Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mountain Biking Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

Oak Mountain State Park is really what put Alabama on the map in the way of demanding singletrack mountain biking. Maintained by the state park and the BUMP Club, the trails offer great biking from novice to expert.

Loving this singletrack!!
Day: 25

With all due respect to Talladega, there just ain't nuttin like the speed and challenge of the trails at Oak Mountain State Park. This is another place that I nearly missed. Now I know that I've been going on and on about all the singletracks I've been riding lately but this one was one of the most formidable rides I've had yet. It isn't surprising to find that it received a prestigious nod from the International Mountain Bike Association as an Epic Ride. There are perhaps only 5 dozen trails/areas in the world with such an honor.

Dupont State Forest was my last great ride out in North Carolina. While those trails were mostly cross country style riding with mild to moderate, Oak Mountain was mostly moderate to very difficult. Some trails seemed positively impossible until you see a great rider cruise right up and down. Clearly I have a long way to go.

The trail as it crests the mountain
Trail maps can be purchased for 50 cents at the trailhead. It would be wise to have one with you as you wind through the web of trails. Note that biking trails are shared with hikers but some trails are reserved only for hikers and horses. If you're caught with a mountain bike on those trails, you will be fined. At any rate, there's plenty of good trails for anyone so it doesn't matter. (Print this map or bring one with you)

There's a North Trailhead and a South Trailhead and a great option for a loop bike which essentially includes everything. I stuck to mostly the southern routes and had a mix of tough rides and nice flow-y easy stuff. Starting at the South Trailhead, I worked my way up Mt Toad's Wild Ride. This was rolly but with little real elevation gain and loss. It was a perfect warm up. From there it was a long climb up Jekyll and Hyde. This ride is appropriately named- the lower section is the Jekyll; lots of elevation change but the ride is pretty smooth and do-able. The middle and upper part of the trail is loose, rocky and with lots of roots. It is a very difficult section that's probably better ridden downhill than up. It was a "hike a bike" for me.
There aren't many views on the trail but that won't matter when trying to make it down Jekyll and Hyde
At the top, I took a long breather and watched some better bikers cruise right down the trail that kicked my ass. I need a better bike...

Continuing up the BUMP Trail, Connector and West Ridge was similar to the latter trails but with less steepness. West Ridge actually gave me some tough trails that improved my riding. I found that the flatter but still technical rocky trails were enough of a challenge to help my riding without being a total "hike a bike". West Ridge can be continued on the Red Road to the North Trailhead. Getting back south involves some comparatively flatter trails with plenty of twists. I actually took the BUMP Trail down to Johnsons Mountain Trail- my best riding of the day.

Johnsons Mountain is a relative newcomer to the BUMP trails and it is well designed for more of a cross country style ride. It has some challenging turns and climbs but not quite as severe as Jekyll and Hyde, West Ridge and Boulder Ridge. Its a great ride to finish your day down at South Trailhead.

Clearly I've just scratched the surface of this well-developed and well managed mountain biking park. The BUMP Club seems to a fine local club of hardcore riders and weekend warriors interested in keeping Alabama as a destination for mountain bikers. I'm so glad I didn't skip out on this area.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Hiking and Sightseeing at Little River Canyon, Alabama

I don't know a lot about Alabama but I've known for a while that the Little River Canyon is essentially the Grand Canyon of the South. Cutting through the expansive Lookout Mountain, the Little River has all the falls and gorges of a canyon usually seen out west. It should not be missed when visiting the state.
The Grand Canyon of the South
Day: 25

Alabama is a particularly underrated adventure state. People tend to think it is flat and uninteresting and appeals more towards college football fans more than anything. Alabama is actually where the Appalachian Mountains first rise from the Atlantic Piedmont. The Cumberland Plateau also starts in northeastern Alabama. The Gulf Coast is, of course, a great place to be but this is more well known. It is likely that I'll probably do a coastal tour one of these days so I decided to stick in the mountains. My first stop after crossing the Georgia line was Little River Canyon.

