Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Christmas in Cashiers

As much as we love being in Greenville for the holidays, there are just some events that prove to be too much for the younger kids, one example being the Poinsettia Christmas Parade. Between finding parking downtown, getting there early enough to get a good spot, keeping the kids occupied until the parade starts and then managing the hungry little guys upon getting home late, parade day could be extremely taxing on this mom’s holiday spirit! I can’t exactly remember how we first heard about our new holiday tradition, but a Christmas in the Upstate now includes a trip to the mountains for the Cashiers Christmas Parade!

The 42nd Annual Cashiers Christmas Parade will kick off at 12pm on Saturday, December 10th at the intersection of Cashiers School Road and NC Highway 107 South. This year’s parade will be decorated to the theme of "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” celebrating the Valley Garden Club's 30th Anniversary. The parade includes floats, marching bands, musicians, vintage cars, fire engines and even animals, and continues all the way to US Highway 64 and Frank Allen Rd. With ample parking and a mile of viewing, you’ll be sure to find the perfect vantage point to set up your chair; just remember, some of the 75+ floats throw candy (as is a small-town tradition here in the Carolinas), so you’ll want to find a safe spot for the kids to gather up the goodies!

After the parade be sure to explore The Village Green! A 12.5 acre park, The Village Green is an outdoor venue for community events including concerts & festivals, and in addition to the large public sculptures and seasonal gardens, the park also features a giant wooden children's playground. If it isn’t too cold you could bring a picnic, although my children are always rooting for snow – a not unheard-of possibility up in the mountains! Visitors to The Village Green this holiday season will enjoy twinkling light displays and festive decorations until New Year's Day.

Cashiers is about 1½ hours from Greenville, so we’ll often combine the trip with other stops such as Rainbow Falls, a hike in Gorges State Park, or a ride on the Polar Express. For the parade route as well as rain-date information, please visit the Cashiers Community information page.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Kindness Challenge

As we turn the corner after Thanksgiving and head into December to continue our preparations for the holidays, things will be looking a little different here on the blog. Thursday marks the start of the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas series, and I’m excited to have friends and family from all over the world joining me to count down the days until Christmas by sharing Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian recipes, crafts and memories. From the holiday markets taking place in Latvia and the US, to traditions of Kūčios and winter solstice, I hope you’ll join us for the familiar smells and sights of Christmas in the Baltics and beyond!

In the meantime a few Femme au Foyer holiday-themed posts are running on the local family site, Kidding Around Greenville. It was exciting to share our ride to the North Pole aboard the Polar Express last December, as well as our trip to the Grove Park Inn to see the annual gingerbread house competition. And while Kidding Around Greenville is certainly the best local resource for family-oriented holiday fun here in the Upstate, I’m excited to announce that they are also hosting a countdown to Christmas – only it’s a kindness campaign.

The goal is to perform one act of kindness each week. The Kindness Challenges are simple, but allow for families to apply their own take on the suggestion to create a unique experience. The hope is that the deliberate participation in these acts of kindness will bring our family closer together, as well as send ripples of kindness out into the community. Because of the Baltic Christmas series here on the blog our participation won’t be quite so public, but I hope that you’ll join us in spreading some Kindness Around Greenville all the same!

Week 1| Kindness Challenge | THANK
November 27-December 3, 2016.
The first challenge is to thank. Let someone who has had an impact on you and your family this year know how thankful you are with something as simple as a card, homemade cookies or a cup of coffee. Spend 30 minutes with your children making and writing cards, and take them with a chocolate bar to brighten the day of a teacher, librarian or even the postman.

Week 2 | Kindness Challenge | GIVE
December 4-10, 2016
As I think of organizations that could use our help this holiday season, multiple local charities come to mind, as do some other opportunities. One idea could be to thank the firefighters working on the Pinnacle Mountain Fire with a small donation; the SC Forestry Commission facebook page posts daily updates on progress, as well as information on donating water and other welcome supplies.

Week 3 | Kindness Challenge | COMMUNITY
December 11-17, 2016
The third week’s challenge could be easy to incorporate into your daily errands as the holidays draw near, by buying a cup of coffee for the person behind you or buying extra groceries on your next shopping trip to drop off at a local food pantry. We often take a day off to go on a hike before it gets too busy, and I plan on involving the kids by bringing along plastic bags to pick up trash along our route. And finally…

Week 4 | Kindness Challenge | FAMILY
December 18-24, 2016
Look for a way to show a special act of kindness towards a family member this week. I am going to challenge the boys to think of ways to show kindness to their brothers, and we will hopefully be completing this challenge multiple times over until Christmas arrives.

