Saturday, January 31, 2015

Off Trail Adventuring--the Old Stone House

We were supposed to go up to find the old Appalachian Trail tunnel that is no longer in use, but since Newfound Gap Road was still closed due to snow and ice from the previous few days, we had to make a spontaneous change of plans. We new there would be no new miles today, but we just really needed some time in the mountains to shake away some cobwebs and stress from work.  

Thankfully, we walked into Sugarlands Visitor Center and talked with one of the volunteers or rangers, not sure which. I had asked about the Old Stone House on a similar visit with rangers/volunteers there before but had not received any help. On this day, I think the volunteer figured out pretty quickly that we would be ok if he told us how to find the old stone house that I'd asked him about. He provided excellent directions which we followed without difficulty (although I'd be lying if I said this first trip off trail went off without worrying about having taken a wrong turn somewhere).  

Following the Old Sugarlands Trail until it takes a dogleg to the right leads you straight into an old CCC Camp where remains can be found of an old clock tower, a cistern, and many other interesting relics. You could explore that site for a whole day and not grow weary of immersing yourself in the history of days gone by.  I was fascinated by the old clock tower, not knowing for sure what exactly it was until I returned home to do some research.  I did find an old photo of this same CCC clock tower during the time of its use which I want to include here.  

Back on the trail in search of the Old Stone House though takes you to another dogleg in the trail (this time to the left) and within .2 of a mile a road leaves off to the right marked by another stone structure of some kind. This old road meanders through the woods, eventually becoming more narrow and then ending in what once was a turn-around I suppose.  If you take a left here at the dead end, you will find an old cemetery with interesting stories of its own to tell.  
The circular enclosure around the old flagpole still remains.

At this dead end, though, we turned right, still in search of the Old Stone House.  The trail now is really just a footpath with the sound of the river off to the right. At one point, a trail turns off to the right to go down to the river, but you must bear to the left here to reach our true destination. 

 Finally, after crossing a stream once and then a more difficult second time, we know that the structure lies above us just beyond the thick rhododendron tangle ahead.  Sure enough, a little hand over hand climbing up the bank and through the rhododendron leads up to the enchantment that is the Old Stone House.  I had no idea how big this structure would be but I certainly wasn't expecting anything as grand as what we found!

I am so thankful that the benevolent Park volunteer trusted our hiking abilities and gave us directions on how to find the old structure before it either falls down on its own or is removed by the Park due to its instability. There are huge cracks in the stonework and one whole wall is leaning rather precariously.  This is some talk that the Park Service may take this beauty down before it falls on someone.  Many folks are finding the Old Stone House now, so the likelihood only increases of an incident or the necessity of action on the part of the Park.  

After exploring, taking photos, and enjoying a bite of lunch, we headed back down the footpath to the dead end turnaround where we had previously taken that right turn.  This time we turned the opposite direction and headed on up to the cemetery that we new was just up the hill a short distance. We had heard a story about one of the "residents" who, as just a youngster had left his home in the what is now, Gatlinburg area to head up over the old road where Newfound Gap Road is now.  He was apparently fleeing from an abusing family trying to get to the Cherokee area where his grandparents lived. He stopped at a homestead to eat where the family begged him to stay for the night because the weather was so bitter.  Instead of staying, he pressed on only to be found sometime later frozen to death near the top of the mountain.  The local folks buried him in this cemetery without knowing who he was. It was many years later that his sister finally found out exactly what had happened to him and replaced the grave marker with one that bears his real name--Edd McKinley.

Other graves in this cemetery had markers whose names/dates could no longer be read, but some of them could still be made out and dated back to the late 1800s.

 What a great way to spend a day that didn't turn out as planned due to the closure of Newfound Gap Road, but may have turned out even better!

I would love to hear interesting tales from your off-trail explorations. Please comment below to share your finds or give your opinion about whether the Park should tear down, restore, or simply leave the Old Stone House alone.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Year's Day Hike to Rocky Top

We had decided on a different hike for New Year's Day--a hike that would get us new miles, but without Jennifer being with us which we weren't thrilled with. However, I awoke with a nagging feeling that the two water crossings on the trail we had picked might not be smart on a day as cold as this one, especially since they were 6+ miles from the car and we've had a lot of rain and snow lately. So at 5:30 a.m., we decided to change our course and hike up to the Appalachian Trial to Rocky Top, something that had been on my Bucket List for a long time. Oh, I cannot express how glad I am that we did that! 

We parked the car at the trailhead for Lead Cove and began the climb up to one of the most spectacular views in the park. I had missed this view last summer when I was unable, because of my knee, to go on the Appalachian Trail multi-day backpacking trip. But today, I would finally stand on Rocky Top!!!

We actually got to the trailhead before daylight and hiked for a very short period of time with our headlamps on. By the time daylight had fully established itself, there was evidence of the snows that had occurred in the Park on previous days--just enough to be pretty.  Lead Cove eventually intersected with Bote Mountain Trail and I began ascending on a trail that I had not-so-fond memories of from a previous summertime hike. Bote Mountain is a killer in hot weather for multiple reasons.  I remember no views due to leaf cover on the trees, gnats and other biting bugs due to the heat, and lots of sweating due to the steep incline. Bote Mountain is also a rocky trail which makes all of that more difficult to deal with.  None of these aspects were true on a New Year's Day hike though, except for the fact that the elevation change was still just as tough.  There were nice views on both Lead Cove and Bote Mountain during the dead of winter and sweating was minimal although the quads and glutes still burned due to the incline. That last mile of Bote Mountain as you know it's reaching up for the Appalachian Trail is still a tough bit of trail! 

Once we reached the AT, I actually thought the climb was over, but oh boy, was I wrong!  There is some significant "roll" as the AT moves south toward Thunderhead Mountain.  And during every step of the down hill stretches, you knew you would have to turn around and climb all that distance again before reaching the goal for the day. This is a tough hike! 

 As we struggled to reach Rocky Top, on that final ascent, Kirsten, who had been on the summer AT trip that I had missed, told me NOT to turn around yet. Once I reached the "sweet spot" and she said it was time, I turned around to the MOST glorious site of my life! I almost cried, it was so breathtakingly beautiful! This was one of those spiritual moments that I get sometimes in my mountains--the view of the surrounding mountains and valleys simply proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a Mighty Creator at work in the world and in our lives.  

 I can think of no better way to have spent the first day of 2015. Here's to a great year!

How did you start your New Year in the mountains? What hikes do you have on your "bucket list"?  Please leave a comment below to tell us about your most special times (past, present, or future) on the trail.