It’s said that no other area in Ohio is as wild, enthralling or photogenic as Hocking Hills State Park. The locals pronounce it Hawkin’ Hills.
This was our last awe-inspiring hiking stop of the trip, and it did not disappoint. The hills are also part of the Allegheny system, and feature massive sandstone outcroppings, deep cool gorges, towering hemlocks and glistening waterfalls. The gorge undergrowth shows off lush maidenhair ferns, rhododendron shrubs, wildflowers, lichens and mosses clinging to the rock faces.
The most outstanding rock formation of the park is its beautiful “Blackhand” sandstone, but shale, limestone, coal and clay are also present.
The sandstone is more than 150 feet thick in the park. Its upper and lower layers are very hard, while the middle layers are easily weathered (where have we seen that before?!). Hocking Hills’ famed rock shelters, caves and recesses were hollowed out of these middle layers. The upper layers form the roof of all overhangs and rock shelters, while the lower layers form the floors. Water has eroded all of these forms, along with freezing, thaw and wind.
Nomadic hunters roamed this area at the end of the Ice Age. The Moundbuilders who lived in Ohio from 1 A.D. to 800 A.D. and Fort Ancient Indians from the 1300s to the 1600s used Hocking’s overhangs and recesses for shelter. Wyandot, Delaware and Shawnee nations also hunted and traveled through this area.
Hocking’s timber was used to make charcoal to fuel the iron furnaces of Ohio. Beds of coal were also found. Coal has remained an important mineral resource in eastern Hocking County, but since coal is falling on increasingly hard times at present, we expect that this area will likely see some economic depression. It will need to depend on its tourism draw more than ever.
My goodness, there isn’t a straight, level road in all of eastern West Virginia! It takes forever to get from Point A to Point B – more hills and hollers than in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia combined!! Or so it seemed to us. But such beautiful country, it was worth the winding drives and slow progress to Blackwater Falls State Park in the northeast corner of the state. And we got to see the unique rock spine of Tuscarora sandstone that is the pride of Seneca Rock Park, along the way.
Blackwater Falls is highly rated for beauty, and the ratings don’t lie. We hiked to the lower and upper lookout platforms, as well as the ridge trail along the gorge – it’s almost like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for the eastern US. A deep gorge in the sandstone has been carved by the Blackwater River over millennia, and we who are familiar with the reddish-brown water of the Tahquamenon River of Upper Michigan know that this is caused by the tannins of oak and fir trees leaching into the river – same deal here. Gigantic rhododendron bushes cling to the gorge walls, reveling in the water spray from the falls.
From the number of private resorts and campgrounds outside the park, we’re guessing this area is West Virginia’s #1 tourist attraction for in-staters and those in neighboring states. Horseback riding, hang gliding, zip lines, winter skiing, boating/kayaking. Development has been done in a way that doesn’t mar the natural beauty, though. Kudos to West Virginia.
This is the first line of an old song my dad used to croon, and I found the tune in my head repeatedly as we headed across Virginia to the Shenandoah National Park. We stopped off in (Little) Washington, a village in the eastern foothills of the park, to see good friends and then set up camp in a private park in Luray (the NP doesn’t allow reservations past Labor Day and we wanted confirmed space).
Shenandoah is both similar to and completely different from the Smokies. All of these gently rolling mountains are very eroded – wouldn’t you be after 500 to 800 million years of geologic and weather events? – but Shenandoah is only 2/3 as high in altitude as the Smokies, and a thin sliver of space running down the ridgeback of western Virginia. With many more rock outcroppings, there’s more for a geo-nerd such as myself to observe in Shenandoah. But the vistas from the peaks are magnificent in both ranges, and at this time of year the many hues of the oaks, beeches, sweet gum, sycamores, Virginia creeper, sumac and sassafras are blazing oranges, yellows and bronze. No Michigan sugar maples here, so red, purple and burgundy are missing from the palette, but regardless, we can’t get enough of the breathtaking views and blue horizons.
