Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mount Rogers

Panorama shot during the hike
On Sunday, July 28th Amy, my mom, my dad, my sister Marissa, our dog Baci, and I did the hike up to the summit of Mount Rogers, located in southwest Virginia. Once again, it proved to be a unique and extraordinary experience.

Planning out the hike
This was one of the several balds on Amy’s list to do around the Boone area. For these hikes, we had planned on staying in my family’s mountain house on Powder Horn Mountain for a couple of days. For this trip in particular, we planned to do Mount Rogers on Sunday and Little Hump/Big Hump on Monday. Both of these hikes had round-trip distances of over 9 miles, so we knew from the beginning that this would be an exhaustive, but hopefully satisfying couple days.

We woke up early Sunday morning, hoping to get most of the hike in before the likely afternoon showers. The trailhead for the hike was located at Massie Gap, part of the Grayson Highlands State Park, which was an hour and fifty minutes drive from our house. At 5,729 feet, the summit of Mount Rogers is the highest point in the state of Virginia. Our hike to the top would consist of about 4.5 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

We arrived at the trailhead around 11 am and quickly got our boots on, eager to get our legs moving. From the very start of the hike, we were enveloped in open grassy meadows. The grassy bald area on Mount Rogers is all situated below the summit, which is unique from many of the other balds we had visited. In fact, the summit of Mount Rogers is covered in an incredible spruce-fir forest. So, from the very beginning of our hike, we were able to gaze across acres of open meadow and grass rolling in the wind.

Our hike soon led us onto the Appalachian Trail and we continued for a couple of miles through the thriving grassy meadows. Baci was having the time of his life. It was during this section of the hike that we came upon one of the park’s favorite features, a wild pony.

We walked up to it cautiously at first, but soon realized that it was not bothered by our presence. Marissa was the first one to go up and pet it, and everyone else followed suit. Surprisingly, Baci was content watching from a distance with my dad. The wild ponies were introduced to the park in 1975 in effort to keep the bald area open via grazing. They are now managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. Apparently, they are very comfortable around humans.
Eventually we got back on the trail and proceeded towards the summit. At a couple spots along the way we found blueberry bushes, each sprinkled with only about a dozen or so berries that had already had the chance to ripen. We ate the ripe ones that we could find, rejoicing every time that we found a sweet one.

Just under halfway to the summit, we came across the huge rocky outcroppings of Wilburn Ridge. The trail traversed up and down and over and under the huge boulders. Each of us took time to stand on top of one and peer down over the valleys as if we were Mufasa from Lion King.

We could hear the naying of ponies in the distance and quickened our pace a little bit, hoping to find them. It wasn’t long, however, before we came up to an Appalachian Trail Shelter, and we all agreed that it was a good spot to eat lunch.  It not only offered a picnic table and shade, but it also had expansive views of endless mountain ranges.
Lunch gave us the boost of energy we needed for the last mile up to the summit. This final mile was unique and beautiful in a different way from the rest of hike. We ascended through a wet, shaded Red Spruce and Fraser Fir forest, the only one of its kind in Virginia. The evergreens gave the air a fresh Christmas aroma. Green mosses and ferns carpeted the forest floor.

We made it to the summit at 2:30 pm and sat down a rock to rest before heading back. The shade and the cool temperature made it very comfortable, especially on this July day-we knew it was probably 95 degrees and muggy back in Greensboro or Columbia.
5,729 foot summit

The hike back presented a completely different perspective; most of the clouds had cleared to reveal valleys and mountain ranges that we had been unable to see before. Still, we had not had a single drop of rain. Nobody wanted to jinx it, though, so we avoided the topic.


When we had come about halfway down the mountain, Amy and I were behind the rest of the gang. We caught up to them to find them standing still and signaling for us to be silent. Turning the corner, we saw the reason why. There was a mother pony with her young foal, rummaging through some campers’ food.

