Hike 2: Gobbler’s Trace Trail

Well, my second hike was supposed to be at Shawnee Lookout, but I decided to stick closer to home because of weather and, well, because I just love being able to hike so close to home. Besides, I have a couple of little nooks and crannies to explore before I run out of new things to see at Big Bone Lick SP.

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For the last year, every time I’ve hiked Big Bone I’ve planned my hikes to avoid this steep, slippery hill. But, like any other bully, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be once I finally just climbed it.

There was a gap between my first and second hike because of weather, but the little bit of snow and ice leftover was mostly gone by the time I hit the trail. What was left in its place was ankle-deep mud. I spent a few minutes bemoaning this fact before I realized that this mud is going to be my constant companion until July, and then I just jumped in.

Even though the snow was gone, it was still freaking cold a couple of weekends ago. I stayed warm enough while I was hiking but when I stopped to change tanks I felt the cold through my sweat-frozen headband.

Usually when I hike Big Bone, I take an access road to the bison pen and then take the Cedar Run Trail up the hill to Gobbler’s Trace and back down to the parking lot. This route starts out relatively flat, but takes you up a moderate, yet long, hill before you reach the crest and take a shorter, steeper route back down.

stand off

There was an intense standoff between Emme and a doe on the trail ahead of us. Fortunately, Emme didn’t try too hard to take off after her and drag me down the trail. 

I went into this hike planning to hit all four trails in the park: Big Bone Creek, Gobbler’s Trace, Cedar Run and Coralberry Trails, starting with the shorter, steeper hill at the Gobbler’s Trace trail head. This way, I had the worst of the hike over at the beginning. The rest would be minor ups and downs through the woods.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t complete all the trails. Did I mention it was cold? It was really cold, about 20 degrees, and windy. It was muddy – really muddy. I would have thought the ground would be more frozen from our January cold snap, but the sun was so warm it thawed everything, even in denser parts of the woods. We were ankle-deep in mud for the entire hike. When it started to snow, I decided I would cut the hike short and head back to the car.

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That blood spot and the prick in the middle of it is from a giant thorn – on a TREE! 

Even though this hike was abbreviated, I still feel fantastic about it. I faced that big, honking hill I’ve been afraid of since my lungs broke, and conquered it with nothing but a very bruised knuckle. When there’s a gigantic tree down across the trail, look out for the giant tree thorns when you’re climbing off-trail. If you don’t, they’ll dig into your knuckle down to the bone.

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Out with a bang

So I originally wrote this post in August, the week following this doomed hike. But I wrote it at work (on my lunch break, of course), and emailed it to myself to post – or at least I thought I did. I don’t know where the email went; I don’t know where the document went. Either I dreamed writing it or it vanished without a trace. So I got annoyed, and then got busy and I’m just getting around to telling this story.

Wrapping up my hiking season

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My best hike last year was a 5-mile trek at East Fork Lake SP. It wasn’t much of an elevation gain, but it has been the greatest distance I’ve had post-busted lungs.

Last summer, my hiking adventure hit its peak with the East Fork Perimeter Trail, the day I beat out five miles for the first time since my lungs were declared busted. I didn’t dwell much on how accomplished I felt in my blog post, but I did go on a rant on Instagram that day. I felt fantastic.

The next weekend wasn’t quite the same. I picked two hikes out of “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles”: Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park and Kincaid Lake State Park. I wanted to top my distance from the week before, and I thought two, three-mile hikes would do that, and give me a good rest in between to help me make the distance. It was a great plan.

How to not hike a battlefield

Blue Licks is about two hours south of Cincinnati – about 20 miles from Maysville, Ky. – and it was about an hour and a half from where I was living at the time. Kincaid Lake, near Falmouth, Ky., is about an hour south of Cincinnati. My plan was to leave early and time my hikes so I finished before the heat of midday. Last summer was pretty moderate when it came to heat and humidity, but summer had caught up with us by the time I took this hike.

Well, I screwed myself over. I’m notorious for being late for everything, and I was late getting up, late getting out, and late getting started. When I finally got to Blue Licks, it was a reenactment weekend. (Note: If you’re planning to hike a battlefield, check the schedule, especially in the summer.) This particular location is the spot of the “last battle of the American Revolution,” according to the “60 Hikes” book. For someone like me who likes history and hiking, this park could have been a jackpot. But I pulled in and turned right back around. There was little to no parking and I didn’t feel like exposing my breathless hiking to hordes of people.

By this time we’d been in the car about an hour and a half, and lost our first hike. Emme was about as upset as I was, and she made it plain with her whimpering and whining out the back window as we pulled away from the park.

Who needs water?

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Because I’m brilliant, I forgot to bring water on the trail on a hot, humid day. I would normally let my dog drink from the creek, but this one looked disgustingly stagnant.

