Monday, May 14, 2018

AT in TN: Walking Across Cross Mountain

AT In TN: Low Gap to Campsite – 6/10/17 – 14.1 Miles

A promising weather forecast and I’m ready for an overnight backpack trip to finish the Tennessee section of the Appalachian Trail. Cathy was a willing partner even though she’s already hiked these miles.  I found a shuttle driver out of Hampton, TN to take us to our starting point.  On the morning we left Charlotte I couldn’t find the driver’s phone number, so there was some anxiety if I remembered the details correctly.

We connected with our shuttle driver and left my car on US 321 next to Shook Branch Recreation Area.  He was laid back, a little too laid back, not much of a talker, listening to an evangelical preacher radio station.  It was a long ride to Low Gap. 

Starting at Low Gap, as soon as the pavement disappeared from view I forgot the everyday world, fired up to be on the AT again and especially energized to get TN completed.  Spring flowers were gone, but the undergrowth was flush with flourishing ferns and other foliage. The trail word for today was VERDANT. 

A small open meadow looking over Shady Valley GREEN GREEN GREEN

[And now a word about gear for women hikers:  I tested a urination device called the pStyle (Google it.) Don’t you just get tired of peeing in the woods the old-fashioned way?  Warm weather, dense foliage, a sparsely populated trail section, good conditions for experimentation.  With some practice, I got the hang of it and would recommend it.  Google it.] 

Near the high elevation point of our route sits Double Springs Shelter, tiny and primitive even by basic shelter standards.  Cathy prefers shelters but I don’t much care for them, and this one had nothing to entice me.  There were generous tent sites, though I saw a huge blob of bear scat near one site.  Note: AT shelters in Tennessee don’t have privies (for people or bears) so be prepared to poop in the woods.  

Soon after we passed Double Springs, the trail turned left (east) onto Cross Mountain.  Cross Mountain is a link between the long ridges of Holston Mountain and Iron Mountain – hikers literally cross from one mountain to the other (imagine the short end of a rectangle shape).

The AT leads over the crest of Cross Mountain and opens to expansive pastures formerly owned by the Osborne family. In the early days of the AT, the family allowed the trail to pass along the ridgeline. In 2001, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy land trust bought the land from the family and transferred it to the federal government. Cathy and I climbed over stiles and greeted the pasture residents.

Looking back over my shoulder

At the bottom of the field, the trail crosses TN 91.  There is a parking area and a short handicap-accessible trail.  While Cathy and I ate our lunch, a car pulled up and we watched a tender moment unfold.  A man, a woman and a little girl got out, and the man pulled a (very) loaded backpack from the trunk.  He hoisted his pack, big hugs all around, and the man set his feet northbound on the AT.  Wife and daughter waved as he walked up the green slope and out of sight.  Happy trails!

Southbound from TN 91, the AT follows the ridgeline of Iron Mountain all the way to Watauga Dam, steep slopes on the eastern side and gentle gradual slopes to the west, with no dramatic peaks or views. You gotta like walking in the green tunnel because there isn’t much to mark the miles.

The human interest story of this section is represented by the Nick Grindstaff monument, and if you don’t look sharp you’ll walk past it (southbound, it’s on the right).  Nick was a hermit that lived and died on Iron Mountain and was buried at his homesite long before the AT was created in Tennessee. His house is gone, but the chimney remains, with a stone covering the fireplace opening featuring the carved epitaph: “Uncle Nick Grindstaff, lived alone, suffered alone, died alone.”  The ATC’s trail guide tells the story:  “Orphaned at age 3, Grindstaff traveled west at age 26 but was robbed and beaten there.  Disillusioned, he came back east to the mountains and lived the remaining 45 years of his life on Iron Mountain with only a dog as a companion.  When he was found dead in his shanty, the dog reportedly had to be overpowered before the body could be removed; it had kept watch for three or four days.”

We walked past Iron Mountain Shelter, another one not winning any awards (but keeping in mind that the sun was shining but if a storm was coming I would be very grateful for a roof over my head).

