Archive | September, 2014

Autumn Trip Tips Part 1: Parkway Passages

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Sometimes when it comes to trip planning, we can’t see the forest for the trees: Sorting through the endless seasonal options of entertainment, recreation and tours is so daunting we can’t even decide on a destination. Our biggest challenge comes before we take the first step out our front door. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Whether you want to live like a local or act like a tourist, here are helpful hints and tips to get you jump-started on your autumn adventures and outings. Plan wisely, invite some friends and enjoy the season!

More than 12 million visitors travel the Blue Ridge Parkway each year. However, I’m always surprised to find that most of my local pals have never visited the Blue Ridge Destination Center. The multi-agency information center might be one of the best regional travel resources in our area.

The LEED Gold certified building includes a tree-house design that appears to float above its natural mountain landscape. The facility showcases green building and sustainable design, including a living roof, natural ventilation and a variety of passive solar strategies. Inside, the center features exhibits, videos, an information center, seasonal displays and other valuable information to assist travelers along their parkway experience.

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Check out the 22-foot, multi-media I-Wall that allows guests to navigate the parkway and interactively experience places along the parkway. And be sure to stop by and talk with the staff at the Blue Ridge Natural Area Visitor’s Center to learn more about the region’s natural and cultural history. Children and adults will enjoy the 70-seat theater, which is currently featuring the 24-minute film entitled The Blue Ridge Parkway—America’s Favorite Journey.

The Blue Ridge Destination Center at BRP milepost 384 is a “go-to” stop whether you’re touring the entire 469 miles of the parkway or are en route to Craggy Gardens for a late-afternoon picnic.

 

Autumn starts early in the high country along Bass Lake, Milepost 295 - photo by Carson Cox

Autumn starts early in the high country along Bass Lake,   BRP Milepost 294 – photo by Carson Cox

 

 

Next up: fall color hotlines and reports.

Early fall leaf-looker’s ramble: Fresh air options include a stroll around the Federal Energy and Water Management’s award-winning facility, or take a 1.2-mile circuit hike along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from the Visitors Center parking lot.
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An Otter by any other Name

River otters

River otters

Following our furry thread from last post we will discuss another semi-aquatic quadruped occasionally encountered along the French Broad. The river otter, Lontra canadensis, formerly Lutra canadensis, is a sleek muscular creature well adapted to its aquatic lifestyle. Adult river otters grow to 40 – 55 inches in total length. A third of this is usually tail. The tail is thick at the base and tapers to a point at the end (not the flat paddle-tail of the beaver) and helps propel the otter through the water. They can range from around 10 to 30 pounds with average weight being between 15 and 20 pounds. The feet are fully webbed and its thick fur provides insulation and efficiently sheds water.

They are streamline – the thick neck is as wide as the head. The otter’s eyes and small round ears are set high on its head so it can cruise rivers, lakes and streams and still see and hear. Maybe, especially hear, as the river otter is pretty nearsighted. People in boats often think otters quite bold because they approach so closely but it’s more likely a result of their poor vision. But under water their nearsightedness becomes an attribute as it allows them to see better, particularly in murky water. A nictitating membrane covers the eye allowing them to keep their eyes open under water. River otters also have extremely sensitive whiskers on their muzzle called vibrissae, which are sensitive to vibration and touch. Add to that dexterous and sensitive paws and it’s easy to see that the river otter is quite adapted for its submerged foraging.

The river otter, like the beaver, had been extirpated from North Carolina by the 1930s due to hunting and/or trapping. The last documented sighting being in Haywood County in 1936. A reintroduction effort started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park led to the release of 49 river otters between 1990 and 1995. A group was also released in the French Broad in the spring of 1991. The river otter appears to be doing well and increasing in numbers across Western North Carolina. The swift swimming river otter preys on fish and aquatic invertebrates like crayfish, crabs (in the marsh) mussels, frogs and other amphibians and occasionally birds and/or small mammals.

River otter with lunch. NPS photo

River otter with lunch. NPS photo

Even staid scientists are pushed to explain some otter behavior in terms other than play and/or playfulness. These critters create long mud and/or snow slides (depending on environment) and appear to revel in sliding and splashing into the water. They have also been observed playing with sticks and dropping stones into the water, then retrieving them from the bottom.

Should you happen upon a river otter while paddling, swimming, fishing or simply enjoying the French Broad, consider yourself lucky on two fronts. While the river otter is making a comeback, it’s not extremely common, so you are lucky to get a view. Plus, perhaps in a larger sense, river otters are indicators of good water quality – the fact they are in the French Broad attests to the work done to make the French Broad a cleaner, healthier ecosystem.

Next post will be M&M – muskrats and minks!

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Get Outside with Kids

Boating is an adventure all ages can enjoy.

Boating is an adventure all ages can enjoy.

There’s no better time than the crisp days of autumn to explore the outdoors and take in the region’s spectacular show of color. Here’s a quick guide to bona fide adventures within a couple hours radius of Asheville that are fun for kids and adults too.

