GSMNP Day 4 – Clingman’s Dome / Forney Ridge Trail

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

Friday 10/16 was our most physically demanding day in the park. Jason and I got an early start and headed up to Clingman’s Dome by road, the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. The road wound up to the higher elevations to the south of us, climbing into the morning fog and clouds that shrouded the mountain tops, with occasional pockets of clear skies and sunlight.

From the vantage point of the tower at the top of Clingman’s Dome, we had a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Access ramp to the tower at the top of Clingman’s Dome.

After the beautiful morning on the dome, we set off from the parking area onto Forney Ridge Trail, descending gradually to the south, with ridgetop views towards both sides — Forney Creek valley and Suli Ridge to the west, and Mill Creek valley and Jerry Bald Ridge to the east.

We experienced many different sub-ecosystems on our hike — from misty pine forest to dry grass and ferns — as we hiked from Clingman’s Dome past Andrew’s Bald (lunch stop) and Buckhorn Bald down to Board Camp Gap, where we rested at the junction with the Spinghouse Brook Trail before starting the long climb back up to the highest point in the park.

All told we covered 11.3 miles and climbed a cumulative 2720 ft… quite the day!

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on naratnayake.com, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing. The panoramic and video were taken with an iPhone7.

GSMNP Day 3 – Cades Cove / Rich Mountain Rd

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

On Thursday 10/15, Jason and I headed out for an “easy” day at Cades Cove, a low lying area in the northwest quadrant of the park. The geography is lower elevation (and thus with less fall foliage), with more open views over fields (including horses and wildlife!). A single-track paved road of bumper-to-bumper 15 mph traffic loops around the basin, connecting several historic sites and buildings that feature frontier mountain life in prior centuries.

Similar to the previous days’ experiences in the park, though the road itself was crowded, the sites themselves were less so as most people seemed to be content to view things from their cars. Further, once disembarked, even a half mile hike on a trail away from the parking area in one case led us to complete isolation for a quiet lunch.

After lunch we explored the Cable Mill site of an old (still working) grist mill, alongside several other historic buildings that had been relocated from other areas to create a small “village” of historic buildings.

We wrapped up our exploration of Cades Cove by taking Rich Mountain Road, a single-track dirt road through the mountains, out of the valley and into the town of Townsend, TN.

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on naratnayake.com, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing. The two photos of the grist mill were take with an iPhone7.

GSMNP Day 2 – AT / The Boulevard to Anakeesta Knob

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

On Wednesday 10/14, along with my friends Jason and Mel, I hiked 2.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to The Boulevard Trail, then another 2.5 miles (roughly) to Anakeesta Knob in the northeast quadrant of the park, before returning along the same route. (Due to a late start, we judged we did not have time to actually summit Mount Le Conte further along that trail.)

Although the large number of cars during peak hours at the major parking sites (including Newfound Gap) can make GSMNP appear to be a crowded park, our experience was that the crowds disappear quickly after about a mile or so away from the parking areas. Most people seem to be just day-tripping from Gatlinburg or the surrounding area, driving through, and stopping for roadside photos or a quick mini-hike. The AT is a little more crowded than other trails, but once off of it we dropped from seeing just a few people to almost no one.

There were some nice views along the way, but the real highlight of the hike was the moss! On a whim, we started trying to name and classify all the different kinds of moss we found. Knowing basically nothing about botany or moss, this meant we just named all the mosses we found based on what they looked like to us!

Found moss types included: microfern, tempurpedic, frosty moss, mossted tips, christmas tree, spiky moss, feather moss, happy little moss, star moss, tentacle moss, off-brand tempurpedic, midsummer night’s moss, and Bob Moss Himself.

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on naratnayake.com, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing.

GSMNP Day 1 – Jake’s Creek Trail / Meig’s Creek Trail

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

Last week, I got to spend four full days (and parts of two more) in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. So beautiful! It wasn’t quite peak foliage, but we still got some amazing colors.

Having grown up in the West, I’ve always been biased towards the number and quality of the western national parks — and while I expect any national park to be beautiful, I have to admit that GSM was the first to really convince me that the East can be on the same level as the West in terms of natural beauty!

The broad extent of the mountains in all directions; the lush vegetation and seemingly endless forests starting to show their autumn color; the abundance of water — innumerable streams, rivers, cascades, and falls, along with the trademark fog and steamy morning mists; and the diversity of terrain all made the park level up from the expectation of “probably good” to a genuine “wow this is awesome.”

My friend Laura and I spent October 13th in the northwest quadrant of the park, starting with a 4.25-mile trail run on Jake’s Creek Trail (near our campsite in Elkmont Campground) and part of Meig’s Mountain Trail. After lunch, we hiked Meig’s Creek Trail near The Sinks, where we counted 20 stream crossings!

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on naratnayake.com, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing.

Ran a Marathon!

I finally get the 26.2 sticker!

I had been signed up for the OBX Marathon, which was somehow still not coronacancelled… I think because it’s generally a smaller race (300 ish people in a typical year) perhaps they were banking on figuring something out… alas, no.

When I found out the race was going to be “virtual”, I immediately started thinking about options… three months into a four-month training plan, did I really want to maintain that level of work another month, for a virtual race?

