Saturday, October 1, 2016

Before you “rip and go”, read this first.

This blog post is based on the trail described in the Backpacker Magazine article linked below:

Before you “rip and go”, read this first.

This loop is very difficult. The changes in elevation are steep and the trail is extremely overgrown to the point of barely existing in some (many) places. If you are still interested in completing this loop then read the rest of this long comment below.

I first read about this loop years ago and the description sounds fantastic, so in 2014 I decided to give it a try. It quickly became clear, whoever wrote this article about the trail has never hiked it before. I ended up not completing the loop the first time (details below), and retried the loop again over Labor Day weekend in 2016. This time I was successful in finishing the hike I started over 2 years ago. For a detailed experience from someone who just finished hiking this trail, please continue reading.

Things to know before you get directions: Get a good stick you can knock briar patches out of the way with, much of this trail is completely overgrown by thorns. Be on the lookout for bears (the hike borders a Bear Reserve on the TN side). Wild pigs can also be an issue (I saw 4 this last time but no bears). Bring plenty of water, maps, some sort of GPS, and descriptions of the trail to help you find your way. The ups and downs on this hike are torturous and doing it while beating thorns away from your faces is exhausting.

I’ll start at the beginning. The trailhead is basically a gate just off the Cherohala Skyway (Highway 165 in TN and 143 in NC). The highway has been recently paved which gives the trailhead slightly more prominence (the main thing to look for is a sign announcing the Nantahala National Forest).

When I went in 2014 the grass around the gate and along the road was so overgrown the trail looked abandoned. There is also an overlook/parking lot on the NC side about a hundred yards from the trailhead (I parked here the first time I went) if you prefer parking on pavement (you’re not allowed to block the gate to the forest road).

Following the forest road past the gate is simple enough; it winds through the woods and ends in a small meadow (perfect for camping if you arrived late). From what I can tell there are at least main trails leading off from the meadow. New signs (they weren’t there in 2014) have been installed for some trails but they don’t seem to help much.

You would think you could look at the map above and determine which trail(s) to take to complete the loop, only the map doesn’t show all the other possible choices you are faced with along the way. The meadow has a trail going down and to the left and then two trails straight ahead. The trail in front on the left side is an equestrian trail. The trail you want is straight ahead to the right. (I believe it is trail #54, but I could be wrong.) The trail will have signs saying no horses beyond this point etc.

The trail begins an upward slope almost immediately and doesn’t let off until you reach Bob Stratton Bald. A few things to note about this first stretch: There is piped spring along the way (look for a white PVC pipe sticking straight out of the hill about 10 fee below the trail), it usually has a trickle of water coming out. You will also pass an old sign post  (really just a post) which is covered in scratches with the numbers “54” and “59A” barely visible. This post marks where you will connect the loop on your way back. On your way to complete the loop you will come up the hill to your left and you will take a right at that sign to head back down the hill to your car. (+035.37228/-084.00825).

As you approach Bob Stratton Bald (aka Bob’s Bald) you’ll see an open grassy area to the right with some fire pits, if it seems small, don’t worry, you haven’t gotten to the real thing yet. Keep climbing the hill and the trail will open onto a huge grassy bald covered in a maze of trails.

If the weather is good, expect excellent views to the east. I’m not sure who made all the trails on the bald or where they go but eventually you’ll want to link up with the trail you were originally hiking on. The best description I can give is the trail follows an arc (to follow the contour of the bald) from where you entered the bald to the far side. Someone (as of Labor Day weekend 2016) had graciously marked the exit point with pink flagging tape but there’s no way to know it will still be there.

Once you find your way out of the bald you’ll continue onward following the ups and downs of the trail. You’ll soon come to an intersection with a trail leading ahead and slightly to the right and a trail to your left, which leads down. TAKE THE TRAIL TO THE LEFT!

Take the trail just barely visible to the left. DO NOT GO STRAIGHT!
One of the things that makes this hike so challenging is the lack of quality signage. There is a sign pointing to the trail on the left (you’ll have to walk past the sign and turn around to see it, so then it will be pointing right), which indicates the “HAOE Lead Trail No.53” is in that direction. The best I can guess is the “HAOE” stands for “Hangover” which is the formation you are heading towards. The first I did this hike I stayed straight and spent the next day on the worst “trail” you can imagine, which ended up dead ending at some road. Don’t go straight!!

Once you’ve gone down to the left, the trail continues to descend (don’t worry, you’re going in the right direction, the hangover isn’t the tallest mountain around). You will then come to yet another intersection. This intersection has signs and you would think you could follow them. DO NOT FOLLOW THE SIGNS!!

The signs are mostly correct but will lead you astray as they are not positioned well. The signpost is at the entrance to a small clearing; to the right is another clearing with a campground, which has a nice view.

