Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Beard Cane Trail Sign, August 28, 2017It’s mid afternoon. My ankle is sore, I’m way behind schedule, and I’m standing at the Beard Cane trailhead. Pink flagging tape hangs from the sign post. It’s a message from Allen Sweetser. He hiked up here the day before so he could spend all day today exploring an old logging community known as El Dorado near Campsite #3. I’m joining him at camp tonight.

First Section, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

First section of the trail off Cooper Road Trail

I take a photo of the trail sign and notice someone has scratched letters below the Beard Cane name: “Don’t Go!” Beard Cane has had its trials. In April 2011, an EF4 tornado left an impenetrable swathe of downed trees. Work crews from several parks around the country joined GSMNP crews to clear and repair this and all other trails on the Abrams Creek end of the park. Beard Cane and Hatcher Mountain received extensive damage and were closed for two years, reopening in April 2013. A second campsite on Beard Cane, #11, was obliterated beyond repair and closed permanently.

Second Section 01, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

A tornado tore through the forest resulting in a very rough trail

There is no way to know when the ominous warning was etched on the sign. I proceed with piqued interest and hope for the best. The 4.2-mile, low elevation trail begins at 1,900 feet dropping into the arrow-straight valley between Beard Cane Mountain and the continuation of Hatcher Mountain, running northeast/southwest. It climbs out of this valley at the far end to join Ace Gap Trail on the park’s boundary in its northwest corner. For much of the way, the trail follows Beard Cane Creek, and the two crisscross regularly. Campsite #3 is located at the valley’s far end beside Hesse Creek, into which Beard Cane’s little stream flows. Hesse Creek exits the park and winds through Miller Cove, eventually feeding into Little River near Walland, TN.

Beard Cane Trail begins as an easy descent through a lovely deciduous forest on a smooth wide path for 3/4 mile. I can maintain a pace to make up some lost time under these accommodating conditions. I should know by now this is too good to last. As the trail reaches the valley, gaps in the canopy indicate the start of the worst storm damage. In short order the canopy disappears altogether. In its place is a solid block of vegetation: young trees and saplings, wild vines, brambles, rank herbaceous growth. Carved through the center of the block is a narrow hallway snaking between dense walls of foliage.

Now that wouldn’t be so bad if this is the extent of it. It’s not. The “trail” is barely Second Section 02, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017detectable as a crease through thick clumps of grasses and junk plants, much of it non-native and invasive. The ground beneath is as rough as any I’ve encountered in the Smokies. It’s a minefield of bumps, humps, gouges, pits, rocks, and muck all camouflaged beneath low but dense hummocks of vegetation. I have no idea if my next step will land on solid ground or plunge ankle deep in mud, if I’ll step up a few inches, drop down several inches, or topple sideways into that wall of plants. Fortunately, maintenance had come through not long before and trimmed long grabbing canes of brambles. Unfortunately, these thorny canes now litter the “trail” as one more tripping hazard to avoid. Picking my way barefoot through a half mile of broken glass would be easier and faster. So much for making good time. At this rate, it will be dark before I reach camp.

Third Section, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

Thankfully, a normal trail resumes

It does come to an end; mercifully, the whole trail is not like this. How long is this section? I can’t say with any accuracy, other than it seems interminable. It’s less than a mile, perhaps no more than a half mile. Abruptly, like a mirage, a dry dirt path through the forest appears ahead, and upon arrival, I’m tempted to fall to my knees and kiss the ground. It reminds me of that bizarre point on Hwy. 441 when you exit the commercial clutter of Pigeon Forge and cross into the serene sanctuary of the park, as if dropping into the Land of Oz, “Toto…we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Beard Cane Creek 01, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

The trail and creek weave through the valley.

From here on, the trail loses its ‘Mr. Hyde’ personality, and any challenges further along reflect more standard fare: some overgrowth or short wet, mucky passages. As I mentioned, the trail and the creek cross paths quite often. While late summer hikes are often fraught with out-of-control plant growth, they are usually blessed with low, easy stream crossings. It’s hard to imagine Beard Cane Creek posing much of a problem except during periods of extended rainfall. At its widest, it’s maybe 5 or 6 feet across and the water level rarely tops my boot soles. Rock hops are simple.

Liverwort, Dumortiera hirsuta, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

Liverwort Dumortiera

The neatest plants I find are three liverworts growing on wet rocks in the creek. Dumortiera hirsuta and Conocephalum salebrosum form large mats. These liverworts don’t have ‘leaves’ per se; instead they produce flat green tissue called a thallus and resemble lichens. The first is dark green, smooth and shiny. The latter has the texture and pattern of snakeskin. A third liverwort is the ‘leafy’ type, producing tiny leaves that give it a moss-like appearance. I’m unable to ID this one.

Liverwort, Conocephalum salebrosum, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

Liverwort Conocephalum

As Beard Cane Creek gets wider, I know I’m getting close to the campsite. At the final crossing I see Allen up ahead and yell at him. He greets me with a hug. He had been worried about me. It’s nearly 5:00. I explain my day — the fall, hurt ankle, trail confusion, dropped gear. He had a better day following old rail grades and finding other signs of the lumbering operation around El Dorado.

Campsite #3 is tucked in a curve of Hesse Creek as it slips through a deep gap in Beard Cane Mountain upstream from the confluence with Beard Cane Creek. It represents the lowest point on trail at 1,300 feet and is a fine little site. Allen and I fix our dehydrated suppers, enjoy pleasant conversation, and retire to our tents at 8:30.

Arundinaria, Beard Cane Trail, August 28, 2017

River Cane, a grass, accounts for the trail name

Next morning we are in no particular hurry. We’ve got 6.2 miles to cover, meeting Susan around 1:00 at the Rich Mountain Road trailhead for Ace Gap. The last part of Beard Cane requires a rock hop over Hesse Creek and 0.6-mile, 500-foot climb out of the valley to the Ace Gap Trail junction on the park’s northern boundary. Hesse Creek is maybe 10 feet wide but very shallow and easy to cross.

Angelica venenosa fruit, Beard Cane Trail, August 29, 2017

Hairy Angelica fruit

The final climb is smooth and steady likely following an old road. Remnants of another old road are visible to the right, and it soon ties in to the trail. We kick up a large rusty bolt in the path. Clusters of Hairy Angelica (Angelica venenosa) fruit allows Allen and me an opportunity to discuss the differences between it and Canada Wild Lovage (Ligusticum canadense), two plants I often confuse. These fruits are finely hairy and have winged tissue to either side with low ribs in between.

Fungi Omphalotus illudens, Beard Cane Trail, August 29, 2017

Jack-o-lantern fungi

We reach Beard Cane’s northern terminus at 10:00 and begin the up-and-down see-saw of Ace Gap Trail. A bright grouping of the fungi Jack-o-lantern (Omphalotus illudens) grows at the base of an oak. During a snack break at the former location of now-closed Campsite #14, Allen finds a large population of a vine that appears to be Wisteria. Unsure if it is the native or non-native species, I make note to inform park officials so they can check it out.

Susan and their dog Lacie are waiting for us when we arrive at Rich Mountain Road. Later that afternoon, we drive my car to the Abrams Falls Trail parking area in preparation for my day hike of Rabbit Creek tomorrow. Tonight we stay at the cabin they share with friends in Dry Valley not far from the park boundary.

