Paris Mountain: Sulphur Springs Trail

Trail runner on Sulpher Springs Trail, Paris Mountain State Park, Greenville, South CarolinaHaving frequented Paris Mountain State Park a lot for almost 8 years and now living in very close proximity to it, the trails are very familiar to us. However, I consistently hear friends and acquaintances share confusion about which trails to take or what goes where. I think any unfamiliar trail area can feel that way. So, I want to dedicate a few blog posts over the next several months to our favorite trails and loops at Paris Mountain. We are always trying to get people to try trail running/hiking and excited to hear about friends who are wanting to get outside more, so hopefully this will take one obstacle (the where should I go? conundrum) out of the way and help make it more accessible.

Sulphur Springs Trail sign at Paris Mountain State ParkFirst up,  is one of our favorite all-around trails, Sulphur Springs a 3.8ish mile loop trail.  It is definitely not the easiest trail, but it is beautiful and varied. There is decent elevation gain in either direction, but that means you get a significant downhill both ways as well.

trail runner on sulphur springs trail at Paris Mountain State Park, Greenville, SCGetting Here: The best spot to start this trail is from the Picnic Shelters 5&6 parking area.  These shelters are located around 2 miles from the park entrance.  Sulphur Springs trail is a loop with one end of the trailhead located near the creek in the parking area and the other end located directly across the street from the parking area and picnic shelters. I would recommend starting on the hike-only section of the trail that is closest to the bridge and the shelters. It winds along the stream about a half mile before reaching Mountain Lake, a smallish body of water with great reflections of leaves and sky and an old rocky dam that creates a small waterfall. This is a nice turnaround point if you don’t feel like tackling the whole loop.

Trail Running on Sulphur Springs Trail, Paris Mountain State Park, Mountain Lake, Greenville, South Carolina

Final ascent to Mountain Lake

Mountain Lake on Sulphur Springs Trail, Paris Mountain State Park

Mountain Lake

If you decide to continue, you’ll go along the rocky side of the lake and continue to cross a couple of streams and gain some decent elevation. This is the toughest part of the trail, but it is really lovely  and you can hear the rushing creek all along the way and see it tumbling down in lots of different places. Once you get to the top, you’ll dead end into a wider trail and turn right to continue down Sulphur Springs. If you go left, you are taking another little trail called Fire Tower. It’s not super long so if you wanted to add on a bit (about .8 miles round trip), you could. It’s an out-and-back trail so you come to a dead end at the top of it, turn around and continue down Sulphur Springs.

Sulphur Springs Trail, Paris Mountain State Park, Greenville, SCThis part of the trail is wide and gently downhill, a wonderful respite after the climb you’ve just completed. Take it all the way down to an upper parking lot which you will cross to continue the trail. This can be a little confusing the first time, but it is marked and if you know it’s coming, it’s no big deal. Once you’ve gotten on this final stretch, you have a lot of swooping switchbacks that propel you down the mountain and back to your starting point. You will come down a final small hill that throws you out beside the road across from the parking area where you began. You’ve just completed an awesome workout!

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Upper Sulphur Springs Trail near the final descent

Good to Know: The Sulphur Springs Trail has portions of it (roughly the first half as I described it) that are hike-only. This means there shouldn’t be any mountain bikers to watch out for; however, when you come to the top of the mountain and head back down you should watch out for bikers as they can come up pretty quickly on the descending switchbacks. Also, be sure to take water on this trail particularly in the summer or if hiking. The distance is not super long, but as mentioned the elevation change is not insignificant.

Where to Eat: If you need some refueling, I’d recommend our go-to post-run meal: pizza. There are some great options around, but one of our current favorites is Swamp Pizza. They use local ingredients,  delicious scratch made dough, and a brick oven to create some of the best pizza in Greenville.

