Into the Woods: Lewis Fork Wilderness

I like special places, spots where quirks of geography, climate, and culture create worlds within worlds. More often than not, at least in the US, these places require access by foot—anyplace we can drive right up to is inevitably overused. No, as Wendell Berry reminds us, one must get “out of your car, off your horse” to truly know a place.

One such place that I’ve returned to time and again over the last two decades is the Mt. Rogers massif in Southwestern Virginia, contained in an overlapping array of federal lands (Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, and Lewis Fork Wilderness). It’s not the highest mountain in the region (though it is the highest in Virginia), nor the most picturesque—just a long, gentle rise to a dome of dark green in the midst of open fields and brambles—four miles from the nearest road and a few miles north of the North Carolina line.

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What makes it special then?

  • To the intrepid souls who attempt a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail (which runs across the massif from west to east), Mt. Rogers is the 1/4-way point for the normal South-North route.
  • To day-hikers from all over the area, it’s the place to come see the ponies—a barely managed herd of small horses allowed to run wild across the mountain to keep the historically bald areas free of of encroaching forest.
  • To naturalists, it’s the farthest north outpost of Appalachian spruce-fir forest.
  • To the solitude-seeker, it is among the quietest places in an otherwise heavily populated part of the world—a long way from highways and flyways, a little slice of “out West” in the Southeast.
  • To me it’s been a place for walking and thinking, vista contemplating, berry picking, and thunderstorm dodging, alone or with family and friends.

Visiting my family in NC last month, I took a jaunt up into Virginia to see it again. Rather than fight the sometimes-heavy summer crowds that can clog the trail on the Grayson Highlands State Park side of the mountain, I started from the Elk Garden trailhead on the west slope.

From the road, the trail is an almost continuous ascent, never too steep—first through open fields (watch for cow pies), then a mixed hardwood forest, then high balds, and finally the close darkness of the spruce-fir forest. These four miles of the AT are much less travelled than the wide, gravelly paths on the east side of the mountain, with brush and grasses closing in and barely leaving enough room to pass another hiker. Of course, that’s not terribly likely—I passed nary a soul on the way up, and only 3-4 people on the way back.

After summiting Rogers, I decided to walk along the ridge to Rhododendron Gap, making a total there and back of 13 miles. There were ponies aplenty, and deer, and birds (ravens, songbirds of all varieties, and even a pair of Canada jays, which are supposedly not even found that far south). It was a bit late for most wildflowers and a bit early for blueberries (though ferns and fungi are always in season), but the overall experience of this place was just as magical as ever.

There’s hardly a better spot to spend a day wandering this side of the Mississippi. It’s a little world unto itself.

Into the Woods: Ritchie Hollow

Just downstream from Chattanooga, the Tennessee river takes a sharp westward turn, leaving its meandering (though now tightly TVA-controlled) path through the Great Appalachian Valley to squeeze through a narrow cut in the Cumberland Plateau like so much toothpaste.

In earlier times, the Tennessee River Gorge was one of the most feared stretches of waterway to navigate. This immense volume of water in a tight space between rocky banks created a fast current with numerous shoals and eddies, before the construction of the (now-demolished) Hales Bar Dam in 1913 regulated the water level. Even today, by virtue of the terrain, the gorge is one of the least developed and least accessible areas of the Chattanooga metro area.

The same features that keep this area inhospitable to development have helped keep it wild. The steep, rocky slopes rising directly from the river harbor impressive biodiversity, and much of this natural wealth is protected and managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and Prentice Cooper State Forest.

Until recently the only easy ways to explore this area was from above (via the Cumberland Trail and other trails in Prentice Cooper or at the TVA’s Raccoon Mountain facility on the south rim of the gorge) or below (via a long drive down Mullen’s Cove Rd.). The only folks able to enjoy the slopes themselves have been the rock climbers who flock to the “T-wall“.

A new TRGT-managed trail opens up a beautiful cleft of the gorge for day-hikers. The Ritchie Hollow Trail opened in January 2018, connecting the top and bottom of the gorge. For about a mile, the trail weaves side-slope from Pot Point through a lush cove forest and across several small streams, before turning to chart a steep, strenuous course to the top of the plateau where it meets the Cumberland Trail at mile 2.2.