Even though I’ve forgotten some of the details of this hike, I specifically remember packing water. However, it wasn’t to be found. Halfway through, Emme started whining and looking at my backpack – where she knows the water and treats come from – and I was holding my hands up in the symbol she recognizes as “all gone.” She’d whimper and put her nose back to the ground.

The trail does follow a creek for a while, but it was mostly dry. Where there was water, it was covered with algae and flies. I didn’t want to deal with a sick dog on the way home, so I steered the hound away from that.

Let’s talk terrain 

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I’m ranking this trail a five based on my prior experience. It really isn’t that rugged of a trail, but it has a long, gradual incline that my lungs just didn’t know how to deal with.

For a normal person, this would be easy/moderate. You’re basically hiking down and then back over and around a couple of ridges. Nothing too major. The only people I saw were four women hiking out from the campground. One of them was carrying a Victoria’s Secret bag, and none of them had broken a sweat, if that tells you how easy this trail is for non-broken people. They looked at me funny and cooed over my dog when they passed, the normal response I get when I hike alone. I get it. What young person wears oxygen and what idiot who wears oxygen enjoys hiking?

I had one problem with this hike: inclines. My pack is usually 15-25 pounds, depending on how much water and oxygen I’m carrying. Metal cans containing compressed air are freaking heavy, man. The hills, while not steep, were long. The trail slipped around the hills, making the incline longer instead of steeper. Flotsam and Jetsam (my lungs) don’t like long inclines.

I threw a trail tantrum

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Despite my best efforts to dehydrate my dog, she just kept trotting along, leaving no leaf unsniffed.

I was hot, tired, thirsty and gasping for air. My dog was wimpering for water and I felt like the biggest jerk for forgetting it in the car. There was nowhere to sit – no benches, no downed trees, no nothing – so I flopped down in the middle of the trail, in the middle of the hill, and seriously considered going back. But I had to go uphill either way I went, so I decided to keep going.

My rest didn’t last long. Black flies were out in swarms. I think I even saw a buzzard circling over my head. I flopped down, but I couldn’t stop moving because when I did, the cloud of flies around me landed on all of my limbs. My rest probably lasted a couple of minutes before the flies chased me onward.

The rest of the trail was miserable. I may or may not have let a tear or two fall. It was pretty much all uphill back to the car. I don’t have a fond memory of this place, but that’s not the trail or the park’s fault. I gasped through an entire tank of oxygen on the second half of the trail – about a mile. I typically use about a half a tank for that distance and terrain.

Usually, when I complete a trail that was difficult for me, I get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment – a huge rush of endorphins that makes me feel like I could climb Everest without oxygen.

I didn’t get that feeling this time.

I was irritated with myself for getting so upset and half-killing my poor dog. Determination, not self-pity, would have made that hill a lot less intimidating. But instead of kicking myself in the butt and going on, I beat myself. That was the last hike I attempted until October, and I haven’t tried anything so ambitious again.

It’s time to change that. I can guarantee you I’ll be hitting this one again very soon, just to prove it’s not the boss of me.

1 hike down. 51 to go.

52 Hike Logo

For more information, visit 52hikechallenge.com.

It’s only January 3 and I already have one hike under my belt! Go me! Last night I packed up some oxygen and dug out my neglected hiking shoes. This morning, I pulled on some layers and set off just past dawn for my first hike of the year. And boy, let me tell you, it felt good. There is something about getting the old lungs blown out to make them feel better.

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Hike one of the 52 Hike Challenge was a half frozen one around Big Bone Lick SP’s sulfur springs and creeks.

My choice for my first hike was my favorite local park: Big Bone Lick State Park near Union, Ky. I’ve blogged about this park about 47 times in the last year, so I won’t drone on about it again here.

I am getting over a cold, so I started out taking the pansy trail, a.k.a. the Discovery Trail, a mile-long paved trail that loops through sulfur springs and bogs. It’s pretty flat and anyone who can walk, or even uses wheels to get around, for that matter, can do it.

Along the way are boards with park history printed on them so people can learn about the history of the area. (Spoiler: Lewis and Clark had a big bone dig, old-timey spas popped up around the salt and sulfur springs, and, finally, someone operated a salt mine before the spot became a park.)

Except for the sour-rotten egg smell around the sulfur springs, I felt better and better as we walked this easy-peasy trail. So, we veered off the paved Discovery Trail and took the Buffalo Trace Trail, about a half mile of trail that connects the Discovery Trail to a park access road behind the bison pen. The trail meanders along Big Bone Creek, following an old bison migration path still etched in the earth. The bison would come down from Indiana, load up on salt, and head back north. Even though the wild bison are long gone, the buffalo clover on the trail remains.

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The Buffalo Trace Trail is pretty easy – even for me. I’m rating it a two only for the tiny baby hill to get out of it.

