Monday, September 29, 2008

Linville Gorge


Linville Gorge and Hawksbill, near Wiseman's View.

Another of my stomping grounds is Linville Gorge. I resisted visiting there for some years after moving to North Carolina. I think my reason for steering clear of the place was that I'd heard that it was often crowded (it is, on summer weekends); plus the fact that it's not as high as some of the country nearby. And when I hit the mountains, I generally like to climb the highest peaks I can find. In western North Carolina, this means hiking to peaks that exceed 6,000 feet in elevation. The highest peaks around the rim of Linville Gorge are 4,200 feet or so.

Looking toward Hawksbill Mountain from Wiseman's View.

What I never realized until I got a chance to go hiking there was that this gorge is one of the most spectacular geological formations on the east coast of North America. Parts of it are more than 2,000 feet deep. On a clear day the views are stunning. The terrain is as rugged as it gets in the East, and the trails are spectacularly rugged.

Looking toward Tablerock Mountain from Wiseman's View.

Furthermore, miles and miles and miles of exposed rock line the gorge and cap the peaks. Such expanses of mountainsides unadorned by the South's exuberant trees and shrubs is a rarity, and it's surprising for the average citizen of this part of the nation to come upon so much of it packed into the length of this place.

Linville Falls from Chimeytop Overlook.

There are also many groves of virgin timber in the gorge. Much of it was hemlock groves, and all of the hemlocks in there are now dead. But there are still spectacular stands of pines and hardwoods to be found in this place that was so rugged that even the greediest of timber barons couldn't figure out how to profitably extract the wood. The place is also prime bear habitat, although I've never encountered one there. But that's just a matter of time.

Hot and Cold

Here are a pair of short videos from two different trips to the Black Mountain Campground.

The first, very brief one is my nephew, Mark, doing a back flip into the swimming hole on the South Toe River just a few yards from our campsite.

The second video is of the same swimming hole two years later. The only reason I wasn't swimming in there on the second visit was the vast difference in temperature. In June of 2006, it was in the 80s. In September of 2008, the temperatures were in the low 60s. Alas, it was too chilly to go swimming.

But still nice for lookin'.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Few Videos

In the Black Mountains of North Carolina.

One of the great views along the Mountains to Sea Trail.

The view from the overlook along the Mountains to Sea Trail on the side of Potato Knob in the Black Mountains.

Roaring Fork Falls. I'd been to this area a number of times, but somehow kept avoiding going to see this waterfall. My mistake. It's a genuinely spectacular feature. An easy hike of only one-half mile along a gravel road takes you to it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Tough Mountains

Underestimating the Black Mountains.

Whenever I go hiking or backpacking in the Black Mountains I almost always end up underestimating the range. When you look at a map of the Blacks, they form a kind of "J" shape or, if you include The Pinnacle, which some do, it forms a gigantic check-mark. All of the summits along either the "J" or the check-mark are over 5,000 feet in elevation, and many of them stand well over 6,000 feet above sea level.

This makes for some amazing topography, for some unique micro-climates, and the toughest hiking I know of in the South.

The day after we arrived at our great campsite at the Black Mountain Campground, I decided to hike some of the trails I'd missed in the past. One of the trails I've wanted to hike for some time is the Big Butt Trail (yeah, okay, go ahead and laugh). But every time I go up there to hike up Big Butt (yeah, yeah, it's funny), something happens to stop me. Usually it's the weather.

The trailhead for Big Butt (haha) is on the Blue Ridge Parkway
and several times when I've headed up there, the Parkway has been closed due to inclement weather and so I couldn't get to the trail. This time, however, the weather was absolutely sparkling, dry, and only cool to warm. I wouldn't have any trouble getting to the trailhead.

But guess what? Part of the Parkway had collapsed and so they had to close a section and I couldn't drive to the Big Butt trailhead. Another situation. Mother Nature just doesn't want me to climb these peaks! So what I decided to do was use the Mountains to Sea Trail to get to the Big Butt Trail. According to my maps, it was only 2.9 miles from the trailhead that I could reach with my truck to the Big Butt Trail.


