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.

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swimming at Piney River


Piney River Pocket Wilderness near Spring City, Tennessee has just a tiny number of trails and even fewer roads (the main one of which is closed now). But it is a glorious place for swimming holes. The clear, cool Cumberland water is delightful in a Tennessee summer, and unlike certain other places, it never gets crowded.

While there are swimming holes further back that are so obscure you can swim nude, you don’t even have to walk far from the parking lot to get in the water. Near the park’s picnic area there are a series of clear pools for splashing about in.

But even the beaten path in Piney River isn’t that beaten. Even on Labor Day, Yvonne and I just saw a few families visiting.

I’m no expert on fish. Fishing and/or ichthyology will probably be something for another episode. For now though I’ll just say that I love the fish in wild Tennessee pools as they’re among the few woodland creatures that actually enjoy a human presence.

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This was my first time visiting with Yvonne. When I visit with Dad, we usually go on the Cumberland Trail, as in our book, with any swimming as an afterthought.

With the Yvonne and me this time, the Cumberland Trail was an afterthought. We didn’t reach any of its more impressive scenery, but rather walked to a tiny rockhouse, kissed, contemplated our surroundings, looked at what appeared to be a whole community of centipedes under the same rock overhang and then headed back, not even getting as far as the first stream crossing the CTC website lists before jumping back in the water. Streams just call to Yvonne and me.

We have the paper company Bowater, founded by the Englishman Bowater to thank for the Pocket Wildernesses, now part of the state park system. His company created privately owned parks out of forests he did not want to use. Bowater area trails and features usually have a flair for the dramatic: tall bridges and long and steep flights of stairs.The Twin Rocks, with its steep stairs protected by a cage was one such feature, although it’s closed now and the trail to the rocks is poorly maintained.

Rattlesnake Mountain, New Hampshire


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Hiking with my Dad on a mountain really shows me the difference between the two of us.

Dad’s can walk all the way to the rocky summit of a mountain able too see for miles and miles but instead he narrows in on a tiny flower, examining it to get its precise name in English and Latin. I love hearing him give the name but instantly forget. It’s rock harlequin, by the way (Corydalis sempervivrens).

A mountaintop flower

Afraid of heights but curious about growing things, his bald head full of their names from falling apart books, he looks at a whole world of life others ignore, while Mom and I stare off into the distance, looking out at what everyone else comes for. But I do know, thanks to Dad, how to look for tiny blueberries on which I can snack.

I joined Mom and Dad on the hike up Rattlesnake Mountain in New Hampshire.

Rattlesnake Mountain is not tall or difficult to climb by the standards of New Hampshire peaks, but it is steep. The view from the top is typical Appalachian rolling hills covered in green trees rather than the more cliffy mountains at Franconia Notch. For some people the wind turbines visible on a nearby mountain may ruin the view, but for me they just make it distinctive. I consider it a good mountain if you’re in the area and want a short trip.

Artist’s Bluff, Franconia Notch State Park


IMG_20180718_192343271_HDR.jpgArtist’s Bluff, particularly the less than .5 miles just the bluff, is not that far a walk  but it has everything: grayish cliffs! Mountains of green trees! A bright blue lake! And that most scenic of things, an interstate!

I-93 from Artist's Bluff
I-93 from Artist’s Bluff, in the literal shadow of a much greater spectacle of mountains.

It’s another odd thing writing about hikes and National Parks. There are people like Bill Bryson in “A Walk in the Woods” who whine about being out in the woods too far away from any farms or villages — unlike in Europe — and want some human habitation for perspective. And then there’s people like Edward Abbey who demand that not a single car touch their perfect parks.

And then in the middle there’s me, an admirer of both writers, who just sits back and looks at that little shoelace of pavement I-93 with its hot wheels cars and trucks. They go by in the shadow of the mountains around them, dwarfed by the mountains that drew artists lugging their canvasses here almost a century ago. Neither they nor the ski slopes really steal from the area’s natural beauty that have brought people here for centuries.

Trail to Artist's Bluff
This is part of the actual trail.

Ladies in their frilly dresses climbed here. That’s at least what my guidebook told me, although imagining them on such a steep and rocky trail seems nonsensical. But even back then artists appreciated these views. Here’s a few comparisons of then and now.