This was the first time I took the Buffalo Trace Trail, and it was super-de-duper easy as well. I don’t know if wheels could make it, but anyone who can walk should be able to do it. It isn’t paved, but it’s flat and wide, and any roots crossing the path are small and mostly buried. Added bonus: We were so close to the creek that we could hear it running over rocks when my feet weren’t crunching the frozen buffalo clover lining the trail. I give this trail a two on the Gus Scale; it was just that easy.

Once you exit the woods, there will be a paved road. To the right is a park residence, but to the left the parking lot and museum are at the end of the road, just up a slight incline. Now, I say slight, but it was long, and enough to get me winded. But, you have an incline to get back up to get off the Discovery Trail as well, so pick your poison.

When you’re going up the hill, there will be a gravel drive open up to the right. You can take this to see the bison; they usually graze on this side of the pen in the early morning. If you take this route follow the trail out to the bench, and then you can veer left to keep hiking along the fence line and onto the more wooded trails, or you can almost double back and take the trail through the trees. This will take you right back to the parking lot.

I can’t come to Big Bone without a visit to the bison, so I took Emme and headed around the bison pen, but they were nowhere to be found. They had more sense than me and were probably snug in a barn somewhere.

Next weekend, I think I’ll tackle the trails through the woods and see if I can pound out a few miles over some (pretty small) hills. Even though I’m not sure I am quite ready for it, the Hocking Hills Winter Hike is Jan. 16. It’s a pretty rugged six mile hike from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave. For the event, a shuttle will bring you back to Old Man’s Cave, instead of having to hike the six miles back. The fact that I’m unsure if I can do it makes me want to prove myself wrong. We’ll see.

One hike down. 51 hikes to go.

East Fork State Park

Featured image: This freeze frame from a GoPro video is of one of the trails that cross the bridle trails in East Fork State Park near Batavia, Ohio. The park has 46 miles of uncrowded, backcountry trails – not including bridle and bike trails –  ripe for the hiking. 

The first time I announced I was going to East Fork Lake State Park in Clermont County, Ohio, the response I got was a look of bewilderment.

“Ew. Why?” was the question that went with the look.

What I didn’t know before my first visit some five or six years ago is that the lake the park is named for is known for being kind of gross. It’s one of those man-made lakes that was created to help curtail flooding. The dam was built and the lake filled – covering everything left behind in water, including buildings, bridges and whatever else trash was left behind.

The gross part is the lake issues warnings periodically because of a toxin created by algae in the water. Some level is safe, but as recently as last summer park officials had to issue a warning for people who are very young, very old or have compromised immune systems to stay out of the water.  Nevertheless, the beach stays busy but not overcrowded, there is a new bathhouse (that actually has doors) and a boat ramp. Oh, yeah, there’s also 46 miles of backcountry trails, and miles of bridle and biking trails that allow hiking. For all these miles of trails, I can deal with a dirty lake, moss-covered ponds and and random, rusted-out hot water heaters tossed out on a trail.

I probably make this park sound much worse than it really is. For the record, the first time I went to the park, I went only to the beach, played in the water and didn’t die. I’d never do it again, but that’s because I have a “compromised immune system” – a.k.a. I take drugs to beat down my immune system so it doesn’t kill me. So even if there is no health warning posted, you won’t find me dipping a single toe in that water. Now, if I could just keep my dog from drinking from stagnant pools – and then subsequently yakking everywhere – I’d be in business.

What trailheads?

The second time I went to this park was earlier this summer. Lacey and I headed out one Sunday afternoon with the intention of logging some miles. We got to the park and an hour or so later, we actually got on a trail. Which brings me to my only real complaint about this park: It’s next to impossible to find a trailhead.

If you enter the park from the State Route 125 side and stop at the Visitor’s Center, there is a kiosk outside chock full of completely useless maps. Roads aren’t named, they’re numbered. But matching up the road you’re on with the road on the map is nearly impossible.  The only trail that was easy to find is the backpacker trail. It’s on the right, just past the visitor’s center. Parking is to the left, just past the putrid pond. The trailhead in the parking lot is the start of the mountain bike trail, which also allows hiking.

Part of our problem was that the trail rating on the map listed the backpacker trail as moderate/rugged and I wasn’t feeling particularly rugged that day. So instead of just hiking the trail we could find, we spent an hour trying to find the trailhead for one of the shorter, easier trails, which we never found. But we did find the trailhead for the bridle trails on the State Route 32 side of the park, and hiked about four miles on them.

Bridle Trails

For anyone else, I'd rate the bridle trails as easy, but they can border on moderate with busted lungs. The trails are almost flat and have few obstacles in the way.

For anyone else, I’d rate the bridle trails as easy, but they can border on moderate with busted lungs. The trails are almost flat and have few obstacles in the way.

