When it comes to the outdoors, Ryan Lubbers is a jack of all trades: naturalist, environmental educator, climber, kayaker, and the co-author of The Hiker's Guide to Hickory Nut Gorge State Park. He and his wife, Jane, have chosen to raise their family in Gerton, just outside of Asheville, because of the wealth of exploration and ecosystems outside their front door. I spoke with this local expert about the history of Hickory Nut Gorge, the stunning biodiversity of Western North Carolina, and his favorite Valentine's Day excursion.
How did you end up in Asheville?
I came to North Carolina from Wisconsin in 2002. I moved to Hendersonville for an environmental education job—that's where I met my wife, Jane. I love the endless opportunities of Asheville; they're everywhere you look: kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, road biking. And for nature study, this is the most biodiverse region in the whole country. It's amazing to be able to go out every day and learn a new plant, a new animal, a new ecosystem.
I never knew Western Carolina was so biodiverse.
Oh yeah. We have such a long growing season, tons of rain, and enormous changes in elevation. It’s 6,682 feet at the top of Mount Mitchell—the highest peak on the East Coast. It has an ecosystem that you otherwise can only find in Canada. You'll find Northern flying squirrels, tiny Saw-Whet Owls...and that's just 45 minutes from town! Come down the mountain and you continually change ecosystems; you'll find new plants and animals every 500 feet.
Western North Carolina is a naturalist’s paradise. And if you love outdoor sports, then it's a double paradise.
Tell me a little about Hickory Nut Gorge.
Hickory Nut Gorge is 17 miles southeast of Asheville. It's so magical and so beautiful; when people go in there, their jaws are dropping. That’s what fueled creating the guidebook. Historically, there were a lot of places to hike in the gorge, but they were all on private property. You had to know someone or you had to trespass to get on the trails. One of the only places to legally hike was Chimney Rock State Park, and even that was a private park for one hundred years. When the state bought the park, they bought a lot more land and expanded it by 6,000 acres. Along with that, the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy—one of the best land trusts I’ve ever come across—has since bought thousands of acres and created lots of public trails and access points. Some people donate their land, leave it to CMLC in their will, or they put an easement on their private property to allow public access for hiking. There are plenty more trails still on private land, but in making the guide book, I made a commitment to the landowners: there would be no trespassing, nothing that would create friction. Everything we put in the book has been verified to be legal and was added with permission.
What's a particularly memorable time you’ve had in the Asheville outdoors?
Pretty much the last decade of my life has been spent in the outdoors around Asheville. But if I had to choose one? The time I was leading a seven-day backpacking trip in the Pisghah National Forest. My coworker was leading another group on a separate weeklong trip. We both got dropped off on this epic adventure, inside the half a million acres of the National Forest. As soon my group started off, I realized I had totally forgotten my water bottles. I'm leading these kids and I have water bottles, no water. I had to track down my coworker to help me. She did—and now that coworker is my wife.
You and your wife just had a baby. What are you most excited about introducing to your child?
I’m really excited about taking him down to Rumbling Bald on a sunny winter day and introducing him to bouldering, maybe even putting up a top-rope on a big boulder and getting him climbing.
Valentines Day is coming up. Do you have a suggestion for a romantic hike?
Visit Exclamation Point in Chimney Rock State Park. A lot of people shy away from Chimney Rock during the summer months due to the crowds. But I love visiting the park during the off season. You get all the amenities (bathrooms, hot chocolate, elevator) that the park provides, but you'll often have the 400-foot waterfall and epic views all to yourself.
I particularly like Exclamation Point because it has one of most expansive vistas from the south side of the Hickory Nut Gorge with sweeping views of Bearwallow Mountain, Little Pisgah, Ghost Town, and Rumbling Bald, as well as Lake Lure and the Piedmont. On a clear day you can see more than 75 miles with a crisp outline of Charlotte's sky scrappers. Many people choose to get engaged at Chimney Rock State Park, most often on top of Exclamation Point. If you are lucky, the pair of nesting peregrine falcons will even do a fly-by to celebrate your love.