Advertisements

Pinesap

It’s just after 4:00 on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I’ve reached Parson Branch Road at the end of Gregory Bald Trail and am ready to begin Hannah Mountain Trail. This section of the park is quite isolated from civilization. The road, which is closed to vehicular traffic, and these two trails are the only backcountry access points in the southwestern corner of the park between the Abrams Creek and Twentymile ranger stations. No matter the direction, I’m miles from other people.

The distant southwestern park boundary follows U.S. Hwy 129 and the Little Tennessee River, now bloated into a series of serpentine lakes: Cheoah, Calderwood, and Chilhowee. Between the lakes and Hannah Mountain Trail lies a no-man’s land of wild ridges: Bunker Hill, Skunk, Shop, Deadrick, and Tarkiln draining numerous streams into Panther Creek that drains into Abrams Creek just before its demeaning demise at Chilhowee Lake. Ridges and valleys on the other side of Hannah Mountain drain into Rabbit Creek which also feeds into Abrams Creek below the falls. The point of this geography lesson is twofold: 1) Hannah Mountain Trail is remote, and 2) Hannah Mountain Trail is dry.

Sourwood’s early fall color

Provided preparations are made for these two conditions, there is a third point regarding Hannah Mountain Trail — it’s great. The trail runs 9.5 miles from a cruising elevation of 2800 feet along its namesake ridge line through a gradual descent among other ridges to its wet finale across Abrams Creek at 1300 feet, making a sickle-shaped arc south to north. The path is smooth and often soft with a cushion of pine needles underfoot.

Pelecinid wasp

From Parson Branch Road, Hannah Mountain draws a flat profile for the first 3 miles along the ridge, veering off to skirt the steep right side of Mount Lanier and another lesser peak yet maintaining a near level grade. It’s pine tree heaven on the dry, acidic ridge. White, Virginia, Table Mountain, and Pitch pines are prevalent along with hardwoods such as Red Maple, Sourwood, and Sassafras. Peeking through the leaf litter are scattered clumps of reddish Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys). Like its ghostly white cousin Indian Pipe, Pinesap is parasitic, helping itself to the sugars mycorrhizal fungi have received from their partner trees.

Pink Earth Lichen

Some hardwoods are showing early fall color, and one Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is loaded with large, immature fruits, still pale with only the faintest hint of color. Comb-leaf Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria pectinata) flowers amid its ferny foliage. Sandy soil-loving Pink Earth Lichen (Dibaeis baeomyces) sends up tiny stalks of fruiting bodies that resemble micro-sized pink balloons. A stalk of Yellow Fringed Orchid retains its crown of bright orange blossoms. Several long-tailed insects, the female Pelecinid Wasp (Pelecinus polyturator), rest on foliage. Her long, skinny abdomen is an ovipositor that she drills into the soil to lay parasitic eggs on June beetle grubs underground — Nature’s checks and balances.

S

Comb-leaf Yellow False Foxglove

hortly after starting the trail, rain begins to fall. It’s a light rain, there’s no wind and no thunder. Certain it will stop any minute, I keep walking and it keeps falling. Almost an hour later it does end, and my pants legs are sopping from brushing past wet foliage.

Just past the 3-mile mark, Hannah Mountain begins a gentle descent of 800 feet in 1.25 miles to Flint Gap, the location of Campsite #14 and my destination. A water source at the gap is unreliable, and the Smokies guide suggests getting water at a small stream up trail several hundred yards, small being the key word here. This is the headwaters of Hannah Branch, little more than a narrow wet spot in the trail. Thankfully, a thin sheet of flowing water coats slanted bedrock. I lay the ‘dirty’ bag of my Platypus filter system downslope, hold the open edge flat against the rock, and patiently wait for 3 liters to collect. The water is brown with dissolved tannins from leaves. I hoist my pack and carry the bag of water down to the gap I trust isn’t too far away. Very soon the gap comes into view below. It’s nearly 7:00 p.m.

Flint Gap

The trail bisects Campsite #14 at Flint Gap, a small saddle near the base of Hannah Mountain. I set my tent in a flat grassy area open to the sky and finish evening chores just as it is becoming too dark to see without a headlamp. Despite being alone, I sleep like a baby, awakening only once when a Barred Owl lets out one of those wee-hour piercing screeches. It doesn’t get light enough to see well until almost 7:00 a.m., and I’m off by 8:15.

Hannah Mountain Trail is in very good shape. The primary complaint is lots of blowdowns, but most are small enough to easily slip around or climb over. Some of it could be cleared quickly with a small saw. Trampled paths of dead vegetation circumnavigating the blockages leads me to believe these have been here for some time.

Coker’s Amanita

Pine and oak continue to dominate the canopy. There are some lovely old Chestnut Oaks in this area, including a few very large individuals. Hairy Blueberry and Lowbush Blueberry are overwhelmed by acres and acres of Bear Huckleberry dominating the understory in several places. Occasional blue spires of Downy Lobelia are a welcome sight.

Mushrooms are more plentiful on Hannah Mountain — False Fly Agaric, American Caesars, Yellow Patches, Destroying Angel, Brown Funnel Polypore, a few corals, and 2 fresh young Coker’s Amanitas. Three large Red-and-Yellow Boletes have flattened out and resemble round slices of seedless watermelon!

Shuttleworth Ginger’s foliage

Hannah climbs Polecat Ridge, the only true uphill section before descending to Rabbit Creek Trail. Nearing that junction, tall trailside vegetation thickens and becomes choked with non-native invasive species like Japanese Stiltgrass and Lady’s Thumb. I can hear voices from Campsite #16 which sits below the junction. The same overgrown, invasive-strewn character marks the first few hundred yards past Rabbit Creek where Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) is flowering, but the vegetation soon opens. This stretch receives more use and is more moist with a few small streams. Impressively tall stems of Cardinal Flower grace one stream, and I come eye-to-eye with Purple-disk Sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens). The mottled foliage of Shuttleworth’s Ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) splays against the leaf litter.

Purple-disk Sunflower

The final 0.4 mile of Hannah Mountain is steeper as it drops to the crossing of Abrams Creek, and the trail quality degrades significantly. Densely overgrown, rocky, eroded, and uneven, it’s an accident waiting to happen…apparently waiting for me. My left ankle rolls on one deep gouge, and I fall headlong down trail propelled by the weight of my pack and gravity. My ankle stings but is not badly sprained, and nothing else hurts.

Abrams Creek can be a tricky crossing, even when the water level and flow are modest like today. The bottom is uneven with slippery, algae-covered rocks. I change into water shoes and stow everything (camera, boots, etc.) in my pack. The water reaches mid-thigh in some places but stays just shy of rolled pants legs.

Crossing at Abrams Creek

The far side of Abrams Creek is the end of Hannah Mountain Trail, a three-way junction of Abrams Falls, Hannah, and Hatcher Mountain trails. There is no sign for Hatcher Mountain at all. No sign pointing toward Little Bottoms Trail. For a brief confused moment, I start hiking up Abrams Falls Trail and must pull out my map to regain bearings and retrace those steps.

