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Quiet Walkway sign

Quiet Walkway sign

Those little Quiet Walkway signs on US 441 and Little River Road, each like the next, are so easy to confuse and conflate. I have never been able to ascertain just how many there are, much less where they go, how long each is, what’s to be seen, or why anyone would bother. Positioned on busy park roads, these nameless stops aren’t tempting enough to warrant pulling off in traffic. They aren’t established trails as such, don’t appear on park maps, aren’t detailed in any brochure I’ve found, and aren’t necessary for the 900 Club (at least I don’t think so). The only one I’ve hiked is across from Huskey Gap on 441 as part of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. It’s a decent one-mile loop with interesting plants and good parking. The rest get a dismissive pass.

Big Oak turns right over a ditch and Spring Branch

Big Oak turns right over a ditch and Spring Branch

This is an elitist attitude unworthy of a true Smokies lover. If my goal is a thorough exploration of this park, these paths are as much a part of it as Alum Cave Trail. It is high time I hike the Quiet Walkways.

My shutdown-shortened October trip provides an opportunity to examine these unassuming and overlooked paths. To that list of qualifiers, it will soon become necessary to add ‘underestimated.’ Recalling two QWs on 441 and counting three on Little River, I hike and photograph these before returning home. Back in Nashville, I make a startling discovery.

Big Oak QW

Big Oak QW

First, each QW features a small square sign at the start stating, “A short walk on this easy trail offers close-up views, subtle aromas, and the serene quiet of a protected woodland. You will be walking in one of the last great wildland areas in the East, but you won’t need a backpack or hiking boots. Take your time. Have a seat on a rock or a log bench. The trail has no particular destination, so walk as far as you like and then return. Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

At the end of Tremont Road starting my Lynn Camp Prong & Panther Creek hike, I had noticed one of these signs on the left side of Middle Prong Trail just past the bridge. Since Middle Prong is so wide and gently graded, it may often be used by people who don’t want to walk very far. There are benches along Middle Prong. I assume the park had made it a de facto QW.

Hickory Flats QW

Hickory Flats QW

While writing my Lynn Camp post, I consult National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map for Cades Cove and Elkmont. It is larger scaled and covers only the western end of the park. I am surprised to see a little hiker icon and “Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway” printed near the start of Middle Prong but attached to a dotted trail splitting to the right.

I’ve hiked this side trail on several occasions (Pilgrimage fungi walk and naturalist classes at Tremont) and always considered it to be a manway. In fact, it has been referred to as Sam’s Creek manway. My Tremont aquatic ecology class hiked to its end at thundering Thunderhead Prong to examine a third order stream.

Fighting Creek or William Stinnett Cemetery

Fighting Creek or William Stinnett Cemetery

Well, if this QW is noted on this map, are the others? They are indeed, with names and mileages! After consulting the companion Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee map for the eastern end of the park, I find there are several more. Instead of two QWs on 441, there are nine — four on the Tennessee side and five in North Carolina. In all, there are 14 Quiet Walkways in the park, six in North Carolina (another off Lakeview Drive) and eight in Tennessee (four 441, three Little River, one Tremont). They only appear on these half park National Geographic maps, not NG’s full park map.

Overgrown roadbed of Hickory Flats QW

Overgrown roadbed of Hickory Flats QW

After the orienteering class Saturday afternoon, I hit the three QWs on Little River Rd. The first one is 0.8 mile past Sugarlands Visitor Center on the left — Big White Oak Quiet Walkway, a half-mile loop. From the pull off, the trail drops to a long footbridge over Fighting Creek and turns left, rounding the base of a foothill from Sugarland Mountain to run alongside and cross Spring Branch four times. This area has little to no elevation change.

Past the first Spring Branch crossing, the trail accompanies the tiny creek straight back into the woods then stops abruptly, making a sharp right to double dip the branch and a ditch. It continues along the opposite side of the branch then angles right to skirt the base on another foothill and begin the loop back through tall thin tulip poplars. Since I wasn’t aware of its name during the hike, I did not know to look for a “Big White Oak” and did not notice one either.

Washtub on Hickory Flats

Washtub on Hickory Flats

The trail dips down to cross Spring Branch again and pop through thick Rhododendron lining the creek. At this point it rejoins itself. A left turn takes you back to the first Spring Branch crossing and the Fighting Creek bridge.

The second QW is Hickory Flats Quiet Walkway just a half mile beyond Big White Oak on the right. One of the main water courses draining Cove Mountain is Hickory Flats Branch. This and several smaller ones, like Bill Deadening Branch and Whistlepig Branch, feed into Fighting Creek before it joins the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River flowing through Gatlinburg.

Laurel Falls QW

Laurel Falls QW

The trail heads straight back from the road about a hundred yards or so, hops a tiny creek, and comes to a four-way crossing. The paths straight ahead and on the left show greater wear than the one on the right. I walk straight ahead.

The trail curves left and becomes rutted and eroded during a short but steep climb. A cemetery occupies a tiny rectangle of flat land at the top. Listed by the park as the Fighting Creek Cemetery, other sites claim it is the William Stinnett cemetery. There are several Stinnetts buried here along with Bohanan, Maples, Bradley, and Ownby. The trail circles back down to the four-way intersection, less than 0.2 mile altogether.

Laurel Branch

Laurel Branch

I walk straight again, this time on the less traveled path. The cemetery might account for the worn look of the circular path, but the overgrown and blown down aspect of this path certainly discourages casual walkers. The map shows Hickory Flats QW as a one-way, 0.3 mile trail to Hickory Flats Branch. I rock hop pretty Whistlepig Branch and encounter a large downed tree that provides most people an excellent reason to turn around. I can see the trail on the other side and climb over the trunk to follow. It joins an old roadbed with stone walls flanking either side, but saplings and broken branches give this QW an abandoned air.

Sharp switchback

Sharp switchback

At a small opening where herbaceous plants have eagerly claimed the sunlight and tower overhead, the trail becomes a thin slit through vegetation and begins working its way down to Hickory Flats Branch. The path dissolves before reaching the creek, appearing to end at the broken remnants of an old wash tub.

The final QW on Little River Road is less than a mile past Laurel Falls, 4.3 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center, and is called the Laurel Falls Quiet Walkway, a tiny 0.3 mile loop. The trail is well marked and flanked by short grasses (likely sedges). It crosses one small creek and turns right to climb gently upstream next to Laurel Branch.

