Not too long ago the idea of a 15.4 mile hike was unthinkable. Today, I’m preparing for my second 15.4 miler in as many days carrying a fully loaded backpack no less. My, my, how things change. Again the total elevation gain/loss is about 6,000 feet fairly evenly divided up and down. This time all the miles are on trail. No asphalt today except two 10-minute walks to and from the back of Smokemont Campground. (If the campground walking is included, today’s trek could top 16 miles!)
The hike begins and ends on Bradley Fork Trail. The first four miles of 7.3-mile Bradley Fork is an old road gently rising just 650 feet. The majority of that comes after the junction with Chasteen Creek at 1.2 miles. Campsite #50 is in this area. Flat land, of course, meant settlement, and a circle of emerging Daffodil foliage with a single bud denotes the site of a former homestead.
Chasteen Creek is another old road. The Little Brown Book describes the trail’s lower portion as extremely muddy. Many tons of applied gravel have alleviated that situation. The road has been built up with a thick layer of packed gravel up to the horse hitching post at 0.7 mile. From here the road’s grade increases significantly, and it no longer requires drainage assistance.
Parts of Chasteen Creek are a steep uphill slog, 2,400 feet in four miles. There are a few areas of moderation where the heart and lungs catch a break and you can pick up the pace a bit. Regardless of the grade, the old road bed extending 2.4 miles to Campsite #48 is generally rocky and unkind. The creek is a pleasant companion; the woods are friendly; there are rich areas with Liverleaf, Toothwort, and purple tinged Grapefern fronds, but the trail is obnoxious.
Channels washed out from the heavy rains offer the easiest footing. Rocks and debris have shifted, providing open areas for foot placement. I focus so much attention on the ground, I completely miss Campsite #48. The hiking book describes the campsite as “usually free of rocks and roots.” This is hard to believe. The woodland trail that picks up where the road ends (presumably at the missed campsite), is nothing but rocks and roots.
The book also says it’s “an arduous climb to Hughes Ridge.” This I do believe! The author is not overstating the situation. It is tough. Brief sections smooth out somewhat, but the roughness returns. I’d hike Newton Bald ten times, before I’d redo Chasteen Creek.
The trail is carpeted in oak leaves, most of which are drilled with tiny holes, evidence of past feasts. Quercus, the oak genus, is unrivaled for its generous support of other species. According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, oaks feed 517 moth and butterfly (Lepidoptera) species alone. Include all the other insects and mammals that depend on the nuts, branches, and foliage and it is easy to see why oaks are irreplaceable staples in the forest ecology.
After 3 hours and 13 minutes, I reach Hughes Ridge Trail. I’ve come 5.3 miles. Not too bad considering conditions. Hughes Ridge is a mini roller coaster ride through Red Spruce forests trending upward to intersect the AT in five miles. I hiked the majority of this trail in August 2010. It was my first multi-night backpack in the park with Mary and Clarence. Thinking back to that trip, I have to say again, “My, my, how things change.” I struggled mightily to hike 9.6 miles that day.
The only part of Hughes Ridge I am missing is 0.4 mile between the Chasteen Creek and Enloe Creek trail junctions. I cover this short climb in minutes, continue another 2.5 undulating miles to the junction with Bradley Fork Trail, and descend a short way before breaking for lunch.
Bradley Fork Trail drops rapidly from Hughes Ridge, about 1400 feet in 1.6 miles. There are winter views of the large, tear-drop shaped drainage for Bradley Fork. The steep arching curve of the Smokies crest and A.T. outlines the fat end of the teardrop, enclosing a trackless area of feeder streams with names like Frowning Rock Prong, Chasm Prong, Washout Branch, and Bearwallow Branch. The drainage is sandwiched between the converging ridge lines of Richland Mountain and Mine Ridge angling off Hughes Ridge. Dry Sluice Gap Trail drops in from the west and Bradley Fork Trail from the east. Cabin Flats Trail meets these two in the middle.
I break for lunch at one of the upper switchbacks overlooking the stream’s valley. Today is mild and cloudy too. No hint of sunshine. Deep blue-toned ridges and mountains to the west filter through the mist of leafless branches in between. I notice a tint of green in this mist. Surely leaf buds aren’t showing color in late January! It’s not a spring green, though. Rather than yellow and fresh, it looks grayed and subdued. The tint is coming from lichens. Branches and twigs are virtually clothed in a thick coating. A fine net of silvery sage-colored lichens stands in relief against the cool, dark, atmospheric landscape rising behind.
