Appalachia Spring 2009 Trip Report
© May 2009 Adam Helman
John Hamann, Scott Casterlin, and Adam Helman


"A speed bump on the way to Denali". That's how John Hamann describes this journey as we near its completion. He refers to that great Alaskan summit three weeks off; and, by implication, the relatively simple affair this Appalachian journey presents. That written, every mountain has a unique offering - and the peaks of southern Appalachia prove no exception.

Our goals are numerical, quantifiable: number of peaks with at least 2,000 feet of topographic prominence; new state highpoints; and, of course, county highpoints galore. List overlap ensures that bagging one summit increments our counts on multiple lists.

Twelve peaks are the chief goals. Then, with extra time, additional summits are added as time permits. John Hamann comes from Alamogordo, New Mexico; Scott Casterlin from Tucson, Arizona; myself from San Diego.

Trip Details

Saturday, April 25 - flights to Charlotte, North Carolina

We converge on Charlotte, Scott arriving four hours earlier. He retrieves John and myself, having already purchased fuel for car-camping nights and much bottled water. I share the flight from Dallas to Charlotte with John.

Driving to Asheville, North Carolina leverages the offset in our "internal clocks" while obviating a very early start the next morning. The motel room is acceptable.

Sunday, April 26 - Big Bald, Mount Mitchell, Roan High Knob

Our first taste of regional food is at breakfast - "Waffle House" serving us hearty yet cheap fare before departing Asheville. I have two eggs, biscuits with gravy, sausage, some toast, and grits - plus hot cocoa to drink.

Big Bald is normally a twelve mile affair. We are not ashamed to save time by cutting this to a mere 300 foot gain and under 15 minutes hiking time by obtaining access to the southern slopes. How? By making arrangements with a Wolf Laurel realtor. The summit views are expansive; and, by walking a bit north I enter Tennessee for the first time - ever.

A portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway (henceforth, "BRP") is closed for repair, forcing an end-around to access the Mount Mitchell trailhead. We wish to climb this mountain because of its "ultra" status, i.e. a peak with at least 5,000 feet of prominence. It is also the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. However to save time I drive to the summit parking lot so that John and Scott need not hike downhill. From there a broad, paved trail climbs perhaps 150 feet to the summit.

After wasting much time locating the upper trail terminus I finally downhike, meeting them 900 feet below the summit. I hand Scott the rental keys and continue down until my GPS unit shows me fully 1,000 feet down - "Earlizing" the peak. I run uphill to catch John and Scott, and summit Mitchell for the third time that afternoon.

A half gallon of "chocolate drink", masquerading as a milk jug, assisted here by giving me a most energizing sugar rush. It was purchased by John at lunch assuming it was the real deal.

Our main goal behind us, we find ourselves at a highway pass with Roan High Knob immediately west. It is nearly 7 p.m. yet enough daylight remains for us to hike the peak.

An Appalachian Trail shelter (henceforth, "AT"), highest on that famous trail, lies just under the top. Here we meet and converse with "Pork Chop" - the moniker of a twenty-something backpacker who already had walked the southernmost 400 miles of the AT on his journey north. Pork Chop is the quintessential hippie type, playing the part perfectly with a Hawaiian tee-shirt, very long blond hair, and no "real" job in-sight.

Pork Chop enjoys a large mug of macaroni and beef as we talk. I learn that the AT is 2,187 miles long - the exact value depending on the length of one's "yardstick" owing to fractal considerations. I note that 2,187 is exactly 3 to the 7-th power - and all are surprised by this seeming coincidence.

We wish Pork Chop well on his continuing journey.

I share kosher pastrami sandwiches on onion rolls with yellow mustard for supper. John's one-man tent serves him for the night; while Scott bivouacs on the forest floor. I sleep on the back seats of the rental - our usual configuration for all non-motel nights.

Monday, April 27 - Grassy Ridge Bald, Long Arm Mtn, Grandfather Mtn

The Avery County, North Carolina highpoint is at-hand as I awaken in the pre-dawn. Nobody else is interested, so I minimize the collective time spent with an early start. I reach Grassy Ridge Bald's summit in 45 minutes (fast!), and have superior views since Roan High Knob's top is forested. The round-trip takes 90 minutes, having spent eight minutes at the summit and 37 minutes on the descent (with some jogging).

