Monday, October 23, 2017

Whiteside Mountain

The annual fall color show is descending in elevation, now showing in the 4,000s: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mount Pisgah, Sam Knob, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s also colored up considerably in the Highlands/Cashiers area, where Whiteside Mountain offers some of the best views of Nantahala National Forest and surrounding area.

The “white side” that gives the mountain its name is a result of eons of erosion; the sheer cliffs of granitic gneiss are geologically similar to other familiar landmarks such as Looking Glass Rock on the Pisgah, and our own Upstate favorite, Table Rock.

What makes the Whiteside Mountain hike so popular is that you can have the exhilaration of standing on the edge of 750 foot high cliffs, but with safety railings helping to mitigate the risk of accidents. The relatively short hike – it’s a moderate two-mile loop trail that takes hikers to the top of Whiteside – is also a feature that can make the hike attractive to families. Even with the railings and moderate rating, this hike can still be a challenge, as it has an elevation gain of about 600 feet. Hikers should exercise caution and stay on the trail; there are steep drop-offs and other hazards on Whiteside, as with most mountain hikes.

To reach the trailhead, follow the signs for Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area from US 64 for 1 mile on Whiteside Mountain Road (SR 1600), until you reach the signed parking area on the left. There is a $2.00/day area use fee at Whiteside Mountain Recreation Area, and on weekends the lot can fill up; at this point overflow traffic is directed to keep moving until spots open up.

The trail starts steeply up the hill behind the sign boards and soon merges with an old roadbed. Not too much further the loop splits off to the left up a section of stairs. We prefer to go counter-clockwise (and up the stairs), as it gets the steep section out of the way first and we don’t have to contend with it on the descent. (If you prefer a more gradual gradient, continue on the roadbed traveling the loop clockwise.) The stairs and switchbacks take you up through the hardwood forest to the top of the ridge, on the way passing some neat geological formations, including a rock overhang and a small cliff.

Then all of the sudden you emerge onto bare rock, with views stretching south across the Chattooga River valley into Georgia and South Carolina. To your right are the round domes of the Highlands-area mountains, dotted with resorts, golf courses and large homes. There are more than a half-dozen of these viewpoints along the ridgeline, each seemingly more beautiful than the last.

The summit is about halfway, with a large rock sticking up marking the spot, elevation 4,931ft. At this point the stunted oaks and pine are interspersed with mountain laurel, a good reason to return in the spring. The area is also known for wildflowers including white snakeroot, false Solomon’s seal, speckled wood-lily and wood betony.

Standing on the summit of Whiteside

From here you’ll start the descent, but there are still multiple scenic viewpoints along the ridge. Looking outward, on your left are fantastic views of the cliffs and the portion of the mountain known as Devil’s Courthouse (not to be confused with the Devil’s Courthouse up on the Blue Ridge).

A great photo op can be found at Fool’s Rock. Named after the 1911 rescue (read more about it here), a narrow gap leads down to a second viewing area. Exercise caution, there is a gap, even with the safety guidewires.

At one point a concrete slab platform juts out over the mountainside; a relic from before the Forest Service acquired the property. The old road bed used to bring tourists up to the summit for views from this spot. The ticket booth to the attraction was the former “smallest US Post Office,” a tiny 5-foot by 6-foot structure that served from 1878 until 1953 in Whiteside Cove. “Grimshawes” (as it was called because all the postmasters were named Grimshawe) was moved back down in the 1970s, and today can be seen on Whiteside Cove Road.

During your hike keep an eye out for the peregrine falcons that call the mountain their home. The birds of prey were reintroduced to Whiteside through an endangered species program in 1985, and they return annually to nest on the rock ledges on the cliffs – another good reason to stay on the trails and to mind climbing closures (posted at parking lot).

Once you reach the opening with several large boulders (where the trail makes a sharp turn) you’ve reached the last scenic viewpoint. The northeasterly view looks towards Timber Ridge, the granitic gneiss of Chattooga Ridge visible over the valley.

From this point the trail heads back down the mountain on the old roadbed, with glimpses north and northwest into the valley as you gently descend back down to the parking area. Before we knew it we were back at the car, and as it was approaching 5pm we headed back to US 64 in hopes to see the Shadow of the Bear phenomenon.

