Here is some good advice. If a rare photo opportunity becomes available, take it. In fact, jump all over it. This past week, most of the eastern US suffered through the frigid, bone chilling effects of what has become known as the 2014 Polar Vortex. This rare event occurs when part of the extreme cold air circulating around the North Pole breaks off and heads south and east via strong jet stream winds. The end result is some of the coldest air in at least 20 years. Just 5 days ago in the small town of Elk Park, NC, the location of Elk River Falls, the temperature dipped to -14 degrees. The entire area was sitting between -10 and -14, just amazingly cold temperatures for this far south. Pictures of frozen waterfalls began to appear all over the social media scene. Unfortunately for me, work would not allow me to break away for a short while.
It is now the middle of October, and I am in the mountains to see some color. Leaving the triad on US 421, it is painfully obvious that many others have this same idea. Once we got to Boone, it seemed everyone kind of dispersed and went their own way. I wanted to visit the Roan Mountain area, so I chose a route that used US 421 to Boone and then US 321 to cross into Tennessee and then to Hampton. Between Boone and Hampton, are 3 fine waterfalls that I know of: Trash Can Falls on the NC side, Compression Falls off of Poga Rd, and finally Laurel Falls in the Hampton area. The first stop is Trash Can Falls. This one is very easy to miss, as there are no signs. As US 321 runs north with the Watauga river to it’s right, there is a large pull off to the right. At the far north end of the pull-out is a small path that begins on the other side of the highway. This leads you maybe 1/10 of a mile just up a small creek and gorge to the waterfall and pool known as Trash Can Falls. Trashy name, nice waterfall, and a local favorite swimming hole in the summer.
After this short pit stop, the road twists and turns into Tennessee. Not far into the state, you will cross the Elk River and Poga Rd. I did not visit it on this day, but a few miles up Poga, is a barn that you park at to see Compression Falls. This is one of my favorites, but a beast to get to, even though it is only 0.7 miles. The descent down the river bank and gorge is unmatched as far as difficulty. More people get injured at this one than any others in the area. Here is a shot from a previous trip.
Anyway, the next thing you will notice is the beautiful Watauga Lake, fed by the Elk and Watauga Rivers. With the colors at their peaks, it was a pretty drive along the lake. Once past the Lake, the Hampton area is soon up. As you pull into Hampton, there is a pull off and parking area for Laurel Falls. Drive right on pas it. There is a shorter, flatter, alternate way. About 1/4 past this, is Dennis Cove Rd, a narrow, newly paved road. Take this left, it will twist and climb about 4 miles to the Appalachian Trail Crossing. This is the parking area. The trailhead for the waterfall starts here. Just follow the white rectangular blazed AT about 1.3 miles, right to the waterfall. The first mile or so is about as flat as a mountain trail can be. I later learned that this used to be a railroad track, kind of explains the flatness. After crossing a neat footbridge, the trail winds a short ways through some rock passages and then the sign….
From here, the AT makes a long descent down into the gorge. The trail is largely rock steps, but big ones. It is a pain to get down and some good huffing and puffing back out. Once down there, you are at one of Eastern Tennesse’s better waterfalls, Laurel Falls, 55 feet high.
If you look close enough, you can see 3 people who were unwisely playing around on the top. This is how people fall and get seriously injured or worse, die. The water was fairly low on this day and the whole gorge was in shade. Here is a shot from my last trip here when the water was significantly higher..
It was beautiful on both days, I would say go early for better lighting and preferably after recent rain. After the tough climb out, it was a nice flat walk back and off to Roan Mountain we went, only to learn that Roan High Bluff closed on October 1, and we did not have the time to make the long hike. That is how it goes sometimes, so we headed back into NC and caught a few shots of Grandfather Mountain before heading home.
Roan Mountain Rhododendrons as seen from the well placed deck in the midst of the famous “Gardens”
It is mid June now and doing what has become an annual tradition, we are off to Roan Mountain to view the Rhododendron Gardens at their peak. Roan Mountain is beautiful any time of year, but there is something extra special in June, a color show that can only be rivaled by the brightest colors in fall. The two best places to see this vibrant color show, are on either side of Carver’s gap. Carvers gap is a pass that sits right on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. The mountains rise to over 6000 feet on either side, and the Appalachian Trail crosses the highway at this spot. One side follows the Appalachian Trail, up and along the balds. This in my opinion is where the color show is at its finest. The normal hike is to Grassy Ridge and back which takes you up and over Round Bald and Jane Bald before reaching Grassy Ridge. Here, the trees are sparse, the grass is roughly ankle to knee high blowing in the breezes. The rest of the area is covered by blooming Rhododendrons, Flame Azaleas, and fields of smaller yellow flowers. Combine this with awesome mountain views of NC on one side and Tn on the other, along with very good views of Mount Mitchell, Table Rock, Hawksbill, and Grandfather Mountain from Grassy Ridge, you have the makings of a memorable 5 mile hike. Just be prepared for several up and downs, strong winds, much cooler temps than the valley and frequent fog.
