Friday, September 23, 2011

Linville Gorge via Pine Gap Trail 9/18/2011

From the community of Linville Falls at the Blue Ridge Parkway we took  183 to Kistler Memorial Highway.  Our first stop on this cool, cloudy morning was the Linville Gorge Cabin.  Inside we had a nice conversation with the ladies working at the cabin about our planned hike, assuring them we were properly prepared.  I signed the guest book and promised to stop by on the way out to show them my pictures.

From here it was a short drive on the gravel highway to the trail head.  The Pine Gap trail follows the end of the ridge quickly dropping toward the river level.  It is narrow and alternates short almost flat sections with steep areas with lots of obstacles.   The ground was damp and there was lots of moss on the rocks and fallen trees.  The nearby mountain peaks were shrouded in clouds.

We had been hearing the river below up since we started the trail.  In less then a mile we reached the level of the river and took a very short side trail to the river's edge.  There were a couple of campsites here and a nice area to enjoy the river and the flowers growing near the water.  We were further downstream from the falls here then at the trail head and the water was quieter.

From here the trail climbs away from the river again for a time and passes the point where the Bynum Bluff trail climbs out of the gorge.  This is a wilderness area and there was only a small sign at the intersection.  Beyond this point we came to an area where we could hear the river on both sides of us.  The trail was right beside the river for a time but it was about a hundred feet below us.

We came to what looked like a fork in the trail.  To the right the trail appeared to stop in about fifty feet.  Later we decided that the trail was just overgrown and we should have pushed on till it was clearer again.  Instead we turned left and walked down to the river.  This appeared to be the spot where the Brushy Ridge trail fords the river.   There were several campsites here and a small waterfall.

We walked downstream from this point staying beside the river for about half a mile.  With no clear trail here we walked on all sizes of rocks including some that sloped down to the water.  In places we climbed a short distance up the steep bank.  We stopped when we approached a sharp turn in the river where we couldn't see a way to proceed and ate lunch on a big rock.

After lunch we backtracked to the intersection of the Bynum Bluff trail and began to climb out of the gorge.    This trail was less technically difficult then the Pine Gap trail but was steeper overall and gained more elevation.  For a time the trail climbed gently and we thought we were near the top. It turned out the last part of the climb was the steepest, switch backing past tall rocks.

When we did reach the top we were rewarded with a pleasant level walk along a narrow ridge.  There were some nice primitive campsites along this section and views of the mountains  obscured by clouds across the gorge and the river below.  The trail ended at Kistler Memorial Highway and we walked downhill on the gravel road back to the van.

We hiked a total of about four or five miles in five hours, spending a lot of time enjoying the river and the peacefulness of the gorge.   We encountered about five small groups of hikers the entire time.  This is a wilderness area and needs to be respected as such.  There are steep drop offs along the trail that could lead to disaster.  But with proper care this is a very special spot.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Max Patch and Lovers Leap, Hot Springs, NC 9/3/2011

We had heard what a great area Hot Springs, NC was for hiking so we planned a day to explore the area.  We drove into town then out toward Max Patch  We stopped first at Rocky Bluff Recreation Area to use the restrooms.  There is picnicing, camping, and hiking available there.  We climbed a hill to an old cemetary and took a short trail to a panoramic view. 

We would like to return and camp here but for now we headed toward Max Patch.  It can be approached from Hot Springs or I40 but either way includes several miles of gravel road.  Once at the trail head parking there is a map showing the loop hikes available.  We chose to head up the trail that was almost straight ahead.  The sounds of cricket surrounded us immediately.

The climb is short and although it is not steep it is relentless.  We reached the intersection of the Appalachian Trail before reaching the top and turned right.  A short distance down the trail there were still a few blackberries ready to be picked.  The bushes were short since this bald is kept mowed.  We enjoyed the views in this direction then turned back.

Back on the main trail we continued to the top exploring and taking pictures.  There were views in all directions and a surprising variety of wild flowers.    There were more blackberry patches.  There were other groups of people picnicing or playing but there was plenty of room to spread out.  After a while we followed the Appalachian trail in the other direction.

Had we continued on the trail for about twenty miles we would have reached Hot Springs where the Appalachiam trail follows the road through the center of town, over the river on the road bridge, then turns and follows the river out of town.  Instead we took a left at a signed intersection and headed back toward the parking.  This part of the trail is below the highest part of the ridge and is more gently sloped.

The trail entered a patch of woods and the shade felt good after the open sun on the main part of the bald.  There were lots of yellow and orange touch-me-nots.  Near a spring and the remains of an old spring house there was a critter scolding us although we never spotted him.  The trail appears to become and old road for part of this section.

The trail comes out of the woods just a short distance from the parking and to the left of the trail that we went up on.  I was actually surprised how quickly we were back.  This was a fun area with great views for a minimum effort.  We headed back down the long gravel road and back toward Hot Springs for lunch in one of the local restaurants.

After a relaxed lunch we looked for the Silver Mine trail head.  To get there we went over the bridge, took an almost immediate left, then left again to cross under the main road.  The parking is up the gravel road from the trail at the entrance to the group camping area.  We parked and walked a short distance back to where the Appalachian Trail follows the French Broad river. 

The trail follows the river for about a half mile.  Near the start of the trail was a high rock formation.  We were to see these rocks again from part way up and a third time at the top.  But for now we were just enjoying the view of the river.  There were camp sites on the opposite bank and people playing in the water.  This easy stroll was to end suddenly just ahead.

The trail switchs back and quickly climbs the ridge that had been paralleling us.  The trail is narrow and out in the open sun.  A wrong step would be a long way down.  We began to hear thunder approaching in the distance.  When we reached the rocks we had seen below there was another switch back and we climbed higher.  A third switch back led to the top of the rocks.

From here we had a great view of the river and the town beyond.  We believed this was the top and that our connecting trail was just ahead.  The thunder was getting closer so we quickly moved on.  The trail continued to climb to a higher view point then curved around the end of the ridge.  This is only a 1.6 mile loop hike but with the storm approaching and the steep climb it felt longer.

Finally we reached the intersection where the Lovers Leap trail leads back down.  The trail enters the woods as it switchbacks down.  The shade and breeze ahead of the storm made this part of the hike much more pleasant.  It was still steep and narrow but not such a sharp drop off on the side.  The final section was a level woods walk along a creek to the parking.

I would recomment Max Patch for a hike with children.  There is lots of room for them to explore.  They would also enjoy walking along the river but I would be very cautious about the trail going up to Lovers Leap.  We will return to this area to camp and explore more of the many available trails.