Second leg of the loop is down slope past the cairn.

The trail comes to a halt and turns back sharply on itself to the right. Then things get tricky. The area opens a bit, but the trail seems to vanish. I explore several possible options that don’t go anywhere. However, there is a very large rock cairn stuck in the middle. Walking a short distance past it, I see a path just downslope. It goes both left and right. Following it to the left, I’m taken to a dead end at the creek. To the right, it circles around to the original trail, passing under a large downed maple bole.

I suppose the purpose of the cairn (barely visible in the woods from the downhill trail section) is to signal hikers from either end to the remainder of the loop. I imagine most people simply treat each path as a one-way hike and the low maple tree probably deters many from following that leg.

Right Fork of Laurel Falls QW under a downed maple

Right Fork of Laurel Falls QW under a downed maple

These short Quiet Walkways really do take visitors into the serene woodland without strenuous effort, providing a brief taste of these beautiful mountains, and during at least part of each hike, getting far enough from the road to experience a little quiet — maybe not Appalachian Trail quiet, but close enough.

More QWs in future posts.

Cascade, Lynn Camp Prong, Middle Prong Trail

Cascade, Lynn Camp Prong, Middle Prong Trail

October is the busiest month in the park. Sunny days, cool temperatures, and stunning fall colors are a money making combination. Unless a dysfunctional U.S. Congress intentionally sticks its own feet up its own butt and royally screws two beautiful weeks for the rest of the country, punishing park visitors and neighboring communities. What a mess!

Easy rail grade at the start of Lynn Camp Prong Trail

Easy rail grade at the start of Lynn Camp Prong Trail

My camping trip is one casualty. A backcountry reservation for Campsite #30 Three Forks at the end of Little River Trail is suspended. The state of Tennessee and Blount and Sevier counties make a heroic effort to reopen the park Oct. 16, the day of my overnight. It is just a little too late for me to make it. I have to pare the schedule to a Friday day hike, Saturday class on map and compass skills, and Sunday morning exploration of the Quiet Walkways. The Friday day hike is a lollipop loop of four trails — Middle Prong to Lynn Camp Prong to Miry Ridge to Panther Creek and back to Middle Prong — 14.9 miles.

Log Ridge across Lynn Camp Prong

Log Ridge across Lynn Camp Prong

The cultural history of the Southern Appalachians is quite interesting, but for me it has always taken a backseat to natural history. On the western end of the park, Tremont Road runs from Laurel Creek Road at the Townsend Wye through Walker Valley to its terminus at the confluence of Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong, the start of Middle Prong — both the creek flowing out of the mountains and the trail weaving into them. When Will Walker’s family sold their land to timber interests, Little River Company built this rail grade through the valley to harvest the ancient forest.

Veiled Panus fungus

Veiled Panus fungus

A short distance up Tremont Road across from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is a small stand with booklets for an auto tour of the area. Numbered stops along the road pair with information in the booklet to detail WB Townsend’s bustling logging operation and the support community that sprang up like mushrooms after a summer rain. It takes quite a bit of imagination to conjure this scene as little physical evidence remains of the school, hotel, post office, machine shop, store, and homes that thrived on the cut wood from these mountains.

Lynn Camp Prong campsite sign

Lynn Camp Prong campsite sign

Middle Prong Trail (4.1 miles) and the first 1.5 miles of Lynn Camp Prong Trail continue the loggers’ rail grade and provide easy walking for hikers at any level. Middle Prong Trail follows Lynn Camp Prong (the stream) most of the way then switches allegiance to Indian Flats Prong in the final mile, ending at the junction with Greenbrier Ridge Trail and Lynn Camp Prong Trail. I arrive at this junction in one hour and 45 minutes. (For a full account of Middle Prong Trail, please see the blog entry dated June 23, 2011, in the July 2011 Archive.)

The dominant mountain peak above Lynn Camp Prong is Cold Spring Knob (5,520 feet). It sits on the Smokies Crest and juts north into Tennessee. Four ridge lines radiate from the knob in an “X.” Southwest and southeast ridges are part of the crest forming the North Carolina border and featuring the Appalachian Trail. Miry Ridge and its trail strike a course northeast, and Mellinger Death Ridge heads northwest. Drainage from Mellinger and Miry, plus Dripping Spring Mountain and its Log Ridge, supplies the feeder streams and headwaters for Lynn Camp Prong. The trail roughly follows the prong’s east/west course, though removed upslope, skirting the base of Cold Spring Knob.

Mossy ground sprigged with Fancy Ferns

Mossy ground sprigged with Fancy Ferns

From the Middle Prong junction, Lynn Camp Prong Trail climbs 1,200 feet in 3.7 miles, 1,000 of that in the last 2.25 miles — a grade that is never taxing. The path to Campsite #28 is wide and smooth thanks to the logging grade and scallops its way around the finger ridges of Mellinger Death Ridge. Its grisly name derives from the murder of hapless Jasper Mellinger, whose misfortune led him to literally stumble into a bear trap set up inappropriately by two brothers. They found the poor guy near death a few days later and opted to chuck him off a rocky cliff rather than face consequences. For 30 years, Mellinger’s disappearance was a mystery until one brother confessed on his deathbed and told authorities where to look for the dead man’s remains.

Where's Goldilocks?

Where’s Goldilocks?

The tranquil forest belies such horror, and Lynn Camp Prong is lovely and pleasant to hike. Other than the cool October air, asters and goldenrods are the main signs of the season. Autumn has been dry, and the trees remain mostly green. Near the campsite, I catch glimpses of bright color across the prong on Log Ridge. These small pockets of showy yellows and reds hidden in this valley will be the only spots of decent fall color visible on this trip.

During a brief break, I see a small branch studded with rosy beige fungi. The little mushrooms grow pendulously from a central attachment and gills underneath radiate from this point. It could be Tectella patellaris, Veiled Panus. A few sport what appear to be remnants of a veil. They are saprobic, feeding on dead organic matter, and are found from summer to early winter.

Three Bears 02, Lynn Camp Prong Trail, October 18, 2013The campsite is in a broad, nearly flat, area at the opening of Buckeye Cove. It lies straight ahead 0.2 mile from the sign, and Lynn Camp Prong Trail takes a hard right and climbs away from the smooth rail grade. The trail surface is rockier, requiring more attention, but is still relatively comfortable underfoot.

