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Monday, April 9, 2012

Tanawha Trail with Bonus Option!

(Clockwise from L) Caleb, Santiago, Sean, James, Mark, Tim, Jenny, Ashley
A few weeks back Mark at Big Foot Trail Runners put out an invite for a group run on my local long trail... the Tanawha Trail which skirts below Grandfather Mountain and parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

So, on Saturday morning a group of 8 runners collected in the random April frost. We were still shivering as the full moon descended and the welcomed orb or warmth arrived. With a smattering of beeps signifying modern runner's resumption of movement... we were off on an adventure!

Beacon Heights to Upper Boone Fork
We began at Beacon Heights still foggy and finding our rhythm on the extremely technical trail. The Tanawha here, is mainly comprised of large flat rocks and spindly roots and is very rugged. So, we plodded on and went with the flow of the trail knowing that we would have a minimum of 13.5 miles to cover from end to end. Plus, we had the option of ascending a short 5k one way add on to Calloway Peak atop Grandfather Mountain.

Resting in the woods on a chilly morning
Every couple of miles we would regroup at intersections or beautiful scenic vistas which allowed each of us to run at our own comfortable effort for the day while also getting to chat it up some while refueling and recharging.

A Perfect Spring Day
Once the sun had risen we were all very comfortable with the morning temperatures and quickly shedded layers down to short sleeves and bare hands. The early spring had the trail looking fresh with young grasses and a variety of the tiniest wildflowers lining the trail with splashes of purples, yellows and whites.

Gradually, the Tanawha opens up bit by bit and becomes more runnable. However, still fairly technical through about the halfway mark around Upper Boone Fork where we had stashed supplies. Here we had a choice to make. Either go on to the finish for the 13.5 mile option or... ascend Grandfather Mountain to Calloway Peak.

Originally, Mark and I had loosely committed to making the push to the views above. With such a crystal clear day to take in the scenery we had been making the case for others to join us. We had thought the whole run would take about 5 hours... that we'd be completed around 12 or 1pm at the latest. It was already getting to be about 11:30am... we still had 90 minutes to reach the end of the Tanawha Trail and the trip up to Calloway Peak would add 10k round trip and about 2 hours of moving time... we were looking at a very long day!

How Far Up?
This was the question of the group while we refueled and refilled our stomachs, bottles and bladders. According to the map, the trail is 3.0 miles up... so "Just a 5k" was my answer and became a rallying cry iin the vilification of The Sean over the next 90 minutes of ascent! This "5k concept" sounded reasonable to the group so everybody who had the time to spare for the day decided to strap on their big boy (and girl) pants and go for the summit! We had 6 in the group and we were all smiles... at least to each others faces!

From lower rock outcropping.
We began leap frogging with walkers as we rejoined at junctions and tended to feet and gear for the long haul. During this stretch we passed and were passed by the same couple about 6 six times... we thought it was funny... they thought it was annoying. Eventually we did get clear of them and saw them again on our way down.

Nuwati is comprised of big granite cut in steps, very loose large rocks, washed out rooted sections and a ton of rich, sticky mud. Once we reached the junction with Daniel Boone Scout Trail (halfway up) we were all feeling the day... and a few questions came my way regarding how far this "F$%#ing 5k is..." I think they were kidding...

Despite the fatigue of the moment I knew we'd all be pleased to have made the tough climb to the top together and soak in the adventure of the day and the endless views from atop Grandfather Mountain!

Showing our good side.
Another mile up the trail and we began our scrambling efforts across large boulders utilizing cracks in the mountain to ascend. There were a large volume of hikers on the trail and as we reached nearer Calloway Peak the trail was more and more congested. We did our best to be ambassadors for our runner brethren as we moved on by hikers on muddy, splashing trails.

Finally, we regrouped at the first of the ladders at the final pitch. This series of ladders and cables assist humans in safely making the ascent to the top of Watauga County at 5,964 feet. When it was all said and done that little 5k did have a 1,700 foot climb therein, however I stick to my guns... it was only a 5k!

