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LANDSCAPE WORTHY OF A LEGEND / N.C. MOUNTAINS PERFECT FOR AN EPIC
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LANDSCAPE WORTHY OF A LEGEND / N.C. MOUNTAINS PERFECT FOR AN EPIC

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The path of tumbled stones winds up and up, opening on the mountainside, then turning inward through a tunnel of rhododendron. If your heart beats a little faster, it may not be the elevation.

It may be the feeling that if you look back, you might see a long-haired woodsman charging up the path, reloading his musket as he runs.Those who've seen ``The Last of the Mohicans' may well find themselves indulging in such flights of fancy the next time they visit Chimney Rock Park southeast of Asheville. The last climatic segment of the film was shot here, on the same trails open to tourists every day.

Since the movie's premiere Sept. 25, people have been calling from all over the country with one question: ``How do I get there?'

`` 'Last of the Mohicans' is the first book I ever read, so I had to see the movie,' said Hunter Copeland of Birmingham, Ala., who on a recent Wednesday was staying at the Esmeralda Inn in Chimney Rock. ``I recognized the Blue Ridge immediately. I come up here every year to ride the Parkway by motorcycle.

``Never had much interest in going up there before,' he said, glancing up at the mountain, ``but I'm going to have to see it now.'

Often, once movie sets have been dismantled, there's not much to see. And when you see the movie, you often can't tell where it was shot. ``The Last of the Mohicans' supposedly takes place in the frontier beyond Albany, N.Y.

But the towering head-shaped stone, the slippery cliffs and the slender ribbon of a waterfall seen near the end of the film are unmistakably Chimney Rock Park. Anyone who's been to the park will recognize Inspiration Point, Nature's Showerbath and Hickory Nut Falls - all landmarks along the park's Cliff Trail.

``I sure wouldn't have wanted to be the one who had to haul cameras up here,' said Terry Kirkland, 36, of St. Petersburg, Fla., as he huffed and puffed up the steps to Inspiration Point.

The film crew, led by director Michael Mann, filmed in the park from September to mid-October 1991. The film was shot in a variety of sites around western North Carolina, but Chimney Rock, owned by the Morse family of St. Louis since 1902, is one of few that's easily recognizable and open to the public.

Set during the war between England and France for the American colonies, ``The Last of the Mohicans' is the story of Hawkeye (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), a frontiersman raised by Mohican Indians.

Along with his adoptive father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig), Hawkeye feels no real allegiance to either the French or the English - until he falls in love with Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), the daughter of an English officer.

Hawkeye saves Cora and her sister, Alice, from an ambush by the vengeful Magua, a Huron warrior allied with the French who blames their father for the destruction of his family.

The segment of the movie filmed in the park begins when Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas are tracking Magua, who is taking the Munro sisters to the Huron village. The Huron village was built on the hillside across from the park. When the Huron chief receives Magua, Hickory Nut Falls is visible behind him.

Visitors to the park can see the brown roof of the Huron ``long' house from the viewing area atop the Chimney, the towering granite monolith that is the centerpiece of the park. The village site, which is also on park land, is not open to the public for safety reasons.

The climatic final chase of the movie was filmed on the Cliff Trail, one of three major trails in the park. About the only difference visitors will see from the film is the presence of guardrails, platforms and walkways.

Park officials want to make sure visitors understand those guard rails are there for a reason.

``We don't want people charging up the trails and crashing through the woods like Daniel Day-Lewis,' says Mary Jaeger-Gale, public relations manager for the park. ``What they don't understand is that the film crew had safety nets and skilled mountaineers just out of camera range to ensure the safety of the actors.'

Even with guardrails and walkways, hikers should make their way with care along the trails. Hiking boots are strongly recommended, as some trail areas are always wet. Keep in mind that one reason the trail is so spectacular is it skirts the very edge of the cliffs.

The Cliff Trail runs from the bottom of the Chimney upward along the mountainside to the top of Hickory Nut Falls, where it connects with the Skyline Trail, which winds along the top of the ridge.

