January 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
On Saturday, December 22, 2012 we went on a winter backpacking trip that was extremely cold but rewarded us with incredible conditions for photography: massive hoarfrost, remnants from a snowstorm, and true alpenglow lighting—a rare combination anywhere, but especially in the South.
As the evening sun set, the entire sky in the east (the direction opposite from the sun) began to glow pink with a purplish band at the horizon. The rime-encrusted trees and brush, which had their own bluish-white hue, looked otherworldly. The side of the mountain basked in the alpenglow. In the course of my life I have seen this phenomenon on occasion in the Rockies and in the Alps, but never so pronounced in our region as it was this evening.
For a comparison with the same phenomenon on the Matterhorn in Switzerland, see this photo. While the orange light from a sunset is itself beautiful, true alpenglow—when the entire sky is lit with light seemingly emanating from behind or even within the mountains, in the opposite direction from the sun—is amazing.
Looking towards where the sun was setting revealed another interesting effect—purple mountains with an orange sky.
As we continued to take pictures until almost all of the light was gone, we were reminded that part of the reason for the great conditions was the cold. And it was getting colder by the minute. Operating the cameras and standing still, the chill began to invade us. Toes and fingers burned. As the last good light disappeared, we continued onward to make camp somewhere near the top of the mountain.
Our planned out-and-back route was straightforward: A one-day hike from the Elk Garden area of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area up to the highest parts of the southern side of Mount Rogers near the famous Thomas Knob shelter; an overnight in the shelter or at a tent site somewhere in the vicinity; and a return back via the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. These trails roughly parallel the Grayson County-Smyth County line for about five miles along the mountain ridge.
As we approached the mountain, you could clearly see the delineation where the frost began to accent the freshly fallen snow. While you could see the snow between the trees on the bottom half of the mountain, on the top half of the mountain everything—literally every single thing—was covered with brilliant white frost.
Donning my 44-pound backpack full of winter camping gear and camera equipment, I crossed the road and started up the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. The hike started through trees, which glistened overhead. The skies were bright to the west, where the sun was already dropping, but were a dark cobalt blue in other directions.
The frost coated everything. Tree branches were twice or more their size due to the hoarfrost.
Once up in the balds, you could see great distances. The mountains to the south had snow but little frost; to the north across the valley, Clinch Mountain had frost on its largest southern-exposed face, known as the Bear Town area.
The contrast between blue and white was dramatic.
Hiking in this winter wonderland, you could easily imagine yourself in another part of the United States, or another part of the world, hiking in the Arctic or in true Alpine conditions.
The Frasier firs and other trees at the highest elevations looked almost fake with their limbs and branches so heavily laden with frost.
The moon rose dramatically in the East, signalling that this was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.
The entire hike, as awesome as it was, was merely the opening act for the light show we were about to watch.
As we rounded the first bend that allowed us a view to the eastern horizon, the whole mountain became aglow in amazing colors.
The photos we took do not adequately show the overwhelming color of the scene. The periphery as well as the main view to the east were bursting with palettes of pink and purple. In the photo below, I used my camera’s panorama feature to show a 180 degree view.
The entire episode of amazing light lasted less than one-half hour. Even the fading light was beautiful, as captured below.
The sunlight disappeared, and the moonlight began to illuminate the mountain. It was not a full moon, but it was sufficient such that you could walk without a headlamp once your eyes adjusted.
The light show over, we set out to make our camp. The temperature seemed to plummet by the minute. The winds, which were not insignificant while we were obsessed with photography, seemed to increase in strength and become more ominous. It was definitely getting colder.
There would be a price to pay to for the incredible optic conditions: suffering through a brutal night of cold and wind.
The Pain Factor
The next day, when we returned to our vehicle, an older gentleman walked into the parking lot from the other direction–coming down off of Whitetop Mountain. A large white beard, accompanied by a red union shirt, made the man appear as a slim Santa Clause coming from the snowy woods to inspect his winter kingdom. The man was none other than Damascus Dave, a well-known and experienced thru-hiker and outfitter in the region.
He greeted us. “Isn’t it beautiful? That hoarfrost, or rime ice, or whatever you want to call it—it’s whiter than snow.” Then he asked, “Did y’all overnight up there?”