Many people, people who are not trying to cram this hike in near sundown like I was, go on to Bald Mountain or stop at the bluff on their way down. Also, the nearby Echo Lake is a good way to cool off, again, if you’re visiting at a different time of day. For me though I have no regrets. Artist’s Bluff is a place to enjoy at your own pace.

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Chasing waterfalls at Frozen Head State Park


Falling water calls to us, but why? Or rather why does it call to me, specifically?

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A cascade after rain, crossing paths with Panther Branch Trail.

Yvonne stood there, commenting on the cascade. On the layers of rock. On how it reminded her of an artificial one that stood in an art museum.

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“It’s great hiking with an art critic,” I responded. At least she had the words to describe it.

I stood there recording her, unclear on what I could say. Waterfalls are wordless. Streams are wordless. Trees are wordless. The insides of flowers are wordless. Mountains are wordless.

And here I go prattling on about wordlessness using words. I go out into nature to escape the things I blather on about. And then come back, trying to put words to it, failing.

After rain and in cool enough weather, our route at Frozen Head State Park was a celebration of water as it crashed over rocks, fell from heights and muddied our shoes as we crossed streams in our way. People like waterfalls for their momentum, sound, movement, even small ones. The reason we find them objects of beauty varies, I suppose, but for me, it’s all about the constant movement. Stillness isn’t the goal for me in nature, even if it is for some others. Movement, sound, change, all these are. Wild yet steady. Explosive yet constant. Does it symbolize anything? Does it really need to?

So after all that stream of consciousness about streams, here’s some of the basics of where we were and what we did.

Our goal was seeing Emory Gap Falls and DeBoard Falls. The recent rain meant they would not be just trickles but places worth visiting, even if they aren’t among the area’s largest. Wanderlust gets the better of us and after many days of fussing around with unloading boxes at our new Oak Ridge apartment, we figured we needed an escape.

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Deboard Falls

 

Here is a map of Frozen Head State Park, so you can see all of its many routes.

Rather than take the short way, we took the long way, starting out at the Old Mac Trailhead and hiking up the North Old Mac Trail through a forest of leafless gray and brown bark, but with glimpses of the hills beyond us. The green of mountain laurels and the red of acorns splitting open stood out more. It was just the start of spring. Small white flowers had started to open and we saw more as we went along. Yes “small white flowers.” My “kickass botanist” father would be ashamed of me for writing that, but it’s better than getting them wrong, since he wasn’t with me.

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Dad later helped me by identifying this one as a blood root. That was my original guess anyway.

In general, the North Old Mac route has many bridge-less stream crossings after rain, crossing water that cascades down the hill. After passing a campsite, we headed down Panther Branch Trail which has even more of that, some of it a bit eroded as far as the trail went, so be careful, but enjoy. One of these cascades is the one above. It wasn’t even what people call a conventionally impressive waterfall. It was just water rolling over rocks for a great length. As a note, this cascade may not be as impressive on most days as it is after rain. It might not even be there at all in dry periods.

We then headed on the .5 mile Emory Gap Trail, toward Emory Gap Falls, which free falls from a rock ledge before continuing to fall in a stream over rocks. The area is a rocky neighborhood of boulders, outcrops and overhangs.

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Emory Gap Falls

After hiking back that .5 miles and hiking an additional .75 miles the trail reaches Deboard Falls, another waterfall which crashes down white from an overhanging ledge, this one appearing to have more water and even falling to a shallow pool. Stairs lead down to the bottom of this one.

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Deboard Falls., from another angle.

“You made it sound like this was barely more than a greenway! That there wasn’t much to see!” Yvonne said in mock-anger. True, I had said these falls were not as big as Bald River Falls in terms of sheer volume. But Bald River Falls in Cherokee, being right by a parking lot, can be pretty crowded. It doesn’t have the romance of being alone, kissing and holding the one you love while hearing the water crash down.

Please note: I do not guarantee hikers will be alone here. It may have just been the late time we were there. Don’t sue me if it’s crowded, please!

A much smaller waterfall, nameless and not on the park map greeted us before we finally made it back to the trail head. After crossing a bridge, we walked back along the road, taking the park road back to our car, passing tents, picnic areas and playgrounds and chatting about plans for future camping trips. The park, especially these playgrounds has a great nostalgia factor for me, even if the current playgrounds replaced older ones in their places. As a child we came here often. And I look forward to many more trips here.