There are one or two obvious problems with bridle trails: Horse patties and trail damage. Couple that with the wet summer we’ve had and if you’re not picking around one you’re picking around the other. Even still, there was usually enough room to walk around or pick up a spur to the side of the trail to bypass the mess.

This is another freeze frame from a video, so please excuse the quality of the image. But you can see the kind of trail damage you'll cross on the bridle trails.

This is another freeze frame from a video, so please excuse the quality of the image. But you can see the kind of trail damage you’ll cross on the bridle trails.

These trails were almost completely flat. If you’re looking for a good trail and you want a quiet walk without having to go up and down a bunch of hills or climb over fallen logs, take a tour of the bridle trails. We passed a couple of riding parties, but that was about it. There are several trails that intersect with the main bridle trail, so if you get bored with what you’re seeing, just take a side trail. We took several, I can’t even remember which blazes we followed, but none of them disappointed.

Backpacker Trail

A step up on intensity from the bridle trails, the Perimeter Trail would still be fairly easy for a normal person. The hills aren't difficult but there are roots, rocks and fallen trees to navigate along the way.

A step up on intensity from the bridle trails, the Perimeter Trail borders on rugged for the busted lung club. The hills aren’t very difficult but they are frequent, and there are roots, rocks, creeks and fallen trees to navigate along the way.

The third time I went to this park was about a week ago. I was coming off a couple of weeks of zero days and out to prove a point. My goal at the beginning of the summer was to be able to hike eight miles – my pre-diagnosis best for a weekend day hike – and I was determined to make it. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it.)

This is a freeze frame from a GoPro video, so please excuse the image quality. But this is a piece of one of the  trails that cross the bridle trails at East Fork. This is what most of the trails I've seen look like.

This is a freeze frame from a GoPro video, so please excuse the image quality. But this is a piece of one of the trails that cross the bridle trails at East Fork. This is what most of the trails I’ve seen look like.

Lacey and I hit the park, and this time I didn’t let the moderate/rugged tag scare me. In fact, we were about a mile and a half in when I declared that the trail wasn’t that bad – and it wasn’t, really.

If you park at the lot behind the putrid pond and then walk back out across the road, you’ll find the Steve Newman Worldwalker Perimeter Trail. This 32-mile trail circles the park and has four primitive camping sites along the way. I’m not so sure the campers who used the spots believed in packing out their trash, because it was partially bagged and left in the fire pit. I guess at least it wasn’t strewn about the site?

The trail winds around and over some smallish hills, through some narrow, mostly dry creeks, and over some fallen trees. It isn’t nearly as easy as what we walked on the bridle trails, but even I still wouldn’t consider it rugged. We hiked out about 2.5 miles before my lungs started betraying me and we turned back. Our total for the afternoon was 5.1 miles, and even though that’s not a lot, it ain’t too shabby for some busted lungs.

Big Bone Lick SP

Featured image: My favorite thing about Big Bone Lick SP is the bison herd. 

Big Bone Lick SP gets a four on the Gus Scale. The trails are easy to moderate, with a couple of hills in between.

Big Bone Lick SP gets a four on the Gus Scale. The trails are easy to moderate, with a couple of hills in between.

If I don’t get out to Big Bone Lick State Park near Union, Kentucky, at least once a month, I get an itch. Maybe it’s the cute baby bison, maybe it’s the way I can loop around the park 700 different ways depending on my mood. Maybe it’s the light traffic that I – and my dog – both like. Or maybe it’s the lake that we stop at about halfway through the hike. Whatever it is, I haven’t found many trails I enjoy as much as this one that are still close to home.

My favorite route to take at this park is by starting down the access road past the museum. The marked trail head is right next to the parking lot and takes you to basically the same place, but you don’t get to go by the entire bison pen. I like my way better because it takes you along the entire bison pen. If you take the trailhead, you may miss the herd because it brings you out to about the middle of the pen.

From the access road, take the first left slightly up a hill and soon you’ll see a fence to the right. You’ll recognize it as the bison pen from the signs every 10 feet reminding you that bison are dangerous – a fact that people in parks across the country always seem to forget. Granted, the bison don’t run wild here like they do in Yellowstone. They remind me more of a pet cow than a wild animal, but I know that if they really wanted to, they could charge that fence and it wouldn’t stand a chance.

Once you get down the access road and follow the curve to the left, the trail runs along the side of the bison pen.

Once you get down the access road and follow the curve to the left, the trail runs along the side of the bison pen.

Once you reach the fence, just keep following it. You’ll reach the point where the trail from the parking lot dumps out, follow a bend to the left and go straight for a bit. Once you get toward the end of the bison pen, the Cedar Run trail will take a left up a hill. Up to this point, the trail would have been fairly easy with a smooth, relatively flat trail. Here’s where the hiking begins.

The "lake" is more like a big pond.

The “lake” is more like a big pond.

But the lake makes a great place to stop and force your dog to get her picture!

