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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
 
 
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PHOTOS 31:  BALD IS BEAUTIFUL:
     A TOUR OF THE SOUTHERN BALDS       
 
MARCH 20, 2006
 
 
"Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it."
- Sir Edmund Hillary
 
 


One of a series of balds between Roan and Hump Mountain on the NC/TN state line on Day 27

I laughed when I first saw that quote! Somehow I thought of Hillary as being more scholarly or dignified. I don't know much about his personality, but I can tell a lot about his spirit from that comment.

It reminds me of the age-old quote about why people climb mountains: because they are there! It's human nature, for some folks at least, to accept the challenge that mountains silently provide.

I climbed hundreds (thousands?) of mountains on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine not only because they were there but because the rewards were often so great when I reached the summits. For all the effort it took to get to the top, I was usually rewarded with a sense of accomplishment, a nice breeze, and a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside.

Very fair compensation for the work expended, I'd say!

My favorite mountains to climb are those with peaks above timberline. Although they are more fraught with danger, they offer the best views.

 I've climbed many mountains out West that are above tree line and I have to say I was impressed with the exposed peaks I found in New England. When I was in the Whites and Mahoosucs, for example, the feeling was comparable to being in the Rockies, Sierras, Cascades, and other ranges - without gasping for air!

When I topped mountains along the AT that were tree-covered, leaves blocked the cooling breezes and my views except in the early part of the trek before the leaves came out. What fun is that?? The main reward for me in getting over view-less mountains was simply completing more miles toward Katahdin.

BALD IS BEAUTIFUL!

My second-favorite type of mountains to climb have "balds" on top. Balds are one of the outstanding scenic features of the southern Appalachians. This far south, the mountains aren't high enough to have a timberline like the ones in New England or out West.

However, the effect is similar to being above tree line. Enough shrubs and trees have been intentionally kept mowed or grazed so the views are visible year-round and hikers/runners catch all the available breezes. Grasses and wildflowers like heather make a nice carpet on the balds. Usually there are some low shrubs and trees left, but not enough to obscure views of the wild blue yonder, as in this photo from the Smokies on Day 14:

I joked in one journal entry about the "bald maintainers." I was referring to the livestock that graze on some balds and not retired trail volunteers who keep them mowed! The balds that are mowed are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, volunteer AT clubs, and/or the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy - and I doubt very many of them are bald.

It was fun to walk past cows on farms along the AT but I rarely saw the livestock that keep the southern balds clear.  The AT Guide to Tennessee- North Carolina indicates that balds in the northern area of the guide (north of the Smokies) were "grazed by cattle until quite recently, and many are in excellent shape." (p. 31)

This photo from the Humps (Day 27) shows fencing and a stile that are/were used to keep the livestock in the proper area:

This photo essay will feature my favorite balds in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

THE SMOKIES, NC/TN

Although I crossed a few named balds, such as Wayah Bald, before hitting the southwestern half of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the ones shown here from Day 14 are currently more "bald" than those I saw earlier in the run.

The first three photos show a grassy area through an old orchard with blossoming apple trees. It is between Russell Field and Eagle Creek side trails. Note in the first picture that the AT goes through a "hedge" of shrubs which has been trimmed to allow a narrow passage for hikers:

 

 

I crossed this bald later in the afternoon the same day in the Smokies:

Many of the balds in the Smokies have been lost because of lack of funds and personnel to keep them open. The Park Service intends to maintain Gregory and Andrews balds as open, grassy areas. Both are just off the Trail.

MAX PATCH, NC/TN

One of the most popular, attractive, and well-known balds along the entire AT is on Max Patch Mountain, located a bit north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Although the summit is 4,629 feet, it is easy for day hikers to climb the half mile to the top from a parking lot on a little dirt road (Max Patch Road) that passes close by. It is a bit more difficult to get there if you're thru-hiking on the AT, but the ascent is gradual in both directions.

I stopped at Max Patch Road on Day 17 and began my run the next morning with the short climb to the top. Jim hiked up with me, then completed his run on the road.

I'm glad he got to enjoy the beautiful views of mountains in every direction, including Mt. Mitchell, highest peak in the eastern U.S., and the lofty Smokies peaks. When I was there in mid-May, the wildflowers were spectacular for several miles both south and north of the bald.

Here are several photos on and near Max Patch. The first one shows how really bald it is on one side. It almost looks like a golf course! The Trail and one marker are barely discernable toward the left:.

The views from the top are exquisite:

 

Cody and I are heading north off Max Patch in this photo:

Those four photos bring back memories of a near-perfect day on the Trail, as do so many of the pictures from my trek.

I wish I was there right now!

BIG BALD, NC/TN

There was an increasing number of balds along the North Carolina/ Tennessee line as I made my way north from Max Patch. Almost every day had at least one until I got to the Virginia line.

All had great views, although most weren't as spectacular as the lofty mountains seen from Max Patch. Even though I passed through the area in late May, many of the deciduous trees and shrubs above 4,000 feet had not yet turned green, although the grasses were already green.

If you're interested in "bagging" balds, I crossed some on Day 17 between Davenport Gap and Max Patch Road and on Day 22 between Allen's Gap and Sam's Gap. I don't consider them as photogenic as the others in this essay, so I'm not including pictures of them here. That's my opinion; it doesn't mean they aren't worth hiking!. 

The next balds I really enjoyed were Big Bald and Little Bald Mountains between Sam's Gap and the Nolichucky River on Day 23.

