Thursday, April 28, 2016

Craggy Gardens, NC

Thursday morning saw us take breakfast in the dining room of the B&B, starting with "Mango Madness," sliced strawberries, diced mango, and blackberries tossed with sugar and mint. Our second course was oeufs brouillés on puff pastry with a couple of slices of smoked salmon and a ramekin of mushrooms in cream. I call the scrambled eggs by their French name because they were whisked in the classic French style yielding very wet scrambled eggs with really small curd. We've served a lot of duck eggs this way for tasting recently. They are delicious.

As interesting as the conversation around the breakfast table with the other guests was, our agenda was to go to the peak of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, so we took our leave quickly and headed north.

Mango Madness

Oeufs Brouillés, Smoked Salmon, Mushrooms in Cream
Already on the north side of Asheville, we picked up Town Mountain Road and followed it to its termination at the Blue Ridge Parkway. It's clear that at least close to town, a lot of money lives out this road: lots of high priced houses, impeccably manicured lawns and gardens, fancy gated communities, the works. Further out the road and closer to the Parkway, it became much more rural and closer to the scenery we had seen the first few days of our trip.

Our rough agenda was to meander the Parkway to Mount Mitchell, climb it, and then head down the mountain to Burnsville, grab some lunch, drop in and say hello to Neil and Kay, and then head back to Asheville for dinner. Craggy Gardens wasn't either in the picture or out of the picture, but I wanted to stop there if we had a chance, which it turned out, we absolutely did.

One of the Reservoirs Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Craggy Gardens Visitor Center is situated in the middle of a large parking area in an exposed saddle on the west side of the Parkway. It is also perched at the top of a very steep precipice affording outstanding views out of the windows on the back side of the tiny little gift shop/visitors center. We arrived at the Visitor's Center after errantly ending up at the Craggy Gardens picnic area a little further south on the wrong end of the trail that we wanted to walk. We merely wanted to see the bald, not engage in a long hike. A quick check of the map on my phone sent us in the direction of the Visitors Center where we took the trail at the southern end of the parking area and it was a very short walk indeed to the bald where we spent 20 minutes or so nosing around.

Walking Through the Rhododendron Thicket
Just a short way up the trail through the overarching rhododendron thicket, the trail opens onto the bald and just off to the side is a shelter. Looking at the unusual post and beam construction with twin posts, linked by notched bridging, supporting the roof leads me to believe that this is an old shelter. A closer inspection led my inner woodworker to suspect that this wood is chestnut and if so, that would date the shelter to the early part of the 20th century or before, given that the chestnut blight wiped out all the chestnuts basically by the beginning of the second World War. Maybe it is a Depression-era work project like a lot of the amenities on the Parkway.

Craggy Gardens Shelter

Walking the Bald Past Mounds of Catawba Rhododendrons
The bald, exposed at 5500 feet, must have pretty horrific weather at times and certainly a very short growing season when compared to the valley floor. This is readily evident in the stunted growth of the trees, especially this one with the very twisted branches that topped out less than my height, yet with a trunk that is probably ten inches in diameter.

Stunted Tree, Maybe 6' Tall but Very Old

Catawba Rhododendrons in Full Bud, Craggy Pinnacle to Right
Unfortunately, the Catawba rhododendrons open fairly late, especially at this elevation, and we were too early for the bloom by a few weeks. It must be a glorious sight to be up here when all the rhododendrons are in bloom! The floor of the rhododendron thickets had some flowers we had not seen in any great quantities on this trip: wild hydrangea, red trillium, and a bleeding heart relative called squirrelcorn (Dicentra canadensis) that I had not seen before.

Wild Hydrangea

Red Trillium, Trillium erectum

Squirrelcorn, Dicentra canadensis
One other surprising thing for me was the Northern Juncos who were clearly settled in for the summer here. I have not encountered breeding juncos south of upstate New York before. We watched several of them gathering nesting materials and here is a great photo of a male on territory giving his trilled "This is my turf!" call. Back home, the last of ours migrated north just a week or so ago after spending all winter with us.

Northern Junco, Trilling
After our short morning hike, we would continue north up the Blue Ridge Parkway, climbing and climbing towards Mount Mitchell.

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