When I left in 2003, I had no idea what course the future would take for Chimney Rock Park and I was devastated when a few years later, the Park went on the real estate market. I feared, as most people did, that the Park would be sold to a developer and turned into a Ghost Town or Dollywood type attraction, or a high-end gated community with a golf course on the top of the mountain which would have been even worse.
Fortunately, the State of North Carolina felt the same way that most people did and through the work of a massive grassroots effort, was able to purchase the Park, making it the centerpiece of the new Chimney Rock State Park. I sincerely believe that for the sake of the mountain, this was the best decision.
Most of my 11 years at the Park revolved around protecting the natural resources. The Skyline/Cliff Trail was essentially my home away from home. I knew every rock and root along the trail, to the point that I could walk it blindfolded and never stumble. I knew the location and name of all the plant species along those two trails and their significance to their specific ecological community. It came as quite a shock when I found out that the State had called for the closure of the Skyline/Cliff Trail. The message from the State was that the trail and its numerous boardwalks were not up to the standard required by the State's engineers. Well, I personally felt (and still do) that those engineers didn't know what they were talking about and that they are holding our state parks to a ridiculously conservative standard, for the sake of what I don't know. I guess that's a discussion topic for another day. When I found out about the closure, my concern was not only not being able to go back up there and take my family, but what was going to happen to the trail if no one was maintaining it?
Since the trail closure, I have mostly stayed out of the Park other than doing the occasional guided hike because it brings me a lot of sadness. Change is hard for everyone, and I am no exception. Not being able to access what I consider to be the crown jewel of Hickory Nut Gorge is a travesty and this is an opinion shared by many. Those who don't know the Park don't necessarily care, but the champions of the Park who know its history and have experienced it in its full glory need the Skyline/Cliff Trail open in order to experience the Park in a meaningful way.
My experience as the Park's Naturalist from '97 to '03 gives me a lot of insider information that the State either does not know or has been forced to learn on its own, so it's always interesting to talk to the Park's rangers and superintendent about how things are going. I am always willing to offer facts, opinion, and advice when I am asked (and probably sometimes when I'm not). I truly believe that the State Park staff is genuine and certainly have the best interests of the Park in mind and want to see it be as successful as possible.
I was recently appointed to the Park Advisory Committee. It was an appointment that I was very honored to receive and happy to accept. I was speaking with James Ledgerwood, the Park Superintendent about the Skyline Trail demolition project which was recently started and I thought it might be neat to provide a former insider's perspective on things since the dream to re-open the Skyline Trail may one day become a reality. I have also wanted, for a long time, to check on the Gorge's only known population of federally endangered Rock Gnome Lichen, so being able to hike the trail one more time would provide an opportunity to do that as well. James agreed that it would be good for the public to know what things look like out there and agreed to let me go for all the reasons I just stated.
I arranged to meet with Ranger Tyson Phillips, whom I have gotten to know quite well since the creation of the State Park. Tyson is heading up the demo project on the trail and was genuinely interested in my thoughts on the project and perspective on the past as he had not seen the Skyline Trail in its glory days.
We took the elevator, which is finally working now, and proceeded up the trail, making a stop at Devil's Head (more or less for my sake). One of the things that became quite clear to me is that 11 years have passed since I worked at the Park. Many trees that I knew have been cut because they were damaged or just old, so things didn't quite look the same as it did years ago. Fortunately some things take so long to change, we never notice it in our short time of existence. The Devil's Head is no exception.
|The Devil's Head|
The next section that really brought back some great memories was in one of the switchbacks. The trail was badly eroded as I remember it. Remsen Behrer and Donnie Tessneer spent two months working on this section of trail, levering giant boulders out of the trail which were twisted and set into new positions, creating a new set of stairs that were as artistic as they were functional. Their work would briefly set the course and standard for trail construction in the Park, at least until Park ownership changed. To this day I am still amazed at the level of craftsmanship that was put into the various trail projects that Remsen and Donnie worked on. They truly left their stamp on the Skyline Trail, and a legacy for others to attempt to match.
|The handiwork of Remsen Behrer and Donnie Tessneer.|
We worked our way up to Exclamation Point, which has changed somewhat in that some of the pathways have meandered a little and several trees have died. A large red cedar that we once used as a rappelling anchor has died and all of the table mountain pine seedlings that were planted many years ago appear to have all died as well. Ecologically speaking, I would say that it probably needs a good fire on the point to get everything back in balance. We also passed by the first rain shelter on the trail which has been there since I first visited Chimney Rock Park way back in 1988. I remembered all the people who used to take shelter in that structure during thunderstorms and how I always thought that there was no such thing as safe shelter when you were on the edge of a cliff.
|Exclamation Point rain shelter|
|View along the north face where the Skyline/Cliff Trail is located.|
|Star Coreopsis (Coreopsis pubescens)|
|Slender-leaf Gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia)|
|Granite Dome Goldenrod (Solidago simulans), a rare species|
Tyson led the way around the barricade and we proceeded out the closed trail. I immediately could tell that things were no longer the same. The trail was covered with debris, such that the former trail looked more like a relic of the past, nearly disappearing in places with the growth of Carolina rhododendron and blackberry. Everything was so shaded and it became quite apparent that the lack of light penetration on an already light starved trail was appearing to impact the plant diversity along the trail.
