Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Overlook(ed) Trail

Carlton McNeill standing on Little Green looking at the cliffs on Blackrock Mountain.

One winter day (around 1994) I was rambling around Panthertown and ran into Carlton.  That wasn't unusual, it seemed to happen on almost half the trips I made.  I wouldn't try to find him, but would wonder where we'd meet!  (If I was parked at Cold Mtn Gap I did sometimes stop at his house to visit him before I left in the evening.)

On this occasion he was excited about a new trail he had "clipped out" and wanted me to try.  It made a connection from Blackrock Mountain down across the top of the cliffs and on into the valley. (Now known as the Overlook Trail.)  This was exciting for me - a brand new trail, and I'd be one of the first people to use it!  (That little bit of pride will come back to haunt me later!)

So he told me how to find the old logging road that goes up Blackrock Mountain from the Salt Rock Gap parking area. I hadn't been up that way before, but had been admiring the Blackrock cliffs and wondering how to get on them.

Cliffs on Blackrock Mountain

I didn't wait long to come back and try it, maybe a week or two.  I found the old roadbed and headed up the mountain.  It was a steady climb, but I soon reached the top of Blackrock Mountain.  Or actually close to the top. If you look at a map or if you've been there you'll see that the roadbed runs around the back (North) side of the mountain just below the top.  Here was where I realized that Carlton's simple directions weren't quite complete. There was an area of woods between the roadbed and the top of the mountain with no visible trail going through them.  Being winter it was pretty open between the trees, and I wandered around for a while with no luck.  This was typical Carlton McNeill - his directions made something sound easy to find (It was for him!) but it was often a challenge to spot his little trails.  He never used any markers or blazes, I think he figured if you were going to be hiking in that valley in the first place you should be able to find a simple trail!
I was nearly stumped.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

I revised my strategy a bit. At the top of the ridge was a solid wall of rhododendron, and I knew the cliffs were somewhere on the other side of them.  I started at one end and walked along it trying to find a passage through .  About halfway across I found an opening just big enough to squeeze through.  I stepped in, and the passage continued.  I soon realized I was on a faint narrow trail.  I'd found it!  

I followed it out and before long came to a great overlook on top of the cliffs. It gives you a whole new perspective on familiar landmarks. Really an awe inspiring spot!

Looking down on Little Green Mountain from Blackrock Overlook.

Good view of Cold Mountain, and the power-line.

After I had enjoyed the view for a while I followed the trail on down the mountain til it came out on the Powerline Trail in the valley.  I don't remember exactly where I went from there, but just had a leisurely ramble around the valley. I'd already accomplished my goal for the day! 

I do know that in mid afternoon I paid a visit to Frolictown Falls.

Frolictown Falls

Afterwards I found a comfortable rock along the Deep Gap Trail and sat down to rest and eat some trail mix.  I hadn't been there long when two men came walking down the trail.  A distinguished looking  gentleman and a college age guy pushing a bicycle-wheel measuring device.  The older man introduced himself as Allen de Hart.
I was amazed!  Allen de Hart was a legend in the hiking world, and has authored some of the best trail guides available anywhere. He is the man most responsible for the creation of the Mountain to Sea Trail.  I had, and still have, a lot of respect for him. 

He explained he was mapping the trails of Panthertown for the next edition of his book, North Carolina Hiking Trails.  In a one day visit he was covering all the main trails in the valley. He said he was about 18 miles into a 25 mile day. He appeared fresh and energetic, but his wheel-man looked kind of shell shocked!
During our conversation I asked him if he knew Carlton McNeill - wrong question! Allen was not a fan. He started talking about how the Forest Service was unhappy with Carlton for his unauthorized trail building. He complained that some of Carlton's trails went through ecologically fragile areas, that they weren't graded for drainage, and some were too steep to hold up under heavy usage. All this was true of course, but wasn't the whole story. Without Carlton McNeill's trails many of the best places in Panthertown would be inaccessible. Just mentally erase all the winding footpaths, leaving only the old roadbeds, and you'll have some idea.  When I started hiking Panthertown in 1993 there was no evidence of Forest Service trail maintenance at all.  It was a couple of years before I saw any signs of their work, with some drainage issues being addressed. I never saw a Forest Service employee or one of their trucks, ever.  
But miles of the best trails exist today because of Carlton's years of hard work.

I didn't go into all that with Mr de Hart.  His tone and manner of speaking clearly established him as The Expert Authority on hiking trails, and I wasn't in the mood to argue.  But when he mentioned that he had been on Blackrock Mountain that morning I had to ask: "did you see the trail that goes from the top down across the cliffs?"  "No, I didn't see any other trail."  At this point I felt that little rush of pride again - I had found a trail that The Expert had missed!  So I proceeded to explain: "Well, I wouldn't have seen it either if I hadn't known where to look, but it definitely is there because that's how I came into the valley, and..."

OK then.  The Authority had spoken, and there was no room for debate.  I'd like to have a picture of the expression on my face, I bet my jaw was hanging open for a minute. But I shut it and swallowed the first 2 or 3 responses that came to mind.  I finally just wished him and his wheel-man a good journey, and they went off down the trail, leaving me sitting on my rock shaking my head and laughing. I had been put in my place for sure!

A few months later I found the new edition of Allen de Hart's book in a store. I looked and found the new chapter about Panthertown Valley.  He gave a description and history of the area, along with good maps and directions for the "authorized" trail system.  There was also a paragraph about the damage done by "unauthorized trail building"  
But no mention of the Overlook Trail!

I'm thankful that the Forest Service is more active now, and I especially appreciate the work done by Friends of Panthertown!  If I was able I'd probably be working with those guys.

Looking now at Burt Kornegay's map it looks like the connection with the Overlook Trail may be farther up the Blackrock Mountain Trail than I went. I'm guessing it's marked now and is a well worn path; that day it was a 2 foot wide opening in the Rhodo, with no wear showing on the ground. Not intuitively obvious to the most casual observer!  I may have missed the proper trail connection, and it would have been amazing if Allen de Hart had actually spotted a trail.  What was really amazing was his inability to even entertain the idea that he had overlooked a trail!

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