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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.

 

A double-petaled Large-flowered Trillium

No one knew what to expect for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage this year.  It was scheduled two weeks earlier than the traditional timing (April 11-15), park officials put several restrictions on trails and program size, and the wildfire last November left sections of the park charred and scarred.  The week also corresponded with one of many spring breaks and the Easter holiday.

Traffic and parking proved the only real negatives.  It might as well have been the height of summer in Gatlinburg.  Pilgrimage goers have never seen this town so crowded during the work week.  We think curiosity about the devastating fire and a desire to help the city recover drove the exceptional visitation.

Silverbell

Every year the wildflower status for Pilgrimage week increasingly becomes a roll of the dice.  2017 turned out to be a jackpot year.  Trees were barely leafing out at lower elevations, most ferns were still rolled in tight crosiers, but the herbaceous wildflowers were going nuts.  A concentrated flush of flowering placed remnant Bloodroot, Liverleaf, Trout Lily, Wood Anemone, and Fringed Phacelia in direct competition with emerging Crested Iris, Fire Pink, Yellow Trillium, Wild Geranium, and Robin’s Plantain.  Both Silverbell and Flowering Dogwood were showy, and a few Serviceberries joined in for good measure.  It was simply spectacular.

Yellow Trillium whose flower parts have reverted to leaves.

Some unique sightings added to the flora fun.  During our hikes, we saw a Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) with two sets of petals and a cluster of Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum) whose floral parts had all reverted to mottled green leaves.

The weather was unseasonably warm, daily highs hovering near 80º, and very dry.  No April showers for days is unusual.  These conditions guarantee the colorful parade of flowers will pass quickly.

Burned ridges from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire viewed from the Carlos Campbell Overlook on Feb. 13, 2017

Fire ecology became the default theme of this year’s Pilgrimage.  Officials with the park and southeastern universities helped everyone understand the role fire plays in the natural landscape.  We hiked part of the bleak, blackened forest and witnessed the first stirrings of recovery.  Rob Klein, Fire Ecologist for the park, gave a presentation on fire, including pictures of the most severely burned areas.

Same view April 12, 2017

Chimney Tops 2 fire (the second fire in that area in 2016) started Nov. 23 on the Chimney Tops Trail, initated by two teenagers striking matches in the drought-plagued forest.  It was a slow fire creeping through the underbrush in an area of steep and difficult terrain, nearly impossible to access and fight effectively.  Park officials watched it carefully.  By Nov. 26, it had impacted only 40 acres.  Two days later, an approaching storm system arrived earlier than expected and brought winds much stronger than predicted into the area, generating a phenomenon known as mountain wave winds.

Right hand ridge from Balsam Point, Feb. 13

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes this wind pattern: “Mountain waves develop on the lee, or downwind, side of mountains.  These waves are generated when strong winds flowing toward mountains in a generally perpendicular fashion are raised up over the mountains.  As the winds rise, they may encounter a strong inversion or stable air barrier over the mountains that causes the winds to be redirected toward the surface.  Instead of reaching back down to earth, the winds continue in an up-and-down wave-like pattern downwind of the mountains that may extend for hundreds of miles.”

Close-up view of ridge showing effects of a high severity fire

These mountain wave winds, hitting velocities of 80 to 100 mph, struck November 28 and within hours the 40-acre fire mushroomed into a 17,000-acre conflagration that destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in Gatlinburg and sparked electrical fires from downed trees as far away as Cosby.  Fourteen people lost their lives.

Dead and downed wood smouldered on the Cove Hardwood Trail.

The fire burned 11,000 acres within the park according to Klein.  On half of those acres, the fire was low severity, removing the litter layer and a bit of the underlying duff.  It left evergreen shrub foliage brown on lower branches and green at the top.  A more open forest understory results, which will rebound within 5 to 10 years.  Cove hardwood communities escaped with little to no fire impact.  These moister, protected environments are less likely to support a hot fire even in drought.  The Cove Hardwood Trail at Chimneys Picnic Area, appears mostly untouched except for a few old logs and stumps that smoldered and charred.

