Natural Bridge, Va


Its massive 215 foot stone arch looms over the path below with its rows of benches. Birds nest inside it, and crowds pass below it on Sunday, giving it a sense of scale, while trees grow above and around. The James River passes below.

Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge with a few humans for scale.

It’s $6 to get onto the small trail system and you never get the feeling you’re out in unexplored territory, but rather just at a natural wonder that happens to be well developed as a tourist hot spot, kind of like Niagara Falls only a bit less built up and a different type of natural wonder.

While you can’t jump in the river, at least not at this point, the rocky shade of the arch itself itself provides a place to cool off from, what was in late July when we visited, sweltering heat.

The Monacan Nation lived here before Europeans came, a which only got federal recognition as a “tribe” last year. At present, just past the arch some wigwams, a garden, a trading area and craft areas give a chance for interpreters to explain about how the Monacans lived in the 17th century. I spent my time there asking about details of bead-making and the sea-shell trade between coastal and inland groups (including the clams used for wampum) and a demonstration of conch-shell blowing as well as cooking, food storage and wigwam protection against bears.

I overhead another interpreter behind me was going into depth about the full-history of the siouxan-language group of which the Monacans are a part, including far more recent and sadder stories further west like Custer and even the recent Standing Rock. That’s part of the site’s appeal: the interpreters can answer any kind of questions.

Thomas Jefferson, the later third US president, owned this land at one point in 1774, with staff at the gift shop telling me that he bought it from his later enemy King George III of England. For much of its history since then, it functioned as a private tourist attraction. As a side note it strikes me how different Virginia tourist architecture looks from its East-Tennessee equivalent. Virginia rest-stops, restaurants and local hotels often try to look like Montechello with bricks and white columns compared to the log cabin architecture they have in East Tennessee. This is true of the gift-shop, restaurant and small nature exhibit area that greets visitors to the site too.

The area still has a general Gatlinburg-y quality, with a zoo, a safari park, caverns and a dinosaur attraction, none of which we had time to visit and none of which were on the main trail. The Virginia state park service actually had to remove a foam replica of Stonehenge from the land it now manages.

Instead of silly replicas of English landmarks or exotic animals, the park’s trail, after passing the arch instead goes along a stream before ending at a waterfall, passing some historical and nature related displays, including a saltpeter cave. As it was summer, we could see butterflies fluttering near the stream.

The spectacle-for-tourists heritage of the area though is still charmingly present. Signs told us of a light show called the “Drama of Creation” performed after dark and dating back to the time of Calvin Coolidge. The signs claimed the presentation isn’t affiliated with the State Park, which makes sense as it uses text from the book of Genesis and might be interpreted as going against separation of church and state.

But I for one can appreciate the grandeur of creation just fine with the natural evening light. While we did have to leave to head back to Tennessee, it was hard to leave.

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A Day at Bald Mountain


View from Bald Mountain
Mount Lafayette, as seen from Bald Mountain.

Bald Mountain’s loop trail at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, isn’t long, at just 1.5 miles, some of which you don’t even have to do. The hike can just be done as an even shorter up and return route, which is what we did. But don’t let that fool you into thinking everyone will feel like doing it.

Visitors will find themselves scrambling up rocks for a short distance before reaching the summit and even Yvonne, shown above, who’s been with me on quite a few trails by this point, didn’t feel like making it all the way up the rocks. I left her behind and kept going. To me rock scrambling is part of the fun and takes me back to my time scrambling on rocks as a child. But I can see why not everyone might enjoy it.

Earlier that day we returned to Artist’s Bluff, the focus of a previous trip to the area and the other side of the fork that leads to Bald Mountain.

Which of the two vistas of the notch below and mountains above you prefer depends on what your preferences are in terms of what you like to see. Artist’s Bluff gives you a clearer view of Interstate 93, with its seemingly Hot Wheels style trucks and cars giving a good scale for the grandeur around it. Also from there, you get a better view of Echo Lake Beach and its kayakers.

But from Bald Mountain, the Interstate is less intrusive, as shown in the view above, although you’ve got a much wider view of Cannon Mountain’s ski slopes, which lets you know you’re still in civilization of sorts. Also more visible from Bald Mountain are some hazy mountains off in the other direction.