But the lake makes a great place to stop and force your dog to get her picture!

I’m not going to go over every step of this trail. Instead, I’m just going to point out a couple of trouble spots for me:

  • Cobwebs. There are a lot of them once you get in the woods. And ticks. I pull three or four off my dog every stinking time we are at this park.
  • The hill leading from the bison pen isn’t particularly steep, but it is long. It took me three or four hikes to be able to get up it without having to stop for breath.
  • When that hill ends, Cedar Run intersects with Gobbler’s Trace Trail. If you go left, you’ll keep going uphill for a while until you finally start going down a long, mildly steep hill. If you hike this in the rain/after it’s been raining and/or with a dog, be prepared to ski. You can catch Gobbler’s Trace from the parking lot and head up that hill, but I don’t. That hill is killer.
  • If you take a right on Gobbler’s Trace, the trail levels off a bit, but you’ll still be going up and down some moderate hills.
  • When you reach the campground, Gobbler’s Trace ends. You need to keep walking straight to find the trailhead for Coralberry Trail. There may be someone camped in front of it, but it’s across from the dumpster and there is a sign. (I had trouble finding it the first time because there was a tent in the way.
  • Coralberry Trail takes you around the lake. There may be some people fishing there or a trail runner or two acting crazy (running through the woods is nuts to me). There are benches around the lake and it’s a great place to stop and sit a spell.
  • There are trails that go down the hill on either side of the lake. If you are facing the lake, I take the one to the right because it is more direct. They both lead to a small parking lot at the bottom of the hill. This is a great cheater way if you don’t want/have the juice to trek back through the woods. Once you get to the bottom of the hill, you take a left and follow the road straight back to the museum. It’s an easy walk.
Since all the big bones are long gone from the park, they have displays like this along the discovery trail. I'm not sure if this part is to teach people or scare them?

Since all the big bones are long gone from the park, they have displays like this along the discovery trail. I’m not sure if this part is to teach people or gross them out?

If you’re looking for something easier or just to add on some miles, there is a paved loop trail that goes out from the back side of the Museum/Visitor’s Center called the Discovery Trail. The trail takes you back through the park’s history and has informational signs along the way. You’ll also pass through sulfur springs, so bring a clothespin for your nose.

I just love these kids - but the younger two weren't as impressed with hiking as I wanted them to be. From left: Mandy, Ella and little Olivia.

I just love these kids – but the younger two weren’t as impressed with hiking as I wanted them to be. From left: Mandy, Ella and little Olivia.

Gus Scale: Old Man’s Cave

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Hocking Hills State Park’s trails can be rather rugged, but there are still some suitable for members of the busted lung club. One of those is a short, out-and-back trail to Old Man’s Cave.

The Old Man's Cave Trail gets a two on The Gus Scale, but only for the steps to get in and out of the gorge. Other than that it's a walk in the park!

The Old Man’s Cave Trail gets a two on The Gus Scale, but only for the steps to get in and out of the gorge. Other than that it’s a walk in the park!

Hocking Hills is one of my favorite places to go in Ohio. This state park in south-central Ohio is full of all the outdoors you can take – but it can get a bit rugged out there, especially when you’re operating at less than full lung capacity. But fear not! There are still some things you can do, even if you aren’t able to get out to hike the full Buckeye Trail.

Old Man’s Cave is a short, easy one-mile hike from the visitor’s center. The cave is named after a hermit who lived there with his two dogs in the 1860s. You can take the trailhead that comes down behind the visitor’s center, and all the stairs that go with it, or you can hop on the trail from the opposite end of the parking lot and pass a couple of pretty little waterfalls on your way out.

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The trail follows a creek through the base of the gorge.

The downside to this path is there is a bit of a tight spot at the beginning of the trail, just past the waterfalls. There are some steps worn into rocks, and it’s a tight squeeze to get through. It’s wide enough for one person, but things get a little tricky when you have two hounds with you, competing for who’s going to be the leader. It also gets a bit tricky when people try to pass each other on this part of the trail, but it is short enough that you can usually wait to see if there is anyone coming before you start up or down.

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This is the second of two waterfalls you’ll encounter on the trek to Old Man’s Cave.

The trail to Old Man’s Cave is an easy mile – even if you have busted lungs. The trail is wide, and mostly flat because you are following a creek along the gorge. Getting in and out of the gorge is the only strenuous part. And I know this trail is super easy because I did half of it without oxygen (completely by accident, Dr. M! I promise.)

We hiked the mile to Old Man’s Cave and were almost halfway back before I noticed that my oxygen wasn’t puffing anymore. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the tank was full. I thought something was wrong with the gauge or the tank, but it turned out I just hadn’t turned it on when we started our hike.

I’m super smart.

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Meet Stubbs, Emme’s hiking partner. They compete to see who can sniff the most trails, and get the most attention.

