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Middle Prong Wilderness revisited October 2, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking.
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Is it really only October 2, down here at 35 degrees latitude?

I took this wintry-looking photo this morning at the Devils Courthouse overlook on the Parkway. Pretty much everything above 5600′ was decorated with frost, which made an interesting contrast with the predominantly green foliage in the valleys.

But regardless of the frosty conditions, my goal was to test out my replacement camera and get in a short hike. This time I traveled along Fork Ridge from the south rather than from the north as I had done in June. Although going in this direction makes it a shorter distance to the major peak of the ridge (Green Knob, 5880′—not to be confused with the one in the Black Mountains), I still didn’t make it to the top of Green Knob. But I did see many wonderful things on my half-day outing.

I approached the area via Canton and Route 215, which climbs up, up, up through the beautiful valley of the West Fork of the Pigeon. I stopped to take a picture where the stream cascades down under the highway.

West Fork

I started to get more and more views of the frost on the heights.

Contrasting elevations

I detoured past the parking area I needed for my starting Mountains-to-Sea segment and drove up to the Parkway to take a look. Conditions were quite brisk up at the Devils Courthouse overlook. I actually thought the wind was going to tear the car door off its hinges when I got out, and I didn’t have the gear necessary for the conditions. My fingers became stingingly cold in just a minute.

Overlook scene

Then back to my parking area on 215. I had assumed that people parking there, just north of the 215/BRP junction, must be heading to the MST. I followed my practice of the June hike of refusing to read any guidebook or written information at all. It took me a while to figure out that the MST does leave from there—just down the road a ways from the parking area. This time I didn’t have a friendly fisherman to give me advice. But no harm done, I just had to put in a short stint crawling through a laurel thicket to find the trail. Once again, the Middle Prong lives up to its reputation of spurning trail signs.

The woods here were far more hospitable than the Devils Courthouse overlook. I saw beautiful purple asters in sunny glades.

I've noticed there are even several different kinds of purple asters!

I saw the most plush, luxurious moss you can imagine. (People who follow this blog know that I am obsessed with moss.)

This made a nice place to sit while I had a bite to eat

Little rectangles of ice kept dropping out of the evergreens as the temperature rose.

Fallen ice chunks with neatly squared-off corners

Colorful trees were in the minority, but the ones that did have color absolutely  glowed in the light.

Gold and blue

I found the color contrast between ferns and blackberries to be interesting. Some types of ferns had instantly crumpled in the frost, while others stayed bright green.

Green and brown

I liked these beech leaves.

Nice warm browns and golds

I reached my turnaround time and headed back. As I have noticed before, on days of intense sunlight, a trail can look entirely different going in the two directions. It was almost blinding as I headed south, and I use the light conditions as my excuse for not recognizing the unmarked junction of the Fork Ridge trail and the MST when I returned to it. I made a turn to the left, thinking I was just following the somewhat tortuous windings of the trail, when in fact I was leaving Fork Ridge and turning east on the MST. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to figure things out, and I was back to my car without any trouble.

Bathed in light

Fork Ridge in Middle Prong Wilderness June 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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Bee enjoying rosebay blossom

The more I think about this hike I did today, the less I can explain it to anyone else or even to myself. But it did have several entertaining moments. OK, here’s the basic situation.

1.¬† I’m planning on doing an ambitious hike in the next few days, and I was in the mood to do an easy hike today plus some things around the house.

2. I’ve been wanting to visit the Middle Prong Wilderness for a long time but never managed to hike there. For my friends in Tennessee, this is the wilderness area in Pisgah National Forest that lies on the west side of the West Fork of the Pigeon. Its much better-known neighbor, Shining Rock Wilderness, lies on the other side of the West Fork, between it and the Big East Fork.

3. I went to bed unsure where I was going to hike the next day. I woke up in the middle of the night, went downstairs and looked at some maps, and decided, “I’m going to start from the north end of Fork Ridge and just go however far I feel like it!” I deliberately did no googling at all on it. As far as trail guides are concerned…I don’t think this hike is in a trail guide. Maybe the south end, but not the north end. Then I went peacefully back to sleep, got up the next morning, grabbed up my Nat Geo Pisgah Forest map and my Sam Knob quad, and off I went.

I arrived at the Sunburst campground on Route 215, saw no indication of a nearby trail, tried a couple of small gravel side roads. No luck. I saw a fisherman getting out of his truck and walked over to him, asking, “Do you know where the Fork Ridge trail is?” He looked down at my feet and said, “Doesn’t look like you’ve got your wading shoes on. You have to cross the river.” Wade across the river! That just didn’t sound right—the map showed the trail starting next to the Middle Prong where it flows into the river, and staying on the same side of the river, never crossing it—but with just this funny little blank space in between the trail and the road. We finally figured out he’d been referring to a completely different trail that goes the other way, into Shining Rock and over Birdstand Mountain. But his pride in his local knowledge was ruffled now, and he started thrashing through some waist-high weeds on the other side of the road. “It’s here! It looks like an old narrow-gauge railroad grade.”

The elusive trailhead

A railroad grade going straight up the spine of the ridge, as the Fork Ridge route indicated? This was getting stranger and stranger. But I was taking up too much of his time, and his son was eager to start catching some trout, so I thanked him and decided I’d just figure it out myself. I changed into my hiking boots and went into the weed patch. Finally I saw my friend’s railroad grade heading straight along the creek, and spotted what had to be my trail, departing the grade immediately and heading very steeply up the ridge.

I liked this trail, actually. No sign at the trailhead—because we are in a federally designated wilderness area. But the footway was easy enough to follow, with a lot of soft duff on the trail. The contrast with Shining Rock was striking to me. Yes, S.R. is beautiful, but its trails are so beaten down and there are so many downtrodden looking campsites everywhere. And no signs there, either. There, the weird conjunction of the wilderness designation and the very heavy usage has created confusing mazes of unofficial trails, and I think it would actually be kinder to the wilderness to have signs there.

The trail climbed a few hundred feet in no time at all. I’d say it rivals the famous Old Butt Knob trail in S.R., at least for the first mile. I stayed in a rhodo tunnel for a while.

Rhodo tunnel

I enjoyed the blossoms of rosebay.

I like the way the buds are pinker than the open blooms

I spotted some high-bush blueberries that weren’t ready for picking, but the colors were nice.

Not quite ripe

I reached an open outlook at 4300′. And there, looking at my USGS map, I realized that I was not going to continue to Green Knob, the semi-bald 5800′ peak that lies about halfway along this six-mile-long ridge. It was just too far for what I had in mind for the day. But it’ll make a nice destination some other time. And yes, I do realize that most people approach it from the Parkway end—a lot less elevation change that way.

I retraced my steps. Just as I emerged from the weedy trailhead, I spotted my friendly fisherman again. He seemed happy to learn I’d found the trail. We chatted for a bit, he showed me some gemstones he’d collected locally, and we shook hands goodbye.

View over Tom Creek valley and Green Ridge