The Little River Canyon National Recreation Area essentially serves as Alabama's National Park and is akin to Yosemite or Yellowstone as being the defining beautiful natural feature of a state. The Little River begins on Lookout Mountain whose summit is actually in Georgia. It flows across this relatively high plateau before cutting a massive gorge through the mountain and flowing onwards. This gorge does not compare in depth to say, Snake River Canyon of Kings Canyon but given the relative altitude of surrounding areas, I'd have to call this the Grand Canyon of the South.
The Little River Canyon is definitely grand!
Being managed by the National Park Service means that the area is immaculately well maintained. Activities are also numerous and I wonder why this is not a fully fledged National Park. Like many other canyons, there is a great rim drive which deserves driving even by hardcore adventurers. Overlooks occur every few miles and all serve as great lunch spots or places for milling about and enjoying scenery. For me, there were some good hikes and vistas but I would much prefer rock climbing or river running in the future. The lack of guidebooks and well established routes would beacon the avid climber looking for a good project...

Most people prefer starting from the north where the visitors center is and making their way south.  Little River Falls is the tallest and most photographed point in the park, for good reason. The overlook is very accessible from the highway and there are also numerous hiking trails and spur trails to get you down into the canyon. It was fun to scramble down to the river and get some pictures. I wouldn't do this during seasons of high water or rain...
Down in the bottom of the canyon

As you work your way down State Route 176, the overlooks tend to get better and better. The canyon deepens and takes some dog legs and sharp curves as if only to make for better photographs. Hiking trails are occasional but there are about 3 points where you can hike down to the river. My favorite of the hikes was the Eberhart Point Trail which is 1.5 miles, round trip. It is obviously steep but it leads to a perfect swimming hole which I indulged in on this hot September day.

Grace High Falls is the best waterfall in the park but it was not running today...
The area is littered with strange and wonderful sights
Overlooks everywhere!
It is about 800 feet deep in some sections
Swimming hole!

After spending about an hour at the bottom, swimming and chilling, I had to hike out and be on my way. The Little River National Recreation Area is an excellent place for day tripping and nearby many other sights in the Alabama highlands. My next destinations would be Mt Cheaha and Oak Mountain State Parks. I'm glad I was able to explore this underappreciated area.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hiking Cheaha Mountain State Park, Alabama's State High Point

My journey through the Appalachian Mountains somewhat ended with a hike of Mt Cheaha. This is the high point of Alabama and after this the Appalachians get shorter and shorter before becoming indistinguishable mounds across the Atlantic Plains. Although my trip isn't over, my mountain adventures ended for now.
Mt Cheaha and Cheaha Lake
Day: 24
It was a bit of a sad day for me. Although I had a week left of traveling, it was an end of an era. Most people don't know that the Appalachian Mountains stretch from Alabama all the way to coastal Quebec. They dip into the ocean briefly only to emerge in eastern Newfoundland. Speaking geologically, Greenland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Wales, Spain and Morocco all have traces of the Appalachians as well.  As for the continental Appalachians though, this would be it for me (for now). I've traveled all across the ancient mountain range from the Gaspe Peninsula to here and this is what made it a poignant and somewhat sad hike.

Unlike the pristine wilderness of the Gaspe Peninsula, Cheaha State Park is basically a resort destination. The mountain top is completely built up and serves as a campground with cabins and RV sites. It looked like a nice place to stay but I preferred hiking on the trails which left the main drives.
A beautiful sunset from near the summit
The summit itself has a historic observation tower and a museum. The tower itself actually looks like something out of a children's novel, oddly enough. From the top you can see most of the Alabama Appalachians. There are better views on the hiking trails, however.

