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Springtime is here and that means it’s time for the blog to reawaken!  Charles and I look forward to hitting new trails and to sharing our experiences with you.

That said, I have sad news to share: we will be moving to Washington State this summer, so the number of posts we write will be limited and after our departure, the blog will become static.  (Unless we can figure out how to continue the blog once in Washington.)  We’re forlorn to leave the place we love so dearly, but also excited to start a new adventure in Washington, where we’ll be close to fantastic hiking terrain on the far eastern side of the state.

As always, many thanks to those of you who read the blog, who share your experiences with us, and who are dedicated to preserving the High Country for future generations of hikers.

Hibernation

As the English poet George Herbert said, “Every mile is two in winter.”  With winter just around the corner, that means it is time for our blog to enter its first season of hibernation.

While Charles and I do sometimes brave the elements for a winter hike, we are generally three-season hikers who prefer to spend the winter reading books and dreaming of spring trails.  That said, don’t let our brief dormancy deter you from exploring our site or from leaving your comments or suggestions.  We will still maintain the blog on a regular basis and will continue to update our Hiking the High Country facebook page.

So until spring arrives once again and reawakens both the woods and our writing, we wish you all a safe and happy winter!

When we shared our first experience on Three Top Mountain in July of this year, it was an unfortunately stormy day and we were chased off the summit by wind and lightening far too soon.  But in spite of the storm’s best efforts, we realized that it was a place worth returning to, especially in the fall when the autumn leaves begin their annual transformation that is so irresistibly beautiful.

As we have already shared our previous (and rather rainy) adventure on Three Top with you, the purpose of this post is not to swap trail-tales, but to instead share the autumnal views from the top.  Even though the lens of a camera can never capture what it’s truly like to experience fall in Appalachia, it can perhaps inspire you to lace up your boots and to go hunting for that perfect autumn trail.

(For information on hiking Three Top, please refer to our original post below.)

View toward Creston, NC; Mountain Ash in foreground

Eastern view from summit

Eastern view; Mountain Ash in foreground

At the top, you can follow this rock outcropping toward an "unofficial" (and dangerous) trail that leads to the outermost edges of the peak. I don't advise doing it, but know some that have!

Southern view from summit

View toward Elk Knob & Snake Mtn.

Soapwort (or Appalachian) Gentian found along trail during autumn months

Hike it:  For additional information on hiking Three Top, please visit our original blog post:  Three Top

Entry by Lori Beth

The following entry is by Jon Burr, a guest blogger living in Saxapahaw, NC.  Jon is an avid hiker, kayaker, writer and a former student at Appalachian State University, where he came to know and love the High Country.  He is currently a teacher at Elon University.  The following entry features his most recent adventure in Eno River State Park, which is part of the NC “low country.”

The high country destinations detailed on this site were once in my backyard and an important part of my everyday life. I hiked the same trails, swam in the same waters, and took in many of the same views. Several years ago, I had to leave the mountains (though, as they say, I never really left), and these familiar natural sites were replaced with the buzzing of city streets and the whirr of interstate traffic. I quickly became a stranger in an artificial land.

Adventuring outward, I soon discovered a few urban oases that might make high country travelers who have journeyed to the “lower country” think they have returned to the familiar hills of Appalachia. These places have become my home away from home.

One of my favorite “lower country” destinations (max. elevation of 730 ft.) is Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina. Between the park’s eastern and western halves, it is home to a combined 20+ miles of trails through forests and along the river’s banks.

On this occasion, our journey took us into the western section of the park via Cole Mill Rd. We parked at the picnic area and hiked on a spur towards the Cox Mountain Trail. After only a few minutes of walking, we came upon a familiar sight to those in the high country who have been to Grandfather Mountain—a suspension bridge!

Approaching suspension bridge from east

My childishly energetic jumping, bouncing, and running on the bridge made for a harrowing journey, and the dogs with us quickly became timid. Once I calmed my gait, we were able to cross. After walking for around 1/2 mile, we passed the Cox Mountain Trail and hiked towards a popular gathering spot within the park—Fews Ford. At this location, the river becomes shallow and many people and animals frolic in the cool waters.

Fews Ford looking east toward Buckquarter Creek Trail

After some swimming, we followed the Fanny’s Ford Trail along the western banks of the river (instead of the Buckquarter Creek Trail and Holden Mill Trail that span the eastern banks).  Much to our delight, we were soon rewarded with a wildlife sighting!

Turtles of the Eno

On this visit, we also saw many fish and frogs. Previous hikes have resulted in regular deer sightings and even an occasional fox. Showing the same childish spirit exhibited on the suspension bridge, I hopped into the waist-deep water (a chilly surprise!) to get a better photo. Instead of being rewarded with a photo-op, I emerged smelly, soaked, and covered with algae—and, alas, I had scared the turtles away. Eyes were rolled. We hiked on.

When water levels are up, the park is one of the most beautiful places in this part of North Carolina to canoe / kayak. We soon found out why. The many large rocks make for a technical paddle and some churning waters. This is a great spot to stop and enjoy the river and its rapids.