We hiked the park’s Compton Trail to see the columnar basalt formations at the trail end, which formed by the basalt in lava form being rapidly cooled in Shenandoah’s youth. This forced the giant hexagonal columns to crystallize – over the course of 100 years, which for geology is really fast — from the lava. Such a phenomenon is found in relatively few places on earth, like the high Sierras, eastern Washington, Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower and Ireland’s coast. Crazy cool.
Also spent a morning hiking the Dark Hollow Falls trail near the park’s mid-point, and watched as the small trickle of spring water became a greater and greater flow over the miles of trail bed. The reward was a 70-foot cascade over the river canyon by trail’s end.
On the drive to the next trail head, we saw a bobcat kit on the side of the road, looking a bit forlorn. His momma couldn’t have been far off, and she was probably teaching him a lesson about wandering away from her. We trusted that nature would reunite them soon.
Two moderate-to-strenuous hikes made us feel so virtuous, we became a bit cavalier about getting on the next path. Instead of turning right at the head to get on the Chimney Rock Trail, we headed left (my fault) and ended up doing three miles on the “plain old” Appalachian Trail. Actually, there is nothing “plain” about the AT. It’s inspirational and legendary. We figure we’ve hiked 10 miles of it over the course of the past four weeks, as it overlaps with many of the trails we did. The goal for the next few years is to get good enough (stamina, strength and pacing) to hike 12 – 15-mile trails on a regular basis. At this point we can handle eight-milers in a day. We have a long way to go, but having goals is good.
We need to return to Shenandoah as well, in the springtime. Her coat of rhododendron, azalea, mountain laurel and dogwood blooms must be spectacular. And there are nearly as many hikes yet to come in these mountains as there are in the Smokies for us. Plus, we have yet to see a bear….
Final note: we drove to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm and Gail Hodges’ Caromont Farm Creamery (artisan goat cheese, naturally!). Both side trips were memorable and delicious for the pastured meats and hand-crafted goat cheese delights, and to witness Joel’s legendary nature-preserving healthy farming techniques.
What a perfect antidote to coastal OBX suburbia our visit to Chincoteague and Assateague was. It couldn’t have come at a better time. We drove the 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (interesting!) to get to the peninsula that leads to the famous Pony Islands of Chincoteague (populated, but old-style fishing lifestyle) and Assateague (where the National Seashore/Refuge is). Now this is wonderful nature to see!
For anyone familiar with Marguerite Henry’s books (Misty, Stormy and Sea Star), you know these islands have been inhabited for hundreds of years by wild ponies who swam ashore when a Spanish galleon sank offshore (or so the story goes).
Each July, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department rides on horseback from Chincoteague to Assateague to round up 1/3 of the wild pony population for sale to willing buyers. The firefighters are fiercely devoted to the wild ponies, and they actually round up the whole herd three times yearly for health checks, vaccinations, etc. The late-July Pony Penning draws hundreds of thousands of onlookers each year and reduces the herd by 50, just enough to keep the population stable and sustainable on the Virginia side of Assateague. We were so lucky to see 14 of them on a hike around the southeastern end of the island.
The reserve is noted for its protected salt marshes which are home to many thousands of shore birds and migratory flocks. The ponies get top billing, though. What a treasure. There are many ways to get a glimpse of them, via kayaks, bikes, pontoon cruises and on foot. It’s also gotta be great fun in May-June, when the foals are still quite young and innocent!
Whenever possible we seek out mountains to climb, especially when we’re headed to the beach and unlikely to see upland for days!
Leaving Charlotte, the adventure trail led due north to Pilot Mountain, NC and then east to a peer monadnock* in the distance, Hanging Rock State Park. Quick climbs of both solitary hills revealed the lovely surrounding valleys and fields, including some tobacco fields still being cultivated and Winston-Salem in the distance.
These lone hills have remained standing over millions of years of erosion of limestone in the area, because they both have hard quartzite caps over the limestone, which prevent the acidic rain and river water from dissolving the limestone. Northwest North Carolina’s Piedmont area has some karst (eroded limestone bedrock with channels, rises and sinkholes), but nothing like Mammoth Caves, the coastal Carolinas or Florida. Mammoth also benefits from hard sandstone caps protecting its limestone subsurface. These isolated NC promontories are unique in the landscape in these parts.
