Sunday, February 24, 2013

Grandfather Mountain - Trail Of Ice

Grandfather Mountain is one of my favorite places, and always has been since my first visit over 20 years ago. Its high balsam forest, wild weather, and ragged, rocky crest with ladders and cables have always been a mental transport to another favorite region the best part of a thousand miles away, where such things are commonplace. It is arguably the most rugged mountain in the Southeast, but agree or not, it would make most anyone’s short list of contenders for the distinction. I can’t get enough of the place, and try to visit, on average, once a year. After missing my more or less annual hike on Grandfather Mountain last year, I was determined to get there sometime this year.

Not a problem. Photo by Tommy Bell
Before this hike, I was thinking Winter was winding down. I was kind of bummed about that, not because I love cold weather, but because I hate hot, humid weather, and also partly because I had just had the good luck to win a pair of crampons from the writer of another hiking blog I follow, Section Hiker, whose owner regularly tests and gives away gear. I figured it was going to be at least December before I would have a chance to try them out, on my usual Christmas visit to the Catskills. But, lo and behold, we had another wave of cold and snow, and I found out that the higher trails of Grandfather Mountain were supposedly very icy! My buddy Tommy had been wanting to return there as well, so it ended up being a no-brainer where to hike this weekend. I wasn’t really expecting to need full crampons for the hike, only my usual microspikes, but I figured I would at least have a chance to put them on and try them out somewhere. Well, there turned out to be far more ice than I would have ever imagined. 

We started up the Profile Trail on dry ground, and I had doubts about just how much ice there was going to be. But around the 4,500’ elevation, a little snow started to appear and the trail slowly became more and more icy as it climbed higher and higher. We passed below the cliffs that form The Profile, and the spectacular off-trail pinnacle of Haystack Rock - a spot I have long wanted to visit. Since off-trail hiking is frowned upon in the park, going there would be ill-advised, though I’m certain a few people have found the appeal to get off the beaten path too great, and have done so, especially when the reward is so obvious.

On Calloway Peak
By the time we reached the crest, traction devices were definitely a good idea. The trail was mostly a ribbon of hard ice, with only intermittent sections of dry or snow-only covered footbed. Even though I had microspikes, I decided that I wouldn’t look like an idiot wearing full crampons after all. Especially on the many of the steep, rocky sections, the ice was heavy and treacherous enough that it was probably pushing the limit for microspikes anyway. With my new footgear though, I could feel the 10 steel points on each boot bite into the ice, and felt remarkably sure-footed. I was able to walk on the ice in most places as though it were dry ground, a liberating feeling.

Looking toward Attic Window Peak
After gaining a little more elevation and climbing a couple of short ladders we made it to the 5,964’ summit of Grandfather Mountain, a.k.a. Calloway Peak. The views from this highest point in the Blue Ridge are always great on a clear day, as this was, and include the crest of the even higher Black Mountains, the apex of these Eastern states. We took it all in for a few minutes, then reversed our route back down into the gap to the southwest to continue our icy trek.
The terrain flattens out briefly beyond here, but soon enough we were back on steep, ice-covered rock. There are definitely spots here where you would not want to fall in Summer conditions, but that number increases exponentially with ice because of the possibility of falling, then sliding over something that you do not want to slide over. A good many of the cliff faces up here are well over 100 feet high. Even if you don’t go over a cliff, there is still the hazard of gaining momentum and sliding into something, like another rock. Today it seemed that many of the places you would least want ice had the most. But we were careful, and had no real issues, only awe and great joy at being here on this spectacular ridgeline of crags and wind and views.

Tommy below Attic Window Peak.
After reaching the top of Attic Window Peak, we headed down the Class 2 chute (maybe Class 3 with ice) on its west side, then through the short underground section where the trail goes beneath a huge jumble of room-sized boulders that have fallen off the cliffs over the millennia. The most formidable section of trail turned out to be just ahead, on the climb up MacRae Peak, a.k.a. Raven Rocks. Just above the gap, a short ladder scales a low cliff at the bottom of a steep slab of bare rock. There is a rubber-covered steel cable with knots in it, anchored on both ends, to act as a handrail of sorts on this, an appropriate safeguard for when the rock is wet. It seemed totally inadequate, even laughable, for the several inch thick layer of clear ice that plastered the rock today. You wouldn’t fall to your death here, but it wouldn’t feel good either. But we were game, and again had no problems. Amazing what you can do with the right gear! We were careful nevertheless. We actually met a guy coming down this with no spikes, but he certainly was envious of ours, and we didn’t envy him. I have no idea how the guys we later saw in tennis shoes fared on this, but it couldn’t have been pretty or graceful.

