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I’m checking off a punch list of little trails, some ‘official,’ some not, in preparation for my 900 Mile Club finale Sept. 6. While in the Smokies for the Pilgrimage last April, I crossed off Elkmont, Sugarlands Valley, and Cosby nature trails, the network of connecting trails surrounding Cosby Campground, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Of these, only the disjointed string of Cosby connectors is considered part of the 900 Miler tally by the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, but I want to do these others as well. First up, Roaring Fork.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-way, 6-mile, paved road arching through a northeastern section of the park above Gatlinburg. The entrance is located along the loop of Cherokee Orchard Road past Rainbow Falls Trail’s parking lots. Turning right, RFMNT winds past natural features and cultural landmarks denoted in 16 numbered stops which are interpreted in a $1.00 auto tour booklet available at park visitor centers. The booklet paints a lovely verbal portrait of the mountains and mountain life, complementing the visual elements of each stop along the way.

Top-killed Mountain Laurel sprouting at the base

From the entrance gate through the first stop, RFMNT passes through an area hit hard by the Chimney Tops 2 fire in late 2016. Charred tree trunks and lifeless shrubs rising from a sparse understory over blackened ground still provide sobering testimony to the fire’s intensity 17 months later. Not all is bleak, however. Some Rosebay Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel are sprouting vigorously from the base. Mountain Bellwort, Wood Betony, and Early Wood Violet are in flower.

The evidence of fire quickly disappears with the next few stops focused on cove hardwoods and attendant wildlife. Lush mosses, Wood Anemone, Large White Trillium, Speckled Wood Lily, Star Chickweed, Creeping Phlox, Bishops Cap, and other spring wildflowers are serenaded by Hooded Warblers and Wood Thrushes as they soak up water from overnight showers.

Stop #5 is the Grotto Falls parking area. The llama trailer is here, and they must be making a delivery to LeConte Lodge on Trillium Gap Trail. A trailhead sign marks the 0.2-mile path connecting to TGT and Grotto Falls. Since I did not hike this spur when I did TGT, I decide to walk it quickly, covering all potential 900 Mile bases.

Roaring Fork

Further stops point out dense stands of Tulip Poplar, a sure sign of former cleared fields, with young Eastern Hemlock growing in their shade. RFMNT merges with the route of the old road settlers used to access their homesites in the Roaring Fork community. The road out of Gatlinburg ended here as terrain further up was not suited to sustainable human habitation. At this point, the eponymous stream descending from the flanks of Mt. LeConte becomes a constant companion. Flowering Dogwood and clusters of Yellow Trillium, Foamflower, and Showy Orchis brighten the roadsides.

dirty diaper dumped at a parking pull out

At Stop #9, a narrow trail retreats into relatively level woods which I explore. A short stone wall set into the slope above a tiny stream is the only sign of settlement, its original purpose a mystery. The trail continues for a bit but peters out as it starts to climb. Returning to my car, I spot a small white bundle tucked at the base of tree within view of the parking area. It’s a child’s soiled disposable diaper. The sheer laziness and rude selfishness of this act stun me. I put it in a plastic bag in my trunk.

Three homesteads have been preserved along the route. The first belonged to Jim Bales. While the house is not original to the site, the corn crib and barn are. Preservation efforts are on display with NPS staff working from scaffolds along the back side of the house. Baskins Creek Trail, which began 0.2 mile from the start of RFMNT, ends at Jim Bales Place, and Grapeyard Ridge Trail begins its route to Greenbrier from here as well.

Hog pen at Ephraim Bales Place

Next is the Ephraim and Minerva Bales property. The small dog-trot cabin and tiny corn crib to the left are near the current road, which looks at the backside of the cabin. The cabin faces a leaning picket fence bordering the original road, now a mere dirt path. Between the road and Roaring Fork are a modest barn and roofed hog pen that looks more like a fairy house, its opening just over 12 inches high.

