Elk Knob State Park, New River and the Todd community
For the inexperienced hiker, it can seem quite daunting to trek up the 1.8-mile summit trail at Elk Knob State Park off Meat Camp Road in Todd. But the wide gravel trails at the bottom and the switchbacks higher up reduce it to a moderately challenging hike through the dense woods.
You can stop and rest on stone benches and delight in the wintergreen smell from the yellow birch trees. More than halfway up, you see mounds of green moss on rocks and ferns scattered throughout the forest.
It takes about an hour to reach the 5,520-foot summit. To the north, you see White Top Mountain in Virginia and Pilot Mountain in Surry County. To the south, are Mt. Mitchell — the highest mountain east of the Mississippi — Roan Mountain, Grandfather Mountain and Beech Mountain.
"This is my first time up here," says Katie Gray, chief naturalist at Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. "The views are incredible. You can get a 360-degree view up here."
Besides the beautiful vista and new summit trail that was completed in September 2011, Elk Knob Park — which is part of the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation service area — has a unique ecosystem.
"We are at the headwaters of the North Fork of the New River," says Elk Knob State Park superintendent Larry Trivette. "This is a high elevation park with northern hardwood forest. There are a lot of beech and birch trees. At the top, the beech trees are stunted because of the extreme weather and only reach 10 to 12 feet."
Elk Knob park's bedrock is predominantly amphibolite, a dark metamorphic rock that breaks down into a sweet soil that supports rare plants like Gray's lily and large purple fringed orchid. "You don't see rhododendron, white pine and hemlock in this park like in other mountainous areas of North Carolina," says Trivette.
The forest and rock outcrops also support a number of neotropical songbirds such as the chestnut-sided warbler and a variety of wildlife, including the black bear, bobcat, wild turkey and white-tailed deer.
Besides hiking the park's new trail, visitors can cross-country ski and snowshoe on trails that head down into the cove. Contact the park office to get directions before heading out in the snow, says Elk Knob park ranger Kelly Safley.
This spring, new backpack campsites will open. "You can hike [in] from one to two miles," says Trivette. "We will have two group camps and six additional camps for four to six people."
The Todd community
After leaving the park, follow NC 194 to Todd. When you see the sign, go down a steep hill to the peaceful community that is on the South Fork of the New River and straddles both Ashe and Watauga counties.
Originally called Elk X Roads, the tiny village reached its heyday during the early part of the 20th century when it was at the end of the Virginia-Carolina railroad.
Seventeen historical buildings are nestled in the valley, including the restored Elkland Depot that now houses RiverGirl Fishing Co.
Not far from the depot is the Todd General Store with its wide front porch and pressed tin siding. "Many of the buildings in Todd are covered in pressed tin because of a fire in 1920 that burned the depot and two stores," says Jim Lewis, president of the Todd Community Preservation Organization.
Inside the store, which was established in 1914, a variety of memorabilia is displayed on the counters and walls, including a bronze 1914 National cash register. On the back wall, advertisements for Green's Muscadine Punch and Old Fashioned Root Beer bring you back to a simpler time.
"I come down here twice a year and always come to the Todd General Store," says Shawn Seim of Rochester, Mass. "I love the old feel of the store, the old floors and old history."
Folks also frequent the store for the antiques and food. "We come for the great grilled cheese and Reuben sandwiches and the bottled drinks that remind me of my childhood," says Dan Hassig, a Blue Electric co-op member in Fleetwood.
During the spring, summer and fall, the store comes alive with the sweet sounds of bluegrass music, as well as storytelling and book signings. "All of the store's activities are related to Appalachian culture," says Virginia Mann, who owns the store along with her husband Robert Mann.
If you have a sweet tooth, head over to the Todd Mercantile & Bakery where an old wood stove sits in the middle of the downstairs. New owners Helen Barnes Rielly and Jack Rielly will be selling staples for local customers, as well as artists' work. The couple is also hoping to build a stage upstairs for performers.
When visiting Todd, you can indulge in a variety of outdoors activities. Rent a bike and pedal past old farmhouses along a paved, railroad grade road that runs for 10 miles along the tea-colored New River and northward into Fleetwood. You also can kayak and go tubing in the river and fly fish in nearby creeks.
"We have more trout than we know what to do with," says fisheries biologist Kelly McCoy, the owner of RiverGirl Fishing Co. "You can fish for trout with a regular spinning rod. However, fly fishing is a more passionate and intricate way to catch fish."
Throughout the year, the community hosts concerts and other special events at the Walter and Annie Cook Memorial Park overlooking the river.
On July 4th, the Elkland Art Center Liberty Parade features hand-made puppets related to an environmental theme. Last year, participants carried a giant 10-person puppet shaped like a mountain through the community.
"You learn about the environment by becoming the environment," says Martha Enzmann, founder of the Elkland Art Center in Todd. "The parade is about good, clean fun. It shows the real community that we have in Todd."