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.

Into the Woods: Arkaquah Trail

Walking up and down hills is the cost of doing business in hiking. In essence, that is hiking; the exercise, the views, the solitude, and the experience all flow from it. If it was easy to get to where a hiking trail goes, there would be a road, right?

Sometimes, the particularly dedicated (or disturbed) among us thumb our noses at perfectly good roads in favor of the hike. For instance, in the eastern U.S., many high mountains are accessible by car for the tourist value. Such is the case with Georgia’s Brasstown Bald. At 4,784′, it’s nowhere close to the tallest peak in Appalachia, but it is the tallest in its state. It is also fairly disconnected from other nearby peaks, with a prominence of nearly 2,200, making for unobstructed long-range views.

The way most people enjoy Brasstown is by a drive up GA 180 Spur and then a quick shuttle ride to the summit. You can pay the USFS $5 a pop for the privilege, and then enjoy the cool breezes in a rocking chair under the observation deck. I’ve driven up at least a few times myself. Then, there’s the other way….

A good friend from Pennsylvania has taken up highpointing, and he wanted to tackle Brasstown during a visit to the Atlanta area, so I headed over to meet him Saturday in Blairsville (just shy of 2 hours’ drive from Chattanooga). Part of the joy of his project is a refusal to do things the easy way, so driving to the summit is out. After doing our research, we decided on the Arkaquah Trail, which begins at almost exactly 2,200′ above sea level at Track Rock Gap.

This 5.5 mile trail (at least that’s what the sign says, we measured it at just over 5.2) traverses a large roadless area in Chattahoochee National Forest’s Brasstown Wilderness before spitting you out at the main parking area just below the top of Brasstown Bald. If you do the math, that’s a 2,784′ gain over the distance, or about 500′ per mile; not too harsh. The kicker is that the first 1.2 miles pack in 1,400′ of that gain. That’s a 22% grade, folks; by comparison, a steep highway descent with runaway truck ramps might be 7-8%.

Going up, we muscled through the climb, knocking out the first two miles in just under an hour through no small amount of huffing and puffing. After that, the second two-thirds of the trail made for a nice walk to enjoy the scenery, replete with Southern Appalachian standards (blue mountain vistas, rock outcrops, rhododendron tunnels, wildflowers, wildlife, etc.). We even saw a bear (on the way back down), which is less fun than it sounds when you’re three miles from your car. The only hiccup was a very large tree across the entire trail that required some, shall we say, “wrestling” to get past.

The last 0.6 mile is almost as steep as the first bit, but it’s the paved walk-up to the summit from the parking lot. Finishing strong is easy when you’re being goaded on by grannies and toddlers with fresh legs.

And then there was the descent.

You would think that the uphill leg is the more difficult, but my knees and hips now beg to differ. By the time we got into the car, walking was painful. Even standing was slowly becoming difficult. Driving home took just long enough for complete rigor mortis to set in. Teaching Sunday school the next morning was only facilitated by shameless leaning on the podium. The blisters on my heels are only just now healed. The stuffed mushrooms, beer, and burgers at trail’s end would’ve gone down even better with a little ibuprofen.

Looking back, the most remarkable thing about the whole experience was that we stayed dry. I have almost never been on a long hike in the summer that didn’t involve an abject downpour. To be fair, it tried to sprinkle a bit here and there, but this summer’s drought won the round.

Crazy? Sure. But once you’re around the bend, you may as well keep at it. Voluntary pain & suffering notwithstanding, a trip like this is always a rich and fruitful therapy for my soul.

Into the Woods: Conasauga Lake and Grassy Mountain

Location is everything.

Chattanooga is where it is because of the conveniences of transportation. It’s where the Tennessee River cuts through the wall of the Cumberland Plateau, and the city built up around this natural intersection between boats and rails during the early industrial era. That made it quite the prize during the war between the states, and it’s the crossroads of the South even still—a 2.5 hour drive or less from Atlanta, Knoxville, Birmingham, and Nashville. Much of the traffic between the Southeast and the Midwest passes through here, giving us more traffic woes than a city of this size warrants. Two of the top 10 largest trucking corporations in the U.S. are headquartered here, and we’re still known around the world for a catchy tune about a train ride.

All of that to say, living here makes getting other places a fairly easy proposition, so much so that a drive over to the western edge of the Appalachians for a day hike isn’t much trouble at all. On clear days from certain vantage points around town, you can make out the profile of Big Frog, Cowpen Mountain, and Grassy Mountain shooting up from the valley floor about 40 miles to the east. They are the westernmost “real mountains” (+/- 4,000 ft. above sea level) in the country until you get to the Black Hills.  Continue reading