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

 

 

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Laurel Fork Falls

Lake Jocassee Laurel Fork FallsA couple of weeks ago we went on one of my favorite South Carolina runs of all time. My ideal run is challenging, but not demoralizing, extremely beautiful and interesting all along the way with plenty of variety and an incredible destination that helps pull you along and tempts you further. Also, it’s within a reasonable distance (no more than an hour or so) of decent pizza so you have hope instead of despair as your bloodsugar begins to crash and you realize you’re very underprepared in the snack department. :) This had all of that! It was magnificent.

trail runner on the foothills trail heading to Lake Jocassee and Laurel Fork FallsThe run wove along Laurel Creek, which trips and plunges over the rocks, criss-crossing the Foothills Trail until it gushes off a cliff at the end. It culminates with an 80 foot high waterfall plunging into Lake Jocassee, the pristine mountain lake in Devil’s Fork State Park. I can’t wait to come back in the summer and take a dip at the halfway point of this run! That water is so beautiful, I was very tempted to take a jump in February.

Laurel Fork Falls at Lake Jocassee Foothills Trail

Along the way, you pass a smaller, but very beautiful waterfall called Virginia Hawkins. For a shorter outing this is a great option. If you hike or run all the way to Laurel Fork Falls and Lake Jocassee from Laurel Fork Gap, it is about 9 miles round trip; however, if you only go as far as Virginia Hawkins falls, it’s about 3 miles round trip.

Getting Here:  Map your route to Horse Pasture Road Sunset, SC. This is a gravel road off of US 178 marked by a sign for the Foothills Trail. Follow the gravel road as it slowly climbs into the woods. You will pass a Foothills Trail parking lot on the left as you come in. Keep going (unless you want to add about 8 extra miles to your hike- you can jump on the Foothills Trail from this first parking lot but just be aware that it will add significantly to your elevation change and mileage and it is less scenic than later parts of the trail). After a few more miles you’ll come to an intersection with Cane Brake road leading off to your right and some small unmarked parking areas on your left. This is where we parked.

Begin your hike/run by taking Cane Brake Road up the hill. You will come to a gate that blocks drivers seasonally-just go around it. Continue to climb until you see the small white sign for Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve on your left and another wooden sign with yellow arrows pointing both directions to signify the intersection with the Foothills trail. Turn left at this intersection and very shortly you will come to a poorly marked right turn into the woods. That is the Foothills Trail and now you will begin to see white blazes marking it all along the way.

Most of this trail was easy to follow, but near the end it can be a bit confusing. To get down by the lake you need to take one last little spur labeled with a sign that says “Boat Access Spur .3 miles” (we thought it said 3 miles-thankfully that wasn’t the case).IMG_6477.JPG Good to Know: There really wasn’t much cell phone service in this area, so be prepared for that, take a buddy, and tell someone your plans. Bring water and snacks and wear good shoes with traction even if you’re not running. There is a decent amount of elevation change over the course of the run and some places are quite steep but it is well worth the effort!image-2-28-17-at-12-07-pm

Where to eat: We love hitting Sidewall Pizza in Travelers Rest on our way back into Greenville. It’s open a little later, you can eat outside if you feel grimy and their pizza, giant salads, and homemade ice cream really hit the spot after a long afternoon on the trail.

Paris Mountain State Park

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Mountain Lake,  Sulphur Springs Trail

It is easy to underrate the beauty of a place you see regularly because you’re used to it or to oversell it because it’s a dear old friend and your love adds value to it that others might not perceive. This has been my dilemma in writing about Paris Mountain State Park, the spot in our own backyard where we get outside most frequently.  A wild place, no matter how small will always contain surprises and even longtime neighbors can be strangers to us. So here is an introduction (or reintroduction for many in the Upstate) to one of our favorite places.

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Sulphur Springs Trail to Fire Tower

Paris Mountain is a solitary peak or monadnock roughly 6 miles north of downtown Greenville. The 1,540 acre state park is traversed by 9 trails covering around 15 miles. When you enter the pristine moss and tree-lined drive, you are transported quickly from the bustling ever-expanding city below to a peaceful natural playground. Hiking, camping, trail running and mountain biking are probably the most popular activities available, but there are also opportunities to fish in the 4 park lakes or swim and boat during the summer.

