High Point Hike #6 – Brasstown Bald, Georgia

Brasstown Bald is the sixth trek in my Hike America series. I’ve always wanted to visit every state, but I’ve only made it to about half of them. What better way to see the country than to hike all across it. I plan to hike a major trail in each of the 50 states, typically to the highest point in each one.  Be sure to check out the photo gallery at the end!

After downing a few too many chocolate peanut butter balls on Christmas Day, it was time to burn off a few calories. I thought I may as well cross off another state high point in the process.

Not a creature was stirring in my parent’s house, as I headed out just before sunrise on December 26th for Brasstown Bald, Georgia. As I hopped on the I-75 south, the fog gave way to purple and orange hues behind the beckoning Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Oh how I took this magnificent scenery for granted throughout my 25 years in Knoxville.

This is the third time I had attempted to climb Brasstown Bald. In 2013, my first attempt thwarted by the federal government shutdown. And back in October, a deluge soaked my plans. With Georgia on my mind this day after Christmas, thankfully nothing but clear blue skies awaited.

After a 2 hour, 45 minute winding drive through the middle of nowhere to the mountains of north Georgia, I met up with my good friend, long-time Trail Reflections reader, and fellow hiker Michael Wright. Many of you may recognize Michael through his regular engagement here. It was quite an honor to share this hike with him.

Brasstown 1

The view atop Brasstown Bald

From the parking area, the hike up to Brasstown Bald – elevation 4,784 feet – is a fairly short, albeit very steep, paved trail. The state of Georgia has done a fantastic job celebrating and maintaining this prized possession. At the top, a visitor’s center and lookout area offer unbelievable 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains in four states. The air was so clear that you could view miles-and-miles of peaks, valleys, lakes, towns, and farmland.

I asked one of the rangers on duty where I could find the exact high point, and he led us to a locked portion of the visitor’s center and showed us the marker. To demonstrate the achievement of reaching each high point, I make sure to place my foot on the marker and take a picture. The ranger stated that people have stolen markers in other states, which is why they keep it under lock-and-key.

I randomly asked a stranger to take our pictures atop the observation deck, and he asked for the return favor, pulling out a sign that read “1000in180.com“. We discovered his name was Krish, and that he was running, biking, hiking, and kayaking 1,000 miles in 180 days to raise awareness for childhood cancer. Talk about inspiring. You just never know who you will meet along the trail if you take a few minutes to stop and listen to someone’s story – something that tends to happen regularly on a hike.

Descending back to the parking area, Michael and I hiked about 4 miles out-and-back along the Arkaquah Trail. With the leaves off the trees, the mildly strenuous trek along the ridge line provided stunning views. We stopped at an outgrowth of flat rock for lunch. Afterward, we descended below the Brasstown 6sunlit ridge, as the chill in the air became evident as we passed moss-covered rock outcrops with icicles dangling in mid-air.

As is so often is the case on hikes in the wilderness, our conversation turned to the deeper questions of life calling, purpose, and where we sensed God leading us in the present. While my bucket list of hiking the state high points offers an incredible challenge, it’s the connections with allies and meaningful conversations along the trails that call me to return.

The spiritual life cannot be made suburban. It is always frontier, and we who live in it must accept and even rejoice that it remains untamed. —Howard Macey

For it’s in these moments that I get to better know the both heart of God and the heart of an ally.

High Point Hike #5: Driskill Mountain, Louisiana

Driskill Mountain is the fifth trek in my Hike America series. I’ve always wanted to visit every state, but I’ve only made it to about half of them. What better way to see the country than to hike all across it. I plan to hike a major trail in each of the 50 states, typically to the highest point in each one.  Be sure to check out the photo gallery at the end!

As you may have read in my previous blog, my family and I recently returned from a road trip across the south. As with any expedition I take, I study the state high points map to determine whether we will be passing within any reasonable distance of a one of these highest peaks. With Driskill Mountain residing just a few miles off of I-20 on our way to Texas, there was no way I could pass up a chance to visit the towering 535-foot summit of the Bayou State. In addition, this would likely be the one and only time my family would get a chance to join me on a high point climb.

One of the unique aspects of exploring each state high point is that you end up discovering places you likely would have never visited otherwise. As we exited I-20 and headed down state road 507, we quickly left civilization entirely. The winding country road took us through farmland and dense forest into the heart of Cajun country. An occasional car would pass, and a few folks waved at us like we were locals out for a joy ride.

