Sunday, September 28, 2014

White House Cliffs Trail

The views from White House Rock Cliffs are phenomenal - especially this time of year when the leaves are beginning to change. But the hike to get there is grueling. The trail is being established (or perhaps, reestablished) and is not well marked or obvious in places. And while the first two-thirds of the hike is relatively easy, the last 1/3 is a calf-burner, straight up a mountain side.  I recommend going on a cool day and that you take some water along.  And because the trail isn't always immediately clear, study the map below to get a sense of its general trajectory as it circles around the mountain.

If you've been on I-26 heading from NC to TN, you may have seen the rugged cliffs off to the west within Rocky Fork, north of Flag Pond, TN, this is known as White House Cliffs.  The links below will show you this view.  It's not an especially long hike, just under 1.5 miles each way. But it's one of the harder hikes I've experienced in this area in terms of vertical climb in a short distance. Nothing is hand-over-hand, just a very steep trail. So be prepared for that!

iPhone panorama of the incredible views (click photo to enlarge)

Once on top, you can explore and climb down the from the steep, rocky pinnacle to the actual rock outcropping that is visible from the interstate. But from what I've read (again, see links below) this is very difficult and also dangerous to do.  But as the dog (and I) were worn out and in need of water, I took some shots from the summit and headed back down the mountain.

Directions: Take the Flag Pond exit off of I-26 (exit #50), at the stop sign turn left onto Higgins Creek Road. Drive ½ mile, til you reach Rt. 23, turn right and travel 2 ¼ mi. thru Flag Pond, then turn left on Rocky Fork Road. Take your time driving up this road, the creek offers amazing cascades and waterfalls. After ¾ mi. you will see a gravel pull-off to the left and a small parking area. Park here (out of the way of the gate) and follow the gravel lane into Rocky Fork on foot. I think of the trail to the cliffs as broken up into three distinct segments....
The main road within Rocky Fork
1. You'll follow the main road (photo left) into Rocky Fork for about 1/2 mile, past the Triple Falls and up and around the bend until you are almost to where the road forks. On your right you'll see a wooden stake with an orange flag tied to it (photo below left). This is the trail head to White House Cliffs Trail.

White House Cliffs Trail Head
2. This next segment follows a small creek bed, with the trail sometimes running along the stream, other times actually in the stream. So old shoes are helpful. In dryer months, this stream doesn't run. After a time it becomes clear this trail is actually part of an old logging road. It's fairly easy to follow the trail at this point and the elevation gain is gradual. Eventually, you'll reach a high point (saddle, gap) where the continuing logging road starts to descend. At this saddle, look to your right and you'll see the trail continues.

Can you see the trail? :)
3. This is where it gets steep. And the trail isn't always so clear. Occasionally you'll find a helpful orange or pink flag, but these are few and far between. Watch your footing and pay attention to where you're going. It's easy to get turned around. You will soon arrive at a very obvious survey marker (photo below), and the trail makes another sharp right hand turn. Pay attention to where you just came from, this is the only point at which I had a hard time figuring out where to go when coming back down the mountain. The trail now become (gasp) even steeper as it follows the ridge up to the top. Keep at it and your efforts will be rewarded with amazing panoramic views.  There are times near the top where the trail is a little unclear, but again, take your time and look things over. This will be helpful when coming back down!

Survey marker where trail takes sharp turn
Additional Descriptions and Resources:
Monkey's Mask (scroll down after clicking)
Far Outside the Wire

For a terrific map of the White House Cliffs Trail, click here.
For a helpful map giving an overview of the trails of Rocky Fork, click here.

The photo at the very top was my favorite from my  trip... and it's from my iPhone. So glad I carried up all my gear only to have the iPhone out-perform my Nikon.  Ugh. :P

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Osceola Island

Went for a walk around Osceola Island yesterday evening and took some photos with the new iPhone 6. It's amazing how far cell phone camera technology has come in the last 10 years. I think my first flip phone had a whopping 1.3 mega pixels - and the images weren't anything you'd ever print or do much of anything with. Today there are colleges offering iPhone photography courses.

Osceola Island is a terrific place to have a picnic and then explore. It's located a mile below South Holston Dam outside of Bristol, TN. A footbridge leads visitors to a 1.8 mile long gravel trail around the island (map here). On both sides of the island are the unique weir dams you see in the photos. Designed to aerate the river below, the waterfalls only flow when the dam is generating electricity. You can find out when they are generating by clicking here.

Here is a PDF map of the nearby area.

