McKee Branch is one of those trails that isn’t horrible, but it isn’t much fun either. The trail is steep, dropping 1700 feet in a little over two miles. Many sections are full of loose rocks. In some places, it is rutted so deeply trailsides approach chest height. These attributes make the hike hard on feet and knees. With eyes glued to the ground carefully plotting each step, it is nearly impossible to enjoy the surroundings. As we descend from the divide, we lose the refreshing breezes and heat up quickly in the afternoon sun. Thankfully, the horse-churned clods of mud and leaves are dry. Slippery muck would be an unwelcome additional challenge. That said, McKee Branch is not without its charms. It is in the Smokies after all.
The list of plant species noted along this 2.3 mile trail nearly rivals that from Cataloochee Divide at twice the distance. There is blue-eyed grass (likely Sisyrinchium angustifolium) in flower. Mountain Laurel is in full glory. At one point along McKee Branch, there is a bit of an opening just off the trail and in this light gap are dozens of spectacular Mountain Laurels in flower.
Brook or Mountain Meadow Rue (Thalictrum clavatum) is found in and around all the little streamlets and seeps. Near one little creek we spot an orchid in bud – probably Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Plantanthera psycodes). Partridgeberry is beginning to flower, and the creamy blossoms of Hearts-a-bustin’ splay out over the little shrub’s green leaves.
There are various ferns on display: Cinnamon Fern, Ebony Spleenwort, Broad Beech Fern, Southern Lady Fern, and fern ally Running Ground Cedar. Plants that will flower later in the season are lengthening stems and adding leaves to catch what light penetrates the forest canopy. We note the whorls of Turk’s Cap Lily foliage and the deeply veined leaves of Small False Hellebore. Nondescript Asters and Goldenrods wait patiently for their turn in the spotlight.
Birds are still defending their nesting territories and let everyone know the boundaries. We hear both the Black-throated Green Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler singing. Along Cataloochee Divide Mary saw a small bird fly out from the trail as I passed by. We both looked to see why it may have been hiding there to no avail. On McKee Branch we are luckier. A Junco starts up from the side of the trail to take refuge in a nearby understory tree. We examine the spot and find a small nest with at least three pale, speckled eggs. Mama (or Daddy – I don’t notice which) squawks and squeaks while I photograph the well-hidden brood. Had we not seen the parent fly up, we would never have noticed the ground nest. It seems as though the shallow banks of eroded trails provide the niches, depressions, and root tangles that these birds seek for nesting sites.
At 2:50 p.m., we reach the junction with Caldwell Fork and continue 3.2 miles to Ranger Station Road. I’ll cover Caldwell Fork in an upcoming post. We arrive at the campground around 5:15 p.m. After dinner, Mary wants to drive into the valley, and we wind our way back to the road’s end. There are not many visitors any even fewer elk. One young male grazes at the Rough Fork trailhead oblivious to the people and cars jockeying for his photo. At that moment, I realize my camera is in my car in the campground. Oh, well, there are several days left, I’ll have another chance. We turn around and head back. As we near the campground, we spy a large male headed toward us walking up the road. Then we spot a second and a third. It’s the “Three Bachelors,” who are often found in the fenced enclosure next to the ranger station. These guys do not have a harem. Mary pulls over and turns off the engine. Each one eyes us a tad warily and picks up the pace as he passes. Meanwhile, I’m figuratively beating myself senseless for being ‘cameraless.’ I lugged that heavy sucker over 10 miles of trails yet fail to have it in the cushy comfort of a car. In a few minutes we see a female, all decked out with two ear tags and a heavy tracking collar trotting up the road. Perhaps she hopes to snag one of those eligible bachelors!
Though the evening is quite pleasant, tonight I’m determined to sleep warmly and add my down sleeping bag to my tent before turning in. Night sounds are very interesting and often hard to pinpoint. From her tent Mary comments about the wind picking up and wonders about rain. I make some dismissive comment about traffic, attributing the periodic swooshing noises that would build, pass through the campground, and dissipate in the opposite direction to an occasional car driving out Ranger Station Road. Finally it gets through my brain that this is indeed the wind. Wind does move across the landscape. Is this the way it sounds anywhere when sleeping outdoors, or is the Doppler effect at least enhanced by the mountainous topography? At any rate, it is fascinating to hear and far more delightful than listening to passing cars.
As should be expected, now that I am prepared for a cool night, it doesn’t materialize. I’m quite comfy all night in the travel sack and use the down sleeping bag to prop aching feet. I get up once and find a few flashing fireflies blinking rapidly four times in succession. They are hovering among the trees above a little rivulet that trickles behind our tent pad.