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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

Mount Mitchell on a changeable day May 3, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Black Mountains, hiking.
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A nice row of 6000 footers

I took this photo from the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way home.  I couldn’t have taken it on the way there in the morning, because the whole world around me at that point was engulfed in blank, white fog.  And in fact, even this afternoon photo doesn’t show Mt. Mitchell, because at that moment a cloud was draped over its top, giving the composition a flawed, incomplete appearance.  So I opted to shift the viewfinder to the right and snap the portraits of Mt. Craig (6,647′), Big Tom (6,580′), Balsam Cone (6,596′), Cattail Peak (6,620′), and Potato Hill (6,260′).  Quite impressive, the Black Mountain Range.

The whole day was like that, fog restlessly coming and going, winds either warm or cold rushing around the mountainsides, clouds pausing to dump a batch of drizzle and then moving on.

This was a hike I’d been planning to do for a while, and I thought it would make a good exercise hike the weekend before doing a really tough hike.  Mt. Mitchell from the Black Mountain campground is 11.4 miles, 3700 vertical, and the hike I’m planning to do next weekend with the SMHC is 14 miles, 4500 vertical.  So you would think that this hike would be 81% as hard in distance and 82% as hard in vertical, or you could say 81.5% as hard overall, if you were obsessed with quantifying it.  But in reality, it is probably at best 50% as hard as the SMHC outing planned for next weekend up to Old Black via Indian Camp Creek, because of the off-trail factor.  I hope to report on that adventure next week.

What I liked best about the Mt. Mitchell hike was the forest of big, old red spruce above 4500 feet.  Perhaps the spruce are doing so well there because they are on the leeward side of the mountain.  Here is the base of a sturdy old survivor:

Its roots seemed to flow in all directions

On the top, the new generation of balsams looked quite bushy and healthy compared with the skeletal forest I saw here in 1995—the damage from the woolly adelgid was at its peak then.  But yesterday, it was hard to see through the fog.  The “informational viewboards” on the summit tower seemed guilty of false advertising.

The sign was so much brighter than the actual view

It wasn’t just the fog, it was the row of balsams in the way.  I wonder if these viewboards were taken from the old, much higher, pre-2007 tower. That structure featured a schizophrenic combination of stone and concrete.

I don’t know why, but it seemed utterly impossible to leave the summit without taking a picture of the sign.  I may have been the billionth person to photograph it.

This sign has been photographed by a few other people

Up in the fog, I saw a very interesting lichen (I think that’s what it was) growing on a balsam trunk.  It was in the shape of green leaves, almost like oak leaves.

I'd never seen anything quite like this

On the way back down, I took the slightly longer and very pleasant side loop that goes over the rapidly un-balding Higgins Bald.  (The formerly bald top is experiencing vegetational Rogaine.)  I must have been in a mood to enjoy large trees, because I noticed this monumental sugar maple in area of campsites:

Like the spruce, this maple had a liquid appearance

This was not a big wildflower hike, but I did spot a nice painted trillium.  All in all, a very enjoyable outing.  I plan to do much more exploring in the Black Mountains.

One of the two trilliums that also grows in New England

Green Knob, and Burnsville April 4, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir, Southern Appalachians.
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Another fire tower hike!

My original plan was to do the Mt. Mitchell-from-Black-Mountain-campground hike.  But I got a late start, and I was concerned about getting back home in time for the season opener Red Sox game.  So I went up to Green Knob instead.

It is billed as “extremely steep,” but I still apply my New England standards, and I feel that it’s not, actually, extremely steep.  2300 vertical in 3.3 miles is not extremely steep.  It does have some steep pitches, especially toward the top.  The lower part of the forest was oddly scraggly with a lot of downed timber from the winter’s ice storms and, to my mind, not very interesting or attractive.  But I really liked the upper section, where the trail climbs an increasingly narrow ridgecrest through thick laurel, and you start to get up into the red spruce.

I am especially fond of the groundcover of myrtle and galax that you see toward the top.

Glossy groundcover

When I finally reached the fire tower and went inside the cab, I was greeted by something that looked kind of like a refrigerator and a big black plastic container of something or other.  Perhaps the major world powers’ nuclear codes are stored inside.

Mysterious containers with lots of locks

I spent a lot of time admiring the incredible skyline of the 6000’+ Black Mountain range.

I would like to do the Black Mountain Crest trail over these tops

I was happy to see the big bushy healthy red spruce on top, but it surprised me to see healthy-looking hemlocks growing among them at nearly 5000 feet.

Two hemlocks and two red spruce---seemed odd to me!

On the way down I heard a conversation off in the distance between two very large owls.  I’m not sure what kind of owls they were, but they must have been substantial in size in order to produce their hooting sounds in such deep, loud voices.

So I wended my way back down to my car.  Across from the parking lot, I stood on the bank of the South Toe River, looking at the translucent, gold and green water for a bit before I decided that I would drive back a different way than the way I’d come.  My route in the morning from Asheville (bear in mind that the Blue Ridge Parkway still has many closed sections) was I-40 east to US 70 at Old Fort to Route 80 west.  On the way back, I continued along Route 80 (now going more north than west), up to US 19 west to I-26, back to Asheville.

The details of the route don’t really matter.  I drove along a pretty valley on Rte. 80 until I reached Celo, where I stopped at a convenience store to get a diet Coke and a bag of potato chips.  As I walked out of the store, two teenage guys were waiting there, and one of them asked, “Are you going to Burnsville?”

I wasn’t even sure, but I looked at my map and yes, I was going to—or through—Burnsville.  They looked pretty harmless to me, so I offered them a ride.  One of them was kind of chubby with a black t-shirt and the other had the jeans dropping off the butt and the patterned underwear showing underneath, and he was carrying a skateboard.

As soon as they got in the car, the one in the front seat noticed that I had a Sublime CD sitting next to the tape and CD player.  “Hey!  Cool!”  So that got us off to a good start.  I got the picture pretty soon—they’d been sitting in front of the store for a couple of hours hoping to get a ride. They had no money, and they were probably too young to drive, though I pretended that I thought they just had temporary motor vehicle problems.   “Man, there’s nothing to do here.  That’s why we have to go to Burnsville.”  We talked about how hard it is to save money.  “Ingles is a rip-off, you have to go to Save-Mor,” one of them said.  I said, “Yeah, they have that Advantage card, but it’s really no advantage,” and the kid in the back turned that into a song:  “They say Advantage… but it’s no real advantage…”  Anyway, I dropped them off at the McDonald’s in Burnsville, where they could meet up with some friends.

It reminded me of days when I used to pick up hitchhikers, or even hitchhike myself.  And times when I didn’t have any money.  I still don’t have that much money, after all.  And for some reason, I’m okay with that.

Nice big fluffy red spruce