Where the annual Monarch butterfly migration comes through in September

Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles of gorgeous mountain driving and hiking that stretches from the Cherokee Indian Reservation in western North Carolina all the way up to the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive in Virginia.

Five years ago my husband and I started hiking the spectacular, sometimes challenging and always beautiful trails that line the BRP in North Carolina, and we fell in love with it so much that we’ve actually decided to move there in the next few years.

How we do it…

We haven’t tried primitive camping yet. We usually tent camp in a campground somewhere along the Parkway, then drive out to wherever we’re section hiking each day. We typically hit the road by 10 am every morning, and return around 5 or 6 pm. We’re not obsessive about stitching together every section (usually), although we sometimes want to do a particular stretch and we’ll work pretty hard to link the parts. I’ll get more into how we do that down below.

Our campsite this year at Mount Pisgah

Our campsite this year at Mount Pisgah

We’ve learned a few lessons in our five newbie BRP hiking/camping years, and if you’re new to it too, maybe some of the things below will inspire you to go ahead and get yourself out there. A whole lotta incredible (and more than one unexpected adventure) is waiting.

If you’re interested in the actual hikes we did this year, scroll on down.

Meanwhile, here’s more additional info than you could possibly ever need…

The mapping resources you need in advance

Lesson numero uno: the maps are sometimes wrong. Also you’ll need quite a few of them from different authors/resources, because each map will show some stuff, but not all of it, or not the part you need, and that has sent us off on many a wrong fork in the path. You’ll need to get several large, detailed, water-resistant maps, and several books as well.

Here’s what I have and highly recommend:

  1. Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway, 3rd edition, by Victoria Logue, Frank Logue, and Nicole Blouin. This book gives you great nutshell info about each milepost, overlook, and point of interest you pass, but won’t help you find trailheads.
  2. Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway (Falcon Guide). This book (and the next two) will tell you about specific hikes up and down the BRP, and shows a small map for each one. However, this book and the next two each have info the others miss. Some also have hikes and trails not mentioned by the others. So get more than one book.
  3. Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, by Danny Bernstein. ‘Scuse me while I brag: My copy is signed by Danny herself! (She lives in Asheville, which is smack in the middle of NC’s section of the BRP.)
  4. Hiking the Carolina Mountains, by Danny Bernstein. This one covers some of the BRP, and also neighboring hikes and trails.
  5. Trail Profiles and Maps From the Great Smokies to Mount Mitchell and Beyond, by Walt Weber for the Carolina Mountain Club. This one is unique in that it offers topo maps AND (this is the part I love) great profile graphs that show elevation changes, intersecting trails, and other points of interest on the trail. Even if it didn’t have that, the book is worth it for the chapter at the end titled Vanderbilt Country, which has lots of juicy info and great photos, plus tips for finding the sites related to ol’ Vandy. You can see an image of one of the great maps from this book below…
  6. National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map #779 for Linville Gorge / Mount Mitchell. These NG maps are sturdy, water-resistant, and extremely detailed. They show nearly all the trails from a bird’s-eye view. Use them with the books to piece together your trip. This one covers the area above Asheville.
  7. National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map #780 for Pisgah Ranger District. This one covers the area below Asheville. Deep breath, one more.
  8. Waterfalls of North Carolina, by Outdoor Paths Publishing. Because everybody loves a waterfall, and this one shows the trails they’re on, AND rates them for beauty and ease/difficulty of access. The backside of the map also gives detailed information about each of the falls.
One of the outstanding graph charts from the Carolina Mountain Club book

One of the outstanding graph charts from the Carolina Mountain Club book

And an all-around best resource online is HikeWNC.info. They have maps, photo galleries, and resources of lots of the trails on the BRP.

Take the time to choose your hikes in advance, because you’ll need to prepare water, food, gear, access routes, and everything else accordingly.

Be ready to get lost, bushwhack, and swear

The Tanawha trail blaze is a white feather

The Tanawha trail blaze is a white feather

You should know the blazes for the main trails around you, so that if you get off track, you can at least figure out what trail you’re on. Eventually.

