Into the Woods: Roan Mountain

Nothing dredges up memory as quickly and thoroughly as smell. A subtle scent unleashes a flash of thoughts, feelings, and experience from various points in our lives. This connection is well known to literature, and brain science seems to point to this being a design feature. The parts of the brain that process smell (the olfactory bulb) are in close proximity to those responsible for emotional memory (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system). It’s supposed to be this way.

For me, one of the most powerful of these “smell markers” is the peculiar perfume of the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest. Part Christmas tree, part mushroom, part skunk, part grass, and all wrapped in a lightly chilled cloud. If you’ve sniffed it, you know what I mean. If not, there is really nothing else like it. Part of the charm is its relative rarity…there are only a handful of spots in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia that have all the right ingredients.

These spruce-fir pockets are islands in the sky, little corners of Canadian climate poking up above the rest of the subtropical South. Their altitude (generally north of 5,000′ above sea level) and isolation makes access difficult, helping with preservation. Of course, that same uniqueness has always fed visitor’s curiosity, and many such outposts have vehicle access (if you can stomach the curves) nearly to the summit—Cligman’s Dome, Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Black Balsam Knob, Whitetop, and Roan Mountain, among others.

Roan, a long massif straddling the N.C./Tenn. line was one of the first to attract tourists, with the long-since burned down Cloudland Hotel bringing a select clientele to the mountain “for their health” when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was barely a gleam in Horace Kephart‘s eye. Among hikers, Roan is known more for it’s expansive balds and their 360° vistas than its forests, and this interplay of two such uncommon ecosystems may account for its early and continued popularity.

Today, the mountain’s long, green backbone is well protected by Cherokee (in Tenn.) and Pisgah (in N.C.) National Forests. The Appalachian Trail traverses the ridgeline from West to East, and the shelter at Roan High Knob (6,285’) is the highest spot to sleep anywhere on the trail. To further add to its allure, the western end contains a “heath bald” so thick with catawba rhododendrons that it is marketed by the forest service as a garden. This section is even handicap-accessible, with gently sloping paved trails weaving through thickets of wind-pruned shrubs. In mid-June, when these fully bloom, the effect is nothing short of magical.IMG_6620

To return to nostalgia, I lived for many years (and my family still does) in Watauga County, North Carolina, and Roan was always one of my favorite spots for a day hike. I’ve seen bathed in artist’s-palette sunsets, in hailstorms, buried under feet of snow, and wrapped in fog so thick you can barely see where to put your next footstep. It never disappoints. If there is a beau ideal of Appalachian wildness, this is it.

It’s been several years since I last visited, and I wanted to bring my daughters to share in my love for the place. We spent last week at my family’s house, and were able to pay our respects to the mountain (N.B. – Tempting one’s children with a trip to the state park pool at the bottom of the TN side is a great hiking incentive). Hoping to catch the rhodie bloom, we opted to park at the gardens area. Though things peaked early this year, we were still rewarded with mounds of magenta flowers. Plenty of other plants were likewise in bloom: purple-flowered raspberry, hawkweed, bluets, gray’s lily, and more.

From the gardens (which, for those keeping track of family-friendly hikes, are seasonally equipped with restrooms and running water), we took a 3-mile round trip walk along the Cloudland Trail to Roan High Bluff on the far west of the massif. This is an easy walk, unless you’re not used to the altitude (laugh it up, Coloradans. Some of us live at only 700′!), and mostly forested. Mountains have a way of creating their own weather, so the bright green moss and plentiful mud we encountered are typical. The viewing platform at the end of the trail is well worth the trek. Once back at the gardens, we sealed the deal with a fine picnic.

As every parent will attest, there is a special joy attached to seeing your offspring revel in one of your own childhood haunts, sharing in your story in a new and deeper way. I hope this is one in a long line of visits that lets this incredible place sink deep into their souls.

If you’re ever in the area (the peak is about an hour’s drive from either Boone, N.C., or Johnson City, Tenn., and just shy of 2 hours from Asheville), make sure to let the Roan work its magic on you as well. Just don’t all show up at once, OK?

Into the Woods: Jacks River Falls

As the spring hiking season winds down (and the temperature winds up), I was fortunate enough to get one last good trek in. This happened to combine three of my favorite types of hike: 1) remote (i.e. uncrowded), 2) new turf for me, and 3) solo. This was as much of a prayer walk as a recreational hike; the quiet of the forest is rejuvenating on many levels.

This time, I went back to the best local hard-to-access place: Cohutta Wilderness in Chattahoochee National Forest. Most of the good trailheads in Cohutta are 50 miles or so east of Chattanooga, about an hour-and-a-half of drive time (It takes about 45 minutes to go the first 40 miles and about 45 minutes to go the last 10). The forest service roads leading into the Cohutta area are typically narrow, rutted, and hard on cars. Even so, I’m almost always able to get where I’m trying to get in my trusty Nissan.

Having heard for years about the clear and beautiful Jacks River, a tributary of the Connasauga River that flows nearly its entire course within Cohutta, but never having explored it, I decided to make for Jacks River Falls in the northwestern corner of the wilderness. It’s a 9-mile round trip (4.5 in, then retracing your steps), so perfect for a day trip.IMG_6308

After the expected long and bumpy ride to the Beech Bottom Trailhead, I hit the trail about 9:30 a.m. in thick fog and drizzle (after heavy rains the night before). The first mile or so of the trail was actually less steep and in better repair than the road, and the overall elevation change over the course of the trail is very minimal.