Blue Ground-Cedar on Dripping Spring Mountain

Blue Ground-cedar on Dripping Spring Mountain

The Little Brown Book describes small stream crossings and seeps on the upper section that can make the trail messy, especially with horse traffic, but the dry weather has kept this to a minimum. I find very little mud or muck today, but the moist environment is a boon to mosses and ferns. Thick carpets of the former are sprigged with lush vases of Intermediate (Fancy) Fern.

Round-branch Ground-Pine on Dripping Spring Mountain

Round-branch Ground-pine on Dripping Spring Mountain

LBB also discusses possible wildlife sightings of Boomers and Bears. I get both! A Red Squirrel loudly protests my interruption of its quiet morning, and that stand of Black Cherry trees mentioned in the book is currently serving a lunch buffet for local bears. A crashing noise in the tree tops can only mean one thing. Sure enough, not one but three bears are perched on thick limbs of one tree high in the canopy. One, the largest and likely mom, is stuffing its face as fast as it can grab nearby leafy twigs. The others, smaller in size, aren’t as gluttonous. I snap a few quick photos and prepare to move on. Mom and one cub have spotted me. The third is so still, it may be napping. To my slight discomfort, I realize the trail circles around to pass right under this tree. The bears are quite high up and don’t seem inclined to descend. I put my head down and walk calmly but with purpose through the stand of cherries to the opposite side. None of the bears moves. I watch them for another moment then leave them to eat in peace.

Colorful oak and huckleberry leaves

Colorful oak and huckleberry leaves

I reach Lynn Camp Prong’s junction with Miry Ridge Trail in two hours and pause here for lunch. The sun is shining, but it is quite cool with a slight breeze. I eat quickly and continue 2.5 miles to the Panther Creek and Jakes Creek junctions. I’ve hiked Miry Ridge before in summer (June 24, 2011, July 2011 Archive). Lynn Camp’s junction is near the end of the actual named ridge line, and the trail circles west to climb Dripping Spring Mountain, traversing just south of its wide summit.

Narrow Valley of Panther Creek

Narrow valley of Panther Creek

Huckleberries and young Scarlet Oaks are flaming red on the exposed slope. Tucked into rocky crevices among Reindeer Lichen are Blue Ground-cedar (Diphasiastrum tristachyum) and Round-branch Ground-pine (Dendrolycopodium hickeyi) growing side by side. Not frequently found, these small club mosses prefer the harsher conditions favoring heath balds.

Panther Creek

Panther Creek

Miry Ridge Trail drops from the mountain to its junction with Jakes Creek Trail on the right and Panther Creek Trail to the left. Straight ahead is the vegetation-choked manway up Blanket Mountain (Feb. 2012 Archive).

Panther Creek Trail descends 1,600 feet over 2.3 miles closely following the creek’s path between Timber Ridge off Blanket Mountain and Log Ridge off Dripping Spring. Its course also runs mostly east/west. This creek valley becomes very narrow in places, and the trail crosses Panther Creek numerous times and in one location merges with it. The potential for wet, muddy feet is great here, but I have no problem today.

Lacy leaf

Lacy leaf

The trail is steepest within the first mile and moderates thereafter. Evergreen shrubs Rosebay Rhododendron and Doghobble abound here. Deciduous plants are looking ragged. One poor specimen has been so ravaged by insects, it resembles lace more than leaf.

Panther Creek and Trail merge as one

Panther Creek and Trail merge as one

About halfway down, a tree has fallen into the creek, its branches obscuring the path at one creek crossing. As I study my options, three horse riders come down the trail. One lady seems to know about this blockage and deftly urges her horse over the trunk to cross behind it. I slip over the trunk and follow their lead.

The final creek crossing is Lynn Camp Prong, just a few yards shy of the Middle Prong Trail junction. The stream is wide and not very deep, but still too deep for boots. A rock hop is nearly impossible and poses far more dangers than wading. Off come the gaiters, boots, and socks, and up go the pants legs.

The chilly waters of Lynn Camp Prong

The chilly waters of Lynn Camp Prong

The water’s depth changes dramatically, nearly up my knees in places. The rough and rocky bed is slippery. It hurts my feet and challenges my balance. I nearly fall over at one point, sharply banging my knee on a big boulder. The struggle across is taking much longer than desired, and my poor feet start screaming in pain from the icy cold water. By the time I stumble up the opposite bank, I can barely keep from crying. I rub them dry and pull on socks and shoes quickly to restore warmth. It takes several minutes before they function well enough to stand and walk normally.

From here it is 2.3 miles to the parking area down Middle Prong Trail. The 14.9 mile hike takes me 7 hours and 45 minutes.

Sign Gunter Fork Junction, Camel Gap Trail, July 30, 2013My hopes for a dry Wednesday morning are dashed sometime in the middle of the night. Raindrops patter the tent throughout the wee hours and well past dawn. I resign myself to striking camp in the rain. That isn’t my only problem. Again I sleep fully dressed yet still get cold. I finally admit that I should have brought a heavier sleeping bag. The 55 degree sleep sack is not suited to this unseasonably cool summer in the mountains.

To make matters worse, during the night I get cold underneath, feel the hard ground, and realize my REI insulated air sleeping pad has a slow leak. I struggle to blow it up in a one man tent. By morning, it’s bottomed out again. Things had been going so well and are now all going to hell at once.

Big Creek crossing on Gunter Fork Trail

Big Creek crossing on Gunter Fork Trail

I eat breakfast, put on full rain gear, and load everything but the tent in my pack before emerging from that little cell, then work quickly to wipe off water and splashed debris, take it down, and roll it up. At 8:05, I head up Big Creek and Camel Gap to the Gunter Fork Trail junction.

Gunter Fork's remote wilderness experience

Gunter Fork’s remote wilderness experience

Signs are posted warning hikers to avoid Gunter Fork in high water. One tenth of a mile from the junction, the trail fords Big Creek. Park Service personnel warned me of this with a caution to watch the weather when I made my reservations. Given the rainy year it has been, I carefully eyed Big Creek yesterday and was relieved to see easily navigable water levels. The rain overnight has been light and has not made any appreciable difference to Big Creek. I remove shoes and socks, roll pants to my knees, and walk across with no difficulty.

