Monday, May 26, 2014

Mountain Biking the Pinhoti Trail - Snake Creek Gap to Pocket Road, Chattahoochee National Forest

For the Memorial Day weekend, I decided to push myself a little bit and planned a ride that I knew would not be long but has a reputation for horrible climbing: the Pinhoti Trail from Highway 136 at Snake Creek Gap to Pocket Road, located near the Johns Mountain Wildlife Management Area of Chattahoochee National Forest, Armuchee Ranger District. It's a section of trail I had partially ridden and partially hiked, but never linked up the two ends of the trail. The route climbs over the top of Horn Mountain and along the crest of it for some little distance before descending steeply into the valley of Furnace Creek. It was one of those rides that I knew would be an adventure and would require some caution due to the remoteness and difficulty of the trail.

I parked at Snake Creek Gap, careful to leave my pickup truck visible from the highway because it's a pretty lonely stretch of country, although not completely uninhabited. After that I conducted the maintenance that I always put off until the next ride along with applying gobs of sunscreen and rode across the highway and into the trees.
A tiny turtle in the trail, about 2 inches across.

Some of the smoother trail in a sunny section of pine forest.

It takes no time at all to start climbing and within a quarter of a mile I hit a particularly steep stretch and had to get off the bike. It was pretty frustrating decision to get off the bike and start hiking so early in the ride but I had not realistically expected to make it all the way to the top of Horn Mountain. Another problem was that the route I chose allowed no opportunity for a proper warm up, which has caused me problems in the past on huge climbs. I love climbing but early climbing on a ride often burns my legs with lactic acid and I have to fight for power for the rest of the ride. Very frustrating but it wasn't entirely unexpected.

Steep, rocky, technical crap trail (in my opinion). My legs were already killed by the time I got to this section so I stopped to take a photo. Yes, it's steeper in person than it looks here.

From there the climbing only got worse, with sections that are not only steep but also rocky, rooty, and technical. Very hard climbing and beyond my ability and my confidence, which has been particularly low lately since I started riding with SPD pedals (shoes clipped to the pedals). As a result of this, I ended up hiking much, if not most, of the climb to the crest of the mountain. The last 50 yards or so to the top are ridiculously steep and rocky, and although I know there are probably riders capable or riding up it, I did not feel the least bit bad about pushing my bike up. It was so steep I had difficulty even accomplishing that.

After taking a photo of the rock cairn at the crest (and adding another rock myself), I mounted up and began riding. There were some rocky technical areas from there on that still required me to do a little walking but as I progressed, the trail gradually became more rideable for someone of my fitness and ability and I began to enjoy the ride more. I had gotten a late start and the day was warm so the cooler temps and fresh breezes on the top of the mountain were a welcome relief from the hot, sweaty climb. Unfortunately having to do the climb with no prior warm up really hurt me so I ended up pushing up some more short, steep climbs that would normally be within my ability on my local suburban trail systems. Oh, well.

Video from the crest of Horn Mountain.

At one point, much to my surprise, I came upon a backpacker's camp site. Based upon where he was and what he was carrying, I would say he was probably a Pinhoti Trail through hiker. The Pinhoti is a long distance trail that runs from Alabama into Georgia, where it links up with the Benton McKaye Trail, and thereby the Appalachian Trail. This allows backpackers to hike all the way from Alabama to Maine, with only occasional jaunts onto the shoulders of roads.

Finally the trail started the true descent down into the valley of Furnace Creek and it was fun riding. I still stopped a couple of times to walk some short steep sections because I was alone and felt it was risky, but rode almost all of the descent and thoroughly enjoyed it. After the descent, the trail goes into a rolling section with some short, punchy climbs and sections of good smooth singletrack. It's fun riding and soon I recognized the section I had ridden before when starting from the Pilcher's Pond area off Pocket Road when I was a beginning mountain biker. It was a relief to see familiar trail but I began to realize the length of my ride was going to be shorter than I expected. My legs were so used up that I did not mind the distance being shortened, and I knew there would still be a road climbing to get back up to the crest of Snake Creek Gap where I left my truck.

When I got to a trail intersection, I decided to take a spur off the Pinhoti to go take a look at Pilcher's Pond for old time sake. It was a little longer of a ride than I remembered but I wasn't too concerned. I stopped at the pond for a brief rest and to take some photos before jumping back on the bike to return to the Pinhoti. This low elevation area was pretty hot and uncomfortable, but the trail is pretty smooth riding so I enjoyed it anyway. I went across a familiar stream crossing that has been chopped into mush by horses and soon was back at Pocket Road. I had stopped a couple extra times to drink water out of my lightening camelbak due to the heat and to rest the burn in my legs, and I wondered how long and difficult the road climb back to the gap would be.

