Moving South Along the Parkway

It was as if all the world might be composed of nothing but valley and ridge.

~Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

This is part two of our trip last month down the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the crazy weather at Mount Mitchell, we headed to our next destination, a somewhat out of the way campground, Balsam Mountain Campground, near the end of the parkway. Along the way, we experienced various timelines of spring as we changed elevation, moving back into early spring (with barely any leaf out on the trees) when we climbed higher, and then getting into a more summer-like forest cover down near Asheville. I love that about Spring in the mountains – if you miss something you can change elevation and experience a different part of the season all over again. There were impressive displays of azalea and trillium as we drove south so we pulled over at several spots to admire them.

Large-flowered Trillium along parkway (click photos to enlarge)
Pinkshell Azalea was in bloom in the higher elevations
View along the road to Balsam Mountain Campground

We settled into our next campsite at Balsam Mountain Campground and were pleased that the nearby RVs all had solar panels, so we heard only one small generator and only for a short while (there are no hookups at this campground). Having camped here before, we knew the highlight of any stay is to walk (via a half-mile nature trail through some beautiful trees) or drive over to the picnic area for sunset. And it did not disappoint!

The thing to do when at the Balsam Mountain Campground is walk to the picnic area for the amazing view of the sunset

Blue-headed Vireos were constantly calling around our campsite. Our second morning we saw one gathering nesting material off the ground and then Melissa saw it go to a nest right next to the nature trail. We walked over, she positioned herself near the tree, and I walked away. The birds came back, bringing some plant fibers (and maybe spider web?) and molded the nest. Melissa took a few shots and then we left them alone to their business.

Blue-headed Vireo adding to its nest (photo by Melissa Dowland)

After breaking camp our second morning, we decided to drive the one way gravel road from the nearby picnic area all the way down to Cherokee, a distance of about 23 miles. It passes through gorgeous forest with multiple seeps and springs and plenty of wildflowers, birds, and bugs. It’s a really pleasant drive where you can go at your own pace and stop to look and listen with relatively few other travelers along the way.

Doll’s Eyes flower with some beetle pollinators
Canada Violet was abundant along the gravel road
Umbrella-leaf in flower – note the huge leaf that gives this mountain plant its common name
I have seen these before and have not yet been able to identify them. I think they are a cocoon of some sort (most have a hole in one end where something probably emerged), and are about 1/4 inch long. They are laying on the surface of leaves or on the ground. If anyone knows what this is, drop me a note in the comments section.
A male Scorpion Fly. These were very common along this road. They feed on decaying vegetation and corpses of invertebrates (occasionally vertebrates). The curved abdomen tip of the male is not a stinger, but is used in reproduction.
This critter caught my eye (probably an inch+ in length and looking very Ichneumon wasp-like). Never seen one before – it turns out to be an Antlered Crane Fly (Tanyptera dorsalis).

We stopped several times along the road to get out and look at plants, insects, and listen for birds. There were lots of warblers singing (Blackburnian, Black-throated Greens, and Black-throated Blues especially). At one point, I was looking at some cool insects and I noticed Melissa looking off in the trees at something. She had found a Black-throated Green Warbler nest! It was some distance off the road but clearly visible in a gap in the leaves if you were standing in just the right place.

Black-throated Green Warbler sitting on her nest

We mosied on down to where the road becomes two-way and eventually intersects a paved road. We turned and headed to Cherokee, passing by a parking lot for a waterfall, so we decided, what the heck. After a short but steep walk, we were both blown away by the beautiful Mingo Falls. Looks like a popular tourist spot and I can see why.

Mingo Falls in Cherokee, a truly beautiful waterfall visible after a short walk on a well-maintained trail

Thunder chased us back to the car and we headed to our next overnight destination, Sky Ridge Yurts. Melissa has taken her teacher workshops to this location the past two summers but I had never been. I had signed us up for one of the two cabins (the yurts were booked) for the last two nights of our trip. The plan was to go backpacking after our stay at Balsam Mountain but the weather was looking foreboding and my aching knee was not cooperating (Melissa swears it starts hurting as soon as she utters the word, backpack). Luckily, the cabin I had reserved was available earlier in the week and they allowed us to switch our dates, and we are so glad they did. The next day it rained, and rained, and rained some more – all day in fact. We would have been soaked and my knee would have been like, “I told you so…”.

Our oasis for the full day of heavy rain – this is the calm before the storm

We had a wonderful two night stay in the cabin and then headed out for some more camping and hiking before being chased back home a day early with another significant storm front. More on this last part of our trip in the next post.

