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Purple Phacelia

Purple Phacelia

It was a long hard winter. Thank heavens! Cold winters can offer multiple benefits. 1. Insect control: Initial reports suggest as much as a 90% kill rate for Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. Woo Hoo!! 2. Plant control: While native plants may experience a bit of die back, often it is non-native species that suffer most. 3. An awesome spring: Blessed with deep dormancy, native species wake up raring to go. Plants seem to flower more profusely with greater vigor.

A month ago, Little River Road was lined with large swathes of Purple Phacelia and Wild Columbine dangled fountains of red and yellow bells. White pedicellate trilliums, possibly both T. erectum and T. simile, stood like proud sentinels, and the sunny vernal face of the Smokies, Yellow Trilliums, were everywhere. Monday of Pilgrimage week, the weather was wet and warm. Tuesday brought sleet and snow. Wednesday, my first Pilgrimage hike to Courthouse Rock invoked fear that these colorful displays were doomed.

White Trillium

White Trillium

One to two inches of snow coated the ground, tree branches, and rhododendron foliage, and it was cold enough for down jackets, gloves, and hats. Most of the plants that morning appeared frozen solid with translucent, crunchy tissue, but by the time we walked out — having at long last seen that big rock! — the air was warming and many of the plants miraculously thawed and revived. The rest of the Pilgrimage was graced with warmer temperatures, sun, clouds, a little rain by Saturday, and gorgeous floral displays, particularly in the lower elevations.

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock

Three years ago I co-led a hike to Courthouse Rock that never reached its destination. We couldn’t find the rock! This year I get a do-over. The rock I pooh-poohed in 2011 is indeed an impressive geologic sight, a tall skinny slab of rock standing on end, having fallen free of Sugarland Mountain long ago. Someone said it landed upside down, with younger rock formations at the bottom. I don’t know if that is true or not.

The area has more attractions. On the way up, a small rock outcrop to the right presents a great view into Sugarlands valley. Near Courthouse Rock is another large, cracked boulder called The Judge. A pretty waterfall on Road Turn Branch and a rock house are further up the valley. Old home sites, including the Quilliams family, are marked by relatively flat terrain and crumbled chimneys, mostly near the bottom. We didn’t spot any of those in the snow but did find part of an old teakettle hanging on a tree.

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock isn’t that easy to find; we can be forgiven for our failure in 2011. The manway off Highway 441 is not maintained and quickly overgrows in summer. Even this light snowfall hampers our efforts. Late fall, a mild winter day, or early spring would be the best times to try. Beware — people have combed this area quite a bit, and side trails veer off in various directions as red herrings. At the appropriate side trail, there is a long rectangular stone embedded in the main trail. A “C” and arrow have been scratched into its surface pointing the way. Courthouse Rock will come into view through the trees within several yards.

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock

Parts of the hike from the road are fairly steep, and a wide stream crossing requires a rather tricky rock hop. A few of our Pilgrims struggle. Since our program is a half day hike, we do not have time to look for the rock house or waterfall. I’d like to go back someday and take my time to explore the area and locate these other features.

Before and during the Pilgrimage, I am also able to complete a few more park trails. A two-night backpacking trip in the Twentymile section of the park nets me three full trails and two partials the weekend prior. Another leader and I descend Road Prong Trail with two charming Pilgrims my last full day in the Smokies. Accounts of these trails are forthcoming.

Spring snow

Spring snow

A.T. Note: My plans to cover another 205 miles on the Appalachian Trail had to be canceled for this year. My best friend and indispensable partner, Pickles Hunter, the sweetest tabby cat in the world and the man of this house, was unexpectedly diagnosed with a terminal illness. He showed up in our backyard in 1998 just nine months old and told us quite definitively he wanted to be part of our family. We formally took him in on my birthday and have been blessed with his love and incredible personality ever since. I was by his side when the time came, here at home where he was so dearly loved. His ‘brother’ Tucker and I are heartbroken.

Since little Tucky arrived 14 years ago at the tender age of 8 weeks, Pickles has been his constant companion, and leaving him alone for 20 days wasn’t an option. He needs me, and frankly, I need him. The A.T. will be there next year. Some short Smokies trips this summer and fall are possible.

brrrrrip

brrrrrip

Quiet Walkway sign

Quiet Walkway sign

Last October, I hiked two of the Quiet Walkways on US Highway 441 and recently posted an account. Last week, I hiked the other two QWs and discovered some of what I had written was in error. The account from a few weeks ago has been substantially revised and is reposted here to correct those inaccuracies.

