Swannanoa Rim Explorer Series celebrates 10 years of adventure

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Wendell Begley, who served as the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center board chair for 21 years, is the founder of the Swannanoa Rim Explorer Series, which celebrated its 10th anniversary at the White Horse, Nov. 17.

For many, the Garden of Eden is synonymous with paradise. In the Bible it is a beautiful “garden of God.” Locally, a rocky mountaintop one mile northwest of Black Mountain’s Lake Eden, shares its name with the biblical origin of mankind. 

The clearing is known to hikers for the serpents that warm themselves there through the summer months, and is one of the many peaks along the Swannanoa Rim that surrounds the valley below. 

As a group of hikers learned about the history, geography, hydrology and environment of the area in the Garden of Eden on a crisp November morning, it represented a significant milestone for the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.

Dozens of hikers participated in the final hike of the 10th year of the museum’s Swannanoa Rim Explorer Series, which features 11 monthly treks along the ridgeline. The series earned a 2019 Griffin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation from the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County and continues to be the most popular program offered by the museum. 

This year was the biggest year for the series, which wrapped up with a Nov. 17 celebration at White Horse Black Mountain, where the museum recognized the people who completed each of the 11 hikes, as well as those who completed the eight hikes in the more moderate Valley History Explorer Hiking Series. 

“We had 66 people finish the two series this year, which is incredible,” SVM Executive Director Anne Chesky Smith announced to open the annual celebration. “We had 26 new Valley History Explorer Hike Series finishers and 35 new Rim Hike finishers. There have now been a total of 65 people to finish the VHE Series and 212 people have finished the Rim Hike Series in our 10 years of offering it.”

Each rim hike covers a portion of the approximately 31 miles of the Swannanoa Rim, which runs from Jesse’s High Top, across Lakey Gap, to Ridgecrest and Montreat, up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and down to Cedar Cliff, above Camp Rockmont. Expeditions are led by a team of experienced hikers and museum volunteers. 

The series covers a total distance of 56 miles and well over 10,000 feet of elevation. Those who complete the series receive embroidered Patagonia jackets from Black Mountain Savings Bank President Wendell Begley, who stepped down after 21 years as the chair of the SVM Board of Directors earlier this year. The jackets are designed by his wife, Mary. 

egley came up with the idea for the series a decade ago in an effort to help raise money for the museum while showcasing what museum touts as “eastern America’s highest and most historic skyline.” He presented series finishers with their jackets from the White Horse stage, where he was joined by fellow hike leaders.  

“A big part of the rim hikes for the leaders up here, especially the natives, it’s an opportunity to show folks that haven’t seen our valley some of the most incredible views in eastern North America,” Begley said. “When we call the Swannanoa Rim, ‘eastern America’s highest and most historic skyline,’ nobody can take that away from the Swannanoa Valley, and that’s what makes us unique.”

The hikes are held monthly from January through November, and the $350 series is exclusive to members of the museum. The Valley History Explorer Hiking Series is also reserved for SVM members and costs $210. The programs have played a significant role in the growth of the museum, which boasts more than 700 members and attracted over 9,000 visitors in 2019. 

Joe Standaert, left, presents John Buckner with a jacket commemorating Buckner's completion of the 11 hikes on the Swannanoa Rim Explorer Series, one of two popular hiking programs offered by the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.

“Because these hikes are led by volunteers, they account for a third of our operating budget,” Chesky Smith said. “So all of the money raised by these goes straight back into keeping our doors open.”

The revenue generated from the hiking programs has allowed the museum to introduce additional free and low-cost programming, she added.

Hikers who completed the Valley History Explorer Series, which was started six years ago and is chaired by Joe Standaert, received Patagonia fleeces during the gathering at the White Horse. 

The series focuses on the history of communities throughout the Swannanoa Valley, such as Bee Tree, the In-the-Oaks Estate, Montreat and more. 

“One thing we never imagined was the sense of community these hikes would create,” Standaert said. “The camaraderie of these people who hike together monthly, some of them who have been doing it for years, is amazing. We have a guy who drives from Charlotte to participate in the hikes.”

Standaert recognized Charles Jolley, who has participated in every hike since the Swannanoa Rim Series began. 

“Charles, we’re giving you an 8-by-8-inch granite paver in the alley next to the museum, which will represent Sourwood Gap in Montreat,” Standaert said. “It says: ‘Charles A. Jolley III, Rim Hiker, 10 years, 2010 - 2019.’”

Joe Standaert, right, recognizes Charles Jolley, left, who has participated in every hike since the Swannanoa Rim Explorer Series began 10 years ago.

Registration for the 2020 hikes opens at 10:30 a.m., Thursday, Jan. 2, and the slots are expected to fill up quickly.

“Last year we were full within a couple of hours,” Chesky Smith said. “So if you’re interested in participating in 2020, you will want to sign up early.”