Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Last month was a bitter disappointment for me. I was sick my entire vacation and when I wasn't feeling bad, it was raining and kept me pinned inside the house. Usually I dread this time of year, the holidays are a stressful and busy time at work and my hiking time is thinned considerably. However, since I've felt better recently and my energy is back, things don't seem so bad, even while I'm at work.
Coming and going. In the bend, heading to the Channels.
Fall hanging around.

This past Sunday presented an opportunity for some hiking redemption when my friend Halley brought a rowdy crew of adventurers from North Carolina to my home state of Virginia for a trip up to the Channels. I can't put into words how wonderful the Channels are, Amber doesn't even like hiking and she agreed to go...for the fifth time!
Cabin and Fire Tower near the Channels.
Evening view from the Channels.
Channels surfing.

Sunday morning Amber and I left Gray and stopped by Bristol to pick up our hiking buddy, John Forbes. John was eager to get out on the trails again and I was glad to have him since we haven't hiked together since tackling Dick Creek Falls in Erwin, Tennessee just before I fell ill. Halley agreed to meet us at the Virginia welcome center off of Interstate 81 and showed up with some familiar faces as well as a few new recruits to our ranks. She bounced out of her car happily greeting and introducing everyone, soon her attention was focused on the giant 'LOVE' sign in the parking lot and we had to pose for a series of pictures before departing for the 30 minute drive to the trail head.
Rest Stop Love. Photo Courtesy of Halley's Gopro.
Inside the Channels with our group. Pictured, front Halley, Lincoln seated behind her, Samantha in purple, Amber with blue head band, Candi in pink, Hugo navy blue, and John in the back. I'm the tall guy.

I wasn't sure how my legs would handle the three mile uphill climb to the top of the mountain but soon after we exited the truck I was in the front of the pack with John and things were right back to normal. Halley had assembled quite the crew to join our hike. Candi has quickly became a regular on the trails with us, her energy and enthusiasm are always welcome and she can hold her own with any trail she tackles. Hugo joined us for only the second trip but between his hilarious impressions and non stop jokes the first time, I was hoping I had enough breath in my body to climb the mountain while laughing the whole way. Samantha was new to hiking with us, but kept pace with everyone and seemed to take up with Amber talking about various foods and of course, all things dogs. And then there was Lincoln, who is a body builder but had found himself talked into becoming a hiker that day, I assume by some of Halley's charming tactics. 
Entering the Channels.
Deeper in the maze of boulders.

Great light.

Everyone mixed and mingled as we churned up the mountain. Conversation filled the air and Hugo had everyone laughing despite having to carry half the girls packs.  At one point, Halley and Candi decided they didn't need the weight of their boots and hiked bare foot!  I was amazed at how much the trail has evolved since I first started hiking there a few years ago. There are numerous signs and mile markers as you make your way up the mountain. The Channels are featured on Virginia's tourism website as one of the top 25 hikes in the state and the worn logging road really showed the increase in foot traffic. I was a little bummed the majority of the leaves were gone for the season, only occasional swatches of orange and yellows could be seen in the low lying valleys as we continued up the mountain. After passing the mile 2 marker just off the left of the trail, the real leg burning climbing begins. I feel safe in saying everyone suffered through this section as soon we were all sprawled in the middle of the trail taking a break. The short break really helped me and it wasn't long until we were back on our feet and starting to see some of the large flat rocks that start appearing in the logging road just short of the top of the mountain. John, Hugo, and I were first to spot the old fire tower and as reached the spur trail to the Channels I was surprised to see the trail was lined in snow!
Lincoln is around 6'4" so this gives you an idea of the size of these rocks.
John isn't very tall but he looks like an ant in here!
Amber and Cash surrounded by light.
Candi passing through.

