Hiking and backpacking in the nearby forests are favorite outdoor activities for the girls at Rockbrook Camp. The 220-acre camp property hosts hiking trails, long range mountain views, scenic waterfall destinations, and private campsites among old growth trees and beside pristine creeks— all perfect for campers’ hiking adventure.
Hiking has always been a part of Rockbrook’s culture. It’s been one of the main activities girls have enjoyed here for now more than 100 years. Our founder, Nancy Carrier, grew up in this part of western North Carolina exploring its forests, visiting its waterfalls, and climbing the nearby mountains. Being at camp, therefore, meant for her that everyone here would get to know this area, and personally experience all the beauty and wonder it offers. This meant hiking. Today still, this means getting out into the forest and walking among the large trees and immersing ourselves in its rich ecosystem.
Everyday at camp there are opportunities for girls to do a bit of hiking. One of our regular activities, WHOA, which stand for “Wilderness Hiking Outdoor Adventure,” always includes hiking, usually as short trips here on the camp property. There are two popular destinations for these hikes. The first is Rockbrook Falls. This is a multi-tiered waterfall formed by Dunn’s Creek as it tumbles down on the western part if the property. The girls follow a trail that parallels the aqueduct that carries water from Dunn’s Creek to the Rockbrook lake, eventually making it to an old bridge that’s the perfect place to view the falls.
The other popular hiking destination on the camp property is even more dramatic: Castle Rock. It’s the large outcropping of granite high above the camp, the top of which provides an awesome 180-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can imagine, the trail leading to the top is steep and winding as it climbs about 600 feet in elevation. But it’s worth it! Generations of Rockbrook girls have hiked that steep trail to enjoy the spectacular view.
Yesterday, I took a big group of CAs (9th graders) hiking to another, more remote, part of the camp property. We hiked to find the elusive “Kilroy’s cabin,” an old, now dilapidated wooden structure, where a camp legend says a hermit lived, but tragically also died after accidentally murdering his true love, a beautiful, red-haired nurse. Intriguing, I know! It’s particularly challenging to find this cabin because now there is no trail leading to it. Instead, reaching it requires bushwhacking— crawling through bushes, ducking around trees, avoiding briars, sliding down slopes, and navigating by topography. This makes for slow going, especially with a large group, but it also means interacting more with all the rich nature around you, touching more, smelling more, and noticing so much, much more. Inevitably, this is a hike where we all get wet and muddy, sweaty and sometimes scraped up a bit. It’s both challenging and hilarious for the girls.
In addition to these hikes on the camp property, we often take campers hiking in the nearby Pisgah National Forest and Dupont State Forest. Miles of trails and scenic destinations are available in these forests, and here too, Rockbrook girls have been exploring them for years.
Today, I took the Hi-Ups (10th graders) hiking in Dupont to visit High Falls. This 150-ft tall waterfall is formed by the Little River, and is one of the largest waterfalls in the area. It’s a particularly fun destination because you can swim in the pool of water at the bottom. So we came prepared (swimsuits, water shoes and towels), and had a great time swimming up into the whitewater and even sliding down a gently sloping section of the rock. This too is an intense adventure experience, maneuvering over slick rocks, swimming through cold water, and feeling the crashing waterfall on their backs. It was also relaxing at times, just hanging out on the rocks soaking in the power of this huge waterfall.
We are fortunate to have so many wonderful hiking opportunities at Rockbrook. With so much to explore, from some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River to the hundreds of waterfalls nearby, it’s easy to be amazed when hiking in this area. It’s easy for Rockbrook girls to love hiking.
You probably didn’t know it, but Jayne, who has, since 2015, helped Rockbrook girls enjoy adventure trips at camp, also teaches women’s backpacking classes.
You’ve seen Jayne at camp guiding rafts down the Nantahala, leading overnight canoe trips on the French Broad, leading groups through our zipline course, guiding backpacking and camping trips in Pisgah, and leading day hikes in Dupont, just to name few of her adventures with Rockbrook campers.