But not using oxygen – however unsafe that is when your lungs do not absorb enough oxygen from the air – showed me that my lungs were getting better, and stronger. If I’d had it on the entire time we were hiking I may not have needed to stop to rest at all! It also demonstrated just how easy this hike really is.

For those of you looking for a longer hike, keep going past Old Man’s Cave and take the Buckeye Trail three miles to Cedar Falls. Add another three miles on the trail and you can hike all the way to Ash Cave. Just remember – these aren’t a loop, so if you go seven miles out, you’ve got to come seven miles back!

Wednesday, Bloody Wednesday

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Burnside Bridge, named for the Union general who captured it from Confederate forces during the Battle of Antietam, was one of the last scenes of battle. Topography favored the outnumbered Confederate forces and helped them hold off Union soldiers for several hours.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what if the picture leaves you with no words, just feelings of shock and despair?

In April, I took a quick, weekend trip to DC with Lacey. She was shooting a wedding, and we touristed it up for a day before coming back home. On our way back, we exited the highway looking specifically for a Sheetz travel center – which we did not find – but we did see a sign for Antietam Battlefield. It was close, only about 15 minutes off the highway, so we decided to break up the drive with some sightseeing.

I wasn’t sure which war this battlefield was part of until we got there; years of memorizing places and dates in school just left me with a jumbled set of facts in my head. Thanks to a half-hour video narrated by James Earl Jones, we got a crash course on the bloodiest one day of battle in American history. It was a lesson in just how terrible human beings can be.

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After 12 hours of battle, nearly 23,000 soldiers were either dead, wounded or missing. The kicker with this statistic? That count is approximate.

On September 17, 1862, Union and Confederate troops met at Antietam Creek. After 12 hours of battle, nearly 23,000 soldiers were either dead, wounded or missing. The worst part of this enormous number is that it is approximate. Because the losses were so huge, no one was able to get an accurate count.

Think about that for a minute: So many lives were lost – in less than a day – no completely accurate count exists.

At the time, Lincoln was looking for some kind of decisive victory to give him a wave of support on which to ride while he delivered the Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, the Confederate Army was trying to get a victory of its own – by taking a piece of Northern territory.

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After the battle, photographers captured the first images of the field before the bodies were buried. The images helped show those still at home the horrors of war.

After 12 hours of bloody battle, the Confederate force withdrew to Southern-held Virginia, technically making the battle a Union victory. But no one really won. The Union forces didn’t chase them back to Virginia, they just let them go.

After the battle, photographers came onto the scene and captured the first images of a battlefield before the dead were buried. The Civil War was where photojournalism was born, but no one had seen images like this before. The scenes were haunting: Men and boys, someone’s father or brother or son, still lying on the ground, piled up next to half dug-graves.

Today when you drive through Antietam, it’s hard to imagine it as the site of a terrible battle. The hills are peaceful, broken up by rocks jutting from the ground. These may have given precious little shelter from gunfire to the men and boys fighting around them. Trees cover many of the hills and green grasses wave in the wind, just as I’m sure they did before the first boots landed 153 years ago. By the time the battle was done, the trampled ground was soaked in blood.

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The Dunker Church was one of the focal points of the battle. Afterward, it was used as a temporary field hospital and later an embalming station before it was returned to the congregation.

Even if you don’t have an itch to visit a Civil War battlefield, this is still a nice place to check out if you just want to take in some fresh air and sunshine. The driving tour gives you beautiful landscapes to see, and a network of five trails crossing the battlefield covers about 7.4  miles. I didn’t hike these – my blisters were still howling from walking all over the National Mall. From what I saw of them from the road, they looked like smooth, wide, easy-to-follow trails, but the terrain at Antietam is not flat, so expect some inclines.

Visitors to the Antietam National Battlefield can go inside the Dunker Church. There is parking across the street, or accessible parking to the side of the building.

Visitors to the Antietam National Battlefield can go inside the Dunker Church. There is parking across the street, or accessible parking to the side of the building.

What we did get out of the car for included the Dunker Church, which was one of the focal points of the battle, and was used as a temporary field hospital and later an embalming station before it was restored and returned to the faithful for services until the turn of the century, according to the NPS website.

gus scale

The driving tour gets a zero on the Gus Scale; there is nothing taxing about it. I’d estimate the trails around a three. They seem easy enough, but, again, those hills.

We also stopped at Burnside Bridge, named for the Union general who captured it from Confederate forces during the battle. If you’re allergic to bee stings, send ahead a spotter or take an EpiPen. When we went through there was a horde of bumblebees dancing around one end of the bridge.

Gus Scale: Greeter Falls

Greeter

Greeter Falls is beautiful, but be mindful of the fork in the road. Choosing wrong way could land you on a trail ranked seven out of seven on the Gus Scale.