Remember to use hashtag #BeKindGVL when sharing ideas and inspiration on your journey to spread kindness throughout our community this holiday season. I wish all of my readers a peaceful and merry holiday season, and hope you’ll enjoy the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas – it’ll be back to normal programming in 2017!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Christmas at Grove Park Inn

Hansel and Gretel would not miss this Christmas extravaganza, as it showcases dozens of ginger bread houses and holiday decorations galore! Luckily you don’t have to worry about the waistline, because this is a feast for the eyes, not the stomach… The charming Grove Park Inn in Asheville is a seasonal delight you won’t want to miss this holiday season, and who knows – once inspired, maybe you’ll find yourself building a gingerbread house with the kiddos!

This article can also be found on Kidding Around Greenville.

The Annual Gingerbread Competition at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn

While you may have missed your chance to participate in the famous gingerbread house competition at the Grove Park Inn this year (the deadline to enter the 24th Annual Competition was November 4th), you still have plenty of time to plan a visit to this historic Asheville venue; not only will you have the opportunity to view the gingerbread house winners, but the whole family can get into the holiday spirit!

The gingerbread houses are as diverse as they are amazing; on our visit last year we saw everything from clock towers to sleighs to igloos to skate parks. The entries must be constructed entirely of edible materials with the exception of the base, but the ingenuity in construction is simply remarkable. There are four entry categories: adult, teen, youth and child, and entries are judged on overall appearance, originality & creativity, difficulty, precision and consistency of theme. This year judging will take place on November 21st, and the winning entries in each category (plus the 2nd and 3rd place finishers) will be on display starting tomorrow and running until January 5th, 2017 in both wings of the main floor. You’ll find a map at the information desk in the lobby – yes, the Grove Park Inn is an expansive enough venue that you need a map!

There is no admission charge to view the display, although there is a $10/car parking fee. Half of this fee goes to local non-profits; the list of not-for-profit partners that will benefit from this year's donations can be found here. The Omni Grove Park Inn invites guests not staying at the resort to view the display Sundays after 3pm and Mondays through Thursdays. For more information on hours and the gingerbread competition visit the website, and make sure to keep a lookout for entries from the Upstate; last year an entry from Greer placed second in the teen category, while a Greenville entry in the child category received an honorable mention.

Holiday Decorations

As you walk through the hotel viewing the gingerbread competition winners you’ll see more than a few Christmas trees decorated in all sorts of motifs. My boys’ favorite part of the visit was discovering the elaborate ornaments on these themed trees, deciding on their favorites, and planning which decorations we should have in our home. The giant Christmas tree in the lobby is a perfect place for that family photo, the entire Great Hall filled with the smell of the giant evergreen.

The enormous fire places in the Great Hall are adorned with wreaths, heat radiating out to warm those seated in the area.  Last year there was a gingerbread house in the hall, built by the pastry department. The ingredients included 50 pounds of egg whites, 440 pounds of powdered sugar, 220 pounds of red fondant and 400 pounds of bread flower! Visitors could purchase hot beverages and gingerbread from the gingerbread house, and then settle into the giant rocking chairs near the fireplace with hot chocolate to enjoy the holiday bustle.  Spend a little more time than just a couple of minutes in the rocking chairs – sitting by a roaring fire in a relaxing chair is part of the mystique of the Inn that should not be glossed over.

The grounds

 The original Grove Park Inn was built in 1913 and over the years has grown to encompass a golf course, spa, sports complex, 5 restaurants, 3 bars and a café. To truly appreciate the scenic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains it is worth stepping out onto the veranda, or even descending down into the gardens and spa area.  This descent via outdoor stone staircases is also a good use of the kids’ extra energy; ask them to take a photo of the Inn from the lowest level...

The view of the front of the hotel is also quite grand, and after imagining the long-ago sound of horse-drawn carriages rattling across the cobblestones you might want to take a short stroll. From the front of the hotel up to Sunset Mountain is a short hiking trail that is appropriate for all skill levels and ages that will let you work off whatever delectable you may have bought at the Inn, but will also let you appreciate the spectacular natural setting of the Grove Park Inn. Then, as you set off on the drive home take a minute to determine whether you should enter next year’s Gingerbread Competition – or once more return as a spectator to this wonderful annual event.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Polar Express!

