Every time I hear of a trail that isn’t officially recognized by the park, it releases a flood of questions. Where is it? Where does it go? How long is it? Was it ever a named trail? What was its original purpose? Why is it no longer maintained? Questions whose answers are often devilishly hard to find. I’ve been on a few of these in the last two and half years — Ash Hopper to Sugarlands Branch and Courthouse Rock are in the Sugarlands area, and in Greenbrier are Injun Creek and Plemmons Cemetery, which I recently discovered is referred to as False Gap Prong in recognition of the Porters Creek feeder stream it parallels. All of these are relatively short and reasonably close to civilization.
Injun Creek is very well used and appears to be maintained. Originating at the Greenbrier Ranger Station, there are footbridges to assist stream crossings. It is used by backpackers hiking to campsite #32 as well as curious day hikers seeking the old steam engine wreckage. Clarence and I have now hiked it twice. A few days ago, we mapped Injun Creek with GPS, and it measured 2 miles in length. There were many spring wildflowers and Devil’s Urn mushrooms.
We walked and measured Ash Hopper/Sugarlands Branch the day before. This manway begins at the dump station across from the park Visitors Center and runs alongside Ash Hopper Branch, first as a road to a small dam, then as a narrow trail up to a ridge. The manway crosses over this ridge and descends to a feeder creek for Sugarlands Branch before hitting the main stream and following it to Highway 441, a distance of about 2.25 miles. At the junction with Sugarlands Branch, the manway spills into a broad, open valley revealing two path options.
One path descends to the stream on the right, crosses Sugarlands Branch, and follow an old road to its gated junction with Hwy. 441 just above the stream’s bridge. On this day, Sugarlands Branch is high due to heavy rain the previous afternoon, and we cannot cross it safely. There is another path that stays to the left of the stream, and we decide to try it out. It climbs a bit but stays in sight of the branch and sometimes the road on the opposite side. This path, too, descends to Hwy. 441, coming out just below the bridge. An interesting side note: When we reach Sugarlands Branch, we find several men with search dogs staring at us. They are looking for a missing person in the park, and their dogs detect us through sound or scent and alert the men to our presence.
The Plemmons Cemetery/False Gap Prong manway explores old home sites and may eventually loop around to the Ramsey Cascades Road. Clarence and I walk about 2.25 miles on an obviously well-traveled trail before turning around. We have gotten a late start, and uncertainties regarding the distance and ultimate destination prompt us to delay our exploration. It is on our ‘to-do’ list.
Old maps show many of these manways in part or in full as functioning, established trails used by settlers prior to the park’s establishment. The U.S. Geological Survey has two topographic maps from 1931 showing the west and east halves of the park. They are fascinating to study. I do not see Courthouse Rock on these maps, but the other three manways are plainly marked as roads and/or trails.
Park officials do not look favorably on hikers exploring these abandoned trails. I can certainly understand their rationale for such discouragement. Having all sorts of people with varying levels of physical skills and mental intelligence roaming the backcountry at will is a recipe for regular disaster. Even skilled people who know what they are doing can quickly get into serious trouble. The manpower and money needed for backcountry rescue is a strain on the understaffed and underfunded park, not to mention the obvious welfare concerns raised for anyone in need of such rescue. Another relevant issue is potential damage to natural resources. Hoards of people tromping off trail put park flora and fauna at risk.
However, the lure of wild adventure will always call people into the mountains, and the development of global positioning systems offers them a simpler way to navigate the backcountry, although experts will tell you any device dependent on batteries and satellite communication provides at best a false sense of security. Fortunately, most people have no interest in exploring these unmarked, unmaintained paths through the park, but those who do will not be easily deterred. Which am I? Well, more of the latter than the former, though I will not take foolish risks, tend to underestimate my abilities, and always carry appropriate gear for various contingencies and emergencies. Hopefully, these traits, along with the company of capable hiking companions, will keep me out of trouble.
That said, my hiking buddies and I decide to tackle one of the more difficult manways in the park — the Porters Creek trail to Charlie’s Bunion. Mary has been looking for the manway for years. Earlier this spring, she found a stack of rocks and a faint trail leading up Porters Creek valley beyond the established trail’s terminus. She follows it a short distance, enough to become intrigued that this might indeed be the way. She has no trouble persuading Clarence and me to come along. It is just a matter of us getting together in the park, and the day after our AT practice hike proves the perfect opportunity. We do a little internet prowling the night before and find posted images of others hiking the manway. Rock cairns at regular intervals help people find the way.
The day is warm and brightly sunny. We virtually fly up Porters Creek Trail arriving at the campsite in an hour and 40 minutes. This time reflects a few photo stops too. Porters Creek is teeming with April wildflowers in March. Fringed Phacelia blankets the ground just beyond the big bridge. One photo captures at least eleven different plant species with more than half of them in flower — Wild Geranium, Yellow Trillium, Bishops Cap, Rue Anemone, Stinking Benjamin (Trillium erectum), and the Phacelia. We pass a fat mossy log covered in Long-spurred Violets.
Mary sees a large beetle crawling through the moss on a tree trunk. It’s a beautiful metallic blue with a large oblong abdomen and short wing covers. Between my Study of Insects textbook and BugGuide.net, I later identify it as a Short-winged Blister Beetle (Meloe angusticollis). This one is a female because the antennae are not kinked. It is in the Oil Beetle Family (Meloidae) and exudes an orange juice from its leg joints when disturbed. Online accounts describe its behavior as curling up and playing dead upon releasing this oil. As I read this, something stirs in my memory. On Rough Fork Trail last August, I touched a blue beetle and wound up with this orange liquid on my fingers. The beetle curled up pathetically and did not move. I assumed it was injured and near death. Nope. I got tricked by a Short-winged Blister Beetle!! Had we disturbed this lovely blue lady today, the orange oil she would have squirted on me might have fired my memory banks sooner.
