Pond Mountain / laurel falls

I put Pond Mountain (Wilderness) in the title of this post because there are a whole lot of places named Laurel Falls in the state of Tennessee, plus several more nearby in North Carolina and Georgia. This is four mile loop hike from Dennis Cove which we’ve done before but not for several years and it’s always a favorite. We follow the AT northbound to the falls to start with.

This is a wonderful picnic spot and place to let the kids play in the river below the pool. The pool created by the falls is notoriously unsafe due to strong currents and there have been drownings here (several). From here, the A.T. makes a nifty passage through a gap in the cliffs alongside the river. This would be impassable at high water. We followed the trail to the shelter and then took the high water route back to Dennis Cover. Just hiking to the falls and back would cut this hike in half to about 2 miles.

Mount Rogers / Grayson Highlands

Having broached the ten mile mark in Utah just a month before we did it again here in the Virginia High Country (this would become our son’s new longest hike at 11 miles). We were camping nearby at Grindstone and entered along the AT which quickly put us in the Lewis Fork Wilderness

See? There’s even a sign. The AT eventually runs along the edge of some large open meadow spaces where you may well find wild ponies. The wild ponies definitely make this area unique as far as hiking.

Here’s a wild mare and her foal. Don’t mess with the foals, the mares are small as horses go but still pretty solid and willing to knock people around to protect their young. Also, even when they’re being friendly (like licking the salt off of you) they have a tendency to nip.

From here the AT goes very close to the summit of Mt Rogers, although you’d still need to take a side trail to reach it. The views are spectacular at the branch for this side trail. We were told the views from Mt Rogers itself were non-existent (at least in May) so we skipped it. Thomas Knob shelter is also up here and it’s completely infested with horses.

This could well go from cute to annoying if you were actually spending the night here. We weren’t so we looped around at Rhododendron Gap and headed back towards the road on the Virginia Horse Trail. This looks reasonable on a map. It’s not that bad but the horse trail is quite a bit rougher than the A.T. even though it doesn’t have quite as much altitude change. Good news though you traverse several more meadows filled with wild ponies. We even saw a cow in this section and have no idea where it came from.

Beauty Spot / A.T.

We did this hike as an out and back from Beauty Spot to Deep Gap and back. That’s roughly 2 miles each way. First and foremost this hike was about flowers. Tons of them. It was like a living guide to Appalachian wildflowers. There is only one other place we have ever seen as many trillium as we did here and that was not all that far away, just north of the Smokies along the A.T.

Trillium along the AT
Trillium along the AT

Heading northbound from Beauty Spot quickly brings you down to Beauty Spot Gap, which is basically a fence and a near-road junction. There is no real parking here, the parking area is up at Beauty Spot. The hike follows the state line more or less and eventually reaches another open meadow area and another near road junction. That would be this meadow here with a nice view of Unaka Mountain in the distance.

Unaka Mountain
Unaka Mountain

Beauty Spot incidentally is just a bald mountain with stellar views of the surrounding ranges, including Unaka, Roan, the Blacks in North Carolina, the Balds along the border and the valleys down to Erwin, Tennessee. Here Alaric is facing into a stiff headwind. It seems like it may always be this windy up here. Beauty Spot is reachable by a moderately graded gravel road.

Beauty Spot
Beauty Spot

Elk River Falls / Jones Falls

Elk River Falls is just inside the North Carolina state line west of Blowing Rock, near the town of (shockingly enough) Elk River. There are some moderately elaborate signs in the town which will send you out along the Elk River. The road ends at a parking lot and from there the top of the falls are just about visible downstream. It’s a steep hike down to the bottom but it’s worth it as it’s the only real view and it’s a good one. This appears to be a fantastic swimming hole (or several swimming holes) in warmer weather. In October it was rather chilly.

