Annette needs to head home before Lee arrives, and Mary, Clark and Rebecca return with her to Purchase Knob. Clarence and I brave the threat of rain to drive down Balsam Mountain Road and hike Spruce Mountain Trail. The trailhead is about six miles down the one-way gravel road. The first bands of precipitation are moving through, and it is lightly raining when we arrive. Clarence dons rain gear. I pull out my groovy Go-Lite umbrella.
The trail is straight up 800 feet for one mile to a final elevation of 5,600 feet. Surprisingly, the hike is not too hard even in the rain. The trail, though, is quite narrow, and the edge often drops away precipitously. This feature may indicate a geologic phenomenon called a wedge failure. This type of slope failure can occur when two planes of rock intersect and tilt toward the face causing this wedge of land to slide out and down. Further up a stretch of the trail is full of small, loose rocks. These cautions aside, the actual climb is reasonably quick and painless.
The higher elevation plants Yellow Birch, Witch Hobble, Smooth Blackberry, and of course, Red Spruce are here. I’m fairly sure there is Mountain Sweet Pepperbush up here too. Even though it is listed as a mid-elevation shrub, the cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark and toothed elliptic leaves would seem to suggest Clethra acuminata. Pink Turtlehead, Sweet Joe Pye-weed, Appalachian Bunchflower, Black Cohosh, and Whorled Aster are in flower.
Spruce Mountain Trail ends at a gap between Spruce and Chiltoes Mountains. Two-tenths of a mile further is Campsite #42. It is raining a bit heavier now, but we walk to the camp through a mostly flat and quiet evergreen forest of Red Spruce trees and mosses. This would be a safe bet as a spot to meditate without interruption for a couple days. There was a fire tower on top of Spruce Mountain about a half mile away. It is gone now, and the path is overgrown.
This trail’s terminus is also the start of Polls Gap Trail. Here and at the trailhead in the Polls Gap parking area on Heintooga Road, signs are posted declaring the trail unsafe and temporarily closed. Peering past these signs on both ends, it is nearly impossible to discern a trail at all. Supposedly people still hike Polls Gap, but park staffers discourage it. Downed trees and lack of maintenance make the trail difficult if not dangerous. It certainly shows little to no signs of use.
Thanks to the rain, Clarence and I don’t hang around long. It takes us less than 30 minutes to get back to the car. We drive into Cherokee and up to the new Oconaluftee Visitors Center to get our “Hike The Smokies” pins. Clarence is getting his 100 mile pin. I’m getting my 250 mile pin. In fact, my total mileage to date us just under 300. Not bad for a tenderfoot. We loop back toward Maggie Valley on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Plans for additional hikes Monday and Tuesday are scrapped due to Lee. I drive/sail/float home Monday morning amid a heavy tropical rainstorm.