Into the Woods: Unicoi Mountains

If you’ve read any of my other hiking posts, you’ll notice that I have an unabashed fondness for “special places”—spots where quirks of terrain, climate, or human use (and abuse) of land combine to create a niche environment not easily replicated. (Full disclosure, the USFS has started using this term as an official designation for certain spots, but I’m going to keep it, too.) Bonus features of such places include a relative anonymity and inaccessibility, leaving me to enjoy them in quiet solitude as often as not.

Most of my favorite such spots are far from home, closer to where I grew up than to where I live now, but I’ve been exploring.

Huckleberry Knob
One location that has become near and dear of late is the Unicoi range in the far southwest of the Appalachians on the NC/TN line. The only road through here is the Cherohala Skyway (a state route named in portmanteau of the two national forests it passes through—Cherokee on the Tennessee side, Nantahala in North Carolina), a steep, winding 43 mile traverse from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville. Mercifully, for my purposes, though this route is extremely popular with motorcyclists, most of the traffic is there to test the curves, not to park and walk.

Along this route, I typically opt for a hike at Huckleberry Knob. At 5,560, it’s the highest peak in the Unicois, and the farthest west you can be that high above sea level until you get to the Black Hills and far west high plains. Again, though there are better overall hikes elsewhere, this one has become a favorite by virtue of proximity. It’s only a 2 hour and 10 minute drive from Chattanooga. In addition, as our crew has multiplied, finding places that adults and kids can enjoy together is important.IMG_20181019_150330396

Among the features Huckleberry Knob boasts are:

  • Acres of grass, allowing for 360-degree views and lots of cartwheels (if you bring your kids)
  • A bona-fide grave at the summit (from a logger who decided to walk over the mountain to get home for Christmas, got drunk, and froze to death in a blizzard, back in 1899).
  • Wide, relatively low-impact trail from parking to summit. Even our four-year-old made it all the way to the top (+/- 3 miles total).
  • The aforementioned grass is great for picnics, or frisbee, too.
  • It’s not hot up here, making for a perfect summer afternoon getaway.
  • Plenty of flora and fauna to satiate your inner naturalist (including the southernmost Fraser firs I’ve ever found).

It’s a place we’ve been coming back to often, even making it an autumn tradition to quest for the peak fall color (which arrives there long before it makes it to the lowlands of the Tennessee Valley. In sharing it with you, I trust you won’t abuse the place.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Once you’ve committed to the Skyway, you may as well go all the way to the eastern end and visit the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. We typically tack this on when we head that way.

It’s a bit odd for a forest to be named after a person, but the USFS thought Kilmer worthy of the honor. The popular journalist and poet, best known for his work “Trees“, was overcome with patriotic zest and joined the Army during World War I. After this endeavor resulted in his death 100 years ago at the second Battle of the Marne, his local veterans association petitioned that a patch of forest be dedicated to his memory. In the late 1930s, the USFS at last selected a 3,800-acre unlogged cove of old growth woodland along Little Santeetlah Creek as the wordsmith’s living tombstone.

Before you dismiss this as so much kitsch, I should point out that this patch of woodland should absolutely have been preserved, under any pretext necessary. Some of the tulip poplars here clock in at over 500 years old, and their height and girth are the closest thing many Easterners will see to the Redwoods.

In former times, these giant polars were joined by Eastern Hemlocks of similar size, but the hemlock wooly adelgid has done its dirty work here as in so many creekside coves throughout Appalachia. Moreover, a series of disasters have taken their toll here in recent years. In 2011, an exceptionally rare tornado touched down here, taking out several grand specimens. Goaded on by the storm debris and a later extensive drought, a wildfire torched the eastern slope of the forest in 2016, leaving the forest much-altered from when I first visited in 2007.

Even still, some of the largest trees remain untouched, and they never fail to inspire. The big’uns are accessible by a 2-mile figure-8 loop. It’s muddy, sometimes narrow, but never terribly steep. I’ve taken kids all the way around with minimal difficulty.

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Both these spots are within day-trip range of Chattanooga, Atlanta, Knoxville, Asheville, or Charlotte, but the motion-sickness-inducing road access keeps crowds down to the truly dedicated. If you’ve got more time to spend, there are several fine USFS and private campgrounds lining nearby Santeetlah Lake.

If, to paraphrase Kilmer, hiking blogs are made by “fools like me,” then you owe it to yourself to come up to the Unicoi range and see some of the more impressive things God has made to grace our corner of the universe.

 

 

 

 

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: 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 its 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