I finally made it out to try this one on April 14 (a hot, muggy day in the midst of an otherwise chilly spring), and it seems tailor-made to take advantage of the spring wildflower season. Mayapple, fernleaf phacelia, crested dwarf iris, bellwort, solomon’s seal, woodland phlox, trilliums, blue cohosh, rue anemone, ferns, maple-leaved viburnum, red buckeye, and many others were in full display along the lower section of the trail. Higher up, it looked more like winter than spring, with minimal foliage, but the first of the Pinxterbloom azaleas were starting to pop up there. Moreover, the whole route was generally devoid of the invasive shrubs and vines so prevalent around here, save the odd bush honeysuckle or paulownia.

The steep climb of mile 2 caught me a bit by surprise after the gentle rise of the first mile, but it’s nothing more intense than most routes in the region that make the ascent up to the plateau. Because the trail begins right next to the river, the full climb to the rim rises nearly 1,300 ft. At about the 1.6 mile mark, mid-climb, there is a nice 30+’ waterfall just off the main path. After the last pull, I took a short (.5 mile) breather stretch along the relative flat CT, and even scrambled off-trail to a rock outcropping at the actual summit. The woods were very quiet, so much so that I even scared up a large turkey trailside, who then proceeded to fly downslope a few hundred yards. Quite a sight.

Even at that, it only took a leisurely hour to get to the top. The descent was much faster, though I’ll chalk that up to keeping a near-running pace as I tried to beat a thunderstorm back to my car.

In all, this is a fine addition to the great trails of our area, and one I’m sure I’ll be back to visit again.

 

Into the Woods: Smith Springs Loop

Every hike has a story. Usually it’s fairly short: “I needed some rest and exercise, so I went for a hike.” Simple.

This is not one of those stories.

It started last fall, right after we found out that that we were expecting our fourth child (arriving in June). Taking a “babymoon” is harder when one has three older kids to arrange care for, so we came up with a wild idea. A crazy idea. What if we took a trip out west, all five of us?

After some research, we pieced it together. We’d go in February, before Rachel’s pregnancy was so far along she couldn’t sleep well. We’d stay south to avoid winter weather as much as possible. We’d keep driving days under 6-7 hours for the sake of everyone’s endurance. We’d camp some, and cash in hotel points from a credit card for other nights. It seemed within reach. Possible. Delightful even.

When the big day came to leave, we packed our minivan within an inch of its life and pulled toward the setting sun. Each of these stops entailed a lot of activities, and could be given a fine travelogue post in its own right, but for the purposes of this story, you’ll get the flyover view. Day 1: Memphis. Day 2: Oklahoma City. Day 3: Palo Duro Canyon. Day 4: Santa Fe.

All well and good, until one of the kids got sick on the way to Palo Duro. Spending 30 minutes cleaning mint-chocolate-chip ice cream vomit from the back of the car on the side of a dark Texas highway is fun. Realizing that the bathroom next to your camping cabin is out of order while your child continues to vomit is more so. Having raccoons pilfer the vomit-covered paper towels from a double-bagged, sealed trashcan and scatter them around the park is positively thrilling.

This still isn’t really a story about that, though. Because this was no ordinary stomach bug, our daughter continued throwing up for nearly a week. Our time in Santa Fe involved a visit to a very nice urgent care clinic and a joyful spell of throwing up on a hotel elevator (not to mention one of the other kids coming down with strep throat), but also some fine artarchitecture, and scenery. After a while, we realized it would be foolish to take the planned next leg of the trip to Big Bend (which is, to put it mildly, a good long drive from civilization and medical attention), so we stayed an extra day in Santa Fe and began to rework the rest of the trip.

Day 7: Brantley Lake State Park. Chosen because of the ridiculous price of hotels in Carlsbad; remembered because of the way our tent was ripped out of the ground by whimsical high-plains winds forcing us to fold it up and sleep in the van at 3 a.m.

Day 8: Breakfast at a McDonalds in Carlsbad, including the joy of being the only out-of-towners at the mayor’s campaign rally. Carlsbad Caverns is truly mind-blowing, a national treasure. Everyone should visit.

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Seriously. Go here.

At last we come to the hike in the subject of this post. Having been forced to scrap Big Bend, we veered southwestward from Carlsbad to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas to try to catch a glimpse of a similar ecosystem.

