Monday, May 27, 2013

Standing Indian Loop-de-Loop

The Standing Indian area of North Carolina has several mountain peaks above 5000 feet and is drained by lively mountain streams.  The AT circles the Nantahala basin on the ridge, and I'd previously backpacked the classic Standing Indian loop.  Knowing the wildflowers are gorgeous up there in late May but wanting to avoid the Memorial Day crowds, I devised a route to maximize my mileage on blue blazed trails to form a meandering loop-de-loop route.  I ended up doing about 44 miles on 10 different trails plus the AT, FS roads, and an unmaintained trail that was more of a bushwack down a cliff face.  I visited two waterfalls and four spectacular rocky overlooks (including 2 lonely ones off the AT that I had all to myself), climbed the ridge and descended back to the valley 5 times, found tons of solitude, and plenty adventure.
Hopping off the AT onto a blue-blazed trail.
Some of the trails were much more difficult than the AT and are for those that really love elevation change.  But if you've already done the Standing Indian loop, are good at navigation and planning ahead for water, don't mind a few more blowdowns and brush, and want to see more of this wonderful area, pick up some maps and guidebooks and take some of these less traveled paths.  Many of these trails are also readily accessable by FS roads, and would make excellent dayhikes.
Canada mayflower was just one of many flowers in bloom on the lush Timber Ridge Trail.
Eying the swimming hole at the base of Big Laurel Falls.
Wood betony on the Beech Creek Trail.
What I loved most about my circuitous route was standing at an overlook and knowing the wonders that lay in the valley below and on the surrounding peaks, because I'd just traversed them.  It made me feel connected to the land.  It also fueled my sense of adventure and my curiosity for regions I haven't yet explored.
From Standing Indian Mountain, looking across to Big Scaly Mountain where I'd been the day before.
Route Details

Day 1- From the Standing Indian Backcountry Information Booth, I hiked 3 miles up gravel FS 67, and turned onto the Bear Pen Trail for 2.5 miles to the AT.  Then, I headed south for 1.2 miles on the AT past Big Butt Mountain.  At Mooney Gap, I turned off the AT onto the FS road for about a mile to the Pickens Nose Trail.  It was 0.7 miles to the rocky outcrop and viewpoint. 
Pickin' my nose on Pickens Nose.  With views of Rabun Bald and Betty Creek Valley.
I retraced my steps back to Mooney Gap, and took the AT for another 5 miles past lots of section hikers, on the way making a quick out and back detour down the Betty Creek Trail (0.1 miles each way), just because I couldn't pass a blue blaze no matter how short the trail. 

I hopped off the AT and onto the Timber Ridge Trail, and 2.3 mile later, took the Big Laurel Falls Trail out and back (0.6 miles each way) to the falls.  Back down at the FS road, took a left, for about 0.4 miles to the Beech Gap Trail.  The Beech Gap Trail led back up 2.8 miles to Beech Gap, where I slept very well after 22 miles.
Stealth campsite on the Beech Gap Trail right before Beech Gap. <note awesome new tarp with doors>
Day 2- It wasn't the miles, it was the elevation change that make this day challenging.  Dropped from Beech Gap (4490 feet) down the unmaintained connector trail to the Beech Creek Trail (guessing to around 3700 feet), which I followed for 4.4 miles (plus side trails) to High Falls and then up to the summit of Big Scaly Mountain (5,060 feet) on the "Scaly Nature Trail" (which was nothing like a typical nature trail, though it did feature plenty of nature), and back down to where it intersected the Deep Gap Trail at around 2900 feet.  Then took the Deep Gap Trail 2.1 miles up to Deep Gap (4340 feet), crossed the AT, and did an out and back along the 3.7 mile Kimsey Creek Trail down to my car at 3,380 feet (oops ran low on aquamira thank goodness I keep resupply in my car), and then another 3.7 miles back up to Deep Gap (4340 feet) where I met my friends briefly before they headed into town (hope we can hike together next time, my friends!), and I found another stealth campsite.  If I did the math right, that gave me 3830 feet elevation gain and 3980 feet lost roughly. 