Pulpit Rock and the Lake Trail are both easily done trails for anyone who's even remotely experienced in hiking. The latter has a pretty steep decent and ascent but it makes hiking the high point feel like more of an accomplishment. Pulpit Rock is a nice overlook. Mountain Biking Trails exist too although they are rough in most sections.
Overlook from Lake Trail with my silhouette on the overlook.
The Lake Trail runs for a steep mile down to Lake Cheaha below the mountain. If you just want a good view, this can be seen on the first 0.2 miles, pictured above. This cliffy section is popular for rock climbers and rappels and is the sight of most photography for the park. The hotel overlooks this area as well. If you're lucky enough to catch it at sunset, it will be one you don't forget.

The trail dips down below the cliffs and into the trees before coming right to the shore of Lake Cheaha. This lake forms a mirror for the cliffs of the upper region and is another popular place for photography. In the summer, it is a very popular place for swimming and small boating.
The quaint summit tower
Back up the Lake Trail I was able to catch that Alabama sunset. To the south, the ridgeline seemed to disappear into the lowlands and I contemplated all I'd traveled so far. Once I was an elitist west coaster who'd never climb a mountain less than 10,000 feet. How could something in the 2,000-4,000 foot range even be considered an adventure? Nearly 200 mountains and 4 years later, I've learned to appreciate this range for its rugged summits and wilderness. Most of my hiking and climbing has been concentrated in the New England summits but on this trip I've received a great taste of the central and southern Appalachians which offer a completely different experience. I haven't had the time to explore them as extensively as I have the northern ranges but this trip has made me well aware of what I need to come back for. I've found Alabama to be a very underrated and under appreciated destination for outdoor adventure.
Lake Cheaha
Oak Mountain State Park would be my next destination and I suppose that would be my last true Appalachian Mountain of the trip. Technically the Ozarks and the Ouachitas are also part of the range but we won't split hairs.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Hiking Ebright Azimuth, Delaware State High Point

A brief adventure on my trip through the Mid Atlantic was visiting the high point of Delaware. It is perhaps the only high point in a suburban neighborhood. I'm sure many people pass by this place on their way to work.
The Delaware High Point
Day: 7
Miles: 956

I'll start this whimsical little post out with an apology: I am sorry, Delaware. I'm the type of traveler who knows that there are probably many adventures to be had in The First State and I'm sorry that the only one I did was the high point. Please forgive me.

Seriously though, Delaware is more diverse than you might think. Wilmington is a nice city with probably much in common with my Portland, Maine. Newcastle is a cool college town. The northeastern hills hide some bucolic little farms, rivers and areas for hiking. The coast is another grand sight to see and Rehoboth Beach is a great beach town. Again, this entire trip has been just me making a larger list of things to come back for.

On this day, I did "hike" the high point of the First State which is known as Ebright Azimuth. It is a small hill of no concern to anyone but high pointers. It doesn't have the prominence to be considered a "real mountain" and it lies within a suburban neighborhood. It is one of those quirky little high points that probably sees its fair share of weird highpointers like me. For other examples, see Sunflower Mountain (High Point of Kansas), Jerimoth Hill (High Point of Rhode Island) or Panorama Point (High Point of Nebraska).
Little field and Radio Tower (not open to public)
It was a short walk from one of the neighborhoods to get to the high point. The area has been dressed up a bit and is a nice place in itself. There's an ancient-looking radio tower near the summit too which I imagine is a great lookout. It is a shame you are not allowed to climb it. All in all, the visit took 20 minutes. It wasn't a grand adventure but it was a novel one. Here's to 18 high points and counting!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hiking Brasstown Bald, Georgia State Highpoint

Brasstown Bald is the highest mountain in Georgia and is an excellent summit for hiking in the northern mountains. I wanted to catch the sunset and it was late in the day so I did the easy 0.6 mile hike but it can be done as a much longer hike.
Sunset from Brasstown Bald
Day: 23

I felt a little touristy driving all the way to the summit parking lot of Georgia but I had driven all the way from Charleston and was quite tired. Unlike many high points, Brasstown Bald does offer some substantial hiking trails but it also has the 0.6 mile paved route from the parking lot which I took. Oh well.

