I’ve been accused – at times – of letting my imagination run away with me. I’m certainly OK with that. Life would be boring without a little imagination, don’t you think?
And what better place to let your fantasies run wild than on the Appalachian Trail – or any trail for that matter?
The deep “forest” has held a special place in storytelling, myths and fairy tells since time began. Mysteries abound – both good an evil – within the deep woods.
Think of stories, like Little Red Riding Hood, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, and on and on. Sure they’re just stories, but they have the ability to leave an indelible mark on our psyche especially since we hear these stories as children.
What sort of fears and joys these seeds grow into depends on our perspective of the deep, dark woods and how we’ve been influenced by our cultural consciousness.
Most of us don’t believe in big bad wolves, headless horsemen, trolls, Tree Ents, wizards, witches and flying monkeys any more. Or, do we? After all, what makes us jump when a twig snaps in the woods?
I’m not trying to scare you out of the woods. I’m merely setting the stage for today’s enchanted walk.
Seriously, what would be better than hiking over magical moss covered rocks, meandering through a beautiful wooded plateau or descending through dark mystical tunnels? Nothing, in my opinion! So let’s get going.
Getting to the trail head is easy. From Franklin, NC, travel about 9 miles west on Hwy 64, passed Winding Stair Gap, and turn left on Wallace Gap Rd. In about a mile and a half turn right on Forest Service Road 67, the entrance to Standing Indian Campground.
Starting at Rock Gap parking area (elev 3757) – about a half mile from the main entrance to the Standing Indian basin – we’ll head southbound on the AT. That would be toward the right when you’re facing the trail with your car to your back.
At this point, there’s a gentle rise to the path as it heads toward Rock Gap Shelter – another tenth of a mile up the path and a 30 foot climb in elevation. Look for the blue blaze painted on a tree.
Blue blazes, for those of you who don’t know, always indicate a side trail to and from the AT. Blue blazed trails can lead to shelters, springs and water sources, gorgeous views and other points of interest. Some blue blaze trails will take you around steep climbs and exposed ridges that might be dangerous in inclement weather.
If this is your first time on the trail, indulge yourself and visit Rock Gap Shelter. It’s about the closest shelter you’ll find to a trail head. It’s rustic, to say the least, but it’s a good example of what shelter life is like – and it’s not far from the main trail.
Besides the sleeping area, you’ll find a covered dining area, a fire pit, bear cables (for hanging your food), a spring, and off a side trail you’ll find a rudimentary toilet.
It’s not much, but for a trail weary traveler it’s a welcome site, especially if it’s raining, storming or snowing. To get back to the AT, simply take the short shelter loop trail uphill and look for the white blaze.
Watch your step! The trail gets rather rocky around here. You’ll quickly understand why this place got its name. Take a look at the rocks. These rocks aren’t just any rocks. They’re much more alive than any stones you’ll see anywhere else. Seriously!
These rocks, both big and small, have all sorts of things growing on them; moss, lichens, liverworts, and things I wouldn’t begin to know how to identify. I guess I should have paid more attention in high school biology.
To the botanically challenged, it would appear as though magic was at work around here. How else could these tiny plants grow and thrive on a rock? Someone obviously cast a powerful spell. Whatever it is – botany or magic – these rocks are amazing works of art.
But onward we must go. So take a deep breath because you’re getting ready to climb…and climb. Over the next couple of miles or so we’re going to go from 3787 ft to about 4500 ft in elevation. But don’t sweat it! The scenery is beautiful and the switch backs are gentle enough. And, I promise, it’ll be worth it – so worth it.
Eventually the trail stops climbing and you’ll find yourself on unusually level ground. It’s not a ridgeline per se; it’s too wide. It’s more like a wooded plateau suspended between two knobs. For those of us in the Appalachian mountains, a knob is the top of a hill or mountain.
Stop for a moment to take it all in.
What an enchanted place. One look around and you’ll understand why humans have visited here for thousands of years. It’s as if it were hallowed ground.
One could sit here and meditate for hours. It’s that peaceful – and quiet. It’s hard to leave. There’s something that holds you here; something powerful; something good.
When you gather the strength to leave, you have a choice to make. Depending on how you feel, you could turn around now; head back to Rock Gap and call it a day.
Or, if you’re up for more walking, I suggest you continue toward Glassmine Gap. It’s a gentle 200 foot drop over about a mile and a half through some of the most beautiful, mystical and dark rhododendron tunnels I’ve ever seen.
If you believe in wizards, elves, hobbits and dwarves, then you would see them somewhere along this stretch of trail.
These rhododendron tunnels are so thick sunlight barely breaks through and when it does it comes through in concentrated golden streams of light as if it’s coming from a high-powered flash light. The darkness is only accentuated by the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” It’s no wonder you get that strange feeling Frodo, Gandalf or Aragorn are going to step out around the next bend in the path, beckoning you to join their fellowship. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably go with them.
Eventually the tunnel ends and you’ll find yourself at Glassmine Gap. This is a crossroads, of sorts, where the AT intersects with the Long Branch trail; a blue blazed trail that winds past a gorgeous mountain stream on its way to the Backcountry Information Center in Standing Indian basin.
This is a good place to take a break, have a snack and rest up for your return trip. You’ll want to make sure you have enough strength to out run any Orcs along the way.
See ya’ on the trail!
Trail at a glance
Mileage: 7.2 round trip
Elevation change: 750 ft
Water source: springs