MAY 22-23, 2009: The Journey Begins...For most of the 32 State Highpoints I had accomplished within the past two years, I was able to group them into weekend "loop trips". These tended to be ambitious trips where long distances were traveled and little sleep was attained. Fortunately, these aspects are generally strengths for me, as I am very comfortable with driving long distances over short spans of time and I am also usually comfortable performing tasks with very little sleep... It's a genetic trait in my family. The only State Highpoints that were hampered by me having little sleep were Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, but I was still able to summit those.
These loop trips have really worked to my advantage. Living in Washington State, many State Highpoints are few and far between from my home. So by grouping multiple State Highpoints into one trip, airfare costs and extra traveling were limited. I was also able to portion-out large areas of the country during this process. With 32 State Highpoints accomplished, I had left the Southern Appalachian States (Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia) available for one more weekend trip. With Memorial Day weekend open for me this year, a trip to the southeastern section of the country seemed like a good idea.
During the evening of May 22, 2009, I caught a "red-eye" (overnight) flight from Seattle to Atlanta, arriving at 6:00 AM the next morning. I then went to the car-rental facility and picked up a rental vehicle. For this trip I used a Toyota Yaris, which I knew would have great gas-mileage. As I left the car rental facility at 6:20 AM, I headed northeast. My Southern Appalachian Loop Trip was beginning...
MAY 23, 2009: STAGE ONE: Sassafras MountainI headed northeast along I-85 until I entered South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, I drove north along Highway 178. During this stretch of highway leading towards Sassafras Mountain, I noticed two oddities. First, every person I saw along the road was a senior citizen. Second, there were multiple dozens of squirrels dead in the middle of the road. I had never seen so many dead squirrels in one hour. In reality, I had never seen so many dead squirrels in ten years, and I was very puzzled why this area had such a high squirrel mortality rate compared to other roads I have driven.
When I turned off of the highway onto Road-199 leading up Sassafras Mountain, I believe my squirrel mortality question was answered. I encountered multiple squirrels running across the road, and each one would stop right in front of my car. I had to keep slamming on the brakes and dodging the little critters. The squirrels in this part of the country seemed to become paralyzed (with fear?) at the sight of oncoming vehicles, something I had not experienced in the Northwest. I arrived at Sassafras Mountain by 9:30 AM. The sign near the gate had been shot out and the gate was busted open; it is a shame some people are so disrespectful to such important landmarks. The summit itself was not as disappointing as Woodall Mountain in Mississippi, but it was still fairly uneventful. Sassafras Mountain was the 33rd State Highpoint I had visited. After taking some summit photos and enjoying the surrounding scenery, I continued to my next destination... Clingmans Dome in Tennessee.
MAY 23, 2009: STAGE TWO: Clingmans Dome and the Great Smokies
I headed northwest from South Carolina, driving through western portions of North Carolina en route to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Several key moments during this drive were exceptionally frustrating. First, I drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway for a little over 20 miles, but was repeatedly slowed down by vehicles ahead of me stopping and slowing to take photos of the views from the scenic road. Yes, the views were great, but there was seemingly at least one vehicle parking area for the scenic views within every one mile... and none of the vehicles ahead of me were choosing to stop. This would happen each of the other two times I drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway, later that day. Yes, it was Memorial Day weekend (for which I expected large swaths of people), but there is such a thing as driver courtesy. The second frustrating thing prior to arriving at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was driving through Cherokee, the main city within the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation, located just outside ofthe eastern side of the national park. There were festivities all around and, just like with the Blue Ridge Parkway, people were choosing to slow and stop along the highway rather than pull-over and park. This made the trip very slow-going, although seeing the Native American festivities *was* fairly interesting.
After a couple of brief stops near the entrance to the park, I arrived at the Clingmans Dome parking area at 12:45 PM. For me, this was partially like deja vu. I had visited the Great Smoky Mountains about 8-9 years ago, on the north and west side of national park, driving as far southeast as Newfound Gap. At that time, I did not realize how close (~seven miles) I was to the highest point in Tennessee, but I also was not a State Highpointer or even a peakbagger when I had last visited the area. I had enjoyed the region during my first visit, and I was happy to have a good excuse to go back. I walked up the Clingmans Dome Trail to the summit tower. Clingmans Dome was the 34th State Highpoint I had visited. I then scouted out the surrounding area. Fog was rolling into the hills rather quickly, and I overheard some people concerned about rain. From Clingmans Dome I looked northeast at neighboring Mount Love and decided to go there due to its short distance away.
The Mount Love ridgeline was fairly uneventful and had limited views, so I briefly continued along the Appalachian Trail for a short distance before deciding to turn around. When I reached Clingmans Dome again, I decided to head west to neighboring Mount Buckley. There were some great views along the ridgeline connecting the two peaks, but I especially liked seeing the uplifted rocks at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and Dome Bypass Trail. I then followed the Dome Bypass Trail back to the parking area. I had wanted to hike some of the other local peaks in the area, but with an apparent storm fast approaching and other peakbagging goals later that day I decided to not do any more hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains... this trip. At approximately 2:05 PM, I began driving back east, through the vehicle logjam that was Cherokee, and then headed northeast from there to my next destination... Mount Mitchell in North Carolina.
MAY 23, 2009: STAGE THREE: Mitchell, Craig, and Big Tom
Just like when I drove along a southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier during the day, I found myself behind inconsiderate drivers stopping and slowing on the highway while driving to Mount Mitchell State Park. I finally arrived at the Mount Mitchell parking area before 6:00 PM, but was slightly saddened by the store located there being closed early (because it was supposed to be open until 6:00 PM). The rainstorm I first noticed in the Great Smoky Mountains had seemingly followed me to Mount Mitchell, and the entire mountain ridge was covered in thick fog and rain drizzle. I met some kind people at the summit, who politely took several photos of me and who seemed to enjoy hearing several of my brief State Highpointing stories. Mount Mitchell was the 35th State Highpoint I had visited. But I had one other main mission for this weekend trip in addition to visiting State Highpoints. Mount Craig, the closest peak to Mount Mitchell and the second-highest point east of the Mississippi River, was another goal I had set.
Mount Craig interested me for one major reason: the mountain shares my real first name. And considering its significance in elevation along the eastern United States, I knew I had to summit it even if a major storm was taking place. Little did I realize in advance of the trip, both scenarios would come true. As I began following the Deep Gap Trail north towards Mount Craig. The rain drizzle changed to rain sprinkles. I took several photos at the summit and then looked at my GPS device. Noticing that the Big Tom summit was only a short distance further north, I decided to go there, as well. By the time I reached that summit, the rain sprinkles had changed to rain showers. I realized I did not have enough time to safely continue north to the Balsam Cone summit, and the rocks and dirt along the trail were becoming quite slippery to traverse. By the time I reached Mount Craig during the return-trip, the rain was hitting me sideways(!!!) and felt like near-monsoon conditions. Fog was everywhere, and visibility in the open areas was minimal. I was not concerned about the fog, as the trail was still visible and I had my GPS to guide me. I was actually concerned about the rain making the trail dangerously slippery, and I was wondering how bad the road conditions were going to be driving out of the park down the winding mountain ridges.
I arrived back at my car at 7:30 PM, changed my shoes, and began driving. Wind, fog, and heavy rain made the driving conditions questionable but still manageable. I drove east along the Blue Ridge Parkway where, as I anticipated, I found myself behind a slow-moving vehicle. But unlike the other slow-moving vehicles I encountered along the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier during the day, this particular vehicle had its "hazard" (emergency) lights blinking and probably had vehicle issues. However, that should be even more of a reason to slowly move into one of the pull-out areas, let the cars behind pass by, and then continue back on the road. Oh, well. Different driving philosophies, I guess. I then headed north into Virginia, spending several hours at a rest area along I-81 west of Wytheville. My next State Highpoint goal was Mount Rogers, but I wanted to do some exploring and hiking in other areas in the early morning beforehand.
MAY 24, 2009: STAGE ONE: A Big Walker And A Monster RockIn the early hours of May 24, 2009, I drove north towards Little Walker Mountain and Big Walker Mountain in Virginia. I then drove along the Walker Mountain Road, which is essentially a one-lane gravel/dirt forest road, during sunrise. I eventually reached the Big Walker Lookout and parked along the side of the road. I began walking up the Walker Mountain Trail, which is a stretch of trail that was once a part of the original Appalachian Trail until it was bypassed in 1977 due to lack of water sources along the route.