Heading underground temporarily. Photo by Tommy Bell
Minutes later we were climbing the ladder onto the overhanging summit block of this spectacular peak, one that would probably be a short, but technical and exposed climb without the ladder. It has an airy feeling to it for sure, and the violently gusting wind only exacerbated that feeling, tending to make one avoid the edges. But the views are simply superb, with the wild cliffs of Attic Window Peak close by on one side, and the almost exotic forms of Hawksbill and Table Rock off in the distance to the other direction. Of course, you have to take the good with the bad. This summit also gives one of the closest views of that monstrosity of a condominium on nearby Sugar Mountain that blights so many other summit views in this part of North Carolina, an eyesore that, in my opinion, should never have been built. But what’s done is done, and I find I can usually ignore it. Actually, I am often amazed at how far away it can be seen from, and sometimes use it as a very distinguishable landmark when trying to identify other nearby peaks.

Icy trail up MacRae Peak. Photo by Tommy Bell

Topping out on MacRae Peak. Photo by Tommy Bell
Attic Window Peak from MacRae peak.
Tommy on an overhanging outcrop on MacRae Peak
We had one final view of MacRae Peak.
We decided to skip the high ladders and more cables that descend the south side of the peak, followed by looping back around the west side on the Undercliff Trail. No doubt it would have been spectacular, maybe even scary, but we opted to simply backtrack from here, satisfied with the day. Headed back down the Profile Trail, we stopped briefly at Shanty Spring to admire the large icefall there and poke around at the nearly invisible beginning of the long abandoned Shanty Spring Trail, the route I used on my very first visit here back in 1991. A little farther and the trail of ice began to disappear.
The Profile, Haystack Rock, and Calloway Peak.
Even as I write this a month later (way behind on my blogging), similar conditions still persist on this amazing mountain. As of March 23, the state park website offers these warnings, tempting me to head there again, to the trail of ice, before Winter really is gone:
> 3/24/13 Fresh snow and ice. Trails remain slick.
> Please be advised: even with warmer weather, higher elevation trails will still have slick conditions for some time. There is still snow and ice below Calloway Peak and to Grandfather Mountain Attraction with intermittent deep snow drifts along the ridge line. Proper gear and clothing, adequate food/water and winter hiking experience are necessary for hiking at higher elevations. Caution: Ice traction is essential. Be alert to ice, snow and possible downed tree limbs on the park's trails.

Some of the trails on Grandfather Mountain. To view a larger map click here.

Hike Stats:
7.7 miles, 3,050' cumulative elevation gain via profile trail and back

Pictures from this hike
Pictures from other hikes to Grandfather Mountain
July 2011
July 2008
June 2007

gpx files and maps
North Carolina State Parks Grandfather Mountain site
Grandfather Mountain State Park maps and directions
Grandfather Mountain private attraction site
SummitPost page - has additional links for each peak and routes

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Profile Trailhead coordinates:

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Clinch Mountain - The Back Of The Dragon

As I turned onto Route 16 North in the town of Marion, Virginia recently, I noticed a sign I hadn’t seen before proclaiming the road “The Back Of The Dragon”. While perhaps an appropriate moniker for this very curvy road that very nearly makes a complete loop at one point, I couldn’t help but think it was a knock-off on the section of US Highway 129 that winds around the western end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That is another exceptionally curvy road that has long been referred to as “The Dragon” or “The Dragon’s Back”. As it turned out though, the name seemed like a great way to describe the hike I was about to do. After a slow two dozen miles across Walker and Brushy Mountains, then up Clinch Mountain, I parked on the crest of the latter and stepped out into an icy wind to begin the day’s adventure. 

I had done the first two miles of this hike before, years ago, so I knew there were some good views, but I had forgotten just how spectacular this route was, and knew nothing about what lay beyond where I had turned around last time. Almost immediately the ridgeline narrowed down to a few feet wide, and soon thereafter small drop-offs began to appear on one side or the other. The crest became increasingly narrow, until it was literally a sharp spine of bare rock, usually with a cliff on the north side and a steep slope on the south. While the cliffs were nothing like you would expect on an alpine arete on a major mountain, they were certainly high enough in many places to demand respect and sure-footedness. Without trees, it would have felt a great deal more exposed in many spots, and a fall would likely be fatal in several of these. Occasionally it would widen out a little, but rarely for more than a few yards. There were bits and pieces of either game or hunter paths, but for all practical purposes this hike was, and is, a bushwhack. Briers were quite abundant, but rarely so thick that I couldn’t pick my way through them. Usually, I found I was able to walk right on the knife edge, but at times there were overly thick briers, or the exposure became too great for comfort. Almost without exception I was able to bypass such difficulties on the south side by dropping down a few feet or yards, often still on the steeply sloping slabs of sandstone, many of which extended a considerable distance downhill.

