Darkside Cliffs and View of Grandfather Mountain
Earlier in the year, we had decided we needed to do more camping.  Only coming home every other weekend makes that somewhat of a challenge, but we love it so much, we really need to get out there more.  So, this weekend we headed off to Wilson Creek - a National Wild and Scenic River.  The area is part of the Linville/Grandfather Mountain Conservation Area and is considered to be one of the premier national areas in the entire Southern Appalachian Range.  The land has never been covered by glaciers or oceans creating an exceptional biodiversity and absolutely stunning vistas.  From just about every cliff side trail or road in this area, jaw dropping views of rocky cliffs, glimpse of magnificent Grandfather Mountain and the Black Mountain Range, and stunning waterfalls abound. 

Today's visit was to Bard Falls, Darkside Cliffs and North Harper Creek Falls.  Firs stop was Bard Falls.  On just about every trail today, we had the place to ourselves.  The hike to Bard Falls was a fairly easy hike (even thought it was marked as Most Difficult on the trail map).  It's a total of 3.4 miles roundtrip, with part of the hike on the Mountains to Sea Trail.  Luckily we took our water sandals and were able to wade into the water to get some lovely shots of the falls and some of the potholes created by the immense force of the water.

Next stop was supposed to be North Harper Creek Falls, but Rich had noticed another promising trail - Darkside Cliffs.  Based on the topo map, it looked like it ended on a rocky knob with perhaps some promising views.  Since the hike was only 1 mile roundtrip, we decided to go for it.  The trail was marked as Most Difficult but this is really a fairly easy trail - it does have a bit of elevation gain, but nothing too strenuous.  The views of Grandfather Mountain to the West were OUTSTANDING!  And once again, we had the entire place to ourselves - very hard to do on most trails on a beautiful Summer Saturday.

We finally started out for North Harper Creek Falls trailhead.  We had started down this trail once before in November, but the leaves were so incredibly thick - up to my knees in some places - that  I was terrified of breaking an ankle so we turned back.  Today, the leaves were gone, but once again, the trail was incredibly difficult.  I personally would not attempt this trail by myself - someone else may take the same trail and scoff at my timidity, but it had all the elements of a trail that I just don't care for - lots and lots of vertical slick rocks, several very slippery stream crossings, lots of loose rocks and protruding roots and at one point a giant tree down in the middle of the trail that required us to crawl over the top while I wondered if the entire log would start rolling down the mountainside like a demented sled.  But we made it to the falls in one piece and spent a lot of time wading into the water and just chilling out.  We decided on venturing onto a trail or path that Rich remembered from his last trip to the falls and ended up at the top of the waterfall.  We stayed there for a bit, watching the Cedar Waxwings diving for Mayflies. - they were so interested in the flies, they ignored us and came close to colliding with us several times.  We finally got up the energy to hike back to the car and then on to the campground for a good nights rest - and to get ready for the next days adventure!

Big Lost Cove Cliffs
We got up early Sunday morning, still not decided on what to do.  We finally decided to pick up the one trail we couldn't get to yesterday - Big Lost Cove Cliffs - and then hit the Parkway and take a slow ride back home.  We had hiked Little Lost Cove Cliffs the day after Thanksgiving, so there was very little green on the mountains.  Today, I was looking forward to a little different view of the highest point on the Blue Ridge Range and checking out another new hike.  We managed to get up, brew some coffee (when we camp - we do it RIGHT with real drip coffee on the Coleman stove), ate some banana bread and packed up camp all within 2 hours.  So, it was still fairly early when we hit the trailhead.  The trail was 3.4 miles and once again was rated incorrectly on the trail map - this one was noted as "Easy" and was certainly more moderate.  There were some rather steep areas and once again a huge downed tree that looked like a 12 person canoe!  But we made it up to the pinnacle and WHAT A VIEW!  We took some shots from the top of the cliffs and just soaked up the fresh breeze and warm sunlight, feasting on the blueberries picked fresh off the shrubs on the cliffs edge.  Unfortunately, the time came to wrap up this hike, head back to the car and make our way towards home.  One more stop at Chestoa View Trail on the Parkway and we wrapped up another wonderful weekend.  While we look forward to the day we can continue hiking and wandering through the mountains we love full time, these short interludes are small gems strung along the path towards our future.  And the future looks incredibly wonderful!