For some reason, Eph and Nervie’s place moves me. This couple raised 9 children here. The sizes of these structures speak volumes on the difficult farming conditions they and so many other early settlers faced in the Smokies. One kitchen doorway stands just 5 feet high. I feel real amazement for these people, an “I’m-not-worthy” sense of respect. When my eyes land on the ever-present, knife-carved initials and Sharpie ‘tags’ of past park visitors scarring this modest home, I’m enraged. There isn’t a structure in the park that has escaped this type of desecration. To my continual disgust, I’ve encountered it everywhere, but in this particular home it riles as a true criminal affront to the memory of these honest people.

Foamflower

The last home belonged to Alfred Reagan, a talented craftsman with an entrepreneurial spirit. The success of his many endeavors is evident in his wood-clad, painted cabin. The tub mill next to the creek was just one way he served the community and supported his family. Several photographers vie for the perfect angle capturing stream, mill and flume.

Place of a Thousand Drips

Near the end, two splintered waterfalls splash down jumbled sandstone boulders in dozens of small rills — the famous “Place of a Thousand Drips.” The variety of wildflowers, ferns, mosses and liverworts is a botanist’s dream, the showiest plants conveniently grouped near eye-level on an embankment. White blossoms of Mountain Silverbell dot the road as I slip past the park boundary and reenter the real world.

Elkmont Nature Trail

Wetland, Elkmont Nature Trail

Located halfway on the road above Elkmont Campground is a short, self-guided nature trail. The 0.8 mile loop begins in the little parking lot’s right-hand corner and centers around a lower stretch of Mids Branch. The trail brochure highlights 13 locations that tell the land’s natural and cultural history. Each stop points to subtle clues helping visitors “read the landscape” and interpret that history.

Dropping steeply to cross the little creek, the trail follows an old railroad spur paralleling the stream. American Hornbeams are everywhere. One young tree is split down the middle nearly to the base, and both halves produce foliage. One element mentioned on the trailhead kiosk but not in the brochure is a wetland community. Classified as a montane alluvial forest, it is considered a globally significant and endangered forest type. This small wetland spreads out from the banks of Mids Branch as the trail enters the stream valley. Patches of bright green sedges sprout in the still, shallow water.

Elkmont Nature Trail

The trail climbs gently through a cove forest still developing from its farmed and logged past, crosses Mids Branch, and skirts a drier hillside of oak and pine trees. In this drier, more open section, multiple stems of Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii) are sporting whorls of 4 and 5 leaves.

During its descent, Elkmont Nature Trail levels briefly where a mosaic of flat rocks create the feel of a flagstone patio, complete with a log bench to give visitors a chance to sit quietly hidden in the trees above the road and campground below. The final yards of the trail drop quickly to the parking lot.

Wonderland Requiem

Annex site

Before leaving Elkmont, I visit the site of the old Wonderland Hotel to see if the remaining buildings have been removed. A large rectangle of scraped earth spreads before the massive stone chimney that marked one end of the annex building. I am shocked to see dead trees on the perimeter, scorched black with their bark popping loose, incontrovertible evidence of a big fire. It occurred April 19, 2016, just as that year’s Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage was getting underway, yet somehow I remained in the dark for two years. Bits of white porcelain from tubs and toilets gleam in the mud.

Demolished cabin site

The other cabins behind the hotel site have been demolished, leaving raw gashes where structures had nestled into the hillside. Once nature heals these wounds, the weathered stones in retaining walls, chimneys, and rubble piles will be the primary evidence of an early 20th century residential resort.

During my last visit in 2011, the hotel’s lobby fireplace was still somewhat intact though the chimney was missing. Now it is a shapeless pile of red bricks overgrown with weeds. A narrow set of four concrete steps leading from the hotel to the annex is all that remains of the original building today.

Wonderland fountain

One hundred years ago, wide stone steps beckoned hotel guests from the rail line up to the hotel’s shady porches where they could enjoy a great view of Blanket Mountain. Centered in front of the long porch was a round stone fountain that propelled a jet of water 10 feet in the air. The top edge of the stone pool was decorated with chunks of white quartz. Now, vegetation effectively cloaks the stone steps from view, and all that’s left to signify this fashionable mountain retreat is the quartz-studded pool, filled with dirt and spouting a young hemlock as the forest closes in to reclaim its own.

