Primordial. That about sums it up.
It’s not every day you get to go back in time, but that’s exactly what it feels like – to me at least – when I’m hiking on Timber Ridge Trail.
The feeling…it’s much more than being out in the middle of nowhere; though the remoteness is undeniable. It’s much more than the cool, damp, earthy-smelling air that settles in this deep ravine – even on a hot July day. And it’s so much more than the narrow path, fighting nature’s attempt to reclaim it.
There’s something else that makes it so primeval.
Deep, Dank and Dark
This moderate, 2.3 mile hike, starts at the same trailhead as Big Laurel Falls. The trail splits once you cross the bridge over a tributary of the Upper Nantahala River.
This is the lowest point of the trail at 3750 ft. Everything around you angles up sharply from here.
You’re surrounded by several 5,000 footers; Standing Indian Mountain (5499), Albert Mountain (5250) and Ridgepole Mountain (5043) – and then several more mountains and ridges over 4500 feet.
Being pinched in this dark, narrow creek bed, you feel buried deep in the mountains. It’s a bit deceiving, though, because you’re still 1600 feet higher than the town of Franklin.
Nonetheless you feel so small, dwarfed and enclosed. The shadows are heavy. Even in July, by 4 PM, you would swear dusk had fallen upon you. Sunlight is a commodity in this part of Standing Indian.
It was the first day it hadn’t rained in about a week. By the afternoon the forecast was calling for only a 20% chance of rain the rest of the evening. The river was slightly higher than normal and the roar was deafening. We had to shout so we could hear each other.
The day was hot and sticky. At home the thermometer read 89 degrees. We’d been shut in for days. My wife and I needed to get outside. We needed to cool off.
Despite the fact that it was 69 degrees at the trailhead, 20 degrees cooler than home, the air was steamy, heavy and thick with moisture.
The forest canopy is dense this time of year and the Rhododendron tunnels are so dark, making our way rather tricky, we could have used headlamps.
I don’t know if it was from the darkness or from the tactile sound of the river – or both, but you could feel a palpable tension. There’s a living force here. This place is alive. For some reason, and I don’t always feel this, it was telling us to move along this afternoon.
Upward and Onward
The steepest part of Timber Ridge Trail, about 250 ft, is in the beginning and fortunately it doesn’t last too long. Once you’re out of the dark Rhododendron tunnels, the path begins to climb a gently rising ridgeline, which continues until the trail intersects with the AT.
After about a mile the understory opens and large patches of ferns begin to appear. Ferns are not uncommon in this part of western North Carolina and I love seeing them, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see.
A woodland carpet of ferns!
They were everywhere as far as you could see; for over a mile, the understory was covered in ferns; tall, beautiful ferns. The only other thing below the hardwood canopy were some giant – and I mean giant – mushrooms.
Maybe it’s from all those trips to the natural history museums as a kid, or looking at books about dinosaurs or seeing fossilized evidence of long dead ferns, but, to me, ferns, more than anything else, represent prehistoric life, primeval environments. Seeing this enormous patch immediately brought up my childlike imagination and put me on guard for Velociraptors and Saber-toothed Tigers.
At one point a huge owl – the biggest I’ve ever seen – flew silently overhead. My immediate thought was…Pterodactyl! I laughed out loud and quickly came to my senses, wishing my kids were here to see it too. They have such great imaginations and would have loved to play along with the primordial fantasy.
What would our lives have been like back then? Who knows? But it was fun tossing the idea around.
Back to Reality
Unfortunately, like all great hikes, this one had to come to an end sooner or later. We reached the AT – time to turn around and head home. The return trip was uneventful and less imaginative, mainly because the 20% chance of rain turned into a 100% torrential downpour.
Soaked to the skin, we drove home happy, refreshed and completely alive – and grateful to be living in our modern world. I don’t think I’d like to be eaten by a Velociraptor. Would you?
Ever feel like you’ve been transported back in time when you’re out on the trail? Share your experiences in the comment section.
See ya’ on the trail,
Trail at a glance
Mileage: 2.3 miles one way to AT junction
Elevation change: 850 ft
Water sources: Streams/Springs
Trailhead: 4.9 miles past the Backcountry Info Center at Standing Indian