the heat that beckoned me to abandon a month of beach walking and head to the high mountains.  In the lowlands afternoon heat index values soared well above 100 degrees.  Even up at 5000 feet, where physics of the atmosphere requires it to be about 25 degrees cooler, the hiking was hot and sweaty.  So it was wonderful to be able to soak my head in the stream above Woodfin Cascade.  The trail crosses a footbridge here,

and a short side trail down to the Parkway brings you to the cascade proper.  You have to look for this waterfall.  Even though it's basically right beside the Parkway, it's not easily visible from either the road or the trail and no signs at the Woodfin Cascade Overlook on the Parkway point you to where it's located.

That's where I ended the MST hiking for the day.  I found that I was out of shape.  Beach walking does not prepare one for up-down mountain hiking.  I am doing unsupported out-and-back day hikes on this trip, not really trying to get anywhere in any hurry.  I hiked back to Waterrock Knob via the Parkway.  If you want to see views, walking the Parkway is the way to do it.  On the trail you're in the proverbial 'green tunnel' all the time.  So, though it was hot, the road walk had its own unique pleasures.

The side road to Waterrock Knob visitor center is actually also part of the MST.  Where it joins the Parkway there is a division of trails.  West of here the MST offers two choices - a rugged mountain route through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and a 'River Valley Route' that actually begins with a very rugged ridge walk to Blackrock Mountain.  That route enters the woods right across from the Waterrock Knob/Parkway intersection, and is only marked with this generic post:

I'm leaving the hike west to Clingmans' Dome for another time.  For now I chose to head east.  Next day I started at Woodfin Cascades and did another series of out-and-back hikes, again taking the MST one way and the Parkway the other (except for a few lucky stretches where the Parkway *is* the MST)

This includes the bridge over US 74 and the railroad track at Balsam Gap.

There is also an extensive road walk on loose gravel Greenspire Drive - much more shady than the parkway but tougher under-foot.

I actually went a little beyond Balsam Gap to where the MST crosses Hood Road, a dirt road that passes under the Parkway.  Near here I crossed a stream with an inviting little cascade, just right for dunking my head into while in a standing position.

I continued on for a week of hiking, and even ran into an MST thru-hiker, who was within three days of finishing her hike.  Stay tuned for more reports.

Here's a map of the routes I walked as taken by my GPS.  The red 'pins' indicate locations of photos, including some not shown here.

MST - Waterrock Knob to Balsam Gap at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hiking Hemphill Bald, Smoky Mountain Park

There's a brutal heat wave gripping North Carolina, so I headed to the high mountains to do some hiking.  The basic plan is to hike more of, if not all of, the rest of NC's Mountains to Sea Trail--the 250 miles that remain undone from last year's hike.

Yesterday I did a 'warm-up' hike that was not on the MST.  I'm a fan of North Carolina's high balds, so many of which are on the Appalachian Trail.  But there's one that looks impressive in the southeast corner of Great Smoky Mountain National Park that's on an out-of-the-way trail.  The bald is called Hemphill Bald, and the trail, appropriately enough, is called Hemphill Bald Trail.

I was not disappointed, though I did find conditions different from the balds on the AT.  First of all, none of the actual open 'bald' area is on GSMNP property.  It is on the adjacent conservation easement owned by Cataloochee Ranch, seen below the summit in the photo below.

They have put a nice plaque and 'rest stop' there on the summit, on the private property, complete with stile providing access from the trail proper in Park property, so apparently they welcome hikers.

The other distinctive thing about this bald is that it's just plain cattle pasture.  I don't know the history of Hemphill Bald--whether it was cleared by settlers or was one of the enigmatic relic balds from pre-Columbian times, but it was a very satisfying, if strenuous walk up and down over two knobs.  It doesn't quite compare to my favorite bald--Hump Mountain--but it does have an expansive feel with lots of vertical climbing and room to ramble in the open area.  Here's a look from the secondary summit north toward the edge of the bald area at Double Gap.

Cataloochee Ranch even has a live webcam set up right beside the high point in an enclosure with solar panels, radio equipment and all kinds of new-fangled technological paraphernalia.

Back in the park, as I drove out along Balsam Mountain Road, I passed four different elk.  This one had two ear tags and a radio collar.  None of these elk seem the least bit perturbed by humans.  Do they feed them here?  I've never seen such a concentration of these nearly moose-sized creatures.

So ... go see Hemphill Bald.  I highly recommend this hike.  It's well worth the 4.4 mile hike from the nearest park road--trailhead at Polls Gap on the Balsam Mountain side road off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Of course, if you're more inclined to 'dude ranching' book a place at Cataloochee Ranch and you're right there.  Either way, the experience will stick with you long after you leave.

