February 10, 2012
Why a guide to Northwest North Carolina's ski resort cluster that de-emphasizes skiing?
First of all, few weekend skiers can load more than a day of lift tickets and equipment rental onto the same credit card statement. At the same time, all the driving time and gas money for a weekend requires a two-day commitment to fun and excitement of some sort.
Secondly, it seems safe to say that the winter of 2011-12 in the Southeast is looking like it will go down as one of the warmest on record. Those whose plans take them into N.C. ski country when temperatures push 70 and there's nothing on the slopes but a slush 'n' mud combo, might want to find something to do other than sit in a motel room watching a Turner Classics.
The observation Blake Harrison made in a 1967 magazine article about the real lure of skiing sums up the third justification concisely: "Take a roomful of ... healthy glandular people.... Winch them into stretch clothes and pour a couple of drinks into them.... Barring extreme cases of frostbite or anoxia, what do you think they thinking about or liable to do?" There have been no significant changes in human behavior in the 55 years since that article was published. If you don’t ski, you don’t want to leave your soul mate alone with these temptations, so you need to find a way to tag along for the weekend.
Anyone headed into northwest North Carolina in the winter without first paying an attentive visit to the Rays Weather Center website might as well load up with long-term survival gear while they're feeling lucky. Trusty weathercasters on Piedmont TV affiliates aren't allocated enough time to explain how a fast-moving front may make for just a little snippet of precipitation in the lowlands while considerable accumulation may occur just a few miles away.
While Ray's looks into the near future and immediate past of High Country weather are unrivaled, looks into the present can confirm your decision. Even those preparing to set out with a Hummer, supplied with ample muktuk and reassurances from the clerk at the High Country hotel will find it informative to take a look at some of these webcams before launching an expedition.
[Eskimo villagers with their muktuk]
Forget about relying on the webcams positioned right in the middle of the action at the ski resorts. Marketing, marketing, marketing: seems the ski resort webcams are pointed down the barrel of a snow gun so it looks like a gotta-buy-a-lift-ticket blizzard is in process. The most relevant views at what you're getting into are the downtown webcams in Boone, Banner Elk, and Blowing Rock.
If every pop of the refresh button on these webcams brings the same 17-foot drift about where the middle of the road used to be, you may want to reconsider your ski junket. Even if preparations have been thorough and the hotel room deposit is nonrefundable, webcam weather revelations may encourage you to at least toss a couple of bags of Doritos and a jar of salsa in with the muktuk. More importantly, you’ll be reminded to stop at what might be the last gas station you'll find open as you begin your ascent and encounter snow sticking to the road.
For those ascending into the High Country in a car with front-wheel drive but nothing extra-special, the webcam pointed at NC 105 near the Smoketree Lodge can be a provide valuable input for how bad it’s gonna get.
A check of the entertainment calendar in the area's free-at-many-convenience-stores weekly, the Mountain Times will lessen the chances that you sit watching reruns on a motel TV the same night a very cutting edge band is playing at a nightspot in Boone, Banner Elk or Blowing Rock.
Atop the options for the non-skier who has most of a day to kill is the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis. The Mast General Store empire has grown into an eight-store chain that got its start as a "homey retailer" and a reliable source for "traditional and outdoor clothing and gear." There are now stores in such Southeastern culture dishes as Asheville, N.C., Columbia, S.C. and Knoxville, Tenn.
The Mast merchandise selection will bring to mind L. L. Bean. The Valle Crucis flagship store also has Goo Goo Clusters and Chuckles as part of a 500-variety lineup of antique and contemporary candies for those too cheap to buy clothing or household accessories while they're vacationing.
For non-skier who love shopping, the main streets of both Blowing Rock and Boone have interesting antique and boutique shops. For the mall lovers, Shoppes on the Parkway has over 30 brand name outlet stores.
Non-skiers may want to bring along clothing and shoes for an invigorating day hike—especially if the temperatures soar on Day One. Usually, the better the weather for hiking the more disastrous it is for skiing. The Price Lake Trail and the carriage roads at Moses Cone Park would be atop any studied list of winter-friendly day hikes in the area.
[View from one of the Cone Estate trails]
The area also has one of the heaviest concentrations south of the Rust Belt for the outdoor activity that's truly used to combat cabin fever in the northerly parts of the nation: ice skating. Non-skiers may find that a commitment to do a little ice skating just might put them at the very same lodge, come cocktail hour, that the beloved will soon charge into all full of appetites for additional thrills that need to be redirected.
