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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.

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