Monday, October 30, 2017

Bear Cove at Devils Fork

After all the hype about how this will be the brightest and most beautiful autumn in decades, a couple of weeks of hot weather coupled with high winds and stormy weather has left the Upstate and Western North Carolina a little short on fall color. No doubt it was there - individual sourwoods, maples and hickories dressed in vibrant reds, yellows and oranges – but despite our multiple trips up into the mountains and foothills we were left without the technicolor dreamscapes of last year.


That’s not to say it has been a bust; I’ve enjoyed every single minute spent outdoors this October! And on a recent hike in Devils Fork State Park I was reminded that it’s not only about fall color and high-elevation views this time of year… it’s about getting out on the trail with the kids, even on those chilly mornings that you would rather sit back with a cup of coffee while they busy themselves with Legos.


Bear Cove Trail is one of two trails at Devils Fork State Park, the other being the 1.5-mile Oconee Bell Trail which starts near the Ranger Station. The trailhead for the 2.5 mile Bear Cove lollipop-loop is on the other side of Devils Fork, off the parking area next to Concessions and the playground. The online maps don’t show the entire trail, so if you would like a map either head over to the SC Trails website or ask at the Park Visitor Center.


We packed up our backpacks and headed into the forest following the blue blazes, soon crossing Turkey Ridge Road (that leads to the campground) and then starting the loop portion of the hike. Although it was predominantly hardwoods throughout our hike, there just wasn’t much color; either it was too early, or the temperature fluctuations/weather had dulled the colors. The red maples and dogwoods were brighter shades of red, suggesting there is still hope despite all the brown foliage already underfoot.


We hiked the loop clockwise; this puts the Lake Jocassee overlook past the halfway point of the hike making it a logical lunch stop. The trail heads out onto a finger of land between two inlets, and although I’m not sure which one is Bear Cove (if either!), across the water to the north is the Devils Fork SP Dive Training Site, while the peninsula to the south is where the walk-in campground is, accessible from behind the playground on Buckeye Drive. The trail took us almost right out to the tip of the peninsula, and after scrambling down the rocky bank we found ourselves surrounded by the blue waters of Lake Jocassee on three sides.


The water level seemed low, about 10 feet lower than the lines visible on the shores. This is most obvious back at the swimming area, where 30 feet of beach has been revealed by the retreating waters, however it was easy to see that the rocky point we were standing on sometimes is visible only through the blue waters of the lake. A little further on the trail is a bench and signage describing the history of the valley, and beyond that is a path down to a little beach where we spent some time skipping stones.



Bear Cove was ideal for a short autumn hike, as we made it back to the parking lot with plenty of time to spare despite our leisurely pace on the trail – about 2 hours including the lunch stop. The views of Lake Jocassee more than made up for the lack of fall color, although if we were to return today it might be a different story; cooler temperatures and several inches of rain have no doubt influenced the foliage as well as lake levels. We packed up the car and then took one last stroll over to the shore near the swimming area for an final look out over the blue waters of Jocassee. I always find the view bittersweet as I think of all that was lost when the valley was flooded, and these losses hard to reconcile with the beauty of Jocassee that is visible today.
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Devils Fork State Park website here
Map of Devils Fork SP trails here
Exploring Lake Jocassee and its waterfalls here
My previous post on the park here
More on the Oconee Bell Trail here
Your Guide to the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway 11 here...
and a post on the other end of Lake Jocassee and Jumping Off Rock here.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Rattlesnake Lodge


The Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t only about grand views and high elevations; it is also about art & culture (for example the Folk Art Center), and history. In our most recent trip up to the Parkway we explored Rattlesnake Lodge, the ruins of which tell the story of the 20th century retreat that was built by Dr. Chase P. Ambler, a wealthy doctor and conservationist from Asheville. Dr. Ambler was one of the founders of the movement to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park, led efforts to pass the Weeks Act in 1911 (which eventually led to the creation of Pisgah National Forest), and was chairman of a committee that created the Carolina Mountain Club. The CMC still exists today, and helps maintain the Mountains to Sea Trail which we would be using to reach Rattlesnake Lodge.


From Asheville we headed northeast towards Craggy Gardens, but turned left on Elk Mountain Scenic Highway somewhere past mile marker 376 but before the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel (at milepost 374). A quarter mile later we turned right onto Ox Creek Road, and the parking pull-off for Rattlesnake Ridge was on the right side about 6/10ths of a mile further, at Bull Gap. Several large boulders mark the trailhead, and after hiking in just a hundred feet we hit the Mountains to Sea trail that stretches all the way from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Outer Banks. To reach the Lodge we turned east (left) at the intersection; going right would take you down to Ox Creek Road.


The initial climb up Bull Mountain utilizes numerous switchbacks to make its way up, tulip poplars slowly giving way to an oak forest with an understory of mountain laurel. We passed between a couple of enormous boulders, and in places caught glimpses of Tanbark Ridge and Bull Valley across the way. Bull Gap, Mountain and Valley are named for the bull elks that once called the Craggies their home; now the closest place you’ll see one is Cataloochee Valley.


The old road to the lodge is blazed white, with mossy stone retaining walls remaining as a testament to its sturdy construction. The carriage house was located at Bull Gap, and the road to the lodge specially constructed to be too narrow for carriages, as to ensure privacy and seclusion. As we approached the site of the historic lodge we entered a cove, and the towering hardwoods shaded us as we discovered the foundations that mark the first of the ruins of Rattlesnake Lodge – the barn.

