Ash Hopper is not an official trail in the park. Located directly across Little River Road from Sugarlands Visitors Center, the manway heads off a loop road used for the RV dump station and meanders up a narrow valley at the foot of Sugarland Mountain along Ash Hopper Branch. At one time, this stream was used by settlers in the Sugarlands area to run water through wood ashes in order extract lye for soap, thus the name, and later supplied water for park headquarters. Remnants of large underground water tanks are visible. Like many low-elevation areas of the park, the spring flora along Ash Hopper is rich and varied. The shallow branch is perfect salamander habitat. Given this and its convenient location, Ash Hopper is a popular site for Pilgrimage programs.
The program theme today is “Going Natural in the Garden,” focusing on native plant gardening and landscape design. By virtue of my book on gardening with native plants, I am working with co-leader Nancy Rennie, a landscape designer, to observe and discuss nature’s philosophies and the benefits of gardening ecologically. Our group of 18 Pilgrims shares Ash Hopper with a salamander program, and the two groups leapfrog one another a few times at the beginning. Soon, we leave them behind and work our way upstream discussing shade gardening (edges vs. interior spaces, various understory layers, and microhabitats), garden features (embankments, streams, and rocks), soil biology (rotting logs, leaf litter, and mycorrhizal associations), and, of course, plants. Alternate-leaved Dogwood is in full flower (not usually the case during the Pilgrimage), and further up the trail a small patch of Vasey’s Trillium (another plant rarely in flower at this time) is in its prime.
On Ash Hopper, I notice a fresh cluster of One-flowered Cancer Root. Upon returning the next day to photograph it, friend Annette Ranger points out another plant on my photo wish list – Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum). Her husband, Scott, showed it to me a few years ago on the Cove Hardwood Trail at Chimneys Picnic Area, and I wanted to find it again. Well, I get my wish, repeatedly. Not only is it on Ash Hopper and Cove Hardwood, I find a lush patch on the upper section of Road Prong at high elevation and on Gabes Mountain at mid-elevation too. According to the park’s plant checklist, it is “well distributed but nowhere abundant.” I’d say that pretty much nails it.
Golden Saxifrage is tailor made for plant geeks. To say it is unobtrusive would be an understatement. Growing in muddy areas, seeps, or little rills, this small trailing plant has tiny round leaves and even tinier flowers (April to June) about an eighth inch in diameter. There are no petals, just four green sepals and 4 to 8 short stamens with red anthers. The stamens surround a brownish disk and in the center are two little styles, each connected to a carpel in the ovary. According to one internet source, the brown disk is a nectary, but I’ve found no information on possible pollinators. I’m confident now that I can recognize it, assuming I spot it.
We find some very impressive moths during the hikes this year. A pristine Luna Moth and Promethea Silkmoth are pumping up and drying their wings on Ash Hopper and Courthouse Rock. At the leaders’ housing in Gatlinburg, a Blinded Sphinx Moth is getting ready to explore life as an adult, and on Gabes Mountain an intricately-patterned, unidentified gray moth demonstrates its camouflage against tree bark. It is interesting how certain things seem to characterize a visit to the Smokies…moths and Golden Saxifrage this trip and Chestnut Oak acorns last fall. More on those acorns in an upcoming post!
Courthouse Rock is not a recognized trail either, and as a manway it is devilishly difficult to follow. Our group got fairly good directions from one of the best hikers in the Smokies and still couldn’t find that darned rock. It’s only about a mile, but the trail is very steep in places, hard to see in others, and as the season progresses likely to be overrun with Poison Ivy. There’s a tricky stream crossing too. Unless someone very familiar with the path accompanies you, my advice is to stay away. Friends Allen and Susan Sweetser take the same directions and manage to find the rock. I know exactly the spot they describe and still can’t believe THAT is the turnoff. If you do not know exactly where it is or do not possess Susan’s intuitive skills, you’d never recognize it as the path to the rock. According to the Sweetsers, Courthouse Rock isn’t really that great either, just a decent-sized boulder, and there are plenty of those to be found without wandering around in the backcountry.
Along the way up and back, we see Canada Violet, Solomon’s Seal, Brook Lettuce, Sweetshrub, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and Bear Huckleberry (Gaylussacia ursina) in flower. Every trail features a generous offering of Bear Huckleberry blossoms.
A heartfelt thank you to readers and friends who have so warmly welcomed me back to the mountains and the blog. I do appreciate the support and encouragement you have given me. There is a long way to go in both journeys – through my sadness and grief and along the park’s trails, but I am negotiating each day by day. The trails and blog are motivating, inspiring, and soothing. I am grateful to have this opportunity and love sharing it with you.