Mary and I are staying in the Elkmont Campground for three nights with plans to hike several trails in the area. The first Fern Foray of 2011 is scheduled for the end of the week. We’ll move to a group campsite to join fellow Fern Frondlers on Friday. Until then, we have some major hiking to do. On tap for today are Meigs Mountain and Meigs Creek Trails. We drive my car down to the lovely new Sinks parking area and head back to the lovely new Jakes Creek parking area. Hikers now must walk up Jakes Creek Road past the slumping cabins of Society Hill that silently await demolition.
Stone walls and garden remnants line the road. Elkmont’s summer residents brought in nonnative plants to decorate their small yards. Species like Tawny Daylily survive in flowering clumps that slowly expand. Periwinkle spreads much faster thickly covering the ground. English Ivy scrambles over any and everything and climbs the trees. Sprouts of Chinese Privet and Japanese Spiraea sporting bright pink flowers come up in the surrounding vegetation. The park sends out workers to spot and remove those exotic plants that spread aggressively and can invade and negatively impact native plant communities. During our stay, the Privet and Spiraea disappear overnight thanks to these vigilant crews.
The morning is sunny with pleasant temperatures for this first day of summer. To reach Meigs Mountain trailhead requires a steep trudge up Jakes Creek Trail 0.4 mile and gets the heart pumping. After that, Meigs Mountain Trail meanders along for 6.1 miles gently undulating within 2400 to 2900 feet elevation. It is fairly smooth and near level in places. With just bird song (Chipping Sparrow, Acadian Flycatcher, Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler) and the murmur of occasional small streams, it is wonderfully quiet. Two small campsites (#19 & #20) make easy destinations. Mary finds a fork (the utensil kind) in the trail just past campsite #20. There are discrete signs of settlers long gone, including a small cemetery.
As summer officially gets underway, Rosebay Rhododendron unfurls white clusters of flowers as large as softballs. Tiny white Sourwood blossoms can be found on the ground. Smooth Hydrangea buds are opening. Mints are getting started too. Both flaming red Bee Balm and less flashy White Bee Balm (Monarda clinopodia) are on display. One of the Hedge Nettles – probably Heartleaf Hedge Nettle (Stachys nuttallii) – is in flower. I don’t note the necessary distinctions in person and can’t detect them with certainty in the photos. Oh, to be hardy enough to haul field guides everywhere!
We break for lunch at the Curry Mountain junction. The bundle of sofa pillows I saw during a lunch break here last fall are no longer around. On the trail again, we come to an area with several large, multi-trunked Tulip Poplars. The division is very close to the ground. Some have two boles, some three. They appear the same approximate age, so perhaps they were damaged as young seedlings and/or saplings when their ancestors were logged and responded with multiple leader stems. As is now heartbreakingly common, we pass through former Hemlock groves full of dead or dying trees.
Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) is a little known tree with a scattered and spotty distribution in the eastern U.S. It is scattered in the park too, but one of the locales where it can be found readily is in the Elkmont area. I’ve personally seen it on Cucumber Gap, Little River, Huskey Gap, and Meigs Mountain. Yellowwood is in the Bean Family producing dense clusters of fragrant white flowers in long drooping chains. It flowers well only once every two to three years and does not begin flowering until about age 15 or so. The trunk bark is a fairly smooth, medium gray that has been described as resembling the skin of an elephant. The main distinguishing characteristic is its compound leaf. There are 7 leaflets – three pairs and an end leaflet. The paired leaflets are not opposite one another as occurs with all other pinnately compound leaves. Instead they are alternate. Yellowwood is the only tree with this arrangement. Its buds for next year are hiding within the swollen stem bases of this year’s foliage.
Fungi love summer, and mushrooms are on the rise. Mary spots an Elegant Stinkhorn. There’s an oxymoron for you. Most of the smelly brown goo is gone, but it is still attracting flies. Speaking of flies, an Eastern Red-Ribbed Millipede tries to ignore a large fly intent on pestering his head. When the aggravation becomes too much, the millipede coils and flips in a vain attempt to shoe away his tormentor. Later Mary and I spot a tiny version of this millipede writhing pitifully on the ground trying to fend off several even tinier flies. I move him over a few feet in hopes the flies will leave him alone.
It is almost impossible to walk in the Smokies without noticing the abundance of fascinating wildlife. Unless you are deaf and blind, something flitting, singing, calling, crawling, jumping, skittering, slithering, buzzing, or running will catch your attention. During the hike, two male Diana Fritillary butterflies skip past. On several occasions, a large creamy white moth with a distinctive “Y” marking flutters up from the foliage as we pass. It takes a few tries, but I finally get a photo of one to identify. It is Leconte’s Haploa (Haploa lecontei). It has a fairly wide range from the Mid-Atlantic region to the Midwest, so I doubt the moth’s “Leconte” has any relation to the Mt.’s “LeConte.”