Clockwise: barn, tool shed, chimney remains, water reservoir

Soon after the old barn we came upon the swimming pool, at one time fed by mountain water through an underground system of pipes. The neighboring rock wall and open area formed the yard of the lodge, the main building having been just on the other side of the trail. There used to be a bridge extending from the back of the lodge to the tennis court, while just a little further ahead are the remains of the spring house and tool shed. The display & map are severely faded – I found the Rattlesnake Lodge website helpful with maps and descriptions in envisioning the locations of all the outbuildings.

source: Rattlesnake Lodge website

The adjacent spring was our favorite spot within the site. An enormous dead oak tree guards the spring, the giant branches arching over the entrance like a doorway. The boys could have spent the day climbing and exploring… There were supposedly seven springs total on the property.


There are several trails intersecting here, the first of which is a spur trail that descends to the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Tanbark Ridge tunnel. Keep going, and the next intersection is near the foundations of the old tool shed which once housed a hydroelectric generator that powered the lodge. The generator was driven by water from the main reservoir, located higher up in the next drainage; follow the trail to the left (blue blazes) that heads steeply uphill to reach this reservoir. On your way you’ll see remnants of the old terra cotta pipe that supplied the hydroelectric generator with water. Just a tenth of a mile further you’ll find another spring that together with the stream fed the reservoir. Here the trail levels out, and soon ends at the Mountains to Sea trail. Turn right to loop back to the lodge site, and you’ll descend a rocky trail through tunnels of mountain laurel. About 1/10th of a mile from the main lodge are the remains of a chimney, the only ruins still standing from the various structures that once stood here: the old corn crib, a potato house, stables, and the caretaker’s cabin.


The trail is 3.8 miles round-trip. The first portion from Bull Gap to the Lodge climbs 550 feet in elevation, but the ascent up to the second spring ups that by about 500 feet. By not continuing on to the reservoir and spring you would cut 1 mile (and the loop portion) off your hike, and you would eliminate the most challenging portion. The climb isn’t so rough going counter-clockwise around the loop, but then it’s a scramble down the precipitous section between the spring and the reservoir. Another option would be to park at the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel, but although the trail to the lodge is only ½ mile long, it’s a steep climb, and in my opinion isn’t as scenic as coming in on the Mountains to Sea Trail. For a map of the trails, click here.


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We hiked to Rattlesnake Lodge as part of the Conserving Carolina fall hike series. You can read more about Conserving Carolina here.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Mountain Waters Scenic Byway, Highlands to Franklin

Dry Falls

The Mountain Waters Scenic Byway is a 61-mile drive that winds through the Nantahala National Forest following the Cullasaja (sweet water) and Nantahala (land of the noon-day-sun) River Gorges. Traveling north on US 64 from Highlands, the route skirts Franklin before continuing on Wayah Road (SR 1310) and then later U.S. 19/74 until its end at Fontana Lake.


Mountain Waters is an ideal autumn cruise; in addition to spectacular views of the river surrounded by colorful hardwoods, the route has multiple waterfalls and various recreational opportunities. We were in the Highlands area on a recent trip to Whiteside Mountain, and took the opportunity to explore this portion of the western Carolinas.

Behind Dry Falls

The first 7.5 miles of the byway travels through the Cullasaja Gorge. Upon leaving Highlands you’ll see the Nantahala National Forest Mountain Waters welcome sign and map on the opposite side of the road from Lake Sequoyah (source of water for Highlands) and the Kalakaleskies, or Lake Sequoyah Dam Falls. There is roadside parking, and the water spilling over the dam provides a nice photo op.


Just another mile further is Bridal Veil Falls, a 120-foot waterfall on a tributary of the Cullasaja River. Historically visitors would have to drive behind the ‘veil’ to continue northwest on 64, but icing on the road in freezing weather caused the Highway to be re-routed around the front of the falls, and more recently the section of road under the overhang has been completely closed to vehicles.

Bridal Veil Falls

2.1 miles west of Highlands is the 75-foot Dry Falls. Stairs lead down to the base of the waterfall from the parking lot, and a trail takes you behind the falls and around for a different perspective. Another (stairless) option is the viewing platform just off the parking lot.

Dry Falls

Two miles further are the Cliffside Lake and Van Hook Glade recreation area and the Ban Hook Glade Campground. Near a picturesque lake you’ll find the historic bathhouse, picnic spots and 20 campsites, as well as seven short trails ranging from the ¾ mile loop that circles the lake to the 1.5-mile Clifftop Vista Trail. At the top is a gazebo built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.


We stopped at Keener Bottoms for lunch; there are several pull-offs, picnic tables, and a couple of trails that take you through to the banks of the river. White pines tower over the picnic tables, and the sounds of the river mostly manage to block out the traffic.

Keener Bottoms

A little further on are more pull-offs, adjacent to popular swimming hole “Bust Your Butt Falls.” Also known as “Quarry Falls,” the ropes used by swimmers to climb boulders to jump off from were still in evidence. We found the traverse of the rocks to get to the river challenge enough and left testing out the waters for another, summer day.

Bust Your Butt Falls!

Another unmarked pull-off marks the spot where Lower Cullasaja Falls is visible from the highway. The 250' waterfall is best viewed in the winter when the leaves aren’t blocking a portion of the view, and despite what appear to be trails heading down to the base of the falls, visitors are advised to keep to the road for their waterfall viewing.

Top portion of Lower Cullasaja Falls

The gorge opens up into a wide valley upon the approach to Franklin, with sweeping views of the opposing ridgeline. Jackson Hole Trading Post & Gem Mine mark the final approach to town, and soon the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway turns west and continues on to Wayah Bald and the Nantahala River Gorge…


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.

Persimmon

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.

Pecan

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


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