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Cedar Rock Mountain January 8, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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Northwest view from Cedar Rock Mountain

I’d heard about an unmaintained trail that goes over Cedar Rock Mountain in Pisgah National Forest.  It shows up on the USGS map, and my guide to Pisgah mentions “a red blaze on a white oak leading to an old trail.”  I did a little more digging and found out the important thing: the east part of the trail, from Sandy Gap off the Loeb trail, is not too bad, but the west part that goes from Butter Gap to the top leads up steep open ledges and is sometimes described as “dangerous.”  I’ll check that out sometime, but not in the winter when ice could be a problem.

Conditions at Cat Gap Loop trailhead weren't very appealing

It was an absolutely beautiful winter day, featuring the same kind of bright silent stillness that I experienced on my Hickory Knob hike.  It was in the upper teens when I started, mid to upper 20s when I finished this outing of 1800 vertical, 6.5 miles.  The Cat Gap Loop trail was very icy at the beginning, and there was enough ice or icy snow that I wore my microspikes the whole way.

I went up the east half of the Cat Gap trail, having decided during an earlier hike that it is more interesting than the west half.  At a crossing of Cedar Rock Creek, the rhododendron leaves looked very curly.  I wonder why the rhodo leaves curl in the cold and the ones of laurel and dog hobble do not—they are all part of the same family.

Curly rhodo, non-curly dog hobble

I came to a very appealing boggy area where the creek makes a sweeping serpentine shape through the flats.  The stones in the bottom of the stream looked very gold, framed by white frosty twigs.

Gold stones, silver frost

For no particular reason, as I started the moderate climb up to the gap, I was thinking about my mother and father, and how much I miss them.  Mom died in 2007 and Dad in 2001.  Sometimes when you are hiking by yourself, your thoughts take on certain themes and you just follow them where they go.

I saw an oddly contrasting pair of trees that seemed to illustrate some principle of chance: why should this one turn out weirdly distorted, and that one not?

The odd couple

I took a snack break at Cat Gap, then headed west on the Loeb trail, recalibrating my altimeter so that I’d be sure to identify the spot where the old trail turned off.  After climbing over a knob, I came down to Sandy Gap, and it was pretty obvious where the old trail had to continue along the ridge while the Loeb trail started slabbing down the southeastern slope.  It took me a minute to see the very faded red blaze.

Good thing I'm not colorblind

No one had made any tracks on the old trail, and it was somewhat hard to follow through the flat area of open woods at the beginning before it started to climb more steeply up the summit, which is a very distinctive sharp-topped cone.  I figured that if I lost the trail, it would be easy to bushwhack along the ridge to the top.  There were no more blazes, but as I’ve learned from past experience, sometimes you can identify the location of a snow-covered trail by looking for the duff that has rolled into the very slight trough formed by the trail (obviously, this only works starting a day or so after the snowfall, when the small twigs have had time to drop into the depression).

The dark-colored duff had rolled into the slight trough

In the background you also see another clue to the trail’s location—a sawed-off log end.

The trail was easier to follow where it wound up the steep cone.  It continued across the high point and over to some open ledges.  I could see where the west part of the trail came up, but ice had formed in irregular patterns on the top of the cliff, and there was no way I was going to risk stepping on some of the ice to take a closer look!

Ice ran down to where this pine was clinging to the ledge

The forest below is almost all hardwoods.  They made a pattern of waves, darker on the ridgecrests and lighter on the slopes.

The bumps on the rock and the bumpy ridges seemed similar in shape

I descended by the west half of the Cat Gap Loop, which was just as boring as I had remembered.  If I’d had time, I would have gone over John Rock, which I visited six weeks ago.

You have to see a photo of Cedar Rock Mountain from a distance to appreciate it.  It is such a perfect cone-shaped mountain, set off by its distinctive band of cliffs.  One of these days I may go up Looking Glass Rock and take a picture of its smaller pluton cousin, Cedar Rock.


1. Tom - January 10, 2010

Another keenly-observed, poignant essay capturing what is so wonderful about hiking. I was touched by the musings on your parents and your reaction to the “odd couple” trees.

One of the best things about hiking is not only the freedom to walk, but also the freedom to let your mind wonder untrammeled and uninterrupted. I sometimes get my deepest feelings and best thoughts on long hikes. But I cannot express myself like you.

This is the best website on the hiking experience that I have found.

Thanks for sharing the memory — and I wish you another productive year in woods and words — you are a master of both crafts.

Jenny - January 10, 2010

Woods and words—nicely put. Both are important to me.

2. Elizabeth - January 10, 2010

You should write a book! I would buy it. My husband and I hiked Pisgah Mountain last summer. Though there was a giant TV tower at the top, the view was beautiful. Afterward we went to Sliding Rock to cool down. Great pictures as well!

Jenny - January 11, 2010

Thanks, Elizabeth! If you’re back in the area, there are lots of places to explore. “The Best Hikes of Pisgah National Forest” is a good guidebook to look at. It’s by Franklin Goldsmith, Shannon Hamrick, and James Hamrick. Or if you go to the Smokies, look at “Hiking Trails of the Smokies” by the Great Smoky Mountains History Association.

3. Roger - February 27, 2011

I hiked Cedar Rock Mtn today. An beautiful trail and excellent view of the western mountains. I liked your write-up. John Rock is one of my favorite hikes, and now I think have found another!

Jenny - February 27, 2011

Glad you enjoyed the hike and the writeup as well! I plan to go back to Cedar Rock and do the climb from the northwest side.

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