Monday, July 26, 2010

A Quick Drive from Baltimore to Asheville

Much like Jazzfest in New Orleans the end of April, so Bele Chere in Asheville has become my favorite late July destination. My preferred manner of transportation to both cities is to drive---from Baltimore. Doing so provides a rare opportunity to sit still, listen to music, photograph appealing scenery along the way, check out interesting restaurants, and especially make a stop or two related to minerals.

As time permits, I like to spend as much time as possible first on the Skyline Drive and then the Blue Ridge Parkway. Enhancing my trip down the former was a glossy gift shop book entitled Geology along Skyline Drive: A Self-Guided Tour For Motorists, by Robert L Badger.

This book included a trail loaded with remarkable geological phenomena and afforded a great opportunity to monitor the extent of my recovery from last year's hip replacement. It was the 1.2 mile Bearfence Mountain loop with its awesome but reasonably safe rock scramble. Setting out from a trailhead at Mile 56.4, the first several hundred yards reveal rocks that quickly change from sandstone to phyllite to conglomerate to quartzite, until metabasalt takes over just before the scramble begins.

That's where some columnar metabasaltic joints, which curiously head out in two different directions raise questions regarding how they were formed millions of years ago. The Bearfence Mountain summit with its wonderful views and numerous comfortable perches for enjoying them is about a third of the way through the scramble and as far as some opt to navigate. Beyond the summit, the oppotunity to scramble continues in a southerly direction blazed by blue markers until reaching the Appalachian Trail.

Along the way, a volcanic breccia covers much of the metabasalt. Within the breccia are occasional air vesicles filled with minerals said to include feldspar, hematite, epidote, quartz and chlorite. Visually, they could almost pass for weathered black garnets.

After Bearfence, I next stopped at Mile 74.5 to check out the slickenlines and a few relatively colorful epidote pods adjacent to the Loft Mountain Overlook pulloff. My Skyline Drive geology book described slickenlines as "parallel lines or narrowly spaced shallow grooves formed by the movement of one mass of solid rock over another---commonly found on faults or in zones where the rocks were stressed." They were easy enough to find, and an example of what they look like is shown at left.

  The epidote pods, at least colourful ones, required a bit more searching Though epidote is common in this part of the Blue Ridge, its presence is often obscured (unless you bust open rocks) by lichens, moss, dirt, and general weathering. The most colourful example I was able to find without breaking open any rocks is shown in the photo at right.

Arriving in Roanoke early enough for dinner meant having to leave Skyline Drive about 50 miles further along before it becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway and then speed west across I-64 for about ten miles then southwest down I-81 for another hundred or so. My dinner was apt reward for this effort. Traveling solo, I ended up sitting at the bar in the Metro Cafe, one of Roanoke's more upscale and envelope pushing dining establishments. What really impressed me---I used to blog about exotic food before moving on to minerals---was that its appetizer menu featured chicken feet. Chicken feet are common fare in New York's or San Francisco's Chinatowns, but even in these cities I have yet to observe them on the menu at a "new American" style restaurant such as the Metro. Messy for sure, and I had to request a finger bowl, but what a great prelude to the BLT featuring pancetta and heirloom tomato slices that followed.

The next morning, inspired by the Falcon Guide book, Best easy day hikes: Blue Ridge Parkway by Randy Johnson, I departed Roanoke via the Blue Ridge Parkway to explore the Rock Castle Gorge hike. Its trailhead is reached by turning left from the Parkway on VA Route 8 at Milepost 165.3 and heading downhill to turn right on VA Route 605, then driving to where it dead ends. Attracting me to this hike was the following quote from Randy Johnson: "Sycamores and copious quartz outcrops are everywhere (the six sided quartz crystals prevalent here reminded residents of castle towers, hence the name of the gorge)." The section of the trail noted for its sycamores and quartz outcrops, however, left me somewhat underwhelmed and hardly enthusiastic about looking for a place to dig. Blame it if you will on a heavy cover of forested vegetation. Soon after returning to my car and reaching I-81, I observed quartz outcroppings that really did seem to be everywhere in the in hilly open fields to my left. Tlhough tempting locations in which to dig, doing so would entail parking illegally along the ramp of this major interstate, climbing a barbed wire fence, trespassing, and moving earth on someone's property in the presence of a myriad motorists, some of them surely police.

Asheville was still 200 miles away. By dark I was checked in at the Skyland Inn near Little Switzerland at Milepost 331. Close by is the North Carolina Mineral Museum, which features mining history much more so than minerals and their localities. Also nearby are resorts, gem oriented gift shops, a couple of salted "gem mines," and some great views. I stayed at the Skyline Inn, an older and somewhat rustic establishment, which comprised all these things in one package along with restaurant and a tiki bar.

Although the Little Switzerland area is completely tourist oriented, the route from here to Asheville along Routes 226 and then 19E passes near more varied and accessible mineral collecting localities than does any other stretch of highway I'm aware of in the United States. There are at least a dozen places to collect, and all the information needed to find them and know what to look for is in the book Rock, Gem, and Mineral collecting Sites in Western North Carolina by Richard James Jacquot, Jr. Depending on the amount of walking necessary, combing two or three of these localities in a day should be realistic. At some point, perhaps this fall, I look forward to returning for a week to check out as many as possible.

The more direct route to Asheville that I took continues to follow the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its scenery is breathtaking in spots, and along the way, a 1.2 mile roundtrip hike to to the Craggy Pinnacle summit from the parking area at Mile 364.5 proved to be an inordinately pleasant a leg stretcher. Aware of 98 degree temperatures in Asheville, my stroll through quasi-Arctic vegetation to a vista where with 360 degree views and 65 degree themperatures couldn't have been more pleasant. Asheville was next. The rest of my trip will be chronicled in the next Mineral Bliss post.

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