Although you can see the summit from the parking area, it is several hundred feet above and the hike is steep. A paved trail reaches the summit and if you have impaired mobility, the park service can drive you to the summit. The trail itself doesn't really have much for scenery or interest other than the summit. Once on top, the observation tower is open during business hours but you can spend as much time as you'd like around the outside areas.  
Misty sunset
Sunset was a real treat. Fog had encircled the mountain making it hazy at first but it soon blew through and I was treated with stunning views of the Southern Appalachians. Brasstown Bald lacks in the elevation of other southern and central summits but it makes up for it with its isolation. I could tell that I was really missing out on a lot of what northern Georgia had to offer in the way of outdoors. So many ridges and valleys... I wished I wasn't just passing through like this. Other people on the summit were there for stargazing and they reported that it is one of the finer places in the entire range. They agreed that I was missing out in only spending a day here. 
Last look...
There's not too much more to say other than the summit was nice at sunset and I have a nice list of places to come back to in the Georgian Appalachians.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

48 Hours in Charleston, South Carolina: Kayaking and Biking though Southern Paradise

The beaches and coves of Charleston are forever etched into my mind from my childhood family vacations. When we lived in Charlotte, we would come down to Charleston and Kiawah Island every year and I was so happy to return as an adult. As it turns out, I had just as much fun

Kayaking Charleston was an unforgettable treat
Day 21-22
Miles: 3,300

After spending close to 20 days completely in the Appalachian Mountains, I was ready to get back to the Atlantic Ocean. I'll soon be in Chicago so when I stopped in Greenville for the night, I figured that 250 miles was the closest I'd be to the ocean for a while. I made a spur the moment decision to head south to Charleston and take a stroll down memory lane. My 48 hours in Charleston were as poignant as they could be.

If you're just tuning in, I've been on a 5,000 mile road trip thoughout the American South which has mostly included the mountains and valleys of the Appalachians. While I've made it to the coast in Maryland and Delaware briefly, my main destinations have been national parks and summits. This was not originally in the cards but my taste for the ocean got the better of me. As I mentioned in my post about Sassafras Mountain, I haven't been to South Carolina in about 15 years. Returning as an adult on my way to a new life in Chicago was a much different experience than going as a shy 8th grader! I needed to keep things on the cheap because I still had about 2,000 miles of travel and the expected moving costs of relocation. I had a great time (without being too primitive) at the low cost of $150. (I suppose it helps to have your own mountain bike and kayak!)
My first look at Charleston in 15 years

Wandering Folly Island at sunset
Where I stayed

I think I must have been awake by 4:45AM on Charleston day 1. I was too excited. As I sped down the freeways from Greenville and through Colombia, I had a 90's mix tape on the radio which really brought back the memories of Charleston. We used to load up my Dad's Civic with all of our beach stuff and drive down the shore from Charlotte and that mid-90s mix tape is probably my first memory of music. Yes, Counting Crows, Live, Smashing Pumpkins, Goo Goo Dolls and Stone Temple Pilots are as strongly nostalgic as old polaroid pictures to me. When I finally made it to Charleston, I visited the downtown Visitors Center for some help. I think its funny that most hardcore travelers, like me, avoid visitors centers. I mean, they really are the best sources of information because its generally run by locals who love their location. I'm glad I stopped in- Charleston is one of the largest cities on the southern Atlantic Coast and I didn't want to waste time googling things when there were beaches to wander. I'll try and relay the information I learned here.