Every week at Rockbrook, we offer adventure trips out of camp where the girls can hike, swim, paddle or climb in the nearby National or State forests. These trips are always optional; like all the activity offerings here, the girls themselves select whichever they like. Often how they select involves considering who among their friends will also be signing up, what they’ll be missing when out of camp, and sometimes a consideration of what seems new and interesting.
Today a group of girls returned from a backpacking trip through a high elevation area in the Pisgah Forest. Clyde and Jane led the trip that included visiting a waterfall on the Flat Laurel Creek and a morning hike to the summit of Sam Knob (elev. 6050 ft). The girls took some time during the trip to reflect and write about their experience, so I thought it would be nice to publish some of their thoughts. When you read what they wrote, it’s clear they really got a lot out of the experience.
“Though it doesn’t even come close to the excitement and wackiness of Jayne and Clyde’s Everglades adventures that Jayne recalled as we sat around the fire, here is a little recap of our overnight hike. Started with a 45-minute bus ride where I talked with Sarah Jane and Mae about our favorite Netflix movies, our dogs, and our favorite thing about our houses.Then a simple but gorgeous (and mostly flat!) hike to the campsite. Collapsed onto the ground with our packs still buckled. Pitched tents with no help and relaxed in Mae’s Eno hammock. While the burritos warmed on the fire Clyde made, we played the World Map game where we shared memories from our childhood home and where we want to be at age 25. I stood on my tiptoes on a small piece of moss to show how tiny Rhode Island is. That was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip because I learned a lot about people such as: Mia lives in London and used to live in Germany. Jayne told stories around the campfire. Then s’mores (we polished off a 64 marshmallow bag… Ooops). Peed in the wilderness. Bonded with tent mates as we successfully removed two mating daddy longlegs and a moth, then talked about life. Clocked out at 11ish. Then up and at ‘em at 5:15am for sunrise hike! HA HA just kidding. Mother Nature decided to rain on our parade so back to bed until 8:30. Woke up (part 2) to oatmeal and packing then stunning waterfall, then top of Sam Knob then back to the bus. I’d say first overnight hike = GREAT SUCCESS!!” — Ellery
“I’ll preface by saying that I am not someone who considers herself athletic. Not in the slightest. However, if you were to tell me that Rockbrook was offering a position on the same overnight hike that I just returned from, I’d accept that offer in a blink of an eye. This trip pushed me in so many ways and although the saying goes “nothing changes overnight” I certainly returned to base camp with a new notch on my belt that will (and already has) help me grow as a person. On this hike I learned that pitching a tent easily and very quickly reveals one’s inner character. Some think rationally and set up the tent within a matter of minutes. Others take their time cracking jokes and making fools of themselves. Some others offer their help without being asked. Some might lay low in the helping department (and in the hammock at the campsite) and provide entertainment. These characters discovered early on in the trip, continue to blossom and to take new forms. The trailblazer, the campfire storyteller, the pack mule who is more than willing to lessen another’s load, and the photographer, observing the action and capturing it as they relax on a sturdy rock. Each character is integral and a crucial part of the hiking experience. With each of these characters by my side, it suddenly became much easier to hike. It was the difference between exercise being a burden and an adventure.” — Sarah Jane
“Well, it sure was a trip, but I enjoyed every bit of it. Being out in nature with friends is truly one of the most enjoyable experiences. Even when wet, dirty, and overall just disgusting, we can look past the inconveniences and still keep a good attitude. I know that this trip will definitely be held in my memory for many years. I made new friends, and got to know past friends even better. I learned new tricks, both for camping and for knot tying. It was a great first-time backpacking experience. I always felt strong and powerful, like I was ready to take on the world, one muddy trail at a time. Of course, I wouldn’t go it alone. I would travel far and wide, but I would never have to look for a friend because I would always have many with me. Even when clean clothes, games and food were short, we could spend time together to feel fresh, entertained and fulfilled. I think that’s why I was never hungry on the trip. Even though we hiked a lot, sweat a lot, and burned tons of calories, I survived on one burrito, some oatmeal, and trail mix. Truly fascinating. I guess being hot, sweaty, tired, and hungry is no match for the good feeling you get from being outside with friends. I could tell that I had a good time even when I wasn’t doing anything in particular. I would walk down the trail, red-faced and sticky, and I would be beaming, even when there wasn’t anything to smile at. It’s something I could get used to.” — Mae
