Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bartram Trail-- Winding Stair Bridge to Cheoah Bald

I'd been planning my birthday backpacking trip for weeks:  finishing up my section hike of the Bartram Trail in NC by summiting the "grandstand of the Appalachians," Cheoah Bald.   I'd start the morning by going to trapeze practice (my other "favorite thing" in life), then climb 3000 feet up to the northern terminus of the Bartram Trail at Cheoah Bald, and then sleep out on the summit under the full moon.  Could it get any better than that?

I've been section hiking the Bartram Trail in NC since July, and totally fallen in love with this remote, peaceful, challenging, and well marked (and mapped) trail.  I had high expectations because this last section was described as the "grand finale" complete with waterfalls and panoramic views, which I recalled from when I'd previously hiked the AT over Cheoah Bald on a clear day last November. 

I arrived at Winding Stairs Bridge Parking area off US 19/74 in late afternoon.  High on trapeze endorphins and birthday cake, I sailed up out of Nantahala Gorge admiring the first fall color.  Climbing 3000 feet sounds really tough, but I felt as if I could fly. 
Looking across Nantahala Gorge to the "surge tank" where I'd passed a few weeks ago
Occasional rain made fallen leaves and rocks slippery, and this technical footing required concentration and caution.  But the rain also made the forest smell sweeter, the leaves glisten, and brought out little creatures.
Wet leaves over slippery loose rocks
Salamanders come out to play in the rain
The trail crisscrosses Ledbetter Creek for several miles as it cascades through a steep narrow valley and goes over a long series of falls.  Impressive rock walls echoed the sounds of the rushing water.
Lovely, several tiered Bartram Falls drops over 50 feet
All the way up at its headwaters, Ledbetter Creek is small enough to easily step across.
Dressed in my pink long underwear and new DIY gaiters that I sewed especially for the Bartram Trail
The Bartram crosses FS 259 road near a spring lined with flowers.  I checked my map and realized I was only 0.9 miles away from the summit, and I couldn't believe it!  I was almost there!
monkshood at the spring
The climbing continued in earnest before reaching the "knife-edge" ridge.  Then, it was time to cruise and enjoy the ferns, mosses and stunted trees and listen to the wind howling.

Fog was moving across Cheoah Bald when I arrived.  My dream had been to watch the sunset from the bald and see mountains awash in fall colors, not to be socked in with fog!  What do you do when you finally reach the exciting climax of a long journey, and then it does not go according to plan!?!?

First I waited.  As I watched, the landscape became more breathtaking to me than anything I could have dreamed.  The silhouettes of trees stood out dramatically in the swirling fog.  For a few moments, the clouds shifted to reveal the surrounding mountaintops. 
Fog on Cheoah Bald
Next, I explored the bald, crisscrossing up and down the deer paths through the field of flowers.  This incredibly botanically rich area is a designated "mountain treasure" with rare plants and an abundance of goldenrod and asters, and shimmering candelabras of gentians.  The soft light brought out the vibrant colors.

When it got dark and I zipped into my hammock, the clouds were still thick.  Since it was only 8 PM, I put in my headphones and started listening to podcasts.  One story in particular spoke to me. A woman and her father trek for several days up to Everest Base Camp-- only to discover there is no view of Everest because of (you guess it!) THE FOG.  In the story, the clouds eventually part, but only after the father and daughter talk about the importance of enjoying the journey itself. I drifted to sleep thinking how universal this story is, and feeling so happy to be just be enjoying the trip.
Hanging at the edge of Cheoah Bald
A bright light woke me around midnight.  Scurrying out of my hammock, I looked up and it was the full moon!  Incredibly, the clouds had parted and the entire bald was illuminated.  I could see the soft moonlit peaks of mountains extending outward for miles and miles.  How lucky to be out there basking in that glow!
Full moon and the end to a wonderful birthday and trail!

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