We told him we had, and we began discussing the wind gusts and how cold it got last night. We talked about gear for a while, and how while we were prepared, it was still extremely cold.
“Well, it was pretty cold last night,” he said. “And, I reckon you can’t camp up there in this kind of weather and not experience some pain. No getting around it. That’s just part of it.”
As I stood there in the parking lot, tired but satisfied, I realized that he spoke the truth.
When it comes to hardcore winter camping, especially if you are seeking exposed ridgetops, vistas, and the coldest weather with the most snow, there will be some pain. Not insufferable pain. Certainly not the Beck Weathers’ level of pain. Not nearly the level of pain a depicted in Cold, the movie about climbing Gasherbrum II, a 26,000′ mountain, in the middle of winter. But there is unquestionably some serious discomfort—some pain—involved. It’s truly a case of “no pain, no gain.”
We weren’t cold while hiking. (In fact, while climbing it’s pretty easy to actually overheat.) We moderated our hike so that our pace kept us warm but didn’t cause us to overheat. But when we stopped, the whipping wind would quickly steal body heat. We had to put on our down jackets when we stopped. (You don’t want to overdress, risking sweating too much and the dreaded “wetting out” inside your jacket, but you have to dress sufficiently to keep warm.) It’s a balancing act to maintain warmth in these conditions. Preparation, proper clothing, and layering is key.
However, regardless of your dressing properly, setting up camp when it is really cold can be difficult. The cold seeps through your gloves, burning and then numbing your digits, making it increasingly difficult for you to manipulate them. For example, holding aluminum tent poles firmly while setting up a tent just saps the heat from your hands. Simple tasks require greater concentration and mental focus when it’s freezing and your hands are numb. Standing around while doing these kinds of tasks causes your feet to get cold, too.
By the time we had set up our tent, the water in our one-liter water bottles had almost completely frozen. The sandwich I brought for dinner had frozen. And the gas canister that would allow us to warm up some water for coffee and oatmeal was not functional.
That night, I slept in my 15 degree-rated sleeping bag on a sleeping pad, with polar fleece pants, two undershirts, a fleece jacket, wearing a down jacket, a hat, and gloves. My feet were covered with wool socks and insulated slippers. And yet, my feet and hands were still cold. My friend, who brought his 0 degree-rated “Never Summer” down sleeping bag, fared no better. Let’s just say, it was very cold.
We warmed our water by placing it in our sleeping bags, along with a host of other gear that was generally uncomfortable to have there: batteries from my camera; my headlamp; additional food; the gas canister; and various other items.
The wind was blowing interminably, with gusts that seemed Everest-like. In putting up our tent, we staked through the first inch of frozen ground down into the soft earth, and used some additional rocks to keep if from moving. Nonetheless, the tent flapped incessantly through the night, and the intermittent gusts seemed to have enough force to blow us off the mountain.
Despite the good weather window reported on the news and on the Internet the previous day, the temperatures plunged and the wind whipped with increasing intensity through the night. Using the heat inside our sleeping bags, we were able to thaw the iced-through water bottles.
Little did we know that although the weather was predicted to improve at the lower elevations, the recorded temperature (single digits) and wind chill (below zero) was the coldest in December 2012, and wind gusts were recorded at 65 miles per hour at the Grayson Highlands State Park Weather Station, almost 1500 vertical feet below where we were camping on the exposed ridge at over 5400′.
If we had not been adequately prepared that evening, an uncomfortable night could have been much worse. Instead, we awoke the next morning, broke camp, and went back to the Thomas Knob shelter to brew some coffee to warm up before the hike back to the trailhead. As expected, as we hiked back down the mountain, it got warmer and the winds subsided.
By the time we returned to the parking lot, it was comfortable enough wearing just our fleece sweaters to stand around and chat with Dave regarding harrowing experiences he had heard about in this area. (Many folks have actually been in some real danger up on the mountain). While not uniquely cold, the weather we had experienced was extreme, especially for this region. For us part-time adventurers, you might even call the weather conditions epic.
The evening sunlight, true alpenglow, and whole experience made this a fitting winter solstice backpacking trip, a perfect prelude for Christmas and the New Year. The suffering part? Yes, it was definitely worth it. Meaningful achievement, even something as relatively inconsequential as a winter overnighter, requires some striving and involves a little or more discomfort. It’s in part the difficulty that makes it rewarding. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and the solitude sought after in these kinds of trips would not exist.
