Sunday, February 15, 2009

Our Favorite Dayhikes - Part III

Today's featured hike is a quick out-and-back for when you need to get away for just a little bit. It takes you to the highest point in Graham County - Huckleberry Knob, 5,500+ ft. - near the Tennessee state line. The picture of me to the left is on the top of the higher peaks around!

The Cherohala Skyway is a very popular road for both people out for a lazy Sunday drive or those motorcyclists who like to enjoy the area's natural beauty at about 75 mph! Not only does the road wind 36 miles through the mountains from Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Plains, TN, it also rises up above one mile elevation and serves as a great starting point for many great hikes in the area. For more information, check out the Cherohala Skyway website.

To reach Huckleberry Knob from Robbinsville, NC you would follow NC 129 north out of town and follow the signs for Cherohala Skyway. Once you have passed Snowbird Mountain Lodge and the turnoff to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, you are officially on the Skyway. Follow the skyway for approximately 8 miles to the Huckleberry Knob parking area. This will be the 6th overlook area on your right. Park here and begin following the old road behind the gate.

This hike is very easy as you follow the road grade up to the first clearing, called Oak Knob. This is one of a series of "balds" in the area, so named due to their lack of vegitation. Scientists are not really sure why these areas don't have trees - theories range from too much wind to the wrong kinds of soil. The first settlers to this area used to let their cows roam and graze on the wild grasses that grow on these balds. Anyway, as you follow the footpath through Oak Knob, you'll see Big Huckleberry rising up off to your left. You'll enter another stand of trees and then break on through up to Big Huckleberry.

Follow the footpath up toward the top and you'll see a memorial cross and plaque retelling the story of two unlucky men who died on Huckleberry in the winter of 1899. If you geocache, this is also where you might find a treasure! Hang out on the bald for a while and enjoy the 360-degree panorama around you. Off to the east will be Robbinsville and the mountains beyond, to the northeast you can see some of the peaks of the Great Smokies National Park rolling into the distance. If you face west, you can see Tennessee and some of the lakes on the Little Tennessee River system.

I have never camped here, but there is a fire-ring and plenty of soft spots for a tent. The wind can get a little strong here, so make sure to bring some stakes for the tent and check the forecast before you go. If you go in mid-late September, make sure to pick some of the Huckleberries (wild blueberries) that gave the knob its name...they are one of my favorite fall treats!

This is a great trip for anyone just looking to get out for a few hours, whether they're locals or folks just passing through on the Cherohala. The roughly 2.5 miles are easy enough that kids will enjoy the hike and the views from the top can't be beat. For more info on the geocache on Huckleberry Knob click here and for more info and pictures about the trip itself, click here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fontana Village

A great place to plan some outdoor activities when you're in Graham County is Fontana Village. The village is located across Fontana Lake from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Along with lodging and restaurants, there is a great outdoor center that can provide information on hiking, mountain biking and fishing.

The Fontana area is full of history. In the early 1900s, this was a bustling area along the Little Tennessee River and home to several logging communities including the town of Proctor. However, during the Great Depression this area was picked by the TVA to be the site of one of their hydroelectric dam projects. The result was Fontana Dam - the highest concrete dam east of the Mississippi - and the displacement of hundreds of families. Power from Fontana Dam was transported across the mountains into Tennessee and used at the Alcoa factories during World War II.

Mountain biking rentals and trails are located right in the village itself and hiking trails can be found all around the village and across the lake in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Shuttle service across the lake and fishing guides are also available.

For more details and options, check out the This Dam Life blog or the site of the Fontana Hiking Club.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Our Favorite Dayhikes Part II

Today's featured hike is one that I have been making since I was 5 or 6 years old when I was tagging along with my Dad and uncle up Snowbird Creek. Round trip, this hike covers an easy 10 miles and passes several waterfalls, ending up at my favorite - the Middle Falls.