When we reached the abandoned cabin everyone scattered exploring and taking pictures. A large rock behind the cabin is a perfect spot to view distant ridges and the rock John and I call the Pinnacle. Our plan was to find a way out to the rock and see if we could climb it as we had never seen any pictures from there but we had a lot of play time in the Channels ahead of us. The fire tower nearby has the bottom rung of steps removed but our troop wasn't deterred by this. Candi was the first up and soon John and Hugo were in the tower as well. Amber even joined in on the climbing and had me boost her up onto the platform around the height of my head. Halley was right behind her and Lincoln too, Samantha and I stayed behind. I was on dog sitting duty with Cash and she was enjoying some lunch under the tower. As everyone came down to hike over to the top of the Channels, I chose to hike alone into the maze to play with camera settings and redeem myself for years of crappy photography there. I shot in manual which helped control the amount of light entering the lens and helping light the narrow passages that rarely see the sun. It was nice to have the entire place to myself and I took time to climb into some precariously stacked boulders and pose for some shots using my Gopro. I was thrilled with what I was seeing on my LCD screen on the camera and it wasn't long before the others joined me in the labyrinth. I only captured glimpses of everyone as they zipped between the boulders and I could tell they were all having a great time. It's always interesting to me see people's reactions to the Channels and seeing four newbies take it in was a real treat. For over an hour we played in the boulder field and I hardly noticed how cold it was as I continued to take photos like crazy. Amber however noticed the cold and was bundling up both her and poor scrawny Cash. I knew it would take us a while to hike out so I reluctantly packed my gear for the three mile trip down the mountain.
Hugo and Halley.
Laurel in the Channels.

The cold of the Channels driving us out.
A shameless selfie with the Trio. It's been a great year!
Hiking out we stopped by the hidden set of Channels and lured an old hiking friend out of the shrubs for a short visit. It was good to see John Lane and pose for a quick picture Captain Morgan style!
This thing was huge. I may have to take up rock climbing.
I'm gonna call this the Guardian. It stands guard over the forest below.

On the way out, everyone remained in good spirits and hiking plans for future outings were discussed making the time pass even more quickly. About a mile back down the mountain a large monolith looms over the forest a short but steep hike off the trail. Every time I've passed it I've wanted to get a closer look but always chose to keep hiking, but being with John I knew he would be game to hike up the steep grade. He and I started off up through the fallen leaves and were joined by Halley and Candi in hot pursuit. The length between the rock and the trail was deceptively long and the fallen leaves made footing a challenge. When we got to the base of the rock it towered some 70ft above us and after examining the perimeter we found there to be no way up without a rope. It was still a cool experience to be one of the few people to stand in the shadow of the monster and we posed for a few pictures before rejoining the rest of our group for the hike out.

Another successful trip to the Channels was just what the doctor ordered and still having energy after arriving back at the trail head was the ultimate sign that I was better. It was a great day with old and new hiking friends. In a year that keeps getting better, its tough to top a good day on Brumley Mountain. As I write this I've just received my new hiking boots and waterproof socks, so more trail days are calling. Until then, happy trails!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Undeterred by Willie's intimidation tactics at Grassy Creek Falls, Halley, John, and I were off to look for more waterfall adventure while waiting for some clouds to lift off of Mt. Mitchell. She suggested we carpool and I left my truck at a parking area just off the Blue Ridge Parkway for the drive down NC80 to Roaring Fork Falls. I was filled with adrenaline from our encounter with Willie and the fact I was going to see a new waterfall. We soon arrived at the trail head and a short half mile hike later, we were at the base of the falls. Roaring Fork comes tumbling from high off the mountain some 80ft later as it rushes past and continues....well, roaring, downstream. The sun was starting to peek out from behind the cloud cover making my photography a challenge but I still was able to snag a few decent shots. John climbed high up the right side of the waterfall and the further he got away, the more I could tell just how massive this place was! Here's a look at the falls without John.

