Mountain High

Sunsets are proof that no matter what happens, every day can end beautifully.

~Kristen Butler

It’s been awhile since my last post and a lot has happened since then. Melissa and I took a couple of weeks to head to the mountains last month and then it has been busy here at home. So, the next couple of posts will catch up on our mountain adventure. We started at the place we were married, the beautiful Celo Inn. There are new innkeepers now, but the place is still as charming as ever.

One of our favorite mountain getaways, the Celo Inn (click photos to enlarge)

Our first afternoon we caught up with an old friend and former co-worker, Charlie, who now lives in Burnsville and has hiked every trail in that part of the state it seems. He gladly shared a couple of his favorite spots with us and so we headed up the Pinnacle Trail (aka, the Secret Trail) the next morning. It is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near the entrance road to Mount Mitchell State Park. The trail slowly ascends through a beautiful woodland setting to a rock outcrop with a phenomenal vista of parts of the Black Mountain Range. Charlie told us he almost never sees anyone on this trail, hence the moniker of The Secret Trail. But, we had two group of hikers join us at the summit. When asked, they said they saw it on the All Trails app (secret no more I guess).

Painted Trillium
Giant Chickweed – note how it looks like the flower has10 petals, but it is actually 5 petals that are each deeply divided

The trail had an abundance of wildflowers and bright green meadows of sedges under the gnarly trees. Painted Trilliums and Giant Chickweed were scattered all along the walk.

Bright green meadows of sedge were a highlight as we hiked the trail

Several birds kept us company along the way, including a couple of Canada Warblers that gave us a few good looks before flitting into the thickets. But the real treat was coming out of the trees into a shrub thicket and then climbing a rock outcrop to a wide-ranging view of the mountains beyond.

View from the Pinnacle

The next morning we headed to another trail near the Inn that Charlie had shared. One plant of interest he had recently seen on his hike there was large numbers of a larkspur species, so we were hopeful. This trail was in the valley and was flat and easy through the forest.

Sweet Shrub flowers are pollinated by beetles that crawl in for the fruity smell and become temporarily trapped by the unusual-shaped flowers

Sweet Shrub, Calycanthus floridus, was abundant, especially as we neared the maintained meadow.

View from the meadow along the trail

Past the meadow was a tremendous variety of wildflowers, including the larkspurs, which, unfortunately, had already gone to seed.

The unusual flower of Pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla. This one had fallen off a plant high overhead. The pipe-shaped flowers trap flies inside for pollination. Downward pointing hairs that block the exit eventually wither and the flies can escape.
Puttyroot flowers, Aplectrum hyemale

One species I was thrilled to find was Puttyroot. We have a few of these in our woods back home, but I have never seen it in bloom (they apparently don’t bloom every year if nutrient conditions are not sufficient). Like another orchid in our woods, Cranefly Orchid, this species’ leaves (or leaf in this case as each plant has only one) are only present in the late Fall – early Spring when the tree canopy is bare. The leaves wither before the plant sends up a flower stalk. A sticky substance can be obtained from the roots and has been used to repair pottery and even glaze windows, hence that common name. Another name for this orchid is Adam and Eve. That name refers to the way two adjoining corms are joined by a slender stalk of rhizome.

A Puttyroot leaf, one per plant, occurs in winter and then dies back prior to the orchid flowering. This is a photo from our woods taken last February.

After our hike, we headed for our next overnight stay, the campground at Mount Mitchell State Park. Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. While temperatures reached an unseasonably warm 90˚ F at home during our travels, we wore our down coats on several days in these high mountains (just one of the many reasons I love it up here). We stopped at several overlooks on the parkway to take in the views and look at wildflowers. One spot had an incredible display of False Solomon’s Seal (aka Eastern Solomon’s-plume), Maianthemum racemosum. I’ve never seen such a solid stand of this plant!

A large stand of False Solomon’s Seal along the parkway

Since it was still early in the day, we bypassed the road up to Mt. Mitchell and headed to Craggy Gardens for a short hike. The grassy area at trail’s end is surrounded by rhododendron, although it was just a bit too early to see blooms. But, there were plenty of other things to observe…

Isolated tree at Craggy Gardens
I love the pattern and structure of the foliage of False Hellebore, Veratrum viride. All parts of this distinctive mountain plant are toxic.
Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa. The flowers attract a lot of pollinators and, later, the red berries are a favorite food for many bird species.

