Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower and Baxter Creek Trail

I am a junkie.  I admit it; I take personal responsibility for it; I acknowledge it to all who ask or will listen; I'm not ashamed of it!  I am an elevation junkie, pure and simple!  And I love winter hiking because it feeds that addiction with every step of a trail that leads to peaks or balds.  This is a wonderful time of year to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in all its grandeur because not only do you have spectacular views at the destination, you get them in snippets all along the way.

The view from Mt. Sterling Trail early in the morning
On days like yesterday when the temperatures are moderate and there is minimal snow on the ground to make hiking treacherous, one of my favorite things to do is get high! I mean that in every sense of the word.  Making my way into the upper elevations fills me with an excitement and joy that I know comes from the Lord.  How can one hike in this place and not sense His majesty and power?  Others may be able to, but I cannot.

Mt. Sterling Trail is a 2.7 mile hike with an elevation gain of about 2000 feet.  Temps were in the upper 20s when we began the hike, but within the first half mile or so, we were shedding layers.  By then I was hiking in only my cuddleduds long underwear shirt and a short-sleeved active wear top.  My fleece lightweight hoodie and my favorite Mountain Hardwear soft-shelled jacket were tucked inside my pack and strapped on the outside, respectively.  We were sweating with the elevation change, that's for sure!

One good thing about taking pictures as you hike is that is gives you a good excuse to stop on these intense climbs and catch your breath without having to own up to needing to stop to give you heart time to get out of your ears and back down into your chest.  That was the case on this hike, but there were always great views to stop and try to capture in the camera.

It took us almost 2 hours to hike that 2.7 miles, but stopping along the way to enjoy these kinds of views was a part of the fun.  One thing I enjoy about my hiking buddies is that we are in the woods to enjoy what it has to offer, not race through them to see how fast we can finish.  There's just too much beauty to fly past it.

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower
At the end of the Mt. Sterling Trail is the fire tower.  It rises 60 feet above the ridgeline which was whipped this day by some fairly brisk winds.  This is one of only a handful of fire towers built by the CCC during the Great Depression that remain standing.  Climbing the tower is not for the faint of heart, especially on a day like this with winds that seemed to be trying to keep you from making it to the top.  The open staircase dares you to look down, but at least this tower has handrails on both sides, unlike the similar structure on the top of Shuckstack Mountain which has lost one side of its handrail on at least one section of the stairs.

I had been told, and yes it is true, that the tower shakes a bit in the winds up there.  But let me assure you, the views from the top are worth swallowing your fears and pressing on.  My iPhone 5 camera is pretty good especially with the HDR setting engaged, but no camera can truly capture what you see from the top when you get the courage to look out.

Climbing back down the tower was worse than going up, but you can't stay up there forever, even though you're tempted to do just that. 

Our descent of Mt. Sterling took us along the Baxter Creek Trail which meanders steeply down a 6.1 mile path of switchbacks and follows the contours of this great mountain through ever-changing forests to take you down about 4000 ft. Sometimes you're surrounded by massive boulders and outcroppings of stone that must have been heaved up out of the ground by powerful forces of colliding continental plates eons ago.  Sometimes you step around a curve to see masses of soft, thick moss literally covering everything much like a landscape which has been overtaken by kudzu, but much more enchantingly beautiful.  Then, oddly enough, it was in the middle elevations of this north face of the mountain that we encountered a dusting of snow--just enough to make it lovely.  

I had heard horror stories of this trail.  Twitter friends who had hiked it told me how steep it was and that they had love-hate relationships with this trail, but they must have been going UP it.  Going down, it provided several hours of enjoyment with the exception of one moment when I apparently was looking off trail.  My left foot tangled on a root and instantaneously, I felt myself falling and landing with a thud on my side on the trail.  I didn't even have time to try to break my fall.  I think my hiking pole must have also been tangled which caused me to fall on my side instead of directly forward.  I fell straight on my ribcage under my left arm and caught a root that took the full force of my fall.  I instantly thought, "that's a great way to break a rib." But, I got up slowly, and everything still worked, thankfully.  The rest of the way down, I worried about the pain in my side and arm, but didn't mention it to anyone.  I think I'm ok, but I'm still not sure I haven't cracked a rib.  Guess time will tell.  This is my first major fall in probably more than 700 miles of hiking.  I knew it would happen one day, and I'm thankful it wasn't worse.  