This post can also be found on Kidding Around Greenville!

Bryson City is a gateway city to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but is it also home to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad depot, with scenic rail excursions through the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. Beginning November 11th a very special train has been departing from the historic Bryson City depot…. The Polar Express.

Based on the popular children’s book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, this magical train ride recreates the journey to the North Pole complete with hot cocoa and a warm cookie.  At the end of the train ride, Santa Claus himself will be waiting at Santa’s Village to board the train and present each child with their very own silver sleigh bell!

What you need to know

You’ll want to arrive in Bryson City at least an hour before your departure time. This will give you time to park, which is not an easy task in this little town that brought 70,000 passengers through for the Polar Express in 2015. There is a parking option that can be added when purchasing tickets, and parking attendants are on hand to direct traffic. Once you’ve walked to the depot you might want to explore the GSMR train museum, and you’ll find a dozen little souvenir and snack shops lining the street to explore while waiting for your train’s boarding time. Hint; the train museum is free with tickets, but you can purchase pictures with Santa if you arrive early!

When it is time to climb onboard, passengers join the queue at their assigned boarding station, which correlates to the train car in which you will be riding. The beautifully restored vintage coaches date from the 1920s to the 1940s, and the interior has been festively decorated in the holiday spirit. Friendly employees are on hand to help the boarding process and get everyone situated, and before you know it, the whistle blows and the Polar Express is off, headed for the North Pole!

While music plays in the background (from the motion picture The Polar Express), the conductor comes through to stamp the ‘golden train tickets.’  These tickets (based on the book) make a cherished souvenir for the children. Hint; make sure to bring your copy of The Polar Express on the trip so that you can read along while enjoying the hot chocolate brought to you by the singing and dancing chef.  Like most parents, we had changed the kids into their pajamas so that they would be cozy and comfortable on the journey.  And, the singing of Christmas carols and antics of the Polar Express characters kept them mesmerized the entire trip.

Tips to make the most of your trip

With three different ticket options (First, Crown and Coach), families have a variety of choices concerning seating, snacks and memorabilia – only reserve your tickets early, as the tickets for the weekends approaching Christmas tend to sell out by early to mid-November. We opted for Coach and were completely satisfied with the seating, the service and the benefits that came with our package.

We purchased tickets on the 5pm train, meaning it would still be light out  for the first 1/2 hour of the journey (and we could watch the gorgeous mountain scenery roll by). The sun had set and darkness descended just before our arrival at the North Pole, and so the Christmas lights adorning ‘Santa’s Village’ twinkled in the darkness, helping convince reluctant believers... On our return trip lights from homes along the route sparkled in the distance, adding a magical dimension to the ride.

When selecting seats, you might want to choose to be on the left side of the train (that would be the opposite side of the train from where you boarded), as the river and the majority of North Pole lights will be on that side. Also, Santa boards on the front of the train, so be prepared for him to come through rather soon after stopping if you’re in Coach; have your copy of The Polar Express ready for him to sign, and the kids ready to tell him what they would like for Christmas.  He even makes some time to ask some disbelieving adults about what they would like under the tree – so make that list and check it twice!

The details

The first Polar Express departure is on November 11th, and the train operates through January 1, 2017 with the exception of certain weekdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Depending on the date, there are 2-5 departures a day to choose from.

For detailed information on the different seating available, visit the Polar Express website here.

Bryson City is about 2 ½ hours by car from both Greenville and Spartanburg, optimally a weekend destination, but do-able in a day (since the kids will sleep on the way home!).

Tickets start at $28/children 2-12 and $42/adult, and kids under 2 ride free.

For other Great Smoky Mountains Railroad family-friendly adventures, check out their website.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”    (From The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Baltic Christmas: currently accepting submissions!

Do you or someone you know have a story, recipe, memory or photo essay they would like to share on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas?

We are currently accepting submissions for the 2016 edition, and would love to have you participate!

Each 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas post is receiving up to 1,000 hits during the month of December, as well as additional traffic throughout the rest of the year. Your submission can include a personal blog address, etsy store and/or twitter handle, bringing you exposure to a new audience or client base.

The fine print: Your entry must somehow be tied in to the holidays in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania to be considered. Words and pictures must be your own. For more information, or if you have questions, please send me an email - LLucane (at) yahoo (dot) com.