 In order to continue on the correct trail you need to go to the campground, and as you are looking out at the view, turn to your left and you will notice another trail leading up the hill. YOU WANT TO TAKE THAT TRAIL. (+035.38060/-083.98329)

After you continue on for a ways you’ll arrive at the trail that branches off to the Hangover (the trail to the Hangover goes straight, but eventually you’ll want to take the trail to the left).

After you visit the Hangover you'll want to follow trail 53 down the mountain.

The Hangover is essentially a rock ridge line, which doesn’t have enough soil to support real trees so it’s covered in head high bushes. Rocks along the path give you the extra boost needed to see above the bushes and provide a 360-degree view of the mountains around.

The trail dead ends at the end of the Hangover and you will backtrack to the junction before continuing onward (to the left as you arrived and to the right as you return from the Hangover). I recommend stashing your packs and just bringing a camera/phone for pictures as the trail is quite narrow between the bushes and you’ll be coming back the same way.
The trail after the Hangover is a brutal downhill descent to the parking lot. Along the way you’ll encounter another similar formation to the Hangover (on a smaller scale). There is another trail that continues straight along this smaller ridgeline; however the trail you want turns sharply to the right and down to hug the main ridgeline.

Look for this rock heading to the right and down, winding back to hug the mountain. This is the trail you want.

Upon reaching the parking lot you’ll see a welcome board with a map of the area (Taken from National Geographic’s “Trails Illustrated” maps, which according to users at Trimble Outdoors (the second site to show up in a Google search for the trail) isn’t very reliable, so use the map with caution).

The view of the trail you just came down.

The trail continues to your left (there’s a sign for it this time, No. 41). There are other trails leading off from the parking lot but the one you want can be found by hugging the woods to your left and walking behind the sign.

The trail continues downhill towards several creeks and the waterfall. This section of the trail seems much more popular and the campsites near the falls were almost completely full of people (not likely to see much wildlife). You will take a right onto Nicholas Cove Trail No. 44 (+035.41715/ -083.97368) which will take you across a creek (if the water is low you can hop across the rocks).

Continue on this trail through the woods and then you will cross another creek (you will see the creeks come together on your right). I crossed this creek by hoping across rocks. You will come to a campsite area with a badly damaged sign pointing across the now combined creek to the trail to the waterfall. I would stash your pack here and take only things you might want at a waterfall (camera/phone, change of clothes, etc.) because you will be returning here. The trail from the other side of the creek is short and passes many large campsites. You cross over the creek once more just shy of the falls (the water wasn’t very high in early September so I was able to walk/hop on rocks to get across, but other times of the year it may be higher). The trail runs along the various stages of the falls and you can abandon the trail for a closer look or a swim in one of the swimming holes.

Once you’re finished at the falls, backtrack to where you left your pack (two creek crossings away). Finding the trail from here is tricky, because it is seldom traveled. From the initial approach to the campsite the trail is to your left and as you come back from the water fall and cross the creek it would be directly in front of you. You will follow this trail uphill to the next campsite (and the only suitable one for quite some time). The campsite is a grassy clearing to the right of the trail.

In the article it is described as a former home site and apple orchard. I don’t know how accurate that description is, but it would be a stretch to call it an orchard and there were no signs of a former home having been there. (Don’t expect some big clearing with rows of trees).

As you’ve probably come to expect, this campsite is also a trail junction. There is a post with no writing or signs on it (+035.43079/ -084.01455).

As you approach the campsite from the waterfall (with the campsite on your right), the trail you want will be to your left. There is a trail that continues straight but I have no idea where it goes.

Once you leave the campsite you’ll continue uphill with a brief downhill portion along the way. You’ll now be hiking along a portion of the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), which means you can use Google Maps and the GPS in your phone to make sure you stay on the right trail.

You’ll pass several other trail markers with trails branching off to the sides but you’ll want to continue straight (the signs just have arrows along the trail number so it might be useful to label the trails you want with their number) (BMT is No. 95).

Another confusing trail marker appears by a large campsite (+035.38230/ -084.00941). The trail looks like it goes straight but that trail is trail No. 2. You want No. 59 which is up and to the left (the other trail has a slight downward slope). It may be hard to find b/c the BMT is not a well travelled and maintained trail.

If you’ve made it this far, (reading or in real life) congratulations! The key to making it back and completing the loop is to just keep going. The trail often disappears under heavy underbrush and head-height thorns, tight bushes and fallen trees. There were many times where I just stopped and wondered if I was even on the right trail (thank goodness for GPS!!!!!). Eventually you will make it out and back to the first trail (+035.37228/-084.00825).