Moderately severe fire on Baskins Creek Trail

Twenty-five percent of the burned acres experienced a moderately severe fire.  Litter and most of the duff was consumed.  Shrubs were completely browned to burnt, perhaps compromising the ability of rhododendrons to resprout.  Tree bark and pine needles were scorched.  Moderate fires open the forest and produce changes to its structure and composition.

Areas of high severity fire occurred primarily in the montane oak, pine, and heath communities found along ridges, approximately 1,000 acres.  Litter and duff were completely consumed, shrubs killed, and trees burned top to bottom.  Klein’s photo reveals a bare and blackened landscape with broken stubs of tree trunks like burnt matchsticks.

Bullhead and the severely burned heath bald (far right)

The Carlos C. Campbell Overlook on Highway 441 gives visitors a overall view of seven different community types in the park, and the intensely scorched sections correspond perfectly to the oak, pine, and heath ridges noted on the interpretive signage.  Some people have noted the right ridge line fire scar’s resemblance to an angel.

In the next few years, these areas of high severity will become dense with native herbaceous plants like fireweed and other weedy species that dominate highly disturbed wild lands.  Pine seedlings will germinate and carpet the landscape in a “dog-hair thicket” of saplings within 5 to 10 years.

Open and closed Table Mountain Pine cones

This rebirth has already begun.  The large cones of Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens), an Appalachian endemic, are serotinus.  A resinous substance seals the scales shut and only loosens with higher temperatures from solar radiation or the heat of fire.  Three days after the fire on Dec. 1, park officials documented pine seeds “raining” down.  On March 2, they noted the first sprout, and by April 13, numerous sprouts could be found.

Open cones of Table Mountain Pine on Baskins Creek

These ridge communities of oaks, pines, and members of the heath family are fire adapted, tolerating fires every 5 to 15 years on average.  Thicker bark, an ability to sprout from the stump, and the need for an open canopy to germinate and grow allow them to survive recurring fires.  In turn, these fires ensure regeneration of the species, maintenance of wildlife habitat, and reduction of fuel loads.  This last benefit prevents future fires from becoming too destructive and disruptive to the community.

In fire adapted communities, lack of fire can prove just as disruptive, leading to species decline and the possibility of severe canopy fires.  Along Baskins Creek Trail, the fire was of moderate severity in the Table Mountain Pine stand.  Cones on the trees are open, and pine seedlings are sprouting in the open understory.

Table Mountain Pine seedling

Forests may look very different in the aftermath of a big fire, but they begin their march back almost immediately.  The same is true for Gatlinburg.  Most fire damaged properties have been cleaned up, and construction is booming.  The forests and the town are well on their way to recovery.

CCC chimney at Campsite 71

CCC chimney at Campsite 71

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.

Mosses and lichen

Mosses and lichen

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.

paw print from a running bear

paw print from a running bear

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.

Worm Coral

Worm Coral

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).

Downy Lobelia

Downy Lobelia

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.

Abrupt end of bridge over Forney Creek at Jonas Creek Trail junction

Abrupt end of bridge over Forney Creek at Jonas Creek Trail junction

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

Small-headed Sunflower

Small-headed Sunflower

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.

Silverrod

Silverrod

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.

Rock Tripe and Toadskin lichens

Rock Tripe and Toadskin lichens

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.

fruit of Mountain Holly

Mountain Holly fruit

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

old road drops out at one crossing of Forney Creek

Old road drops out at one crossing of Forney Creek

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.

old wash tub by the trail

Cultural artifact, a wash tub by the trail

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.

One of many crossing on Forney Creek

One of many crossing on Forney Creek

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.

Timbered gully crossing

Timbered gully crossing

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.

Eroded gully

Eroded gully

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.

Rock wall along road

Rock wall along road

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.

Rock Slab Falls at Campsite 68

Rock Slab Falls at Campsite 68

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.

Beech Drops

Beech Drops

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.

Appalachian White Snakeroot

Appalachian White Snakeroot

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!

The fall of 2016 was crazy busy for me, and I was very lax in writing accounts of my most recent Smokies visits.  There were two trips — backpacking in late August and a set of day hikes in late September.  My apologies for the long delay.  Let’s catch up.