*A monadnock is an isolated hill, ridge or erosion-resistant rising above a plain.
While driving due east from here to the Outer Banks, I wanted to get George some East Carolina BBQ, but lo and behold, we actually found a TURKEY BBQ spot, so I could enjoy the feasting, too! I’m allergic to pork, and turkey’s a perfect substitute. What a treat it was: Ben Jones’ BBQ Turkey in the tiny village of Everetts, NC has got it goin’ on! The whole operation is in his outdoor kitchen, which he commands with his wife Sandra. Being ex-military, he and Sandra have everything ship-shape and super-clean, so it’s really inviting. The best part, of course, is the eating, and we stocked up on 3.5 quarts of the good stuff so we could enjoy it at home, too. Was great to meet these lovely people and savor their cooking.
Given that we’re traveling around North America to see the glorious nature and hike as many miles as possible, it’s probably no surprise that we didn’t care for much of the Outer Banks. The northern entry points to the seashore plunk you right into its dense housing and entertainment development. It’s clear that capital investment into luxury vacation real estate has won the day in OBX. We had to drive down to Hatteras Island to actually see unpopulated seashore and wildlife. It’s a harsh compromise. Although early settlement life and undeveloped land can still be seen if you drive all the way down to Frisco, Hatteras and Ocracoke, we won’t be returning to OBX because of the congestion and the likelihood that development will continue to win out over nature.
Of course, if you’re going just for the seafood and fish, that’s a different story. We had rockfish, flounder, scallops, clams, and east coast shrimp, and they were spectacular. It’s always the little run-down fish markets that look like they’ve been there a thousand years that seem to have the best to offer. Marvelous.
I should note that the National Historical Monument to the Wright Brothers has been beautifully architected and situated in Kill Devil Hills. The history is faithfully rendered and you get a real feel for what they endured over their months of testing and succeeding with the first viable flying machines. Glad we took it in.
As some folks know, our family hosted six international students when our daughter was in high school and college. We’ve remained in contact with all of them and call them family, but none is closer to us than our Thai daughter who now lives in Charlotte. She married a wonderful North Carolinian and they now have two young daughters. We spent a very busy weekend with them, running to ice skating and swimming lessons, decorating pumpkins and having great meals, and visiting a wildlife sanctuary comprised of exotic animals “rescued” from zoos who didn’t want or need a particular species or specimen any longer. SO great to see them again, and such fun!
Our family has been so blessed by the act of hosting these students and hosting a refugee family years ago, as well. One always receives way more than one gives to such efforts. To us, it’s not just an exchange, it’s an opportunity to change others’ lives and be changed for good. The love, the learning, the laughter and even the challenges make it a priceless enrichment to all involved.
Our road into the Appalachian Mountains (Smokies + Shenandoah) led through Cumberland Gap, KY. This historic Gap was a very appropriate introduction to North America’s oldest mountain range. Cumberland is beautiful at this time of year, and it initiated road switchbacks and ear-pops from the changes in altitude.
We camped in the National Historic Park campground here, got the next stamp in our US Park Service travelers’ passport, and hiked around a bit at the summit where there are beautiful rock outcroppings (Rock nerd alert: I will regularly post geology pix. If you are bored by rocks, cruise on by). Saw our first back country camping group (hikers who overnight on the trail). Many, many more to come. A stuffed baby black bear at the visitor’s center gave us a look ahead at the thousands of square miles of bear country we were about to launch into. This was the only bear we were to see on this trip.
From Cumberland, we cascaded into Tennessee and arrived as quickly as possible in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was not as speedy as we’d hoped, because the road passed through Pigeon Forge. If you are headed to the Smokies and you DON’T like Las Vegas surroundings, do try to avoid Pigeon Forge. It’s stop-and-go traffic with an eye-popping array of expensive and gaudy tourist traps for 15 miles before you get to the park. Not our cup of tea.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is certainly a jewel in the crown of the US Park Service. Well-appointed, well-run and well-staffed, it can handle its 10 million+ visitors per year. We stayed at Smokemont Campground in the park, a great jumping off point for hikes in the central and southern park zones.