From Carver’s Gap, the other direction leads up to the Rhododendron Gardens, the site of the historic Cloudland Hotel that used to sit in both states, and one of my favorite places on planet earth, Roan High Bluff. This bluff at over 6000 feet is not a part of the Rhododendron color show, but the view from the perfectly placed and well built platform is absolutely second to none. It is a must see if nothing else. The Gardens are what the fuss is all about for most people. Here the accessibility is much better for all people, restrooms are provided, along with a very well layed out paved path winding through one of the largest, most colorful thicket of Rhododendron anywhere. There is an overlook with a beautiful large deck that oversees many, many Rhododendrons with Table Rock & Hawksbill to the left, and a grand view of Mount Mitchell on the right. This area tends to be more crowded , as it should be, so come here with your imagination, camera equipment, and your patience! At the peak of Roan Mountain at over 6200 feet, the Appalachian trail crosses right over it and also shows the remains of the old Cloudland Hotel that was prominent around the turn of 1900. This hotel sat on the state line and old stories say that a sheriff used to sit in the NC side where drinking was illegal, and wait for people on the Tennessee side that were drinking to cross the room into the NC side and arrest them. That must have been crazy. Now all that is left is part of the original foundation. I will let the photos do the rest of the talking for this blog entry. Hope you enjoy!
I had the chance to visit Clingman’s Dome twice this Memorial Day Weekend. On Saturday, with sunshine all through the area, I was disappointed to find the 6643 feet elevated Clingman’s Dome socked in with clouds and fog. Luckily I had one more chance to check it out on Memorial day, only to find some very beautiful, blue skies. The views up here are 360, and incredible. The lookout tower is very cool, an almost spaceship looking tower that stands 45 feet high. Now I can see why this is the top attraction in the Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail to the dome is a half mile one way, paved and fairly steep. The reward is certainly worth it!! Plan for cooler weather as temps on both days were in the mid 60’s on top, while the close by but much lower Pigeon Forge was baking in the low 90’s. The cool air was very refreshing!!
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, and in Tennessee. It is third in the eastern US, only behind nearby Mt Mitchell, and Mt Craig, both in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. All three peaks are in the 6600 feet range.
I was blessed this weekend at this location!! I saw my first black bear in the wild, as a mother and two cubs were about 20 feet below the trail in some tall brush. I have hiked actively for 4 years and never seen one. It was a special moment and one that will make Clingman’s Dome a special place to be forever.
Clingman’s Dome is also right along the Appalachian Trail and is the starting point for the Mountains To Sea Trail! The road to the trailhead is the 7 mile Clingman’s Dome Rd off of US 441. It is closed from Dec 1 – March 31, while Clingman’s Dome is open year round. This means if you want to see this beauty if February, count on a much longer and surely a steep hike!
Part of my girlfriend’s Christmas gift this season was a two night stay in the cabins at Roan Mountain in March. We both love this park and area. I was super excited and have been heavily anticipating this weekend for nearly 3 months now. What I did not realize at the time was that it was the first weekend of March Madness, The Big Dance. Being an avid NCAA basketball fan, it was tough to take a trip to a land of enchantment, with no connection to the outside world, on this weekend, knowing that my team UNC was playing its first two games in its bracket just 26 miles from my home. It was quite a test for my character….
Thankfully, full 4g connection was available about 5 miles down into the Roan Mountain valley. Kristin, who has become quite the UNC fan herself allowed me to make several trips down to keep up to date. I can tell she has become quite a fan herself ….. as news of Duke’s 1st round loss was almost as pleasing to her as it was to me….
Anyway, Roan Mountain is probably best known for the beautiful Rhododendrons and Flame Azaleas that light up the mountain every June. There is a festival each summer just for this very thing. It is also one of the tallest peaks around, towering over 6200 feet, just a few hundred feet short of its big brother to the south Mount Mitchell. It has Roan High Bluff which is arguably the finest scenic overlook in the Appalachian Mountains, and Miller Homestead: a very well maintained farm from the 1800’s. If you want to know how people survived up here back then, take a tour of this during the season. Unfortunately both of these attractions were shut down due to it being March, even though the temperatures soared into the 70’s each day.