Scott drives (he alone is listed on the rental agreement), and I finally eat the slice of chocolate cream pie ordered as take-out from Waffle House. I was going to eat it as my summit snack but did not want to waste everybody's time.

We park near the top of Long Arm Mountain along a paved road. Scott and I walk all of 500 feet, with maybe 50 feet of elevation, to the highest ground between two houses of this, the Burke County, North Carolina highpoint. John remains at the rental, his disinterest in county highpoints made very evident through inaction. John is interested almost exclusively in prominences - and, sure enough, he will get more than bargained for by trip's end!

Grandfather Mountain is next. It is our first two-fer county highpoint, and, not surprisingly has over 2,000 feet of prominence. The highest summit is Calloway Peak. We have options for which trail to take, and finally agree to the western approach even though this requires a $15 entry ticket per person (rather than per vehicle).

Feeling this price to be excessive we have no qualms in settling the score by having Adam stuffed in the trunk. I try hard not to laugh as we pass the entry gate... resuming after we (and my voice) are well distanced from it.

The hike itself is interesting because of multiple ladders that are used to climb oversized boulders. We did not know about these ladders because John was charged with amassing data for our twelve main venues ... and did not consult for its multitude of trip reports. I am webmaster for that super-specialized, "boutique site".

John's oversight nearly prevented us from bagging the peak. Here, two summit rock outcrops are noted in reports, both to be climbed for full credit. Without the reports in-hand, it was sheer luck, in concert with accurate GPS readings, that saw us climb both rocks as the obviously highest ground.

Anyhow, Grandfather Mountain was over by 4 p.m., leaving us time for driving clear to Mount Rogers in Virginia. We car-camp near a group camping area that is inexplicably closed - possibly because it is not yet May 1. Another campground is open, yet at $16 we feel this price is, again, excessive given the benefit of sleeping there. I am happy to pay when the cost is perceived as a "fair" one - and yet this is not the case with both the Grandfather Mountain entrance fee and the open campground.

Tuesday, April 28 - Mount Rogers, Black Mtn, The Flag Pole

The Mount Rogers hike is scenic, leading to a peak on all of our lists as a 2,000+ foot prominence, county highpoint two-fer, and the Virginia state highpoint. We saw both AT hikers and several little horses (which might be Shetland ponies).

John has the great idea of adding The Flag Pole, a Tennessee mountain also on the 2,000+ foot list. Although it involves a bunch of extra driving, we are still on-schedule with our aim of visiting two of our twelve main venues on each of six successive days. A library visit provides us with four trip reports and topographic maps for the approach drive and posssible hike if a certain gate is locked.

We visit the Kentucky state highpoint - Black Mountain of Harlan County. The gain on-foot is perhaps 50 feet along pavement to the summit tower. We leave Kentucky after a most brief visit, one that is nonetheless my first time in that state. I thank Scott for handling the coal company's access waiver.

At the Flag Pole we are lucky enough to find the gate open; and we cheerily yet warily drive the road clear to our summit. I write "warily" because of possible speeding work trucks. However it is after normal work hours; and we even camp atop the reworked summit area just in-time to cook supper before dark.

We have completed six of our twelve main goals in three days - leaving another 4 1/2 days for the balance. Plenty of time ... unless the weather turns on us.

Wednesday, April 29 - Clingmans Dome, Huckleberry Knob, Haw Knob

The sky clouds-over. However without actual rain I am grateful because the sun's direct rays are unable to make us overly hot as we drive. However the increased humidity is apparent. Just after Knoxville, Tennessee we have a morning break at this truck stop where John and Scott shower and I just shave. As usual, both John and Scott buy foot-long Subway sandwiches for both the road and as potential supper food. In contrast, I come with packaged noodles and have sugary snacks in the daytime.

The northern approach to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is extremely "touristy", there being no end to the glitz as businesses lure unsuspecting prey into their establishments. The coup-de-grace is when I see an entire multi-story building seemingly upside-down, and at an odd angle - just to turn passing heads.

Clingmans Dome is hiked from a parking lot 300 feet below and one-half mile from the summit, a ten minute effort (well, eleven since I relieved myself at the Men's bathroom). I tromp around underneath the concrete summit walkway, attempting to reach the highest natural ground. Later, I walk a bit north so as to ensure being in both the Tennessee as well as the North Carolina county on this - an interstate two-fer and the Tennessee state highpoint.

