Upon reaching Forney Creek Trail early afternoon August 29, the plan is for Susan and me to split up temporarily. Campsite #70 at Jonas Creek trailhead, a little more than a mile up trail, is our destination for the night. First however, I’m going to walk down trail 1.3 miles to the Whiteoak Branch junction and return. Susan will rest a bit at Campsite #71 and mosey toward #70. The trip to Whiteoak Branch junction will leave a simple loop at the lower end of Forney Creek to complete both trails, which can be paired with an overnight backpack of Bear Creek Trail in 2017.
The lower 9 miles of Forney Creek Trail mostly follow an old road that ran along the creek itself with two trail routing deviations. Portions of lower FCT, primarily below Springhouse Branch junction, suffer from the usual maladies inflicting trail surfaces with dual duty as a horse trail — erosion and rockiness. The deepest erosional ruts occur in that yellow-brown soil, a type apparently quite sensitive to wear. Aside from horses, I would think FCT receives steady foot traffic as well, given available loop options and its tie-in to Clingmans Dome.
The trail stretch to Whiteoak Branch closely follows Forney Creek’s flow and soon requires a rock hop over feeder stream Bee Gum Branch. In my version of Hiking Trails of the Smokies, the trail profile notes this stream crossing in the wrong place, putting it just before the Whiteoak Branch junction rather than just after Springhouse Branch junction. There’s also one of those hillside routes making my return a bit more of a slog. In general, though, it is unremarkable.
Wildlife encounters keep this leg of the hike interesting. Not long after setting out, I hear loud scrambling followed by a distinct ‘thump’. A small black bear scurried out of a nearby tree and is now booking it down trail ahead of me. Its size keeps me on alert for others. A few minutes later, another scrambling noise behind me prompts a swift whirl around in expectation of seeing a disgruntled mother. It is a spotted fawn, who books it up trail away from me. I’m spooking animals right and left.
The moist creek valley is perfect for mosses. In one small patch, Brocade Moss (Hypnum curvifolium), Delicate Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum), and Pincushion Moss (Leucobryum glaucum) intermingle with Dog Pelt Lichen (Peltigera canina). In another spot, slender white cylinders of Worm Coral fungus (Clavaria vermicularis) poke through leaf litter. Whiteoak Branch Trail junction occurs at the crossing of its namesake stream. Tall spires of bright red Cardinal Flower grow here. Drier areas on trail feature one of its blue cousins, Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula).
Returning to Campsite #71, I photograph the large stone and brick chimney marking an old CCC building before tackling the last mile of the day. At the end of this camp, Forney Creek Trail takes a sudden right turn upslope. In the past it had continued along the creek, and that wide old route is still visible enough to spark momentary confusion. A sign and clear path upward, however, persuade me to ignore the overgrown yet level way straight ahead and reluctantly trudge uphill. Perched on a steep slope above the creek for about 0.75 mile, the trail descends to the bank again at Locust Cove. I run into Susan here. She had not been persuaded to trudge uphill and followed the old creek path past downed trees and other signs of an unmaintained trail. She had also walked to the Jonas Creek trailhead about a half mile away and did not see Campsite #70.
This is where an experienced Smokies’ backpacker like me having thoroughly prepared for the trip is supposed to rise to the occasion and set things straight…except I hadn’t fully prepared. I’d consulted a map and made visual assumptions regarding the location of #70 but failed to read the trail accounts, an oversight that cost us unnecessary energy and aggravation. Certain that #70 is on Forney Creek Trail, we walk past the Jonas junction for a half mile to the first big Forney crossing. That’s when I sit down and pull out the trail descriptions: #70 is on Jonas Creek Trail on the opposite side of Forney Creek. We double back to the junction, cross the partial footlog bridge that leaves hikers stranded above Forney Creek’s cobble floodplain, and climb the bank to find a large, level campsite nestled between the two creeks. JCT passes right through the middle of camp.
