A lot of my hiking friends who like to get out and hit the trails concentrate on seeing waterfalls. I can understand that, and I certainly won't pass up the opportunity to see a nice waterfall, or even a mildly pretty one. However, there is nothing I like more than hiking to the summits of our southern high mountains.
And what do I mean by "high"?
Here in the South, I consider anything at or above 4,000 feet to be a high peak. At those elevations--unless the mountain is at a really extreme southern latitude, you can see the effects of microclimates at the upper elevations. There are big changes in vegetation and sometimes in animal life along the tops of such peaks. Even the southernmost 5,000-foot peaks in the Appalachians will display this if you hike them from base to summit. And our sixers...well, they're the best.
Where we were camping is called the Unaka Mountain Area of Cherokee National Park. That's because Unaka Mountain dominates the local skyline, appearing as an enormous, whale-shaped mass looming high above the village of Erwin, Tennessee. It's an impressive summit. Its base lies at around 1500 feet or so and it climbs until you reach the very top at a shade over 5,200 feet above sea level. It's not only a fiver, it's almost a mile-high summit. Therefor, it was a definite must-hike for me if I was that close to it.
Because of my recovering knee, there was no way that I was going to make the 11-mile round trip from near the bottom of the peak to the top via either the Appalachian Trail or a combination of Rattlesnake Ridge Trail, Unaka Road, and Appalachian Trail. (See? I did my homework.) What I ended up doing was finding out where the AT came close to the Unaka Mountain Road and picked it up nearer the top for the climb. I'd heard that there is a spot below the summit so that you have a two-mile round trip hike, so that's what I was aiming for.
I drove along the Unaka Mountain road one morning looking for the connector trail. Finally, I saw it, pulled over, loaded by camera, tripod, and water in my pack and headed up. After about 3/4 of a mile of hiking (and about 500 vertical feet of elevation gain) I realized that I'd missed the connector trail I'd been aiming for and passed it on the left. Oh, well. So it goes. I'd only added another 1.5 miles to the hike and some huffing and puffing up a bunch of switchbacks.
Soon after this point the forest changed over from classic southern cove hardwoods to more northern species of trees. I began to see a lot of birches and sugar maples and white oaks. There's a feeling I get when I climb a high southern peak. I can't describe it, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is. But it's a feeling. You get a sensation that you're high, even if you can't see the sky or the horizon; even if mists are pulled in all around you on the shoulders of the mountain. And that's the way it was as I climbed up Unaka Mountain. I felt like I was very high. It wasn't just knowing--there was a feeling to it.
Going up more switchbacks and along the steady grade, I finally entered the evergreen forests that prefer only the very highest elevations of Unaka Mountain. I saw some hemlocks, and then those gave way to mainly red spruce trees which completely dominated the very top of the peak. And by this time I was solidly in the clouds. The mists hung low to the earth and muffled everything as if under a very thick blanket. I wandered off the trail until I found the very highest point on the mountain (or supposed that I did) and I lay down in the rust of years of spruce needles and listened to the silence.
This was quietest place that I have visited in years. There were no people there, so I didn't hear voices. There were no engine sounds and no planes, no jets overhead. All I could hear was the low wind through the spruce needles and some birds calling softly to one another through the fog.
It was amazing.
At the top of Unaka Mountain I look up at the towering red spruce trees.
Part of the mountaintop had experienced a blowdown within the past few years. Here a pair of spruce trees had given up their surprisingly shallow hold on the soil and toppled.
I took this photo at around 4800 feet, I think. This grass grew higher, but at this point it seemed to reach its most luxuriant expanses. It invited you to lie down and rest upon it.
Just a few rhododendron blossoms held on, latecomers to the spring party.
You don't go many places in the southern Apps where you don't see these wonderful carpets of ferns.
On the summit.