INTO THE BRIAR PATCH
Iíve hiked at Doughton Park, on the Parkway just south of the Virginia state line, many times over the years.† Most of those hikes started and ended from the lower trailhead on Longbottom Road.† That trailhead is easy to get to, and provides access to several attractive loop hikes.† However, from that starting point, some of the better hikes require crossing Basin Creek.† The crossing is an easy rock-hop when the water is low, but when itís up (and cold) it can be tricky.†
I wasnít in the mood for that sort of a challenge last weekend, so I planned a route starting off the Parkway.† I usually avoid starting from the Parkway, because of the heavy traffic, both on the road and on the trails.† In the winter though, the Parkway is closed north of milepost 243 (Bluff Mountain overlook).† As a result, winter is the best season for a hike in the upper elevations of Doughton Park.†
Saucony and I met Bob in Statesville and rode with him through Wilkesboro to the Parkway.† We parked just before the gate, where we found several other cars.† When conditions are suitable, this area is popular with ice climbers, as there is a good ice gully on the side of Bluff Mountain a short distance from the parking area.† We saw several climbers getting their gear organized as we headed into the woods.
It didnít take me long to figure out that Iíd miscalculated our starting point.† We had actually driven more than a mile farther than I had originally intended.† As a result, our planned 9-mile round trip hike to Fodderstack would only be 6 Ĺ miles.† We decided to wing it, and maybe extend the hike from Fodderstack if we could.
We climbed up through the woods along the slope of Bluff Mountain.† This trail can be notoriously icy in the winter, but some new staircases enabled us to avoid some of the more hazardous spots.† The others were avoidable with some delicate footwork.† We didnít need our ice cleats today, but I do recommend having ice cleats or crampons handy if you plan to hike this trail in the winter.
Shortly before the summit we reached a cliff with a grand view to the west, south, and east.† The best view was west, as Grandfather Mountain, Snake Mountain, The Peak, Three Top, and Mount Rogers were all visible.† We could also see the ski slopes on Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain.† It was an unusually clear day, as I canít remember ever seeing all of those peaks on previous visits.
From there we hiked the rest of the way to the summit.† At the top we found rolling grassy meadows.† We strolled through them, enjoying the expansive views in every direction.† We didnít make very good time through here, as the sunshine was glorious and the photo opportunities were constant.† We finally passed through the picnic area, and rambled through more meadows towards the park lodge.† Shortly before the lodge, we skirted the head of a minor draw, and I took Saucony down in search of water.† Luckily, we found a pretty good spring.
We returned to the trail, which led us out to the road to the lodge and the Fodderstack Trailhead.† In the summer this area can be a zoo, but there wasnít anyone here today.† We strolled down the road past the lodge, and reached the parking area.† From there we continued on the short trail to Wildcat Rock.† From the cliff, we had a fine view down the valley.† Far below, we could clearly see Caudill Cabin perched in a small meadow.† A sign at the overlook claims the cabin is 1500í below, which is a bit of an exaggeration.† My map suggests itís only about 1000í.
From there we took the one-mile trail out to Fodderstack.† We passed a few additional views before descending to a gap on the ridge.† From here, an extremely steep bushwhacking route descends to Caudill Cabin.† That route is not for the faint of heart!† Myron, Dorcas, and I once climbed up that way Ė with full overnight backpacks.† Unfortunately we got a bit off course, and reached the crest of the ridge closer to Fodderstack.† That climb was one little adventure Iíll never forget (and one Iíll never repeat!).† Dorcas refuses to talk about it to this day.
Bob and I wisely continued along the ridge, but we would prove that we arenít immune to foolishness.† We stopped at the end of the ridge (where there are minimal views, at best) and enjoyed hot soup.† While eating, we discussed options for extending the hike.† It was early, and we could be back at the car in a little over an hour if we chose to return.† Bob suggested continuing to Brinegar Cabin, which is along the Parkway at the north end of the Park.† I agreed, but it didnít take me long to plan a shortcut using the topo map.† If we followed the trail, weíd have to return to the Lodge, and follow the Mountains-to-Sea Trail around a sweeping curve along the Parkway.† We could see the Parkway from where we were sitting, about Ĺ mile to the north.† There was no trail directly there, and there was an intervening valley, but it was only about 400í deep.† We decided to try going cross-country.† If we were successful, weíd shave 2 or 3 miles off our route.
The bushwhack started well.† We headed down a reasonable grade through relatively open forest.† We soon found ourselves in a draw, and followed it down until abundant ice forced us to find another route.† We were only about 100í from the bottom of the valley when our progress was halted by dense rhododendron and tangles of briars.† The opposite side of the valley looked more open, and we probably couldíve forced our way through, but it hardly seemed worth it.† Instead we retreated to the ridge, and took the long way around.
We passed the lodge and the restaurant and crossed the road several times before finally reaching the campground.† The campground is in an attractive wooded setting.† More hiking in the woods followed, and we spooked several deer on multiple occasions.† Iíd say we probably saw 20 deer over the course of the hike, although I may be counting the same deer more than once!
We passed through a clearing near the Parkway before returning to the woods.† At this point we took a shortcut on an old service road, as it was getting late, and we still had a long hike back.† The service road brought us back to the Mountains-To-Sea Trail, which led to Brinegar Cabin.† The cabin was closed for the winter, but its back porch provided a nice place for a break in the afternoon sun.† Also, after some difficulty I was able to get some water for Saucony from the spring below the cabin.
We left at 3pm, so we made it a fast hike back.† We passed another hiker with a dog (the only one weíd see all day) and motored back to the restaurant.† From there, we took a shortcut by staying on the Parkway.† This meant missing a second crossing of Bluff Mountain, but it saved a lot of time.† It also gave us a chance to walk by the dozens of icicles and ice sculptures along the face of Bluff Mountain.† We passed the ice gully that is popular with climbers, and tip-toed across a solid sheet of ice covering the road.† That ice was thick, so Iím guessing that section of the Parkway wonít be open anytime soon.
We returned to the cars by 4:30 and headed home.† In a few weeks, the Parkway will be reopening.† Before then, I hope to get in another hike or two where I can take advantage of the lack of traffic.
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