As I mentioned earlier you will turn right and follow it back down to the meadow and then along the forest road to the gate and your car. If you are low on water, the spring will be up the trail to your left (an unknown distance).

In conclusion, I would not recommend this trail. If you are looking for something really hard then go for it. If you want to see the waterfall and the hangover, just park at the parking lot and take the short trip to both. The whole Citico Creek Wilderness area needs a lot of work in regards to trail maintenance and signage (but maybe part of it being a wilderness is to keep it wild?).

Good luck out there and happy hiking! -HC

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Epic Summer: Cambodian Adventures

Rice patties and sunshine

   Since high school I've dreamed of road tripping across the United States and photographing some of its high points. After many years of dreaming and a few years of rough sketching and route planning, I finally decided that the summer of 2013 would be the one for the trip. I was excited and a little nervous as I began acquiring all the necessary supplies for what I then thought would be a 2-month road tripping adventure.

     Two weeks before I was to board the ferry for my first destination, Isle Royale National Park, a Michigan island that sits just off the shore of Minnesota and Canada in Lake Superior, we met a friend of my mom's at church and everything changed. 

    The lady at church was the wife of the Dean at Mercer University's School of Medicine. Her and her husband were leading a mission trip through Mercer and were looking for a photographer and wanted to know if I would be interested. There were just 2 issues with that, the first, they were going to Cambodia, the second, they were leaving in a week and a half. 
The in-flight display of our flight path

    Now I had been out of the country before, once, as a tourist, to Canada, in middle school. But Cambodia isn't Canada, and this wasn't a tourist trip. Cambodia, by itself, is one of the poorest countries on earth. It's hard to say exactly how poor, because it receives so much in foreign aid that half of its government's budget comes from foreign sources. This massive amount of foreign aid is in response to the Kmer Rougue’s social reengineering that devastated the country in the 1970’s and left it bereft of nearly all educated members of society. We visited some of the more notorious sites of this genocide (S21 and the killing fields). Cambodia is slowly putting itself back together but corruption in the government hampers its progress.
S21 Tuol Sleng execution center
Skulls from the "killing fields"
View from the former high school
 converted to S21 to hold
political prisoners
A monument filled with skulls of the dead
Rules for the prisoners to speed up executions

The tree that held the loudspeaker to down out
the screams of those being killed.

            I cancelled my trip to Isle Royale, and with help from Dr. Bina (the Mercer’s School of Medicine’s Dean) managed to get a ticket to Cambodia on the same flight as the rest of the team. I had a passport and the necessary shots already, which was fortunate. We left from Atlanta shortly after lunch and flew 14 hours to Incheon International Airport in South Korea. I love flying, but being stuck on a plane for more than half a day while flight attendants attempt to impose a new circadian rhythm upon you is not enjoyable. After a brief layover in South Korea, we were back on a plane heading for Phnom Penh. This flight was much shorter at only 5 hours, and at that point in the day (if it can really be considered a ‘day’ after all the time zones we crossed) I was so used to flying/just sitting there that the 5 hours went by rather quickly. Because of the time zones that we crossed, we arrived around 9pm to a hotel room with broken air-conditioning and pale lizards crawling in the hallways. I had attempted to adjust my circadian rhythm by staying awake until we arrived in Phnom Penh, and was successful for the most part. I will say, lying there on a hard bed, on the other side of the world from everything that was familiar, with the oppressive Cambodian heat beginning to weigh upon me, I felt the most intense feeling of homesickness I have ever felt. I think the main reason for that feeling may have been the realization that home was 19 long hours of flying away. (Which may qualify as a ‘first-world problem’ because, until relatively recently, people had to take boats across the oceans and that took weeks to months).
Our bus ride to our hotel

The hotel lobby

The view of Phnom Penh from my hotel room

Inside the royal compound
            We managed to get the air-conditioning working, but only after knocking the control panel through the wall and replacing the batteries on the remote control. The next couple of days involved us acclimating to the country and city as well as touring Phnom Penh. The city is a strange mix between old and new, opulence and poverty. There are western restaurants (a few of them) with shiny floors and professional layouts alongside local hole in the wall (sometimes literally) establishments that would test even the bravest of souls (ok so maybe it’s not that bad, but still). We toured the royal palace, home of the reported poorest king in the world. The palace looks nice from the outside but the inside suffers from neglect. 
It’s not like the neglect is blatant, it’s the little things, like dusting off the multimillion-dollar solid gold Buddha or the gemstones from the royal family. The decorations are a mix of ancient ornate carvings, primarily in stone and precious metals and modern “made in China” trinkets that you would expect to find in your local party store. After touring the palace we visited the National Museum and saw some of the statues from temples across Cambodia that had been moved to capital in order to better preserve them for future generations.