When we reach campsite #31, Mary leads us to the first rock cairn marking the manway. Clarence and I both start GPS tracks and waypoint the beginning. The path quickly diverges, and we have to explore both options to see which is most promising. We finally determine the appropriate one, and Clarence takes the lead. He’s much better at spotting the nearly imperceptible path and moving us forward from one cairn to the next, though all three of us often have to fan out and scout the terrain for signs of the path or a cairn. Sometimes the walking is easy through open woodland; sometimes it is reminiscent of Blanket Mountain, bent double plowing through rhododendron hells intent on grabbing our clothing and packs.
Early on, we come to a crossing of Porters Creek. It is a good 12 to 15 feet across and raging from all the rain over the weekend. The water is not really high enough to pose a danger to anything but our hiking boots. However, we’ve just begun the hike, and the idea of wet feet for the remainder of this journey is not a pleasant thought. Before we left the cabin this morning, I briefly considered grabbing my water shoes and decided against it. Bad move. We walk along the bank looking for the cairn on the other side, which we finally spot, and an easy way to cross, which we don’t. Mary takes off her boots and goes barefoot. Clarence and I do the same. On the opposite bank, we sit down to dry our feet and put socks and boots back on. Within a few minutes we reach another crossing of Porters Creek. Off come the boots and socks. We cross. On go the socks and boots. A few minutes later there is another crossing of Porters Creek. Same routine. Then another. Seriously?? This must be a sick joke to deter manway hikers.
At one of our last lower elevation crossings, Clarence keeps his shoes on and carefully works his way over. It’s just four or five steps, but there are no easy rock placements, and the water still threatens to engulf a poorly positioned boot. Mary tries to follow Clarence’s footsteps, but she slips on a slanted rock and falls face first into the creek. She’s drenched and shaken but otherwise unhurt. There is one casualty — her beloved Tracks hiking staff. Mary let go of it as she fell, and the water is pushing it away. Clarence yells for me to grab it. Easier said than done. I can see no way to snag it without plunging into the water myself, and keeping my eye on it while negotiating a jumble of ankle-breaking rocks seems a foolish and ultimately futile task. I can do little but watch its wet, wild ride downstream. I take off my boots to cross.
We decide to eat lunch here. We are hungry, Mary wants to sit in the sun to dry out a bit, and a small break will do us all some good. We are working our way back into the valley. The elevation gain has been reasonably gentle thus far, and the areas of open forest have been very pleasant. Somewhere in this valley is the only population of Heart-leaf Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera var. cordifolia). Allen gives me directions to locate them, but I cannot make his descriptions line up with where I’m going. A few times we pause to look for greenish white tree trunks in the woodlands but to no avail.
We have been following a progression of rock cairns. They are at each stream crossing. In open ground, we find them stacked on crumbling, mossy logs and see rocks placed along the top side of downed tree trunks still propped in the air. Some cairns are easy to spot and recur frequently, others require a major search effort and are perhaps too widely spaced. A few that have tumbled over receive repair, and we add one or two in particularly confusing areas. We stop at the large cairn for photos. It is a very tidy, narrow pyramid at least four and half feet tall.
The manway climbs to the Smokies crest and the Appalachian Trail, just east of Charlie’s Bunion and west of Dry Sluice Gap Trail. Before long the terrain becomes very steep and tough to negotiate. As the valley narrows and rises, we find ourselves more often than not climbing the creek bed, clambering past jumbled piles of rock, stepping through washed tangles of downed limbs, and pulling ourselves up and over dry rock falls. At one point, I’m staring up at Clarence ahead of me and down at Mary behind me. Our pace has slowed dramatically.
As we creep closer to the top, Porters Creek is reduced to a mere mossy cascade trickling through the steeply sloping valley. There is a downed tree spanning the rivulet, and it is lined with rocks. This is the last cairn we find despite much time spent searching for an obvious direction. Clarence finally heads southwest through a steep grassy slope that necessitates scrambling with hands as well as feet. Slowly, steadily, we zigzag our way past occasional spruce trees to the crest so tantalizingly close. We summit in the shade of a dense stand of plants. I’m too consumed with the hike to even notice what they are. I do turn around to take a picture of the view north. With Horseshoe Mountain on the left and Porters Mountain on the right, we have just completed a climb through that narrow crease in between!
Clarence scouts the area and calls Mary and me to push west through the branches. He’s found a small trail. It leads north to a bare rock ledge at the crest. We walk south until it intersects another trail. This turns out to be the AT as a white blaze soon reveals. According to my GPS, the manway is slightly over two miles. The time is 6:00 p.m. We have been on the trail eight and a half hours total (6.5 of those on the manway) and must hike four more miles on the AT to reach Newfound Gap and my car, which Susan and Allen Sweetser graciously dropped off for us. At 8:00 p.m. just as dusk settles in, we can finally remove our packs, sit comfortably with great relief, and drive down the mountain to Gatlinburg.
Would I recommend this hike to others? Honestly, no. Mary and I alone could not have done this. Without Clarence’s extensive outdoor experience and ability to read the landscape, she and I would never have found our way. Toward the end, we faced situations where one careless move could be disastrous. Simply being able to do something does not make it a wise choice. If you cannot resist the challenge, be smart and plan thoroughly. Make sure you schedule for the best possible weather and low water flow, depart early to give yourself plenty of time, have a map and compass, bring ample water, food and clothing to get you through a night out, leave a car at both trailheads in case you need to turn around, carry a remote messaging device so you can quickly request emergency help, tell people where you are going, and do not go alone. This hike is no walk in the park.