The three ski resort skating rinks seem to all have what it takes for a fun afternoon, but all three also seem to have a thing or two the others don't that should be weighed into rink selection.The rink at Appalachian Ski Mountain's claim to fame is "North Carolina's only Zamboni-maintained ice rink," which may indicate there's a certified Zamboni driver available for photos at some sessions.
[snow machines at work on Beech Mountain]
Sugar Mountain Resort must have the largest (why else would they tout "10,000 square foot" rink on the Web page exactly where Appalachian trumpets its Zamboni?). They also have a 10 a.m. eye-opener session every day of the week.
Non-skiers may also want to consider a recent arrival on the winter sport scene: snow tubing at Hawksnest Resort but be forewarned that the website might indicate: “Due to continued rain and high winds, we will be closed for snow tubing today.”
Sugar Mountain Resort also offers snow tubing, but at a slightly higher elevation.
[Tubing at Sugar Mountain Resort]
Since the non-skier doesn’t have the expenses of ski lift tickets and equipment rental, it might be time to spend that “saved” money on personal pampering. The High Country has some first-rate spa facilities:
At the end of the day’s activities, if you’re looking for a place to eat, check out the “Resources” section of this website.
November 20, 2011
In the 1970s, higher education lured my husband from his high country origins to Wichita, Kan. While he was working on a degree, I ran into a stairway to new cultural and horizons that probably outstripped higher education. I got an opportunity to start and manage an independent bookstore (thanks again, Bruce). Mixing the new friends and interesting acquaintances I made at the bookstore in with my husband's grad school connections, we missed out on the loneliness and social awkwardness that gives rise to homesickness.
But spending holidays with 1,200 miles between us and our families and old friends in western North Carolina was a different matter. We got our financial planning and vacation request forms lined up for a junket home for a week or two at Christmas, which left Thanksgiving as the lonely one.
Fortunately - very fortunately - we weren't alone. Wichita was such a Mecca for employment as well as higher education there were herds and herds of stray dogs thousands of miles from home at Thanksgiving. There were so many that a friend of ours on the faculty at Wichita State was hosting an annual "Stray Dog Dinner" long before we arrived in town. Once we made the guest list, stray dogging it at Thanksgiving gave the holiday new slants that reinvigorated it. Once we got out of the turkey, pumpkin pie and football rut for a few years, we were able to return to it with renewed appreciation for traditional Thanksgiving celebrations. But we've also found it's a good tradition to break with tradition and climb out of the rut when opportunities present themselves.
My tips for making a Stray Dog Thanksgiving out of the backroads tour of the Hot Springs area begin with a destination — The Hot Springs Resort & Spa — that's got the diversions you may need if you can’t get the feeling of guilt about passing on a traditional Thanksgiving out of your mind by focusing on some of the drudge work (celery chopping, potato peeling, cleaning cobwebs out of the ceiling corners for in-law inspections, etc.) that make the celebration exhausting.
The Hot Springs Resort & Spa is within walking distance of downtown Hot Springs and two motels and has eight cabins of its own available for nightly rentals [See "Resources" for contact information]. Hot water from the mineral springs is fed into open air Jacuzzis and there are hourly rates for solitary soaks, two- and three-seaters and a bath house that will accommodate the entire band and a few of the roadies.
The springs for which Hot Springs is named qualify as truly "hot" on NOAA's map of U.S. springs while the only other springs this side of the Mississippi, in Virginia and Georgia, are still in need of additional global warming if they're to hike their official status up from merely "warm."
My next suggestion for a Stray Dog Thanksgiving stems from recollections of one of the pleasures of Stray Dog Thanksgivings in Wichita that lingers most memorably. I have fond recollections of eating a wondrous huge meal that rivaled anything else hitting a table in north Wichita without chopping a single celery stalk in preparation or scraping a single spoonful of cranberry sauce to get it dishwasher ready afterwards. One of my many sweet memories of Stray Dog Thanksgivings is the dismissive waves of the hands — second time as I was putting on my coat — as the host and hostess reassured me that the dinnerware was mostly paper and plastic; they could take care of kitchen cleanup without assistance.
To sashay down the drive to your car with a gourmet Thanksgiving feast under your belt without feeling obliged to file an offer to assist with prep work or cleanup, try the Mountain Magnolia Inn in Hot Springs. The extensive assortment of favorable reviews available online indicate the Mountain Magnolia Inn has pleased young, old, vegetarians, Southern Living and even the travel editor at a newspaper in Vancouver, British Columbia.
While scraping cranberry sauce and gravy residue off used-twice-a-year family china that you're going to break is a major post-Thanksgiving-feast downer, a relaxing stroll is the perfect thing to do. Toss some walking shoes and maybe a pair of shorts or sweatpants in the backseat, and following the feast at the Mountain Magnolia Inn you can stroll down a gravel path and get one of the tamer segments of the otherwise serious business Appalachian Trail.