We slowly walked towards them and eventually were able to gain enough trust for them to allow us to pet. The young foal slowly warmed up to us, but her attention was soon diverted. She had seen Baci and wanted to play. She put her head down and playfully started trotting towards Baci. I think it took Baci a little while to realize that this was actually happening because it wasn't until the foal was a foot away from him that he jumped up and scooted out of the way. The foal followed him in a couple of circles around my dad before finally giving up, probably disappointed that Baci wasn’t willing to be her friend.

After this last memorable encounter we continued on down the mountain and made it back to the car around 5:30 pm. My family had to go back to Greensboro so they took one car, while Amy and I took the other car back to the mountain house. We stopped at Boondocks Brewing Tap Room & Restaurant in West Jefferson for dinner, and we both ordered specialty burgers. With our incredible streak of great quality, charismatic, and local meals we’ve had on all of our trips so far, Amy and I felt compelled to keep the streak alive. While this meal didn’t really live up to the character of the fried cheesecake from Lynn’s Place or the chicken dumplings from Black Bear Café, it was a still really good burger. Simply enough, I think that a good burger was all we really needed.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Huckleberry Bald and Hooper Bald

On Saturday, June 13th, I met Amy in Asheville and we drove over to Robbinsville to do the Huckleberry Bald and Hooper Bald hikes. Both hikes branched off of the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway that stretches through the Unicoi Mountains from Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Plains, TN. The drive itself was very scenic, but by the time we had arrived at the trailhead for Huckleberry Bald, Amy and I were both ready to get on our feet.

It was 12:30 pm when we started the hike. Both hikes today would be short-about 2 miles roundtrip for Huckleberry and 1 mile for Hooper. Considering this, and the fact that the sky showed no signs of rain, we began the hike in high spirits, free of any time or weather constraints.

The trail started through a forest strewn with bright summer wildflowers. It wasn’t long before we came out onto a vast grassy opening speckled with blueberry bushes and contained in a sea of yellow buttercups. We weren’t at Huckleberry yet though-this was Oak Knob according to the trail map. Like Huckleberry, Oak Knob is a grassy bald, but we had never really heard much about it. It definitely doesn’t get enough credit for all it’s worth.  It was just as beautiful as any other of the balds we had visited, and Amy captured this in her comment that it would make the perfect painting.

As we were leaving Oak Knob, I set the GPS and notebook down to take a picture. My heart literally skipped a couple of beats when I saw a snake inches from my hand, peering out of the grass. I have a deep-rooted, built-up paranoia against snakes, but I was relieved to find out that it was only a garter snake.

On top of Huckleberry
We took the trail another half a mile up through the forest to Huckleberry Bald. Perched at 5,578 feet, we were able to see for miles from the top of Huckleberry. We could see the grassy cap of Oak Knob to the south, not too far below us, and the grassy crest of Hooper Bald a little farther beyond. There was a pretty cool sensation about being on top of Huckleberry, I thought, that was different than any of the balds we had been to; the presence of Oak Knob, which was connected just below us, added to the on top of the world feeling. We were so much higher than any other mountain entity around us, and now I found myself contently looking down upon Oak Knob, as if I had somehow achieved a feat of exceeding its glory by elevation. I laughed off that crazy feeling, though, because I knew that I had done nothing to earn this spot on the mountain-I was just a visitor lucky enough to witness the natural beauty intrinsic to both Oak Knob and Huckleberry.  
Oak Knob and Hooper in the background

Before we left Huckleberry, I came across a family of wild grouse near the edge of the bald. Amy found another snake curled up on a rock in the sun. Birds soared overhead. We tried to take it all in, but we finally had to force ourselves to leave, with Hooper on our minds.

