The Highest Peak

Mount Mitchell peak

The Blue Ridge Mountains from the peak of Mount Mitchell

We’ve been working up to hiking Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi with an elevation 6,684 feet. In early June, we hiked around Dupont State Forest, touring three waterfalls in what would comparatively be a ramble. Then we ventured past the fence of the N.C. Arboretum, hike 13 miles of mostly wide bike trails, three of which felt like they were exclusively uphill.  That should have been preparation for the Mount Mitchell hike, which rises more than a mile over a distance of 5.6 miles from Black Mountain campground. There’s shorter paths too, and that’s important to note; however, we wanted the complete experience and the pride of saying we hiked the highest peak.

Mounta Mitchell sign

5.6 miles to go

The terrain starts as mostly sanding paths, becoming solid stones that glitter with pieces of mica. Signs of campgrounds show through the few open, flat spaces, where we rested frequently.  At probably a mile and a half up, the trail splits with small red on white sign pointing both directions. We picked the right because of the handwritten addendum that it is shorter, but who knows if that is true. It could also be steeper. That route took us across several streams and the path became rockier, with loose stones hidden under the grasses that arched over the path and larger rocks taking several steps to climb and cross.  The dog loved it. The humans had a trickier time, but we all made it to the top in time to eat lunch.

At that point, we joined the crowd. Because Mount Mitchell is such a strenuous climb, there’s also a road option, and the parking lot takes you to a concession stand where you can purchase cider and trail bars, not that you would need them on the mere 200-yard paved walk to the look-out point. It’s still steep, and the weather can probably change during the accent, but it’s nothing near the climb and climate of the Mount Mitchell trail. And that’s the problem.  After hiking that hardest trail to date, we would have preferred the solitude and satisfaction of reaching the top where few others had gone. However, it is nice that Mount Mitchell is accessible to almost everyone, as the expansive views are hard to beat, but the cloud cover obscured a few angles.

On our hike back down, we encountered high humidity, a rain shower that didn’t quite reach us on the ground thanks to the forest overhead, and several trips and falls due to our tired legs (that was mostly me, but I’ll attribute it to the group anyway).  That might have been the lowest point of the hike.

Meeting the Mountains

Blue Ridge Parkway

A view from the Blue Ridge Parkway

It might seem as though we’ve fallen off the face of the Earth since moving to Asheville, but the opposite is closer to the truth.  We’ve become more attached to it – spending weekends exploring the wrinkles of its surface through the mountains and valleys of the Blue Ridge and taking time at least once a week to taste the local food that defines this place.

Our favorite hilly hikes start from the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  From here you can walk North or South.  I say walk because even when I start out at a run, I need to walk at least one of the hills.  The further we go, the higher the hills climb, so I’ve quickly learned that a hill only seems daunting until you encounter the next one.  We’ve repeatedly renamed the “Big Hill,” as we venture further along the trail.

Graveyard Fields sign

Sign leading into Graveyard Fields

For a less strenuous climb, but an equally challenging foot terrain with several substantial creeks, I recommend Graveyard Fields.  We found this spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville, although several other overlooks tempted us along the way.  The parking lot here filled with cars, for a good reason: it’s a great family hike, suitable for young children or the furry ones in your pack.  Georgia loves the chance to sniff along the flat terrain while keeping us within her sight, and the waterfall at the end of the out-and-back trail made us human hikers happy. It was much cooler here than the surrounding area, so pack for a chilly atmosphere and the possibility of plunging into the water.

For those looking for a wider hiking path, we recommend a trip to the North Carolina Arboretum. Within a week of moving here, we became members, swayed by the parking fee ($8 a car, but free for members) and the foliage.  The gravelled roads traverse the entire 434 acres, with 10 miles of hiking and biking trails. Each is clearly marked for bikers, though some are designated foot-traffic only. Leashed dogs are welcome and a common site on weekends, and the trails lead into the surrounding areas, including a loop around Lake Powhatan.

