Hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains–A Cautionary Tale

Filed under: Blue Ridge Mountains, Hiking, Nature, Outside Asheville, Things to Do

> James and I often have guests at the Carolina  who ask about hikes in the mountains near our Asheville, NC Bed and Breakfast, and  we will sometimes send them to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Craggy Gardens.  It’s a pleasant drive of about 45 minutes to an hour (depending on how many cyclists are on the road) and there are a number of hikes varying in length and difficulty which can be accessed from the Craggy Gardens Visitors’ Center.  Or so we’d been told…never actually having done any of them!  As a rule, James and I don’t like to suggest activities which we have not tried ourselves, so  with the first opportunity which came up we headed up the mountain.  The story which follows gives a graphic example of why it is so important to try things out before suggesting others do them.  Let me state for the record that the guests who have hiked Craggy Gardens have enjoyed themselves but, knowing what we know now, we will be able to give much better advice and guidance.

James and our picnic!

We only had about four and a half hours before we needed to be back so we rushed out of the house.  This was our first mistake! The Craggy Garden Visitor’s Center is at 5500 feet and we would be climbing higher.  The weather is quite changeable, especially in the afternoon when rain clouds can descend on the peak.  I remember thinking I needed to take a sweater but of course forgot it in our haste to get out of there. (I also forgot my watch!)

Of course, the first thing we did was stop at Greenlife, our local Asheville food emporium for a picnic lunch.  I have to admit that GL let me down a little this particular Tuesday.  I like to indulge my vegetarian side when I go there as they usually have wonderful roasted vegetable sandwiches and wraps but this time around the choice was limited to tempeh or hummus, neither one of which is a great favorite of mine.  Because it was almost 2pm by the time we got to the starting point we decided to eat at the pull-off before setting out.

The ranger at the station had suggested that we drive up to the next stopping place where we could pick up the North Carolina Mountain-to-Sea Trail more easily than from the Visitor’s Center.  Ha!  Do you see any sign of trail in this picture?  Neither did we but fortunately another Ranger came along and told us that it was right at that curve in the road.  I do think that the signage on the Blue Ridge Parkway leaves much to be desired and I thought so even more before then end of this hike!

This is where we made our next mistake: the phones.
Whenever we leave the inn,  we transfer the phone line to our cellphone number. Reception on the Blue Ridge Parkway is spotty to say the least and James thought that his phone would get a better signal.  Since we both have AT&T, I don’t know why this would be true, but 32 years of marriage have taught me that there are some things not worth arguing about, so we took his phone and I left mine in the car.  Of course, his phone may (or may not) get a better signal but MINE has all the phone numbers on it.  AND, because we had transferred the line to his cell, we couldn’t call Sara at the Inn because when we called the inn, we were actually calling his phone! AND, because we rushed out the door, I forgot to make a note on the instructions to Sara to take the phones back. AND James’ phone needed charging!

But nevertheless, we blissfully set off down the trail, enjoying the beauty of the sun filtering through the leaves and forgetting the map in the car.  Our original plan had been to hike for 45 minutes then turn around and retrace our steps.  Shortly after we began, I realized I should have worn my hiking boots.  Sneakers were okay but the trail is rocky and wet in places and I was reflecting that going back up was going to be difficult when James suggested taking the trail all the way back to the Visitor’s Center and then walking back along the road to our car, which still should get us back in time. It certainly seemed like a good plan at the time.

The forest was full off interesting things to see and look at and the time passed quickly.  We thought these mushrooms growing on the side of a tree were sort of unusual so I took a picture so that I could come home and google the image.  I did, and all I found out was that this is called a…wait for it…tree mushroom.

The trees in Craggy Gardens are exposed to harsh winds and ice in the winter and, as a result, grow in twisted shapes.  This particular tree was almost hollow, bending around itself and twisting. Yet, the branches still had leaves and it seemed pretty healthy.

This rock looks like it has been folded over on itself.  I decided to make it a marker and we were going to call it “Folded Rock” until we noticed

 it was actually James in profile!

 The occasional clearing let us see far off into the distance and the silence was blissful.  We couldn’t even hear a car in the distance.  (Which we probably should have by now, but since we didn’t have the map we had no idea how far we had to go).

 And then it started to rain.  Oh how I wished for that forgotten poncho!  For the first 20 minutes or so, the forest covering kept it pretty much off us but eventually it seeped through.  My little shorts and tee shirt seemed particularly foolish and the sneakers were already soggy.  We had now been hiking for a fairly long time and the trail started down–not a good sign as it should have been going up.  It was not a well traveled trail as evidenced by the spider-webs we walked through on a regular basis  (I made James go first). We had passed a few markers but since we didn’t know if our trail was blue, yellow, or white we didn’t really know for sure that we were right.  As we recalled from looking at the map, there were few off-shoots so it should just have been a case of going forward and sooner or later we would arrive at the Ranger Station.

James calls this lichen “bat moss” for obvious reasons!

Except the trail we were on had just ended in a “T” junction and we had to go left or right. We picked right and immediately it seemed like a good choice.  The trail widened and was better maintained and, more importantly, there were benches and plaques with inspirational quotes along the way!  What pleasure when we saw a clearing and what disappointment when it was only a shelter and what worry when there were THREE trails going off from it!  I remember thinking, “Great.  We are going to be those ‘stupid people’ they talk about in the news.  The ones who went for a hike with nothing more than a bottle of water and only wearing a tee-shirt and shorts!”.

James in the fog walking back to the car.

So we tried the first path but it turned out to be a stream by another name.  The second path seemed likely to the same so we chose the the third which was really a continuation of the trail we had been on.  Almost immediately it started back down again (wrong!) and the benches and plaques disappeared.
Don’t you think the shelter would have been a good place for a map?  One with a great big “You are Here” star?  This time we decided to go back to the T junction and to go the other direction.  It was a with a sigh of release that we found the Visitor’s Center not more than fifty feet from our wrong turn.

In looking back, I think our first and biggest mistake was in under-estimating the mountain.  James and I are experienced hikers–we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for Pete’s sake!  But I think this worked against us.  A hike is not about distance, but about difficulty and conditions.  Whether it is a half a mile or ten miles, any time you go into the forest you need to be prepared.  Wear the right clothes, bring layers,  and don’t forget your map!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *