Autumn is a good time of year to be living and hiking in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and Western North Carolina. Providing that it hasn’t been a ‘drought year’, the autumn leaf colors and mountain landscapes are attractive places to trek and enjoy the outdoors.
Camping On Bald Mountain
On a mid-October morning, with a 50+ pound backpack, I began my ascent out of Spivey Gap toward Big Bald. The autumn leaf colors had begun to take hold on the mountain slopes, bringing them to life in one last blaze of glory before they are released from their boughs and fall to the ground. I hadn’t gone far, not even a quarter mile, before I was passed on the trail by a southbound ‘thru-hiker’, a fellow who went by the name of ‘Bunyip‘, and his puppy-like dog, ‘Grayson’. They were moving at a much brisker pace than I was, and soon disappeared in the higher elevations of mountain scenery. The weather was a bit breezy and cool; the further up the mountain ridges I went, the cooler and windier it became, so much so that I had to put on a sweatshirt by the time I reached ‘High Rocks’.
I descended the trail into ‘Whistling Gap’, somewhat hoping to hear the bell-like tones, as the name implies, when the strong wind whistles through the gap (I had heard this phenomenon once before while sitting in the gap one springtime a few years ago; apparently, when the conditions are just right, the wind ‘whistles’ through the gap, forming bell-like tones as it rushes through the tree limbs, conjuring images of ice cream trucks, xylophones, and merry-go-rounds…) but the bell-like whistling must be a rare occurrence, and I didn’t hear any bells when I hiked through there that day, despite the turbulent wind rushing through.
The climb up ‘Little Bald’ was a bit painful, thanks to all the winter-gear and heavy tent-weight I was carrying, but there were patches of autumn colors that kept me inspired as I ascended above 5,000’ of elevation. The views from the bluff near the summit were quite good; the autumn colors in the valley below were pretty, but not quite to their peak yet. This was the first time I had visited the summit of Little Bald in 2010—I couldn’t remember a year that I hadn’t been there at least once since 1990, and I lingered awhile at the bluff, enjoying the moment.
A few minutes after I topped the summit (elevation 5,185), an incredibly large (and loud) cargo plane flew over—not sure what that was about, but it almost had to have been a military plane. Anyway, I continued on out the ridge toward Big Bald. The wind continued to gust and grow in intensity. It didn’t take me very long to reach the camp-spot above the blue-blazed water trail, where I decided to set up camp; I had always wanted to camp there, right on top of the ridge. The wind played tricks on me as I attempted to set up the behemoth-like tent that I had carried, at least until I could stake it down. Getting the rainfly in place over top was also a bit challenging, given the temperament of the wind, but I managed to fasten it on before the wind could blow it away. After putting on some warmer clothing, I ventured down the blue-blazed trail to get some water, hoping that the spring wasn’t too far down the steep mountainside, and that it was still running this time of season. I was pleasantly surprised to find a piped spring that was flowing fairly well about a 10th of a mile down the hill. I filled my water-bag full and returned to the ridge-camp, and prepared to cook an early supper.
Soon after I returned from the spring, I was somewhat surprised to see two women hiking down the ridge toward Little Bald. Being already late afternoon, perhaps early evening, I thought it was way too late for anyone to be hiking through to Spivey Gap, which they apparently were planning to do. I could see that they were not prepared for such a journey, having only wind jackets tied around their waists, while one of them was carrying a half quart of water, or thereabouts. They didn’t have backpacks, which probably meant that they didn’t have flashlights either, which they would definitely need if they were hiking to Spivey Gap. Fortunately, one of them asked me how far it was to Spivey Gap. When I told them it was at least 5 ½ miles, they seemed a bit surprised—apparently someone had misled them into believing there was some sort of magic shortcut that they could take. Anyway, after a few minutes, they eventually made the right decision, and returned to Wolf Laurel, passing by my camp a second time while I was filtering some drinking water for the night, and boiling some water for tea and supper. I am glad nothing bad happened to them; they seemed very nice.
The night was quite cold, and despite being tired, I had trouble sleeping, especially since the wind was raging the entire time. There was a ½ moon hanging in the sky, along with Jupiter. After the moon set below the horizon, the stars were incredibly bright, and the most beautiful I had seen in a long time. Being up on the ridge near the 5,000’ elevation level gave me the extra advantage of viewing more stars, as I could actually see stars along the horizon below my line of sight. I thought that was rather neat. I would have stayed out star-gazing longer if it hadn’t been so cold, and eventually, I retreated into the relative warmth and comfort of the sleeping bag and tent, with the ground as my mattress.