We finally headed up to Mount Mitchell and set up camp. We have camped at this site (site #1) before (there are only 9 sites, so it is easier to remember which ones you like). It is convenient to the parking lot and used to have a great view of the mountains and sunset. We were amazed at how tall the Fraser Firs had grown in the few years since our last visit. As we were finishing cooking our dinner, the Park Superintendent came up to warn campers of a severe thunderstorm warning for the area with potential for strong winds and hail. There was one dark cloud out to the west, so we started securing our site and, as a light rain started to fall, we headed down to the truck to eat our meals while the storm passed. As we sat in the cab, we noticed some small hail pellets begin to fall. Their size and intensity grew quickly and soon we were wondering if our windshield was going to survive this onslaught. Here is a quick sample of what it was like.

— Part of the intense hail storm as seen from inside our truck

The hail storm lasted perhaps 20-30 minutes, definitely the worst such storm I have experienced. It ended abruptly with hints of sunlight streaming through breaks in the clouds. We got out and looked around in amazement – the parking lot was covered in hail of all sizes and it had been washed into piles by the heavy rain that accompanied it. One other thing stood out after the storm – the intense smell of fir needles in the air. The hail had stripped off countless branch tips of the trees and the air was heavy with that tantalizing smell!

The parking lot after the storm
The ringed layers inside a hail stone show how different layers of ice are added as the hail circulates inside the thunderstorm due to strong updrafts.
After all that, a beautiful sunset over the mounds of hail along the road
Another view of the sunset

We were happy to see our tent had come through unscathed, although a little bit of rain had come in the vents which we had accidentally left open. Our truck fared pretty well but has a few tiny dents to remind us of the day (a smaller car parked next to us showed a much more dimpled surface). We tried to get a campfire started, but, as is almost always the case at Mt. Mitchell, the firewood up there seems to prefer to smoke rather than burn (I guess that comes with living in the clouds). We did have a welcome visitor at camp as we headed to bed – a beautiful Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander that emerged from a hole under our tent pad frame. More on our travels in the next post.

Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander

Busy Bees

Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know it, so it goes on flying anyway.

~Mary Kay Ash

Pink Turtlehead

Pink Turtlehead, Chelone lyonii (click photos to enlarge)

On a recent visit to Mount Mitchel State Park I was amazed at the abundance of wildflowers along the high ridge lines in the park including flows of White Wood Asters, Cut-leaved Coneflowers, Pale Jewelweed, and smaller clusters of Filmy Angelica and Pink Turtlehead. And everywhere we went, we could hear the sound of pollinators buzzing around the flowers. It turns out, most of the buzzing was coming from very busy bumblebees. Along the trail to Mt. Craig, I stopped to watch some bumblebees struggling to pollinate what must be one tough flower to get into – a Pink Turtlehead, Chelone lyonii. Here is a short video:

Seems as though the Pink Turtlehead is reluctant to give up its reward to just any ol’ pollinator. The upper lid of the flower overlaps the lower like a turtle’s beak, hence the common name. The male parts mature first, and when the pollen is ready, the flower is very hard to pry open so only the strongest of pollinators, like bumblebees, can get the job done. When the pistil starts to mature, the flower relaxes a little and is easier to enter, but it requires a long-tongued insect to reach the nectar. Again, certain bumblebees fit the job description. The advantage for the flower to requiring such pollinator specificity is that it helps ensure their pollen gets carried to other flowers of the same species and doesn’t get wasted on different flowers.

Bumblebees as a group (there are close to 50 species of bumblebees in North America) are very efficient pollinators compared to most other insects that visit flowers. They are fast workers (some research indicates they visit twice as many flowers per minute as honeybees); because of their generally larger size, they can carry heavier loads of pollen, enabling them to make longer foraging trips; their large bulk also aids them in making contact with the stamens and pistils of the flower, thus ensuring better pollination; they tend to be fuzzy, which causes pollen to stick to their bodies better; and they can forage at lower temperatures and lower light intensities than most other pollinators. The latter may be especially important in an environment like Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina. Indeed, at about 5:30 p.m. one evening on our camping trip, I noticed a swallowtail butterfly that landed in a fir tree at our campsite to roost for the evening (it had clouded up and was threatening rain). Meanwhile, the bumblebees still buzzed about their business for at least an hour more, and started much earlier the next morning, in spite of the drizzle.