Some of the excellent trail work marking the first mile of Forney Ridge.

Some of the excellent trail work marking the first mile of Forney Ridge.

Forney Ridge Trail, August 28, 2016

Friends Mary McCord and Susan Stahl agree to a four-day, three-night Forney loop from Clingmans Dome. We meet at 12:30 in the parking lot, crowded with cars and people on a Sunday afternoon. Forney Ridge trailhead is tucked into the lot’s western corner, and the trail quickly drops down slope away from all the hubbub.

Clingmans Dome and its tower are not the only attractions up here.  Forney Ridge Trail leads to another visitor hot spot, Andrews Bald.  The 1.8 mile trail section leading to the bald runs through spruce-fir forests over wildly varying terrain from steep and bouldery to flat and mucky.  This stretch takes quite a beating, yet high quality trail rehabilitation along the first mile descent eases difficult passages for hikers while protecting the delicate forest system.  Gravel-filled steps, water diversion trenches, and heavy rock work minimize erosion in the steepest areas.  Raised boards prevent churned, ankle-deep mud in the flat section.

Andrews Bald

Andrews Bald

At 1.1 miles, the trail bottoms out at the Forney Creek Trail junction and begins a gradual 0.7-mile rise to Andrews Bald.  The excellent trail work ends at the junction too, and Forney Ridge turns back into a ‘pumpkin,’ an ordinary dirt path with roots, ruts, and rocks.  Dense stands of Red Spruce limit the understory to mosses and ferns with a few fruiting Bluebead Lilies.  We pass many visitors headed back to Clingman’s Dome. Thunder behind us bodes ill for their staying dry. Thankfully, the drenching rainstorm less than two miles away doesn’t reach us.

Maleberry

Maleberry

Andrews Bald in August is not in its botanical glory, though it does provide that rare open space in the Smokies and a great view on good days.  Roiling clouds limit this day’s view to the nearest set of blue peaks, the rest bleaching into dull sky.  Flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons in late summer are cloaked in green and setting seeds, as is Maleberry, (Lyonia ligustrina).  Grasses, goldenrods, and asters provide the primary floral interest including that high-elevation olfactory gem, Skunk Goldenrod.

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

Past Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge demonstrates why it was known as “Rip-Shin Ridge” in the 1800s.  Trail conditions degrade noticeably and our progress slows.  Smooth sections are few and far between.  A bit over 3 miles in, the trail disappears abruptly down the steep slope for several feet, requiring careful treading past the yawning gap, one foot directly in front of the other while leaning upslope.  Trekking poles become a liability as tangles of vegetation snag them and affect balance (carrying a full pack) just enough to pose a real threat.  Susan and I manage to eke our way past.  Mary hasn’t been feeling well, and the trail gap is enough to convince her to turn around.  We are sad to lose her but soldier on.

Southern Harebell

Southern Harebell

Fortunately, trail conditions moderate somewhat after the gap.  Susan and I are able to chat, enjoying the late afternoon and treasures along the trail.  A few large old trees grace the ridge.  Fresh fruiting fungi — Strangulated Amanita, Jack-o-lantern, Gem-studded Puffballs, and Black Trumpets — invite admiration.  Southern Harebell (Campanula divaricata) is in flower, and Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) sports skinny upright seed follicles.

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

Aside from the slight climb to Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge Trail presents a steady downhill trajectory dropping 2,400 feet in elevation over 5.6 miles.  Despite an easier path for the lower half, it still takes us much longer than we’d hoped to reach its terminus at a broad gap.  We take a brief break, but the sky is darkening again, and we can’t tell if distant thunder is headed our way.  We shoulder packs and start the second leg of our descent, this time on Springhouse Branch Trail, to Campsite #64 2.8 miles away.

Tall Milkweed fruit

Tall Milkweed fruit

Within minutes it begins to rain.  It is not a hard rain, just steady, and we are able to maintain a decent pace, reaching the campsite in 1.5 hours.  Along the trail, we see several American Toads.  This amphibian will prove a reliable companion in the forest and come to characterize our entire trip.  At least 10 individuals grooving on the summer rain hop out of our way on Springhouse Branch.  The rain stops as we near trail’s end.