The wind did eventually calm down by the morning, but It was still quite cold; I had somehow hyper-extended an index finger during the night, which, with the cold weather, made it somewhat difficult to do even simple things, like breaking down the tent and tying my boots. I decided to cook up some tea, warming my hands over the alcohol flame. I was still breaking down the camp when I saw 13 section hikers, who had obviously camped in or around the shelter the night before (it was less than a ½ mile away from my camp), hike past, heading north.
I felt better after eating breakfast and drinking some warm tea. I finishing breaking down the camp, and decided to hide my loaded backpack behind a tree, and walk up to the summit of Big Bald, carrying only a camera and some water. It was about a mile and a half to the summit. On the way, I passed by the ‘Big Bald Banding Station’ near the big rock in the area known as ‘Big Stamp’, which I believe must have gotten it’s name from the early Native Americans as they followed the buffalo herds that used to live in the east; the buffalo had predetermined trails (which the early European settlers followed and turned into wagon roads) and stomping (aka ‘stamping’) grounds. Anyway, the banding station has been catching and banding birds on Big Stamp for 32 years now, studying the migration patterns of a wide variety of bird species.
The summit of Big Bald (elevation 5,516’) is the ‘top of the world’ around this area, only the summit of Roan Mountain is higher in elevation, and the views from Big Bald are always awe-inspiring (unless, of course, it is buried in a bank of clouds). Although there was a dark haze to the east, presumably city/valley smog, the views from the summit were very good. It is a somewhat magical feeling, standing on top of the world, with a 360-degree view, looking down upon nearly everything from horizon to horizon—the only exceptions being Mount Mitchell in the southeast, and Roan Mountain to the northeast.
I returned to my camp and gathered up my heavy backpack, deciding to hike back toward Spivey Gap. I met several people that afternoon, including a pair of section hikers from Arkansas doing the entire Appalachian Trail, one section at a time. I met them at the bluff on Little Bald, and was glad to point out certain landmarks for them–mountains where they had been, and other mountains where they will be going, which for me always make the place where I am even more memorable, hopefully that had the same effect for them, because Big Bald and Little Bald are indeed special places to be.
All in all, the camping trip was a success, and I will long remember not only the beautiful views from the mountain top, but also the incredibly crisp, clear starlight, and the raging wind storm, along with some of the nice people I met along the way.
Whitehouse Mountain Trek In Rocky Fork
There was another incredible hike in the Rocky Fork area of Unicoi County. Just 3 days after the camping trip to Big Bald, I met up with my hiking buddy, ‘Rat Patrol’, and we drove out to Rocky Fork, stopping off first to view the Devil’s Fork Falls (not to be confused with the Devil’s Fork Falls in the Sampson Wilderness Area, but a different set with the same name near Flint Mountain). Rat had been there a few days earlier, but said he missed seeing the upper falls and cascades, and wanted to go back. The falls and the associated cascades are pretty nice, even in low-water type conditions, and they are very close to the road, which is convenient. However, its proximity also allows for quite a lot of trash to be thrown down the embankment into the creek and along the sides, which is a shame. Perhaps some of the trash floated down stream during times of flood, but for whatever reason, there was everything to see down the steep embankment from television sets, to water heaters, to old car doors, even. We dropped off the road and down the steep, rocky bank right below an old hornets’ nest; we also had to watch where we stepped and put our hands because there was some broken glass to negotiate as well—it was rather difficult getting down and back up this perpendicular and rugged slope, but we managed to do it without injury.
We returned to the vehicle and drove into the Rocky Fork, parking just below where the old cabin used to be (the chimney is still there in the field). We hiked in beneath the impressive cliffs, and enjoyed the beautiful waterfalls and cascades that are all along the stream, and also the colorful autumn leaf colors. We did a whole lot of hiking in the Rocky Fork with the now defunct hiking club in the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s, but we had never taken the trail that leads in behind the first knob—I am told that it is known as ‘Whitehouse Mountain’. I just always thought of that particular knob as the one with the gargantuan cliff-rock that is right over your head (on the right side of the trail) as you walk up the Rocky Fork Creek Trail. For years we have called that giant cliff-rock ‘Stonehenge’– it is quite prominent. Indeed, I could see it when I was standing on Big Bald a few days earlier.
We found the concealed trail without any problem and followed it up between the two knobs, eventually reaching a gap behind the ‘Whitehouse’ Mountain. From there, we followed a steep, nearly invisible trace up to the right, ascending the knob. Before too long, we reached a red-blazed boundary trail that followed the spine of the ridge straight up to the top of the knob. It was extremely steep, and became very rocky, especially near the summit. We gained a lot of elevation in a very short distance, and were somewhat amazed by the size of not only the adjacent knob that we had hiked beneath on our left, which rose up into a huge and colorful volcano-like knob (looking at it from below belies its tremendous size), but also we were impressed with the size of the Whitehouse Mountain Knob that we had climbed–in other words, without boring you with specifics or unnecessary math, ‘it was a steep climb.’
