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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 anĀ  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

Buncombe Horse Range trail September 6, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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The "Meadow of Uncertainty"

The Buncombe Horse Range trail is quite a strange trail. First of all, its 17-mile length is divided into three distinct sections that seem completely disconnected from each other. I hiked only the 4.6-mile southernmost portion, which connects the Black Mountain campground road in the South Toe River valley with a point at 5400′ near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The next section is considered part of the Mountains to Sea trail and goes from that point to Commissary Hill. There, the MST departs to share the pathway of the Mt. Mitchell trail. The final section of the BHRT meanders along the lower flanks of the Blacks to end up at Colbert Creek near the Carolina Hemlock campground.

Then there is that weird name. Why Buncombe Horse Range trail? (As a friend of mine asked.) Why not just Buncombe Horse trail? Does the trail feature free-ranging horses? (Not as far as I could tell.) And it should also be pointed out that the trail is not in Buncombe County, it is in Yancey County. Perhaps Edward Buncombe, the Revolutionary War colonel for whom the county was named, rambled the slopes of the Black Mountains on horseback. (Yancey, like Haywood, Henderson, Madison, and McDowell Counties, was once part of Buncombe.)

And finally, there is the silliness of the name Buncombe itself. The Wikipedia article on the county has a good explanation: In the Sixteenth Congress, after lengthy debate on the Missouri Compromise, members of the House called for an immediate vote on that important question. Instead, Felix Walker rose to address his colleagues, insisting that his constituents expected him to make a speech “for Buncombe.” It was later remarked that Walker’s untimely and irrelevant oration was not just for Buncombe—it “was Buncombe.” Thus, buncombe, afterwards spelled bunkum and then shortened to bunk, became a term for empty, nonsensical talk.

It was late Saturday morning when I completed some errands and decided that I had to get out of the house. I got out my South Toe/Mt. Mitchell map and cast my eye over the Blacks, looking for something I hadn’t done before. That southern section of the BHRT jumped out at me. It would be a climb of close to 2000 feet, a very moderate grade compared with, say, the Woody Ridge trail to Celo Knob, but it would get me up into the spruce forest and provide a bit of exercise.

The lower end of the trail follows an old grade that switchbacks its way up the lower slope of Clingmans Peak.

The trail followed an old, wide grade

The forest here was fairly nondescript, but every now and then I spotted some pink turtlehead and a yellow flower that I mentally labeled “heliopsis.” I now realize this was incorrect, but I can’t figure out whether this is helianthus, coreopsis, or rudbeckia (each of which has numerous species).

I'll just call it "a cheery yellow flower"

After a mile or so, the grade became pleasantly grassy.

Grassy grade

Just as I was strolling easily, daydreaming my way along, the trail turned off the grade and entered a meadow (see photo at top). There the trail disappeared entirely—I mean truly disappeared. Crisscrossing the meadow were faint indications that some human or animal had passed there, but there were so many of these barely perceptible indentations that no single one could be used as a guide. I was surprised to see a clump of miscanthus (maiden grass) growing there. It is an ornamental grass frequently used in landscaping.

Out-of-place clump of miscanthus

I knew the trail went west, so I got out my compass and walked to the end of the meadow. Passing through a clump of trees, I entered a second meadow, equally trackless. But I kept going, and at last picked up the trail again where it entered the forest. My surroundings changed dramatically as soon as I exited the meadow.

I suddenly entered galax-carpeted forest

As I continued along, I started encountering wooden steps. They seemed completely unnecessary.

Superfluous steps

Some of the construction was quite elaborate.

Elaborate, and equally superfluous

It was quite odd.

Finally I got up into the spruce forest and reached a pretty viewpoint across the valley of the Right Prong South Toe River.

Mist was closing in

I always like the pointed shapes of the evergreens along the high ridges, and the contrast of those points with the rounded hardwoods.

Up into the pointy trees

It looked as though rain might be on its way, so I headed back down. Recrossing the “Meadow of Uncertainty,” I had a nice view of Green Knob.

Green Knob in the background

I enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by wildflowers of all kinds. The lower section of the trail went very quickly, and soon I found myself back at my car.

Surrounded by goldenrod

Foggy morning on Green Knob July 13, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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We never did see the tops of the Black Mountains

The other day I met up with my friend Gary and his son Zach for a hike up Green Knob. This is the mountain very close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, across the Toe River valley from the Black Mountains—not to be confused with the Green Knob that I mentioned in another recent post. That one is in the Middle Prong Wilderness.

This is the second time I’ve climbed the 2000 vertical feet from the Black Mountain campground to the Green Knob fire tower. This time, the tower was closed—you could go up the steps but you couldn’t get into the cab. Slightly disappointing, but in any case no view was to be had through the thick fog. As we approached the fire tower, we passed a couple who were resting just short of the tower. I thought it was odd that they hadn’t gone another few yards to the top before taking a rest break. As we sat under the tower, the couple walked up and greeted us. As a joke, I pointed toward roughly the spot that Mt. Mitchell would have been visible on a clear day. “There’s Mt. Mitchell,” I said.

The guy said, “That’s where we’re going.”

We were surprised. “You mean, you’re going to walk along the parkway and up the Mt. Mitchell road?”

He looked puzzled. “Well, if we keep going on this trail, won’t we get to Mt. Mitchell?”

Then we realized he had made a big mistake. “You’re on Green Knob,” I said, and showed him on the map. They had driven up the entrance road to the campground, stopped at the first trailhead parking area, and just headed up. It boggled my mind that they hadn’t noticed that they were on the wrong side of the river, hadn’t noticed that the trail sign said “Green Knob” instead of “Mt. Mitchell,” hadn’t realized that the sound of nearby traffic meant they were just about on top of the parkway. Well, I’ve made some pretty dumb mistakes myself when hiking, but maybe not quite that dumb!

Although it was not a day for views, it was a beautiful day for seeing interesting plants.

Turk's cap lily

Fly poison (Amianthium)

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra)

I love the way the upper part of the trail wends its way through what seemed like a temperate rainforest.

Heading down the trail

Ferns---ostrich ferns, maybe?

The rosebay rhododendron has been going strong for nearly a month now. I’ve featured it in several recent posts, and here it is again!

I just don't seem to get tired of looking at these...

Variation on the theme---with buds

Mushrooms (one of these days I'll make the effort to learn the varieties)

We came to a pair of oaks that formed a gateway on the path.

Zach and Gary

Zach and Jenny

Eventually, back down near the bottom, we intersected a trail that makes a long skinny loop up and down the South Toe River. We were enjoying ourselves, so we decided to prolong the outing by making the loop before returning to the parking area. It was warm and steamy down there, so when we reached the bridge over the river, Gary suggested that we cool our feet in the water.

The river was utterly beautiful

We wended our way back through the campground, marveling at the odd spectacle of women in long skirts playing volleyball, and at last concluded our hike. Then it was time to head into Burnsville for ice cream. The place advertised that it would make a shake out of any flavor of ice cream, so I requested a shake made out of mint chocolate chip. It was absolutely delicious!

Gary cools his heels---literally