To reach the Snowbird Creek trailhead from the town of Robbinsville, drive 1.4 miles north on US 129 and turn left on SR 1116 (Massey Branch Road) at the sign for the Ranger Station. Continue 3.3 miles on Massey Branch Road and turn right at the intersection onto SR 1127 (Snowbird Road). Follow Snowbird Road for 2.1 miles to a fork where Snowbird Road bears to the left down a hill. Continue on Snowbird Road for 2.1 miles to a very sharp left turn and drive 1 mile to a bridge over Snowbird Creek. Turn right directly after the bridge onto a dirt road. Follow this road 5.9 miles until it dead ends in a parking area.

This parking area is known to locals as the "Junction" because in the early days of the area, this was where the logging railroad intersected the main road and was home to a big log yard. The Snowbird Creek area was heavily logged by the Bemis Lumber Company from 1928 to 1942. My grandfather was one of the hundreds of men that spent their weeks at one of the many logging camps, only to catch the train back into town for the weekends. He told my dad and uncles of catching speckled trout by the hundreds to be fried up to feed the hungry loggers.

One of my favorite things to do on my hikes into the Snowbird area is to imagine the huge logging train filled with logs as it chugged its way down the creek. At many of the sites of the old logging camps, there is still evidence of the men who worked here. This evidence may be huge piles of tin cans from the mess halls or old railroad ties or rails. In some places you can still find lumps of coal left over from the stockpiles needed to fuel the trains. To me, hiking up Snowbird Creek is like taking a trip back in time.

Ok, back to the hike details...after parking at the junction, follow the Big Snowbird trail (Number 64) to the left. Some work is being done to one of the other trails that leaves from the Junction, but make sure you head to the left. Soon you will be following the gentle grade as it rises with the creek. Stay on trail number 64 as it crosses Sassafras Creek after about three miles, the first major creek crossing. After another mile, you will pass by another popular set of falls which you will be able to hear and see from the trail. These falls are formally named the Big Falls but are better known as the Lower Falls as they are the first in the set of three major falls on Snowbird Creek (next comes the Middle Falls, then the Upper Falls).

Passing the Lower Falls, you will soon cross a log footbridge into the Mouse Knob campsites. This was home to one of the major logging camps of the day and is named for Mouse Knob branch which splits the campsites. If you follow the creek, you will see where Big Snowbird Trail stays with the creek for the remainder of the trip. This is your best bet if you don't mind getting wet, as the trail crosses the creek nearly a dozen times in the next mile (an alternate, dryer route is offered at the bottom of this post). This is my personal choice during the summer as I love to fish the stretch from the Mouse Knob campsites to the Middle Falls. I will cover the excellent fishing on Snowbird Creek in a later post.

Following the trail for the wet mile as it crosses Big Snowbird Creek leads you to the Middle Falls. There is a sign that points down to the Falls and if you're paying attention, you will be able to hear them and maybe catch a glimpse through the woods. After dropping off the main trail and heading through some mountain laurel, you'll break through and be hit by the mist coming off the spectacular 20-foot drop. The pool is deep and clear and there are plenty of rocks and grassy spots for lunch or naps. Of course you could always cast a line for one of the native speckled trout that inhabit the creek. On a very hot day, this is the perfect place for a refreshing dip!
The Middle Falls in all it's glory!

Alternate route for those wanting to stay dry: After crossing the foot bridge at the Mouse Knob campsites, keep left and head up the trail that climbs the mountain (Trail 64-A). For the first 0.2 miles, this is a pretty steep climb with several switchbacks until it peaks out and rolls gently for another 0.8 miles. You will be away from the creek for most of this part of the trail, but don't worry, you'll be back soon. As you descend on the other side of this mountain, you will see signs that point toward the Middle Falls and Big Snowbird Trail (Trail 64). Turn left when you intersect with Big Snowbird Trail and the Middle Falls will be down a few hundred yards on the right.

I highly recommend stopping at the Ranger Station on the way into the Snowbird area and picking up a Snowbird Area Trail Map (around $7-$8), it will be well worth it. The Snowbird area is very popular with many marked hiking trails as well as lesser known hunting and fishing trails. I will be covering more Snowbird hikes in the coming weeks as this creek is one of my favorite places in the world.