Elk River Falls
Elk River Falls

If you’re up for a second waterfall it’s about a two mile hike each way to Jones Falls. There are numerous blogs that list the instructions but I’ll repeat them here anyway. Follow the forest road around the gate. It meanders up and down a few hills and in 3/4 of a mile you’ll reach a ford at the Elk River. Do not cross. Instead follow the river downstream across a meadow and along a very small goat path. It will look about like this once the path opens up again. From here the Elk River makes a hard right turn. Continue to follow the left bank which means crossing a tributary (this is Jones Creek) and following a steep connector trail to the A.T. Once you reach the A.T. (should be obvious, white blazes, etc..) turn left (north bound) and hike about 0.6 miles to the side trail to Jones Falls.

Elk River
Elk River

There was good signage to Jones Falls when we visited, but it is also the first blue blazed side trail (to the left) that you come to. The trail ends at Jones Falls which is a high tiered drop. It’s difficult to see the entire falls from any one location and the bottom portions of it disappear into rhododendron thickets. This would probably be very impressive at high water levels.

Jones Falls
Jones Falls

Hurricane / Comers Creek Falls

Hurricane is a fairly remote campground on the north side of Mt. Rogers NRA in southern Virginia. There are a couple different ways in, including a paved road off of VA 16 between Sugar Grove (gas station / general store) and Troutdale (absolutely nothing). We arrived via the rougher gravel road from Adwolfe (one diner). There is another gravel road heading west but we never went that route. It’s unlikely there were more supplies immediately available that way though so come prepared.

Hurricane #4
Hurricane #4

We personally thought this campground was awesome. 24 sites, many of them right alongside Comers Creek (that’s it behind the tentpad here). There are a couple of sites on the left side of the road before the second bathroom we would not take but all of the rest were great. This is site #4, slightly exciting because there was a large warning on it that the tent pad holds water in heavy rain. Luckily, it never rained on us here. Hurricane has a hot shower, drinkable water pumps and no hookups (yay!) so it’s perfect for tent camping. It was extremely quiet during our stay which included a weekend in May.

Comers Creek Falls
Comers Creek Falls

Without having to drive anywhere at all there is a river trail that goes downstream along Comers Creek, a 1 mile loop hike up to a knob behind the campground (this follows Hurricane Creek as well) and a half mile connector trail to the Appalachian Trail. If you go to the AT and head north bound you’ll reach this water fall in about a mile and a half total. We think this is Comers Creek Falls, it’s a bit confusing. If it isn’t, it looks a lot like this and is slightly further upstream. Another mile northbound on the AT brings you to Dickey Gap. It appeared you could make a larger loop by continuing up the AT and following a horse trail back to the campground. We just walked back on the forest road from Dickey Gap.

Mount Buckley to Clingman’s Dome

This is a fun little triangle hike if you’re at Clingman’s Dome and don’t want to spend the entire time on the wide paved path with however many other people are currently visiting Clingman’s Dome. At the base of the paved path across from the gift store, stairs go down to the Dome Bypass Trail. Take these, turn right in 0.1 miles at the trail junction and head towards the A.T.

A.T. - Dome Bypass Junction
A.T. – Dome Bypass Junction

It’s about a half mile on a relatively gentle incline. The trail is rocky and has difficult footing but there are some good views down on the NC side of the park.

Misty forest near Clingman's Dome
Misty forest near Clingman’s Dome

Once you reach the Appalachian Trail, you can head to the right (northbound) towards Clingman’s Dome. We took a short detour the other direction here to reach the summit of Mount Buckley. Mount Buckley isn’t much to write home about (or a blog entry) but it is a peak, there’s a small grove of stunted spruce trees at the summit and depending on the season, there may be good views into Tennessee. On our visit, the entire AT was in the clouds, mist and intermittent rain so it mostly looked like this.

Clingman's Dome Lookout Tower Ramp
Clingman’s Dome Lookout Tower Ramp

We ended our hike with a trip up the architecturally bizarre lookout tower. If it isn’t strange enough normally, in the clouds it really looks like some alien space craft. There was absolutely nothing to see up here except the tower itself. Total distance for the triangle is right about 2.0 miles.