24 Days of a Baltic Christmas 2015 here.
24 Days of a Baltic Christmas 2014 here.

Finally, remember to follow on pinterest!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Latvian company Printful comes to the Carolinas

Latvian company Printful held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday morning for their new location just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. CEO Dāvis Siksnāns was on hand, as well as the Latvian Ambassador Andris Teikmanis, and after the official program guests were offered a tour of the facilities before an informal presentation and celebratory glass of champagne.

Printful CEO with Latvian Ambassador

Printful was launched in 2013 as a print-on-demand dropshipping company that prints and ships print products for ecommerce retailers. They expect to hire 200 new employees in Charlotte by the end of 2018, and over the next five years plan to expand to other countries, like the UK and Australia. The Charlotte plant is the second in the US, with programming, design and project management still headquartered in Latvia.

I was honored to be present for this occasion, and am looking forward to seeing Printful grow in the Carolinas! It is exciting to see Latvian companies do well on the American market, and it is nice to be reminded of the innovation and start-up culture present in Latvia. For more information on Printful, please visit their website,

From left to right: Mr. Egils Leimanis, Second Secretary/Economic issues; yours truly; H.E. Mr. Andris Teikmanis, Ambassador of the Republic of Latvia to the USA; Dāvis Siksnāns, Printful CEO

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The super-smoky Beaver Moon

Tuesday afternoon we headed north towards the Blue Ridge Escarpment to Bald Rock Heritage Preserve. As the days grow shorter it’s harder to find the time after school to get outdoors, but it wasn't an issue on this particular trip as we planned to watch the sun set – and hoped to see the moon rise.

I call this shot "partial solar yo-yo eclipse"

We arrived with less than an hour of daylight to explore the granite outcrop, but as the boys had just recently explored all the way down to the base (on the day I hiked the Rim of the Gap) they were content to stay close. We spread the picnic blanket and had a snack, watching the sun sink lower into the haze.

The 2,312-acre (as of Tuesday morning) Pinnacle Mountain Fire is still growing; however the fire is considered 25% contained as burnout operations continue. The smoke is lingering due to lack of wind and night-time inversions, and I was hoping to get an interesting view of the smoky Upstate from this vantage point up near Caesars Head. As we had approached Highway 11 on the way up the smoke had increased and visibility decreased, and upon reaching Bald Rock we were rewarded with an intensely hazy view and a red sun. As we finished up our picnic that sun suddenly disappeared, not behind the mountains but into the smoke.

The moon was set to rise at 5:50pm, and so we lingered on the rock, examining the graffiti and testing out our headlamps. I had guessed that we wouldn’t be able to see the moon rise, but figured sooner or later it would rise above the smoke and be visible. However, an hour later there was still no sign of it. Knowing when to call it smoked-out, we headed down the mountain.

Wouldn’t you know it, that supermoon decided to show itself as soon as we reached Highway 11! The enormous orange moon is at its perigee, or closest point to Earth during the lunar orbit, and is the biggest and brightest supermoon to rise in almost 69 years. The full moon won't come this close to Earth again until November 25, 2034. The Farmer’s Almanac says this ‘Beaver Moon’ signifies the best time to set beaver traps before rivers, lakes and streams freeze over.

As we returned to Greenville the orange moon was our constant companion. We came home to hot chocolate before turning in for the night, and as the boys turned off the lights I asked if it was worth the drive, despite not seeing the moon rise. A consensus was immediately reached – of course it was worth it, if even for no other reason than being allowed to stay up a little late…

Monday, November 14, 2016

Keowee Toxaway and Natural Bridge Trail

We woke up yesterday morning to rain, the first steady drizzle that we’ve seen in the Upstate in about three months. The ¼ inch we received from Hurricane Matthew combined with the ¼ inch or so we received yesterday will not be enough to pull us out of drought, but it might be enough to give some help to the firefighters trying to contain the wildfire burning up on Table Rock, which yesterday stood at around 2,000 acres. The residential evacuation order for those living in the Pinnacle Mountain area has been lifted; containment lines seem to be holding, although we will know more today as overnight progress is evaluated.