"Shadow of the Bear" via Romantic Asheville

Starting around October 15th, the shadow of Whiteside Mountain looks like a bear for 30 minutes around sunset. According to Romantic Asheville, the “shadow of the bear” is visible for 30 minutes each evening between 5:30-6:15 PM from mid-October through early November. The best place to see the shadow is from the Rhodes Big View Overlook on Highway 64. The overlook doesn’t have signs, but it does have pull-offs on both sides of the highway for cars, as well as a fantastic view of Whiteside Mountain and the Chattooga Ridge. It is only a few miles west of Cashiers, and just past the intersection of 64 with Whiteside Mountain Road. It had been partly sunny the whole day, but as the sun sank in the sky it descended into some clouds and we came up empty on our visit… Although we might not make it back to the Highlands/Cashiers area this fall, we’re planning a visit sometime in late February/early March, as the angle of the sun in the sky will once again bring the bear out of hibernation.

View from Rhodes Big View Overlook including Whiteside on the right

In addition to the nearby mountain towns of Highlands and Cashiers, there are plenty of other destinations in the area. These include the Cullasaja River Gorge, dozens of waterfalls like Whitewater & Silver Run, Gorges State Park, and endless other hiking possibilities on the Nantahala, Pisgah, Chattahoochee and Sumter National Forests. Happy exploring!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Autumn comes to Conestee / Knee High Naturalists

We attended a “Knee High Naturalists” program at Lake Conestee recently. The education program for pre-school students kicked off this summer, and the 1.5 -hour program is now seasonally offered twice a month. The program is for children ages 3 to 6, and meets near the “W2” entrance off Fork Shoals Rd.

Gaillardia still blooming

Summer programs included “Amazing Amphibians,” “Incredible Insects” and “Very Hungry Caterpillar.” The fall series is half-way through, with “Forest Floor Friends” and “Incredible Raptors” already having taken place, along with “Lovely Leaves,” the one we attended. Still to come: Spectacular Spiders, Busy Beavers, and Turkey Time. The instructor mentioned that LCNP is looking to expand the program in the spring, with a second class offered in the afternoon for those unable to make the 9:30am start time.

chicken of the woods? 

Each class involves an exploratory hike along with a book reading and/or a craft. After story time we hit the trail, looping around Henderson Farm in search of colorful foliage. The sassafras and sweetgum leaves were especially vibrant, along with the poison ivy – we let that be.


There were plenty of other cool finds, such as a persimmon just loaded down with fruit. If you’re not familiar with the persimmon, you should try one sometime; this native fruit is high in beta carotine and minerals such as sodium, magnesium, calcium and iron, and studies have found that they also contain twice as much dietary fiber as apples, as well as phenolic compounds thought to ward off heart disease. The rich, sweet pulp is ripe when the flesh is practically bursting through the skins, and although often too squishy to bite into without making a mess, it is easy to cut them in half and slurp out the flesh, or to make jam. Be warned, unripe persimmon will make your mouth pucker!

A bit further on was a black cherry, Prunus serotina. Another native to SC, the unpalatable fruits are not as sweet as regular cherries; their tartness makes them ideal for jam, jelly, syrups and wine. 

Black cherries

And the pecans! We find it hard to pass by a pecan tree in the autumn without picking at least a handful of nuts off the ground to snack on while we walk.


Despite the threat of rain, it was a beautiful autumn morning at Conestee: not too warm, not too cold, tons going on. Vilis found a snake shed, and the kids enjoyed tasting and smelling their way through the park: the vinegar-y odor of the honey locust pod, the fruit loop smell of the sassafras leaf… The program ended at the Shortleaf Shelter where the children made their very own trees decked out in autumn foliage, and then we said our goodbyes and slowly headed back towards our car.

Knee High Naturalists at Conestee Nature Park
Where: 601 Fork Shoals Rd., Greenville, SC 29607
Cost: $10/child (or buy 3 at once to get $5 off)
For more information, and to sign up, please visit the LCNP website.

Vilis and a snake skin

For more on Lake Conestee Nature Park, please see my posts Your Guide to Lake Conestee Nature Park and Conestee's Learning Loop 3 (which covers Henderson Farm). A map of Lake Conestee Nature Park click here

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Craggy Pinnacle

With 360° views of western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the 1.4-mile Craggy Pinnacle hike offers some of the best views on the section of Parkway east of Asheville. Along with the Craggy Gardens picnic area, Visitor Center and Craggy Gardens trail, the Pinnacle Overlook and trail provides a full day of hiking and recreation within a small area – a day-trip to the mountains just 1.5 hours from the Upstate!