A small wooden bridge sits a the base of 0.2 mile Bullhead View Quiet Walkway loop.

A small wooden bridge sits a the base of 0.2 mile Bullhead View Quiet Walkway loop.

There are four Quiet Walkways on US Highway 441 in Tennessee between Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Chimneys Picnic Area, each on the left side of the road overlooking the Little Pigeon River’s West Prong. The first three, Bullhead View Quiet Walkway, Riverview Quiet Walkway, and Jim Carr Place Quiet Walkway, are connected to each other and to the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook, forming a pleasant, roughly 1.5-mile walk (with occasional obstructions) along the river. Balsam Point Quiet Walkway, the last one before Chimneys Picnic, stands apart, despite the National Geographic map indicating it is connected to the others.

Complementary cairns flanking Little Pigeon West Prong

Complementary cairns flanking Little Pigeon West Prong

Bullhead View is a mile from Sugarlands Visitor Center and features a small parking lot. The trail is to the left and steps down rather steeply from the road to a wooden bridge over a tiny creek. Splitting here, the trail forms a very short loop of less than 0.2 mile, leading back to the river and the main walkway. The trail at this point is nearly level with the river. A small rock cairn where the river walk begins its trek upstream mirrors a counterpart across the Little Pigeon, marking (I assume) a short path to Old Sugarlands Trail, which runs along the opposite bank before turning east between Twomile Lead and Bullhead.

Riverview Walkway is often wide, smooth, and level.

Riverview Walkway is often wide, smooth, and level.

The river walkway often follows a wide, level roadbed built well above the water. A short distance into the hike a concrete bridge support can be seen across the river. This open, easy valley was heavily settled before the park’s creation. The area is now a young, scrubby forest with birch, beech, sycamore, red oak, and sweetgum.

At 0.6 mile, a narrow path strikes off the main trail to the right. This is a rough trail (complete with downed trees) that climbs 0.3 mile to the parking area for QW #2 Riverview, the one across from Huskey Gap Trail with ample parking. The main river walkway continues another 0.2 mile to a log bench facing the river on the left and another path, this one wider and much smoother, to the right.

Log bench overlooking the river on Riverview Quiet Walkway

Log bench overlooking the river on Riverview Quiet Walkway

This 0.4 mile path is essentially level as it winds back to a small opening (to the left) and a copse of Pawpaw trees (on the right) before turning up the smooth, gentle grade of an old road past more benches to the same QW #2 parking area. Most people hike this wide, smooth section down and back. There are lovely and varied flowering plants in spring. We’ve found Crested Iris, Dutchman’s Pipe, Silverbell, Doll’s Eyes, Toothwort, Wild Geranium, Creeping Phlox, Bloodroot, Yellow Trillium, Foamflower, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, and many others.

Old roadbed from Riverview QW parking lot

Old roadbed from Riverview QW parking lot

To make a 0.9 mile loop at QW #2, stitch together the 0.4 mile old roadbed path down to the bench, turn left for 0.2 mile along the river walk, and find the narrow 0.3 mile path that will return you to the parking lot. This path may be hard to spot. Look for a tight cluster of four Tulip Poplars and one maple to the right of the river walk. The 0.3 mile trail cuts left just before the trees.

During the Pilgrimage, folks who don’t mind the more difficult footing and steeper elevation on the narrow 0.3 mile section will hike the loop. This section features old stone walls, an Umbrella Leaf Magnolia, and if my identification is correct, a Scentless Mock Orange (Philadelphus inodorus).

The last 1.1 miles of the River Walk are less traveled.

The last 1.1 miles of the River Walk are less traveled.

Returning to the main river walk (at the intersection of the log bench and smooth, roadbed section from QW #2), the trail looks much rougher and overgrown heading up river. There are downed trees and limbs right at the start. However, the trail is still easy to follow if you don’t mind occasional hurdles.

At the time of my October hike, I am blissfully unaware there are two more QWs up Hwy. 441, I just don’t recall noting them on my many drives up and down that road. Therefore, the less-travelled air surrounding this section seems fitting, and I assume the ‘trail’ won’t go very far. To my surprise, it continues for what seems like another mile, snaking between the river below and the highway above.