Falls and Pool

Falls and Pool

There are several more unbridged stream crossings within the first two miles of Gunter Fork. I put my boots on without socks just in case this becomes routine. However, if Big Creek is this uneventful, the others should be even easier. Well, surprise, surprise, they are not.

These crossings of Gunter Fork (the creek) are full of rushing white water, awkward jumbles of rocks, and areas too deep for shoes. I try to plot a dry way across, but there are none. Boots definitely have to come off each time. Tugging on a recalcitrant boot at one crossing, it pops loose, squirts out of my hand, and lands in the water. Fortunately, the water isn’t moving quite as fast at this spot, and I grab it before it washes away. I’m not so lucky with my camera bag cover. It slips off and disappears downstream.

Cascade over Conglomerate and Sandstone

Cascade over Conglomerate and Sandstone

My progress is very slow, and stream crossings aren’t the only impediments. Vegetation crowds the trail. Broken branches of Rosebay Rhododendron obscure and block the way repeatedly. I must bend double to get past them.

Gunter Fork has a very remote feel to it, more like an old manway than an established park trail — like a backcountry bushwhacking wilderness experience in the middle of nowhere. I have not yet had that sensation on a Smokies trail. It is exhilarating and a little scary.

Treacherous trail

Treacherous trail

This wild sensation increases as the trail climbs higher toward Balsam Mountain. The path is very narrow in places, barely clinging to the steep mountainside. A couple of short sections are rough and tricky, held together with a hodgepodge of plant roots, a well placed rock or two, and a few murmured prayers. One misstep and I’d be in a world of hurt. Gunter Fork Trail was closed for a couple of years due to landslides. These scars are not large, but they reinforce the vulnerable and potentially hazardous nature of this trail. It is one of the few trails on this end of the park where horses are not allowed…for obvious reasons.

Having said all this, I will also say that Gunter Fork is beautiful. The raw wildness and sense of isolation are very much a part of that beauty. The trail is 4.1 miles long and climbs the side of Balsam Mountain 2,300 feet to Balsam Mountain Trail.

Appalachian Chanterelle

Appalachian Chanterelle

There are two gorgeous cascades on Gunter Fork, both worth the effort to visit. A lovely cascading waterfall and plunge pool is just off the trail on the right about 1.5 miles from Big Creek. The pool is visible from the trail, but it is best to step down the embankment to the water’s edge for a good view of the cascade. It would be a great spot for a summer picnic and swim!

Narrowleaf Leek or Ramp fruit

Narrowleaf Leek or Ramp fruit

About 0.3 mile further is an unusual and impressive cascade. Water from falls visible far in the background slides in a thin sheet down 150 feet of smooth rock. It forms a shallow ditch at the base and funnels in a narrow stream across the trail. One easy (and dry) step gets me to the other side. The cascade rock clearly shows two different rock types, smooth brown sandstone under rough gray conglomerate, joining at a distinct line. The Little Brown Book includes a vivid description of this cascade cloaked in ice.

There aren’t as many mushrooms on Gunter Fork as would be expected. Some lovely green mushrooms, one a rich turquoise color, could be a Russula or maybe Lacterius species. Appalachian Chanterelle (Cantherellus appalachiensis) is growing in an eye-stopping yellow cluster.

Beautiful turquoise mushroom

Beautiful turquoise mushroom

I find more Ramp plants. These are setting seed and have no more than 16 “flowers” per stem. They may be the narrowleaf variety, Allium tricoccum var. burdickii.

An occasional view of ridges to the east opens through the forest. One view shows the smooth look of a heath bald or laurel slick on adjacent ridge tops and slopes. Nearing the top, Red Spruce appear and the ground becomes thick with deep carpets of moss. A large grouping of Indian Pipes sparkles like crystal against the hushed green.

Landslide area

Landslide area

After a long time, much longer than I had anticipated, I reach the Balsam Mountain junction, turn left, and head for Laurel Gap Shelter. I hiked Balsam Mountain just a few days shy of three years ago. I remember it being a much smoother trail than the rutted mess facing me today. Chafing with impatience, the 1.1 mile walk seems to take forever.  I pass the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail junction and finally reach the shelter after 1:00. No one else is there.

Mossy upper elevations with Indian Pipes

Mossy upper elevations with Indian Pipes

The shelter looks starkly different from my last visit. The dingy, dirty rock structure with an opening covered in chain link fencing was gutted to the walls. Sleeping platforms were replaced and benches added. The new enlarged roof covers a roomy food prep area and features a big skylight. It is very similar in design to Russell Field.

I start to unpack and consider a water run before taking off my boots. The water source is a long, muddy walk downhill. It is lightly raining, misty, foggy, windy, and cold. In short, it is miserable. I’m hesitant to commit and eat lunch instead, giving me time to think things through.

Renovated Laurel Gap Shelter

Renovated Laurel Gap Shelter

My sleeping pad is compromised. I’ll have to blow it up two or three times during the night. My sleeping bag did not keep me warm at 3,000 feet. Imagine how much worse it will be at 5,500. I don’t know what the weather will be this afternoon or tonight. Nine point seven miles, all downhill, stand between me and my car, and that hike will likely take at least five hours or more. I’m tired and wet. It would be wonderful to relax in this dry shelter and write in my journal. If I had warmer gear and a working sleep pad I would stay, but my best move is to get moving.

At 2:20 I set out for Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. It’s soupy and misty most of the way to Pretty Hollow Gap. The sky lightens, and the afternoon warms as the miles tick by. I reach my car at 6:45 — 9.7 miles in 4.5 hours, a total of 16.2 miles for the day. I now face a five hour drive home, but at least I’m sitting down.

Camel Gap, A.T. junction

Camel Gap, A.T. junction

The night was clear and quite cool. I slept in long pants and long sleeved shirt. The morning is equally clear, and I am excited to hike carrying only what I need for the day.

Today’s adventure is Camel Gap Trail. About halfway between Campsite #37 and the start of Gunter Fork Trail, Big Creek Trail simply ends, turning seamlessly into Camel Gap Trail. A sign marks this inauspicious and rather arbitrary junction in Walnut Bottom. From this point, Camel Gap gradually rises 1,700 feet over 4.7 miles to the Appalachian Trail.

