Carl Sandburg’s wife Lilian discovered the mountain farm named Connemara in the community of Flat Rock, south of Asheville, NC. From 1945, until his death in 1967, the famous American poet, biographer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author lived and worked on the 264-acre estate. The family then sold the property and donated the contents to the National Park Service and Connemara became the first National Historic Park honoring an author. There is a 5-mile trail system on the estate that is very popular with locals looking for a quiet and contemplative exercise walk. The trails pass lakes and ponds, a goat farm and gardens that are Lilian’s legacy, and a large outcropping known as Big Glassy that offers views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. This hike occurred on Wednesday, September 4, 2013 from 7:00am to 9:45am. My plan was to take the Big Glassy Trail up to the overlook on the summit, then wander the estate, enjoying the sense of history and achievement.
Hike Length: 4.6 miles Hike Duration: 2.75 hours Blaze: None
Hike Configuration: Up and back, then small loop Elevation change: 770 feet
Hike Rating: Moderate, short but strenuous climb of Big Glassy. Otherwise, easy.
Trail Condition: Very good; exposed roots on back trails.
Starting Point: Historic Park entrance on Little River Road in Flat Rock, NC.
Trail Traffic: I encountered about 10 others, morning exercise walkers mostly.
How to Get There: The park is in Flat Rock, NC, 30 miles south of Asheville and 35 miles north of Greenville, SC. From I-26, take exit 53 and follow park signs. From US 25, take exit 5 and follow park signs.
Carl Sandburg was already famous when he moved with his family to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina in 1945. He had spent his lifetime championing justice and the American people through his writing and his singing. At 67, an age when many people retire, Sandburg was still going strong.
The Connemara estate had a long history
— an ironic history for the biographer of Abraham Lincoln
— for Christopher Meminger, who built the residence around 1838, had served from 1861 to 1864 as Secretary of the Confederate Treasury. The second occupant, textile tycoon Ellison Smyth, named it Connemara to honor his Irish ancestry. Smyth’s heirs sold it to the Sandburg’s, who moved from Michigan with their three daughters, two grandchildren, a library of over 14,000 volumes, and the Chikaming goat herd.
You enter the Connemara property east of Front Lake, below the main home. There is a pathway that circuits the lake. I’ve found this loop around the water to be particularly attractive in the midst of October’s autumn colors as they reflect in the usually still mirror-like surface. A roadway to the right takes you directly to the house. To reach the Big Glassy Trail, I headed left around the southern end of Front Lake.
Immediately beyond the lake, the trail begins a gradual climb westward through a mixed hardwood, laurel, and evergreen forest. Just past dawn, as it was on this day, the sun rays paint the tree trunks and branches with a bright amber glow that promotes a sense of discovery. It’s as if the woods were beckoning me onward to see what mystery lies around the next bend. As Sandburg wrote, “The sun on the hills is beautiful, or a captured sunset sea-flung, bannered with fire and gold.”
When I reached the level of the house, the sun was just beginning to brighten the front lawn and garden. The Park Service still maintains the gardens that Lilian started half a century before. It’s expensive, though, to support such a large estate. The recent sequester and other cutbacks have made it difficult for the NPS to maintain every little thing. I’ve noticed the main home could use a fresh coat of paint.
Sandburg usually kept late hours. He often worked most of the night, while it was quiet and still, and slept late into the morning. After a midday meal he would read, answer letters, and write wherever his imagination took him
— his upstairs office or study, living room, front porch, or on the large sloping rock behind his house. I understand the inspiration that Sandburg received. These woods deeply stir the imagination.
There’s a plaque near the rock that reads, “Throughout his years at Connemara, it was Sandburg’s custom to spend many afternoons on this granite outcropping, sitting in a rustic bentwood chair. On his lap rested a plain tablet of paper and a lead pencil which he sharpened with a favorite pocket knife. Thus equipped, and cloaked with the serenity of the forest, he wandered through his memories of people and places, balancing the sound and power of each word. Amid these cool, dappled shadows, he crafted his poems.”
