I didn’t come to the mountains in July. My poor kitties needed their mommy to stay home a few weeks. By early August, though, the desire for cooler temperatures and forest solitude is too great. Their sad little faces looking out the window as I leave is heart wrenching, but I’ve got a new macro camera lens. This trip is going to focus more on photography and nature study than trail miles. There will be one trail to complete, and it is a biggie…an overnight hike for Mary and me along Old Settlers.
By itself, Old Settlers is a challenging 15.8 miles, and an additional 1.2 miles is required on Maddron Bald to either start or finish the hike. Even stripped down to the bare essentials of water and snacks, 17 miles would be a long and difficult haul. The plan is to camp overnight at backcountry site #33, which means hauling some heavy gear. Realistically, it is probably a wash as far as energy goes and maybe as far as aching body parts go too. As Mary and I discover, that extra 30 pounds takes its toll.
Knowing we have 10.4 miles to cover and the day will be hot and humid with possible storms developing in the afternoon, we meet at the Greenbrier Road end of Old Settlers at 7:00 a.m. to leave my car. Mary’s husband Mike provides shuttle service. It is 7:28 when we start up the gravel road of Maddron Bald. It takes us about 35 minutes to reach the Old Settlers junction.
This trail perambulates what was once the heavily settled community of Greenbrier. No one knows the exact population, but residents supported at least two churches, a general store, and a school for 250 children. Evidence of their lives is readily visible, particularly in stonework – chimney remnants and rock walls. Rusty metal, broken shards of old mason jars and lids, a dilapidated corncrib, even an old liquor bottle, tell a tale of homesteads. A pot and kettle sit near the hearth of one old chimney. The Tyson McCarter barn (circa 1876), about 600 feet off the trail (a sign denotes the location), is well preserved and worth a brief detour. Not too far from Greenbrier Road an unmarked trail leads to the Parton cemetery…yes, that Parton. Dolly is a beloved icon in Tennessee and deservedly so. The forest has done a good job reclaiming the area, but the ubiquitous presence of Poison Ivy is another clue that this land was largely cleared and farmed.
As a trail, Old Settlers has its ups and downs, literally and figuratively. It varies no more than 1300 feet in elevation, ranging overall between 1400 and 2700 feet. In actuality, it more closely resembles a roller coaster, with the cumulative elevation change around 6700 feet. The few somewhat steep sections are mercifully short. However, when hauling a full pack, somewhat steep, merciful, and short can become quite relative terms.
The trail crosses and recrosses, often following alongside, a variety of intriguingly named shallow streams and their tributaries. Dunn, Webb, Texas, Noisy, Redwine, and Soak Ash Creeks along with Snag, Tumbling, Darky, Cat Stairs, Snakefeeder, and Little Bird Branches drain the northern flank of Greenbrier Pinnacle and adjacent Snag Mountain. Most present no challenge to cross, but a few require some deft foot placement. A mossy rock sends one boot slipping into the drink. These streams would be great places to look for salamanders, caddisflies, crayfish, and other aquatic organisms. Water Striders skate across a small, quiet pool. At one creek a very calm Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) missing a sizable portion of its tail remains motionless on a rock as Mary and I cross.
At a couple of points, the trail is close enough to Highway 321 to hear the traffic. Locals have blazed several paths from the highway to Old Settlers Trail, and hikers must be alert to avoid inadvertently straying onto one of these manways. The Park Service has erected a few signs to help point out the true trail, but I buzz right by one of the these until Mary sets me straight. Fortunately, she lives in the Greenbrier area and is very familiar with Old Settlers and the local paths. The trail itself is sometimes difficult to distinguish. It narrows in places, and at this time of year is barely a slit through the hip-to-waist-high herbaceous plants in the flats and corridors along streams. Large chunks of quartz are found scattered along the trail, in creeks, and even perched on top of stone walls.