As in other days, older hikes, I figured the trail would be a lot easier than it actually is. Just as with so many other trails in the Black Mountains, the MTS Trail is really rugged and rises to the tops of peaks and plunges down into gaps and along ridgelines so that it takes quite a lot of energy to go just a short distance. And a good chunk of the trail lies at the base of a line of cliffs on Potato Knob which makes for some very strenuous hiking. My plan was to hike the less than three miles to the trailhead I wanted, hike that one, and backtrack to my truck at Mount Mitchell State Park.

After three hours of hiking I had only reached the summit of Blackstock Knob and hadn't even headed down that peak to the gap for Big Butt Trail. There was no way I'd be able to get the mileage done that I'd planned before nightfall. Once again, I was frustrated in my attempt to hike to the summit of Big Butt Mountain. So I ate lunch at the top of Blackstock Knob and headed back toward Mount Mitchell State Park.

Even though I hike a great deal, I have one of the worst senses of direction known to mankind. Why I don't get turned around more often is a puzzle. But I do get temporarily lost in my hikes from time to time. And my ultimate directional kryptonite are red spruce forests. More than any other kind of forest, this type makes me lose my way. First of all, spruce trees have a very dark, dense canopy which restricts sunlight hitting the forest floor. This makes for some shadowy hiking--spooky stuff. Next, the trees are so uniform in appearance that there's little differentiation by which to get your bearings. Everything in there looks the same.

And so it was that I had to hike through a large grove of red spruce trees on my way back. And, of course, I lost my way. One minute I was hiking along the Mountains to Sea Trail, and the next I had dead-ended in the middle of such a forest, the ground covered in the brown rust of old spruce needles and shed limbs. Everything was very uniform and confusing. I had no alternative but to turn around and retrace my steps.

Again, I walked back along the trail to the next blaze. I tried to go forward again, and lost my way just as before. Another retracing of steps, this time about a quarter mile farther where I stopped, took a deep breath, and did my best to make the return trip, this time taking special care to note every detail of the trail. And I soon saw my mistake. The trail had taken a very sharp turn into a switchback. So many other hikers had missed this switchback that they had pounded out a false trail along the ridgeline that looked like the official trail before vanishing into the needles. After wasting twenty minutes going back and forth trying to find my way, I was headed in the right direction. Within two hours I was back at my truck and soon after driving to the campground to my wife and the comforts of our travel trailer.

That night, the cramps struck. Really bad ones in the hamstrings of my thighs. If there's a nastier and more vicious pain, I hope never to experience it, nor even to see anyone suffering such a thing. This is what the Black Mountain trails do to me.

I'll go back, of course. I'm already planning my next trip--a bushwhack to the summit of Potato Knob.

One of the nicest views of the Black Mountains, along NC 80.

This is a destination for another day. A huge boulder on the side of Potato Knob.

My directional kryptonite: a red spruce forest.

Taking a rest after lunch on the top of Blackstock Knob.

A reminder that I'm not alone in the forest: bear poop. Yep, they really dookey in the woods.

Near the shoulder of Potato Knob. That rock face screams to be hiked. Maybe in October or November. I'll find someone to hike it with me.

Looking down on the Blue Ridge Parkway from the slopes of Potato Knob. This section of the Parkway was closed for repairs, and was the reason I couldn't reach the trailhead I wanted.

Spruce tree at the edge of a clearing on Mount Halbeck.

A dead dried husk of a Fraser fir in a neat field on Mount Halbeck.

Standing in that neat open field on Halbeck looking across at Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern Unite States of America.

Friday, September 26, 2008

We're back!

Well, it was a strange and wonderful trip. I'll write more once I've had time to think about it all.

The Black Mountains are, I've decided, the most beautiful and spectacular range in the South. No doubt about it. There was a time when I thought that title belonged to the Great Smoky Mountains, but no more. There's nothing quite like the Black Mountains here in the East.