Ramp flowers

Ramp flowers

Its A.T. junction is equidistant to Snake Den Ridge Trail (to the left) and Low Gap Trail (to the right, past Cosby Knob Shelter), both descending to Cosby Campground on the north side of the Smokies crest. Low Gap also descends southeast to Big Creek Trail just 0.1 mile from Campsite #37, a convenient 10.3-mile loop. Due to Camel Gap’s hiker friendly profile and complimentary account in the Little Brown Book, my plan to is hike it twice — up and back. It is just 0.1 mile longer and much easier than the loop.

Mini cascade

Mini cascade

The first mile or so of Camel Gap lies in or near the flood plain of Big Creek. The trail is narrow, wet, and overgrown in one area before Gunter Fork. After that junction, a short rocky stretch skirts Big Creek’s bank and is scoured by high water. These brief inconveniences are quickly left behind. Camel Gap is in fine condition, only a few eroded trenches as testament to horse use. Built along an old logging grade all the way to the A.T., it is one of the most pleasant uphill treks in the park. Other old logging grades are sometimes visible on opposite slopes.

View of Balsam Mountain

View of Balsam Mountain

Camel Gap follows Big Creek most of the way, crossing small feeder streams with lush growth of Bee Balm and Cut-leaved Coneflower. One small spring spills down a miniature cascade into a tiny pool. At approximately three miles, Big Creek curves left, and the trail begins to follow a feeder stream, Yellow Creek, named for the colorful autumn foliage of Tulip Poplar and Sugar Maple. Originally, the trail was called Yellow Creek too. “Camel” is thought to be a family name, perhaps the corruption of Campbell.

Appalachian Waxy Cap

Appalachian Waxy Cap

A short distance above the confluence of Yellow and Big Creeks, the trail hooks a hard right, moves away from the water, and ascends to the Smokies crest and Tennessee/North Carolina border, though its grade changes little. The lovely, peaceful cove forests in the protected stream valleys, where Ramp (Allium tricoccum var. tricoccum) is in flower, blend into northern hardwoods, mixing Silverbell, Yellow Birch, Fraser Magnolia, and Basswood among maples and oaks. Green fruit of Mountain Holly (Ilex montana) will turn red in the fall. There is a good view of Balsam Mountain on the way up. Near the A.T., occasional long wands of Catbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) reach into the trail, sometimes bearing thorns and sometimes waving slender, thornless tips with delicate, curling tendrils.

Coker's Amanita

Coker’s Amanita

Camel Gap has its share of beautiful mushrooms, including a picture perfect Coker’s Amanita, with pure white cap and conical warts. Several groupings of red Appalachian Waxy Cap (Hygrocybe appalachiensis) are regularly spotted near Fraser Magnolias and Silverbells, but according to Roody’s field guide, these mushrooms are saprobic (feeding on dead wood) and not mycorrhizal. I also see American Caesar’s and a bright group of Yellow Spindle Coral (Clavulinopsis fusiformis).

Yellow Spindle Coral

Yellow Spindle Coral

At the A.T., I rest a few minutes before starting down. A flat mossy area to the left of the trail on the way up is calling me for lunch. It takes about an hour to get back there. Juncos flitting through the trees are not pleased by my presence but soon get over it. Winter Wrens don’t seem to mind and sing heartily while I eat. Two new Poison Pigskin Puffballs are nestled in the grass and moss here. It is such a pleasant spot, I pull out my journal to write a little and even sketch a nearby Indian Cucumber-root. How wonderful to have the leisure for such indulgence!

Catbrier tendrils

Catbrier tendrils

I meet a father and daughter day hiking. They began in Cosby Campground and took Low Gap to Big Creek to Camel Gap and will follow the A.T. back to Low Gap and Cosby — a 15 mile day.

Returning to the flats of Walnut Bottom, I find a new mushroom. It is whitish to pale gray with dark gray conical warts like little steel studs sprinkled liberally on top. It’s Amanita onusta, common names Loaded Lepidella and Gunpowder Lepidella. “Onusta” derives from a Latin word meaning “charged, load-carrying, burdened,” and Amanitas are divided into sections — A. onusta is in the section Lepidellus.

Loaded Lepidella lures a snail

Loaded Lepidella lures a land snail

While photographing this Loaded Lepidella, I notice a snail is making a beeline for it. Sitting down in the trail, I watch (and photograph) the snail’s determined progress. The little guy stretches its ‘neck’ and even appears to pucker its ‘lips’ in its rush to reach the mushroom stem — to the extent a snail can rush! It climbs the stem, clutching firmly with that big muscled foot to hoist its home in the air. I get a humorous series of photos.

Flowering Raspberry

Flowering Raspberry

Past the Gunter Fork junction, there is a showy Flowering Raspberry shrub (Rubus odoratus) sporting large pinkish purple flowers with a center cushion of stamens. It looks more like a rose than a raspberry. I find quite an assembly of Velvet Earth Tongues (Trichoglossum hirsutum) poking through the leaf litter. These slender black club fungi are coated in fine hairs.

Velvet Earth Tongue

Velvet Earth Tongue

A large, beautiful mushroom growing on the mossy trailside has a frilled, concave cap that looks as if it’s been slathered with white cake frosting. The gills and short, stocky stem are yellowish. I should know this one but cannot make a certain ID. Near the Low Gap junction is a log covered with Fluted Bird’s Nest fungi in all stages — blackened empty cups, open cups with “eggs,” and fresh shaggy brown cups with the white protective membrane intact.

Unknown mushroom

Unknown mushroom

I left camp this morning shortly after 8:00 and return shortly after 4:00, 10.4 miles in eight hours. No heavy weight to haul, no pressure to rack up miles, freedom to relax and enjoy everything along the way, and a fairly remote yet accommodating trail. I had so much fun! Camel Gap earns a spot as one of my Top Five Trails!

reaching.....

Reaching…..

The weather has been very cooperative during my Smokies trip. Apart from that drenching on the A.T.’s Walnut Mountain Friday afternoon, the skies have been dry and the temperatures mild. Today, blue skies became cloudy around lunchtime but cleared during the afternoon. High clouds are gathering again this evening. Rain is forecast for tomorrow (Wednesday), and I am hoping it will wait until I’ve climbed Gunter Fork Trail and reached Laurel Gap Shelter for my final night.

contact!

