Sunday, August 26, 2007

Buffalo Mountain Park

This is, without a doubt, the prettiest, most wild, and cleanest city park I've ever visited. I thought the greenways out in Austin (TX) were nice, but this trumps them all.
I was investigating city parks near where I live, and stumbled across this hiking trail map on the Johnson City, TN, Parks and Recreation web site. It seemed too good to be true, but I had to see for myself anyway. Turns out, the place is very real, and offers some great hiking! Admittedly, I only explored the western side of the park, but I definitely plan on going back, not only to check out the rest of the trails, but also to see how the park changes through the seasons. I'm excited to find such a beautiful natural space so close to me.
I started out at the main trailhead. This was around 9am on a Sunday morning. There were two other cars nearby, and I thought I heard another approaching just as I started up the trail. So the place was pleasantly deserted -- lots of points for that! I had also chosen an excellent weather situation for hiking; the morning temperatures were in the sixties, and it was overcast with a heavy sky that threatened rain. I don't mind walking in the rain at all, so this was perfect for me, and kept things cool which was also ideal. The humidity was quite high for this area (in the 90% range, according to the Weather Channel before I left), which was also helpful to me, as, being a Florida native, I'm used to breathing moist air. It did produce an almost instantanous damp sheen on my skin, but because of the cool air temperature, this was not as icky-sticky as the cloying humidity of Florida. There was also a nice breeze, at least up to the southwest corner of the trail system, which also aided in creating a pleasant atmosphere.

I headed south along the Cascade Trail, which rises pretty steadily and so provided me with a nice warmup. I didn't come across much of note for a while, just a few strangely misshapen trees and a couple that had grown around obstacles. Eventually, however, I encountered this downed tree that was fostering quite a colony of shelf lichens. I've never seen shelf lichens quite like these (down in FL they're usually much larger, and don't have mossy-looking stuff intermingling with them), so I had to snap a photo of it.

As I approached the Cascades, I noted that the trail was suffering from erosion in several places, even to the point of making it a bit difficult to traverse where it had almost matched the hillside in steepness.

These are the Cascades. I didn't know what to expect, but I guess I was thinking it would be a bit more waterfall-esque. This was a nifty feature nonetheless, and had some great exposure of the bedrock layers where the water has done its slow, careful work over the eons. What you see above is actually a part of the trail, as well, so I guess these never see especially heavy waterflow. We had a considerable rain last night, so I would think that this would be on the heavy side. Which actually leads me to wonder...if we hadn't had that rain, would there have been any water present at all? Just one more question to be answered by my repeated visits. :)

The view above is of the Cascades as they tumble down the hill away from the trail. There were also a great many bees in this area, as it seemed many of the plants, which were obviously quite lush near the water source, seemed to be flowering. So, hikers who are allergic to bee stings, be aware! I myself didn't have any serious run-ins with the little pollinators, though, and moved on up the trail toward Stairstep Ridge. As I did so, I continued to encounter portions of the trail which were a little difficult to traverse due to erosion. I do hope that the trail sees enough use and maintenance that the erosion does not win the battle. I certainly plan on doing my part!

The elevation continued to climb up and over Stairstep Ridge, now in increasingly steep sections. After rounding the westernmost hairpin in the trail, I began hearing strange noises in the distance...humans! The noisiest critters in the forest. At first I feared the bane of my existence -- the omnipresent boyscout troop which has plagued me on so many of my other expeditions (more on that another time). This, happily, turned out to be a small group of trail-running girls headed in the opposite direction, who thanked me for vacating the trail for them as they passed, and kept on scooting along. I would have liked to warn them about the washouts on the trail ahead of them, but they were moving so fast I would have had to shout after them. At any rate, I imagine they probably use the trails often enough to know them far better than I.
Shortly after encountering the trail runners, the soft sound of wind through leaves gradually changed to the slightly more staccato song of light rain falling on the canopy. Although it rained for at least 10 or 15 minutes, very few of the drops managed to make it through the canopy and down to me, so I had no reason to stop and put my backpack's raincoat on (yes, my light backpack has it's own, built-in raincoat!). I just wandered and enjoyed the sound, as well as the occasional droplets that made their way to my skin.

Happy with the cardio effects of my upward hike, I eventually crested the ridge, and began a gentle descent to the bench at the west end of the Fork Ridge Trail. Given that I am a bit overweight, any cardio is a good thing. What I had forgotten was that, for every step I go up, I must also take a step down. Therein lies the rub, especially on descents which are a little steep. My knees, and the muscles surrounding them, are not in the best shape, so they complain early and often as I "put on the brakes" going downhill. Trying to jog downhill isn't really any easier on my joints, although I suppose it does get the ordeal over with a bit quicker. But given the fact that I really needed the outdoor time to keep my spirits up (the last two weeks have been spent mostly indoors, unpacking, organizing, cleaning, and organizing some more after an inter-state move), I didn't especially want to hurry home. So I went downhill slowly, comforting myself with the knowledge that I was building muscles I'd be using much more often in the coming months and years.

I nearly trod on this little feller as I made my descent. Well, little compared to me. I have to admit, he was nearly as big as my fist, which is a pretty big amphibian where I'm from. He moved enough to get my attention (and not get stepped on!), but then calmly posed for me as I dug out my camera and took photos of him from several angles.
The rest of the descent I made without incident, and even took the tiny (.04 mile) detour to Huckleberry Knob and gazed out over the hazy gray city. I took some photos there, too, but they're not really worth publishing, as, well, they're mostly just gray.