“Over the whole trip we hiked 5 miles, saw many pretty views, and got to sleep in tents. Even though we were different ages we all bonded so much. We all learned something new about each person. It was beautiful. I have never seen anything like it. It was so magical and an experience I will never forget. When we woke up, we went on a hike to a waterfall. It was super special because we got to look behind us to see the top of the waterfall, and in front of us to see a view of some beautiful mountains. Then we went to the top of Sam Knob, and the view was breathtaking. I would not trade the experience for the world. Then we hiked back and we were all exhausted, but knew it was all worth it. Back to the first day, we hiked 2 miles in just under an hour. It did not feel long at all. It was not that steep. It felt pretty flat. When we got to our campsite someone was already there, so we went back to a vacant spot for us to sleep. We learned all about what to look for as a sign of a good campsite. We also learned how to leave no trace by packing it out. We had to figure out how to put up a tent with no help. After we got our sleeping situation all figured out, we sat around the campfire and learned a lot about where we all live and what we want to be doing when we’re 25. We ate our burritos and s’mores as we talked. Then played a few riddle games including black magic and the elephant game. Overall it was super fun, and an experience I will never forget.” — Mia
“On this trip I experienced amazing new things that I never would have before. First, we hiked two miles of a straight path with a few muddy spots. It took us a little while to find the perfect camp spot but when we did it felt so nice to take our bags off. We set up camp and then made a campfire. Then we learned things about each other by playing world map while our burritos got warm by the fire. Even though some of the burritos were burnt, they were still delicious. Afterwards, we told stories and had s’mores. We played black magic, which I did not understand for a long time. Then we went to our tents because we were all exhausted. Even though we were really tired it took us a while to go to sleep. When we woke up at 5:15am we were even more tired. It started raining so we all decided to go back to sleep instead of seeing the sunrise. The second time we woke up it wasn’t raining and we went for a hike to a waterfall. It was gorgeous! By the end of the waterfall, my shoes and socks and feet were soaking wet, but at least it was so fun. Then we hiked to the top of Sam Knob. It was tiring, wet, and muddy, but all of that made the hike better. And when we finally got to the top it was one of the prettiest views I have ever seen. From beginning to end, this hike was and always will be an amazing memory I will never forget.” — Emma
“From the minute I hopped off the bus and felt the weight of the pack on my back, I knew I was in for something special. I have to say, knowing that I have never done a trip like this before I probably would have never learned as much as I did if I didn’t have Jayne and Clyde and Rebecca. They really just made the trip with the games and the hikes and their leave no trace knowledge. I feel so enlightened. I also learned a lot from the campers like how to set up a tent. Ha Ha. I don’t think I would have had the bravery to hike down that waterfall if I didn’t have them with me either. The waterfall ended up being the most exciting part of the hike. When I stood on that rock and looked at the view ahead I just felt everything in me break free. All the tension and tightness in my back from the pack just released off me. Those are the kind of feelings I live for. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to venture out of the city and feel the breath of life and see mountains of trees and never ending skies. I also love the huge space of just grass and flowers, the meadow where we dropped our backpacks off. It’s another whole feeling being in the mountains and this trip is one I will never forget.” — Karma
We pulled up to the Fish Hatchery in Pisgah National Forest, ready for a backpacking overnight. In the van were four middlers, four seniors, and three staff members all ready and excited for the night that awaited us. We got all of our gear ready and spent time adjusting our backpacks before taking a picture and doing some basic introductions. Some of the girls were great friends while others just signed up because backpacking sounded exciting and new. After taking a ‘before’ picture, we were off to our campsite, Pickelseimer Fields (but at Rockbrook, we call it The Enchanted Forest) before heading to John Rock for sunset.
On the way to the campsite, girls talked and laughed, but mostly stayed in their age groups. We stopped a lot for water breaks and bathroom breaks, and the question, “Are we almost there?” was commonly heard. This is normal: backpacks make every hike more exhausting, and going uphill is particularly challenging. In between, though, we also practiced a bird call that could help us get each other’s attention (coo-ee) and we sang a few camp songs because they make even the most exhausting moments better.