The trail head is located behind the Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church, a quaint country church and one of few buildings around. As we exited the car, the sound of stillness was overwhelming. There was not a soul in site. We passed beside the church cemetery to enter the trail, which leads you through a winding stretch of towering timber. The sun faded between the trees, as sunset was just a couple of hours away.

IMG_3071It’s a short 1-mile trek to the top, but I was surprised to discover that the path led us through rolling hills and a decent bit of elevation change. The wide and well-maintained trail consists of quartz sands in parts, but it is well marked and easy to navigate. On this humid October day, we were huffing and puffing, as sweat dripped from our faces.

I’m not sure why, but I made the absurd decision to bring a stroller with us, thinking our seven-month-old would want to remain in his seat during his first high point adventure. I figured, “It’s Louisiana. It will be a fairly flat, just a nice little stroll over to the high point.” What was I thinking?! To top it off, guess who started begging for an unobstructed view of his surroundings while thinking that Dad had lost his mind? I ended pushing the stroller filled with our belongings up the hills while Karen managed to carry Ryan in tow. Thankfully no one was around to see our ridiculous parade, and it’s a journey I will be hearing about for many years to come.

At the top, I was pleasantly surprised to view a small glimpse of the surrounding “mountains” through the tree tops. Who knew Louisiana could boast such lofty peaks? The overlook view was a bit obscured because of the dense summer foliage, but an opening provided a slight view of the surrounding area.

As I placed my foot on the high point marker, I crossed high point number five off my list. While 535 feet pales in comparison to many of the other high points, I was pleasantly surprised with this hidden gem of a trail. What better way to visit Louisiana than from the top.

The journey continues…



Hiking Challenge Update – The Unexpected Journey

Molly's Knob

It has been several months since I’ve written an update on my hiking challenge. My goal is pretty straightforward – hike a major trail in each state (typically the high point) over the next five years. There hasn’t been much progress to report because of the weather and schedule availability. Since January, I’ve been itching to get back at it. Unfortunately, winter has become that uninvited guest who overstayed his welcome two months ago.

Saturday was supposed to be the spring relaunch in pursuit of this lofty and somewhat insane goal. The plan involved driving over from my home in Virgina Beach to the western part of the state to tackle the 5,729 foot Mount Rogers. In fact, my mom grew up in the shadow of Virginia’s high point, and she still owns farmland in the area. It makes for a perfect weekend mountain retreat and launching pad for a hike to Mt. Rogers.

The weather forecast called for sunny skies and temperatures hovering in the low 60’s. Factoring in the elevation change, I figured we were in for a pleasant hike in the 50’s. By mid-morning, my Dad and I headed up twisting and turning Whitetop Road toward Grayson Highlands State Park. As we continued our ascent, I glanced over at the temperature gauge on Dad’s SUV. 45…42…40…38. White fog slowly blanketed the landscape and eventually overtook it completely. What was once an overcast day was gone, as we were unable to see the road ten feet ahead.

“Hopefully this will clear out,” as I allowed my optimism to overtake my rationale. I didn’t want to get this close, only to turn around empty-handed. I thought, “We can handle this.”

Upon arrival at the Grayson Highlands Park Office, the “Closed for the season” sign provided a foreboding signal that we had attempted our hike a bit too early this spring. Never one to give up, we had to give it a shot. At least I still had gloves in my backpack. Hopping out of the car, I knew we were unprepared for the near 30-degree wind chill and the constant whipping wind that sent chills down my spine and sprayed a slight mist into my frozen face, like we were vegetables on display in the produce section. Surely I would warm up as I walked uphill, even if I was only wearing a t-shirt and thin fleece. (Note to self: always pack a heavy coat and something to keep my head warm in upper elevations, no matter the season or weather forecast.)

As we trekked up the Rhododendron Trail, the wind at our backs, I didn’t want to turn back, but I also didn’t want to hike all the way the Virginia’s pinnacle in misery. For me, hiking is about the journey, not just the destination. And this journey had been a sheer 1/2 mile of misery, as we stared at another 3.4 wind-burnt miles to the top (plus 3.9 back). Upon reaching the intersection with the Appalachian Trail, we made the decision to live to fight another day and turn around.

Maybe some people would have pressed on, but that’s not the point of my hiking challenge. It’s more about the story…the journey…than getting frostbite.

Yet, I didn’t want the trip to be in vain, and so we developed plan B. Coming down about 1,500 feet in elevation made all the difference in the world. The fog gave way to a mix of sun and clouds, and the temperature rose into the mid 50’s.