Looking north from rockface on Eno's banks

Taking advantage of the low water levels, we decided to cross the river and hike on the more popular Buckquarter Creek Trail because it hugs close to the river’s banks. Our crossing allowed us an encounter with another of the park’s many small rapids. This one had me wishing I’d brought my kayak!

Whitewater!

A short hike later, the Buckquarter Creek Trail leaves the banks of the river, dips into a dense, tranquil forest, and becomes the Holden Mill Trail.

Hiking south towards river on Holden Mill Trail

After a few miles of hiking through forests and along the riverbank, we looped around and returned to Fews Ford and, after another 1/2 mile or so, the parking lot. Another fun day in the “lower country” of Eno River State Park—a hat tip to my high country friends.

Hike it: Eno River State Park is a natural playground. Compared to the high country, none of the trails are terribly strenuous. Linking multiple trails together could easily result in an all-day adventure. Wear “water shoes” and swimming trunks because you are likely to get wet (and will probably have more fun if you do).

  • Length: 4.1 miles (Holden Mill Trail + Buckquarter Creek Trail)
  • Duration: 2-3 hrs.
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Hike Configuration: Loop
  • Blaze: Red (Buckquarter Creek Trail) and Yellow (Holden Mill Trail)
  • Condition: Rugged
  • Trailhead: Either parking lots at the park entrance at 6101 Cole Mill Rd.
  • Traffic: Moderate
  • Directions: 1.) From the high country, travel east on I-40 towards Durham. 2.) Merge onto I-85 North and take exit 170 for US 70 West. 3.) Turn right onto Pleasant Green Rd. and then left onto Cole Mill Rd. 4.) Cole Mill Rd. dead ends into the park.

Entry by guest blogger, Jon Burr

The Shortoff Trail on the south rim of the Linville Gorge begins just north of Lake James, the placid endpoint of the wild Linville River.

We ascended through brush and scrappy trees just recovering from the 2007 fire that swept across Shortoff Mountain.  While desolate, the landscape is still varied and interesting, and offers a great case study for the aftereffects of a forest fire.  Plenty of pines and a few hardy deciduous trees have broken through the scorched soil to stake their claims.  The trail itself is somewhat eroded, but easily divined.  In the hot, sandy soil, we saw many lizards and toads basking and looking for prey (or waiting to become prey).

Shortoff Mtn. Trail

The initial stages of the trail will give you great views of Lake James to the south; as you ascend you’ll begin to see glimpses of the gorge’s southern end.  It only takes about a mile and a half of fairly easy hiking to reach a point where you can look out to the jagged rock faces that make the Linville Gorge so unique.

View toward Lake James

View toward north end of Gorge (rock on right side is frequented by climbers)

Eventually, we came to a promontory that gave perfect views toward Table Rock and Hawksbill.  This trail offers a unique and seldom-seen perspective on the two great massifs of the Gorge. While the West rim has a dedicated road with trails descending into the gorge, the East rim offers a trail that mostly follows the ridgeline—this gives you the chance to see the gorge from an elevated position.

View north toward Table Rock & Hawksbill

View toward Table Rock

Northward view from trail

Hike it: Like every hike in the Linville Gorge, The Shortoff Mtn. Trail is not easy, but it is still quite accessible and well worth your time.  If you’re up for a multi-day adventure, this trail will eventually take you all the way to Table Rock.

  • Length: 4.4 miles
  • Duration: 3-4 hrs.
  • Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
  • Hike Configuration: There and back
  • Blaze: Mountains to Sea (white blaze) for first part; no blaze after that
  • Condition: Rugged
  • Trailhead: Small gravel parking area at end of Wolf Pit Rd.
  • Traffic: Light
  • Directions: 1.) From Boone, your best line is to take NC 105 to Linville, then turn onto NC 181 South. 2.) Once you’re down the mountain, look for Rose Creek Road to your right. 3.) Follow Rose Creek until it terminates at Fish Hatchery Road and take a right. 4.) This road will end at NC 126; take a right and follow 126 for about a mile until you see Wolf Pit Road on your right. 5.) Follow this road to its terminus at the trailhead.

From points south (Marion and Morganton), simply connect to NC 126 (if you’re coming from Marion, Wolf Pit Road will be on your left; from the east, you’ll find it on the right).

Additional Resources:  The Linville Gorge & Tips on Linville Gorge

Entry by Charles

Gragg Prong

Gragg Prong Falls is the perfect place to beat the hot weather that rolls in during the late summer months in the High Country. It’s also a family-friendly place that offers an array of outdoor activities from hiking to fishing to camping to swimming.

Even though I’ve lived and hiked in the NC High Country for years, I’ve admittedly never visited Gragg Prong Falls along Wilson’s Creek.  So I was stoked when my friend Maureen (affectionately called “Mo”) suggested that we spend our Friday afternoon hiking and swimming along the river.