We were in no hurry at all, and during the flat parts, we enjoyed crossing wooden bridges and walking through muddy patches. On parts of the trail, the trees formed a kind of tunnel and it became clear why it was called The Enchanted Forest. As we stopped for a water break after a particularly tiring hill, we started talking about the three types of fun. One of the seniors explained. Type 1 Fun is like the fun of a roller coaster or a nice day at the beach; it’s easy fun that does not require much effort, but also does not give much personal satisfaction. Type 2 Fun is like a long hike. It may be challenging as it is happening, but afterward, you look back at it and would do it again because it was fulfilling and meaningful. Type 3 Fun is something you would not want to do again but it gets you where you need to be (portaging a canoe or waiting out a lightning storm). While explaining this, the senior suggested that this hike was Type 2 fun and ensured the younger girls that they would look back at it and be proud they did it.
Even with stops and starts, we were at our campsite within thirty minutes of the time that we left the parking lot of the Fish Hatchery. We found a great campsite near a creek that had a big firepit and plenty of room for camping. Each age group had their own tent, so we encouraged everyone to quickly pitch their tents so we could catch the sunset at John Rock. As the girls were preparing their tents, two of us found a perfect sourwood tree over the creek to hang the bear bag. After eating a few snacks and getting more water, we were off for our hike.
At first, the hike was easy as we did not have backpacks weighing us down. We climbed over fallen trees and crossed creeks, hoping the sun was still up, though we could not see it through the branches. At one point, we came across a bees’ nest, and a couple of girls got stung. Everyone was a little shaken up, but none of the girls were allergic, so we decided to take a break and regroup. We have been trained in wilderness medicine, so we treated everyone’s stings and mostly tried to calm down as a group. As we treated stings, the seniors kept everyone else distracted and calm by getting to know the middlers. In fact, one of the seniors mentioned to me later that she was quite scared of the stings, but she knew that if she was calm about it, the middlers would be too. They started playing a game, “pancakes or waffles,” and slowly, everyone started to calm down, ready to continue hiking.
We looked at the map and decided that, if possible, we should not go back the same way we had just come (because of the bees). The trail looped in such a way that we could get back to the camp site by passing John Rock and going around a different way. We continued hiking as twilight hit, and we made it to John Rock while there was still light in the sky. The view took our breaths away. We were astonished by the vastness of the forest and by our smallness. Instantly after stepping on the rock, we all agreed that the journey was worth it.
It’s a truth that I have found in hiking: no matter how difficult a journey may be, reaching the destination makes every moment of tiredness and every obstacle okay. You realize that it was always going to be okay, though you could not always see it, and the immediate reward makes any past adversity almost vanish from your mind.
After getting a few pictures and taking the view in, we decided it was time to head back to camp. We continued following our loop, ready with water bottles and flashlights. We walked and walked, and some girls got tired and nervous as we continued to check the map. We always knew where we were, but the hike did take longer than we originally anticipated because we were walking around a loop. We talked to the girls and showed them where they were, but we also let them take care of each other. The senior girls stepped in again, keeping up good spirits and laughing throughout the hike. They played games and assured the middlers that they had no reason to be scared.
The beautiful part of this story is that it worked. All of the girls who were nervous were able to dig in and keep walking further than they thought possible. At some point, everyone realized that asking how much further we had to go was counterproductive. We entered a point where we realized reaching our destination was something we would do together and only putting one foot in front of the other would help us get there. When we turned on to the bypass or realized we were at the final stretch, we all rejoiced together. When we saw the bear bag hanging over the tree on the creek, we cheered and hugged, relieved that we had all completed this adventure, supremely satisfied with the work we had just done. It was Type 2 fun (or as one senior said, Type 2.5 Fun), and we were filled up in a way that we had rarely experienced.
When we got back to the campsite, we made a small fire and ate burritos. The girls roasted marshmallows and we read a few thoughts about teamwork that related to our journey. A former NOLS instructor, Morgan Hite, once reflected, “Life can be simple and this is a good place to experience that. We need to be tired and cold and hungry, and then make ourselves a hot meal and go to our sleeping bags to realize that life is complete and how rarely we experience that.” At the end of the day, we were tired and hungry, but we were able to work through these things because we were part of a team. We had everything we needed, but we never would have known it without going on such a journey.