GusScaleLvl7When we were visiting Foster Falls, we saw a sign for Greeter Falls and decided to check it out. But first, we checked a map. That’s right folks, we learned our lesson not to get into a trail we knew nothing about. Now, if we could just learn to follow the map.

I found Greeter Falls on All Trails, and it was described as a “moderate 1.8 mile hike.” I said that’s doable for the cripple in the group (me – I’m the cripple) so we decided to hit the trail.

It starts out as a fairly level, wide trail. When you come to a fork, you have the option of taking an upper falls trail, or a lower falls trail. Choose carefully, for you may choose your doom.

The upper falls trail is what All Trails calls “moderate.” I can’t dispute this because this isn’t the trail we took. Instead, we took the lower falls trail and proceeded down the precipice toward our second swimming hole of the day. This trail is rugged – very rugged. I ranked this one a seven out of seven on the Gus Scale. Overall, it is comparable to the Foster Falls level of difficulty, but there are some differences to take into consideration.

After taking the fork for Lower Falls, the trail is similar to Foster Falls. You still climb around rocks and pick your way to the bottom of the ravine. When you’re hiking down, I can’t stress enough making sure you have on proper footwear. Even with it on you could roll an ankle – like Karli.

I was several yards back, held up by taking photos and being slow, when Brandon came rushing up asking if I had water. I thought someone had a heat stroke or something. Actually, Karli sprained her ankle, falling and flaying one of her shins on the rocks in the process.

So wearing long pants may not be a bad idea, either.

Did that ankle stop her? No, ma’am, The Beatkeeper also plays roller derby, so she just added the cuts and bruises to her collection and kept on trucking down that hill.

We kept going, all the while knowing that every inch we went down we would have to come back up again. Every so often someone would yell back to me to make sure I wanted to keep going. It’s beautiful and there’s a waterfall at the end of the trail, so I said keep going.

Then we reached the edge of a cliff.

Even though the area is a well-known rock-climbing area, we didn’t have to scale a cliff face to get to the falls. No, we just had to take an aluminum spiral staircase. It’s kind of cool, if you’re not afraid of heights, falling, or open-backed steps.

Well, the waterfall was in sight, so I said, “We’ve come this far. Might as well keep going!”

Then someone shouted back, “Uh, Cassie … there’s more steps?”

Why not? I’m already farther in than I should be. What’s two more flights of steps and a ramp of doom?

We made it down, but the last flight of steps stops at a ramp that is about a 45 degree angle. I didn’t even fool with that, I just clomped down on the rocks and took my chances climbing/crawling over them. And when I say rocks, I mean large rocks, not those little ones you skip stones with.

We got about 10 feet from the ramp of doom, plopped down, and watched some guy jump from about halfway up the falls. I’m definitely not recommending this to anyone – so don’t try so sue me if you break your neck and die trying.

The climb back out was hard on all of us, and my friends are all in reasonable shape. But for me, I felt like I was stopping to catch my breath every 10 feet. Still, it was a great trail and I’d recommend it. Just be prepared, or take the Upper Falls Loop.

Gus Scale: Foster Falls

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

“Super easy hike to the falls which are pretty awesome!” – Sharon Lester, All Trails Reviewer of Foster Falls/Climbers Loop

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

Well, Sharon and I agree on one thing: The waterfall is awesome. This trail is not easy.

Foster Falls is in South Cumberland State Park. To get there, you can either drive to the Fiery Gizzard trailhead or hike the 12.5 mild Fiery Gizzard Trail from Grundy Forest. You can take the two-mile loop or just hike to the falls and back out, the way we did.

I hit up this trail Memorial Day weekend on the Annual Camping Trip of Horrors. At the time, this was the most strenuous trail I had done post lung-damage. Even at full lung capacity, this trail would have been difficult. Still, I’d totally do it again.

To get to the falls, we hiked down a steep gorge. The trail snakes its way over large rocks and around trees. It’s not difficult to find or follow, but it can be difficult to navigate. You need to be coordinated. Clutzes like me need not apply.

Once you get to the bottom, there’s a swinging bridge that spans a creek. Just getting down the trail created some muscle burn for me, so I knew getting back up would be difficult.

We stopped at the falls and played around the water for a while, enjoying watching a black lab play the best fetch game of his life.

And then we began the ascent.

Picking my way down piles of rocks wasn’t too bad. Climbing back up over them was rather difficult. Along the way another hiker was complaining about handicapped parking at the trailhead. I guess she didn’t think people with handicapped placards liked to hike? She looked at me and stopped talking. But hey, I get it. You don’t see someone on oxygen on a hiking trail everyday.

What’s this Road to Nowhere?

Popularly called "The Road to Nowhere," North Carolina Highway 228 construction was halted in the 1970s due to environmental concerns. Residents of the state fought with the Federal Government until 2010 to receive compensation for the unfinished road.

