Hickory Nut Gorge Offers New Hiking Trails

Throughout the last few years, hiking opportunities in the Hickory Nut Gorge area southeast of Asheville, NC have slowly been expanding. While locals have been hiking in the area for decades, there haven’t been a lot of publicly sanctioned trails, except for the few inside the privately owned Chimney Rock Park. But those come with an admission price.

Spurred by the purchase of Chimney Rock Park by the state of North Carolina for the subsequent creation of Chimney Rock State Park as the Gorge’s centerpiece, and aided by other purchases and easements through local land conservation organizations, the amount of space officially open to public recreation in and around the Gorge has increased dramatically over the last decade. And along with new protected lands have come some new trails, which have started to allow people to experience the beauty found in this section of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Long-range plans for the area include a long-distance trail that encircles the entire perimeter of the gorge. But that trail is being built in smaller pieces, which have their own names. Three of those pieces are now complete and open to the public: the Bearwallow MountainLittle Bearwallow and Trombatore trails. We explored the latter two in December 2014, and below are our trip reports from those hikes.

Bearwallow Mountain: Crown of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge

Before the trip reports, let’s talk a bit about the first trail to be constructed in the area. Bearwallow Mountain sits near the upper end of the gorge, on its southwest side, and is one of the highest peaks in the area at 4232 ft. in elevation. The Eastern Continental Divide splits the summit, then loops around the upper gorge before connecting to Little Pisgah Mountain on the other (northwest) side. At 4412 ft., Little Pisgah is the higher of the gorge’s two ramparts, but Bearwallow is better known than its higher neighbor because of its accessibility.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-view-bearwallow
image-858
Bearwallow Mountain, as seen from the destination on the Trombatore Trail described below.

For years, locals have parked at bottom of the service road that leads to its summit and hiked to the top, where a forest of trees disappears and is replaced by a forest of communications towers. I’ve been visiting it myself with my family as a kid since the early 90’s. Now, with the summit under a conservation easement and an official trail leading to the top, everyone can comfortably enjoy Bearwallow’s open meadows and the splendid views they provide.

The meadow at the top of Bearwallow Mountain, with its cows grazing and communications towers bristling, exemplifies the typical environment in the Hickory Nut Gorge. Rather than having a wilderness or backcountry feel to it, the areas these trails bring you to feel more rural. Pockets of exceptional natural beauty remain, tied together by more developed or disturbed areas in between.

Bearwallow Mountain was the first of the three trail segments to open and we have given it its own trailhead page on HikeWNC.info.

Trip Report 1: Little Bearwallow Trail, from US 74-A to Little Bearwallow Falls

A chunk of conserved land, called the Florence Preserve (which also has its own trailhead page on HikeWNC) sits on the edge of the gorge northeast of Hickory Creek, on a lower ridge of Little Pisgah Mountain. It has its own little trail network inside it, and it is accessed from the new Upper Hickory Nut Gorge parking area along US 74-A.

From the same parking area, you can now access a trail leading in the opposite direction, to a waterfall on the side of Little Bearwallow Mountain. The trail passes over private and conserved lands, and ascends quickly up the slopes of the gorge to the bottom of a cliff band. A tiny stream flows over the cliff to form Little Bearwallow Falls.

On a beautiful warm day in late December, 2014, a group of us hiked the new trail to check it out!

2014-12-27_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_little-bearwallow-hickory-creek-bridge
image-859
Crossing Hickory Creek at the start of the Little Bearwallow trail.

It was a varied group of hikers, so I’d say the trail up to the falls is accessible to most folks with some hiking experience. It’s about 1.1 miles from the parking area to the falls, with a 650 ft. elevation gain. The newly-rebuilt trail is in great condition and is well constructed, with few obstacles along its first part. The forest is nice, and contains an understory of the less-common rhododendron minus (as opposed to the more typical Catawba and Rosebay rhododendron, some of which grow here also).

After crossing the small stream well below the falls, the trail gets a bit steeper and passes though some rock steps. Still, I wouldn’t call it “rocky” because the steps are quite artfully arranged. I’d rate it moderate overall – everyone in our group was able to keep up.

