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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

A hike in Big Ivy July 16, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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Gosh, I'm proud of this photo! (Click twice for full zoom)

Yesterday I decided to venture into Big Ivy. I really just had to find out what this place was all about. After all, I own a Forest Service map titled “South Toe River, Mount Mitchell, and Big Ivy Trails.” And yet I couldn’t have explained to anyone what on earth that name meant. Plus, I’d been deeply troubled by the “Forks of Ivy” exit off Interstate 26.

It’s all about the Ivy River, which runs into the French Broad near Marshall, North Carolina. Big Ivy takes in a swath of the Ivy’s tributaries, and is also known as the Coleman Boundary. This segment of Pisgah National Forest lies northwest of the Craggy Mountains and west of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Walker Knob and Balsam Gap. The best thing about Big Ivy is that it’s about a 30-minute drive from my place in North Asheville. You approach it from the west and drive deep into the valley of Dillingham Creek, south of Barnardsville, with changing patterns of mountains closing in around the road as you glide around the curves.

This outing was a short exercise hike of 3.6 miles roundtrip, 1050′ vertical, up the Walker Creek trail only as far as Forest Service Road 74. When I have more time, I will continue across the road to the Perkins trail and maybe even think about making the short off-trail connection to Walker Knob on the Parkway.

The hike started with an unusual bridge. I liked the way it didn’t lie flat.

Bridge on Walker Creek trail

I soon passed my first wildlife of the day, a toad, and climbed among a thriving jungle of nettles. That clump of white under the leaves has such a poisonous look.

Why do nettles hate us so much?

Soon after taking the above picture, I saw my second wildlife of the day—a large blacksnake. It did kind of startle me—I might have even made a funny little sound. He was lying right in the middle of the trail, and I was trying to decide which was worse, stepping over the snake or wading through the nettles, when he slithered off into the brush. It took him a long time to get the whole length of his three-or-four-foot body off the trail.

What you see is only the front third or so of his body

I continued climbing and passed a pretty area where the berries of the umbrella-leaves mixed with some red bee balm.

Umbrella-leaf plants

Up at the FS road junction, I found a big patch of wildflowers and took my picture of my other wildlife of the day that you see at the top of the post. The patch of bee balm was next to a mixture of fleabane and a tall variety of Black-eyed Susans.

Flowers thriving in a patch of sunlight

The forest is nearly all hardwoods in this area, without even much rhodo and laurel. On the way back down I noticed two vines intertwining next to an orange blaze on a tree. Soon I was back at the car, planning to return before long for further explorations.

Struggle of the vines---or is it cooperation of the vines?

The mathematical waterfall March 31, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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Falls on Grogan Creek, Pisgah National Forest

If you happen to visit a waterfall in the company of a pair of mathematicians, it may occur to you to see things in a different way.  I think it has something to do with the link between complexity and beauty.

Last Saturday I went on a hike with my friend Gary and his 16-year-old son Zach.  I’ve known Gary since college.  He is a professional mathematician who likes to tinker with algorithms, and Zach (and his sister Noura) grew up playing with math.  Zach could certainly follow in the footsteps of his dad, if he decides to do that.

We did a variation of a hike that I tried out back in January to Cedar Rock Mountain. We started at the Fish Hatchery trailhead in Pisgah National Forest, went up John Rock, and had lunch at Cat Gap on the Loeb trail.  Then we followed the Loeb trail to the unmaintained manway that goes up to the top of Cedar Rock, finding a lot of blowdown still lingering from the winter’s bad ice storms.  We met someone on top who told us the blowdowns had been at least partially cleared on the section of the Loeb trail west of there, so we retraced our steps to the trail and followed it to Butter Gap.  Then we went down the Butter Gap trail to the Fish Hatchery.

View from Cedar Rock Mtn. (taken in January)

We could have shortened our route considerably by descending via Cedar Rock’s other manway, the one on the northwest side that goes directly to Butter Gap.  But since that is said to involve tricky scrambling over steep ledges, I would first like to scout that from the bottom up.  For future reference, I noted where the path starts at the gap.

By the time we descended the Butter Gap trail, it was getting into the phase of the afternoon when the sunlight takes on a golden color.  Suddenly we heard the deep roar of water on rock.  There we were at the top of a waterfall.  It was hard to see very much, because the water simply disappeared over the edge.  But just down the trail we found a steep little side path that led to the bottom.

The water as it fell looked creamy white.  It cascaded over a series of ledges until it reached a final flat stairstep of rock, where the water somehow seemed to turn clear again (see top photo).  From this perspective, the water at the top glowed bright.  It came out of nowhere, as if out of a slot cut into the side of the mountain.  All around us, the pillars of hardwood trees gleamed in the afternoon light.

The falls does not have a name, and in the “Waterfalls of North Carolina” map used by western NC waterfall aficionados, it gets a “beauty rating” of only 4 out of 10.  I guess I can understand the relatively low rating.  After all, people who take waterfall aesthetics seriously have to maintain their standards! This one isn’t all that high (about 20′), and it doesn’t have any unusual bumps or bounces or dramatic, photogenic features.  But something about the simplicity of the waterfall’s overall shape made it easier to see how incredibly complicated it really was, in what was going on with the flow of the water.

It was Zach who pointed out that in a particular spot he was watching, a strand of water was dividing into two strands, then merging, then dividing.  I went over and looked at it.  The path of the water changed back and forth in a kind of pulsation.  It seemed that some sort of limit was reached in each half of the cycle, and then the pattern flipped over to the other half.  I probably wouldn’t have seen it this way, or seen it at all, except that I was in the company of mathematicians.

Zach and Jenny

The thing of it was, the tiny little portion of the water we were looking at represented—of course!—only an infinitesimal part of everything that was going on with the water flow.  Before our very eyes, an astronomical number of droplets were tumbling, gliding, bouncing, merging, separating, flowing in an unending sequence.  It was absolutely and ridiculously complicated!

We continued on our way, admiring a couple of well-crafted beaver dams in the lower section of the stream, looking for early spring wildflowers (we saw none) and for songbirds (none of those either), eventually wending our way back to the Fish Hatchery.

Gary found the best seat for viewing the waterfall