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

Bearly Awake

Each day holds a surprise.

~Henry Nouwen

Melissa and I have been with Mom this week helping take care of the many things that require attention when a family member passes. It has been a busy few days, though I managed to take Mom to Damascus last night for a little relaxation at their annual fireworks display (Melissa left last night to join a friend in the mountains of NC for some much-deserved down time). But, I’m sorry she missed this morning’s surprise.

A little before 6 a.m., I heard a loud thud. I was lying there, listening, worried that Mom had gotten out of bed and had dropped something, or worse. I soon heard another, louder noise, but it reassuringly sounded like it was coming from the deck. I assumed it was the raccoon that occasionally raids the bird feeders, so I got up and looked out the window…it was not a raccoon! There was about a 200-pound black bear walking around on the deck. I grabbed my phone and went into the living room, hoping to document this event, when he decided to stroll down the steps. I ran back into where we sleep and took this fuzzy, out of focus iPhone picture out the window.

bear in yard

Bear strolling away from the deck steps into the back yard (click photos to enlarge)

What impressed me was how natural the bear looked going down the steps and eventually crawling over the fence. He has certainly done this sort of thing before. It seemed to disappear down toward the river, a nice travel corridor if you are trying to avoid humans this time of day.

bird feeder

A “gentle” touch left only minor damage to the feeders

We have been filling feeders only in the morning, which means they are always empty by the time evening rolls around, figuring that is less enticement for the roving raccoons. But, the bear had not gotten the memo. Still, he checked out all the possibilities, but leaving relatively minor carnage at the feeding stations. A suet feeder had been ripped off one side, but the hot pepper suet remained untouched. After lifting the hinged lid to one feeder, the bear snapped out the plex panel. I think I got to the living room window about the time he realized this restaurant must be closed, and so he wandered off the deck, climbed the fence, and headed down to the river.

suet feeder

Hot suet, not to the bear’s liking

Had he only wandered around front, he might have been able to join the other critters feasting on the spoils of several fruit trees that line the driveway.

critters

Meanwhile, out front…the usual 4-point buck and a bunny

fruit tree

A future meal perhaps?

Every morning, while sipping my coffee, I see several deer, rabbits, birds, the occasional fox squirrel, and some ground hogs out along the field edges, especially under the many fruit trees that are starting to drop some of their heavy load of apples, pears, or peaches…a bear banquet in the making.

logo

I think I chose the right logo

When I went back inside, I noticed I had thrown on an appropriate t-shirt for the occasion. Happy Fourth of July everyone!

 

 

 

Anniversary Escape

Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.

~Henry David Thoreau

Last month we escaped for a few days for our anniversary. Escaped may seem like a strange word for people that are lucky enough live in the woods, but, as Melissa has pointed out, when we stay at home, I often manage to find a few chores that just have to be done. So, for our anniversary, we escaped to a cabin in the woods in the mountains of Virginia along the New River. No plans, just a few days to do as we chose. It is always a good reminder that when you slow down, you can experience more of the wonders that surround you. Here are a few of the highlights.

pink lady slipper orchid

Pink lady’s slipper orchid, Cypripedium acaule (click photos to enlarge)

wood anemone

Wood anemone, Anemone quinquefolia

bluets

Bluets, Houstonia caerulea

Salt marsh caterpillar?

Salt marsh caterpillar (not the best common name – so far from a salt marsh)

painted trillium

Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum

rosy maple moth emerging

Rosy maple moth just after emerging from pupa

rosy maple moth emerging ventral view close up

Close up view of a fuzzy moth

rosy maple moth pupal case

Pupal case found on ground next to emerging rosy maple moth

mayfly on tree 1

Mayfly adult (imago)

Mayflies are unique among modern insect groups in that they have two flying stages after the larval (or nymph) stage. The first is called the subimago, sort of a pre-adult flying stage. This is a unique feature of mayflies. The subimago often looks different from the final adult stage (imago), but in other species, can be difficult to separate. I found a couple of pale mayflies on the cabin windows and am assuming they are subimagos. This stage lasts for only a day or so, and then the mayfly molts again into the fully mature adult.

mayfly subimago?

Mayfly subimago (?)

parasitoid wasp

Unidentified parasitoid wasp

The cabin was quite welcoming for a couple of naturalists. In addition to all the cool insects and plants, there was a phoebe nest above the back door and a red-eyed vireo building her nest not far off the deck.

Red-eyed vireo on nest

Red-eyed vireo shaping her nest

Hiking the High Country

Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.