Turkeypen Gap – time to start looking for our campsite - I hope it's not like this

About 1.5 miles further south we found it, a nice big campsite area on the east side of the trail, two fire rings, a piped spring (rusty pipe).  It was 5:20 p.m. and we were not tempted to push further to the next shelter.  As we settled, more hikers trickled in.  A section hiker seemed tired and a bit cranky as he set up his tent. When I asked how he was doing, he said not too good. I asked what was his obstacle, and he said he was too old for this. 

Two thru-hikers with a big dog surveyed the site, then found flat spots on the west side of the trail that looked better than what we had.  Tempting for us to relocate (especially away from Grumpy Hiker) but too much trouble and still camp chores to perform, collecting and treating water, cooking supper. We had been very hot and sweaty all day, but when the evening chill rolled in I pulled on the long sleeved shirt that is always part of my regular gear.

Another thru-hiker stopped, nodded hello, hung up his hammock, ate his supper and began watching a movie on his iPad.  Huh.

Hanging bear bags wasn’t as easy as I had hoped, but we get them up there and nothing disturbed them during the night.

Cathy and I sat talking, waiting for the sunlight to fade, but by 8:30 p.m. it was still light and I was tired, so I crawled into my tent. Cathy spent a little time talking with the dog owners, then she turned in too.  

Today wasn’t wildly dramatic, no difficult climbs, no crazy weather, no bears or even snakes.  The most interesting moments involved human touches on the earth, structures, monuments, people crossing paths.  I may never walk on Cross Mountain again, but I will remember it.

Peaceful night

“We may never pass this way again.” ~Seals & Crofts

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Linville Gorge Loop

Linville Gorge Loop Hike – Conley Cove/Rock Jock/Linville Gorge/Babel Tower Trails - 6/2/17 – 9 miles

In a  moment of weakness I agreed to join a group hiking trip on the AT in New Hampshire and southern Maine later this summer, under the heading of “that sounds like fun while I am sitting here on the couch.” Those miles are considered the most difficult of the AT and I will suffer greatly if I don’t get off that couch! Time for some training work. I’ve been curious to explore Linville Gorge but have heard many cautions not to go alone unless very skilled at navigation (I’m not).  I’ve hiked along the eastern edge of the gorge a few times and have followed the Mountains-To-Sea Trail from the western edge down to the river and up the eastern side, but always with other hikers.

My trail buddy Cathy joined me on a loop from Danny Bernstein’s Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains guidebook.  I trust Danny’s maps and narratives, but she would say that hikers should have other maps, a compass, and brains for any hike. This is especially true in Linville Gorge, designated a wilderness area with no blazes and minimal signage.  It is rough, rugged and…well, wild.  I chose to hike the loop in reverse because the last 2.7 miles is on the gravel road, and I figured we would want to trend downhill rather than uphill for the boring part.  My logic had good and bad consequences. 

I christened my new-to-me Honda CR-V on Kistler Highway - not as much clearance as my good ole Pilot, but it’s got to do the job or else.  (It did.)  Don’t tell Jim how eroded the “highway” was in some places. 

We parked at the Conley Cove trailhead. A half-mile in, we took a right onto Rock Jock Trail, which doesn’t connect with any other trails but leads to rock outcroppings with outstanding views. 

Shortoff Mountain across the Gorge.  The MST climbs up Shortoff and then traces along about two-thirds of the eastern edge before turning east away from the Gorge and continuing into Wilson Creek Wilderness.

Table Rock


Put ‘em together

There are a number of viewpoints of these two iconic points from the western rim of Linville Gorge, all worth checking out. Rock Jock is worth the bumpy ride and two-mile roundtrip hike, a little work to get the flavor of the Gorge. 

We backtracked to Conley Cove Trail, turned right and took the plunge down to the Linville River.  Late spring flowers peeked out at every turn.

