Autumn in the Smokies – warm days, cool nights, drier weather, brilliant patches of color, the swoosh of fallen leaves along the trail – I have had no opportunity to savor the richness of this season in the park until now. Several days of hikes are planned, including two overnight excursions, and Cosby Campground will be home base.
I meet hiking buddy Clarence on a chilly, rainy Wednesday, arriving with a storm system that snaps the streak of dry, warm days and deposits a layer of snow and ice at higher elevations. Cosby is nearly deserted. We have our pick of campsites and opt for one on the back side near Snake Den Ridge trailhead. When showers slacken we erect a tarp over the picnic table, set up our tents, and position a smaller tarp to shield the tents’ entrances. Camp work done, we fend off chilly breezes with a brisk walk along the nature trail.
Small streams with footbridges, evidence of pre-park settlement, and a rich understory provide a surprisingly true image of the Smokies within the confines of an easily traversed, one-mile trail. A $0.50 brochure helps visitors interpret sights along the way. There is a large cluster of Spicebush clothed in bright yellow autumn finery. Striped Maple leaves are nearly white in color, looking more like they have been dipped in bleach. Two large Common Grape Ferns sport finely cut foliage found on the highly dissected form. Despite their size, neither has a fertile frond. There are numerous large patches of Liverleaf foliage (Hepatica acutiloba). Spring flowers along this little trail should be outstanding.
Back at camp, Clarence and I decide to tweak tomorrow’s hike schedule a bit substituting Porters Creek Trail for the original plan of Low Gap to Mt. Cammerer. We figure icy trails and low cloud cover would compromise a climb to the old stone lookout. The night is very cool, and so windy, I find earplugs are needed to deaden the sound and help me sleep. Morning dawns with a damp chill. We aren’t concerned about an early start on 3.7-mile Porters Creek and enjoy a warm breakfast.
Porters Creek is a sentimental favorite, one of the first trails I hiked in the park years ago during the Pilgrimage. There is so much to recommend it. Few places rival its dazzling display of spring wildflowers throughout its length. A long, high footbridge spans the creek’s intimidating crash of white water and boulders below, prompting even the most steely nerved hiker to take a slight gulp before crossing. On the other side, the dramatic ecological shift is nothing short of breathtaking in April, when carpets of Fringed Phacelia underlie a magical mix of floral exuberance. Fern Branch Falls is a narrow 45-foot cascade flowing down the Thunderhead Sandstone of Porters Mountain. Of course, cultural history abounds through this once heavily settled area in pre-park days, and the campsite at trail’s end is delightful. Yet I’ve never experienced it in another season and am eager to see its autumn charms.
Clarence and I walk the wide gravel road bed of this popular trail in chilly, overcast conditions and find few fellow travelers. The creek rushes merrily alongside, sometimes far below, sometimes even with the trail. The fresh layer of fallen leaves is a bright swirl of yellows, pale oranges, and light browns with a few reds intermingling on the ground. Evergreen plants like Christmas Fern and Fancy Fern dot the forest floor in stark contrast. A few composites are still in flower, including Zig-zag Goldenrod, Tall Rattlesnakeroot, and Blue Wood Aster in showy displays.
The softer, flat light of a cloudy day makes fall foliage glow from within and imparts a timeless quality to autumn scenes. Instead of viewing a setting in the present, the effect is one of stepping back in time. We visit the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club cabin near John Messer’s cantilevered barn on Porters Flat. Walking through the cabin’s rooms and looking out the window, it is easy to place ourselves here decades earlier laying claim to a wire mesh bunk and plotting the next day’s bushwhack.
Several observations are specific to this season of the year. Newly sprouted seedlings of Fringed Phacelia are rushing to send down roots and put out true leaves in preparation for winter. Once established, they will be ready for their grand show come spring. Camouflaged among colorful foliage on the ground, a migrating Monarch butterfly barely escapes death by hiking boot. He is in a state of torpor thanks to the cool, breezy weather. A light tap on the fertile frond of a Common Grape Fern releases a smoky cloud of spore that disperses quickly. We have just missed the tiny flowers of Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza), and the fruits are beginning to mature.
As we hike along, the skies occasionally clear allowing bright sunshine to cheer the day. We lunch at campsite #31 and are soon joined by three brothers. They have travelled from various locations around the country to spend a few days together and hike in the Smokies. On the way down, we meet other hikers who have taken heart from the sun and ventured into the mountains.