As requested, a few more pictures:

Casting for a fat speckled trout at the Middle Falls

An average speck from Big Snowbird - look at the coloring.

Shot up the creek at one of the many crossings.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Happy Birthday, Pop!

I just wanted to take a second and wish a big happy birthday to my dad! He is the main reason that I am as into the outdoors as I am. He took me on my first big camping trip when I was about five and all those camping trips since have just been great. He also taught me to fly fish and to appreciate the natural beauty of our area.

He's retired now and this makes me jealous because he and my mom get to go hiking or fishing or puttering around the lake on their pontoon boat whenever they want now. Maybe I'll hit the lottery soon and join them. So happy birthday, Pop...we love you!

Whitewater Rafting in a Nutshell

So, you're visiting the area and you think you'd like to go whitewater rafting, but you're not sure where to start. I have rafted every river I'm going to talk about except the Cheoah. As a local resident and a former raft guide, I would like to share some of my river knowledge, so here goes. I'll start from the most gentle and work my way up.

I personally love this river. I guided here for three seasons, so I could probably boat it in my sleep. The Nantahala is a dam controlled river (meaning water levels are pretty consistent) and has class I and II rapids, with one class III at the end. It is great for anyone who has never been rafting before and people with children (though there is a weight requirement due to the very cold water). If you do not have a lot of paddling experience, I recommend having a guide in your boat. It will make the trip more enjoyable for you and you let someone else, who knows the river well, do the steering. If you have been rafting and feel comfortable, you can choose to either rent your own boat (you will not be followed by guides) or to be on a trip with guides in other boats. Also, if it is a nice hot day, it is fun to rent 1 or 2-person inflatable kayaks known as funyaks or duckies. This trip takes 2-3 hours depending on a number of factors (crowds, size of your trip, how many rocks you get stuck on if you're guiding your own boat, etc). This is the only river where you will have the option of guiding your own boat. Outfitters for this river are approximately 25 minutes from Robbinsville.

The Pigeon is a great river! It is also dam controlled and is offered in two sections: the upper and the lower. The minimum age is 4 years for the lower and the is 8 years for the upper. This is another river that I recommend for families. The water looks bigger than the Nantahala, and it is, but the rapids are less technical so you will have a smooth, yet exciting ride. Outfitters for this river are 1.5-2 hours from Robbinsville.

The Ocoee River is the site of the 1996 Olympics! This dam controlled river is offered in two sections: the upper and the middle. The minimum age for both sections is 12. I recommend this river for fit and adventurous types who have not been rafting before, or anyone who has rafting experience. It is a step up from the Pigeon - tremendous fun!!! Very exciting! This river is 1.5 hours from Robbinsville. Here is the release schedule for the Ocoee.

This is the only natural flow river in the bunch! For this reason, it is significantly affected by drought. The best time to go on the Chattooga is in spring and early summer when water levels tend to be higher. There are two sections: Section III and Section IV, section III being milder. The minimum ages are 10 and 13. I highly recommend previous whitewater experience before going on Section IV. There are also overnight trips available with some outfitters on this river. Chattooga was the first river in the Southeast to be designated "Wild & Scenic" by Congress and was used as a location for the movie Deliverance.

This river has only recently been opened to commercial outfitters. Ben has already written a lovely post on the Cheoah River, so check it out to see a release schedule (it is only open 18-20 days per year) and to read more about this unique river. This river is for folks with previous class IV-V whitewater experience. Outfitters for this river are located about 15 miles from Robbinsville. If part of your party is rafting and you're not up for this type of river, you can watch your companions float by from the banks at Tapoco Lodge, near the takeout. Here is a link to a map of the river.