Contact!

Cue Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture
Cue Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture
Wild Hydrangea

Wild Hydrangea

Returning to day two of my trip, I’ve completed Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and the northeast section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. After a quick lunch at the gap, I head down the northwest side of the ridge on Swallow Fork Trail. Swallow Fork descends 2,200 feet in four miles from Pretty Hollow Gap to Big Creek Trail in Walnut Bottom.

Downy Rattlesnake-plantain, the victim of a swing blade

Downy Rattlesnake-plantain, the victim of a swing blade

The trail’s lower part follows an old logging railroad bed, and the CCC’s construction to the gap in the mid-30s continued that pitch with little variation. The smooth surface has few impediments and no evidence of horse use, much less abuse. Walking up Swallow Fork would still provide serious exercise, but walking down is the proverbial ‘stroll in the park,’ a marvelous change from this morning’s trails.

Shrubs Wild Hydrangea and Rosebay Rhododendron are still in flower near the gap. A flower of Indian Pipe is turning its face toward the sky. This action indicates it has been pollinated and is preparing to set seed. The flower still looks fresh.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Further down are attractive rosettes of Rattlesnake-plantain. For some reason, I can never recall the exact difference between the two species Downy R-p (Goodyera pubescens) and Dwarf R-p (G. repens). The first is common in low to mid-elevations often seen in decent-sized patches. It is taller (6 to 20 inches) with a large white stripe running along the center vein of each leaf and a network of thin white veins patterning the rest of the leaf tissue. Dwarf R-p occurs infrequently in scattered locales at mid to high elevations. This species is smaller (4-8 inches) with no central white stripe and fainter overall veining pattern.

Powdery Amanita

Powdery Amanita

These distinctions blur and blend in my mind leaving me frustratingly confused every time I see a plant following a long absence. Today is no exception. Tingling with excitement, I am convinced I’ve finally found the smaller species. Wrong.

Someone must have been clearing the trail this morning, running a swing blade through and decapitating the flower stalks. I place a still fresh stalk of buds next to the foliage to photograph. I wish a couple of those buds were open! The flat circle of leaves and tall upright stalk make this plant a challenge to photograph intact and keep everything in focus and plainly visible.

Coker's or Carrot-foot Amanita?

Coker’s or Carrot-foot Amanita?

Several beautiful mushrooms are on display. There are three different species of Amanita. Two are easy to identify through their field characters. Yellow Patches (Amanita flavaconia) has a bright yellow-orange cap with thick yellow warts (the remains of its universal veil), a yellow stem, and a skirt. Powdery Amanita (Amanita farinosa) is gray with a coating of fine granular powder, also the remains of its universal veil, and a striate margin on the cap.

I think this is Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus.

I think this is Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus.

The third species is most likely Coker’s Amanita (Amanita cokeri), a white to ivory mushroom with conical warts on the cap, a skirt, and a swollen base. The two young fruiting bodies haven’t developed enough just yet to clearly show the first two characteristics. It is possible, given the wart coloration and enlarged base, that these could be Carrot-foot Amanitas (Amanita daucipes). All of these Amanitas are mycorrhizal, forming mutually beneficial relationships with trees through their roots and the fungi’s underground hyphae.

Could be a Tylopilus sp. with a very thick and tall stalk

Could be a Tylopilus sp. with a very thick and tall stalk

I have frequently seen a thick-fleshed, purplish brown bolete while hiking in the Smokies. Thanks to my field trips with the Cumberland Mycological Society, I believe I’ve been seeing Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus and am pleased to find some excellent specimens on Swallow Fork. I run across two massive mushrooms of purplish coloration, both victims of the trail-clearing swing blade. Their stalks are huge, over an inch in diameter, and are several inches tall. The caps are poorly developed, and I cannot identify them but suspect they may be a species of Tylopilus too. I photograph them with my boot and hiking stick in the pictures for scale.

Imitator Salamander

Imitator Salamander

While intent on mushrooms and mistaken Goodyera, I’m caught off guard by the swift movement of a large salamander. The dark amphibian snuggles against a large stick in the trail and pauses there long enough for me get a few photos. None are great. I can’t get that head in focus. It has distinctive red cheeks, and my first thought is Jordan’s Salamander. I did get his back half in focus and the larger hind legs suggest an Imitator Salamander (Desmognathus imitator) when researching it at home.

Pipevine and Tiger Swallowtails plus a Comma

Pipevine and Tiger Swallowtails plus a Comma

I meet a family of four hiking up Swallow Fork to camp at Mt. Sterling I suppose. The teenager in front asks wearily how much further to the top. I’m terrible at estimating distances, a task made more difficult by the amount of time I’ve spent photographing. “You’re at least half way,” I say with a smile. He grimaces.

Recently pollinated Indian Pipe flower

Recently pollinated Indian Pipe flower

Even though I’m going downhill, the lower half drags out for me too. There are four big stream crossings, and only one of them is bridged, the stream for which the trail is named. Two of the three rock hops are fairly substantial. Swallow Fork wanders around a flat area and finally drops to Big Creek Trail. Campsite #37 is 0.1 mile to the left just past a bridged crossing of Big Creek. Butterflies are puddling nearby.

Several sites are scattered to either side of the trail. I take what appears to be the only empty spot nestled at the base of a steep rise and next to a wet, swampy area that drains into Big Creek. The fire ring is full of half burned trash left by previous campers, and there is an unmistakable odor of human waste. There are no easy toilet locations without a long trek down the trail, thus people foul their own sleeping area. It is a damp and rather undesirable location, but I’m stuck here two nights.

Darn rodents.

Darn rodents.

After setting up my tent, I repair my chewed food stuff stack with Tenacious Tape and the plastic bag with duct tape, eat dinner, and prepare for tomorrow’s day hike. The sun sets behind the steep rise at the back of my site simulating twilight long before it arrives. Dampness from the swampy area induces a chill. With no comfortable place to sit, I retire to my tent early to write in my journal.

Sign, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, July 31, 2013This is a tale of two trails on two separate days. The second day of my backpacking trip, July 29 – a beautiful day, I hike the remainder of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail to the gap, turn right and cover 1.4 miles of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail to the Mount Sterling junction and back. On the final day (Jul. 31, a rainy cool day), I walk Mt. Sterling Ridge from Balsam Mountain to the gap and hike Pretty Hollow in reverse to my car. Each day has memorable wildlife encounters, birds to bears.

