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Red tailed hawk
White Throated Sparrow
Red Bellied Woodpecker
I love bald. While most guys I know fret about baldness, I go looking for it. Maybe it has something to do with my crush on Lt. Llia in the first Star Trek movie. Maybe it was how cool I though Kojak was as a kid. But at least when it comes to hiking, there is still nothing more beautiful to me than a “bald” top.
While common in the arid and higher elevation west, “bald” mountain tops in the east are more unique and a little harder to find. For most of the eastern mountain ranges, mountain peaks rarely rise above the natural tree line. But in a few places, you can find hikes across bald summits or ridge lines providing panoramic views of the surrounding mountain range. Working from north to south, here are a few of my favorites which are all different sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT):
Sky Meadows State Park, Paris, Virginia. This park is not at a very high elevation, but the section of the AT that passes through this park still provides a breathtaking view of the eastern piedmont from the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can access this mountain top meadow by taking the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail from the parking area, or picking up the Southbound AT where it intersects Route 50 near the village of Paris.
Cold Mountain, near Buena Vista, Virginia. Not to be confused by its more famous namesake in North Carolina, this mountain top meadow is a series of 2 bald mountain tops providing panoramic views of the George Washington National Forest, as well as some terrific backpack camp sites on the trails leading up to the summit. While the AT is the trail that traverses the ridge, you can make a great 6 mile loop hike by using the Mount Pleasant trail as described here.
Grayson Highlands State Park, near Damascus, Virginia. When it comes to bald mountains, this will always be my first love and favorite spot. Miles of meadows near or above 5000 foot elevation make this truly a spectacular walk any time of year. Again, the use of a series of spur trails can create a day or overnight loop trail where you spend hours walking with a constant view. My favorite walk is from the Massey Gap parking area up to the Thomas Knob shelter and back, making a perfect 8 mile hike. These bald meadows are maintained by a hearty herd of wild ponies, and some of the best visits to this area have been in the thick fog of the spring or the snow in winter, but conditions can get rough quickly with weather impossible to predict in the off season.
Carvers Gap, near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. This section of the AT traverses a beautiful ridge line that is literally the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina through the Cherokee National Forest. The trailhead can be accessed from TN 143 near Roan Mountain State Park, and I would suggest a short detour to nearby Rhododendron Gardens which is the largest natural Rhododendron Garden in the world. Expect crowds at peak bloom in early June, but it was understandably deserted when I tried it in 20 inches of snow in February.
Coming upon a secluded mountain top meadow during a hike can feel like winning the lottery. Especially if you have it to yourself, if feels like a quiet paradise to enjoy the sweeping views of a mountain range. If you are in a sharing mood and would like to tip your hand about such a place, leave a note in the comments to give us a chance to visit your favorite “bald”.
As Christmas fast approaches, I find myself thinking fondly to a series of walks I took a few winters ago through through some very special towns and hilltops half way around the world. Before this trip, this place was just a jumble of abstract names and points on a map. Today I can recall the sounds, smells and feel of some of the most humbling walks I have ever taken. The text was already written, I could only add my photos:
“Then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee to be immersed by John” (Luke)
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds he ascended the hillside, and when he sat down his disciples gathered round him, and he began to teach them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
“They made their way to Capernaum and there on the sabbaths Jesus went to the synagogue and taught.”
“Jesus left the synagogue and went immediately with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew.”
“As He entered Jerusalem the whole city was in a commotion.”
This is a land of beauty – much of it barren – but you cannot take a step without feeling overwhelmed by a sense of history.
It was during this trip through Israel in December of 2003 I realized that sometimes the most significant part of a hike is not the landscape, but the people that have walked the trail before you.
When I was a kid, there was a spring on my friend Andy’s farm. Right in the middle of the front pasture. We used to spend hours and days playing in it, damming the water and drinking right from the source where it bubbled up out of the ground in a patch of wild watercress. There was nothing better tasting than a long drink from a country spring on a hot day.
Today, that spring doesn’t run. It probably fell victim to falling water tables from surrounding development and the growing use of agricultural irrigation.
50 years ago, most people got their water right from the ground, and most kids in the country probably had the experience of taking a drink right from a spring. Today it’s almost unthinkable. Too few springs. Too much pollution. Too many people. We’re conditioned to be afraid of what is in the water, and often with good reason.
That’s probably part of the reason why I love this spot in the mountains of Virginia where they meet North Carolina. There is a spring on the side of the mountain where the water bubbles right up out of the rocks. Its about a 3 mile hike from a trailhead in Grayson Highlands State Park. There isn’t a house within miles, and you can lean in and drink right from the source.