Atop Calloway Peak things were crowded. We popped out of the thick evergreen lined trail to the small clearing up top to find a large group of hikers. They had come from Upper Boone Fork where we had resupplied.

Atop Calloway Peak... Just a short 5k...

Our group of 6; hyper and fatigued, trail-bonded, euphoric, depleted and likely stinky trail runners were surely a spectacle. We were careful not to encroach though it is pretty tight up there, and we had been moving now for about 5 hours to reach this point so we wanted our share of beauty too!

Jenny kindly requested a photo after our rewarding journey to reach this point! I was so proud to be a part of this group having travelled rough terrain for the entire day! We take it for granted often, but this is a special thing we do!

"Get out of our way and snap our photo!" anonymous runner to hiker (jk).

View down to the lower rock outcropping
The Route Below Us is Behind Us & The Route Ahead Goes Below
From this elevation we could actually see the majority of our morning route from the start at Beacon Heights to the large outcropping and over to the Upper Boone Fork area. Looking down at the rock outcropping far, far, far below when we had our first "climb" of the day put a healthy dose of perspective upon our effort to reach this temporary resting place and also on our final push to where we stood having completed "a little 5k" during our long day.

This Way is Much Shorter...
Now, we had our chance to descend... 5k down down down... just watch your step! We took it easy and smooth in a group of 6 moving methodically across the water damaged trails of the Daniel Boone Scout Trail to eventually rejoin our beloved Tanawha Trail and our drop spot we had left from hours earlier. The hikers this time were less horrified by our fatigue and shared the joy we were experiencing on our downhill reward! "That looks like fun!" they genuinely commented as we whooped and hollered our excitement!

Price Park Picnic or Bust!
Personally, I was feeling fairly awful by now. I was getting hot and feeling a tad roasted in the sun. I took the chance at the Upper Boone Fork Creek to fill up and cool off in the cascades for a minute. From here we had about 6 miles to finish up and finally, the trail was opening up to smooth, rolling and mainly downhill single track. This end of the Tanawha is my favorite section of trail in WNC and so, despite my stiffness and fatigue after 6 1/2 hours out there, I was internally pleased to have a full bottle, good friends, a beautiful day and the willingness to take on this challenge at all!

As trail runners it is so easy to forget how fortunate we are to be healthy enough to believe in ourselves to such a level as to set out on these efforts we undertake. While we might joke about our sanity in this regard I believe this approach to challenging ourselves regularly and taking chances against our doubt is proof of positive well being.

Victory Lap!
Those last 6 miles were a cruise through spring time. We rolled downward on the whole, with a few mostly gentle climbs placed here and there in the landscape. We moved easily through large meadows and felt the spring breeze carry the freshness of the season over us. It is wonderful to savor the waning miles of a long trail day. When the final 30 minutes feels like a snap of the fingers compared to the 8 hours you have just lived to the fullest. The trail grounds down your anxieties and any worries are gone- it is just all good.

Upon reaching the terminus of the Tanawha Trail at the Price Picnic Park we emerged from the rhodo-tunnel into the meadow in a full sprint to the creek at the finish. Horrified, nearby picnickers shielded the eyes of their innocent young ones as these muddied, haggard and sunburned trail warriors emerged into the sunlight at full "speed" and "open" stride!

We bellowed and giggled and yelped our excitement for a day that will be long remembered. Finished, we slowly molted from our mud caked footwear to submerge our bodies and soak in the coolness of the frigid creek, again returning to the coolness of that distant morning.

Happy Running!


  1. I love it -- the "just a 5k part." I've done that climb -- mostly from the other side but once from the Tanawha side. It's pretty epic!

  2. Safe to say, i will always remember this run! Thanks for the memories!

  3. Wow that's quite an ascent! Very cool.

    It is an amazing spring in the mountains. I actually made it up there on saturday.

  4. sounds like a great run... I headed out to Doughton for a ~11-12mi fun run myself.

    btw... have to ask, when you say you took the chance @ upper boone fork creek to fill up... do you drink from the creek or did you have a drop bag?


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