Sweet Joe Pye-weed

Sweet Joe Pye-weed

Both of these trails are in horrible shape — severe erosion, sticky mud, soupy mire, deep ruts, exposed roots, jumbles of loose rocks filling those ruts that run like brown creeks in the rain. They are obstacle courses, often with no clear way over, through, or around. In midsummer, overgrown plants add another complication.

Despite all this, my first day’s experience with these trails goes fairly well, after I finally get up. Daylight matters little following a sleep-deprived night. My eyes just don’t want to stay open, and there are no other campers to disturb me. Once up, I discover a hole chewed into the side of my food bag. It was hanging 12 feet above the ground on the campsite’s cables. The metal disks designed to deter rodents are there, yet somehow a very acrobatic squirrel (I suppose), hanging by a death grip with his back toenails manages to chew a one-inch hole halfway down the side of a slippery, siliconized nylon stuff sack. No mouse could have reached that far. It didn’t get any food, just damaged the stuff sack, odor proof plastic bag, and ziplock garbage bag. Guess those back toes started cramping, the little turd.

Black Trumpet mushroom

Black Trumpet mushroom

I get started at 8:50. From Campsite #39, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail climbs 2,100 feet in 3.8 miles to Pretty Hollow Gap and a junction with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail and Swallow Fork Trail. It climbs through the valley of Pretty Hollow Creek and is not particularly steep until the last 1.5 miles, when the trail begins its ascent of Mount Sterling Ridge.

Umbrella Leaf fruit

Umbrella Leaf fruit

To the right of the trail is Indian Ridge, a long and steep finger ridge off MSR that includes Indian Knob (5,137 feet). The side of the ridge is smooth with only one creek noted on the map. The landscape to the left of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail is deeply carved with numerous feeder streams draining MSR and another long finger ridge called Butt Mountain.

The trail weaves its way up the valley, crossing Pretty Hollow Creek three times. All three crossings were bridged, however, the third bridge is now gone. The lack of evidence here and on Palmer Creek yesterday, leads me to believe that the park service either deliberately removed them or made the decision not to replace them once damaged. Normally, this crossing would be an easy rock hop, and even with the summer’s higher water flow, I still manage a dicey yet dry crossing.

Hot Lips mushrooms start out looking like Fireballs in glass

Hot Lips mushrooms start out looking like Fireballs in glass

A few parts of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail are in good shape and offer pleasant walking, but the further it goes, the worse its condition becomes, particularly the final section. Recent ‘work’ has been done up there that consists of grubbing wide tracks of bare dirt out of the mountain. No effort was made to smooth the soil, and it has hardened into a rough, stumbling mass of churned mud. A horse might not care that much, but it is obvious that no thought whatsoever was given to hikers’ concerns.

White Bergamot

White Bergamot

Nor was the work done in an ecologically sound manner. An excessively wide swath of dirt was disturbed for a long distance, which is now poised to wash into Pretty Hollow Creek, then Palmer Creek and Cataloochee Creek on down the line at the first heavy rain.

Maybe the work is ongoing, and I caught it in the middle. I’d like to believe any trail work would be done with consideration to all users and the preservation of mountain soil and stream quality. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling miffed at the apparent self-centeredness and lack of environmental stewardship.

Rugel's Ragwort

Rugel’s Ragwort

The stalwart plants of summer are in flower along Pretty Hollow — Bee Balm, Cut-leaf or Green-headed Coneflower, Sweet Joe Pye-weed, White Bergamot (Monarda clinopodia), and White Wood Aster. Near Mount Sterling Ridge, Rugel’s Ragwort (Rugelia nudicaulis) in large patches are in their understated prime. Bright blue fruit of Umbrella Leaf and bright red fruit of Painted Trillium catch the eye.

Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax) mushrooms are near the campsite, and emerging Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) resemble Fireballs (the candy) encased in thick glass.

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail: It is 11:30 when I reach the gap and after a quick snack start up Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Pretty Hollow Gap marks the trail’s low point (5,179’) and divides MSRT into two sections, each with its own personality. Moving northeast toward Mt. Sterling, a 1.4-mile section climbs to 5,700 feet closely following the ridge line most of the way.

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail

This part of the trail is a clinking cobble path of dusty rocks set to run like a river in rain. Erosion around plant roots creates deep steps up (or down). Miry muck several inches thick requires wide perimeter swings to circumnavigate.

Heading west, southwest from the gap, the trail climbs moderately to 5,500 feet in the first mile and rides this elevation flat as pancake along the southern flank of the ridge and well below the crest of Big Cataloochee Mountain and its two companions Big Butt to the east and Balsam Corner to the west. This section is 3.9 miles long and ends at a junction with Balsam Mountain Trail not far from Laurel Gap Shelter.

Sign 02, Mount Sterling Ridge Trail, July 31, 2013July 29, I hike the northeast section rising through Red Spruce and Fraser Fir. High elevation forests are remarkable for their deep silence, and sounds such as birdsong seem uniquely tuned in this rarified atmosphere — meditative, soulful — descriptions particularly fitting for the Hermit Thrush.

Not a common summer resident, the Hermit Thrush usually nests further north. Today one male is singing, and every other creature, including me, stops to listen. His clear, flutelike notes are soft and melancholy. Each melodic phrase is different, and he unspools mesmerizing lines of improvisation. I am entranced.

Unknown fungi on MSRT

Unknown fungi on MSRT

July 31, rain and cool temperatures persuade me to forego my final night in the mountains at Laurel Gap Shelter and hike 9.7 miles down to my car. I tackle the second section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail in mid-afternoon with determination. Starting from the Balsam Mountain Trail, MSRT’s level run of nearly three miles is a huge plus. However, since this section runs along the side of the mountain and ridge, it is narrow. The rain leaves puddles that are hard to sidestep particularly in places overgrown with grasses and forbs. When the trail begins its descent to the gap, erosion creates a minefield of gaping steps, rocks, and roots. On the ridge line, rain has made those wide mucky areas almost impossible to avoid no matter how far off trail I veer.