Because there two kinds of hikers in the world: those who have gotten lost, and those who will.

Don’t worry, you get better at not panicking, and when you know you have everything you need to stay hydrated, warm, and safe, it’s less scary.

Along the BRP in North Carolina, you are frequently on or near the Mountains to Sea Trail, so the white circle blaze becomes verrrry comforting.

Maps and trail tips:

  1. Maps are sometimes wrong. They just are. Sometimes trails aren’t marked with a sign at the trailhead. And trails do get moved, become impassable (causing you to have to bushwhack), or get closed. We had all of those scenarios this year alone.
  2. Never leave your map(s) for that day’s trails in the car because you think “Oh, this one is super easy.” It only took me once to learn this one. Carry them with you, in a ziplock bag if they’re paper. Because if it rains, a piece of paper will disintegrate and you’ll still be lost.
  3. Know the blazes of the trails in your area.
  4. When bushwhacking, move slowly and make plenty of noise to let bears and snakes know you’re coming. They’re typically not aggressive, but you do NOT want to surprise either.
  5. Carry a water filter (I have a MSR SweetWater) and a whistle. I’ve needed the water filter, but I’ve never had to use my whistle. So far.

Figuring out your food

Sweet Jeebus and the Holy Toast, this part is a veritable mountain of work. We are finally starting to get the hang of it. We have now started putting our grocery lists and daily meal plans on a shared Google doc so that we don’t have to start from zero every year, and also so that we don’t have to keep looking for that list on a piece of paper floating around somewhere in the mess of camping gear laying around waiting to be inspected, cleaned, and packed.

Camping and hiking food tips:

  1. Hard veggies (carrots, onions, celery, bell peppers, etc.) last the longest. But you still need to eat them all in the first week. Eat soft fruits first, too. Hard fruits like apples last your whole trip. Eat one every day.
  2. Bread goes bad fast. Wraps last longer. Crackers keep forever.
  3. Cheese, especially sealed string cheese, lasts longer than you’d think.
  4. Freeze your meats in single servings in advance. Eat those first, then move to dried, pre-cooked and sealed, or canned protein.
  5. You may not be able to ice things down for very long, unless you intend to travel a fair distance off the Parkway and into a neighboring town. The BRP is not studded with gas stations or grocery stores. In fact, you won’t find either. It’s fairly pristine.
  6. Be prepared to eat lots of low-nutrition carbs. (This emphatically does not make a clean eater like me happy, but it’s only for a couple of weeks every year…)
  7. Plan all your meals in advance. Don’t take extra food if you’re like us, cramming everything into a compact car.
  8. Bear boxes keep out bears, but not teeny chewing mousey things. Keep food in your car.
FRIED biz-kits!

FRIED biz-kits!

You gotta be willing to figure out alternate ways to cook stuff. This year Lance brought a package of (do you call ’em “canned”?) biscuits, and we had no idea how to cook them. So we just plopped them on the griddle with butter, and once the bottom layer cooked, we peeled off the uncooked dough and put it down in butter on a new spot. Repeat! Voilà: horrible, terrible, carb-a-licious fried bread!

Every day we packed a lunch to eat on the trail. Here are the items we had to choose from, set up in the “meals” we thought we might like.

Trail lunches:

  • Hummus and Bell Pepper Pitas, FruitPaks (gotta eat this one early on in the trip)
  • Peanut Butter and Banana Wraps/Crackers, Oranges (ditto above)
  • Chicken Vienna Sausages, Saltines, Apples, Hard-Boiled Eggs
  • Tuna (sealed individual packs), Cheese and Crackers, Applesauce Packs
  • Canned Beans, JelloPaks, Hard Veggies

Wrap it up in a bandanna and stuff it in your pack and eat on the summit, or at the base of a waterfall. We did that every single day. What a lunch break!

The essentials for your first-aid kit

I actually had and used Tecnu. Didn't help. (Check out BootsMcFarland.com for great hiking comics!)

I actually had and used Tecnu. Didn’t help. (Check out BootsMcFarland.com for great hiking comics!)

