Packing up to leave this morning is complicated by the vast amounts of sand clinging to nearly everything I own. I take all parts of my tent, including the footprint and rainfly, down to the campground’s water spigot to wash off what I can, then lay them over the picnic table to dry a bit. It’s either pack out wet stuff or haul an additional five pounds of sand!
It’s hard to know exactly where Cooper Road Trail starts. Trail signs, mileages, and written accounts are conflicting. Is it the campground? Is it the ranger station? While waiting for things to dry, I try figure this out to ensure I’ve covered the entire trail. I walk all the way to the Rabbit Creek trailhead past the ranger station. Using the 10.9 total miles listed in the brown trails book as a firm figure, here is my assessment. Hikers beginning on this end must park near the ranger station about 0.4 mile outside the campground, then walk up a gravel road and pass through the campground to the gated trailhead where the first Cooper Road Trail sign is located. From this point, it is 10.5 miles to the terminus on Cades Cove Loop Road.
Early clouds are giving way to sunshine. Temps are mild with light wind. I’m finally ready to hit the trail at 9:25, wearing water shoes until I can pass the Kingfisher Branch crossings. Waters have receded somewhat, but one crossing is still at mid-calf, a second over my ankles. Upon reaching the Gold Mine junction, I dry my feet and relish the warm security of socks and boots. Wrapped in a plastic bag since Monday afternoon, the boots are remarkably dry and mostly free of sand! At the Cane Creek junction, I turn right and climb in earnest to explore new sections of Cooper Road Trail.
The trail skips across a collection of ridges between the Cane Creek and Hatcher Mountain/Beard Cane junctions. The Smokies trails guide says this old road, that once provided the primary link between Cades Cove and Maryville, could still be used by park service vehicles. Much of the trail is in good condition, but there are a few extremely rough sections that are deeply rutted with big rocks and roots. Any wheeled vehicle would need very high ground clearance and incredible shocks! The soils on these ridges are rich orangey and coral reds. This is a different geological formation, the Walden Creek Group, an older formation occupying a thin northeast to southwest slice of the park on the far western end.
It is fine walking up here with White Pine, Sassafras, Red Maple, Blackgum, and Chesnut Oak around me and puffy white clouds dotting a blue sky overhead. A small tree is down in the trail. Studying the leaves to ID it, I begin to laugh. It’s a Poison Ivy ‘tree.’ The native vine is growing on a thin snag. Long waving arms of ivy must have provided too much weight for its weak support which snapped at the base.
Galax is quite odiferous today as well. Fall wildflowers are enjoying the sunshine, and a few tree species are embracing the colorful spirit of season – Sourwood and Blackgum in particular. On an exposed ridge, Bear Huckleberry foliage is deep fiery red. In a narrow cove, Hercules Club or Devil’s Walkingstick is crowned with a wild mass of red stems that once held dark fruit now eaten and pooped out all around by passing birds.
I have been anxious to see the Beard Cane and Hatcher Mountain junction. These two trails remain closed after the severe summer storm that slammed this end of the park, along with Ace Gap, Hannah Mountain, and Rabbit Creek. Beard Cane has never reopened since the April 2011 tornado. Therefore, I am surprised to find little amiss here. A short distance further at about mile six, I finally see fairly graphic evidence of the damage. Cut ends of downed trees line the trail. Stripped and broken tree trunks stand gravely above the ground clutter. As on Little Bottoms, scraggly bits of canopy remaining offer little shade to the riot of new growth unleashed in the bright light. This exposed ridge area is the worst, but even in a narrow cove, several trees are blown over, spanning the cove’s entire width like pickup sticks.
Since I began climbing the ridges on Cooper Road, I’ve noticed fresh footprints in the wet soil. I also notice freshly cut foliage and limbs littering the trail. Someone must be doing a bit a trail work today. I’d like to smack (him?) upside the head with my trekking pole. Everything is left piled in the middle of the trail. I trip up in it constantly, dragging small branches and clumps of stems and leaves ensnared in my boots, legs, poles. It’s a real annoyance. I’m also annoyed to see Broad Beech Fern and Maidenhair Fern fronds lying wasted in the trail while tall waving wands of invasive Japanese Stiltgrass stand unmolested ready to seed prolifically. Someone could use a little training. Apart from this evidence of human activity, I see no one on Cooper Road Trail start to finish.