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Sulphur Springs toward Shelter 5

I love the fact that the foliage, the upper lakes, the loudly tumbling streams and certain steep rocky places make you really feel like you’re high in the mountains, very far away from civilization. This is a park where you can bag a mountain run on technical single track trails with well over a thousand feet of elevation gain or take a short leisurely walk around the lake before starting your picnic. We have been amazed to see how different activities in the same place can completely change our perspective. There are trails on Paris Mountain that we have run countless times only to hike them and catch views we’ve never seen–glimpses of a lake far below or the trail weaving above our heads. No matter which activity you choose, you can wrap it up and be back in town within 10 or 15 minutes (plenty of time left for pizza). It’s amazing!

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North Lake Loop

We have had the opportunity to explore nearly every nook and cranny of this park, and I can’t wait to share some of our favorite trail loops and activities in future posts. While Paris Mountain may not be as expansive as the ranges of mountains further north, it offers great variety, ever-changing beauty and fantastic accessibility. Get out and enjoy it today!

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Lake Placid

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North Lake

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

 

Green River Game Lands

 

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The Narrows

The Green River Game Lands-that name totally intrigued us. My husband and I were looking for somewhere fun to go explore and literally saw this on the map in a spot that looked somewhat close to Greenville (roughly 1 hour away). When I researched it a bit, we saw that there are multiple trails in the Game Lands and the whole area has a lot to offer. The Green River Narrows, famous for whitewater kayak racing, are nestled in this parcel of land and that ended up being our destination. We visited in early summer and did the Green River Cove trail to Pulliam Creek  as well as the loosely marked dive into the gorge in order to see the Narrows. What a cool spot! It is a surprisingly rugged, steep descent involving cables and requiring some careful stepping, but that only added to the wild isolated feel we were enjoying.

 

We ran as much of this as we could given our time and the terrain.  It ended up being about 8-9 miles round trip including the trail to the Narrows. Much of the  trail winds pleasantly along the river across rolling hills, but at the Narrows everything opens up giving the feel of a larger more substantial gorge. There was a fantastic waterfall pouring into the river and massive rocks were tumbled everywhere. It felt epic and we were the only ones there to enjoy it.

At the end of our run, we back tracked to a little parking area right before Wilderness Cove Tubing and Campground that provides access to the river via a short trail. This was a great cool down, but even better (if you have the time) is a 2 hour float down the Green River provided by Wilderness Cove Tubing. We tubed on a Sunday afternoon late in the summer and had a blast. It was relatively busy, but the river didn’t feel crowded. The rapids were fun without being scary-big and two hours was more than enough time to enjoy the scenery and soak up the cool water.

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The Green River

 

We hit two different restaurants on our return journeys, both of which were delicious! After the run, we caught pizza night at Wild Flour Bakery in Saluda, NC. Wednesdays and Fridays they offer wood-fired pizza from 5-8. It was truly delicious and relatively close to the Game Lands. After tubing, we visited Green River BBQ in Saluda. With live music and some of the best ribs I’ve ever tasted, it too hit the marks for convenient proximity and tasty food.

Altogether, this is an awesome little afternoon or day-trip. The drive to the Game Lands is relatively short, but quite scenic. The trails and the river are fantastic and the proximity to the cute mountain town of Saluda with multiple yummy restaurants sealed the deal. We will definitely return.

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

Getting There:  The parking area for Green River Cove trail access is off of Green River Cove Rd. just past Wilderness Cove Tubing and Campground. You can plug that address (3772 Green River Cove Rd. Saluda NC 28773 US) into your GPS, go just past it (maybe .1 mile or less) to a small pull-off on the right and park there.  Cross the road and you will see a private property drive. The entrance to the trail is off of that drive on the left.

We ran the Green River Cove Trail  about 3.5 miles, until we reached an intersection with Pullium Creek Trail veering to the right. We took this split and went about .75 miles on Pullium until we came to some pink tape (on our left) marking the trail down to the Narrows. This treacherous, rooty trail was between .25-.5 miles straight down to the river. Be very careful if you decide to attempt it, especially with a dog. It’s very steep, tricky footing.

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Seasonal Considerations: Hunting is permitted in the Game Lands  from September through May. If you’re planning to visit during this time, be sure to wear bright clothing or go on Sunday when no hunting is allowed. For more details on the hunting particulars and  trail information, I found this  online document  extremely helpful.