Hooper Bald was just a mile up the road. In 1908, a man named George Moore, an agent for Whiting Manufacturing Company (who owned the land), decided to create a hunting preserve on Hooper Bald for wealthy clients. Wild boars, buffalo, elk, mule deer, black bear, and Russian brown bear were imported for the preserve. Most of the exotic animals eventually disappeared, but the wild boars dug under the fences, reproduced, and have survived to this day.1

Lush Fraser Fir Ecotone on Hooper
The hike to Hooper Bald was very easy. A gravel trail took us half a mile up to the bald. We initially saw the remnants of what was probably a spectacular flame azalea display a couple of weeks prior to our arrival. Some of the plants still had dying blooms on them. 

We followed the grass for another half a mile down the ridgeline. It was a huge bald; its length-to-width proportion seemed larger than any of the other balds we had been to. Amy and I sat down near the edge where we had a good view of Huckleberry to the north. We were so happy to not have had any rain, especially when it had been raining nonstop for two weeks throughout the whole southeast.
After sufficiently exploring Hooper, we started back towards the car, and then began the drive back to Robbinsville around 5 pm. Our directions back to the town took us a different route than the way we had come out, so almost by chance, we were taken to the downtown’s quaint main street, which included the town hall, a sheriff’s office, and a local restaurant called Lynn’s Place. Lynn’s Place seemed to be just what Amy and I were looking for. It was bustling with locals, motorcycle tourists, and family visitors, and it wafted a delicious aroma. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and Amy got a turkey reuben sandwich. Dinner was good, but it didn’t even come close to what we had for desert. We both ordered the first thing on the desert menu: fried cheesecake. It came hot, topped with vanilla ice-cream and whipped cream. It was probably one of the best deserts I’ve ever had, ranking behind only my mom’s homemade raspberry cheesecake and blueberry pie.

After dinner, we followed a sign up to the corner of town hall, where there was supposed to be a music festival going on. Sure enough, there was a festival. The entire town of Robbinsville had formed a semi-circle around a dancing square marked with chalk in front of the town hall. A blue-grass band stood on a make-shift stage and prepared to play.

What followed was one of the most authentic, amazing things I’ve ever experienced. As the music started, locals got up and routinely started walking up to the dance square. Amy and I heard the clunk of their feet as they walked, and we looked around to confirm that almost everyone around us had clogging shoes on. This was no joke. The locals started dancing so joyfully and so habitually that I think it must have been part of their culture-something that the town had been doing for generations.

We stayed for a couple hours, knowing that there are probably few places in the United States where we would find such a genuine, talented, and American performance as this.

1U.S. Forest Service

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge

Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge
On Tuesday, July 2nd, my family and I did the hike across Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald. We were staying at our mountain house on Powderhorn Mountain (near Boone, NC) for the week of the Fourth of July and our relatives from Pennsylvania were visiting. Amy had done this hike before I had met her, and it was on the list to be included in the book. Amy and I will be in Boone in a couple of weeks to visit some of the Balds around the area, but we decided that I could do the Round, Jane, and Grassy trip while I was up here over the 4th in order to collect extra field data, ease our persistent schedule, and share the experience with my family.

My mom, my dad, my brother Ryan, and our dog Baci were the hiking companions on this trip. My brother Connor was at home in Greensboro working an internship and Marissa had decided to go to Tweetsie Railroad with my Pennsylvania relatives.

We left at 10:40 am. The three Balds, Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge, were located on Roan Mountain, Tennessee and could be accessed from Carvers Gap, which the phone navigation system estimated to be a 2 hour drive from our house. The drive to Carvers Gap utilized numerous back roads and we ended up getting lost somewhere in Avery Country, NC. At one point, there was about a 5 mile stretch of road on which Ryan counted 14 Baptist churches. We eventually got back on track an arrived at the trailhead around 12:30, sun shining.

The complete hike was a 2.5 mile stretch along the Appalachian Trail that traversed all three of the grassy Balds. Eager to get out of the car, we started the hike right away, not even bothering to pack a lunch. The first Bald, Round, was completely visible from the parking lot. The trail climbed up the side of Round and initially became enveloped in a wet hemlock forest, which eventually opened up for the first stunning views of the day. We immediately knew it was worth the effort to get here. Already at 5,800 feet, we were at a much higher vantage point than we were used to in Boone, and the views said it all.

