Sunday, July 20, 2014

Clingman's Here I Come!

View from atop Chestnut Ridge
This was one of the very last views I can remember seeing...which was this past Wednesday morning. I have hiked through some incredibly special parts of the trail and did manage to capture some of the plant life, however as for trail and scenery shots, eh not so much. My views have been blankets of clouds, which do lend a majestic atmosphere to a mountaintop nonetheless and the trail has been a splish-splashing wet rock, green moss, deep mud kind of experience, all with too much rain to take out the camera. The plant photos I managed to catch before the rain began!

The Middle Prong Wilderness making up just 8 miles of the MST, but sandwiched between Pisgah National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest, offering the hiker a seamless wilderness experience
 To catch y'all up, I left Asheville and hiked gradually up on easy well-graded trails towards Mount Pisgah. The first day out of Asheville was hot and humid and actually rather stifling, the first I'd had on the trail since the east, but by the second day after gaining a over 2000 feet elevation and reaching over 5700 feet at Pisgah's summit, the cool weather set in. I'm talkin' true mountain air, the kind that makes your lungs expand, makes each step feel a lil' stronger, and that smell of what I call the "cotton-candy" pine. I have yet to figure out just which one it is, but breathe deep and be mindful next time you're at that elevation, you're bound to catch just a passing waft of its sweet smelling sap.

RipeWineberries (Rubus phoenicolasuis) - notice the very hairy sepals and the leftover yellow receptacle - this is characteristic of Wineberries. The entire plant is wooly, with the stems often being covered in a red wool and the undersides of the leaves in a thick white wool. The berries are considered raspberries and are hollow when plucked, leaving the receptacle behind. Leaflets number just 3, with the terminal leaflet being the largest.
Along the way, I had the pleasure of eating my first Wineberries of the season that seemed to be blushing red everywhere I looked. In fact, I notice lots of berries and plants already going to seed. For us, it still seems the height of the season, but for many of the plants they are already preparing to for fall. I saw this in the flowering Wood Nettle (Laportea Canadensis), bright red Trillium berries (Trillium spp.), and Clintonia (Clintonia spp.).

Trillium (Trillium spp.) berry of a Trillium's single large flower - these berries are NOT edible and will produce gastric upset if consumed. Trilliums are a rare and habitat sensitive plant, so best to simply admire them anyhow.
Oh and I also must mention, I had this handsome man as my hiking companion on the first day out of Asheville. He hiked 19 miles, keeping up the whole time (well most of the time), and drinking and bathing in every stream we passed...

Me and Harvey. Harvey is usually Rachel's main squeeze, but I got to enjoy his company on this day!
It was the night leaving Mount Pisgah that the rain first began. Although I had to don cold wet clothes every morning, at least I was offered a reprieve throughout the majority of each day... that is for a couple of days. After reaching Mount Pisgah, I enjoyed a subtle downhill to Chestnut Ridge and then another gradual descent to Yellowstone Prong and Graveyard Fields. This area lies just outside of the Shining Rock Wilderness and is astoundingly beautiful, known for its Red Spruce (Picea rubens), Fraser and Balsam Fir (Abies fraseri and Abies balsamea) trees. A popular swimming spot known as Skinny Dip Falls lies here, tumbling between the boulders of the Yellowstone Prong. And lucky me, I had some ladies meet me at those falls...

Me and my two lovely ladies from Asheville, Robin and Rachel - they actually managed to jump into those ice cold waters! I, on the other hand, was still cold from the soaking rain that had dumped on me the night before, and so enjoyed being wrapped in my thermal, basking in a single sunbeam, and eating all the goodies they brought to share with me!
I quickly ascended from the 5000 mountain valley of Graveyard Fields to the mountaintops surrounding Black Balsam and Sam Knob, at least one of these bearing a name, Silvermine Bald. The views were breath-taking and the air was again cool and crisp. On this night, I had the pleasure of camping in an open high-canopy pine woods on a bed of dark red needles. On the ridge I could see the colors put off by the setting sun, the night was void of sound, and in the morning I was awoken by a the song of a single bird.

Heading towards camp in the diminishing light near Black Balsam
As I left here in the morning, I headed into the thick wood woods of the Middle Prong Wilderness, one of my most favorite portions of the MST. The best way that I can describe this area is as a mountain-top garden. It is not at all orderly like a garden but the way that the trail is cut through the thin black soil, exposing the, most often, flat slabs of rock below, leaving the trail to be framed by bright green moss and blooms of white lichen, gives the suggestion of a definite pathway through the plants. The curling bark of Yellow Birch (Betula allegheniensis) lies strewn about as does fallen clumps of Usnea (Usnea spp.) and as always in these high elevation woods, the Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel creep in from all sides. Through all of this are many skinny trickling streams, with waters so clear that you can see perfectly all the different shades of brown and gray and cream one could ever imagine in the pebbles that make up the stream floors.