We hiked around Smokemont and into Cherokee, NC the first day, Clingman’s Dome and Andrew’s Bald the second day,
and Charlie’s Bunion (favorite of all) the third day. Charlie’s was our first genuinely strenuous mountain hike of eight miles’ length, and we were pretty tuckered at the end. It takes time for flatlanders to adjust to altitude and the 15” step-ups on rocky terrain. But getting out to the “Bunion” was so worth the exertion. Since most of the route was also Appalachian Trail, we had numerous chance encounters with through-hikers, which was also a thrill. Ate lunch in the through-hikers’ platform shelter, where they sleep communally. Saw a sweet group of elderly ladies at an overlook parking lot who were all visiting in their wheelchairs, watching autumn bloom in the Smokies.
A great, Eden-like wealth of lush rhododendron, azalea, cotoneaster, mountain laurel and mountain ash greeted us at the trail’s climax – this route has its own microclimate, for sure.
Campfires have now become a regular part of our nightly routine at the park facilities. As George (firestarter extraordinaire) notes, it’s the perfect wind-down activity to end a busy day – nothing like chatting over the fire as you stare into the roaring flames and the red embers. Way better than being crouched over a PC screen. We have the chance to review all the wonders seen during the day, and look ahead to what we might see tomorrow, in front of setting sun and glowing fire.
One side note to the GSMNP that is really central to the area’s history: the town of Cherokee is on the southern boundary of the park. It and the east-lying Cherokee Qualla reservation belong to the eastern tribe of Cherokees, those who fought to stay in their native homeland during the Trail of Tears forced evacuation. It is humbling and highly informative to visit the town and reservation, especially the Qualla Arts Center and Cherokee History Museum. That the tribe can welcome non-Indian visitors into their community with friendship and hospitality after all that was taken away from them during colonization is nothing short of amazing. Well worth the time spent.
Each evening as we returned to Smokemont camp, we’d find the main park road clogged by tourists stopped in their vehicles to observe 15 head of elk gathered in the fields and river bed. It’s elk mating season here in mid-October, the animals are in their prime, and these elk have specifically been resettled from Northern Wisconsin to repopulate the park. They are beautiful, and seemingly well acclimated to the watchful audience. Rangers and visitors are thrilled to have them back, and for the most part, the latter are willing to give them wide berth as a bull elk in rut can be a very unpredictable and aggressive creature.
Our last GSMNP event was a 2.5-hour trail ride on two beautiful horses, a paint named Shadow and a chestnut quarterhorse named Jake, with a Cherokee guide who taught us many interesting things about the area. He wants to get goats for his growing family, so naturally we recommended Oberhasli’s! We’re thinking we’d enjoy spending more time on horseback, we’ll have to look into lessons at our neighborhood horse stables when we get back! There was just not enough time to do everything the GSMNP has to offer, so we’ll be coming back.
Oh my, the delights of the smoked ambrosia they have in Everetts, NC!!! We’re talkin’ TURKEY, boys and girls! Ben Jones’ most excellent slow-roasted sweet and tangy BBQ chopped turkey is THE BEST!! Google them when you’re in the area, or search on FB for Ben Jones BBQ Turkey. And get you some.
We had to wait until 3pm to get there and heat/assemble our sammies, but they were worth every hunger pang. So stinkin’ tasty!!
Three and a half days in Mammoth Cave National Park in early October have been just right — this being our first of 55+ national parks in North America, we wanted to wade in gently and learn a lot about negotiating the parks with enough time to do them right. This was a great one to start with.
Mammoth is the largest cave system in linear miles in the world. Over 400 miles of mapped tunnels crisscrossing the limestone karst of three Kentucky counties. These caves are ancient solution caves (limestone dissolved by acidic water dripping or flowing through the rock), and their current state is likely to be much like their future state as they are protected from much further breakdown by a 50-foot sandstone cap over top of the 600-foot limestone bedrock.
