Stone Door Christmas

What does one do for Christmas when one is far from family?  Well, we decided to go hiking.  This is not so far removed from what we normally do on Christmas.  Although we were without my brother, sister-in-law, and nephews, we normally at least go for a walk on Christmas if not an out-and-out hike.

This year, we decided to undertake a slightly more strenuous outing.  Not a lot more strenuous, mind you.  We opted for a relatively easy and short hike given we’re a bit out of shape these days.  Plus, with Twiggy staying with us over the holiday, we weren’t sure what she would be like on the trail.

Wanting a low-stress outing, we decided to revisit Stone Door in the South Cumberland State Park.  The walk from the parking lot to the main overlook is only about a mile and the first portion of the trail is paved and wheelchair accessible.

We layered up although it was in the low 50’s here on Christmas day–the wind was strong enough to make it feel cooler.  We’d actually planned ahead for once and had provisions for a special Christmas picnic with wild caught smoked salmon, deli rolls, and cream cheese.

Twiggy’s mom had also provided a care package for the dogs for Christmas, so we packed pigs ears and lamb sausages for them to snack on.  The care package also included two new toys–a white fluffy ball for Twiggy and a squeaky green reindeer for Tisen.

Tisen claimed the white fluffy ball instead and wouldn’t let Twiggy near it.  Notice the ball next to Tisen’s head while riding in the car.

Tisen uses Twiggy's new toy as a pillow while Twiggy snuggles with Tisen's Big Dog

Tisen uses Twiggy’s new toy as a pillow while Twiggy snuggles with Tisen’s Big Dog

Stone Door is one of the more surprising places near us–at least to us.  The drive from Chattanooga to Stone Door is beautiful in and of itself.  The highway winds its way through the tree-covered mountains and through Nick-a-Jack lake, making the hour plus drive enjoyable in and of itself.  Then, the first overlook on the Stone Door trail is a breath-taking experience, even though you don’t have to leave asphalt to get to it.  It’s the kind of scenery that I grew up thinking you had to travel a long way to see.

An easy-access spectacular view

An easy-access spectacular view

From the easy-access overlook, you can see the rock outcropping where the Stone Door overlook starts

From the easy-access overlook, you can see the rock outcropping where the Stone Door overlook starts

Further down the trail, the top of the Stone Door (which is really a crevice that has provided a path down to the valley below for thousands of years) affords even more breath-taking views.

Cliff-side trees always impress me--good thing they're not afraid of heights

Cliff-side trees always impress me–good thing they’re not afraid of heights

This tree seems to have given up the ghost, but it still clings cliffside

This tree seems to have given up the ghost, but it still clings cliffside

I sometimes get a little closer to the edge than I'm really comfortable with--unlike the trees, I am afraid of heights

I sometimes get a little closer to the edge than I’m really comfortable with–unlike the trees, I am afraid of heights

Between the rocks, a huge hole provides a window to the valley below

Between the rocks, a huge hole provides a window to the valley below

This is the kind of rock that makes me suspect the ledge I'm standing on is really jutting out over the cliff--makes my knees weak

This is the kind of rock that makes me suspect the ledge I’m standing on is really jutting out over the cliff–makes my knees weak

The "gulf" seems to go on forever

The “gulf” seems to go on forever

The mostly limestone geography creates spectacular outcroppings

The mostly limestone geography creates spectacular outcroppings

What I love the most about the Stone Door overlook is the sound.  We sat on the stones at the top of the cliff and just listened for a while.  The only sounds we could hear were the wind blowing through the needles of many evergreens and the river tumbling down the valley far below, out of sight.  It’s a magical experience to close your eyes and feel like you are air and water and know that life is good.  Seems pretty appropriate for Christmas.

Even Tisen and Twiggy seem impressed by the view

Even Tisen and Twiggy seem impressed by the view

Looking back at the mountain from the overlook provides this view

Looking back at the mountain from the overlook provides this view

Tisen freezes for me for just a moment

Tisen freezes for me for just a moment


The Next 6.3 Miles

Mentally embracing the rain, we started down the trail, determined to make it the next 6.3 miles to a place called “Hobbs Cabin.”  We couldn’t help but hope the cabin (a rustic, first-come, first-serve arrangement) was available.