The first section of the Walker Mountain Trail is called the Monster Rock Trail, and during this section I reached a scenic overlook, marked by an "Overlook" sign along the trail. I could see several valleys and even peaks of West Virginia from this viewpoint. My next stop, Monster Rock, was only a short jaunt further along the trail. This rock is HUGE, and hangs over the trail. I climbed up the slanted rock from its backside and sat on top of it for a minute. Then I climbed down and continued walking along the Walker Mountain Trail. The trail traverses the ridgetop for many miles, but I only proceeded for two to three miles further than Monster Rock. Deer were hopping all around the trail, and it was clearly apparent this trail does not see much foot traffic from people anymore. The rhododendrons near the trail were in full bloom, making the solitary trek much more enjoyable. Eventually, I turned around and headed back to the car. I drove west and then south to Grayson Highlands State Park, the starting point for my next hiking destination... Mount Rogers.
MAY 24, 2009: STAGE TWO: Mount Rogers And Mountain Controversy
I began hiking towards Mount Rogers at 10:00 AM. I started by following the Rhododendron Trail, and then the Appalachian Trail. I was moving at a decent pace, mostly because a storm looked to be brewing overhead, even passing several groups. However, within the first mile, a woman ahead of me accidentally loosened a large rock on the Appalachian Trail and kicked it down onto my left foot, directly impacting my middle toe. The pain was excruciating. If I had been wearing my "La Sportiva" mountaineering boots, which have extra protection for toes, rather than my regular hiking shoes, this would not have been an issue for me. Having experienced such things in the past, I believed it was best for me to continue rather than stop for a while and let the swelling (and pain) take firm hold of the foot. I was determined to reach the summit of Mount Rogers, even if I had to hobble myself there. I initially used more of my left heel than my toes while walking, and I quickly found myself doing a modified jog along the route. I passed every ascending group ahead of me.
The so-called "wild" ponies were everywhere along the route until Thomas Knob Shelter. I was especially thrilled to see the baby ponies roaming about the area. At Thomas Knob Shelter I found ponies everywhere. They were fairly tame, although they were quick to raid hikers' backpacks if left unattended. After taking several photos at the site, I continued on my ascent of Mount Rogers. I reached the spur trail for the mountain and reached the summit at 11:15 AM, only 1h15m after I initially began. I was impressed with myself, not only accomplishing that in such little time and passing all other ascending day-hikers, but also doing so with a throbbing hurt toe. Mount Rogers was the 36th State Highpoint I had visited. After taking some time at the summit for photos, I realized my hurt toe was starting to feel a little better and I began to descend.
Shortly after I began my descent, I passed several people heading to the summit of Mount Rogers. I had a brief conversation with one of the people, Bob, who was also a State Highpointer... Mount Rogers would be his 19th State Highpoint overall. When I told him I was planning to go to the Kentucky State Highpoint later that day, he mentioned he was planning to go the following day and needed some basic directions. I was happy to try to assist him with the request. After we parted ways, I set my sights on my next hiking destination, Pine Mountain. Prior to my trip, I discovered Pine Mountain was a sort of hiking controversy. Some maps showed it as the highest point of Wilburn Ridge, and some maps showed it on another nearby ridgeline. Determined to summit Pine Mountain and try to solve the convtroversy, I hiked the Pine Mountain Trail and summited the first possible location of Pine Mountain. It would seem to make sense that the "Pine Mountain Trail" would naturally lead to Pine Mountain. I then turned around and head back to the Wilburn Ridge Trail and summited the second possible location of Pine Mountain. During this stretch of the hike, I encountered two rangers. When I asked where Pine Mountain was located, one ranger pointed to the first possible site while the other ranger pointed to the second possible site. Upon hearing the conversation, two hikers pulled out their maps. One hiker's map showed one location for Pine Mountain, and the other hiker's map showed the other location. One of the rangers said he was now determined to find out the real answer, but the controversy and confusion continues. At least I know I summited Pine Mountain, whichever location it might be, by going to both possible locations.
After following various spur trails and other areas of the Appalachian Trail, I eventually reached my car again at 1:45 PM. I had been jogging many sections of the trails, so I was concerned about my hurt toe. I removed my left shoe and sock, and noticed a large bruise on top. However, it did not feel broken or sprained. But without any ice with me, I realized I should improvise to help make the toe feel better. As I drove away from the park, I cranked the air conditioning on full-blast towards the floor with my exposed foot directly underneath the air vent. The icy cool air made my toes feel a lot better. I then proceeded west towards my next destination... Black Mountain in Kentucky.