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Grape Fern

Several backpacking trips in North Carolina and near Abrams Falls over the last two years got me back on track with my Smokies 900 Mile Club goal. Here are the numbers.
2016 — 133.4 new trail miles out of 199.2 total miles, representing 17 full trails, completion of Lakeshore and partial miles on Hazel Creek and Forney Creek trails.
2017 — 62.4 new trail miles out of 100.9 total miles, covering 10 full trails and completion of Hazel Creek, Forney Creek, and Gregory Bald trails.

Add these to the mileage from 2009 through 2015 and the grand totals are 1,241.2 miles hiked with 788.1 new trail miles on 150 trails. This fresh enthusiasm puts me on the cusp of completion in 2018 with one official trail left to hike, The Boulevard at 5.4 miles.

Car on Lakeshore Trail

It’s been in the back of my mind for some time to pair this trail with an overnight at LeConte Lodge. I want to bring friends Susan and Allen Sweetser and Mary McCord along to celebrate. They have been stalwarts through this journey, helping me in countless ways from hiking companion to transportation and as a guest in their homes. This accomplishment would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without them. Not to mention a lot less fun.

We were stuck on the waiting list this year and did not get a break. Distractions kept me from booking 2018 accommodations until last week — two months into the registration process. Few dates were left, but I secured four slots for September 6. It’s a long time to wait, but there are things I can do between now and then.

I still have 1 Quiet Walkway along Thunderhead Prong in Tremont and 7 Nature Trails to document. I’d also like to cover Roaring Fork Motor Trail and maybe even Cades Cove loop road. It will be good to have everything else completed, including these “unofficial trails” before I hike The Boulevard in September. LeConte Lodge should be the exclamation point at the very end of my Smokies quest. After all, completing the official trail miles wasn’t my primary motivation. The goal all along has been to learn the park’s natural history. These smaller paths reflect this history as well as any of the backcountry trails.

Indigo Milky Fungus

A few notes on the numbers. Hiking Trails of the Smokies features descriptions of 151 trails. This figure includes two accounts for Beech Gap, which is understandable since they are not connected, and two accounts for Low Gap, which doesn’t make sense as it is one continuous trail. It also includes Polls Gap Trail (4.4 miles) on Balsam Mountain, which has long been closed yet remained in later editions of the book. Perhaps the most recent revision finally dropped it. I have not and will not hike Polls Gap. Even when it was open, it was notorious for downed trees and difficult, even dangerous, passage. I’ve stood at both ends of Polls Gap and stared into dense vegetation that had not seen a maintenance crew in many years. A person would be very hard pressed to follow that trail today. I’m quite happy to respect the park’s decision to close it.

My edition of the book does not include Ollie Cove Trail, a tiny 0.3-mile rutted access path from a Fontana Lake boat drop-off to Lakeshore Trail for Campsite #86. It is a signed trail, however, and I covered it in July 2016.

Fire Pink at High Rock

One last note. My mileage log from 2009 through August 2017 tallies 788.1 trail miles. Adding Ollie to the book’s trail miles for everything except Polls and Boulevard totals 786.2. What accounts for my extra 1.9 miles? I have no idea and no desire to spend time checking the math on approximately 170 separate entries. I’ve covered what’s required and then some; that’s good enough for me.

Once I’ve hiked The Boulevard, my total will be 793.5. I’ve yet to find any definitive number of miles in the park. The book says 800 miles of maintained trails, excluding all Quiet Walkways, self-guided nature trails, and manways. The park’s Web site says 850 miles of backcountry trails. Somewhere I read 832 miles. In a wild landscape this large, trail miles are always likely to be fluid and dynamic. Consider Scott Mountain Trail, the majority of which has been closed now for several years and may not be reopened. Parts of it were very iffy before storms took a toll. Whatever the numbers, I’ve hiked every inch of these trails and will become a bonafide 900 Miler next year.