Table Rock on the day the Pinnacle Mountain Fire broke out

The fire started Tuesday, prompting trail closures within Table Rock State Park including Table Rock Trail. The kids and I had retreated to the mountains on Election Day for a couple of hikes, and I wasn’t surprised to hear a fire had broken out; the entire area is tinderbox dry. Although we made a stop at Table Rock (but luckily nowhere near Pinnacle Mountain!), there wasn’t any smoke visible and the lack of firefighters makes me think the fire either hadn’t started or hadn’t been discovered yet. We were actually en route from our second hike of the day to Pumpkintown Mountain Opry for a late lunch before heading home. Our first hike had been in Nine Times Preserve where the hardwoods were bursting with color and the morning air crisp with the promise of cooler weather to come, but our second hike was chosen more due to proximity (though there was some fall color to be seen).

On the Natural Bridge Trail

Keowee-Toxaway State Park is one of the eight South Carolina State Parks located along the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (Hwy. 11) and the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Known for the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 1,000 acre park is considered a gateway to the Jocassee Gorges. The Park Visitor Center houses exhibits about the region's natural diversity, history and importance as a scientific research destination. If you’re looking to check out the Visitor Center be advised that office hours are 11am to noon and 4-5pm. Despite these rather short hours, the Park is open Saturdays through Thursdays from 9am-6pm and Fridays 9am to 8pm. (And if you’re participating in the Ultimate Outsider program, the stamp can be found on the orientation kiosk at the entrance to the main parking lot so that you don’t have to visit while the Visitor Center is open.)

The Park is split by Highway 11, with picnic shelters located on a short loop to the south, and the campgrounds, Visitor Center and hiking trails on the north side. We drove by the rental cabin overlooking Lake Keowee and parked for a few minutes to take in the view. The ½ mile trail that departs from the campground emerges from the woods nearby, allowing guests to reach the Lake to fish and recreate. Returning to the Visitor Center we parked and packed up for the Natural Bridge Trail loop.

A lollipop loop, the trail takes visitors over a natural rock bridge and through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At the far end of the loop is the Raven Rock trailhead, that combined with the Natural Bridge loop provide for a 4.4-mile hike past rock outcrops, views of Lake Keowee, and Raven Rock. Meanwhile Natural Bridge Trial makes for a 1.3-mile hike, with views of the natural rock formation and several small waterfalls on Poe Creek.

We elected to hike the loop clockwise, starting off with the more strenuous section along the creek. Several up-and-downs took us past numerous small waterfalls, the first of which was off a spur trail to the left. Soon we came to Keowee Falls, meriting a second stop to explore.

After rock-hopping across the creek we reached yet another small spur trail, this time to the right just opposite the Raven Rock trail. This would have been a perfect place to stop for a picnic had we brought one!

Then, rather abruptly we reached the natural rock bridge. The trail crosses it, the exposed rock and drop-off on either side the give-away that you’re standing over the creek. We took our time exploring the bridge area, climbing giant rocks, peering under overhangs, and playing peek-a-boo under the bridge.

The remainder of the trail parallels the road, the sounds of traffic replacing that of rushing water on the first half of the hike. With fewer places to stop and explore we made good time on the way back, and soon enough closed the loop before finally emerging in the parking lot.

This is a really nice spring hike, as the wildflowers, mountain laurel and rhododendron are blooming. Or a summer hike, when the hot temperatures allow for splashing in Poe Creek. Autumn and winter have their benefits (most significantly empty spots in the small parking lots, and less traffic on the trail), but if it wasn’t for hiking in Nine Times Preserve that morning, we probably would have headed to Table Rock instead. As it was, it was fortuitous that we ended up where we did, even though by the time the Pinnacle Mountain fire posed any danger to visitors the trails had been closed. Keeping my fingers crossed for more rain – it isn’t just the firefighters that need it.

* Please see my previous post on the Pinnacle Mountain Fire. Historically the Southern Appalachians burn in times of drought, and although wildfire can be alarming when threatening lives and property, the fire is mostly burning on State Park lands and will have positive impacts on our forests.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Pinnacle Mountain Fire

It’s more than a hint of woodsmoke in the air the last couple of days as haze from forest fires in western North Carolina, northeastern Georgia and southeast Tennessee drifts into South Carolina. In addition, a fire is burning in Table Rock State Park on Pinnacle Mountain, the smoke socking in Greenville last night. The South Carolina Forestry Commission has reported that the fire is up to 250 acres since it started on Tuesday. The 30 firefighters putting in handline were pulled off the line yesterday due to the steep terrain and worsening conditions, but will be back at work today along with additional crews and SC National Guard helicopters, which are being used for bucket drops from nearby Lake Oolenoy. Firefighters from the SC Forestry Commission, the SC DNR, local volunteer fire departments and the Pickens County Strike Team are working together to contain the fire which was started accidentally by a campfire near the Foothills Trail. The blaze had been almost completely contained until winds picked up Wednesday night, part of the arrival of the cold front that helped push the haze into South Carolina.