2014-12-27_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_little-bearwallow-falls
image-860
Little Bearwallow Falls

 

When you arrive at the falls, you may wonder if you’re actually there. It’s very high (I’d estimate well over 100 ft.), but there is only a tiny drainage area above the cliff, meaning it’ll have to be a rather wet period for there to be any water going over it. It’s scenic when the water is flowing, but that might not be the case for most of the year. Still, the cliff is impressive and worth a look even if it were dry.

From the falls, the trail is still under construction as of January 2015, but it will eventually continue along the bottom of the cliff band, past an overlook called Wildcat Rock (expected late 2015), up to the summit of Little Bearwallow Mountain, and then up Bearwallow Mountain proper. We hiked that bit as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it just yet.

Trip Report 2: The Trombatore Trail, Bearwallow Gap to Blue Ridge Pastures

The Trombatore Trail was the most recent segment of trail to be constructed. At Bearwallow Gap – which is also the starting point for the Bearwallow Mountain trail – there is enough room to park along the road, and that’s where I started a solo hike out to Blue Ridge Pastures. The trail begins on a new set of steps on the northwest side of the gap opposite the Bearwallow Mountain trail, and a sign board is there to give you more information about the trail.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-road-steps
image-861
Start of the Trombatore Trail on Bearwallow Mountain Road

The first section of the trail is hand-built tread, and it quickly showcases some of the beautiful work that has been done to make the path complete. The trail approaches some of the impressive cliffs that line this part of Bearwallow Mountain, then swings away through a few switchbacks. Icicles lined the rocks on my hike, and frost heaved the trail surface, which will be common in winter months. Sunlit areas were slick as the melted water collected on top of the frozen ground underneath.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-rock-steps
image-862
Nice rock work along the first part of the Trombatore Trail.

The trail winds downhill on the northeast slope of the uppermost part of the Brush Creek drainage. The forest is a bit older here than it is further on. You start out right in the transition area between a Northern Hardwood and Cove Hardwood forest, and gradually descend into the Cove Hardwoods. Only a couple of trees of significant size are present, but at least one is quite large and burly. Another curls up from the ground like a pig’s tail.

No water was present in the rocky washes and gullies the trail crosses at first, but as the trail begins a longer northwesterly jaunt, I passed the source of Brush Creek, which I could start to hear off to the right. I’m not sure if it was a spring, but it looked like it from my vantage point on the trail. Past that, the trail took me down into a maze of old logging roads where the forest becomes filled with younger trees.

The trail swings right onto one of the old roads, then climbs uphill through the same drainage, before swinging left across the only real creek crossing on the hike. The water is piped under the road and it’s only a small trickle, so you’ll stay dry. There is obviously a buckeye tree growing here – buckeyes were lying in the stream next to these mossy rocks and I couldn’t resist getting a shot of them.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-stream-buckeyes
image-863
Buckeyes in the stream beside the Trombatore Trail

Next, the trail started climbing back toward the ridge, which it approaches closely a couple of times. Old logging roads swung off in all directions, but signs kept me on the correct path. I passed a house on the right around the halfway point, then entered a gap about 2.0 miles from the start. Here, a short section of hand-built trail delivers you back onto an old logging road. Follow the signs.

The trail crossed a small flowing spring branch just before arriving at a stone pile on the right, which marks an old home site. The spring was likely the water source for the old homestead. From here, the hand-built trail reappears, which I followed up to the summit & pastures.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-invasive-woods
image-864
Forest choked with invasive vines

The forest in this area is struggling. It’s choked with invasives, and many of the native trees are dead – including what used to be a significant population of Carolina Hemlocks. Native vines have also taken advantage of openings in the forest created by the invasives, and they climb all over each other. I noticed several creepy poison ivy “zombie trees” – dead trunks still standing (usually locust) covered in the noxious vine, which has climbed to the top and spread out its own canopy of branches. Some of the poison ivy vines are so thick and old they’ve died of old age! A few larger “landscape trees” – mostly oaks – poke out of the thickets in places. All in all, this area looks for the most part like reclaimed pasture land.