After all this hiking, we definitely worked up an appetite, so here’s the short list of our favorite fare so far:

  • Homegrown does slow food right quick. Their sandwiches can’t be beat, and their ingredients are local and fresh.  And with sweet tea for just a $1, it can easily rival more common fast food restaurants that boast this same special. The dining area extends the homey feel, with several rooms and an outdoor porch to choose from.
  • Corner Kitchen is another hometown option, with an everlasting line of customers extending out the front door of the 1890s house in Biltmore Village. The flanking shops provide plenty of distraction during the wait, and the food is worth it.
  • Downtown can do no wrong when it comes to restaurants. From oversized burritos at Mamacita’s to sushi at Wasabi, we’ve found something for every taste.  Of course, there’s also the more well-known Tupelo Honey Cafe which draws its crowds with the tempting biscuits, honey, and jam, and the equally packed neighbor Mayfel’s, which is a great stop for a burger.

From the Mountains to the Sea

trail marker

Trail Marker for Mountains to Sea Trail

We’ve lived in Asheville almost three weeks now, and in that time, we’ve ventured no more than 10 miles from our front steps. Within that radius, we can access the Blue Ridge Parkway and spectacular trails or drive downtown for famous restaurants and retail establishments.  We can walk to a bookstore, a fabric store, and a McDonald’s – a dangerous combination that has made us caffeinated enough to consider our weekend hobbies.  The book stacks have doubled, and instead of buying ready-made curtains, we purchased several yards of a fabric that instantly feels like a part of our home.  It’s still rolled in a corner, in a box, along with some of the books, ready to be displayed as soon as we craft room for it.

As much as we’ve enjoyed staying at home in our new apartment, we’ve also enjoyed the outdoors.  Last weekend centered around an afternoon at the nearby WNC Nature Center, where Asheville citizens gain admission for a mere $6. Though the weather felt like spring, the animals didn’t believe it.  Most stayed in their enclosures or napped away the afternoon in a sunbeam, much like our dog.  The otters, though, put on their usual playful show, again, much like our dog. We now wonder which of the animals she can scent from the roadway as we drive by the perimeter of the  center with our windows down.  It’s our path to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the larger wilderness.

In some ways though, it’s the journey or the drive here that becomes most interesting.  From the barely visible castle on the mountaintop to the side roads that turn into winding paths, we never quite know where they will lead.  But we are lucky to be able to drive them, particularly because we had no idea that obtaining a North Carolina driver’s license would require a driving test and sign identification.  So if you plan to move to the state and make your home anywhere from the mountains to the sea, be prepared for the expected two hour wait at the DMV and use that time to study up for the road ahead.

Spring Forward

Ice melting on mountain side

Trail in early March

On Sunday, daylight savings time and unusually seasonable weather combined into the perfect early Spring Sunday.  Of course, we decided to spend it hiking, so after some quick research of nearby trails, we headed toward an open section of the Blue Ridge Parkway for a 2-hour trek through the mountains.  From East Asheville, we headed North, stopping briefly at the Folk Art Center before continuing our ascent by car, with our sights set on the Craven Gap Trail about five miles from this landmark.

Craven Gap is a section of the Mountain to Sea trail, North Carolina’s longest trail. As the name suggest, it stretches the entire state.  The section we discovered faces mostly South, making it ideal for an early spring hike.  The partly cloudy day meant that we needed light layers. The March wind kept it slightly on the chilly side, but the sun made enough of an appearance, even through winter, to melt the ice sickles and sustain and an outcropping of wild cactus at the higher elevation.

The trail starts at mile marker 377.4, at an elevation of 3,200.  At the highest just after a mile, we were approximately 3,450 feet above sea level, clearly establishing this part of the Mountain to Sea trail as the mountain end.  At just five miles out-of-town and a total out-and-back of just under 4.5 miles, it also makes for a great afternoon hike.

