Each day we have hiked some portion of Caldwell Fork Trail and do the lower half three times. This half is relatively flat, rising about 400 feet in 3.3 miles. Some areas are just gloppy with mud, and wooden boards have been laid along these sections to help hikers avoid the muck and keep them from trampling off trail, sacrificing plants and wildlife to save shoes. You had better like crossing streams if you hike here. There are 12 major crossings on footlogs with a handrail, two on footlogs with no handrail, two rock hops, and one precarious rock climb up to a narrow trail just above Caldwell Fork Branch and back down into the branch for a big rock hop to resume the trail. This little dance could deter some people from going any further.
The flora is typical for late May. Indian Cucumber Root and Galax are hitting their strides. Smooth Hydrangea is in bud. Canada Mayflower, now setting fruit, appears regularly, often in large swathes. Extra moisture along the trail makes good habitat for mosses, and horse wastes attract butterflies. We see lots of Tiger Swallowtails and what could be either Eastern Tailed Blues or Spring Azures – they never stop flitting long enough to get a good look at them. We find American Toads and hear a Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, and Hooded Warbler. And let’s not forget that Black Rat Snake.
During one of our treks out of Caldwell Fork, we encounter horses and riders. They’ve just forded the branch and pause to let us climb the trail to our footlog crossing. One horse becomes skittish, its eyes as wide as saucers. In the lead, I pass with little difficulty, but Mary has a harder time. She has heard that horses react to hikers’ trekking poles. Hers is a large wooden staff, and perhaps it has this horse freaked. A tense moment or two later, she stumbles past to the relief of both.
Caldwell Fork gets better and better the further you go. Plant diversity increases, and the forest attributes I appreciate most – lush, cool, shady, and quiet – become the norm. The last mile of this trail is by far the toughest, rising 500’ to the Rough Fork junction, but it is also by far the most beautiful. It is a marvelous climb through cove hardwoods and all that comes with this rich forest type. Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera), Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, Maidenhair Fern, Blue Cohosh, White Basswood, Lowland Bladder Fern, Showy Orchis, Goats-beard, Black Cohosh, and American Beech are testament to the richness.
A short distance past the campsite is the sign “Big Poplars,” marking a small trail to the left. Maybe a tenth of a mile back, past a large horse hitch, is a small clearing around the base of an enormous old Tulip Poplar. There had been a second one, but all that remains is 20-25 feet of trunk. The rest snapped off and is lying in a jumble behind this venerable survivor. Actually, some of that jumble may include part of the first tree’s crown. Lower branches are intact, but it is too bright and thin above for such a massive trunk. On the way up Caldwell Fork, I take a quick look and picture. On the way back to the campsite, I decide to revisit and sit a spell. A gnarled root makes a perfect seat at the base, so I take off my pack and rest against this giant. Maybe I can learn a thing or two, gain a valuable insight, clear some confusion. That’s probably asking a bit much of an old tree, but the effort is not in vain. I do find peace.
The persistent clouds of morning give way to some sunshine in the afternoon. The sunlight simultaneously illuminates bright patches and casts deep shadows in the forest. As passing clouds intervene, the stark contrast melts away. The softer light brings out so much more detail – bark patterns and foliage textures. The sun reemerges and the play of light and shadow continually moves through the trees and across the forest floor.
A Northern Parula sings his buzzy little escalator ride to the top and jumps off. The old tree dropped one of its large yellow-green and orange blossoms. A ray of sunshine finds it, and it glows on the ground. I spend so much time with the old tree, Mary is a bit worried when I finally wander back to camp.
On our final morning in the Smokies, we pack up and hike out Caldwell Fork for the last time. We meet more people on the trail. It is the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and folks are looking forward to their three days in the park. We cross and recross Caldwell Fork Branch, and at the end cross over Cataloochee Creek to Mary’s car. She drives me back to my car. There are lots of people in the valley today, but not a single elk. I blew both early opportunities to get some incredible photos of those animals. And if that is my only complaint, I have nothing to complain about.