Each year I get better at this one, and this year in particular I learned I was missing something I needed every day: antibiotic wipes.

On day one of our trop I must have wandered into some poison sumac or poison oak (I know poison ivy very well, but probably wouldn’t recognize the other two) and even though I washed both ankles with Tecnu as soon as I realized my mistake, my ankles just above my socks were covered in it. The blisters were huge and weepy, and needed daily cleaning.

We ended up driving out of the mountains and down into a town one day mid-week (story below) and I got some wipes and additional band-aids (I ran out).

Here are my absolute essentials for a first-aid field kit:

  • Band-aids
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Small package of tissues
  • Blister bandages
  • Small knife
  • Tweezers (if not on your knife)
  • Insect repellent wipes
  • Small tube with acetaminophen, ibuprophen, and antihistamine
  • Insect bite relief stick
  • Whistle

I put everything in a zip-lock bag to keep it together and dry.

What’s in our day packs

Packs

Our day packs (2 liters of water each)

Since we come back to a tent in a campground every day, we don’t have to carry everything. But we do carry a number of essentials with us at all times in our packs.

  • Camelback 2 liter water bladder
  • A first aid field kit (above)
  • Water filter (I love my MSR SweetWater)
  • Maps for that day’s trails (in a ziplock bag, if they’re paper maps)
  • Camper’s toilet paper and a few baggies (for packing out toilet trash)
  • Trail lunch in a bandanna
  • Rain poncho (don’t get the cheap $2 kind! Invest in better and stay dry)
  • Kool tie (not essential, but if you hike in hot weather you will LOVE this; soak it in water and it stays cool and wet all day long)
  • “Waterfall” shoes — These are lightweight water-friendly sandals with rugged soles and secure ankle straps. Both of us have Teva brand sandals. They don’t add much weight but they enable you take off your hiking boots and wool socks and wade comfortably around in the waterfalls and rivers you hike to.
  • Wildflower identification guide — I only take this along once in a while, but I love being able to identify the many different flowers we come across on our hikes. I happen to have Wildflowers of the Carolinas, but there may be a better choice out there…
  • Camera in a ziplock bag — I don’t carry one every year, but I did this year.

Here’s where we camped this year

Linville Falls Campground

We camped for the first few days of this year’s trip at the Linville Falls Campground, which is on a spur road off the BRP, and is run by the National Park Service.

Our campsite at Linville Falls. The river was about 50 feet away.

Our campsite at Linville Falls. The river was about 50 feet away, behind where I was standing taking the photo.

Be warned, there are toilets, but no showers. This is also true of most of the National Park Service campgrounds we’ve stayed at, but we’ve gotten used to going several days without a shower on camping trips. You make do. We actually have a solar shower but didn’t use it this year. Incidentally, it’s useless to hope for a hot shower with one of those because it’s so cool in the evenings on the BRP that the water feels pretty icy regardless of how long it hung in the sun earlier. Still. It’s water to clean up with, if desired. When we get really grimy, we heat up water on our Coleman stove and do the sponge-bath-in-the-tent thing.

Mount Pisgah Campground

For the majority of our trip we were at the Mount Pisgah Campground (that’s our campsite up at the top of this page), about 30 miles south of Asheville on the BRP. At 4980 feet, it’s the highest campground on the Parkway. It’s quite cool (in the 50s and 60s) at night, and in July the rhododendrons are finishing up their season but still there to enjoy.

Still plenty of these to enjoy in July on the BRP

Still plenty of these to enjoy in July on the BRP

Mount Pisgah’s campground has showers, yay! Make that ONE shower. You will have to wait in line. This campground  is also near the Mount Pisgah Inn, which turned out really handy for us on the day we changed campgrounds, because that particular day there was a hard rain as we broke camp and packed the car. Most of our stuff, including packed clothes, got soaked. Since we were taking Seth (often called “The Maker” here on The Glowing Edge) to summer camp that day, we drove into a town to find a coin laundry to dry our sleeping bags and clothes.