Mountain laurel

Beard tongue


Fire pinks


At the river’s edge we found a large campsite area and a sign for Linville Gorge Trail, but no signage for Conley Cove. Score one point for hiking the loop in this direction or we might not have known that Conley Cove Trail intersected here. 

Lunch by the riverside

After our break, we began walking upstream, i.e. steadily uphill, our pace slowed down by stepping over/around big rocks and numerous blowdowns that required thinking.  The trail narrowed and dropped off sharply on the right (riverside) with vegetation crowding on the left.  I joked that I would suffer a lopsided neck strain from bending to the right to avoid getting hit in the face by branches.

What’s in there, Cathy?

Okay, where is the Spence Ridge Trail?  It should be coming in on the right, leading to the water – a brief detour for us because we wanted to see the Spence Ridge Bridge. This is a point against hiking in the opposite direction:  I am terrible at interpreting narratives in reverse.  Even with Danny’s map, the turn to the bridge looked to be very close to the Conley Cove intersection, but it seemed to take forever to get to it.  Did we miss it?  Nope, here it is – and the bridge is gone.

More trail practice with blowdowns and rough footing.  The river was loud and often we caught glimpses of whitewater through the trees, but very few clear lookouts.  Several times we took steep side trails to the water’s edge to check out waterfalls and cascades – all beautiful.  If only the trail more closely followed the edge, but judging by the car-sized and house-sized boulders, it would be hard to do.


 Hawksbill again

Is there a view from there?


Trail conditions slowed us down to the point where time wasn’t an accurate indicator of where we are on the trail.  Danny’s narrative is not so detailed as to mention every campsite, etc. and we (I) continued to have trouble interpreting backwards.  Which switchback does she mean? Which rock overhang?

Apparently we missed where Devil’s Hole Trail comes in from the right – but, hey, there’s Babel Tower! We are still in the Gorge.

At the base of a steep section of short switchbacks, we felt that we had located ourselves on the trail.  At the top of the section was a trail junction – no signage at all, but we interpreted this as the Babel Tower Trail crossing the Linville Gorge Trail. 

We walked a short distance to see Babel Tower’s base, but time was getting late so we turned around to continue up Babel Tower Trail toward the parking lot – yes, More.UP.  This 1.3 miles seemed especially arduous.  We were keeping a good pace, no longer slowed down by obstacles, but my energy level was depleted. A lot of self-talk that this was excellence practice for the AT in Maine next month, and that although it was difficult right this minute, once we finished and I sat down, I would feel better.

We met a couple walking down, carrying only a bottle of water, and asked how far to the parking area (after all, we still have 2.7 miles past that to walk on Kistler Highway to get back to our car).  They had no idea how far it is or how long they’ve been walking.  Next we saw a couple carrying loaded backpacks. They had been out for a couple of nights and were also heading to the parking lot.

An eternity later (15 minutes) we reached the lot and started off down the gravel road, a relief to be walking a gentle downhill with no obstacles (my brilliant plan).  About half a mile later, the backpacking couple passed by in their car (driving to Conley Cove to get their second car) and gave us a ride – saved us two miles of walking. (Better than my brilliant plan!)

I share all these details to emphasize that no hike goes exactly as planned.  Sometimes it’s easier, but don’t count on it.  More often it’s harder in some way. Research routes before you go, read guidebooks, trail journals and descriptions (there are a lot of them out there) but don’t stop there because the information may not be up to date (ex. missing bridges).  Look at the official websites for where you’re going, see what their current trail conditions and cautions are. (Wikipedia is not enough!) Take more than one type of map if possible.  Orientation, map and compass skills are important – I should practice these.  I’m glad I didn’t attempt this hike alone, as I would have gotten rattled at missing trail intersections, the lack of signage, and not being oriented in time and place.

The U.S. Forest Service website for Linville Gorge is here.  (It notes the washed out Spence Ridge bridge and the necessity of a “wet crossing.”  The water is often much too high for me to feel safe crossing there.)

"The wise man knows that it is better to sit on the banks of a remote mountain stream than to be emperor of the whole world." ~Zhuangzi