Installment #8
  Jul 21, 2007 18:27 PDT 

             Installment #8.

            After our all too brief stay with Will, Monica and I resumed our northward journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway - that thin gray ribbon in the sky, engineered so exquisitely as to nowhere be intrusive, as are so many mountain roads. After entering the Parkway at the Black Mountain entry-exit point, we began the long climb up high ridgeline of the Craggy Mountains. The trip up the Craggies was now Monica’s second. As we steadily climbed, the valley bottoms became noticeably deeper as the main ridgeline of the Craggies loomed ahead, ever more prominent. I could not help stealing frequent glances at the smooth, pleasing, light green profile of the Craggies – road conditions permitting, of course. When conditions didn’t, Monica issued gentle, but firm, reminders.

The Great Craggies, known to relatively few people by their range name, are impressive mountains. The relatively short range is topped by the 6,085-foot bulk of Great Craggy Dome, which rises an abrupt 3,525 feet above the Swanannoa River on the Dome’s eastern side - at least at the point I identified. Oddly, the smooth ridgeline of the Craggies can throw off one’s sense of their size. As one views the ridgeline from the Parkway, one wonders. Are they large mountains seen from a greater distance or smaller mountains seen from a closer vantage point? The smoothness of their profile and vegetative cover creates an illusion. The smoothness results from a dense, smooth covering of hardwoods that is constantly pruned by the wind in their upper elevations. Naturalists suggest that the summits of Great Craggy Dome and Pinnacle, part of the Craggy Gardens area, burned at some distant time in the past. Indians are often cited as the source. Indians are assumed to have burned off the summits
of the Craggies to attract game. I have no idea about past fire occurrences in the Craggies, but regardless, I have some doubt about the game theory.    

As we passed by Craggy Gardens for the second time, I silently said my goodbyes to the Craggy Mountain area. I have fond memories of the Craggies. Beyond the Gardens, from the backbone of a short ridge, at about 5,500 feet altitude, the Craggies run headlong into the even more massive Blacks, the East’s loftiest mountains. After a brief stop at an overlook to see Glassmine Falls, a 200-foot plunge (but dry this time) on the side of 6,320-foot Blackstock Knob, we took a detour up to the top of Mount Mitchell, highest single elevation in all the eastern United States. Mitchell is 6,684 feet above mean sea level. Older surveys placed it at 6,711 feet. Presumably, surveyors finally nailed the right elevation down.

By shape, Mount Mitchell is a slightly rounded dome that was once known as Big Black. The aging summit tower is presently being rebuilt to be handicap accessible. As a result of the construction, Monica and I could not take the short summit walk as I had done so many times before. But we did visit the excellent nature museum that lies a couple hundred vertical feet below the summit. The museum features several artful displays of the flora and fauna of the Black Mountains, but what caught my eye were the climate statistics. Records of a 50-inch snowfall, a –34 degree Fahrenheit temperature, and a 180-mph wind were sufficient to remind any uppity visitor from more northerly latitudes that Mitchell’s weather is not to be taken for granted. Its weather is northern as opposed to southern.

Leaving the museum, we dropped down to a saddle on the Black's main ridgeline between Mitchell and Clingman's Peak and stopped for a quick lunch at the attractive dining facility, which offered big picture windows for expansive views. A very bland lunch of watered down chicken rice soup and a so-so chile-dog rounded out our visit to the summit (or almost) of Mitchell. We started threading our way back down the steep summit road and toward the Parkway. I suddenly thought of that great northern Appalachian Peak, Mount Washington, in New Hampshire – ruler of the northern Appalachian kingdom. Naturally that sparked thoughts of comparison – what else? How do the southern and northern peaks compare? I know all the elevations, but there are other ways to compare the mountains. For example, Mount Washington is a more severe environment by almost all standards of comparison.

Serious eastern mountain lovers will always compare the White Mountains of NH and the Black Mountains of NC. Past comparisons were partly motivated by politics rather than nature. I have no interest in the political aspect. In terms of the natural, the Presidential range has a timberline, and consequently, has a harsher climate. Washington and other summits of the Presidential Range have many more 100-MPH plus winds than do the Blacks. The Whites have much more snow and actually more total annual precipitation. That initially came as a surprise to me. The Whites are steeper-sided and appear more like some of the western mountains. In terms of flora, I am unsure of the overall botanical diversity. The White Mountains have alpine vegetation and that adds a lot of extra species. But below the alpine zone, the southern Appalachians are far more botanically diverse than their northern cousins. In terms of tree size, there is little comparison. The Blacks easily win. In the lower coves,
the Blacks have bigger, taller trees than anything that can be found in the Whites. Yet, despite my big/tall tree focus, tree size seems irrelevant when I think about the Whites. But, what about making simple elevation comparisons? There is more than a straight number-to-number comparison. We certainly must consider overall altitude, but shouldn’t we also consider steepness, and that all important base to summit rise?

