Mary & I awake to a lovely morning in the mountains. As we prepare breakfast, a fellow camper points out a female elk quietly grazing at one end of the campground. We have a long day ahead and are intent on an early start. I wait too long and miss this golden opportunity for a close up. Our plan is to hike a loop — Cataloochee Divide at least to McKee Branch, if not all the way to Hemphill Bald and back, then follow Caldwell Fork to the road and campground. To complete all of Cataloochee Divide as part of this loop would total 13.7 miles. A shorter option eliminates the 1.8 mile section between McKee and Hemphill Bald. To be honest, I’m not expecting to accomplish the longer route — 10.1 miles will likely be more than enough.
We drive to the trailhead on Cove Creek Road and begin our trek just before 8:00 a.m. Appropriately, Cataloochee Divide Trail meanders along the crest of the Cataloochee Divide, skirting the park boundary and climbing gently from 4,200 feet to just over 5,000 feet. A rail fence, often in various stages of disrepair, runs along the boundary, and across the fence, an old road and various paths, both maintained and unmaintained, sometimes parallel the park trail. Open grassy areas to the left offer inspiring views of North Carolina, and a couple of very tasteful homes are situated literally within spitting distance of the park.
The morning is gorgeous with blue skies, warm sunshine, cool breezes, and the lush forest just settling into its summer dress. A few spring wildflowers are still presentable at this elevation. Some early summer species are gearing up. The scene, though, is mostly understated and demure with Flame Azalea providing the occasional flash of scandalous color to attract butterflies. Isolated flowers of Wood Betony, Wild Geranium, Vasey’s Trillium, Robin’s Plantain, Speckled Wood Lily, Maple-leaved Viburnum, Deerberry, Canada Violet, and Solomon’s Seal signal a fading spring. Blue Cohosh, Blueberries, Umbrella Leaf, Doll’s Eyes, and Erect Trillium are already forming fruit.
Late spring/early summer species are hitting their stride or poised to take center stage: Woodland Bluets (Houstonia purpurea var. purpurea), Bowman’s Root (Porteranthus trifoliatus), Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex), Mountain Laurel, Smooth Hydrangea, Galax, Astilbe and Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea), a thornless species in the greenbrier genus. Cataloochee Divide Trail is one of the park locales for American Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majuscula), and we find it in flower in several spots. The distinctive grain of downed chestnut trees mentioned in the trail guidebook makes them easy to identify. There is a spot designated “Oscar’s Gap” by a wooden sign nailed to a large tree just over the boundary. Mary and I take a mid-morning snack break at Taylor’s Turnaround, a covered bench with a killer eastern view, located just beyond the trail’s halfway point at 3.4 miles.
In 2000, the McNeil-Gilmore family donated to the park a beautiful summer home built in the 1960s along with 535 acres of land that includes Purchase Knob (5,086’ elev.). The home now serves as the Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center supporting research in the park and dissemination of that information to the public. Mary and I have been privileged to stay at Purchase Knob while conducting Fern Forays for ATBI. Panoramic views from the house are stunning. The property backs up to the park boundary along Cataloochee Divide not far from the McKee Branch junction, and Mary and I figure a quick side trip for lunch on the deck is worthwhile. Since I’ve already decided to forego the last section of the Divide trail, we relax, enjoy the scenery, and eat a leisurely lunch. In late summer, we’ll return here for another Fern Foray, and I’ll knock off that final 1.8 miles then. At 12:45, we complete 4.6 miles of Cataloochee Divide and head down McKee Branch.