The first hike for spring is the Brushy Mountain Trail, accessed one mile up the Porters Creek Trail. It’s 4.9 miles to the summit, which means a total hike of 11.8 miles start to finish (and 3,100 feet in elevation gain), a distance and height I’ve never tried before. So I am a bit nervous wondering how I’ll fare. The weather in the mountains right now is sunny and beautiful but hot. Temperatures in the eighties are a bit much for mid-April and the plants are rushing to leaf and flower. I’d forgotten my fleece jacket and fear getting too cold on Brushy Mountain topping out at just under 5,000 feet. No worries. I shed a sleeveless vest at the start and take off a sweat-soaked long sleeved shirt halfway up. [But for decency’s sake, I’d gladly have stripped more as the day progressed!]
Brushy Mountain has multiple personalities – moist sections and a rich cove just full of spring wildflowers and drier sections dominated by acid-loving plants. The trail itself also has different textures – a few rocky sections, some parts stitched with a web of tree roots, and a few stretches featuring up to 6 inch deep ruts about 12-15 inches wide. All of these trail surface variations are in drier or more exposed dying hemlock forests. The rutted sections wind through Rhododendron and Laurel patches where Galax, Wintergreen, and Trailing Arbutus abound. To either side of the rut, Arbutus flowers are poised to brush passing ankles.
The moister areas feature a checklist of beloved spring wildflowers – Trout Lily, Solomon’s Plume, Yellow Mandarin, the white form of Erect Trillium, Yellow Trillium, Downy Yellow Violet, Rue Anemone, Spring Beauty, Wood Anemone, Dwarf Ginseng, Early Meadow Rue, Dutchman’s Breeches, Star Chickweed, Black Cohosh, Two-leaved Toothwort, Solomon’s Seal, and Lady Fern. The Eastern Hemlock trees are dead or dying all the way up, but at the top several are healthy looking with a reasonable complement of foliage. Perhaps they were given a soil drench to kill the adelgid. I should have looked for a blue dot spray painted on the trunk – the indication of treatment. Two interesting finds are Flat Branch Ground Pine (Lycopodium obscurum) and lots of Rock Tripe lichen growing on a big boulder on the lower section of the trail.
Brushy Mountain is not a particularly strenuous trail, some parts are steeper, some more moderate, but it is a relentless climb. My pace is so slow that at times I despair of making it to the top. About the time I am ready to sit down and have a good cry, I notice Beech leaves underfoot and know that I’ve reached the beech gap near the top. What joy! Then I have to traverse the narrow, twisting, rocky climb through Rhododendron and Laurel tunnels to the actual top, a heath bald. You are rather walled in up there by Mountain Laurel shrubs on either side, but there are a few open spots to get a decent view from that perch. Sand Myrtle, not yet in flower, is also prolific, and I hear a few bees buzzing the Trailing Arbutus flowers.
I pass no other hiker on the trail all day. It is just me, a few juncos and blue jays, some butterflies enjoying the sunshine, and a handful of squirrels. A horse had been up fairly recently as fresh hoof marks and a few awesome piles of poop are noted. Scat indicates that a coyote or two had roamed the trail too. Small spiders will probably put out an arrest warrant on me for ruining their webs. There is quite a bit of destruction going up, and I manage to hit a few more going down, coming eyeball to eyeballs with one poor creature, who I hope recovers from the shock. There are also tiny crickets near the start of the trail that leap to either side as I pass. Their ‘plunk’ into the leaf litter is just like the sound of rain drops. Downed trees had recently been cut as the look and smell of sawdust is fresh.
Not counting the Porters Creek section, it takes me 5 hours to climb Brushy Mountain and 3 to come down with few appreciable stops. Given my pace and level of tiredness, I must improve my stamina or hikes greater than 12 miles will be tough.