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In the Amphibolite Mountains October 15, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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View from Bluff Mountain

Yesterday my friend Seth and I ventured into the mysterious realm of the Amphibolite Mountains. They are named for the particular metamorphic rock that composes them. Located in remote sections of Ashe and Watauga Counties, NC—north of Boone—they are little known and rarely visited.

We visited two mountains and had two very different experiences. First we visited the top of Bluff Mountain (5,100′), where The Nature Conservancy has a 2,087-acre preserve. It can only be visited by prior arrangement with TNC. Then we climbed Snake Mountain (5,518′). Portions of it are protected by the Highcountry Conservancy, but much of the mountain is privately owned.

We had reserved spots on a guided walk on Bluff led by Kim Hadley, scheduled to start from a gated entrance at 1:00 in the afternoon. Our route from Asheville took us from interstate to US highway to state highway to paved country road to gravel road.  By the time we got through Blowing Rock and Boone, we were late. We arrived at 1:20 to see the line of cars parked at the gate. We knew the plan was to ferry the visitors via high-clearance vehicle up to the summit area. We quickly changed to hiking boots and gathered up our gear, heading up the rough road as fast as we could. It turned out to be a 900-foot climb to catch the group, but we managed to do it.

Kim was telling the group about an unusual fen past the top of the road. It appeared as a treeless area surrounded by the mountain’s haunted-looking forest of stunted red and white oak, mostly less than 15 or 20′ high. The shallow marshy basin was populated by tall grasses and unusual wildflowers, now in their seasonal dry phase. We continued past the fen and walked through the forest. Every now and then, among the predominant oaks, a taller tree would appear.

Gnarly sugar maple

We emerged onto an open ledge of amphibolite with its  grainy, salt-and-pepper appearance and looked across the brownish-red tops of many oaks.

I believe the point we were looking toward is called the "Cow's Head"

We were bombarded by fierce wind gusts, strong enough to knock you over if you were caught off balance. But it was worth enduring the wind to take in the views. We looked across a valley to another of the Amphibolites, a mountain called Three Tops. Climbing its craggy knobs involves scrambling at the easiest and Class 4 climbing at the hardest, depending on the route that’s chosen.

Looking over at the pointy ridgeline of Three Tops

The oak forest behind us seemed huddled in the wind. The stunted quality has to do with both the wind exposure and the high-pH soil, fed by the alkaline bedrock.

Short, wind-buffeted oaks behind the open ledge

The unusual soil chemistry seems to make for something almost like mutations in the occasional acid-loving plants we spotted. For instance, the rhododendrons and laurels had leaf shapes that looked abnormal to me, smaller than usual. We walked past an old dead tree with a strange corkscrew texture that made it fit well into the haunted forest.

Corkscrew tree

We came out at another viewpoint.

Clouds scuttled across the valley

To one side grew a surprisingly healthy-looking stand of Carolina hemlock. The ones we saw along the path had only small infestations of the woolly adelgid that’s decimated hemlocks in the region—perhaps the isolation of the population helps protect it.

Carolina hemlocks

Reindeer moss took well to the amphibolite bedrock.

Reindeer moss

We were all back down to our cars by around 4:30. But Seth and I pressed on toward our other destination, Snake Mountain. We got there on a series of winding back roads with odd names like Longhope Road and Meat Camp Road. We followed a gravel road to Rich Mountain Gap, where we parked and crawled under a barbed wire fence to cross an alpine pasture. This area is said to be managed as gameland by the NC Wildlife Resource Commission.

We crossed the pasture and found a very rough, steep unmarked path leading up into a forest with the same stunted quality as the one on Bluff, but with more beech trees mixed in with the oaks. At times we followed a clear footway and at other times it disappeared, but routefinding was not really a problem, as all we had to do was follow a long ridge to the high point. We eventually emerged from the trees onto a long backbone of amphibolite.

Near the top of Snake Mountain

The lowering sun bathed the mountain in a glowing light.

Looking down the summit ridge

I had in the back of my mind the possibility that we could run out of daylight. When I reached a small knob and looked toward the high point, I estimated that it would take 15 more minutes to get there—too long considering the lateness of the hour. But Seth thought it would only take five. It turned out he was right—my estimate of the distance was distorted because of the strange shortness of the trees!

But it was indeed getting late, and after briefly touching the actual summit, we turned around to retreat. We passed some good amphibolite formations.

Balancing rock

The intersection of place and time of day made for extraordinary beauty.

Late afternoon. Snake Mountain.

Seth enjoys the moment

He was deleting pictures frantically to make space on his memory card!

We made it back to the car just as the sun was setting. A memorable hike.

Declining light

Colbert Ridge to Winter Star Mountain October 9, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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Looking from Colbert Ridge over to Potato Hill

Yesterday morning I thought I was going to go crazy. Here’s the situation. On my hike the other day up Trout Branch, my knee popped out of joint. This has happened before, but the frequency and the severity have increased in the past few months. I noticed the joint stiffening as I descended the mountain, and the following morning I was hardly able to go up or down stairs. No big deal— right? Just take it easy for a few days.

Except that the very next day I was scheduled to join a group of six for an  off-trail backpack to Three Forks, up into the deep, wild headwaters of Raven Fork. I’d been looking forward to this trip since mid-August, when it was first proposed. It took half a day before I finally faced reality and gave up on the Three Forks idea. It would be harder to imagine a more tortuous workout for a strained knee: the extra weight of the overnight pack combined with all the jumping, crawling, twisting, swinging legs over blowdowns, etc., etc. So I told my friends I couldn’t join them on this Friday-to-Sunday adventure.

I made it through Friday rather unhappily, woke up Saturday to yet another of the clear, brilliant days we have been dealt out this past week. These glowing days have been strung together like beads on a bracelet, with that gemlike translucency and play of light.

