Today I’m hiking the manway that runs behind Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont to an impressive set of cascades called Spruce Flats Falls. There are no fewer than three ways to approach the Falls Trail from Tremont’s campus. People who are not guests of the Institute must park in the lot just beyond the Middle Prong bridge by the office. Hikers may walk the paved road past the Council Fire Ring, dorm, classrooms, Friendship Circle, and staff housing to a trail that leads up to the water tank. This path veers left at the tank to intersect first the Buckeye Trail, then the Falls Trail. The Falls Trail will make a sharp right turn.
A second approach begins at the parking lot where a gravel road shoots uphill to the left toward the dorm. Just before the building, steps lead left to the forest’s edge and the start of Lumber Ridge Trail. A few yards up, is a sign for Buckeye Trail to the right. Buckeye Trail is a short, low path cutting across the wooded slope immediately behind the campus. It merges into the previous approach path just before the Falls Trail turnoff.
The third approach is trickier. Continue on Lumber Ridge Trail past Buckeye for about a half mile. Lumber Ridge rises most of the way, making two sharp right turns. After the second turn, it tops out on a short ridge to run level for a bit. Not too far from this point is a wooden post with an ‘M’ engraved on it. A very narrow, quite steep, and fairly tough path descends from this spot to the right. Ken Voorhis, the director at Tremont, calls it “Mark’s Trail.” I do not know the story behind the name and cannot say if the ‘M’ on the post refers to this moniker.
Adult participants in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Program at Tremont hike this manway from time to time during their weekend classes. Given its rough nature, I’m sure school groups do not. This is not a child friendly trail. It isn’t rocky, but the dirt path’s width barely accommodates two boots in many places. It is plagued by abrupt dips, roots, sharp zigzags, and deep steps of eroded soil requiring careful attention. Tremont staff and park officials use the trail for forest research studies. Several trees, including oaks and maples, have spring-tensioned metal bands around them and identification tags stamped with “M” and a number. These devices are used to track seasonal changes.
Mark’s Trail works its way down an extension off Mill Ridge. The hillside is steeply pitched, rising sharply on the left and often supporting a dense wall of foliage. On the right is a dramatic drop, though plants and tree trunks are often quite thick on this side too. Parts of the trail are nearly claustrophobic. Less than a mile in length, it nonetheless features a variety of plant life. Pussytoes, Sweet Goldenrod, Bush Clover, Black Gum, Alumroot, Pignut Hickory, Curtiss’ Milkwort, Little Bluestem, and pines denote drier areas. Maidenhair Fern, Silverbell, Smooth Hydrangea, and Moonseed prefer richer, moister coves. American Climbing Fern (Lygodium palmatum) grows on this manway. In one shallow cove, a large, old Chestnut Oak leans over the narrow ravine, thrusting a thick, gnarled branch to the side.
Upon reaching the Falls Trail, conditions improve greatly. The path is wider, less hemmed in by foliage, and obviously well used. Hikers climb a series of rock steps and round a curve to reach an open vista overlooking Stillhouse Hollow. Fodderstack Mountain is to the right, and Middle Prong snakes through the valley between the mountain and Mill Ridge. The Falls Trail crosses Bull Branch and continues its amble along the dry slopes of another extension from Mill Ridge. This trail is very rocky with several boulder scrambles. During the descent to Spruce Flats Falls, one steep section is made easier from a footlog cut into steps with a handrail.
Silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) is in flower on the exposed rocky slope. The foliage of Silkgrass is thin, long, and linear, just like a clump of grass. Long white hairs hug the leaves’ surfaces giving them a silvery sheen. The same is true for the flowering stems. Yellow daisy-like flowers open in loose clusters and attract flying insects. This afternoon, an Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly is nectaring intensely on a flower head, oblivious to his role as the subject of an extended photo shoot.
Spruce Flats Branch gathers waters from the steep southern face of Mill and Lumber Ridges, directing them into Middle Prong. The falls are a series of four cascades. The description in the Waterfalls book is bit hard to follow, but what it identifies as the last cascade, a 60-foot drop, is the main one visible at the end of the trail. It forms a deep, cool, plunge pool. Big boulders provide ample lunch spots and photo opportunities. Yellowroot grows beside large rocks in the middle of the branch.
The return trip to hiker parking via Buckeye Trail is under one mile in length.