As you approach the still-maintained pastures, you’ll reach a stile which takes you over the barbed wire fence.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-cattle-stile
image-865
Ladder stile taking the hiker into Blue Ridge Pastures

On the other side, the trail winds through some brambles and young trees before popping out in the grassy area where a magnificent view awaits! The air was fairly clear New Year’s Eve, so I was able to see all the way from Bearwallow Mountain, down the Hickory Nut Gorge to a small sliver of the Piedmont region, across to Little Pisgah and beyond, up to the Craggy and Black Mountains.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-pasture-gorge-view
image-866
Pastures with Little Bearwallow Mountain and Hickory Nut Gorge in the background

 

SONY DSC
image-867
Close up view down the Hickory Nut Gorge

 

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-blue-ridge-pastures
image-868
Looking back up through the pastures toward the top

At the top of the pasture was a modular pen, but with no animals in it. The grass was trodden down so it looks like they’d been there earlier in the year. It looked kind of neat with the pasture and mountains as a backdrop.

2014-12-31_upper-hickory-nut-gorge_trombatore-trail-pen-pasture-view
image-869

After a satisfying pack lunch in the pasture, I met a couple who rode their horses up from Hickory Nut Gap on US 74-A. Plans for the trail call for its continuation from the pastures down to that point, but that’s currently not an official trail. So, I headed back the way I came to wind up a great hike in Bearwallow Gap where I parked.

While the new trails in Hickory Nut Gorge are not complete, the trail network is coming along beautifully and it now makes a compelling destination – especially for us Ashevillians, considering how close the trailheads are from the city.

We’ll be adding these trails to the HikeWNC site soon, but until then check out these resources to get you to the trailhead and out hiking:

WNC Waterfalls App for Android Released

We’re happy to announce that our new WNC Waterfalls App for Android phones and tablets is ready for download!

WNC Waterfalls App for Android

Starting today, you can visit 50 of the area’s popular waterfalls using this guide on your Android device. It’s packed with the same information we provide here on the web – but with no data connection needed after installation.

Photos are provided to help you decide which of Western North Carolina’s beautiful waterfalls you’d like to visit. Search for waterfalls by name, hike difficulty, and distance from your location.

Each waterfall is described in detail, with comprehensive hike descriptions, along with full driving directions. Several waterfalls in the app are wheelchair accessible, many are family friendly, and others are perfect for adventurers, requiring a longer, more strenuous hike through the backcountry to reach.

Each waterfall also has a detailed topo map that can be used with your device’s GPS to track your location while hiking.

Made to complement our long running waterfall web site, the app represents the next stage in WNCOutdoors.info’s quest to provide comprehensive, guidebook-quality information about the outdoors in Western North Carolina.

en_app_rgb_wo_60

Download the app now in the Google Play Store!

The WNC Waterfalls App for Android is compatible with Android devices running version 2.3.3 Gingerbread with 106 MB free space. We hope you enjoy using the app, and look forward to hearing your feedback as you use it during your own waterfall exploration!

If you have an Apple iOS device instead of Android, you may want to check out Todd Ransom’s Waterfalls of Western North Carolina app in the iTunes store.

September 30, 2014Permalink 1 Comment

No, the Forest Service is Not Planning to Charge You $1500 to Photograph the Wilderness

Put away the pitchforks, folks. After reading some of the recent horribly misleading media coverage of a proposal by the US Forest Service, you might think that members of the media (down to – and yes, including! – us lowly bloggers) are about to be banned from all National Forest lands. You might even be forgiven for thinking wildlife, landscape, or casual photographers selling their prints online or at a local art show or gallery are about to be hit with an onerous fine. Just take a look at some of the articles that have popped up today, in order of increasing fearmongering:

There are plenty more where those came from, but fortunately, most of that is simply false.

We don’t like to really get political on this blog, but this round of mainstream media ineptitude starts to expose why they might legitimately need a permit to do some of the stuff they try to get away with on a regular basis.

So here’s the actual story. The Forest Service has long required a permit for some types of commercial photography and most commercial video production on National Forest lands, and, when you stop and read the rules, they’re actually fairly reasonable. The permitting requirement is clearly designed to prevent gross misuse of public land for profit – not to blast a bird watcher into bankruptcy for documenting her latest find.