Hatcher Mountain Trail’s true start has no sign

Hatcher Mountain Trail begins to the left of the junction and angles upslope from Abrams Creek. At 0.2 mile it deviates further, splitting off where Little Bottoms picks up, and soon turns away from the creek valley altogether. I hiked Little Bottoms in the fall of 2012, a year after major storms wreaked havoc on this end of the park. The forest was largely gone, unleashing a riot of vegetation basking in unobstructed sunlight. Now I see this area five years later and can witness firsthand a “dog-hair thicket” of young pine trees. Pines 5 to 10 feet tall crowd the trail’s edges and fill the understory beneath a thin canopy. White Pine and Virginia Pine are prolific. One Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) is loaded with an impressive number of red warty capsules, the most I’ve ever seen on this small retiring shrub.

Young pines form a ‘dog-hair’ thicket

The dry soil is cream colored and graveled with broken slate. Winged Sumac, Whorled Tickseed, Southern Harebell, Little Bluestem, Rattlesnake Hawkweed, Hayscented Fern, various Vaccinium species, goldenrod species, Agalinus sp., Partridge Pea, and more are right at home in what seems a most inhospitable setting. Maryland Golden-aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is lovely in flower and Silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) is just beginning, its foliage very prominent on trail. An aging stem of Colicroot (Aletris farinosa) is setting fruit. Brambles are present too but not as bad as it could be. The only stream crossing, Oak Flats Branch, barely ranks as a mud puddle.

Silkgrass foliage

Hatcher Mountain Trail runs 2.8 (2.6?) miles from Abrams Creek to Cooper Road Trail. In this direction, it has two climbs. The first gains 400 feet in a half mile and represents a real slog through overgrown vegetation this time of year. The modest second climb gains 300 feet in 3/4 mile. Either end of the trail is in better shape and more interesting than the middle section, which suffers from overly enthusiastic plant growth and horse damage. Compared to Hannah Mountain, Hatcher Mountain falls well short in my opinion. However, if walked from Cooper Road to Abrams Falls and done before summer growth overtakes the trail, it would be quite enjoyable.

Queendevil

One unfortunate mishap mars my experience. About a mile into the trail, I examine the glandular hairs of Queendevil (Hieracium gronovii) with my hand lenses and fail to properly secure these expensive tools in my camera bag. Forty-five minutes later, I discover they are missing. Unwilling to continue without at least trying to find them, I must retrace the better part of a mile downhill and back up again. They are lying in the middle of the trail not far from that Queendevil.

I’m way behind schedule, but stop to eat lunch on a log in a little shady gap. Far from doing my tweaked ankle good, the rest makes it stiff and sore when I resume hiking. Two ibuprofen will kick in before long, but it’s a slow start. The gap is perhaps a half mile or so from Cooper Road. I limp in at 3:00.

This is also the junction with Beard Cane Trail. I’ve still got another 3.5 miles to Campsite #3 where I’ll meet Allen. Stay tuned for the Beard Cane post.

Perhaps my final backpacking trip in pursuit of the 900 Mile Club begins today. I spent the night with the Sweetsers near Knoxville, and we left my car at their cabin in Townsend before driving into Cades Cove. Two separate adventures are planned. Susan is dropping me off at Gregory Ridge Trail at the end of Forge Creek Road, then driving Allen back around to the Cooper Road trailhead. While I check off trails on the southwest end of the cove, Allen will explore an old lumber community in the northwest corner. He’ll spend two nights camping on Beard Cane, and I’ll meet him there the second night. We left home at first light, but with so much to do this morning it is approaching 9:00 a.m. before I set foot on trail.

Partridgeberry fruit

Gregory Ridge Trail is 5 miles long and heads mainly south while climbing 2,700 feet to its junction with the Gregory Bald Trail at Rich Gap west of the bald. It follows Forge Creek to Campsite #12, then strikes upslope to follow Gregory Ridge the rest of the way.

I did the lower half of this trail in July 2015 with a Forest Ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians class out of Highlands Biological Station in North Carolina. We explored several different forest types: Acid Cove, Cove Forest, Mixed Hardwood, and Pine-Oak-Heath, discussing the role of wildfire in the latter community and system changes that occur in the absence of fire. There are stands of old growth trees as well. Much of what I see the first 90 minutes invokes deja vu.

Curtiss’ Milkwort

After a short climb, the trail levels out in an Acid Cove of healthy Eastern Hemlocks (treated), Sweet Birch, American Holly, Sourwood, Red Maple, and Tulip Poplar, joined by Doghobble and Rhododendron as the path proceeds up the creek valley. Footlogs span three short crossings of Forge Creek where Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and White Wood Aster brighten the banks. Partridgeberry foliage lines the trail with hardly a fruit in sight until I reach an opening created by the demise of three hemlocks. Some of the Partridgeberry leaves here are bigger than nickels, and dozens of red berries impart a jolly Christmas feel.

I arrive at Campsite #12 about an hour into the hike and take a quick snack break. The forest is a moist Cove Hardwood system with Basswood, Silverbell, and Sugar Maple over a rich herbaceous understory. Above the camp, a very large maple tree wears a wisp of Lung Lichen near its base, and a massive Cucumber Magnolia towers over the trail.

Hairy Blueberry fruit

I climb through a drier oak hardwood forest and arrive at an open exposure facing east. The soil is light colored, sandy, and encrusted with lichens, mostly Cladonia spp. evidenced by their pedestal-like podetias. Whorled Tickseed, Little Bluestem, Trailing Arbutus, and Teaberry are present. Curtiss’ Milkwort (Polygala curtissii) and one lone blossom of Yellow Star Grass provide the only flowers. Hairy Blueberry (Vaccinium hirsutum) sports fruit. The knob above is a mix of dead and live pines including Table Mountain Pine, with young Virginia Pines coming on strong. Further up, large boulders of bedrock protrude.

Blue Cohosh fruit

Before long the forest transitions again into a Northern Red Oak community. I’m excited to reach a level area until I glance at the profile. It’s barely past the 3-mile mark, with 1.6 still to go and 1.25 of that climbing 1100 feet. And it’s 11:40 already! I spend way too much time ogling plants, but it is the main reason I’m hiking these trails. Efficient hiking has never been my objective, and that makes for some long tiring days when carrying a full pack. It’s now 12:30, and the top must be near. Silverbell’s darkly beautiful, flaky bark, Yellow Buckeye, Pale Jewelweed and ripe Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) fruit denote a rich moist area.

Hazy Cades Cove

I reach the bald trail junction and proceed upslope to Gregory Bald, arriving at 1:19. The famous Smoky haze veils the view into Cades Cove. Having hiked this section two years before and with no azalea show to distract me, I proceed down to Sheep Pen Gap and Campsite #13 for a lunch break and meet my first person, a solo hiker/camper exploring side trails off the bald. He’s set up at #13.

At 2:00, I tackle my unfinished section of Gregory Bald Trail, 4.1 miles descending 2,000 feet to Parson Branch Road. This stretch heads north off the bald and turns east-northeast to wend its way around High Point and through broken bits of Hannah Mountain. My goal is two hours to PBR. A clouded sky and occasional thunder help me stay focused.

