Yesterday I took a brief quiz — 2,700 feet of elevation change in 5.6 miles. Today is my mid-term test. This hike will show if my preparations for the A.T. are working. Combined, Newton Bald and Mingus Creek represent 6,000 feet of elevation change, half up, half down, over 11.8 miles. Strap on a 33-pound pack, and you’re duplicating a fairly hard day’s hike on the Appalachian Trail, like going from Wesser Bald to Sassafras Gap through Nantahala Gorge.
Newton Bald’s trailhead has been relocated directly across from the entrance to Smokemont. It had been about 250 yards up the road. This move makes so much sense I’m surprised it wasn’t done long ago. Instead of walking the edge of a busy, two-lane mountain road, hikers now walk a flat wooded path parallel to and within sight of the road joining the original trail just a few yards from the old trailhead. Turn left to begin an uphill trajectory that does not stop for 4.7 miles, a 2,900-foot climb to the ridge of Newton Bald and its junction with Mingus Creek Trail.
I had always dreaded this trail, its profile an unrelieved upward slash. The reality is a moderate though sustained climb that is almost pleasant. The trail itself is smooth and well graded, and it passes through forests that despite being stripped to winter’s bare bones still hold promise for rich botanical variety in other seasons. I bet the wildflowers in spring and early summer are wonderful.
A few evergreen plants relieve the tan and brown monotone of the forest floor. The understated natures of Ground Cedar, Running Club Moss, Shining Club Moss, Intermediate Fern, Rattlesnake Plantain, Pussytoes, Appalachian Rockcap Fern, Rose Moss, False Turkey Tails, and Dog Lichen can be better appreciated when showier distractions are dormant. Shaggy clumps of Beard Lichen (Usnea strigosa) are encountered frequently, some dislodged from their support in the tree canopy and some coming down on broken tree limbs. A few of these limbs are completely hidden by the lichen’s wildly branched, cord-like tangles and large, disc shaped fruiting bodies.
As I mentioned in the previous post, winter unveils the underlying earth. The slope of the ground, the deeply cut notches of coves, the curvature of mountain crests, the jumbled spill of boulders, the density of growing trees, and the magnitude of deadfall — all usually masked in a riot of green — are clearly discernible at a glance in the pared winter landscape. Downed trees, like heavily littered pickup sticks, are plentiful. The grooved, dark gray grain of old chestnut logs is a common sight on Newton Bald Trail.
More than halfway up, I hear a deep “fwoom” sound, like a distant sonic boom. I have flushed my first grouse. There would be several more today and tomorrow. The evolutionary benefit of calling such startling attention to the upward flight of a big bird did not factor in the invention of guns.
The weather today was supposed to be reasonably warm and sunny. The temperature is mild, but the sky is stubbornly cloudy. The trail is sometimes lined in white at lower elevations. Snow and ice have melded into a somewhat crunchy, somewhat slippery substrate requiring a little extra attention but not compromising traction too much. Upon reaching the ridge near 5,000 feet, all snow disappears. The sun has done its job unimpeded up here.
Today, though, the top of Newton Bald is swaddled in clouds. A decent breeze does its best to counteract the mild winter conditions. The breeze also spits droplets of rain, all the motivation I need to keep moving. Within four hours, I make it to the top, pass Mingus Creek junction to finish Newton Bald at Thomas Divide and return to descend Mingus Creek and find a lunch spot protected from the rawer elements on this ridge.
These two trails are part of two larger trail systems. Newton Bald is one of several park trails linked for the Benton MacKaye Trail, which starts on Springer Mountain in Georgia alongside the Appalachian Trail and concludes at Davenport Gap on the eastern end of the park. Mingus Creek is one of a handful of park trails that begin the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, starting at Clingman’s Dome through North Carolina to the Outer Banks. I plan to do BMT someday soon. Not so sure about MST, but you never know.
The Little Brown Book talks of a fruiting Chestnut tree on Mingus Creek, and I find open spiny husks in the trail. Soon I’m out of the clouds and spitting rain and begin a series of switchbacks. At the third sharp turn, something small and brown runs across the trail in front of me. A rabbit? NO! A baby boar! This little speckled piglet dashes into a shrubby area. I approach cautiously wondering where mama is. Staring into a thin tangle of stems and saplings, the leaf litter seems to be moving. There must be a dozen or more brown spotted pigs milling around. A loud grunt draws my attention to a large black sow standing behind a young tree just a few feet in front of me. At mama’s prompt, the piglets rush over a small rise and disappear. Mama follows. About that time, I manage to close my gaping mouth and remember too late that I have a camera.
A large part of the upper half of Mingus Creek follows a ridge line. The trail is relatively smooth and easy to walk. It repeatedly flows through long leafy bowers of Mountain Laurel. Laurel tunnels are much nicer to walk through than Rhododendron tunnels. For one thing, they are not as claustrophobic. Laurels tend toward leggy leafless branches with foliage overhead allowing more distant prospects to peak through. The branches are sinuously curved and gnarled with finely grooved bark, and on higher elevation stands, these branches are often generously bedecked with a variety of shaggy and leafy gray-green lichens.
Once past the Deeplow Gap junction, however, Mingus Creek Trail takes on a whole new personality. The ridge is gone and so is the dry smooth trail. In its place is a rocky, wet, and mucky mess. Madcap Branch, Mingus Creek, and their feeder streams don’t just cross the trail, they take over — the iconic narrow cascade of mountain water trickling through the crease of a cove, spreads into a soupy scour of washed rock for many yards the instant it hits the trail. What had been a pleasant day’s hike becomes annoying, then exasperating, and finally maddening. If I have any failings as a hiker (and no doubt I have several), one surely must be the inability to graciously cope with unexpected inconveniences. This trail doesn’t just get on my nerves, it rubs them raw.
About a mile from the end is a sign for a cemetery. For some stupid reason, despite my ill humor, I decide to take a look. I cross two foot bridges, climb over downed trees and still see no sign of this cemetery. Finally, I check the trail description. It’s 0.8 of mile from the main trail. I have not gone more than halfway, so I turn around and curse myself at each step for wasting this time and energy.
Mingus Mill sits at the end of the trail. The parking lot is empty, and the mill is padlocked. The well-constructed flume carries a shallow run of water which is shunted to the side before the mill to reenter the creek. I take a few tourist-free photos then head out on the highway. Since 441 is closed just past the Smokemont entrance, there is little traffic. The distance from the mill to my campsite is exactly three miles. I thought I might hitch a ride but never get the courage to flag down one of the handful of cars that pass me, including a park ranger. I try to look pathetic (easy enough) hoping someone might have mercy, but no one does. I think most of them are going to the horse camp anyway, and they take no notice of hikers.
The trails are 11.8 miles, my partial walk toward the cemetery adds another 0.6 mile, and the feet-killing 3 miles along 441 totals 15.4 miles carrying 33 pounds. I’m exhausted, my feet are screaming, but I made it. Now I have to get up tomorrow and do it again.