Here’s another short video of pollinators actively working the flowers of a Filmy Angelica, Angelica triquinata.

So many flowers, so little time, especially at these high elevations. Hoping to get back up there in the next week (high of 67 degrees reported yesterday:) and see if the bumblebees are still hard at work. I am betting they are.




The Mountain

Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.

~Edwin Way Teale


The summit of Mt. Mitchell (click photos to enlarge – all photos taken with iPhone)

We made a pilgrimage back to the mountain this weekend – Mount Mitchell. I first visited the mountain as a child while on vacation with my parents as we drove down the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. I still remember walking the trail up to the summit and being fascinated by the shiny flakes (mica) sparkling on the ground along the way. There was a large gap in my visits as I studied in college and then finally took a job with NC State Parks as a naturalist for the eastern parks. I was sent to the mountain on a busy holiday weekend early in my career to help provide interpretation to the throngs of visitors. I remember being chilly on the 4th of July and thinking…Can this be real – am I still in North Carolina?


The first night’s sunset at Mt. Mitchell

Over the years, I have returned many times, in many seasons. I love the campground at Mt. Mitchell – only nine sites, scattered along a short trail on a ridge. I especially like it as an escape from the heat of summer in the Piedmont. If you are in some of the first few camp sites, the western sky is your living room wall; the sunset, your window on the world.

View at sunrise

View from our site the first morning

Our site was facing the earth’s other wall, that of the sunrise. Our first night was clear and cool. We stayed out late, hoping to catch a few shooting stars from the early stages of the Perseid meteor shower and were rewarded with several nice ones before a light cloud cover obscured the sky. The next morning was beautiful, but windy.

View from the summit

View from the summit

After breakfast, we drove up to the summit and walked to the top of the observation tower. Fast moving clouds obscured much of the horizon, but the morning was alive with sights and sounds. The regenerating Fraser Fir trees near the summit seemed lush, many with noticeable batches of their distinctive upright cones. Will these soon fall victim to the Balsam Woolly Adelgid and other stresses of life at these high altitudes (winter storms, acid deposition, etc.)? Perhaps only the mountain knows.

Mt Craig plaque

Plaque on top of Mt. Craig

Mt. Mitchell was North Carolina’s first state park, with land purchased in 1916 through the efforts of Governor Locke Craig, in response to local citizens’ concerns over the logging near the summit. A century later, it is one of the premier state parks in the nation, and a destination for thousands of visitors from all over the world.

view from Mt Craig

View from Mt Craig

We spent our first full day on a leisurely hike along the ridge line trail that leads from the summit over to Mt. Craig, Big Tom, and Balsam Cone – a beautiful day to walk across the top of North Carolina.

View from camp in fog, rain, and wind

View from camp the second morning in clouds, rain, and wind

Our trip ended with the mountain reminding all of the campers that you should be prepared for witnessing the power of nature when you visit her. The wind got up and it started raining shortly after dinner (and the initiation of a nice campfire). The rain and wind intensified throughout the night and finally slacked off at daybreak. The view out the east window was quite different on the morning of day two.

It was a brief visit, a respite from the heat back home (daytime highs on the mountain on Monday were about 65 degrees) and the hustle and bustle of life. We had hiked, splashed in the rain, watched, smelled, and listened on the mountain, felt the wind in our faces and breathed in the crisp air. I had also thought more about why it is so important to have places like this to get away from it all and get recharged. I truly appreciate the work of people like Governor Craig that had the foresight to set aside the crown jewels of our state so that we can now feel the magic of the mountain and so many other special places. And thank you to all those people that work in and for our parks to make these visits possible, to provide us with these sanctuaries in an often too-hurried world.

Here are a few more images from two days on the mountain…

Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail

View along trail

View along trail

White Wood Aster

White Wood Aster carpeted much of the mountain

mushroom along trail

One of many mushroom species along the trail

Coneflowers at sunset

Cut-leaved Coneflowers along park road at sunset

ferns in forest 1

Southern Lady Ferns long the trail

Forest near the summit in fog 1

Misty morning near the summit

Mossy forest

The trail winds through a forest of varied shades of green

Lily leaves

Leaves of Clinton Lilies growing in a large patch along the trail

Forest near the summit in fog

Forest near the summit encased in clouds