Thursday morning nearly a half inch of snow coated my car, so it came as no surprise that Laurel Creek Road was once again closed as was Little River Rd. Meredith Clebsch, my hiking buddy this day, and I stopped at the Townsend Wye and even though a ranger there indicated Laurel Creek might be open within a short time, we opted for the readily convenient Chestnut Top Trail, 4.3 miles to Schoolhouse Gap Road and back. Others had already hiked the trail that morning, making the snow-covered trail slick in spots. Initially it was cold, but the skies cleared, the sun emerged, and the heat of exertion allowed us to shed heavy coats early on. The day turned out to be quite beautiful. In winter, there are fabulous views of the Smokies crest and Thunderhead Mountain to the south and Tuckaleechee Cove and Townsend, TN, to the north. When we reached the trail’s terminus at Schoolhouse Gap, Meredith and I sat in a warm patch of sun to eat lunch. Before long, a veil of thin clouds dulled that warmth and provided the impetus to get moving again. Quite a bit of snow had disappeared by the time we returned to the parking area.
Chestnut Top is not a difficult trail, climbing about 1200 feet over 2.75 miles then falling a gentle 300 feet for the last 1.6 miles. It is famous for the impressive variety of spring wildflowers within the first 1/4 mile in April. A sampling includes Toothwort, Galax, Liverleaf, Alumroot, Crested Iris, Purple Phacelia, Yellow Trillium, Fire Pink, Woodland Stonecrop, Foamflower, various Violets, Maidenhair Fern, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Trailing Arbutus, Mountain Laurel, Bloodroot, Bishop’s Cap, Waterleaf, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Yellow Mandarin, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, and a little further in Catesby’s Trillium. Even in February, evidence of several of these plants could be found along with Appalachian Rockcap Fern and, and at the start, a colony of the rare Dwarf Bristle Fern (Trichomanes petersii) in the Filmy Fern Family. Tucked under an overhanging rock and looking just like a liverwort, it’s nearly impossible to identify unless an expert – like the leader of our Fern Forays Pat Cox – points it out. Then the botanically challenged can impress friends and family.
I’m trying to learn the pines. There aren’t a lot of them, but at least two of the species are hard to differentiate. Pitch Pine and Shortleaf Pine give me fits. It seems to be as easy to make a case for one as the other. Meredith and I stopped frequently to debate the characteristics, just as Allen and I had done the day before. We’re still not sure! But Meredith was sure of a fairly rare spotting — a raven. A couple of birds circled above us and cawed coarsely – then honked (which to my ear sounded like a goose!). Meredith pointed out the individual feathers visible on the wing tips as a good ID character and the larger, thick beak that seems an extension of the head. She also relayed fascinating stories of the intelligence exhibited by ravens and crows. They are amazing creatures. We also saw some juncos. We spotted canine tracks in the snow, but “domestic” scat (the canned food kind) dispelled any notion of a coyote.