The trail’s descent moderates for another 1.7 miles, joining the course of feeder stream Taywa Creek. At the beginning of this section, the trail passes through a quiet and lovely forest of Tulip Poplars, oaks, and beeches. Fellow Smokies lover and naturalist Scott Ranger introduced me to the term marcescent, describing plant parts such as leaves that wither but persist on the plant rather than fall. Oak leaves will often hang on to branches well into winter before dropping, but nothing rivals the Beech in this characteristic. Even without sight of the smooth gray bark or narrow pointed buds, Beech trees are unmistakeable in winter. A significant number of leaves remain attached. Often bleached to near parchment, curled and drooping, they exhibit amazing tenacity in the face of winter winds and rain.
Beech and oak leaves decay very slowly, usually taking two years or more to break down through normal processes. Higher ratios of tannins (natural chemical compounds used to fix dyes and tan leather) and lignin (a complex polymer in wood that binds fibers and hardens and strengthens cell walls) present in these leaves make them more resistant. The leaves are also lower in nitrogen and calcium, two elements that facilitate rapid decay. Dogwood, maple, poplar, cherry, elm, ash, linden, and willow leaves disappear quickly on the forest floor. Species in Fagaceae (Beech Family — chestnut, oak, and beech) and Betulaceae (Birch Family — birch, hornbeam, hophornbeam, alder, and hazelnut) are slower to decompose.
Bradley Fork Trail veers away from Taywa Creek just before it hits the Cabin Flats junction, makes a sharp left, and becomes that four-mile stretch of old road descending a mere 650 feet. It should be a breeze to buzz this section back to Smokemont, but it isn’t. The road is often badly washed, rutted, and rocky. Some places are mucky. There are a few smoother sections, but on the whole it is simply unpleasant walking.
There are several footbridges over Bradley Fork. At the first one about a half mile from Cabin Flats, you can see Taywa Creek spilling its contents into the larger watercourse. A bit further is a double bridge spanning a split Bradley Fork on either side of a small island. Water roars between boulders. The right hand railing of the second bridge is badly broken, perhaps damage from a falling tree limb.
It’s rather predictable now, just like yesterday I’ve become tired and cranky — my feet hurt, I want to sit down and take off this pack, I’ve come to hate this trail and its unending rocks, the Smokemont Trail junction refuses to appear. I finally have to stop and remove my pack. So close to the end, yet I just can’t continue without a break and small snack. The breather does help. I can shoulder the weight and continue.
It doesn’t take much to perk my spirits though. A large, deep puddle is filled with round masses of frog eggs! These are probably Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus). This species strays further into the forest and away from water more than others. Their egg clusters can be found in winter in woodland ruts and roadside ditches. Each transparent jelly marble contains a small black embryo. I take several pictures. Many eggs reflect a bright silver dot from the camera flash.
I finally drag into camp after 9.5 hours on the trail. This revives my spirits too, but daylight is waning fast. I rush to get dinner started and prepare for bed. A large RV is parked nearby with two occupants, bringing the campground total to four people!
My tarp has fallen down each day. I’m becoming quite good at getting it back up again. Tonight will test my skills. The temperature is very warm for a January evening, and the wind becomes blustery. Change is on the way, and it won’t be good. The tarp on one corner just won’t stay put. The stake doesn’t have a good grip and nothing I do helps, including pinning the corner directly to the ground.
Light bands of rain blow through early in the night. The moon makes a brief appearance highlighting swiftly moving clouds. About 2:00 a.m., I give up completely on the tarp and take it down. At 5:00 a.m., the heavier rains begin. A little over two hours later, there is a short lull. I pull on my clothes, empty and dissemble my tent, load the car, and run to the restroom. There is a knock on the door. I open it expecting someone with the park service. The man in the RV has a hot cup of coffee for me. He thought I and the other tent camper might appreciate something warm after the wet night. How very sweet!! I’m not a coffee drinker, but I thank him profusely for his kind consideration.
It has just started to rain again, when I get in my car. It’s dark and wet and dreary. The plan was to hike the Oconaluftee Trail this morning before driving home. This sloppy weather scuttles that idea. My original trail plan for Smokemont included over 60 miles on 13 trails. It has been whittled down to 36.4 miles on six. Such is life.