It is cold at this elevation on a wet, drippy day. The mountains are cloaked in clouds. Once I make the decision to leave, I move with speed. No dawdling, no photography. There isn’t much to photograph anyway. Reaching the ridge line, I hear a crashing noise behind me. Two Black Bears gallop across the ridge and are quickly swallowed in the veil of clouds. A moment later a third dark shape disappears into the mist.

Russula sp. mushroom

Russula sp. mushroom

Pretty Hollow Gap Trail again: The weather improves late in the afternoon as I head down Pretty Hollow Gap Trail. The rain hasn’t been hard enough to carry away the mud, but it is a sticky mess to walk through. I’m not as lucky today at the unbridged crossing of Pretty Hollow Creek. At least I can wash some of that mud off my boots. Just 0.2 mile from my car, I hear a door slam drawing my attention the horse camp bathrooms. A bear cub and mother appear to have just come out of the ladies room! The cub scampers playfully into the woods with mom ambling quietly behind.

Palmer Creek trailhead at Balsam Mountain Road

Palmer Creek trailhead at Balsam Mountain Road

It takes 90 minutes to drive from Mary’s house to Cataloochee Valley’s Pretty Hollow trailhead. The early morning sky is dark and cloudy, but the sun is breaking through when I arrive. It feels wonderful to be back in the Great Smoky Mountains, my home away from home.

The first order of business is hike to Campsite #39 1.8 miles up Pretty Hollow and remove tent, food, sleeping gear, etc., from my pack. The trail is a wide, smooth road past the horse camp, nearly flat to Little Cataloochee Trail junction, and gradually adopting a rougher, more trail-like dirt and rock surface by Palmer Creek Trail. The campsite is 0.2 mile beyond this last junction.

Beech Creek Crossing

Beech Creek Crossing

I stake out my tent and hang the food before returning to Palmer Creek with a much lighter pack. The trail immediately crosses Pretty Hollow Creek to begin a 3.3 mile climb to Balsam Mountain Road on Trail Ridge. It follows Palmer Creek and crosses two of its feeder creeks, Lost Bottom and Beech, along the gently rising first half (500-foot gain). Past Beech Creek, the trail continues west working its way 1,000 feet up the southern side of Trail Ridge above another feeder stream, Falling Rock Creek.

Thunderhead Sandstone with quartz seam in Lost Bottom Creek

Thunderhead Sandstone with quartz seam in Lost Bottom Creek

Lost Bottom Creek has large slabs of Thunderhead Sandstone in and around it. A thick quartz seam makes a long, milky-white slash across the creek bed. There is a good footlog to cross here, but at Beech Creek, the footbridge mentioned in the Little Brown Book is gone and apparently has been for a while. No signs of a bridge are visible.  Breech Creek is a shallow, smooth run of water with no real rock hop options, and the water is just deep enough to overtop boots. I shed my shoes and cross barefoot.

Large Tickseed

Large Tickseed

I fully expected the trails in this area to be churned wrecks from overuse by horses, but Palmer Creek is in fairly good shape. There are very few miry areas. Two downed trees form a likely barrier to horse traffic, but a hiker can squiggle through with little difficulty. It is hard to say how long the trees have been there, but perhaps their presence gives the trail a chance to rest.

Yellow Fringed Orchid

Yellow Fringed Orchid

Both below and above the two creek crossings, a few springs splash across the trail, where Green-headed Coneflower and Bee Balm meet me eye to eye. There are some dry, exposed areas too, where Large Tickseed (Coreopsis major) is at home. A stalk of flame colored Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) just has a few flowers, yet screams like a traffic cone in a shaft of sunlight.

Blusher

Blusher

Thanks to all the rain, mushrooms are plentiful and beautiful. Warty, pinkish-tinged Blusher (Amanita rubescens) is a mycorrhizal mushroom growing in a symbiotic relationship with forest trees, particularly oaks and pines. Jelly Tongue (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum), a super cool, toothed mushroom, is growing on a rotting log, as is a species of Crepidotus, probably C. malachius due to the tufts of hairs at the crest of the fruiting body where it’s attached to the log. There are perfect specimens of Grisette (Amanita vaginata complex) and Tylopilus sp., the bolete that looks like a fat pancake.

Jelly Tongue

Jelly Tongue

There are many snails on the trail today, another side effect to all the rain. I try to keep an eye out, but periodically there will be a loud “pop,” “crunch,” and “Oh, no.” On the way up, I see a snail clutching a thin green stalk securely with its long foot, head pointed down, shell hovering in the air two feet above the ground. On my way back, it’s still there…just hanging out.  I also find a dead baby bird on the trail, a reminder that summer has other casualties. I think it is one of the flycatchers.

unfortunate baby bird

unfortunate baby bird

A long Rhododendron tunnel precedes the upper terminus. The trail levels at Trail Ridge and rides a flat grassy path to Balsam Mountain Road. Due to the sequester, this road has been closed all year. A marvelously flat rock of perfect height sits at the trailhead. I arrive at 1:00 sharp and sit down to enjoy a leisurely lunch while jotting journal notes. It is very quiet and shady. A butterfly, maybe a Pearl Crescent, dances in the flecks of sun. It is so pleasant here, I have to make myself get up and start down.

Grisette

Grisette

On this flat ridge just off the trail, the park has fenced a large white pipe with a tiny solar panel attached. It is likely a monitoring device, but I do not know its purpose. Near the bottom I meet two horsemen. They ask about the trail, and I tell them of the downed trees. They are willing to move ahead and see what happens, so I wish them luck.

Crepidotus malachius perhaps

Crepidotus malachius perhaps

I’m the only person at Campsite #39 tonight. It is a Sunday night, but it is also the middle of summer at one of the supposedly busier campsites. The camp is nearly devoid of vegetation under the pines, Eastern Hemlocks, Tulip Poplars, and Red Maples, with an occasional sprig of Pipsissewa, Christmas Fern, or Partridgeberry and one straggling stem of Heart’s-a-bustin’ poking through leaf litter. There are some stands of Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) bleached buff yellow, and bees are buzzing the flowers.

Pinesap

Pinesap

Chores go quickly, and I’m in my light sleeping bag well before the sun goes down. I doze a bit, unfortunately, and when the sun does set, I’m awake. It also gets unexpectedly cool. I had been fine at much higher elevations on the A.T. the previous two nights, but the rain storms must have brought lower temperatures. The Smokies are downright chilly.

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