View near Locust Knob
I decided to take off today to get a great start to the Labor Day weekend (and it's dear hubby's birthday weekend so I had to start the celebration a little early).  Once Rich got off work (well - one of us had to start the celebration early - unfortunately it wasn't birthday guy!!) we headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to check out the section that they just reopened from road repairs and to do part of the Mountain to Sea Trail.  We started from the Graybeard Overlook and headed Northeast towards Glassmine Falls.  The trail had tons of blueberries and blackberries so we picked our way towards Locust Knob, sampling the berries along the way.  The hike was fairly easy, but overgrown in certain parts with some stinging nettle.  We past a few very nice potential campsites along the way, and finally came to a great view across the blueberry bushes.  By this time it was close to 6:00 and we had dinner waiting on us back at the house, so we went back the same route to the overlook and headed for home.  A great start to the weekend!

Falls on Road Prong
So this weekend I decided that I wasn't going to decide anything.  That's right - I'm protesting decision making.  So, I made my husband choose the hikes and he did good!  On Saturday, we got a late start (unfortunately I had a meeting that ran late - which is the main reason I'm protesting decision making - work will do that!) but he pointed the car towards Clingmans Dome and away we went.  Just hitting the forest made the stress of the last two weeks melt away.  Then when we got to Road Prong trailhead, all was right with the world.  I love this hike in mid to late Summer - the flowers are spectacular and you get a waterfall at the end to top it all off.  It's quite a hike back up the mountain, but very well worth it.  This hike is also one steeped in history, like a lot of other hikes throughout the Smokies.  The trail was an old road used by settlers, Indians, soldiers, and everyone else in the area as the major route between the north and south ends of the Smoky Mountains.  At one point, it was even an old toll road; the charges were based on the type of traffic - pedestrian, cattle and livestock, even vehicles.  Since we got a late start, we decided to only hike as far as the first falls, but the trail continues on to Chimney Tops.  After a great hike, we headed over to Cowee Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway to try for a sunset, but it just wasn't happening there.  We packed it up and headed home, but once we got to Graveyard Fields, the sky decided to glow and provide a beautiful ending to the day after all - so glad I decided to protest decision making.  I'll have to do that more often.

View from cave area looking onto viewing platform.
When we got up on Sunday, it was another rainy and overcast day, so we decided to hit some waterfalls that we'd visited previously to check out the view with all of the recent water flow.  The first stop was Moore Cove Falls, hoping to hit it before the crowds did and we were in luck.  We had the place to ourselves for quite a long time.  It's remarkable how much an area can change with the weather or the seasons.  While I've been to Moore Cove a number of times, today seemed to give it a special light - with the light rain, pounding water and gray skies, the area seemed softer and refreshed from the rain.  I love revisiting old places in a new light or in a different season.  It opens up an entirely different perspective and seems to create a different way of looking at the world around you.

We had such good luck at Moore Cove, we decided to head out for Slick Rock Falls.  I had been here before and while it was a fine waterfall, I really wasn't overly impressed.  But with all of the rain, once again Mother Nature decided to throw on a sparkly outfit and really dazzle us.  After hanging around for while, we headed over to Loghollow Falls to revisit the two set of falls there.  Once again we were not disappointed there either. 

Fog at Shining Rock.
Some days just don't turn out like you originally planned.  The weather forecast called for clear in the morning and rain in the afternoon, so we got up early and headed out for Black Balsam.  Our intent was to hike up Ivestor Gap Trail and head into Shining Rock Wilderness.  As soon as we hit the Parkway, the fog was blanketing the mountains and hung heavy with moisture.  We decided it was temporary and would burn off, so we loaded up the packs and headed out determined to find views galore.  Well - just wasn't happening today!  The fog soon turned into a drizzle and by the time we hit the sign for Shining Rock Wilderness, the only thing we could see was the deep mud puddles and dripping trees.  So, we quickly headed back to the car to replan our strategy for the day.  If you don't like the weather at the top of the mountain - go to the bottom!  So, off to the Pisgah we went and decided to take the Cove Creek to Caney Bottom trails and hit Cove Creek Falls.  And once again, Plan B was perfect - the fog lifted but the cloud cover stayed,  leaving us with perfect weather to shoot waterfalls.  Not only did we find waterfalls, but the shrooms are popping up like ... well, like shrooms in a rainforest.  So, moral of the story - if you don't like where you're at - go somewhere else - it may just be the perfect place.

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!

This year ended just as it began - with a hike through the woods and to the falls we go!  Today's hike was to Twin Falls, the Falls on Avery Creek and finishing off with the falls off the Clawhammer Trail.

We began the hike by way of Buckhorn Gap Trail at around 10:30 in the morning.  The trail is relatively flat and crosses multiple log footbridges (I think I counted 8 on this trail alone with several more on the connecting trails).  The trail to Twin Falls intersects the Buckhorn Gap Trail at around 1.7 miles from the trailhead and continues past the first falls (not Twin Falls - keep going) before coming to a campsite at the base of the actual Twin Falls - each about 50-100 feet tall.  The campsite at the base has a great view of each set and would be quite the spot - but a little too cold for today.

Next we backtracked to the intersection of the Buckhorn Gap Trail and the side trail to Twin Falls, and took Buckhorn Gap Trail to Avery Creek Trail.  We followed Avery Creek Trail a short distance to connect with the Clawhammer Trail.  After following the stream, the trail takes a left away from the stream, and proceeds up the side of the mountain.  Instead of taking the trail, off we went to follow the stream instead, making our own trails in the world.  And to reward us - there were the falls - and not on any official map!  I stayed up top and took a few shots from there, while Rich was more adventurous and climbed down to the bottom for some better shots.  After we'd finished shooting from this vantage point, it was 3:00 and time to head back towards the trailhead.  We went back upstream and caught the Clawhammer trail, taking it back to the Avery Creek Trail.  We followed the Avery Creek Trail until we came to a beautiful waterfall right on Avery Creek.  We scrambled down the bank (this time I went too) and came to our final falls for this year, and we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful scene.  We took some shots from the bank, scrambled back up to Avery Creek Trail and headed back to the Forest Service Road.  From there, we hiked a short distance up to the car, making a long loop from the starting point.

All in all a great way to end the year and  what a wonderful and eventful one it's been.  I can't wait for next year and all the years to come.