Harpers Ferry

So Harpers Ferry isn’t really a day trip from Asheville but we were on our way back and it was a short detour off of I-81. We’ve been associated with the Appalachian Trail and the ATC for years but we’ve never visited Harpers Ferry (home of the ATC) until now. It’s a pretty impressive setting at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers. The population is under 300 and most of the town is part of the National Historic Site.

Harpers Ferry, WV
Harpers Ferry, WV

Assuming you can park (the train station is the only real parking in town) it’s an easy walk through town to the AT bridge over the Potomac. Once across the trail merges with the 120-mile long C&O Towpath trail which is a nice flat bikeable route from DC to Cumberland, Maryland. The AT runs north bound along the river for a couple miles before it climbs to Weverton Cliffs. There are dozens of other trails out of Harpers Ferry, most of them involve a bit of a climb since it’s up in all directions.

Laurel Fork Falls

It’s been a while since our last blog post. We’ve been doing some short hikes in Bent Creek that just don’t make very interesting entries. Young Alaric is ready for a real hike though so we took him out on the A.T. for the first time (that’s him in the carrier on my back). This hike is a fairly nice loop (‘lollipop’) hike into Pond Mountain Wilderness in Tennessee.

Starting from Dennis Cove Road, the trail runs along the Laurel River past several nice campsites. Eventually it winds down a section with some impressive cliff walls and this very nice bridge inside the wilderness area.
Just below this the river really starts to drop.

AT Bridge over the Laurel River


After a couple of slight climbs to cross over promontories the trail branches. The ‘high water’ trail continues about 300 feet above the river along the edge of Pond Mountain. We chose to descend to the river here. This is not an easy descent. The distance isn’t all that significant (for the A.T.) but it’s a steep slope across basically a boulder field. Footing is very difficult and treacherous. At the bottom though, Laurel Fork Falls is the reward. This is a beautiful falls and a beautiful area to hang out in.

Laurel Fork Falls


Continuing north-bound on the A.T. the main trail runs literally right along the river’s edge. There are some rocky ledges that it crosses, like this one that would be impossible to pass another hiker on. The trail follows the river past more nice campsites and then climbs onto a ridge where it meets the other side of the high water trail. Just up the high water trail from this junction is the Laurel Fork A.T. Shelter which is not the most spacious of shelters but it occupies a very nice ledge with good views.

'Low Water' Trail

From here we return on the high water trail and then the A.T. back to Dennis Cove Road. Roundtrip this is about 3.5 miles.

Trail Days 2011

Trail Days happens every year in mid-May in the small A.T. town of Damascus, Virginia. We’d never managed to make it here hiking-wise before so we decided to stop by in a year that will involve very limited hiking (due to Melanie’s pregnancy).

Damascus, Virginia
Damascus, Virginia

It’s actually a much bigger festival than we expected. The entire town is taken up with impromptu tent-colonies of current and former AT hikers. There are vendors all over the town park of the sort you’d expect for a crowd of long distance hikers.

Trail Days 2011
Trail Days 2011

A.T. – Brown Fork Gap

This section of the A.T. runs 7 1/2 miles from Stecoah Gap at NC 143 to Yellow Creek Road. It’s not the most exciting section but we it was a bit we hadn’t done yet.

David on the AT near Brown Fork Gap

There are two waypoints of a sort along this stetch. One is Brown Fork Gap which has a shelter just above it. We stopped for lunch here. Coming northbound to this shelter you’ll have just completed the fairly hideous climb out of Sweetwater Gap. The next site of interest is Cody Gap which is also a reasonable campsite. In between is a high ridge with some great views of Lake Fontana and the Smoky Mountains.

View of Smokies

Double Springs / Osborne Farm

Our first AT hike of the year, we drove to northeast Tennessee and hiked three miles up to Double Springs Shelter from TN 91.
The lower portion of this hike crosses the Osborne Farm which is in trust to the A.T. This includes a couple stile crossings of pastureland.

Stile crossing on the Appalachian Trail
Stile crossing on the Appalachian Trail

After the farm the trail is wooded and winds up the ridge. Double Springs shelter is just barely off the trail.

