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Blackrock in winter December 31, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, winter hiking.
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Looking SW from Blackrock summit

Looking west from Blackrock summit. The conical peak is Perry Top on the Fisher-Dicks Creek divide.

As I made the short drive from my home toward the imposing wall of the Plott Balsams, I saw that the frost line in the trees was around 4500′. The spruces and balsams on the ridgetop had a ghostly look from a distance—they looked even more ghostly when I finally got up among them.

I headed up via my standard cold-weather route. It would be my route all year round if it wasn’t for the thriving poison ivy that’s a real problem for me when it gets knee-high. I follow an unmaintained trail from close to the trailhead and make a short bushwhack connection to the East Fork trail, hitting it where it enters the ravine of the stream.

I encountered a thin layer of slushy snow as I climbed up past the invisible waterfall. Eventually I got into a world of glazed branches, sparkling beautifully in the sun.

A magic wand of ice had been waved over the forest.

A magic wand of ice had been waved over the forest.

Snow started to cover the branches, making the rhodo droop over the trail.

It started to look wintry.

It started to look wintry.

I reached my favorite lunch spot at 4900′. It is a flat cleared area, obviously used for camping although there is no water nearby. It looks down into the West Fork valley toward Pinnacle Bald and The Pinnacle, but views are very limited in the summer.

Clearing at 4900'.

Clearing at 4900′.

I don’t know what the story is behind this clearing—maybe it originated in the logging days and has been kept cleared—but it has a really odd mix of vegetation. You see junipers, a few spruce, Table Mountain pines, and lots of oaks. When the ground is clear of snow, you see a tiny bright pink lichen growing here and there amidst the mica-sparkling gravel. Carpets of club moss stand next to a patch of invasive Scotch broom, which is a real plague in southern Jackson County.

The other side of the trail features a nifty three-tiered mix of rhodo growing under oaks and laurel under rhodo.

There's something I like about the small leaves on the bottom, then large leaves, then upright trunks. Hard to explain.

There’s something I like about the small leaves on the bottom, and then large leaves, then upright trunks. Hard to explain!

The oaks are all covered with gray-green lichen from the moist cool air up there near 5000′.

Gnarly lichen-covered oak branches.

After having my peanut butter sandwich, I headed on along the old roadway that contours east, then turned for the steep climb up to the crest. I put on my microspikes here but found that even up on the heights the temps close to the freezing point made for annoying clumps of snow and leaves that stuck to my spikes. I’d stop every now and then and stamp my feet to get rid of the accumulation, but kept the spikes on because I was convinced that soon I’d get into solid subfreezing temps. It finally happened on the upper ridge.

And I was glad I had the spikes up there on the craggy ridgetop. I could see that a period of freezing rain had preceded the snow even up that high.

Rocks and ice.

Rocks and ice.

Ice damage.

Ice damage.

I made my way around the little fortress of rocks that I mistook for the summit the first time I came up here and scrambled over the steep little ups and downs toward the true high point. At one spot I took a fairly good slide even with the spikes. I emerged onto the summit block of Blackrock. It was so neatly blanketed in its cap of snow that I was almost sorry to mess up the sparkling white with my footsteps, but I clambered up on top and marveled in the views on a crystal-clear day.

View toward Sylva.

View past Sylva.

View toward Waterrock Knob.

View toward Yellowface and Waterrock Knob.

The Parkway is closed (maybe for the season), and so no one had made the trip out from Waterrock along the crest. And I could see from the lack of footprints that no one else had climbed Blackrock or gone anywhere other than The Pinnacle, that rock nubbin that’s a popular destination.

Coming back down, I took off the spikes as soon as I got back to the freezing line, figuring the clumping would just make it harder to keep my footing on that steep slope of snow over slippery oak leaves. It was a bit tedious, but I made it back to the roadway and decided to go back down via the West Fork. I sort of wish I hadn’t. I kept running into people who asked me if I’d been to “the top,” or how far it was to “the top,” and they meant The Pinnacle. I didn’t bother explaining that I hadn’t been to that “top,” just the one 1000′ higher that not so many people go to in the winter.

What a wonderful place!

What a wonderful place!

Blackrock hike August 27, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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Butterfly on Filmy Angelica at 5000 feet

Two or three times a week, I hike in the nearby Plott Balsam range for exercise—and for more intangible reasons. I feel very fortunate that, living in Sylva NC, I have these mountains so close. The Plotts represent the divide between the Tuckasegee River (I live with the Tuck right on my doorstep) and the Oconaluftee, over by Cherokee. They lie just southeast of the Smokies.

The Plotts boast five summits higher than 6000′. As suggested by the name, fragrant balsams flourish all along their crest. The other part of the name, “Plott,” comes from a prominent family of German descent that settled in the area and also gave their name to a breed of hounds.

The town of Sylva has created a park out of what used to be property developed for the municipal water supply on Fisher Creek. The lowest part of the park lies at 3000′. From there you have a choice of going up the West Fork or the East Fork of Fisher. Either way can lead to Blackrock Mountain (5810′) and, if you are ambitious, on along the crest to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You might want a car shuttle for that.

There are many variations, but I much prefer the East Fork to the West, which follows an old rubbly road. The East Fork is an overgrown footpath that climbs steeply (800′ vertical in a little more than a half mile) along a beautiful stream. My most frequent exercise options are to climb 1000′ vertical, 1400′, or 1700′ along the East Fork and descend the same way. Now, in late summer, I have to bushwhack a short distance to avoid a thriving patch of knee-high poison ivy, since I’m so allergic that even if I wear long pants, the toxic juice on the fabric would attack me.

A couple days ago I made the 2800′ vertical, 8-mile round trip hike to Blackrock, which I don’t do all that often. It’s a fairly strenuous hike whose last section climbs 800′ in less  than half a mile. You feel impressed with yourself for doing it until you hear about the “Assault on Blackrock” trailrunning race in which people have done the whole thing, round trip, in 1 hour 30 minutes. That boggles my mind. It takes me about two hours longer. Oh well, that must be because of the time I spend lingering on the summit!

Going up to Blackrock via the East Fork, you climb steadily to around the 5000′ level, and then head east 0.7 miles along an old roadway that contours around. That is your breather. You then exit the easy stuff and climb up a rough footway over boulders to the ridge of the balsams. From this point on, the trails are just old manways not laid out by anyone aiming at systematic trail construction. You top out on the ridge, catch your breath, and continue past a rock crag that is not the true summit, though you can climb it either by making creative use of a dead tree leaning against the rock or going around to the other side and scrambling up a crack.

Toward the true summit, a multitude of rough paths veer in various directions. The one I chose the other day led to a vertical outcrop that I traversed while clinging to laurel branches. That was not the easiest way. There is a fairly simple way over toward the northeast side of the crag.

I will return to this subject and post more photos, but for now here are a few pictures.

From Blackrock summit looking toward Yellowface and Waterrock.

The side ridges plunge thousands of vertical feet.

At the moment, Filmy Angelica is the ascendant wildflower above 4500′. But the Plotts are just loaded with wildflowers—and with mushrooms of all shapes, sizes, and colors (I’ve found morels there earlier in the season). For the season of flaming azalea and laurel, I’ve written about it on my other blog, here.

Glade of Filmy Angelica.

Peculiar rock near Blackrock summit. Lots of peculiar rocks reside up there.

The same butterfly as at top, entranced by its flower.