At the conclusion of the Tennessee Native Plant Society meeting Sunday, I drive from the east side of the park to the west side and Cades Cove Campground. I have planned a three-day solo backpacking trip along all the trails currently open in the Abrams Creek area, making a convenient loop from the Abrams Falls parking lot. Before I left home, the original 20 to 30% chance of rain for Sunday evening through Tuesday, had increased to 50%. When I stop at Sugarlands for a final check on the trails, the percentage has doubled to 100%. Whoopie!
I set up a quick camp…well, try to anyway. To make sure my tent stays dry for packing the next morning, I erect a 12-foot tarp, requiring a frustrating hour of wrestling, cursing, and crying before I can get both poles to stand long enough to tighten the ropes. Weary, but satisfied, I relax with my nature journal and survey the site’s trees, sketching a White Oak leaf and clump of mushrooms at the base of a Red Maple. The sun comes out briefly, giving me hope for dry skies overnight.
I figured the campgrounds would be fairly quiet with kids back in school. There aren’t many campers, but the families who are here have preschool-age children squealing in high-pitched voices. They are having fun, and I don’t begrudge them. One child is quite strong-willed, and his mother’s only strategy is leveling threats. They clash repeatedly amid his tears and her anger. It is after 9:00 p.m. when peace finally reigns.
At 6:00 a.m., it is still dark, and I awake to hear the light patter of raindrops on the tarp. NO! Fortunately, it does not last long, and the tarp does its job. I disassemble and pack a dry tent. By the time I hit the road, cars are already cruising Cades Cove Loop, enjoying a s-l-o-w, early drive. These morning visitors prove very courteous, however, and pull over to allow this impatient backpacker to get to her trail. I can’t afford to waste any ‘dry’ time.
One other car joins mine at the Abrams parking lot, an older couple headed to the falls. The Abrams Falls Trail is 4.2 miles and varies in elevation little more than 500 feet, starting above and finishing below 1,500. The steepest section descends to the falls at mile 2.5, the sole destination for the vast majority of people walking this trail. It is pleasant, easy walking too. From the fine wooden bridge over Abrams Creek at the start to the little footlog accessing the generously wide and accommodating rocky bank to the left of the falls, the path is relatively smooth and undemanding.
And Abrams Falls is a truly spectacular waterfall, one of a handful that is an actual falls rather than a cascade. At 25 feet, it is just one-third the height of Rainbow Falls, but the volume of water carried by Abrams Creek, the only drainage for all 18 creeks and branches in Cades Cove plus several others from the surrounding mountains, is massive. Abrams Creek is 35 feet wide at the top of the falls, and the plunge pool carved over millennia measures about 100 feet long and wide. Spray shoots out 50 feet creating rainbows in early morning sunshine. No rainbows today just a dour sky of low, gray clouds.
On the way to the falls, the trail passes up and over Arbutus Ridge in a sharp hairpin turn. Abrams Creek, the trail’s steady companion from the start, turns too but in the opposite direction. Arbutus Ridge contains one last perpendicular prominence, forcing the creek into a flattened oxbow that works its way patiently around the base to squeeze in below the trail again on the opposite side. What a hiker accomplishes in three steps the creek must meander more than a mile to achieve.
Most people make those three steps and keep going. I spend the better part of an hour ogling the ecological community on Arbutus Ridge. Composed of Cades Sandstone, the same tough formation responsible for the falls, this rocky bluff hosts a fascinating mix of cool plants and lichens. One of the coolest is a rare find in the Smokies — Wild or Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia). Several clumps of lacy, gray-green foliage dot the ridge; some have little banana-shaped fruit pods, and one still has flowers. Fringed Bleeding Heart does not limit its flowering to one season, generously spreading its beauty from spring to fall.
Hairy or Mapleleaf Alumroot (Heuchera villosa), on the other hand, occurs frequently in the park. Foliage is stiffly hairy, solid green, and sharply lobed. Stalks dripping with tiny white flowers rise above the leaves. All species of Alumroot find welcoming homes in the crevices of bare, vertical rock. Another plant adapted to an ascetic life in the rocks is Southern Harebell (Campanula divaricata). The shower of delicate blue bells produced in such lean fare never fails to amaze. Creeping Bush Clover (Lespedeza repens) embraces the harsh exposure inherent on these ridges.
Members of the Aster Family are out in force. Silkgrass or Grass-leaved Golden Aster pairs with at least two blue-flowered asters, both likely Eurybia species. I think one is E. macrophylla, Large-leaf Wood Aster, and the other could be E. surculosa, Creeping Aster. Goldenrods, that shall remain nameless, are flowering, so is Purple Disk Sunflower. White Wood Asters mingle with Hayscented Fern fronds.
There are two composites with unusual flowers. Rabbit Tobacco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) and Pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolia) have heads of tightly packed disk flowers (no daisy-like rays) that resemble unopened buds until mature seeds are ready to scatter. Rabbit Tobacco, also known appealingly as Sweet Everlasting and undesirably as Cudweed, has woolly white stems and leaf undersides. The fragrant flowers were used as a substitute for feathers in mattresses. Pilewort is a rank weed, tall and coarse, showing up in large numbers where recent storms have devastated the tree canopy. Its heads open as stark white fluff with seeds ready to ride prevailing breezes.