This popular trail ascends just a short stretch from the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook at milepost 364.1, and is well known for the colorful display the Catawba rhododendrons put on in June. However you would be remiss in discounting this hike for autumn foliage viewing, as the high-elevation birch forest, long-distance vistas and Burnett Reservoir (also known as North Fork Reservoir, a water source for Asheville) views offer up a spectrum of color each year.

By the time we finished our explorations of Craggy Gardens and driven the two miles east, the low clouds and fog had lifted, revealing generous views from the Craggy Pinnacle parking lot. We started our Pinnacle hike from the upper parking lot, admiring the view of Burnett Reservoir from the grassy area before entering a tunnel of rhododendron. Most of the area was a heath bald, but in recent years without the influence of wildfire or grazing a high-elevation hardwood forest of birch and mountain ash has taken over, leaving only small areas of heath bald.

We soon passed an enormous, but stunted birch seemingly growing out of rock. The diminutive stature of the trees is due to high winds and cold temperatures that commonly occur at this high elevation.

Next was a birch on the right that had been felled in some past storm but is still alive, a testament that life finds a way, even in the harsh conditions on the mountain.

Across from trail is a spring that is for some reason partially enclosed in a concrete box. This is the headwaters for Waterfall Creek, a tributary of which plunges over the waterfall that is a 4-mile hike from the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center, Douglas Falls.

You’ll know you’re a little over halfway when the trail takes a sharp turn left around a rock outcrop, with a small cave under the rock and a great view from the top of Craggy Dome.

A little further you’ll notice a sign warning visitors to stay on the trail, discouraging hikers from making their own trails and damaging the sensitive habitat of the heath bald. Multiple endangered species call the Pinnacle home, and veering from the official trail not only damages fragile plants and endangers trespassers (and their possible rescuers), but might result in the closure of the entire trail. The Blue Ridge Parkway General Management Plan / Final Environmental Impact Statement released in 2013 suggests a complete closure of this trail with a replacement trail to the top of nearby Craggy Dome as a solution to the perpetual damage suffered by Craggy Pinnacle from trail erosion and damage caused by wayward hikers. Currently the trail remains open, but with continued disregard of posted signs it might not stay that way for long.

During the summer the trail would provide a snack on the go as it climbs higher through the heath bald filled with rhododendron, mountain laurel, and blueberry bushes. A split in the trail announces the final stretch, the left going to the upper overlook and the right to the lower overlook. Before you know it, you’ve reached the summit, with a viewing area and seating for you take safely take in the views. To your north is Craggy Dome and the Black Mountains (including Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi), to your west, the State Line Ridge, south is the Craggy Gardens visitor center (and the roof of the chestnut-log shelter) and the Blue Ridge Parkway with the Pisgah range in the background, and east is the Reservoir and Graybeard Mountain. Again, please stay within the overlook! Climbing over the wall for that Instagram photograph isn’t worth the damage to the sensitive plant communities, nor the cost of the ticket or hospital bill – not to mention ruining it for the rest of us if the trail gets closed.

We enjoyed a snack along with the views and then packed up, returning the way we came. We were ready to enjoy lunch at Craggy Gardens picnic area, after which we would slowly head back towards Asheville with the plan to stop at multiple overlooks. This section of the Parkway is rife with Visitor Centers, so we had our pick where to stop for the boys to turn in their completed Jr. Ranger folders, but this exploration of the Folk Art Center and Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center in Asheville would conclude our fall foliage viewing on the Parkway for the year.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Craggy Gardens, autumn

We hit the road early one morning and headed north to Asheville where we jumped on the Blue Ridge Parkway headed east. The annual fall color show had started in the upper elevations (see my post on Graveyard Fields), and the ride up US-25 was a vibrant gradient attesting to the descent of fall foliage into the foothills over the past two weeks.

We had intended to visit Craggy Gardens last Sunday, but were sidetracked by Hurricane Nate’s remnants which included tornadoes and severe weather across the Upstate and Asheville area. It was our hope that being among the sections with higher elevations on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Craggy Gardens area would not yet be past prime; it seems that predictions for an early leaf-peeping season have not been completely on track, and there was plenty of color to be seen on the Parkway between Asheville and Craggy Gardens, with another week or so to come.

The twisted, jagged, rocky “crags” give Craggy Gardens its name, but the high elevation summits are best known for the colorful display of rhododendron that blanket the area in June. However, the fall foliage displays on this section are not to be discounted; the 360° views from the overlooks and trails allow you to see a wide expanse of the Blue Ridge, and the stunted birch trees, mountain ash with their colorful berries, and the heath balds with the various sedges, blueberry and blackberry plants you’ll see on your hikes have their own hues to admire.

