October is supposed to be the best leaf-peeping time. Visitors drive up to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway (MP 451.2) and look out at the outstanding scenery. Some walk the half-mile to what is the highest trail on the parkway. Little do they know the work that is going on just below them. Volunteers crush rocks, cut down trees, remove roots, and move rocks to build a small section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Almost all are over 60 years old, many much older. Yet, they come out week after week to work on building this piece.
Yesterday, the Carolina Mountain Club Asheville Friday Crew finished a 2.2 mile section of the MST on the east side of Waterrock Knob. Kate Dixon, Executive Director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and I were there to walk through the section and admire the amazing trail work. Ann Hendrickson, one of two women on this crew, walked with us from Waterrock Knob to Fork Ridge Overlook.
The crew plan was to split into three teams to do a sweep, repair, check some areas, and finish a step and rock section in the middle. Then they’ll pull out the tools and grip hoist and walk them down the cars. Next Friday, they’ll blaze the trail with the familiar white circles.
Building the trail required over 6,000 hours of work to cut through the rocks, roots, and trees so hikers can walk comfortably. It’s hard work to build trail at almost 6,000 feet above sea level. The season is short –May to October– and depends on the Parkway being open. In the winter, the freeze/thaw cycle plays havoc with the trail surface. Rocks pop out, trees fall and water and ice are all over the trail.
The crew leaves Asheville at 8 am and drives an hour to the work site. They work for five hours and are back at 3 pm, exhausted, muddy, and happy. The first concern is always safety. The second is to have fun so that the crew wants to come back week after week. And oh yes, they do want to get work done.
“The skill and artistry of the trail is extraordinary,” says Dixon. “So many visitors come to Waterrock Knob. Even if they don’t hike 1,000 miles across North Carolina, they can walk a mile and get a good feel for the trail.”