In overall elevation, the Blacks reign supreme. The Whites have one peak over 6,000 feet in Mount Washington at 6,288. However, the Blacks boast 10 named peaks over 6,000, including Mitchell (6,684) and Craig (6,647), the 1st and 2nd loftiest summits in the East. This brings me to another level of competition – the 2,000 meter club. At 6,562 feet, a peak enters the 2000-meter club. So, Mitchell and Craig are firm members. How exclusive is the club in the East? Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 and Mount Guyot at 6,621 are next and they are in the Great Smoky Mountains. Balsam Cone then weighs back in from the Blacks at slightly over 6,600 feet. Mount LeConte enters the contest next at 6,593 feet and completes the list of 2,000-meter mountains in the eastern United States. At 6,520 feet, Mount Gibbs in the Blacks is the next loftiest eastern summit, but it falls a little short of 2,000 meters.

            Now let’s look at base to summit rise. This provides a better measure of a mountain’s impressiveness than total altitude above sea level. In the base to summit rise competition, the highest peaks of the Blacks rise just under 4,000 feet from their immediate bases. This gives them an overall very high impressiveness rating for eastern mountains. They are steep-sided, so the rise is abrupt and it is this rise that one sees from milepost 342. But as impressive as are the Blacks, the Whites score even higher. Mount Washington rises nearly 4,900 feet above its base and other peaks of the Presidential Range, like Mount Adams, rise between 4,000 and 4,500 feet.

Having presented these comparisons, I note that immediate base to summit rises can be tricky to figure out because of the influence of intervening foothills and shoulders leading to a main summit. Taking a base to summit rise from a saddle of a ridgeline or from a ravine separating a sub-peak from a main peak can cheat a mountain. Oftentimes moving a greater distance from a mountain range to get a more encompassing view can give one a better perspective on a big mountain’s ridgeline – especially one that supports a lot of high points rising well above an adjacent lowland. It may be the mountain mass that is impressive as opposed to a named point. The more distant view also provides a means to make more of a range-to-range comparison. In this type of comparison, the Whites win over the Blacks by a few hundred feet, but lest New Englanders start feeling smug, the Whites fall short of another great southern Appalachia n range.

Approaching the Great Smoky Mountains from the west, one encounters a tremendous mountain wall. The base to summit rise of the highest peaks of the Smokies approaches 5,000 feet and exceeds it in peaks like Guyot, LeConte, and Clingman’s Dome. In fact, LeConte is a legend in this regard. It arguably rises 5,300 feet from its base - if the base is taken as Gatlinburg. But is Gatlinburg LeConte’s real base? There is room for debate. Climbing the Gatlinburg’s space needle allows one to view a continuous rise from the center of the town to the summit of LeConte, although one sees some intervening foothills. But for all its inappropriateness, the Space Needle does allow one to appreciate the impressiveness of LeConte and the claim its proponents make that LeConte is the East’s “tallest” mountain above its base. The rise is truly dramatic, but again, reasonable people can disagree on where LeConte’s base should be spotted. Foothills of a large mountain mass may cause one set of baseline
advocates to choose a spot where the climb is continuous to a distinct summit. However, I maintain that such a limited view of mountain base is problematic. Like ENTS deciding where to measure the girth of a multi-stemmed tree, base to summit calculations will always be controversial, but fun to ponder.

            Moving northward along the Parkway, I was anxious to share some of my old haunts with Monica. I have dozens, but time did not permit stopping at each one. After leaving the views of the Blacks, I did have one in mind – Crabtree Falls at milepost 338. It has a small swath of old growth that offers a worthwhile short hike in sufficiently wet years. But this year had not been wet, so we moved on. Staring at a dried-up waterfall is a definite letdown.

