Beacon Heights Trail (Milepost 305)

•October 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Difficulty Rating:  6

Rocky, rough trail terrain

I have often noticed that this trail is a popular one, with its small parking lot overflowing with cars on nice days.  After (finally) hiking it myself, I can absolutely see why.

This trail is 0.35 miles one way, and culminates in two separate rock outcroppings which offer gorgeous views.  The trail begins directly across from the parking lot, entering the woods on the bank of a road passing in front of the parking area.

The trail ascends at a moderate pace through rhododendron, hemlocks, maples, and magnolias.  The terrain is somewhat rough, with many rocks littering the path and exposed roots.  The trail soon reaches a junction, where a sign points the way to the rest of the Beacon Heights trail, which turns to the left, and the Tanawha Trail, which begins at this point and goes to the right.

The trail splits into two paths, each leading to a view

From here the trail continues with similar incline and terrain, and soon splits into two paths, each leading to a view.  The path to the right is not as steep or rocky as the rest of the trail, and leads out to an open area of smooth, nearly flat rock offering a lovely view of the surrounding mountains.  If you are ever lucky enough to hike this trail when it isn’t crowded, this would be a great spot to sit and relax for a bit or read a book.

The path to the left is a steep and difficult, but short, climb to another rock outcropping.  This one is quite a bit larger than the first, with views in nearly every direction.  This area provides a particularly excellent view of Grandfather Mountain—it’s so close that you can see the cars driving up the steep zigzagging road to the top of the mountain.

One of the long-range views from the path on the right

There is no loop connecting the two paths, so you have to retrace your steps back to the intersection each time.  To complete the hike, go back the way you came, turning right at the sign for the Tanawha Trail.

This trail is of moderate difficulty because of the rocky and often steep terrain.  The rocks don’t require any special climbing ability, but they do make the hike more physically demanding and I recommend wearing sturdy shoes or hiking boots.

Grandfather Mountain, visible from the path on the left

Flat Rock Self-Guiding Loop Trail (Milepost 308)

•October 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Trailhead sign

Difficulty Rating: 3

This is one of my favorite trails, of the Blue Ridge Parkway and beyond. It’s short—O.7 miles round-trip—and the payoff far outweighs the effort. A short and gradual climb to an amazing, nearly panoramic view, and plenty of places to stop and enjoy it, make this trail perfect for a relaxing day in the mountains.

A sign stands at the entrance to the trail, with a short paragraph describing its features. There are 15 or so plaques along this trail, marking the location of various plants and other biological or geological features and providing a short description of each. Though some of these plaques have grown inaccurate or outdated with the changes of the forest, the majority are accurately placed and provide an informative, interesting resource for nature enthusiasts.


One of the desciptive signs along the trail

As you begin the hike, the trail ascends slightly and meanders through a hardwood forest with a floor blanketed in wildflowers, ferns, and other herbaceous plants. The trail splits shortly after you begin; though it doesn’t matter which direction you hike the loop, the trial signs are laid out with the left path as the beginning. Both paths lead to Flat Rock and have a similar, gently sloping gradient.

The dominant flora soon transitions to rhododendron, with galax lining the forest floor. Finally, as you approach Flat Rock, pines and hemlocks take over. From here, the trail curves in a U-shape around the rock and back into the forest. There are yellow arrows painted on the rock surface to guide you.

Flat Rock provides multiple spots with gorgeous mountain views. The trail passes several areas where a break in the trees allows for 180 degree views, and there are many excellent places found by a little exploring (carefully, of course!). In addition to beautiful views, these tucked-away spotsare great for relaxing in solitude or just stopping to take in your surroundings. If you do choose to wander off the trail, however, avoid walking on or disturbing the plants growing here—it’s hard enough growing on a rock as it is!


A young American Chestnut tree, which will never make it to adulthood

Flat Rock has a couple of unique and noteworthy features. It is dotted with hollowed-out pockets, the result of years of rainwater erosion and freeze-thaw cycles. The trees here—the pines especially—are stunted in growth, and have been visibly effected by wind exposure. The branches all grow in the same direction, and the tree itself appears to be in a constant state of leaning or bending with intense wind. I find it mind-blowing that these trees and plants are able to grow in a thin layer of soil over solid rock.