Susan and I set up our tents immediately to air out the morning condensation while we do other chores. A horse camp, this site opens to the sky in the center and is in very good shape. Someone cobbled together a small and very rough table near the fire ring.
I haven’t done much backpacking this year. It was a hot and humid August day with few breezes. Susan and I are both grateful to kick off boots and lounge a bit before bed. Bats are flying overhead.
Jonas Creek Trail, August 30, 2017
Today we climb Jonas Creek Trail 4.2 miles to Welch Ridge and return. We can leave much of our gear hanging on bear cables and carry only the essentials for a day hike.
The trail follows Jonas Creek, Little Jonas Creek, and Yanu Branch nearly 3 miles into a deeply dissected landscape of finger ridges emanating from the Smokies crest and Welch Ridge. Suli Ridge, Firescald Ridge, Yanu Ridge, and Scarlet Ridge direct feeder streams into Jonas Creek. These protected stream valleys harbor quintessential Smokies forests — soothing green shade with mossy logs and boulders, a rich herbaceous layer, and Northern Red Oaks shedding their crop of barrel-shaped acorns. It is a fine summer day, and there can be no better way to enjoy it. As Susan and I perambulate this quiet wilderness, we flush a grouse and disturb a small black bear who, despite his distance from us, scurries away in the underbrush.
Jonas Creek Trail has an elevation gain of 2,100 feet. The first two miles account for a third of that gain and feature six stream crossings. None are noteworthy, particularly in August, nonetheless water shoes make these crossings simpler and safer. A few mucky areas could be annoying in wet weather, but on the whole, the trail condition is in relatively good shape bottom to top. Susan and I wear water shoes until we are past the creek crossings then change into our boots.
Just past the final crossing, the trail zigzags its way up Yanu Branch along the base of Yanu Ridge then doubles back on itself to climb the northern flank. JCT doubles back once more to follow the ridge line and continue climbing in stair-step fashion, interspersed with short stretches of near level terrain, to the junction with Welch Ridge Trail. The junction itself is unassuming. JCT obliquely ties into WRT on the side of a steep slope. I rest a moment, eat a snack, and make some notes before heading down. Not bound by 900 Miler constraints, Susan turned around about a half mile back.
I really like Jonas Creek Trail. Its slope, surface, aesthetics, variety, and peaceful atmosphere make for a delightful day’s hike. August flowers include Whorled Tickseed, Silverrod (Solidago bicolor), Allegheny Hawkweed, Small-headed Sunflower (Helianthus microcephalus), Southern Harebell, that unidentified blue aster, and Tall Rattlesnake Root in bud. Mountain Holly (Ilex ambigua var. montana) has ripe fruit.
For a moist trail there are surprisingly few fruiting fungi. Hydnellum sp. in stands of rhododendron and a rusty orange Lactarius, maybe L. volemus, are most common. A large rock near the top supported various lichens and mosses, including two umbilicate lichens Rock Tripe and Toadskin. Several more American Toads are pushing our trip total near two dozen. Round-bodied millepedes are also out in force today. Back at camp, we eat a leisurely lunch and spread our tents in the sun to dry thoroughly.
Upper Forney Creek Trail, Aug. 30-31, 2016
Next, we’ll move 1.5 miles up Forney Creek Trail to Campsite #69. This requires three unbridged crossings of Forney Creek. These crossings are wide and bouldery, but the water level and flow present no real problem. The primary challenge is foot placement. Light glinting from the water’s surface makes it difficult to gauge exact depth and evaluate the suitability of submerged rocks. Careful steps are necessary to avoid slips, especially with a full pack.
At two of the crossings, the road/trail descends to ford the creek. One crossing, however, must have been bridged. The wide trail approaches Forney Creek and stops abruptly. Across the stream, the wide trail picks up again at the same level. In between the creek flows several feet below, requiring a boulder-filled descent to get there. An old galvanized wash tub sits next to the trail.
