A quick trip to the mountains gives me a chance to work in a one-day hike. Mary joins me on a gorgeous Friday to perambulate Lower Mt. Cammerer, a 7.5 mile trail rising gently from Cosby Campground to the Appalachian Trail east of Mt. Cammerer and its iconic octagonal lookout. We begin at the hiker parking lot, taking Low Gap Trail for 0.4 mile to its intersection with Lower Mt. Cammerer.
The first 2.5 miles are relatively flat, skirting the base of steep Rocky Face Mountain and crossing the broad stretch of land accommodating Toms Creek. A brief uphill tick at the start and a half-mile dip after Sutton Ridge are the primary deviations. The trail bumps out around Sutton Ridge at 1.4 miles. A short spur trail (200 yards) leads up to an overlook offering a northern prospect of the ridge’s extension and Riding Fork’s valley.
The view and quiet atmosphere provide a pleasant side diversion for trail hikers, and a small log bench offers the temptation to linger a while. Sutton Ridge can serve as an easy destination for lunch on a day when hiking isn’t the priority. Sourwoods and Red Maples display rich coloration in the soft light on this cloudy morning. Yellow petals of a single sunflower signal the only blossom visible on the ridge. Bracken Fern fronds are brown and curled.
Overall, autumnal foliage is patchy and has drained into lower elevations. The general effect is golden and rather subdued for this time of year. Red Maples are the stars, but they sport more orange and yellow than their name would imply. After Sutton Ridge, the trail descends into a cove and crosses a small creek that is part of Riding Fork. The creek’s water trickles down a long cascade of stepped rock now covered in fallen leaves.
Light breezes tug at leaves and break their weakened connection to twigs. Streaming swirls of yellow flutter among thin gray trunks and murmur a soft sibilant mantra in the mountain quiet. The forest floor is a kaleidoscope of warm hues, offset by pale tan leaf undersides and complimented by cool-toned evergreens. Many leaves have become ensnared in densely twigged, sparsely needled Eastern Hemlocks during their brief downward trek.
Some autumn leaves start off brown. Oaks in particular typically have rich, medium brown fall color. Red Oaks near the top of the trail are dropping huge leaves as large as my boot. Fraser Magnolia leaves are also very large and are colored an orangey brown that at times can take on a more mustardy, baby-pooh tone. Freshly fallen magnolia leaves are flat, smooth, and supple. As they dry, they begin to pucker between the veins and curl, eventually shriveling to a fraction of their original size.
Lower Mt. Cammerer sweeps around in a wide arc and meticulously works its way in and out of numerous folds (Sutton Ridge, Leadmine Ridge, Rowdy Ridge, and Groundhog Ridge) radiating north, northwest from Mt. Cammerer and Cammerer Ridge along the Smokies crest. Creek drainages between these ridges fan outward, all destined for the Pigeon River. The trail maintains a remarkably steady rise between mile 2.5 and 6.0, with an elevation gain just over 1,200 feet, and the climb is anything but difficult. A mile and a half before the A.T. junction, the trail levels out again. There is a short, steep section just before it levels, but about the time I begin to huff and puff, I find myself sailing on flat ground.
The trail is usually wide and not bad in terms of rocks or roots. A few places near the bottom and the top are a little rougher. This time of year can present problems when leaves mask these scattered impediments.
There are sections where the trail’s main path is narrow and situated on the outer edge. The inner portion is slanted and rough with clumping plants, making it unsuitable for walking. This narrow path’s edge sometimes cants downward. A foot placed too close may give way downslope. A horse had done just that, its hoof carving a deep gash in the soil.
It may be 7.5 miles long, but this trail’s gentle demeanor attracts a number of visitors. We encounter several riders on horseback and other hikers. The weather is predicted to change rather dramatically tomorrow, and people are enjoying today’s gift. It began with a low blanket of clouds obscuring sky. By the time we reach Campsite #35 at 3.5 miles, sunshine has cut this blanket to shreds revealing a gloriously mild, mid-autumn day. A patch of sunlight illuminates one particularly colorful tree in the distance, likely a Red Maple, sparking its foliage into a radiant, fiery glow. Mary calls it the “burning bush.”
She and I lunch at the trail’s junction with the A.T. It is a wide, level spot with sitting logs. To the northwest, a tranquil wooded slope rises toward Mt. Cammerer.
The trail’s many coves are fairly rich as evidenced by clumps of mottled Liverleaf foliage and a dense patch of Maple-leaved or Blunt-leaf Waterleaf. Red-twig Doghobble leaves are deep red. Some isolated fronds of New York Fern look bleached — ghostly white drained of color with just a hint of green in their stems. At the higher elevations, Blue Wood Aster is still in the prime of flowering, and a few White Snakeroot flowers can be found.
Mary sees a cluster of round, stalked mushrooms on a log — Pear-shaped Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme). Typically fruiting summer to fall, this fungus occurs in large groups on decaying wood, whitish when young and darkening with age. These sporocarps are now fully mature, a greenish olive drab, each with a single, large pore at the apex to release gentle puffs of dark powdery spore.
The return trip is a breeze except for the climb to Sutton Ridge. It’s interesting that the most demanding uphill portion occurs when hiking down Lower Mt. Cammerer. We walk past the junction with Low Gap Trail to our trail’s true terminus on the backside of Cosby Campground, then follow the road to the parking area. Today’s hike totals 15.3 miles, a new personal best for me, achieved in seven hours not counting our 30 minute lunch.