Monday, November 30, 2015

Roan Mountain

Back in June, I spent about ten days down in the Smoky Mountains. My old friend RD, whom longtime readers of this blog will recognize from many posts but especially the summer of 2014 saga in the Hundred Miles Wilderness, was along again, even joining me for the drive south from Washington, DC. I enjoyed introducing him to the Bible Belt.

Someone has seen a bear, and RD is getting very frustrated.
Unfortunately, our initial plan to do a substantial backpack in the southeastern part of Great Smokies National Park was stymied by bear activity. Rumor had it that one had mauled someone sleeping in a hammock tent. Whatever the truth, many of the campsites we had planned to use were closed. Instead, we decided to do a series of day hikes, with one overnight on Gregory Bald. So we did see a great deal of the park, but we never got too far from the road, which was unfortunate because we shared it with a great many Southerners who were very, very excited about spotting bears from their cars.

Flame Azalea.
Breakfast on Gregory Bald.
As I fumble toward another winter solstice, several memories in particular stick with me: the bright red azalea blooms on top of Gregory Bald (they're actually called Flame Azaleas), roaring streams roofed by enormous rhododendron in full flower, and a sense of the deep human history and isolation that still characterizes a few pockets of these southern Appalachians. RD and I also spent a two very enjoyable nights in Asheville, ending, as all good trips should, with a broad and deep exploration of local beers.

Great trail name. 
Rhododendron, but from the National Park, not Roan Mountain.
By far the most spectacular day, both in terms of weather and terrain, was on Roan Mountain, which was also our first hike of the trip. This long ridge, optimistically described by Wikipedia as a massif, initially caught my attention because a nearby state park hosts a rhododendron festival in late June, precisely when we hoped to visit. In fact, our arrival coincided with its first day. We enjoyed looking at souped-up birdhouses and snacking on onion rings, but there was no trace of the flower the occasion purports to honor. Instead, we drove to see it up on the mountain ridge itself, where an extensive alpine “garden” is accessed via parking lots and concrete wheelchair-accessible paths. The dark pink blossoms of the flowers were lovely, however, and with their twisted, gnarled branches and the heavy fog all around us, they seemed exotic indeed. 

One of the Roan Mountain locals.
Roan Mountain also has the longest stretch of “grassy bald” terrain on the Appalachian Trail, running for about four unbroken miles, with several more miles featuring significant exposures. I hadn’t hiked on this kind of terrain before and so will provide a brief explanation. Trees are absent from various southern summits, but it is inaccurate to refer to these peaks as truly alpine because climatic forces did not create the grassy balds. In fact, it’s not quite clear why they exist. Weather may play a role, but fire, grazing, and human agency are also likely factors. One source I read speculated that wooly mammoths once congregated near these peaks, feeding on their rich pasture.

This fence keeps cattle off of the balds.
In any case, unlike the northern peaks on the AT, the grassy balds have good topsoil, making the hiking easy and pleasant. The views are wonderful, and lovely grasses and shrubs line the path. I didn’t have a guide to the local flora and fauna, but it would be a marvelous place for some amateur botanizing. 

Very verdant.
Our day actually began at the Mountain Harbor Hostel, a welcoming spot where, for a modest fee, we could pitch our tent and have access to the bathrooms in the morning. Catering mostly to hikers, including a great many folks who are on the AT for long haul, the place is surprisingly well-known for its breakfast, which was indeed enormous and of excellent quality. No oatmeal for us that morning. We also caught a shuttle ride to our trailhead, up at Carver’s Pass, near the rhododendron garden we had visited the previous day. Encounters with paved roads are depressingly frequent in the southern Appalachians, at least along the AT, but they can be convenient.

Might as well be Scotland.
The trail began quite near the top of one of the balds, from which we proceeded southwest over Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald, gradually working our way back to the hostel. People along the trail were friendly. We spoke to a mountain steward about some of the local plants, a dad and his daughter out for a hike with his new girlfriend, and a former thru-hiker who vividly remembered New Hampshire granite. We also came across a group of SCA volunteers mowing blackberry bushes. If succession goes too far, trees will replace these bushes and the balds will be lost. In fact, the bucolic nature of the landscape was one the region's great charms, though development, in the form of ridgeline trophy houses, is having a distressing impact on the views and presumably wildlife habitat. The ridge is outside the Great Smokies National Park, lying several dozen miles to the northeast in the midst of Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests. This situation reduces the amount of tourist traffic but also weakens legal protections against development of various kinds.

Hard work...

...with a long ways to go.
We covered the 15 or so miles a lot faster than I expected, especially for the first day of the trip (subsequent ascents, especially Gregory Bald, were considerably more challenging for yours truly). In any event, we picked up the car early enough so that we could explore some back roads on the drive to Asheville, where we pitched our tent at the French Bend campground. In the morning, we moved onto the National Park. I don't know that I need to return to the park again (I also visited during spring break of sophomore year in college, which was a memorably damp affair), but Roan Mountain is certainly one of the most distinctive and beautiful ridges I've ever hiked on. 

Not a bad day.

No comments: