Winter Hiking

Winter is an incredible time to hike.  The leaves are off the trees and you can see for miles.  We get lovely days in the 60’s and 70’s even in the middle of winter.  They are a gift and we love to get outside and enjoy them.

We love to go up to Max Patch and watch the moon rise.  If you go up the day before the moon is full, you can watch the moon rise as the sun sets. It is a gorgeous time to be up there on top of the world.

There is an elk herd in the area.  We love to go and hang out with “the girls”.  They are protected from hunters as the forest service is reintroducing them into our area.  Therefore, they are unafraid and tolerate being watched very well.

Snow happens here. It’s so beautiful and well worth getting out for a hike.  Dandy loves the snow.  We love to sled on the driveway.  We are happy to loan your our sleds if you ask.









Summer Fun in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Swimming Holes

Summer  Swimming Holes!

We have lots of great places to dip in the creek!  Feel free to explore our creeks and our waterfall and find them  Or, if you are up for a driving and hiking adventure, click here for our favorite swimming holes.

A summer plunge can cool you off for hours!

Summer Hiking

Summer brings lots of growth and lushness to our forests.  The wildflowers bloom brightly along the trails as tall, tough plants.  Some grow to heights high above our heads!   The bushes also bloom in abundance.  The mountain laurel, rhododendrons, flaming azaleas, and mountain magnolia trees fill the forest with color and scent.   The diversity of flowering plants is a sight to behold.

However, hiking can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you venture off on some less-used trails.   If trails are not used frequently they can grow up with stinging nettle, poison ivy, and briars.    If it looks tall, you might want to find a different trail.

There are lots to choose from.   The AT is used regularly and it runs around us from Max Patch to Hot Springs.

You can access it by road at the following locations:  Max Patch, Lemon Gap, Gorenflo Gap,  Hot Springs, or Mill Ridge.  Here is a link to help you decide.

These are easy access points that will put you right on the trail.

The French Broad

River rafting, tubing, paddleboarding or just hanging out at the river are all fun options for some time on the French Broad River.

You can access the river easily from downtown Hot Springs.  The Hot Springs Rafting Company has rentals available for rafting and tubing.

Hiking the AT outside of Hot Springs, NC

Hiking in Winter

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” – John Muir

Hiking the AT outside of Hot Springs, NC

Winter is such a lovely time to take a hike in these hills.  There is nothing like a crisp, clear winter’s day with a thermos full of hot chocolate in my pack. The sky is incredibly blue and the hills turn a deep azure blue, mauve and purple color that is unique to this season of the year.

The forest is so open as all of the vegetation has fallen back.  It is easy to walk without a trail. You can just wander around in the forest and enjoy the quiet.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail near Hot Springs, NC

We often get periods of 60 to 70-degree weather in the winter. These days are such gifts and they call us out of doors with short-sleeved shirts and grinning faces. We often see wildlife such as deer, wild turkey, fox, coyote and even an occasional elk on our hikes.
Full Moon over Hot Springs, NC
The AT is a great place to hike in the winter as there are fewer hikers this time of year. It is possible to walk a great distance and encounter no one.  And, yet, it is a spectacular time to hike because of the views.  The AT runs along the ridges here on the border between NC and TN.  In fact, at the point where our trail meets the AT, you can stand with one foot in each state.

Hiking the AT at sunset in winter

You can also access the AT along several points in Hot Springs.  The pictures from this post were taken along the AT on the access point off of 25/70 just the other side of Hot Springs.  You simply go through Hot Springs and as you are coming up the mountain on the way toward Marshall, you turn left after you go under the underpass.  There is a  parking place at the gated road that crosses back over 25/70.  If the gate is open and you prefer, you can drive up to Mill Ridge from here and access the AT up at the top.  But, we like hiking north up over Rich Mountain.  The sun warms that side of the mountain in the afternoon and makes for a nice hike.  This day we were fortunate enough to witness the almost full moon rising as the sun was setting.

Looking glass rock

Hanging out on a Pluton


Autumn at Looking glass rock

What it the world is a Pluton?

Plutons are magical places in our ancient hills.  They are like huge rock bubbles that you can climb up to get some of the most spectacular views in the Blue Ridge.  The above picture is a view from John’s Rock overlooking another pluton, called Looking Glass Rock.  On this hike, Tom and I got to witness 2 beautiful bald eagles flying below us and fishing on the river.

This is a day trip from our cabins.  We actually left about 10 am and stopped in Waynesville, NC to grab some lunch at our favorite burger joint, the Church Street Depot, then off to the Shining Rock Wilderness area on Hwy 276.  This takes you past the Cradle of  Forestry, Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls to name just a few places along the way. So, leave earlier if you want to visit these along the way, then you will have the whole day to enjoy this area.  There is much to see.  The trailhead to both the plutons is just past Looking Glass Falls on forest service road 475 C which will be on your right.  Looking Glass Rock trail is on the right and then John Rock is on the left at the Pisgah Wildlife Center and Fish Hatchery.

The Best Views in the Blue Ridge are from the Top

We love the plutons.  There are two that you can climb. Although it is a bit of a challenge and fairly steep in places,  both trails are worth the climb.   These pictures are from our hike along the loop trail at John’s Rock.

Hiking Suggestion

Make sure you check the map at the kiosk at the trailhead so that you note the proper turns.  The trail is well marked with signs. The loop is explained in the link above.  It will take you by Cedar Rock Falls which is a beautiful spot to take a break, or a swim if it is warm enough.

Cedar Rock Falls

Looking Glass Rock: A  Vertical Challenge

Looking Glass Rock trail is more challenging, longer and steeper than the John Rock trail.  It is a spectacular climb for those who like to climb.  Therefore, this trail can be challenging and rocky in place.  Also, one must navigate some pretty rough and washed out places on the trail. However, the views are definitely worth the effort.

In addition, this is a coveted place for rock climbers.  Also, it is a rare nesting place for peregrine falcons. If you are lucky you will see them dive.  They are spectacular.

Looking glass rock


Appalachian Ways: Making Hawthorn Remedies

Here at Dancing Sun Cabins, we believe in love.  And what better way to celebrate love than to talk about hawthorn trees.  Hawthorn remedies heal the heart.  They are known to heal grief and sadness and loss.  They are known to heal the heart of it’s physical and emotional ailments.

Hawthorn heart

We are so fortunate to have so many hawthorn trees in our forest.  They are planted near old homesteads and places of community which makes me believe that people have been utilizing their healing properties for generations in these hills.

The journey begins......

As with so many good things, this process begins with a journey into the woods.  Walking to the hawthorn patch in autumn has become a ritual for my heart and it blesses me in so many ways.

I usually invite a close friend to come along. It is a bit of a hike, so we come prepared with our baskets and backpacks filled with snacks for the journey. We hike with gratitude in our hearts for the beauty of the forest in fall. The colors and movement of the leaves inspire us. Stories, dreams, and inspirations fly from our lips and swirl around us like the leaves in the gentle breeze.

Gathering hawthorns
Photo by Wendy Stancil

There are many varieties of hawthorns and they grow all over the world in many different environments.  The ones we like to harvest have huge red berries.

These ancient hawthorn trees grow way up high and look like huge huts for the wildlife.  They make a thick shelter for the mamas to bed down with their babies. Their limbs protect the interior space with long sharp spikes that grow every inch or so along the branches. It is a reminder that we must stop and, with respect, ask to enter.  Then, we must find the door. We circle the spiked limbs until we find an opening where the animals have been coming in.   It is like walking into someone’s home and one must enter with respect.

The berries cover the ground like a magical gift from the tree.


The limbs offer protection, not only for the berries but for deer, elk and other critters who find safety in her branches.

Elk near us

Hawthorn remedies are all about soothing the digestion and nourishing the heart.   I love to make something that herbalists call oxymel.  This is a way of preserving the medicinal qualities of the berries in vinegar and honey.  This is kind of a foolproof method as it really doesn’t require much but a crockpot, some high-quality organic apple cider vinegar with the “mother” in it, some good honey and some clean jars.  The acidity of the vinegar preserves it well for the year.  Oxymel is a 1:1 combination with honey which preserves the product even further and makes it a delicious way to make drinks.  I like to mix it with spritzer water.  It is delicious and then I get my apple cider vinegar dose for the day in addition to the benefits from the berries.

Fresh washed hawthorns


To make this wonderful concoction, I wash the berries by soaking them and stirring them in the sink.  I even add a little vinegar to the water just to help clean them.
This is the recipe I received from EagleSong Evans Gardener. For more recipes and herbal ideas from this talented herbalist, click here.

4 lbs of Hawthorn berries

4 lbs of Apple Cider Vinegar

4 lbs of Honey

I strain the berries and add them as follows to the crockpot.  I put  4 lbs of berries into 4 lbs (8 cups) of organic apple cider vinegar with the mother and cook on low for about 12 hours.  As soon as they turn plump and brown, I  mash them up and cook them a little longer.   Hawthorn berries have big seeds in them so it is important to mash them and get all the pulp in contact with the vinegar.

I then strain them with this old fashioned strainer that allows me to further mash them.  If I want a clearer vinegar, I would further strain the solution through cheesecloth, but I don’t mind the fiber in my vinegar.

Then, I mix the vinegar with the honey in a blender.   You don’t ever want to heat the honey as it ruins many of its wonderful healing properties when you heat it up.  Instead, mix one quart of honey with one quart of hawthorn berry vinegar and mix it up in your blender.  This will make your Oxymel. It will be foamy and yummy.

Then just add a tablespoon to your favorite spritzer water for a delightful autumn drink.   I also like to add it to ginger ale.

I hope you enjoy your hawthorn trees wherever you may be.  Getting to know this wonderful tree has brought much joy into my life.



Chicken Love: Name that Couple

As many of you may know, Tom and I have become quite the chicken fans.   Every spring we get baby chicks.  We nurture them until they are old enough to move into the main coop with the older hens.  This can involve crazy things we never thought we would do, like loading Tom up in the early evening with 8 young chickens and taking them to the coop.

This is because the older hens tend to pick on the new ones.  They will peck their heads and bully them.  But, if you wait until evening, chickens sort of “shut off.”  They actually go into a dormant state.  These creatures that can fly, run and twist making it impossible to touch them during the day, will allow you to pet them, pick them up and even carry them around like some kind of a chicken tree transport system.

I tell you this because I want you to fully understand how hard it is to get chickens to be nice to each other and come together as a flock.   Once the social system is established, however, a flock of chickens will glide along as one grazing, pecking unit intent on finding the juiciest worms, or begging incessantly to be fed by their owners. But, there is a pecking order.  There are societal rules.  Only the alpha girls make it to the top roosting stick.

So as you may know from my previous blog post,  we are down to one chicken.  This created a bit of a dilemma.  If I were to try to introduce some new hens, it could be disastrous.  I kept envisioning my poor sweet survivor as a bloody headed, henpecked calamity.

In case you didn’t know, all of those chicken idioms are true.  “Henpecked”, “pecking order”, “rule the roost”, “feather’s flying”,  “the sky is falling”, “birds of a feather flock together”, all describe chicken anxiety.  So, we just had to find another way.

Her loneliness and desire to find her flock was evident by her willingness to hang out with me and Tom on our porch at all hours of the day.  This would have been fine, except for the poop.  In case you didn’t know, chickens poop a lot.  And it is nasty and hard to clean off of your porch. So, our being her flock was not a good solution.

And poor Dandy, our dog was very confused.  We had trained her to keep the chickens off the porch for the reasons mentioned above.  She found great joy in jumping up, scaring off the hens and making them fly off our porch. Now she was being denied this small joy and working hard on being calm when the chicken was around.

So I looked at  “sweet chicken” as I was beginning to call her and said, “Ok darling, we are going to have to just pray up a mate for you.” And we sat down together and did just that.  We put it out to God and all the chicken angels out there that she needed a mate.

Well, lo and behold,  I went to my community exercise class the next week and there was a woman announcing that a rooster had taken up in her woods.  She already had roosters so she could not take this one into her flock.  She wanted to know if anyone would like to help her catch and relocate this rooster.

Well, of course, I said I would.   How could I deny such fate?

So the next Sat. I got the phone call and off I went to capture this rooster. Now, you may not know this, but there are over 500 breeds of chickens.  Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be of the same breed. Well, of course, he did.

I had no idea what was going to happen that evening after transporting him across the community in a cage.  But, he was calm and content as I put him, cage and all in the coop.  My “sweet chicken” who was on the top roost, slowly came down to check him out.  She walked around the cage a couple of times and looked up to me as if to say, “well aren’t you going to let him out?”  So, I opened the door and released him.  He stepped out of his cage in a regal manner and calmly greeted her.  Then he hopped up on the top perch, she hopped up and they went to sleep.

I awoke at dawn and went to the coop to let them out. I did not want any cooped up emotions causing the feathers to fly.  My fears were unfounded as they emerged a sweet chicken couple.   They strutted and strolled all around the farm, like a southern debutante and her new beau at a formal cotillion. They cawed and cooed all the while exploring all the morning tasty morsels.  She showed him all of her favorite places and then brought him up to the porch to beg for breakfast.

They cooed and cawed in sweet, loving chicken language as she showed him all of her favorite hiding places, under the rhododendron bushes,( I am not sure what went on under there), in the forest behind the house, under the porch, around the compost bins where the  juiciest worms reside and, of course, the chicken day palace, where Tom and I often leave treats for them.

When evening arrived, he crowed a few times and they went to the coop, hopped up on the top perch together and went to bed. This was pure chicken romance.

So here is where you come in.  I need a sweet couple’s name.  And, no, Romeo and Juliet are just too tragic.  Let me know what comes to mind.  Name this couple!

Murder of Crows Saves Chicken

I witnessed a crow miracle today.  The forest gifted us a miracle that saved my sweet little chicken’s life.Crows

This year has been a difficult one for our chicken flock.  We free range our hens, because we believe that freedom is a precious thing.   We have also heard horror stories of caged hens being massacred by creatures tearing through fences and taking the whole flock at once.

So, sometimes the forest will take a hen or two to feed someone.   This year, the fox came to visit. I think she was raising a den of pups.  She would come and take a chicken about once a week until we were down to one poor lonely chicken.  Since the disappearance of her flock, this chicken has become somewhat dear to us.

We have a little routine, she and I.  Every morning she comes up to the porch to check in.  Then she nestles into an old garden basket in my outdoor pantry and lays her egg.  She cackles loudly to let me know she is done, then she jumps up on the porch railing to wait for me to feed her.  It’s quite endearing.

So, as you can imagine, I find myself just praying for her safety and encourage her to stay close to the house.  She is pretty “forest wise” and she flies up into the trees when threatened.  Some of the other breeds don’t do this.  It’s curious because they can fly.  But, often when they are under attack, many chickens will not fly.  They simply run.  This makes them pretty easy prey in the chain of life up here. Anyway, this chicken is a Spangler.  She is pretty savvy.  And, I pray.

This warm summer morning,  as I was watering the plants on my porch, I heard this incredible ruckus.  The crows came flying from everywhere.  They dove through the sky from the north, south, east and west.  They were screaming their crow call and diving down in this one spot in our meadow.  The grass and flowers were quite high so it was hard to understand the scene at first.  The crows kept diving and cawing until the fox turned away from her path to the chicken coop and went running, tail between her legs back into the forest.

I ran around the house to check and there was my sweet chicken.  I was so happy to see her. I gave thanks to the crows for saving her for one more day.  It was a chicken miracle day at  Dancing Sun Cabins.  I am so grateful.

I do wonder if there are others who have witnessed forest miracles.  I would love to hear about them.  I find the forest to be a fascinating place to live in.

The Elk are Returning to Max Patch

The AT crosses the top of Max Patch

Mornings on Max are nothing short of a miracle.  This morning we shuttled some of our guests up for a hike down to the cabins.  This is a wonderful 9-mile hike down from 4629 feet to about 2900 feet of elevation at the cabins.

Tom and I took the opportunity to walk over the “roof of our world” here in Spring Creek.   Max Patch is the highest point in our area and it never disappoints us.

On this fine morning. we were witness to a brand new baby elk being born.  When I captured her on camera, the distance and glare made it difficult to notice the baby.  I was very curious as to why she was alone, grazing in an open field.   The bulls are often alone, but most of the time the females are in herds.

We hope you enjoy this video which we entitled the Magic Morning on Max Patch.

For several years now, the National Park Service has been working to re-establish the elk in the Appalachian region.  This beautiful doe probably wandered over from the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.   Or, perhaps she split off from the two herds that are pretty well established in the Harmon Den area just below Max Patch on the drive over to I-40.



Baby birds getting ready to fly

Birds! Babies! Spring!

This week we have been blessed with a morning chorus of phoebes, indigo buntings, finches, blue jays, mourning doves, and cardinals just to name a few. It is so wonderful to wake to the sounds of the forest.

Tom caught these baby birds getting up their nerve to fly from the limb. This sweet little family has been nesting under the eaves of our house by our bedroom window. We have been watching the parents diligently building the nest for weeks. It is precariously perched on the side of the house. I am always so amazed at how long the the chicks stay in the nest and how the nest seems to expand to accommodate them all.

I don’t know how they choose the day, but suddenly they all fly away. It’s part of nature’s wonder and magic.

We have been witnessing many babies being born and thriving here. I wanted to share some of my favorite pictures with you in celebration of spring. I hope you enjoy them.

Baby birds getting ready to fly
Fresh from the nest
The colors of spring are stunning
Blue bird eggs
Baby blue bird eggs
Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterflies love our fields
A tiny hummingbird visitor
We rehabilitated and released this sweet hummingbird
Turtle laying eggs
This sweet turtle was laying her eggs
We saw this bear cub from our car on the way to Max Patch
baby dove
This is a baby dove that we helped find her mamma
Sweet reunion with her baby
Baby cow
This sweet little one was born in our community this year
Baby deer in the woods are a common site here
frog eggs
Frog eggs in our pond




Full Moon at Max Patch

 Max Patch Moonlight Magic

Just imagine being on top of the world looking out over the mountains as the moon begins to rise.   Long rays stretch across the horizon, moon rays as the golden hour of light dances across the hills with a beauty that cannot be captured on camera. The true magic of Max Patch on the evening before a full moon can only be experienced.

We invite you to come and experience this for yourself.   We are only a short drive from the top.  On July 26th, the moon will rise at  7:59 PM and the sun will set at 8:38 pm.   This sets the stage for pure magic.  The moonlight and sunlight cross paths on the top.  It’s a phenomenal place to be.