Following the yellow arrows around the rock, the trail enters the woods again and travels through much of the same habitats as the beginning of the path, but in reverse. There are several large boulders and rock formations on the way, before the trail enters a dense area of blueberry, goldenrod, and other herbaceous plants. The end of the trail is marked by a plaque, and a short walk down the path to the left brings you back to your car.

In my opinion, this trail is pretty easy. There are a few roots here and there in the path, but nothing too tricky, and the incline is slight and gradual. There are no creeks to hop across, and I have never encountered any muddy or wet areas to step around. However, if you choose to venture off the trail on Flat Rock, I would be extremely cautious and wear shoes with excellent grip.

View of the valley below Flat Rock

View of the valley below Flat Rock

**I want to note that though this trail usually provides a serene walk through a variety of plants and habitats, my last visit was vastly different.  The forest surrounding this trail had suffered immense damage—probably a result of the harsh ’09-’10 winter—and the trial was littered with downed trees and piles of branches, and many plants that were dead or dying under their weight. It was an incredibly shocking and unpleasant sight. I am unfamiliar with the Parkway’s typical course of action in such a case, so I don’t know if the debris will at some point be removed, or if that is even possible given the nature of the trail and the lack of access for the heavy equipment usually required to do so. I just hope the forest here is able to recover!

 

 

Cold Prond Pond Loop Trail (Milepost 299)

•October 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Difficulty Rating: 2

 


Trail Sign

 

Call me naïve, but I actually expected to find a pond somewhere along this trail. There is a map (here) of the Tanawha Trail, which passes near this trail, that shows a body of water in the middle of the loop. Maybe I’m just blind, but I didn’t see it.

I must say, this trail is not one of my favorites. It’s short—0.3 miles round-trip—and there isn’t much to see. But, perhaps those looking for a rather short nature trail would like it.

In fact, for the minimal distance, this trail offers a diverse set of habitats to wander through. The trail begins at the right end of the overlook and is marked with a sign. The other trail access leads to the Tanawha Trail, a separate, 13.5 mile trail that parallels the parkway.

From here, the trail descends slightly into a dense forest of rose bay rhododendron, hemlock, and mixed hardwoods. Multiple grass species line the forest floor, and it was apparent when we passed through that the grasses along the edges of the trail are kept in check to prevent the trail from becoming overgrown.

 


Entering the trail, surrounded by dense rhododendron and a few trees

 

The trail splits soon after leaving the parking lot into either end of the loop. One path lies straight ahead, while the other heads off to the left. I chose to keep straight, but I didn’t notice an advantage to either path compared to the other.

Continuing along the trail, the parkway parallels the path on the right for a short time and then the trail turns to the left. A clearing soon opens on the left, where a large, flat, grassy area is visible. The trail follows along the edge of this area for a while, and then splits again as it begins to round the back of the loop. The path leading to the left, with a narrow footbridge leading over a tiny creek, is the correct path to stay on the trail. (I didn’t walk the other path to see where it goes; maybe if I’m feeling adventurous one day, I’ll go back and check it out.)

 


The trail winding through the grass

 

Beneath this footbridge, there is in fact water running into this grassy area, and since the trail loops around it, this may be the ‘pond’ that gives the trail its name. I mean, it’s entirely possible that there are several inches—or feet—of water at the base of these grasses. The majority of them were taller than I was, and I didn’t have my marsh boots with me, so I wasn’t about to find out.

The trail then ascends slightly through the grass. The trail is very well-maintained here as well, so that even two people walking side by side would be well clear of the grass. As the trail rounds the end of the loop, trees become more numerous and the trail arrives back at the first intersection. From here, you must retrace your steps to the parking lot.

 

Possible location of the pond

Grassy area at center of loop--possible present/former location of the pond (?)

 

I found this trail to be very easy. There are a few roots to step over, and a downed tree blocks the path at one point, but otherwise it’s smooth sailing—it’s very short, and almost entirely flat. The only reason I didn’t give it a 1 is because I see trails rated ‘easiest’ as being accessible to almost anyone—i.e., a paved, handicap-accessible walkway. While thistrail doesn’t quite meet those qualifications, it would make a nice nature walk for even the most novice hikers.

