December 13, 2009 – The Old Sugarlands Trail is a fairly smooth and easy 3.9 mile hike between Newfound Gap Road and Cherokee Orchard Road. A car shuttle, parking a vehicle at both ends or at one end and bumming a ride, eliminates the need to retrace it. Another rainy night spills into the morning hours, but by 9:00 a.m., showers taper off. Forty-five minutes later, thanks to a good friend and botanist, my car is in position at the Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle parking area (the road has been cleared of debris and is now open), and I am at the Old Sugarlands Trailhead near the park visitors center. She snaps my photo; we hug goodbye; and she heads home as I head off for Cherokee Orchard Road. The weather is cool – maybe upper 30’s – with heavy clouds and dripping trees, but no rain and no wind. Several layers of clothes do their job well. The rain coat is quickly shed and draped over my shoulder bag.
Many of the park’s trails feature as much human history as natural history. Such is the case with Old Sugarlands, but these features may not be that obvious, having become rather obscured over time as nature reasserts its dominance. Hiking Trails of the Smokies, an indispensable heads-up guide for hikers, is also indispensable for pointing out historic sites and natural features highlighted on each trail, going so far as to often note the mileage location providing a marker to pinpoint progress. Reading each trail description in advance is essential. However, I’ve discovered that this is not sufficient (for me anyway) to fully experience everything a trail presents. On this damp day, the little brown book stays tucked inside the daypack, and I walk past things without fully appreciating their significance. A post-hike comparison of the book and my own notes don’t match up well, sparking confusion and a desire to rewalk the trail for clarity. Were those flat areas surrounded by low rock mounds an indication of old crop fields or the location of the CCC camps? I forgot to look for the 1934 survey benchmark at the bridge or note the side trail to Sugarlands Cemetery or to get a good look at the Roaring Fork Sandstone quarried from that site for the first paved roads through the mountains. In fact, Old Sugarlands Trail follows Tennessee State Highway 71, one of these first paved roads. For much of the way, the trail is wide, smooth, and graveled, showing in places clear “wheel” tracks and a grassy center track typically found on little used gravel roadways. Recognizing it as a road is easy, but its past as a state highway didn’t stick in my mind, which gives my notes a certain ‘duh’ quality – “this was obviously a road of some sort” – when paired with the guide’s description.
So another lesson has been learned. Since protecting the book from the elements is important, then on a separate sheet of paper, I should note any special trail features and keep it handy for frequent consultation. If the goal of all this walking is to truly absorb as much of the Great Smoky Mountains as possible, drippy weather cannot be allowed to deter the full experience of each trail. On any given day in the mountains, drippy weather can be as likely as not. [How’s this for drippy: Mt. LeConte recorded 32 inches of snow Dec. 19-20!! Check out the caretaker’s blog. Hwy. 441 was closed with a good 2 feet of snow at Newfound Gap. And Cherokee Orchard Road above Twin Creeks was closed again. ]
Back to the Old Sugarlands trail Dec. 13. The first part of the trail is low, level, and runs parallel to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Here, plants are similar to the previous two trails, though I do spot a common moss that is easy to identify, Tree Moss (Climacium sp.), a fern ally Shining Club Moss (Huperzia lucidula), and Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea). Around one home site, there are
many plants of Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa). Once on the wide gravel roadbed, the trail begins a steady climb of 1,000 feet in elevation over 2 miles, with half of that coming in the last 3/4 mile. During most of this, I’m hiking through low hanging clouds. The trees are shrouded in mist (the header photo for this blog page is taken there), and my glasses constantly fog up from the heat of exertion. I can’t see very far with or without corrected vision! The climb requires the shedding of another layer, and I’m sweating far more than I’d have expected given the temperature. Well into the climb, I notice my rain coat is missing. Turning around, there’s no sign of it on the foggy trail. Too new and expensive to abandon, I retrace steps cursing as each turn in the trail shows no rain coat ahead. It seems nearly a mile, though frustration may have heightened that perception, before I spot it laying neatly along the trail where I took off my jacket. This time it is secured to my pack (another lesson learned), and I slog back up again.
There are a few downed trees across the trail/road from the recent high winds. Tree leaves underfoot – the easiest method of identification available in the fog – include Chestnut Oak, Red Oak, Sassafras, White Oak, and Red Maple. A Pileated Woodpecker calls in the distance. Near the top, two new plants show up – Galax and Trailing Arbutus. Once the trail crests at 2,500 feet, it is a quick jaunt past Bull Head Trail junction and a beautiful stone wall to the trailhead followed by a short walk down Cherokee Orchard Road, maybe a mile, to the Ogle place. Only a few motorists pass by on their way around the loop road, and by 12:35 I’m at my car.