For campers, James Island Campground is the best place to stay. It is central to nearly everything and it is pretty darn cheap. I stayed in the tent site for about $50 for two nights. That's been a pretty standard price for the majority of my road trip. The campground itself has all the basic amenities and an added benefit of being a county park. This means you get complimentary entry to all the county parks and beaches. So I didn't pay anything more to hang at Folly Beach or Kiawah Island.  
Biking down the beach was one of my favorite things
Charleston is a perfect walking city
Folly Island: Great for 20s-30s somethings and young families

One of the things I picked up on very quickly was that each island and area of the town has somewhat of a specific demographic that they tailor to and anybody outside of that demographic will probably not want to be there. Folly Island is a bit quirky and has a surf-town feel. Actually, for this Californian, it felt a lot like Huntington Beach or Seal Beach. There are genuine surf shops, places to get a burger on the cheap and pretty unrestricted access to the beach. The break wasn't particularly good today but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. Folly Island bills itself as the "Edge of America". Coming from Maine made me want to contest this title a little bit but I enjoyed the atmosphere anyways. The county park at the very edge of the island was perfect for me to set up "base camp". I parked here and spent a few hours on the beach and playing in the waves. It is about 1.5 miles outside of town which is easily beach cruiser-able. I hopped on my bike and was downtown in a matter of minutes. For those looking to go really cheap, you are allowed to park right off the main street for free if you can find a spot.

The downtown area and the pier had a pretty young scene. Of course there's a full range of ages anywhere you go in Charleston but the bulk of the people were either my age or young families. There were lots of restaurant options and if you're the type that prefers a $1.50 budlight, you're all set. I preferred getting some microbrews and crabcakes at the Folly Beach Crab Shack. Actually most of the restaurants in the area were not too astronomically priced. You can't go to Charleston and not get a bunch of seafood and crabcakes...
Kayaking around Folly Island
A Beach Cruiser and a Kayak

There's two things you absolutely need to bring or rent while on the shore: a beach cruiser and a kayak. There isn't a better way to efficiently and gloriously see everything around the massive natural environments of coastal South Carolina. I benefited from the fact that I happen to own both of these and I've been driving them all across the country at the expense of having horrible MPG. That extra cost was well worth it when I made it here.

Keeping up with the theme of cheap and locally-recommended, I stopped in a boat shop and discovered that the Folly Beach Public Landing was a damn good place to put in a kayak. It wasn't just good for Folly Beach, it was one of the better places in the entire area according to the shop owners. Best of all, it was free!!

Having a 16.5 foot touring kayak really helps in a place like this. The massive estuaries and wetlands of Charleston are dominated by strong currents and tides. I was really fighting for it in some places. At the same time, I was surrounded by legions of porpoises and dolphins as well as waterfowl. I don't think I've ever been in a place that was so urban and so wild at the same time. The porpoises in particular seemed to be fascinated with a big yellow kayak. They swam right up to my boat as if to say hi.
I felt like I could have touched one... they were so close to the boat

If you come here, don't leave without going kayaking (Folly Beach)
You might think that you could see the same from a motorboat but don't go to Charleston without renting or bringing a human-powered boat. The benefit of a kayak (or canoe) over a motorboat was that I could get very close to all the wild areas of the estuary. There are many areas which are closely protected and discourage landing but you can get very close in a kayak. The noises of all the birds, frogs and insects was like a symphony. I doubt you could have the same experience in a powerboat.

I couldn't believe how much I accomplished in day 1. I slept well but I was eager to awake for more adventures
There are many places that are only accessible by kayak
Kiawah Island on the Cheap

As I said earlier, every island and part of the city appeals to a different demographic. Kiawah Island is an ultra-affluent resort area of the island that generally caters to wealthy retirees, golfers and some families. The lack of beachfront bars and the massive private gate tends to ward off the kind of crowd that I saw at Folly Beach. However there is another county park here that is open to the public. Kiawah Beachwater Park is cheap and accessible to folks like me. Note that all beaches in Charleston are publically accessible regardless of whatever is overlooking the shore. I spent another few idle hours on the beach either playing in the waves or enjoying the scenery. Kiawah Island seems to make everybody's list of Top 10 Beaches in the United States. I second that!