Within the last half mile, we began to feel a light sprinkle of rain making it's way through the canopy above us, but we stayed dry.  It was only after we had crossed Big Creek and made our way back to the waiting vehicle that it really started to rain.  We had been lucky in more ways than one on this day.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

Another Lucky Day in the Great Outdoors

A clear, cold day was the perfect backdrop for a 3 1/2 hour stint standing shin to hip deep in the South Holston River accompanied by my brother and my 82-year old Dad. I couldn't have asked for a better day even if we didn't catch fish, but we were more lucky than that. I have no pictures from today's fishing trip, but I will share a pic of Dad on a trip earlier this year.

This is the man that had me in the waters of the North Carolina mountains when I was probably 5 or 6 years old. At that time we were spin fishing with a 3-barbed lure that was gold with red spinners (well, at least one of them was red--that part of the memory is a little fuzzy.) I can see it vividly in my mind's eye all these years later. It was this early exposure to the joys of outdoor activities that has impacted my life in such an important way.

We almost always caught fish then, and we almost always catch fish now, but our weapon of choice has changed. Today we exclusively use a fly rod, and casting it is a constant battle to produce that perfect loop and lay it quietly on the water with the precise upstream mend. Always a work in progress, but everything I know about fly-fishing, I learned from him.

I caught 7 browns and bows today, but the choice of bug was another continual challenge. We had to work for these fish today except right at the beginning of the day when they first turned the generators off and the water receded. Fish hit quickly during those first few minutes. At the time, I had on a blue-wing olive dry with a blue-wing olive nymph tied on below it. After a few of those hitting only the nymph, and one really nice fish breaking my tippet, I had lost the only two Dad had tied for me. After seeing a large sulphur on the water, I switched to a light colored sulphur with a zebra midge as my dropper. The midge caught the eye of a couple of fish too, but I never caught a fish on any dry fly I tied on today--and it wasn't for lack of trying!

I am so thankful for every day I get to spend on the water, especially those spent with my dad. I fully realize how fortunate I am that he is not only still here, but able to fish. Every outing could be our last together, but I will always treasure the time I spend with him and the skills and pleasures in nature that he has shared with me.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Times, they are a-changing! Hiking Through History

Something unusual has happened to me since my last post of the video from our Appalachian Trail section hike in June.  I've had Change-Induced Writer's Block!  During the last 6 months, I've continued to hike--probably more than ever before, but I've been unable to write about it.  You see, during the Appalachian Trail hike a relationship between the bulk of the group and one individual was severely damaged.  It's strange how 4 days spent in the wilderness can exacerbate an already strained relationship and ill-advised and unsafe decisions prove to the elders of the group that it's no longer smart to continue to hike with that person.  The failure of that hiking relationship has been difficult to deal with and I've not felt like talking about it.  I still won't talk about it, but I DO want to share my hiking adventures again!  So, enough of that!  Times, they are a-changing, and that's OK!

To catch up with where I am in my quest to hike ALL the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, here's the current number: 455.7 of 791.4!  My goal for this year was to be at 400 by December 31, so I met that goal with plenty room to spare--actually over a month ago.  I hiked over 150 miles just during the time I was out from school (I teach, remember, so I enjoy about 7 weeks of summer vacation!)

On the Monday before Christmas, we ventured back to Kephart Prong Trail to catch up one of the group who wasn't able to go the first time around.  Kirsten and I had done this hike in July as part of an overnight trip in the Smokemont Campground.
Our Smokemont Campsite during July
THAT was a great trip where we snuck in a Friday afternoon/evening hike to Kephart Shelter and back and then a 15+ miler the following day up Bradley Fork, Chasteen Creek, Hughes Ridge, and back down Bradley Fork Trail.