Beech nuts

Numerous beech nuts on the ground alert me to the fact I’m passing through an American Beech grove (Fagus grandifolia). Each small nut contains two triangular seeds nested inside a hull studded with spreading involucral bracts, like a prickly acorn cap.

Oozing springs create small wet patches in numerous places. Pink Turtlehead, Cinnamon Fern, and Mountain Sweet Pepperbush AKA Cinnamon-bark Clethra (Clethra acuminata) like these mucky areas. The wet soil is often churned on one side of the trail. I cannot decide if hogs or horses are responsible. If hogs, they only rooted in these damp locations. If horses, they always kept to one side of the trail.

Mountain Sweet Pepperbush or Cinnamon Bark Clethra

As if on cue, three horse riders come up the trail, two ladies in front and an older gentleman in the rear. The man warns me of a disturbed hornet’s nest ahead. “A ‘bahr’ dug out their nest, and them hornets is peeved.” When I pass, the nest is quiet.

Drier areas have Maryland Golden Aster, Cow Wheat, Smooth False Foxglove in flower and the now flowerless stalk of a Yellow Fringed Orchid. Other than a lovely cluster of Chicken-of-the-Woods (Laetiporus cincinnatus) near the bald, fungi have been infrequent thus far, though a few Red-and-Yellow Boletes (Boletus bicolor) are up.

Red-and-Yellow Boletes

The trail’s grade is a snap going down and what roots and rocks dot the path can be easily worked around to maintain a decent pace. As the grade lessens, I know I’m nearing the end, and at 4:05 I reach Parson Branch Road at a gap the Smokies hiking guide calls Sams Gap. The gravel road has been closed to traffic for some time, as it regularly washes out. Across the road is a large gravel parking area that serves both Gregory Bald and Hannah Mountain trails.

Gregory Bald trailhead on Parson Branch Road

The remainder of this day I’ll walk 4.4 miles on Hannah Mountain to Campsite #14 for the night. An account of that trail and Hatcher Mountain will be posted in a week.

 

I spend the vast majority of my Smokies time in more remote regions of the park, far from the madding crowd. So when I’m thrust in the midst of its millions of visitors, it’s always a bit of a shock. Clingmans Dome on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in June is one of those shockers. Parked cars line the road long before we arrive at the lot. Fortunately for us it’s 3:00 p.m., and enough people are leaving that Susan and I find open spaces for our cars on the first drive through. The second portion of my trip begins.

Smooth Carrion Flower

We must descend the first 0.2 mile on Forney Ridge Trail to reach the lower end of Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. At a sharp left switchback in the former, CDB heads right, cutting across the steep southwestern slope of the second highest mountain peak in the eastern United States. The term ‘bypass’ seems to carry the implication of being easier in my mind, a notion that is soon dispelled. Clingmans Dome Bypass is a rocky beast climbing over 300 feet in a half mile to the Appalachian Trail. One saving grace is its short distance, but the toll comes in bursting lungs one way and throbbing knees the other. Thank heavens the day is dry! In rain, CDB would become a flowing creek.

What it does bypass are throngs of tourists plodding the paved path to the dome’s iconic observation tower. Small children and teens in flip-flops would not fare as well here. The trail weaves through young Fraser Firs and Red Spruce lining a rocky gully and arrives at the Smokies crest 0.3 mile west of the tower and 2.3 miles east of our destination, Double Spring Gap shelter.

Scaly Chanterelle

Beautiful, clear weather allows spectacular views north into Tennessee and south into North Carolina. Scaly Chanterelles (Turbinellus floccocus) are fruiting, and Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea) is in its full, yet understated, glory. Unlike most Smilax, this vine species has no clothes-gripping, skin-ripping spines along the stem, sending out tendrils instead. Flowers in globular clusters on this individual plant are staminate, containing only male reproductive structures. Bright white anthers shine against the green tepals (similarly colored petals and sepals).

Twisted tree stump

Even though this section of the A.T. descends 1,000 feet, there are nonetheless a few brief uphill stretches. The first crests Mt. Buckley and is followed by a steep decline. From there, the trail is less challenging and passes through shady conifer forests. Near the Goshen Prong Trail junction, Susan spies the marvelously twisted trunk of a massive tree whose top was wrenched away in a storm.

We roll into the shelter late afternoon where an interesting mix of people are already preparing their dinners. A father and son, two brothers from my hometown, an older man, and three retired ladies enjoy good conversation in the sun’s fading warmth. Over 13 years, the ladies have hiked all of the A.T. to the north and wrap up at Fontana later in the week. Next year, they’ll return to complete the trail to Springer Mountain. Ridge Runner Morgan, in residence tonight, has got the cutest dimples I’ve seen on twenty-something man. He is also from my hometown, and we share a high regard for Arnold’s Country Kitchen, whose roast beef, mashed potatoes, and turnip greens sound wonderful right now.

Welch Ridge Trailhead

Double Spring Gap Shelter is well built and in good shape, but it is still a shelter. Bold mice run through the busy quarters in broad daylight. One of the ladies snores most of the night. The older man rises in the pre-dawn hours and is still there when Susan and I leave at 7:00 a.m before anyone else pops out of a sleeping bag. My tent will be a welcome relief tonight.

Carpet of ferns on upper Welch Ridge

The morning is cool and misty. Welch Ridge Trail junction is 1.5 miles beyond the shelter, and we arrive before 8:00. In profile, the 7.3-mile trail descends 1,000 feet overall but bounces up and down several times in the lower half. The ridge separates the Forney Creek and Hazel Creek watersheds, striking a southwesterly course which the trail follows a majority of its length and adheres to rather faithfully in the first 1.5 miles. It’s very pleasant to walk the smooth, broad ridge among a carpet of ferns, quite different from the rockier, jagged A.T. Trail junctions for Hazel Creek on the right and Jonas Creek on the left are less than a mile apart. WRT dips off the ridge line to meet Jonas Creek Trail then returns, deviating only to skirt a few peaks like Mt. Glory and Hawk Knob.

Carolina Tassel-rue

On these deviations, the trail narrows to the width of two boots and clings to steep slopes, yet remains level side-to-side and easily navigable. However, our horse friends from Bear Creek came this way two days ago, and the soft soil is pockmarked with deep, hoof-sized gouges breaking away the trail’s outer edge, sometimes claiming as much as half its width. Susan and I have to watch our steps to avoid a potentially harmful tumble. I marvel at the level of damage a few horses inflicted on this otherwise excellent foot path. Why the park continues to allow them in these areas is beyond comprehension. When one considers that hikers outnumber horses exponentially then factor in the work, time, and expense of rehabilitating a degraded trail, such a policy simply defies logic, especially in an era of shrinking park budgets and increasing visitation.

Poke Milkweed

Welch Ridge Trail starts at 5500 feet, but six miles of it ranges between 5000 and 4500 feet, a mid-elevation reflected in its flora. The sparkling white stamens of Carolina Tassel-rue (Trautvetteria caroliniensis) arrest the eye amid the cool purple of Zigzag Spiderwort, warm orange of Flame Azalea, sunshine yellow of Sundrops or Glaucous Evening Primrose (Oenothera tetragona), and loose globes of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata). A large fragrant stand of Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata) crowds the trail in a light gap. Shiny black buttons of the fungus Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans) sprout along a downed log.