Back to my beach cruiser basics, I took off around the island on my fat tires. Biking on the beach is freely available to the public and I went all up and down the island. Who would have thought that I could access this otherwise pricy area for just the cost of admission to the county park?
You don't have to be a millionaire to be here!
Downtown Charleston

It was about time for lunch so I headed back in to town and had some awesome Mahi Mahi Tacos at the Charleston Crab House. After that, I just walked around the downtown area and historical districts. I was surprised at how much you could see by just walking. Certainly Charleston is best seen by foot. The area will appeal most to the history seekers and general shoppers with the massive downtown Charleston City Market. I'm not much of a shopper myself but the market did have some genuinely interesting things mixed in with some kitschy things. I preferred the shore walk and battery walk.
Charleston's answer to the Golden Gate
I enjoyed walking more than shopping
Mt Pleasant and Sullivans Island

Mt Pleasant seemed a bit more like a bedroom community for most of greater Charleston but it was a fun place to poke around. Shem Creek Park had some great boardwalks through the estuaries and would have been another excellent place to put in a kayak. It is a good opportunity to see the natural beauty of the harbor as well as the city lights. Crab Bank Island was supposed to be a great little kayaking spot right offshore. Unfortunately for me, there was an impeding thunderstorm which prevented this. Oh well, something to come back for, I suppose!

Just south of here, Sullivans Island had some nice beaches and another small "downtown area". This island clearly was for renters and residents as there is much less infrastructure for the general tourist. I would have liked to have rented a little condo here. If you're looking for a much quieter atmosphere with a nice beach, this would be your place.
Shem Creek Park (and thunderstorm!)
Did this trip have to end? Sunset was upon me as I headed back to James Island Campground. I felt like I had sufficiently explored the area at a relatively low cost. I think I was really exploring it more for future trips that will involve a longer stay and more activities. It would be easy to imagine myself coming here year after year just as I did with my family when I was a child 

Final Lessons:

  1. Go to the Visitors Center- they are generally quite helpful
  2. Each island and location has its own demographic that it appeals to.
  3. Don't go to Charleston without renting a bike and kayak.
Well that's a wrap for me. I turned my sights back towards the mountains and hit up Congaree National Park along the way. But when I pulled away from the coast, my thoughts were still with Charleston.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Kayaking and Hiking Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park is a little gem near Colombia, South Carolina that is infrequently visited by anyone who isn't a resident of the state. It contains one of the rarest environments in the United States- an old growth cypress swamp. The outdoor adventure opportunities are quite diverse even though it is one of the smaller NPS units.

Congaree National Park is a unique wilderness
Day: 23
Miles: 3,500

An added benefit of my 500 mile detour out to Charleston was being within range of Congaree National Park. I call it one of the "hipster parks" i.e. parks that "you're not cool enough to know about". Congaree is probably one of the least visited parks in the contiguous US. I'm sure its because most people are unaware of how rare this swamp-like environment is and would probably not make a vacation out of it like they do for Yellowstone or Yosemite. Well I would! Old-growth anything is worth the travel, these days.

There's two things that you can't leave the park without doing; hiking the boardwalk trail and kayaking the Cedar Creek Trail. These are good ways to explore things within a day's time. There's also a 50 mile water trail along the Congaree which would be a great multi-day trip. As for me, my little section was a nice showcase of biodiversity of the area-

View Paddling Congaree National Park in a larger map

The boardwalk trail was a nice start for me. It is a very easy and flat "trail" which follows a raised and ground level boardwalk through a lovely section of the park. There's a self-guided nature tour which is helpful in identifying plants and trees. Weston Lake is an oxbow lake which is also a nice stop along the way. I've never really explored this section of the country so everything was new for me. I constantly took pictures.
It felt like walking through a rainforest
Boardwalk trail
Everybody seemed to agree that the best way to see the park was from a kayak or canoe. Cedar Creek is a maintained paddling trail that is a great way to experience the old growth forest. It runs about 7 miles from the two put-in spots above and continues on to the Congaree River. The ranger told me that the lower section, just before the Congaree, is where some of the finest trees are. I was disappointed I didn't have this opportunity today.