Source: SC DNR on twitter

The fire ban has been extended to the entire northern half of the state due to "... extremely low relative humidities, which, combined with dry fuels on the ground, create the potential for outdoor fires escaping easily and spreading rapidly.” Five counties are included in that ban – Anderson, Oconee, Pickens, Greenville and Spartanburg – which prohibits outdoor burning of debris and burning for agricultural, forestry or wildlife purposes.

Source: SC Forestry Commission here

As ominous as all this sounds, the situation in Pickens County is really quite mild when compared to the current fires in North Carolina. Historically the Southern Appalachians burn during drought years, and controlled burns are often conducted in the particular area that is currently burning to lower fuel loads. The fire will open up the canopy and clear the way for new growth.

source: SC Forestry Commission here

Table Rock Trail and Pinnacle Trail have been closed in addition to the 10-mile section of the Foothills Trail between Table Rock and Sassafras Mountain, but otherwise the State Park remains open. Call 864-878-9813 or email for trail updates, and watch the fire in real-time on the SC Parks webcam here

A smoke sunset from Bald Rock Heritage Area, photographed by Monique R.
Update November 14, 2016: The Pinnacle Mountain Fire is now at 2,180 acres, and only 20% contained. With 140 personnel on the fire (including 8 engines and 2 helicopters), the estimated containment date is November 24th. No structures have been lost. (Source:

Update November 16, 2016: Now 35% contained, at about 3,283 acres in size. Firefighters are preparing for a 2,000 acre burnout on Thursday, which will hopefully enable the fire to be contained before the cold front this weekend that will bring high winds and lower humidity.

Source: here

Update November 18, 2016: Crew conducted a 1,400-acre burnout on the east side, in preparation for a cold front moving through along with high winds. A helicopter lit both sides of Table Rock, resulting in a low-intensity burn. Meanwhile ground crews conducted backburns from the firebreaks. The Pinnacle Mountain Fire is now 5,095 acres and 35% contained.

Update November 20, 2016: High winds allowed the fire to breach the northern line and make a run for Rocky Mountain. 5,400 acres and still onlyl 34% contained.

Update November 22, 2016: The Pinnacle Mountain Fire has grown to 6,000 acres as the portion that breached the north line continues to spread. Additional hand crews have joined containment efforts on this portion of the fire.

Update November 24, 2016: Burnout operations to strengthen the containment lines on the north side of the fire today were not completely successful due to showers in the morning. However, the rain did assist in slowing fire spread, and as a dozer line goes in south from White Oak Mountain, the fire is held west of Slickum Falls Rd and the Table Rock Reservoir. Currently, the fire is listed as 7,300 acres and 40% contained.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Nine Times Preserve

We ‘elected’ to go for a hike yesterday, and found ourselves just off the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (11) in Pickens County at Nine Times Preserve on Nine Times Creek. Named for the nine bridges built across the small, trout-filled creek to gain access to the property, the 560-acre nature preserve is one of the most biologically significant properties in the southeast. Located on the Blue Ridge Escarpment (where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Piedmont), three mountains are within the boundaries of Nine Times Preserve – and we hiked right in the heart of it all!

The Preserve is well known for its seasonal show of wildflowers, 134 species documented in the seven forest types. While we saw a few autumn flowers still hanging on, the real show this time of year was the colorful fall foliage. One hike that really showcases this gorgeous season is the 1.6 mile Rocky Bald Loop.

The name of the trail is a bit misleading. One of the unique plant communities within the Nine Times area is that of the rock outcrop, and the granite dome in Nine Times Forest is considered the most botanically intact example in the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. But while the Rocky Bald trail does scale the side of Rocky Bald Mountain, it does not include the actual summit, nor does it include any outcrops; nonetheless it is a gorgeous hike, and I especially recommend it for families due to the reasonable length and moderate difficulty.

We chose to hike the loop clockwise, parking at the Rocky Bald Parking Area (use 1750 E Preston McDaniel Rd. Pickens, SC 29671 for mapping software). The pull-off fits a handful of cars, but on this gorgeous autumn day we were the only ones there. You’ll find a large map at the kiosk, and the trail takes off behind it; it’s well-traveled, and although not blazed, it is easy to follow, orange arrows pointing the way at a couple of turns.