Sundrops

We are making good time and pause for lunch at the Bear Creek junction. Just 0.3 mile further is a side trail, also 0.3 mile long, to a former fire tower site called High Rock or High Rocks. At nearly 5185 feet, this prominence rises 250 feet above the ridge trail and overlooks the Hazel Creek watershed. High Rocks Trail leads to a set of steep stone steps with a lush line of Canada Mayflower foliage growing between two of the steps. From there, the trail passes Mountain Laurel and Galax still in flower and Painted Trillium in fruit.

The trail appears to peter out but continues up a large slanting boulder and finally breaks through to the narrow rocky top encircled with trees and shrubs. Four concrete foot pads are all that remains of the 46-foot tower, but perched on exposed Thunderhead Sandstone is an old metal, high-back stool. It’s a startling sight upon arrival, and I burst out laughing. If nothing else, this picture is worth the climb.

Black Bulgar fungus

Someone likely took it from the caretaker’s cabin which was left in place after the tower was removed. The cabin is all but hidden from view behind a screen of foliage. A faint path west of the tower site walks you straight into the side of the structure. The log cabin clad with wood shakes on exterior walls and roof must have been a real beauty when built. I’ve read that it is the only caretaker cabin still standing in the park, though that distinction may not last much longer. The southern wall has completely collapsed, allowing ceiling beams to fall in and causing the eastern wall to buckle. The forest has grown up so close around the cabin, it is impossible to stand back far enough to get more than a small part of its exterior in the camera frame. Supposedly there was a six-foot wide porch, but that has disappeared under the fallen wall. It’s a shame but understandable I suppose. The cabin’s remote location would make preserving and protecting it difficult and expensive if not impossible.

Susan and I head back to WRT. The main ridge line follows the side trail to High Rocks, so from the side trail junction, WRT heads down slope 400’ feet to its terminus at Cold Spring Gap near the start of a lower ridge line that retains the Welch Ridge name and heads toward Fontana Lake. From the A.T. to High Rocks, WRT has been excellent, horse damage notwithstanding. The final 0.6 mile, however, suffers from erosion and resembles a rocky wash, a disappointing end to an otherwise enjoyable trail.

Stone steps on High Rocks access trail

Our disappointments are just beginning. We take a quick snack break at 1:30, and pop some ibuprofen in preparation for the 2,000-foot descent to come. Cold Spring Gap Trail follows Cold Spring Branch 3.5 miles down to Hazel Creek, and 1,300 feet of that drop comes in the first 1.5 miles. To say it’s steep is an understatement. Not quite a mile down, the grade begins to moderate somewhat as the trail hooks up with the branch. Now the real fun begins.

The Stool

For long, maddening sections, the trail and the stream are one. Small bouldery rocks cascade in a jumble — wet, dry, wobbly, slippery. It’s like negotiating a mine field. Where the bank would allow a narrow strip of relief, previous hikers had taken advantage, and we follow the beaten path of their lead, sometimes just a few feet long. Any respite however brief from these rocks is welcomed. The ‘Little Brown Book’ account of this trail truthfully depicts the steep, eroded, rocky nature of Cold Spring Gap, but it also says the rough part is “over 1 mile.” I suggest changing that “1” to a “2.” Susan and I think it will never end. If we aren’t coping with rocks and water, we’re stepping over woody debris from blowdowns, large tree limbs and branches. The precious few smooth sections are short-lived and only serve to underscore how god-awful the rest of the trail is.

Cabin interior at High Rocks

We are walking through a beautiful forest, but we don’t dare look up from our feet without risking injury. The book says spring wildflowers are profuse, and I believe it, though I’m not likely to return to verify it. Jenkins Ridge Trail is still the park’s worst trail in my view, but Cold Spring Gap Trail is, to borrow a phrase from the music industry’s record charts, “number two with a bullet.”

Staring at our feet yields one interesting find. What appears to be a bear paw track in the mud has a coyote paw print right in the middle of it.

Cabin at High Rocks

A quarter mile from the end, CSGT crosses wide, shallow Hazel Creek and rises gently to meet Hazel Creek Trail, a big sigh of relief at the end of a path that’s more trial than trail. At the junction, we turn right and head up HCT 1.75 miles to Campsite 82, arriving at 5:00 p.m. HCT is a wide gravel road with a steady grade the whole way. Susan and I plod like old work horses, an apt metaphor since we elect to stay on the horse camp side of 82. The campsite splits to either side of the trail, and non-horse campers stay down slope between the trail and creek. The section up slope from the trail accommodates horses, though it doesn’t appear to get much four-legged use. We are the only ones here, and we want to get away from the creek noise. My ears appreciate the lower decibels, but my feet resent the longer trek for water.

These poor feet are killing me. I lay down my tent ground cloth and stretch out for at least 15 minutes, staring into the maple canopy overhead, before I begin any evening chores. We retire well before dark with light sprinkles of rain overnight portending more challenges tomorrow.

Bear track with Coyote track superimposed

The next morning is cloudy but dry. Earlier forecasts called for possible thunderstorms on this final day of the trip, and we’re hiking by 7:30. I’m starting out in water shoes, anticipating the numerous stream crossings ahead. Susan opts to stay in her boots.

HCT’s graveled road grade continues nearly 2 miles past #82. Less than a mile along, Walkers Creek flows over the trail in a wide level valley. The area is called Walker’s Fields, which accommodated a large settlement prior to park establishment. Here the trail T’s into the base of a steep ridge, with a road bearing left to Walker Cemetery. HCT turns right between the base of the ridge and Hazel Creek. Two back-to-back wet crossings of the creek can be avoided by following a foot trail upslope. Susan chooses this route while I splash through the creek. Each takes about the same amount of time, but she has to scramble over some blowdowns.

Cold Spring Gap Trail

We reach another large flat area near the confluence with Proctor Creek. It was the site of a lumber camp long ago, and now contains a large metal horse corral overgrown with weeds. There is no evidence of recent use. From this point, horses are not allowed on Hazel Creek Trail. The trail becomes a true foot path, more intimate with the forest, yet still charting a modest grade. There is a footlog over Proctor Creek, but it will be the last dry stream crossing of the day.

Between crossings 12 and 13, I lose track of my count. In total we cross Hazel Creek or its tributaries 17 or 18 times. None are particularly deep or swift. However, two things add spice to our morning. First, it begins to rain lightly after Proctor Creek. Protected under the tree canopy, it takes a while for the drippy weather to penetrate down to us, as we notch one stream crossing after another in the course of 2-plus miles.

Cold Spring Gap Trail

Finally, the trail turns sharply upslope and begins to switchback. Assuming the crossings are over, I stop to change shoes. The rain is now steady, and I put on my rain coat, stow my camera, and cover my pack. I’m ready for the climb to Welch Ridge…until we come to another stream crossing. Susan’s boots cannot get any wetter and she plods across. I cannot see going to all the trouble to change shoes again but am loathe to step through in dry boots. I do what any obstinate foolhardy hiker would do. I take off my shoes and go barefoot.