And for the record, yes, I actually did carry with me and wear insulated slippers.
September 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Located in far Southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde is one of the largest and best preserved ancestral Puebloan ruins in the world. This was the first leg of our trip to the Southwestern United States in 2012. After so much planning and driving, we were excited and full of anticipation to finally be visiting our first national park on the itinerary.
The park is located about one-half hour west of Durango, Colorado, where we stayed the previous night. Leaving Durango and heading to Mesa Verde, you travel across the foothills of the San Juan Mountains and down into the high desert. This was our first taste of the high desert on this trip; indeed, this was the first time ever that my children had been to a desert of any kind.
The aridity; the dusty, sandy soil; the impressive rock formations; strange trees and plants—the conditions were all so different from back East. Above all, what set this place apart was the sheer immensity of the landscape. Having been to Mesa Verde as a child with my parents and brother, I was especially excited to be here now, again, finally able to share this place with my own family.
From the park entrance, you climb up onto the mesa, the flat-topped mountain. The two-lane road to the top twists and skirts the edge of the mesa, switchbacking and steadily climbing up onto the top. It’s a steep and scenic ascent, with some sections of the road wedged into the ramparts of the mesa, with signs prohibiting stopping due to the danger of rockfall.
Atop the mesa are expansive views in all directions. To the north the San Juan Mountains rise up from the desert.
Beyond the mesa to the south, the high semi-desert country is composed of hills and more mesas covered with small shrub like trees. I was surprised how green the landscape was; it was late July in the desert after all.
The park visitor center is a circular shaped building with a deck looking out from the top of the mesa into the canyons below. Past the visitor center, there is a single road that travels for about 15 miles to two loops in the southern section of the park. It is here, at the southern end, where the famous ancient cliff dwellings are located. Archeologists believe the dwellings were inhabited between 600 and 1300 A.D. It is believed that at some point during this period the population at Mesa Verde may have exceeded 2000 people. However, archeologists are confident that some time after 1300, perhaps around 1400, the entire population here abandoned Mesa Verde and the cliff dwellings, traveling south or southwest to join with other Native Americans. Why they left when they did remains a mystery today.
The Puebloan people shifted from a hunter-gatherer people to a predominantly agricultural people, raising corn and beans and domesticating dogs and turkeys. They continued to hunt larger game, including deer. They were skillful at basket weaving and, later, at pottery.
The dwellings remained undiscovered until the late 1890s, when some cowboys or prospectors came upon them by accident. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Park to preserve the works of mankind.
According to the National Park service, today there are 5000 known archeological sites in the park, although most visitors, like us, come to see one or more of the four famous cliff dwellings: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Long House, and Spruce House.
We first visited Cliff Palace, which is probably the most impressive of the cliff dwellings. We visited an overlook that provided some great views of the Cliff Palace.
Cliff Palace has 150 rooms, including 15 Kivas, which are circular-shaped rooms that these Puebloan people used for special ceremonial and perhaps religious occasions.
The Puebloan people lived here between 600 and 1400 A.D. Archeological records show they first lived on top of the mesa, eventually developing significant masonry skills and building stone living quarters. At some point, probably about 1100 A.D., they moved down into the cliff dwellings and built stone living areas there. It is theorized they moved because of increased security and temperature regulation in the cliff dwellings.
In the photo below, you can appreciate that the cliff dwellings are toward the top of the mesa, yet about 100 feet below the upper ridge.
In the photo below, you can see the other side of the canyon viewed from Cliff Palace. Smaller cliff dwellings, perhaps granaries, can be seen on the other side of the canyon above the large boulder-outcropping in the foreground.
During the busy summer tourist season, park visitors must obtain tickets at the visitor center to visit the cliff dwellings. Visitors must be accompanied at all times by Park Rangers on tours; individuals are not allowed to wander about the cliff dwellings by themselves.
We allowed our boys to choose which cliff dwelling they wanted to visit, and they chose the Balcony House because it is supposed to be the most adventurous tour, with several climbing ladders. With 40 rooms, the Balcony House is smaller than the Cliff Palace, with 150 rooms.