Also, there appeared to be a good amount of poison ivy in places during the late spring/early summer months, so be on the lookout for that if you’re sensitive to it.

 

Kauai Activities

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Stunning cliff trail to Waipoo Falls

While the Kalalau trail was a major priority and highlight for our trip, there were many other equally amazing adventures to be had on Kauai. Here are few more of our favorites. Most of the headings have links to more information and/or the exact company we used for a specific activity.

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Waimea Canyon

Western Kauai

Waimea Canyon– This place is unreal. People call it the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and it is pretty mind blowing. We did a couple small runs here too and would have loved to explore more.

Na Pali Coast Overlook- Amazing views of the coast and what looked to be some pretty sweet campgrounds along the way. This was an especially magical place at sunset. When we got there, almost no one was around. There were huge wild hydrangea bushes in full bloom and locals were hiking down past the fence to reach more views. It’s probably a little more dangerous than just taking things in from the overlook, but we couldn’t resist following just a little ways to check it out.

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Just below the Na Pali coast overlook

The Saddle Room – Delicious burger place in Waimea. Fun atmosphere and really good food. It is pretty low key, but it’s attached to Wrangler’s, a fancier steak house.

Little Fish Coffee– This was a really fun coffee spot in Hanapepe. We had wonderful affogatos here.

Na Pali Coast Kayak Trip– The most intense kayaking trip I’ve ever done. The company we went with calls it the Mount Everest of kayaking and awards you a certificate upon completion of the excursion while National Geographic has named it one of the top 40  Best American adventures. It’s around 17 miles of guided sea kayaking. You get to see the entire Na Pali coast up close in one day as well as spinner dolphins, sea turtles, waterfalls,  awesome beaches and much more. The trip includes lunch and guides (which we were SO grateful for).

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Na Pali Coast paddling trip

After doing the trip, I had no desire to ever try it unassisted. The conditions felt a little crazy to me and apparently it was a very average day in regards to ocean swell, wind, etc. When you look at the ocean from a distance it looks relatively smooth, but when you are actually out on the ocean you can get on these massive swells and backwash off the cliffs that make your neighbors disappear and send you soaring.  It’s very cool, but it is no joke. We fell out once or twice, as did most of the group, and it really wasn’t a big deal since we had an easy system for getting back in, we were wearing pfds and everything we brought was in waterproof bags lashed to the boat; however, it was a bit scary initially and it definitely cemented my healthy respect for the ocean. The guides give you great safety training and directions and they are especially helpful during the beach landings where you can get pummeled if you’re not careful.  I had the misfortune of feeling seasick for about half the trip, so I would highly recommend bringing a remedy for that if you have ever had any semblance of motion sickness.  I never actually got sick, but other people did and it takes away from a really exciting and amazing experience. It is very cool to propel yourself through the ocean along one of the most beautiful places in the world–absolutely unforgettable!

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Polihale Beach, the gorgeous finale of the trip

North Shore Kauai

Kealia Farm Market- This small market was our favorite by far! We got INCREDIBLE fresh sashimi grade tuna for a really reasonable price, as well as some beautiful vegetables. The guy who sold the fish also served a couple of cooked dinner items ($7-10). They were amazing as well. 3-7pm Mondays and Fridays, bring Cash

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Kealia Farm Dinner- grilled pesto fish with local greens

 

Ke’e Beach– The “end of the road” northernmost beach at the base of the Kalalau trail. This spot was beautiful–cliffs plunging into the Pacific Ocean–and we had our best snorkeling here.

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Ke’e Beach from the water

Kamokila Hawaiian Village–  This was a really neat spot near Kapaa. We toured the village, rented kayaks for a very reasonable price and did a short paddle on Wailua River + a hike to a waterfall. Great shaved ice in a food truck on site!

“Tourist” Lumahai Beach – Gorgeous beach, local favorite, not great for swimming depending on the season. It was calm while we were there (in early June) and lots of people were jumping off the lava shelf into the ocean, but apparently it can be very treacherous at times.

