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.