Usnea aka Old Man's Beard (Usnea spp.) - this is a potent medicine, possessing antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-fungal properties. It was historically used to pack soldier's wounds when modern medicines were not available in the field. It is now largely used by herbalists as a general antibiotic and more specifically in use against urinary tract infections. Making a tea of it will extract some of its constituents but making an alcohol tincture is more effective.
It was in the Middle Prong Wilderness that I had the pleasure of meeting Becca Day and her friends Claire and Debbie. I met Becca by running into her on the trail and asking her with great trepidation, "Is this the MST?" To which she replied, "Yeah!" Oh thank God. Because this is a designated wilderness area, there are few blazes and many side trails where hikers have wondered off and gotten lost, therefore I was doing my damnedest to stay on track. After learning I was thruhiking Becca happened to offer up her home when I came through Balsam Gap in the next day or two. Well...let's just say I took Becca up on that offer after hiking in a torrential downpour the next morning for 3 hours at 5000 feet over steep rocky trail and across the tops of blowing wind balds. Okay, so maybe after I realized my hands were so cold I couldn't tie my own shoes and in a dumb-handed frenzy threw my tent down on the side of the trail, ripped off my wet clothes, got inside tried not to get anything else wet, put on every article of dried clothing I had, got inside my sleeping bag, and then proceeded to eat half my food bag, fall asleep with head on said food bag, and wake up to the rain still pouring down...I called Becca...asking her to meet me 7 miles before Balsam Gap. Becca, thank you, you were a true Trail Angel! Oh yeah, and then Becca, her husband, and I all ate Mexican and drank Angry Orchard. Does it get any better than that?

A snail - I saw so many of these guys, I had to be careful not to crush them underfoot- at least they have been enjoying the rain!
And so it not only rained all day that day, but I started off in the early morning the following day in more rain. I spent the first half of the day descending, hiking at a lower, and therefore warmer elevation and had some good body heat built up by the time I again had to ascend to Waterrock Knob. Let me tell ya, I was quite the sight, walking up the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway in tiny shorts and rain jacket with the hood pulled as tight around my head as possible dripping wet in the rain and thick fog, passing drivers probably thought me an apparition. Through that fog I simply followed the enormous rock faces on one side, all with streaming waterfalls, and the dark green pines lining the cliffs on the other. And good news, hikers, Waterrock Knob Visitor Center at the summit is OPEN! And they have a fireplace. Upon reaching here, I promptly threw down my wet gear and plopped down on the floor in front of that fire and ate a snickers.

The sign telling me Clingman's is only getting closer!
And now I have officially begun the River Valley Route! This route descends from the mountains after summiting Black Rock and Yellowface Bald, which I did yesterday evening, to the Tuckaseegee River. Here I will follow roads for about 20 miles into the Great Smokey Mountains. Two days of hiking here, and I'm at Clingman's Dome. All I can say is, "Clingman's, I'm comin' for ya!" This is one of two alternate routes to avoid walking on the parkways. The other route goes largely through the Smokies with this route has been described as the less rugged of the two...well, do not hit those woods on the other side of Waterrock Knob and expect a nice easy walk in Pinnacle Park. Blackrock and the West Fork Trail that leads you over it's summit is incredibly rugged with much boulder scrambling and then a descent of over 700 feet in 0.5 mile. This small section was also some of the most beautiful trail I've seen along the MST yet, so also definitely a portion to be experienced.

The countryside of Sylva, a little town along the edge of the Tuckaseegee River and that sits at the base of the Waterrock Knob, Black Rock, Yellowface, and Pinnacle.
And so after raining all night long last night, I awoke this morning to mere mist and could just feel that the sun would be coming out. Seven miles later, as I entered the town of Sylva, the sun was so bright my eyes were mere slits and the sun so hot I wondered what on earth I was doing with that Mount Mitchell fleece in my pack. Sylva is the definition of mountain town and I have so far thoroughly enjoyed its amenities: City Lights Bookstore and Café, the Economy Inn, and later, a brew at the Innovator Brewery. Delicious little eateries also abound here.

Tomorrow...into the SMOKIES! I will do one small post following this one with an announcement for my final book event in Asheville at Black Dome, but my next full post will be upon COMPLETION!

I must leave you with the photo of one more friend that I met during an actually beautiful, fall-like, crisp day in the Middle Prong Wilderness...

Speckles, the Spiritual Llama. I want nothing more than to leave it at this, but I'll give you the backstory. Speckles is part of a team of llamas that are part of an organization called Challenge Adventure. The kids that were on this trip informed me of this particular llama's name and his role amongst the other llamas. After I learned this, I felt rather honored I'd had the opportunity to pet him.


  1. Heather, you're awesome! I hope to make it to Black Dome! Happy trails!

  2. We enjoyed meeting you Heather. I saw a big bear not a half mile from where I dropped you off. Thought about you in the rain as we were kayaking. Get it girl!! Congrats on finishing the trail!!

    1. It was so nice to have met you and thank you so much again for the lovely stay in your home! I almost texted you that evening past Water rock Knob, just to say "Made it!" Oh....I'm glad I didn't know about the bear! Guess he was doin' his thing and me doin' mine!

  3. Thanks Matt! It was quite the hike! Will you be hittin' the trail again soon?

  4. Oh wow this is so so awesome!! I have always wanted to hike Clingman's Dome!! I am going there to hike this autumn :)

    1. It's a beautiful mountain :) The AT and MST are both great trails to explore there!