Popularly called “The Road to Nowhere,” North Carolina Highway 228 construction was halted in the 1970s due to environmental concerns. Residents of the state fought with the Federal Government until 2010 to receive compensation for the unfinished road.

In a complete coincidence, I’m bringing you another tale of controversy in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s history. Or maybe it isn’t really a coincidence, its just a throw back to my days of being a newsie. I don’t remember ever actually running around the newsroom screaming, “If it BLEEDS, it LEADS!!!” but knowing me, its entirely within the realm of possibility. Not that I seek out controversy for the sake of it; but it does make for a more interesting plot.

Scene: Another tranquil place in the Smokies. Its late March, around 60 degrees and sunny. Not many birds are out yet, so the only sounds you hear are leaves underfoot and, of course, my breathing. A gentle breeze tickles your arms and makes you grateful for the sun’s warm rays beaming on your scalp. A short walk up a slight incline will take you to the deceptively-long tunnel. I didn’t think there was much to the tunnel, until I was in its belly. Devoid of sunlight, the center of the tunnel swallows any light – including the flashlight on my iPhone that seems so bright when I’m looking for a dropped earring. And remember that gentle breeze? Its turned into a downright cold wind.

I’m visiting Gatlinburg for the second time this year – already more than I’ve been in the last few years. This time around, Mom wanted to go to a quilt show and did not want to go alone. Will I walk around a quilt show with my beloved mother for a nearly-free-for-me trip to Tennessee? Absolutely!

My reward was a day trip into North Carolina the following day. If you go to Bryson City and follow Everett Street out of town, it will dead end eight miles out in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

So, why is there this random road that literally goes nowhere? The answer lies some 50 years ago in the mountains.

The players in this drama are The Aluminum Company of America, who had been building dams in the area to provide power to their plants nearby in Tennessee; the Tennessee Valley Authority, who was concerned about the effects of flooding along the Little Tennessee River; and the United States Department of the Interior, the Big Daddy of the Park Service.

DSC_4164When the Department of the Interior was putting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park together in the 1930s and 40s, it acquired vast tracts of land from Swain County, North Carolina. Part of this tract of land included Highway 288, which connected Bryson City with Deals Gap. This road was left alone – until World War II when growing electricity demands gave someone the bright idea of harnessing the power of the Little Tennessee River. Added bonus: creating a hydroelectric dam would also help produce aluminum for the war effort.

By 1935, when the Tennessee Valley Authority got involved, the Aluminum Company of America was working on the Fontana Dam project. The TVA wanted in on the action, but couldn’t get enough funding to complete the dam until World War II broke out and aluminum was in high demand. Once funding was secured, ALCOA signed their land over to the TVA in exchange for the rights to the output of the dam.

DSC_4141To create the hydroelectric power for the factory, a reservoir would need to be created – present-day Fontana Lake. To accomplish this, 1,311 families, 1,047 graves and over 60 miles of roads had to be relocated – including Highway 288. Four towns – Fontana, Bushnell, Forney and Jusdson – would be covered with water. In exchange, the Department of Interior agreed to create a road – or rather, move Highway 288 – that would allow displaced residents passage to the cemetery on the other side of the lake. This road would also grant access to some of the more remote areas of the Park.

The dam was completed in late November 1944, in time for the closing months of the war. Construction of the new Highway 288 was intermittent until the 1970s when it was halted for good. I’m not entirely clear about what, exactly, the environmental concerns were that halted work 40-odd years ago. I read something about construction releasing toxins from the soil and contaminating water supplies, but that was a comment on a road trip website.

With construction stopped, residents became bitter about what they considered a broken promise and the topic became popular fodder for local politicians. Those who wanted construction to continue said the environmental concerns were exaggerated. Opinions are rampant, even among people with no ties to the region except taking a vacation there once.

DSC_4162It looked like construction could resume after funding was secured for the road in 2000 by a North Carolina Senator, but an environmental study released seven years later said that completing construction would cause too much damage to the area. The controversy reached its end when Swain County agreed to take a cash settlement from the National Park Service in exchange for the road.

Today, the road exists as another testament to the evolution of our national park systems and sacrifices that were made to create our public lands. The Park Service operates a boat in the summer that ferries visitors to the old cemetery and trail heads on the far side of the lake. In winter, lowered lake levels allow hiking in the reservoir basin along the ghost of Highway 288.


I rate my adventures based on oxygen tanks, ranking from one to five based on how taxing the activity is on my pulmonaries.

I rate my adventures based on oxygen tanks, ranking from one to five based on how taxing the activity is on my pulmonaries.

The Gus Scale 

I’m rating this attraction a three because even though its a short hike, there is a slight, extended incline. The road continues past the tunnel and connects to several trails, none of which I explored. There are also opportunities to climb some hills around the tunnel to get to the top.