~Harold B Melchart

Seems like just a little over a week ago that I was struggling to climb a mountain with a heavy load on my back…wait, it was just a little over a week ago! And this past weekend, we did it again. This time, in one of our favorite areas, the Mt. Rogers-Grayson Highlands region of southwest Virginia. My back was a bit sore from chainsawing fallen trees after the remnants of Hurricane Michael passed through, but we had planned this trip for some time. Melissa’s sister and boyfriend were going to meet us at Grayson Highlands State Park for a two-night adventure in the high country of Virginia. The weather forecast was a bit iffy, but off we went, ever hoping for the best. Our first day was a short one and after a hike of only a couple of miles, we found a great campsite along a beautiful mountain stream (Wilson Creek, I believe).

campsite first night

Campsite for our first night along a rushing stream (click photos to enlarge)

The overcast skies soon turned to rain after dark, but we were comfortable under a stretched tarp and the fire continued until a break in the rain let us get into our tents.

sunrise day 2

Sunrise in the high country

The next morning dawned clear and cool, with a mist drifting through the trees. It finally felt a little like Fall.

sunrise mist

Early morning mist in the boggy meadow near camp

spider web

Invertebrate designs – a dewy spider web

I love early mornings – the quiet, the morning coffee, the first stirrings of the wildlife around you, and the softness of the light that gently touches everything, especially if there has been condensation overnight. I spotted a couple of shimmering orb weaver spider webs at the edge of the trees and we walked over. One was a particularly odd design. At first, we thought the spider was still busy weaving, but a closer look showed it was sitting in the center and the interior spirals of silk were there, just not glistening with dew like the rest of the web.

morning scene

A scene near camp in the early morning light

moss and fern

The greens of mosses, club mosses, lichens, and ferns added a rich backdrop to every scene

I suppose backpacking on wet, rocky trails does have one advantage – I tend to not look around too much in order to keep my feet under me and the rest of me upright. Though I may miss some beautiful scenery or treetop wildlife, I do see a lot of interesting things on the ground. The lushness of moss hummocks and beds of club mosses were particularly noticeable on this trip. And there are still caterpillars out there to be found!

Hickory tussock moth caterpillar

Hickory tussock moth larva

Fall webworm?

A Fall webworm (I think) covered in dew

Our day 2 hike was about 7 miles, with a steady climb through the forest to the more open high country for which this region is so well known. In addition to the expansive mountain views, the other major tourist attraction in this area are the herds of wild ponies. I saw an article stating this region is “the only place on the Appalachian Trail where you can see wild ponies”. Depending on which reference you use, the ponies are believed to have been introduced in the early 1940’s by locals wanting to keep the area open, or by the Forest Service decades later for the same land management purpose. There are believed to be about 100 ponies spread out over thousands of acres of high grassy balds and forests. They live up here year-round, but are watched over and rounded up once a year by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. The Fall round-up serves to check the health of the herd and to auction off some of the ponies (mostly males) to keep the population under control. Park rules ask visitors to observe the ponies from a distance and to not feed them. We had to step aside a couple of times as ponies walked by on the trail.

nursing pony

A foal nursing along the trail

Grazing of cattle in the highlands has long been a part of the local way of life, and in 2012, the Forest Service allowed herds of longhorn cattle to graze alongside the wild ponies during the growing season. The cattle are removed every winter, but the ponies stay through the bitter cold months.

grass competition

This grass patch isn’t big enough for the two of us

As we approached the rocky outcrops of Wilburn Ridge, the strong winds caused us to rethink our plans for camping on the crest. So, we searched for something a little more protected in the open landscape. We ended up picking a spot of the leeward side of the ridge, partially protected by a large rock outcrop and a small grove of trees.

Wilburn Ridge

Our home for the night – not a bad view

There were a couple of campfire rings and a few relatively flat spots without too much pony poo, so we were able to set up camp, gather firewood, and relax and enjoy the spectacular views.

campsite 2

Sitting by our protected campfire looking out toward our tents

Shortly after dark, it started to rain, so we had an early end to the evening, climbing into our tents and hoping the gusty winds would subside before a tent wall collapsed under the strain. At one point during the night, I woke up to a sky full of stars. But by sunrise (well, when it got light anyway), it was a different story.

cloud camp

Inside a cloud on Wilburn Ridge

We were socked in and the view was a bit different from the sunset the night before. The wind was gently blowing as the clouds blew around us. A couple of ponies were barely visible100 feet away, and there was an eerie silence, save for the whap, whap, whap of a tent flap. It was only a couple of miles to the cars, so we grabbed a quick breakfast, packed up our wet gear, and headed out.

below the couds

Below the clouds on our way out

The trail down the ridge is rocky but we were soon below the cloud deck and could see rolling ridges of highlands stretching to the gray horizon. Though the skies had been leaden for much of the trip, we appreciated the solitude and serenity of our time in the high country and are looking forward to a return trip. In case you go, our hike took us from the Overnight Backpackers Parking Area near Massie Gap (you must register and pay at the entrance station to Grayson Highlands State Park), up the AT to the Scales Trail, then to the Pine Mountain Trail, and finally rejoining the AT back to the parking area.

