The Gabes Mountain hike allows us to complete the entire trail – 6.6 miles. Two leaders and seven Pilgrims meet at the Cosby picnic area for a shuttle bus to the Maddron Bald trailhead off US Hwy 321. Friend Mary McCord joins us there on a lovely and warm Saturday. Maddron Bald takes us up an old road through an area that was heavily farmed and past the Willis Baxter cabin. Along the way we see a flowering Dutchman’s Pipevine, wonderful specimens of Vasey’s Trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Daisy Fleabane, and an impressive show of Squawroot within a triangle of three large Red Oaks. Lyre-leaf Sage is sprinkled through the lawn around the Baxter cabin. With the authority of his education permit from the National Park Service, botanist and co-leader Larry Klotz cuts open a flower of Little Brown Jugs for us to examine.
At 1.2 miles the old roadbed ends, and the Maddron Bald Trail continues straight ahead toward Albright Grove. To the right is the junction for Old Settler’s Trail. To the left is the start of Gabes Mountain Trail. Constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, the trail arcs 1100 feet in elevation (2400 to 3350 to 2200) below Maddron Bald and along the lower northern flank of Snake Den Mountain and Gabes Mountain. This sheltered aspect is cooler and moister particularly in creek draws and coves. Remnants of old-growth forest are here. We find a huge old Blackgum. The plants are lush and happy. In fact, fat and sassy is more like it. We see flowering clumps of Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana) approaching two feet in height. The Vasey’s Trillium (Trillium vaseyi) are spectacular in number and in size.
Vasey’s is one of the pedicellate trilliums where the flower is on a short stalk positioned in the center of the leaf whorl. Along with a few other such trilliums, Vasey’s flower stalk declines to a horizontal or slight downward pitch, effectively placing the flower under the leaves. It’s kind of a shame too, because the flower on this trillium is the largest of the genus, and the color is a deep, rich red. Unlike some of the red and maroon trilliums whose odor is often described as “wet dog” or “rotting meat,” Vasey’s has a faintly sweet fragrance. The wide-based petals appear more substantial, thicker, with deeply creased veins. The leaves are very large and rhombic shaped approaching dinner-plate size. Vasey’s Trillium love the rich, mid-to-lower elevation slopes and coves in the Southern Appalachians. If the patch falls away down slope from the trail, you can recognize Vasey’s from the leaf-whorl size alone. If you are fortunate enough to find them growing up slope, the glowing red flowers beg to be photographed. Gabes Mountain Trail runs through some prime Vasey’s habitat. We regularly encounter robust populations.
Due to the sheltered nature of many sections of this trail, we find plants in flower here that are finished at these elevations elsewhere — Rue Anemone, Sweet Cicely, Bishop’s Cap, Foamflower, Star Chickweed, Creeping Phlox, Doll’s Eyes, Silverbell, Fraser’s Sedge, and Painted Trillium — as well those plants just hitting their stride — Speckled Wood Lily, Wild Geranium, Canada Mayflower, Brook Meadow Rue (Thalictrum clavatum), Mountain Wood Sorrel, Meadow Parsnip, Umbrella Leaf (Diphylleia cymosa), and Bear Huckleberry.
We stop for lunch at Campsite #34. With 4.8 miles to go, we must pick up the pace to finish on time. Plants aren’t the whole story on Gabes Mountain. We note interesting insects, including a large gray and brown moth and a weevil, enjoy the songs of several birds, such as Northern Parula, Worm-eating Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Ovenbird, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler, and find huge boulders, most notably the “Volkswagen-sized” hunk of quartz highlighted in Hiking Trails of the Smokies.
About two miles from Cosby Campground, we come to the short, steep spur trail leading to Hen Wallow Falls, a popular destination. Halfway down a large tree had fallen to one side, ripping a huge root ball out of the ground and leaving a deep, wide crater in the trail. We have to climb down into the crater and up the other side to get to the falls and back. Hen Wallow Falls is a beautiful cascade of water flowing 95 feet down a slab of Roaring Fork sandstone. According Waterfalls of the Smokies, the name either derives from ruffled grouse, also known as wood hen, wallowing in dust, or more colorfully from feuding communities trading insulting monikers “Roostertown” and “Hen Wallow.”
Just 20 minutes behind schedule, our little group arrives at Cosby Campground. Gabes Mountain would be a good trail to hike multiple times throughout the year.