I knew going in to this drive that the first few days would be wet, but I had been assured by several visits to weather.com throughout the week that things would start to clear up on Sunday night. Things have, in fact, gotten much more damp, but at this point I’ve got such a good wet-weather hiking routine down that it hardly matters.
(The Craggy Garden trail became the newest North Carolina stream today)
(There were also several new mini-waterfalls everywhere)
Besides, once you are on a hike and under the canopy, most of the rain doesn’t make it to the forest floor in the first place. Which is not to say that I have not gotten soaked by the end of each day anyway — it’s just much more pleasant to get slowly soaked in the woods in Western North Carolina than it is to get soaked in an instant in a downpour in a parking lot in Raleigh.
That said, the rain was so heavy at times today that I had to abandon my plan for a short hike at Crabtree Falls (sorry, Emily). I did, however, catch a family of wild turkeys by surprise as I drove through the Crabtree parking lot. Seeing a wild turkey — so very different from their domesticated brethren who are being fattened up for market, tall, slender, and confident — always reminds me that maybe Benjamin Franklin wasn’t so crazy after all when he (semi-apocryphally) suggested it for our national bird. They are also surprisingly agile for such large birds; by the time I stopped the truck and grabbed my camera, the family had disappeared into a not-too-thick forest without a trace.
I spent the bulk of the day today on the Douglas Falls trail near Craggy Gardens (see description, below) and on Mount Mitchell, highest point in North Carolina, and highest point in the Eastern United States.
I have climbed at altitudes much higher than Mount Mitchell’s, but 6,600 feet is nothing to laugh at. The air may not be much thinner than it is at sea level, but the temperature is noticeably lower and the wind is fierce — cold and fierce enough to take the life of one of the mountain’s early explorers in the mid-1800s.
Being on Mount Mitchell only a month removed from a week on the coast, even if only for an hour or so, was a powerful reminder of just how diverse our state’s climate and topography can be.
(The News & Observer recently ran an article about the highest peaks on the East Coast, many of which are in North Carolina. Most residents know that Mount Mitchell is the highest of all east of the Mississippi, but I’m betting few know that several other NC peaks make the list.)
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Featured Hike — Douglas Falls (spur off of Craggy Gardens and North Carolina Mountains to Sea trails, MM 364.4) )
On the recommendation of Nathan, Heather, and Bandit, who I met at a Winston-Salem Dash game a few weeks ago, I decided to give Douglas Falls a go. I knew where the trail was, but I did not know much about it. I can tell you now that this is not a trail to be taken lightly, especially on a cold and rainy day. First of all, it is not a loop trail, so every now and then one’s mind is overcome with the realization that every step down is a step that will have to be taken again — but on the second pass, going uphill. It is also a very uneven trail (though well-blazed), with constant cut-backs and a mostly uneven, rocky floor. There is also no way to know (without a good map) how far along you are; all told, I hiked the trail for close to four hours. The echoes in the valley into which the trail descends is very interesting — and very misleading. You can hear the waters that feed the falls everywhere, but rarely do you actually see them. But the diversity of the flora at each level of the descent and the watery rewards toward the bottom of the trail are well worth the effort — and I now know that I did not even make it to the bottom and to the actual Douglas Falls themselves.
The falls that marked my turnaround point were plenty spectacular enough, though, and I doubt I would have had the energy to make the return trip from the very bottom.
(Not actually Douglas Falls, but plenty good enough)
I wonder how much farther down I needed to go?
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Accommodations: Skyline Village Inn, Little Switzerland — I know I could have stayed in Spruce Pine or somewhere more refined, but I really like the idea of Little Switzerland — that so very un-Parkway-like collection of fake European mountain chalets along Highway 226A. The Skyline Village Inn is one of the stalwart longtime establishments on this ring road, and rooms there are exactly what you think they will be like when you pull up to the Inn: no two rooms alike, oddly-placed small common areas, a mix of building materials, and a mix of eras. My room included heart-pine floors randomly mixed with slate tile pads, pine furniture, and a door out onto a shared rooftop balcony, the view from which no doubt is stupendous when there is no heavy fog blanketing the entire Blue Ridge. I’m not sure if dogs are technically allowed or not, but there is at least one up on the third floor with me somewhere.
Dinner: El Ranchero, Lower Street, Spruce Pine — You’ve been here before, just not in Spruce Pine. I had the burrito el sofocado (pork enchilada with chorizo) and a Negro Modelo (yes, I drink Mexican beer on occasion; I’ve made enough trips to South America to have figured out which ones I like). Several of Spruce Pine’s more well-known options (such as Knife and Fork) were closed (Monday, natch).
Drive music: “Thunder and Rain,” Graham Parker — Picking this one was low-hanging fruit on a weather day like today. The version I listened to today is from the Blue Highways 1988 tour bootleg; the (bootleg) video above is from that tour but is not the same performance.