Because the dam generates electricity by pulling water from the bottom of South Holston Reservoir, the water in the river below the dam (called the tailwaters) is very cold. In fact, even on a hot summer day, the water temperature will only be in the mid-50s at midday. Perfect conditions for trout fishing.

Monday, September 15, 2014

veiled beauty

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.
--Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) English Romantic Poet.

Above: View from Grassy Ridge in the Roan Highlands.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

vibrant poser

The more ugly, older, more cantankerous, more ill and poorer I become, the more I try to make amends by making my colors more vibrant, more balanced and beaming.
--Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch Painter.

Above: An eastern newt, also known as a red eft. I found this little guy along the trail on Grassy Ridge, he struck a nice pose for me on this rock. :)

Monday, September 8, 2014

a moment of clarity

Keep your head clear. It doesn’t matter how bright the path is if your head is always cloudy. 

A shot of the the Appalachian Trail on Round Bald in the Roan Highlands. It was such a misty, foggy morning, but occasionally it would all clear away and bring a moment of clarity to the mountain. :)

Friday, September 5, 2014

wherever the trail may lead

It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.
--J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) English Author. 

 Above: The Appalachian Trail on Round Bald in the Roan Highlands.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Firescald Branch Falls

There's not much information out there for this one. Firescald Branch Falls is a series of cascades found in the Frog Level area of Dennis Cove in Carter County, TN. While it's a long drive to get there, the good news is that it's not much of a hike. However, you will encounter thick rhododendrons on the trail, which will make climbing up the falls a challenge (and a workout). But it's worth the effort. I see from the photos linked below that I stopped short of the their tier of waterfalls here, so I'll have to go back out. I went as far as I thought the trail went, but it appears there's one more cascade beyond what I saw.

Check out Wendell Dingus' nice images of these cascades. GPS info here

Directions: Drive up Dennis Cove Road to Frog Level. I have detailed directions and a map here. Once at the parking area for Frog Level, look to the left and you'll see a trail closely following the stream into the rhododendrons.  It is probably no more than 100 feet up the trail that you'll see the first cascade. Continue on, pushing through the rhododendron thickets, and you'll discover more beautiful scenes.  This is a fairly small stream, so you'll want to visit after a good rain.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Frog Level

Finally made my way to a remote area of Carter County, TN called Frog Level. It is out there! The people who probably know this area best are the fishermen who wade the many streams in search for brown and brook trout. But there are also many trails to be explored for those interested in hiking and camping.  Visiting for the first time, I had to go to the topo map to try to make sense of all the intersecting trails and streams. I've done my best in creating a basic overview map of all I've discovered in Dennis Cove for those venturing into this wilderness for the first time.

One of the meadows found at Frog Level
Most drive up the very steep and curvy Dennis Cove Road in order to hike to the spectacular Laurel Falls or to camp at Dennis Cove Campground, perhaps also visiting Upper and Lower Dennis Cove Falls. Fewer are aware of Coon Den Falls. And although I had always heard of Frog Level, I rarely came across people who had been there or found much information on the internet. Though it's remote, it's worth the trip -- and the good news is... you can drive within a 1/2 mile of it. :)

Laurel Fork after a rain
The naming or origin of Frog Level remains somewhat of a mystery to me. The area does have a number of creeks and smaller streams. And after a heavy rain (as on the day we went), you'll encounter bogs in the road/trail (wear an old pair of shoes). But Frog Level itself is a pleasant area of open meadow. I saw one reference online that a railroad spur once came through the area to haul timber. Another said these open meadows were where timber was stacked awaiting transport, and are now mowed and maintained by the forest service as a wildlife habitat. 

Small Pond found in Frog Level
Directions: From Rt. 67/321 in Hampton, TN, take Dennis Cove Road for 4.8 miles to the Dennis Cove Campground. From there it is another 1 3/4 miles (road eventually becomes gravel) to an unmarked forest service road to your right (gate should be open) that leads you to Frog Level. This narrow, gravel road is in surprisingly good shape, but I would still definitely recommend a high clearance vehicle for this trip. Although it's only 2.1 miles from the main road to the cul-de-sac parking area, it'll seem longer than that.  Park and you'll find where the road crosses the creek (it's now gated). (btw...If you take the trail to your left, up this small stream, you will quickly come to Firescald Falls).