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Tourist Lumahai

South/East Kaui

Wailua Shave Ice– This was probably my favorite shaved ice spot. It was the last one we went to and it was really great. They make all their ices with local fruit–so delcious–and they had a yelp coupon the day we went!

The Greenery– Amazing restaurant in Lihue featuring local, organic soul food fare. This is where we landed, jet-lagged and starving after leaving the airport. It was incredible. They were about to close for the day, but with true Hawaiian hospitality they served us some absolutely delicious food.

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The stunning local fruit

Huli Chicken– This is an easy-to-miss roadside stand in Anahola. They slowly grill whole chickens over hot coals and it is outrageously moist and flavorful. They have limited hours and do sell out so get there early if you can. We also got mountain apples at their farm stand.

 

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Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

 

 

Kalalau Trail Run

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Kalalau Trail, Na Pali Coast of Kauai

One of our top priorities in Kauai was doing a long run on the Kalalau trail along the Na Pali coast. You absolutely have to check out this trail if you go to Kauai. Even if you just hike the first mile or two, you will see so much beauty and catch absolutely epic views of dramatic cliffs and sparkling little beaches. The tropical plants, flowers and birds are surreal and if you can get past the more crowded beginning of the trail it really starts to feel prehistoric out there–quiet and beautiful like the world was just created. This place is stunning and totally draws you in, but we had a rather difficult time sorting out what was possible for us to legally do in a day trip. If you go to the Hawaii State Parks website  you will see all the rules and warnings about how far you can go with and without a camping permit. As of March 1, 2015, you have to get an overnight camping permit to hike/run beyond Hanakapi’ai Beach (2 miles in), even if you’re not camping. The goal of this is to prevent overcrowding, reduce trash, and increase safety on the trail which is obviously great; however, we were super disappointed when we saw that because the permits were completely gone for the time frame we were traveling. Thankfully, we emailed the park and got permission to run 6 miles in. So, if you don’t get an overnight permit and you’re truly planning to run in and out on the same day over the course of a few hours, an email may be worth a try.

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Hanakapi’ai Beach: 2 miles in, usually a little rough for swimming

It is important to note that the trail is pretty intense, with water crossings, sheer drop offs and loose rocks in some places (especially after the first two miles). In the 6 mile section that we tackled, it never got to the really tricky, edge-along-on-your tiptoes, total palm sweat areas that we saw on some You Tube videos, but it is good to be careful and more aware the further you go. The trail is also extremely hilly and potentially very hot with a lot of direct sun on the exposed ridges. Within our 12 mile round trip jaunt on the trail, we gained nearly 10,000 feet of elevation. It was crazy. The views are so distracting and the whole thing feels like such a massive adventure you don’t realize how much you’re doing until the exhaustion starts setting in. That’s why you will see many warnings on the internet, in guidebooks, and even at the trail head. It is kind of wild out there and depending on the weather, it can get pretty sketchy.  You absolutely have to be careful and know your limits, but if you can manage that, it really is an adventure of a lifetime.

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The View

My biggest piece of advice based on our experience is to bring plenty of snacks, water and some kind of water treatment in case you run out. We are experienced trail runners, but we still underestimated the time it would take us to do this run and used 3 liters of water between the two of us before running out with a mile or two to go in the blazing sun. Thankfully, it worked out and some angelic person was selling coconut water straight from the coconut at the bottom of the trail, but it was sobering to us to realize how close we cut it. Multiple times we have looked back and decided it was a miracle our water lasted as long as it did. So, pack carefully and try not to over do it even though it is very tempting to just keep going!

Note: Parking at the trail head is limited and can fill up pretty early in the day. We ending up parking at Tunnels Beach and starting the run on the road. This is not ideal as it added 3 miles to the run, but it is an option if there is no parking. Also, bring along plenty of snacks/food for after the run too. My memory is that there were not tons of places out there to grab dinner.

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Deep in the Na Pali Coast

 

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Views down the coast

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!!

