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!

Santee Surf and Turf Triathlon & Biathlon

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Rounding the bend at the turn around point

April 26, 2014

Trail Run + Kayak + Mtn Bike + BBQ= AWESOMENESS. This is the tagline that drew us into a race comprised of 3 miles trail running, 3 miles flat-water kayaking or 1.5 miles SUP, and 8 miles of mountain biking for the triathlon option. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the sound of that adventure party? Three fun sports followed by BBQ, is difficult to pass up. Evidently, Adventure Geek Productions has been putting on some form of this race for the last 4 years, but we have never heard anything about it until we stumbled upon it via the internet one evening about 3 weeks before it was due to take place. We were super excited because the distances for this race are not crazy long and it is a unique combination of disciplines for a tri or biathlon.

Once we discovered this event, we immediately tried to talk several different friends and family members into doing it with us, but with only a few weeks notice, there were no takers. Despite our initial excitement, we went back and forth about it for quite a while, halfway training and allowing the signup deadline to creep closer and closer. Finally, with only hours to spare we signed up. David picked the triathlon, because he is a beast in possession of a sweet new-to-him mountain bike, while I opted for the easier biathlon which took out the biking. With some trepidation, we loaded up our gear and headed south, joined by a couple of great friends who agreed to hang out and kindly helped with water, gear etc.

The lakefront course and the beach (photo credit: Garrison Morris)

The lakefront course and the beach (photo credit: Garrison Morris)

We arrived about an hour and a half before the race started, checked in and got instructions about where to station our kayaks on the beach. It is a first come, first serve situation for getting your paddling position so we were glad to be there in enough time to have a couple options left. My husband and one of our friends carried the boats down and strategically picked a spot by some very cool racing kayaks. While we were getting situated we met a super nice couple who had done the race multiple times before. They provided some great insider tips about where the run dumped out and the distances between the run finish line and the kayak start. This definitely helped to ease our nerves, but everyone around us looked so hardcore and intense, we still felt like we might get destroyed in each of our respective races.

To begin the event, they gathered everyone at the start/finish line and directed us into the woods where we followed red arrows for the run and passed blue arrows that directed mountain bikers during the third leg of the race. The race started almost at a diagonal left, across an open grassy area, past the bike staging zone as well as some picnic spots. That was the only slightly confusing part of the race. We had never run at Santee before, so we didn’t know where the trail was going to begin and as previously stated it wasn’t really a straight shot out of the start line. After we got into the woods, turns were clearly marked, and the course was pretty flat and easy, covered in packed dirt and pine needles. As soon as we hit the finish line our kayak time began. We ran a little more than a quarter of a mile to the boat launch, threw on our pfds, and got launched by the volunteers. The kayak course was two 1.5 mile loops that paralleled the shoreline. If you used an SUP (we did not), you only had to do one loop. Once we finished that, we hopped out of our kayaks as quickly as possible and ran back to the start/finish line. For me, that was the end of the race. David changed shoes, strapped on his helmet and hit the trails again for the 8 mile bike ride. The biking definitely added a significant level of challenge to this event. It wasn’t steep or super technical, according to David, but doing three events over two is definitely more exhausting. Still, we both had very solid finishes. David was 11th overall in the triathlon and I won the much smaller biathlon.

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Final pump to the finish

All together, I would heartily recommend this event. It’s a unique challenge to do multiple activities back to back, and we appreciated the fact that this tri/biathlon was off-road and did not involve swimming, a sport we are definitely not in shape for right now. You can rent kayaks through several different outdoor vendors connected to the race which is helpful if you don’t own a boat, and the field of participants is not huge which we found less intimidating. The post-race party atmosphere was great too, with food, plenty of Heed and water, and great camaraderie. If we do it again next year, I would definitely work on my biking and try to do the triathlon, but the biathlon is a great option if you don’t bike. The race can also be run as a team, so grab some friends and start planning for next year’s Santee Surf and Turf Triathlon & Biathlon.

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Please note the ample BBQ and the Start/Finish line behind us 🙂

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

For more details about this race and other fun events sponsored by Adventure Geek Productions check out this website: http://www.adventuregeekproductions.com/santee-surf-and-turf.html

Trail Run on Pinnacle Mountain

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Bald Rock

January 24, 2014

Driving down Hwy 11 with hardly a cloud in the sky, I tried to convince myself that the sun would really offset the 20 degree temperatures uncommon for most of the year in Greenville. This was not the case. It was cold and breezy enough to make my lungs burn and tickle with coughs for hours after our run was complete. The lung-burning was probably not entirely weather related since the run we did includes a 2,000 foot elevation gain that takes place over the first half of the run. Was it worth it, you may ask? The cold, the coughs, the combusting thigh and calf muscles. I would still say yes. I love this run for the challenge it presents. Still, it has not ceased to be a bit daunting every time we decide to confront it. For close to 4 miles, you climb the trail that begins at Table Rock State Park Nature Center. There are many rocky steps in the first couple of miles and even the smoother paths later on are deceptively steep and challenging, but the views are stunning and the sense of accomplishment you get from crossing over this mountain makes it all worth it. It’s also a killer workout and a good confidence boost if you’re training for any kind of more moderate trail run. The run down the mountain is an exercise in balance and precision as you plummet dramatically down from the small clearing at the top. Again you are treated to amazing views, particularly at Bald Knob. The entire loop clocked out at 8.1 miles, and took us well over 2 hours to run with stops for pictures, shoelace malfunctions, and a pre-run bathroom break all added in.

Run this trail: Go to Table Rock State Park, SC. Start on the trail that begins by the nature center. Take Table Rock trail up a series of rough steps and linking trails, passing a shelter/lookout around 2 miles and continuing until you reach a second fork. You will take a left to head up Pinnacle mountain instead of the more common hike to Table Rock. Eventually you will pass a sign that says .9 miles to the top. (Warning: This last section can feel so long!) You will reach a clearing. To the left of the clearing the path continues sharply downhill. You will reach Bald Knob , an exposed face, in less than half a mile. Keep going to the left across Bald Rock and back into the woods. Continue down following blazes until you reach the path marked by three colored blazes. Take that back to the Nature Center.

Recommendations: Bring water on this run! It can get long and it’s pretty strenuous . You also might want to bring a snack at least for when you’re done if not for during the run. Watch out for bears during the summer. Wear trail shoes if you have them. You will enjoy the extra traction.