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In the magical Blue Ridge Mountains above Blowing Rock, North Carolina

Yonahlossee Overlook, driving up Grandfather Mountain

“Sometimes very strange things happen in the mountains…nothing above but sky…and God.” The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham

I’ve always loved this quote from Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. And there’s especially something about being deep in the mountains in springtime –the hush of the forests blanketing the slopes, the myriad shades of rustling green, the birds singing so happily now that winter is over, and the air chilly and sweet.

Lesley and friend deep in the mountains

A short trip to reconnect with Lesley, a friend I’d known since I was a child – whom I hadn’t seen for over 50 years – was four days of inhaling great beauty in the great and glorious Blue Ridge Mountains.

 

Wednesday

Lesley lives atop one of the mountains – in a home with 360 degree views that take in the surrounding ridges and deep, pine-strewn valleys.

It is so quiet, all you hear are the music of the birds and the wind soughing through the trees. Charlie, Lesley’s cat, agrees!

At the base of a twisty, gravelly trail is the small (three blocks) mountain town of Blowing Rock,

I love this Harley Davidson sign in the magical little town of Blowing Rock!

where we went for dinner at the Storie Street Grille that first night … a small, delightful restaurant (aren’t they all?) at which we had – a first for me – fried asparagus. Yum-o! Followed by a perfectly prepared filet with polenta that was absolutely delicious.

After dinner, we ambled around the town, looking at the small shops and cobblestone paths, churches, vine covered houses, restaurants and pubs in the still sunlight deep in the mountains. Already I’m in love!

Thursday

I woke up around 10AM after a great night’s sleep, which I’d needed after a busy work week back home.

The weather continued to be glorious – 70 degrees. I love sitting on the deck in the mornings, inhaling the view with my coffee!

We drove to Boone for breakfast at a farm-to-table restaurant, where we sat on the café’s deck and kicked back. Allie, Lesley’s beautiful Golden Doodle, joined us, good as – well – gold.

Boone, named for Daniel Boone, is a college town, home to Appalachian State University, and the main street was awash with students everywhere. I love the old stonework that is part of so many houses and buildings here…

It was time for some much-needed walking on the trails so we wended our way to Cone Memorial Park, a Blue Ridge National Heritage area that is truly exquisite and beautifully maintained. Lots of trails. Canadian geese on the lakes.

Our hike took us around Trout Lake

Trout Lake

and up through woods into the mountains, passing an old apple barn and a sign by the side of the road that said “Due to past pesticide use in apple orchards, some soils on the Cone Estate will contain high levels of arsenic and or lead. Do not dig or allow children to dig in soils…” Really brings you up short with an appalling reminder of the harm done in the past to these wonderful orchards.

Beautiful dry stone walls…always a favorite…

The trails were dotted with dry stone walls and old buildings, and everything was green green green. There are about 25 miles of trails – we did five!

Friday

Sunrise high in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Woke around 9 in the morning…I’d actually waked at sunrise, which was so beautiful from the bedroom window, I had to jump from the bed to take a photograph. Morning has broken (thanks Cat Stevens)!

Our first stop of the day was an English café called Eat Crow – we had English pasties, and I bought a bumbleberry pie for that night’s dessert. I had never tasted one before. It was delish!! From there, we took a circuitous route up Grandfather Mountain, stopping at various outlooks on the way to the summit. Glorious!!!

Driving to the summit of Grandfather Mountain

Once we summited and parked, the next big challenge was opening the car door! The wind factor was “only” 18 mph” but it felt like 100… Lesley had to hang onto the door handle while I exited.

Woof! Some wind!

Allie held me down so I didn’t blow away…isn’t she gorgeous?!

But the views! Unbelievable, and so elemental….I just loved it…I think it was my favorite adventure out of all the wonderful treks around the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Once we got back home, we drove into Blowing Rock for a concert at the Inn at Ragged Gardens (don’t you love the names)…which Les attended,

and I, needing a bit of a rest, found the SixPence Pub where I had a quiet corner to put my feet up and drink my Boddington’s. Loved it! Wrote my journal and just enjoyed the surroundings.

Saturday

As we drove down and up the mountain from the house to various ports of call, I’m noticing the houses, barns and farms that hang precariously from the mountainside or plunge into the valley. Here is one beautiful image.