Sam’s Gap to Big Bald Trail Run

Big Bald, Appalachian Trail, near Asheville, North Carolina

Big Bald in the distance

This is an awesome trail run or hike. The views from the top are outrageously stunning. Follow the white rectangular blazes to stay on the AT. The hike is 6.5 miles out and 13 miles round trip. There are a couple of springs along the way which are nice for rehydrating your canine friends. We carried hydration packs, but I guess you could also treat the spring water and carry less in. The run took us about 3 hours and 20 minutes. That included a decent number of photo stops along the way, but not our time at the top. More details about the run can be found below.

Getting here: Head north out of Asheville on I-26 N until you get to the Wold Laurel ski lodge exit. Take a right off of the exit. Go over the bridge and take a left on 23. You will pass Little Creek Cafe and continue a couple of miles until you see a parking area on either side of the road right before it passes under an overpass of I-26. We parked in the parking section on the right and jumped on the gravel walking path that led to the AT. Across the road (on the left side), the AT heads south to Hogback shelter. If you end up there, then you have gone the wrong direction.

Where to eat: Treat yourself to Farm Burger or any of the other amazing Asheville restaurants that you will pass on your return journey.

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View from the top

Today, I want to talk about a run from this past weekend that is definitely one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring excursions we have ever done. As previously mentioned, my husband and I absolutely love trail running. It is exhilarating, interesting, challenging, and satisfying in different ways each time we go; however, some runs really reinvigorate your whole perspective on the sport and get you excited about exploring and pushing yourself to new limits. Our run to Big Bald, one of many stunning spots along the famous Appalachian Trail, did exactly that. We first heard about it as a running destination through an awesome blog called iRunfar.com. Here it is listed as a moderate run about 30 minutes outside of Asheville. One picture was enough to make us drool and instantly decide we had to find this place. Once found, it did not disappoint.

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Running off the edge

The trail to Big Bald from Sam’s Gap is around 6.5 miles long one way, 13 miles round trip. It is replete with the characteristic ups and downs that the AT is known for and sprinkled with different terrain and teasers of the big views ahead. A couple sections are particularly steep, one about a mile in and the other about 5.5 miles in, but much of the trail is just rolling or gradual incline.
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Though our goal was to run the entire thing, some power walking had to happen in places. We have learned to embrace that part of mountain running instead of feeling defeated by it. Sometimes walking is more efficient and sometimes it is all you can do to keep moving forward. It’s a killer workout any way you slice it. Power hiking a mountain doesn’t exactly make it a cake walk…unfortunately.

Dogs on Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail

When we hit the last steep section before the bald, we began to wonder if we would ever arrive at our destination and if it could really be worth all this effort. We had gotten a kindly tip from a descending hiker that we were “close”, but obviously that means different things to different people. So when we had continued another quarter mile without evidence of Big Bald, we started to feel our burning legs more keenly and lose some momentum. As so often happens, this low point hit as we were finally nearing the goal. Just a few minutes later we emerged from the forest into bright sunshine, waves of mountains, and a grassy slope that disappeared into the bluest sky dotted with cottony clouds. It took my breath away and made me want to cry it was so beautiful. The fact that we had been running for over 90 minutes, just heaved up one final hill and been on a small emotional roller coaster (thinking it was just around the corner only to find out it was not) might have been playing into my feelings a bit, but even as I sit here remembering that moment, I am moved. The whole scene was magnificent, unbounded and for several minutes, we were the only ones in the world experiencing it.

Near the summit of Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail

Throughout the whole hike we passed only a handful of hikers and one group of people camping about 2 miles in. After reaching the top, we were joined by a solo backpacker and two other day hikers. Since it was Saturday and the weather could not have been more perfect, I’m assuming that was a busy day and it was still very peaceful. If you are in the Upstate or western North Carolina, this is a must run and/or hike. It is so worth the effort.

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

Grassy Meadow Summit of Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail near Asheville, NC

Jones Gap State Park Trail Run

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May 13, 2014

If you live anywhere in the Upstate and have not yet discovered Jones Gap State Park, you are missing out. It is a verdant pocket of forest, divided by a clear, bubbling mountain stream that shrinks and expands as it traverses the park. The area is speckled with waterfalls, both large and small, which make for great hiking/running destinations, and as we recently discovered, the opportunity for some pretty noteworthy mountain running experiences.