On Monday though, Jennifer and I were able to do only the Kephart Prong Trail.  At some point, we'll need to repeat the longer loop with her, but the days are too short right now. This was a leisurely trip back in time as we meandered along Kephart Prong leaving the trail to look at relics from the bygone days of the 1930s and 40s when this part of the Park was home to a CCC camp and a fish hatchery. What struck me as cool on Monday was how different this same hike was only 6 short months ago.  Relics that were covered in bright green foliage were laid bare by the winter chill and its effects on the plant life in the area.  Some things we did see during the summer, like rock gate posts and the entrance sign to the camp.

Other things like this hand-pump well mechanism (that's my best guess anyway), we never saw back in July.  The bare vines and trees were not enough to hide this and other remnants of what once must have been a busy community of men who were willing to do most anything for a check during the Great Depression.

Moving on past the CCC camp site, we made our way further up the trail and came to the location of a fish hatchery which was put here to replenish the overfished streams of this great Park which provided food to locals during a time when money to buy food was difficult to come by.

This large cistern was once the home to fry which were grown to a large enough size to release to hopefully survive in the streams and grow up to proliferate on their own in the waters that are the life-blood of this special place.

At the end of this two-mile hike in, is Kephart Shelter, named for one of the men most influential in the development of the Park in the 1920s.  This is a wonderful shelter that I hope to one day stay in.  It is located so close to the river that you would listen to the river music as you drifted off to sleep and wake to its cascades in the early morning light.  I could so do this!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Chix with Stix on the Appalachian Trail--4 Amazing Days in the Smokies

Last week, my hiking group, Chix with Stix, set off from Newfound Gap to backpack to the northern boundary of the Smoky Mountains, ending at Davenport Gap. I will be blogging about the experience, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a short video of the highlights. You can check it out here:

Sunday, June 2, 2013

So Much History--So Many Miles!

I've been looking forward to hiking Old Settler's Trail for a long time because it is so rich in the history of the time before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park became what it is today. I love to imagine what it might have been like to have really lived in these mountains in the days when folks supported themselves with the efforts of their own hands. Old Settler's Trail allows you to walk literally back into a time when that was all true.

This trail covers approximately 16 miles between the Greenbrier and Cosby sections of the park, meandering in and out of gaps and beside creeks along what once were probably wildlife trails and eventually became trails used by the folks who lived here. Much of the trail was created along paths that once connected the various settlements in this region to each other.
So many remnants and relics remain along this trail--from gorgeous stone chimneys and impressive walls of boulders laid one on another to a few pots still scattered around the foundation of what once was someone's home--that it is impossible to walk along it without putting yourself in the footsteps of the old families such as the Partons, the Huskeys, and the Lindsays who once called this area home. I found myself imagining what it must have been like to provide for and raise a family out there--the hardships that must have abounded, but also the blessings that such a life would have provided.
Since folks primarily built their homes in the lower areas of these mountains, along creeks that would sustain them and in areas where some flat lands could be found to raise crops and livestock, there's not a tremendous amount of elevation change on this hike. The topography is not difficult; only the length of the hike, if you do the entire trail, makes it challenging. You could, however, do a part of the trail in and out, or you could backpack it and spend the night at Backcountry Campsite #33 and still see plenty of historical relics to give you a feel for the lifestyle of these hearty people. The most impressive structures, in my mind anyway, are the massive stone walls, and those lie on the Cosby side of the trail.
The Mountain Laurel were especially beautiful!
There were some pleasant surprises on the day we did this hike. I had not hiked in a couple of weeks, so the first thing I noticed that was a delightful surprise was that the Mountain Laurel were in full bloom. Laurel flanked the trail on both sides in many spots providing gorgeous sights which replaced the vistas that are not available along this trail because of the lower elevations. We also were lucky enough to see many Pink Lady's Slippers in peak bloom, again, another unexpected treat. About half way into the hike, maybe about two miles before we got to Campsite #33, we encountered first a bear cub, and then about a mile closer to the campsite, a huge black bear, presumably a male, foraging on the prolific supply of what I think were Hickory nuts scattered along the forest floor. We were lucky enough to have seen him without him seeing us and were able to stand and just watch him for a few minutes before speaking loudly enough for him to notice our presence. Lucky for us, since the trail went straight toward where he had been standing, as soon as he heard us, he threw his head up in the air, looked right at us for just a split second, and then made a beeline back into the woods in the opposite direction. That was quite a moment for us!