Price Lake Loop Trail (Milepost 296)

•September 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Difficulty Rating:  4

Hello and welcome!  This is my first post in my quest to hike every trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  By pure luck, I picked just the right time of year to begin—autumn is almost here, the leaves will be changing soon, and this just-cool-enough, sunny weather makes remaining indoors next to impossible.  It had been quite a while since I’d been hiking last, so I was pretty excited to get started.  To kick off the occasion, I talked my fellow hikers into having dinner at the Dan’l Boone Inn, one of the area’s best and most unique restaurants.  I highly recommend it.  (But I guess that’s a subject for another blog entirely…)

Before dinner, we worked off all of the calories we were planning to eat (isn’t that how it works?  We’ll just say it is…) by walking the Price Lake Loop Trail, my first official blog hike.  This 2.7-mile trail is a part of Julian Price Memorial Park, a recreation area with camping facilities, canoe rentals, picnic tables, restrooms, and 3 hiking trails—the Green Knob Trail, the Boone Fork Trail, and the Price Lake Loop Trail.

The trial does, in fact, loop around Price Lake.  There are several access points:  the Price Lake Overlook, where I began; the Boone Fork Overlook; and the canoe and boat rental area.   The trail makes a continuous circle, so that regardless of where, or in which direction, you begin, the trail will bring you back.  While this trail doesn’t offer much in the way of panoramic mountain views, the lake makes for gorgeous scenery and a pleasant walk.

View from the bridge at the Price Lake Overlook
View from the bridge at the Price Lake Overlook

From the parking lot at the Price Lake Overlook, we followed the paved walkway to the left and over the bridge.  There is a lovely view of the lake from this bridge, although the appearance of its size can be deceiving.

The trail enters the woods at the end of the bridge, where a brown sign points you in the right direction.  From here, the trail meanders through dense rhododendron with little change in elevation. The lake is rarely out of view for most of the first half of the trail.  Scattered along this section are several openings to the water’s edge, many of them with large rocks, which serve as excellent spots for fishing, picnicking, or just relaxing.

About a third of the way around the lake, hardwoods and herbaceous plants become more numerous.  Small creeks cross the path, usually with rocks guiding you across.  There is a large, active beaver population in this area, and beaver activity can be seen along the trail in the form of downed trees, chewed to a point.  The end result of this soon appears as you round the back of the lake—multiple extensive beaver dams (huge piles of logs and sticks spanning the width of the stream).  One of these streams is crossed by a footbridge, while the other—more of a wet area than a stream, with the water rising after a recent rain—can be crossed on rocks when the water is low, or a beam and log when the rocks are underwater.

A beaver-chewed tree

A chewed and felled tree, evidence of beaver activity

From this point, the trail follows the lake less closely, eventually moving out of view of it altogether.  The trail on this side of the lake is somewhat hilly, with a few more (small) creek crossings.  The last quarter of the trail is wider with a smooth, edged surface.  Wooden boardwalks carry you over a couple of larger streams and wetland areas.  The trail passes by the boat rental area, where non-motorized boats and canoes can be rented by the hour during summer months.  Continuing past the rental building, the trail, now a paved path, passes in front of the parking area at the Boone Fork Overlook and enters one of the camping areas in the park.  While numerous paved walkways traverse throughout the campground, signs are posted at intersections to keep hikers on the trail.  There are restrooms in this area which are open seasonally.  Soon after leaving the camping area, the trail returns to the Price Lake Overlook, where the path passes in front of the parking area.

I found this trail to be fairly easy, but with a few potential challenges.  Skirting muddy, wet areas of the trail was tricky at times, and crossing streams on wobbly rocks required some balance and skill.  There were two or three occasions when climbing up or down rocks was necessary.  Probably the most challenging element, in my opinion, is the small beam used to cross one of the larger streams, which—if you’re like me and wobbled your way across the balance beams in elementary school—may be difficult for some.  These challenges are few, however, and the hike is an overall relaxing and enjoyable experience.