I knew coming into this week that my hikes would entail a lot of elevation gain and loss. Many of my hikes do, but most have been over four or five days across many miles if you include the commute up and down Alum Cave. This week only involved two trails outside of Alum Cave, and less total distance. Today, I would be tackling the Low Gap Trail, one of the park's steeper sustained ascents, so I had my work cut out for me.
The terrain was different compared to when I was here a month prior. There were no wildflowers growing down low, just green brush and saplings. Since I was so concerned about maintaining a good cadence on such a climb, I never stopped for pictures. The more time I spend in the mountains, the more in tune I become with the air and my ability to travel very long distances without needing to catch my breath, drink water, or have a snack. I was curious to see how I would hold up climbing Low Gap out of Cosby. Without ever really breaking a sweat, I managed to cross the gap in fifty minutes without stopping, a testament to my physical conditioning. Low Gap looked so strange this time around. There was little sunlight. The spring beauties, white fringed phacelia, trout lilies, and violets were all gone and replaced with tall overgrown brush. The forest was thick and dark. Certainly not nearly as impressive a sight as it was a month ago. The worst of the up was behind me, and it was time to drop down the other side.
The southern leg of the Low Gap Trail takes one down a steep and rocky path for about two miles before leveling out near Walnut Bottom. Obviously the less popular half of the trail, it isn't as wide and already overgrown with grasses and brambles in many places. When I reached Walnut Bottom, you could hear the roar of the nearby Big Creek. Between the campsites, the trail is that of an old roadbed and easy on the feet. The trees that grew trailside were noticably tall and proud.
I would follow the creek for the next few miles as I made my gradual ascent up toward Camel Gap. Everything about the creek is big. It is wide, the boulders are large, and the various falls, cascades, and slides are bigger than average. The trail reminded me a lot of the upper part of the Little River Trail...narrow, overgrown, paralleling the creek, flies buzzing around your face, and relatively flat terrain. Along the way I almost stepped on a foot and half long snake. I've noticed that I almost step on snakes a lot. Of all the places, they have to sun themselves right in the middle of the trail. I knew it wasn't any threat to me, so I took his picture then watched him slither back into the brush.
Much of the climb up to Camel Gap was monotonous until the it leaves creek and swings to the northeast. At one point, the trees make room for mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron and an open view to the green and blue wall that is Balsam Mountain. Luftee Knob stands front and center along a ridge that extends over to TriCorner Knob and the towering Mount Guyot, both just in sight. It was nice to finally reach the AT at Camel Gap because it meant I was on a maintained trail, break from all the grasses, nettles, and other junk most of the way up. From here to Cosby Knob, the trail follows much of the ridgecrest covered in ferns. I was impressed by the long and dense patches of false solomon's seal still blooming. They were more abundant here and with bigger blooms compared to what I had come across elsewhere in the park.
After a quick lunch at the Cosby Knob Shelter, it would be all downhill the rest of the way. I completed the loop when I reached Low Gap and began my descent down to Cosby. Things got real interesting about a mile down, when I rounded a corner and came face to face with two yearling bears. At the onset of me, one of sprinted uphill and out of sight. The other one didn't move, his eyes fixated on me. Reaching for my camera was the furthest thing from my mind. I began the process of going through all the steps one should take to stave off a bear. I began yelling, clapping, waving my arms, standing tall to give an impression of dominance. The fuzzy bear did nothing but remain on the trail. Thankfully, on Low Gap Trail, there are a lot of rocks lying around, so I grabbed several and started throwing them close to but not at the bear. I wanted to spook him away, not aggravate him. He didn't budge, so I threw closer. Still nothing. So I said what the heck, maybe he needs a few shots to get the hint. One rock hit him in the side, then a second, and a third right on his forehead. The silly thing didn't even flinch. I began to laugh, and I'm sure he already was. The next item I could use in my arsenal was my backpack, so I took it off and began waving it around in the air combined with more yelling. FINALLY, he trotted up the hill a few feet. He was still close by and watched my every move. I kept my eyes on him as I crab stepped down the trail, holding my pack in one arm like a shield, and in my other hand, a sharp and shiny item that I hope I wouldn't have to use in case he charged. I made it by without a fuss and left him in the dust. I held onto a few rocks the rest of the way down in case I ran into some of his friends. An interesting finish to another great hike in the park.
Thus comes the end of May. It has been a month that exceeded my every expectation. And now comes June, when the mountain laurel, flame azalea, and rhododendron kick into high gear. I'm looking forward to some great hikes, expanding my horizons deeper into North Carolina, all leading up to the culmination at Gregory Bald. Until next time, Happy Memorial Day to all!