A few weeks have passed since the train derailment in East Palestine. Most people are longing for the day when life gets back to normal. Unfortunately, it is starting to look like the old normal is unachievable. The more likely scenario is that we ebb and flow into a new normal.
My oldest daughter is the one in our family to come up with travel wish lists. Due to the parade of politicians in our town and the stress surrounding the train situation, I actually listened to some of her ideas recently.
She wanted to go all the way to the beach for a week. I offered a compromise of halfway to the beach in the mountains of North Carolina. We headed straight south, listening to country music and passing snacks back and forth. Our trip seemed a little like time travel, as we sped into an early spring.
After noticing more green grass in West Virginia, we also started to see a green haze on the weeping willow trees along the highway. Bright yellow forsythia popped up along the freeway as we drove through Virginia. Once we made it to Asheville, North Carolina, we had to choose the first place to explore.
If I had to pinpoint the most iconic mountain picture in North Carolina, it would be Chimney Rock. I had never been to the western half of North Carolina before and put this hike at the top of my bucket list. Located about 25 miles southeast of Asheville, it is a pinnacle feature of the North Carolina State Park system.
We took a very windy route from Asheville to Chimney Rock. I slowed our car down to a crawl around the hairpin turns. I had to laugh when the navigation on my phone called the road a “highway.”
Little did I know, the most interesting part of the route to Chimney Rock was after we crossed the Rocky Broad River in town and drove another two even more exaggerated, curvy miles uphill. With white knuckles gripping my steering wheel, I tried to imagine what it must have been like when the park opened.
Exploration of Chimney Rock by the public was dreamed up by a physician from Missouri at the turn of the 20th century. After a tuberculosis diagnosis, Lucius B. Morse traveled to the more temperate climate of western North Carolina. He fell in love with the area, especially Chimney Rock Mountain.
Before he arrived in the area, a wooden staircase was placed against the rock in 1885. Dr. Morse once paid a man 25 cents to lead him on a donkey up the mountain to the base of the monolith rock. He eventually purchased 64 acres of land for $5000 in 1902. The original tract of land included Chimney Rock.
The Morse family continued to purchase more land bringing the total acreage of their private nature park to around 1000 acres. The Chimney Rock Nature Park opened on the Fourth of July in 1916. A 475-square-foot flag was placed on top of Chimney Rock in front of a thousand visitors. “Old Glory” still waves on top of Chimney Rock today.
Now a state park, the area still offers breathtaking panoramic views of Hickory Nut Gorge from the top of Chimney Rock. An elevator is an option for part of the climb, but we chose to take the 499 steps one way to reach the flag at the very top. I’m still not sure how I managed the climb. I hugged a tree and sat securely in the middle of the fenced area at the pinnacle.
If that wasn’t enough anxiety, we climbed even higher to the Opera House overlook. It was a cave that resembled a small chip on the rock wall overlooking Chimney Rock. I wanted to stay huddled in the safety of the cave forever, but I also realized we had to start the descent on the steps.
In stark contrast to climbing the steps, my favorite trail was the Hickory Nut Falls Trail which led to the bottom of a 404-foot-tall waterfall. It had some elevation changes, but it was a fairly easy 1.5-mile round-trip hike.
I was in heaven looking at the first blooms of spring in North Carolina. Eastern redbud trees were just beginning to bloom at the entrance to the trail. We also saw blossoms of white wild black cherry.
During the waterfall hike and throughout our trip, we kept talking about how much it sounded like spring. The sound of birds chirping and water crashing and flowing at the base of a massive waterfall was magical. Every last hairpin turn was worth it to explore this unique region.
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