It’s another lovely day in the Smokies, and a few friends are joining Clarence and me for a hike on Grapeyard Ridge — Susan and Allen Sweetser, two wonderful, longtime companions who really know their plants, and Randy Small, a biology professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Randy and I led a hike on Abrams Creek for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage one year, and we had a blast. I can see why his students rave so highly about him on the Rate My Professors website! He is hiking all the trails in the park and writing a blog about it too. Check out http://900-miles.blogspot.com. Susan and Allen lead hikes at the Pilgrimage as well. They have been actively studying the flora of Tennessee for quite a while. I always learn something new when hiking with them.
The five of us meet at the trail’s terminus on Greenbrier Road and ride together to the other end on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. We get a helpful park visitor to take our group picture at the sign. The trail wanders indistinctly across an open field containing a barn, corn crib, and cabin once owned by settler Alex Cole and enters the forest on the far side. From there, it winds along the base of Mt. Winnesoka, climbs over Grapeyard Ridge, runs through James Gap, and descends to Greenbrier Road in 7.6 miles. Stone walls, little cemeteries, old road beds, and that famous engine wreck bear witness to hard working families and a rich cultural history along the way. A low elevation trail, Grapeyard Ridge tops out early at 3,000 feet and undulates gently down to 1,700.
We do as much chatting as hiking, so parts of the trail are a bit of a blur. For the most part, it is the usual Smoky Mountain assemblage, though we do stumble upon interesting finds from time to time. A two-foot strip of Mountain Spleenwort is growing along a diagonal crack in a big boulder. There are a few plants of Showy or Appalachian Gentian in flower. It is such a lovely blossom, I cannot resist taking photos, even though I’ve got some nice images already. The inside of the flower is even more striking than the outside. I try to show the bright green starburst at the base along with the forked pistil and petal lobes. Without a steadying tripod, it is impossible to get sufficient depth of field to render the tubular flower sharp from top to bottom. I see another gentian in great shape near the end of the trail. Two flowers are closed, but the lobes of the third are spread open in the sun.
Allen comments on the “yellow coves” and “red ridges.” In the protected coves, Tulip Poplar, Sugar Maple, and Striped Maple are colored sunny yellow. Along exposed ridges, Sourwood, Red Maple, and Scarlet Oak are fiery red. Pitch Pine and Table Mountain Pine appear in the exposed areas too. At a curve in the trail we pass beneath a Sourwood with spectacularly curved branches and stunning fall color. I’ve heard the comment, “Sourwood is a shrub that thinks it’s a tree.” How true. Its trunk often curves and leans, resembling the gnarled branches of a shrub as much as the upright bole of a tree.
About 2.8 miles from Roaring Fork, a horse trail turns left off Grapeyard Ridge and leads to the Smoky Mountain Riding Stables in Gatlinburg. Park maps show a few dedicated horse trails between this junction and Highway 321. Horses can use the section we just hiked, but from this point on, Grapeyard is for hikers only. Across Dudley Creek, stone walls disappear among the trees. These now purposeless assertions of property rights seem aimless and random as the forest reasserts itself, yet they retain the power to impress, demonstrating a blend of backbreaking labor and craftsmanship. We find pieces of an old iron stove here and there on the trail. The rusting carcass of a teapot, sans bottom, top, and spout, hangs pitifully from a tree branch.
Just past Campsite #32, is Injun Creek, so named for the rusting engine carcass lying pitifully, nearly upside down, with broken wheels and gears nearby. The steam engine had been used to saw timber for a school in Big Greenbrier Cove. During the return trip, the driver got a bit too close to the edge, and the heavy iron machine tumbled into the creek bed below as the driver jumped to safety. Certain parts were salvaged, and the rest left to entertain hikers decades later. We climb to James Gap, the last big uphill section we face.
Grapeyard Ridge gets it name from the many and often large grapevines snaking into the tree canopy. Five species of grapes (Vitis) are found in the park. Summer Grape and Frost Grape are most common followed by Muscadine Grape. Young grape vines search for young trees to embrace, and the two species grow in tandem with each other. The ground-hugging plant Cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.) is showing fall color. Perched on an old post is the brightly colored nymph of an Assassin Bug (Zelus luridus).
The gradual descent along Rhododendron Creek puts us between Potato Ridge to the South and James and Blazed Pine Ridges to the North. The trail zigzags across the creek several times requiring rock hops that aren’t difficult. The trail guidebook warns of old road beds that strike off from the main trail. We spot some of these and wonder if one is the manway from the Greenbrier Ranger Station called Injun Creek. Clarence and I plan to hike it in a couple of days and debate which path it could be. Turns out none of them is…but that’s a tale for another post.
We exit onto Greenbrier Road at 4:30, and Mary McCord, with exquisite timing, drives up to see us. Randy heads home. Susan, Allen, Clarence, and I drive back to Roaring Fork to retrieve Susan’s car. It’s a slow drive behind visitors taking in the autumn beauty. At Grotto Falls, we get one last thrill. The llama train to LeConte has just returned from its latest trip, and the four-legged crew is lounging around their trailer awaiting transport home. I slow traffic down even more taking pictures, creating a llama jam!