Balcony house is constructed into the sheer cliff on the opposite side of the mesa from Cliff Palace. Entry to Balcony House by park visitors requires climbing down a set of stairs to an area below the dwellings, then a climb up a series of steps and a very tall, nearly vertical ladder.
The ladder is shown in the photos below. The Puebloan people would have accessed the Balcony House via small indented steps chiseled directly into the cliff face from the top of the mesa.
The Balcony House was also built with some narrow passages. It is speculated that the whole Balcony House structure was designed with features like these as fortifications, which would assist in defending it from outside attacks.
Our youngest child was a bit too small to climb up to Balcony House, so she and I went for a two-mile, out-and-back hike to some vista points that looked out to Balcony House; this is how I was able to get the photos like the one above and below, showing the Balcony House dwelling in the context of the massive mesa. (In the photo below, the cliff dwelling is on the upper right.)
My daughter enjoyed our little hike, though her flushed cheeks show the dry heat had an effect on us. Nothing a couple of Nalgene bottles filled with ice-cold water couldn’t neutralize. This hike, unlike some others that we did later on this trip, did not require me to carry her.
The interior of the cliff dwellings shows remarkable architecture and masonry, especially considering that these structures were designed and built about 1000 years ago. It is likely they were the paragon of architecture and construction in North America at this time. Some of these design elements are still used in modern adobe construction in the Southwest.
The kivas held a special place for the Puebloan people. Below is one of the better preserved kivas at Balcony House. The center of the kiva was used to build a fire, while the sides are believed to be benches.
Because of Mesa Verde’s special historical significance, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. By this designation, it is generally considered to be one of most import archeological and historical sites in the world.
If you plan on visiting Mesa Verde, my suggestion would be to give yourself at least one whole day. The trip to the visitor center and the cliff dwellings will consume the better part of the day. You could easily spend more than a day here if you have a special interest in the archeology of the Anasazi or Puebloan people. Fitting in multiple tours within a day can be done; however, it would be almost impossible to visit all four of the major sites in a single day.
What we left with—at least what I hope my children left with, and what I think is a major purpose of the park to inculcate—is not so much a memorization of specific details of the visit, but an overall impression of these impressive structures and their reflection of a relatively advanced civilization of Native Americans that existed long ago, long before Europeans set foot in this continent. That, and the strange, unsolved mystery of why these people apparently left this amazing place.
August 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. (To be precise, it was finished on August 14, 1937.) The trail is 2,180 miles long, has over 250 three-sided “shelters,” and links innumerable other trails through 14 states.
For three-quarters of a century people from all over the United States–indeed, from all over the world–have been trekking up and down the Appalachian Trail, or A.T., as most folks in the know refer to it. In commemoration of this milestone, this weekend I hiked a section of the A.T. between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.
Founded by a small group of hikers, particularly one forester named Benton Mckaye, who envisioned an East Coast ”super trail”, the Appalachian Trail Conference started work on the A.T. in the 1920s. By 1930 the trail began to take form as small groups of volunteers worked up and down the mountains of the East. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this was not a government project but the accomplishment of private, local clubs who mapped and routed sections of the trail, negotiated with private landowners and governmental agencies, and did the physical labor to build it in their respective areas.
To this day, although the A.T. is now owned by the governnment, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the many volunteer organizations are critical to the maintenance of the trail.
After World War II, volunteers renewed development of the A.T. In 1948, Earl V. Shaffer, an Army veteran who served in the Pacific Theater, completed the first ”thru hike,” or continuous hike of the entire A.T., reportedly in order to ”walk off” the stress of the war. In the years since, the A.T. has become a cultural phenomenon in addition to being an outdoor experience. Every year hundreds of individuals from all walks of life attempt to thru hike or section hike part of the A.T., seeking solace, self-exploration, or temporary escape from urbanity on the trail.
In 1968, the United States Congress passed the National Trails System Act, and the A.T. was the first completed national trail designated a National Scenic Trail. This added the A.T. to the system of national parks. The A.T. links two national parks (the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park), and includes Abingdon Outdoors’ own Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. While the A.T. has always crossed the MRNA, the trail used to traverse the Iron Mountains to the north of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain. It was re-routed over Mount Rogers and Whitetop due to scenic beauty of these highest mountains in Virginia. The old shelters on Iron Mountain are still maintained as part of the Iron Mountain Trail.