At milepost 321, one reaches Chestoa Overlook. That spot is a routine stop for me – no exceptions. Old growth white oaks at the parking lot immediately catch the eye. A trail leads through upper mountain old growth, but for most visitors, it is the view from a bluff that is prized. Carolina hemlock and Carolina rhododendron both grow around Chestoa’s bluff. The Carolina rhododendron has smaller leaves than the either the Catawba or Rosebay. Mountain ash can also be seen. From the overlook, a small rock observation platform allows one to look across a deep mountain valley and onto two parallel ridges that form Linville Gorge in between. The more distant ridge is the higher, so it remains visible. The angled summit of Table Rock rises above the closer ridge and is one of the most conspicuous landmarks along the Parkway.

After leaving Chestoa, I wanted to share the old growth, the waterfalls, and the dizzying bluffs of Linville Gorge with Monica, but as we neared the parking lot and visitor center via the access road, it became apparent that the area was mobbed with visitors. Crowds around a scenic attraction are an instant turnoff for me. To be more blunt, they drive me nuts. Most visitors are clueless as to what they are looking at in terms of flora, fauna, geology, and topography. As I looked at the congested parking lot, I envisioned a noisy mob that would push its way to the small lookouts. People would file down to the observation areas, briefly stare off into the depths of the gorge, gawk at one another, giggle, and take snapshots. Worst of all, I could image frivolous attempts to get cell phone connections. At least half of the visitors would make inane comments, most out of feelings of inadequacy as they peered off into the gorge. Then one by one, members of the mob would file back, chatte
ring about social events, remaining oblivious to the surrounding natural history and even the scenic beauty. Well, that was my nightmare, or should I say “daymare”. I don’t know exactly what Monica’s mob vision was, but neither of us was receptive to taking a chance. I promised Monica a return trip under less crowded conditions, and we resumed our trip.

            Before leaving my description of the Linville Gorge stopover, I must point out another of those misleading statistics that are bandied about by the numerically unwashed. Proponents of Linville Gorge proudly cite Linville as the deepest gorge in the East and give a depth of 2,000 feet for it. From the top of the Hawksbill to the Linville River below, one does approach a 2,000-foot elevation change, but from the Park Service overlooks, the drop is less. So, is it accurate to describe Linville Gorge as 2,000 feet deep if it achieves that depth from only one or two points? Maybe so, but we need better rules of the road for making gorge-based height and depth comparisons. Nonetheless, Linville Gorge is certainly one of the deepest eastern gorges, and more significantly, it sports between 5,000 and 10,000 acres of old growth (Josh?).

            Soon after leaving Linville Gorge, the hulking form of Grandfather Mountain appeared. Grandfather Mountain is a special mountain. It is considered to be the highest peak in the part of the Blue Ridge Mountains range that specifically retains the name Blue Ridge. Grandfather reaches the respectable altitude of 5,964 feet, missing being a 6,000-footer by only 36 feet. But what Grandfather lacks in altitude, it makes up for in plant and animal diversity. It is one of the spots where both northern and southern flying squirrels can be found. Grandfather is also the domain of ferocious winter weather. In fact, the weather gives Grandfather its most conspicuous numerical superlatives. Winds of 190 MPH have been recorded on the top of Grandfather Mountain. In that respect, Grandfather’s summit is second only to Mount Washington for recorded wind velocities. But for most folks traveling the Parkway, it is Grandfather’s huge quartzite rock face, as seen from Lynn Cove Viaduct, wh
ich definitely captures one’s attention. The summit rocks of Grandfather are one of the highlights of the entire 469 miles of Parkway driving. French botanist Andre Michaux climbed Grandfather in August 1794. He thought he had climbed to the summit of the highest mountain in all North America. Grandfather has that kind of impact.

North of Grandfather Mountain, the Parkway traverses a region of kinder mountain terrain with lovely upland meadows and long stretches of gentle forest corridors. Altitudes are usually 3,000 feet or more, but the elevation isn’t apparent except when the Parkway swings near an escarpment and one is treated to yet another panoramic view of wave after wave of blue ridges. For me, the highlands north of Grandfather Mountain possess a special friendliness that I have long recognized and enjoyed. The Parkway’s curves are especially gentle though substantial elevation changes are being continuously negotiated, which brings me to a special effect of the Parkway in the region being described, as well as other areas.