The creek does vary significantly by season and by day; check with the park ranger to know if water levels are high enough for your boat. I was fortunate that they were running quite high that day because I have a 16.5 foot ocean kayak! I wouldn't recommend a boat this large...
Kayaking through a swamp!
Old growth cypress
I put in at the launch on South Cedar Creek Road. There was a 100 yard walk with my boat which I'm sure prevents the motorboat crowd from putting in. Surprisingly, there was a strong current today! My plan was to paddle as far up river as I could and then just let the river carry me down. While the current wasn't rapids, it did take some work to get a good pace going.

There was life everywhere on the trail. Birds, insects and occasional feral hogs made a terrific amount of noise. It was a natural symphony. Although I was alone, I kept saying out loud, "Its like I'm in a rainforest"!

The water trail was very well maintained and marked. As swamps can sometimes be an impossible mix of semi-rivers and plain wetlands, it can be very easy to get lost. The park service does a fair amount of work on a regular basis to make sure this doesn't happen. I knew I was heading down the wrong creek because the vegetation would be too thick to get a boat though. It might be a little strange to be kayaking through a swamp-river but it was as easy to follow as a regular river.
Sometimes the forest seemed to close in on me
Feral swine. Unfortunately these are a highly destructive invasive species
I'd recommend a smaller boat...
I paddled as far as I could on my brief timeline and then just let the river carry me back. All I really had to do was put the rudder in the water and avoid obstacles. It was effortless.

All in all, it ended up being a nice 10 miler through a unique environment. I'm quite happy about this "detour" which allowed me to see much of South Carolina which even residents never see. Certainly it made me appreciate this relative newcomer to the NPS scene.

Read. Plan. Get Out There! 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hiking Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina State High Point

Sassafras Mountain is South Carolina's state high point and part of its little slice of the Appalachian Mountains. Although South Carolina is more well known for its beaches, lakes and rivers, the mountain serves as a change of scenery.
Numerous nice views can be had from the observation platform and the summit of South Carolina
Day: 20
Miles: 2,950

Scenes from South Carolina rarely include mountains. Often it is a golf course by the sea, a lazy day on the beach or boating on a lake. I suppose there isn't exactly an abundance of tourism or a robust industry surrounding the mountainous counties but I think they deserve mention when it comes to beautiful places of the state. South Carolina is not a flat state as most people believe it to be. Its more characterized as rolling hills, sand dunes and a little sliver of the Appalachians in the far northwestern corner of the state. This is where Sassafras Mountain and the more elegantly sculpted Table Rock Mountain lie.

It has been at least 15 years since I was last here and my middle childhood memories are more akin to the classic images of the state. Marshes, beaches and resorts are what I remember. Who would have guessed that I would be returning as an adult on a winding mountain road?
This isn't something I remembered...
I had just come from mountain biking in Brevard, North Carolina and I hadn't been out of the mountains in at least two weeks. As for now I was accustomed to this but driving up that perilously steep mountain road to the summit of South Carolina still confused me. All the roads leading to the summit are steep and winding. After leaving greater Greenville, it is slow going. I enjoyed the ride though. Table Rock Mountain loomed over me and I contemplated climbing routes up it. There were also a few wild creeks which begged for some whitewater kayaking. All things to return to someday.