The first ½ mile ascends Cedar Rock Mountain through a series of switchbacks. Rated moderate, the trail does have some altitude gain to it; however it was nothing that my boys couldn’t handle with a couple of stops for water and snacks. We made quick work of the first section and soon reached the ‘waterfall.’

With the lack of rain these past months there was no water to be seen in any of the drainages we crossed on our visit; however after a rain this would be a pretty spot. We rested for a minute or two and continued on, soon coming to the intersection of Rocky Bald Loop Trail and Cedar Rock Trail. If we had taken a left we would have climbed up almost to the summit of Cedar Rock Mountain, and then descended on the other side down to the Cedar Rock Parking Area at Nine Times Rd. & E. Preston McDaniel.

Instead we continued on our loop trail, dropping down into a drainage before gaining altitude as we approached Rocky Bald. Soon after starting the descent, the trail hits an old roadbed which it follows for the remainder of the hike. One more slow ascent soon tops out, and then it’s a steep descent back down to Nine Times Creek and E. Preston McDaniel Rd. (To close the loop you’ll have to hike a few hundred feet on the road, but wide, grassy shoulders allow for safe hiking.) While we didn’t see any of the resident black bears or peregrine falcons that call the Preserve their home, we did see some coyote scat which made for lively discussions on the way home.

The gate at E. Preston McDaniel

Nine Times Preserve is a rather recent addition to the Upstate’s recreation areas. Upstate Forever purchased the property in 2007, selling it to the Nature Conservancy in 2009. Trails were installed in the winter of 2012, and today almost three miles of trail exist: Rocky Bald Loop Trail, 1.1 mile Cedar Rock Trail and the ¼ mile Trillium Trail that is located on the creek on the north end of the property (note to self: return next spring!).

The Nature Conservancy owns the Preserve while it is managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. A designated state Wildlife Management Area, fishing and hunting is allowed on the property – see the DNR website for more information. This means that the area is open to hunters during October, November and April. For safety it is important to wear orange while hiking during hunting season.

For a downloadable map, trail descriptions and more, please visit the Nature Conservancy Nine Times Preserve website here.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Rim of the Gap

That’s all she wrote! Autumn is running out of leaves to paint, and her artwork is finally dropping from the trees here in the Upstate after a long and unseasonably warm October. We love visiting the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area this time of year, Caesars Head State Park and Bald Rock Heritage Area providing scenic views of the vibrant fall foliage, and this weekend headed up for one more adventure before the branches are once more bare. While the boys explored their favorite spots (and stopped for lunch off Highway 11), I hit the Rim of the Gap Trail.

Rim of the Gap is the perfect challenge this time of year. While there are still plenty of colorful leaves on the hardwoods in the gap to provide a patchwork of color for your viewing pleasure, enough leaves have dropped so that you can see the gap through the canopy. Temperatures are cool enough to dry off the sweat from what is a strenuous hike, but most likely it is not cold enough for the trail to be closed (freezing temperatures make for dangerous sections and make for seasonal trail closures, usually December through February). And while leaves on the trail can result in a slower, more deliberate hike, they also provide an intense show of color on the ground, one that makes for some spectacular leaf finds while your eyes are down on the trail. The only drawback to hiking this time of year was that between it being the dry season and our summer-long drought, the waterfalls were mere trickles. However, it was amazing at how much water was still seeping from the rock walls along the way, the dozens of species of mosses a testament to the moisture on this trail even during an extremely dry period.

"Sluice of the Rim"

Rim of the Gap (#6, yellow blaze) stretches 4.3 miles from Caesars Head State Park to Jones Gap State Park, is rated very strenuous, and has an estimated travel time of 4-5 hours. To complete the distance to Caesars Head, one must also hike a portion of the Frank Coggins Trail (#15, purple blaze), an easy lollipop loop that adds about ¾ of a mile to the hike. I chose to start on Frank Coggins at Caesars Head, as this meant a descent from 2,800’ to 1,400’ in elevation. To reach the trailhead from the ranger station, hikers must cross US 276, sign in at the trailhead & pay the State Park fee, and proceed north.