But we made a huge newbie mistake. When we packed all the dry things back into our car, it got soaked (again) by all the wet gear and tents. Lance and I arrived at Mount Pisgah that night in another driving rain — this time it was cold, too — with nearly every item of clothing completely soaked. I was tired, hungry, cold, and fed up, and ready to drive back to Asheville to find a hotel and get dry and warm, but the Mount Pisgah Inn had a vacancy. The Inn is absolutely beautiful, and directly on the BRP (there aren’t any other hotels actually on the Parkway that I know of). Our view that night was only of fog and rain, but it was warm and cozy, and we were able to dry all our clothes out on the baseboard heater in our room. The next day was utterly gorgeous, and we packed up, drove down to the campground, and we were in business again!

two days view

Lesson learned: pack all your clothes (and anything else you want to stay dry) in plastic garbage bags.

Our Main Hikes…

Linville Falls, Chimney View, Erwin’s View

Starting elevation: 3160 feet, Ascent: 1000 feet

We hiked out to the Falls, then on to the Chimney View Overlook, and then to Erwin’s View. We had planned to hike down into the gorge, but ended up deciding not to. Lance and I have done that before, but that particular trail is not maintained and it’s very steep and treacherous. If we’d all felt better, it might have been different, but it was our first day out, the trails were muddy and slick, and we were late starting.

One of the upper overlooks at Linville Falls

One of the upper overlooks at Linville Falls

Mount Mitchell

Elevation: 6683

There are so many trails at Mount Mitchell, and Lance and I have hiked a few, but this time we simply took Seth up to the summit. Next time I plan to do the Camp Alice hike, which figures prominently in the history of the area.

Old postcard of Camp Alice

Old postcard of Camp Alice

Camp Alice was originally a logging camp, but in 1913, when the men who owned the logging rights to Mount Mitchell figured out that tourists would endure rough conditions and pay well to take the logging train up to experience the mile high view, Camp Alice became their home for the day. There was a dining hall, dormitories, and tent sites. The original buildings have all been replaced by a series of Adirondack-style shelters, but Camp Alice is still there in spirit. Next time!

If you want to learn more about how Mount Mitchell was logged, and what happened with the (very short-lived) Mile High Passenger Railroad, you should check out this awesome book by Mead Parce called Twice-told True Tales of the Blue Ridge & The Great Smokies.

Later on we drove down to the Cradle of Forestry in order to see a Climax logging engine and log loader — both of which were the same type of equipment used on Mount Mitchell. See below.

Craggy Pinnacle

It’s only a half-mile hike to the top (250 feet of ascent), but the stunning 360 view is worth five times that. You can see the Asheville watershed, the Pisgah range, and more. This year we had extended flirts with Juncos and even saw a chipmunk at the summit. Lots and lots of blueberry bushes to climb through, but nothing that high is ripe in July.

Lance and me at Craggy Pinnacle

Lance and me at Craggy Pinnacle

Craggy Gardens

Another of our favorite hikes, this short, easy trail leads up through a beautiful tunnel of rhododendrons and opens out onto a mountain bald. Nobody knows exactly how the balds were formed (fire? grazing?), but this one is slowly going back to forest. But for a while yet, you can hike all over the bald and enjoy the expansive views that are not yet obscured by trees. You may also see hawks riding the thermals. Plenty of blueberry bushes, Turk’s cap lilies, and neon orange azalea. Every time we hike out there it’s cool and foggy; ethereal in its beauty.

The bald at Craggy Gardens

The bald at Craggy Gardens

Linn Cove Viaduct to Rough Ridge, Tanawha Trail

There’s an incredible story behind the “Missing Link” — the Linn Cove Viaduct — of the Parkway, and this year we went back out to the Tanawha Trail to take it all in again. We hiked the most difficult section of the trail, working our way from Linn Cove, passing under the soaring Viaduct, through the massive boulder gardens, across multiple waterfalls (we counted at least five this time) to Wilson Creek. We later added the Rough Ridge section, where we saw a huge bear and quickly got our butts off the mountain.