Roaring Fork Falls.
Our next stop was just outside of Black Mountain Campground at Set Rock Falls. I had visited Set Rock Falls before but still was eager to return since the hike is short and beautiful and the payoff is a nice 55ft high waterfall. The wildflowers were in bloom as we followed the creek through the campground and some even had identification signs next to them which caught both mine and John's attention. As we closed in on the falls I was disappointed to see the sun squarely on the uppermost drop. Halley was unsure the last time she had been to the falls and John loved the way it stair stepped down the mountain, so seeing their excitement made me forget about the bad light. I stalked around the base trying to salvage some shots from the tripod and enjoyed the cool mist from the water. Satisfied with a few pictures and needing to take advantage of all we wanted to see that day, we were soon hiking out and to the highest peak east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell.
Set Rock Falls.
The water below the falls is really clear.
The gravel road from Black Mountain Campground is a beautiful ride from what I remember now. It follows a nice stream and is scenic all the way to where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway just shy of Mt. Mitchell. The speed limit on the parkway is 45 miles per hour, or if you are Halley Burleson, whatever your heart desires. I'm still digging pieces of her car seat from between my butt cheeks from our flight up the curvy road to the summit of Mt. Mitchell. As much as I hike and love the outdoors, I'm almost ashamed to admit it was my first time to the top of that mountain. Clouds hung on distant peaks and I could see below deep into the valleys while also being able to see the tops of the clouds and blue skies above, it's a surreal place to say the least. There is a large parking lot with a small snack bar and souvenir shack before the paved trail that leads to the observation deck a short distance higher. Halley told us the story of the old tower and how it was destroyed to make the handicapped accessible platform that exists today. I was really torn by the story, while the old tower was higher and more photogenic, the new platform opens up views for those confined to wheelchairs. I find it to be a healthy compromise as no one should be denied a magnificent view of God's creation, even if it is a slightly lower elevation. Several people were on the platform but there really wasn't a bad view to be had. John and I ran wildly around the platform clicking away at the ever changing scenery. Halley kind of hung back laughing at our size difference and our reactions to her personal playground. We posed for some pictures and even got the ultra touristy shot beside the 'Mt Mitchell Highest Peak East of the Mississippi' sign before retreating back to the parking area from the chilly temperatures. Halley suggested we eat at the restaurant on the mountain and I agreed, trail mix and beef jerky can only take me so far and my stomach was growling. The restaurant was wonderful and our view off the deck was even better. Halley gave us the grand tour and took us onto the back porch for some rocking chairs and hot chocolate. It's been several months as I write this, but that moment still sticks vividly with me.
Mt. Craig from Mt. Mitchell parking area.
Clouds burning off of Mt. Mitchell.
View from the restaurant.
The clouds moving in to drown out sunset at Mt. Mitchell.

It was growing increasingly cold and the clouds were moving in heavier by the minute, she decided to find another location to attempt some views of sunset. We left the mountain and rejoined the parkway heading toward Asheville. I had never traveled this area and was impressed with the killer views and we stopped at several overlooks. One overlook was across a gorge to a huge waterfall in the distance. Glassmine Falls is over 200ft high but begs to be explored more closely. We all agreed we had to find a route to it's base, if for nothing more than to say we had been there! From there we passed the Asheville watershed and one of the most beautiful views I think exists on the parkway. The evening sun lit the surrounding mountains perfectly and the large lake below looked like a mirror, I was truly in heaven. The sun was sinking quickly and I was unsure were we were heading as we pulled into the parking lot for Craggy Gardens. She pointed out a trail that led us through thick Rhododendron before opening up on a rocky peak with stunning views in every direction. There were a few people on the rock with us but they headed out as we arrived and we had the entire mountain to ourselves for sunset. The cold was fierce now but we all had blankets and staked our claims to separate rocks to watch the sun fall from the sky.
Asheville Watershed.
Sunset from Craggy.

The sunset was a perfect end to the day, purple and pinks dominated the horizon and as the last light faded we hiked out satisfied with one of our more adventurous days. Looking back on it now, it still stands as one of my favorite days in a year that's featured nearly 500 miles of hiking. Stay tuned as I have several big hikes planned to close the year, and hopefully some to get 2015 off to a great start. Until next time, happy trails!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When Halley, John, and I get together, the adventure factor is always high. Lately we've all been booked with other commitments and haven't hiked as a group but I wanted to share a day we spent in North Carolina a few months ago with you all.
Ginseng along the trail to Crabtree Falls.
John at Crabtree Falls.

Halley served as host for our outing and John and I met her at the Ingles near Spruce Pine before traveling a short distance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. She had brought along two other hikers she had met through her photography business, both Craig and Eric were seasoned outdoorsmen but had yet to do any Carolina hiking. Our first stop of the day was Crabtree Falls, a beautiful 60ft waterfall right off the parkway. I've visited there several times before but never miss an opportunity to take in it's beauty and I was excited to be with my friends again. The hike down to the falls is a loop, with the right loop taking a shorter, steeper path to the base of the waterfall. I've always hiked it since I've tried visiting as many waterfalls as I can while I'm in town. Halley suggested taking the left loop so I was going to get to see some new trail. The left side of the loop was easy and steady as it swung around the ridges picking up a small creek. All of us were lost in conversation and the wildflowers were blooming nicely along the trails. We arrived at a large cliff above the waterfall but with the trees you couldn't see it from there only hear it. The scramble down to the base was pretty easy and I was excited to see that our group was one of only a few people there. We all dispersed taking pictures and enjoying the waterfall. When it came time to hike out we took the right loop so we could get back quicker. The steep climb seemed to get to Craig's legs and he asked how many more stops we would be making because he didn't want to be tired at work the next day. Eric was the oldest of our group but was a beast of a hiker only stopping to let the rest of us catch him. He rested at the intersection of the two trails and I spotted some ginseng in the woods. It was a cool find and I wondered how many people walk by without even noticing it. The group was moving much slower hiking out so I took the time to photograph wildflowers, at times I was crawling through the forest floor trying to get just the right angle. John and I had seen a four leafed trillium on the hike in and I was so pumped to get some shots of it that I left my camera bag laying in the weeds next to where we spotted it. I only realized my bag was missing when we got back to the parking lot and had to run back the half mile to retrieve it! When I got back, Halley informed us that she was taking Craig and Eric back to their car in Spruce Pine and they might join us later in the day. She also gave John and I directions to Grassy Creek Falls, a waterfall a short distance off the parkway. As John and I packed up, we left my tripod sitting in the parking lot and didn't realize it until we arrived at Grassy Creek's parking area. I couldn't believe that I had been so forgetful already and as we rushed back I was praying that someone hadn't took it. Luckily someone had left it on the sidewalk to keep it from getting ran over and John and I were back on the road to Grassy Creek Falls.
Downstream from Crabtree Falls.
Unusual Trillium where I forgot my camera bag!
Grassy Creek Falls.