In driving much of the Parkway at the posted speed limit, one can establish an effortless rhythm to ride the curves. Turn smoothly to the left, then back to the right, and repeat. At just the right speed, one can establish a continuous, effortless, almost hypnotic driving rhythm. All motion is fluid, no jerks or sensations in the pit of the stomach. One can compose one’s own symphony, a symphony of the road. As the Parkway threads through forest corridors, one can become mesmerized by the corridor of trees that line the road. Overlapping crowns create airy tunnels of green. The luxurious understory of rhododendron and the frequent displays of wild flowers make it seem as though one may have entered into some Eden, distant from the conventional world of hustle and bustle. Distant mountain vistas appear, fade away, and are replaced by more – each seemingly more lovely than the last. In the negotiation of that long gray ribbon in the sky, the blend of forest and mountains seems endles
s. And the tranquil mood can even be enhanced. Whether one prefers Blue Grass or Celtic melodies or baroque masterpieces, music can add to the enjoyment of a relaxed meander through these southern highlands. When driving this section of the Parkway, I sometimes find myself entering a state mind where I seem to merge with the road. Feelings of separation disappear. I am not conquering a mountain road; I am entering into it and flowing along with it.

As evening set in, Monica and I stopped at a delightful little crossroad named Benge Gap. A small, convenient, family-operated motel provided us with comfortable accommodations and acceptable food. The altitude at Benge is slightly over 3,000 feet as I recall. So, the night promised to be cool, and it was. The motel is situated on a lightly traveled road, so as we settled in for the night, the soothing sounds of nightfall entered our window undisturbed by the usual intrusive sounds of traffic. Idyllic is the term I think that fits Benge Gap.

            I’ll close now and continue our Parkway excursion in Installment #9. I hope I’m not overdoing the Parkway description, but I’ve had a love affair with the Parkway since I was 15 years old.

RE: Installment #8 - Linville Gorge   Joshua Kelly
  Jul 22, 2007 09:58 PDT 


Great report! I like it when you wax poetic about my favorite landscape.

The consensus is that very little, if any, of Linville Gorge has been
logged. Rob Messick listed 10,232 acres of old-growth from Linville Gorge
Wilderness and surrounding Parkway lands. However, in the past 6 years,
much of the wilderness area has burned with controlled and uncontrolled
fires. In 2001 over 2000 acres on the west rim burned and this year 4,500
acres have burned so far in the Shortoff Mountain Fire. So, while the
entire gorge is primary, less of it is old-growth these days.

There is also a contiguous old-growth area outside of the wilderness on
Linville Mountain with at least 686 acres of old-growth, and probably more.
This area apparently has some BIG trees and includes one area of calcareous
rich cove forest (rare in the Blue Ridge) associated with the dolomite from
the Grandfather window around Linville Caverns.

Also, are you sure about the quartzite cliffs at Grandfather? My geologic
map of the window shows three major rock types around the summit:

Metgraywacke: includes metasiltstone and phyllite

Feslic Rock of igneous and metasedimentary origin

Metadiabase (rich stuff for the Blue Ridge)

The Grandfather Window is one of only two areas in the NC Blue Ridge with
Cambrian age rock. Because of this the area inclued geologic oddities like
caves and one of the highest concentrations of rare oranisms in our

Also, with the comparison between the Northern and Southern Appalachian
mountains, it is important to remember that the Southern Apps had a
tree-line in the Pleistocene, and we retain some of that alpine flora on our
high-elevation rock outcrops today. Geum radiatum is the poster plant of
this flora, but there are many other examples.
RE: Installment #8 - Linville Gorge
  Jul 22, 2007 17:36 PDT 

    Thanks. Great information. In terms of Grandfather's geology, I must admit that I cheated and just quoted William G. Lord's Parkway guide series. I'm sure your information is far more precise.

     You may not realize, but my participation in OG surveys of the southern Appalachians was during the early period of Rob Messick's ascendency as the southern guru. Much of what I'm likely to quote off the top of my head is from the early and mid-1990s. BTW, the Forest Service supervisor over the Linville Wilderness once quoted to the newspapers an OG acreage for Linville of about 150 acres. Yes, that is one-five-oh, not 1500, or 15,000. Talk about a blind spot.

RE: Installment #8   James Smith
  Jul 23, 2007 06:31 PDT 

Nice reports! The Craggies and Blacks are just about my favorite part of
the NC high country. For some reason, I haven't bagged Craggy Dome, yet.
Even though I've been within 1/4 mile of the summit dozens of times. The
great hemlock grove at Douglas Falls is just down the western side of
the Parkway from Craggy Dome/Craggy Pinnacle.