I had decided to take off today (Monday) so we could go on our annual trek to Roan Mountain to see the Catawba Rhododendron in bloom.  But when we checked out the reports, it looked like the blooms were still about 1-2 weeks off, so we decided to head up to Graveyard Fields to see if anything was blooming that way.  The blooms look like they'd just started, so not the greatest display, but the hike was still a great one.  From there, we decided to head on over to Craggy Gardens to see if anything was happening around that area.  Same story - some early blooms but still a week or so off.  Most of the bushes looked a little worn this year.  Perhaps the mild spring just hasn't kicked the blossoms into gear yet.  All in all a wonderful end to another weekend back home.  Unfortunately, tomorrow is back to work and then back to Florida for more 95+ degree heat and no Rich to hike with.  I'll just count the days until I'm back in the mountains and back home again!

We decided that we needed a longer hike, so today we picked a trail on Davidson River with several waterfalls, an old fish hatchery, and a couple of nice swimming holes.   We got to the trailhead at 9:00 and there were already quite a few cars in the parking area.  Luckily most of them appeared to be camping and not out on the trail - we only saw a handful of people the entire time.  Daniel Ridge Loop follows the Davidson River for about a mile passing campsites
strung along the creek. We followed the trail until we got to a fork and took the Farlow Gap trail (the carsonite sign proudly proclaiming the trail "Most Difficult".   The trail was definitely long - about 9  miles total - and was an absolute killer on the knees due to both the steep climb and the loose rocks.  But that portion of the hike had 2 waterfalls, so we persevered.  And it was so worth it!  We both got some nice shots along the creek and of some of the waterfalls.  We retraced our steps back to the Daniel Ridge Loop and trail and continued on.  But the highlight had to be the largest waterfall on the hike at the end of the Daniel Ridge Loop - Daniel Ridge Falls.  The water flow was perfect and a large tree that had been blocking the view finally was removed.  By the time we got back to the car it was 7:00 PM and we were beat!  What a nice way to spend a Saturday.

Alarka Falls
Some days it's very easy to pick the trail or trip we want to pursue - other days, it's really tough to decide.  My DH prefers waterfalls, but will willingly hike anywhere I request as well.  I prefer long range views, but will go anywhere there's fresh, cool air, the scent of fresh pine or wildflowers or the sound of rushing water (including waterfalls of course).  We flipped a coin and both won on this trip - a waterfall for him and a fire tower with views for me.  Compromise sounds like someone is giving in, but it doesn't always work that way - in this compromise, we both won!  So, on to Alarka Falls first and then to the Fire Tower.

After driving FOREVER on a dirt road clearly designed to destroy anything with four wheels, we finally reached the trail head.  Alarka Preserve is such a unique place.  It's a high elevation valley with red spruce (the southern most occurring growth for this species) and wonderful natural bogs; which means you'll find many unusual plants, birds and insects not normally found within the higher elevations of this area. While near one of the bogs we did hear a bird we think was the same or very similar to one we've heard in the swampy areas of Georgia and Florida, but couldn't see it to identify it.  We took the Forest Road (FR86E) for about 1.5 miles where it dead ended.  To the left of the trail was an obvious path heading down towards the sound of the falls.  From here the trail is STEEP!  Definately not a place for small children or during a rain storm.  To get to the falls, we had to make our way down a nearly vertical climb, holding onto roots and rocks.  But the view was certainly well worth it.  And what a unique and peaceful place. 

Next stop was the Cowee Fire Tower.  This was a straight walk down a gated forest road where it dead-ended at the fire tower.  While the views were somewhat blocked by power lines, it was still a great little hike and the fire tower seemed to be in fairly good condition.  Unfortunately, it was padlocked so we couldn't explore inside the tower, but we did manage to hop out onto the first ledge and grab some shots from there.

All in all, a good "compromise" trip!