Aside from the Rhododendrons, the other big draw has to be Carver’s Gap and the Balds of Roan Mountain. This area was open for hiking. Carver’s Gap is one of the low points along the ridge and is right on the North Carolina/Tennessee state line. The Appalachian Trail runs right accross hwy 143 here. One direction it leads up to the top of the mountain with spur trails to the historical site of the old Cloudland Hotel, and Roan High Bluff. If you wish to see Roan High Bluff, the AT is how one must get there until April I am guessing. The other direction follows the AT to Balds named Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge. This is some spectacular hiking with miles of 360 views, one side being the Tennessee mountains, the other side being the NC mountains. It is beautiful any time of the year, but it seems to peak in June, when the mountain is exploding with color. The elevation up here is just above or below the 6000 feet mark, so plan for cooler weather up here and conditions that can change in a hurry!
As you drive through Roan Mountain, and pretty much anywhere along Hwy 143 and then 19E from Roan Mountain to Elizabethton, you will find yourself along side the Doe River. I wished I had kept count of how many times we crossed it, it would have been quite a number. The stream’s headwaters have to be somewhere up on Roan Mountain. As it flows below the cabins, it is a beautiful stream, full of life and swift currents the whole way it seems. Hiking the trails and driving the park, the chances to become one with this river are plenty. It is a state stocked trout stream, so expect plenty of fishermen standing knee deep in the rapids as you drive by.
The cabins situated in Roan Mountain were a real treat to stay in. 20 cabins are nestled in the woods just up the hill, but still within an earshot of the Doe River. They are placed perfectly. They seem to be right in the middle of the Balds and the town way below in the valley. They have a very wilderness feel to them, rooms were very nice, kitchen and bathrooms were quite nice as well. The large wood burning stove and the supplied wood instantly made me wish for colder weather. With temps in the 60’s in the evening, we spent our time on the porch with the supplied rocking chairs. The beds come with linens, the kitchen was full with range, refrigerator, pots pans, plates, and coffee maker. It exceeded my expectations in every way. I will overlook the 1980’s hotel/office furniture it had in the living room. Close to the cabins, a pack of 10 deer liked to hang out. We saw them 2 of the 3 days there
What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon in February. The winds were light, temps about 50, sunshine was bright, water levels were up and the trails were barely dotted with hikers. There were 2 spectacular waterfalls in this hike, one at the beginning, and one was the destination. Along the way, I crossed the Tennessee State Line along the Appalachian Trail for an added bonus. One hike, 2 waterfalls, 2 states, and the trail I would love to have the opportunity to hike from beginning to end some day, the Appalachian Trail. This was a fine day.
This day begins at Elk River Falls, a location that I have visited numerous times. The waterfall is only about 0.2 miles from the parking, so I usually visit here and hike somewhere else like Roan Mountain, or Grandfather Mountain. Thanks to the internet and some other hiking blogs like http://www.appalachiantreks.blogspot.com, and http://www.hikingbill.com, I became aware that additional hiking opportunities exist right where I was parked, at Elk River Falls. After walking down to the base of the falls and enjoying the scenery for a few minutes, the new hike began, to Jones Falls.
This journey leaves the Elk River Falls parking area on an old dirt road, that is currently gated off to traffic. The road is fairly easy hiking, going up and down a little. After leaving the river for a short while, it finds its way back to the river, where it crosses or fords it. Do NOT cross the river here. Instead, there will be a small open meadow here to the left of the road. At the right edge of this meadow, a faint trail picks up and runs along side the river. There will be some stakes marking this trail. On the other side of the river, it opens up quite a bit to some rolling pastures and meadows.
The river ford above and cool horseshoe shaped rapid on the Elk River below
After a short up close walk along the river, the Elk River makes a sharp right turn. It is here that you leave the river. The trail continues into the woods at this point and crosses a creek which I later learned was the Jones Branch. This is the only tricky creek crossing on the hike but it is fairly easy to make it across dry. After the creek, the trail goes up, somewhat steeply. It is fairly short though and after a few switch backs the trail ends at a junction with the Appalachian Trail. This is marked by the familiar white rectangular blazes painted on the trees throughout.
To reach the Jones Falls , make a left turn at the Junction and hike for about 0.6 mile. The trail this direction will be mostly uphill, but not terribly steep. Just after joining the AT, the trail crosses the state line and you are now in Tennessee. There are no markers that show this, but it is indicated on my Everytrail Google Maps. After some switchbacks, the trail begins to head into an area where the waterfall can be heard. If you look carefully, it can be seen to the left on the other side of the steep drop off. It is just after this that the AT continues to the right and a blue blazed trail with a sign for Jones falls takes over.
At this point, Jones Falls is just ahead. The sign says 1M, but it is more like 1/10 of a mile, not sure about that one. Once there, look up. This beauty is over 100 feet tall and on this day at least flowing pretty freely. With this being on a smaller creek, I can imagine this drying up to just trickles in the dryer summer months. Footing at this fall is tricky, be careful, and enjoy. This is the end of the hike and at this point, head back the way you came.