Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hiking around Asheville

Heather and her daughter Iona pausing for a look at one of the few wide-open vistas along the MST around Asheville

I love Asheville.  If I chose to live in any city east of the Mississippi, Asheville would be it.  It's the east's answer to Boulder, Colorado near which I lived in a previous life (before legalized pot and craft breweries).  Asheville is full of amazing, interesting people and exciting cultural experiences, and it boasts unrivaled natural beauty on its doorstep.

The white-circle-blazed Mountains-to-Sea Trail and it's motorway cousin, the Blue Ridge Parkway, exemplify that beauty.  The nearly nineteen miles of MST that run in a semicircle around Asheville's south side from the French Broad River to Craven Gap features pleasant quiet walks through mid-latitude hardwood forest.  (The species of tree in the photo above does not occur above about 3500 feet, can you identify it?)  There aren't a lot of spectacular photo opportunities.  The serenity and simplicity of the setting are the attractions.  The trail is popular among morning joggers, and it gets busy again in the afternoons, hosting after-work strolls to unwind and decompress.

Unwind and decompress--necessities for city life.  This is why I will not move to Asheville.  It is, in the end, a city.  All cities have too much crowding and congestion and noise for me.  Even the Blue Ridge Parkway is crowded here.  Locals use it to get around town.

The MST uses the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor to do the same thing -- to get around Asheville.

Long distance hiking trails respond to cities in one of two ways--either avoiding them, sort of pretending they don't exist by seeking wilderness-like corridors, or embracing them by plunging fearlessly into the city's core using urban greenways.  I like both.  The MST and the Appalachian Trail do both at various places along their routes.  But here, around Asheville, it's all avoidance - a good kind, and very successfully done.

So let's talk about the people for a minute.  The people I meet on trails are usually kindred spirits, coming to the wild to seek some of the same things that I'm here to find.  So it's always fun to chat with them and discover their 'story'.

Everybody has a story - a narrative to which they self-identify.  And I believe that any randomly selected pair of strangers will discover that they have common threads to their stories.

That's especially true for me when I'm hiking a footpath through the woods or high on a mountain.  When I met Heather and little Iona at the overlook above the Parkway's Haw Creek Valley Overlook (MP 380 - photo up top), the conversation began by discussing Iona's weight and the exercise benefits of 'backpacking' your child.  But before long we discovered that Heather "grew up on Topsail Island" where I live!  Her family owns a cottage there, and though she now lives in the Asheville area, she still goes back there regularly to get her beach fix.

I was hiking Asheville on a weekend, so locals were abundant.  And it was a summer weekend, so out-of-state tourists were also in abundance.  I had many conversations, and even hiked for a mile or so with Tim, originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, who has recently chosen Asheville to settle with his young family.  His wife and three daughters were back 'home' visiting in Florida that weekend, so he was taking the opportunity to hike at his own pace.  He, too, usually hikes with his youngest on his back and his three-year-old setting the pace.  I remarked that my pace these days is probably not much faster, to which Tim graciously did not respond.  He also likes to discover the stories of strangers, so our conversation wove back and forth, forming a tapestry of connecting threads between our lives.  It was a wonderful magical half hour.

Now a little about the natural setting.  As I said, I don't have many distinctive photos to share, but here's one of a 'shedding shroom'

And here's the look at the French Broad River from the MST/Parkway bridge.

The MST crosses the Swannanoa River in a much more interesting way.  It goes under the parkway, crossing this grassy meadow that is the flood-plain of the river, then crosses the river on a little old bridge that leads to dead end roads and a tunnel under I-40.

The only other scenery of note was that overlook where I met Heather.  Here's the view straight out over the valley.

And finally a quick note about culture.  The MST is routed right past the front door of the Folk Art Center, and a stop there is worth the time.  But since they don't even allow photography inside, and since I'm not much for indoor 'museums', I'll simply say that the place is huge, beautifully laid-out, and the staff people I interacted with were enthusiastic, pro-actively helpful, and genuinely pleased to engage me in conversation.

I think it goes with the territory.  How can you not help but have a positive outlook on life when you live in a place like this?  Asheville, I'll be back.