Even better, the view from the top of the Whitehouse Mountain Knob was much better than expected. You can see darn near everything there is to see in that part of the world from up there. The view from the top of the rocky knob really was quite surprising. It was a warm day, and a thirsty climb, and we stayed up on top of the summit for quite a while soaking in the various landforms and the beautiful autumn colors.
While we were there, a large black winged, white-breasted hawk landed in a tree not far away—it was so large, in fact, that for a moment or two, I thought it must have been an owl. It was obviously startled to discover 2 hikers on the knob, and flew off into the Rocky Fork Valley, screeching as if annoyed. I had somehow misplaced my hiking stick on the ascent to the knob, but found it in a brushy place next to a fallen log along the rock spine on the return trip. Hiking up the Whitehouse Mountain was quite a scenic adventure, and I look forward to returning there sometime in the future, as well as hiking some of the other trails in the Rocky Fork area.
Some Other Adventures
The Boulder-Garden Camp…
There was another camping trip; a peaceful night at the ‘boulder-garden’ camping place above the rock stairway up the hill from Spivey Gap (on the Little Bald Mountain side). I set up camp early, and despite it being quite warm, I started a small fire in the fire-pit, mostly to drive off the irritating kamikaze eye-gnats and bloodsucking mosquitoes, but after the sun went down behind the ridges, it was nice to have a comfortable fire to sit beside. It was a beautiful night, and the moon was exceptionally bright. The sound of the acorns falling out of the trees was a bit of a distraction, and kept me awake for a while. I could also hear the train traveling up and down the river gorge several miles away.
There was a day-hike to the high knob on Temple Ridge, by way of the Cliff Ridge Trail (which is also part of the Appalachian Trial). I hike this section quite a lot because it is fairly close by and easy to access. The views of the Nolichucky River Gorge and Unaka Mountain are pretty good, and the trail is well graded and switch-backed, for the most part, so I can get some good exercise and fresh air without having to drive very far. I met a southbound ‘thru-hiker’ on the ridge, a fellow by the name of ‘Better Late than Never’ who was carrying at least a half-case of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. I forget exactly how much beer he said he was carrying, but it was a lot, considering how heavy beer is when you have to carry it up a big hill, like Temple Ridge. I suggested that he started to carry liquor instead of beer, since it is easier to tote around, but he obviously really likes his PBR. I never thought I would meet anyone who like Pabst as much as my hiking buddy ‘Legs’, but ‘Better Late than Never’, I think earns that distinction.
Iron Mountain Gap To Cherry Gap Shelter And Back/Northern Unaka Mountain…
There was another day-hike on the northern end of Unaka Mountain, from Iron Mountain Gap to the Cherry Gap Shelter. It was a breezy, yet pleasant day for hiking. The autumn colors were still ‘blooming’ in the lower elevations, and were still fairly nice in the higher elevations, even though many of the leaves had already been blown off the trees and were now lying in the trail, and on the ground. I really like the trail through this section of the Appalachian Trail, especially since it was partially relocated about a year and a half ago. It is also fairly easy for me to access. On this particular cloudy afternoon, I didn’t see anyone on the trail, but did watch 4 or 5 hawks playing ‘chase’ in the wind.
Jones Branch To Curly Maple Gap Shelter, And Back…
I realize that I write about Jones Branch and the Southern end of Unaka Mountain quite a lot, and I do hike there often, mostly due to its close location, but also because of the peaceful creek trail, the surprisingly scenic waterfalls and cascades (in the high-water seasons), and also because of the scenic Overlook. I wasn’t looking for anything to write about, or photograph, but was just out for some fresh air and exercise. The weather was nice, and I was completely surprised to discover that the old Curly Maple Gap Shelter had been refurbished—it is now ‘the new Curly Maple Gap Shelter’–a double-decker shelter with a large rain-porch. I really have to give a lot of credit to the Eastman Hiking Club and their trail crew for doing such an incredible job rebuilding the shelter; it is pretty awesome what they did with that old block shelter.
Note from Webmaster: If you would like to read more details about the rebuilding of the Curly Maple Gap Shelter, and see before and after pictures taken during the construction, please download a small document file here.
As always, thanks go out to my trail-hiking buddy, ‘Rat Patrol’, not just for hiking with me, but for donating several of his photos for the Trailstealth Photo Gallery. Also, many thanks to the Web-Wizard for his substantial time and efforts in keeping this website moving forward.