Rain early in the week got me wet but has yet to interfere with my plans. Until I reach the Townsend ‘Wye,’ I won’t know if this day’s hike is a go. I’m meeting Allen Sweetser there to see if Little River is low enough to cross, allowing us to hike Roundtop Trail from Wear Valley Road to the ‘Wye’ parking lot.
I arrive early and walk upstream from the long, grassy bank. The morning is refreshingly cool and sunny. A Blue Heron glides onto the opposite bank and begins to fish. Little River’s stony bottom is clearly visible, and its current and depth appear very manageable. Allen concurs. We leave his truck here and drive my car to the tiny pull off near Little Greenbrier Trail and walk a few yards down the road to Roundtop Trail.
I enjoy hiking with Allen. He is a very amenable hiking partner, providing a day filled with pleasant conversation and laughter. He loves these mountains as much as I do and has a longer association with them, so I always learn something about the park. Botany is his passion too. We indulge this hobby to our hearts’ content.
Allen is quick to pull out his beat-up copy of Gene Wofford’s Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Blue Ridge and work his way methodically through plant keys. Some plants, like the goldenrods, are exercises in futility, serving only to frustrate and highlight our botanical limitations, and to be honest, that is half the fun. Like Chicago Cubs fans each spring, we are quite ready and willing to believe that this time will be different. With this goldenrod, we will cut through the confusion to a definitive identification. When it doesn’t happen, we sigh, shrug our shoulders, and move on. At the next thin wand of tiny yellow flowers, we are plugging through the Solidago key again, ever optimistic.
Roundtop Trail begins modestly enough as a smooth dirt path leading into the forest and maintains this easy demeanor with few exceptions. In the first 2.5 miles, it climbs gently 900 feet to its highpoint (elev. 2,700) wrapping around Joint Ridge’s southwest extension from Roundtop the mountain (elev. 3,071). The trail then drops just as gently 1,600 feet in the remaining five miles with one very short but quite steep descent and a brief, shallow climb halfway to the watery conclusion.
On the whole, the trail is dry, often quite dry, tracking primarily along ridge lines and the flanks of south or west-facing slopes. Canopy trees, many recurring from one trailhead to the other, reflect this hydrological reality. Sourwood, Red Maple, Sassafras, and various oak, hickory, and pine species along with Mountain Laurel and Winged Sumac occur on drier uplands and ridges. Allen and I find Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica), a rather scarce oak in the park. We note three pine species that are fairly easy to ID. They are considered “hard pines,” bearing a prickle at the tip of each cone scale.
Virginia Pine and Pitch Pine are common in the park at low to mid elevations. The cones on each are similarly sized to fit nicely in the palm of the hand, and both trees have a yellow green cast to their needles. Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) almost invariably has two leaves in each needle bundle, and they are short and distinctly twisted along their length. Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) typically has three needles, though bundles of two are often found. The needles are longer, straight, and quite stiff. The trunk of a Pitch Pine is often studded with small branches that are little more than tufts of needles protruding from the bark. This characteristic is called epicormic branching and is particular to Pitch Pine.
Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens) is found at mid elevations. Its cones are quite a bit larger, and each scale has a stout, curved prickle that is quite wicked looking. There are typically two leaves in each bundle. This pine is dependent on fire to regenerate. The heat of a forest fire prompts the sealed cone to open and release seeds which germinate in the ash-enriched soil. Fire suppression in the park has reduced the population of Table Mountain Pine. Prescribed fires, intentionally set and carefully controlled, are used for the benefit of fire dependent species, especially those that are rare and endangered.
Herbaceous plants reflect the dry nature of this area as well. Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum), Teaberry, Trailing Arbutus, Whorled Tickseed, Maryland Golden Aster, Little Bluestem, Curtiss’ Milkwort, Silverrod (White Goldenrod – Solidago bicolor), Sweet Goldenrod, Comb-leaf or Fern-leaf Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria pectinata), Yellow Fringed Orchid, Michaux’s Lily, and Mountain Bellwort prefer drier uplands. Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), Michaux’s Lily (Lilium michauxii), and Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula) feature ripened fruit.
Roundtop Trail touches the park’s northern boundary briefly in a few spots. A lovely home sits right next to the trail. Its owners are doing some work, and the air is thick with fumes of deck stain. The trail skirts the southern flank of its namesake mountain, and at one point early in the hike, there is a direct view of the not-very-round-in-fact-quite-pointed Roundtop.
Late summer and fall are great times to look for spiders. A large Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) sits patiently in her web made conspicuous by the thick zigzag of silk running top to bottom called stabilimentum. The purpose of this decoration is a matter of debate and may serve to attract prey by reflecting ultraviolet light, camouflaging the spider or making it appear larger, increasing web visibility to prevent animals from damaging the web, or advertising for a mate. A small Crab Spider (Mecaphesa sp.) clutches a drooping blossom of Comb-leaf Yellow False Foxglove.
Tender growth tips on many plants are covered in aphids young and old including winged adults. Sweat on my arm attracts a small fly lapping at the salts. A Common Buckeye butterfly prefers to sip aster nectar. We spot several clumps of scat in the trail that must belong to raccoons. Allen pokes at one specimen with a stick and stirs the fruity aroma of either Pawpaw or Persimmon fruit. The large, flat brown seeds that passed through the animal’s gut could belong to either tree.
Outcrops of phyllite occur within the final two miles, looming above and jutting over the trail. An impressive variety of plants call these imposing rock faces home. Southern Harebell, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Mountain Laurel, Maple-leaf Viburnum, Hemlock, Beech, Rosebay Rhododendron, Alumroot, Poison Ivy, and Chestnut Oak cling to the rock face or adorn the top. Long strands of Partridgeberry dangle in midair. Flowering Silkgrass and White Wood Aster along with Galax and Trailing Arbutus grow surprisingly well tucked into dry recesses at the sheltering base.
At 3.5 miles, the trail descends very steeply for a short distance. Smaller trees offer the security of a handhold. A few sections are narrow, and in conjunction with the phyllite outcrops, this narrowness is compounded by lumpy mounds of grass in the trail and a right hand side that drops sharply to the river below.
Roundtop Trail does not attract much foot traffic. Allen and I have seen no other people. The solitude is complete until the end, then road noise alerts us to our fast approaching destination. The last mile drops over 600 feet. At one point, the trail directly overlooks the Townsend “Wye” and visitors cooling in the merging waters of Laurel Creek and Little River.
At the river’s edge, Allen points out two large iron “eyes” in the ground that had been associated with a bridge spanning the creek long ago. We elect to cross the river just before its curve at the “Wye.” The depth and flow here is perfect, and there is a short trail through the trees on the opposite side leading to the wide grassy bank often strewn with blankets and sun worshipers. Before we cross, Allen picks up a rock and sends it skipping, barely skimming the water and dancing over the surface in direct defiance of its weight and gravity. I am in awe and make him do it repeatedly until no good skipping stones are left. I want to capture this feat with my camera, but I need video not still images.
Finally, we change into water shoes and cross the river. On the other bank is one more goldenrod. It’s an easy one, and we don’t need to pull out Wofford’s Guide – Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis). Allen and I retrieve my car and part ways. Back at Cades Cove Campground for my final night beneath the stars, sites are filling up and large families surround me. The children are fairly well behaved, though one of the youngest, Molly, tries the patience of her father at every opportunity. Her name becomes burned into my brain.