Now outside the park and after lunch at a convenience store we again perform library research - this time for Cheoah Bald, yet another 2,000+ foot prominence as per John's recommendation. However unlike The Flag Pole this "extra" hike will take several hours, the nearest trailhead calling for a ten mile round-trip.

We locate the poorly named Cherohala Skyway, and hike Huckleberry Knob - the Graham County, North Carolina highpoint and 3,000+ foot prominence. It is a short affair, only twenty minutes in each direction.

The trailhead for Haw Knob is close-by, just two miles west. Scott and I hike all of ten minutes to this summit, the Monroe County, Tennessee highpoint. On returning to the car John is seen running the A/C to keep cool.

We have dinner at a local restaurant, starting with an "onion blossom" appetizer - a whole onion deep fried and served with both horseradish and barbeque sauces. My entrée is Cajun-blackened tilapia. John has a rib steak (very fatty on the edges), and Scott enjoys beef tips. There is both blackberry cobbler a la mode (Scott) and banana pudding (Adam) for dessert. A cashew granola bar from my hiking stash adds textural contrast to the pudding.

Camping at our Cheoah Bald trailhead is along a highway - convenient but likely to raise eyes. We finally stay at a true campground ten miles away. It rains this evening, uncomfortable especially for Scott with his bivvie sac.

Each night in the car I cannot sleep well, arising multiple times because it is simply not comfortable. There is a "bump" between the two rear seats, and my legs cannot extend fully. My sleeping bag smooths-out the contours, and yet I generally do not get into it because it is simply too warm - even at night.

I have become progressively more tired each day; and now find myself trying to sleep as the backseat passenger at all opportunities. When the road winds, as is most common in these parts, I cannot bear it and simply slump down with my eyes shut. For myself this drowsiness is the most distressing aspect of our journey.

Thursday, April 30 - Cheoah Bald, Standing Indian, Brasstown Bald

We hike Cheoah Bald from this highway trailhead at Stecoah Gap. Here, both the AT and a Forest Service road lead southeast. The road is generally gated and locked - else, one could considerably shorten the effort.

The road option avoids some elevation gain and loss and was taken largely for that reason. We aim to leave the road at this inside bend, heading up a modest slope leading to Locust Cove Gap. From there the AT takes one the remaining two miles for Cheoah Bald's summit.

The desired road bend has a metal pipe draining water from upslope. An earlier bend has a plastic (PVC) pipe; and is thus distinguishable from the correct one that leads to Locust Cove Gap.

After roughly one hour I checked our progress and found us to have passed the desired bend by some 1,500 feet. Rather than backtrack, we bushwhacked directly up a steep and leafy slope for the main ridge. This arduous and slippery task consumed perhaps 15 or 20 minutes with maybe 500 feet of elevation gain. Once on the AT the going was quite easy.

Standing Indian is next - and proves to be an ideal hike under pleasant conditions with only a slight threat of rain. On return to the trailhead a box of apples, oranges, water, and fruit juice is labeled free-for-the-taking - and presumably meant for AT hikers. Indeed, it is a tradition to exchange/share food along the AT. In that spirit I take an apple and orange while John donates two large cans of Campbell "Sirloin Burger" soup.

During our drive to Georgia, John suggests adding Snake Mountain as yet a thirteenth 2,000+ foot prominence. It would, however, take several hours to get there and has certain access issues. I was upset by this prospect of completely filling our days, leaving no time for enjoying other aspects of the southeast - such as barbeque. When I expressed my displeasure Scott misinterpreted my thoughts as some "competition" between my desire to bag extra county highpoints; and John's desire to bag more prominences. No sir - I only want some "down-time" at the journey's end!

I am able to secure extra counties because they are very convenient to our travels - commonly taking no longer than 30 minutes each. In contrast 2,000+ foot prominences are much more sparsely distributed; making it a considerable effort merely to drive there.

As it turns out, we all bagged two more prominences than originally planned (The Flag Pole and Cheoah Bald). These efforts, once the extra driving is included, consume perhaps eight hours. In contrast, the extra county highpoints that I bagged without John collectively consume three hours of our time.

We park at the summit lot for Brasstown Bald. From here the hike has 400 feet of elevation gain. Conditions are blustery with wind and leaden skies.