Campsite #69 extends on either side of the trail. The left location is perched on a bench well above the trail, though level tent sites are hard to find. The right-hand site is immediately adjacent to the trail, and has two level spots for our tents. Sleeping trailside shouldn’t be an issue; we haven’t seen a soul for two days. Next morning, we’re off at 8:00.
Forney Creek Trail is 11.4 miles long, descending the creek’s long valley from a gap on Forney Ridge to its juncture on Lakeshore Trail. I’ll complete nearly 10 miles from Whiteoak Branch to the ridge on this trip. From the Jonas Creek junction to Fontana Lake, FCT’s lower 4 miles are something of a poster child for poor, abused trails. Erodible soils, high water flows, and horse traffic translate into ruts, rocks, roots, and muck. Routes sometimes take the trail up and down hillsides away from the old road. These factors impart an unfavorable impression. Since I haven’t actually walked the 1.5 miles near Lakeshore, I’ll be curious to see if this impression holds. I’m betting it will.
From the Jonas Creek junction to Forney Ridge, however, the trail’s upper 7.4 miles are different in all respects. Horses are not allowed past JCT, and with few exceptions the trail is friendly, particularly the modest road grade for 5 miles to Campsite #68 (1600 feet elevation gain). The unbridged stream crossings present one of those exceptions. There are a few more crossings past Campsite #69.
A second exception is a series of deep gullies that have eroded across the old roadbed. A few are narrow and wet. It’s possible to climb down into the them, but not practical. Single timbers slightly wider than a boot have been embedded in the trail to span the gaps, and they are very old. One is missing its handrail. Another sits slightly askew across a wide gap with no indication there had ever been a handrail. It takes several steps to get across. We weave and wobble like nervous drunks with outstretched arms. Falling into that gap wouldn’t kill you, but you’d likely be in pain for the rest of the hike.
Other gullies, wider, deeper, and mostly dry, require scuttling down into them and climbing out again. These are ultimately easier with much less anxiety than the timbered crossings. An iron train rail has been put to use as a waterbar across the trail. The old road makes a switchback which necessitated a stone retaining wall.
Campsite #68 marks the road’s end. At least Susan and I justifiably assume it to be #68. The guidebook places it here. There’s a fire ring with sitting logs. Someone has gone to great lengths to sort and stack firewood. Susan spies bear cables. She and I have been smelling woodsmoke most of the morning, but no one camped here last night.
From this point, the trail becomes steeper, gaining over 1700 feet in 2.4 miles. We turn off the road to climb in earnest. A campsite sign post is pointing upslope. In 0.4 mile, we reach what must be the new location for #68 and find the source of our woodsmoke. A young couple is camping here. It’s a neat spot situated next to Rock Slab Falls, a smooth rock slide with a sheet of cascading water. My trail guidebook notes this feature with a warning, “Camping is absolutely not permitted here.” I have another bet. So many people ignored this warning, the park decided to move #68 and establish a site on their terms that would be regularly monitored.
Susan and I approach the trail ascent at a steady pace, working our way through northern hardwoods into spruce-fir forests. It’s somewhat rocky and steep yet not hard to climb. I think I’d rather go up Forney Creek than down it.
On the way up, we find Beech Drops (Epifagus virginiana) and Appalachian White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima var. roanensis). We continue to see our friends, the toads. Can’t give a definitive tally, but the trip count must be at least 30.
Rounding a bend, I can see the junction sign on Forney Ridge…and Mary is standing next to it. She’s come to greet us, bearing gifts of ice water and fresh fruit. We pause a little too long for snacks and conversation, and it starts to sprinkle. I pull out my umbrella for the 1.1 mile climb to Clingmans’ parking lot. The clouds unleash a torrent that highlights the water shunting capacity of the trail work I’d praised three days before. My umbrella keeps my head and shoulders dry, but everything else gets drenched. Had we been just 30 minutes earlier, we’d have made it to the car dry!