Here's a map of the way around town, with links to a few more photos.  Unfortunately I lost (accidentally deleted) a small piece of the track in the vicinity of the Parkway Visitor Center.  I guess I'll have to go back and hike it again so I can 'prove' I did it :-/

MST around Asheville, French Broad River to Craven Gap at EveryTrail
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Saturday, July 25, 2015

The real Shut-In Trail - a well-kept secret

This beautiful boulevard of a trail leading from Buck Springs Overlook toward a clash with the Parkway is the original Shut-In trail, yet it is not marked or identified by any sign, and it is not part of the MST.  In my humble opinion that is a criminal offense.

I found it.  I found a big chunk of the original Shut-In trail between Buck Springs Lodge (the high point where it starts right at the stable area behind the lodge) all the way down to Elk Pasture Gap where the MST finally actually follows the old original Shut-In trail from there to the base of Ferrin Knob.  From there on east to Asheville I have no idea where the original trail went.  Even the memory of it seems to have disappeared.

This is how the trail looks from the edge of the popular Buck Springs Overlook parking area, which is always crowded with people.  The MST plows up a ridge just to the left of this view, and the stupendous panorama of the valley below is just to the right, so this grassy area gets little notice.  I missed it completely the first time here.  There are no signs, and obviously few people bother to walk down here.

Okay, back to the great news.  Following a clue from a park ranger and hints from a close up look at the Google Maps in 'terrain mode', I found the old original road bed. (You can see more of the trace on the map below.) It takes off in both directions from Buck Springs Overlook, yet the MST doesn't use it.  Going westward the nice, seldom used but well-groomed grassy trail, with old mossy stone work, leads to the stable area.

Approach to trail's end at the stable area behind Buck Springs Lodge
The wide, level stable area buttressed by fine masonry work.  Note how little-used this area is even though the path to the Lodge just 100 yards away is a heavily trampled tourist mecca.

And from the stable there are very lightly-used steps that lead up to the lodge site itself.  None of this has any signage identifying it.  The park ranger told me it was there, or I never would have known.  It is as if they are deliberately keeping this pretty space a secret.

In the other direction from Buck Springs Overlook the wide road-bed is also well groomed, and follows a gentle grade down until it abruptly ends right above the Buck Springs Parkway Tunnel.

The old route abruptly ends here, directly above a Parkway Tunnel.  Beyond the original old carriage road has been obliterated for half a mile or so.  But new trail could have and should have been built to connect to further undamaged trail just down the road, in order properly preserve and honor the trail's history.

From there to the Little Pisgah Ridge tunnel about a half mile beyond, the old road bed has been completely obliterated by the parkway construction.  But then there's another perfectly preserved section of the old Shut-In trail route around Little Pisgah ridge.  It departs from the parkway right at the upper end of the next tunnel.  Note the yellow blaze on the rock.

Half of this remnant of the original road bed is now used by the lightly traveled, yellow-blazed Little Pisgah Ridge trail.  The old deep cuts into the bedrock are visible here just as they are in the lead photo up top.

But that trail abandons the road bed and drops down the ridge line.  From there I had to bushwhack along the still-obvious wide road bed with deep vertical cuts into bedrock until it came under the influence of the Parkway construction again and appeared to be covered over by the tailing debris from the new road up above.

Most of the bushwhacking wasn't this easy.  But the tangled parts don't make good photos.

That's where I ended my exploration, having established my 'proof-of-concept'.

So ... WHY!  Why does the MST fail to follow the ***REAL*** Shut-In trail here?  It could not have been any easier to cut new trail up and over Little Pisgah Mountain's pointless summit (with no views).  And why did they put a sign identifying the Shut-In trail at the start of that imposter trail, yet fail to identify the real trail with any signs at all?  My answer -- there's probably a disconnect between the majority of trail builders and users and those few who cherish history and the provenance of the trails they walk.  For most hikers, I suppose, trail is trail.  An old, venerable carriage path that has been in continuous use for nearly a century and a quarter is still just a boot-worn yuppie walkway through the woods.  Kinda makes me a little sad.

Here's the map of the bit of unheralded original Shut-In trail that I explored today.  The red 'pins' are links to a bunch more significant documentary photos.  Check them out.