IMG_6462Over the past few years, my husband and I have run, hiked, camped, and explored this area in multiple directions. I will be sharing several adventures from this place, but I had to begin with our most recent new discovery: The Rim of the Gap trail. I have seen this intriguing trail name on the map since we began coming to Jones Gap; however, that interest was tempered by some things we heard early on about its high level of difficulty, several bear sightings, and its closure during the winter because of ice accumulation. The rumors made it feel ominous, intimidating, out of our league and far more wild than your average South Carolina state park. So on this rather muggy May day, we were not expecting to just take a little jog on this crazy beast of trail, but that is exactly what ended up happening.

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We arrived in the late afternoon, decked out in running gear and excited to try our new-ish hydration packs on a run where we might actually need the extra water. As we perused the map, we were approached by a ranger who wanted to warn us about the trails closing an hour before sunset. With disappointment, we realized we probably couldn’t tackle our 10.5 mile arch-nemesis, the out and back Jones Gap trail that we had been attempting to complete off and on for awhile. We had made a half-joking “vow” to ourselves that we would not return to the park or at least not that trail unless we were ready to just finish it, so we had quite the dilemma. That’s when we asked our new ranger friend  about the Rim of the Gap trail. Is it runnable? Is it crazy? How long is it? Overall, he downplayed the whole thing while simultaneously telling us the elevation gain was significant, around 1400 feet but also pointing out a 5.5 mile loop that only involved a portion of Rim of the Gap before cutting across on a connector that linked to Little Pinnacle Mountain via the Pinnacle Pass trail. This is what we ended up running and it was amazing. It was crazy, but very cool.

IMG_6474Almost immediately, the trail starts climbing and we were huffing and puffing and just barely power hiking our way through certain sections. Then we came to a rock you have to climb over with the help of a cable, and we knew this was going to be one of our more epic and memorable runs. The trail climbs and climbs, but thankfully the forest is so beautiful. We felt certain that we were experiencing almost of all of the elevation gain for the whole trail as we crept along, telling ourselves this was a killer workout even if we were barely moving in multiple places. You have to pay attention to the signs and blazes along the way, but the trails are well-marked. When you get to the turn for the connector and move on to the Little Pinnacle trail, you begin to get steep downhill sections that provide some relief for the legs, but also require a great deal of caution. The highlight of the whole run is the view you get just past the Mountain Bridge trail marker 20, pictured above. We were not expecting things to open up like they did, so it absolutely stunned us to see the waves of mountains and sky burst through the trees.

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I would totally recommend this as a hike or a run. It is so beautiful and the distance isn’t too intense. While later parts of the Rim of the Gap are apparently far more treacherous, this section was really not terrible. You get enough elevation gain and rock hopping in to feel pretty hardcore, but you also are not forced to inch along any narrow ledges or cross waterfalls with a cable (From what I hear, there may be some of that further up the Rim of the Gap trail). The downhill sections were what felt the most dangerous to us, but we just took it really slow in those areas and did not have any problems.

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Recommendations: Bring water and a snack in case your adventure takes longer than planned. There are plenty of spots to stop and rest if needed, and it’s nice to refuel a bit along the way. Definitely wear shoes designed for hiking or running that have some traction. Also, keep in mind that you could be out for a good chunk of time. We were running (as much as possible) and it took us around 1 h:45mins. That is a good bit longer than our normal 5.5 mile run :). Also, be very careful on the steep sections, particularly the rocky downhill sections, and I would probably avoid this during a torrential downpour if possible. Always remember to exercise caution on unfamiliar terrain, and fill out a hiker check-in before you start.

Enjoy the gorgeous views and keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

Middle Prong Wilderness Backpacking

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Exploring the meadow

For some reason, we have yet to get motivated to do a winter camping trip. In some ways, it’s silly because we live in the Southeast and spring or fall temperatures at 6,000 feet elevation are often just as cold as anything we would encounter at lower altitudes in the dead of winter. Regardless, we have a mental block about it and just don’t get motivated to gear up and go during the winter. So when spring, in all its wishy washy starts and stops begins to melt and green the landscape, we inevitably feel that the time has come to venture out into nature. This year we had the added pull of friends who invited us to join them. Remembering that semi-spontaneous backpacking is often the only way we end up doing this sort of thing, we immediately accepted the offer and quickly started planning.

