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!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gorge Floor Trail at Tallulah Gorge State Park

Though I've done dozens of trips to Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia to hike some of the other trails, this was my first time on the Gorge Floor Trail.  Like its name implies, this challenging trail goes along the bottom of the gorge and requires rock scrambling.  I was delighted that my friends were game to do this trail with me on the crisp fall day we visited the park.
Crab-walking the Gorge Floor Trail.  Photo by G. C.
At the visitor's center, the Ranger checked our footwear before he issued us our free permits which are required for this trail (limited to 100 per day, weather permitting).  He even showed us pictures as he explained the route to convey the trail's difficulty.  I'd read in Tim Homan's The Hiking Trails of North Georgia that this as one of the toughest short hikes in Georgia, and I'd certainly agree with that assessment.  I'm no stranger to significant elevation change-- but that was the easy part.  I can climb stairs all day, and my long arms and legs make boulder scrambling easy, but the traverses across the inclined slabs of rock that angled down really scarred me.  At the sight of a few sheer inclines, I declared I was turning back, but after watching my friend go across, I slowly butt-scooted across after them.  Fortunately, I have good balance and good traction on my shoes.  I built up my confidence, until butt-scoots advanced into crab-walking, and finally, on the return trip, I tackled the traverses upright like a pro.  But it was definitely a challenge! 

Hanging onto the rocks and not looking down.  Photo by G. C.
The other unexpected delight was the wildflowers.  Tallulah Gorge is home to several rare and endangered species, including the persistant trillium which I'd seen this spring.  The Gorge Floor Trail accesses several plant communitie types with a high diversity of species.  Highlights for me included royal fern (Osmunda regalis), hazel alder (Alnus serrulata), paw paw (unfortunately no fruit though), turtlehead, and nodding ladies tresses orchid.  After doing the Gorge Floor Trail, we continued the hike around the North and South Rim Trails where we found delicious ripe persimmons.
Nodding ladies tresses orchid
Delicious persimmon
 If you aren't afraid of heights and like rock hopping, and if you are interested in seeing some great plants, check out this fun trail.  I know I'll be back!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Back to Unicoi Gap

 On Saturday, I got a late start from Unicoi Gap (on GA 75 north of Helen, GA) and headed south on the Appalachian Trail to Chattohoochee Gap, where I turned down the Jack's Knob Trail.  This side trail goes all the way to Brasstown Bald, but I didn't make it that far, before I turned around.  I'd done the section from 180 up to the summit of Brasstown Bald previously, and it was delightfully steep.  This section that connects the AT to 180 also followed the ridges, and offered nice views.  I probably could have made it all the way to 180, but I was worried about getting back to Unicoi Gap the following morning in time to co-lead a hike for the Trail Dames.  I guess I miscalculated my pace after spending so much time on the Bartram Trail, and I ended up back near Blue Mountain Shelter with much more daylight than I'd expected.  I'd forgotten how fast I can fly on the Georgia AT. 
white wood aster
In the morning, I met the Trail Dames for our hike to Tray Gap.  It was a gorgeous cool day, and I enjoyed hiking with people after doing so many solo trips lately. 
Trail Dames taking on the 1000 foot climb out of Unicoi Gap
Clear view from the summit of Rocky Mountain

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bartram Trail-- Sawmill Gap to Harrison Gap

This weekend's overnight out and back from Sawmill Gap to Harrison Gap took me 20 miles total, most of which I'd previously done.
Ample parking (with a view) at Sawmill Gap off FS 711
The first 2.2 miles to Wine Spring Bald featured views off to the south through a burned hillside.  Last time I did this section only a month ago in rain and fog, so I appreciated the clear day. 
Views for large stretches of trail along the ridge.
The yellow sunflowers were gone, but there were a whole new suite of flowers and berries, including monk's hood, gentian, and angelica.  Under the canopy was a sea of goldenrod and also dense thickets of white snakeroot.  Wildlife clearings buzzed with bees and exploding with more flowers.
White snakeroot as far as the eye can see
Wildlife thickets
Doll's eyes (Actaea pachypoda)
At Wine Spring Bald, the trail joined the AT all the way to Wayah Bald.  Sitting on top of Wayah Bald lookout tower, I reminisced about the previous times I'd been there.  The first time was when I hiked my first 20 mile day.  The second was on a winter AT backpacking trip with friends.  Looking out at all the peaks in the distance (including Cheoah Bald the terminus of the Bartram) made me wonder where I'm heading next.

The Bartram diverges from the AT just north of Wayah Bald, and I filled up on water a short distance past where the Bartram splits off.  This was the last water until I returned to this spot the following day. 

I'd read that the 6 miles between Wayah Bald and Harrison Gap were difficult, and that was indeed true.  My legs actually got sore as I rollercoastered up and down the endless knobs along the ridge.   All the elevation change took me through constantly changing vegetation types from high elevation heaths to rich coves with turtlehead.  Always something new.
Touch Me Not at lower elevation
Stalked puffballs in aspic on the side of Wayah Bald
Campsites were also scarce along this section.  Locust Tree Gap #2, campsite marked on my map, had no trees for my hammock, which was a similar situation to what I encountered at the surge tank at Rattlesnake Knob.  To other hammock hangers who may read this- plan extra time to find campsites, especially in summer when brush may be dense and make stealth camping difficult.  Eventually, I camped in an a stealth spot which was closer to Harrison Gap and the FS road access  than I'd have liked (i.e. only an 8 minutes walk).  It was so out of the way and hidden that I felt like it was relatively safe though.