One word of caution though if you decide to do this trail--about half way in there is a considerable amount of storm damage and at one point the debris is so thick we became concerned that we had lost the trail. Just make your way through the debris though and you will find the trail on the other side of the small creek. Once you see the small waterfall that is mentioned in the "brown book" hiker's Bible, you will feel better, or at least we did, because you will know that yes, you are indeed, still on Old Settler's Trail.

I really did enjoy this hike, but in closing I just want to say that a part of me was sad--sad for the settlers who had worked so hard to build such structures in such a remote region only to have been asked (or forced) to leave these homes behind. It's hard to think about the fact that if those folks had remained sole owners of their property, then I would not have had the ability to enjoy these mountains as much as I do. It's a difficult realization to come to. I truly want to thank them for their sacrifice.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

We had reservations at Derrick Knob Shelter on Saturday night as our "dry run" for our upcoming 4-day trip on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies this summer.  We were testing out new equipment and getting a feel for what it is like to hike with really loaded packs.  Our trip next month is planned so that we are hiking a maximum of 11.5 miles each day to keep it fun, but since we'll be starting in the middle of the Smokies and hiking to the outer edge, the hike UP to the AT from Elkmont was going to be much more strenuous than what we expect to endure on any given day on the big trip.  But we were ready--Pumped, really!

As the weekend approached, however, a damp forecast for the weekend turned into a torrential rains prediction.  Either way we had planned to go to and from Derrick Knob (up from Elkmont and down to Tremont) required a substantial water crossing that the "Brown Book" warned about doing during periods of high water.  We weren't worried about getting up there on Saturday, but we were very worried about getting DOWN on Sunday when the forecast was for as much as 4 inches of rain overnight. Those water crossings were intimidating, to say the least. Standing in the driveway of a group member Saturday morning, we made a decision.  We wanted to hike and test out our water filters, JetBoils, and other such equipment, but we wanted to be safe about it.  I quickly went back home, grabbed a couple of tents and a tarp, and instead of hiking up to Derrick Knob, we drove to Smokemont Campground--ahead of the rain.
Setting up camp before the rains

Since we beat the rain to the campground, we took the time to set up camp before heading out on the hike we had picked during our change of plans--Mingus Creek Trail.  My son's old Boy Scout tent and my newer MSR Hubba Hubba went up quickly, and the tarp we hung over the picnic table (with my Leki hiking poles as center supports) proved to be the item that saved this trip from being a washout.  Then we headed out to Mingus Mill, piddled around the mill taking pictures and looking at wildflowers before beginning the hike.

With water, my Deuter 60+10 pack weighed about 35 pounds.  I had carried it similarly packed on a previous hike on the AT in Virginia a couple years ago, but it's hard to remember from one trip to the next just how heavy that really is.  Heavy as it was, though, this pack that I purchased at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports in Knoxville, TN and that they fitted to me perfectly, rides very nicely on my hips and back.  It really is pretty comfortable except for the fact that it's so freaking heavy!  I plan to change that before we leave in June!
Wake Robin

Wildflowers abounded on this hike, including wake robin which was a new sighting for me, and water crossings that weren't in the Brown Book at all suddenly appeared because of all the previous rain we've had and the rains that were now beginning and that must have been happening for an hour or two higher up.  All of the seeps were full of water and some of them became difficult rock hops before we returned to camp.  I can't imagine what the "real" water crossings must have looked like by sundown on Saturday or sunrise on Sunday morning. We knew without a doubt that we had done the right thing!  The forest takes on a different shade of lush green in the rain in the spring.  The heavy rains wash the pollen and dirt from the leaves exposing the almost effervescent glow of new spring foliage.  It was a lovely hike!
Elk near Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Returning to Smokemont Campground from the Mingus Mill area proved to be an exciting adventure in itself.  Driving along, deep in conversation and laughter, we were surprised as a herd of elk emerged from the woods and crossed the road right in front of us! These majestic creatures paid no attention to the people who stopped their cars, got out in the rain, and started taking photos of them.  They were seemingly oblivious to our presence and were enjoying the wet, young grasses that populated the field into which they had made their way.  Again, I realized how blessed I am to have this park in my own backyard!

