There were beautiful elk in Cataloochee Valley one evening last May, but I failed to have my ever-present camera at hand. This trip the elk are active both morning and night, and I am more than ready to feature a few in the blog. On the way to Rough Fork, Clarence, Mary, and I make a quick stop at the Palmer House just off the main Cataloochee Road. The restored farmhouse now contains artifacts detailing the history of Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee valleys, including an informative video. Heading back to the car, we spot a large bull just up the road. It’s Number 17. He sports a particularly handsome rack and must be accustomed to admiring glances as he doesn’t seem to mind a woman lurking some distance away snapping his picture. Soon, though, he crosses Cataloochee Creek and disappears into the woods for the day.
We drive through the valley toward the Rough Fork trailhead. As we pass the ranger station, we see two female elk moving with purpose into the forest followed by a bugling male intent on impressing them. They are just as intent on getting away. Rutting season is begins soon, but these girls have no interest right now. According to park volunteers, females are only receptive for about 24 hours. Males may be raring to go, but it is the ladies who set the pace.
The trails guidebook takes Rough Fork, an old railroad grade, from the top down. We are going from the valley floor up to Poll’s Gap. My car is parked there from our Hemphill Bald excursion yesterday. The first 1.4 miles and last 2.5 miles are not difficult, barely rising 500 feet combined. The middle 2.5 miles, however, climb 1800 feet, generating plenty of sweat and a rapid heartbeat.
I’m on a mission today. A few years ago, I hiked down Rough Fork with several Fern Frondlers and without my camera. We spotted a Lesser or Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens), a plant found infrequently in the park. My burning desire is to locate that plant and take its picture. Related to Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens), Dwarf RP is a smaller plant overall, and its leaves lack the broad white stripe running down the center and are not so intricately marked with white veining. These are not huge distinctions, but they are readily detectable. Mary and Clarence join the hunt, standing guard near a plant or constructing elaborate trail markers to draw my attention to a promising specimen. Among the three of us, we note hundreds of Downys growing beside the 6.4 mile trail, but not a single Dwarf. Bummer.
The Woody House is located near the bottom of Rough Fork. A cabin that was repeatedly enlarged and renovated, one of its notable amenities is closets. There is a decorative spring house off to the right. Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) is flowering nearby. Along the way to campsite #40, the forest understory is often completely filled with Doghobble. We see evidence of old and fresh elk rubs on tree trunks with patches of stripped bark.
The trail climbs steadily to a small flat area where a game trail snakes up to an adjoining knob. A little further is the junction with Caldwell Fork Trail. The cove forest in this section is rich and quiet. At about 4800 feet, the trail levels out through a northern hardwood forest with Red Spruce and Yellow Birch.
Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), also know as Green-headed Coneflower and Tall Goldenglow, is in flower nearly everywhere. Common and widespread in the park, I’ve seen it in the depths of White Oak Sink and lining the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap. It spreads readily through underground stems and seedlings. A lovely purple aster that I cannot positively identify along with Whorled Aster, Northern Horse Balm (Collinsonia candensis), and Wild Basil (Satureja vulgaris [Clinopodium vulgare]) are in flower along the trail. Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) looks lovely in the Polls Gap parking lot.
The guidebook tells of a strange encounter in the 1970s between a ranger and a heavily bearded man near Rough Fork. The so-called “Wild Man of Cataloochee” inspired songs and sparked numerous sightings over the years. The wildest, hairiest thing I see is the American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana) with long curling white hairs and even longer tufts of rigid black hairs. Another cool caterpillar is the Hydrangea Sphinx Moth (Darapsa versicolor). Sitting on the stem of a Dutchman’s Pipevine, I make the incorrect assumption that it may be the pupa of a Pipevine Swallowtail. David Wagner’s book on caterpillars sets me straight.
Once the trail levels out at the top, the pace quickens. Each of us begins to anticipate our arrival at Polls Gap, which only serves to make that final couple of miles seem more like ten! Our climb takes a little over five hours. We load the trunk with our gear and head for home. One of the large rocks lining the parking area leaps behind my car, and I tap it with the bumper. No harm to either. Later in the evening, as I’m transcribing my recorded notes, I realize I did not turn off the recorder before packing it in the trunk. The rather loud “THUNK” of bumper smacking rock is clearly audible and provides us with a good laugh.