It’s time to get moving. Walking to the falls, I’m reminded of one other unique plant on this trail, Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia), a beautiful rosy purple flower appearing in April. I led a Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage hike to the falls several years ago with fellow aspiring 900-miler Randy Small, and this gorgeous little flower brightened an entire bank. Gaywings’ unusual blossom invites close inspection. The actual flower (corolla) consists of three petals forming a tube. The lowest petal has a flare of colored fringe projecting from its tip to aid insects whose visitation sets the flower in line for pollination. The five sepals of the calyx, typically green and uninteresting in many flowers, are brightly colored like the corolla, and the two enlarged lateral sepals are spread widely to either side. Just a few inches tall, Gaywings forms colonies on the forest floor.
Only four people are at the falls, the older couple and a younger couple, both passed me as I lingered on Arbutus Ridge. I stay long enough to photograph the falls and Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) growing along the bank. Yellowroot is a small, deciduous shrub with compound leaves and tiny sprays of maroon flowers in early spring.
It is 10:00 a.m. and, thus far, dry as I start the final 1.7 miles of Abrams Falls Trail traversing the steep hillside above Abrams Creek Gorge. I can hear the creek below me. Sections are dark and shady. Maryland Golden Aster (Chrysopsis mariana) and one of the yellow False Foxgloves (Aureolaria sp.) are in flower. I surprise a turkey on the trail, and she flies into the upper branches of a tree downhill remaining at eye level for a photo.
In less than an hour, I complete Abrams Falls, make the 0.2 mile connection on Hatcher Mountain, and begin Little Bottoms Trail. The Smokies trails guide describes Little Bottoms as an old mountain path shaped by walking feet instead of trail crews. On this first section, that characterization is quite accurate. The narrow path follows each rough bump and contour along the hillside, but it is not particularly difficult, even carrying a full pack.
For most of the way, the trail closely follows Abrams Creek along a southwest exposure that is quite dry. Exposed is the key word here. There are small areas on Abrams Falls Trail that have been thinned drastically by storms. Sections of Little Bottoms, however, look pillaged. Sparse fingers of bare boles and blunt stubs scrape the gray sky. The few scattered, skinny trees with scrawny canopies that remain serve to underscore the stripped nature of the landscape. It’s heartbreaking, until I narrow my field of vision and focus on what is immediately around me.
Seedlings and saplings abound. Herbaceous plants are full and vigorous in the unfiltered light. Fall flowering plants, loaded with colorful blossoms, attract innumerable insects. Another genus commonly called False Foxglove, Agalinis, specifically A. tenuifolia, Slender False Foxglove or Slender Gerardia, is rare in the park, but a couple of plants are flowering profusely in the open expanse. Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) is changing color to burn bright red in fall dress. As I’m photographing here, it starts to sprinkle. Time to move on again.
Little Bottoms notches a quick descent and ascent in the first quarter mile before gently falling to follow the creek bottom. At Campsite #17, the trail is flat and smooth and comfortable passing through pines and dying Eastern Hemlocks. Red Dogwood fruits shine on the ground. It is raining harder, and I pull out my umbrella. The 2.3-mile trail begins at 1,500 feet, cruises along the creek at 1,200 and rises near the end to its starting elevation before dropping back again. During this final arch in the last half mile, I break into a sweat.
Little Bottoms ends at Cooper Road Trail. A left here takes me 0.9 mile to the Abrams Creek Campground, where I will set up camp for the next two nights. I arrive at 1:00 p.m. amid a steady rainfall, grab a reservation envelope, and head for the ladies’ restroom. I’ll use it as a staging area. I put on my raincoat, run my payment back to the kiosk, return to the restroom to get my tent, and assemble it quickly on a site central to the bathrooms, water spigot, food storage bin, and garbage cans. I make a couple of trips to situate my gear within the tight confines of a one-man tent and rainfly, then crawl inside to eat lunch and wait.
Around 4:00, the rain stops, and I emerge like some cramped butterfly from a cocoon — a butterfly splattered with sand. The tent pads are filled with mostly sand and some very fine gravel. The force of the rain splashes sand up under the rainfly to coat my backpack, rain jacket, umbrella, gaiters, and trekking poles. I wash or brush off all the sand I can and place these items inside a large garbage bag for future protection. My food goes in the bear-proof storage bin. Then I grab my camera to wander the small campground.
There is only one couple in a camper besides me, and they have gone out for a while. Pawpaws with their large droopy leaves are plentiful throughout the campground. Spicebush lines the sidewalk to the restrooms. Near the payment kiosk is a patch of Pale Jewelweed. A very hairy caterpillar with spiky tufts of white and orangey-brown hairs, looking like a cross between a Shih Tzu and a Silky Terrier in pigtails, crawls up a Jewelweed stem. It doesn’t seem too interested in the foliage, but the Pawpaw leaves above are riddled with holes. Maybe it fell off during the rain. I carefully place it on the Pawpaw. It doesn’t seem too interested in that either. Come to find out it’s a Sycamore Tussock Moth (Halysidota harrisii). Hopefully, it reached the appropriate vegetation.
At 7:30, after I’ve finished dinner and prepared for bed, light showers begin to fall again. The rain, at times heavy, continues all night. My tent has low mesh walls that allow a fine spray of ricocheted raindrops to penetrate. An occasional cool droplet strikes my face. Eventually, the steady drum overhead lulls me to sleep.