For more Asheville hiking resources, visit Explore Asheville and HikeWNC. Also, don’t forget to check for closures on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

 

Moving Mountains

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February passed by quietly, without a single blog update or weekend adventure. But beneath that seeming hibernation stirred a flurry of activity, as we decided to move away from Washington, DC. Almost two months short of having lived in the nation’s capital for two years, we gave up our city dwelling for a new start in the mountains. Or perhaps, it’s better referred to as an restart or an old start in the mountains, because this area of the country is my home with roots that run as deep as the rivers in the valleys. Starting this month, Hiking Mountains from the Metro will center on Asheville, NC, and trail into the outdoors, stores, and culture of the Blue Ridge mountains. I hope you will continue to follow our journey.

Thin Ice

ice on the canal

Skaters leave their trails on the frozen canal.

Living in the city often scares me.  So much awaits just outside my front door, or outside of my two front doors.  Since we live in an apartment, we have our front door and the building’s front door, an extra step that still confounds the dog.  She prefers to bark directly at the front yard through the window.  Lately though, even she wants to stay inside on her window-seat above the heater.  On Thursday, snow covered the sidewalks during my morning walk to work.  By Friday, the south-facing pavement had dried, but by afternoon, the snow fell once again forming  a muffled winter wonderland during rush hours.  At least the wintery precipitation justified the excruciatingly cold temperatures.

The temperature dropped low enough, long enough to freeze the canal solid in spots.  We first noticed the icy surface from the Chain Bridge on Saturday, where at mid-day, several brave hockey players swirled between the banks.  The lowered water level means that any fall would be minimal, but I still consider it daring to venture out on the canal in the extreme cold.

On Sunday as the ice subsided, we carefully hugged the path during our run.  Our footsteps stamped the remnants off snow further into the dirt.  Our dog added her paw prints as well, because even if she hates the cold, she loves the snow.  She eagerly bounds through the flakes and picks the drifts over dry ground, until she lands in the cold puddle underneath. I bet the brave hockey players on the canal feel the same.

Good Fortunes

The Chinese restaurant in my hometown changed their fortune cookie brand.  The individual wrapped cookies taste slightly sweeter, and the fortunes appear in blue ink now instead of red.  Perhaps, it’s a political statement, but I doubt it.  The slivers of paper provide a short lesson in the Chinese language, a few random numbers for playing the lottery, and a unique verse, made even more unique to us because after frequenting the restaurant for more than a decade, we had received most if not all of the available fortunes.

Today, our four cookies gave us insight in making decisions for ourselves (mom), foretold that we would spend time outdoors, near water, in the mountains (dad), and recommended that it is time to learn something new to advance our skills and ability (me).  Maybe these fortunes simply stated the obvious, as Dad has been spending more time outdoors on the farm nestled in the mountains, where he’s been duck hunting on the pond.  If that is the case, then Mom and I should take heed, but we still have the fourth cookie to understand.  In our family of three, this fourth cookie went to me, as the packaging affixed itself to the first cookie I selected.

This fourth fortune proclaimed “Oops! Wrong cookie.”

The Other Side of the River

Great Falls

The view from Overlook 3

The Washington Post Magazine’s cover story this Sunday debates which state is better: Maryland or Virginia? So in the spirit of seeing if the grass is greener on the other side, we drove across the river for our hike this weekend.  We’ve hiked the trails of Great Falls, Maryland several times, and if we had to choose a hike within half an hour of the district, The Billy Goat Trail would be our pick.  But as a native Virginian, with a husband born in Maryland, we had to see how the other bank compared.

Trail Posts

Continuing on River Trail

The trails at Great Falls, Virginia, start at the Visitors Center, where a few steps will lead you to three overlooks of the rapids.  We started South from the entrance station, taking the River Trail for spectacular views of Rocky Island.  From this vantage point, we could watch hikers on the Maryland side tackle the challenging A section of the Billy Goat Trail.  Their figures inched across the gray landscape with brightly colored clothing and comments echoing across the water.  The Virginia trail climbs at this point too, with a few scrambles that require careful footing and a steep incline that took my breath away.

