Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Trail Hounds (warning - really long post)

This past weekend we took at camping trip to Stone Mountain State Park, up in the northwest corner of NC. Though it's still east of the Blue Ridge Mountains (only by about ten miles), it offered us a nice cool-weather camping stay and some hikes at a decent altitude - the peak is a granite dome that tops out at 2300 feet.

We headed out of Raleigh last Wednesday evening for a brief stopover in Winston where we stocked up on food and dropped off the tiny man (Cooper). He spent the weekend "camping" with Mom and Granny on a few indoor couches (no photos of that, but I'm sure it was hilarious and involved a lot of eating). On Thursday morning, we loaded Mattie and Arnold in the truck and headed out towards the mountains. Since the park is only about an hour and a half drive from Winston-Salem, we arrived early enough for a full day.

We got camp set up, where Mattie promptly made herself comfortable while we had a pre-hike snack (note - Ashley found a new energy bar that doesn't taste or look like poop, Luna Sunrise blueberry bars - they actually do taste like a blueberry pastry). We decided to test out our backpacks for Peru and hike the Stone Mtn. summit trail which takes you to the top of the 600-ft bald dome, and around to a few other cool landmarks in the park.

The 4.5 mile trail only has about a 600-foot elevation gain, it accomplishes that in about 1 mile through a series of switchbacks that take you right up the eastern ridge. As we left from the trailhead, we noticed the wind and vegetation change as soon as we hit the rise. A cool breeze is a nice change from stuffy humidity (already coming on) in Raleigh. Living in the Triangle, we also forgot how many more hemlock trees there are in the western part of the state, which, sadly, show signs of hemlock beetle destruction. Those hemlocks, plus the appearance of mountain laurel and rhododendron, definitely make us feel closer to home. Anyways, we hit the peak of the dome relatively quickly, ate a quick bite, and snapped a few photos. In the background of the picture of Ashley and dogs are the Blue Ridge Mountains. Directly behind her the rock drops off into a sheer face, but the surface makes me think of the moon - there are a lot of pockets and rivulets from water erosion. It's also extremely windy up there, especially with the lack of trees.

On the way back down (careful to avoid some redneck kids who kept running past us and then falling down--cue Safety officer Arnold) the mountain drops sharply, and the trail parallels a very clear and cool stream for a few miles. There's a lot of underbrush, and several places where the trail crosses the creek (plenty of chances for dog drinks). Arnold, of course, knew the exact path to take for optimum efficiency and safety, avoiding slippery moss-covered roots and slick rocks. There were signs identifying the stream as a trout habitat (side note: 7-inch minimum size for keepers, daily limit of 4 fish - sounds like good eatin') but we only saw minnows and tadpoles.

At the base of the dome is the Hutchinson homestead (one barn shown in the picture at the top of this post), which was occupied up until the 60's and was a family's working farm. There's an old tobacco barn, corn crib, cabin, barn, and outhouse (I verified that one personally). There are also a few other deserted homesteads and liquor stills (moonshine country) dotted around as well. Since Thursday was clear, we could see people climbing and rappelling off the rock face.

Towards the end of the trail we saw a bunch of soaked tiny dogs - some carried, some walking on their own, so we knew we had to be closing in on the Stone Mtn. falls. This 200-ft fall looks like a really awesome waterslide, except that you'd crash to your death on the rocks at the bottom. It's neat to see the path that the water has worn in the granite over the years.

To get back to the trailhead, you have to climb up a wooden stairway next to the falls - 279 stairs to be exact. We weren't expecting this and were quite displeased when we realized it was our only way back to the tent! Since dogs and humans were tired after about 7 miles, and the sun was on its way down, we headed back in for the evening and a dinner of hotdogs and hamburgers.

Friday started with a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes hot off the grill and campfire, followed quickly by the first rain shower of the day. We decided to go ahead with hiking anyway, with a slight change of plans. The trail we wanted to do was not well marked or mapped, and seeing the storms coming, we didn't want to be stuck at a higher altitude on top of a bald mountian with thunder and lightning while doing a 13-mile trail. We started out back down to the falls, where we could find the spur leading to Wolf Rock & Cedar Rock (two other bald peaks). About two miles into that hike, the rain started again, but with no signs of t-storms (yet). We got to the top of Cedar Rock and had another great view of Stone Mountain. Cedar Rock did have plenty of cedar trees circling the bald spot, but we didn't stay long because the granite was slick, and we heard thunder coming our way. We scampered down, only to have the sun come out when we reached the bottom. Arnold was very thankful to follow all safety procedures.

After reaching the bottom, we followed Big Sandy Creek again to the lower and middle falls trail, where we hoped to see the other two waterfalls. We never found the lower two falls, but Mattie did spend plenty of time in the creek barking at sticks and rocks and fast moving currents. The hike was good, though, and it added another two miles. Heading back to the main trail, we then went back up the 279 steps and headed towards our campsite. On the road back, we ran into a group of young deer, and were able to get within 10 yards of them - very tame.

Concluding about 10 miles of hiking that day, we headed back for dinner - pork tenderloin, silver-dollar potatoes, and green beans cooked over the fire, and dog food w/ pork tenderloin for humans and canines, respectively. We had covered up firewood and collected dry kindling prior to hiking, and quietly noticed that we were one of the few camps with an evening fire. We made sure to get an extra tarp up over the tent since the clouds were coming in lower. No sooner did we get everything under the tarp and in the dry storage bins, that the rain started pouring. Luckily it was still cool, and two wet dogs and two wet people were tolerable only after a long day of hiking. We could see the bright flashes of lightning and hear thunder until well after midnight.

Morning found us relatively dry (surprisingly - not bad for a cheap tent) and safe. The campsite was a muddy mess, and we had to pack up wet gear, but it was a great way to spend a few days. Good for the soul. A return trip is warranted, as soon as the Collie and the 'Rock-wilder" recover. We're attempting to set up a photo site so we can share all our pictures-- so far, its harder than we thought so keep checking for an update on that!

1 comment:

  1. You guys really need to knock off the vomit-inducing cuteness. And "rivulets"...seriously Casey? You could be a writer for National Geographic. Haha. Nonetheless, it looks like Stone Mountain is a winner! Can't wait to go this weekend!