Last week Myron, Dorcas, Bob, and the dogs, Saucony and Izzak, joined me on my first hike of 2007.  Initially we planned to hike a section of the Mountains To Sea Trail in the Craggy Mountains.  However, we were all able to fit into Dorcas’ new Honda Element.  Since we only had one car, a shuttle hike wasn’t possible.  As we headed west, I contemplated our options.  By the time we reached Black Mountain, we’d settled on a backup plan – an out and back hike from Craggy Gardens to Snowball Mountain.  At least that sounded like an appropriate destination for a January hike, despite recent weather more reminiscent of spring.  After all, it was supposed to be over 70 degrees in Charlotte that day.


We parked at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center.  Beyond this point, the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed for the winter.  When we got out of the car, thoughts of spring-like weather vanished from our minds.  It was chilly there, more than a mile above sea level, and the wind was howling through the gap between Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle.  Just getting our gear organized in those conditions was a challenge.  It was a relief to get into the woods, although the tree cover did little to diminish the wind.


We went all of 20 yards before someone called for a conference.  The idea of hiking along a ridge in those conditions was unappealing.  Were there any other options?  As it turns out, the trail to Douglas Falls starts in the same place.  That hike promised more shelter, as it leads down into the valley west of Craggy Gardens.  Everyone agreed to another change in plans.  We were still in sight of the parking lot, and we’d already changed our route twice!


We hiked a short distance to a junction, and picked up the Mountains To Sea Trail heading north.  We descended a rocky and occasionally slippery trail for some distance before we reached a marked junction.  Here we left the MST behind, and resumed the descent on the Douglas Falls Trail. 


It wasn’t long before we crossed the first of several streams running off Craggy Pinnacle.  These streams are usually insignificant, but recent heavy rains had resulted in high water.  The first crossing was simple, but the next one featured a rushing torrent that was just wide enough that it couldn’t be jumped.  The crossing was in the middle of a long slide, so a slip there could’ve been nasty.  I arrived at the crossing last and surveyed the scene.  The water was shallow, and it looked like I’d be able to step into the middle of the creek without soaking my boot.  I was wrong.  The force of the water was more powerful than expected, and it instantly climbed my leg and breached the top of my boot!  I felt better about it when I found out that everyone else had done exactly the same thing.  This stream crossing was the only carnage from the hike, except for Bob’s attempt at head butting a low hanging tree limb. 


We were able to rock hop the remaining stream crossings.  We descended through an area of large (old growth, I think) hemlocks and arrived at a scenic campsite situated between several huge boulders.  One boulder has a large tree growing on top of it, while another is easily the size of a two-story house.  We contemplated stopping there for lunch, but the waterfall beckoned. 


We descended a couple of switchbacks and arrived at the base of Douglas Falls.  This waterfall is on a fairly small creek, but the recent rains had significantly increased its volume.  The creek spills out over an 80’ cliff in a true freefall.  This type of waterfall is uncommon in the southeast, as most of our waterfalls are really cascades.  Due to its nature, it is possible to walk behind the waterfall.  I did that, and explored the falls from every conceivable angle in search of some good photographs.  It was a fairly sunny day, but there was enough shade in the gorge that I was able to get some decent photos.


We had lunch, but a chilly breeze and spray from the falls prevented us from lingering there for long.  We headed back, and quickly warmed as we ascended out of the gorge.  On the way out, we were startled by the amount of oncoming traffic.  We saw 10 or 12 people along the trail before reaching the junction with the southbound MST through Craggy Gardens.  One gentleman was trail running, which seemed a little crazy to me on that rocky trail.  That wasn’t nearly as bad as the couple we passed that was hiking barefoot!  Sometimes you see some amazing things when you get close to the trailhead.


At the junction the guys decided to add to the hike with a brief tour of Craggy Gardens.  The morning chill and vicious winds were long gone, having been replaced by a surprisingly warm afternoon.  Dorcas decided she’d had enough though, and headed back to the car.  We headed up through the woods before reaching the heath balds Craggy Gardens is named for.  The area features abundant rhododendron among the open meadows.  Normally, the rhododendron blooms in mid to late June.  As warm as it has been this winter though, we wouldn’t have been surprised to find some blossoms already!


We stopped at an overlook with a nice view before heading back.  We arrived at the trailhead, and were stunned to find the large parking area nearly full.  I’d never seen that many cars there, even in June.  Apparently, dozens of folks had decided to take advantage of the warm, sunny day with a visit to the Parkway or Mount Mitchell.  Unfortunately, since the section of the Parkway south of Mitchell is closed, the tourists heading that way found their route blocked.  As a result, it seems that everyone stopped at Craggy Gardens.


We left the madness behind and headed home.  On the way we stopped in Morganton for dinner at Judges.  Judges recently re-opened after being rebuilt following the floods from the hurricanes a couple of years ago.  I was pleased to find almost everything the same.  Even the bathroom in the upper seating area is still frigid!  Dinner at Judges brought a fitting end to a nice hike on what turned out to be a lovely day.

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