            After we had been in Cambodia for a few days we headed to the countryside, to the town of Kampot. 

Dirt paths like this one are the main way rural Cambodians travel from home to the main road
Sunsets were always beautiful
the view of the mountains from the river
The Bungalows main "room" where large group events took place
The restaurant and lounge area of the Bungalows, on the river

Kampot served as our home while we did clinics in churches in more remote areas of Cambodia. We left early every morning from the bungalows were we stayed and drove about 30-45 to our clinic each day and returned late in the afternoon.
A rare house visit to provide more help to a man in need
The "pharmacy" at our first clinic location

A man in clinic

 The days were long at first, especially for someone like me who doesn’t have a medical background. I didn’t do anything that necessarily required a medical background, but I still had to learn the lingo to function as a member of the team and to participate in most conversations. We worked 3 different clinics at different churches around Kampot. 
This was our nicest clinic location, and one of the nicest buildings we saw outside the major cities
A church where we did clinic with patients waiting under a tent
A group photo on the last day of clinic, with Korean missionaries 
The churches were plants of Korean missionaries which surprised me, because I didn’t know the Koreans got around that much, but also made me very happy to see the Church active all around the globe.
            For one weekend we took some time off and visited the coastal town of Kep.
Towers interrupt our walk through the jungle
Some of the local food supplemented with french fries
The pool in Kep
The view from our crab shack in Kep

We relaxed by the pool and explored the national park that bordered the place where we stayed. One afternoon we took a boat to a small island in the bay of Thailand to enjoy the beach and go kayaking. I went with another guy on the team to a smaller uninhabited island nearby in our kayaks to go exploring, and as we climbed to the top of the island in our bare feet, we discovered a barbed wire fence that bisected the island. 
The boat we took to Rabbit Island before boarding kayaks
The fence was a little odd as the island had rather steep sides all around it and was barely flat at the top and measured at most 30-40 meters long. My initial thoughts were perhaps someone had used this island as grazing land for goats or something, but it would hardly make sense to divide up such an already small island, so then my thoughts turned towards war. Cambodia has a rough past and has been involved in many skirmishes and wars with nearby countries, which left the country’s landmarks marred by bullet holes, and its fields filled with landmines. Many of the landmines have since been removed, either by purposeful safe removal or through accidental detonation. The US State Department still advises visitors to avoid border regions and wandering off roads or paths anywhere in Cambodia. With this knowledge in mind and the existence of this seemingly pointless fence, I became concerned about possible landmines on the island, but the adventure was not to be stopped, so we continued exploring and made it off safely with a Jackfruit for our efforts.
A child waits outside of clinic

            Our last weekend in Cambodia, after we finished the clinics, we flew on a local airline to the city of Siem Reap, which is famous for its ancient ruins, namely Ankor Wat, the giant temple. We toured temple ruins for several days, which was really cool because everything looked like something out of National Geographic magazine (b/c they’ve done several articles on Cambodia). Along with temples we also visited the ancient ruins of Ankor Thom, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire. Probably the biggest difference between these ruins and sites in the US (besides the size and age) are the facilities. In Cambodia there are no facilities, no cleverly disguised gift shop, no designated area for eating, no systematic method for trash collection. They do a good job of keeping the iconic views clear of clutter but just outside of the frame are rickety stalls of wood and plastic tarps selling souvenirs and refreshments. I suppose it’s a relatively good way to earn money for the stall owners, but if they weren’t there it would really seem as if you were back in some ancient time, just coming across some ruins in the jungle.

This famous Banyan tree covers ruins in Ankor Thom
A lone monk rests in an opening in the upper level of
 Ankor Wat

            Leaving Cambodia I experienced the longest “day” of my life. My day started at 4:30 or so in the morning when several of us woke up early to catch the sunrise over Ankor Wat. I have never seen as many people that early in the morning as I did at Ankor Wat. The reflecting pool was crowded with photographers and tourists waiting to get the perfect shot. Unfortunately the clouds obscured the sun and the perfect shot was not to be had (I’ll be back!). After more sightseeing during the day, we waited around the hotel at night for our 8pm departure to the airport. Our flight left Siem Reap around 11pm in the pouring rain destined for Incheon, South K

orea. After our layover in South Korea we boarded our flight for the beautiful Atlanta, Georgia in the United States of America. I had attempted to change my sleep schedule to match that of Atlanta in an effort to reduce jetlag, but since sleeping on an airplane is harder than staying awake, I didn’t end up sleeping until I arrived back in Atlanta, 53 hours later. I learned a lot of things while in Cambodia, many of which are outside the scope of this blog but I hope, through the images and video that you can get a sense of the Khmer way of life.