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Glorious scenery awaits hikers from gorge to mountaintop

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Outdoor writer and photographer Corbet Deary is featured regularly in The Sentinel-Record. Today, Deary writes about hiking from Gulpha Gorge to the top of Hot Springs Mountain.

A portion of last week's article referred to a bicycle ride from Fountain Street to the top of Hot Springs Mountain. Although the ride is certainly worthy of mention and lends to a great experience, I am aware that not all folks who enjoy getting out and experiencing the wonderful outdoors are bike-riding enthusiasts.

That in mind, I decided to cover yet another means of reaching the mountaintop this week. That's right. Put on your hiking boots, as we're on the verge of embarking upon an ascent beginning at Gulpha Gorge Campground and ending at the North Mountain overlook, prior to backtracking to the location from where the hike began.

Gulpha Gorge Campground is in somewhat of a low-lying area at the base of the mountain and along the banks of Gulpha Creek. Although the mountain is extremely steep and rather tall, that's no indication the trail is overly strenuous.

The Sentinel-Record/Corbet Deary IMPRESSIVE SCENERY: A hike from Gulpha Gorge to the top of Hot Springs Mountain offers ample opportunities to catch s...

I'll be the first to admit that a good portion of this route to the top of the mountain consists of an ascent. But there aren't any what I consider heart-thumping climbs. In fact, the trail has been laid out in a manner that it pretty well eases up the hill. Those embarking upon the approximately 3-mile hike to the lookout and back to the vehicle will surely appreciate the several switchbacks lurking along the way that deem the walk moderately difficult, at worst.

Beginning at the campground area, the route crosses Gulpha Creek via several large boulders spanning the waterway. Of course, one could expect to get their feet wet at this location after heavy precipitation. But the rocks protrude well above the water level during normal conditions. The trail makes an abrupt left-hand turn after crossing the creek, making its way to a small flight of stairs soon thereafter.

I am no fan of stairs along hiking trails, as they can prove somewhat cumbersome to traverse, during both one's climb and their descent, especially if the hiker has bad knees or is tired.

However, I'll admit that the rise of each step on this particular set of stairs is not overly high, deeming them fairly easy to navigate. The craftsmanship is also worthy of mention, as they appear to be constructed of native stone, likely found along the steep and jagged hillside on the right-hand side of the trail.

The path then makes a hard turn to the left and crosses a wet-weather drainage area prior to straightening out and slightly ascending to a trail intersection where the Gulpha Gorge Trail veers to the right and the Dead Chief Trail continues straight ahead.

Go ahead and take a right at this intersection. In fact, the trail will meander alongside yet another intersection after making a couple of switchbacks and somewhat leveling out for a spell.

Although the Gulpha Gorge Trail veers to the left at this intersection, remain straight on the Goat Rock Trail.

The path will remain level for a distance. The substrate alongside the designated path, however, will be very slick and boulder laden. In fact, one might consider taking a slight detour along a spur trail leading to the left, as the view of distant mountains from atop the huge rock formation is well worth the effort.

The trail leading to atop the boulder consists of several steps. Once reaching the destination, be sure and remain behind the handrail to ensure one does not lose their footing and plummet several feet off the sheer boulder to the trail below.

Once taking in the scenery, simply hike back down the spur and continue along the Goat Rock Trail in a northeastwardly direction. This section of the trail can prove somewhat more difficult to traverse, especially during wet or icy conditions, as the path makes its way atop a large vein of novaculite for a short distance.

However, despite the jagged substrate, this is one of the more scenic sections of the hike, as several openings in the canopy allow for some impressive views of the distant hillsides on the right-hand side of the trail.

The designated path eventually bids farewell to the jagged substrate and continues the remainder of the journey along compacted dirt, lending to a much easier walk. I would suspect the final three long switchbacks leading to the ridgeline are also responsible for the ease of trekking this section of the route.

I always look forward to reaching the ridgeline. It's not necessarily that I have grown tired of making an ascent. I am, instead, eager to see what species of trees and plants I can find taking root within sight of the trail as it follows the contour of the mountaintop.

I usually embark upon a walk along this particular trail during the springtime, and for good reason. Although the soil is inundated with boulders, an array of plants thrives atop the mountain.

In all honesty, I was somewhat disappointed that very few wildflowers were making a showing during my most recent hike. But I shouldn't have been surprised, as many of the showy wildflowers have bloomed and gone to seed long before the brunt of summer.

I did enjoy, however, locating several species that had already bloomed earlier in the year and at present were nothing more than vines and green plants. I managed to identify several leather flower vines, as well as the vines that produced the tiny blooms of yellow passion flowers during the spring.

I noticed the remnants of hairy skullcap blooms on several plants and happened upon a few goldenrods and asters that were still painting the forest floor with vibrant yellows and purples as they commonly bloom this late in the year.

I struck out early on the morning of my most recent hike, and for good reason. The humidity was high and the morning air was sultry. Although these conditions were far from what I considered as comfortable, they resulted in a heavy fog that would blanket the mountaintops until eventually being burned off by the sun.

Yep, I would surely be drenched with perspiration shortly into the hike. However, I had seen deer browsing atop the ridgeline several times before. And I couldn't think of better conditions for easing through the woods unnoticed. With a little luck, they would be stirring on this morning.

Sure enough, I managed to slip within 30 feet of a large doe before she finally recognized my presence, bounded across the trail and rushed down the steep hillside.

Eventually reaching yet another trail intersection, I had a choice of either veering to the right and embarking upon a hike along the Dogwood Trail or remaining straight along the short spur leading to the North Loop Lookout.

Choosing the spur trail, I spent a few moments gazing into the heavy fog from atop the vista. The atmosphere was so saturated with moisture, I could hardly see 20 feet in front of me. But that was OK, as I was aware that beautiful and distant mountains lurked somewhere beyond the heavy fog. And if the Good Lord was willing I would embark upon this hike again on a crystal-clear day.

Local on 08/13/2017

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