If you're just interested in the movie sites, you can take the Cliff Trail up to the falls and back. Going up the Cliff Trail isn't as tough as it looks on the trail map, and it provides the same perspective seen in the film.

Once the Cliff Trail passes Wildcat Trap about halfway up, much will seem familiar to ``Mohicans' fans. It is the path of pursuit that Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook follow to catch up with Magua.

One of the most recognizable areas is a cliff face of sheer, sloping rock called Groundhog Slide. It's hard to imagine feeling comfortable walking along this path without a guardrail, but the actors filmed a chase scene running up this steep slope. Safety nets and mountaineers were set up along the base of the slide to protect them.

Inspiration Point, the massive cliff weathered into the shape of a giant profile, is the next movie landmark.

Hawkeye and Cora share an embrace beneath this massive rock ledge after the battle is over. It's also from this point that cameras captured the sweeping view of the distant mountains, panning across Hickory Nut Falls and to the cliff face where Uncas surprises Magua's war party.

The movie really comes to life in an area called Nature's Showerbath. Natural seepage from the mountaintop drips from the overhanging rock to the path below, turning the lower cliffs nickel-silver in the afternoon light. To get the camera's eye view, go to the western end of the Showerbath and look back.

It was atop the wide slabs of rock near the entrance to the Showerbath that Magua and Uncas fought for the life of Alice Munro. It's also the site where two characters go over the cliff - one by choice and one in battle.

Platforms were built below the trail and topped with inflated pads to catch the stunt people as they jumped from the cliff.

The Cliff Trail ends at the top of Hickory Nut Falls, where the water spreads out in a broad sheet over the wide, sloping rock ledge before it rushes over the edge. It was here that Magua and Chingachgook fought the last deadly battle of the film.

A wooden walkway crosses over the water, with openings that allow visitors to walk along the sloping rocks almost to the edge of the fall. There are fences to protect visitors from making the 404-foot plunge; safety nets and small steel cables attached to the actors' ankles kept them from making a fatal slip.

A stairway on the far side of the waterfall leads upward to a view of Fall Creek as it gushes out of the forest and tumbles down a series of shelves and ledges. An arched bridge crosses back over the creek, leading to the Skyline Trail.

Jaeger-Gale hopes the movie will inspire more people to try the park's trail system, which also includes a path to the bottom of the waterfall. Though they know the park well enough to pick out the fake rocks in the background shots, even staff members were stunned by what they saw on the screen.

``Even though I see it every day, it looked so good,' says Roger Losey, maintenance supervisor at Chimney Rock. ``I think it looks even better on film.'

Losey was on hand throughout the filming to assist the film crew. His job included removing and replacing guardrails, fences and boardwalks, and helping pick up the pieces after they threw the dummies over the cliff. It took about 10 tries to get a satisfactory shot of the dummies plunging down the mountainside.

Losey saw very little of the stars. They were ushered in when everything was ready, and ushered out as soon as the shot was done.

``When they were filming Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe, Michael Mann would actually make everyone else on the set look the other way, so nobody would break their concentration,' Losey says. ``And if you didn't turn your head, you were in trouble.'

The strangest thing Losey saw the crew do was paint the poison ivy.

``When the seasons started changing, the poison ivy started turning red, so they went and painted it green,' Losey says.

The film crew was at Chimney Rock longer than originally anticipated, which was somewhat inconvenient for the park. October is one of the park's peak months for visitors.

The payoff for Chimney Rock, however, is a film that could double as a promotional video for North Carolina tourism.

``It really was perfect for us,' Jaeger-Gale says, ``because what it showed is where our tourists go.'

WANT TO GO?

Chimney Rock Park is a 1,000-acre park featuring trails, a nature center and a 404-foot waterfall.

Open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. March to April and mid-October to December; open 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. May to mid-October.

Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for children age 6-15. Located 25 miles southeast of Asheville on U.S. 64/74. (800) 277-9611.

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