The next morning, we ate oatmeal and effortlessly hiked out. There was lightness in the air as everyone talked and laughed, no longer divided by age groups, but bonded together by yesterday’s adventures. We no longer cared about wearing heavy backpacks or getting muddy shoes (it also helped that we were journeying downhill). The final thing we did was to take an ‘after’ picture, in the exact same positions we were in the day before.
The picture was great, but could not accurately capture the journey we had been through together. We made an arc during this backpacking trip: we started somewhere and ended up somewhere different. Over the course of sixteen hours, the seniors were leaders and role models, pushing past their own tiredness or bee stings for the greater good of the group. The middlers became great team members and realized that, despite being pushed a little, they were able to accomplish whatever their goal was. The risk of real danger was low throughout the entire journey. We had a map, water, fully stocked first aid kit, and a lot of experience on our side.
Even so, our hike was real. The only way back was for all of us to work together, to pay attention, and to keep walking. We couldn’t take a shortcut or conjure a hot plate of food. But I think that is what makes backpacking such a profound experience. We work for everything we have, so even just arriving back to a tent site is cause for a celebration. We give ourselves a real-time challenge (getting to a destination) and we rely on each person we are with to help us solve it.
We got back a few days ago, and ever since we have been back, I have noticed the backpackers still look at each other a little differently. They still talk about their experiences, and we are making bracelets from the bear bag rope as a symbol of the bond. We all grew through the challenge, learned a lot about each other, and learned a lot about ourselves.
We took the CA campers on a hike to John Rock yesterday. All 20 of them, their 5 counselors, Jessi and Jeff made the mostly uphill hike from the fish hatchery to the rock. It’s a fantastic walk through the woods, crossing several streams and moving between micro-environments. Ferns, and then mountain laurels. Rocks, then a grove of just white pine trees. Right now the mountain laurels are blooming, so parts of the trail wind you through a tunnel of white and pink flowers. Then at the top it’s a breath-taking view across to Looking Glass Rock (in the background of this photo), one of the most remarkable feature in the entire Pisgah National Forest.
We took the hike to discuss what this session’s banquet theme will be. Starting with almost 40 different ideas, these 9th graders slowly narrowed down the list and finally settled on a fantastic idea. For the rest of the session, they’ll work on decorations, costumes, skits, songs, dances, and a special menu to match their theme. It’s a big event, and a big surprise for everyone else in camp. Stay tuned for the big reveal!
Let’s not forget hiking! All the girls who come to Rockbrook can count on a hiking and camping adventure. It’s not required or anything, but just about everybody takes a special trip out of camp to spend a night camping out in the forest, either at one of our outposts (at the Nantahala River or nearby camp below Dunns Rock) or in the nearby Pisgah National Forest. Even the youngest campers look forward to being outdoors, sleeping in their sleeping bag, messing around with their flashlight 🙂 and of course, making s’mores over the campfire.
Hiking and camping like this is big fun for the girls, but more than that, it reconnects them with nature. Away from the ordinary distractions of being inside (home, school, car), they settle down and become more aware of the world around them. This makes it easier to appreciate the people around them too, and thereby to make friends. It’s amazing, but hiking and camping provides an almost magical context for girls to enjoy being with each other while at the same time growing socially.
Here’s a picture of a hiking group at the top of Castle Rock, one of the two massive rocks on the Rockbrook Camp property (the other one being Dunn’s Rock). From up there, the view is out across the French Broad River Valley and out to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s an amazing spot to see Cedar Rock (another climbing destination) and on a clear enough day, Tennent Mountain (a backpacking spot up near the Shining Rock Wilderness area). Sitting at this spot on Castle Rock your elevation is almost 2,450 feet above sea level. Below you is a 150 foot rock cliff and further below is the main part of camp which has an elevation of 2,250 feet.
You knew hiking the trail from camp to Castle Rock was steep uphill; now you know how much! You’re hiking up about 200 feet in about half a mile. Sure there are switch-backs, but that trail is steep!