You see Guadalupe coming for a while, as soon as you walk out of the visitor’s center at Carlsbad, for that matter. For someone used to the tangled woodlands of East Tennessee, having a line of sight to your destination from 50+ miles out is terrific anticipation (trees are a non-entity in the high Chihuahuan Desert). The limestone ridge of the Guadalupes shoots up, a wall in the desert, marking the space and creating its own weather.

GMNP has several entrances, short roads leading to a small parking areas with trailheads to explore the park on foot. It’s one of the least visited parks in the NPS system, and the great balance of its land is wilderness. We chose to enter at Frijole Ranch on the eastern side of the Park and take what little time we had to try the Smith Spring loop trail. After a quick picnic lunch (in the van again, because wind), the older two girls and I set out, letting the others rest.

Going around the loop clockwise from the ranch house, the trail starts by traversing the grasslands in the shadow of the ridge. The day we went, the scouring south wind was only broken by the trail’s periodic dips into gravelly arroyos waiting to catch and funnel away whatever rain might fall. As you drift closer to the mountains themselves, the trail winds to keep the ascent gentle, slowly gaining about 400 feet.

Rounding the last bend, a swath of green leaps to meet you in striking contrast to the yucca, agave, cacti, and scrub juniper. Even the wind stops, blocked by an arm of the ridge. Here are pines, maples, oaks, and madrones, and underbrush practically shouting, “water!”

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In the center of this micro-environment is the spring itself, a burbling hope in a forlorn land. Again, for someone so used to the thick forests and abundant rainfall of the East, it’s hard to fathom the volume of life one little trickle of water can call forth.

The downhill return side of the loop hugs the runoff from the spring to stay in the shade for a while. It seemed a bit better traveled; my hunch is that most people go to the spring this way and then retrace their steps. We spotted a couple of mule deer and several birds along this stretch before passing another water source (Manzanita Spring) and making it back to the ranch.

For a short hike in the middle of nowhere that I’ll likely never revisit (and that most readers will never see) it’s captured my imagination as the focal point of our whole family trip (Days 9-13 of which, for the record, included more sickness, but also many activities on the way back east through San Antonio, Galveston, and New Orleans).

This trip tested my patience in many ways, and reminded me multiple times of my selfishness, pride, and inability to control things. More than one outburst of anger at the comedy-of-errors series of disappointments shocked me with its intensity. I hope that in time, the kids will remember the good, and that the bad will fade to gut-busting bits of family lore. For me, it will always be tempered by a twinge of regret at the ways I held my family’s joy hostage to my own vision of a good vacation.

Smith Spring was a turning point, though; a moment to refresh my soul and attitude and relax my grip on the rest of our itinerary. It was a slice of the trip where things went more or less according to plan—where we richly enjoyed the scenery and activities we crossed rivers and plains for—and gave the turn back east an air of accomplishment instead of defeat. You never know how much can flow from springs in a desert place.

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together. That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it” (Isa. 41:17-20).

Into the Woods: Rock Creek Gorge

We’ve had a fine stretch of weather in the Tennessee Valley of late. Between soaking rains from the remnants of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it was much cooler than normal for late summer. Like all good Southerners, whenever the calendar says, “hot,” and the thermometer says, “not,” I’m overcome with a weight of guilt for every moment spent indoors.

With that in mind, I took the opportunity to get out for a hike on Labor Day. Wanting to spend more time in the woods than in the car, I opted for a section of the Cumberland Trail in the northern part of our county. I’ve done short stretches of the CT before (Edwards’ Point, North Chick, Laurel-Snow), but never really explored it much. I’d heard good things about the Leggett Road access of the Rock Creek Gorge segment, so headed to check it out. It was easy enough to find (though parking is very limited), and only about a 40 minute drive from home.

The still-under-construction CT is known for being a rigorous hiking challenge, steep and rocky, with minimal funding from government agencies (and correspondingly minimal maintenance done by volunteers). You don’t go to the CT expecting wide, manicured pathways. What I found at Leggett, however, left some maintenance to be desired. I had intended to do a 5.6 mile out-and-back to the Rock Creek bridge, but scaled back to the Rock Creek Loop (with a 0.6 mile round-trip spur to Rock Creek overlook) for reasons described below.

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