After about 10 minutes of hiking in the downpour, we realized hiking in the rain on a hot day was quite pleasant.  Instead of feeling stinky and sticky with sweat, we felt cool and refreshed and there were no bugs while it was raining.

Tisen, on the other hand, was not so enamored with the feeling of cool rain. He did his best to walk underneath the overhang of our packs to try to avoid being rained on directly.  He ended up just as wet as the rest of us, but there must have been something comforting about feeling like he had a roof over his head.

When we got to the first overlook of the “gulf”  (apparently that’s what a gulch is called in Tennessee), the rain had taken a break.  The sky was overcast and it was hard to tell it was noon.  The break in the rain was nice, as was the breeze blowing up from the valley below.  But, alas, we were trying to cover 6.3 miles before it got too late in the afternoon, so we couldn’t stop long to enjoy it.

As the trail veered away from the edge of the gulch, we re-entered the woods, and perhaps a time from the past.  It was easy to imagine the first settlers finding their way through woods like these when such woods covered much of the Eastern US. Of course, they would have all be old-growth forests back then.  But, these woods, mostly free of invasive plants, made me feel like we’d been transported in time. Thankfully, our gear wasn’t transported back to historical equipment–I think we would have needed a wagon.

At long last, we arrived at Hobbs Cabin and were relieved to find it unoccupied.  A tiny, dark, uninviting shelter, it was equipped with 6 bunks and a table fastened to the wall.  The bunks were wood planks that would require sleeping pads and bags to make comfortable.  The small windows on the back wall let in so little light that even with our flashlights, we had trouble seeing inside the cabin.  I had a hard time imagining spending the night in there.

I proposed we pitch the tent on the front porch, screening out all insects, putting us where we were sure to get a breeze, and under a great big roof to keep up out of the rain.  We hung the rain fly in position just in case we started to get wet, but planned to sleep under just the screen for the night.  Tisen was more excited than a child to crawl into the tent with us, even though we decided to call it a night around 7:30PM.  It was the earliest we’ve ever gone to bed.

2 Miles

There is a fine and delicate line when it comes to backpacking between having what you need to survive and having too much weight on your back to have any fun.

Once a backpack reaches a third of your body weight, or even a quarter, when you get a few miles into the hike, you start to question the wisdom of backpacking vs day hiking.  This has been a battle played out over years for me.  The first time I went backpacking, I barely made the ascent up a 4 mile trail that climbed almost 1 mile in elevation.  I didn’t even know how much weight I was carrying at the time, but I had packed things like an 11-cup percolating coffee pot, so I’m pretty sure it was a lot of weight.

When my husband and I were in official “backpacking training,” we went on a 3-day trip to Otter Creek Wilderness in Monangahela.  This was right after I’d read a book called “The Ultra-Light Backpacker.”  I took no spare clothes except socks and underwear, no tarp, no extra anything.  If I thought I could live without it for 3 days, I left it at home.  My pack was a lot lighter, but it rained the entire time, except when it snowed, and we came pretty close to hypothermia by the time we hiked out the 3rd day with no dry clothes to change into.

Ever since then, we’ve erred on the side of too much weight.  As we headed down the trail on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we not only were carrying too much stuff for us, but also too much stuff for our dog:  His new special diet frozen and packed so it would stay cool long enough to be fresh for his dinner and breakfast; his bedroll strapped to the outside of Pat’s pack; extra towels packed just for drying the dog; and, of course, Tisen’s special water bowl and his own water bottle.  Spoil our dog?  What are you talking about?

It’s not surprising that after about 2 miles, we were ready for our first snack break.  We stopped right on the trail as there was no where else to go.  We opened up our packs, broke out our snacks, and started munching.

As we stood there with our stuff strewn about, we heard a sound.  It wasn’t just the sound of the wind whistling through the trees.  It was the sound of an enormous sheet of rain blowing through.  Pat went for the tarp while I went for the rain cover for my pack.  I got my pack closed and covered while Pat built us a little shelter.

We felt a little foolish when three backpackers came through soaking wet and had to duck under our shelter to continue on the trail.  We started packing up our stuff and accepting that this rain wasn’t going to just blow over.  It was time to get wet.

Savage Falls

One of the things I love the most about hiking is the solitude.  There is nothing like hearing only the wind whistling quietly through the trees.  It’s like the secrets of the universe being spoken quietly in your ear.

