THE $100 MILLION DOLLAR HIGHWAY
Last week I was scheduled to work in Chattanooga.† I was pretty excited about the trip, even though the last time I was in Chattanooga Iíd been suffering from a severe hangover (Wohoo!† Appalachian State University Mountaineers, 2005 1-AA football National Champions!) I was looking forward to going back, and seeing more of the city than the football stadium.† Plus, I didnít have to start the job until Tuesday.† That meant that I could make a leisurely drive there on Monday, and do a hike somewhere along the way.
Originally I thought Iíd hike to Max Patch, since the trailhead isnít far off of I-40 west of Asheville.† At the last minute though, I changed plans.† Iíve never hiked in the Plott Balsams, and I knew if I took highway 74 through the mountains Iíd be nearby.†
I left Charlotte early, passed through Asheville, and reached the Parkway in less than 3 hours.† From there, it was only a short drive up to a developed overlook at Waterrock Knob.† My plan was to start with the short hike to Waterrock Knob.† Then Iíd continue on the ridge to Mount Lynn Lowery and on to Plott Balsam.
It was a chilly, cloudy Monday morning, and there was nobody in the parking lot when I arrived.† Iím sure itís a very different scene on a pretty summer or fall weekend.† From the trailhead, I followed the path, which is initially paved.† The climb was more difficult than I expected, especially beyond the pavement.† It was a steady climb, and the rocky tread made the hike moderately challenging.† After 30 minutes or so, I reached the summit.† The view was nice, but somewhat limited by clouds and haze.† At this point, most people have reached the climax of their hike.† For me, the adventure had only begun.
I searched around the summit for a trail, and eventually found a faint path heading down steeply towards Mount Lynn Lowery.† Calling it a path is generous, and it got worse as I descended.† Weeds and fallen trees added to the challenge.† Before long, I found myself above a slippery rock face.† It looked like the route might continue below the rock, but I couldnít tell from my vantage point.† Either way, I was having second thoughts.† I had planned on an 8 to 10 mile hike.† I certainly wasnít going to make it anywhere near that far in these conditions.† Plus, I was by myself.† I enjoy an adventurous bushwhack as much as anyone, but I donít like to take chances when Iím solo.† I decided to bail out on my original plan, and retreated to the summit.† I decided Iíd continue on towards Chattanooga, and find another hike to do along the way.
Since I had time to kill, I decided to take the scenic route.† I drove to Robbinsville, and continued on towards Tennessee on the Cherhola Skyway.† The Skyway was built about 10 years ago at a cost of $100 million to the taxpayers.† All that money went towards building a crucial link between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains, TN.† Well, unlike another proposed road nearby (the billion dollar highway?), it least it goes somewhere.† Iím sure the residents of Robbinsville are thrilled to have easy access to the metropolis of Tellico Plains, and vice versa.
I drove the road in a feeble attempt to get my moneyís worth out of it.† Iím not sure I succeeded.† On the upside, the drive was pleasant since the road wasnít cluttered up with a bunch of other cars.† Along the way, I saw only a handful of motorcycles and a few cars.
I followed the road along a ridge that divides the Joyce Kilmer / Slickrock Wilderness Area from the proposed Snowbird Wilderness Area.† Scenic drives usually donít excite me much, so I decided to do a few short hikes.† First, I tackled the short walk to Spirit Ridge.† This trail is paved, and it leads a Ĺ mile or so to a viewpoint that is virtually identical to many of the roadside overlooks.† I couldíve skipped this one without missing anything.
I drove on, and stopped at the trailhead for Huckleberry Knob.† This one looked more promising.† I followed a jeep road through the woods and up to the open meadows of Oak Knob.† From there, more forest intervened before the final climb to Huckleberry.† Huckleberry is a pleasant grassy bald, and the views are nice.† By the time I arrived, the clouds had moved on.† Unfortunately, the haze did not.† Because of the haze, the view wasnít nearly as expansive as it mightíve been.† On the other hand, the warm, sunny, breezy mountaintop offered a nice place for lunch.
I returned to the car, and drove a short distance to the Hooper Bald trailhead.† This was a hike I had to do.† Some 8-10 years earlier, I had backpacked in the Snowbird Wilderness with some friends.† That trip had started deep in the valley, along Snowbird Creek.† We had ended up near the creekís headwaters, not far from Hooper Bald.† After a couple of days of wandering around in the woods, the idea of a scenic bald was appealing.† Ultimately though, we decided that Hooper Bald was too far out of the way.† We skipped it, and Iíd always wondered what we had missed.† Today Iíd find out.
I followed an easy trail a Ĺ mile or so to the bald.† Hooper Bald features a long narrow meadow surrounded by trees.† As a result, views are very limited.† It was a pleasant place to walk, but I concluded that weíd made the correct decision skipping it that day so many years ago.
I returned to the car, and headed down the mountain into Tennessee.† Chattanooga was waiting for me, but I had one more stop to make.† A few miles outside of Tellico Plains, I turned onto a paved forest service road towards Bald River Falls.† This road leads along the lovely Tellico River.† Along the way, I spotted a couple of kayakers.†† A few minutes later, I crossed a bridge over the Bald River.† The bridge provides a prime view of the falls, which cascade over a high ledge and into the Tellico River.† Even though it was a Monday, there were quite a few people around here.† Iíd hate to try to find a parking space here on a summer weekend.
I parked and took in the falls from the bridge and from below.† Bright sunlight and heavy spray made photography difficult, but that didnít stop me from trying.† Afterwards, I decided I had plenty of time, so I decided to take another short hike.
Just beyond the parking area, the Bald River Gorge trail climbs steeply away from the road.† I followed it up a couple of switchbacks to the top of the falls.† From there, I continued upstream past more rapids and cascades.† At one point, I climbed away from the river to a rocky pinnacle high above the stream.† I then returned to the creek, and reached a large cascade that could probably be called Upper Bald River Falls.† Beyond that cascade, the river calms down. I passed some minor rapids and many pools before reaching my turnaround time.† The trail continues another couple of miles, but I still had a ways to drive.† I returned to the car by the same route, and headed for Tellico Plains.† I got lost briefly there, before finally finding my way to I-75 and on to Chattanooga.
My stay in Chattanooga was pleasant.† Downtown Chattanooga has a lot to offer, including some nice restaurants.† A greenway along the Tennessee River provided me with a nice place to run.† I enjoyed my visit there, even though I completely failed to See Rock City.†
The drive home on Friday was less enjoyable.† I got stuck in a traffic jam leaving Chattanooga at 3:30.† By the time I escaped from that, I had no interest in driving through Atlanta or Knoxville.† Instead, I took highway 64 east to Murphy and highway 74 through Andrews to Asheville.† The area around Murphy is one of the few parts of the North Carolina mountains Iíd never seen.† It was good to finally get there, although the peaks werenít terribly impressive, at least from the highway.† The drive through the Nantahala River gorge was nice though, and the remainder of the trip was smooth.† Once out of the Chattanooga traffic jam, the drive took under 6 hours.† Iíll never drive through Atlanta or Knoxville on the way to Chattanooga again!
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