It’s another warm and sunny winter’s day in the mountains. Clarence and I are doing a shuttle hike — climbing Laurel Falls Trail to its terminus with Cove Mountain, then backtracking to take Little Greenbrier down to a waiting vehicle. We drop my car at a small parking area near the boundary on Wear Valley Road at Metcalf Bottoms, and drive up to Fighting Creek Gap and the Laurel Falls trailhead. Despite the gorgeous weather, there are not many people here, which is why I chose to hike this insanely popular trail in February. In season you can’t get near this place! Cars fill the large lots on both sides of Little River Road and snake down the road’s shoulders on either end. The admittedly spectacular waterfalls are just 1.25 miles away, and the trail is paved to assist access for all visitors. It’s perfect for those who need an easier way to experience some classic Smokies beauty up close.
Doris Gove’s description of this trail in the brown hiking book is so complete there is little to add. She covers the dry beginning lined with Mountain Laurel and Galax, the moister cove forests in the middle, and the drier upper ridges of oaks, pines, and Sourwood; she details the Civilian Conservation Corps’ efforts in building the trail; and she describes two cool spiders that weave unique webs along the rocky trail sides. She even mentions the avian inspired streams draining Chinquapin Ridge and the south end of Cove Mountain – Jay Bird, Red Bird, and Tanager Branch – that feed into Laurel Branch and the falls.
Laurel Falls, the water feature, is quite impressive. It is divided into two parts. The first is a tumbling cascade beginning as a concentrated flow of water that quickly spreads laterally over a stepped rock face. At the base, water gathers briefly into a pool on a wide rock ledge before plummeting down a sheer rock wall into a steeply sloped ravine. The total drop is 85 feet. A bridge allows visitors to cross the pool and stay dry. When we arrive at the falls, some people are sitting along the ledge’s curved outer edge, legs draping over that sheer rock wall. A mom, dad, and two boys are scrambling down the left bank of the first cascade. One of the boys makes a break and runs toward a man sitting on the ledge as mom looks on in horror. Fortunately, he scoops the boy in his arms without so much as a wobble.
The trail’s elevation gain to the falls is an easy 300’ or so, but the following 1.8 miles to the Little Greenbrier junction is a steady 1,000 foot climb. There is a bit of a break before the final push to Cove Mountain. In all, Laurel Falls is four miles long from 2,300 to 4,000 feet. In winter the forest is quiet and clear, and once past the falls, there are few distractions. It is possible to slip into a rhythmic hiking zone, moving methodically up the sloping landscape.
Through the leafless trees, Clarence and I catch glimpses of the Cove Mountain Air Pollution Research Station. The former fire tower stands well above the surrounding forest, its white upper cabin glinting in the sun like a beacon. It has been repurposed into a convenient research station used by the National Park Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) primarily to measure ground level ozone. The desire is to discover more about its formation, origin outside the park, and transport into the park. Ozone is great in the upper atmosphere where it shields the sun’s more harmful rays. In the lower atmosphere, however, it is detrimental to humans and vegetation. Besides ozone, the station also monitors ambient air for sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide. Thus far the findings indicate ozone levels in the park are not affected by wind direction, but they have noted some extremely high levels are possible when winds come from the west or northwest. The station also gathers data on clouds, solar radiation, temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind, and air pressure.
Once we reach the Cove Mountain Trail junction, the tower is 0.1 mile to the left. The base of the stairs makes a fine spot to eat lunch. We hear the hum of an air conditioner overhead keeping the monitoring equipment cool and the periodic drip of condensation landing on the ground nearby with a soft ‘plunk.’ We backtrack 0.9 mile down Laurel Falls Trail to the Little Greenbrier Trail junction, cruising along the eastern side of Chinquapin Ridge. At the junction, we head due west across this ridge then turn north to cruise the western side on our way down Cove Mountain. Cruising is a good description. The walking is easy, not too steep, not too rocky, and definitely not too wet. Little Greenbrier is a very dry, 4.3-mile trail descending 1900 feet. The only water of note is a tiny rock grotto tucked under Rhododendron.
Oaks and pines predominate, and according to the book, blueberries and orchids are prolific too. I see the former, but winter is a poor time to enjoy either of the latter. Polished maroon Galax leaves and bright green whorls of Ground Cedar mix colorfully along the trail. We find some Chestnut burs on the ground. Brown book accounts of both trails discuss the name Chinquapin Ridge and its mysterious reference to a missing relative of Chestnut – Castanea pumila, Allegheny Chinkapin (the spelling in most botanical references). This is a large shrub to small tree found on dry slopes and ridge forests, same as the Chestnut. It is listed among the park’s flora as a rarely occurring species at low to mid-elevations, but the trail book descriptions say Allegheny Chinkapin is not found on this ridge even though the conditions appear optimal. Considering reports as far back as the late 1930s, former park naturalist Arthur Stupka declared it “either very rare or absent,” having been all but destroyed by the same bark blight fungus that ravaged the mighty Chestnut.
Like its larger cousin, the Allegheny Chinkapin isn’t necessarily killed outright, just knocked back into a series of stump sprouts; however, it manages to fruit better under these circumstances. Since most Chestnuts are now stump sprouts too, these two species could be initially confused. The sharply-toothed leaves and spiny burs of Chestnut are quite a bit larger. Leaf undersides on Allegheny Chinkapin are whitish with hairs, whereas Chestnuts are a smooth, pale green. Chinkapins have one round, pointy-tipped nut per bur, and the burs split in half. Chestnut burs have up to three nuts inside that are hairy with a flat side, and the burs split into four sections.
So what about the name of this ridge? The historical locations listed by Stupka are nowhere near this area. However, if we could time travel back to the pre-park, pre-blight, pre-logging days, perhaps we’d find healthy, happy Allegheny Chinkapins enjoying life beside the Chestnut on Chinquapin Ridge.
What a winter hiker misses in blueberries on Little Greenbrier, she gains in views of Wear Cove. Occasionally, you catch an outright open sight line into the bucolic valley. Mostly, the view is lightly screened by trunks and limbs of leafless trees. These glimpses give the trail an expansive feeling, a refreshing break from the enclosed vegetation of summer.
I find the woven tangle of Dutchman’s Pipevine mentioned in the trails book. It, too, is easier to see and appreciate at this time of year. Thick stems vault into the canopy intertwining with the supporting trees and each other to make an impressive mass.
We arrive at the junction of Little Brier Gap Trail leading to the Walker Sister’s cabin and a manway that heads out of the park into Wear Cove. I was here in February of 2010 with Allen Sweetser when he and I hiked Little Brier Gap and the lower section of Little Greenbrier in the snow. Clarence and I walk the low ridge of Little Mountain skirting the park boundary and make our way down to Wear Gap. I think the steepest section of the trail is the last few feet as Little Greenbrier seems to spit hikers out into the parking lot. We head back to Laurel Falls to retrieve Clarence’s truck.