We passed the evening by going down to the Bradley Fork River and pumping/filtering water even though there is running water available at the campground.  I used my MSR Miniworks EX Filter and someone else used a gravity-based filter system she had just bought.  We boiled our water in our JetBoil stoves and tried out freeze-dried meals we had brought with us.  The rains came down in torrents and we had to lift the tarp over the table periodically to allow the water to run off the sides, but I haven't had that much fun in a long time!  Camaraderie like that is hard to come by and I am lucky to have such a great group of women to hike with.  I am truly blessed!

The next morning we broke camp in the rain, and drove over to the Visitor's Center to do one more quick hike.  The Oconaluftee River Trail leaves from the Visitor's Center and goes over to the Cherokee Boundary.  People looked at us like we were crazy as we got out and prepared to hike that trail. The trail is only 1.5 miles each way, so we left our packs in the car, but there was no way our rain gear was going to protect us from the downpour in which we were going to hike.  We all knew we'd be wet and so did everyone else at the Visitor's Center who saw us depart.  I guess that's part of why hiking the 900 is such a feat--you have to do some crazy things to actually get it done!

All in all, our "dry run" couldn't have been said to be "dry," but it was an amazing weekend spent in my mountains.  I wouldn't have missed it for anything!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever

Mountaintop experiences are one of the many reasons I hike, and over the weekend Charlie's Bunion provided an extraordinary one. Winds were too strong for me to comfortably stand up on that precipice, but even just sitting up there was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. This rock outcropping is approximately 4 miles away from the parking lot at the TN/NC state line along Newfound Gap Road. On this late spring morning, the skies were crystal clear, completely cloudless except along the far horizon.
Because you start high, at an altitude of a little over 5000 feet, the elevation change on this hike, at least the part to Charlie's Bunion, is quite manageable. There's a steady climb of 1000 feet, but it's spread out over the course of 2.5 miles, so it's not burdensome. But part of what makes it an easy hike is the breathtaking views to be had along the way. The Appalachian Trail runs along the ridgeline through much of this hike, with breaks in the trees affording an expansive view of, first, the North Carolina Smoky Mountains and then, a little further up the path, a similar vista of the Tennessee side of the Smokies complete with a broadside view of Mt. LeConte.
The weather along the ridge on Saturday was windy and cold. Icicles still clung to rocks where runoff made it's way down the trail or dripped off of rocks that lined the path. As we stood at the intersection with the Boulevard Trail, a popular trail used by hikers to ascend Mt. LeConte, talking with some folks who were indeed headed to the Lodge at the top, we noticed what we thought was snow. "Snow flurries" fell around us, but looking up, there was literally not a cloud in the sky. Instead of snow it was actually frost being blown from the tops of the trees above us, falling to the ground in snowlike fashion. Just past Icewater Spring Shelter, the frost coated the pine needles and flower stalks from last years shrubs.