|Can you see the trail?|
|Boardwalk has been significantly overgrown.|
|We used to keep the vegetation pruned along this boardwalk.|
We came to one of my favorite sections of the trail, an area that I always referred to as the "big seep." This particular section was always quite unique with various spray cliff associated plants. The seep never ran dry, even during years of drought. On this day, the water was running quite freely. It was the wrong time of year to see many of the flowering plants, but still quite beautiful, although the overgrowth of blackberry and fox grape seems to be negatively impacting the plant diversity in this particular location. Back in the day, great effort was made to keep the weeds at bay in order to highlight the more showy species. It just goes to show that disturbance, even man-made, is necessary to maintain the status quo of certain ecosystems.
|The "Big Seep"|
|Wrecked by ice.|
|Overgrown and broken.|
|The number two rain shelter marked the halfway point of the Skyline Trail.|
|The highest point on the Skyline Trail.|
|Looking back toward Exclamation Point from the highest point on the trail.|
Traveling through this section takes the hiker through a small Carolina Hemlock bluff where large boulders lie on either side and in the trail. In this area is one of the old access points that was used for many years to haul lumber and other materials needed for construction of the trail in all of its various phases. Lying along the trail edge was a large pile of sawed up lumber, the remains of boardwalk that had recently been demolished. This caused me to pause, as I reflected on the many years of blood and sweat that went into carrying lumber and constructing a suitable walking surface, all gone in just mere days as the State Park staff has carried out their orders. Isn't it funny how this seems to be the way of things. It seems it is always so much easier to consume and destroy than it is
to create and share, or to recognize the efforts of others as we seek a path of our own.
|Note the pile of lumber.|
|The uphill side doesn't look too bad.|
|The downhill side is a little more foreboding. It's a looong way down!|
As I talked with Tyson about Peregrine's Rest, my impression is that they would like to do something here in the future as plans for the new Skyline Trail develop. What that will be remains to be seen.
|The view of the Gorge is quite stunning from Peregrine's Rest.|
|You can just see barely see the falls through the tree branches.|
|A reminder of what used to be.|
|Looking back at the end of the boardwalk.|
|What was under the boardwalk.|
|You almost feel claustrophobic walking this section of trail.|
|A seemingly happy clump of rock gnome lichen.|
|Close-up of rock gnome lichen.|
|This sphagnum covered rock face was once covered with scattered clumps of rock gnome lichen.|
|Rock gnome lichen has all but disappeared from this rock face where only a few clumps remain.|
Moving right along, we passed an area where the overlaying amphibolite makes contact with the underlying Henderson Gneiss (the dominant rock type of Hickory Nut Gorge). At this contact, a large drag fold is present. Over the years this fold has been eroded but is still visible. The vegetation has grown up around it nearly obscuring it. When the boardwalk was in place, it elevated hikers enough so that the fold was much easier to see. Yet another disappointment as the reality of a trail long gone began to sink in.
|The site of a unique drag fold, now obscured by vegetation.|
|The skeleton of a once mighty tree.|
|I can only imagine the number of sprained ankles that would have resulted here.|
|Cleared access point.|
|Entering the Rhododendron Arch.|
|The Upper Cascades|
|The rock at the bottom of the photo used to sit farther upstream.|
|Multi-function steps for either walking up to the access road or sitting.|
So, one of the questions I am anticipating is "Why didn't you walk the Cliff Trail?" Unfortunately, that was not part of the agreement, but also there is a great deal of risk involved in making that trip because there are no longer any fences at two critical sections: Nature's Showerbath and Groundhog Slide. Both of those places are extremely dangerous when there are no fences in place. When I was in my twenties I would not have given a second thought to attempting it. In my twenties, I walked the Cliff Trail with no fences, no protection, and ice on the trail, and that was one of the stupidest things I have ever done. Now that I am older and have two kids that need their dad to be around for them, my days of taking unnecessary risks are over. If the State Park develops a way of traversing those sections, then I will be more than happy to walk that trail again.
I returned from my hike with a somewhat bittersweet feeling. I was happy that I had gotten another opportunity to visit a place that I love so much, but sad that so much has changed. Since the State purchased the Park, I felt strongly that every effort needed to be taken to reopen the trail as it was. Now, I'm not so sure. Is the challenge of trying to put the trail back in its original footprint worth the amount of effort and expense that will be necessary, and what will the ecological costs be? As I contemplate the successional dynamics that are taking place as nature reclaims the trail, I am trying to wrap my head around the possibility that the plant diversity of the Skyline Trail may indeed depend on a level of disturbance that can only be provided by continued disturbance through human impact. It's one of those weird things where, as scientists, we often see human impact in negative ways, forgetting that disturbance comes in many forms, whether natural or man-made.
As the State Park moves forward with planning the future development and re-opening of the Skyline Trail, in whatever form that is, it would be in the best interest of the natural communities along that trail for monitoring to take place so that there can be a greater understanding of the successional dynamics occurring and how a lack of disturbance may or may not impact diversity.
I am grateful to James Ledgerwood and Tyson Phillips for allowing me to go out on the Skyline Trail so that I could see it and explain why opening that trail is not a simple matter. The top priority must be the safety of the visitors with protection of the natural resources coming in second. If that means the Skyline Trail takes a different path than the original, I am now in a place where I can live with it.
I hope that as people read this it provides food for thought. I know this is one of the longer posts I have written, but it was necessary to be able to show actual conditions so that people know that there is a reason why the trails must remain closed until a better alternative presents itself. This topic is open for discussion and I think it's certainly a conversation worth having. The more input from the public there is, the greater the chance that the Skyline Trail can be opened again and once again take people to the top of Hickory Nut Falls, which remains one of the top attractions in Hickory Nut Gorge.
To see the entire picture collection of this trip, click on the link to my Flickr Album.
Until next time.