Let me also save you the embarrassment of asking some dumb tourist questions. NO, you will not get out of the boat at the same place you got in the boat. This river is not a circle. NO, you should not bring your $800 digital camera and put it in a Ziploc bag. YES, you do have to paddle. YES, you do have to help carry your boat to the water. If you cannot manage that, you shouldn't be rafting. and YES, you will get wet and if you whine you will get wetter.

I hope you enjoy your whitewater adventure! All of these rivers are great fun and will give you lifelong memories.

There are a lot of great outfitters on these rivers, but here are some outfitters that I personally reccommend:

Endless River Adventures (ERA)
Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC)
Wildwater Ltd.

They may also offer other services beyond rafting, such as kayak lessons, fishing guides, biking, etc.

Upcoming Workshops

The NC Cooperative Extension is offering several interesting workshops in the next couple months:

February 12th: Chocolate Covered Strawberries!
Make chocolate covered strawberries for Valentine's Day - or just because they are delicious! The cost is $10. United Methodist Church at 6:00PM.

February 20th & 21st: Viticulture Workshop
This workshop is for anyone interested in starting a vineyard for commercial bunch grape production.

March 11th: Blueberry Production Workshop
This is for anyone interested in blueberry production. It will be held at United Community Bank from 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM. The cost is $10, which includes lunch and materials. Register by March 6th.

March 18th: Organic Vegetable Production Workshop
This workshop is for anyone interested in growing organic vegetables. The cost is $15, which includes lunch and materials. The location has not yet been announced. Register by March 13th.

March 24th: Make Your Own Cleaning Supplies
Time and location TBA

For information on any of these workshops, contact the Graham County Extension Office 828.479.7979

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Our Favorite Dayhikes Part I

Throughout the spring, we'll be featuring some of our favorite day hikes in and around Graham County. These will range from a couple miles - perfect for an afternoon - to upwards of ten miles.

The first hike that we'll cover is a great out-and-back that you could turn into a several night weekend trip. This hike skirts Calderwood Lake north of Robbinsville to where Slickrock Creek runs into the lake.

To reach the trailhead, go north about 11 miles on US 129 from Robbinsville, past Tapoco Lodge on the left. There will be a dirt road to the left less than a quarter-mile past the lodge (if you see Cheoah Dam on the right, you've gone too far). Park where you can at the Slickrock Creek trailhead (spaces may be limited in the summer; you can park across the bridge and walk back though). From here, follow the Slickrock Creek trail (FT 42) as it follows the shore of Calderwood reservoir. The trail gently rises away from the lake and soon you will be winding your way in and out of mountain coves as the trail rises slowly over the next two miles to an overlook several hundred feet above the Calderwood reservoir.

There are many options for this dayhike. My personal favorite is to take the dogs along Slickrock Creek trail to the point where Slickrock creek runs into Calderwood lake, about two miles one way. There are several campsites here that are perfect for a leisurly lunch while the pooches take a swim (I might join in the summer...Calderwood is known for its deep, cool waters). After a relaxing afternoon, we follow the same path back to the car.

Another dayhike option includes following Slickrock Creek trail as it fords the creek, past the scenic Lower Falls to where it intersects Ike Branch Trail (FT 45), a little less than 4 miles from the trailhead. Turning left onto Ike Branch trail will take you up to Yellowhammer Gap where you can stay on Ike Branch trail as it drops back to join Slickrock Creek trail where you can turn right and head back to your car. This loop is nearly 7 miles total length and fords the creek twice, so prepare to get wet.

The Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Creek Wilderness area provides countless hiking opportunities and is one of the most popular for hiking and backpacking in the area. We will cover more of these and other local hikes in the next few months.

If you are interested in exploring this area, picking up a map at the local Forest Service office or at one of the local gas stations is a must. Another option is a guidebook; my favorite is Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Creek Wilderness.

A helpful map of the Slickrock Creek trailhead and area can also be viewed here.

Yellow Branch Pottery & Cheese

While you're in town, you should definitely visit one of my favorite places - Yellow Branch Pottery & Cheese. Karen makes beautiful pottery on site and Bruce's cheese is addictive. Every spring I look forward to fresh cheese! Several varieties are available, but I highly recommend the basil and the jalapeno. Their shop is open Tuesday-Saturday, Noon - 5PM April through October.