Original 1892 Shut-In trail fragments at EveryTrail
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hiking the Shut-In Trail, built in 1892

Sunrise from the Mills River Valley overlook, launching point for one of the original segments of the Shut-In trail.  Just follow the trail east from the overlook and watch for the stone work on the steep side-hill sections.

George Washington Vanderbilt's original Biltmore Estate was big.  It included hundreds of thousands of mountain acres around and west of Asheville, NC.  It was so big, in fact, that when he built a carriage trail from one end to the other it was seventeen miles long.  It connected the Biltmore Estate's main grounds near the French Broad River at 2000 feet elevation with his Buck Spring Hunting lodge at 5000 feet elevation near the present location of the Pisgah Inn.

The Mountains to Sea Trail follows the general route of the Shut-In trail from end to end.  The problem is that much of the original route of the trail has been lost, probably due to logging and other activity after the land was sold, mostly to the US Forest Service, and especially to the ravages of progress.  When the Blue Ridge Parkway was built, I'm sure that parts of the original route were destroyed.

But a few sections of the original carriage road do survive. The photo above is not much to look at, but it's the best example I have of the original stonework that buttresses the trail.  There are just a few miles of original trail still identifiable by this construction technique--something volunteer trail builders do not have the time or resources to do these days.

I wish I could learn more.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains I was fascinated by all the various stories of the trails in the area.  The grand-daddy of them all is the Crawford Path from the Mt. Washington Hotel up to the summit.  Parts of this trail have been in continuous use for more than 200 years now.  Unfortunately Vanderbilt did not live long, and it appears that the Shut-In trail was not in continuous use after his death.  I've asked several sources for more information on the early history of the trail and of its evolution, but have little to no concrete information.

The Shut-In trail was built way back then, and what we hike today still has the same name.  The name comes from the rim of ridges that it follows, which 'shut in' (make remote) the series of valleys to the north.  Parts of today's Shut-In Trail clearly do not follow any logical carriage road.  For example today's trail goes honking straight up to the summit of Ferrin Knob following the fire tower access road (the fire tower has been dismantled - the foundation footings are all that remain--see above).  I doubt seriously if Vanderbilt was interested in having his horses and carriages do such Pointless-Ups-and-Downs.  The segments with the stone work follow contours around the peaks rather than going up one side and down the other.  There's one sign along the trail that, I think, makes the distinction.  Today's trail is rightly called the 'Shut-In Ridge Trail', and makes no real pretense that it is the same as the old original trail.  I'll have to leave it at that.

Below is a map of the route of the current trail, along with some return-leg walks along the Parkway.

MST, the Shut-In Trail at EveryTrail
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hiking High - Graveyard Fields to Mt. Pisgah


It's cool to be high.

North Carolina in July can be hot and steamy--at least where most people live.  But not in the mountains.  Up on the 'Mountains' portion of NC's Mountains-to-Sea Trail there's relief.  High elevation means cool temperature.  The rule-of-thumb is that for every 1000 feet of elevation you gain, you lose 5 degrees Fahrenheit.  In my recent hikes there, I had days where I barely broke a sweat.  The kids who were dipping in the pools at 'Skinny dip falls' shown above, were shivering.

The key is to stay high.  The segment of trail I'm covering in this report starts high and ends high and never gets lower than 3700 feet.  Graveyard Fields is a broad valley floor above 5000 feet in elevation surrounded by 6000 foot ridges.  The Pisgah Inn, a popular resort for outdoors-lovers, sits on a ridge at nearly 5000 feet.  Between the two the trail dips down to the lower 4000's to pass the popular and noisy cascade and swimming hole shown above and to follow a quiet, serene century-old path called the Buck Springs Trail that once brought visitors to the rustic old original Pisgah Inn.

Graveyard Fields is a name that evokes Halloween imagery.  It is said that the place got its name because after the area was clear cut nearly a century ago, the remnant stumps grew over with moss such that the whole valley looked like an old neglected cemetery.  The MST doesn't traverse the valley, but swings around the opposite side of it from the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Here's the view back across the valley to the parkway.

As I often do, I hiked a segment of trail then return via the Parkway where there are more frequent views.  Here's my favorite view among many--this is called Looking Glass Rock.