Pilcher's Pond. The water level is considerably lower than it was the last time I was here. I'm not aware of a drought so I'm wondering if the dam is in need of maintenance or something.
A creek crossing that is now churned into a state that is impassible, because horses. I had to hike through the woods to find another spot.
The initial ride out of the national forest along Pocket Road was mostly downhill so I built up speed and enjoyed the breeze to cool off. Within a few minutes I made the right turn onto Furnace Creek Road and the climbing started. My legs were so rubbery and it was so hot by this time that I got overheated and had to stop in the shade at one point. I had to take a week off riding recently due to a minor surgery and stitches and another week of light riding and I think it took a fine edge off my fitness. This was not a long ride and I should have been able to keep going, and I could have, but it was turning into a suffer fest so I decided to go ahead and stop. The heat of the valley and the hot asphalt did not help. I should have done the ride in the morning.

Finally reached Pocket Road, which is a scenic byway and therefore frequented by numerous motorcycles so it's not as quiet as it appears in this shot.

The crest of Horn Mountain from 136. You can see the mountain sloping down on the left towards Snake Creek Gap where I started.  I wish I could say I rode over the top of that mountain but there was so much pushing of the bike that I hesitate to use the word "rode."
I passed some free roaming dogs that made me nervous but they paid me little mind, much to my relief. Finally Furnace Creek Road intersected Georgia Highway 136 and I made the right turn to climb back up to Snake Creek Gap. This was the part of the ride that made me most nervous since the traffic on the highway had picked up in the late afternoon. I was soon cranking along nicely, but it was a long, steady climb so I took advantage of another photo op to rest my legs a minute. Fortunately the highway isn't too narrow and since I was on a mountain bike it was feasible to ride off in the dirt in many sections. I think it was a couple of miles back up to the truck. I was very happy to be there.

This ride was not very long but it nearly beat me to death with the extremely steep, rocky climb up Horn Mountain and the afternoon heat. I had numerous bloody scratches on my legs from the very narrow and slightly overgrown stretches of the Pinhoti along the crest of the ridge. I think I would have enjoyed the ride more in cooler temperatures but I still always take enjoyment from getting far away from the road and exploring places I've never been before so I'm still calling it a good start to my Memorial Day weekend.

Quite a bit of climbing on the GPS track. I've done more climbing in a day recently but this one really hurt due to it being steep, rough singletrack rather than forest service road.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hiking the Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Last winter, a friend said she was interested in hiking a very popular trail in the Smokies, the Chimney Tops, and we agreed to plan for around April or May. The Chimneys are a rare item for the Southern Appalachians, a craggy mountain peak. It's a very busy trail and features a short but steep hike up from the parking lot, typically done as an out-and-back from Newfound Gap Road. We planned for Sunday, April 27, and hoped for clear weather, which can be rare in spring for this part of the country.

The Chimney Tops from Newfound Gap Road. It's a rare craggy peak in the Southern Appalachians. Bad lighting for this photo, taken at the end of the day.

I ended up inviting a moderately large group, with the possibility of each person inviting additional people, with the attendant possibility of complications, but tried to emphasize that it was important to be on time. This was particularly true due to the nearly 3 hour drive and the possibility of thunderstorms in the afternoon. I have been on a mountaintop in a thunderstorm a couple of times in the past and it is not my idea of fun. In addition, two of my friends were paddling the whitewater of the Cheoah River the day before and would be camping in the area and meeting us at the trail head, so I really wanted to be on time. It was not to be, several people were late, and the schedule went completely to hell right from the start and we ended up an hour late (an HOUR). I love my friends but we are a bunch of slow people. Often I am the one making the group run late so I can't criticize others too severely but I have to say that the failure to keep the trip on time or anything resembling "on time" totally stressed me out. I know I shouldn't let something like that bother me but as the leader and organizer I felt the burden to keep things on time. I think I need a little time off from organizing a large group again.

After we got over our tardiness, we finally got to hiking. Within about 100 yards the group divided into two groups, one fast, one slow, and separated. The trail quickly crosses over the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River and a tributary, the Road Prong, within a short distance. These are tumbling, cascading creeks filled with giant boulders and clear water and are beautiful examples of the numerous flowing streams that drain the rainy Smokies. There are nice bridges to handle the heavy foot traffic to the Chimneys so no sketchy rock hopping is necessary.

This is either a higher section of the Road Prong or some other upper tributary. Beautiful streams like this one flow in every drainage of the Great Smoky Mountains.

A distant view of the Road Prong (I think) from the rapidly ascending trail.

I walked along for some distance with my friends Kenny and Lois until we got to the really steep parts and Lois advised Kenny and I to continue on so she could take her time. The trail is ridiculously steep but well maintained and features improved rock stairways and other features to prevent trail erosion and support the high traffic. The forest floor is carpeted with wildflowers and ferns throughout.