The Frank Coggins Trail

The first branch off the wide gravel road is the Coldspring Connector Trail (#7, blue blaze) which cuts down to the drainage and Coldspring Branch Trail. Keeping right at this junction to stay on Frank Coggins Trail, another ¼ of a mile or so later you’ll reach the loop portion of the hike. I went left to reach the Rim of the Gap Trail, but you can always go right and add a few tenths of a mile to your hike. The Naturaland Trust Trail also departs from the Coggins Loop, taking you 5.8 miles to the bridge over Raven Cliff Falls and the Foothills Trail.

Galax has a pecuilar odor where it grows in large colonies - some describe it as wet socks, others as a faint, sickly smell. However, it is fairly common on the shady slopes of the Southern Appalachians.

Just past Cliff Falls I turned left on the Rim of the Gap Trail. Immediately the trail narrowed, started a zigzag and switchback-full route along the gap, and steepened in its descent. After several different view of the Falls the trail turns east to parallel the Middle Saluda River.

It isn’t just the climb in elevation that rates this trail as strenuous, although this will triple the challenge if you are headed east to west. For sure there are some steep sections, but most don’t last more than a hundred feet or so; instead it is the sheer difficulty of the trail that gets the adrenaline flowing. Scrambling up and down boulders, crossing bridges, inching along what can be a very narrow trail (with sheer drops on one side) and even crawling through a tunnel made by a fallen boulder at one point, the 2-mile section of trail between Coggins and John Sloan Trail are exciting and rather demanding.

Known as Weight Watchers Rock, this narrow passage required me to remove my pack to squeeze through; do you see the hole just above the yellow blaze?

Throughout this section of the hike there was almost always a view of Jones Gap to the north, but it wasn’t a panoramic view; instead it was bits and pieces through the trees & different perspectives around each corner, with longer views up and down the Gap visible from some small spur-trails or rocky perches.

To the south was often a wall of solid rock, with a few small waterfalls here and there crossing drainages. There is a huge chunk of private property dividing the trail from US 276, and you might catch a glimpse of a home or tree stand in this portion if you pay attention. 

It took me 2.5 hours to travel this two-mile section, while I completed the trail in a total of 3.5. Up until this point I had been hiking in the shade of the ridge, the autumn sun low in the sky throwing its light on the colorful display of the opposite side of the Gap. At the point where the trail was finally close enough to the ridgetop for the sun to shine through was where the trail shifted up to follow the ridgeline. As it shadowed an old road bed there were some views toward the Oil Camp Creek drainage, and the beautiful hardwood forest was just radiant in the afternoon light.

After passing the two spur trails that cut across to Pinnacle Pass Trail – the #21 John Sloan Trail (pink blaze) and the #22 6&20 Connector Trail (purple blaze) – the trail once more narrows as it begins its steep descent into the Gap, down to the Middle Saluda and the Jones Gap Ranger Station. One final intersection announces the approach of the end of the hike; Pinnacle Pass Trail (#20, white blaze), the 10-miler that loops around to climb Little Pinnacle Mountain before descending to Oil Camp Creek and then climbing back up to hook into Naturaland Trust Trail. Soon a black ribbon of road is visible, and rather abruptly the trail ends on the Jones Gap Trail (#1, blue blaze). A left will take you to past Jones Gap Falls to the Raven Cliff Falls trailhead (5.3 miles), while a right will take you to the Ranger Station, the parking lot and Hospital Rock Trail.

While all the trails are clearly blazed, several of the intersections could possibly be easily missed as they rather suddenly cut off; make sure to keep an eye on the blazes. While the infamous cable crossings have been replaced with bridges, the extremely narrow trail and steep scrambles up, down and around boulders mean I will not be bringing the boys with on this hike anytime soon. Reports of a cougar in the area, although not substantiated (nor acknowledged by SC Park Service Rangers), should still be taken into consideration; meanwhile, black bears, bobcat and coyotes definitely inhabit the area. Finally, to make a loop out of what is essentially a one-way route, hikers could utilize the Jones Gap Trail to Coldspring Branch Trail (and the Coldspring Connector to Frank Coggins) for a total of about 9 miles. Plan to be off the trail well before dark (during my visit trails close at 6pm) and be aware of seasonal closures.

For a very short look at one of the narrow sections of trail, here is a video of a typical section of trail…

This is the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area map that I use. In addition to the corresponding blaze colors and mileages to each numbered trail, it also features difficulty ratings and estimated travel times. The map, current information, camping permits and guidelines can be obtained from the Caesars Head or Jones Gap State Park ranger stations.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...