The strange part of the trip was the scarcity of gasoline. We made it there and back, with some major good luck in finding gas in a couple of out-of-the-way small towns. But when we arrived back in Charlotte, we found an entire city with no gasoline! Ah, the once-great USA. I have to laugh.

More tomorrow.

How did I ever miss this waterfall? Roaring Fork Falls. Now on my list of favorites!

On the very darned rugged Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Potato Knob behind me. One of the top fifteen or so highest mountains in the East. I must go back to bushwhack to the summit.

Bear-proof garbage cans, yes. But the bears don't know that! One tried to get into this one (located about thirty feet from our campsite) one evening while we were sleeping. He came back to our campsite the following morning, but it's hard to snap a photo while you're cowering in your travel trailer.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Upside Down Kitty Cat


You guys will have to stare at upside down Lilly until we get back! We're headed to camp out in the shadow of Mount Mitchell for a week. I'll post photos and hike reports when I return.

I plan on bagging a few more of the peaks of the Black Mountains. There aren't many left that I haven't climbed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Arnold's Birthday

We attended my brother-in-law's 70th birthday party tonight. I'm sure he expected a party, but not of the scope that my sister put on for him. There was a HUGE crowd present, with tons o' food, live entertainment, booze, the works.

It was a great bash, for sure. Here are some photos for those of you who couldn't attend.

Dis mus' be da place. (Arnold's & Nancy's house.)

Son-in-law Erin kept Arnold occupied while the party was assembled. Arnold arrives! (It really was a surprise!)

The crowd begins to assemble (there were many dozens of us).

Later that evening, the band plays poolside.

My sisters Ruthie, and Nancy (Arnold's wife).
The cutouts of Elvis and Marilyn were part of a funny-photo shoot.

Get out o' here! Fireworks?! For a birthday party? You bet! They kicked ass!

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Black Mountain Crest Trail, My Favorite Trail

My favorite hiking/backpacking trail is also the toughest trail I've ever hiked: The Black Mountain Crest Trail. This trail is located along the spine of the very highest peaks in the eastern United States of America. One terminus is along a stream called Bolens Creek, and the other end is atop Mount Mitchell. Mitchell, at 6,684 feet above sea level, is our highest eastern summit. It's an impressive peak, but with an artificial lookout tower, a restaurant, a large parking lot and picnic area, it's not a wilderness experience. If I had my way, the government would tear up the road that leads to the summit, plant it in native trees, and make access be strictly by foot.

But I rarely get my way.

Mount Mitchell as seen from Mount Craig. Since this photo was taken, the old lookout tower was demolished and a new one constructed.

For a real wilderness experience, though, all you have to do is catch the Black Mountain Crest Trail just below the summit of Mount Mitchell, in the picnic area and hike north toward Mount Craig. Craig is actually a much more impressive mountaintop than Mitchell. There's no overt development there, no roads, and the top has exposed areas and high cliffs that afford some truly breath-taking views of the high country. On a clear day you can see wave after wave after wave of mountain ridges and plunging valleys. It's the Stupefyin' Jones of North Carolina mountains.

But the point of this brief essay is the trail itself. Every time I've hiked the Black Mountain Crest Trail it has kicked my ass. I've hiked it three times, now, and two of those times have been among the most physically painful experiences of my hiking life. Both of those times I ran out of water and my body was leeched of minerals and I ended up not only nauseous, but suffering with leg cramps that locked me in place.

One of my campsites at Deep Gap (from two years ago).

When one looks at the maps of the Crest Trail, it looks rather innocuous. It's pretty much a straight-ish line along the spine of the Black Mountains, crossing a number of the state's "sixers" (that's what hikers call our peaks that meet or exceed 6,000 feet in elevation). Just peering at a map, it looks like a pretty easy hike. In fact, though, it's the single toughest hike that I know of in the Southeast.

