Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Gatlinburg to Asheville

Gatlinburg and Asheville seem so close on the map, but the way we travel through the mountains when there are things to see and do, we knew that it would take us all day to travel the 55 miles as the crow flies. So we were up early and by 9:15 we had checked out and took the back way rather than the bypass into Gatlinburg to get gas and some supplies for lunch. Clearly there is a lot of money in Gatlinburg: some of the mountain houses and estates on the hills above town were stunning and way out of our price range. Winding down the switchbacks reminded me in part a little of San Francisco and a lot of mountain towns in the Alps.

Gas station options are slim in Gatlinburg, but there is one at stoplight one on the way out of town and it is conveniently located next to Old Dad's General Store which makes really good sandwiches. While I filled up on gas, Ann went next door and scored bacon biscuits for breakfast and one each roast beef and turkey sandwich for our lunch.

Heading south out of town and then working east on US 441, we saw a couple of tom turkeys on the side of the road feeding nonchalantly. Quickly, the day went from partly cloudy to overcast and chilly. The day before when we dropped into the Visitor's Center, the volunteer who told us about things in the park told us not to miss Newfound Gap on our way up to Clingman's Dome and over to the North Carolina side of the park, so Newfound Gap was our first destination.

View East and South from Newfound Gap

The NC-TN Border Runs Through the Gap
Climbing relentlessly from the valley floor, the pressure hit our ears around 3100 feet and the flora changed entirely above 4000 feet. It was almost as if spring had not yet come: there were no leaves on the deciduous trees above 4000 feet just like back home seven hours north. At Newfound Gap, where North Carolina and Tennessee meet, we had beautiful but deteriorating views on both sides of the gap. The big parking lot in the gap was busy with a bunch of AT thru-hikers, even more day hikers, and a local Baptist church doing a trail magic breakfast for the thru-hikers.

White Fringed Phacelia
After a brief walk where we took in lots of wildflowers including masses of bluets, violets, and White Fringed Phacelia, we came back to the parking lot and chatted with a threesome of thru-hikers, one of whom was busking with a ukulele. We didn't catch his name, but his trail posse comprised Sherpa, a surprising moniker for such a little guy with massively taped glasses, and Giant, a tall bearded guy who owns a marijuana dispensary.

As we were leaving the gap, it was clear that we were going to be socked in at Clingman's Dome some 1600 feet above us. From the gap, we took the side road, at times in North Carolina and at times in Tennessee as we flirted with the ridgeline separating the two states, on up to the Clingman's Dome parking lot below the summit of the highest mountain in Tennessee. By the time we exited the car, ragged shreds of clouds were sailing across the parking lot.

Starting up the Clingman's Dome Trail, Bundled Up
The weather was raw, windy, and damp and we bundled up for the hike up to the observation tower at the summit. The clouds were condensing on the fir trees and then dripping to the ground beneath. Usually when it rains, the ground under the trees is the driest spot. Perversely not here. It was a very steep walk up the paved half mile trail to the summit, though it leveled off just before the AT crossed maybe 100 yards below the summit, the highest point on the AT. It was a tough climb for us flatlanders.

All the way up, we could see that we were in a unique northern microclimate, technically a spruce-fir rainforest, averaging 85 inches of rain per year. The vast numbers of dead fir trees on the way up was heartbreaking: they've been attacked by a little mite-like insect (an adelgid) from Europe against which they have no defenses. At the top, at 6644 feet, the third tallest peak in the east, we climbed the 45-foot observation tower with no hope that we'd be able to see anything, visibility being less than 50 yards. There was another batch of thru-hikers here climbing the tower to see what couldn't be seen; this little group was a day behind the group that we met coming through Newfound Gap, about 8 miles further north. The trip back down was a lot easier going but the steeper parts were tough on the quads. We noticed a lot of Rufous-Sided Towhees calling from all sides of the path and a bunch of Song Sparrows below the trail.

It's a Different World, a Coniferous Rainforest, at Nearly 7000 Feet

The Top of Clingman's Dome. What a View!

Back Down From the Summit, Clouds Starting to Break
Back down in the parking lot, we could see that the cloud cover was starting break up as we chatted with a couple who travel the country in their RV with their standard poodle. Taking our leave, we made our way back down from the peak to the gap and continued in the direction of Cherokee NC on US 441. At the bottom, we parted ways with US 441 turning left onto the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway just past the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Along the Blue Ridge Parkway

A Successful Selfie!
We ambled north along the Parkway at a very sedate pace, stopping as we felt like, with the weather getting more beautiful with each passing mile. At one point, we came across a mass of golden ragwort gleaming in a sea of deep blue larkspur, a phenomenal sight.

Golden Ragwort in a Field of Larkspur

Larkspur Along the Parkway
We grazed on our sandwiches while making headway north along the Parkway when suddenly we spied a sign for Waterrock Knob, which at 6292 feet, is the 15th highest peak in the East, so we turned off the Parkway and made the short drive up to the parking area where the views were phenomenal. In the parking area we saw a sign that indicated that the knob itself was only a half mile hike, so we went for it. I am not sure who in the hell measured that half a mile, but it was the longest half a mile I have ever hiked in my entire life. The walk to the top was a good 35 minutes, so at least a mile and probably more.

The Sign Lies. The Longest 1/2-Mile I Have Ever Hiked

We Were on Mountains to Sea Trail
About half the trail up to the peak is part of the Mountains to Sea Trail, an 1150-mile trail that stretches from the Tennessee border to the Outer Banks. The first few hundred yards of the trail is steep but paved, giving way to a dirt track above a terraced overlook. Starting about halfway up, I started seeing little bits of mica shining up at me from the trail and as we got higher up, it seemed that mica was the predominant mineral. There were a lot of wildflowers at the lower elevations including rafts of Spring Beauties and a bunch of Trout Lilies.

Spring Beauty

Trout Lily
Cresting the Summit of Waterrock Knob

At the Summit of Waterrock Knob
Notice the difference in sunshine and garb than earlier in the day at Clingman's Dome. Sections of the trail ran through low scrub with ample hot sunshine that actually had us sweating and wishing for shade. Dozens of Rufous-Sided Towhees called from feet away in the scrub, but proved almost impossible to see as they scratched for food on the ground. Ultimately the view from the parking lot would prove to be as good or better than the view from the summit. This is one of those peaks that I am not sure was worth the effort; still it wasn't heavily trafficked and the views were not all that bad.

Just beyond Waterrock Knob we came up the highest point on the Parkway. As we pulled over to take in the view along with a half-dozen Harley bikers who quickly left, Ann spotted a Broad-Winged Hawk on the top of a small tree.

For the East, That's Up There

Broad-Winged Hawk
By this point, it was getting to be late afternoon and we were in the last ten miles of Parkway before turning off to go into Asheville. We noticed lots and lots shrubs along the roadside with trellises of white blooms. We finally found a good place to stop and have a closer look. They looked extremely familiar to me, like the Pieris japonica that I have grown in my gardens, but it wasn't until later that evening that I discovered that they are a close domestic cousin, Pieris floribunda, also known as Mountain Andromeda.

Pieris floribunda, Mountain Andromeda
After spending the last two days immersed in the woods and away from civilization, it was quite surreal leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway to enter immediately urban Asheville with four-lane roads, interstate highways, noise, and loads of traffic. 

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