Pairing: Hiking And Beer (Special Edition – North Carolina)

I told you I might be back with some special edition pairings!  Here’s one!

In Part 2 of 3, I featured the great state of Vermont.  However, I suggested that either Vermont or North Carolina is the beer mecca of the east coast.

Well, I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend (April 27-28, 2013) in beautiful western North Carolina!  My friend Ross who I have worked with the past two summers at Camp Walt Whitman invited me to spend the weekend at his mountain cabin outside of Asheville. I have had the privilege of visiting Asheville, NC three times over the past four years, and enjoy in three great hikes in the area!  The three hikes I’ve done are Greybeard Mountain, Crabtree Falls, and Catawba Falls.

Let me start by mentioning that I cannot say enough about western North Carolina, or the southern Appalachians overall.  Writing this post fills me with a huge amount of emotion that I don’t think I can put into words.  I have been grateful for the opportunity live in and explore the Blue Ridge the past four years.  The southern Appalachians are extremely amazing, diverse, and inspiring. These mountains are filled with history, biological wonders, culture (including food and music), and wisdom.  The mountains are keepers of important stories, skills, and knowledge of an ancient past.  Yet that rich essence is being threatened in certain places by modern greed.  The mountains are still tall, but old and worn down by erosion over geologic time.  However, they’re bigger than any other mountain range, in another sense.  You have to visit to feel what I’m talking about.

And what better reason to visit than for great hikes and great beer?  I can’t think of one.

North Carolina

Catawba Falls and all of Asheville.  All of Asheville…can I say that?  Well, I’ll narrow it down later in the post.

The Hike

In honor of my most latest visit to Asheville, I’ll highlight the hike I did most recently.  Catawba Falls is a beautiful waterfall that can be enjoyed by all.  The falls comes in two parts, the upper and lower falls.

along the trail
along the trail

The hike to the lower falls is about 1.5 miles (3 miles roundtrip).  It is an easy hike, that doesn’t necessarily need a map to navigate, making it accessible for almost everybody.  The most difficult part is a fairly wide stream crossing, that I imagine can be difficult in very high water.  Be sure to be careful crossing the rocks in your waterproof boots, or ditch the boots all together and walk barefoot through the stream.

There are nice spots along the trail, including stream views, smaller waterfalls, and old foundations of dams and associated buildings.  As is typical in much of western North Carolina, there is a generous amount of rhododendron growing along the creek and trail.  Personally, I love rhododendron choked woods, as they have a sheltered and somewhat ‘tropical’ feel to me.

When you arrive at the lower falls, you will not be disappointed.  I can’t speak to when there is low water, but in high water like the day we had (pouring rain all day), the falls were a towering, loud, and powerful presence from our view below.  Inspiring.

friend Steve admiring the lower falls
friend Steve admiring the lower falls. notice all the rhododendron.

The short hike to lower Catawba falls is a treat in itself, but for the adventure seekers and able bodied out there, the upper falls only adds to the grandeur of this falls!  The hike to the upper falls is around 1/2 mile, but is difficult, strenuous, and somewhat dangerous.  It goes up a very steep and eroded, dirt and rock hillside along the right side of lower falls.  It requires hand over hand climbing, holds on tree roots, and even bolted and fixed ropes in a few particularly steep, rocky areas.

Ross, enjoying the wet climb
Ross, enjoying the wet climb

My friends and I had great fun on this section.  The slickness added extra spice to the trail and hike.  However, this section might not be for everyone.  Be sure that you are comfortable with this difficult climb before you go blindly ahead.  However, if you decide that you’d like to do this extra bit to the upper falls, your hard work will pay off.

The upper falls is secluded, tall, and powerful.  It’s more of a straight down cascade than the lower falls, providing a different experience to the viewer.  It also has a decent sized pool below it, that may be swimmable in the warmer months.

Carefully, retrace your steps back down to the lower falls and then your car.  A roughly 4 mile out-and-back that features two absolutely beautiful cascades and varying conditions to satisfy all types of hikers!

Steve, myself, and Ross at the upper falls
Steve, myself, and Ross at the upper falls

Directions:  From Asheville, take I-40 east to Exit 73 at Old Fort. Before the exit ramp ends, take the right hand turn onto Catawba River Rd. If you are coming from east of Old Fort on I-40 west, take Exit 73, turn left and take the first right before McDonalds (on ramp to get back onto I-40). Turn left onto Catawba River Rd. Drive three miles to the end of the road to the parking lot.

The Beer

This is a tough one for me, because there is so much good beer in western North Carolina!  I’ll say this, after our day in the pouring rain, I was in the mood for a beer that was full bodied and that would ‘warm me up’ so to speak.  So, all I could think about all day was Green Man Brewery’s Porter!  It is hands down one of my favorite Porters I’ve ever had.  It’s exactly what I got as soon as we got to Asheville post-hike.

However, since most people don’t go out in the pouring rain, this beer pairing might be better thought of in the context of a bright, sunny, and warm day.  And for that kind of day,  I think of three extremely appetizing characteristics:  light, crisp, and Belgian!

Despite WNC’s amazing beer scene, Belgian style beers are not the most common in the area.  That doesn’t mean they’re not around (at Wedge, Thirsty Monk’s brewpub in South AVL, and Wicked Weed), but the scene tends to be dominated by American and UK style beers.  I think this can be attributed to the fact that the main European settlers to western North Carolina were Scotch-Irish, bringing over the brewing history of their native region.

Wicked Weed's barrel program
Wicked Weed’s barrel program

However, if you’re craving a Belgian after your hike, look no further than a Wit Bier or Saison at Wicked Weed Brewing Company!  Wicked Weed is a very new brewery to Asheville, but they are doing amazing things, including American Ales, Belgian Ales, Sours, Barrel Aged, and cask beers.  A very expansive program they’ve got going on.

Their IX Apricot Saison comes in at an easy drinking 5.2 percent.  It is light in color, but big on flavor, and exciting with each time it touches your lip.  The base saison is displayed beautifully, with hints of apricot and peach providing additional layers to every sip.  A bright and lively beer like a saison is the type of beer that can excite all of the senses and wake the drinker up for an evening filled with fun and friends.  Definitely the kind of beer that is needed after a hike!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
the downstairs bar at Wicked Weed

Wicked Weed is in a prime location, just next to world-class music venue The Orange Peel, and within walking distance to the rest of downtown Asheville.  Wicked Weed also has a full menu of food.  It is a great to gather, linger, and enjoy with friends over some fine ales!  A must stop in Asheville!

don't forget to grab a growler!
don’t forget to grab a growler!

More Info:

Green Man Brewery – http://greenmanbrewery.com/

Wicked Weed Brewing – http://www.wickedweedbrewing.com/

All other Asheville Breweries – http://www.exploreasheville.com/foodtopia/food-adventures/asheville-beer/#breweries

Conclusion:

You could spend a lifetime exploring the hikes and the brews in western North Carolina!  The scene for both is tremendous!  But, don’t let the vast nature and plethora of options intimidate you!  Go to WNC, jump in, explore, see and taste everything you can.  It is a gem of America, and certainly of the East.  A beautiful place, where the beers flow just as gracefully as the waterfalls!

Trails and ales…

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