The day was late and I wouldn't be able to hike this mountain in my usual epic fashion. There is a long-distance hiking trail which crosses the summit which might have been a better option. The Foothills Hiking trail is South Carolina's AT and it is a 76 mile route though the mountains. A full hike of this trail would completely destroy anyone's previous idea that South Carolina is a flat state. I regretted that I didn't have the time for this.
Summit is marked with a small boulder
At the summit itself there was a radio tower, a monument and a classic bench from the Highpointers Club. While the view is nice, the immediate surroundings are rather trampled. Much work has been done near the summit and the trees have been cleared. I appreciated the view but I'm sure the forest was nicer. The better view was the platform that extends from the parking area. I spent more time here.
Highpointers Bench
I poked around the summit and the Foothills Trail. The tunnels of rhododendron were inviting but the sun had already set and I had miles to drive yet. Another time I suppose.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mountain Dupont State Forest and Brevard, North Carolina

Once again I find myself "stumbling" upon a completely well-known place. Brevard is probably one of the most talked about mountain biking destination in the Southeast but somehow I didn't know this. I'm glad I was able to ride these trails

The Trails of Brevard are frequently compared to Slickrock in Utah
Day: 20
Miles: 2,900

Thank goodness for friendly locals. I almost missed this place! Brevard, located in south-western North Carolina, is a favorite mountain biking destination for people across the south. This is because of two massive parks which offer some hundreds of miles of singletrack. Pisgah National Forest is unusually friendly to the rough and tumble mountain biking crowd and many of the trails are open to fat tires. Dupont State Forest also is completely mountain biking friendly and has trails that are moderately technical and great for cross country style riding. All of this new knowledge is due to some new friends in Brevard and The Hub - a mountain biking outfitter and tavern. Missing this would be a travel travesty!

It would take months or perhaps a lifetime to really explore this entire area. I had to limit myself to highlights. The staff at the Hub was completely open about everything in the area; I felt like a local. Ever thankful for the insider knowledge, I settled on checking out Dupont State Forest first. Pisgah NF would have to wait until the next time I came back.... hopefully soon!

The great trail up Big Rock
Starting at the Corn Mill Shoals Trailhead, I had several good loop options. This is the southwestern portion of the park that was the most recommended area. By the way, you will really need a good map for this area because there are perhaps a hundred miles of trails. All of them were well marked and easy to follow. So I took off on the Burnt Mountain loop which was a 2.2 mile loop. This was an excellent start! I went in a clockwise direction which had a moderate climb and a sharp decent. The bike shop folks told me this would be a moderately technical trail to a somewhat-experienced rider like myself. There were a few sections that I needed to walk but I had no shame. On other sections I was rocketing right along. I didn't even mind the steep ascents!

Well-maintained single track.
Next up was the Big Rock Loop which is a few miles of challenging singletrack. This trail is best done in a counter clockwise fashion but you'll see people doing it both ways. Either way you take it will involve the most amount of slickrock that you can get on a single run. The trails are beautifully marked and maintained. While there aren't as many of the tight turns and jumps, the challenge lies in the steep up-and-downs as well as the sections with lots of tree roots. Its a bumpy ride in some sections! When I finally made it to the top I was greeted with a magnificent view of the southern highlands. It was a nice lunch spot. Coming down was another roller coaster. I couldn't believe it was only 12 o'clock

I decided to try out the trails around Fawn Lake and Lake Julia for a change of pace. These trails are mostly wider and less steep but there are a few points of interest. Fawn Lake is within 20 minutes of the parking area and is a great swimming hole on a hot day. Further up the trail is the Airline trail which curiously crosses an old landing strip before descending down some twisted singletrack. That and Big Rock were my favorites. Lake Julia is a larger lake that has padding and swimming opportunities. It would be difficult for me to recreate all the trails I did in this section because they are numerous and maze-like. I needed to check the map as frequently as possible.
Coming in for a landing?
Canoes looked tempting!
Nice view from the overlook above Bridalveil Falls

My last rides of the day were the Laural Ridge and Mine Mountain loops which were middle of the pack in difficulty. The ascent was pretty tough and there were a lot of fallen branches slowing the pace. However it was a gentle descent which cooled me down.

All in all, I think I might have seen an 1/8th of the park? It isn't a wonder that the hardcore biking scene adores this park so much. I headed back to the Hub for a beer before leaving. The locals were so friendly and helpful that it was tough to get on the road again.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!