The expansive views contrast nicely with some of the cool 'Rhododendron Tunnels'.  Here's a fine example from a popular piece of trail close to the Pisgah Inn:

During the heat of the day, even at this altitude, I preferred being in these shady sections rather than out in the blazing sun.  Of all the hiking in this section, I enjoyed the Buck Springs Trail the best.  It took me far from the road noise of the Parkway, as did the trail around Graveyard Fields, but here I was in peaceful hardwood forest on a former roadbed that meandered back and forth along the steep side slope keeping a very steady incline.  This, I am told, was an old motor road built before the Blue Ridge Parkway was constructed.  It's hard for me to imagine that vehicles could have used this narrow path.  I didn't take pictures other than this somewhat blurry fungus shot.  The path is behind.

But there were places where the side-slope was steep and the footpath was barely two feet wide.  Then below the Inn there were a series of eight sharp switchbacks, so sharp that it appears to me that vehicles would have had to alternate between forward and reverse as they made the switches.  Ah, well ... rain and snow have been at work for nearly a century since the days when Model T's bumped their way along this road.

The country store beside the Inn was a welcome oasis on an afternoon that felt hot because of the blazing sun.  I stopped in and bought a bottle of ice cold orange juice.

The cool was such a high!

Here's the map of my wanderings.

MST - Graveyard Fields to Mt. Pisgah at EveryTrail
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Thursday, July 9, 2015

MST hiking, Nantahala National Forest to Black Balsam

Slow but steady trail user on a damp morning in Nantahala National Forest

I'm back in the high mountains after a two week break to take care of business and then to follow the US Women's National Soccer team as they won the World Cup.  Yay!  Women's soccer is near and dear to my heart because it was by becoming a soccer dad, when we found that my daughter had a natural skill at the game, that I developed an interest in and eventually a love of the game.  Before she played I had no more interest in world football than the average American, which is to say 'next to none'.

Anyhow, to the subject at hand.  This report covers a few days of hiking, some of which I did two weeks ago, but most was a long 18 mile day hiking remote winding trail for 12 miles one way and the Blue Ridge Parkway back to the start.

This section of trail is little used, and as I walked it I was imagining that this was probably like the Appalachian Trail looked back in the 1950's when pioneers like Earl Shaffer and Emma Gatewood hiked it.  And it drives home all the problems with trail over-use--erosion being one of the major ones.  This was much more of a bona-fide wilderness experience, and I felt blessed to have experienced it.

Scenery was secondary to the up-close experience along the trail.  Summer wild flowers were abundant, including the rosebay rhododendron.  Here's a sampling.

Give life half a chance and it will find a way

Part of this hike was in Middle Prong Wilderness (yes, it's Pisgah National Forest - I crossed this jurisdictional boundary near the end).  They don't allow trail blazes in wilderness areas, so finding my way was a bit of a challenge.  But I did run across this sign--must have been 'grandfathered' in.

I found that all the MST white paint blazes were painted over with tree-bark-gray paint.  Excellent.  Mark trees with paint to enforce the 'don't mark trees with paint' rule.  Only humans could come up with that.

Where possible, I'm hiking short segments of trail and trying to find all the viable side trail access points.  One of them, I think, turned out not to be such a good idea.  The Art Loeb Trail connects from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the MST in just 0.19 miles.  Sounded like a good prospect.  Problem is that in that 0.19 miles the trail climbs more than 300 feet up to a nearly sheer cliff visible from the Parkway.  The trail follows the ridge line seen in this shot.  The trailhead at the parkway is just right of center.

And here's the view from the top.  I could have got a better shot, but was afraid to get closer to the drop.

It was 'fun' in a sadistic sort of way, but if I had it to do over, I would have used the Devil's Courthouse access that I had overlooked because the trail passes over a Parkway tunnel and comes down on the other side.  Here's the parking area and the Devil's Courthouse rock formation.

Finally, here's an art shot.  Can a forest be so verdant, thick, and alive that it looks dead (from underneath)?

Below is a map of the meanderings covered in this report.

MST - Nantahala Forest to Black Balsam at EveryTrail
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