Day 3- After another restful night in my hammock, I woke early and climbed Standing Indian in early morning light.  Then I took the Lower Ridge Trail 4.1 miles back down to my car.
Trillium along the Lower Ridge Trail.
Note of caution- the unmaintained connector trail from Beech Gap to the Beech Creek Trail, though short, is steep, totally rugged and wild, and drops strait down a cliff along a small waterfall.  Homan, the author of the excellent guidebook for the area, said it was the steepest trail he'd ever walked.  Which of course was incentive enough for me to want to take it.  I thought it'd be like the Deep Gap Trail or the Grassy Ridge Trail (both also go up to the AT from the southern side of the Standing Indian area)-- but this connector trail is in a league of it's own.  The faint trail required imagination and eagle eyes to follow.  There was one section that was so steep that I had to toss my pack down ahead of me and crabwalk down on all fours.  It has been recommended doing it going uphill, and that might have been good advice to follow.  I might also recommend not doing this trail alone or while carrying a heavy pack, and it's probably best to just skip it altogether.  Of course... I absolutely loved it!  The hunting through tangled trees for the (unsigned) trailhead, the searching for weathered blue-blazes that were just a few paint flecks dangling on bark, the jelly-legs, the heart-pumping exertion, the "what am I doing I'm gonna die" feeling, and finally the rush of making it over the final stream crossing without getting wet.  Trails like that give me confidence that I can handle anything.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Surprises on the Duncan Ridge Trail

The Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT), considered the toughest trail in Georgia, held some surprises for me this weekend. 

I hadn't even been considering doing part of the DRT.  The plan was for a relaxing trip with friends along the Chattooga.  However, rain and thunderstorms were predicted so (surprise!) my friends opted to stay home.  It was a good opportunity to give this trail another chance.

I hadn't heard anything about the scenery on the DRT, only about its difficulty, so I was blown away by the stunning wildflowers.   Hillsides bursting with blossoms and rare jewels like the yellow ladyslipper orchid.  I can't imagine I could have timed it better to see more floral diversity or abundance.  Light rain only served to intensify the vibrant colors, though the thunderstorms... well, I'll get to that later.
Yellow ladyslipper orchid along the DRT.
Trillium were especially abundant and diverse.
It even stopped raining for a while (surprise!) so I could take lots of photos of the ladyslipper orchids. 
Huge patch of pink lady slippers- and I'm not exaggerating-- more than I've ever seen my entire life combined.
Lovely, lovely ladyslippers.
The DRT has a reputation for its toughess, so I expected the steep slopes.  But at least east of Fish Gap (the section I did), the trail was narrow and mostly soft (rather than compacted and rocky like the AT)-- as if it doesn't see much traffic at all.  At least that made it easier on the feet and gave the trail that nice remote feel.
Narrow tread of the DRT.
There was even a view from Akin Mountain, which made the climb very worthwhile.
I did an out and back, and turned around at Fish Gap.  I probably had time to make it all the way to Rhodes Mountain, which would have completed this trail for me since I've hiked other sections previously (last October and November), but I opted to be cautious instead and camp at lower elevation so I'd be protected from wind and storms.  I turned around and hiked back to Mulky Gap.  There, I went down a gated gravel road to a great camping area.
 There was a spring lined with bright orange flame azalea and ferns, a grassy field, and (surprise!) even a sheltered hunting blind/ shack.  Well, it wasn't really a surprise since I'd read about it, but I was thrilled I found it.  I carefully positioned my hammock so that I'd be protected from wind, and enjoyed the evening sitting in a chair watching the dark clouds rolling over the field.
A chair, shelter, and field- what a luxurious campsite!
 Heavy rain and thunderstorms started during the night.  I could hear the winds up above, but they never even rustled my tarp, and I stayed totally dry.  Towards dusk, lightening flashes intensified, sheets of torrential rain came down, and thunder boomed.   It was one crazy, strong storm.