Having no decent campsite for many miles, we park at the enormous lot's far end and camp right there. I share food with Scott tonight, including his "Italian wedding" soup and my pint of collard greens plus a package of "cheeseburger macaroni" without the meat - adding canned salmon for protein.

Friday, May 1 - Sassafras Mtn, Richland Balsam, Little Pisgah Mtn

Our final, full day of peakbagging is today. We arise early from a rain event - in fact, before sunrise; packing items during a lull in the activity. Breakfast is at a restaurant where John and Scott have the buffet and I enjoy chicken-fried steak.

We visit a library to make motel reservations in the Charlotte environs. Then, with the rain abating, we head for South Carolina and its highpoint.

The summit walk is trivial, perhaps 100 feet of elevation gain. This is an unsung state highpoint, lacking the elaborate structures of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tenesssee.

Northbound, we meet again the BRP and take it northwest to Richland Balsam, yet another 3,000+ foot prominence (and the Jackson County, North Carolina highpoint).

This completes the twelve main venues planned for our trip.

Afterwards we briefly visit the BRP road highpoint at just over 6,000 feet.

Heading towards Asheville we spy Cold Mountain (of movie notoriety), and then park at the trailhead for Little Pisgah Mtn of Henderson County, North Carolina. Details of this short effort are provided in this trip report.

Having visited the library, Scott retrieves a list of "down-home" eateries that somehow was lost around the Mount Mitchell hike - including Asheville listings. We enter the restaurant du jour (Moose Cafe?) and enjoy very filling meals by late afternoon.

One gets buttermilk biscuits with homemade apple butter on sitting. Sweet tea is traditional with barbeque in these parts. I have the pulled pork, served with both collard greens and a delicious baked sweet potato. I request bread to make a sandwich. Being Friday, John has the all-you-can-eat fish fry; and Scott enjoys the all-you-can-eat meatloaf.

I never have buffets because many many years ago I misbehaved, eating an unreasonable amount of food simply because it was economical to do such - and I still do not think that I am capable of controlling myself.

We drive to Gastonia, a community twenty miles west of Charlotte, staying at Days Inn. Around 9 p.m. Scott drives to a local tradition - Tony's ice cream parlor recommended on a discussion thread he initiated before we left. I have a hot fudge sundae with "Almond Joy" and peach ice creams. John has a strawberry milkshake, and Scott peach ice cream as well.

Saturday, May 2 - Kings Mtn, Mac's restaurant, touring Charlotte

We arise for Kings Mountain, the local county highpoint, located in a well-maintained park. The effort takes only 40 minutes one-way. One annoyance is a sign indicating "end of trail" just prior to scrambling on some boulders for accessing the final few hundred horizontal feet to the summit. We suspect the sign is there for insurance purposes.

On top we note the impressive downtown Charlotte skyline, taking our time there as the final summit of our journey.

For myself the day's highlight is lunch at Mac's, a raucous and loud restaurant with a motorcycle theme and featuring a large variety of southern-style favorites - including barbeque.

I have the Kansas City style ribs, and it falls-off-the-bone just as hoped. Two sauces complement the meat - a spicier, possibly chili-based sauce and a sweeter, vinegar-based sauce. The latter is so tasty that I buy an entire bottle for taking home. My side dishes are collard greens plus macaroni and cheese. A hint of the vinegar sauce mixed into the 'mac and cheese and eaten a few seconds after a bite of the meat (while still in the mouth) is absolutely divine! Here, the timing allows all the tastes to "come together" at the same instant....

Remarkably, I order beer even though I generally don't enjoy its bitterness. This is done for two reasons - it seems like the "natural" beverage to have with ribs; and they have a large assortment of specialty beers the likes of which I have never seen. These have a much higher than normal alcohol content (which is typically 4%). In contrast, my $8.50 bottle is 10.5% alcohol (!) and so packs a punch equal to wine's.

I am so enveloped in the meal that I fail to note what John and Scott order. This is most unusual for myself: to not recall what every person ate.

Slightly tipsy I amble to the rental and, using the waitress's written instructions, we seek out the older neighborhood of Charlotte for some interesting home architecture. We are somewhat successful. Then, Scott stops at a Starbuck's (not his first choice) for good coffee. I have the venti ("large") "Java Chip Frappuccino", and, by the time I am finished, am completely stuffed with lunch and all.