There’s a hike of 45 to 90 minutes that encompasses the Appalachian Trail’s spin right through the middle of Hot Springs. After the trail gets outside town, it runs along the French Broad River and then takes in a hamstring stretching gain of a 1,000 feet up to a Lovers' Leap cliff overlooking the river.
The Lover’s Leap near Hot Springs is one of at least 872 lovers' leaps in the country (even four in mostly too flat for suicide Nebraska), but there doesn't seem to have been any serious scholarship on the topic since the 1950s and surely the grand total has been increased by strip mines, gravel pits and 50th floor motel room balconies where unrequited love and love denied became too much to bear.
For those intending to throw out the feast along with the football as they take advantage of a breakdown in family obligations that have obliterated the traditional Thanksgiving get-together, there’s a wonderful hiking opportunity just a few miles from Hot Springs that will be all the more wonderful on a balmy November day when they chances of bumping into an untrained dog or noisy Boy Scout troop are minimal.
Max Patch is one of the famous southern Appalachian balds that affords a 360-degree view, from an altitude of more than 4,600 feet, of miles and mountains and forests. There are options for an ascent to the summit of Max Patch for the entire fitness gamut, and time-on-the-trail demands from a 9.5 mile round-tripper that requires 5.5 hours, down to two fairly easy loop trails of less than three miles each.
September 21, 2011
Here are directions to five different routes where you will have good opportunities to see great fall foliage. A barometer to aid in deciding the best time to see the foliage is that the higher elevations usually peak the first week in October and the lower elevations in mid to late October. There are several online sites that give you day-by-day updates on how the leaves are changing.
1. Deep Gap to Trade (the Boone area). From U.S. 421 at Deep Gap, go to the community of Todd. From there, go to Meat Camp and turn onto Meat Camp Road heading toward Elk Knob State Park. At Elk Knob, you might want to take the 4-mile roundtrip hike to the summit. The last hundred yards are difficult because the trail is not yet complete, but on a clear day, you get a 360-degree view that extends for 60 miles. Leave Elk Knob and continue on Meat Camp Road over the mountain into Sutherland Valley. At the end of the valley, head west on N.C. 88 to Trade, Tennessee. Turn left at Trade onto U.S. 421 and head back into Boone. Approximately 90 miles.
2. Marion to Burnsville to Asheville. Take Exit 85 off I-40 at Marion. From U.S. 70, take N.C. 80 toward Lake Tahoma. Continue up the mountain to the intersection with the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can take a 12-mile side trip to Mount Mitchell State Park or continue on N.C. 80 through the Celo valley with the Black Mountains paralleling the South Toe River. At Micaville, turn west and travel on U.S. 19E to Burnsville. From Burnsville, continue on U.S. 19 to I-26/U.S. 19/23 where you head south to Asheville. Approximately 120 miles.
3. Asheville to Hot Springs. From Asheville, take U.S. 25/70 to Hot Springs. Follow Paint Rock Road along the French Broad River to the actual Paint Rock landmark. Continue around Paint Rock to Lower Paint Creek Road. Turn south on Tenn. 70, traveling back into N.C., where the road becomes N.C. 208. Turn south onto N.C. 212, which parallels Big Laurel Creek to the intersection with U.S. 25/70, which will take you back to Asheville. Approximately 120 miles.
4. Franklin to Nantahala Gorge to Wayah Bald. From Franklin, take N.C. 28 through the Cowee Valley, which follows the Little Tennessee River. Turn west onto U.S. 19/74 and follow it through the Nantahala Gorge. At the community of Beechertown, turn south onto Wayah Road, which travels past Nantahala Lake to Wayah Bald. Be sure to take the side trip to the lookout tower on the summit of Wayah Bald. From Wayah Gap, continue on Wayah Road to U.S. 64. Turn east on U.S. 64 to travel back to Franklin. Approximately 150 miles.
5. From Robbinsville to Murphy. From Robbinsville, take N.C. 143 to the Cherohala Skyway. Take the skyway for 43 miles to Tellico Plains, Tennessee. Be sure to fill up your gas tank before going on the skyway because there are no commercial establishments along the way. On the Tennessee side, take the 12-mile round-trip sidetrip to Bald River Falls, which is located right next to the road. In Tellico Plains, turn south onto Tenn. 168 and travel past Coker Creek to Tenn. 123, where you turn east. This road becomes N.C. 294 as it passes Fields of the Wood. Continue to U.S. 64, where you turn east to Murphy. Approximately 110 miles.