Most folks—like myself—have no intention (at least no immediate intention) of hiking the entire length of the A.T. Most folks hike part of the trail in a day, or at most over the course of a weekend or for a week or two. The trail is also frequently utilized by the Boy Scouts and by church and civic groups for hiking and camping trips.
The trail is designed not to be easy: It randomly meanders and seldom takes the easiest path from point “A” to point “B”. At points it certainly appears as if the A.T.’s designers purposely placed obstacles such as rocks and roots in the way. This keeps the trail challenging.
The A.T. is different things for different people: A place for solitude and meditation; a place for a communal outdoor experience; a training ground for other pursuits; a naturalist’s place to study flora and fauna. Perhaps Benton MacKaye best answered the question, “What’s the ultimate purpose of the Appalachian Trail?”
He said, “To walk. To see. And to see what you see.”
Happy Birthday, A.T. . . . See you on the trail.
August 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Hiking today with my daughter and faithful hound up on Forest Road 90 and the Iron Mountain Trail amidst the still lush, dark green foliage I saw a few leaves (just a very few, mind you), that seemed to be anxious for the next season.
Most traveling for summer vacations is finished or nearing completion; we are well into the 2012 Summer Olympics; young people and teachers are gearing up for a new school year; and here in Abingdon the Virginia Highlands Festival is in full swing. I can sense a collective sense of just a bit of anticipation all around as we know the summer is slowly drawing to an end. There’s still time to get outdoors and enjoy this season, though, which I encourage you to do.
July 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
High up on Pine Mountain in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is an area known as the Scales. This June we drove and hiked up to this area.
Basically, it’s nothing more than a grassy, fenced in area used by campers and horse riders. On the other hand, the Scales have been for many, many years the eastern gateway to the high country of Mount Rogers, where ranchers brought their cattle to graze in the summer and then sell during earlier in the 1900s. Livestock was weighed up here (thus the name “Scales”) before the animals trekked back down off the mountain and lost weight (and brought their owners less money when sold).
The Scales are located above 5000′. The Appalachian Trail crosses right above this area. The most direct route from below is Route 613, which is a rugged, rock strewn forest road that requires a high clearance vehicle.
The road eventually crosses a cattle guard. Shortly thereafter the forest opens up to show Pine Mountain and some good views to the north of the valley and ridge mountains in Virginia.
The skies always seem to be a deeper color of blue up here on the mountain.
April 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This article reviews the newest federally protected area in Southwest Virginia, the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area.
In 2009 the United States enacted the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2008. Sponsored by Senator John Warner (R-VA) and Rick Boucher (D-VA), the Act preserved over 50,000 acres of wilderness areas in the western part of Virginia. Part of the Act created the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area, a 6,500 acre tract, and the Bear Creek National Scenic Area, a 5,500 acre tract (I will review the Bear Creek National Scenic Area in a future article). See 16 U.S.C. § 546b. The designation of these tracts as “scenic areas,” as opposed to “wilderness,” was a compromise to allow continued non-motorized recreational use by cyclists (mostly single track mountain biking).
Some groups and individuals have known about this part of the northern ramparts and mountainsides of Iron Mountain for a long time. The Seng Mountain area has been part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area for 25+ years. The scenic area designation simply gives it more protection and makes permanent the designation of the area as one for the limited recreational uses enumerated in the statute. Ok—enough with the legal mumbo jumbo—let’s talk about the area itself:
The area is located in the southern section of Smyth County and is about 30 miles as the crow flies from Abingdon. Its boundaries are roughly Route 600 (Skulls Gap) on the west, Hurricane Campground on the east (off of Route 16), Forest Road 84 near the top of Iron Mountain on the south, and private land near the Stony Battery community on the north.
There are two major single track trails that cross the scenic area, Jerrys Creek Trail on the west side, and Rowland Creek Trail on the east side. Each of the trails follows a small creek that runs down the mountainside. The high point in the scenic area is Round Top Mountain, 4626′.
In mid-April my family and I drove to the upper trail head of Rowland Creek Trail. Our starting point was at 3850′. You reach this trailhead by traveling on FR 84, which is a gravel forest road. Getting to the trailhead from Route 600 takes about 20-25 minutes.