If going up Bald Mountain, you’ll want to leave some time to sit and enjoy the view. Also if you don’t mind cramming more stuff into one day, leave some time for the rest of Franconia Notch. I’ve covered some other highlights in other posts, including the park as a whole the oddity that is the former Old Man of The Mountain site, and The Basin. Driving or walking through the notch area is a treat in itself, looking up at the exposed rock formations on various peaks.

Mount Pisgah Campground and Pisgah Inn


Above is our tent. The tent I accidentally hit Dad a few times in my sleep during my time writing the book Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son nature adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail, although he said it was only twice.

My better half or “frequent hiking companion” as I call her, Yvonne laughed the first time she entered it, on our camping trip at Mount Pisgah Campground. I must say that having her laugh at the idea of being crammed into such a small space was better than having her whining all night. She liked the tight space for the two of us, for obvious reasons, however.

We had it to ourselves, even though my Mom Judy Roitman and my Dad Larry Pounds had another tent and my sister Jessie Pounds and her boyfriend Allen had yet another. Jessie was the one who suffered, due to a failing air mattress and no sleeping bag. Somehow she slept.

We had arrived after nightfall and after dinner, and after getting lost for a few hours with me not recognizing my parents’ new SUV and going around the loop a few times, with just a few hastily picked up now cold leftover McDonalds fries to eat by the fire. The mountaintop air felt freezing cold to my summer-adjusted Tennessee skin. But Yvonne was taken in immediately by the flames of a fire my parents had started.

“I want to stay a bit longer. I don’t get to do this stuff often,” Yvonne said. And so we started the first night of our weekend-long trip.

***

Mount Pisgah Campground is, for me, an ideal spot as car camping sites go. While the site had plenty of water pumps and restrooms, it still, in spite of by no means being back country at all, gained many points for its natural beauty. The area, due to its high elevation, had an explosion of mountain laurels, purple rhododendrons and azaleas, many of them right at the campsite or near the road immediately to it. These thick bush clusters are called Hells, for obvious reasons due to the difficulty of getting out of one. But to me it was heaven. Red squirrels, instead of the grey ones common below played around us.

Just outside the campsite, out on the road, we could see an array of stars away from light pollution. The campsite, or at least the part of it we were in may not be the best for that, given its lack of open space except on the road, but the various “hell” thickets do provide some privacy between campsites that a campground in more open space would lack.

The area also boasts nearby trails, which will be the subject of two future posts, gave us a chance to see even more of this natural beauty.

The shower only had one stall, leading to quite a wait. But after sitting for a while surrounded by all of the dark thickets near the stoop of the restroom was actually exactly the experience I needed, even if it annoyed the others.

***

Apart from the trails, just exploring the campground and nearby area is fun in its own right and not just for the hells and the stream. Yvonne and I, apart from the rest of the family, did some exploring on our own, walking just outside the campground and along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Pisgah Inn.

Throughout our trip, no one else felt like showering, as there was only one shower per gender at the campsite and a long line for each. But then I realized it was not a problem to wait outside beneath the stars, looking out into now dark rhododendron thickets, even if I was just waiting for a shower.

***

The Pisgah Inn is a place we didn’t stay with an fine-dining excellent restaurant we didn’t eat at, a craft and gift shop, featuring exquisite gifts we did not buy, and a country store at which Yvonne and I bought a single loaf of white bread before crashing on the rocking chairs. So why do I bring it up?

Observation deck at Pisgah Inn
This is the observation deck at the Mount Pisgah Inn, with the gift shop and restaurant behind it.

The main draw of Pisgah Inn, as far as I’m concerned, is the one thing we did experience fully: a deck from which you can peer out at the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the detailed green-tree carpeted closer hills to the further bluer ones.

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A view from Pisgah Inn observation deck.
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Yet another view from the Pisgah Inn area.

This is what draws people up here. And we would see the mountains from even more angles as the trip went on.

 

Red Eft at Frozen Head



Little red efts were crawling the wet forest floor at Frozen Head State Park yesterday. They’re poisonous to eat but generally won’t bite. They live on the land but they’ve just left the water and will return again.
They’re really just another phase of newts, a flashy youthful stage in which they roam the land.