Here's a GPS track of the route with 'pins' marking location of some of the photos:

Hiking Hemphill Bald at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sunday, June 7, 2015

More Maryland Hikes

During my recent visit to Maryland I not only hiked a stretch of the C&O Canal Towpath, I also had a chance to do several other day hikes in my old stomping grounds.  Best of all I got to do a four mile hike with my number one daughter.  For years, I've tried to lure my kids into hiking.  Here's a shot my daughter recently unearthed of a hike we took to Hog Rock in Catoctin Mountain Park on October 1994.  Notice that both kids have their hiking sticks.

But somehow my influence has never taken hold.  My son has taken up golf--following a little white ball around on grassy 'trails'.  Maybe that counts.  And my daughter explains to me that she loves being out in nature, but she much more prefers being actively engaged with friends and associates in the bustling hubs of civilization.  She reminds me that no man is an island.  I countered that I may not be an island but the peninsula I'm on has a pretty slim connection.

McKeldin Rapids, Patapsco Valley State Park

The hike my daughter and I took was in Patapsco Valley State Park.  It was a splendid weather day - cool, sunny, low humidity.  The wood thrushes were serenading us as we traipsed along the river.  But the real magic of the day was the bonding.

Patapsco Valley State Park is heavily 'infested' with a new invasive species from New Zealand called Wavyleaf Basketgrass.  I took several other hikes on my own in equally invaded areas just upstream where a branch of the Patapsco is impounded for a City of Baltimore Water Supply.  The reservoir is called Liberty Lake, and it has a wonderful continuous buffer around it and a network of fire roads that the Watershed management allow the public to use for hiking.  Throughout this preserved area, Wavyleaf has entrenched itself, and because it is a water supply, the options for eradicating it are limited.  Here's one of the fire roads entirely covered with Wavyleaf, with a sprig of it close-up.

My daughter commented that she thinks it's pretty and she wondered why it was a problem.  I agree that it makes a beautiful ground cover.  The problem, environmentalists say, is that it displaces native species, some of which may become threatened with extinction as a result.  Daughter's reaction: So what if a bird brought the seed over from New Zealand and not man?  What's the difference?  My response:  You're right.  Stronger species naturally overrun the weaker ones all the time.  Humans seem to think that a species has an inherent right to survive.  I disagree.

End of lecture.  Here are a few other shots taken from my Liberty Lake hikes.  Mountain Laurel was in bloom

I discovered a set of new trails there built by off-road bikers and blazed with red vertical paint blazes--they even have put bridges in place such as this one made of a steel ladder.

I stopped in at the City of Baltimore Water Supply management office and asked about these trails.  They made my hiking vastly more enjoyable, allowing me to follow shoreline near my former home where I formerly had to bushwhack.  But the office tells me that building trails is not allowed (as I guessed), and if these bikers get caught in the act there would be hell to pay.

Of course, the original reservoir builders, back in the mid-1950's did a bit more damage to the ecosystem of this river valley.  And eventually this man-made lake is going to fill with silt and become nothing but a mucky swamp.  But let's not quibble.

While visiting my parents in nearby PA, I had a chance to hike a cute little 2 1/4 mile trail called the Springlawn trail in Elk Township, Chester County, PA, less than a mile from the MD state line.  The trail follows a former country road along the course of Big Elk Creek.  The wild azaleas were in bloom.

As were the Mayapples.

And last but not least I went back to where it all began.  When I gave up twenty-five years as a couch potato in order to get in shape to climb mountains in South America, my go-to training trail was part of the Catoctin Trail in Cunningham Falls State Park near Thurmont, MD.  I chose the piece of trail from the Manor area trailhead up to Bob's Hill because it was the closest mountain to home and it offered 1000 feet of elevation change in a bit over a mile.  I have hiked this trail a hundred times or more, but it had been a couple years since I'd been back.  There's a section of trail where the pink Lady Slippers - a native orchid - line the trail, and I was fortunate to be there during their bloom season.

Here's the view to the south east from atop Bob's Hill.

And here's Bob.

Sure, he may look like a plain ordinary log to you, leaning on another log and not worthy of any notice.  But there's a long story behind 'Bob'.  He's the spirit of this hill, and he was my imaginary hiking companion on all the many grueling training hikes I took up this trail.  Suffice it to say that Bob first caught my attention just after sunrise one August morning when a stunning shaft of sunlight in the otherwise shady woods illuminated Bob's head - the top end of the log - and made it glow like a beacon.

The visit to Maryland lasted a couple of weeks, and though none of the hiking I did was 'epic' in scope, the memories are precious all the same.