After a bumpy ride along a gravel road, Mo and I arrive at the trailhead.  Our plans are simple: hike as long as we feel like it and swim when we get hot.  The trail is well-marked and relatively even; only the occasional river crossing gives us pause, and I bemoan the fact that I’m wearing sneakers instead of amphibious shoes.

Above: Mo crossing river along trail

After about thirty minutes of trail grubbing, we arrive at Gragg Prong Falls.  I’m immediately impressed–water pours over smooth bedrock and killer swimming holes dip in and out of the silver rock face.

Above: Gragg Prong Falls

Above: awesome swimming hole at top of falls

Above: swimming hole at bottom of falls; also a campsite

After a few hours of swimming, Mo and I continue down the trail in the hopes that we’ll find an even better swimming hole.  We hike for another mile or so and along the way spot Appalachian-style cascading falls; unfortunately they’re inaccessible and since time is running short, we head back to Gragg Prong.  By the time we return the crowds have simmered down and we spend the rest of our evening dipping in and out of rocky pools and lying like lizards in the warm summer sun.

Hike it:  The Wilson’s Creek Area rests far below the house-ridden hills of Blowing Rock.  It’s a popular area for visitors during the high season, so it’s best to visit on a weekday if at all possible.  There are a multitude of campsites, swimming holes, and hiking trails, but before creating your itinerary, it’s best to check out the Visitor’s Center or to buy a good map from a local outfitter.

  • Length: Gragg Prong is roughly 3/4 mile from trailhead
  • Duration: 30-40 minutes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Hike Configuration: there and back
  • Blaze: White Circle (Mountains to Sea blaze)
  • Condition: Excellent, well-maintained
  • Trailhead: Small gravel parking area at bridge
  • Traffic: Heavy during high season
  • Directions: Getting to the trailhead is easy.  If you’re headed south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, turn left onto Roseboro Road in Linville, shortly after Beacon Heights around mile post 305.2.  (If headed north, Roseboro Rd. will be on your right, just before Beacon Heights.)

Once on Roseboro, drive until you see a bridge; the parking area and trailhead will be on your right.  For a map of the area, please visit the “trailheads” tab at the top of our blog page.

Additional Resources:  NC Waterfalls, Wilson’s Creek Area & Hike WNC

Entry by Lori Beth

Three Top

Three Top Mountain is not a place often mentioned in guidebooks for understandable reasons—it’s completely segregated from the common tourist corridors, and even though its paths are well-trodden, its total isolation from humanity can be disconcerting to even seasoned hikers.

From the parking area (see directions below), you’ll have a two mile trek to the summit on a former ATV trail.  In practice, it feels like more than two miles, since you’re walking uphill the entire way.  Most of the trail is obvious, but at some intersections you’ll have to intuit the proper route.  Fortunately, we found this was easily accomplished so long as we kept heading uphill.

Lori Beth and I chose an unfortunately stormy day to hike and as a result, were completely alone on the trail.  Our solitude was welcome as we spotted wildflowers and bright orange lizards, but it became somewhat less welcome when we discovered a substantial bear paw print in the fresh mud. Solitude, however, was what we were looking for and with many a bear-cry (my wife affects this with a piercing “WHOOP!” that can be heard by every bear in a ten-mile radius), we trekked onward and upward.

Above: a comely Carolina Lily

Above: bright red lizard

Above: bear paw print along first part of trail

As you near the top, the trail becomes much thinner, but there is still a well-trodden path to follow.  The summit you reach offers incredible views—some of the best in the High Country.  Unfortunately, a storm was vectored directly toward us from the south, and we could spend only a few minutes at the top.

Above: view toward Creston

Above: view toward Elk Knob–which we stopped to hike on the way home so we could look back toward Three Top!

Hike it:  Three Top is a hike few folks know about.  This alone makes it well worth the visit as it’s isolated and the chances of you hiking alone are fairly good.  If you choose to go during the hunting season, do be sure to wear bright colors and remember that you’re on game lands.  If you visit Three Top during the winter months, an all-wheel drive vehicle is preferable as the road to the top is short, but dodgy.

  • Length: 2.0 miles
  • Duration: 2 hrs.
  • Difficulty: Strenuous due to elevation gain
  • Hike Configuration: up and down
  • Blaze: None
  • Condition: Former ATV trail, well-maintained
  • Trailhead: Small gravel parking area
  • Traffic: Minimal
  • Directions:

From Boone, you have two possible routes: Meat Camp road to Elk Knob, leading down to NC 88 (then turning right). The other (less curvy) option is to take US 421 to Trade, TN, then take TN 67 which becomes NC 88.

  • At Creston, take the aptly named Three Top Road on your right, cross the river on Eller Road, and continue straight on Hidden Valley Road.  You’ll drive through a subdivision which advertises that it’s “PRIVATE PROPERTY.”  However, Three Top Mountain and its environs are owned by the state of North Carolina as a game preserve, so fear not.
  • If you continue driving and following the NC Wildlife signs, they’ll point you in the right direction (the roads look rough, but my wife’s Camry made it there and back with no ill effects).

Additional Resources: SummitPost.org & Dan Weemhoff

Entry by Charles

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