As I point out in my book they never know their parents, not even as babies.

This was in contrast to me, at age 31, living on my own but still enjoying some time with my parents on a hike at Frozen Head, joined admittedly by 21 people and two other naturalists. Dad, a plant ecologist by degree entertained the crowd by naming and providing facts about the natural world around us, such as the eft and the iris shown below. While at the time our book describes, I wanted to break free of Dad, I realize now, just how good I have it hiking with a Dad who knows so much.

Trillium time in Tennessee!


IMG_20190413_111039427_BURST000_COVER_TOP.jpgFrozen Head State Park was alive yesterday with trilliums. They come in different colors: red, yellow, pink. Often, according to my Dad, Dr. Larry Pounds, a plant ecologist, they cross with each other. Ants pollinate them.
They’re easy to remember because tri means three as in tricycle. They have three big green brachts and three colorful sepals. Dad led a group of nine people that day while two other groups left with other plant experts led others a total with 21 people showing up.

My Dad and co-author of “Wildly Strolling Along” will lead many more hikes as the spring goes on letting you know more about all the colorful blooming things of East Tennessee. And I look forward to joining him.

Great Smoky Mountains: Laurel Falls Trail


I used to know a girlfriend who would panic at the possibility of crossing streams, or climbing over rocks in a way that might lead to broken bones.

She’s not the Yvonne Rogers I took with me to Laurel Falls last March.

We were sitting down below the part of the falls most people see, a bit off the main trail, but still with all the crowds above us.

Yvonne climbed over a rock, held on to a falling tree and grabbed a bottle that had fallen, held in an eddy.

“I didn’t really like being there all that much,” Yvonne tells me now. She still says she doesn’t like being in danger. But that bottle bothered her.

“Here, catch!” she shouted.

And then it tumbled down further. But, thankfully, it landed somewhere more convenient. She climbed down and grabbed it, later shoving it in my backpack.

Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of many with that name in Tennessee, comes crashing down before a bridge crosses, then it crashes down further.

The path to it is paved, passing mountain views and lichen decorated-rock formations. Orange beetles gathered on them.
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The falls is, for Tennessee, very crowded. The crowds are often people of many different ages, races and even languages and to me anyway, part of the place’s charm.

Still, seekers of solitude should keep walking. At least last March, once Yvonne and I passed the falls and climbed up on the dirt trail beyond it, we were alone.
The trail continues into old growth forest full of tall wide trees untouched by any recent ax.

Also near the falls, look out for salamanders. We saw one, briefly. It was brownish and probably a dusky, meaning as stated in my book, I should probably give up on finding the precise species.

Great Smoky Mountains: Cucumber Gap Loop.


A Smokies gallery of icicles
A smokies gallery of icicles.

As winter continues, I look back at the many-icicle strewn hikes I’ve taken through evergreen rhododendrons in the Great Smoky Mountains. Icicles are a glorious part of winter in the Smokies. Ice is rare here in Tennessee, but that makes its formations, in places where water drips over rocks, more special.

Smokies Iciciles
Icicles form on water dripping over rocks.

Here is my story on Cucumber Gap Loop in the Elkmont Area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nearly three years ago, in 2017. As usual, the News Sentinel can only scratch the surface of the pictures I took for the story. Here are some more views of the area.

First, we started out in Elkmont, which was at the time full of old abandoned vacation homes, no longer open, but one of the places where people first contemplated the park that would surround them.  I have not returned since 2017 and don’t know how many are still standing, but here they are, abandoned. It’s not the most popular set of cabins for photos, but indeed an out of towner “discovering” the town made headlines at Huffington Post to which a Knoxville TV station responded “We didn’t know it was missing.” To be fair, the word “discover” has multiple meanings. I continue to discover new things here in Tennessee and the Smokies.

img_8985 elkmont cabin

Beyond Elkmont is the natural charm of the Cucumber Gap Loop, with small, but beautiful waterfalls and the “sights and sound” of streams. Be warned you’ll have to cross one of them, but if you’re careful, even in the winter, everything should be all right. Overall, it was a quiet place to spend a winter day in the Smokies. Here’s a slideshow of some highlights, but you should go out and enjoy the route for yourself.

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