The rules for what requires a permit are pretty clear, but every news article I’ve seen has failed to incorporate those into its story. So here it is, outlined clearly in 36 CFR §251.51:

  • Still photography—use of still photographic equipment on National Forest System lands that takes place at a location where members of the public generally are not allowed or where additional administrative costs are likely, or uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities.
  • Commercial filming—use of motion picture, videotaping, sound recording, or any other moving image or audio recording equipment on National Forest System lands that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of models, actors, sets, or props, but not including activities associated with broadcasting breaking news, as defined in FSH 2709.11, chapter 40.

We’ve researched this before, since part of what we do involves photographing and filming on National Forest lands for what might be construed as “commercial purposes”. (Our original question was, does it count as “commercial” if you put it on a blog or web site that is ad supported?) But when you read those definitions, it’s clearly not, and none of that applies to the individual photographer, taking pictures of the wilderness, from a generally accessible area – even if they plan on directly selling those in the future. (Videos are an exception, even for an individual, if they are an ad or offered for sale directly. We don’t do that.)

And most importantly, this still does not apply to media covering a breaking news story – only to those making documentary-style videos for sale, and it is not an attempt at silencing anyone from legitimate news gathering.

What’s changing is not what kind of photography or filming requires a permit, but the guidelines by which the agency will even approve or deny a permit. The definitions above are not changing. Not all Forest Service land is designated wilderness, and not much is changing outside the wilderness areas. The real changes come only when someone actually applies for a permit for commercial filming in federally designated Wilderness areas. They’re trying to clarify under what conditions they will approve or deny the permit. And that’s all.

Now, it is true that the guidelines used for approving or rejecting your permit are going to get pretty strict. Your commercial filming (because – media or not – that’s what it is) won’t be able to cause resource damage, disrupt the public’s ability to use the area, be a risk to public health, or involve pornography. And if it’s inside a designated Wilderness area, it must be about the wilderness. It must be necessary that the filming take place on wilderness land (as opposed to other suitable locations that are not federally designated wilderness). And it must not require motorized or mechanical travel, which is already prohibited in the Wilderness.

That’s pretty strict, and I can see how first amendment concerns might be raised, but the assertion that there will be some sort of a “pay-to-play” system where $1500 grants you filming rights is particularly egregious. The funny thing is, if anything, these new strict requirements will ensure that even fewer people have the opportunity to pay such a fee than do now. Regardless, this is not some sort of a money making ploy by an under-funded federal agency, nor an attempt at squashing Sasquatch-in-the-wilderness photos from making the rounds on social media and stock photography sites.

There are legitimate concerns raised by this rather high level of restriction on filming in wilderness areas, but as a supporter of wilderness, I’m in favor of the spirit of this overall. I think the media does a disservice to its customers to mis-report the facts the way it’s being done here – and ultimately, to itself.

You still have time (until November 3rd, 2014) to submit your comments regarding this proposed change. I certainly will be. But if you’re thinking about writing to plead for permission to take pictures with your iPhone next time you go hiking, don’t bother, because that’s already allowed – and nothing about this proposal is going to change that.

Edit 9/26: here’s a link to the Forest Service’s Special Uses handbook, which is what this whole proposal is about amending. Here’s a link to a Q&A document about the proposed changes from way back in July 2013, where it is stated “The Proposed Directive makes no changes to the policy on still photography. No permit is required for most still photography, including still photography in wilderness areas.”. The US Forest Service has also issued its official response to this whole debacle.

September 25, 2014Permalink 25 Comments

Oskar Blues Annouces REEB Ranch

Oskar Blues Brewery has officially announced that it is developing a long-rumored “Beer & Bike destination” in Western North Carolina, not far from its Transylvania County brewery near Brevard. Dubbed the “REEB ranch”, the 145-acre property –  formerly called Shoals Falls Farm – sits along Crab Creek Road near the edge of DuPont State Recreational Forest, just across the Henderson County line. The name “REEB” (Beer spelled backwards) is also given to Oskar Blues’ line of hand-made mountain bikes, REEB Cycles, which is based in Colorado.

