Mount Jefferson and Bluff Mountain Nature Preserve.
I had plans to meet up with Jack at the Wagoner Road section of the New River State Park. Jack said he’d be there between 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm and I figured I’d get there shortly before he did. As it happened, I wasn’t able to get away quite as early as I’d hoped and I finally arrived at the park between 2:30 and 3:00. So I parked and headed toward the campground to pick out a site. Lo and behold, here comes Jack pushing a wheelbarrow which the park loans campers to enable them to get their equipment to the campsites which are about 1/3 mile from the parking lot.
Jack already had his tent up so I quickly pitched mine and stashed my stuff in it and we jumped into Jack’s car and headed over to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area to get in a quick hike and bag a summit. Mount Jefferson is technically a state park, but it’s basically just a nature preserve with only a road to the top, some restrooms, a couple of overlooks and a picnic area and a loop trail. Not much there, and it’s surrounded by encroaching urban sprawl. You can’t even get away from the constant sound of traffic and heavy machinery.
Still, we drove up and started our hike. I’d hiked it before, but I hadn’t been back for a number of years, so it was almost like a new hike for me. The summit area was a bit of a letdown with a road to the top and a communications tower and a sign marking the elevation (4,683 feet). Then we hiked the rest of the loop, heading over to an exposed peak called Luther’s Rock. This area was much nicer and the views were far better than on the actual summit.
After that, we headed back to Jack’s car and went down the mountain. We stopped at a Wendy’s and had a quick meal and returned to the campground and rounded up a lot of wood for a campfire which we soon had roaring. Jack slammed back a few hits of Wild Turkey and I had a couple of brews (I can’t drink hard liquor—it makes me puke out my guts). There’s no alcohol allowed in the park, so what I just wrote is a big fib.
The next morning we got up to some fairly cold temperatures (below freezing, I’d say). I decided that it would likely be chilly up on Bluff Mountain, since it’s over 5,000 feet, so I put on thermal underwear beneath my hiking clothes. This later turned out not to be necessary, since the temperature was well into the 50s by the time we hit the mountain. Oh, well.
We were supposed to hike with Andy Kunkel who had organized the trip for us. But we soon learned at the McDonald’s meeting place that Andy had taken ill and wasn’t going to show. We met up with a fairly large group of about ten hikers…some whom I knew from the internet (the same way I met Jack). Our Nature Conservancy guide, Doug, showed and we followed him in his dumptruck to the trailhead. At the gate, he unlocked it and we all parked our vehicles on the side of the gravel road and piled into the back of his dumptruck (yes, we were cargo). Doug took us up and up and up and up and up the mountain to the proper trailhead where he parked his truck and we all piled out.
At first, the trail seems rather bland as we hiked up an old logging road through a forest composed of mainly sugar maples. The climb was pretty steady toward the ridgeline and the group was strung out along the trail. Soon, though, we reached the plateau and headed up to the true summit of Bluff Mountain. The summit is very small and we had to take turns, two at a time, to get to the top and stand up there to take photos. The view was nice, but the space was very constricted and it was hard to get any spectacular shots.
After that, we headed off to the other side of the mountain losing some elevation and soon coming to an exposed peak with some really great views. We took some photographs and Doug told us the best was yet to come and that soon we’d be at a very nice rocky peak where we’d stop to eat lunch. And, true to his word, we walked through a very fragile plant community single-file to emerge onto a wide cliff face where we were treated to some extremely impressive views. Here, we all paused in our hike to drop our packs and take out our lunches and spent the next half hour just eating and talking and taking many photographs and drinking in the amazing views. The weather for the entire trip had been pretty much perfect, with partly cloudy skies, mild breezes, moderate temperatures, and only the hint of rain.
After lunch, we pushed on, passing through a very rare type of environment called a “mesic glyn”. This is an open area typified by mosses, lichens, low shrubs, and having extremely thin soil of high acidic content and relatively moist. This promotes the mosses and low shrubs, and prevents the encroachment of grasses and trees. We had to stay single-file through this and be careful not to stray off trail.
After that we arrived at another cliff. This one was over an escarpment that dropped 300 feet toward the valley below. Over this escarpment fell an amazing waterfall that proved almost impossible to photograph. Doug, our guide, would not allow anyone to stand near the edge of the cliff (he insisted that we crawl out and stay on our bellies or all fours), and we were not allowed to move down the cliff top to get closer to the falls. So we did the best we could to take some photos of Bluff Mountain Falls.
Soon after this we passed through a virgin hemlock forests. While the trees were not of champion caliber size, they had been cored by the Nature Conservancy and found to be in excess of 300 years old.
Our last stop along the trail was the fen on Bluff Mountain. This is one of only two fens in the Southern Appalachians. About two acres in size, it sits in a bowl of amphibolite bedrock and is kept in a constant state of saturation because the low area is spring-fed. This fen has been carefully monitored for over twenty years and it’s estimated that it has remained in its present state, unchanged, since the last Ice Age. Home to over 100 species of rare plant types, it also is home to a population of the extremely rare bog turtle.
As this was our last stop along the tour, the remainder of the hike was a descent along the same trail we’d used to gain the ridgeline. We returned to dump truck and rode back down to our vehicles, only stopping once when a blunt stick punctured one of the truck’s tires (double tires, so we continued).
Jack and I had driven my truck to the hike, so after thinking about going to hike to the summit of Snake Mountain, we ended up driving back to New River State Park where Jack was going to spend one more night. We had seen a place along the highway where there was a big pile of mulch and which offered a great view of Mount Jefferson. So we pulled over to where the giant pile of mulch was sitting and got out to take pictures. As w opened the truck doors and jumped out, we were hit in the face with a hideous, overpowering stench:
The giant pile of “mulch” was, in fact, a giant pile of chicken shit. The stench was overwhelming, and we hurriedly took our pictures and jumped back in the truck. It took about three miles of open windows (including my sun roof) to clear the truck of the stink of chicken manure. Live and learn. I’m sure the locals were wondering why two guys had stopped to get out beside the giant pile of chicken poop.
After eating a couple of burgers that Jack cooked up on the campfire, I had to head back to Charlotte, leaving Jack to spend another night at New River State Park. He was going to stop at Stone Mountain State Park the next day to do some hiking before heading back to Greenville. I’d liked to have joined him, but I had to get back home to help my wife with some projects.