It takes 90 minutes to drive from Mary’s house to Cataloochee Valley’s Pretty Hollow trailhead. The early morning sky is dark and cloudy, but the sun is breaking through when I arrive. It feels wonderful to be back in the Great Smoky Mountains, my home away from home.
The first order of business is hike to Campsite #39 1.8 miles up Pretty Hollow and remove tent, food, sleeping gear, etc., from my pack. The trail is a wide, smooth road past the horse camp, nearly flat to Little Cataloochee Trail junction, and gradually adopting a rougher, more trail-like dirt and rock surface by Palmer Creek Trail. The campsite is 0.2 mile beyond this last junction.
I stake out my tent and hang the food before returning to Palmer Creek with a much lighter pack. The trail immediately crosses Pretty Hollow Creek to begin a 3.3 mile climb to Balsam Mountain Road on Trail Ridge. It follows Palmer Creek and crosses two of its feeder creeks, Lost Bottom and Beech, along the gently rising first half (500-foot gain). Past Beech Creek, the trail continues west working its way 1,000 feet up the southern side of Trail Ridge above another feeder stream, Falling Rock Creek.
Lost Bottom Creek has large slabs of Thunderhead Sandstone in and around it. A thick quartz seam makes a long, milky-white slash across the creek bed. There is a good footlog to cross here, but at Beech Creek, the footbridge mentioned in the Little Brown Book is gone and apparently has been for a while. No signs of a bridge are visible. Breech Creek is a shallow, smooth run of water with no real rock hop options, and the water is just deep enough to overtop boots. I shed my shoes and cross barefoot.
I fully expected the trails in this area to be churned wrecks from overuse by horses, but Palmer Creek is in fairly good shape. There are very few miry areas. Two downed trees form a likely barrier to horse traffic, but a hiker can squiggle through with little difficulty. It is hard to say how long the trees have been there, but perhaps their presence gives the trail a chance to rest.
Both below and above the two creek crossings, a few springs splash across the trail, where Green-headed Coneflower and Bee Balm meet me eye to eye. There are some dry, exposed areas too, where Large Tickseed (Coreopsis major) is at home. A stalk of flame colored Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) just has a few flowers, yet screams like a traffic cone in a shaft of sunlight.
Thanks to all the rain, mushrooms are plentiful and beautiful. Warty, pinkish-tinged Blusher (Amanita rubescens) is a mycorrhizal mushroom growing in a symbiotic relationship with forest trees, particularly oaks and pines. Jelly Tongue (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum), a super cool, toothed mushroom, is growing on a rotting log, as is a species of Crepidotus, probably C. malachius due to the tufts of hairs at the crest of the fruiting body where it’s attached to the log. There are perfect specimens of Grisette (Amanita vaginata complex) and Tylopilus sp., the bolete that looks like a fat pancake.
There are many snails on the trail today, another side effect to all the rain. I try to keep an eye out, but periodically there will be a loud “pop,” “crunch,” and “Oh, no.” On the way up, I see a snail clutching a thin green stalk securely with its long foot, head pointed down, shell hovering in the air two feet above the ground. On my way back, it’s still there…just hanging out. I also find a dead baby bird on the trail, a reminder that summer has other casualties. I think it is one of the flycatchers.
A long Rhododendron tunnel precedes the upper terminus. The trail levels at Trail Ridge and rides a flat grassy path to Balsam Mountain Road. Due to the sequester, this road has been closed all year. A marvelously flat rock of perfect height sits at the trailhead. I arrive at 1:00 sharp and sit down to enjoy a leisurely lunch while jotting journal notes. It is very quiet and shady. A butterfly, maybe a Pearl Crescent, dances in the flecks of sun. It is so pleasant here, I have to make myself get up and start down.
On this flat ridge just off the trail, the park has fenced a large white pipe with a tiny solar panel attached. It is likely a monitoring device, but I do not know its purpose. Near the bottom I meet two horsemen. They ask about the trail, and I tell them of the downed trees. They are willing to move ahead and see what happens, so I wish them luck.
I’m the only person at Campsite #39 tonight. It is a Sunday night, but it is also the middle of summer at one of the supposedly busier campsites. The camp is nearly devoid of vegetation under the pines, Eastern Hemlocks, Tulip Poplars, and Red Maples, with an occasional sprig of Pipsissewa, Christmas Fern, or Partridgeberry and one straggling stem of Heart’s-a-bustin’ poking through leaf litter. There are some stands of Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) bleached buff yellow, and bees are buzzing the flowers.
Chores go quickly, and I’m in my light sleeping bag well before the sun goes down. I doze a bit, unfortunately, and when the sun does set, I’m awake. It also gets unexpectedly cool. I had been fine at much higher elevations on the A.T. the previous two nights, but the rain storms must have brought lower temperatures. The Smokies are downright chilly.