A carpet of spring wildflowers.
The trail is silly steep.

There are some gigantic old growth trees that date back to before the creation of the park,somehow having survived the frenzy of logging that occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of particular interest are giant Yellow Buckeye trees, with correspondingly giant shaggy bark. The trunks are pretty unique. As is usually the case in the Smokies, as you climb the under-story becomes increasingly dense and evergreen trees of every type become more frequent.

One of the earlier views from the trail. I love this part of the Smokies, where the mountains are steep and have the character of more western mountain ranges.
A different angle. I didn't have enough sense to use my new iPhone 5s to get a panoramic photo from this point.

The trail crosses a knife-back ridge on the approach to the Chimneys. Do not fall here or you will be lucky if you end up hanging from a sapling and not doing a "Wyle E. Coyote" off the mountain.

Finally the trail wraps around the side of a mountain and extends out onto the knife-back ridge that culminates in the Chimney Tops, a large outcropping of pre-cambrian rock that hangs in the open over valleys flanked with steep-sided mountains. I had both been looking forward to the hike and dreading the test of metal that I knew would come with the climb up the rock outcropping. I have some fear of heights, but more particularly I suffer from agoraphobia, the fear of wide open spaces. I often can walk right up to the edge of a high cliff, as I can at Sunset Rock on Lookout Mountain, as long as I can emerge from a forest onto the cliff, but if I have to actually climb up a sloping rock, then I feel incredibly dizzy and don't enjoy the view or the experience. It's very inconvenient but I have learned to push myself a little bit so I took it easy for a few minutes, encouraged Kenny to go on without me, and started climbing. I hit my limit about 50 yards or so up the rock face and found a convenient place to sit and eat my lunch, enjoying the cool breeze.

A view from somewhere near the end of the hike. As you can tell from the trees, I did not make it to the top.
Sick. I'm not going up there.

Kenny Warwick planning his ascent. Not pictured: the 2000 foot drop to either side of this rock formation.

Eventually my friend Don Fletcher came carefully back down from the crest. He had raced to the top with Stacy and Halle in the fast group. He chatted for a minute before saying that he was ready to get off the rock face and anyway the sun was getting hot and he wanted to get into the shade. I too was getting hot so as soon as I finished eating I pushed myself to climb up a few more feet to take a photo and then went back down to the shade at the base of the rock outcropping. I wish I had gone up further but that kind of thing can take time, and I had not gone on the hike expecting to make it all the way to the top. I may go back later and push myself to climb a little higher but I think I would prefer to do it solo. Peer pressure does not work with me and sometimes it's best for me to be by myself. I'm pretty sure I inherited my issues with wide open spaces so I try not to let it bring me down. I've occasionally been inappropriately brave in other situations in the past so I never think it signifies anything to not want to free climb to the top of a 4,600 foot crag.

The hike back down is a little hard on the quads but fortunately I had my trekking poles so that took some of the stress off my aging knees. Normally I cool off on a descent but due to the large difference in elevation between the top of the hike and the parking lot, the air temps got noticeably warmer as we descended. Lois took advantage of the descent to take a lot of wildflower photos and a beautiful groundhog (woodchuck) that was frolicking in a tiny branch. Normally I would be underwhelmed by such a common animal but this was the most beautiful groundhog I've ever seen, with highlighted fur. He was also exceedingly large and well fed for spring, one of the largest groundhogs I've ever seen. Funny little beast.

Didgeridon't. Some guy showed up with a didgeridoo and setup on the rocks of the West Prong for just about 10 or 15 minutes of playing. I kept thinking he was about to whip out some kind of anti-tank weapon until I saw it was made of wood.  It's a peculiar but interesting instrument from Australia that produces a hypnotic buzzing drone. What a strange dude.

We were glad to be back at the car. The trail itself is over 1400 feet of elevation gain just to the base of the rock outcropping but I did a little back-and-forth after we met up with Lois on the return and decided to accompany her to complete the hike to the top so I got over 1600 feet. That is a lot of hiking. It is a testament to my improving fitness that I didn't really feel all that bad at the end of the day.

We finished up with a large group meal at the Smoky Mountain Brewery in Maryville, Tennessee, where I had an amazing burger with a side of baked macaroni and cheese, not very healthy but sooo good, especially since I had survived the day on a granola bar and a small, healthy sandwich. I'm still trying to lose weight. My fitness level is pretty high but I can't seem to lose much weight despite working out about 5 days a week. It does not get any easier as you get older.

The Chimney Tops hike is a beautiful, though difficult hike. I would recommend it, even if you aren't into rock climbing.

Here is the GPS track from Strava.