This is an unusual mountain hike, in that the hike starts the top, so you start hiking downhill, and return going back uphill. Rowland Creek trail starts out wide as it descends around Seng Mountain, down towards the headwaters of the creek below. The area forms a mini-gorge, as the mountainsides are steep and drop quickly down into Rowland Creek.
Where we started, on FR 84, there were no leaves. However, within a half mile of going down the trail, we descended into the foliage of springtime. The protection of the gorge-like formation protects the trees below from the elements, creating a micro-climate that is much milder than at the top.
After several switchbacks, you arrive at the headwaters of Rowland Creek. There are some nice potential campsites at the upper end of the trail, within easy walking distance of the creek.
One thing we noticed is that the trail was quite moist and rutted out from horses near the creek. It is probably extremely muddy after rains. The trail roughly parallels the creek the rest of the way down the mini-gorge.
The area along the creek is lush. We spotted numerous flowers. A bit of research shows that the trilliums we saw are native to the Southeastern United States, particularly in mountainous, gorge-like hollows such as that on this trail. They bloom in April or May at the earliest, while sunlight reaches the forest floor before the trees are fully leafed out.
One thing we were not anticipating, but had some fun with, were the creek crossings.
While none of the creek crossings were too difficult, we were hiking after several dry days. The trail could likely become completely washed out, and the creek crossings more difficult (at least to get across without getting soaked) under wetter conditions.
Even our dog, Magnus, was enjoying the creek crossings (here is creek crossing 3):
The highlight of this trip is most definitely Rowland Creek Falls, a 50′ cascade-type waterfall that drops down a series of stairs for about 80-100′.
The falls are not directly on the trail, so we needed to go down a hill in order to get some clean shots of the cascades.
My son Karl made it all the way to the bottom and took some nice shots of the lower end of the falls, including this photo:
Below is a map of the entire scenic area. Rowland Creek Trail and Jerrys Creek Trail can be connected by either FR 84, or an older, no longer used forest road that parallels FR 84 about 100′ downslope of it. This loop is about 12 miles in length. It is also used by mountain bikers, although there are sections that are very difficult due to the grade and the wetness near the creek beds.
April 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This March we visited Linville Falls, one of the most famous waterfalls in North Carolina, during the 2012 Banff Film Festival in Boone (the inspirational film festival trailer can be seen here). The falls are located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 316. There is a visitor’s center and a short hiking trail (about .8 miles) to the falls.
The closest viewing area shows the upper falls (not pictured here) in one direction, and beginning part of the lower falls in the other direction. The photos above and below show the beginning part of the lower falls. The lower falls churn through a cavernous semi-circle of eroded limestone, and then plummet about 45 feet into a large pool.
“Chimney Rock Overlook” can be seen from the upper viewing area, as highlighted in the photo to the right. From Chimney Rock Overlook, you can see the lower falls in their entirety, as well as the large cliffs that surround the falls and mark the beginning of the Linville Gorge.
The cliff face next to the lower falls is as impressive as the falls themselves. When we viewed the falls, there was a relatively large volume of water flowing. This caused the falls to jettison outward from the upper pool.
Linville Falls is a very popular stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway (the parking lot at the visitor center is huge), so it is recommended that if you want to visit the falls without hordes of tourists, you should try to see them during less visited times of year such as in spring or winter, or during the middle of the week.
The viewing areas were built in a manner to try to fit into the natural surroundings and are constructed of stone and logs. When they are wet, it is possible they could be treacherous. In particular, the Chimney Rock overlook could be dangerous if someone got too close to the edge of the viewing area, as a fall from that location could be fatal.
The Linville Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the Eastern United States. I have seen claims that it is in fact the deepest, but there are several others that are comparable (including the Russell Fork Gorge in Southwest Virginia). Suffice it to say that it is deep and impressive. Experienced hikers have become disoriented and lost in this place.
The Linville Gorge reminded me of the gorge below Abrams Falls close to Abingdon, although without doubt the Linville Gorge is much deeper and longer.
If you find yourself in Boone, Blowing Rock, or on the Blue Ridge Parkway in this neighborhood, a trip to Linville Falls makes for a nice day trip and provides a nice little outdoor experience without too much effort.