In the early morning, I considered my options, consulted maps, and texted with my friend.  Surprise- I had cell service! yay!  And surprise, more storms were in the forecast.  Boo!  But, there is a FS road that stays at lower elevation than the Duncan Ridge Trail, and mostly parallels it, so I decided to hike as fast as I could over West Wildcat Knob and Buck Knob, and then pick up the Duncan Ridge Road back to Wolfpen Gap.

I never liked roadwalking before, but it proved surprisingly scenic.  I saw flowers I hadn't seen up on the ridge including wild comfry, showy orchis, and wood betony.   Even more incredible were the lovely hillside of wild geranium, another hillside with dense solomon's plume, and yet another of blue-cohosh.
Roadwalking was surprisingly nice- especially since I like wildflowers... and mud and puddle-jumping.
At Wolf Pen Gap, thunder was still rumbling in the distance, so I turned down paved GA 180, rather than taking the trail up ridges where I would potentially be exposed to wind and lightening (even though it turns out, I didn't get any more storms.  Only rain.)  Walking along the road-- surprise-- I saw a bear.  Cool! I watched it run up the hillside.  Next, the road took me to the trailhead of another wildflower hotspot, Sosebee Cove, which I'd never been to, but which was magnificent!

Sosebee Cove, one of the top wildflower areas in Georgia, is a rich, moist north-slope cove forest harboring enormous yellow buckeye trees and tuliptrees (the area hasn't been logged since 1903).   I saw lots more wildflowers, many of which were different than I'd seen either up at high elevation on the DRT or along the FS road.  I'll definitely be making a return trip.
Sweet white trillium at Sosebee Cove
At Burnett Gap, I finally got to hop back on the Coosa Trail again, back down to my car at Vogel State Park.   Another wonderful trip, full of delightful surprises and exceptional wildflowers.  It wasn't what I planned at all-- but I'm glad it all turned out so well.  I felt really good for making the choices I did-- especially to camp down at Mulky Gap where I stayed safe during the intense storm, and also to do the roadwalking rather than risk being up on exposed ridges.  I learned that roadwalking could actually be a good alternative-- it gave me the opportunity to see more flowers and a different perspective.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

First night with my DIY Top Quilt

Wasn't feeling well, so did a quick overnight on the Bartram Trail north from Warwoman Dell up past Martin Creek Falls.  I know it probably sounds crazy to go backpacking while sick, but I'd rather laze around in my hammock in the sweet-smelling woods than be cooped up at home.

I was eager to get out because it was finally warm enough, with the forecasted low in the 50's, to try out the DIY Karo Top Quilt that I made back in February.  I'd tested it out in my backyard, but this was its first trip out on the trail. 

Third weekend in a row with rain.  Thankfully, dark clouds warned of the approaching storm.  I managed to get my tarp pitched, hammock hung, and bear bag rope thrown in record time, all before the first drops began to fall.  It rained half then night and then the wind picked up and temps dropped, providing a good first test for my quilt.
Stealth site halfway up the hillside and sheltered from the wind.  Sun came out in the morning so I could take a photo.
When I started to settle in for the night, the first thing I really liked about my quilt was how easy it was to get comfortable in it.  I could just tuck it around me.  In contrast to a sleeping bag, which either has too much material if I spread it out, or require lots of squirming to get ziped up into.

The second thing I learned about my quilt is that it proved to be wide enough, at least so far.  Even though I made it only 40 inches wide at the top.  Guess it really is true that I didn't need more because the hammock and underquilt wrap around me.