Leaving the area surrounding the house, I again ventured upward to the west, now circuiting Little Glassy Mountain to the south. About half way round, there’s a trail that takes you up and over Little Glassy. Not much to see, other than beautiful forest, but it’s good exercise and prepares your legs and lungs for the larger climb yet to come.
As I descended the north slope of Little Glassy I reached a trail junction with options. You can return to the house, check out Lilian’s goat farm, or begin the ascent of Big Glassy Mountain. Since that was my plan, up the Big Glassy Trail I went.
Big Glassy Trail is a double track, covered in gravel, heading generally in a southwesterly direction. It climbs directly past the goat farm. Connemara was what Lilian Sandburg wanted
— a place where her husband could write, and she could raise goats. Lilian bred champions. She earned world fame for her dairy goats and for her work improving the herd’s bloodlines. In 1960, top doe Jennifer II became the all-breed champion in milk production. Today the Toggenburg, Saanen, and Nubian goats at Connemara are related to Lilian’s herd. One of the springtime highlights is the birth of the baby goats.
The next feature along the pathway is the reservoir on the left. It dams one of the creeks tumbling down from Big Glassy and guarantees a fresh water supply for the estate. Just past the reservoir the trail makes a hard right turn and begins a northerly track. Soon afterward, I reached the first of several rocky outcroppings on the left that have a southern view. These outcrops are great places for local walkers to take a breather, perhaps embark on a yoga routine, or simply bask in the glorious sunshine.
The trail again makes a turn, this time left, now heading in a westerly direction and beginning a steeper ascent. Near the top of the ascent you’ll reach the western boundary of the estate and turn northward again for the final push to the summit. The total climb from the lake to the summit is 620 feet in 1.5 miles.
The summit of Glassy Mountain, at 2,783′, is nearly all exposed granite, with gnarly krummholz pine and spruce depositing an appealing orange bed of needles. I crossed the summit and followed a sign through the trees to the western face and another very large outcropping. This is the main overlook from Glassy Mountain, and what a magnificent view it is.
To the west and below are some of the residential subdivisions of Flat Rock. Further west is the community of Laurel Park and West Hendersonville. Beyond is the French Broad River Valley as it reaches westward to the larger mountains of the Blue Ridge in Pisgah National Forest.
South is more of the surrounding Flat Rock community and the broad expanse of the South Carolina Upstate in the distance. The Park Service has provided benches to enjoy the scene, but I found myself sitting directly on the granite pondering the history of this rock. Surely many remarkable individuals have been seated here as well, enjoying the low-lying valley fog, as I was, that enhances the picturesque landscape.
I enjoyed about 20 minutes mostly to myself, although there was a young woman seemingly just passing through on her morning walk, and a friendly couple named Joy and Dick who stopped to chat for a moment. The photo at the top of this post was taken from Big Glassy. If you click it, a larger image will popup.
The return is, of course, all downhill and is over in no time. I passed a handful of walkers coming up as I was going down. When I again reached the house, this time I took the northern path back to Front Lake. As I descended the trail past Side Lake (yes, I know these lake names are quite unique), I was treated to a festival of late summer wildflowers. By now, at mid-morning, the sky above the house was casting a delightful reflection in Front Lake.
I try to make it to Connemara at least a couple times every year. It is remarkably charming, with a unique beauty in each and every season. I’ve yet to visit with snow on the ground, so that is now on my to-do list. There’s more to enjoy than just the trails… there’s a sense of history that is noteworthy… the kids will love the dairy goat farm. The Park Service really does a nice job with the very limited funding they have.
You can enter the Sandburg home for a small fee. The visitor center is under the porch of the main house. It has films, exhibits, a bookstore, and ticket sales for a tour of the home, including the voluminous library.
Carl Sandburg died at Connemara in 1967. The following year, his family sold the property, donating the contents of the home to the National Park Service to be preserved as a National Historic Site. Always a voice for the American people, his legacy speaks to us still, at beautiful and serene Connemara.