I admit it: I’m guilty of not getting enough dirt on my boots so far this season. Despite ambitious winter-laid plans, I’ve not explored anything much wilder than a few garden trails at The North Carolina Arboretum and the sidewalks of West Asheville this spring. That’s far short of my intention to visit lookout towers and pursue my Kerouac-inspired literary whims (see “These Boots Were Made for Hiking,” Jan. 21 Xpress).
What can I say? It’s been a wet spring, and I’ve been busy.
Still, I have dusted off my boots, acquired a pair of new guidebooks and perused my favorite trail maps. One is so dog-eared it’s split apart along multiple creases, but I keep it anyway. The first map my father ever gave me, it includes Shining Rock Wilderness, an area we often explored and where some of his ashes now rest.
I used to rely on my dad to plan the next hike—Max Patch, Waterrock Knob, Pink Beds, Cades Cove, Big Creek and others he deemed crucial to my hiking portfolio (or else just good for things like blueberries or waterfalls). Of course, I had more spare time in those days, but perhaps, as Dad warned, I’ve become so acclimated to the mountains that I now take them for granted. Maybe it’s time for a new perspective.
To that end, I flipped through Peter Barr‘s Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers. Remembering my family’s hiking past, I read his description of Shuckstack Lookout in the Smokies. My parents hiked up to the tower back in the early 1980s, a few years before they moved from Mobile, Ala., to Cullowhee, N.C. Flatlanders to the core, they were almost whupped by the steep route—“one of the most challenging climbs along the A.T.,” says Barr. But that isn’t what Mom remembers: It’s the bears. She’s an Azalea City girl, and when a family of bears crossed the trail up ahead, she froze like a possum in the headlights while Dad began slowly backing away. The bears moseyed on into the woods, and my parents made it safely to Shuckstack’s 360-degree view.
No bears populate Barr’s description, though he does note historical facts (the tower was built in 1934 by the federal Public Works Administration and the National Park Service), the number of steps to the top (78) and the old structure’s condition (poor, though it’s listed on the National Historic Lookout Register). Barr heads the state chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, which aims to save them. Impressively, the Concord, N.C., resident has hiked to every remaining fire tower in the state.
Another enticing guide is Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage, the latest effort by regular Xpress contributor Danny Bernstein. The book blends basic facts, local history, practical tips, historic photos and personal observations about many of the day hikes found in a roughly triangular area bounded by Hanging Rock State Park north of Winston-Salem, the town of Highlands in Macon County and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bernstein’s retelling of Elisha Mitchell’s explorations in the region and how he fell to his death at a waterfall, where he was discovered by legendary bear hunter “Big Tom” Wilson, makes for a good yarn and an enhanced appreciation of the state’s highest peak.
“Every hike is a heritage treasure, whether by itself or as part of a larger area,” writes Bernstein, who’s hiked every route in her new book.
The one I’m most fired-up about is in Pinnacle Park, a “1,088-acre jewel set in the Fisher Creek section of the Plott Balsams, close to downtown Sylva.” Once the town’s protected watershed but now open to the public, the park has trail links to Waterrock Knob and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Waterrock was one of the first hikes I ever took with my parents, and Sylva was one of the first towns I frequented when I moved here in 1987. If it weren’t for the challenges of settling into a new home this month, I would have already done the 10.1-mile loop Bernstein describes, even if she does dub one steep section near Black Rock a “half-mile of hell.”
Heck, if my parents could tackle Shuckstack and bears, I can find time for this.
Send your outdoors news and ideas to Margaret Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 251-1333, ext. 152.