Addendum:  Fellow 900 Miler aspirant Randy Small pointed out a list of trails on the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club’s 900 Miler site for a definitive(?) list of trails and mileages — 800.3.  Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not doing The Boulevard until Sept. They have things like Tow String horse trail (2.2), Benton MacKaye connector trail (1.0, I can’t remember if I did this one), the asphalt road to Clingman’s Dome (0.5 which I did), High Rock (0.3 which I did), Deep Creek Horse Trail (2.0 which I did), Cosby Campground trails (2.0), and another Hazel Creek access trail from Fontana (0.7). Those I’m missing should be easy to make up except the Fontana access to Hazel, that will be a major undertaking to pick it up. I thought Ollie was designated the connector trail. And why the Cosby campground trails?  Do all of these honestly constitute “official trails” in the park? None of these are in the trails book…at least not the three different editions I’ve bought over the years. These add another 8.7 miles and would bring my total to 802.2 when I finish. Ah, once again that 1.9 miles extra!  Their Lakeshore mileage is 0.8 LESS than mine. So there is half the difference right there. Guess I’ll need to compare all trail mileages. Oh boy, this could be quite a challenge to figure out!  And will it really matter in the end?  All you gotta do is fill out a form and send in $15 .

Rabbit Creek trailhead near Abrams Creek Ranger Station

[This is very late…sorry.] For my final trail this year, I’m day-hiking Rabbit Creek’s 7.8 miles from Abrams Creek Ranger Station to Abrams Falls’ parking lot in Cades Cove. I’m not excited about this trail and don’t expect much from it. The mindset is simple: get from one end to the other, check it off and go home, hopefully before the first remnants of hurricane Harvey hit the Smokies.

Abrams Creek ford

It takes the better part of an hour to get from the Sweetser’s cabin to the trailhead, and I begin at 8:45 a.m. Allen walks me to the Abrams Creek crossing less than a tenth mile from the start. As the trail reaches the creek, a few steps lead down the bank to a big boulder that likely supported the footbridge now gone without a trace. A wet ford is required, but this is not a convenient place to do so. We backtrack several yards to an easier shallow, level location. On the opposite side, I wave goodbye to Allen, slip through vegetation to the trail, and pause to don boots.

Purple-flowering Raspberry fruit

Rabbit Creek Trail begins just inside the park’s far western boundary across the road from the ranger station and runs a contorted route east to the western end of Cades Cove. It climbs nearly 1,000 feet on Pine Mountain, descends 600 feet to cross its eponymous creek, ascends 800 feet to cruise Andy McCully Ridge, and finally drops another 600 feet before crossing Mill Creek at the Abrams Falls trailhead. Both climbs stretch over two miles each.

 

Pitch Pine (left) has large bark plates. Virginia Pine bark is small, scaly and sloughs off higher up.

The first few tenths of a mile cut through Abrams Creek’s flat valley carpeted with invasive Japanese Stiltgrass and Lady’s Thumb. A length of thick steel cable snaking through the underbrush evidences the logging past. Soon the trail begins to climb Pine Mountain, doing so in stages along a ridge line with a few short steep climbs, mostly moderate grades, and some pleasant level stretches. Despite these steep grades, poor routing up the ridge line’s nose, heavy use, and horse traffic, erosion is minimal. The trail follows an old road and is fairly smooth.

I hiked the initial 2.5 miles of Rabbit Creek a decade ago on my first Fern Foray, part of a survey for Discover Life in America, and there is a feeling of déjà vu. Not much has changed with the trail, though the same cannot be said for me. Despite 10 additional years, I’m a better, stronger hiker now than then and much more knowledgeable about the park, particularly its natural history. This time around, I can fully appreciate what Pine Mountain has to offer.

Big-leaf Aster

The lower slopes feature Devils Walking-stick, Wild Hydrangea, Alternate-leaf Dogwood, and Purple-flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata). A beautiful old spreading Chestnut Oak graces the ridge, joined by other dry upland species like Red Maple and Sassafras. A Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is decked in colorful fall finery. There are even a few young, healthy Eastern Hemlocks at least 10 feet tall and lush with dense foliage. White and Virginia pines are plentiful. One of the latter growing beside a Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) allows a single photo to capture the perfect bark comparison.