After two visitor center stops, we headed over to Hungry Mother State Park and settled on climbing Molly’s Knob. It wasn’t an overly strenuous hike until the final 0.4 miles. As we reached the summit, it’s like the clouds lifted and the heavens opened. Two benches were perfectly positioned in front of the vast expanse of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. It was the clearest of clear views, stretching for miles and miles.

I even came across a Geocache box, filled with random objects, such as an empty water bottle, rubber frogs, and a plaid shirt. I took the notebook out and scribbled a quick message: “Tried to hike Mount Rogers today, but the wind was howling and the wind chill was near 30 degrees. This spectacular view made up for it.”

No matter what journey we take or what goals we set, there will always be times when things don’t go as planned. I’ve planned a few hikes this summer, and I know that not all of them will go according to my plan. But the key is to take the unexpected journey. Sometimes, it will lead you to spectacular and unexpected places, just like my trip to Molly’s Knob. Mount Rogers is still waiting for me, and I will return.

Hike America #2 – Mount Mitchell, NC

Mount Mitchell is the second trek in my Hike America series. I’ve always wanted to visit every state, but I’ve only made it to about half of them. What better way to see the country than to hike all across it. I plan to hike a major trail in each of the 50 states, typically to the highest point in each one.  Be sure to check out the photo gallery at the end!

This was probably one of the craziest ideas that I’ve had in a while. I set my alarm for 3:45 AM, as I planned to hit the road by 4:00 to make it near Mt. Mitchell by late morning. However, laying wide awake at 3:15 AM., I hopped out of bed, threw on my jeans and fleece, fed the always-hungry cats, and hit the road into the pitch blackness by 3:30. Eventually, I stopped at McDonald’s for some coffee and oatmeal, as the sun had yet to rise outside of Durham, NC around 6:45.

Back on the road, the sun finally rose from behind, shining its beautiful golden rays onto the fall foliage. I caught up on some Tennessee sports talk that I had downloaded on my Ipod. I knew I would be missing the Tennessee-Alabama football game (a.k.a., The Third Saturday in October) later that evening. My beloved yet hapless Vols had no chance in the game, so I decided to spend my time gazing on more pleasant shades of orange and crimson.

Winding, narrow mountain roads lined with deep hues of orange, red, and yellow, finally gave way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few miles later, I arrived at the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park. From there, it’s a steep, three mile incline to the parking area near the highest point east of the Mississippi. Once into the park, the wind howled and blew in a deep chill along with bulky white blankets that consume all sunlight. A few minutes later, bright light beamed down once again from the suns rays, which thankfully remained for most of the hike.

I met up with my friend and North Carolina native Grayson Pope. It took us a while to find each other, as I kept going between the visitor’s center and ranger station. I eventually passed his shiny red N.C. State license tag, and thankfully he recognized me as I drove past.

We knocked the high point out of the way first. From the parking area, the Summit Trail up to the highest point east of the Mississippi is just 0.1 mile, but it will offer quite a steep incline on the way up. Mt. Mitchell offers an observation deck that provides a stunning 360-degree view of the Black Mountains. While most days tend to be foggy and overcast, the clouds had cleared out. We were blessed to be able to see the deep autumn colors for miles on end.

Heading down the mountain, we hiked about a 5-6 mile circuit by traveling along the Mountains to Sea Trail, which met up with the Buncome Horse Range Trail. We lost quite a bit of elevation, descending through the forest, eventually encountering three hikers who were in the midst of hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail all the way to the Outer Banks. The man who was ahead of the other two in his group said his wife was back out after breaking her ankle a few weeks prior. Now they were hiking all the way across North Carolina in one-week spurts. I love running into fellow, major-goal action-takers.

The trail’s namesake (Buncome Horse Range Trail) should have been a dead giveaway that our hiking boots would end up slightly muddier than before. After dodging some of the mud puddles and squishing our way through others, we stopped at a beautiful overlook for lunch.

One of the best parts of hiking is the time spent away from the hustle and bustle of life, a time to refresh, renew, and generate creative ideas. Grayson and I spent much of the day discussing our lives, goals, and dreams. I gain so much creativity through conversations along the trails, and this day was no different. Men need time to be rugged and adventuresome with fellow adventurers, as afterwards we return to our homes with much greater strength to offer our families. I would encourage you to take a few weekends per year to get away from it all.

We eventually caught up with the Big Tom Gap Trail, the one that caused us to wonder if we had gone insane. The trail literally went straight up the side of Big Tom Mountain, elevation 6580 feet. Winded, we took a moment to pause, catch our breaths, and gaze back at the spectacular views of fall foliage all around. After gaining several hundred feet in elevation, we finally reached the summit of our second 6500 foot mountain, but it wouldn’t be the last.