A home with a view

On this day, we drove back to the Cone Memorial Park, and wandered around Mildred the Bear’s Environmental Habitat, found secret side paths and dry stone walls, and stopped at overlooks to take in the unparalleled views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Secret pathways…love them!

Blowing Rock was just two miles away, so we ate lunch at the tiny Blowing Rock Grilled Cheese Café.

We both had the French Grille. It encompassed Brie and Gruyere cheeses with pear and fig dressing on a grilled sourdough pannini! Heaven on a plate!

The town was awash with flowers…which always makes me happy!

Buttercups!

This was my last day, the end of a very special trip: reconnecting with my long-time family friend in the beauty of the mountains…many thanks to Lesley for a splendid respite. Doesn’t seem to get any better than this! Time just seems to go so quickly when you are visiting these wonderful places… All my visits to the mountains – the Smokies, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Shenandoah – are a marvelous build up to the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is just something about the Blue Ridge…but then, I seem to say that about them all!

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Hiking in the Great Smokies

The green is the very greenest green

The green is the very greenest green

One of my goals in hiking was to hike the Appalachian Trail – not the entire trail, but at least a portion of it, so that when I read about it, I can visualize its beauty and challenges all the better. So a couple of years ago, I joined Adventures in Good Company for a few days of hiking in one of the greenest areas in the States….

Ro in front of Stairway to Heaven Lodge outside Gatlinburg

In front of Stairway to Heaven Lodge outside Gatlinburg

I met a friend, Lee, at the Knoxville Airport on Sunday, then met up with the rest of the group to bus to our lodge, with a quick stop for lunch and a getting-to-know-you at a side-of-the-road café; we eventually dropped our bags at the Stairway to Heaven Lodge (don’t you love that name!), and began our first day’s hike.  A nice introduction to the area, and a short but sweet walk of around 3 miles up to the Little Greenbrier Community, where early settlers of the region…well…settled! The weather was just what you want it to be on a hike…not too hot, crisp breezes and surrounded by the greenest trees everywhere.

The start of our hikes in the Great Smokies

The start of our hikes in the Great Smokies

Our splendid Lodge is actually a mile or so outside of Gatlinburg (more about that in a minute). Having booked a single room, I was lucky enough to be on the second floor with a spectacular view of the mountains from my balcony outside the bedroom windows (the balcony wrapped around the entire second floor.) Downstairs, a huge common room included the kitchen, where our guides prepared breakfast each morning, and got the coffee going. Is there a better aroma anywhere than coffee brewing early in the morning, and sitting with your cuppa on the balcony when the outside scents of the day are crisp and green? (Rhetorical question, but the answer is: NO!) Here is the balcony view…

View from Ro's balcony at the Lodge

View from my balcony at the Lodge

Before we left for our hike, we were given the first commandment, which was and is: “Leave no footprint.” So no matter where you are, you do not leave the trail, and you certainly don’t leave detritus behind. The trails and surrounding mountains, woodlands and waterfalls are so pristine, you know visitors to the area take this deeply to heart.

Monday

On Monday morning, we were all up bright and early and ready to go. Porter’s Creek Trail passed through a forest wilderness of Eastern Hemlocks and Fraser magnolias, and then into hardwoods. Cultural artifacts we see include an old cabin made up of stone walls with an old cantilevered barn close by, and an old cemetery (Owenby), remnants of a simpler time when a village community lived here.

Iconic bridge crossing a stream

Iconic bridge crossing a stream

Our hike took us to Fern Branch Falls, where we have a light lunch, and then it’s back on the trail to the Lodge.  We walk in a mix of light drizzle and sunshine, and all is quiet and beautiful, or beautifully quiet… The only sound you hear are the birds calling. All in all, this takes about 6 hours, as we stop constantly to view the wildflowers and peer inside crumbling stone walls….a little over 4 miles in all.

Jan and Katie and a bite of lunch by the stream

Jan and Katie and a bite of lunch by a stream

On our way back to the Lodge, we’d stopped off at a grocery cum liquor store and picked up some wine, so dinner at the Lodge, prepared by our guides Jan and Katie, was quite a jolly occasion. After which, I could barely keep my eyes open…so to bed, and no sooner had my head hit the pillow, than I was down and out.

Tuesday

Up at 6:30 (which I consider the crack of dawn) to the aroma of the coffee brewing. Running down the stairs to pick up my cup, I plant myself on the balcony to drink in the view. It really is spectacular…the mountains are just incredible.

