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My first bloodroot of this year, near Grassy Knob March 15, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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Bloodroot, March 15, 2012

With the warm spell we’ve been having, the woodland wildflowers have been popping, just like the small, hard popcorn kernels that suddenly explode into large fluffy versions of themselves. As I walk through the woods, I can practically hear the popping sounds as the kernels of flowers expand with amazing speed into their full splendor.

What I truly love about the bloodroot is the way the stem of the flower fits perfectly into a specially designed notch in the leaf.

I saw the bloodroot pictured above on a section of the Mountains-to-Sea trail south of Asheville near Sleepy Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I traverse the MST for a short distance as part of a two-hour loop that’s become a regular exercise hike for me, in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest. It involves climbing up an obscure stairway off the South Ridge Road and continuing up an unmaintained trail to the top of Grassy Knob.

The summit of Grassy Knob (3319′) is quite close to the Parkway, but practically no one hikes to it from the Parkway, and even fewer people hike there from the center of Bent Creek around Lake Powhatan. What makes it a good exercise hike is that you climb very steadily about 1000 vertical feet in about two-thirds of a mile—not exactly extreme, but if you go at a good pace, I guarantee you will get your heart rate up. And it’s much nicer than the treadmill at the gym.

You leave the South Ridge road at these mysterious steps that have no sign explaining their existence.

Staircase that doesn't explain itself

You get into a zone of old, gnarly laurel that becomes spectacular in early summer.

I have a fixation about the texture of laurel bark.

The last push to the very top always works up a good sweat. You’ll notice a metal sign on the tree that marks the boundary between Bent Creek (national forest land) and the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor (national park land).

Nearing the summit of Grassy Knob.

On a certain fallen tree, I always sit and have a drink of water before making my way back down. When I hit the MST, I turn northeast on it instead of just crossing over it as I do on my way up. (The MST is too gradual for my uphill exercise climb, but I enjoy following it on my way down.)

This is one of my three favorite exercise hikes close to Asheville. The second is from the Parkway at the Tanbark Ridge tunnel past Rattlesnake Lodge and on to Rich Knob. The third is from the Parkway at the Craggy picnic area over to Lane Pinnacle (the real pinnacle, not the false summit with the views) and back. I will soon be abandoning these hikes, because, itinerant soul as I seem to be, I am moving to Sylva at the end of the month. There I will see what I can do with the Plott Balsams.

I will miss these hikes. And I’m sure I must seem at best footloose and at worst a rather unstable personality, for all these moves in the past few years. But I have my reasons, and I like the place I’m going to, where I’m close to the Smokies and I can hear the roar of the Tuckasegee River. More about that in a later post.

I love the rippling light on the raceway of Bent Creek. It is bordered with a somber row of Norway spruce, a species that is not native—but then, it’s not invasive, either.

Raceway on Bent Creek

Only in Asheville January 19, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir.
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Asheville

Today I went on a short hike on the Mountains-to-Sea trail. I’ve been recovering from flu and needed something to get back into gear. I started at Ox Creek Road, went to Rattlesnake Lodge, then took the steep route up to the upper spring and looped back down. This is a very popular hike with Ashevilleans, at least as far as Rattlesnake Lodge. It offers all the basic ingredients: views, historic interest (remains of the old lodge buildings from the early 1900s), distance suitable for a stretch-your-legs sort of outing.

It becomes even more heavily used when the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed north of Bull Gap, because that cuts off several other good hiking options close to town. Right now the BRP is closed all the way from Bull Gap to NC 80 because that section goes through a 5000’+ elevation zone from the Craggies to Mt. Mitchell. I wouldn’t guess there’s much ice on it at the moment, but we’ve gotten to the time of year when it just stays shut so that the Park Service doesn’t have to bother with it.

Blue Ridge Parkway sign

I’ve discovered with this MST section that a lot of people like to hit it in the early afternoon, after they’ve gotten some work done (like me) or gone to classes and just need a break. This time I got there before peak hiking traffic hit, and I made it all the way up to the spring before I started seeing people—lots of people—all kinds of people. Today it seemed that the variety of humanity was particularly entertaining.

My first encounter was startling for both of us. I was pushing up to the spring and emerged abruptly onto the upper trail, only to find myself practically on top of a refined-looking man with a silver beard who’d been peacefully eating his sandwich. He looked at me as if I’d come from outer space, but in a moment recovered himself enough to greet me politely.

Next I encountered two women with a large dog, a configuration frequently encountered in Asheville. They were not dressed like the women in the Wikimedia photo below, but it’s such a great photo that I include it just for fun.

Note the guy on the park bench

Next I encountered a playful young couple. He was picking her up and carrying her down the trail—her legs were around his hips and her arms encircled his neck. Not flustered at all by my appearance on the scene, they had just reached a large grapevine hanging from a tree, and it looked like he was going to try to swing on the vine with her hanging onto him!

Next, a mismatched pair: a short middle-aged woman in a pink parka, carrying no pack, with a young man carrying a very large overnight backpack. She looked like she might be his mother. I greeted them, and the young man spontaneously explained that he was training for doing some hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Whether or not it was his mother, I thought it was wonderful that this unathletic-looking woman was giving him companionship and support!

Map of A.T.

Next, a 50-ish woman who looked like a practitioner of yoga (at any rate, there was a car in the trailhead parking area with a bumper sticker for a yoga studio, and she seemed like the most likely match).

Next, father and daughter who looked maybe six. She was explaining to him, “Daddy, water is good for you. Can I have some water?”

Finally—best of all—two guys carrying skateboards. It took me a moment to figure it out. “You’re going on the Parkway!” I exclaimed. They laughed at my momentary confusion. What a great idea: with the section of Parkway closed that runs very close to and parallel to the trail, they were hiking up to the Tanbark tunnel connector, where they’d head down to the BRP and have a beautiful cruise down several miles of empty pavement!

Middle Prong Wilderness revisited October 2, 2011

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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