Massive rock slab in river

Massive rock slab in river

There is a good reason to not recall the two upper QWs. There are no little brown “Quiet Walkway” signs along Hwy. 441 to announce their presence from either direction. The only cues are paved parking and the little square interpretive sign at the trailhead, this latter marker very easy to miss while driving.

Massive rocks along the trail

Massive rocks along the trail

As I noted last fall, the river trail from Riverview QW continues to follow Little Pigeon’s West Prong, moving away from the road and becoming steeper. Maybe a half mile past Riverview, a massive flat slab of rock sits with a slight tilt in the river below and looks big enough to serve as an impromptu dance floor, albeit on a slant. Twenty-five yards further, the trail becomes a wet, rocky gully for a short climb, but quickly resumes a smoother surface. The path is always evident weaving past large boulders and rock hopping one stream. Near the end it makes a high banked curve to the right as though headed toward the road again, but just past this point, the trail simply vanishes. Along the way, I only spotted one likely trail upslope and did not follow it. After the fact, I assumed it was the Jim Car Place QW, but my spring explorations disprove that assumption.

Jim Carr Place QW Trailhead

Jim Carr Place QW Trailhead

April 19, I stop at the Jim Carr Place QW (a paved pull-off with room for four or five cars parking parallel to the road) to see where it ties into the river walk. This QW is 0.6 mile up the road from Riverview QW and just past the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook. The trail for JCPQW is remarkably smooth and clear. With last year’s leaves well trampled, it almost looks mulched.

Nodding or Yellow Mandarin

Nodding or Yellow Mandarin

Spring is the season to visit these QWs. Sections along the river walk, particularly around the upper three trails, are characteristic of mixed-mesophytic cove forests with Yellow Buckeye and Silverbell trees, each area quite rich with seasonal wildflowers. Bloodroot, Cutleaf Toothwort, Squirrel Corn, and Sharp-lobed Liverleaf are already fruiting. Fringed Phacelia, Purple Phacelia, Wild Ginger, Yellow Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, Nodding Mandarin, Creeping Phlox, Sweet Cicely, Star Chickweed, Rue Anemone, Early Meadow Rue, Blue Cohosh, Erect Trillium, and several different violet species are flowering in mid April. Meadow Parsnip, Solomon’s Plume, and Mayapple will soon follow suit with Black Cohosh, a species of waterleaf, Turk’s Cap Lily, Jumpseed, and Smooth Hydrangea waiting their turns.

Jim Carr Place QW Trail

Jim Carr Place QW Trail

The trail starts gently down to the right then switches back to the left, following the general contour of the road. At the lowest point, there is a T intersection, a right turn descends to the river walk and straight ahead rises to the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook. From the overlook, not many people would be tempted to follow the narrow slit of dirt flanked by grasses that curves sharply below the road and disappears into the forest. Those that do will find the trail quickly widens and becomes as smooth and inviting as the rest of the QW. The distances are probably about 0.15 or 0.2 from the JCPQW trailhead to the intersection and maybe 0.15 further to the overlook. From the intersection to the river walk is maybe another 0.2 mile.

Wild Ginger

Wild Ginger

This part of the QW is a little steeper, wending to a nearly rotted log bench about halfway down and reaching the river walk at the exact spot where that large ‘dance floor’ slab of rock sits in the Little Pigeon. Mere feet from the river walk, the trail appears to split offering two routes down. The left fork is a steep, rocky wash emerging between a large sycamore and a mossy buckeye straddling a boulder. The right fork is smooth and hits the river walk about 20 feet past the sycamore.

Flat area at the end of the river walk

Flat area at the end of the river walk

Following the river walk upstream, the wet, rocky gully I found last fall is no more than 30 yards beyond the JCPQW junction, followed by the large boulders, stream rock hop, and high-banked curve. The area just above this curve is expansive and relatively flat. On the way I’ve passed those ubiquitous signs of habitation — daffodil and daylily foliage, which were gone or hidden last fall. People lived here, and apparently one resident was Jim Carr.

The ‘trail’ past the curve that petered out on me in October seems a bit easier to follow in the clear understory of early spring, and I am able to go much further this time. However, it soon becomes more a product of the imagination than any truly evident path, and I turn around.