There’s going to be a lot going on at the ranch. In addition to “direct trail access” to DuPont State Forest (although I think there may be some road riding to connect the two), Oskar Blues is planning on having a whole host of offerings there:

  • The ranch will be the home of The Bike Farm, an existing guide and youth outreach program
  • There will be REEB Cycles to demo
  • Bike parks and trails – with a pump track and some huge jumps, reportedly – are being constructed on-site
  • There will be a music and event space in the existing barn structure
  • It will be a working farm, used to grow hops and cattle (fed with spent grain)
  • There will be lodging on-site, including a cabin at the base of 40+-foot Shoals Creek Falls

We can’t wait until the official opening and we’re sure there will be lots more information to come. Until then, here are some links to more information about the REEB ranch and the goings-on there:

Official Press Release from Oskar Blues

The Bike Farm article in Bike Magazine

(While referring to Oskar Blues as “a partner”, the “cans of Dale’s Pale Ale” product placement is strong in this article. Love the subtle hints, even though this came out before the official announcement :)

 

Cabin and Shoal Creek Falls at REEB Ranch

North Mills River Trails Reopened

Most of the trails and roads which were closed for the Brushy Ridge logging project have reopened today, according to the National Forests in NC. The roads and trails were closed while logging took place in the area, and while some work remains, it looks like the active work area is moving out of the most popular part of the area for recreation. This is good news, as it’s high time for visitors and locals alike to get out and enjoy the trails. We need all the mileage we can get!

For the time being, Wash Creek Road is still closed to vehicles, and Bear Branch Trail is still closed. Hopefully those will reopen soon, too.

For more information, see the official press release here.

The road to Trace Ridge Trailhead is open again...on bike and foot, that is.
image-786
The road to Trace Ridge Trailhead is open again…but only by bike and foot, for now.

15 Miles of Multi-Use Trails Open Saturday at Lake James State Park

Western North Carolina is about to have yet another trail system for mountain biking at one of its beautiful mountain destinations!

Lake James State Park will soon be open to bikes with 15 miles of new multi-use trail on the north side of the lake, which are in the park’s Paddy’s Creek area. The park has been steadily expanding its recreational trail opportunities over the years, but these represent the first purpose-built singletrack trails open to bikes – not only at Lake James, but in any state park in the mountain region.

Other state parks in the area abound with hiking opportunities, but aside from a couple of old service roads open to bikes in Gorges State Park, North Carolina’s flagship lands have been decidedly off-limits to wheeled recreation until now. The new trails, in combination with a master plan in Chimney Rock which calls for mountain bike access, shows that the State’s commitment to listening to what park users are asking for has started to pay off. We can only hope that the trend continues, with new riding opportunities opening up across an ever-increasing inventory of lands owned by the State and designated in part for public recreation.

The full press release is below. Or for more information, visit the North Carolina State Parks’ web site.

North Shore of Lake James from Linville Gorge.
image-771
North Shore of Lake James from Linville Gorge. Image by flickr user msprague

Grand Opening of Mountain Bike Trail System – June 7, 2014

Nebo, NC – The North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation has slated Saturday, June 7, 2014 for the official opening of a new, 15-mile mountain bike trail system at Lake James State Park’s Paddy’s Creek Area in Burke County. The trail dedication will take place at 9 a.m.
Included in the new layout are a 4-mile beginner loop and an 11-and-1/4-mile intermediate loop. A 30-vehicle parking area has been constructed to provide direct access to the loops via short connector trails.
According to Tim Johnson, regional trails specialist for NCDPR West District, the mountain bike trails at Lake James State Park have been constructed to provide a “back-country” experience to riders and an eye toward sustainability. “The trails are purpose built to use the natural rolling contours of the terrain to shed water and dry quickly,” said Johnson. “This protects the state’s investment by greatly reducing the effects of erosion and minimizing closures necessitated by heavy rains.”
The trail system was constructed by Benchmark Trails Inc. and Long Cane Trails L.L.C., with significant support from park staff and volunteers.
Members of the Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance will assist park staff in maintaining the new trails. “The Alliance is excited to partner with Lake James State Park on these trails,” said Northwest NC MTBA president Paul Stahlschmidt. “We are looking forward to working with the park staff on keeping the trails in good shape and also planning for the future of mountain biking at Lake James.”
Lake James State Park Superintendent Nora Coffey said the opening of the mountain bike trails will fill a void for local enthusiasts. “The nearest mountain bike trails in Boone, Lake Lure and Lake Norman are at least an hour away,” she said. “The trail system at Lake James State Park is a first-class project that we hope everyone will come and enjoy. Mountain biking is a tremendously popular sport with passionate participants. We look forward to welcoming those people to the park and introducing them to all of the other recreational opportunities that are available here.”
The project, funded through the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, is a high priority within the master plan for Lake James State Park and represents a significant addition to the recreational activities already available there; including hiking, picnicking, wildlife viewing, swimming, boating, fishing and environmental education.The swim beach, concession stand, and canoe/kayak rentals are now open for the season.
Updated: 2014-06-05 08:15:43

