Installment #7 - Pisgah NF and the Blue Ridge Parkway
  Jul 19, 2007 05:52 PDT 

    Installment #7

Monica and I arose to a cool, but not cold, Monday morning at the Pisgah Lodge. At 4,800 feet, warm mornings seldom occur, even in the southern mountains. While Monica showered, I went for a short hike on a nearby nature trail and within a quarter of a mile walked into top of the mountain old growth. I wasn’t surprised. I had found comparable old growth on the other side of the ridgeline back in the late 1980s. Twisted northern red oaks are the mainstay of the old growth swath that I entered. One encounters an occasional red spruce and yellow birch and fairly abundant American chestnut sprouts add variety to the mainly oak community. The red oaks are 25 to at most 50 feet tall and protrude conspicuously through a dense understory of leathery-leaved Catawba rhododendron and mountain azalea. The “rhodies” top out at 10 to 15 feet with an occasional 20-footer. To our immense delight, the mountain azaleas were in bloom and there was a scattering of flame azalea. The heady fragrance of the mountain azalea wafted in the morning breezes. I spotted a number of wildflowers along the well-worn path with galax beatleweed putting on a show. I wanted amble and catalog all the species that I recognized, but my time was limited, so I hurried back to the Inn. Besides, my stomach was broadcasting its emptiness, whispering in my ear: “fill me”. But after breakfast, I definitely planned to return and share the trail with Monica. It would be a pleasant early short walk for the two of us. But breakfast first.

            Over the years, dinning at the Pisgah Inn has been a pleasant experience for me. The food is generally good and on occasion excellent and the dinning room is both rather elegant and functional. The cuisine is slightly southern. What is most attractive to me is that the dining room has giant picture windows that look eastward and southward toward the far eastern reaches of the Blue Ridge. Since the Inn is at the edge of a fairly step ridgeline, from the picture windows, one looks abruptly down into a mountain valley and across to another line of peaks that are in the 4,500-ft class. Beyond are more distant ridges that fade wave after wave into an indistinct field of lighter shades of blue until mountains merge with sky.

            The view from the window seats in the restaurant treats the customer to an exquisite mountain panorama. Naturally I always want to sit by the window, which brings me to a pet peeve. The hostess usually fills the window seats first, yet only a tiny fraction of customers look at the view. The morning of our breakfast was no exception. We arrived too late to get a window seat, so we were positioned one row back. As I observed the folks in the window seats, none, save one couple, noticed what lay on the horizon. They were engaged in their morning chitchats, which included little or nothing about their mountainous surroundings. I could hear bits and pieces of their conversations from the second row table that Monica and I had to occupy and I could see the faces of most customers occupying the window seats. So, why were these tuned-out folks hogging the window seats? The y may have had a customer’s right to be there, but they dang well did not deserve their prized window seat s. I mumbled in my coffee, but my mood quickly became upbeat when I contemplated what was ahead for Monica and me.

The trail into the old growth was a quest for flower species as much as for squinting at the gnarly old growth oaks. Leather flower, galax beatleweed, wild ginger, spiderwort, columbine, toothwort, bowman’s root, wild geranium, pinxter flower, mountain laurel, rhododendron, and many other wild flower species revealed themselves to us through either flowers or leaves. The unmistakable foliage of trillium and jack in the pulpit present no challenges. They are two of the best example of plants that can quickly be identified by their leaf structures without needed to see blossoms. But there were plenty of other wild flowers to catalog, and after a quarter of a mile, our list had grown quite long. Monica had received her third initiation into the plant diversity of the southern Appalachians. Her first was in Kentucky, her second in the Smokies, and here was her third - up close and personal. The southern mountains exhibit a level of diversity that I took for granted until I moved to New England and found a far simpler inventory of flowering plants. I still miss the diversity.

Back on the Parkway, we entered a section saturated with short mountain tunnels – out of one and into the next. The briefly darkened corridors provide entertainment for children and adults alike. The artfully constructed Parkway tunnels were early favorites of mine when I traveled the Parkway as a child with my parents. But the Parkway started a fast descent and we soon passed through the Asheville area. But, we had time to kill, so we headed up to Craggie Gardens in the Craggy Mountain Range. The day was perfect and I was hoping the pink-purple blooms of the Catawba’s would enchant Monica. The Craggy Mountains are noted for having one of the most spectacular displays of catawba rhododendron in the southern Appalachians – roughly 600 acres worth. The area of bloom is large enough that you can simple view it from a parking lot or go for a stroll. We chose the latter.