Balsam Point QW trailhead and parking

Balsam Point QW trailhead and parking

Between the JCPQW trailhead and the T intersection, I notice a small path resembling a game trail. On the way back to my car, I decide to follow it and can recommend that others skip it. It is steeper with downed trees and emerges on the river walk at the wet, rocky gully. It is far better to follow the true QW trail.

Balsam Point's graveled path

Balsam Point’s graveled path

One more to go. The Balsam Point Quiet Walkway is one mile beyond Jim Carr. The parking area is larger with many lined spaces. This QW is a short loop as well, maybe 0.3 mile total, and the path is lightly graveled in places. About halfway, it splits, and the right path strikes a level course across slope, paralleling a rock wall. The left fork descends quite steeply to a visible log bench in a clearing.

Balsam Point Log Bench

Balsam Point Log Bench

The loop trail rounds to the right of the bench at an easier grade up slope to the rock wall. Visitors have created a path through an opening in the wall. To the left is a flat area with a narrow stream amid a carpet of Fringed Phacelia and large patches of daffodil foliage. Step back through the wall and follow the QW’s level path to complete the loop.

Balsam Point flat area at end of rock wall

Balsam Point flat area at end of rock wall

A trail to the left of the log bench leads to a good view of the river both upstream and down. I wander a bit to see if there is some way to keep going and maybe find that elusive connection to the river walk, but no amount of imagination can conjure a trail worth following.

Little Pigeon's West Prong at Balsam Point

Little Pigeon’s West Prong at Balsam Point

Reader Michael Ray said he’d found another QW between Balsam Point and Chimneys Picnic with several parking spaces. From the picnic area, I drive down 441 watching carefully. From what I could tell, Balsam Point is the first QW on the highway from Chimneys Picnic and the first parking area with numerous spaces.

Now, there is a large gravel pull-off between Balsam and Jim Carr. There is no QW interpretive marker here, but a very steep, narrow, and rough trail does work its way down slope. I did not find that it joined the river walk, but I did not explore it very long either, preferring to stick with the established QWs.

Bloodroot foliage and fruit

Bloodroot foliage and fruit

These Quiet Walkways are far more interesting and rewarding than I’d imagined. Never underestimate the Smokies!

The Insect Destroyer

Unknown fly (dead?) on a Buttercup

Dung fly victim of ‘The Insect Destroyer’

In May 2012, while hiking the Appalachian Trail through the park, I photographed several flies at Double Spring Shelter. One had apparently died face down in a buttercup. Others were clinging to unfurling beech leaves. All of them had swollen abdomens striped white and brown (or pinkish and gray) on the upper side and white (or pink) underneath and were pitched at a strange angle with wings and legs spread, abdomens raised.  (June 2012 Archive, AT Day Four and AT Day Five)

When writing those blog posts, I could neither determine the species of fly nor discover an explanation for their behavior. In December 2013, 19 months after this unusual sighting, I found the answer to both mysteries quite by accident.

I have been researching the Kingdom Eumycota (fungi) for the Tennessee Naturalist Program. I serve on their board and teach their class on plants and fungi at Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary near Nashville. TNP is developing detailed curriculum study guides for each class topic, and I am writing the guide for “Forbs, Ferns, Fungi, and More.”

Flies on Beech leaves

more victims

The fungi kingdom is still rather new (comparatively speaking — fungi used to be part of the plant kingdom) and is undergoing significant reorganization as more fungi are identified and classified, especially with DNA studies. This has wreaked havoc on the kingdom’s phyla (main classification ranks), and I was trying to piece together the current picture, particularly with Zygomycota. Fungi in this phylum are quite diverse and include parasitoids, organisms that live part or most of their lives within a host and usually kill that host.

A few well-known species of parasitoid fungi are in the genus Entomophthora, a Latin name that means “insect destroyer.” Sticky spores of these fungi float through the air, and when one reaches a fly, it adheres to the body, germinates, and produces a hypha that penetrates the fly (usually through a soft segment membrane), and begins to grow throughout the fly’s body. It grows so much, the dark abdominal segments spread apart exposing light colored membranes in between and imparting a striped appearance. Then comes the creepy part.

