Frying Pan Mountain Lookout Tower

Some days are ordinary. Other days are extraordinary. Yesterday was what I refer to as a bookmark day.

I woke up in a church where I had spent the night volunteering as a chaperon for several homeless families, which provided me with some very valuable perspective. Next, I picked up some Chik-Fil-A for myself and the wife and headed home. After breakfast, we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway to spend the day in the mountains. Parts of the Parkway are closed for half of the year due to icy road conditions, so we try to make the most of it in the summertime. Once autumn rolls around, the area gets clogged with narcissistic motorcyclists, lane-hogging RV’ers, and tortoise-paced retirees who putt from town to town to watch the leaves change.

We decided to finally climb the fabled Frying Pan Mountain Lookout Tower, which sits atop Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. The tower was built in 1941 and is around 70 feet tall. It provides panoramic views of Cold Mountain, Pisgah National Forest, Shining Rock Wilderness Area, and Mount Mitchell, which is the highest point west of the Rockies.

You couldn’t paint a prettier day. Aside from some brisk winds, it was picturesque. And the Blue Ridge Mountains were proving to be a little smoky, which is always fun. We had no trouble finding the entrance to the trail, which is marked by a gated gravel road and a narrow hiking trail. As we entered the trail, we encountered an elderly couple that was camping nearby. They wasted no time in telling us in excessive detail just how many bears were in the immediate area. As their warnings became more dire, so did the pain in my bicep from the wife’s vise-like grip.

As they spoke, a fog started to roll in. It was like the opening scene of a horror film.

You know how all horror movies seem to be the same? You shake your head disapprovingly as the main characters get stranded in the middle of nowhere – without cell coverage – and decide to abandon the main road for a sketchy dirt road that’s always steeped in an eerie mist. Then you think “what are they doing” as they meander up to a shack with dead animals hanging from the eaves and bloody farm tools everywhere. Then you say “these idiots deserve what’s coming” when they voluntarily walk into the house of horrors.

That’s what the onset of our hike was like. As we entered the forest, the fog continued to creep in and the wind contorted into a low howl. We were utterly alone and we could only see about twenty-five feet in front of us.

I’m not going to lie; I grew up watching Gentle Ben and Yogi Bear, so I was eager to spy a bear until I saw two large piles of what I can only assume was black bear scat. That’s when the fantasy edged closer into the realm of reality and my eagerness turned into anxiety. At that point the wind started to howl and the fog thickened. My mind began to replay scenes from every horror movie I’d ever seen. At any moment, I expected a young, scantily-clad Jamie Lee Curtis to run shrieking by.

The wife, being a fervid Jazzercier, was forcing me to literally run up the mountain. She was so sure we’d encounter Gentle Ben’s angry, inbred cousin that she was clutching my keys between her knuckles in a sort of ‘key claw.’ I had to stop her halfway up the mountain to tell her that I couldn’t keep up. She didn’t want to ease up at all until I explained that, at that pace, I’d have no energy left to mitigate the inevitable bear attack. She slowed down at once.

As we walked through the dense fog and forest, I got the distinct impression that Hansel and Gretel had come this way. It didn’t help the overall mood when I casually commented that we were in a part of the forest where “no one could hear us scream.” And the wife’s attitude worsened considerably when she asked, “what do you do if a bear comes out,” and I sarcastically retorted, “I run away faster than you do.”

We couldn’t see the lookout tower until we were upon it. By that point, the wind was whipping faster than anything I’ve ever walked through. I’m sure it’s always windy at the top of the mountain, but this had to have something to do with Hurricane Irene, which was directly to the east of us at the time. It wasn’t stormy, meaning there wasn’t any thunder or lightning. It was as if we were in a damp, high-speed cloud that was more fun than any amusement park ride I’ve ever ridden. You could actually lean into it a little and not fall over.

At this point, sane people would turn around. I don’t want to get into a thought experiment about what it says about me, but my gut reaction was one of childlike eagerness. I figured that we’d come all this way and we might as well climb the damn tower. The wife wasn’t pleased, but she struck a confident pose. I was pretty impressed.

It was with mixed feelings as we started to climb the tower. When we got one flight up the stairs, it became obvious that we were battling 50 mile-per-hour winds, and that’s a conservative estimate. The tower was shaking like a twizzler in a toddler’s hands. The warped, rusty stairs were wet and slippery.

The wife shot me that glare that every husband recognizes as the “I do this at your peril” face. I responded sincerely that “we don’t have to go any higher.” As soon as the words left my lips, she scuttled down the steps. I lingered a while with a boyish grin on my face and then worked my way back down to the base of the tower. I gently rubbed the wife’s shoulder and asked intrepidly, “are you ready to go back down and face the great bear menace?” When she hesitated, I realized that there was a window for a little more adventure. I was shocked when she boldly asserted, “I’m gonna do this thing,” and worked her way back up the wobbly staircase.

By the time we got to the top (or as far as you can go before you encounter a gate), the wind was rushing even faster. That inherent voice inside me started to assert with vehemence that, “if this thing topples, we don’t walk away.” But I wrestled my common sense into submission and enjoyed my time on the trembling tower.

Being the wise, amateur historian that I am, I decided it was more important to capture the moment on film than to hold onto the rails. I took this 30-second video:

For a comparison, click here to see what the view looks like on a clear day.

We finally descended the vibrating staircase and stepped onto the damp, but stable, ground. As we worked our way back down the path, the wind slowed, the skies started to clear, and the fog thinned a bit. I snapped a few more pictures that showed the area in greater detail.

I looked to the right and spied a power line that a bear had recently used to sharpen its claws and mark its territory. Our pace immediately sped from casual to brisk. After another bend in the trail, we passed a single, elderly fellow on his way up the mountain. I murmured to the wife, “both of us can outrun that guy.” We giggled to ourselves and our mood relaxed.

As we finally emerged from the forest and started driving south down the Blue Ridge Parkway, the skies cleared up completely. It was as if the entire episode had been engineered for our pleasure.

From there, we drove to downtown Asheville, where we had an excellent meal on the patio at Bistro 1896. I highly recommend the food and the people-watching. Next, I calmed the wife’s nerves with a dozen cinnamon-apple donuts from Sky Top Orchard. Finally, we drove back home where we sat on the front porch swing and enjoyed the unseasonably cool weather over a glass of white wine.

Like I said, it was a bookmark day.

Here are the pictures of the hike. Click on the first image to enlarge, then use your right arrow key to advance:

We’ll go back and get some pictures of the mountaintop panorama on a prettier day. I got a picture of a coyote that walked right past me on Mount Mitchell a few years ago. Maybe next time we’re at the lookout tower, I’ll finally get to see a black bear.

One a side note, the wife and I recently revisited Issaqueena Falls and got some pictures of the view from the hidden ledge beneath the waterfall.

Frying Pan Mountain Lookout Tower
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