After only a short trek past Icewater Sping Shelter, we spotted it--Charlie's Bunion--a slate rock formation protruding from the slopes, unique in its bareness. These bare rock formations are rare in the Smokies. Most of these hills are covered in heavy forests, so the sight of huge upthrust rock catches your attention, to say the least. The fact that the two young hikers seated on the rock were tiny compared to the rock itself revealed the true size of this massive formation. Walking a little more quickly now, we soon approached the sign announcing the the spur trail that heads off to the left and leads to the Bunion itself. A young couple was just coming down from the rock, so we took their picture and they took ours--turn about's fair play you know. In places like this, you don't mind sharing the view with someone else if they will act as photographer for your hiking party.
To say I wasn't a little bit nervous climbing up and over the cracks and crevices that form the face of the rock would be a lie. The wind was whipping up and over our position with enough force that the thought did occur to me that it might be able to sweep us right off the ledge and propel us to our deaths. So instead of standing for that victory shot with the expanse of ridge after ridge behind me, I decided to simply remain seated. It did not reduce the significance of the vista surrounding us on three sides. I could have stayed there much longer than we did, but we still had about 10 more miles to hike. As we were taking pictures of the next hiking group that came to experience Charlie's Bunion, a large bird approached us from the direction we had come. At first I thought it was a hawk, but as it approached, I realized just how large it was. Once it was close enough, I saw it's white head and quickly understood that it was one of the bald eagles that call this park home. What a tremendous treat that was, especially fitting on the day after the Boston Marathon bombers had been killed and captured. Cold chills went all over me and it wasn't from the wind. My only regret was that I wasn't quick enough to pull my camera out in time to get his picture.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Smoky Mountain Wildflowers--Now's the Time

If you can find ANY time to make your way to the Smokies in the next couple weeks, just do it! The wildflowers are blooming prolifically and you will be thrilled that you made it a priority. These often tiny spring ephemerals decorate the trails and roadsides almost anywhere you go, but there are some locations that will "knock your hat in the creek!"

Trails or sites I can personally recommend are:

  • Chestnut Top Trail
  • White Oak Sinks (off of Schoolhouse Gap Trail)
  • Cove Hardwood Nature Trail (at the Chimneys Picnic Area)
  • Porters Creek Trail
  • Baskin's Creek Trail
There are many more, but these are my favorites. I took a quick trip up on Sunday to Chestnut Top Trail and took these shots in just an hour or so with my trusty point and shoot Fuji XP. Imagine what a real photographer could do with such beautiful subjects, but more importantly, imagine what you'll be missing if you don't go!

Sweet White Trillium

Purple Phacelia

Star Chickweed

Yellow Trillium

Long-spurred Violet

If you're gonna do the 900, you gotta do them all!

There is one part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that I must say I am not extremely fond of. That's hard for me to admit because I do realize just how fortunate I am to have one of the most beautiful places on the planet right here in my own backyard. However, perhaps it's due to the devastation this particular region has encountered over the last two or three years from tornadoes and other bad storms, but the part of the park near Abram's Campground is my least favorite area.

I had hiked in this part of the park last spring with my husband, and earlier this year when I did Hatcher Mountain trail (I swear we had been told it was open again by someone who had hiked it with a well-known hiking group). I had also already done the Cooper Road Trail earlier this year. The scenery is scarred and reminded me of a war zone with all the broken and downed trees. On a Sunday in February when we had been unable to hike on our usual Saturday, Jennifer and I decided on a whim to just go and do Goldmine Trail and Cane Creek Trail.

This was strictly a trail-marking hike! It was a nice day and any day in the woods is better than NO day in the woods, but this pair of trails was very similar to the ones we had already done in that area. There just wasn't a lot of scenery to look at, although I will also say that the storm damage was less here. Just on those short trails (total of less than 6 miles in and back out) we did 26 water crossings, several of which required us to don our water shoes. In fact, there was one 2.5 mile stretch on the way back out where we simply left our Keen sandals on the entire time.

We did see a few wildflowers beginning to come up and even a couple early violets in bloom. The yellow trillium were also beginning to set some buds, promising the arrival of spring in the not too distant future, although the beginning of THIS spring was to be delayed for much longer than any of us had envisioned.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reward is Worth the Risk!

Temperatures on Saturday, even in Gatlinburg, were supposed to be in the low 60s--a pleasant day in early March. After checking several sources to make sure Greenbrier Road had been opened, we decided to hike to Ramsey Cascades to see the snow melt from the snows that had fallen earlier in the week. I had never hiked to Ramsey, but had heard that it was a nice but difficult trail after you got past the first mile and a half or so. We expected there to be plenty of water coming over the falls as a result if the higher temps.