There’s a section on the Tanawha where a tornado tore a trail down the mountain, opening the forest canopy for an enormous meadow of wildflowers to grow. It’s completely filled with Bee Balm (bergamot), yarrow, Ox Eye daisy, buttercups, goldenrod, coneflowers, asters and more. Water trickles quietly down the mountain in multiple places, and the whole place is filled with sunshine and the soporific hum of bees.

Linn Cove Boulder Gardens

Linn Cove Boulder Gardens

Blackberries at the upper elevations weren't ripe. Those down in Triple Falls (below) were.

Blackberries at the upper elevations weren’t ripe. Those down in Triple Falls (below) were.

Rough Ridge. You can see the viaduct in the background.

Rough Ridge. You can see the viaduct in the background.

Mount Pisgah Hike

Elevation: 5721

This was one of our more strenuous hikes, mostly because we started the hike behind a large, slow (loud) family group, and spiked a cautious but lengthy sprint to get well ahead of them. Unfortunately for us, a young, fit couple was pushing us from behind as well, and we spent a fair amount of the intense climb trying to keep ahead of them. Until we gave up the fight, let them pass, and recovered enough to keep climbing. But even if you’re not hauling ass up the mountain like we were, it’s a still a solid hike with lots of deep-knee stepping both up and down.

It’s a beautiful hike, like most of these are, and was accessible from our campsite via a campground connector or the Buck Spring Trail, which adds over a mile or so each way. (Warning: some of that is bushwhacking.) All together it’s easily a 5 or 6 mile round trip hike with plenty of vertical, about a 750 foot gain from the summit trailhead.

The vista from Pisgah summit is breathtaking, but also marred by a giant communications tower. Otherwise you get one of those amazing 360 degree views.

Pisgah summit, clouds rolling across

Pisgah summit, clouds rolling just overhead

Skinny Dip Falls

If you didn’t already know about Skinny Dip Falls, you would never find it. I heard about it online while researching BRP waterfall hikes, but it’s not in any of my books, there’s no trailhead, and absolutely nothing but rumor to clue you in.

But if you drive down past Mount Pisgah on the BRP and happen to pull over just past mile marker 417 at the Looking Glass overlook, you’d probably see several cars parked there, which is unusual for most of the overlook parking areas. Carefully cross the Parkway and enter the dense woods just at the mile marker and follow the trail for about a mile (maybe less) to Skinny Dip, which, although it’s also pretty big and potentially dangerous, is an absolutely fabulous waterfall to swim and play in. Danger, schmanger. When we’re on vacay, we get in.

Footbridge across Skinny Dip Falls

Footbridge across Skinny Dip Falls

Skinny Dip Falls, Parkway mile marker 417

Skinny Dip Falls (mile marker 417, BRP)

Graveyard Fields

Ahh, Graveyard Fields, our least favorite hike of the entire trip.

It got it’s name after a severe fire swept the area, destroying the forest and leaving vast rolling waves of open land that was dotted with blackened stumps. Or at least that’s what one guidebook says. Another says it’s for the many small humps of exposed land, which look like mounded graves. The area is very different from many of the other BRP hikes, being primarily open meadows, low scrub, and lots of tangled brush.

And oh, the swamp factor. Plenty of stinky, sticky bog to get through. Also snakes. I had to pee on that hike, and I was not happy about squatting and baring my tender bits in the middle of Muddy Annoyed Snake Territory.

See the snake? Yeah, I wish I hadn't either.

See the snake? Yeah, I wish I hadn’t either.

There are many criss-crossing trails in Graveyard Fields, so we had to repeatedly stop and consult our maps. And since the trail was nearly impassable in most of it’s sections, there were dozens of places where we had to bushwhack or use hike-arounds. It would not be hard to get lost on this one.

After we slogged our way through the longest loop of this hike (about 5 endless miles), a Pisgah ranger back on the Parkway told me not to judge the area by the Graveyard Fields hike this year. They were 26 inches over their average rainfall for the year when we hiked it, and that may have been the reason for the boggy, smelly, knee-deep trail nastiness.

But there is a popular waterfall just a half mile from the trailhead, and at the far end of our loop there was a rather spectacular falls (Upper Falls) that almost made the hike worth it. Almost. In the pictures we look radiantly happy. That’s because we were glad we survived.