The old road can be muddy!
Crossing the creek... You can try to rock hop, but you're going to end up getting wet eventually anyway, so you might as well just take the plunge. You'll cross three shallow creeks in rapid succession before coming to the first meadow. Continue on you'll immediately come to a larger meadow after crossing Laurel Fork -- in the far corner of this meadow is a small pond (pictured here).  Here you'll come to a fork with Lacy Trap heading southwest to eventually meet up with the AT in 3-4 miles, and Laurel Fork trail which will continue on to the southeast, eventually ending at Walnut Mountain Road.  Laurel Fork Trail actually runs all the way from Dennis Cove to Frog Level and then on to Walnut Mtn Road, for a total of 7.9 miles. It's just a beautiful area -- and a lot of fun to explore. See the Google Map for the satellite view of the meadows (note the AT is mislabeled).  More detailed trail map is here.

If you continue on a little further on the Laurel Fork Trail, you'll come to Upper Laurel Fork Falls and Campbell Falls. Mike Stillwell has written a nice description here.

With all the creek crossings, this is only recommended as a summertime hike!

I'm still learning about this area! If you have advice or suggestions, please leave a comment and let us know.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

let it shine

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
--Marianne Williamson (b.1952) author and lecturer.

Above: A break in the clouds above Watauga Lake lets in some light.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

our real journey

It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
--Wendell Berry (b.1934) Author

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Little Hump Mountain

When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows and look out upon the beautiful world, I thank God I am alive.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American writer and philosopher.

Here's the view from the top of Little Hump Mountain in the Roan Highlands. This beautiful grassy bald doesn't get nearly the visits that the other balds closer to Carvers Gap do.... which, is perhaps, its greatest allure. :) The day we visited we only saw two other people the entire time we were up on the mountain. It was a foggy, windy day and the 'feel' of the place was constantly changing -- alternating from brilliant sunshine to thick fog.  My edits to the top photo above are a bit over the top, but I wanted to convey the drama of being on this gorgeous summit. This expansive mountain-top meadow, filled with summer wildflowers, offers spectacular views in every direction. Little Hump Mountain is really a magical place.

Getting to this magic can be tough. This place is remote! You feel really isolated (in a good way) when you're standing on its 5440' summit. Of course, the AT through the Roan Highlands is wildly popular with section hikers, who often will be dropped off at Highway 19E near the TN/NC border, and then take two days to hike to Carvers Gap -- or if a longer section hike is desired, they hike until picked up at Uncle Johnny's Hostel next to the Nolichucky River in Erwin. (Read Hiking Bill's account of hiking from Carver's Gap to 19E). I've had many thru-hikers tell me that the section from Roan Mountain to Grayson Highlands in VA is their favorite section of the entire Appalachian Trail. The Roan Highlands are indeed spectacular.

See my post with directions to the Overmountain Shelter to see your options for getting here. To hike in from Carvers Gap or 19E is really too far and demanding for most day hikers. (Click here to read Hiking Bill's account of his one day, out-and-back 14.2 mile trek from 19E to Little Hump). We got there driving to the end of Roaring Creek Road on the NC side of the mountain. From there we hiked up to Yellow Mountain Gap (after peaking in on the Overmountain Shelter), turned right and headed north on the AT to Little Hump. It's a climb! Grueling at times - but always beautiful. Unfortunately we didn't make it all the way to Big Hump Mountain -- so that will have to be another day.  Click here for a topo Map of Little Hump and vicinity. The photo to the left was taken on our way back to Yellow Mountain Gap, if you click and enlarge it, look closely and you'll see the Overmountain Shelter in the distance.

Monday, August 4, 2014

twisting tree

Plants are the young of the world, vessels of health and vigor; but they grope ever upward towards consciousness; the trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment, rooted in the ground.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American Poet, Lecturer and Essayist.

Above: A twisting tree found on Hump Mountain in the Roan Highlands.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you. 
--Maori Proverb

Above: My friend, Peter, taking in the view from the Overmountain Shelter along the Appalachian Trail. Click here to check out Peter's photography.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Tweet Tweet

Here's another look at the new Tweetsie Trail, connecting Johnson City to Elizabethton, TN, set to open with an inaugural Walk/Run/Bike on Saturday, August 30, 2014 (Labor Day weekend). My first post describing the Tweetsie had images of the trail from the Milligan Depot to Elizabethton. The photos today are from the Johnson City end of the trail. It's still not completed, but it's almost there.

It's better than I ever imagined it would be -- I know it's going to get a lot of use. People are really going to love having a long flat, largely uninterrupted trail for biking, jogging and walking. I see lots of smiles and hear lots of "This is amazing" comments from the people I've passed on the trail. I'm impressed with the thoughtful planning and the quality of the work that has gone into this project. If you'd like to take part in the inaugural event, click the link above to sign up and register. Click here to like the Facebook Page.

