'Hike and history' museum meetings set in stone

Black Mountain News

The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will hold three free "interest" meetings during the second week of January about its annual Rim Hike Series and Valley History Explorer Series. 

These hikes offer hikers unique opportunities to improve their knowledge of the landscape and the communities that form eastern Buncombe County. 

The museum's hikes are a good way for newcomers to meet people and to see where they are living.

Now in its eighth year, the popular Rim Hike series is composed of 11 hikes that reveal not only the geography of the Swannanoa Valley, but its history as well. Each hike explores a different section of the 31-mile long Swannanoa Rim, terrain that spans from Jesse’s High Top, across Lakey Gap, over Ridgecrest and Montreat, up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and down to Cedar Cliff above Camp Rockmont.  Over the course of the year, the series covers a distance of more than 50 miles.  Led by veteran hikers who share their knowledge about the history, topography and ownership of the land, each hike ranges from three to eight miles over elevations ranging from 2,316 to 6,462 feet. Since much of the terrain is rugged and steep, the hikes are considered challenging. 

At the beginning of their first hike, each hiker is issued a “Passport to the Swannanoa Rim” to keep track of their personal progress as the series proceeds. Those who finish all the hikes in the series are awarded a custom embroidered Patagonia jacket during a celebration held at the end of the year.  

Each museum RIM hike explores a different section of the 31-mile long Swannanoa Rim.

“People around me take note of the jacket when I wear it, and frequently someone will ask what it’s all about," said Sam Shirey, who completed the Rim Hikes in 2015. "It gives me the perfect opportunity to tell them about the program and to point to any of the ridgetops and say that I have been up there looking down into the valley.” 

“It’s a good way for newcomers to the area to get to meet people who live here and to really see where they are living now,” said Rim Hike finisher Bonnie Nache. Several participants point to the beautiful overlooks and panoramic views of the mountains from locations such as Weatherford Heights on the Blue Ridge Assembly grounds.  Many parts of the hikes are on private property and are not accessible to the general public. 

Joe Standaert, chairman of the Swannanoa Valley Hiking Committee, noted that some participants travel to the area to participate – the farthest coming from Alabama, Texas, and Michigan.

“The thing we have found from the previous seven years of the hikes was that being out there, being in the woods, builds a sense of camaraderie among the hikers," he said. "They really bond together in a way we never expected, especially among those who have hiked several times. The other volunteers and I have watched them building a community that goes far beyond the museum.” 

Getting to know fellow Valley residents is often cited as one of the benefits of the museum's hikes.

New participants grow in confidence as the series progresses, Nache said.  “They start out being kinda wide-eyed at the prospect of being so far out in the forest. But by the end of the hikes, they have a new confidence and connection with each other and the area.”

To date, more than 125 hikers have finished hiking the entire rim. One intrepid hiker, Charles Jolley, has completed every rim hike since the series’ inception in 2009.

The seven hikes in the Valley History Explorer Hiking Series take participants to some of the small communities that make up the Swannanoa Valley and delve into the unique history of the each of them.  These hikes are both informative for natives seeking a connection with their heritage and newcomers hoping to gain insights into the region’s past.

Each hike is approximately three miles long over moderate terrain and is led by an experienced guide.  “The leaders are very well-informed about the area,” hiker Juanita Bruce said.  “I’m not from here, so the history of the area is very important to me.  Stories about the first settlements, the water systems and how the settlers maintained their lives on the farms in these mountains, stories about the assemblies and the people are all wonderful parts of these hikes.” 

Participants who complete all hikes in the Valley History Explorer Series receive an embroidered Patagonia fleece at the end of the series. 

 The Rim Hikes take place every third Saturday from January to November and the Valley History Explorer Hikes are held every second Saturday from March through October.  There is a participation fee for these hikes, which help sustain the nonprofit Swannanoa Valley Museum as Buncombe County’s primary museum of general, local history.

For the fourth year in a row, the museum will offer two donation-funded scholarships towards the cost of a hiking series to ensure that events are accessible to all who wish to participate. The scholarship is generously funded by donations from past finishers and community members interested in keeping history alive. To apply for a scholarship, applicants are invited to mail or email the museum a 500-word essay explaining why they want to participate in the program, which series they would like to hike, and how the scholarship would help them participate, along with their contact information.

The museum’s hiking programs instill a pride of place for hikers. One past hiker explained, “Now when I walk around Black Mountain I can look up at those mountains and know that I’ve been there and know what they are like.” The hikes engender a reverence of history and demonstrate the presence of the past in our daily lives. Another hiker offered, “I have walked along the same trails as Daniel Boone and the early Cherokees. The Museum gave us the opportunity to take the road less traveled, and it truly has made all the difference.”

The first Rim Hike of 2017, Rhododendron Rim, will take place on Saturday, Jan. 21. The hike passes through property once owned by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, best known for his innovative system of self-supporting arches and vaults using interlocking tiles in some of New York’s most famous Beaux-Arts landmarks, as well as Asheville’s Basilica of St. Lawrence. He retired in Black Mountain and built an eclectic estate called Rhododendron and known locally as the “Spanish Castle.”

Space on the hikes are limited, and hikers are encouraged to register early. Information about each series and hike is available at swannanoavalleymuseum.org. For more, contact the museum at 669-9566 or info@swannanoavalleymuseum.org.

Want to learn more?

Learn more about the museum’s 2017 hike series at these meetings.

  • Jan. 10, 6:30 p.m. at the museum
  • Jan. 11, 7 p.m. at Black Dome Mountain Sports, Asheville 
  • Jan. 12, 7 p.m. at REI Asheville