The Highlands of Virginia

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.

~John Muir

I think thousands of people must have read this quote last Sunday and headed to my favorite Virginia state park, Grayson Highlands.

campsite at Grayson Highlands

Our campsite at Grayson Highlands State Park (click photos to enlarge)

The parking lots were all packed on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, so we just set up camp and hiked out the short trail to Big and Little Pinnacles, hoping the crowds would die down for our longer hike on Monday.

View from Big Pinnacle

View from Big Pinnacle

View from Little Pinnacle

View from Little Pinnacle

The trail to the Twin Pinnacles is a short 1.6 mile loop that starts behind the Visitor Center at the end of the park road. On the way out to the pinnacles, you walk though a forest with scattered spruce, rhododendron, and abundant yellow birch…

birch roots embracing a boulderincluding one of my all-time favorite trees – a birch that embraces a boulder just down the trail off the Little Pinnacle.

patterns of moss growth on birch bark

Though known for its expansive views, the park also offers beauty when viewed up close

After a blustery night in the campground, we headed up to a now almost deserted parking lot at Massie Gap on Monday morning. I have been going up to this area for as long as I can remember, visiting my grandparents and my Aunt Ruth every summer when I was a kid. I fondly remember climbing over the boulders and picking (and eating) the sweet huckleberries that are so abundant in late summer. I have been back many times since, but usually for short visits or just a night of camping. Melissa and her sister backpacked the area two weeks ago and proclaimed it the best hiking in the region (the area was named one of the top ten hiking areas in America in a Backpacker Magazine article in 2011), so we decided to go back and take in some of the many miles of trails that crisscross this mountain paradise. Our route would take us roughly along the trails that Melissa had walked two weeks ago, but, since we were doing it in a single day instead of two, we took a few shortcuts, making our total hike about 10 miles.

mount-rogers-map-with-our-route

Our 10-mile day hike

Our route took us from Massie Gap (just off bottom center of map) up to the Appalachian Trail (AT, purple line). We hiked northeast to the Wise shelter; then took the Scales Trail (dark red dashed line) to Scales; the Crest Trail northwest to its juncture with the Pine Mountain Trail (black dashed line); Pine Mountain Trail southwest to Rhododendron Gap; then the Wilburn Ridge Trail south and back to Massie Gap.

starting the trail above Massie Gap

The first ridge above Massie Gap offers spectacular views

The weather was perfect as we started our hike up from the popular starting point at Massie Gap, although the wind was pretty strong, with gusts approaching 20+mph on occasion. The views in this area are spectacular and the terrain reminds me of being out West, with big Montana-like skies, and a mix of conifers, open meadows and huge rock outcrops.

witch hazel flower and old seed pod

Witch hazel flower and open seed capsule

witch hazel in bloom

Witch hazel blooms stand out against a blue sky

All along the lower pars of the trail, we saw the odd-looking late blooms of witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. The flowers are much more noticeable on trees that already had lost their leaves. This widespread shrub/small tree blooms later than almost all other plants in the region and, surprisingly, relies on whatever insects may still be active for pollination. The genus name, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit”, since this year’s flowers occur simultaneously with the ripening fruit from last year. Fruit capsule splits explosively with an audible pop, ejecting the seeds up to several feet.

Along the Scales trail

Down off the ridges, the forest is beautiful

We appreciated the times the trail traversed through the trees, sharing the beauty of the forest, and giving us a break from the winds.

Wise sheter on AT

Wise shelter on the AT

I was impressed by the Wise shelter on the AT – a nice structure in a beautiful setting next to a creek.

cotton-grass

Seed heads of cotton grass indicate a boggy habitat

Near the Wise shelter and all along the Scales Trail, we saw seed heads of cotton grass, Eriophorum virginicum. This is one of several species found in the scattered mountain bogs in the area. I definitely want to come back in the spring and see what interesting wildflowers may occur in them.