The parking situation at Grassy Creek is a little sketchy. The state maintenance ends and private property signs begin. A couple of residential driveways split off of the main road and a small sign indicates that hikers are welcome down the gravel road that leads to the falls. It's a steep downhill grade and along the way there are signs with various nature quotes that John and I enjoyed reading as we hiked by. Eventually there is a small pull off on the left side of the road and a road on the right with a rope over it and a sign indicating that the waterfalls are down the way. When we reached the top of the waterfall I couldn't believe how far it tumbled down the gorge. We took the steep scramble down the bank and arrived at the upper drop seeing that we could hike behind it! I was in love with this waterfall, It was incredibly photogenic and you could walk down the side of it around each drop making it bigger and bigger in all of your photographs. I knew we had some time before Halley caught up with us so I took my time shooting long exposures while John explored and photographed the waterfall also. SUDDENLY, Halley came walking out of the woods. I was stunned she could hike so fast but was glad she was back with us and we continued to take pictures and hang around the falls. When we finished I was really dreading the hike back up to the truck on that long grade. As we reached the spur road I could see Halley's car and I was so relieved my hiking up that road was over! My relief was short lived however when I noticed her mirrors were folded in and her windshield wipers were raised. She noticed it about the same time and let out her trademark "what the heck!" I turned looking up the gravel road and saw a old pick up truck parked sideways blocking us in. I checked the truck and no one was in it and the doors were locked. We were pinned in! The road was at such and angle that the three of us probably could have pushed the truck out of the way but it would end up rolling down the valley. Halley said it was obvious whoever done it lived at the end of the road so we loaded up and started down the gravel road not knowing what to expect. When we started winding around a ridge I saw what looked like an abandoned electric company substation with a porch and a very angry looking older man standing there waiting to greet us. He appeared to be unarmed and to be alone so I wasn't quite terrified. He approached the car as we reached his house and Halley jumped out to greet him. She tried using her charm but he was having none of it only stating that he had her license plate number and never wanted to see her again in there. He had to backtrack when she said she knew the owner of the land she had parked on and that he had always let her park there without problems. He agreed to move his truck and let us go but we had to give him a lift  back to his vehicle. When he got in the backseat with John it was immediately evident that he had been smoking marijuana all day, maybe even for weeks. The interior of Halley's car filled with the smell and he sat in silence even though John and I tried to engage him in conversation. When we dropped him off and the truck was safely out of our way we all erupted with laughter. John said he had a contact buzz and needed snacks! Although we didn't get his name, we had one for him, Willie!
John looking for just the right angle.
Further downstream on Grassy Creek. There are more drops behind me.
My favorite shot of the waterfall.
Halley and John behind the upper drop of Grassy Creek Falls.

After laughing ourselves into side-splitting pain, we noticed the cloud cover was still kind of thick if we wanted any views off of Mt. Mitchell and instead opted to head over near the South Toe River and some hiking at Roaring Fork Falls and Setrock Falls. We weren't going to let our encounter with Willie ruin our day of hiking, in fact, we were just getting started...to be continued...

Friday, October 3, 2014

After seeing the disasterous results of the forest service placing signs to help hikers find the Devil's Bathtub in Scott County, Virginia, I've been more reluctant to share directions and information about my hiking destinations. On one particular hike, me and one of my hiking buddies carried out three full bags of trash from what was once a pristine and private swimming hole. I place a lot of blame on myself for the current situation there. I've shared pictures and took groups of people with me who have undoubtedly told others until now it's overrun and less desirable for everyone who visits, so lesson learned.

Another relatively obscure hiking destination in Tennessee is the area known as Rocky Fork. With the Devil's Bathtub fiasco and the fact Governor Bill Haslam recenty named Rocky Fork as a future state park, I wanted to get there ahead of the crowds and the piles of trash that await. For years, I've pointed out cliffs that are visible from Interstate 26 and wondered what the view would be like from the top of them. I didn't know their name, if a trail went to them, if it was public land or private, I just wanted to be there.
Panoramic view from Whitehouse Mountain.

The internet has made the world a much smaller place and I've made a lot of connections with fellow hikers leading to my introduction to Randy Tarpley, also known as Rat. In my opinion, he is the Northeast Tennessee Godfather of hiking and has blazed many of the current trails I hike on. During one of our discussions about hiking, he told me the cliffs were known as Whitehouse Mountain Cliffs, a part of the Rocky Fork property, and that he had been there and wrote a blog about his trip. From the blog, I gathered some basic directions and decided I had to go for myself when I could find the time.