A hike from the parking lot up to one of the Craggy’s main peaks, 5,892-ft Craggie Pinnacle, under an umbrella of rhododendron, is an unforgettable experience, if the bloom is an exceptionally good one. However, this year’s bloom was off, but the old growth yellow birch along the trail and the tunnel of rhododendron that one walks through are sufficient if you've never encountered a gala bloom. But for me, the best was yet to come. The view from the Pinnacle, courtesy of a small rock observation area, is absolutely fabulous. For appreciative visitors, Craggie Pinnacle presents the southern Appalachians at their flowering and scenic best. The Pinnacle offers a 360-degree scenic panorama with good views of the towering Black Mountain Range as well as a foreground view of 6081-ft Great Craggie Dome, highest point of the Craggies.

One the way back down, we encountered a couple of high schooled aged boys demonstrating their athletic abilities, hoofing it. One carried a soccer ball - a young buck without the faintest idea of what to do with himself in what for him was an alien environment. He brushed by us and the trail was empty again.   

While on the topic of great Parkway views, I’ve already covered Mile High off a Parkway spur road at milepost 458 with its commanding view of the Smokies. A second great view is seen from the 5,820-ft parking lot on 6,292-foot Waterrock Knob at milepost 451. A short hike to the top of Waterrock Knob adds flavor. Matthew Hannum gave us a delightful account of his trek up Waterrock Knob in an approaching thunderstorm.

A third fabulous view can be enjoyed atop Devil’s Courthouse Rock at milepost 422.4, which we had passed the day before, but had no time to take the hike. The Devil’s Courthouse is a striking 5,720-foot peak, which is topped by a precipitous rock face. Stairs have been constructed to the top via a manageable route where one gets another 360-degree panoramic view that takes in the Pigeon, French Broad, and Tuckasegee River valleys. Surrounding peaks include several 6,000-footers: Mt Hardy and Sam’s Knob to name a couple. Other 6000-footers can be seen in the distance. There are so many mountain s to view from the Devil’s domain that one gets that “on the top of the world feeling”. I highly recommend the walk up to the lookout for anyone with the time to spare.

At Craggy Pinnacle, one gazes down into a cove dominated by the Big Ivy River. Big Ivy includes some where between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of old growth and is the location of an environmental battle that took place in the early 1990s. Yours truly was heavily involved. The then production-minded Forest Service planned to greatly expand timber harvesting in what many environmentalists (me included) considered to be a national natural treasure. A Forest Service botanist named Karin Hyman (sp) created a firestorm of controversy when she wouldn’t alter a report to fit the plans of the Forest Service’s regional chief who wanted to downplay the significance of the diversity and rare and endangered species. Karin went public and was fired. They definitely fired the wrong person. Those were dark days for the Forest Service when the view from the top echelons was that our national forests should be managed principally for timber extraction, with other values being subordinate - except of cour
se in the glossy promotional folders. Before passing on, I should mention that Walker Cove, which has been mentioned in past ENTS emails, is in the Big Ivy watershed.

After returning from the Pinnacle, Monica and I retraced our path back toward Asheville to the turnoff for the town of Black Mountain, NC, where Will lives. Along the way we spotted clumps of fire pink along the roadside. Fire pink is a brilliant red flower that has few equals for vividness. The cardinal flower and oswego tea are close competitors. I can't choose one over another. I love them all.

Upon arriving at Black Mountain, we pulled into Will’s abode and settled down with liquid refreshment. It was great to see Will as always and we had much to discuss. We stayed with Will until Thursday morning, participating on Tuesday in the Tsuga Search treatment of the Usis Giant, and on Wednesday, a trip up Big Creek. I’ve already covered that period of our trip.

Well, time to call it quits. I’ll pick up with our continued journey along the Parkway in Installment #8. BTW, for those who read them, if these accounts are too long, please let me know. I can shorten them.