Hazel Creek Crossing on Cold Spring Gap

This crossing is dicey because a large sloping boulder is the primary point of entry and the water behind this boulder is deep. I step out onto the mossy rock, bend down to steady myself with my hands, and slip my left foot down the slope into the water. The damn rock keeps sloping, and I can’t feel the bottom. Fearing what my bare foot may hit, I wind up slipping most of me into the water as well, dipping in as far as my waist and plunging one arm past the elbow before I can find footing and stand up. Fortunately, my camera is in my pack, and my boots, tied around my neck, bob on the water’s surface like boats remaining dry…the whole reason for this escapade.

On the other side, I have no idea if there are more crossings and decide to continue barefoot for a while. The bottoms of my feet are not tough, and to my relief, the trail isn’t either. I must walk slower, stepping carefully. This tactic pays off. There is another wet crossing. After about 0.2 mile, I decide to don the boots sans socks just to maintain a better pace. There is one more crossing, but this one is a thin sheet of water coating a flat boulder. I go a bit further for good measure before putting on my socks again. This time we really are climbing Welch Ridge.

Horse Corral on Hazel Creek Trail

All this effort to spare my boots ultimately does little good. The rain continues non-stop. The trail is sloppy with puddles and running rivulets. I can’t avoid wet feet, but at least they aren’t squishing inside.

The night before, I mapped the day in my mind, figuring 4 hours to reach the Welch Ridge junction 6.5 miles away, and another 4 or 5 to reach Clingmans. Overall, we are climbing 3,900 feet in 12.8 miles, and mindful of my soft condition, I plan a generous time schedule. Despite the rain, we are only 30 minutes behind, mostly from my pulling boots on and off. Because of the rain, we don’t take real breaks, just pause a moment for a snack and sip of water. Our first real break with packs off comes at 2:00 when we stop at Double Spring Shelter for lunch. It’s cool and breezy on the crest. I slip a long sleeve capilene top and shirt over my regular top to avoid the wet chill.

Upper Hazel Creek at a crossing

Several AT section hikers from Indiana are drying off here too. They are headed to Mt. Collins shelter past the dome and are in high spirits. As we prepare to hoist packs and resume our climb, the rain slackens. We wish the others well and begin the final push to our cars. The heavy rain is past, but waves of mist continue most of the way. Climbing Mt. Buckley is tough under any conditions, but the cooler temperature is a blessing. Plus my legs are feeling stronger, though I’m still breathing like a heavy smoker climbing stairs.

Interior of the High Rocks Cabin

We take it slow and steady. The group from Double Spring passes us. We reach Clingman’s Dome at 5:00. A short gravel path connects the A.T. to the paved observation tower road. Despite being wet and socked in with clouds, a steady stream of people walk up and down the road. At the visitor center, we see two of the guys from Double Spring. One of them, Jeff from Evansville, took the bypass trail and exhibits the blank stare of someone who has hit his limit. As I suspected, Clingman’s Dome Bypass was a rocky river. We commiserate, say goodbye, and head for our cars.

As I’m arranging wet gear, pulling off those muddy boots for the last time, and lining the driver’s seat with dry towels, Jeff walks up and asks if I would give him a ride into Gatlinburg. He wants a shower, clean laundry, and a dry night before rejoining his friends the following day. I take him down the mountain to NOC at the edge of town. They should have a list of hostels and shuttles he can contact.

Summer Phlox on Welch Ridge

On the way, I tell him things about the park and the Chimney Tops 2 fire. We stop at the Campbell overlook to view the fire scars. We even run into a bear jam. He gets to see a mother bear with 3 cubs! This is a treat for me too. The mother is small and so are her babies. Adorable is the only suitable adjective.

At NOC, Jeff thanks me for the ride, and I drive Little River Road to Townsend, stopping for a half gallon of low fat chocolate milk to drink with my Sonic chicken sandwich and tater tots in Maryville. I’m back home with my little Tucky-bear (Tonkinese cat) at 10:00 p.m. It’s been a long day, but only 7 trails now stand between me and the 900 Mile Club.

 

Fire scars in Sugarlands Valley, late June 2017

I’m in the Smokies to check off my final North Carolina trails in the park and stop at overlooks on Hwy. 441 to photograph the fire scars. Late June’s lush foliage in Sugarlands Valley and mountain coves serves to highlight the scorched ridges, their exposed rocks shining like bleached bones in the summer sun. Close examination of photos does not disclose any hint of green among the black tree stumps, though there may be pine seedlings hard at work crafting the oak/pine forest’s next chapter.

Two nights at Smokemont allow me to meet two friends for a day hike and bushwhack along Breakneck Ridge to the Three Forks area of Raven Fork. Confident that we have sufficient direction to reach our goal, we strike out along the ridge following periodic orange ties that we’ve been told will keep us on track. Either we followed the wrong flagging tape or some prankster moved all the tags. They lead us way off course down a southern ridge line opposite from our intended destination. Between a gps unit and my map and compass, we determine our true location and have a devil of a time fighting our way back to Breakneck and Hyatt Ridge Trail.

Rhodo hells and downed trees sap every ounce of energy, yet my companions are good friends, and we still have fun despite failing in our endeavor. Their humor helps me keep mine in the face of exhaustion. A lazy winter and too-busy spring gave me perfect excuses to shun exercise. Now I’m seriously out of condition, suffering weak legs and breathless lungs. Scheduling a difficult bushwhack before my trail hikes is not the best idea I’ve had.

Forney Creek at the Bear Creek Trail junction

Returning to Smokemont around 7:00 p.m., Susan Stahl has arrived. She is joining me for the trail hikes. I eat, prepare for tomorrow, and hit the sack long before dark. Both nights have been downright cold following passage of a frontal system. I sleep fully clothed in a 40º down bag. We leave camp around 7:00 a.m. and drive to Bryson City.

This trip has two sections. The first involves one overnight at Campsite #75, Poplar Flats, in order to finish 1.5 miles on Forney Ridge Trail and notch Bear Creek and Whiteoak Branch trails. At Bryson City, we drive the “Road to Nowhere” to the tunnel trailhead on Lakeshore and begin our hike at 8:30.

Piece of iron with a drowned Katydid

We’re the only ones entering the dark void, eyes intent on the hemisphere of light in the distance. Susan’s never experienced the tunnel. I tell her about the unique acoustics akin to a whispering gallery. We stop midway and become perfectly still. I emit one sound and begin counting. It takes a full 10 seconds for the echo to fully decay into silence. A cool fact, but not the most interesting phenomenon.

We both notice an unusual optical illusion. Standing at the tunnel entrance, the far opening looks relatively close and remains so for a few yards. A short way into the tunnel, however, the far opening becomes smaller and appears to recede with every step. It’s a bit disconcerting. This phenomenon continues until somewhere past the halfway mark when the opening’s size stabilizes then slowly, and reassuringly, begins to enlarge.

False Coral fungi

The first couple of miles on Lakeshore show signs of trail work. The dirt path is smooth and wide, yet it still drives me crazy—up/down, in/out with every little finger ridge. It’s 3.0 miles to the Forney Creek Trail junction at Campsite #74. Forney Creek begins along a wide gravel road unremarkable in every sense. It serves as access to cemeteries isolated by the lake impoundment over 70 years ago. We reach the Bear Creek Trail junction at 10:00, switching from one old road to another.