A section of the Upper Falls at Graveyard Fields. The photo doesn't show how incredibly steep the pitch is.

A section of the Upper Falls at Graveyard Fields. The photo doesn’t show how incredibly steep the pitch is.

 

Graveyard Fields Lower Falls. Thank God we made it back.

Graveyard Fields Lower Falls. Thank God we made it back.

Devil’s Courthouse

Devil’s Courthouse offers one of the shortest, most well-groomed trails on the BRP with the most spectacular reward at the top. It’s only a half mile hike (straight up, people), but nearly the entire thing is paved, if you can believe that. I would not call it wheelchair accessible, but it’s paved.

The blue-blazed trail that crosses the mountain here is an old piece of the Little Sam Trail, which connects up to the MST, but that section has been closed to preserve the fragile ecosystem on the mountain.

The overlook at the Devil’s Courthouse summit is beautiful natural stone and stonework, with some amazing brass sighting maps looking out at several compass points.

Cherokee legend tells that an evil spirit, Judaculla, held court in a cave inside the mountain. It’s also one of the few places where Peregrine falcons have been reintroduced — one guidebook told us there had been some nesting near the summit — and where the annual hawk migration can be watched.

Looking up at Devil's Courthouse summit, only a half mile away. (Mostly vertical.)

Looking up at Devil’s Courthouse summit, only a half mile away. (Mostly vertical.)

Devil's Courthouse summit, showing one of the peak sighters.

Devil’s Courthouse summit, showing one of the peak sighters.

Devil's Courthouse

Devil’s Courthouse

Hooker Falls

We drove down out of the Parkway one day in order to visit Dupont State Park, which (we didn’t know in advance) is very popular with day-trippers. Hooker Falls, one of the four falls we hiked out to in Dupont, is the closest to the parking lots, and heavily populated with kayakers, youth groups, fly fishermen, trekkers with llamas (not joking), and running clubs. We gave it a quick look, and hiked deeper into the park. With alacrity.

Hooker Falls. With llamas. And youth groups. Kayaks present but not shown.

Hooker Falls. With llamas. And youth groups. Kayaks present but not shown.

Triple Falls

More rewarding within the Dupont Forest is the Triple Falls loop trail. There’s a covered bridge over the river at High Falls, and we climbed beneath it and ate our lunch on the giant boulders at the edge of the river, just yards from the massive dropoff. Exhilarating. (Also delightfully hidden from the the one or two hikers who crossed the trail above us.)

Blackberry brambles are everywhere in this region (my bare legs remember them well), and the fruit was just starting to get ripe at this lower elevation…

Rock stack at the start of the hike, and part of Triple Falls.

Rock stacks at the start of the hike, and part of Triple Falls.

Covered bridge at Triple Falls in Dupont Forest

Covered bridge at Triple Falls in Dupont Forest

The falls drops off just a few yards away with a quiet roar.

The river plummets down just a few yards away. We ate our trail lunch under this bridge.

Why we skipped Looking Glass and Sliding Rock

If you stop at mile marker On highway 276, which runs between Brevard (down off the Parkway) and Mount Pisgah, you’ll find several tourist attractions. We stopped on the side of the road to take a peek at Looking Glass falls and simply drove past Sliding Rock, but the sheer number of tourists in both places kept us well away. Later in the Pisgah ranger station I learned that Sliding Rock alone (which is exactly what you’d expect — big slab of rock in the river that tourists pay to slide down) receives between 1,000 – 2,000 paying visitors per day during the warm season. They close the parking lot when it has 800 cars in it. We steered clear.

Cradle of Forestry

One of my favorite parts of our trip was learning about, hiking through, and seeing some of the results of George Vanderbilt’s influence in this area.

When Vanderbilt bought up 120,000 acres of Western NC mountain land in the late 1800s, he also employed some men to help him take care of and manage the extensive forests. In fact, Vanderbilt established the very first school of forestry in the United States, and brought in Gifford Pinchot (who would later serve as the first Chief of the USDA Forest Service and Governor of Pennsylvania), and a few years later, German forester Carl A. Schenck to run the program.