The fungus invades the fly’s brain and alters its behavior. The fly crawls up to a high place just before it dies, cements its proboscis to a surface, flares open its wings, stretches its hind legs, and raises its abdomen up and out. This bizarre posture of death optimizes the chances for spores to infect new hosts. When the fly dies, sporangia burst through the segments and abdominal wall, forcibly discharging spores up to 3/4 inch away, a decent distance for a microscopic spore. These spores may form a whitish halo on and around the fly. The timing of all this often occurs in the hours before midnight, when the humidity is higher and environmental conditions are most favorable for spore production.

Healthy looking fly on Beech leaf

a dung fly on its way out

One final fungus note: Should this infection and death occur late in the year, spores are not produced. The dead fly drops to the ground and so-called “resting spores” develop in the body to overwinter. In spring, the spores are discharged to begin a new year of infection cycles.

With the fungus identified, I begin researching the host flies. It only infects adults and has been found in several fly families, including common house flies, hover or flower flies, dung flies, flesh flies, blow flies, and tachinid flies, plus other invertebrates such as moths and aphids. There are several species of Entomophthora, each tending to infect certain insect species. These fungi are being examined as a biological control for pest species like house flies and gypsy moths.

After extensive review of the fly families frequently targeted by Entomophthora on BugGuide.net, I’m fairly certain the flies pictured here are in the family Scathophagidae or dung flies. The wing markings and leg hairs are a solid match.

Isn’t nature remarkable? …and sometimes scary? …and isn’t it a fantastic feeling to finally solve a year-and-a-half-old puzzle?

[Primary source: The Kingdom Fungi: the Biology of Mushrooms, Molds, and Lichens by Steven L. Stephenson, Timber Press, 2010.]

2013 Review

North Carolina Snow, March

North Carolina Snow, March

615.7 miles. Serious hikers wouldn’t blink. A.T. thru-hikers would laugh. My friends and family shake their heads in disbelief. I’m rather proud, and I could have done more. Two long section hikes on the A.T. totaled 515.3 of those miles.

Only 100.4 miles occurred in the Smokies during three brief visits, January, July, and October. I notched 13 new trails and completed a previous partial trail (Hughes Ridge), adding 59.7 new miles. My current Smokies stats are 519 miles (62%) and 101 trails (67%) with a total mileage of 836.1. Not much progress compared to previous years, but work on the 900 Mile Club had to take a backseat to other pressing issues.

Tinker Cliffs, May

Tinker Cliffs, May

There was a lot more behind the A.T. trips than just a desire to hike. Internal motivations were complex and emotional, and those emotions surfaced regularly. I’m certain however, that my six weeks on the A.T. saved me from far worse. In March and late May, I came off the trail exhausted, physically depleted, and happy to be home cuddling with my kitties and sprawling in a comfy bed. It was as though some safety valve had been opened and pressure released. Confidence and calm replaced anxiety and uncertainty.

Large White Trillium Pink Form, May

Large White Trillium Pink Form, May

Loading the front end of 2013 with such demands allowed me to relax and embrace new activities during the summer and fall. It pushed me over a hump that I couldn’t seem to surmount any other way. To put it in art terms, I went from Fuseli with The Nightmare beast sitting on my chest to Gauguin wrestling Jacob’s angel, a struggle but a successful one.

Fence Lizard, July

Fence Lizard, July

I will continue hiking big sections of the A.T. annually and finish the trail. The journey, sights, and people are too compelling to give up. The motivation is now more pure — strap on the pack and walk for the adventure. Next up: Shenandoah to Pennsylvania.

There are plans for these beautiful Smoky Mountains too. I’ve mapped six multi-day backpacking trips that will tackle a majority of the long, remote trails in North Carolina. I plan to get at least two of these done next year and hopefully pick up some other odd trails along the way.

Lynn Camp Prong Bears, October

Lynn Camp Prong Bears, October

As always, I thank those of you who read this blog. Even when I hike alone, it seems as though you are with me, and I appreciate your company. Several new people joined to follow the A.T. posts, and I hope you aren’t disappointed in the slower pace. If you plan your own A.T. journey next year, the best of luck. No blog can really prepare you, but perhaps you’ve picked up a few tips from my limited experiences.

By the way, “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea” stopped by for a visit during Thanksgiving. They finished the entire trail, arriving at Mt. Katahdin the end of September. “Oaks” suffered a bout with Lyme Disease, but everything else went smoothly. They both look fantastic, and it was wonderful to see them and learn of their success.

I welcome 2014. It will be a good year.

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.

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