Double Springs Shelter
Double Springs Shelter

A.T. – Spivey Gap to Chestoa

This section of the AT starts in North Carolina and finishes in Erwin, Tennessee.  We parked at Uncle Johnny’s Hiker Hostel in Erwin and he shuttled us up to Spivey Gap which is about 11 miles away by trail.

AT Sign near Spivey Gap
AT Sign near Spivey Gap

There’s a bit of a climb out of Spivey Gap and a couple short climbs further on in the hike but for the most part it’s downhill with an elevation loss of 2000 feet from the highest point.  There are plenty of stream crossings in the first half of the hike.   No Business Knob Shelter (yes, that’s the name of it) is almost exactly halfway through this hike. 

Mountain Laurels along the AT
Mountain Laurels along the AT

The last two miles of this hike is pretty much all down.   There’s a long series of switchbacks descending into Erwin.   To make up for this at every left turn (heading northbound) there’s a rocky overlook of the Nolichucky River with occasional views of Erwin as well.

View of the Nolichucky Gorge
View of the Nolichucky Gorge

With day-sized backpacks, this hike took us just a bit over 6 hours with two stops for food and one stop for a tragic shoelace emergency (thanks random thru-hiker with a lighter!)

Lover’s Leap & Hot Springs

Lover’s Leap is a popular overlook of the French Broad River and the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina.   It’s a fairly short hike up from the parking area just above the Hot Springs bridge.

Hot Springs from the A.T.
Hot Springs from the A.T.


This is the view about halfway up which also happens to be the Appalachian Trail through here.   The rocks themselves are located at a trail junction and are named (supposedly) after a Cherokee legend.

Lovers Leap Rock
Lovers Leap Rock

If you’ve been hiking southbound on the A.T.  this would be a sudden and dramatic viewpoint.   If you’ve come up from Hot Springs though it’s just a slightly clearer view of what you’ve been looking at for the last half hour.    From here, we continued on the Applachian Trail which wraps around the ridge to Pump Gap.   About a half mile or so from Lovers Leap there are good views up the French Broad River.

Frank Bell's Rapid
Frank Bell's Rapid

Frank Bell’s rapid – the most difficult on the commercially rafted section of the French Broad is visible way off in the distance.  At Pump Gap, we followed the pump gap trail back down to the trailhead which is a pleasant hike along a stream.   Actually, it’s a particularly steep descent at first and having hiked up it in the past (see the Mill Ridge entry) we can say we much prefer going down it.

Max Patch

Ok, so we were just at Max Patch a few months ago.   However, since we were unable to get up the road to Snowbird Mountain, which was our intended hike, we came back to Max Patch.  

Max Patch View

As always, the views are superb.   The meadows had recently been mown so there was more picnicking and camping than usual on the summit.   We hiked up to Max Patch along the Appalachian Trail from where it crosses the forest road.  After summitting, we followed the trail back down through a patch of forest.  Ultimately it follows a series of meadows that make up an equestrian trail on a parallel ridge. 

Roaring Fork Shelter is only a couple miles north of Max Patch Road.  It doesn’t have direct access to the Roaring Fork river but you’ll have crossed the stream a couple times getting there and its a good place to stop for a snack.

Trout and Mountains

On the hike back, we followed a combination of the equestrian trail and the Max Patch loop trail which stays below the summit but still crosses some big meadows and has excellent views into North Carolina.  Trout found meadow hiking to be altogether confusing as it’s difficult to determine where the trail is.

Brown Gap to Max Patch


Before our hike we spent a little time along Cold Creek in the Harmon Den area. There were hundreds of butterflies drawn to the salt deposits along the road so we have a few dozen pictures that look like this.


Mid-May is a great time to hike in the area because of the wildflowers. We headed north bound on the A.T. from Brown Gap, which starts with a decent climb but is relatively gentle and rolling after that.


The trilliums were particularly abundant.   They’re a bit hard to see in this picture but all those specks of white and pink are trillium.   It was pretty much deserted on this part of the mountain until we reached Max Patch.  We decided not to climb to the top on this particular day.   Instead we let Trout lie in a stream and cool off while we studied the map.  