Much of the first four miles along the crest of Clinch Mountain varied from narrow... narrower... even narrower.
Can you say knife-edge ridge?

A natural arch.
 After about a mile, some limited views begin to appear, and a little farther there is even a small natural arch which is perhaps four feet high and fifteen feet long right on top of the ridgeline. Then the real views begin to appear in steady succession, and the route becomes even more interesting, literally like walking along the back of a dragon.  At various points there are views in nearly every direction, a couple of them essentially 360° panoramas. There is also one particularly notable overhang at one point, which looks like the famous overhang on McAfee Knob tilted upward at a crazy angle. It begged for a person standing on it in the picture, but alas, I was alone.

A crazy overhang ahead needed a person on it.
There were lots of nasty thorns!
Ease through some briers, walk a knife edge, drop down the south side a few yards to bypass a difficult section, climb back up, enjoy an awesome view. Repeat. This was the process for much of the first four miles. The views included such sights as Mount Rogers and Whitetop, Chestnut Ridge, Knob Mountain, and Thompson Valley among others. Eventually the crest starts to broaden and the last good view is at around the 4 ½ mile mark. This would normally be a good turnaround point, but I had another goal in mind.

Ever since my buddy Shane Ashby and I finished bagging all the ranked (300’ prominence) Virginia 4,000 Footers three years ago, and actually, all the 4,000’ peaks down to 200’ prominence, I have slowly been knocking off the few remaining named, but unranked 4,000 Footers as well, just to say I’ve been on them. One of the eight remaining was just over a mile ahead now. Redoak Ridge is 4,580’ above sea level, but it is certainly no peak, only a bump with 80’ of prominence on the ridge extending southwest from the state’s sixth highest peak of 4,710’ Garden Mountain, a.k.a. Balsam Beartown - a major Virginia summit with over 2,000’ of prominence. It has a name on the map though, so I wanted it. It also didn’t hurt my desire that the top was white with rime, and I could see that there was some snow up there. I started getting into snow just a little higher up, around the 4,000’ elevation. A little higher still and the rime started to appear in the trees, always a beautiful sight. Then, near the top, red spruce started to appear and I was again in my favorite type of forest - the boreal. No views, but a beautiful spot nevertheless. ( Actually, in hindsight, there may be more views nearby after all. Upon studying satellite imagery while writing this, I noticed that there appear to be more cliffs just to the north of my route, which could look into the head of Thompson Valley and beyond.)

Great view west of Thompson Valley, Peak 4150, Short Mountain, and Morris Knob.
 Half of the next ½ mile was pure Hell, as I dropped down to the headwaters of Cove Creek and climbed back up to Beartown Ridge. The rhododendron near the creek was pretty hideous. I don’t think I had to crawl anywhere or take my pack off, but there were a few places where it took me most of a minute to take one step. Pry back the interwoven branches, tuck them behind my back, grab a couple more, climb up into the bush and take a jerky step forward, then repeat. It was slow going, with a few choice words uttered aloud. Much to my relief, it eventually thinned out into more open woods and I reached the top of 4,689’ Beartown Ridge, another unranked bump, but one I had been on several times before.
Looking toward Virginia's two highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop.
Rime on top of Redoak Ridge.

A little snow and rime up high.
This hike would actually make for an adventurous route to get to Balsam Beartown (less than 1 mile away now) and even Hutchinson Rock, but certainly not the easiest one. I decided to forego it this time though, and bushwhacked down to Roaring Fork and back up onto the south end of Chestnut Ridge. Then I made my way down into Poor Valley and began the long roadwalk back to my vehicle, though I was lucky enough to catch a ride the last mile or two. I can’t say I would recommend the latter part of this hike to anyone unless they went to the effort to have a second vehicle waiting at the Appalachian Trail parking lot in Poor Valley. In that case, it could make for a long but awesome trek, potentially including Balsam Beartown, Hutchinson Rock, The Swag, and the section of the A.T. on Chestnut Ridge. Regardless of the longer option though, I am already looking forward to eventually returning here with a friend to once again walk the “Back of the Dragon”.