The next morning, I turned around and retraced my route back to my car.  On the return trip, I was really struck by the difference between the Bartram and where the Bartram runs along the AT.  What a contrast between the two trails!   Certainly no need to look at the color of the blazes to tell if you are on the AT or Bartram.   Large campsites and frequent water sources?  That's the AT.  Feel soft trail under your feet?  Bartram.  People on the trail?  Must be the AT.  Does the trail just take off at a steep incline up each and every knob, without benefit of switchbacks?   Oh how I love the Bartram Trail!  
Tall goldenrod

Monday, September 3, 2012

Bartram Trail-- Winding Stair to Nantahala Lake

For the Labor Day weekend, I did a two night solo trip on the Bartram Trail between "Bateman's Store" near Nantahala Lake and Winding Stairs Bridge trailhead (i.e. mostly section 6).   I parked roughly in the middle of this section, and did out-and-backs in each direction.  That gave me the luxury of stopping at my car to resupply on the middle of my second day.

From Appletree group campground, I started north on the Bartram Trail, passing all the Labor Day car-campers.  With all those people, I expected to see someone on the trail, but (you guessed it), it was just me and the flowers that first day.  However, I did see two couples on the second day both near the trailheads.  Still, the Bartram deserves it's reputation as the trail for solitude.
Grass of Parnassus on the banks of Piercy Creek
And, once again, wildflowers were splendid along the Bartram Trail.  Stunning grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia) have a ring of infertile stamens, which function to attract in pollinators since they look like nectaries.  Also enchanting were yellow buckeye fruits broken open on the trail.  The beautiful dark chocolate seeds have whitish scars (the "buck eye" that botanist called a hilum) at the former point of attachment to the ovary wall, sort of like a belly button.
Yellow buckeye fruit and seeds (with the "buck eye" unfortunately not showing)
My plan was to camp my first night at the "surge tank" campsite indicated on my map after climbing over Rattlesnake Knob.  When I arrived the sun was setting but the view was spectacular.
View from the "surge tank" on the side of Rattlesnake Knob
However, to my disappointment, the nice grassy area around the tank had no trees for my hammock.  Even more alarming was that the map showed no other campsites ahead.  In fading light, I raced down the switchbacks, as the trail joined the gravel road.   How could I be in the forest with no hangable trees?  But there were steep banks and drop-offs on both sides-- nothing even remotely do-able.  Finally a little after 8:00 PM, I turned down a side road with a few trees.  I set up camp by the glow of my headlamp in what I hoped was a spot out of view of the trail/ road.  It was weedy overgrown, and poison ivy-infested, but it was too dark and I was too tired to hike on.  I could see outlines of buildings down my side road, but I just crossed my fingers no one would "come home."   Daylight revealed the buildings to be abandoned, thank goodness.  Another mile down trail, I saw the road was gated-- I had been safe after all!  And there were no other sites past mine that would have been better which reassured me that I'd made a good call.
Morning light reveals this to be just an old outhouse near my campsite on day 1.
The next morning I descended into the valley, and stopped a while to pick red raspberries at Duke Power Station parking area, where the Bartram joins the paved Mountain to Sea Trail.  The path follows along the Nantahala River before reaching Winding Stairs Bridge Parking area, which was my turn-around spot.
Following the Nantahala River.
Hot and dripping with sweat from the climb back up and over Rattlesnake Bald, I took a dip in a stream in the early afternoon.  At my car at Appletree, I grabbed food and water, and started south along the Bartram.  The 2-mile gravel roadwalk was not kind to my feet.  How could walking along a road seem much more tiring than switchbacking up a steep mountain on a regular trail?

I arrived at a campsite with a few hours of daylight left, so I decided to keep hiking to see if I could reach the end of the section (i.e. Nantahala Lake and Bateman's store).  But after a hour I reached a gravel road.  Fed up with roadwalking and not finding another suitable camping spot, I turning around and returned to the site I'd seen.  The campsite turned out to be absolutely fantastic and I was glad to have come back to it.
Running ground pine and mountain laurel surround my campsite on day 2.
Across the trail from the campsite, a side trail led to a promontory perched up up above Nantahala Lake and Dam.  I relaxed at this overlook and watched thunderclouds rolling in and then lightening flashes reflecting off the lake.  It was so beautiful!  In the morning, I returned to eat breakfast while gazing at the fog over the lake, feeling happy.   
Evening thunder clouds over Nantahala Lake.
Morning fog over Nantahala Lake and Dam.
In the morning, I hiked back to my car, and then I drove to "Bateman's store" and the Phillips 66 gas station to complete the part of the trail I hadn't the day before.  I hiked north on the Bartram to where I'd turned around the previous night, and then hiked back out again.  Section complete,well, sort of...

For the record, I did not hike the 0.7 miles (i.e. 1.4 miles out and back) between the "Phillips 66" and Nantahala Lake trailhead along the paved road.  I started to, but I didn't like having to jump into the overgrown ditch every time a car zoomed by.  I'd done enough road-walking on this trip.  If I ever feel like I need to do every inch of the Bartram trail, then I'll figure out someone to shuttle me and bring along a reflective vest so I don't get hit by a car.  Funny how I can be perfectly at home for two days by myself out in forest, but traffic makes me too uncomfortable.

Gas station and store where the Bartram leaves the paved road.
All in all it was another great trip on the Bartram!