Scott takes us through downtown Charlotte (called "uptown" by locals); and as we pass through the most centralized intersection I note the immense contrast with our leafy bushwhack up Cheoah Bald a few days earlier.

We find our hotel to be a true "dump", this AARCS, and reluctantly move stuff into our room for the night. However it is still only 3 p.m. with plenty of daylight. John and Scott leave, walking to a bus terminal from where they can ride to explore the city's light rail system. Being uninterested I simply sleep.

Meanwhile a thunderstorm cell roams east, and I see lightning both on the TV Weather Channel and outside. John and Scott return around 6:30 p.m. Later we drive to a fast food place that Scott knew - Cook Out. They specialize in milkshakes with 40 varieties. I have a pineapple shake while Scott and John eat dead flesh with fries and beverage. There is also "cheerwine" - a somewhat sweet local brand of cherry soda pop. Rather than have more meat I use the motel room kitchenette to cook my final packaged noodle dish - fettuccini alfredo.

We enjoy a Clint Eastwood movie in the room - "Escape from Alcatraz". John has seen it so many times that he quotes full sentences before they are uttered.

Sunday, May 3 - Lake Norman, speedway, return flights

The "Catawba Queen" treats us well as we ply the waters of Lake Norman just north of Charlotte. John suggested this tourist venue yesterday; and today we have 11 a.m. reservations for the ninety minute boat ride.

An eight minute introductory description states the artificial lake holds 4 trillion gallons. However I calculate only 400 billion gallons based on the lake area (53,000 acres) and mean depth (35 feet). I tell this to the friendly boat captain and he has no explanation for the discrepancy. To myself, it sounds like a simple, mis-placed decimal point.

It is a pleasant diversion, this boat ride. John enjoys it quite a bit - it seems that he is starved of both greenery and water: a natural outcome of living in the New Mexico desert.

We divert to a motor speedway - and it has a huge perimeter. Unable to gain access to the interior, we drive around the margins and, windows open, hear a racecar's engine as it speeds around the track. NASCAR is big business in these parts.

Scott deposits John and myself at the airport with plenty of spare time. He will fly home in the morning.

I locate a nationwide weather radar image on one terminal screen and note that my immediate destination, Atlanta, is about to get hit by a massive line of thunderstorms. Then, as expected, my flight is delayed on account of this weather. However I realize that outbound Atlanta flights, including my own flight to San Diego, will be similarly delayed. So it is with some relief that the San Diego-bound aircraft is delayed 75 minutes - so allowing me to board it despite having arrived late into Atlanta.

After learning that I would "make" my connection I pass the time with another iced coffee treat having lots of caramel and whipped cream. The shop is about to close, and, after learning that the biscotti sells for $2.50, tell the attendant that, although I want it, I will not purchase. With that sincere statement she gives me three biscotti.

I arrive home at 2:00 a.m. Pacific Time - which, as 5 a.m. Eastern Time, is nearly when we've been arising for the day's first peak!

Appalachian Comments

We depart with different opinions of the terrain. John likes the area simply because it is so green - and as the mountains are "nonthreatening".

I find the topography quite convoluted, with gaps, coves, ridges and peaks presented in a variety of combinations. Unfortunately this does make for slow driving....

I enjoy enough regional food, especially barbeque, to satisfy my curiosity for these items.

Scott adds that he "...liked the small towns, back roads, and friendly, authentic people, but, suffering a little bit from claustrophobia, the multitude of trees got to be too much and the humidity was bothersome."


We visit six state highpoints, twelve prominences (at least 2,000 feet), and, apart from King Mountain, twenty-four county highpoints. List overlap accounts for these numbers - in truth only eighteen summits are visited prior to our Charlotte area return.

Remarkably, three summits are visited on each of six consecutive days - exactly as Bob Packard predicted would be our rate of progress.

This proliferation of "three-even" numbers is noted:

Then, a final county highpoint is visited largely for exercise after returning to Charlotte for our return flights - "The Pinnacle" on Kings Mountain of Gaston County - raising the county total to 25 for myself; 23 for Scott (all but Avery and Henderson Cos, North Carolina); and 21 for John despite his best intentions to avoid these.

I thank Edward Earl for valuable hints on "extra" counties convenient to our general driving route - one which, although entering six states, could fit neatly into southern California. My next peak won't be such a "walk-in-the-park". However as Scott Surgent notes Denali literally is a "walk" in a Park.