The route of this hike. To view a larger map click here.
Hike Stats:
My hike - 14.2 miles, 2,940' cumulative elevation gain
To last good view (#29) and back -  4.6 miles, 1,560' cumulative elevation gain

Pictures from this hike

gpx files and topos 

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Trailhead coordinates:
37.04104, -81.51839

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Cascades and Butt Mountain - Waterfalls and Views

What could be better than a hike with both an awesome waterfall and great views? I had intended to do just that by visiting both these spots, The Cascades and Butt Mountain, on the same hike. I changed my plans, however, when the day to do the hike arrived. We were several days into our coldest weather all winter, when temperatures had dropped to around 10° for the lows and the highs had stayed below freezing. It is always a treat to see the Cascades frozen, even partially so, and something +Leanne enjoys as much as I do. But combining the two destinations adds up to a bit more mileage than she cares for, not to mention the difficulty of the off-trail part of the hike below Barneys Wall I wanted to do. So I decided to leave Butt Mountain for another time. Turns out it was the next weekend, so I’m going to still include both hikes in a combined post, albeit as two different hikes.

I’ll start by saying that, in  my opinion, The Cascades is probably the finest waterfall in Virginia. Some may be higher, some may have more volume, some may be just as beautiful - but none that I am aware of combine all three so well, save possibly Falling Springs in Alleghany County. But that one loses points for being roadside, rather than at the end of a gorgeous creekside hike. That is how a visit to The Cascades begins. A short distance up an old jeep road that forms the usual return route, there is a bridge across Little Stony Creek that leads to the beginning of a scenic two mile footpath right along the water’s edge. There are large boulders, deep green pools, and small cascades all along this pristine trout inhabited stream, and the trail is often inches from it. There are also lots of wildflowers, though not in January. This section of Little Stony Creek is contained within the walls of a steep-sided gorge between Butt Mountain and Doe Mountain, but the headwaters of the stream originate higher up in a large 3,000-4,000 foot elevation basin bounded by those two mountains as well as  by Big, Potts, and Salt Pond Mountains, the latter is one of the highest peaks in Virginia at 4,361’ above sea level. Mountain Lake, one of only two natural lakes in Virginia, is also one of its sources. Having that large drainage area above the gorge is what allows creek to already have a respectable volume by the time it reaches waterfall topography.

About halfway to the main show, the trail crosses back to the north side of the steam again. After climbing some presumably CCC era rock stairs, a tributary stream spills off a cliff face, forming a sometimes impressive wet weather falls. Today it was mostly a flow of clear ice, and it was only around this point of the hike that we started to see significant amounts of ice in the stream. Lower down, somewhat disappointingly, it had been mostly open water with the only noticeable ice being around turbulent sections where the resulting mist had frozen on surrounding surfaces. Now things were looking more promising. Rather quickly now, the stream became mostly frozen over with only channels of open water.

Nearing the falls, the opposite side of the creek becomes cliffbound once again and a roar is heard ahead, then, suddenly, the falls themselves come into view. The 68’ high cataract leaps over the brink and freefalls about half that distance before crashing onto sloping rocks and fanning out into a cascade twice as wide for the remaining half of the drop. The water then merges into a huge, deep pool surrounded by high amphitheater walls. It is an idyllic setting, but also one you are unlikely to have to yourself unless you come early in the morning, preferably on  a weekday.

Today huge icicles hung from the cliff walls surrounding the plunge pool and from the edges of the falling water. The creek itself was still visible as it made the leap into the air, but the lower cascading half was no longer over rock. Now it was a solid mass of white ice, built up into a mound several feet higher than the underlying bedrock. It was quite a striking sight, in some ways just as awesome as in 2007(?) when there was so much ice that no flowing water was visible and you could walk halfway up the falls to the vertical columns of ice forming the upper half. The pool at the bottom was only partially frozen over as well but something about the combination of ice and liquid water added interest and balance to the scene. It did not disappoint.  

From here, another trail leads up stairs and to the return route on the jeep road. But you can go the other way on the jeep road and continue upstream another 4/10 of a mile to a junction. A right turn here drops back down to the creek just upstream of the 20’ high and less visited Upper Cascades. While certainly not as impressive as the main falls, they are still a pretty sight and considerably less well known. The other thing you can do at this junction is bear left and uphill on the Conservancy Trail for a mile or a little more to the top of the spectacular cliffs of Barneys Wall. The view out is limited by higher ridges but the view down into the gorge is very airy and exhilarating. This same trail also provides a hiking route to the spectacular views of Butt Mountain and Lookoff Rock. It continues up to a rough road that leads an additional 1.7 miles to Butt Mountain. It is driveable but the roughness keeps traffic very light, especially in Winter. This is the hike I had intended to do along with The Cascades but put off until the following weekend.