The Biltmore Forestry School. Photo from the Forest History Society

The Biltmore Forestry School. Photo from the Forest History Society

The 6,500-acre historic site at the Cradle of Forestry now hosts many hiking trails (where you can see some of Schenck’s experiments in forestry), a museum, and quite a few historic buildings.

Ranger lodge. Note the German architecture (curved beams)

Ranger lodge. Note the German architecture (curved beams)

We saw the tiny one-room schoolhouse (pictured above) where the first foresters trained, ranger houses (some of which showed clear German — read Schenck’s — architectural influence), a blacksmithing shed, a portable sawmill, the commissary, and a few others.

They also have one of the Climax logging engines and a log loader, which, given the incredible engineering difficulties of designing and affordably building a railroad in these mountains, were of great interest to me. The “Mile High Railway” had no curves. The builders used 9 switchbacks and 3 trestles to climb nearly 5,000 feet over an eighteen mile stretch to Mount Mitchell. Apparently the drivers pushed cars ahead of the engine, and pulled cars behind it at the same time, climbing as high on each railed grade as it could before switching to a different, more gently graded track higher on the mountain. The 42-ton Climax engine was gear driven, which gave it more pulling power than a steam engine.

See the pin at the very front of the Climax engine below (far left side of the photo)? I had to stand with my feet planted squarely and heft that thing with both hands to pull it clear of the connector. It’s daunting to imagine six loaded logging carts ahead and behind, moving up (or down) that mountain.

Climax engine and log loader (note connecting pin at front)

Climax engine and log loader (note connecting pin at front)

The railway only operated for about four years. Sadly, that’s all it took to log most of the rest of the mountain where it was constructed. The crown of Mount Mitchell was saved from clear-cutting, after a fierce protest led by then-governor Locke Craig in 1915. When the railway was dismantled, the railbed became part of the now-famous roadway. Incidentally, that roadway to the crown of Mitchell was a toll road until the 1930s, with one way traffic traveling up in the mornings and down in the afternoons…

Buck Spring Trail

This final hike of ours included my favorite and most hard-won find of the trip, the Buck Spring itself. Oddly, none of the trails in the area include the spring and its lovely springhouse, and of the many mapping resources I had with me, only one of them mentioned the fact that the springhouse still stood…

We began our trip at the Mount Pisgah Inn trailhead, and hiked an easy mile or so up to the site of the Vanderbilt “hunting lodge,” which once actually housed many different buildings (including a main lodge, a kitchen/dining room, stable, garage, honeymoon cottage, and a playhouse/school for the Vanderbilt’s daughter, a root cellar and the springhouse) along the sheer edge of this ridge.

Lance at the edge, looking over. The kitchen porch of Vanderbilt's hunting lodge was here...

Lance at the edge, looking over. The kitchen porch of Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge was here…

Only a few of the massive stone foundations remain, but our Carolina Mountain Club trail profile book (mentioned above) was invaluable for its detailed information and beautiful old photos, which helped us reconstruct much of the site as we hiked and bushwhacked through it.

We spent a fair amount of time criss-crossing this expansive site, discovering old stone foundations and piecing together information from our book to figure out what building it might have been, but we couldn’t find the springhouse.

Old stone foundations of Vanderbilt's lodge at Buck Spring.

Old stone foundations of Vanderbilt’s lodge at Buck Spring.

Lance at the top of stone steps leading down into a root cellar. Look at that view!

Lance at the top of stone steps leading down into a root cellar. Look at that view!

Finally we gave up, and were striking out along the access road, scouting for a trailhead so that we could return by a different route, when Lance spotted a spring runoff trickling down the side of the hill by the Buck Spring Gap overlook and parking area. Looking up through the trees, we could just make out a stony path and the top of a tiny springhouse. Walking up along the rocks and stream bed led us straight to it! It was so deeply buried in forest growth and bramble, we’d never have found this stunning little gem from the trail side.

We finally found the springhouse!

We finally found the springhouse!