Virgin's bower seed pods

Virgin’s bower seed heads

From a distance, the seed puffs of virgin’s bower, Clematis virginiana, look a little like the round seed heads of cotton grass. But, close-up, they are a light, feathery head of white “hairs” that occur in groupings along a twisting vine. This is a native Clematis with male and female flowers on separate plants.

fern shadow

Sunny days make for interesting shadows and highlights along the trail

The combination of wind and sun made for an interesting hike in terms of temperatures – cold in the wind, warm when protected from it. We saw several species of butterflies out and about including buckeyes, commas, and American coppers. Bird life included crows, ravens, a red-tailed hawk, and lots of robins and juncos. We hiked a few miles with only distant glimpses of probably the most famous inhabitants of these mountains, the wild ponies, but that would soon change.

Pony near Rhododendron Gap

We encountered our first ponies along the Crest Trail

Various online sources state the ponies were released into these highlands by the U.S. Forest Service around 1975. The purpose was to control the growth of shrubs in the balds of the high country. The balds formed in the late 1800’s after extensive logging and fires. Cattle grazing kept the areas open until the creation of the park in the mid-1960’s. The pony herd has grown to over a hundred animals and is now maintained by periodic round-ups and auctions of excess colts.

Wild ponies on Pine Mountain Trail

Wild ponies on Pine Mountain Trail

We came across more of the herd grazing in a meadow along the Pine Mountain Trail. Park regulations prohibit feeding or petting of the ponies, but don’t mention what to do when they start following you, as a couple of them did to us as we passed along the trail.

Pony hair

Sometimes the ponies can be very curious

They seem friendly enough (although park signs warn that they may to bite and kick) and certainly are beautiful, but I have read a few accounts online about some being pests at backpacker campsites. But these just seemed curious about us (probably hoping for a handout) and we soon left them to their grazing.

Rhododendron Gap

The aptly named Rhododendron Gap

Several trails converge at Rhododendron Gap, a saddle in the mountain ridge that is covered in its namesake flowering shrub. Looks like a place we certainly want to visit in June when the display is at its peak.

Wilburn Ridge

Wilburn Ridge

The trail up Wilburn Ridge is a bit of a rocky scramble, but the views are amazing once you break out into the open. The ridge is named for Wilburn Waters, a famous hunter and trapper that called these highlands home in the mid-1800’s. Rumors have it some relatives said my Dad, in his youth, was like Wilburn, for his tendency to be out roaming these mountains in pursuit of fish and game. Who knows, maybe that’s one more reason I find these rocky balds so appealing. The highest peak in Virginia, Mount Rogers, rises nearby and, on a clear day, you can see far into North Carolina with views of iconic peaks like Roan Mountain and Grandfather Mountain on the horizon.

Melissa's campsite

The amazing campsite Melissa had on her last trip

After climbing off the highest rock outcrop (where the wind was blowing a steady 15+ mph), Melissa took me to the campsite she and her sister shard on their recent backpacking trip. What a view it must be of both sunrise and sunset, with rolling ridges of blue as far as the eye can see. We will be back on another trip I am sure, most likely backpacking next time, and, hopefully, when the winds are not as gusty.

snag on Wilburn Ridge

A lone snag stands guard on Wilburn Ridge

The elevation on Wilburn Ridge is somewhere around 5500 feet, but the rock outcrops and balds make it seem much higher.

Mountain Ash and boulder

Iconic fall scene in the highlands – mountain ash berries and boulders

Mountain Ash against sky

Mountain ash berries offer a splash of color all over these balds

The fall colors were past peak on our hike, but the palette was still beautiful with shades of brown, the grays of boulders, the dark greens of spruce and fir, and the bright red berries of mountain ash against a brilliant blue sky. American mountain ash, Sorbus americana, is not related to ash trees, but is a member of the rose family, containing trees such as apples and cherries. The berry-like pomes can remain on the trees much of the winter and are a favorite food of birds such as robins and cedar waxwings.

Mountain ash berries on moss

Cluster of American mountain ash fruit on moss

Whether lying along the trail or swaying in the winds at the tips of branches, the bright red-orange fruit of the mountain ash are emblematic of the high country and brisk mountain air this time of year.

boulder on Wilburn Ridge

Muir was right…the mountains are calling…

We wrapped up our hike about 6 pm and headed back to our campsite. The wind was starting to die down a little, the temperatures were dropping, and our bodies felt that good sort of tiredness that comes from spending a day hiking these hills. It was a great reminder that you don’t have to travel to the far corners of the globe to experience natural wonders and fantastic vistas. They can be found in the memories of childhood not far from home.