On Tuesday morning, I hiked with Jeff Forrester and his cousin, David from Missouri. We spent our morning hiking on Unaka Mountain taking in some of the early fall color and visiting Red Fork Falls. I had a great time playing in the woods and it was even better to be recovered from a cold and some back problems that have had me sidelined for a few weeks from the trails. Jeff and David wanted to hike to the Devil's Bathtub in the afternoon and I decided I would go home, satisfied with my morning adventure. As the weather improved throughout the afternoon, I couldn't resist the urge to head out for a solo hike and those magnificent cliffs in Rocky Fork.
Acorns are everywhere on the way to Whitehouse Mountain.
Climbing up the steep trail to the summit.

I arrived at the trail head and the blue gate I had read about in Rat's blog. The hike up Rocky Fork is flat and easy to follow on the old logging road. The creek is full of nice cascades and one particularly deep swimming hole. Although I was alone, I felt completely at ease and peace with my surroundings. I think sometimes it's better hiking alone because there are no distractions and I tend to pay more attention to what I'm doing. I found the trail for Whitehouse Mountain and began the climb around the ridge. The trail is overgrown and faint at times but the occasional piece of flagging tape or cut limb kept me on track. I've become good at tracking routes through the wilderness even finding some of Rat's infamous "ninja trails"  The climb was unrelenting and my feet were wet as the trail passed through a muddy creek bed a few times as it went up the valley. The surrounding slopes were steep on both sides of me and I started seeing forest boundary signs every so often marking the future parks borders. Eventually the trail comes to a saddle in the ridge line and I noticed it took a hard right to climb at a even steeper climb! I was sweating pretty good so I took a moment to rest on the forest floor in the middle of the trail. There was a slight breeze and acorns were falling everywhere. I was sure one would eventually crack me in the head but somehow it never happened. I made my way back to my feet and continued to hike climbing toward the tree line and blue sky that always seemed just one more step away. When I made it to the top of the ridge I was disappointed to see that the trail made another sharp right turn and the climbing was the most ferocious yet. At times, I was hiking on my toes the terrain was so steep and I had to make several rest stops up the increasingly narrow ridge spine. I started seeing large rocks and a few views between downed trees. The trail almost completely vanishes and it becomes taking the path of least resistance the remainder of the way. I was soon on the very top of Whitehouse Mountain. The fall color was fantastic to be early in the season and as I crested the mountain the views really opened up. To my left I could see all of Interstate 26 from the time it leaves Erwin until it crests the mountain at Sam's Gap and the North Carolina line. Cars looked like ants and I thought of all the times I had been from their vantage point being wanting to be where I was now. To my right was just mountain after mountain and more flaming fall color on the high ridges above me, but most intriguing was what lied directly in front of me. Whitehouse Mountain drops off even steeper than the climb I had just endured and is littered with rocky boulders various sizes. Further down the ridge out of sight was the tops of the cliffs. I sat on top of the mountain and took in the view and took some pictures excited to see what awaited me on down the mountain.
The first views off the mountain near the summit.
Interstate 26 on far right of picture.
Whitehouse Mountain summit looking into North Carolina.
I made it! Took this one with the Gopro.
Another Gopro picture.

I started climbing down the ridge through the boulder field and found the loose rock difficult to keep my footing. At one point I got a good look at both of my feet with the sky as a back drop as I did, you guessed it, a back drop. Luckily the loose rock broke my fall and skidded me down the mountain side a few feet in some thorn bushes. I sat up and dusted off plucking the thorns from legs and realized it was a bad idea to go any further alone.  I was a little disappointed I wouldn't be on the cliffs that day but I knew I would be back and would have something to look forward to. I scurried back up to the top of the mountain and took some more pictures and a short video of the view. I used my Gopro for a selfie to prove I was there and packed up for the easy downhill hike out.
The Tennessee Welcome Center is the clearing on the distant ridge.
Fall color starting to pop up on the highest peaks.
One last shot. I had worked up a little bit of a sweat!

My first trip to Rocky Fork will definitely not be my last. It's beautiful and pristine just the way nature is intended to be. The future of the area remains cloudy with the state park destination but it will be at least a few years until anything is done there, so enjoy it while it lasts. Until then, happy trails.