We are sharing tales from the MST as hikers are pursuing the 40 Hike Challenge.
Fun fact: Moses H. Cone Memorial Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway contains 25-miles of old carriage trails. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail follows the carriage trails for a little over 7 miles!
When I stashed my bike in the woods early this morning on my way to work, I gave it a little wink and said, “I’ll see you later this evening. Don’t go anywhere until I get back.”
I have been driving past the trailhead on Shulls Mill Road at least twice a day for the last few months and every time as I pass the trailhead I think to myself, “I need to get out for a hike.” So, I figure today is just as good a day as any to do just that.
As I shoulder my camera bag and set off from the small trailhead on Shulls Mill, there are only two other cars in the parking area. I assume that those folks have headed the other direction on the MST (as most people do) towards the bridge over Boone Fork Creek. The majestic maple trees that line Shulls Mill Road through here always seem so regal to me. I love driving past them in the fall when they are in the full colors of autumn.
I quickly cross the road and climb the stairs to leave Shulls Mill and the maple trees behind. The late afternoon sun is filtering through the forest canopy as the trail immediately begins climbing up toward the carriage trails on Rich Mountain. The trail gains 500 feet in the first half mile and I know this will be the only climbing I do today. I make short work of the climb and am soon crossing over the stile to reach the carriage trail. From here, the rest of the hike will be a leisurely stroll along an old path. And, I mean old! Moses Cone and his wife designed and built their summer estate, Flat Top Manor, in the late 1890s. They incorporated the carriage trails not long after. I can’t help but think about the history these trails have seen.
There is an opening in the trees and I stop to capture an image of Grandfather Mountain to the southwest. The summit is hidden by clouds (as it often is in the afternoon this time of year), but I’m hoping they clear out in time for sunset. I don’t even notice a jogger approaching and she gives me a slight startle as she passes me on her way back from the summit of Rich Mountain. I need to hike to the top of Rich Mountain sometime. In all of the years that I’ve lived in this area, it is one of the few hikes I haven’t done.
An open meadow is filled with wildflowers and blackberry bushes. I pause to snack on the wild blackberries that line the trail before beginning the long descent towards Trout Lake. There is another walker with his dog a few switchbacks above me and we both move along in silence, enjoying the last of the afternoon light as it dances across the trail. A family is sitting beside Trout Lake. One of the children is tossing pebbles into the water. He turns to watch me as I pick up a flat rock and skip it across the water without breaking my stride. The boy grins at me and I give him a smile and a nod before I’m back into the trees and out of sight.
Glancing at my watch I realize that I need to quicken my pace if I hope to catch the sunset at the meadow near the tunnel. I stop long enough to admire the Turks Cap Lily that is growing beside the trail. It is as tall as I am! Beyond it is a fence and the meadow with a few cows grazing. The trees give way and I soon reach the right turn to go through the tunnel beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway and on towards Cone Manor. Instead of turning right, though, I turn left and walk 40 yards up the hill (Pro Tip: if you ever do this hike make sure you take the time to walk up the hill- you won’t be disappointed!). As I clear the treeline below, I’m pleased to see that the clouds have lifted off of Grandfather Mountain. And, I am just in time to catch the sunset! The view is spectacular- open meadows, rolling hills, and my old friend- Grandfather Mountain standing proud on the horizon. It has been seven years since I’ve hiked this stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and it is just as I remembered- Perfect.
Through the tunnel and past the old Carriage House, I walk up to Flat Top Manor and take a seat on the front steps. The once luxurious summer house of Moses Cone now holds the Parkway Craft Center, which is closed for the evening so I have the place to myself. I don’t rest long before I head back over to the woods to find my bike just where I left it early this morning. Thankfully, it’s all downhill back to my van on Shulls Mill Road.