Hike: Sam Knob

The highest points of North Carolina’s backcountry may seem out-of-reach for young explorers, but the short hike to the 6,050-foot peak of Sam Knob is one an entire family can conquer. This double summit near the Blue Ridge Parkway is an ideal outing to take in colorful fall vistas at the roof of the Pisgah Crest and for snapshots of the Shining Rock Wilderness which was among the original fifty wild areas designated by the Wilderness Act in 1964. The route up has a diverse landscape of lush vegetation, rolling meadows, steep rocky slabs, and two grassy knobs separated by a shallow gap. With few trees to obscure the view, the peak highlights captivating vistas across rows of wild ridges and well-known landmarks, such as Shining Rock Ledge and Devil’s Courthouse. In all, a 2.2 mile round trip.

Getting there: From Asheville, follow the parkway south for 26.5 miles. Just past milepost 420, turn right on Forest Road 816 (Black Balsam Road), and follow to the terminus at the Black Balsam parking area.

Paddle: French Broad River (Hot Springs to Murray Branch Picnic Area)

An ideal canoe float or introduction to whitewater on the French Broad. This portion of section 10 is peppered with easy rapids along a four mile section of the river from the town of Hot Springs to the Murray Branch Picnic Area just upstream of the Tennessee state line. Paddle through a few wave trains and look for great spots to swim.

Getting there: From Hot Springs take U.S. 25/70W across the bridge, turn left at the end of the bridge, then right on SR 1304 for four miles. Reserve a raft from the Hot Springs Rafting Company or contact Bluff Mountain Outfitters to arrange a shuttle.

Mountain Bike: Jackrabbit Mountain – Mountain Biking and Hiking Trails

In 2010 Clay County leaders unveiled a 15-mile playground for fat-tire lovers on a hare- shaped peninsula of land bordered by Lake Chatuge near Hayesville. A great ride for families with kids is the gentle 3.1-mile Central Loop that sprouts a handful of shorter branches — all junctions are well marked with maps and color-coded blazes. Don’t forget to bring a bathing suit for a dip in the lake and keep your eyes peeled for a rope swing near the trail.

Getting There: From Hayesville, take U.S. 64 east to N.C. 175. Head south for 3.4 miles and turn right on Jackrabbit Road. In a half mile, turn left into the trailhead parking lot.

If you’re planning a outing with kids, here’s a list of ten essentials to consider to make your next adventure a grand slam!

 

1. Plenty of water
2. A first aid kit
3. An abundance of healthy snacks and a special treat for the summit
4. A best friend
5. Rain gear
6. The Lorax
7. An extra outfit and a back-up pair of socks and shoes
8. A magnifying glass
9. Patience
10. A back-up plan

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Cider, Pies, Oh My! It’s Apple Season in Asheville

U-Pick Apple Season in Asheville

I know what you’re thinking: You’re jumping the gun, Maggie. It certainly doesn’t feel like fall outside, and the calendar shows there’s still some summer left. Just enjoy the lingering heat, and let’s talk apples later.

I’m not any more ready for winter to be here than you are. But, I don’t want you to miss a minute of the excitement of apple season in Asheville, which has already begun. In fact, the best time to pick apples in the area is upon us, and tickets for one of our biggest apple-related events go on sale soon. Here’s the scoop:

Prime Time for U-Pick

U-pick orchards offer you the chance to head into their fields and harvest apples yourself. While open from late summer through early November, there’s a sweet spot in their u-pick season: mid-September to mid-October. The majority of varieties ripen during this time, and trees are full of apples. Wait until Halloween, and they’ll already be picked clean.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be any apples available then. Most u-picks offer apples already harvested—by the bushel, peck, or pound—through November. Of course, you can purchase their already-picked apples now, too. Many orchards also offer fresh cider, fried apple pies, and other apple specialties.

The majority of u-pick apple orchards in our area are located near Hendersonville, although there are a few in Buncombe and other WNC counties. But you don’t have to leave Asheville to find local apples. Many growers bring their fruit and value-added products to in-town farmers markets, and some supply Asheville Appalachian Grown™ (AG) partner grocery stores.

Browse AG u-picks, farmers markets, farm stands, and groceries via ASAP’s online Local Food Guide at appalachiangrown.org. Note: ASAP’s Farm Tour takes place during the height of u-pick apple season, September 20-21, and will feature Hendersonville apple grower Justus Orchard. Get details and tickets at asapconnections.org.

Hard Cider Headlines

Urban Orchard Cider Company brings Hendersonville’s apples to the French Broad River Corridor via their local hard cider. The bar and eatery near the River Arts District recently started serving breakfast, daily beginning at 9 am; learn more at urbanorchardcider.com.

They’ll be participating, along with numerous other local and regional cideries, in the second CiderFest NC slated for November 2. Last year’s cider-centric event sold out fast, so organizer WNC Green Building Council (WNCGBC) will move this year’s fest to a larger venue: the WNC Farmers Market. Despite the extra space, it’s still expected to sell out. Be sure to get your tickets as soon as they go on sale September 15 at ciderfestnc.com. All proceeds benefit the WNCGBC.

For more on Asheville’s food scene, browse our Food, Drink, Fun section of the guide!

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