The first of two overnight hikes is planned today. Mary joins Clarence and me for a stroll up Maddron Bald to campsite #29. Her husband Mike drops us off at the trailhead, and if you don’t already know where this sucker is located, you may have a tough time finding it. Just outside Cosby, a small residential street (Baxter Road) winds its way off Hwy. 321. Watch carefully for a hairpin right turn onto a steeply descending gravel road. The trailhead is a short distance down on the left.
Eastern Hemlocks along Maddron Bald call attention to themselves by simply looking green and relatively healthy. It is, sadly, an unusual sight in the Smokies these days. Young hemlocks from saplings to several inches in diameter are fully clothed in richly green needles here. Spray painted red dots appear on the back side of the trunk at the base. At the campsite one had three colored dots – blue, white and orange. Do the colors indicate different times for the same treatment or different types of treatments? I don’t know, but it sure is good to see some of these trees alive and well. Passing through a grove of larger healthy hemlocks gives a sense of the cool, deep shade and quiet atmosphere that was once a common occurrence in the Southern Appalachians but won’t likely be experienced as such for many generations if at all.
The day begins overcast but soon clears to a glorious blue sky and golden October sunshine. Along the way we see the foliage of Wild Strawberry, Fraser’s Sedge, a little white flowered aster that I can’t identify, and gorgeous specimens of Blue Wood Aster, formerly known as Aster cordifolius and now going by the botanical name Symphyotrichum cordifolium (quite a mouthful), in full flower. This blue aster is in its prime.
There are many creek crossings heading up Maddron Bald. Cole Creek, Maddron Creek, Jones Branch, Indian Camp Creek, Copperhead Branch, and Otter Creek are flowing lustily. A couple of crossings have foot bridges, but most don’t. The recent rains make our rock hops something of a challenge. We contemplate carefully the best route and offer each other a helping hand. No one wants wet boots today. Mary and I pause to admire some of the lush mosses and liverworts growing along these cold mountain streams.
After a brief rest and snack, Clarence and I walk the loop trail through the old growth forest of Albright Grove. Doris Gove’s poetic description in the brown guidebook’s account is perfect for this remarkable little trail. It is quite narrow, imparting a very intimate feel to the experience. Many people hike up to Albright Grove, but it doesn’t look ‘loved to death,’ which to me indicates that those who do make the effort to visit understand and appreciate the special beauty of this place. As Doris remarks, the “atmosphere…seems to require whispering.”
Many of the big old Tulip Poplars show the ravages of age and weather. The tree with the Elderberry shrub growing in the top is dead, the bark long gone. One Tulip Poplar still stands tall and proud in bright autumn yellow. The Silverbells are huge with their burnt potato chip bark. Evidence of old growth is everywhere – large, buttressing roots of living trees spreading out from the base to grip the anchoring ground and lumpy, pit and mound topography left by unearthed root balls and rotted trunks of trees toppled long ago.
Clarence arrives at the campsite before Mary and me and saves us a spot. It is located in a steep and narrow draw along madly rushing Otter Creek. As a result, it is noisy, bone-chilling cold, and totally lacking any decent places for a little privacy. It is a reservation site, and someone (who shall not be named) goofed big time and failed to notice this slight detail. The campsite is very full, but everyone finds a decent tent location and settles down for a long, cold night.
About 2:00 a.m., I get up for a bathroom run and step out of my tent to a dark sky full of fiery stars. I cannot resist the urge, despite the cold, to curl up on a rock near the fire ring and enjoy the brilliant display. Down the valley and through the trees, the twinkling lights of Pigeon Forge are clearly visible. I hear Clarence rustling around in his tent, and he too gets up for a night run. Next morning he is asking everyone who that crazy person sitting out in the middle of the night could have been. Seems all that rustling I heard was him frantically getting his headlamp to make sure the hunkered blob near the fire ring was not a bear!! No, just your crazy hiking buddy getting her stars fix.
Next morning we finish the 1.6 miles of trail, pausing briefly to take in the spreading views from Maddron Bald and its carpet of Sand Myrtle along with Teaberry, Trailing Arbutus, and Red Spruce. As we near Snake Den Ridge Trail, rime coated foliage, traces of snow, and shattered ice from branches remind of us of Wednesday night’s high elevation winter storm.