As it turned out, there were a few days of heavy rain after this hike and many of the local streams and rivers flooded in spectacular fashion. When I decided to return here the following weekend, I found that the Cascades trailhead and the trail itself were closed to public access. I started trying to think of some other hikes nearby I could do. Among others, Rice Field came to  mind, as did exploring a couple of new trails in the Mill Creek area of Pearis Mountain. But looking at the map, I saw that there was a road that approached Butt Mountain from the south and climbed up to around 2,500’. It ended on private property, but only a short distance from the National Forest boundary. I figured it couldn’t hurt to go take a look, and maybe knock on a door or two to ask permission to access the public land from road’s end. Luck was on my side. After I explained what I wanted to do and why, I was granted permission to cross the property and continue my hike to the top of the mountain. As it turned out, the lady of the house was a hiker herself and had hiked up the mountain from here before. She have me some good info on the route, and afterwards even went so far as to tell me that they had bought the property so they could spend more time in the mountains. She even told me that they wouldn’t have any problem with an occasional hiker stopping by in the future to ask permission if I showed the route I used in this post.

Some of the large boulders at 3,900'
 The hike wasn’t even a bushwhack like I had been expecting. There was an old woods road that led all the way up to the broad plateau at 4,000’. There wasn’t anything particularly exciting about this route, but it was steep enough to be fun and a bit of a challenge, and certainly more pleasant than walking two miles along the road on top. It’s not that that route is particularly bad, just that walking on an open road where a vehicle may drive by lacks appeal. There were also some impressively large boulders around 3,900’ but I didn’t see any real views here. Of course, I didn’t explore far off the trail either. Once on the plateau, I turned left onto a lesser trail that led me over a small top that is labeled as Lookoff Rock on some maps, notably the Trails Illustrated Blacksburg/New River Valley topo. There is not any sort of a rock or view here, nor anywhere close by, and I believe that it is labeled such in error. The actual Lookoff Rock is almost certainly the flat-topped cliffline on the summit of Butt Mountain, which this trail continues about one-half mile farther to.

Lookoff Rock, with Pearis and East River Mountains in the distance.

Butt Mountain cliffs
The 4,200’ summit is the highest point on a sizable plateau-like area, similar to many mountains in the Catskills. There is a dilapidated old firetower still standing here, but the bottom two flights of stairs have been removed and climbing it would be an iffy endeavor. It’s not a big loss though. The nature of the topography is such that even if it was safe to climb as in years past, the views in every direction but west are somewhat underwhelming. The vista to the west and southwest however is quite spectacular and the tower is not necessary for that. The hundred yard long cliffline here allows wide open views in those directions. Much of Virginia’s New River Valley is in sight and the angle on Pearis Mountain is especially nice. These cliffs are made up of layers of sandstone blocks and there is a really neat talus cave in one area. It has an opening at the base of the cliffs but there is also a 15’ pit-like entrance right on the clifftop. Don’t fall into it! While the visibility was quite good when I first got here, I actually watched some of the mountains to the west disappear in the approaching snowstorm and decided to head on down in case it got serious. It never did, but I had gotten my hiking and peakbagging fix once again and explored a new trail in the process.

Trails to the Cascades and Butt Mountain. To view a larger map click here.

This map shows the National Forest boundary on the south slopes of Butt Mountain. The trail enters public lands first at around 3,000', then leaves it again before re-entering near the edge of the plateau. Permission is required to cross the private property at the lower part of this route. To view a larger map click here.

Hike Stats:
Cascades - 4 miles round trip, 700' cumulative elevation gain
Upper Cascades - add 1 mile round trip, add 200' cumulative elevation gain
Butt Mountain from Cascades TH - 10.8 miles round trip, 2,040' cumulative elevation gain
Butt Mountain from south - 5.8 miles round trip, 1,760' cumulative elevation gain

Pictures from Cascades hike
Pictures from Butt Mountain hike

Pictures from other hikes to the Cascades and Butt Mountain:
January 2011 - The Cascades 
June 2010 - The Cascades
January 2010 - The Cascades  
June 2009 - The Cascades 
April 2009 - Butt Mountain
February 2008 - The Cascades and Barneys Wall
June 2007 - The Cascades

Resources and Contacts:
Jefferson National Forest Cascades page - Note - There is a $3 parking fee for the Cascades Day Use Area
Happy Trails Cascades article
gpx and kml files, topo maps

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Trailhead coordinates:


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