It’s late when we arrive at camp and waste no time erecting tents, fixing dinner, and preparing for bed.  We hang our packs by the light of headlamps.  As a side note, Campsite #64, a small horse camp, has picnic tables!  Precious few backcountry sites are blessed with this luxury.  Next morning the sky is clear, but our tents are dripping with condensation from the damp ground.

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Springhouse Branch Trail (7.1 miles) crosses over Forney Ridge, connecting Noland Creek and Forney Creek trails.  From a trailhead at Campsite #64, situated in the confluence of Mill and Noland creeks, the trail climbs the eastern slope of Forney Ridge, crossing and following first Mill Creek then the feeder stream for which the trail is named.  Springhouse Branch reaches the ridge at Board Camp Gap in 2.8 miles and continues an upward course for another half mile, remaining on or near the ridge line for more than a mile and peaking at 4,100 feet elevation.  From there, the trail descends Forney Ridge’s western slope into a valley carved by Bee Gum Branch, twisting its way to Campsite #71 and its terminus on Forney Creek Trail.

We begin hiking at 9:00 a.m. Bridges facilitate the early crossings of Mill Creek.  Since the trail follows two streams for more than a mile, there are other small creek crossings but no challenges.  Considering Springhouse Branch is used by horses and this section is situated in stream valleys, the trail’s general condition is remarkably good.  There is little trenching, not much muck, and minimal rocky-ness.  A handful of spots have some herbaceous plants leaning into the trail, but most of it is low and poses no real impediment, an important note given the late summer timing of this hike.

Featherbells past its prime

Featherbells past its prime

The trail maintains an good width throughout, and the grade is not taxing.  My version of the “Little Brown Book” (Hiking Trails of the Smokies) portrayed a trail in varying states of degradation, particularly the western leg to Forney Creek.  The trail has obviously been rehabilitated at some point in the past, as it is in fine shape throughout.  The main complaint in the book was an uneven trail sloping from side to side.  I hate this condition (one foot higher than the other) and am relieved and pleased to discover a mostly excellent trail tread.

Yellow-tipped Coral

Yellow-tipped Coral

Springhouse Branch is a marvelously rich trail that would be a delight to hike in spring. Wild Geranium, Broad Beech Fern, Seersucker Sedge, Rattlesnake Fern, Black Cohosh, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, Meadow Parsnip, Solomon’s Plume, Maidenhair Fern, Trillium sp., Hydrangea, Umbrella Leaf, Nodding Mandarin, Meadow Rue, Silverbell, Round-leaf Violet, Indian Cucumber Root, Marginal Woodfern, Intermediate Woodfern, Large Yellow Wood-Sorrel, Cinnamon Fern, Astilbe, and Flame Azalea attest to a lively display in April or May.

Summer and fall seasonal plants include Joe Pye-weed, Appalachian Bunchflower, Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum), White Wood Aster, Southern Hairbell, Grape Fern, Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis), Spikenard, Partridgeberry, Tall Rattlesnakeroot, Tall Meadow Rue, Turk’s Cap Lily, White Bergamot, Goldenrod spp., Hawkweed sp., and one of the blue-flowered asters.

American Toad

American Toad

Fungi are in their prime: Black Trumpets, Gem-studded Puffballs, Hydnellum, Caesar’s Amanita, Viscid Violet Cortinarius (Cortinarius iodes), Yellow-tipped Coral (Ramaria formosa), Coker’s Amanita, Bitter Hedgehog (Sarcodon scabrosus [S. underwoodii]) and Panther Cap.  On occasion, we pass through an area with the sickly sweet smell of decay.  It might be fungi too.  We see a lot of old mushrooms covered with cottony molds or swarming with little gnats.

And of course those companionable American Toads hop, skip, and jump to the side when we walk by.

Species of Blue Aster

Species of Blue Aster

Susan and I reach the Forney Creek junction (at Campsite #71) early afternoon.  We’ll now be hiking Forney Creek Trail.  An account of FCT and the rest of our trip is forthcoming.