To get back to the Mt. Mitchell parking area, we crossed over Mt. Craig along the Deep Gap Trail,  and at 6647 feet in elevation, the summit measures as the second highest peak east of the Mississippi. Mt. Craig offers additional incredible views of the southern parts Black Mountains. We hit the Deep Gap Trail back to the parking area at Mt. Mitchell.

Three 6500 foot-plus peaks in one day – quite a an accomplishment. And as I flipped on the radio on the ride home and listened through the static to my alma mater Tennessee lose 41-13, I knew I had made the right choice. I eventually flipped the radio to the Duke-North Carolina football game.


Hike America #1: Clingmans Dome & Andrews Bald (Tennessee)

Today, I’m really excited to launch my new BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), Hike America. I’ve always wanted to visit every state, but I’ve only made it to about half of them. What better way to see the country than to hike all across it. Over the next five years, I plan to hike a major trail in each of the 50 states, typically to the highest point in each one. This is hike #1 in my series of 50 hikes across the country. Be sure to check out the photo gallery at the end!

Kicking off my Hike America series is my recent trek to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet. While visiting my family in Knoxville, my dad and I ventured about two hours away to highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 14, 2012. The Smokies offered the perfect backdrop to begin my journey, having grown up in East Tennessee.

The temperature in Knoxville was typical for September – muggy and in the 80’s. Once we reached the parking area at Clingmans, the car temperature gauge read a chilly 58 degrees. Several of the tourists from out of state were obviously not prepared for the cooler temperatures, as they were donned in summer shorts. Thankfully, I checked ahead, prepared to stay warm in my jeans and fleece.

Our Route – Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald

The hike to Clingmans Dome is a short one – 0.5 miles from the parking area up a steep, paved trail. The elevation gain was a tad more difficult than I expected, as we paused to catch our breath a couple of times. At the summit, a winding ramp leads you to the top of the tower, or the “space ship.” It was built in the 1960’s, and the concrete structure looks like it could take off into orbit at any moment. At its pinnacle, the circular tower provides panoramic 360 degree views of surrounding mountains, and you are seemingly above the clouds, as white puffy sheets envelop then landscape and obstruct the view of Mt. LeConte and several other surrounding peaks. A few moments later, the sun reappears and uncovers the surrounding mountain ranges.

People come from far and wide to experience the 360 degree view of the Smokies. Several motorcyclists had made their way to the top, snapping photos with their phones and cameras. At the same time, a large family of Amish ventured to the summit. The women were dressed in plain dresses, the men and boys in slacks, button-downs, and suspenders. None of them had cameras to capture the moment. It was quite a cross section of our culture.

Speaking to one of the rangers stationed at the base of the tower, he said that this was considered a really clear day on Clingmans. Only eight days or so of September offer decent visibility, and thankfully, this was one of them.

Andrews Bald

Since the hike to Clingmans was fairly short, I made up for that by planning a 4-mile round trip hike to Andrews Bald, one of two grassy balds in the park located just inside of North Carolina. After heading down from the Clingmans Dome Tower, Dad and I took the Appalachian Trail until reaching the Forney Ridge Trail, making our way through the dense forest on this recently reconstructed trail. At one point, I stopped and listened. No birds, no cars, no talking. Silence. It was surreal. There are so few times that we encounter complete silence that it’s completely unfamiliar.

The trek descends several hundred feet, as Andrews Bald resides at 5,920 feet, making the climb back much more difficult. Along the way, we encountered several friendly people, eventually meeting a young college couple who was taking in the view of the bald. He shared his photos that he had taken at Clingmans Dome from a recent morning sunrise. (Another adventure I must pursue!) We also spoke with a man and his daughter who vacation in the Outer Banks, just to the south of where I live.

One of my favorite things about hiking is all the friendly people who take time to talk to you on the trail. There’s something special about it. There’s a certain connection you discover with those who are out there trekking through the wilderness.

As my dad and I made our two mile return to the car, our hearts were pounding as it was mostly uphill. This was more difficult than the hike up Clingmans, a nearly 2-mile uphill climb. The return trip always seems longer, but we eventually huffed and puffed our way back to the parking area.

Clingmans Dome was a superb kickoff to a grand adventure, the type of goal that usually think about but don’t ever get around to starting. Well, I’ve started, and it feels like I’m finally moving forward. One hike down, 49 to go!