Springhouse entry, columbine and brown-eyed Susans

Springhouse entry, columbine and brown-eyed Susans

 …And other highlights

One of the things we loved about traveling the BRP this year was all the tunnels along the Parkway. Seth made it a point to hold his breath through each one, which is mostly do-able in these tiny, dark passageways that have been carved through the mountains. There are only 26 tunnels on the entire 469-mile Parkway, and we traveled through 8 of them in just the short stretch from Asheville to Pisgah Inn. That stretch includes the longest tunnel on the Parkway, Pine Mountain Tunnel, which is 1,434 feet through solid rock.

photo credit: Timothy Wildey via photopin cc

Stone tunnels on the BRP. Photo credit: Timothy Wildey via photopin cc

The annual Monarch butterfly migration passes through the Blue Ridge mountains around September, and in the Cherry Cove overlook at mile marker 415.7 (you can see odd, partly-bald Looking Glass mountain there in the distance) you might see as many as 30 of them float by every hour. How amazing it must feel to stand there as the wind blows them over the mountain…

Where the annual Monarch butterfly migration comes through in September

Where the annual Monarch butterfly migration comes through in September

Every year we hike in the Blue Ridge, we make an effort to drive into Asheville to visit our favorite restaurant, Nine Mile, just on the edge of downtown in the historic Montford district. On the walk out, Lance discovered a tiny library in the middle of a community garden. It was the perfect “tiny” partner to my favorite tiny, rare find on any NC hike: Indian pipe. This wonderfully iridescent little patch of Indian pipe (which is white because it’s one of the few plants that doesn’t have chlorophyll — it feeds instead from tree roots) was discovered on the Buck Spring trail.

Tiny finds: Indian pipe on the Buck Spring trail, and a tiny library in Asheville.

Tiny finds: Indian pipe on the Buck Spring trail, and a tiny library in Asheville.

We visited English Chapel, a very old Methodist “church in the wildwood.”  From there we hiked a few miles up and down the Danville river (which runs right past English Chapel), and watched the inner-tubers drifting lazily along as we hiked.

We also visited and absolutely fell in love with Brevard, which is filled with the oddest little white squirrels, supposedly descended from long-ago traveling circus escapees.

English Chapel (name spelled in stones, ick!) and one of the famous white squirrels of Brevard.

English Chapel (name spelled in stones, ick!) and one of the famous white squirrels of Brevard.

We drove into Hendersonville and traipsed through a cemetery to find Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” statue, and also drove up to the perfect little nestled-in mountain town of Mars Hill.

Kind of a sad moment... He never did get to go home again.

A sad moment… He became so reviled for writing his books that he never did get to go home again in his lifetime.

Before I created this post, I tossed a bunch of our photos AND some video from several waterfalls and overlooks into a compilation on Vimeo, and if you don’t mind some photo repeat (and at least one misspelling), you can watch that here:

Blue Ridge Mountains, 2013 from Lisa Creech Bledsoe on Vimeo.

This year’s trip was wonderful in every respect. I’m eagerly looking forward to the day when we move to these NC mountains, and can see and hike in them every day rather than just once a year.

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2 Responses to Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway

  1. Sine Botchen August 25, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed the post and it lessens the pain of having spent any vacation money I had saved up on tires for my truck. One of these days I plan on doing some cycling around the BRP. Glad you could let me live vicariously thru your post for half an hour. Take care.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe August 26, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

      Congrats, dude, on being the only person to actually READ all this. Or scroll down thru the pix. Seriously — it’s great to hear from you again. And yeah, there are people who cycle the BRP, but let me tell you it would give me a case of the screaming meemies. No shoulder + infinite curves + frequent low visibility (clouds) = recipe for cycler road pancake. But we saw several people on bikes while we were out there, and the scenery is certainly breathtaking and the climbs a challenge. I’m really looking forward to moving to that area of the state so that I can hike more than once or twice a year. Now I’m going over to read your post and catch up on your life. Enjoy your new truck tires, and remember that you can tent camp really cheap out here. I know, the gas to get up here would cost a fortune. Still! Let me know when you finally make it cause I’m pretty sure IOU a beer.

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