Our 74-mile AT through-hike is just three days away. In preparation, Mary, Clarence, and I wish to loosen limbs and pump hearts and lungs on hikes designed to condition us to the terrain and elevation. Mt. Sterling Trail requires a 1,900-foot climb along an old road from 3,900 to 5,800 feet in 2.7 miles, ending at the fire tower and campsite #38. From this lofty height, Baxter Creek Trail descends a dizzying 4,100 feet in 6.1 miles to cross Big Creek at the identically named campground and picnic area. A 6,000 foot change over 8.8 miles should loosen and pump quite nicely.
The damp, overcast morning begins with a long drive to leave a car at the Big Creek Picnic Area followed by another long drive up the curvy, graveled Mt. Sterling Road to Mt. Sterling Gap and the trailhead. We are in the clouds amid drizzling rain, and pack covers, raincoats, and umbrellas are required. It is cool, but thankfully not windy.
Up here, nature is still in the throes of spring. Trees’ foliage are a fresh, vibrant green, though several also exhibit drooping, brown leaves burnt by a recent cold snap. Wildflowers long gone elsewhere are still looking good on Mt. Sterling Trail. Wild Geranium, Solomon’s Seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Painted Trillium, Nodding Mandarin, and Large White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) are in flower. The latter plant was in flower nearly two months ago at elevations just a couple of thousand feet lower, yet numerous individuals dot the trailsides in near pristine condition. A few have petals blushed rosy pink. The Large White Trillium is one of a handful of white flowered species that age gracefully. Older flowers seek a more complexion complementing tone by turning pale to deep rose before withering.
Last fall on our way to the Fern Foray on Long Bunk Trail, fellow Frondler Paul Durr pointed out Mountain Indigo-bush (Amorpha glabra) on the lower section of Mt. Sterling. As I’m noting this fact in my recorder, I glance to the right and find myself staring at the telltale compound leaves of that very plant. Mountain Indigo-bush is endemic to the Southern Appalachians, and if this individual flowers, it should begin doing so fairly soon, May to June being the typical time frame. Further up, there is a Rosy Twisted-stalk in flower. [I will get a better photo to post during the second half of our AT hike.]
Critters wild and domestic have recently traveled the trail. We find fresh tracks from a large Elk and very fresh poop from a horse as we huff and puff our way to the crest of Mt. Sterling. Here the trail meets the start of Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail which traverses this ridge in a southwesterly direction toward Balsam Mountain. Mt. Sterling Trail hangs a sharp right and follows the ridge to the northeast, rising slightly to the summit at 5,842 feet where a campsite (#38) and the fire tower are located.
Spruce and fir populate the ridge, and Highbush Blueberry is in flower. There are tire tracks on the trail. Would the Park Service bring a wheeled vehicle up here? The fire tower is socked in by thick clouds, and a chilly wind is blowing steadily. Despite the unfavorable conditions, I climb two flights of the tower’s stairs before coming to terms with the pointlessness of the effort and my growing cowardice.
The wind compels us to move on down Baxter Creek Trail as quickly as possible. It begins just to the left of the tower and follows Mt. Sterling’s ridge line for about a half mile, then heads north down the mountain side. There are remarkable sections of dark yet ghostly conifer forest cloaked in the cloud mist. Rosettes of the Bluebead Lily’s broad leaves, shiny, wet, and grass green, glow on the dim forest floor. Delicate stalks emerge topped with tight buds and a few newly-opened flowers of unassuming yellow-green. The defining image of Baxter Creek Trail’s upper reaches, though, has to be the mosses. Fern Moss (Thuidium sp.), in particular, has conquered every horizontal surface as far as the eye can see, a faded raw umber and chartreuse blanket bunched into lumpy mounds undulating over the ground and camouflaging the boulder fields. We are incredulous as this mossy cover continues uninterrupted for quite some distance.
Baxter Creek is a relatively smooth trail. Given the elevation change, our approach hiking down is definitely the easier way, though I do experience some knee discomfort about halfway and must slow the pace a bit. We run into several trees blown across the trail, requiring all manner of physical gyrations to route over, under, through, or around these blockades, and find a sawed tree stump with a large, beautifully grotesque burl on one side.
Moving out of the moss, we locate a dry lunch spot at the base of a large rock decorated with Appalachian Rockcap Fern, Mountain Spleenwort, various lichens, and mosses, including the stubbily branched, linear threads of Thelia. Two 16-inch tall Painted Trillium command attention. As we continue to descend, both wind and temperature moderate. Dry communities alternate with moist, rich coves. I hiked the lower section of Baxter Creek on another Fern Foray a few years ago and can report that quite a bit of Walking Fern and scattered clumps of Goldie’s Fern (Dryopteris goldiana) may be found here. Yellow Buckeyes are flowering, and their pale blossoms litter the trail.
About a half mile from the end, we take a side trail down to a massive stone chimney, over 20 feet tall, near Big Creek. I believe it was part of a lodge. A thick base supports the hearth a good five feet off the ground, and it must be eight or nine feet wide. Its large, rectangular firebox is lined with brick and two huge chunks of quartz flank the moss-covered lintel. Sprigs of Maidenhair Spleenwort grow in the rock crannies. Back on the trail, there is a beautiful fresh fungus fruiting on a decaying log. Its form resembles Witches’ Butter, but its color is more flesh-toned to whitish, appearing nearly translucent in places. White Coral Jelly is in the same genus, but its form is more upright and branched. I suspect that this is just very pale Witches’ Butter, a fungus that parasitizes the mycelium of another fungus inhabiting dead wood.
We cross the wide bridge over Big Creek to Mary’s car and begin two more long drives – up to Mt. Sterling Gap to retrieve Clarence’s car and back to Greenbrier. The following day, Clarence and I continue the conditioning with an 11.2 mile trek in the rain to the top of Brushy Mountain and back. My knee gives me no trouble, much to my relief. Since I documented that trail in April of 2010, I intentionally opt to hike without my camera. Unfortunately, I also unintentionally opt to hike without my Go-Lite umbrella, but that super expensive, super cool Arcteryx rain jacket keeps me dry where it counts.