MAY 24, 2009: STAGE THREE: Black Mountain
I arrived near the summit of Black Mountain in Kentucky at 5:30 PM. By the time I arrived in the area, a rain drizzle was beginning and the road leading to the summit was getting very muddy. I parked 0.1 miles from the summit and walked the rest of the way. Black Mountain was the 37th State Highpoint I had visited. I took several photos at the open summit area, then walked through the small opening in the trees to the large boulder containing the USGS Benchmark Disk. After taking several more photos there, and spending nearly 30m at the summit overall, I walked back to the car. I drove south from the highpoint, re-entering Virginia, then Tennessee, and then North Carolina. Shortly after arriving in North Carolina, I stopped at a "Welcome To North Carolina" rest area. While there, I slept for several hours before proceeding on my journey.
MAY 25, 2009: STAGE ONE: Wayah And Wine Spring
After leaving the rest area during the pre-dawn horus of May 25, 2009, I headed south past Franklin to the parking area at Wayah Bald. Although it was not raining, fog was everywhere and obstructing views. The stone summit tower was very interesting, especially its interpretive signs. Signs on the second level of the tower showed which peaks could be seen in each direction (on a clear day). I was fascinated to see several I had already visited, including those in the Great Smoky Mountains to the west and Mount Mitchell to the north. I also saw one sign, facing south, that showed another destination for later that morning... Brasstown Bald in Georgia. Although not the highest point in the area, Wayah Bald had a great vantage point with obvious far-ranging views.
Just prior to me leaving the summit of Wayah Bald, I met three hikers and we talked for several minutes. They were continuing north along the Appalachian Trail, while I had chosen to follow the trail south. After a while, I reached the slopes of Wine Spring Bald and ascended to the summit. The summit of Wine Spring Bald, although higher in elevation than neighboring Wayah Bald, has no far-ranging views (due to thick surrounding forests) and has a communications tower at its highest point. It was fairly uneventful, and definitely a little disappointing, compared to its more popular neighboring peak (Wayah Bald). I left the summit of Wine Spring Bald, went back to my car, and then stopped at the historic Wilson Lick Ranger Station located down the slopes of the ridge. Afterwards, I proceeded towards the final destination of my trip... Brasstown Bald in Georgia.
MAY 25, 2009: STAGE TWO: Brasstown Bald
I arrived at the parking area for Brasstown Bald at 11:15 AM. I immediately began hiking up the steep trail to the summit. I did not want to cheapen the highpoint visit by taking the shuttle bus, as I was still in good enough physical condition for the short trek. Clouds loomed overhead, but no rain was present. The summit tower was a great viewpoint, and I really enjoyed walking around the top of the tower to see views in each direction. Brasstown Bald was the 38th State Highpoint I had visited. I took multiple photos at the summit, including on top of the tower and in the interpretive center at the bottom of the tower. I had several conversations with other highpointers and rangers while there. After a while, I then hiked back down to the "Brasstown Bald General Store", purchased a couple of small momentos, and left at 12:45 PM.
With it being Memorial Day, the final day of a long national holiday weekend, some of the route heading back to Atlanta was slow-going. However, I still made it back to the car rental facility and airport in plenty of time to ctach my flight back home. The flight was uneventful, and I was happy to see my wife when I arrived back in Seattle.
EPILOGUEHere are the basic statistics from my trip:
1247 miles driven in 58 hours.
Six States entered (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky).
Six State Highpoints visited (Sassafras Mountain, Clingmans Dome, Mount Mitchell, Mount Rogers, Black Mountain, Brasstown Bald).
At least 10 other named peaks visited.
Nearly 30 total miles hiked, most of which was on the Appalachian Trail (both newer and older sections).
My State Highpoint total was now at 38, plus one "Bonus Highpoint" (Washington, D.C.). Not bad, for less than two years since I began this State Highpointing journey of mine.
I really enjoyed my visit to this region of the United States. There was a lot of great scenery and I hope to return. The mountains are not as breathtaking as those seen in the Rocky Mountains or Cascade Mountains on the western side of the country, but the Appalachians still have a lot of wonderful areas to hike and explore. Given the short timeframe of the trip, and all that was accomplished, I consider my "Southern Appalachian Loop Trip" a personal success.