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Tag Archives: whitewater rafting

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!

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The Blue Ridge Mountains, NC – To Hike or Not to Hike

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

I was really looking forward to hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains – and also whitewater rafting, zip lining (a first) and a bit of rapelling. I arrived in Asheville the evening before joining the group, got a good night’s sleep at the hotel, and met Deb, one of my hiking friends, the next day for lunch. Then we were on our merry way to the William Black Lodge at Montreat, North Carolina.

Immediately on arrival, we booted up and made our way up the Lookout Trail and Mountain, which was a lot more challenging than originally thought…As the rest of the group galloped ahead, I made it slowly to the top without any seeming problem.

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It was on the way down that I really got into trouble. My new boots, despite the use of well padded hiking socks and liners, suddenly became way too big as with every step down, my feet began slipping, banging against the toe of the boots.  By the time I was halfway down the mountain, I could barely walk…the pain was intense. I managed to make it to the van, and have never been so glad to get hiking boots – normally the most comfortable of shoes – off my feet!! Tender is not the word…I spent the rest of the evening barefoot, hoping this was simply a bruise that would wear off.

The next day I spent at the lodge, resting up – while my hiking sisters took the next great hike.

blue-ridge-on-cell-036

Then it was time for the big adventure. The following morning, I was able to put on my tennies, and hobble to the van, where we drove to our meeting point for whitewater rafting. What a joy! Having done this once before, I was looking forward to the challenge. We read all the documents on the pros and cons of the rafting; elected to sign off despite the dangers of death or worse; and then clustered around the rafts as our guides told us what to expect.

2

The day was absolutely beautiful – as was the weather on the entire trip, despite the onslaught of Hurricane Matthew along the coast. We separated into two rafts, and our guide explained that because the water was low, we’d probably be bouncing off more boulders than usual, as well as negotiating pathways through them. All of which was true.The river was placid when we embarked, and our guides shouted orders as we moved out into midstream. What a rush when we encountered our first whitewater, zipping easily around boulders embedded in the sandy floor.

2a

At one point, where the river was a little rougher than usual, we bounced off a boulder – and Deb bounced right out of the raft! Having been indoctrinated as to what to expect should that happen, after the first shock, she floated easily on her back until Ruthven grabbed her by both straps and hauled her back into the boat. Scary – but definitely something to write home about!

2b

Halfway through our little odyssey, we pulled our rafts onto the riverbank and stopped for lunch – which consisted of some of the best burgers known to man…yum-o! Then it was back into the rafts, and another hour of pure bliss down the stream….about a couple of hours all told. Such a rush!!

2c

Our next foray (the same day) was zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We were vanned to our starting point, went through the usual machinations of the danger, the signing and so forth. Then we wriggled into our safety harnesses, helmets and gloves, as well as donning the leather glove used to slow the flight down should our stop arrive too quickly….

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

And there we were, high on a three-sided platform above the forest, the fourth side open for the zip line. One by one, we were hooked to the cable, sat back and swung out onto the line – the highest rate of speed between platforms was about 30mph. The leather glove worked beautifully, slowing us as we reached the next stop. Half the time we didn’t quite make it to the platform. I usually ended up with a foot or two between me and the platform; at which point, you swivel around on the line and basically crawl backwards, hand over hand, to the waiting guide who pulls you to safety.7

We ran ten of these zip lines.  We traversed a very wobbly suspension bridge to one of our platforms…that was more nerve-wracking than the zip lining!

At two stops, after first being hooked to the cable…we planted our feet on either side of the platform, and swung into the void, then rapelled our way down ropes hand over fist,…another first, another rush! Loved every minute!!

Both the whitewater rafting and the zip lining were courtesy of the French Broad Rafting & Zip Lining company – http://www.frenchbroadrafting.com/ – absolutely terrific in every way.

Then it was off to dinner, and a celebratory drink to finish off the day’s adventure.

Our next foray, the following day, was a visit to the Biltmore Estate, 8,000 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds and over 178,000 square feet of floor space in the mansion. Amazing!

blue-ridge-on-cell-059

We took a guided tour of the house, had a picnic in the picnic area, and then stopped inside the wine room for a pleasant hour of wine tasting.

The Biltmore Estate

The Biltmore Estate

Then Karen (one of the trip participants and a lovely person) and I wandered the grounds, where the flowers, shrubs, trees and pathways were a delight.

10

Unfortunately by this time, my toes were beginning to make themselves known, as the drubbing they’d received on the first day’s hike had not gone quietly away and I could see I was going to have a problem.

blue-ridge-on-cell-046

By the time we made it back to the lodge, it was obvious I could not continue to hike, so I cut my visit short, left for Asheville early the following morning, and so made it back home before my feet fell off. Just kidding!! But it certainly makes me realize the importance of ensuring a well-fitting hiking boot before embarking on challenging trails.

That being said – I wouldn’t have missed the whitewater rafting, rapelling and zip lining for anything. I thought I’d be extremely afraid, looking down down down and knowing I’d be out there, swinging my way across and through the trees like Tarzan. I thought I’d be frozen with fear…but I never felt fear for one moment. That was the greatest thing this trip gave me…who knew!