I break for lunch at mile eight, just before Stony Ridge. Around the ridge, three oaks are shedding fruit. Petite acorns of White Oak, plump acorns of Red Oak, and oblong missiles of Chestnut Oak drop around me. Dogwood fruit is plentiful too judging by the shiny red berries at my feet. I wonder if birds will eat them off the ground? It would be a shame to let such valued food go to waste. Rounding Arbutus Ridge, I work my way downslope to a flat stretch before the short descent to Cades Cove Loop Road 0.2 mile past Wet Bottom Trail junction. I snap a picture of the Cove on this lovely end of summer afternoon and turn around to finish my day and backpacking trip on Wet Bottom.
Just one mile long, Wet Bottom was designed to connect Cooper Road and Rabbit Creek for horses. It moves through flat flood plains and can be rather mucky. Despite the recent rain, I don’t find it bad at all. At 0.2 mile, Wet Bottom intersects an access trail from the loop road to the Elijah Oliver Place. These trails overlap for 0.2 mile. I pass the turn off for Wet Bottom and continue to the Oliver barn and home. Here are the first people I’ve seen all day. There is a light but steady stream of visitors.
I stand out like a sore thumb in full backpacking regalia. One lady approaches me as I’m taking a photo of the cabin and asks incredulously if I’ve walked the loop road to get here. I explain that I’ve been backpacking in the area for three days, and she is in awe, asking if I did it alone, how many miles I hiked, and if I saw any wildlife. I tell her all it takes is the right gear and a little experience. I wouldn’t have imagined this three years ago, and she could do it too. I’m having my own “Clarence Mascot” moment! Now, to stay on my feet and not trip in front of everyone!
Back on Wet Bottom, the trail passes a fence exclosure built by the park to protect rare plants and animals found in wet meadow habitats of the Abrams Creek floodplain from rooting wild hogs, a nonnative invasive species. No fence can protect this area from another nonnative invasive species running rampant in the floodplain, Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) also called Nepalese Browntop, an annual grass with leafy stems growing 6 to 36 inches tall. Each narrow leaf has a pale, silvery midvein just off center. Each plant can produce 100 to 1,000 seeds that may survive in the soil more than five years. There are few trails in the park where I haven’t seen it, but none as prolific as Wet Bottom. Alluvial floodplains are its favorite habitat. Its shade tolerance allows it to outcompete and displace native forest flora to form dense exclusive stands. Seeds wash downstream. Horses’ hooves and hikers’ boots spread them too. It’s a losing battle. One interesting fact: Japanese Stiltgrass was first discovered in the U.S. in 1919 in Knoxville, TN, tossed out of the belly of a boat where it had been used as packing material.
Wet Bottom Trail runs beside Abrams Creek for a short distance then crosses it. Hiker’s have two alternatives. 1. Ford the creek and complete the trail to the parking lot. 2. Turn right at the creek and follow a rough path along the bank to the Elijah Oliver side trail, turn left to reach the Abrams Falls Trail and left again over the wooden bridge. I’m a stickler for details, and change shoes to ford the creek. The water is neither deep nor swift. A brief walk down the opposite bank and short climb put me at the trailhead and Abrams Falls parking lot.
Mid-afternoon traffic on the loop road is so slow (my speedometer is at 0, I’m literally coasting), I could have walked out faster. Back at Cades Cove Campground, I take advantage of the car’s hot engine and lay out my sleeping pad, water shoes, and tent rainfly on the hood. I string a line between trees to hang other gear and clothes. As soon as the footprint is dry, I set up the tent to allow air flow and wipe out as much sand and dampness as I can. Once my gear is properly situated, its time to situate me. Bathing in a small bucket while standing in a bathroom stall is not ideal, but it works. The campground is sparsely populated and quiet tonight. I sleep well.