It’s Groundhog Day. Whatever the outcome of the winter versus spring forecast in Punxsutawney Phil’s neighborhood, here in the Smokies it’s summer! The day is clear and sunny, the temperature is headed into the 60s, and I’ll be hiking in short sleeves on Ace Gap Trail.
Ace Gap follows the park’s northwestern boundary, just over the ridge from Tuckaleechee Cove and snuggled behind homes lucky enough to share a property line with the national park. One of these lucky homeowners is a former governor of Tennessee, who built his house right on the line then complained about a section of Ace Gap that infringed upon his land. The park service rerouted the trail. Noted as quite level in the increasingly dated little brown trails book, there appears to be more elevation change as it runs 5.6 miles along the southwest flank of Rich Mountain. I want to hike it again, map the trail with GPS, and compare the profiles.
Originally, Clarence and I had planned to camp at site #7 near the end of Ace Gap, but rather than spend two days here, we decide on an out-and-back, 11.2-mile day hike. We soon discover what a fortuitous decision this is, as both campsites on the trail, #4 at Kelly Gap and #7 at Ace Gap, are gone. The sites are recognizable as good camping spots, but there are no markers, no food cables, no fire rings. I find out later they were closed permanently January 1, 2009! I knew there were discrepancies between maps regarding these sites, but it did not dawn on me to question their existence. I now know the importance of having the latest park map in hand. Any differences in campsite locations, reservation requirements, and even trails should be duly noted. New maps no longer show overgrown and closed Poll’s Gap Trail for instance.
I’m not sure why these campsites were closed, but one online blogger cited “water issues” as the purported reason. I don’t find this surprising. We are hiking the day after some decent rain and cross just a handful of small streams and one miniature cascade trickling over the trail. It appears mostly dry. It is noteworthy, however, that one of these campsites popular with horseback parties is near the aforementioned governor’s home. Perhaps he’s as big a grumpy-butt about horses and campers near his house as hikers on his land.
Poor Ace Gap has had its share of problems. It was in the path of the April 2011 tornado. Closed most of the year, the trail just recently reopened. We see a couple of trees obviously sheered off in a terrific wind – jagged stumps with a large brush pile of cut limbs nearby. A recent downfall blocks passage at one point requiring a slight detour off trail. We reach the junction of Ace Gap and Beard Cane trails just after lunch. Beard Cane is still closed from the tornado damage, yet gazing down the path on such a warm, sunny day, it looks clear and very inviting.
Another clear and inviting path heads up Hurricane Mountain continuing northwest from the junction. Two large wooden arrows (look like fence pickets) are painted purple and nailed to trees entreating hikers to keep going. Clarence and I can’t resist such an invitation and walk a short way along the unnamed but well-maintained trail. According to one park source, a couple of private resorts nearby may be keeping this little trail open for its guests. We are fairly certain at least this first portion is on park land. More research is needed to see if this was at one time a legitimate park trail. Much work went into its making. It’s hard to imagine the park service sanctioning new trails for private use.
White pines are common along the trail, and seedlings are everywhere. Chestnut Oak, Scarlet Oak, and Red Maple call this dry ridge home. Scattered acorns indicate a more successful crop over here than was observed on the eastern end of the park in October. Little flattened seedpods of Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata) rise on slender stalks above evergreen foliage. Woodpeckers and quite a few other birds are warbling their pleasure on this unseasonably lovely winter day.
Near the old railroad bed that crosses at Ace Gap (where loggers played card games decades ago), I am delighted to find the fall and winter fruiting mushroom Collared Calostoma (Calostoma lutescens). This unusual looking mushroom is a puffball. The round spore case sits on top of a spongy, pitted stalk. A split collar, the torn remains of an outer covering, rings the bottom of the spore case which features a reddish puckered opening at the top. This is one cool looking and easy to identify mushroom. There is a small cluster of them just before the gap, and one lone individual just past the former campsite.
The character of this end of the park is influenced by the presence of limestone, very soluble bedrock that results in a type of topography called karst. Tennessee’s underpinnings are largely limestone and within its network of sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns, it is home to more caves than any other state — over 9,000. Cades Cove is a limestone window surrounded by the more resistant mountains. Whiteoak Sink owes its existence to soft limestone. The Blowhole is a well-known cave in the floor of the sink. There is a big sinkhole just southwest of the Ace Gap trailhead and a famous cave a bit further down. Bull Cave is recognized as the deepest cave in the eastern U.S. with a total depth of 924 feet and a length of 2.27 miles. It also features some of the steepest climbs and vertical drops. A hapless bull is said to have fallen in the cave during a cattle drive over Rich Mountain Road.
Cavers salivate at the prospect of getting inside Bull Cave, but the National Park Service keeps such a tight permitting lid on Smokies caves virtually no one is allowed in. These habitats are extremely sensitive, especially since the discovery and rapid spread of White Nose Syndrome among cave bat populations in the Northeast, and no access (in fact, little to no public information) has become the rule of the day. Some people rail against this limiting policy. I try to be more understanding and recognize the tough call this situation presents. While I wouldn’t pass up the chance to see a cool cave, I’m just as happy above ground in the sunshine, particularly on an incredibly beautiful February day.