I like Jakes Creek Trail. It is wide and, except for a few rocky spots, easy on the feet. It descends gently without stressing knees. It winds through a wonderful Cove Forest at the base of Blanket Mountain with the creek as a companion most of the way. Finally, at 3.3 miles, it is the perfect end to a long day. What’s not to like? Even in reverse, the climb isn’t much steeper than Greenbrier Ridge and has just as many charms. Fellow trail hiker Randy Small says there is a manway at Jakes Gap up to the top of Blanket Mountain. That would be fun to do sometime. There are up to four men called “Jake” for whom this area could be named. So it must be the creek, trail, and gap of several Jakes, rather than one man’s possessive.
This may be the final leg of our two day journey, but Mary and I are still enjoying the surroundings, which feature Silverbells and a full compliment of spring wildflowers. This would be an especially beautiful hike in mid to late April. Fancy Fern and Silvery Glade Fern are numerous. Broadleaf Hedge Nettle, Bee Balm, Hydrangea, Heal-all, and Pipsissewa are flowering. Lesser Purple Fringed Orchids have already gone to seed.
Yesterday along Greenbrier Ridge and today on Jakes Creek, I find short American Beech sprouts hardly more than a foot high yet loaded with beech nuts. I’m at a loss to explain why these short sprouts are fruiting so prolifically, but I appreciate the easy photo opportunity.
Leaflets of Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) show evidence of Leafcutter Bees (Megachilidae). These native bees are about the size of a honeybee but are solitary, living independently rather than in colonies. Leafcutters are darker than honeybees and have light colored bands around their bodies. They are important pollinators of wildflowers as well as fruits and vegetables, such as onions, carrots, blueberries, and alfalfa, carrying the pollen under their abdomens. They nest in natural materials that are easily excavated like rotting wood or large pithy stems, sometimes using holes made by other insects, and manmade materials with drilled holes. Smooth leaves of deciduous trees are the preferred nesting material. The female bee cuts a neat semicircle about a half inch or so in diameter from the leaf margin and takes it to the nest. There she prepares a bit of nectar and pollen, lays an egg, wraps it all together in the leaf, and stuffs it in the tunnel. She might prepare up to a dozen “wraps” per tunnel. The young bees develop inside and emerge the following year.
According to the guidebook, this peaceful valley has a frightful history. Early settlers and selective logging did little to disrupt, but once Little River Lumber Company bought the land, things changed. They constructed the railroad up this creek responsible for the wide trail and smooth grade. Shortly after completion, a runaway train raced toward Elkmont and resulted in two deaths. Sparks from lumber operations ignited a blaze that burned the valley for most of the summer in 1925. Little River Company then sold the treeless land to new settlers, who were bought out by the park commission a short time later. Despite these insults, the land has done its best to heal the scars and restore the diverse flora and fauna that depend on these mountains.
After the second creek crossing, the wide gravel road begins for the final 1.2 miles. Off to the left is an obvious path with steps down into the creek valley. Mary and I guess there is a waterfall or pool down there to tempt visitors. It does not tempt us. I’ll check that out another day. We have hiked 11 miles in 7 hours. That may not be much of an accomplishment for many people, but it is a record in my book. To me this statistic indicates two things for certain. First, our trails were not demanding, and second, the weather was cooperative. However, I’d also like to think that perhaps it indicates I’m getting the hang of this.
We drive back to Tremont and retrieve my car, then head for the group camp in Elkmont. We’ll be joined by fellow Fern Frondlers in preparation for the Fern Foray tomorrow.