It didn’t take long to reach the summit of Round Bald, from which the scenic panorama of the surrounding mountains was nothing short of spectacular. My family agreed that it reminded us a little bit of Alaska. The air was so fresh and Baci was having a field day, literally, as he bounded happily through the grass. From the summit of Round, we could see Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge Bald ahead; however, Grassy Ridge Bald was engulfed in a heavy cloud.
On top of Round Bald
                 We made our way along the A.T. down Round Bald and into Engine Gap, which separated Round from Jane. It was here that we were surprised by a colorful patch of flame azaleas in full bloom. We were not expecting to see flame azaleas on this hike, as Amy and I had been when we hiked Gregory Bald, but this element of surprise made the experience all the more exciting. We took lots of pictures, and Ryan and I even tried one of the gall fruits that grow on the flame azalea plants; Amy and I had confirmed that they were edible, but only after we had seen them on Gregory Bald, so I hadn’t tried one yet. It tasted a little bit like watermelon.

Just as we arrived at the summit of Jane Bald it started to rain, without warning. We ran for cover under a thicket of tall rhododendron bushes and waited for the rain to stop. To fill the time, I broke out the black licorice I had packed from the Mast General Store. Eventually the rain lightened and after weighing all the factors, we decided that we would hike on. The clouds had settled in, though, and we could not see farther than 15 feet in front of us.

We made our way down the other side of Jane Bald, ducking in an out of rhododendron bushes in compliance with the spurts of rain that the skies released every few minutes. We saw a person in a bright yellow raincoat running down Grassy Ridge Bald in full speed and laughed at ourselves as we continued that way.

It looked like the skies had cleared by the time we started hiking up Grassy Ridge, except for the clouds that enshrouded the very top of the Bald, which had the highest elevation of the three peaks, at 6,200 feet. We began to see the beauty of the wildflowers and plants around us. There was an abundance of a ripe red flower with a beautiful pattern on the inside that reminded me of a tiger. I later learned that it was the endangered Gray’s Lilly that only grows in a few locations and is in bloom for a very short period of time. We were so fortunate to have come when we did for the flame azaleas and the Gray’s Lillies-two amazing species that are hard to access at exactly the right time in exactly the right location.

A tunnel of rhododendron, which rose higher than our heads on both sides of the narrow trail, led us out onto the top of Grassy Ridge Bald. It was a vast grassy meadow soaked in clouds, making for a surreal experience. We talked to some other hikers and took a break on a large boulder. Before we started hiking back, pockets of clouds cleared, and we were able to get some good pictures.
When we first arrived on top of Grassy Ridge Bald

My family in the distance, on top of Grassy Ridge Bald

On the way back we were greeted by yet another surprise. Hiking down Grassy Ridge we could see across to a fenced in area full of goats grazing on the edge of Jane Bald. Although it was right beside the trail, we (including Baci) had completely missed it when we had passed it the first time, due to the heavy fog. I remembered one of the readings that Amy had sent me about a goat project on Roan Mountain:

Researcher Jamey Donaldson along with students from East Tennessee State University have “monitored plant growth both where the goats have grazed, as well as in plots left as control, where no grazing has occurred.” This experimental project intends to find how goats can be used to restore “plant diversity and growth on these balds.” We observed two watchdogs, whose names are Baxter and Bigdog according to the website. We even saw a student measuring plant growth outside of the fenced-in area.1

Try to find Bigdog
We made our way back towards the car, taking one last moment on the top of Round Bald to glance back at Jane and Grassy Ridge. We reached the car around 5 o’clock and drove home, completely satisfied with our day.

1 "Baatany Project -- The Goats on Roan Mountain." Baatany Project. N.p., 2013. Web. 07 July 2013. <>.