I took my daughter here a few years ago for the first time. I took a drink. She looked skeptical, but I finally convinced her to give it a try. She drank long. She smiled. I wonder what she will tell her kids.
After a frustrating day of traversing a tree-strewn trail, my friend Linda offers this Haiku:
If a big tree falls across the trail
Is it quite rude?
If there is one thing that people living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland all have in common, it’s that we love to complain about the seasonal visitors who clog our roads, over run our restaurants and turn the smallest town into a crowded metropolis of tourists. However there is one seasonal visitor to which everyone looks forward – the winter geese.
The Eastern Shore of Maryland and much of the Delmarva Peninsula is one of the largest winter homes for migratory waterfowl, including thousands of Canada Geese and Snow Geese. These visitors, with their loud honking and spectacular flying formations fill farm fields and waterways to the delight of everyone. They provide the centerpiece of our iconic fall and winter landscapes, and are a pleasure to watch.
For those who are not regulars to the Delmarva Peninsula, here are a few suggestions for planning a visit to see some of these magnificent flocks combined with interesting destinations and a few dining suggestions. Keep in mind, there is no way to accurately predict where the birds will be – they tend to move for feeding and to avoid disturbances – but these recommendations will put you on the most likely path to seeing birds. And if you don’t, at least you can enjoy some beautiful scenery, a little country driving and a good meal.
One final thought – these are just recommended routes. It’s even better to explore the side roads, keeping in mind that you are just as likely to see great flocks of birds along the route as at your destination.
Eastern Neck Island Wildlife Refuge, Rock Hall, Maryland
From Chestertown, take Route 20 west through Fairlee past War of 1812’s Caulk’s Field Battlefield into Rock Hall, then turn south towards the entrance of the Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge. If you haven’t seen birds by now, you will surely see them at the various points along the refuge drive. Also look for eagles, ducks and heron. For a great meal, backtrack back to Chestertown and enjoy dinner at Brooks Tavern.
Chestertown & Kennedyville, Maryland to Great Oak Landing
Another pleasant country drive takes you from Chestertown, MD north on Route 213 to Kennedyville, then west on route 298 towards Great Oak Landing and Marina (right on Handy Point Road), then work back east towards Chestertown. Lots of back roads give you ample opportunity to get lost and see some of the Upper Shore’s prettiest landscape, and several side roads can take you to extra points of interest including Sassafras Natural Resource Area, Urieville Lake, and Betterton Beach. This route is basically a triangle with dining options at every corner: Worton Creek Marina’s Harbor House near Great Oak (but don’t eat at Great Oak Landing itself), Molly Mason’s in Kennedyville, and Brooks Tavern in Chestertown.
Centreville, MD to Tuckahoe State Park
Tuckahoe State Park is one of the best kept secrets on the Eastern Shore, with miles of trails, a campground and a lake that attracts waterfowl and has some of the best bass fishing in the region. It is adjacent to Adkins Arboretum (worth a trip by itself) and surrounded by miles of working farmland. You can rent a canoe at the lake or walk along the Tuckahoe Valley Trail and after, cruise east towards Centreville for lunch or Dinner at Doc’s Riverside Grill.
Wye Island Natural Resource Area
Wye Island is at the end of a beautiful drive south on Carmichael Road from Route 50 near Queenstown, Maryland. The Island is a largely preserved island of working farmland, old growth forests and dozens of coves and creeks. Ducks Unlimited has done some great work building wetlands and flooding fields which attract tons of migratory waterfowl, and there are miles of trails through forests and open fields. Besides the seasonal waterfowl, the island is also home to large populations of woodpeckers, owls, heron and eagles. While no restaurant options nearby, if you are coming from the Bay Bridge, your return trip takes you past the various options around Kent Narrows, including The Narrows and Fisherman’s Inn.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is considered by most the crown jewel of winter birding spots in Maryland, and it does boast an impressive variety of winter ducks and geese. The 5 mile wildlife drive offers some amazing waterfowl viewing areas, and the patchwork of non-contiguous properties along the approach roads south from Cambridge can have just as much wildlife as the main refuge. The visitor’s center has a second floor viewing room with terrific views of the marsh. The refuge is also noted for a high winter population of bald eagles and the visitor’s center has a photo of 21 Bald Eagles sitting together in the Blackwater’s winter marsh. The refuge is also far from dining options, but nearby Cambridge has a growing dining scene with some great seafood and ethnic choices.
These are only a few of the many places you can enjoy the large flocks of waterfowl that call Delmarva home in the winter. Again, much of the fun is just enjoying the lost pleasure of a Sunday drive, and if you see some wildlife along the way, all the better.
Have suggestions to share? Please share them in the comments below.