When we did the Stone Door hike, we were surprised at the solitude we found.  In spite of it being a short, easy trail that started out with a paved segment, we only saw people going the opposite direction.  At the top of Stone Door, a breeze blew through the pines and we enjoyed that hard-to-find solitude that usually only less accessible wilderness offers.

For me, this sense of solitude somehow always generates a wondrous feeling of connectedness in what might be one of life’s great paradoxes.  It was so palpable at the top of Stone Door that I had to set my camera aside for 10 minutes and just sit and listen to the wind and feel part of life.

When we decided to walk at least part of the Savage Gulch Day Loop trail, we thought we might see even fewer people–it’s more remote.

When we arrived at the parking lot, another couple was getting ready to head down the trail.  I overheard the man ask the woman, “Got what’cha need?  Need what’cha got?” What a profound question.  One of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in my lifetime is not asking the second question.  But I digress.

Tisen has been limping and so have we, so we didn’t expect to make it all the way around the 5 mile loop trail.  We also got a bit confused because there are about 5 trails that converge with the loop trail.  So, we didn’t start out with the intention of going to Savage Falls, but that’s where we ended up.  But we were OK with having gotten slightly lost–who can resist a waterfall?

When we arrived at Savage falls, we were a little jealous of the people swimming in the water.  We contemplated getting in, but we didn’t see a good path for Tisen to get down to the water and Tisen has put on a few too many pounds to be carried easily.  So, we sat in the shade and watched.

I attempted to shoot with my 100-400mm lens since there was enough of a crowd that my 24-70mm wasn’t giving me tight enough compositions.  Plus, I was shooting for a lot of depth of field, so I figured my faster lens wasn’t doing me that much good anyway.

There were two wrong assumptions about this.  First, the faster lens has an easier time focusing no matter what aperture I have it set on.  Second, the shorter focal length is easier to hold still even though that lens lacks Image Stabilization.

But, I did my best to steady the lens.  If only my subjects would have held still–I had to refrain from yelling “freeze!” at the couple under the water fall.

Crossing Bridges

I love my dog.  I love him for many reasons, but today, it’s because every day he reminds me that we can learn, we can grow, we can be completely different than we were before.

How many times do we hear people say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?  As someone who strives to learn every day, I know first hand how hard it can be to undo decades of habit to do the thing I will myself to do.  Many days, I feel like it’s an impossibility.  Then, I have days when I do things like fly off a mountain in a hang glider and I know that anything is possible.  But, sometimes I walk away thinking that maybe flying off a mountain in a hang glider doesn’t ultimately change anything at all.

That’s where Tisen comes in.

Tisen has transformed himself from a nearly-dead street dog to a urban-dwelling, middle-class gentleman who likes to hike.  He wants to make me happy.  That’s his bottom line.  While I’m not sure I could handle a person being so into me, in a dog, it’s kind of nice.

When we went to Savage Gulf Natural Area to hike the other day, we encountered something called a suspension bridge.  The dreaded structure was not the kind of suspension bridge you drive over, but rather a flexing, swinging, bouncing rope-and-wood bridge meant for no more than 2 pedestrians at a time.  These bridges make me nervous; I have no idea what they are like for a dog.  For Tisen, it was clearly a gauntlet of terror.

First, he would not step onto the bridge at all.  I walked across first to give him a reason to cross.  Then Pat came behind, encouraging Tisen to come with him.  Tisen considered climbing down a sheer rock cliff to the stream below over walking onto the bridge, but Pat managed to get him up the entrance ramp to the bridge.  But there, he stopped.  It wasn’t until Pat had crossed and Tisen was left standing alone that he decided he’d better cross.

He made it all the way across the gulch (which really wasn’t so far below as to be completely terrifying), got to the top of the exit ramp, stared down at me with his longing eyes, then eye-balled the ramp down to me and decided he’d had enough.  He turned around and went all the way back across the gulch.

We managed to coax him back across and all the way to land on the other side.  We completed our hike to Savage Falls and then wondered what was going to happen on the way back across.  When we got to the suspension bridge, I went across first, Pat coaxed Tisen up to the bridge, and Tisen led the way across looking like he’d been crossing suspension bridges most of his life.

In about an hour, Tisen transformed himself from a ‘fraidy cat to a top dog.  He’s my hero.

