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Black Mountain via Pressley Cove January 28, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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The interesting bridge in Pressley Cove

This was a consolation hike—I’d been planning an off-trail trip up past Fort Harry Falls in the Smokies, but it turned out there was new snow and ice on LeConte, and I’d decided the trip was better done with bare ground so as to study some old paths around the falls.  So I looked on the Pisgah map for something close to home, and something that would involve some steep climbing.  That is oddly hard to come by in this national forest.

I came across a mention of Pressley Cove in my Pisgah hiking guide.  It gets a passing reference in the writeup for “Avery Creek Loop #3,” but the authors say: “The Pressley Cove Trail isn’t included in this book, however, because it is so steep.”  Well, that seemed kind of wimpy to me.  It does have a stretch where it climbs about 600 feet in a half mile. (Compare the King Ravine trail up Mt. Adams in the Whites, which climbs 1100 feet in the same distance going up the headwall.)

It follows a beautiful narrow stream that cascades in a long silver strand down the mountain, and the steep part comes when the trail dives right into the shadowy stream valley.  The first crossing is an easy rockhop, but the upper one was bridged by a semi-rotted log that had become detached from the handrail.

You could enjoy these cascades as you sidestepped across the log

At Pressley Gap, you take a Forest Service road that leads up to the Black Mountain ridge.  Mountain bikes are permitted on the road and on the Black Mountain trail but are not supposed to go on the Pressley Cove trail.

Somewhere around 3800 feet I started seeing tremendous damage from a windstorm that occurred a couple of weeks ago.  The first thing I noticed was a lot of raw, broken-off tree tops, the fresh scars very visible.  Then the blowdowns became nearly continuous.

Wind damage

It was a certain type of damage: trees were not uprooted, but their branches were ripped and lacerated.  I would be interested to know what different wind and soil conditions create different kinds of damage.

Lots of small branches in the trail

When I reached the point where the trail makes its closest approach to the true summit of Black Mountain (4286′), I did a short, easy bushwhack up to the top.  Along the way I saw a rhododendron tree.  It had an enormous trunk, maybe 20 inches in diameter. I have never seen anything quite like it.

The rhododendron tree

Notice that even this sturdy survivor has a damaged branch.

I had a pleasant lunch next to the survey marker.

It's always nice to find a survey marker

I meandered my way back down in the afternoon sun.  The blowdowns are probably too much of a pain for mountain bikers to deal with, but it wasn’t that hard to walk around them.

Hickory Knob December 22, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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Looking from Hickory Knob toward Black Mountain

This was a short snowshoe outing in Pisgah National Forest.  It had the advantage that the trailhead is not far up Hwy. 276, close to the ranger station.  The road today was still in pretty bad shape after the weekend’s snowstorm, and I scraped bottom a few times on the snow hump in the middle.

Looking down 276 from the ranger station

From the trailhead, it is 1400 vertical feet and 2.5 miles up the Black Mountain trail to Hickory Knob, which is a bump on a long ridge.  I’d ventured a short distance up it last week and discovered that it is a huge mountain biking trail, billed as one of the gnarliest in Pisgah.  I had to dodge a few bikes as I climbed.  Maybe I’ll get a mountain bike myself—looks like fun!  A lot of great mountain biking places around here—had a similar experience in Dupont State Forest a while back.

But mountain bikes are out of the picture as long as this snow is on the ground.  I brought my heavy-duty 30-inch snowshoes for this hike, which was overkill, but…they are the only snowshoes I have.  In the lower section of the trail, I could have done without snowshoes entirely, because there had been enough foot traffic to pack it down.  After the Thrift Cove trail turned off, there were a lot of blowdowns.  Or maybe I should call them bend-downs.  In many cases they were rhodies or hemlocks whose tops had bent down under the icy snow and created a kind of arch, and I hope they will spring back eventually.

There were a lot of these obstructions in the lower elevations

After I passed the upper end of the Thrift Cove trail, the foot traffic tailed off quite a bit.  It looked like maybe one group of people barebooting it and one person with snowshoes.

The trail switchbacks around some stream valleys.  I was struck by the shapes of these laurels in the brilliant sun.

Jenny has a thing about laurels!

I think I will start a second career and become a laurel scientist.  There is something about their shapes, the texture of their bark, the way they glisten in the sunlight, that seems to fascinate me.  My main question:  how old are these plants?

I trudged up the slopes of Hickory Knob, for there is really no other way to describe upward progress on snowshoes.  Each footstep makes a loud smacking noise, then you pick up that foot, put the other one down, and so on.  The whole way, it was kind of a toss-up whether the snowshoes were worthwhile on this icy compacted snow that was starting to turn into slush.  I certainly could have done it without them, but they stabilized me on the uneven pathway, and after all, I would have had to carry them if I’d taken them off.

I finally reached the majestic summit of Hickory Knob, which is 3540′, according to my USGS quad.  I’m sure that in summer it’s just a high point among multitudes of green leaves, but in winter you get a sense of vast distances and high peaks all around—through a screen of bare branches.  I took a picture down toward the French Broad River valley.

The valley is a kind of white shimmer in the distance

What I really liked up there was that it was bright, still, and absolutely silent.

The blue sky seemed to glow through the branches as I wended my way back down.

Glowing sky. Of course it's a laurel in the foreground.

The way back down was uneventful.  Not exactly an exciting mountain conquest, but a nice way to spend a few hours in the winter mountains and get a bit of exercise.