Eight great ways to experience fall in the mountains

Every week this month, from highest peaks to heavenly rivers

CorrespondentOctober 4, 2012 

Scale ladders fastened to the sheer cliffs of Grandfather Mountain. Coast downhill for 13 miles on a bike along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Pitch your tent near an old-growth forest in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Fly fish for trout in the wide, rippling Tuckasegee River.

These mountain outings and others will let you maximize your time in fall foliage during October as autumn colors move down from the peaks to the Piedmont.

Weekend of Oct. 5-7:

Hike Grandfather Mountain State Park

Both the views from, and the trails themselves, in Grandfather Mountain State Park will leave you breathless.

Test your mountaineering skills on the Grandfather Trail and its series of ladders that surmount rock cliffs on the way to Calloway Peak, the park’s highest point at 5,946 feet.

Grandfather Mountain’s admission is $18 a person although discounts are available. The trail begins at the parking lot next to the gift shop. Don’t be fooled by mild October temperatures in the Raleigh area; take jackets, gloves and cold-weather gear.

Grandfather Trail, rated strenuous, spans 2.4 miles to Calloway Peak. Allow a five-hour round trip. Plastic-covered steel cables let hikers pull their way, hand over hand, up angled rock outcrops. Just below McRae Peak, at the 0.9-mile mark, a series of ladders bolted to rock faces make an exhilarating pathway to the peak.

Hikers can also hike to Calloway Peak from the Blue Ridge Parkway and avoid the admission fee by taking the Daniel Boone Scout Trail from the Boone Fork Parking Area. The one-way distance is 3.0 miles.

Information: www.grandfather.com

Bike the Virginia Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper train once ran from Abingdon, Va., to Todd in Ashe County, N.C., and vice-versa, until it ceased operating in 1977.

Now the cinder-and-crushed-limestone rail bed and its 47 trestles and bridges annually convey 100,000 cyclists, walkers and horse riders between Whitetop Station, just across the N.C. line, and Abingdon. It’s kind of a car-free, 34-mile-long, little Blue Ridge Parkway.

Most cyclists ride between Whitetop Station and Damascus, Va. That’s because it’s almost all downhill. Take your own mountain bike or rent one from outfitters in Damascus. Catch a shuttle to Whitetop Station, elevation 3,576 feet.

Enjoy a breeze-in-your-face coast as the elevation drops 1,600 feet over 13 miles. Tap your hand brakes and listen to the crunch of fat tires on leaves as you pass through farm and forest, over trestles and trout streams. The trail levels out in the last four miles to Damascus.

Information: www.vacreepertrail.com

Weekend of Oct. 12-14:

Camp near Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area

Pitch your tent in Horse Cove campground (18 sites) near Robbinsville, a base for exploring the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area and the Cherohala Skyway.

It’s a mile to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and its old-growth cove hardwood forest, with towering yellow poplars as old as 400 years. The figure-eight trail into the forest covers two miles and consists of two loops.

The memorial forest is part of the 17,394-acre Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area in the Nantahala National Forest.

A National Scenic Byway, the 40-mile Cherohala Skyway connects Robbinsville with Tellico Plains, Tenn. The high point of the highway is 5,400 feet at the N.C.-Tennessee state line at Haw Knob.

Information: www.fs.usda.gov/nfsnc; www.cherohala.org

Hike Moses H. Cone Memorial Park

For a splendid sweep of mountain vistas, hike up 4,558-foot-high Flat Top Mountain in Moses H. Cone Memorial Park and climb the 40-foot-high observation tower.

To the southwest, there’s Grandfather Mountain’s rugged profile. And Beech Mountain. To the north, the town of Boone.

The 5.6-mile roundtrip walk begins in the parking lot adjoining Flat Top Manor. The park is part of the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Blowing Rock.

Flat Top Manor was built in 1901 by Greensboro “denim king” Moses Cone as a summer estate for him and his wife, Bertha.

Information: www.nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/brochures.htm; click on “moses cone”

Weekend of Oct. 19-21:

Paddle the French Broad River

Not the French Broad north of Asheville with its rambunctious Class III and IV rapids. But a tamer French Broad, south of Asheville, that lets paddlers view the Biltmore House and grounds.

The 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate lies between Bent Creek and Hominy Creek canoe and kayak landings. The slate gray roof of the Biltmore House will come into view on the right, looking like a castle on a river in France.

Expect mild Class I ledges and drops. Take your own canoe or kayak or rent one plus a shuttle from Asheville Outdoor Center.

Information: www.paddlewithus.com

Fly fish the Tuckasegee River

The Tuckasegee near Sylva, about 45 miles southwest of Asheville, could be called North Carolina’s River Runs Through It.

Wide and shallow, the Tuck easily can be waded and offers ample room to make those long, billowing casts with a fly rod.

This “delayed harvest” section is a 5.5-mile-long, catch-and-release segment stocked with brook, brown and rainbow trout. Skilled anglers can catch 30, 40 or more fish a day.

State fishery officials put in 9,800 fish the first week in October; they’ll follow up the first week in November with another 9,800. Along with 10-inch-long trout, about 4 percent are brood fish averaging 20-24 inches long.

Information: www.ncwildlife.org

Weekend of Oct. 26-28:

Bike the New River Trail

Another rail-to-trail conversion, the New River Trail State Park parallels the New River for 39 miles on its northward course in southern Virginia.

From the southern terminuses at Fries and Galax, it’s 57 miles to the northern end at Pulaski.

For a day trip, leave your car at Foster Falls, park headquarters, and ride south toward Fries or Galax and then return. Or get a shuttle at outfitters based in Foster Falls and Galax and ride the 25 miles from Galax to Foster Falls.

This section takes riders over numerous bridges and trestles, including the 1,089-foot-long Fries Junction trestle, and through two tunnels. A mile before Foster Falls is the historic Shot Tower, built more than 150 years ago to make ammunition.

Information: www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/new.shtml

Fly Fish the Mitchell River

The nearest “delayed harvest” trout stream to Raleigh, the Mitchell provides catch-and-release fishing along a 0.6-mile segment in the rural countryside of Surry County.

Wildlife officials stocked 2,565 brookies, browns and rainbows on Oct. 1 and will stock the same number again on Nov. 1.

Anglers may only use artificial lures with a single hook on delayed-harvest streams.

Information: www.ncwildlife.org

Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.

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