Like so many of the park’s easy graded trails, Bear Creek follows a lumber rail bed. It crosses both Forney Creek and its own creek on wooden bridges wide enough for vehicles and snuggles alongside Welch Branch until the wider road ends. Here a short wooden footbridge spans the small branch and connects to a narrow path winding around the hillside, likely to a cemetery.

Racemed Milkwort flowers resemble miniature Gaywings

Bear Creek Trail turns on itself in a sharp switchback and begins a steady yet moderate grade, looping the base of Jumpup Ridge for 2.8 miles to Campsite #75. This lower section follows the course of its creek, which is far downslope at first. Halfway to camp, the trail and creek level out in a valley, the former crossing the latter twice on wide wooden bridges. Close proximity to the creek encourages low-growing Doghobble flanking both sides of the trail to swing long branches over the path.

A large chunk of iron from some implement of the past, sits by the trail collecting rain. A dead katydid floats in the water. Lots of fresh fungi line the trail too: Coral Mushroom (Ramaria formosa), False Coral (Tremellodendron schweinitzii), Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax), and Loaded Lepidella (Amanita onusta).

Horsefly-weed

The noisy rush of Bear Creek accompanies us to the campsite. Susan and I arrive at noon and eat lunch. Before continuing the trail to its junction on Welch Ridge, we divest our packs of most camping gear and hang it on the food cables. Lighter packs donned and ready to go, we are startled to see five horses and riders step through camp and head up trail. They’re doing a loop — Lakeshore, Bear Creek, Welch Ridge, Jonas Creek, Forney Creek, Whiteoak Branch, Lakeshore.

From Poplar Flats Campsite, the trail turns upslope to begin a 3.1-mile climb 2,150 feet to Welch Ridge. Susan and I take it slow, slow enough that I can still yap nonstop as we hike. Overall, upper Bear Creek is an enjoyable trail. We only encountered one deeply eroded section in sandy soil. In areas of drier soil with more exposure south or west, we find an open canopy with Toothed Whitetop Aster (Seriocarpus asteroides), Racemed Milkwort (Polygala polygama), Horsefly-weed (Baptisia tinctoria), and Whorled Tickseed. The milkwort has tiny purple flowers resembling Gaywings in miniature.

Forney Creek Trail eaves the old roadbed.

Flowering plants in the shaded understory include Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), Whorled Loosestrife, Pipsissewa, and Summer Bluets. Crested Iris foliage is a common sight. Fire Pink glows at higher elevation.

A little more than halfway up, the trail crosses over Jumpup Ridge at a wide level spot with an open grassy understory. It would be a great place to rest or eat lunch. Further up, the trail levels briefly where Bald Ridge strikes off to the east. Susan rests here while I complete the climb to Welch Ridge, arriving at 4:00 p.m. and immediately heading back down. My feet are hurting from the abuse they suffered the day before on difficult Breakneck Ridge. I sit down and remove boots and socks to give these barking dogs a 20-minute break. They appreciate the consideration and the ibuprofen. Susan already has her tent up when I hit camp at 6:00.

Dry fern draw on Whiteoak Branch Trail

It’s great having a good water source so close to camp, but Bear Creek is a hearty stream, singing loud and strong. I can barely hear the Wood Thrush’s lullaby at dusk. The weather cooperates with moderating temperatures. I don’t need a jacket or socks to stay warm tonight.

Next morning we leave for Forney Creek by 7:30. The floating kadydid is gone, a midnight snack for someone.

Forney Creek Trail north of the Bear Creek junction continues the wide old road, but it isn’t in as good condition as the first 0.4 mile. Whiteoak Branch is 1.1 miles away with a scant 200-foot elevation gain in between. As with sections north of this stretch however, the trail opts to strike up the steeper slope bordering the creek for a while leaving behind the overgrown roadway below. The path isn’t in terrible shape, I am, each step an unaccustomed strain on legs and lungs.

Teaberry

Whiteoak Branch Trail begins where Whiteoak Branch feeds into Forney Creek. The stream drains a draw between finger ridges running west from Forney Ridge including Whiteoak Ridge to the north. The 1.8-mile trail makes a low arc threading its way among broken ends of the southern finger ridges as they peter out. There are small dry draws with carpets of ferns. The trail is in very good shape, and hopefully sections with sandy soil and that lovely brick red soil are designed well enough to minimize erosion from horse traffic. Rosebay Rhododendron is in full flower this time of year, as it Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens). Rattlesnake Plantain is in bud. WBT crosses Gray Wolf Creek in an easy rock hop and skirts a flat valley before ending at Lakeshore.

Our day is far from over. Susan and I drive back to Smokemont, after an ice cream break in Cherokee, to clean up (I wash my hair) and prepare our packs for the second half of our trip. We’re off to Clingmans Dome for a three-day loop hike that includes the dome bypass trail, Welch Ridge, Cold Spring Gap and completes Hazel Creek.

 

Trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road

Between the two hikes detailed below, Susan and I hiked Noland Divide Trail. I want to write about this trail separately because I love it. Thanks to its moderate descent, reasonable length, forest variety, accommodating surface, and special features, NDT easily makes my short list of favorite trails in the park. A lengthy shuttle between trailheads is the primary drawback.

The upper trailhead is located approximately 5.7 miles up Clingmans Dome Road. The 11.6-mile trail follows the south/southwesterly curve of Noland Divide to Coburn Knob before switching allegiance to Beaureguard Ridge and tacking southeasterly down to Deep Creek Campground.

Red Spruce lining the trail

It begins as a gated road, a mix of grass and gravel descending about a third of a mile. The road curves right and follows a line of young Red Spruce to a fenced enclosure containing monitoring equipment used by the National Park Service and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to measure “deposition of airborne pollutants to different forests to determine their effects on the ecosystem.” This involves continuous sampling of rainfall, canopy drip, soil solutions, and atmospheric chemistry.

Double-trunked Yellow Birch covers a boulder

Not far past the monitoring station, the road ends and the trail splits. A sign directs hikers to follow a well-traveled path straight ahead that levels for a while through spruce, Yellow Birch, Witch Hobble, Appalachian White Snakeroot, Shining Clubmoss, Intermediate and Mountain Wood Ferns. Noland Divide isn’t as rocky, mossy, or slippery as Fork Ridge, instead the trail surface is often quite soft underfoot from conifer needles.

Spruce-Fir forests are typically dense and dark, offering a quietness that defies description. Their insulating nature impresses all senses. To stand still in a Spruce-Fir forest is to become hyper-aware of the surroundings; a center-of-the-universe feeling. To move through it is to travel into a fairy tale where Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs could be found.

Lonesome Pine Overlook

A champion Yellow Birch reportedly occurs within the first mile. There are several grand specimens, including a double-trunked tree whose roots effectively ‘devour’ the big boulder over which it grows. As the descent continues, Spruce-Fir melds into Northern Hardwoods with American Beech and its parasitic partner Beechdrops. A cove predominately features Red Oak and an understory of Bear Huckleberry. Another draw contains a large grouping of Cinnamon Fern. Drier exposures have Sassafras, Chestnut Oak, Red Maple, and American Chestnut sprouts.

