Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Siler Bald

Plaque atop Siler Bald: elevation 5,126 feet
Just yesterday I had the opportunity to join some friends for a hike along the Appalachian Trail from Winding Stair Gap to Siler Bald. This is one of the elements of Asheville that I adore the most...not only do I have the Mountains to Sea Trail less than a quarter mile from my front door, but the Appalachian Trail as close as a 20 minute drive.

We drove a little bit further for this hike however, about an hour and a half to Route 64 just outside of Franklin, NC. As we wound our way further into the mountains, the rocky layers doubled and tripled and when afforded the unusual straightaway, loomed larger in the distance. Within the mountain trees, the yellowing leaves took on a deeper shade of gold and red began to pop from amidst the dull green foliage. With each mile we were driving further into fall. After driving "over the mountain" as the directions suggested, Emily and I reached Winding Stair Gap, at 3820 feet, where we would meet Robin.

Once out of the car, the wind was brisk and blowing and the sun that had alighted us the whole way was suddenly swallowed behind a low ceiling of thick clouds. I remembered this gap well from my thru-hike. My father and I had hiked out of Franklin after staying 2 nights at the Budget Inn. We were both still soft-footed hikers having only been on the trail a few weeks at this point in the journey. It had been bitter cold on that late afternoon as we'd hiked just a mile or two up trail and it began to snow. It had been beautiful, but I remember carrying the weight of our trepidation as we'd climbed higher towards the shelter, wondering just how many of those lovely snowflakes we'd watch fall. Clearly this gap is known for its weather.

Showy Gentian - (Gentiana decora) - Gentian is considered one of the most bitter plants in the world. A tincture can be made of its roots (this applies to numerous species, including both G. decora and G. quinquefolia described here), to aid in liver health and digestion. However use only a small amount and/or in a formula to balance its intensity. Pregnant women should not ingest gentian.
But this time, as the three of us climbed now sheltered from the blowing wind, we soon found ourselves stripping layers. Beneath our feet was a thin blanket of yellow and brown leaves, and the waterfall that usually rushes was a slender trickling stream, typical of early autumn around these parts. After about the first mile, the trail leveled out, and we were able to easily amble down the trail, brushed by the periodic American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), fwapping overhead leaves of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), while at our feet we shuffled past the gaze of Doll's Eyes (Actaea pachypoda), fronds of flowering Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and the striped pod-like closed petals of Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora).

Climbing the side trail off of the AT to Siler Bald - check out that Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)!
Within just a mile of the summit, the trail again began to climb. We passed the blue-blazed trail for the shelter. Here, I also remembered well, camping that night as the snow had continued to fall and my father, after 2 dogged hours got a fire started, thrilling the small collection of hikers that had eventually gathered there. Not long after this intersection, we emerged from the thick woods into an open over-grown field. Both Robin and I remembered this field being nothing more than tall golden grass, but apparently, it's been left to grow up, perhaps leaving winter to do its landscaping.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolim)
Hidden within the tall grass and Blackberry brambles (Rubus spp.) was a show of Autumn flowers: late blooming Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) with not only golden blooms but golden leaves, and dense tufts of Stiff Gentian (Gentiana quiquefolia). I wish I had more up close and personal plant photos for you, but it appears I left the camera charger in PA, so for the time being I'm stuck with the cell phone which just doesn't do macro. Here, we also had our first views of the surrounding mountain-scape

Cresting the top of Siler Bald
Now didn't I say something about "epic mountain vistas" in my last post...yea...this is what I am talking about. Once at the top we were afforded 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. Although above us hung heavy clouds, on the far horizon we could see to the edge, where clouds ended and the sun shone light against the mountainsides and into the valley from where we had began.

View from atop Siler Bald
We sat atop a worn log propped against a large slab of dusty colored rock, now decked in hats, gloves, and poofy upper layers, and feasted upon hard-boiled eggs, gruyere, wasabi almonds, dates, and lemon poppy-seed cookies, oh and of course some of those delicious gas station-style honey mustard and onion pretzel nibblers. Some dancing and leaping and general silliness at 5,216 feet also ensued, however these photos will have to come later as they were taken with Robin's camera. Eventually some sprinkles began to fall from those heavy clouds and the chill wind picked up, and so we reluctantly decided that it was about time to head back to the gap. All in all, almost 9 miles and a raucous good time atop Siler Bald.

Emily and Robin heading back down the trail to Winding Stair Gap

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