Located between milepost 363 and 370, there are three sections to visit: the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area  at milepost 367.6, the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center at the Gap at milepost 364.4, and the Craggy Dome View & Hike to Craggy Pinnacle at milepost 364.1.

source: Virtual Blue Ridge

We started our explorations at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center. Although the Visitor Center hadn’t opened yet (please see hours here), we wanted to hit the trail first anyways. Being as the majority of the mountain was socked in with thick clouds rolling through, we selected the Craggy Gardens trail for our first hike, knowing that the views from Craggy Pinnacle would be better later in the day after the fog lifted. The trail can be accessed from the south end of the Visitor Center Parking area and leads to the north end of the Picnic Area in Craggy Flats. Just after leaving the parking area the trail intersects with the Mountains to Sea trail: head right and it’s 4 miles to Douglas Falls, keep straight for Craggy Gardens.

We hiked uphill through a forest of stunted, twisted high-elevation mountain ash, birch, and beech trees in a dense mist. Far from being spooky, the effect was mesmerizing; it seemed we were the only people on the trail as sound was muted and visibility reduced. After passing a small spring we soon came to the historic trail shelter. The logs used to build the shelter 100 years ago are the only American chestnuts you’ll find in the area; these magnificent trees were wiped out from the region by the introduced Chestnut blight, much as the hemlocks are currently being decimated by the hemlock woolly adelgid.

From the shelter, you can go left on a side path to explore the "gardens". Grassy meadows are being encroached upon by shrubs and trees without human & natural intervention, and Catawba rhododendron thickets with their twisted trunks are interspersed with mountain laurel, the pink blooms of which bloom soon after the rhododendron in the summer. We paused at the overlook to see if a break in the fog might offer a view of the mountains, and were rewarded with a short glimpse of Craggy Knob before the mist rolled back in.

From the shelter and bald it’s roughly 8/10ths of a mile to the Craggy Gardens picnic area, but that’s mostly downhill; you’ll get a good workout coming back up. We chose to park at the Visitor Center and hike the 0.7 miles to the shelter, bald and observation point, and save the picnic area for lunch – we would drive to it after returning to the parking area. Follow the signs from milepost 367.6, and you’ll find yourself in the Craggy Garden flats; a sheltered area with picnic tables, restrooms and plenty of parking once the smaller lots at the overlook and Visitor Center have filled up.

View of picnic area and parking from trailhead to Craggy Gardens

View of trailhead and our picnic spot in Craggy Gardens picnic area

After emerging from the Gardens we made a stop at the now-open Visitor Center to pick up Jr. Ranger folders for the kids; the Blue Ridge Parkway program offers the badge after completion of the activities on the folder and one worksheet. Each section of the Parkway has its own worksheet, and as the kids complete multiple worksheets they earn additional prizes. Across the road from the Visitor Center is another scenic viewpoint, and during breaks in the fog we had a view of the Craggy Gardens tunnel. We took a deep breath of moist mountain air and then loaded up the car for the very short drive east for our next hike – Craggy Pinnacle.

View of Burnett Reservoir from Craggy Gardens Visitor Center


The Craggy Gardens Visitor Center and trail is on the portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway that stretches from Asheville to Blowing Rock. I cover the western-most section of the Parkway in my post From Pisgah to Cherokee on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Craggy Pinnacle tunnel

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Boxcar Children opens at TCMU!

The newest exhibit at The Children’s Museum of the Upstate opens today! The Boxcar Children is an exhibit designed around the book series written by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and has come to the Upstate to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the books as well as the new animated feature film release.

“The Boxcar Children book series tells the story of four orphaned children in the late 1920s who create a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. The children eventually meet their wealthy grandfather and decide to live with him, as the book series continues to highlight their many adventures. The exhibit simulates many settings found in the first book of the series. As children play in the exhibit, they will also explore the familiar themes of literacy, family values, resourcefulness, and empathy that The Boxcar Children books are so well-known for.” (source here)

This exhibit was specially designed for The Children’s Museum of the Upstate (TCMU), and will be at the museum for 6 months. The nearly life-size boxcar was hidden away in the basement as it was being built, but is now displayed and filled with props that the children used to make their own home in the book.

The bakery next door also contains items and furniture from the story, and allows visitors to work behind the counter or sweeping up. They can put on a chef’s hat, or just peer in through the window like Benny did in the book.