I knew the experience (and my performance) would be compromised anyway. A virtual race, even if it is scoped out to the same distance, is missing the aid stations, the nutrition and hydration support every two miles, a closed and controlled course, and the psychological hype of a major event with tons of spectators and friends cheering you on…. it’s just not the same.

Further, training for a marathon has been a LOT of time… running five days a week and an additional day of light strength and yoga. I was looking at heading up to the Great Smokey Mountains next week, for example, worrying about maintaining a training plan while camping in the mountains. Doable, but not desirable.

Early Autumn in the swamp! Taken from the Jamestown HS connector trail, just before it reaches the VCT proper.

In the end it was an easy decision: truncate the plan, forget any time goal, focus on recovery from the previous week, go simply for completion without injury, and look forward to the next time I can run a real race.

I ran 13.1 miles from Jamestown HS up the Virginia Capital Trail, where my friend Richard was parked, warmed-up, and ready to go. He resupplied me and we ran it back together to hit 26.2! For most of the way, it was a really pleasant run… nice fall weather and a light, cool rain sprinkling down to keep things refreshing and open up the scents of the forest.

My time of 4:49:04 includes all stretch, pee, hydration, and refuel stops. It’s slower than I had been originally aiming for, but again, goals were rescoped and I was also trying to be pretty conservative for the first 18 miles or so… Too many stories of first-time marathoners coming out too strong and bonking at 22!

Now that I’ve done one, I’m super pleased! It’s a big milestone in my running and now I have a baseline to build off of. Here’s hoping for real races in 2021…

Whoa

Last post May of 2019? Probably because this site was focused on my writing, and I haven’t actively written fiction (or been involved with the scifi community) in a looooonnng time.

Some changes:

  • theme and appearance altered to emphasize the blog, and not my writing / author persona (though the Biblio page is still there if anyone’s interested)
  • new category added: Personal, with subcategories for outdoors and nature, DnD, running, and food — the pastimes that are actually where my time and energy go these days
  • phone app to quick post photos (may need to switch to a theme with post types to better accommodate photo-only posts)

This will all probably result in more posts! Probably. Maybe? We’ll see.

False Cape State Park (7/17/20 – 7/18/20)

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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There are only two ways in to False Cape State Park: kayak in by water, or hike in through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge! No vehicles are permitted. The relative difficulty in accessing the park keeps out most of the crowds, and you can expect a more solitary and remote experience, especially if camping deeper within the park.

We backpacked in about 6 miles through the open wetlands and swamps of the wildlife refuge, only encountering three cottonmouths… not ominous at all. Summer is great weather for the beaches, but given that there only small islands of shade in the open wetlands, the summer heat and humidity can be quite oppressive, so plan your hike accordingly — we did not, especially on the way out.

Beach camping comes with beautiful views and a whole lot of sand in everything! Gotta just accept it. We traded sand in everything and no shade for being right on the ocean and avoiding the snakes in the shady grove that harbored the official campsites. Reservations are required, even to camp on the beach away from the sites!

Gorgeous sunset and sunrise, drinking and looking up at the stars, and an early morning beach run + ocean swim with not another human in sight. Pretty awesome.

A bit too awesome in fact… we got so caught up in our morning swim and lounge that we didn’t even consider that we were setting outselves up for a hike out in the hottest part of the day. We didn’t even start back until noon… and by then it was far too late to avoid the heat. The open skies and awful humidity made us broil in the summer heat. We slowly made our way out a mile or so at a time, stopping at every tiny scrap of shade to rehydrate and rest. We soaked our hats in cold water from the taps and sweated constantly through our clothes and packs.

When a thunderstorm loomed in the distance, we welcomed it with open arms — the sudden drop in temperature as the front hit us and then the subsequent drenching in cool water felt amazing. I’m sure the cars driving by us for the last mile stretch to the parking lot at Sandbridge, Virginia Beach thought we were crazy. Torrential rain, carrying loaded packs, and laughing the whole way.

Westmoreland State Park (7/11/20 – 7/12/20)

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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Birthday camping! Since my usual “get a bunch of people together food lots of food and drink” approach was prevented by Covid this year, instead I decided to get out to the outdoors. I took a solo one-nighter up to Westmoreland State Park, which is located on the Northern Neck on the southern bank of the Potomac River.

The terrain varies quite a bit within the park, from pine forest on the high ridge lines down to sandy beaches closer to the river. Boardwalks allow trekking over the wetlands of the river valley. Amazing amount of waterfowl.

For such a large and well-visited park, the campgrounds felt nicely spread out enough for some solitude.

Staunton River State Park (6/13/20 – 6/14/20)

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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Just two weeks after my trip to Occoneechee State Park, I found myself just a little further up the river at Staunton River State Park. Laura and I had intended to camp at Pocahontas State Park further north, but the campground was full. The waters were still high from late spring rains, but we managed to explore quite a few trails.

Occoneechee State Park (5/31/20 – 6/1/20)

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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A quick one-nighter out to Occoneechee State Park, on the southern edge of Virginia near the North Carolina state line, about halfway across the state to the west on the banks of the Roanoke River.

After several days of hard rain, the waters had risen to inundate several campsites and trail segments. The photo of me pointing is of me indicating where the trail should be for the run I was on! Very pretty sunset on the water’s edge though.