The next morning is brighter. Sunshine pokes through clouds just enough to raise hopes that our return to Elkmont will be as dry as our trip to the shelter yesterday. Everyone at Derrick Knob is up and preparing for their separate journeys. After a frustrating and wet battle with my Camelback water bladder, Mary and I head back toward Sam’s Gap. Today we will walk about 2.7 miles along the AT to the junction with Miry Ridge Trail. Fine grasses and sedges, New York Fern, and loads of Beech trees line the AT. It only takes us 90 minutes to reach Miry Ridge.
As its name suggests, the trail follows Miry Ridge to Dripping Spring Mountain staying between 5,000 and 4,000 feet, sometimes swinging to one side of the ridge, sometimes tracking along the top. It is this variable that dictates whether Miry Ridge Trail is fully enjoyable or less so. When walking the top of the ridge, the trail is relatively flat, quite smooth and flanked by low, thick sweeps of grasses and sedges lightly brushing against ankles. When relegated to the side of the ridge, footing is less sure as the trail becomes narrow, slanted, and prone to roots and rocks. The mountainside drops away steeply. In some places, vegetation is up to our thighs and contains Blackberry Brambles and Common Greenbrier, a prickly condition that will only worsen as summer progresses. The “miry” aspect isn’t much of an issue along the ridge top. The only wet areas are around seeps on the sides and the lower half. At one seep, I spot a dark salamander and catch a brief glimpse of red near its head before it skitters into hiding. It could be a Red-Cheeked Salamander (Plethodon jordani). They are abundant above 2800 feet.
The trail is five miles long, descending 1000 feet to the junction with Jakes Creek and Panther Creek trails. Cool breezes along the ridge keep us comfortable but moving. Any delay, such as a quick lunch at the Lynn Camp Prong Trail junction, becomes too cool and breezy. Clouds blow in and out, sunshine is intermittent at best, and occasional thunder keeps us on pace. As we buzz along, Mary spots the aerial Rhododendron mentioned in the guidebook. It is growing high in the crotch of an enormous, lichen-covered Birch tree.
Near the start of Miry Ridge and on the AT is Tassel Rue (Trautvetteria caroliniensis) in flower. Shrubs Rosebay Rhododendron and Mountain Clethra are in bud at the top, Teaberry near the bottom. The little onion shows up again, and a flowering Saint John’s-wort (possibly Hypericum graveolens) features both leaves and flower petals with lines of black spots. As summer unfolds, however, flowers aren’t as plentiful as fruit on these trails. Many of the spring-flowering plants are loaded with green fruit patiently maturing. Once fully ripe, they will turn various shades of blue, black, red, orange, or yellow to attract hungry wildlife.
The panicle of freckled fruit on Solomon’s Plume, pea-sized Doll’s Eyes with a jet-black blossom-end spot, double blossom-end spots on tiny Partridgeberries, flat umbels of Mountain Ash, aggregate drupes of Blackberry, upright spheres of Blue Cohosh, dangling spheres of Solomon’s Seal, little footballs of Nodding Mandarin hiding beneath foliage, crowns of fruit topping Indian Cucumber Root, radiating ball clusters of Speckled Wood Lily, compact ball clusters of Smooth Carrion Flower, and shiny green cones of Painted Trillium are all biding time until the harvest of plenty later in the season. The only barren plant is Witch Hobble. I haven’t seen a single shrub with fruit during this trip.
Painted Trillium in particular finds the living easy on Miry Ridge. The plants are quite robust in both size and quantity and appear to have multiple stems per tuber. Almost all have developing fruit. In one section this trillium, which in my experience is typically rather conservative and retiring, gregariously crowds both sides of the trail for a jaw-dropping 15 feet or more. Now that must be a sight in spring! Fancy Fern and Partridgeberry also appear quite happy up here.
Horses cannot use the upper half of Miry Ridge, but beginning at Lynn Camp Prong junction we see fairly fresh hoof prints and poop. A few trail sections on the lower half are quite churned and muddy. The park has done excellent work in places along the trail to mitigate this condition allowing for drainage and water flow while minimizing erosion. Despite this, we still walk through a trench nearly knee deep.
Clouds and sun continue to duke it out. Thunder continues to remind us that area storms could hit at any time, but so far we’ve been lucky. We arrive at the Jakes Creek Trail junction just before 2 p.m.