In Dr. Moore’s House children can clean and sort through the tools in the garage, or head inside where there is a kitchen for cooking cherry dumpling as well as the bedroom where Violet recuperated when she was sick. Meanwhile in the “outdoor” area of the exhibit (also Dr. Moore’s in the book), there is a vegetable garden and campfire.

What the children most enjoyed was that they could wander through the story at will; for example pick vegetables and then take them to the campfire to make soup, or after buying cookies from the bakery they could return to the boxcar for a play snack while they read a book. We will be returning for more play in the boxcar, and I foresee heightened interest in the Boxcar Children book series in the near future.

For more information on hours of operation and admission info, please visit the TCMU website.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Buffalo Creek Park in the Hickory Nut Gorge

Known for jaw-dropping waterfalls, stunning views of Lake Lure and vibrant fall foliage, the majestic Hickory Nut Gorge is a treasure chest of adventures just over an hour from Greenville. Along the 14-mile canyon created by the Rocky Broad River are numerous communities such as Gerton, Bat Cave, Chimney Rock, Lake Lure and Bill’s Creek, and in the surrounding environs you’ll find plenty of recreation including Dittmer-Watts Nature Trail Park, Chimney Rock State Park, Rumbling Bald, Florence Nature Preserve, Bearwallow Mountain and Buffalo Creek Park.

We headed up to Hickory Gorge in our annual fall color chase last week, hoping that the upper altitudes of the gorge would already be showing the vibrant foliage that the hardwoods in this area are known for. While we were definitely early for the show (predictions are for a peak of color more towards the end of the month), the hike in the headwaters of Lake Lure at Buffalo Creek Park was a look into the future of what the planned trails for this area will eventually hold.

Buffalo Creek Park is the gateway to 1,500 acres of land on Weed Patch Mountain. Owned by the town of Lake Lure, the park is managed by Conserving Carolina, the recent consolidation between the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Pacolet Area Conservancy. Buffalo Creek was opened to the public in the spring of 2014, and what is currently about 5 miles of trail will soon extend a total of 7-10 miles to the state park property at Eagle Rock near Shumont Mountain. The plan is to connect it with Chimney Rock State Park on the north side of Rumbling Bald Mountain, and eventually a complete circuit of Lake Lure will be pieced together in a 30-40 mile trail summitting multiple surrounding peaks.

Turkey tail fungi

But, we’ll have to be patient; currently the main portions open to hikers and mountain bikers are the Rumbling Bald Mtn. and Buffalo Creek Park trails. The 200 acre Buffalo Creek tract features a 4.7 mile loop which takes you up the side of Weed Patch Mountain and then back down to Buffalo Creek via endless switchbacks. The parking area is small, with space only for 5 cars (or a few more if you really squeeze ‘em in), and the hike moderate – it climbs about 500ft as it zigzags up and down the mountain.

For a detailed description of the hike (as well as maps and pictures taken in the winter) you can read Jeff Clark’s post on the park, but the trail is really straightforward. After a short section on an old roadbed you cross the Creek and then take a turn (follow the signs) to start the lollipop-loop. The trail is designed with safety in mind, with alternating designated days for bikers and hikers: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday & Friday, mountain bikers go left and hikers right (counter-clockwise around the loop), and on Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday, hikers go left and mountain bikers right. This is designed to give hikers advance warning of bikers coming downhill.

There are a couple of spots with views of Lake Lure (like the one at the top of this post), but those will mainly come once the additional section of trail connecting to Eagle Rock opens. What currently exists of the connector trail is 1 mile long, taking you up 12 switchbacks to a dead end; we skipped this portion of the hike, opting to return to Buffalo Creek for lunch.

The best views were of Youngs Mountain on the opposite side of the valley, and the traverse of the boulder field along the top portion of the loop was also enjoyable. Plenty of oaks, hickories and other hardwoods will be ablaze in another couple of weeks, while the ecological diversity in the gorge will be showcased in the spring when the wildflowers return; 37 rare plant species and 14 rare animal species (including the Green Salamander) call this area home. Although the trail primarily seems designed for mountain biking, there is no doubt we’ll be returning to explore the gorge further - to experience the various seasons in Hickory Nut Gorge, and to enjoy the completed connector to Eagle Rock in Chimney Rock State Park.

For more on nearby hikes, please see my posts on Lake Lure, Chimney Rock State Park and Bearwallow Mountain. For more information on the status of the loop that will eventually circumnavigate Lake Lure, please see the Buffalo Creek FAQ section of the Lake Lure website.

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