The East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad was affectionately known as the Tweetsie for the shrill "Tweet, tweet" of its whistle.  The 66 mile, narrow-gauge line originally ran from Johnson City, through Elizabethton, Doe River Gorge, and Roan Mountain, ending over the state line at Cranberry, NC; it was eventually extended to Boone, NC.  Click here to see the the Tweesie in action in 1949! You can ride a train pulled by the last surviving coal fired locomotive used on the Tweetsie at a theme park located between Blowing Rock and Boone, NC, appropriately named "The Tweetsie Railroad."  Another place to experience the old railroad is at Doe River Gorge, a Christian Campground that provides its campers with a train ride out to Pardee Point, a narrow overlook of the Doe River with sheer rock walls rising hundreds of feet above the narrow passage. Fast forward this video to 5:30 to see that section of the old railroad line. Doe River Gorge typically has an open house each October where the public is invited to take a ride on the train.  Below is the curving, re-purposed (almost complete) bridge over University Parkway in Johnson City.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Overmountain Shelter

The view as you arrive at the Barn. 
There are more than 250 back-country shelters spread along the length of the 2,200 mile long Appalachian Trail. Many/most of these are little more than three-sided, rustic lean-tos, with sleeping platforms accommodating six hikers. Our area has two of the most beloved and unique shelters found along the trail: the Roan High Knob Shelter and the Overmountain Shelter, affectionately known as "The Barn." As AT shelters go, The Barn is palatial and luxurious. Sleeping 30, it has two stories, a large, enclosed loft as well as an open porch, and a nearby privy. Other amenities include picnic tables, two fire rings, a nearby water source, and incredible views.

The side view showing the open sleeping porch
The barn was built in the 1970s, not for use as a shelter, but for actual farming needs.  It was renovated in 1983 and made into a shelter by the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club. Click here to see loads of fun images of this unique shelter. For an interactive map of all AT shelters, click here, and then select shelters.

DIRECTIONS: There are many ways to get to there....

The sleeping loft
The Scenic Route: My favorite description of directions to the Barn was posted by CrumbSnatcher on "Start at Springer Mountain and take a right turn at mile marker #376.8 CANT MISS IT."

If you prefer starting a little closer...
The fantastic view from the Shelter
Starting at Carver's Gap
. The shelter is 5 miles north of Carver's Gap on Roan Mountain. Parking here and doing a round trip in one day is possible and would give you the thrilling experience of hiking the balds of Roan Highlands. Start early, pack a lunch and have a picnic at the Barn.  Note that the Barn is located 0.3 miles off of the AT. When you reach Yellow Mountain Gap, a sign will direct you down a blue-blazed side trail, at the bottom of this you'll reach a forest service road, turn right and you'll immediately see the shelter.

The view from the porch
Starting at 19E. The shelter is 8.7 miles south of the Highway 19E trailhead outside of the town of Roan Mountain, TN. This puts it out of reach of a one-day, out-and-back hike for most people. However, starting here would give you the opportunity to hike the balds on Hump Mountain and Little Hump Mountain. A popular approach to this impressive and popular section of the trail is to be dropped off at 19E and then picked up the next day at Carver's Gap (or vice-versa). On my visit to the Barn I met a group of hikers who were doing just that, planning to spend the night in the shelter. The Barn is a comfortable distance from 19E (although this section of the trail contains a grueling 2,000 foot climb!)... but the next day you can take your time enjoying the balds, and taking the side trail up Grassy Ridge. Here's an account of an overnight hike from 19E to Carver's Gap. Here's a video showing scenes from this hike.

Overmountain Trail at Yellow Mountain Gap
Via the Overmountain Victory Trail.  Yellow Mountain Gap is the intersection of the AT and the Overmountain Trail. This historic trail can be accessed on the Tennessee side of the mountain at Hampton Creek Cove outside of Roan Mountain, TN. Click here to read Hiking Bill's account of this hike. The trailhead on the NC side of the mountain is found near the parking area at the end of Roaring Creek Road (described below). The NC side of the trail does not appear to be maintained and may be best experienced in the winter months.

Forest Service Road leading to Overmountain Shelter
Driving There: The quick and easy way to visit the shelter is to drive there. Turn south on Rt. 19E at Cranberry, NC, drive 8.2 miles, turn right onto Roaring Creek Road. The street sign isn't there, but you'll see a sign for a Roaring Creek Church. You stay on this road for 4.7 miles to the end (the last mile is gravel - but in pretty good shape).  Park here and walk up the forest service road (pictured left) approx. 1 mile to the shelter.  Map.  Where to go from here? I suggest you climb up to Yellow Mountain Gap and then head north on the AT to Little Hump Mountain, a spectacular bald. A steep climb but well worth it!