The "Refrigerator" Great Smokies National Park

The “Refrigerator” Great Smokies National Park

We hiked off the beaten path today, up to a natural limestone sink, called White Oak Sink. It houses various caves, rare plants and a waterfall, and is surrounded by wildflowers.  The hike has some steep ascents, but the Sink is our stopping point for a light snack and photography. Because of the on and off drizzle, all is green green green (and a wee bit slippery). We spend quite a bit of time here, just wandering around the waterfalls and crossing on the logs across the river.

Wednesday

What a day! We start with a short hike in country close to the Pigeon River.

After which, my first experience whitewater rafting. It’s incredible! And to think I almost opted out of this exhilarating adventure. We were about 6 to a raft, including the guide (to whom I was extremely grateful!) who really knew her way around whitewater. While the water was not actually death-defying, it certainly seemed to be doing its job, which was rockin’ and rollin’ to our next stopping point. I was seated to the right rear of the raft, and every time we hit a drop, I’d bounce from the seat onto the bottom of the raft, which meant that the photographs being taken usually just showed the top of my head (if that)!

Ro does the rapids SMILING

Ro does the rapids SMILING – look at that water!

Scheduled to last about 2 hours, because the river was in spate, we were through in a little over an hour – but what an hour! I loved every second of it…screams and all. It was just the best, and I’d do it again in an instant.

The Great Smokies

The Great Smokies

After that, we gathered for an al fresco lunch surrounded by fields and greenery; it doesn’t get much better than that.

Thursday

Getting ready for the hike

Getting ready for the hike

My favorite thing: finally, I get to set toe on the Appalachian Trail! This is so exciting for me, as I’ve wanted to hike on the Trail ever since I read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. This part of the Trail goes right through the Park, and was the first trail used by the public with absolutely fabulous views everywhere you turn.

The AT sign at the start of the hike

The AT sign at the start of the hike

It’s a very challenging trail, as well. Tree roots everywhere – you end up literally climbing up and down them from beginning to end. Why did I think the Trail would be less challenging? You had to keep your eyes on the “road” otherwise you can trip and smash your face into one of the huge tree roots, which I eventually did. I had a lovely dramatic fall – bashing my sunglasses into my nose, and splatting full force onto the ground. I think I was out of it for about five seconds, but no more…and there was no harm done. Not fun, however.

Resting atop Charlie's Bunion

Resting atop Charlie’s Bunion

The hike was above 5,000 feet, and we were able to see much of the flora and fauna of these higher elevations. Our aim was to reach a bundle of boulders called “Charlie’s Bunion” … we got there in the middle of the day, and clambered to the peak, looking down over glorious views of the Porters Creek Valley, as well as the main spine of the Smokies. It was just such a kick.

Clingman's Dome

Clingman’s Dome

After a much needed short break, we hiked back down and beavered on to Clingman’s Dome, which rises more than 6,500 feet above the Smokies. It’s the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, providing a 360 degree view of the mountains.  Oddly enough, getting up to Clingman’s was harder for me than the entire AT hike. At this time of the day, the climb seemed to loom straight up….Hoo baby! my legs definitely felt it, coming and going. Once you made it to the top, the view from the tower was about 22 miles, but sometimes if the air is super-clear, you can see as far as 100 miles into seven states!

Laurel tree in bloom

Laurel tree in bloom

All in all, we hiked about 10 miles this day. We started early, around 9AM, and finished after 5PM…worth every sore muscle!

Because of the length of the hike, we were all treated to dinner at a lovely little restaurant in Gatlinburg. The food was yummy – but Gatlinburg itself – well, the word “touristy” doesn’t begin to describe it. The shops covered the town with all sorts and conditions of souvenirs; Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Shop fascinated Lee no end. And the masses of people – this was an eye opener: I’d heard about Gatlinburg, but it really has to be seen to be believed. I saw it – and once was enough for me.

Friday

The Group

The Group

It’s time to say farewell to everyone, but also to squeeze in one more hike, one more picnic. This took us to Laurel Falls, through laurel trees, pine trees and oaks blowing in the gentle wind. The falls are named for the mountain laurel, the beautiful flowering tree which seems to be iconic to the Smokies. It’s tough to leave all this beauty behind, but deeply satisfying to know that places of deep, unspoiled loveliness still lie abundant in the heart of the good old U.S. of A!