Black Mountain Trail Needs Your Help!

The lower section of the Black Mountain trail – below its northern intersection with the Thrift Cove trail – will be closed for at least two weeks while the “Big Dig 2014″ trail work project gets underway. The project, which is being headed up by the Forest Service in conjunction with Pisgah Area SORBA, aims to revamp this popular, multi-use trail to make it more fun, more sustainable, and less susceptible to erosion than it currently is.

The trail – which, like many others in Pisgah, follows an old logging road bed – currently suffers from severe erosion in places. Previous efforts to stop the erosion using grade dips have largely failed due the trail’s heavy usage and steep gradient. This project will be an official road-to-trail conversion, which was never done on this corridor when the old road became a designated trail.

The conversion process takes the alignment of the actively-used tread out of the ruts near the center of the road, and pushes it out toward the edges where water can more effectively be diverted off the trail. Segments of the trail will be rock-armored (especially near streams), and some new bridges will be built. The trail will wind across the road in places, making it twistier and reducing user speed, while also improving sight lines, which will serve to reduce the possibility of user conflict along this popular stretch of trail. Vegetation cut and soil moved during the project will be used to rehabilitate the eroded areas and keep sediment out of the streams which run nearby.

The trail needs your help! The Forest Service is allowing anyone to volunteer on any of 10 public trail workdays to be held from May 29 – June 8. Volunteers are needed to help haul materials for rock armoring and bridge building, help do finish work after machines roll through, and help with final touches to ensure a timely re-opening of the trail. And if the conversion is successful over time, it will also serve as a model that can be used on other, less-than-sustainable trails in Pisgah – of which there are plenty, helping to ensure we keep these trails open to multiple uses as they are now.

Please check out the schedule on Pisgah Area SORBA’s web site (listed below) and see if there’s a day you can come out. We hope to see you there!

Project Notice on the National Forest in NC’s Web Site

Lower Black Mountain “Big Dig” 2014 on Pisgah Area SORBA’s Web Site (with workday schedule)

Eroded section of the upper Black Mountain trail
image-766
Eroded section of the upper Black Mountain trail. Not the section being worked on for this project, but illustrative of the problem along the entire trail nonetheless!

Edit June 10, 2014: And it’s back! I had fun digging Sunday, even though there wasn’t much left to do, but I did get to see the finished product and even see some of the volunteers make first tracks. The trail has been officially reopened as of today and is ready for use!

Here’s a short clip of the first “compaction” rides on Sunday:

And here’s a great video showing the new dirt from a rider’s perspective – Pisgah Area SORBA president Chris Strout’s perspective, to be exact!

Courthouse Creek Road closed through the summer

The US Forest Service has announced that Courthouse Creek Road, FS 140, will be closed until late October to replace a low-water crossing. This road has been the subject of extensive damage and repairs in the past thanks to flood events, and the Forest Service aims to build a bridge that can survive such occurrences unscathed. This road provides access to the popular Courthouse Creek Falls (seen below) and points nearby. The road will still be open to non-vehicular traffic, so visiting the falls will be possible – as long as you’re willing to trek a ways further on foot or bike.

For more information, see the official Forest Service press release: Courthouse Creek Road to Close for Construction.