We decided we could take an alternate route back to Brown Gap.   This started by taking the A.T. southbound for a quarter mile or so to the junction with the Cherry Creek Trail.   We then took the Cherry Creek trail for maybe a half mile or so until it intersected an old forest service road (named 3533 on some maps).  We left Cherry Creek Trail and followed the road along the ridge.  This worked out great for a while at least.  The road was broad and easy to follow and it was paralleling the A.T. about 200 ft below it.  This is how it looked with a dog in the middle:

Forest Road

About halfway back to Brown Gap the road ends. This was not entirely unexpected as our A.T. map also showed the road ending. Our plan was to orienteer from here by following the 4000 ft. contour line around the ridge until it intersected the A.T. which would be descending towards Brown Gap at that point. Even in May the forest was pretty thick and there was a lot of sharp foliage (blackberries in particular). So when we encountered a really old road bed we decided to follow that instead. This road bed was long unusued and had substantial trees growing in it as well as fallen across it. It was quite clear that bears and deer used it though. Melanie’s theory was that it would connect directly into Brown Gap as we had noticed an old road leaving from a campsite there on our way out. In the end, she was right although it’s a bit of a circuitous route it takes to get there. We did it all with the A.T. map, a compass and an altimeter but I think if we did it again, a better topo map might help.   On the other hand, it would be hard to get seriously lost in this area since everything on this side of the Appalachian Trail drains down to Harmon Den Road.

Grassy Ridge in the Roan Highlands

Grassy Ridge is the oft-overlooked third peak over 6000 feet in the Roan Highlands area.  

snow tree

Climbing up from Carver’s Gap one first has to summit Round Bald and Jane Bald. The day before this hike it had been 65 degrees in Asheville, but it was spitting snow by the time we finished the hike. The snow on the west side of the conifers atop the balds was proof that it had been snowing recently as well.  That is Grassy Ridge in the background of the first picture.

Jane Bald

The views along this entire hike are spectacular. The Black Mountains including Mt. Mitchell are clearly visible on the NC side. The city of Roan Mountain, TN and surrounding area including Strawberry Mountain are visible to the west. From Grassy Ridge the ski areas around Boone and Grandfather Mountain are visible (including the horrendous bit of construction atop Sugar Mountain).   Here are Melanie and Trout resting atop Jane Bald.    We had intended to have a bit of a picnic atop Grassy Ridge originally, but once we got there the wind was so intense that we had to hide in the lee of rocks near the summit just to have a conversation.  Three layers of clothing were apparently not enough.

Grassy Ridge Trail

One thing about hiking in the highlands north of Roan is that it isn’t hard to follow the trail. Here it can be seen stretching a mile or more towards Jane Bald (foreground), Round Bald (middle ground), and Roan High Knob (background, and an entirely different hike). We’d recommend this hike on a slightly warmer day.

Mill Ridge / Pump Gap

Mill Ridge

Mill Ridge was a small farming community located on the east bank of the French Broad River just up from the town of Hot Springs.  Nowadays there are a couple of forest roads, a lot of mountain biking trails and a few foundations remaining.  The large open areas up here were once tobacco fields.

Mill Ridge Dam

The AT leads southbound up into the Mill Ridge area from Tanyard Gap (US 25/70 outside of Hot Springs).   There’s also a forest road that leads up to a parking area for the bike trails.  Where the AT leads back down into the forest there’s an old dam with a large pond above it.  We followed the AT as far as the Pump Gap loop trail which makes a circle with the AT.

Mill Ridge Cemetery

Along with the dam and some building foundations, the old Mill Ridge Cemetery is located just a little ways off the Pump Gap trail.  Most of the stones have fallen over or been broken but it’s still a curious thing to find out in the middle of the forest.  

Overall this is a fairly easy hike of about 5 to 6 miles.  It’s probably more difficult if done from Hot Springs due to the elevation gain.   We did come across a couple of salamanders, but they refused to hold still for photographs, so we have to include this fungus instead.


