Why do we seek the high places? The easiest explanation for going to the mountains is for the scenery. Even so, there must be something ingrained in the human experience that draws us to lofty summits and places where we can look out over the landscape. The reasons vary from the practical to the spiritual.
High places represent safety and security. Elevated vantage points have been used throughout history for human survival. From the heights, an approaching enemy can be detected from a long distance, or an attack more easily fended off. A path through unknown territory might be scouted out as waterways and passes can all be seen better from a high perch. Hunters are better able spot herds of animals from an overlook. Migratory animals often use mountain ridges to travel long distances. Surely the Cherokee utilized ridge tops in their network of trails connecting villages and hunting grounds.
There is something about the Appalachians that evokes a deep emotional response in most folks. When you are able to get an encompassing view of your surroundings, you automatically know more about your place in the world. For many, this serves to stimulate the curiosity to learn about nature or to seek wilderness. Others find the experience to be humbling, revealing the relative insignificance of the individual in the vastness of creation.
The religious and spiritual connection with natural heights is easily explained in the context of being closer to Heaven, the gods and spirits. On Mt. Sinai, God presented Moses with the Ten Commandments and on Mt. Pisgah, Moses got a glimpse of the Promised Land. Native Americans attached sacred significance to high places. The Incas performed human sacrifice on sacred peaks in the Andes. Monks of various Eastern religions have built almost inaccessible monasteries on high precipices.
At times, mountain travel involves personal challenge and extraordinary risk. When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory replied, “Because it is there.” Whether Mallory reached the summit in 1924 is still in question, but the same adventurous spirit still drives many to climb the most difficult mountains. Even in Western North Carolina, the most remote peaks require no small amount of effort to reach.
“Peakbagging” is the sport of getting to the top of as many peaks as possible. Hiking up a mountain is great exercise. The air is less dense and flows easily in and out of your lungs, but the lower concentration of oxygen means greater oxygen debt during physical activity. Eventually, the body becomes more efficient and compensates. Unfortunately, summer hikers in the Smokies may have difficulty with respiration due to the low oxygen density combined with high ozone levels caused by pollution from autos and power plants.
Visiting the high places can even be a social event. In Japan, large numbers of hikers may crowd a summit trail. The camaraderie of sharing the journey and the view with good friends or a loved one is definitely a bonding experience and often requires cooperation to get there. On the other hand, the sense of solitude one experiences when standing alone on a lofty wilderness summit is difficult to describe or explain.
(Ed Kelley is a photographer, musician and outdoorsman who lives in Waynesville)
• Mt. Pisgah (5,749 feet) — Located near milepost 408, this mountain with the Biblical name used to be part of the George Vanderbilt Estate (he’s the man who built Biltmore Estate). A parking area is well marked, and the hike is only about a mile but it is relatively strenuous to the platform atop the mountain. Once there, however, the 360-degree views are fabulous.
• Tsali’s Fontana Lake overlooks (2,000 feet plus) — If you’re a mountain biker, too often you are in the trees or too dog tired after a climb to enjoy the views, but there are several in Tsali that are worth getting off your bike and using as a rest break, photo-op or both. All of these are just above 2,000 feet in elevation, but because of the lake’s backdrop they make for stunning views. Tsali Recreation Area is located 12 miles west of Bryson City in the Nantahala National Forest. Go west on U.S. 74 and turn right on N.C. 28. Tsali is about five minutes down the road. Once there, the Mouse Branch, Right and Left loops all have great overlooks. According Timm Muth, author Mountain Biking North Carolina, the Mouse Branch overlook 4.5 miles into that loop is the most stunning. On the Right it’s Windy Gap Overlook and the overlook on the Left trail isn’t named. All are fabulous.
• Mt. LeConte (6,643 feet) — The vistas are endless in the Smokies, but getting to the top of this mountain has the added advantage of being to check out LeConte Lodge, the only commercial lodging facility in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are five trails to the lodge, the shortest and steepest being Alum Cave Trail at 5.5 miles, which a hiker in good condition can do in approximately four hours. None of these trails can be considered a stroll and you occasionally encounter ice and snow as late as May or as early as October. The other trails are Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap, each 6.5 miles, a hike of about five hours; Bullhead at 7.2 miles and about five hours; and Boulevard, 8 miles and about 5.5 hours. Parking is available at the start of each trail. Once at the top signs lead to the best overlooks.
• Wayah Bald (5,342 feet) — The Nantahala Mountains are not as tall as the Smokies, but the views are every bit as stunning. This is a land of 4,000- and 5,000-foot mountains in one of the region’s wildest areas. Follow State Route 1310 out of Franklin until you pass Wayah Crest, where there is a camping area. A forest service road, with signs, leads to the parking area at Wayah Bald, where there is an old Civilian Conservation Corps firetower made of stone. Views from the platform are wonderful, and the Appalachian Trail passes right by.
• Max Patch (4,629 feet) — This may be the most scenic bald in the Smokies as well as one of the most accessible. From the top, the 360-degree views, the sheer vastness of the bald (which is mowed by the Forest Service) and the beauty is well worth the trip. Since the trail to the parking area is about a quarter of a mile max, it’s a great place to picnic and watch the sunset. Take Exit 7, the Harmon Den Exit, off Interstate 40 and turn right off the exit onto Cold Springs Creek Road. The dirt road goes into Pisgah National Forest. Stay on the main road for several miles until you come to a sign for Max Patch. It is a left-hand turn. Stay on the road until you come to a parking area with an unobstructed view of the bald. Follow the trail to the top of the bald and it intersects with the Appalachian Trail.