We camped at a nearby KOA campground as the park campgrounds were either sold out or only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Not unusual for a national park close to population centers during Fall Break (little did we know beforehand!).
Our caving included a 2-hour tour of the Grand Onyx cave (a favorite for its twinkly walls, created by calcium sulfate (gypsum ) crystals, 2.5 hours in the Cleaveland Avenue section, and another 2-hour tour of the Domes and Dripstones portion, accessible via the New Entrance and exiting at the Frozen Niagara entrance (see the blue stars).
For drama and oohs-aahs, it’s hard to beat the Domes and Dripstones tour. If you can only do one, that’s the one to book. If you’re coming, book your tours in advance, as the best slots get sold out fast, especially in the summer. The Onyx tour was conducted by lantern, which seems lovely until you realize that the cave walls have been severely damaged by the torch tours of past generations and the lantern fumes are probably not helping to eliminate further damage.
The Park Service also offers a Wild Caves tour for those into spelunking (think tight spaces, tiny corridors and lots of wiggling around on the ground to get into otherwise inaccessible places). We have too much claustrophobia for that, but it would be a blast for those who can stomach the tight quarters, close contact with cave crickets and other subterranean creatures, and dramatic views few get to see.
We really enjoyed learning about the early guides, especially Stephen Bishop, who was a slave owned by the cave owner in the mid 1800s. What a mind he must have had, to explore, learn and then educate thousands of wealthy patrons who wanted to tour the early cave segments. He eventually earned his freedom, but he really pioneered the art of cave guiding and blazed a trail for other African Americans who dominated that profession for decades. Much like the Buffalo Soldiers of Yosemite and Sequoia, these historical figures are little known or credited.
Our visit here wrapped up with a two-hour, 8-mile kayak down the Green River that winds through the park and is the source of much of the acidic water that has dissolved the limestone to create the caves. Despite what you might think, paddling down a lazy river with almost no current is NOT an easy job. We stroked nearly 100% of the ride because of a stiff wind in our faces, but the exercise was great, the scenery grand, and it gets us ready to handle trips to the parks next summer with our grandkids!
Thanks, Mammoth Caves NP, for a great start to NP trekking!
Descent to the traditional cave entrance through a canopy of trees, down into the hollow.
Fall colors just coming into the hills of Kentucky above the Green River.
Gypsum “flowers” on the wall of Great Onyx Cove
The descent into Domes and Dripstones was 280 stair steps!
The vertical drops are quite spectacular.
Part of the Frozen Niagara flowstone.
More flowstone — so eery.
This is all the same solution that makes up stalactites, but in this case shaped curtains.
Time for lunch at a scenic overlook.
Catfish on baking powder biscuits!
These are the walls surrounding the green river: several hundred feet of sandstone and limestone outcroppings.
The beginning of our “Lazy River” kayak.
Cable-guided paddle wheel ferry system in front of us carries three cars at a time over the Green River.
My dad used to love his Kentucky Bourbon over ice, so in his memory we spent an hour or so at Spaulding Hall in Bardstown, Kentucky, touring the Oscar Getz collection of memorabilia and history of America’s love affair with our version of the liquid gold known as whiskey.
I took a few photos of the Jim Beam side of the industry: fully half of all American Whiskey distilled and sold worldwide. We had seen a very curious building on our way into Bardstown, and the museum informed us that this hulking multistory black structure is a rick house (where the makers inventory and age their full barrels of bourbon). It’s curious to me that the aging takes place in a building sure to get the full assault of the Kentucky summer sun and heat under its black facade, but if that’s what works, they’re sticking with it.
Here’s the original James Beam, whose father Jacob founded the company in the 1800s.
Of course, many of the men who worked in the distillery didn’t wear such fine apparel or look so genteel.
And there were plenty of distilleries that didn’t stand up to the standards of the well-capitalized Beam Company.
My favorite parts of the tour were the personality-laden stories, flasks and folklore surrounding the Bourbon industry.