The wilderness status of the area quickly becomes apparent when you start coming to downed trees across the trail. Whereas in state and National Parks and more travelled areas of National Forests, trail debris is largely kept at bay by staff and volunteers funded through usage fees, the “back-to-nature” management of wilderness areas keeps trail maintenance to a minimum. Through those 4.5 miles, I must have passed over, under, or through no less than 40 downed trees (really 80, considering it was a there-and-back hike), most appearing to have fallen very recently. It has been a very wet spring in the area (with 20+ inches of rain since March 1), and soggy soil makes for easy uprooting in a good wind. There were a few creek fords as well, but none so deep or wide that I couldn’t navigate them without getting my socks wet. Continue reading

Into the Woods: North Chickamauga Creek Gorge

After a rather lackluster (or, for the cold-natured among us, pleasant) winter, the Tennessee Valley is in the full throes of spring. This means it’s high time to spend every dry weekend outside before heat, copperheads, spiders, and poison ivy tempt me to retreat to more air-conditioned environs. Fortunately, the area affords many such opportunities within a short drive.

Today’s entry was a spot that I’ve not explored much before, despite it being less than half an hour from home. North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State IMG_6089Natural Area is just a couple of miles off a major highway, and bordered by subdivisions. In the midst of expanding suburbia, this 7,000+ acre preserve is quite the breath of fresh air.

It’s water rather than air, though, that defines the space here. Unlike where I grew up in Western North Carolina, water isn’t as ubiquitous here, even with over 50″ of rain in an average year. It’s plentiful enough during winter and spring, but long, dry summers snatch up surface water, keeping the forests around here much drier than in the main spine of the Appalachians (or even the western side of the Cumberland Plateau). The gorge floor in August is almost a dry riverbed, but in March it is a clear, cold, forceful stream. In fact, we had to cut our walk short because the water was too high to ford safely where the main trail crosses the creek.

North Chick was until 2006 one of several “Pocket Wilderness” sites tucked into cracks in the plateau and set aside for public access and recreation by the former Bowater paper company. This gesture of goodwill was not as altruistic as it seems, as the Pockets’ steep, rocky terrain made them as useless for pulpwood harvesting as they were good for recreation. Most of the former Pockets have been transferred to state or federal conservation agencies, with most (this one included) roped in to the Cumberland Trail network.

Of the hike itself, I don’t have much to say. It was a pretty day and the grandparents had the kids, so most of our visit consisted of sitting on a rock by the creek talking. Aside from the main trail, we ventured a bit up the lower Hogskin Loop.IMG_6096 It’s very rocky, but nothing too hard. We simply weren’t in the mood for strenuous hiking today.

Like most creek bottoms, the relative preponderance of water means more vegetation than the slopes above. Given the seasonal pattern of moisture as well, spring is the best time to see the most unique and fleeting plant life. The best wildflower blooms are still a few weeks off, but many are already breaking through the leaf cover. Delicate trilliums, geraniums, and others soak up as much light as they can in the few weeks between last frost and the full leafing of the forest canopy. This was a very healthy forest, for whatever reason spared the underbrush takeover by invasive bush honeysuckle and privet that characterizes so much of the region. Native understory shrubs like mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron, mapleleaf viburnum, and red buckeye are here in abundance.

This little nook of our county is quite a spot, and a good reminder that sometimes a long way away can be right around the corner. Every metro area needs a little wilderness to spice it up, and Chattanooga certainly has these in spades.

 

 

 

 

Into the Woods: Mount Jefferson

A good walk in the woods, like a good book, always calls you back for another look. Much as I’m always looking for a new trail and a higher mountain, a short hike on a favorite trail feels as warm and familiar as an old sweater.

Whenever I have a chance to go home to the NC High Country, a hike is in order. Since my family moved to that part of the world in 1998 (and even though I’ve been a Chattanooga resident since 2006), there’s hardly a trail in the area that I haven’t hoofed at least once.

One that I come back to again and again, though, is the short (<2 mi.) loop across the summit of Mount Jefferson in Ashe County. This modest summit (4665′) cuts an imposing prominence above the surrounding farmland, and has been preserved as a small state park. It has a much more unassuming beauty than many more famous peaks in the area like Grandfather Mountain, but it is a special place when you look a bit closer.

The metamorphic rock (amphibolite) underlaying the mountain gives it a sharper profile than many of the more rounded sandstone & quartzite peaks nearby. The rock also weathers less readily, giving the outcrops a dark, jagged look. Ravens and falcons nest in the protected crags. The sheltered north face of the mountain is home to many interesting plants, including a small stand of Bigtooth aspen, which normally occur much farther north.

Perhaps the best blessing of Mount Jefferson, though is the ease of the path. A road leads nearly to the summit, and there are bathrooms (NB – though these are closed in winter. The kids, er, learned the hard way). The gentle climb makes it a great place for young legs to get out and see the mountaintop ecosystem without complaining or wearing out. A few days after Christmas, our whole family (my parents, my two sisters, Rachel, our three kids, and I) did the full loop without breaking a sweat.

If you’re ever in the area without a lot of time to see the high Appalachian environment, stop in and check this one out. In the winter, access is dependent on weather, spring & fall are lovely, and the summer breezes are a world-class heat-beater.

If you’ve got a little longer window, be sure to visit the wonderful little towns at the base of the mountain – Jefferson & West Jefferson. They’re well-provisioned with the requisite charm of shops, restaurants, and murals, not to mention a legit cheese factory.