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