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Elegant Adventure: Pampered Hiking in NC's Blue Ridge
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
A full harvest moon hangs in the sky. The early autumn breeze moans through the pines outside our room. Our windows open, the comforting, cool air blows across our bed. We inhale deeply, drinking in the fresh mountain air as we snuggle beneath our thick down comforter, cozy in our high-thread-count sheets and monogrammed pillow cases. The French Room at the Gideon Ridge Inn was a fine start to our adventurous five day hiking trip exploring North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
The night was a delight, but the sunrise was spectacular. Perched high on a ridge just outside the well-touristed town of Blowing Rock, Gideon Ridge Inn’s elevation of 3900 feet offers some of the best views around. The sun breaks over the horizon revealing an endless arrangement of undulating ridge lines, mountain stacked against mountain for as far as the eye can see.
New England Hiking Holidays’ "North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains" trip promised to be an elegant (if soft) adventure–plenty of hiking, cozy digs, and fine dining. Trips begin with dinner on Sunday and end with lunch on Friday–with plenty of hiking in between. The trip closely follows the Blue Ridge Parkway as we move south– from Blowing Rock to Valle Crucis, to Beecher Mountain outside Banner Elk, hiking a variety of trails along the way. Timed for the peak of fall color, our October trip saw the Blue Ridge drenched in the hues of autumn, a stunning mosaic of yellows and reds.
Our first outing was a shake-down hike up Rich Mountain in the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The park features 25 miles of carriage road trails that are great for leisure hiking. Though generally easy, there was enough of an uphill element to allow our guides, Dana Steele and Tom Kastner, to gauge our individual hiking potential. Knowing what kind of hikers they had on hand would figure prominently in their planning of hikes over the next few days.
The Inn at Taylor House in Valle Crucis would be our evening abode for the next two nights. The main structure is a large farmhouse built in 1911, but we stayed in the "Little Red Cottage," a separate structure a few yards away from the main house. Valle Crucis (Valley of the Cross) was founded as an Anglican mission in 1842. Today the main attraction seems to be shopping at the Mast General Store–a behemoth of a wooden structure that sells just about everything one would need for 19th century mountain living–from hoes to washboards. The structure is a National Historic Landmark that dates from 1883.
A cylinder of chocolate kisses awaited us beside our king-size bed in the Little Red Cottage. The Little Red Cottage is the perfect romantic setting–plank wooden floor in the living room area, fieldstone fireplace, bedroom with sliding glass doors opening to a large wooden deck, skylights above the garden tub, and mirrored bedroom wall.
Tuesday morning, dark clouds filled the sky and the wind picked up. The weather was threatening and the forecast grim, but our enthusiasm was high. We fortified ourselves on a breakfast of potato quiche, corn muffins, and sausage with a granola, yogurt, and fruit sideboard before heading to the Julian Price Memorial Park to hike the Boone Fork Loop Trail.
The sky’s promise held true. About the time we started our hike, the rain started. The 4.8 mile loop trail took us through some lovely scenery as we followed along the Boone Fork River then climbed in elevation, crossing several small streams along the way before looping back to the parking lot where we had lunch–a damp and subdued affair. The rain had dampened more than our clothing.
After lunch we had the option of another hike in the rain–which was coming down harder all the time–or a return to our accommodations. Though some diehards chose the hike, we returned to the comfort of our cottage where we enjoyed a warm soak in the garden tub while we watched the raindrops pelt the windows.
Hikes are offered to match the skill and comfort level of guests. The day we hiked Grandfather Mountain we divided into two groups. Those who wanted the high adventure experience took the six-mile hike to the top of Grandfather. Climbing wooden ladders along a sheer rock face, exposed to the wind, clutching narrow rock ledges, all above sheer drops, is not the hiking adventure for everyone. Our group split in half. Tom Kastner led seven on what a couple from Wisconsin referred to as "the hike of our lives." Dana took the rest of us on a hike on the flanks of the mountain, along the Daniel Boone Scout Trail.
We found the hikes to be challenging, but not too fast-paced, covering five to ten miles a day. We could feel our strength and stamina growing with each day’s hiking. By week’s end we were feeling healthy–clean air, good food, and plenty of exercise, had been the perfect prescription. Our guides were informative and attentive. Though hailing from New England, Dana from New Hampshire and Tom living in Vermont, both were knowledgeable of the local flora and fauna. At dinner, hikes available the following day were detailed by our guides. Each guest chooses the level and intensity of the hike he or she wishes to experience, from those available.
Our last two nights were spent at Archers Mountain Inn on Beecher Mountain outside the small town of Banner Elk. The stone fireplace and wooden interiors lend a cabin-in-the-woods feel to the inn. The inn’s Jackalope’s View restaurant featured some of the tastiest dinners of the trip. Especially memorable was the Sautéed Chicken, sautéed in mushroom tarragon cream–delicious. Equally well done was the October Fest Platter consisting of roast pork and lamb served with bratwurst, sour kraut and mashed potatoes.
Our favorite day of hiking was Thursday when we headed to Carver’s Gap along the North Carolina/Tennessee border for a hike on a segment of the Appalachian Trail referred to as "The Balds." These open, high mountain anomalies of unknown origin are areas of unique beauty. (Are they the result of lightning strikes or Native American controlled burns meant to keep the areas grassy to attract wildlife?) Our hike took us a long a ridge line 6,285 feet in elevation, with views extending over three states: Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. In this area one finds some of the highest and most scenic mountains along the entire Appalachian Trail.
Having an active vacation doesn’t necessarily mean roughing it. Why give up the comforts of a soft bed, hot shower and fine cuisine to seek outdoor adventure, when adventure can be combined with these elements? New England Hiking Holidays puts together a trip that wonderfully combines these items of luxury with an active outdoor vacation. One feels slimmer after several days hiking, but that doesn’t mean one has lost weight. All the fine food counteracts the increased physical activity. When asked whether guests gained or lost weight on the trips, guide Dana Steele said, "Most people just break even." We broke even.
If You Go:
Hiking tours consist of two guides and up to 16 guests, trips run 2-8 days while staying at fine country inns and hotels.
A few weeks prior to the trip guests receive an information packet informing them of what to expect and what to bring. A warning is given that most of the trip takes place outdoors, so beware of weather vagaries. If it rains, hikes continue. Guests should be in good physical condition to get the most out of the hikes. Guests should bring at least two pair of broken in hiking boots that cover the ankle. A trip like this is not the place to break in a new pair of boots. Sore feet from new boots the first day out can ruin the rest of the week. Since guests will be going uphill/downhill, climbing over roots and rocks it is wise to protect the ankles with boots that come above the ankle.
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / Prose & Photos