Difficult Run Trail

Difficult Run Trail – the easy part

As the trails widened and the crowds thinned, we branded onto the Ridge Trail, following it to the end and turning onto Difficult Run Trail.  It hugs the curves of the creek and had sustained some recent flooding damage, but the area had clear signs and a hilly detour created out of roots and rock outcroppings, with a path wide enough for one person at a time. From there, the path is clear and wide, though we did cross both under and over the paved road to connect back to the main trail and avoid backtracking.  Old Carriage Road, well-trod and wide enough for four to walk abreast, provided a quick, direct route back to the parking lot.  Though uphill at first, the downhill and flat second half provided a welcome ending to the almost-five mile trek.

In the end though, we still prefer the Maryland trails of Great Falls. They provide great views of the river at the falls and at various intervals, creating a scenic, challenging route. The terrain works for rock climbers, hikers, and runners, with paths just large enough for two at a time and multiple scrambling options to allow for individual navigation.  Almost all of the trails connect directly to a larger path or to the canal towpath, which in our case would lead all the way back to D.C. if we wanted to run that far.  We prefer to drive there, and on the Maryland side, parking is free.

Trail Mix

Appalachian Trail at Sky Meadows

We ventured further outside of the city and our normal routes this weekend in search of fall in all its glory – turning leaves, pumpkin patches, apples still on the tree.  Our destination came recommended by the Washingtonian as a great day trip and one to bring the dog.  After an hour on 66, we pulled onto Route 17 and into Sky Meadows State Park, where a friendly park ranger welcomed us at the gate with a trail map, a list of family activities, and a package of Milkbone trail mix for our dog.  I instantly knew we were in the right place.  We weren’t alone. The parking lot was almost full, though we easily pulled into the grassy overfill area, close enough to easily justify the $4 fee.

Sky Meadows

The Pumpkin Patch at Sky Meadows

Fall on the farm included a hay bale maze, demonstrations, a horse-drawn cart that trotted into the pumpkin patch, and an old-time band dressed for the part.  We stopped briefly to observe the activities and study the trail map before selecting the North Ridge path that would take us to the Appalachian Trail.  We encountered plenty of other hikers at the beginning, but when the field erupted into jagged rocks and rooted trails, we found fewer and fewer people joining us. Eventually, we could travel a mile with only the occasional passersby.  The North Ridge trail leading in and the Ambassador Whitehouse trail taking us back both provided a hilly challenge, but the Appalachian Trail opened up to relatively smooth walking and expansive views of the Shenandoah mountains and valleys.   We also spotted the obligatory wildlife in the form of a 6 foot black snake sunning on a rock on the path.

A black snake crosses our path

The resulting 4.3 mile hike easily filled a Sunday afternoon and took us far enough away from the city to see only the green and gold of early fall, instead of the concrete gray of the weekdays.

Dog Days of Summer

The dcist reported this week that some city pools will open their gates later this month for the Fourth Annual Doggie Day Swim.  Dogs can dive in on October 8, or if baseball is more their style, Nationals Park sells outfield seats for $8 for Sept 22.  Unfortunately, the first option is a little too active for my dog, and the second is too much of a spectator sport.  She considers herself part of the tennis-ball set.  Plus, let’s not forget the challenge of getting a dog to either of these events. The natural method is to walk, but both the pools and the ballpark are several miles away.  So we would resort to driving our car across the city and paying for parking, or taking a dog-friendly cab, another expensive prospect.

These dog days of summer should include a take your dog on public transit day.  It’s a natural accompaniment to the already popular take your dog to work day that occurs earlier in the summer.  And our dog would fully endorse this day.  She already looks longingly at the metrobus every time it pulls up to a stop along our walk, and she’s lunged for the doors a few times, hoping to catch a ride.  We think her affinity for public transportation stems from the afternoons that she’s met one of us at the bus stop.  The bus brings us home, so it must go some where equally awesome. In this case, I know she would enjoy the ride more than the destination.