I simply had to get out to the mountains. A trail hike, not a bushwhack: with the much narrower range of motion involved, I’d be less likely to aggravate the injury. The stiffening had subsided somewhat. Take the poles, move carefully—I could do it. I opted for one of the ridges that approaches the Black Mountain crest from the east. I’d take Colbert Ridge this time, not Woody Ridge. The latter is one of my favorite exercise hikes, but it would be too steep for the knee. It rises 3000 feet in two miles. Colbert takes twice the distance to achieve the same vertical.

On my drive over along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I got a preview of the Black Mountain crest.

My route would hit the crest at Deep Gap, the indentation over toward the right

I reached the trailhead off Hwy. 80—that pretty road that follows the South Toe River valley—had a friendly chat with a guy who appeared to be living out of his van at the trailhead, and headed up into the world of bright colors.

What is it about the flame colors that amazes us so much?

But the pinks and yellows make it even better.

The contrast with the deep green rhodo leaves was also pleasing.

This maple was on fire.

I saw few wildflowers, mainly purple aster in the lower elevations and gentian scattered further up. These shades of purple and blue did just a tiny bit to dampen down the oranges and reds to the point that my eyeballs were not completely seared by the heat. I was looking at a clump of gentian when I noticed the tell-tale wobble that indicated a bee was feasting deep inside the blossom. I managed to catch a shot of the bee when it emerged.

Bee emerges from gentian.

Then the bee dived down into the next blossom. You can just barely make out the hind feet sticking out here!

Plunging down inside for more pollen. (Click for zoom.)

The oaks are a bit more subdued than the maples, but I liked the shapes and colors here.

Chestnut oak. Nice contrast between scalloped edges and straight lines of the veins.

This northern red oak was partway through its transformation.

Harlequin leaves of red maple.

Glossy galax.

As I passed the 5000′ elevation mark, I entered the deeper, darker forest of spruce, and the trail grew rockier and steeper. I’d been leapfrogging a group of three young guys backpacking. They knew I had an altimeter, and they asked me each time what their elevation was. “4170!” I’d call out, or “5250! You’re in the home stretch now!” I was somewhat embarrassed not to be going much faster than a group with overnight packs.

But I surged ahead on the steep part (“surged” is a slight exaggeration—oh well, it’s my blog, I can do that if I want!) and reached the crest just north of Deep Gap, at 5800′. I turned away from the gap to climb Winter Star, 6203′. I passed some nice mountain ash along the way. I was back in the familiar boreal forest.

Mountain ash berries.

The summit of Winter Star was definitely the ugliest, drabbest place I visited all day.

The uninspiring summit of Winter Star.

I touched my toe to the actual summit bump out of old peakbagger habits. I’d passed within a few feet of it in July 2010 on a backpack along the crest, but that was not a peakbagging trip. I still don’t consider myself to be working on the SB6K, despite whatever Peter Barr says.

Not far below the summit, I stopped in a warm, sunny spot to have lunch. The funny thing about the spot was, the rocks looked as windblown as the trees.

View southward toward Potato Hill and Cattail Peak (more of those 6Ks---the Black Mountain range has more than its share).

On my way back down, I encountered more backpackers. It seemed everyone was planning on camping at Deep Gap and doing either an up-and-back or had some kind of car shuttle arrangement to go out at Mt. Mitchell. I had accomplished my own personal goal—to avoid going crazy.

Strange-looking rock near Winter Star summit

Trout Branch—West October 6, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Cascade on Trout Branch

Trout Branch is one of the streams that drain the south side of LeConte. It forks at 4360′, and that left fork again splits at 4750′. Our adventure yesterday took us up the westernmost of the forks, the one that leads toward the ridge over to West Point. The eastern fork of the left fork leads toward Cliff Top, and the right fork leads toward the Trout/Styx divide.

Upper Trout Branch

My fellow adventurer was Dave Landreth. When we met up at the junction of Trout Branch and Walker Camp Prong, we saw that water levels in the stream were very low.

Dave finds it easy to negotiate the nearly dry streambed. Notice how the little pool at right is deep blue, while everything else is green.

I apologize for the poor quality of images in shady places. I need to learn how to adjust the settings of my new camera for these kinds of scenes. The photo below is subpar, but I include it because I want you to get an idea—even if just a hint—of how beautiful some of the pools are. This one had a little cascade running down to it.

Sorry for bad photo---but you can see that the color of the pool was just beautiful

As we got out of the main valley and started climbing more steeply, we encountered a series of sandstone shelves, each one in the range of five to ten feet high, a sort of repeated geological theme. Both sides of the stream channel were generally bounded by dense rhodo, so that you needed to find a way to get up these smooth ledges. I nearly always decline the offer of a hand up, but in one spot Dave hoisted me up a difficult spot and saved me a lot of trouble bypassing the ledge. Some of the ledges sported a fur coat of moss.

Mossy cascade

These kinds of places are somehow deeply restorative, their value intensified by the difficulty involved in reaching them.

We reached the sunnier spaces of the upper slope.

Things opened up as we climbed

This route does not feature the slide climbing of the next fork over, but we encountered sections of rock—now changing over to Anakeesta—alternating with forest floor. The streambed still carried some water.

Dave follows the dwindling stream

As we approached the ridgecrest, we encountered grassy spots mixed in with rhodo and rock slabs.

Near the ridgetop

We climbed through some blowdown, but it wasn’t severe.

Dave negotiates blowdown

We intersected the ridge a bit east of the saddle between West Point and the Alum Cave trail, and followed the fairly clear manway over to the trail. Then it was up to the Lodge for some basking in the sun. It was an utterly gorgeous fall day, when the sunshine beams down benevolently and the world seems to shine.

Dave enjoys the sunshine