Knife Ridge

All of these forest types can be found on other park trails, but it is rare to walk so comfortably through them in a single day’s hike on a single trail. The Smokies hiking book says Noland Divide Trail provides the greatest elevation change on the park’s North Carolina side. It certainly provides variety.

View from Noland Divide

The greatest attributes on trail have to be the Lonesome Pine Overlook and knife edge ridge crest on Beaureguard. A slender side path leads to the overlook in a few steps with an expansive view to the southwest. Blueberry bushes have densely fuzzy lower leaf surfaces, likely black highbush blueberry (Vaccinium fuscatum).

Stiff-leaved Aster

Views continue along the knife-edge crest, where Sourwood, Serviceberry, White Oak, Chestnut Oak, Scarlet Oak, and several pines (White, Virginia, Pitch) cling to the steep slopes. The herbaceous layer is equally interesting with Little Bluestem, a bush clover, and Stiff-leaved Aster (Ionactis linariifolia). The not-so-surprising sight of Bracken Fern coincides with an unexpectedly lush run of American Strawberry foliage.

Garter Snake

After the knife ridges, Noland Divide begins its descent in earnest. The park’s southern boundary cuts sharply north to carve out the valley of Lands Creek and other private property northwest of Bryson City. The trail skirts very close to that boundary near the bottom, as barking dogs and the whine of leaf blowers testify. Near the bottom, are holes in ground resembling sinkholes as well as linear mounds to the right of the trail — a mystery for which I have found no explanation yet.

Only spot of trouble on Noland Divide Trail

For the vast majority of its length, Noland Divide’s surface is smooth with few rocks or roots. However, there is one major point of erosion. Not far into the trail proper, a perpendicular root has allowed rain water flowing down slope to wash out a three-foot-deep gouge from the trail below. This startling sight and ungainly step down is truly the only flaw of note.

I would hike Noland Divide Trail again in a heartbeat and look forward to experiencing it in different seasons.

 

Fork Ridge trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road

Reservations are made for the antepenultimate trip that will bring my quest to hike all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to a close and place me among other Smokies aficionados in the 900 Mile Club. Thanks to a rather oxymoronic combination of laziness and crazy busyness, I still have a few trails from 2016 to post on this blog. In late September last year, Susan Stahl and I stayed at Deep Creek Campground for a series of three day hikes. First up was Fork Ridge Trail.

Fork Ridge Trail

Susan and I drive separately up Hwy. 441, leave a car at the Deep Creek trailhead and continue together to the pull out at Fork Ridge Trail, approximately halfway up Clingmans Dome Road. The morning is cool and foggy at high elevation, perfect to get the juices flowing. Quickly tying into the actual ridge, the trail follows the ridge line and slips to one side or the other of higher knobs along the way, descending 2,800 feet in 5.1 miles. This steady but untaxing drop does include a few short, near-level passages. At the bottom, Fork Ridge Trail crosses Deep Creek and ends at that trail next to Campsite #53. Fork Ridge is part of the 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Clingmans Dome to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The ridge separates Deep Creek’s headwater feeder streams to the northeast from Left Fork Deep Creek and its feeders on the opposite side. Beginning in the dark and damp Spruce-Fir forest, the path is a tad tricky for the first mile or so. Ample moisture at this elevation (5,900 ft) makes the mossy rocks and roots somewhat slippery, but for the most part, the trail is in good shape and easy to negotiate. Given the early fall timing, there is some herbaceous overgrowth of fine branches and leaning stems, yet nothing obscures the trail or impedes progress.

Mountain Bellwort fruit capsule

Speaking of autumn, some Witch Hobbles are feeling the seasonal spirit, decked in rich purplish reds. Mountain Ash drops vibrant orange red fruits. Whorled Aster lifts white daisies above a flat plane of foliage. Mountain Cranberry’s black teardrop fruits dangle on long pedicels. Mountain Bellwort splays its pale tri-lobed capsule over shiny green leaves. Curtis’ Goldenrod appears as wands of yellow flame beside the trail. Red Squirrels chatter among the bounty of Red Spruce cones. Pigskin Puffballs dot the woods like beige golf balls.

The walk down Fork Ridge is easy and uneventful, allowing full enjoyment of the day and surroundings. Most of the way, the trail takes a southeasterly course, but near the bottom, it passes through a wide gap in the ridge called Deep Creek Gap and turns north for the last quarter mile or so.

Deep Creek crossing at the end of Fork Ridge Trail

Maps and the Smokies hiking book note a footbridge (“if it has not been washed away in a flood”) over Deep Creek. I guess there was a flood, as no bridge nor hint of one is visible. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage usually features a hike of Fork Ridge Trail, and I’ve heard tales of surging water thigh deep. Ah, the joys of drier autumn. Susan and I do put on water shoes, but the cool stream barely burbles above our ankles. A tad lower and we could have rock-hopped with ease.

On the opposite bank, the trail climbs through dense rhododendron a few yards to its junction with Deep Creek Trail. The trek down took three hours. Susan and I eat lunch at Campsite #53 before tackling the upper 3.9 miles of Deep Creek. Without pushing ourselves, we cover this uphill stretch in just over two hours for a satisfying 9-mile day and a great warmup for this trip.

Showy Gentian

Two days later, our last hike is quite a bit longer, but the trails are no more taxing. Sunkota Ridge Trail angles off Thomas Divide and turns south, picking up near where Fork Ridge peters out. Sited between Thomas Divide and Noland Divide, all three ridges converge on Deep Creek Campground. The upper half of Sunkota between Martins Gap and Thomas Divide serves both Mountains-to-Sea and Benton MacKaye distance trails.

Sunkota requires 2.0 miles along three different trails on the south end or 4.6 miles of Thomas Divide Trail from the north to reach its trailheads. The 8.6-mile length adheres to the ridge with few deviations, occasionally dipping to one side or the other. All along the trail, however, are brief scenic views of the neighboring divides.

Calico Aster

We start on the Thomas Divide end. From there Sunkota strikes an easy 1,300-foot descent for 4.8 miles to Martins Gap. The upper ridge provides a pleasing walk through recovered forests with a few large trees. This day is simply gorgeous with that deep blue sky that heralds October and soft breezes. Fall flowers are loving it. With a beauty to match the day, Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora) is in its prime and tempts passing butterflies. Three blue asters — Blue Wood Aster, Wavyleaf Aster, and another that has defied all identification attempts — and one white, Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), do their best to lure insects too. Southern Harebell is nearly finished. A few areas on the east side of the ridge have something of a cove hardwood aspect with Cucumber Magnolia, Maple-leaf Viburnum, and a wider array of wildflowers such as Richweed and Nodding Mandarin.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Showy Gentian

We arrive at Martins Gap around 1:30. From here, Sunkota climbs 400 feet over 0.8 mile to a peak along the ridge before descending another 1,300 feet in the final 3.0 miles. This section is drier and more eroded with exposed roots and a slanting trail surface, especially the final 2.0 miles. Aside from the last part, the trail has been in fine shape and enjoyable to hike. The remainder of our 15.2-mile day takes us down the east slope of the ridge on Loop Trail to Indian Creek Trail and finally Deep Creek Trail to the campground.