2003-08-12_pisgah-upper-french-broad_courthouse-falls
image-759
Courthouse Falls will be a little harder to get to this summer with FS 140 closed for construction
April 24, 2014Permalink 2 Comments

Hike in to Graveyard Fields now to avoid the crowds

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that the Graveyard Fields parking area and trailhead along the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed for the next 11 weeks while the parking area is expanded and restroom facilities are added. It’s been on just about every news outlet repeatedly, which is why we haven’t rushed to post about it here. If you haven’t heard, the official news release from the Blue Ridge Parkway should convey all you need to know about that project.

However, one thing we haven’t seen mentioned is that this gives us a rare opportunity to hike into Graveyard Fields during the warm season without the usual oppressive crowds. The closure only affects the parking area and trailhead on National Park Service land. The trails within the valley itself are all on National Forest property, accessible by a hike even when the Parkway is completely closed (which I frequently recommend during the winter months). This time around, the Parkway itself past the Graveyard Fields valley won’t be closed like it is in winter, but the access point into the National Forest will be.

There are a few good routes hikers can use to get into the area, which is connected to the rest of the trail network in the Pisgah Ranger District via the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST). The shortest route starts at the Looking Glass Rock overlook and heads west on the MST. This hike is about 1.7 miles, past Skinny Dip Falls, and up the ridge to the Second Falls trail connector. From that junction, turn left; it’s about 0.2 miles farther to the steps leading down to the falls, with the rest of the valley’s trails straight ahead. (Continuing straight on the MST at the junction would bring you to the Graveyard Ridge trail in just over 0.4 miles, making loop options possible). This route does involve a fairly stiff climb up from Skinny Dip Falls, which should deter 90% of potential fellow hikers from venturing into the valley with you.

The other option would be to start where the MST crosses Black Balsam Road (FS 816), which turns off the Parkway 3.2 miles south past the Looking Glass Rock overlook mentioned above (or 1.4 miles past the closure at the Graveyard Fields overlook). Follow the MST northeast, over a somewhat rugged but beautiful segment of the path, for about 1.5 miles to the junction with the Graveyard Ridge trail. From there you have two options: turn right onto Graveyard Ridge and go just under a mile on a level route to the Graveyard Ridge Connector which descends into the valley, or go straight on the MST for 1.2 miles to the other end of the Graveyard Ridge trail. (The connector to Second Falls is 0.4 miles ahead from there). There are also numerous loop options if coming from this direction, including ones that take you over Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Knob if you’re up for a longer hike.

Either route provides its own set of attractions along the MST in addition to the usual goodies in Graveyard fields (like the open areas and waterfalls), so the connections are a great part of the overall experience. Keep in mind that both alternate parking areas can also become very crowded on popular summer weekends, although most people don’t hike very far from their cars.

See the Graveyard Fields Map to explore these options in more detail.

So while everyone else is grousing about the parking area being closed, hike in to Graveyard Fields the proper way and enjoy a (somewhat less) crowded version of this beautiful mountain valley!

Graveyard Fields in spring, as seen from the (now closed) parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway
image-755
Graveyard Fields in spring, as seen from the (now closed) parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Santeetlah Lake Trail Now Open

Tucked away near Robbinsville, NC in Graham County is Santeetlah Lake, a gem of a reservoir with a name I’ve yet figured out how to pronounce correctly. The lake is fed by clear, cold-water streams such as Snowbird Creek and one with the same name as the lake, flowing out of the Cheoah Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest near popular recreation sites such as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Cherohala Skyway.

A new trail has been built – which shares its name with the lake – and it was opened to the public on Saturday, April 12 2014. This multi-use trail is open to hikers, mountain bikers, and horses and extends about 9 miles, with parts of it on the lakeshore. Portions of the trail are on old forest service roads (some open to vehicles), while a short section is purpose-built singletrack.

Check out the press release and maps (attached) and be sure to enjoy this new recreation opportunity in a beautiful part of Western North Carolina this year!

Santeetlah Lake at sunset.
image-741
Santeetlah Lake at sunset. Image by flickr user anoldent.

Maps And Information

Santeetlah Lake Trail – Vicinity Map

Santeetlah Lake Trail – Topo Map

Santeetlah Lake Trail – Simpler Map

Santeetlah Lake Trail Opening Press Release
(with more statistics and information)

April 17, 2014Permalink 1 Comment