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.

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.

Reclaiming Fall

D.C. weathered recent storms to emerge this weekend with two beautiful fall days.  Enough trees clung on to now fall onto the sidewalk and provide the crunchy fodder that defines this season.  Fortunately a few blocks in our part of the city retained their color into November.  For an added dose of orange, we traveled to Clemson, S.C. two weeks ago for a weekend wedding. There, the trees and the botanical garden retained their greenery, and the south welcomed us with warm breezes, sweet tea, and pumpkin pastries.  It comes as no surprise that Clemson has been voted the best tailgate in the South by the definitive source, Southern Living.

This weekend past we stayed closer to our (still) new home, taking in a quarter of a Georgetown football game and finding the remaining bits of fall and river debris at Carderock and one of our favorite hiking grounds, the Billy Goat Trails.  There, leaves still cling to the tress, along with moss and debris from the river that recently crested well above its normal banks.

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.

Back to School Season

Taking a Canoe on the Potomac River

We braved the tax-free weekend in Virginia at Tyson’s corner.  I wanted to go back-to-school shopping in any form. My husband needed to return a leather messenger back that had a broken clasp and take his computer in for repairs as well.  The bag broke from normal wear-and-tear, and LLBean agreed to exchange it through their lifetime guarantee.   That exchange gave us plenty of time to browse their new bags and backpacks, all displayed at the main entrance, with a giant model of their signature back.  I used one of this backpacks all through high school, and they are still some of my favorite bags, but I was more inspired by the outdoor gear, so as soon as we returned home, we ran down to Fletcher’s Cove on the canal to rent a canoe for the evening.  We paddled into the shade and filled our hour rental with a route to the Chain Bridge.

Signs at Pimmit Run

We returned to our canal running route this morning, turning into Virginia once again – this time across the Chain Bridge.  Our explorations stopped short on the Pimmit Run that hugs the river bank.  When we stopped to admire the swirly pools of water and allow the dog to take a break from scaling the rocks, one of our cell phones decided to dive in.  That makes two electronics exposed to water this weekend. The phone still works.  The computer mentioned earlier now features a water-logged screen as a result of a run-in with a cup of ice water.  Maybe we should have just stayed in this weekend or gone to the movies instead.  Brave remains on our short list of movies to watch, but we weren’t adventurous enough to go to a showing in a mall packed with back-t0-school shoppers.


Hiking in the Heat

We ventured back to our favorite hike this weekend – the Billy Goat Trail.  The now familiar terrain makes for a challenging morning run, with some rock scaling, and we did our best to beat the 11 a.m. heat advisory, but only barely.  We started on the trail at 8:30, completed the C and B loops and connected to the Great Falls trails via the canal path.  This provided a mix of semi-level gravel surfaces, with the narrow branch-filled hilly trails that are a little more challenging.  In the end, we hiked over seven miles, draining two Camelbak water bags in the process (between the three of us, because we pack water for the dog as well.)  In addition, we have a towel, extra water bottles, and a change of clothes in the car so we can cool of as quickly as possible.  For the dog, this meant take a long drink, then collapsing in the shady back seat of the car.



The Billy Goat Trail and Other Creatures

A clear sign that we found the Billy Goat Trail

My husband accused me of scrambling over rocks like a girl today.  He speaks the truth – I’m much less agile than my fellow hikers, who use their long legs or four-wheel-drive to quickly climb to the peak of the rock outcroppings that we encountered on the B and C portions of the Billy Goat Trail.  We sought out this trail in April, but ended up on less scraggly trail farther north in Great Falls.  Today, we parked at Carderock and started from the southern point of the trails.  The parking lot still had plenty of spaces, but the trails revealed a fair share of families, rock climbers, kayakers, and other dogs leashed to the owners.  Our hound enjoyed this trail thoroughly, bounding through mud puddles and over large rocks, but it’s important to note that dogs are not allowed in the A section of the trail, due to the rocks.  Fortunately, we have been building up to them.

Climbing ropes on the Billy Goat Trail

The rocks in this section of the trail provide ample surface for rock climbers, who tie their ropes to trees at the peak and rappel down to the wider path below. In addition to outdoor enthusiasts, the trails host other wildlife including plenty of toads and frogs enjoying the muddy terrain.  The recent storms were evident in the river as well, which swallowed trees down the bank from the trail and in some spots lapped at the dirt a few feet from our path.  Fortunately, we waited an extra day after the recent storms to let the water subside, resulting in a great river view from the Billy Goat Trail.

On the Trail of a Billy Goat

We soaked up what now feels like the last day of Spring by spending Saturday hiking the trails around the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.  Our intent was to find the Billy Goat Trail, a 4.7 mile craggy path that parallels the C & O Canal.  Dogs aren’t allowed on the northern-most section A, for good reason.  Apparently the path has some sizable rocks, hence the name, and hikers need to scramble over this part.  Part B and C are less strenuous, so I read.  We drove a little too far, missing the starting point for B, and landing squarely at the end of MacArthur Blvd at Lock 20 of the canal.

From here, we ran a portion of the canal path, a familiar turf that I’ve written about before, but through new scenery that included an overlook of the falls.  Unfortunately, the path is currently under construction, so after running into the fence about a mile and a half out, we turned back, clocked in the 5k and took the detour into the trails.  These are dog friendly areas, but leashes are required and recommended.  Within 15 minutes we saw enough wildlife for the dog to chase after in her dreams, including a medium-sized black snake and plenty of water fowl.  We walked almost back to the Anglers Inn, where we should have started on the Billy Goat Trail.  Instead we turned onto the Valley Trail, which led to the Gold Mine Loop.  This route took us up to a spectacular overlook, where we could see not only the path we had run earlier, but the falls.   Fortunately, the path back to the parking lot was all downhill.

The park service offers a map of the area, so you can plan your hike, but the interconnected trails are explorer friendly if you don’t want to plan ahead.  We made the trek in under two and a half hours but packed plenty of water for ourselves and the dog. Otherwise, she wanted to taste every creek that we crossed.