This weekend marks my completion of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program at Tremont’s Great Smoky Mountains Institute. Having completed our last remaining class, Birds of the Smokies, Clarence Mayo and I become the fourth and fifth graduates of the program. To celebrate this auspicious occasion, Clarence and I hike the West Prong Trail located across the road from GSMIT on Sunday afternoon. It is a sunny day, temps near 70 with cool breezes, just perfect for hiking!
West Prong is a low elevation trail 2.7 miles long, starting just under 1400 feet. After a 1.3 mile climb, it descends to 1600 at Campsite #18 then makes one last ascent that hits the Bote Mountain Trail just shy of 2000 ft.
On our way up, we stop at the Walker Valley Cemetery. The small square plot contains numerous graves, several of which have newer headstones placed by families years after the loved one’s actual death. Near the back corner is the grave of Vannie Cook, a young girl killed in a forest fire. A local feud led to the fire, and as men fought the blaze, children were stationed nearby to keep an eye on slow moving sections of the fire. Unfortunately, one such section burst into a canopy fire that overwhelmed Vannie and her sister. A falling limb seriously injured young Vannie. The story tells of a dove that perched nearby as women in the community did their best to help her, but after two days, the little girl died, and the dove flew away – an angel taking Vannie to heaven.
To cover all bases, Clarence and I take a spur trail from the cemetery to join the West Prong Trail further up, and on our return, we stick to the actual trail, which poses no difficulties throughout its length. In fact, it is fun and chock full of great plants the whole way. The plant list runs two full pages.
Eleven different species of ferns are spotted including nice patches of Broad Beech Fern and a large section of Southern Running Cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum). Many spring wildflowers are found on this trail that features several swathes of one of the Merrybells – either Uvularia perfoliata or Uvularia grandiflora. I can’t tell the two species apart without the flower, and the plants have already formed seed capsules. I’m very pleased to find Vasey’s Trillium (Trillium vaseyi) along the trail on the return trip. They are still in full flower, but it takes a practiced eye to spot the deep red blossom hiding below the solid green foliage. Also in flower are Rattlesnake Weed, Hearts-a-Bustin’, Large Bluet, Yellow Stargrass, Pussytoes, Mountain Laurel, Indian Cucumber Root, Dwarf Cinquefoil, Rue Anemone, and Canada Violet. The one disappointment is the amount of Microstegium seedlings along the lower sections of the trail. This exotic invasive grass is a scourge in forested areas, and its seeds hitch rides on hikers’ and horses’ shoes to claim new territory. Fortunately, the rich herbaceous layer along West Prong seems to be holding its own quite well.
With stops for photos and a leisurely rest at the Bote Mountain junction, our journey up and back on the West Prong Trail took 2 hours and 45 minutes. Located so close to the Townsend Wye, this would be a easy trail for families or visitors with little time who still want to experience the Smokies.