On this occasion, we got an amazing recommendation from Bob, a church friend who has spent many years as a scout master and an adventurer at large. We were relaying our customary debate of whether to return to an old, beloved location or explore somewhere new with the risk of disappointment, when he described a place he had nicknamed “the Shire” because of its wild beauty, quiet green paths, and dramatic scenic views. Immediately, we were captivated, and I definitely felt like any place besides the Shire would be a total letdown.

Our friend described where this place was, but with our lack of experience we couldn’t begin to place it. He mentioned something about figuring out more specific details for us, but it was nearing our departure day and I wasn’t sure we would be able to reconnect in time to get the information and make it happen. We were in for a surprise. I don’t think 24 hours passed before my mother-in-law dropped off a map she had received from Bob at a church function. It felt like a treasure map, with its circles and other markings. I poured over it eagerly, and then immediately texted a picture of it to my husband. It was quickly settled that the Shire would be our destination, and looking at the map we found that it was in an area called the Middle Prong Wilderness (not Middle-Earth) near Mount Hardy.

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Our map

We began to research our travel route and look for various hiker accounts of the trail. The intrigue continued as multiple sources described a place of unmarked trails, gorgeous vistas, stream crossings, and many accidental wrong turns. After printing two detailed accounts of the trails we were planning to take into this area, stuffing our bags and car, and loading up on enough food for 3 days of backpacking, we set out on our 1 night trip. (We tend to overpack in hopes that it will make us feel less unprepared to face the wild.)

Without cell phone service, it was a little tricky to connect with our friends, but thankfully our meeting place and timing worked out perfectly. We had no specifics on where to actually set up camp, but we figured we could just start hiking and keep our eyes open. One of the hiker accounts had mentioned a meadow that sounded promising about 4 miles in, so that was our tentative goal.

The hike was unbelievable. There were lovely streams, carpets of moss, boulder-sized rocks, and dark higher elevation forest growth that added an air of mystery to the whole scene. As the sun was getting ready to set we finally stumbled upon a meadow. We weren’t even sure we had taken the right turn, but the trees opened up and as we continued to climb we came to a stunning clearing. The view revealed mountain after mountain and a softly setting sun. Along the way, we had not passed other hikers, but scattered across this spot a few pairs of other backpackers were also making camp. We settled in for the night, made dinner, hung our bear bag, and slept as soundly as possible.

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Sunset Summit

Ironically, our lovely spring camping trip ended up being about as cold as any we’ve taken. It cooled off dramatically as soon as the sun began to set, and in the morning it felt even colder. We were so grateful for our nervousness-induced overpacking because it had included some hastily snagged gloves and beanies. Our breakfast was a feast with french pressed coffee, eggs, and summer sausage, but even with that we never quite warmed up until the hike down was almost complete. Nevertheless, we all felt that we had indeed found a treasure with the help of our special map, and we are determined to return as soon as possible for more adventures. This place is breathtaking!

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A cold, tired Zoe dog

Hike or Backpack this trail: This area is not far from Graveyard Fields off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’m posting two of the blog posts we looked at because they were very detailed and helpful to us. There are a lot of different ways to explore the Middle Prong Wilderness, but we found this to be a great entry point. http://www.hikewnc.info/besthikes/middle-prong-wilderness/green-knob http://smokyscout.blogspot.com/2012/04/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-x-none.html

Tips: Always exercise caution when exploring a wilderness area. We found out ahead of time that campfires are not allowed in this region, so that is definitely something to be aware of if you’re camping. This is a decently tough hike, definitely not something you would want to do without water, a map, good footwear, and some careful study beforehand about what to expect. The trails are pretty worn, but it does seem like you could get lost pretty easily since there are no signs. Always take a buddy or let people know where you’re going and when you expect to return.

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!