Monday, May 12, 2008

Albert Mountain Bound

Despite the unstable weather, I figured it was a good day to take up the challenge – to climb a far tar.

So I leafed through Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers and perused my maps and decided that Albert Mountain tower was the place to go. Before leaving the house, I checked the radar and the satellite weather. They didn't indicate any serious threats, though I knew to prepare for anything.

The closer I got to Standing Indian the more the air was filled with bluster. It was blustery at Winding Stair Gap. It was blustery along the upper reaches of the Nantahala River. I tried to imagine how it would have been around here in the timber era, with a busy sawmill and a steam locomotive chugging up and down along the banks of the river, the same stretch of river I was following to Bearpen Creek.

Starting out on the trail to Albert Mountain, I knew a climb of about 1600 feet awaited me in the next three miles. Not so bad, but it’s been a while since I’ve faced a hike of such strenuosity. I knew, though, that the first part would be the toughest. That after a while, I would reach a point where I would catch my second wind. It was at about that point the trail decided to get steep and to stay steep for a long ways. I was just fine, though.

Bearpen Trail leads to the Albert Mountain tower sitting at 5220 feet, along the Appalachian Trail, and astride the Nantahala and Little Tennessee Divide. That fact alone makes it an auspicious place by my reckoning. But with a journey this nice, I wasn’t obsessed with the destination. The rich, fertile slopes were covered with trillium of different kinds, ferns, violets, moss covered rocks at the crossings of little brooks, moss covered stumps standing like sculptures by the trail. The hemlocks, sadly, were ghosts of what they used to be. Cancer root popped up here and there - such an odd plant with its lack of chlorophyll - depending on the roots of the huge oak trees for its life.
I sought to ease my concerns about the weather by keeping an eye on the blue patch of sky that never completely disappeared. But the wind whistled. The wind howled. Had it gotten much worse, I would have grabbed for that reliable cliché, "It sounded JUST LIKE a freight train coming through," but, fortunately, it didn’t get much worse.

All along Bearpen Trail and back, and on the Appalachian Trail, too, I didn’t see another soul. Not one. I didn’t see any bobcats. I didn’t see any coyotes. I didn’t see any panthers. Once or twice, a weathered stump in the distance managed to pull off a credible impersonation of a black bear. But no, I didn’t see any black bears. (Though I have to confess, it was considerably more than one or two weathered stumps in the distance that managed to pull off credible impersonations of black bears. Good to be alert, I say!)

No rain. But that wind! It roared.

Bearpen Trail joined the Appalachian Trail for the last little jag leading up to the lookout tower. I don’t want to spoil the surprise ending, so I'll skip over any description of the final approach to Albert Mountain. Suffice it to say that you’ll be rewarded with excellent views once you reach the top.

Here’s what you’ll see:

To the north, the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains and Clingman’s Dome.

The Nantahalas, including Siler Bald, Wine Spring Bald, and Wayah Bald.

In another direction, the town of Franklin, the Great Balsams and Richland Balsam in the distance.

Overlooking Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory below the steep slopes facing east, you face the upper valley of the Little Tennessee and have views of Whiteside, Shortoff and Yellow Mountains.

Turning southward, there’s Rabun Bald, Ridgepole Mountains, Big Scaly, Standing Indian Mountain and Brasstown Bald.

Then to the west and north-west, Tusquitee Bald, the Snowbird Mountains, Joanna Bald and the Unicois.


The Albert Mountain Tower was moved here from South Carolina in 1951. The 43 foot tall tower is topped with a steel live-in cab of 14-by-14 feet. The wind was strong enough to distract me from my acrophobia, so I quickly reached the uppermost platform that was open, several flights up. Once there, I had to brace myself against the steel supports because the wind was BLOWING LIKE A BANSHEE. I held on long enough to get some pictures taken. It was as much blue sky as I would see all day.

After that it was back to the ground.

Albert Mountain was named for a member of a prominent pioneer Macon County family, Albert Siler. Born in 1829, Albert grew up with Cherokee playmates and was a fluent speaker of Cherokee. He established St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cartoogechaye in 1881, a church rebuilt in 1940 by Albert’s grandson, the Reverend A. Rufus Morgan. Now I hadn’t known about Albert Siler, but I knew about Rufus Morgan. Founder of the Nantahala Hiking Club, he would celebrate his birthday, even throughout his 80s, by climbing Mount LeConte. Dr. Morgan’s sister, Lucy Morgan, established Penland School of Handicrafts in Mitchell County and retired to Webster. Quite a family.

Though the wind wouldn’t let up, I explored the top of Albert Mountain for a few minutes.

Normally, I wouldn’t post photos of the comfort station, but in this case… Just downhill from the base of the tower, the open-air (and abandoned) privy was an eyecatcher.
It was, to borrow a phrase from E. M. Forster, "A Room With a View."

It took a couple of hours to climb the three miles to the top, but that included plenty of time for shutterbugging and a side trip along a Forest Service Road leading to Yellow Bald. Scrambling back down the mountain only took an hour.

A good time was had. The forest was resplendent, the view from the top superb. I didn’t get blown off the tower. I didn’t have to share my granola bar with a hungry bear. Long-dormant endorphins finally kicked in. And it started to rain...

...five minutes AFTER I got back to the car.

You can’t ask for a better hike than that.

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