The first photo shows the approach to Big Bald from the south:

The next two photos are near and on the summit of the 5,516-foot mountain:

 

Pretty, huh?

There were nice views from the aptly-named Beauty Spot and other balds on Day 24 between the Nolichucky River and Iron Mountain Gap:

Since there are few or no trees on which to paint the white AT blazes on balds, trail maintainers use wooden posts or rocks to mark the Trail. They usually use one blaze at a time (or doubles for turns).

I got a kick out of these three blazes in one clump of rocks on Beauty Spot, thinking how spooky they would look in the dark!

Yeah, sometimes my brain got a little twisted out there on the Trail all day!!

ROAN MOUNTAIN, TN

Day 27 was one of those photo-op days when I took seventy (70) pictures in twenty-eight miles between Iron Mountain Gap and US19E. Most of them were of or from balds. It was a red-letter day for balds! I'll include several of the photos here, but obviously can't show them all.

From the south, Roan Mountain at 6,285 feet gave me my first "bald" views of the surrounding mountains in this section. Although there are some balsam firs and red spruce, as well as numerous rhododendrons, on the summit (below),

there is an extensive grassy area where the luxurious Cloudland Hotel used to sit that is still maintained as a bald so visitors can continue to enjoy the views:

The Cloudland Hotel was built by General John T. Wilder and stood on the summit of Roan Mountain until it was dismantled in 1919.

 According to the AT Guide to Tennessee-North Carolina, the words of its advertisement still resonate for modern-day visitors: "Come up out of the sultry plains to the land of the sky, of magnificent views above the clouds where rivers are born." (p. 96)

Roan High Knob, the highest point on the mountain, is very popular with visitors, especially in June when the rhododendrons are in bloom near the site of the old hotel. Most folks drive up a road right to the summit instead of hiking in.

Apparently a lot of others hike south on the AT from Carvers Gap (NC 261/TN 143) to Roan Knob or head across the road to Round Bald. There is sufficient pedestrian traffic on either side of Carvers Gap (elev. 5,512 feet) to warrant a couple miles of gravel trail surface to encourage hikers to stay on the AT and not meander all over the bald:

There is lots of evidence of previous "renegade" trails which only destroy the meadows.

A couple section-hikers I met complained about the too-civilized trails in the area but I was happy to have a relatively smooth surface on which to run and walk. The whole section on Day 27 was pretty rocky and slow for me; that gave me an excuse to take those seventy photos! 

The AT soon turned rocky again by Jane Bald, probably after the point at which most day hikers turn around:

Yeah, that is more like the AT should be!

THE HUMP MOUNTAINS, TN

Round Bald is the beginning of a section of some of the finest balds in the southern Appalachians.

In this area the AT passes over five bald summits more than 5,400 feet high, providing superb views from their treeless meadows. I call the whole group just north of Roan Mountain  "The Humps," although only two of the mountains are so named (Hump and Little Hump).

I enjoyed the Humps at least as much as Max Patch, if not more, as evidenced by the plethora of photos I took on Day 27. Several are above. Here are some more:

 

 

 

 

THE VIRGINIA HIGHLANDS

Soon after crossing the state line from Tennessee to Virginia the AT hiker/runner enters the region known as the Virginia Highlands. It is also called the "Crest Zone" and "Balsam Ridge."

This area encompasses the highest peaks in Virginia, some over a mile high, through parts of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park. It is my favorite part of the Trail in all of Virginia.

The balds on the ridges that form Mt. Rogers (5,792 feet), Whitetop Mountain (5,540 feet), and Pine Mountain (5,526 feet) are kept open through planned burning and regulated cattle grazing by private farmers who lease grazing rights, according to the AT Guide to Southwest Virginia (p. 116).

The AT actually goes right through a rail corral for cattle and horses, known as "The Scales," between Pine and Stone mountains.

It was used formerly for weighing the cattle that grazed on the highland meadows before they were shipped to market. The corral is still used to round up the livestock that graze in the Crest Zone and by recreational riders and their horses (several horse trails intersect there).

This is a photo of The Scales as I approached it from the south:

The Virginia Highlands were rockier than the balds in North Carolina and Tennessee but the views were equally awesome.

My most enjoyable day on the entire Trail was Day 32 (May 31, 2005) going through the Highlands area and playing with two herds of "wild" horses. You can read more about the area and see other photos in the journal on Day 31, Day 32, Post 3, and Post 11.

On Day 31 Cody and I began our sojourn through the lofty Highlands area as we climbed to Buzzard Rock on the southern slope of Whitetop Mountain. The views of the valleys were nice from the bald and from the flank of Whitetop, below:

The next four photos are from Mt. Rogers and Grayson Highlands:

 

 

 

I was so enamored of this area that I took over ninety photos on Day 32 of the awesome scenery and two herds of ponies!! [You can find more of them in the Picasa slide show. Click on "More Photos."]

This is truly a wonderland and I'm so glad it's only a couple hours from our home. Jim still hasn't been there yet. [Note: he finally saw it in the spring of 2007.]

Although there are some other balds in Virginia, the only other area with scenic balds that really impressed me was a two-mile stretch between Cold Mountain and Tar Jacket Ridge in the Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area on Day 50. I really enjoyed the numerous wildflowers and the far-reaching views from 4,000-feet in elevation:

 

Now do you see why I say "balds are beautiful?" They are almost as spectacular as being above tree line, but without as many dangers.

Next up: I think I'll showcase some of the many idyllic valley views along the Appalachian Trail next . . .

Happy first day of Spring!

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil