Sandstone splendor-Cumberland Trail State Park near Fairfield Glade


Sunday May 31

You are a grain of sand.

350 million years ago a shallow sea tossed you around. But since then you’ve hardened into a part of a cliff that towers over the heads of humans. You sparkle when the light hits you, making you noticeable at times. There are thousands of grains like you, no millions, making patterns in the cliff and forming it, all smashed together. Spiders spin webs in front of you, catching insects. Water drips across you, loosening you. Soon you join other grains at the bottom of the cliff face, becoming like beach sand once again, this time far from the ocean. Ants crawl among you and your brethren. Antlions use you as part of a funnel to catch the ants. Moonshiners step on you, hiding beneath the cliff to avoid the authorities. A world towers over you, with you powerless. And yet you just wait for what it will throw at you next and what you’ll next become.

***

I’ve missed hiking the Cumberland Plateau. The lost world of sandstone cliffs tucked away in the woods behind towering evergreens isn’t exactly like other wild areas such as the Great Smoky Mountains. The plateau holds its own charm. And most importantly for some people now, plenty of it is so not well known that you can walk there and never run into a single other human except the ones you take with you.

There are many different parks and trails here, among them the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park. I wrote a book with my Dad “Wildly Strolling Along”on what the trail was like in 2012.

It’s an unfinished overnight trail from Chattanooga to Cumberland Gap. But volunteers are busy building other sections of it every day. After hearing about this recently completed section, I knew Yvonne and I had to hike it.

The entrance on Peavine Road is easily miss-able, a set of stone steps with no parking area. Directions to it are available here, although much of the other information on that website about the trail is out of date.

After climbing up the stone steps we found ourselves admiring wildflowers as we headed deeper into the forest.

The flowers are a highlight depending on when you visit. On our visit we saw the white flowers on mountain laurel and the bright orange flowers of Cumberland azaleas, among others. I hope to return during rhododendron season when rhododendron “hells” (yes that’s the word) will surround the streams.

The part of the trail we traveled crosses streams in several places with bridges that look new. At one such stream we sat down to eat.

Yet it was the cliffs which the trail goes through, underneath and on top of that really held my attention.

After walking through a narrow passage between rocks, the trail goes underneath cliffs.

Yvonne enjoyed them too through her own, odd filter, focusing in on little holes in the rock as the homes and businesses of a fairy civilization.

“This is where the fairies go to drink beer,” she said pointing to one such opening.

“This is where they have sex,” she said regarding another near flowers.

Even without fantasy creatures, these cliffs work as apartment buildings for spiders and wasps. Lichens, mosses, and even rhododendrons grow from them. You can see different colors– reds, tans and grays in the stone with the occasional sparkle. Sandstone is made of sand, as I explained above. It forms ledges and shelters.

What appear to be the ruins of an oven are beneath one bluff. Dad has said it was part of an abandoned moonshining (bootleg liquor) camp at one point, as seem to be common in various places around the plateau.

Sand covers the areas below the cliffs some areas, you can see the neat little dents in the that antlions use to funnel ants into their mouths.

We stopped at a crossroad with a wider trail, about halfway down the main trail. I hope to return soon.

Ozone Falls


Looking at Ozone Falls I followed a single drop of water or rather set of suds as it fell. Looking at it that way you see the sheer scope of the fall and the resistance from the air slowing its fall.

Doing that messes with how your mind interprets what you’re seeing so when you look out at the rocks you see them moving upward even though the cliff is solid.

Of course, the ice comes crashing down now at this time of the year, with big icicles cracking loudly as they hit the ground. That’s what’s in motion. And so are we. The humans. Depending on which side of the falls I’m on, I see their tiny figures, couples, families at the top or walking the curvy ledge behind the falls. But the solid cliffs and rock overhangs are solid, for now anyway.

It’s got no gift shop and no restroom even, especially striking given that I’m not the only one who felt like he had to pee after looking at that falls for long enough.

The area’s main claim to fame? A 1994 film that most people have forgotten by now called Jungle Book, no, not the Disney film with the jazz music nor the other later remake. This was an earlier remake that used the spot to film a man getting kicked in the groin.

The route down to the falls’ base while very short involves scrambling over rocks and may not feel like it e

But it seems to draw in decent crowds on a Saturday. It’s not hard to see why.

You can swim at Fort Dickerson Quarry!


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I remember back when the quarry was illegal for swimming. Nobody cared though. The area down below was full of college kids hanging out, dipping in the water and drinking beers and the cliffs drew in the odd cliff jumper ignoring every sign and grim reports of death from local media.

But now it’s different, kinda. I arrived at Fort Dickerson Park, famous for being the site of earthen Civil War earthworks. But the real attraction, beneath the shrubs that appeared golden in sunset light was the Augusta Quarry, known as Fort Dickerson Quarry by most people I know.

More and better established trails greet visitors to the park nowadays allowing visitors to climb down from this overlook to the pool itself. Fences with warning guard the cliffs from jumpers nowadays, but the deep quarry pool itself now has an official swimming area that visitors can enjoy, legally, though at their own risk. Before the city had discouraged swimming altogether. But now they’ve resigned to it being something people will do. And regardless, I will continue to do it.

I hope at some point to explore the other trails, but just wanted to let visitors know a bit more about all that’s happened at what they’re now calling Battlefield Loop.

Here are a few more related links:

A biological inventory of plants and animals.

The urban wilderness as a whole

The city’s official link.

Coverage by Knoxville Mercury

A runthrough of future plans

 

 

Fryingpan Trail, NC


Who am I, some kind of wimp? I have scaled other mountains, scrambled up other rocks, even climbed other metal towers. But this? Rickety-seeming, a little rusty a narrow path that any child crossing by causes a panicky heart attack from me. I’m terrified. Terrified of the view below me. Terrified of losing myself or worse, my phone, if I dare to take a photo.

The Fryingpan Trail's tower

I move slowly, letting others squeeze past me, feeling the breeze and what I perceive as the metal stairs giving a little bit with my steps. I’ve stood on mountain crags before and never felt like this. In fact, I laughed at my Dad for feeling this way. But somehow this old tower is different.

Who am I kidding? I sound like a wuss. And yet that’s just it. The fear keeps me in the moment. And when I quite being scared when the clouds of fear clear, when I’m standing out at the top, just below the structure of the fire tower itself, I see the place below me, completely focused due to the lingering adrenaline.

And what a view! Hazy mountains beyond, trees, with all their tiny needles and leaves, covering the mountains like wool. Hawks circling, cars driving down the tiny belt like road and parking lot buckles. The who thing a moment I am in, mindful, joyful even.

Blue Ridge Mountains as seen from The Fryingpan lookout tower

My mind tends to fly: movies, politics, social media. Yet somehow fear keeps me in place. So by the time I do feel safe to bring out my phone it feels like I know exactly what panoramas to take.

Climbing down, I feel like moving slowly, not out of fear, but out of not wanting that moment of revelation to leave me.

Perhaps this is just the way this planet, this life is for me. Appreciation coming only in the moments of terror and other arousal and even those I have to work for. Others are like this too. This is why roller coasters exist. This is one of the reasons why people pursue orgasms. This is why people watch horror films. This is why I express feeling in awe as feeling “small.”

Of course, letting the mind wander has its value too, however much Zen masters may deny it. Some people travel precisely for that reason: to allow their minds to wander and not have to be tied down to the obligations at home.

So yes, all that’s my emotional state and thoughts on my emotional state. But you might have come here, expecting a review of The Fryingpan Trail, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.

It’s not a walk through the forest as much as a walk on a wide non-drivable access road. For botanical experts like my dad this is a treasure trove of plants to look at, but it might not be for everyone.

Fryingpan Trail
These flowers are visible on the trail in June.

But the tower is worth the walk. In spite of being a bit scary for some people, it is still one of the best places to see the world below and completely safe.

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.

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.

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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Fall color on Cateract Falls Trail, Great Smokey Mountains


Upward view on Cateract Falls Trail

People get so focused on straight in front of them or below to avoid tripping on roots that they often forget to look up, especially if it’s not at a mountain.

This weekend is a crowded time at the park. But I encourage you to get out and enjoy the colors and if you enjoy them, the crowds. I again did not have time for a long walk, but rather revisited a short one.

Cateract Falls
Cateract Falls

Cateract Falls edited

As I have written before, the Cateract Falls Trail is an easy, flat hike close to the Sugarland Visitors Center.

 

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains


Ah, Clingman’s Dome, highest point in Tennessee! Climb the tower’s spiraling path above the spruce trees, up to the deck where you can see an amazing view of …

Foggy view from Clingman's dome
… nothing.

Clingman's Dome in the fog
This picture was in color. I swear.

But then, just as we were about to leave a wind whooshed away those clouds giving us this:

 

Sunset at Clingman's Dome, Great Smokey Mountains
This speaks for itself.

 

Clingman’s Dome is a rather odd place. It’s at the crossroads of the Appalachian Trail and a rather uphill but paved path leading up from an overcrowded parking lot. A spiraling path leads to the top of a viewing tower.

Indeed between its benches, its gift shop with cute stuffed foxes, bears and forest critters, and its interpretive signs it’s hard to think of a place less like the wild, narrow and uninterpreted AT.

The signs are unique in that they are bilingual, in English and Cherokee, using the syllable alphabet Sequoyah developed. As they explain the Cherokee found the spot to be a sacred place. Indeed the spot emphasizes the multiple traditions: scientific, Biblical and Cherokee describing the formation of the mountains.

The Cherokee tradition, as I explain in my book Wildly Strolling Along is as follows: a giant vulture shaped the land into mountains and valleys by accident through the force of his wings, feeling very sorry afterward. There’s a certain beauty to that — unintelligent design.