The first part of the trail was a wide, pleasant uphill grade on an old roadbed running parallel to the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The rise was fairly steep, but not really very difficult. It was an absolutely gorgeous day which was warming fairly quickly, so we stopped and shed layers a time or two along the way. Any snow that had fallen during the week had melted in this area leaving behind a little mud, but our footing was sure on the wide and rocky path.

At about 1.5 miles, we came to a turn-around circle which, I supposed, marked the end of the roadbed as the now more narrow path turned off to the left. Here we began to notice the first indications that there really had been significant snow in the area in the previous days. Snow remained on the banks near the river or in heavy shade under trees, but still the path remained clear.

After about another half mile though, things began to change. Snow became more prevalent and began to cover the trail. Somewhere probably about mile two we came to the first of two split-log footbridges spanning Ramsey Prong. Even from our first view of it, we knew it would not be a fun crossing. The footbridge was covered in snow and ice, making the walk over it a little disconcerting since we still don't have crampons or microspikes for traction. However, with careful foot placement and a little luck, we made our way over that bridge without too much difficulty. At this point, we never even thought of not continuing. The snow that covered the trail was still soft enough to not be too much of an encumbrance and our desire to see the falls in the melting snow runoff was strong. We pressed on.

Once we passed that footbridge though, the snow deepened and became more icy since on this side of the river there was almost no sun making its way onto the trail. I was extremely thankful for my Leki hiking poles because they provided tremendous additional traction. About this time we were met on the trail by a couple of young guys trail running coming down from the falls. They had on trail running shoes and were moving much faster than we were, so we figured we'd be fine. They also said the falls was frozen over and extremely beautiful, which only encouraged us further to press on.
Massive tulip poplars

Soon, we came to one of my favorite parts of the trail. At about 2.6 miles there stand some of the largest trees I've seen in the Park. We passed directly between two massive tulip poplars and stopped for a photo op. You can see how large they are compared to my hiking partner standing in between them for scale. They reminded me of the other massive tulip poplar we had seen on an earlier hike on Scott Mountain, an area since devastated by a tornado-like storm that passed through last spring. I still haven't been able to determine if that ancient tree survived that storm since the trail in that area is still closed. These two stately survivors and another even larger tulip poplar just up the trail suggested that perhaps even the loggers who ravaged the park decades before had not traveled this far up the now much steeper path we were traveling. I'm glad that somehow, they were able to avoid the greed and the saws that harvested so many other such beauties that once ruled these woods.

Beyond those trees, the path conditions continued to deteriorate and we came upon the second footbridge. We had only thought the first one was a treacherous crossing. Almost nowhere on this bridge could you plate boot tread on wood or even soft snow. This is the closest we came to turning around. Using our poles to chop ice up to gain footing, we slowly, deliberately made it across and continued on towards the falls. Again we were met by other hikers who had made it up and shared that it was definitely worth continuing to see. So, on we went.

The last half mile or so, we spent holding onto roots or rocks, pulling ourselves up steep, slippery pathways which wound between and over large boulders over which, thankfully, large roots grew which provided necessary handholds to pull yourself up on and keep from sliding backwards on the ice.

Very soon, we were rewarded with a view of Ramsey Cascades unlike anything I've ever seen in my life. Water raged over the falls, but the spray from the cascades had frozen on the surrounding rocks and ground creating a sparkling fantasyland around the waterfalls. Pictures cannot begin to capture the spectacle, one that a fellow hiker who had encouraged us not to turn back had described as "an OMG moment!" As I stood there admiring the grandeur of such a sight, I knew the way home would be more treacherous than the trip up. Descending along that icy footpath would be more tricky than the climb had been, and I was right. However, we returned safely to our waiting cars with no incidents other than a couple minor slips. Would I have done anything differently, other than having some traction devices for my boots? No way! I'm so glad we didn't give up! I may never see anything so extraordinarily beautiful again in my whole life. Occasionally the reward is worth the risk, and this was just such a moment!

Saturday, March 9, 2013