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: Lula Lake

Winter is my favorite season.

The snow. The cold. The wind. I’ll take it all with a smile.

Now, before the haters descend (who are these poor epithets of opinion anyway?), the “winter” I get to enjoy here in Chattanooga often looks a lot like what people in Minnesota might call “July”. Winter for us has occasional elements recognizable to folks further north, but mostly it is the time of year when the humidity goes down, the bugs die or evacuate, and the grass (mercifully) stops growing for a bit. To put it another way, if you wonder why Tennesseans and other species of Southerner delight in winter, come spend August with us sometime. You’ll be yearning the relative comfort of a blizzard within a week.

Case in point: Saturday. It was 29°F at sunrise, without a cloud in the sky. By mid-afternoon, it was up to 65. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better all-around day to spend outside, and the climate of this part of the world presents an embarrassment of these riches from November to March. Faced with such finery, I naturally went hiking.

IMG_4878Being the last weekend of the month, it was an open-gate day at Lula Lake Land Trust. This privately owned plot of 8,000 or so acres is on the east side of Lookout Mountain (part of the Cumberland Plateau) in Walker County, Georgia, about 5 miles south of the Tennessee Line.

Like much of the plateau eco-region, the property features mature oak forests that thrive on the relatively poor, thin soil overlaying the mountain’s cap rock. These give way to a lush riparian zone along the course of Rock Creek through the middle of the trust’s land, with Hemlock, Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, Ferns, and other species that need more moisture to thrive. I’ve been visiting this spot for several years, and the diversity of plants and terrain in such a small area makes it a special place indeed. The trust seems to know well what a treasure they have in their hands, and their careful management of the tract promises to keep it just as pristine for years to come (in fact, its current state is largely due to the founder buying up land to redeem it from logging and abuse).

For this trip, I had neither kids in tow nor a time limit, so I set out to explore some trails I hadn’t been able to get to yet. There are over 7 miles of trails in the section of the property that is open to visitors, in addition to the gravel road bed that runs along the creek (part of which is the way vehicles get in and out). All are very well signed, and the varying degrees of difficulty should keep any level of hiker satisfied with a visit. Continue reading