The only thing I think I need to work on is the footbox, since I haven't decided how to make that yet.  I will either add more snaps to make the footbox extend up to my knees, or sew it together.  But overall, I really loved by quilt and was surprised that it kept me so toasty.
So happy after my first night in my DIY top quilt.
Of course I have to add photos of some flowers from the trip.  Also saw tons of trillium, but I figure you are probably tired of seeing so many of those.  Here are the new flowers that are out.
Wild geranium
Sweet shrub, with wild azalea in the background.
Solomon's seal, still wet with rain.
When I got back to the trailhead, I also checked out the Warwoman Dell Nature trail, where many more flowers were blooming including solomon's plume, dwarf iris, foamflower, jack-in-the-pulpit, and indian cucumber root.
Third week in a row my car has been by herself at the trailhead-- I think she's getting pretty lonely.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Interpretive Hiking Map of the NC Bartram Trail

The Interpretive Hiking Map of the NC Bartram Trail has been an excellent resource over the past year on numerous section hikes of the NC Bartram Trail.  It's got a beautiful design, and I highly encourage anyone interested in the Bartram Trail to get this map.
It contains essentials for the backpacker (i.e. elevation profile, campsites, water sources) and also has information to inspire and inform those interested in natural history.

Several features make this map really great:
-Easy to read and use and shows the right amount of detail.   Campsites, water sources, side trail, and roads are all clearly marked and have been accurate.

-It's easy to switch back and forth between the elevation profile and the topo map because the mileages (in both directions) are shown directly on the map. 
The map indicates campsites, water sources, trailheads, and mileages as well as interpretive information.
Elevation profiles with mileages both from N to S (bottom) and S to N (top).
-Written driving directions to all the trailheads are given, which facilitates section hiking.

-Natural history information is tagged on the map, and side bars have blurbs about the flora and fauna and excepts from Bartram's Travels.  This provides a deeper appreciation for the history and wonderful areas this trail passes though. 
Numbered tags let you find and read about the plants that Bartram discovered on his travels.
Historical excepts allow " the hiker moving forward in space to simultaneously journey back in time"
My only criticism is that the paper is not waterproof or durable.  I keep it in a plastic ziplock, but mine is already torn along the folds and has a few holes.  My friend JJ suggested scanning it, printing it, and waterproofing the paper.  But I figure for $12 I can easily replace it when it gets much worse. 

Another caveat is that the some of the campsites indicated on the maps are not always suitable for hammock hangers, so a few times I had to hike additional miles to find trees.  This probably would have been less of an issue during winter, and of course isn't really a problem with the map, just something to be aware of for fellow hangers.

Overall: this is a lovely map and only wish more trails had maps this informative and well-designed.

Disclosure: I purchased this map with my own funds.  The opinions in this review are my own.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bartram Trail- Osage to Rabun again

There is a yet another type of rain-- it is the windy, torrential, incessant rain.  Weather for flirting with hypothermia.  Weather for making you question why you stay out there. 
From Osage Mountain Overlook, I did an out and back along the Bartram Trail up to Rabun Bald.  Abundant creeks were swollen with water, and rugged rock outcrops offered sheltered refuges for snack breaks.  The climb up Rabun had the highest concentration of catsby's trillium I've seen.  Unfortunately, the rain didn't let up enough for me to pull out my camera, even to snap shots of all the tree foam.

Fog enveloped the summit of Rabun Bald, but I climbed the tower anyway just to feel the full force of the howling wind.   Horizontal rain flew under my rainhat and ripped the snaps of my poncho open before I retreated to lower ground.

I stayed warm and avoided hypothermia by wearing super-warm, non-breathable rainpants and a FroggToggs poncho, and by paying more attention to thermoregulation and employing Advanced Rain Hiker Techniques:

-Adjusted hiking speed and layers to regulate my temperature.  Added a raincoat under the poncho when I got cold.  Ventilated the poncho by hiking with my hands on my hips when I got warm. 

-Skipped using poles.  My hands stayed in my pockets and under my poncho tucked against the warmth of my torso as much as possible so they never got cold.

-I carefully monitored myself for the "umbles" and signs of disorientation.  Because hypothermia is difficult to self-diagnose, I came up with questions to ask myself at frequent intervals:
    -Are you toasty-cosy warm, or just sort-of warm? 
    -How many minutes has it been since your last snack and bathroom stop?
    -Name three things that you love about hiking in the rain? 

When I got cranky or couldn't think of answers, I stopped for a quick snack or to add layers.  I was really pleased I managed to stay pretty comfortable most of the time.
My feet were happy when I changed into dry socks on the ride home.