Stone Door

Continuing our weekend adventure, having made it from the asphalt to the “unimproved” part of the trail (does anyone actually think asphalt is an improvement?), we continued on our journey to the Stone Door.

I don’t know exactly what image “Stone Door” conjures in your mind, but in my mind, when I read the description that said:

Stone Door, a 10 ft. wide by 100 ft. deep crack, forming from the top of the escarpment into the gorge below. It looks like a giant door left ajar and was once used by Indians as a passageway.

What I envisioned was a giant slab of rock standing straight up in the middle of two cliffs and standing ajar so that one can walk between the “door” part and the cliff part.  I guess I skipped over the “deep crack” part.

When we arrived at Stone Door, the view of the valley was fantastic.  Plus, the top of the cliffs provides some really interesting scenery in and of itself.  The only part I didn’t like was being anywhere near the edge.  The drop off was terrifying.

Pat and Tisen sat patiently while I worked my way around the top of the cliff, shooting everything I dared to shoot.  I really wanted to get a great shot looking down on the crack in the cliff, but it was tough to get a good angle without rock climbing gear.  I always knew I should have become a rock climber.

I have to pause here for a moment to do a mental double take on whether those words actually came out of my fingers.  Me . . . a rock climber?  Well, maybe not.

In any case, I couldn’t get the shot I wanted mainly out of pure fear.  Or perhaps fear in this case was good sense?  I was pretty determined not to fall into the crevasse never to be found again.

We worked our way back down with me stopping to shoot straight on to the crack.  There was a large tree in the opening that created a key hole sort of image for me.  I played with that for a while and contemplated walking down the steps a bit to see what kind of interesting views I could get, but Pat was concerned about time and we needed to drive to the other side of the park to see the next part of our adventure:  Savage Gulf Day Loop.

So, I packed it in without getting a great shot of the crack.  As we walked away, Pat said to me, “I wonder where the Stone door is?”  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t picture a big crack!

Tisen seemed nonplussed by the whole stone door thing.  I imagine there are certain advantages to being a dog.  One of them is probably no expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, Stone Door is really cool and definitely worth the effort to get there.  Just don’t expect something that looks like a door.

In Lieu of Backpacking

We are trying to get a hike in at least once a weekend.  Since it’s a big reason we chose to move to Chattanooga, we figured we ought to take advantage.  However, the hot and humid August weather has made hiking slightly less enticing.

I did a little research to pick a place to hike that wasn’t too far away.  I learned about South Cumberland State Park and the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, located inside the park.

There was a 17 mile hike that sounded intriguing, but 17 miles for us means spending the night.  Since I had a lot going on this past week, we didn’t have time to prepare for backpacking.  Plus, we weren’t quite sure where Tisen would sleep given that our 2 person tent is really only big enough for a person and a half.

So, we opted to do two short day hikes instead.

We headed out Saturday morning loaded down like we were spending the night after all (the joys of too much photography equipment).

When we arrived at the Stone Door ranger station, we saw a sign that said Laurel Falls was only 250ish yards from the parking lot.  So, of course, we had to walk there first.  What they didn’t mention was that it was 250 yards down a bunch of stairs and 250 yards back up those stairs.  But, still, who wouldn’t go 250 yards to see a waterfall?

I’m not sure how excited Tisen was about the waterfall after the stairs, but he made it and I was happy I had my tripod so I could shoot with long exposures, creating smooth water.

We headed back up the steps and on towards Stone Door from there.

The walk to Stone Door started on a paved path.  Paved as in asphalt.  We noticed blazes on the trees marking the trail and Pat commented that he was glad they’d marked the trail because otherwise we might have gotten lost.  It did seem a bit odd to hang metal trail blazes on the trees along a trail that was paved, but I guess they haven’t lost anyone yet.

The first overlook was the end of the asphalt, thankfully.  Although, we passed a woman coming back the other way with only one leg.  I don’t know if she was able to walk on the unpaved portion of the trail or not, but it did make me appreciate the asphalt.

From the overlook, we not only got a nice panoramic view of the mountains, but we spotted a rocky outcropping in the general direction we were headed.  We suspected it was our destination.

Tisen was not any more excited by me setting up my tripod at the overlook than when I pulled it out at Laurel Falls, but he waited fairly patiently once Pat took him off the asphalt and into the shade.

If there was one thing that would have made the day nicer, it would have been cooler temperatures and less humidity.