The thing that makes it so tough is that it tackles these major southern peaks head on. It goes straight up to the summits and then straight down into the gaps between them before heading right back up to the peak beyond. You drop down from 6,600 feet to 5,800 feet, then back up to 6,600 feet then down to 5,700 feet then up to 6,400 feet then down to 5,500 get the idea. All of that climbing, down climbing, then reclimbing...well, it puts your legs and lungs through one Hell of a workout.

Winter Star, as seen from Deep Gap.

Add to this the fact that there are pretty much no water sources along the ten-mile trail and you can find yourself in trouble really fast if you're not prepared. The only halfway reliable water source along the trail is in Deep Gap, which equates pretty much to the halfway point. It is, indeed, a deep gap between Cattail Peak and Winter Star (one of my very favorite mountain names). There are a couple of usually reliable springs both to the east and west of the gap within a quarter mile or so of the best campsites there.

The times I've backpacked the trail, I've spent the ni
ght in Deep Gap. It's a great place to spend an evening. Even though I've done the Black Mountain Crest Trail a number of times, I intend to hike it again.

I'd like to do another overnight backpack on the trail. And even though it's really the very toughest trail I know of here in the Southern Appalachians, the views and the solitude also make it the finest trail in the southern mountains. At least in my experience.

Looking south from Deep Gap.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mountain Trails

Compared to the average person, I spend an awful lot of time hiking on mountain trails. Most people I know never go hiking at all. But I love hiking and backpacking. As the years have passed, I do less overnight backpacks and more and more day hiking. But no matter whether it's a long backpacking trip that takes several days, or just a day hike over a mountain ridge, I get a kick out of seeing new trails, exploring new waterfalls, and conquering peaks I've never seen.

The South is unique, though. There's something about hiking in southern high country. The place is so lush that it's almost without equal as far as the range of flora is concerned. We have literally hundreds of species of trees down here. It's no wonder that places like the Great Smoky Mountains and the related ranges are considered precious biosphere preserves. You don't run into temperate rain forests very often. We have some of those here.

This is one reason why I never get bored when I'm in the southern mountains. You can never tell what kind of forest you're going to enter and what types of trees and micro-environments you're going to encounter.

The trail to a peak called Pickens Nose. Through a classic rhododendron tunnel.

Breaking out to see Mooney Falls near Standing Indian Mountain.

Along the Black Mountain Crest Trail, North Carolina.

Another shot on the Black Mountain Crest Trail. More about this trail tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More on Midnight Hole

Midnight Hole: the best swimming hole on Earth.

I've been swimming at Midnight Hole three times. It's located on Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Access is pretty easy. At the Big Creek Ranger Station you take the Big Creek Trail and follow it for about 1.4 miles to Midnight Hole. (If you want to see a nice waterfall, continue up the trail for .7 more miles to Mouse Creek Falls.) I've visited it four times, but on the last trip, in April of 2006, it was too chilly to go swimming. But the water was the highest I'd ever seen it there.

One thing to keep in mind is that the water is EXTREMELY cold at Midnight Hole. The kind of water that makes your bones ache. You never really get used to it, no matter how long you swim there. But it's such a great place to swim that the experience is worth the plunge into that chilling water. Another nice feature is that the water is deep enough so that you can leap off of the surrounding boulders without fear of hitting any unseen obstructions beneath the water. But of course the water is crystal clear--the clarity and purity of it is stunning.

Panoramic shot of Midnight Hole

Closeup shot of the short waterfall into the plunge pool.

The last time I was there, a kayaker came over the falls.

It's a nice little drop to the pool.

He quickly steered toward the shore.

His significant other was waiting there to talk to him.

I keep telling myself I'm going to go back when the weather's hot and I can go swimming there, but each year passes and I find that I've robbed myself of the experience yet again. Now it's mid-September and I doubt the mountains will see any more days warm enough to go splashing about in Midnight Hole. Maybe I can head over that way in 2009. We'll see.