This is a tale of two trails on two separate days. The second day of my backpacking trip, July 29 – a beautiful day, I hike the remainder of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail to the gap, turn right and cover 1.4 miles of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail to the Mount Sterling junction and back. On the final day (Jul. 31, a rainy cool day), I walk Mt. Sterling Ridge from Balsam Mountain to the gap and hike Pretty Hollow in reverse to my car. Each day has memorable wildlife encounters, birds to bears.
Both of these trails are in horrible shape — severe erosion, sticky mud, soupy mire, deep ruts, exposed roots, jumbles of loose rocks filling those ruts that run like brown creeks in the rain. They are obstacle courses, often with no clear way over, through, or around. In midsummer, overgrown plants add another complication.
Despite all this, my first day’s experience with these trails goes fairly well, after I finally get up. Daylight matters little following a sleep-deprived night. My eyes just don’t want to stay open, and there are no other campers to disturb me. Once up, I discover a hole chewed into the side of my food bag. It was hanging 12 feet above the ground on the campsite’s cables. The metal disks designed to deter rodents are there, yet somehow a very acrobatic squirrel (I suppose), hanging by a death grip with his back toenails manages to chew a one-inch hole halfway down the side of a slippery, siliconized nylon stuff sack. No mouse could have reached that far. It didn’t get any food, just damaged the stuff sack, odor proof plastic bag, and ziplock garbage bag. Guess those back toes started cramping, the little turd.
I get started at 8:50. From Campsite #39, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail climbs 2,100 feet in 3.8 miles to Pretty Hollow Gap and a junction with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail and Swallow Fork Trail. It climbs through the valley of Pretty Hollow Creek and is not particularly steep until the last 1.5 miles, when the trail begins its ascent of Mount Sterling Ridge.
To the right of the trail is Indian Ridge, a long and steep finger ridge off MSR that includes Indian Knob (5,137 feet). The side of the ridge is smooth with only one creek noted on the map. The landscape to the left of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail is deeply carved with numerous feeder streams draining MSR and another long finger ridge called Butt Mountain.
The trail weaves its way up the valley, crossing Pretty Hollow Creek three times. All three crossings were bridged, however, the third bridge is now gone. The lack of evidence here and on Palmer Creek yesterday, leads me to believe that the park service either deliberately removed them or made the decision not to replace them once damaged. Normally, this crossing would be an easy rock hop, and even with the summer’s higher water flow, I still manage a dicey yet dry crossing.
A few parts of Pretty Hollow Gap Trail are in good shape and offer pleasant walking, but the further it goes, the worse its condition becomes, particularly the final section. Recent ‘work’ has been done up there that consists of grubbing wide tracks of bare dirt out of the mountain. No effort was made to smooth the soil, and it has hardened into a rough, stumbling mass of churned mud. A horse might not care that much, but it is obvious that no thought whatsoever was given to hikers’ concerns.
Nor was the work done in an ecologically sound manner. An excessively wide swath of dirt was disturbed for a long distance, which is now poised to wash into Pretty Hollow Creek, then Palmer Creek and Cataloochee Creek on down the line at the first heavy rain.
Maybe the work is ongoing, and I caught it in the middle. I’d like to believe any trail work would be done with consideration to all users and the preservation of mountain soil and stream quality. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling miffed at the apparent self-centeredness and lack of environmental stewardship.
The stalwart plants of summer are in flower along Pretty Hollow — Bee Balm, Cut-leaf or Green-headed Coneflower, Sweet Joe Pye-weed, White Bergamot (Monarda clinopodia), and White Wood Aster. Near Mount Sterling Ridge, Rugel’s Ragwort (Rugelia nudicaulis) in large patches are in their understated prime. Bright blue fruit of Umbrella Leaf and bright red fruit of Painted Trillium catch the eye.
Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax) mushrooms are near the campsite, and emerging Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) resemble Fireballs (the candy) encased in thick glass.
Mount Sterling Ridge Trail: It is 11:30 when I reach the gap and after a quick snack start up Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Pretty Hollow Gap marks the trail’s low point (5,179’) and divides MSRT into two sections, each with its own personality. Moving northeast toward Mt. Sterling, a 1.4-mile section climbs to 5,700 feet closely following the ridge line most of the way.
This part of the trail is a clinking cobble path of dusty rocks set to run like a river in rain. Erosion around plant roots creates deep steps up (or down). Miry muck several inches thick requires wide perimeter swings to circumnavigate.
Heading west, southwest from the gap, the trail climbs moderately to 5,500 feet in the first mile and rides this elevation flat as pancake along the southern flank of the ridge and well below the crest of Big Cataloochee Mountain and its two companions Big Butt to the east and Balsam Corner to the west. This section is 3.9 miles long and ends at a junction with Balsam Mountain Trail not far from Laurel Gap Shelter.
July 29, I hike the northeast section rising through Red Spruce and Fraser Fir. High elevation forests are remarkable for their deep silence, and sounds such as birdsong seem uniquely tuned in this rarified atmosphere — meditative, soulful — descriptions particularly fitting for the Hermit Thrush.
Not a common summer resident, the Hermit Thrush usually nests further north. Today one male is singing, and every other creature, including me, stops to listen. His clear, flutelike notes are soft and melancholy. Each melodic phrase is different, and he unspools mesmerizing lines of improvisation. I am entranced.
July 31, rain and cool temperatures persuade me to forego my final night in the mountains at Laurel Gap Shelter and hike 9.7 miles down to my car. I tackle the second section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail in mid-afternoon with determination. Starting from the Balsam Mountain Trail, MSRT’s level run of nearly three miles is a huge plus. However, since this section runs along the side of the mountain and ridge, it is narrow. The rain leaves puddles that are hard to sidestep particularly in places overgrown with grasses and forbs. When the trail begins its descent to the gap, erosion creates a minefield of gaping steps, rocks, and roots. On the ridge line, rain has made those wide mucky areas almost impossible to avoid no matter how far off trail I veer.
It is cold at this elevation on a wet, drippy day. The mountains are cloaked in clouds. Once I make the decision to leave, I move with speed. No dawdling, no photography. There isn’t much to photograph anyway. Reaching the ridge line, I hear a crashing noise behind me. Two Black Bears gallop across the ridge and are quickly swallowed in the veil of clouds. A moment later a third dark shape disappears into the mist.
Pretty Hollow Gap Trail again: The weather improves late in the afternoon as I head down Pretty Hollow Gap Trail. The rain hasn’t been hard enough to carry away the mud, but it is a sticky mess to walk through. I’m not as lucky today at the unbridged crossing of Pretty Hollow Creek. At least I can wash some of that mud off my boots. Just 0.2 mile from my car, I hear a door slam drawing my attention the horse camp bathrooms. A bear cub and mother appear to have just come out of the ladies room! The cub scampers playfully into the woods with mom ambling quietly behind.