March 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Most folks who visit Blowing Rock, North Carolina are on vacation from far away, usually in summer to escape the oppressive heat in places like Florida or maybe Charlotte or Atlanta. Not so for Abingdonians—for us, it’s just hop, skip, and jump over the mountains. It’s exactly 60 miles from Abingdon to Blowing Rock. Perfect for a day trip.
About a mile outside of Blowing Rock, just off Route 220, is the entry to Bass Lake, part of Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. An easy day trip from Abingdon (although certainly meriting a long longer trip if desired), the Moses H. Cone Park is a large, outdoor park managed by the U.S. National Park Service.
We have been visiting this park for years. One of our spring rituals, when it’s warming up and we are getting cabin fever, is to come over here on a March weekend, before the crowds swarm Blowing Rock.
The walk around Bass Lake, about a mile, is the perfect family walk. There are a multitude of trails lacing the park that go far beyond the lake. A map of the trails, somewhat dated, from the National Park Service is located here.
This is a great place to come to relax—lunch at one of the many restaurants in Blowing Rock and a stroll around the grounds of the estate makes for a nice day.
Moses H. Cone was a textile magnate that built his country estate in the very early 1900s similar to Vanderbilt’s estate in Asheville. The Cone estate is not quite as exorbitant as The Biltmore, but with 3,500 acres of land and a 13,000 square foot mansion that overlooks the mountains, it’s undeniably grand. The estate was designed with the mansion, which sits at about 4,500′, overlooking the man-made lake and the carriage trails that meander down towards Blowing Rock. More information on the background to the creation of the estate is located here.
The house is open to the public, and is accessed off of mile 295-298 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. While the mansion is worth a visit, what keeps us coming back are the grounds. Imagine Virginia Creeper Trail type trails: well-maintained cinder or pea gravel covered trails.
The trails crisscrossing the ground make for an excellent area to train for running. In fact, most times you are here you will see some locals, part-time residents, or visitors running on the carriage trails. Next time you are in the Boone-Blowing Rock area, check out this park. You won’t be disappointed.
February 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Check out these photographs of falcons and falconry from a new Northern Virginian blog on photography. Falconry, the ancient sport of taking quarry with raptors, is not widely practiced in the United States, although there is a Virginia Falconers Association.
If you investigate a little bit you will learn there is normally an “apprenticeship” whereby an aspiring falconer will work with a more senior bird handler to learn how to trap, manage and train a falcon. The apprenticeship may take years. Falconers must obtain U.S. Fish and Wildlife Permits in order to trap and keep these birds.
Having a falcon return to you and land on your arm would be exhilarating—presuming, of course, that you were wearing a protective gauntlet (otherwise your exhilaration would be tempered by extreme pain as the raptor’s talons clamped down on your forearm).
These photos reminded me of a backpacking trip a friend and I took several years ago wherein we accidentally came upon several wild raptors that flew extremely close to us. It was a bit unnerving to have birds of prey buzz so closely by. A few minutes later we would realize why the birds were flying so close to us.
We were hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Bald Mountains, up on the North Carolina-Tennessee border about 10 miles north of Sams Gap. As we rounded some large boulders, we accidentally came upon the Big Bald Banding Station. There were some individuals near the summit of Big Bald Mountain collecting data, and there were birds of prey that were either nesting or returning to the area. There were also some large bird cages, and, if I recall correctly, we observed several birds being released.
The sheer randomness of our coming upon these guys and watching the magnificent birds was pretty neat. In fact, we were so surprised that neither of us remembered to take our cameras and photograph the birds. We probably could have gotten some shots like those in the article highlighted above. The birds we saw were not trained, but were wild and free and were probably just passing through, stopping briefly on their way south for the winter.
Big Bald Mountain, at 5516′, is one the higher points on the AT (and the highest between the Roan balds to the north and the Smokies to the south). The hike on the AT from Spivey Gap (Route 19W, aka Spivey Mountain Road) to Big Bald Mountain is a steep, rugged hike. The Bald Mountains are a natural bird migration throughway, and both large birds and smaller species cross the mountain during the seasons.
P.S. – North Carolina has a North Carolina Falconer’s Guild; Tennessee does not have any organization that supports falconry, although the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency administers the testing for falconry permits.