Yellow Branch Pottery & Cheese is located about 14 miles from Robbinsville, near Fontana. From Robbinsville, take 143 East to NC 28 North (turn left). Turn right on Yellow Branch Road (about 4 miles) then right on Old Yellow Branch Road.

Birding Workshop

On Thursday, February 12, Stecoah Valley Center will be hosting Dr. Jeremy Hyman of Western Carolina University for a birding workshop from 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm. Dr. Hyman will speak on his interest in birds, bird conservation and bird projects that he has worked on through the years. He is a lifelong birdwatcher and interested in bird diversity and conservation. He will present his current research, which focuses on aggression and territorial behavior, trying to understand why there is so much variation with a population in a trait like aggressiveness, and why aggressiveness can vary so much in birds from one population to another.

visit for directions

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a great short, easy loop hike in Graham County near Robbinsville. I enjoy hiking it from time to time, whether to see spring flowers, fall leaves or just to exercies myself or my two dogs. I see folks of all ages from young children to seniors, so I recommend it for all ages. The Joyce Kilmer trail is approximately 2 miles long, with a figure-eight loop. The lower loop is 1.25 miles long and connects with another .75 mile loop at the memorial. The largest trees are found along the upper loop. The parking area has toilet facilities, grills and picnic areas. Camping and overnight parking are not allowed in this area.
This area is named after Joyce Kilmer, a WWI veteran who was both a soldier and a poet. His poem Trees is most relevant to this beautiful area.

To reach Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest from Robbinsville, take Highway 129 North for 1½ miles to the junction of Highway 143 West (Massey Branch Road). Turn left onto Massey Branch Rd at the convenience store and proceed West on Highway 143 for approximately 5.0 miles to a stop sign. At the stop sign, turn right onto Kilmer Road. You will drive for about 7.3 miles and arrive at the top of Santeetlah Gap and the junction with the Cherohala Skyway. Bear to your right and continue on for another 2½ miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Turn left into the entrance and drive about ½ mile to the parking area.

Cheoah River Release Dates

The 2009 dates have been set for the release of the Cheoah River and the first are just around the corner.

The river will be open Saturday and Sunday February 21-22. No commercial outfitters are running these dates, but there will be many private boaters and spectators.

The other 2009 release dates are:
  • March 14-15

  • April 4-5, 18-19, 25-26

  • May 9-10, 16-17, 30-31

  • June 20-21

  • November 7-8

The Class IV-V+ rapids of the Cheoah have been described as the most intense whitewater in the eastern part of the country and compared to the big rivers of Colorado, Montana and even epic rafting destinations in South America.

This river lay dormant for over 50 years after the damming of the Cheoah river in northern Graham county, but has recently seen a rejuvenation thanks to the efforts of American Whitewater and a re-licensing agreement with the Alcoa corporation, who own the dam. The Cheoah is popular for both commercial trips and private boaters, and is also a popular stop for tourists driving across the Tail of the Dragon (US 129) that runs from Robbinsville into Tennessee. The river's awesome rapids were featured in the travel column of the NY Times in the fall of 2006 (link below).

The Cheoah River is located in Graham County, NC. The closest accomodations are at the Tapoco Lodge, which has rooms that overlook the river. There are many other motels and campsites near the river and in the nearby town of Robbinsville.

Related links:


Hello! Just a welcome to everyone and a little bit about this blog. This blog is all about outdoor recreation opportunities in and around Western North Carolina. We feel so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country and want to share that love with you too!

We love hiking, backpacking, fly fishing and mountain biking and will be sharing advice, places to go, as well as some of our own personal experiences. We will also try to consolidate info from around the 'net and share everything here in one central location.

As the weather warms up and the mountains start to come alive , keep in touch for more great outdoor info from the heart of Western North Carolina!