Harmon Den Mountain

Harmon Den is a mountain along the NC/TN border just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It actually has its own exit off of I-40, which is just a gravel road that leads down the valley towards Max Patch.  We hiked from Brown Gap (accessible via a rough road up from Harmon Den) to Deep Gap at the base of Snowbird Mountain and then back along the Appalachian Trail.

In late April, this highlight of this hike were the wildflowers, particularly trillium which were prolific on the wetter, cooler slopes of the mountains.
Pink Trillium

The top of Harmon Den Mountain, a spot also known as Hawk’s Roost in some AT guides is not as impressive as nearby mountains such as Max Patch and Snowbird.  Even without leaves on the trees, the views are good but not fantastic. The Smokies, Newfound and Snowbird mountains surround Harmon Den. 
Red Trillium

From Harmon Den it’s a steady long descent to Deep Gap (one of dozens of gaps with the same creative name in and around the Smokies).  Deep Gap itself is a nice shaded campsite.  An old abandoned logging road led up to the gap from the Tennessee side so sections are nicely graded.  Groundhog Creek flows into North Carolina from the gap and the Groundhog Creek AT shelter is just a quarter mile east of the gap.

Harmon Den AT

Yellow Creek Gap to Fontana Dam

This hike is just slightly under 8 miles in length.  We did it by shuttle with help from the friendly folks at the Hike Inn in Fontana.  We parked the car at the Fontana Dam, they shuttled us (and our dog) back around to Yellow Creek Gap and we started from there.

About a mile in is Cable Gap Shelter which is practically right on the trail and has a nice little stream running past it.  After Cable Gap there’s a long climb through a series of knolls.  Most of this section runs parallel to Fontana Lake and offers nice views.  This picture shows a section of the lake and the dam.
Dam Through Trees

Somewhere along here is Walker Gap where the Yellow Creek Mountain trail comes in.  This does not appear to be a well marked trail but we’ll save that for some future hike.  From Walker Gap to the road at Fontana is an endless series of steep descending switchbacks (unless you happen to be hiking up / south / towards the NOC).  There are several nice water sources through here and it ends at the road / marina / shuttle pick up for the Fontana Village (which also has restrooms).  From there, the AT continues up and over a knoll along Fontana Lake before descending to the assorted parking areas.
Dam Sign

Note that post 9/11 – this section of the trail will be closed during “security threats”.  There is an alternate path through Fontana Village and into the Great Smokies downstream of the dam.  Just off to the right of this picture is the Fontana AT Shelter which is better known as the Fontana Hilton (because of its relative size for a shelter). 

Fontana Dam

The interior of the dam is now closed to visitors although the overlooks are impressive.  On the far side is the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the AT begins a grueling ascent to Clingman’s Dome (30-some miles away by trail).  The dam is probably more impressive when the spillways are open into the Little Tennessee River below.

Roan Mountain

There are several ways up Roan Mountain by trail and one by road.  The AT ascends to Toll House Gap from both north and south.  From the north (near the town of Buladean) is a rugged 2000 ft climb over about 3 miles.  The AT intersects the road in Toll House Gap which was once the site of the Cloudland Hotel.  Now it’s just a nice grassy bald with great views into both Tennessee and North Carolina.


From here there is a spur trail that leads along the ridge, parallel to the road out to Roan High Bluff.  This is a particularly worthwhile hike in shoulder seasons (like March) because the road up isn’t open yet so the top of Roan is almost certainly going to be deserted.  The view from Roan High Bluff is also fantastic.

Roan High Bluff

From Toll House Gap to the north along the AT is a more popular hike down to Carvers Gap which has a large parking area.  Along the way is the highest shelter on the AT at a slight side trail to Roan High Knob.

Roan Benchmark

At 6285 and 6267, both Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff qualify among the 40 peaks that make up the South Beyond 6000 challenge sponsered by the Carolina and Tennnessee Eastman Hiking Clubs.  In fact, these are two of the easier peaks to get to (no bushwhacking).  The Knob is marked by a USGS benchmark and is a basically a rock outcrop just past the shelter.

Roan High Knob