Several ferns are growing luxuriantly. There is an impressive patch of New York Fern nearly waist high, a robust stand of Southern Lady Fern equally tall, and repeated instances of Cinnamon Fern, a few specimens topping out at five feet. Common Grape Fern (Sceptridium dissectum) is just emerging, and we see a few of the highly dissected form. Running Club Moss (Lycopodium clavatum), found mostly at higher elevations, hits the lower limit of its range on Old Setters.
Two different species of Goldenrod are already in flower. White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) is flowering on creek banks. Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata), Naked-flowered Tick Trefoil (Desmodium nudiflorum), and Sweet Joe Pye-weed flowers appear regularly from one end of the trail to the other. Black-eyed Susan, Cutleaf Coneflower, Jewelweed (both orange and pale yellow), Agrimony, Lovage, Smooth False Foxglove, Cranefly Orchid, Allegheny Hawkweed, and even Dodder are advertising for pollinators. The top floral prize goes to Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris), which is orange, not yellow. We see the bright flower clusters in several places. Second place must go to Michaux’s Lily (Lilium michauxii). Smaller in stature and not as flamboyantly prolific as Turk’s Cap, the plant’s often single nodding flower is nonetheless quite striking. Near the end we find Flowering Spurge, Fall Phlox, Starry Rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus), Wild Potato Vine (Ipomoea pandurata), and luscious Cardinal Flower. In drier areas, the small purple blossoms of Devil’s Grandmother (Elephantopus tomentosus), a terrible common name for this pretty little plant, are a common sight.
Wildlife make their presence felt – especially in the form of arachnids. Spined Micrathena (Micrathena gracilis), a small spider with a disproportionately large, spiky butt, loves to build its web across the trail. Mary and I are able to go around or under a few provided we spot them in time. Others are left with a tattered web to rebuild. Dog-day Cicadas sing throughout the daylight hours, and as they wind down in the evening, Katydids crank it up through the night. The periodic squawk or drumming of a Woodpecker is the only real evidence of bird life on these warm August days. We come across an Eastern Box Turtle resting lazily in the trail and briefly note the blue flash of a Five-lined Skink darting away. Pearl Crescent butterflies are nectaring on Black-eyed Susans, and a Zabulon Skipper sips from the Silphium.
Despite our early start, it is still 5:00 p.m. before we drag into Campsite #33. There is a storm in the area, and loud, insistent thunder spurs us to quickly erect tents and filter water for dinner. Soon, though, it becomes evident that the rain will stay on the south side of Greenbrier Pinnacle. We get a stray drop or two, but skies clear and later stars twinkle overhead.
The campsite is something of a mess. A recent group left half-burned meal pouches and toothbrush packages in the fire pit. Ashes have been randomly dumped on the ground. Toilet paper provokes disgust. It is discouraging to find that people can be so thoughtless and selfish in such a beautiful place.
The night is warm and still. Emboldened by the stars, I flip the top half of the rain fly over the foot of my tent allowing what air movement there is to reach my head. Not until early morning am I compelled to slip into the sleeping bag. How peaceful to lie on my back and watch the dawn sky brighten through the trees. We eat a simple breakfast and are back on the trail by 8:30 a.m.
There are a few flat, open areas that resemble mini-meadows thick with Phlox, Rosinweed, Black-eyed Susan, Cinnamon Fern, and many other plants. We walk through one to botanize a bit and take some pictures. The Cardinal Flower is begging to be photographed. I take a couple of shots and step forward for another try. The ground, however, takes a step down. The unexpected balance shift with a full pack pulls me to the left, and I keel over like a felled tree. Luckily, the lush plant growth cushions the fall, and I pop right back up to find the view of the Cardinal Flower is even better from this angle! Later Mary and I both suffer from itchy chigger bites. We suspect this is where we got them.
At 2:00 p.m. we arrive at my car. Mary has to go back home and back to work. I’m going to hang around another few days to study mosses and use my macro lens. More on that soon.