Big-leaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Rabbit Tobacco occupy open, dry exposures. Here, the normally dainty Southern Harebell grows into bushy branched clumps that warrant a double-take. There are two plants I cannot identify. Thick-textured, lanceolate leaves form small but dense swathes across the ground. A stem with narrow, whorled leaves holds a panicle of yellow buds. Without flowers, unknown herbaceous plants are impossible to key.

Glade Fern

These open areas also feature vistas overlooking the valley of Abrams Creek toward Happy Valley and Chilhowee Mountain. The trail becomes rougher and more gravelly descending the back side of Pine Mountain. Past the Hannah Mountain junction, Rabbit Creek becomes overgrown for a brief stretch but soon clears along a narrow path. Not far from the junction is a dry draw literally filled with Glade Fern (Diplazium pycnocarpum). This fern is most often associated with basic soils, a condition indicative of limestone not commonly found in the Smokies. Such an extensive stand is truly an anomaly here.

A small dry draw is full of Glade Fern

As the trail continues a gradual descent toward Rabbit Creek, it passes through a very narrow valley. Descriptions in the Smokies hiking guide (the little brown book) don’t often wax poetic, but Rabbit Creek Trail’s author Woody Brinegar comes close, calling this section “one of the most delightful trail features in all of the Smokies…dark, sheltered…the sun slips in at noon only, and then is excluded by the thick forest canopy…absolutely unchanged since the first human passed through…time stands frozen.” It doesn’t seem quite that captivating at face value, but those words running through my mind as I ‘pass through’ serve to enhance its charm and create a special experience. In this stretch, the trail and a tiny rocky creek become one, providing an easy challenge that breaks things up a bit and keeps it interesting.

The narrow valley where “time stands frozen.”

The trail bottoms out at Rabbit Creek near the halfway mark. It’s a shallow, lovely creek maybe 20 feet across. Two lines of small stones laid in an ‘X’ pattern provide options for dry crossing. On the other side is Campsite #15. I stop here to eat lunch.

Close enough to the creek for ease of access but distant enough for the water to be a low soothing burble, Campsite #15 is a spacious and beautiful location. A grove of tall treated hemlocks shade the back site, encompassed by a ring of Partridgeberry carpeting the sloping edges. I’d love to stay here sometime. I must confess Rabbit Creek Trail is defying my negative expectations at every step.

Campsite 15

The second climb, a little on the rocky side, takes me to Andy McCully Ridge. Here the trail joins a wide old road cruising about one mile nearly level with slight undulations. Circumventing blowdowns is the only impediment. I find a log studded with the interlocking blocks of Ceramic Tile fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus).

Three-quarters of the way along the ridge, the trail dips slightly, levels a bit, then rises again. This is Coon Butt. Mr. McCully farmed on the ridge, and Coon Butt was part of his land. There has to a compelling story behind this place name, and I am sorely disappointed to discover Coon Butt isn’t even listed in Place Names of the Smokies! Other than the official definition of a “butt” (the end of a ridge), one can only assume that a family of raccoons shared this ridge end with Mr. McCully. Wikipedia claims Coon Butt is the 422nd highest peak in Tennessee at 2,326 feet.

Ceramic Tile fungus

Past Coon Butt, the trail descends gently for a half mile through pines and hardwoods, levels for a half mile, and descends again more steeply. Walking is easy until the final descent. There are more wet areas and another long stretch walking down a rocky stream bed. This one is neither as charming nor interesting as the narrow valley earlier. And thanks to choking stands of Japanese Stiltgrass, there is no flora here worth spit.

Mill Creek

Quite suddenly, the trail bottoms out and the gurgle of Mill Creek greets my ears. I round a corner and find this shallow stream lying like a glistening sheet of paper before me. At or slightly above ankle depth, it is a fitting bookend to Rabbit Creek’s first ford. The trailhead proper is about 30 yards past the far shore. My car is visible in the parking lot as I cross. I’ve been on trail 5 hours.

Dark clouds carrying what’s left of Harvey must have frightened away visitors. There are few cars in the lot, few on the cove’s road, and few at the visitor center as I pass. Driving home, I can’t pinpoint the source of my initial low expectations for Rabbit Creek, but I really enjoyed it and would welcome another hike there some day.

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.

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.