The night was clear and quite cool. I slept in long pants and long sleeved shirt. The morning is equally clear, and I am excited to hike carrying only what I need for the day.
Today’s adventure is Camel Gap Trail. About halfway between Campsite #37 and the start of Gunter Fork Trail, Big Creek Trail simply ends, turning seamlessly into Camel Gap Trail. A sign marks this inauspicious and rather arbitrary junction in Walnut Bottom. From this point, Camel Gap gradually rises 1,700 feet over 4.7 miles to the Appalachian Trail.
Its A.T. junction is equidistant to Snake Den Ridge Trail (to the left) and Low Gap Trail (to the right, past Cosby Knob Shelter), both descending to Cosby Campground on the north side of the Smokies crest. Low Gap also descends southeast to Big Creek Trail just 0.1 mile from Campsite #37, a convenient 10.3-mile loop. Due to Camel Gap’s hiker friendly profile and complimentary account in the Little Brown Book, my plan to is hike it twice — up and back. It is just 0.1 mile longer and much easier than the loop.
The first mile or so of Camel Gap lies in or near the flood plain of Big Creek. The trail is narrow, wet, and overgrown in one area before Gunter Fork. After that junction, a short rocky stretch skirts Big Creek’s bank and is scoured by high water. These brief inconveniences are quickly left behind. Camel Gap is in fine condition, only a few eroded trenches as testament to horse use. Built along an old logging grade all the way to the A.T., it is one of the most pleasant uphill treks in the park. Other old logging grades are sometimes visible on opposite slopes.
Camel Gap follows Big Creek most of the way, crossing small feeder streams with lush growth of Bee Balm and Cut-leaved Coneflower. One small spring spills down a miniature cascade into a tiny pool. At approximately three miles, Big Creek curves left, and the trail begins to follow a feeder stream, Yellow Creek, named for the colorful autumn foliage of Tulip Poplar and Sugar Maple. Originally, the trail was called Yellow Creek too. “Camel” is thought to be a family name, perhaps the corruption of Campbell.
A short distance above the confluence of Yellow and Big Creeks, the trail hooks a hard right, moves away from the water, and ascends to the Smokies crest and Tennessee/North Carolina border, though its grade changes little. The lovely, peaceful cove forests in the protected stream valleys, where Ramp (Allium tricoccum var. tricoccum) is in flower, blend into northern hardwoods, mixing Silverbell, Yellow Birch, Fraser Magnolia, and Basswood among maples and oaks. Green fruit of Mountain Holly (Ilex montana) will turn red in the fall. There is a good view of Balsam Mountain on the way up. Near the A.T., occasional long wands of Catbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) reach into the trail, sometimes bearing thorns and sometimes waving slender, thornless tips with delicate, curling tendrils.
Camel Gap has its share of beautiful mushrooms, including a picture perfect Coker’s Amanita, with pure white cap and conical warts. Several groupings of red Appalachian Waxy Cap (Hygrocybe appalachiensis) are regularly spotted near Fraser Magnolias and Silverbells, but according to Roody’s field guide, these mushrooms are saprobic (feeding on dead wood) and not mycorrhizal. I also see American Caesar’s and a bright group of Yellow Spindle Coral (Clavulinopsis fusiformis).
At the A.T., I rest a few minutes before starting down. A flat mossy area to the left of the trail on the way up is calling me for lunch. It takes about an hour to get back there. Juncos flitting through the trees are not pleased by my presence but soon get over it. Winter Wrens don’t seem to mind and sing heartily while I eat. Two new Poison Pigskin Puffballs are nestled in the grass and moss here. It is such a pleasant spot, I pull out my journal to write a little and even sketch a nearby Indian Cucumber-root. How wonderful to have the leisure for such indulgence!
I meet a father and daughter day hiking. They began in Cosby Campground and took Low Gap to Big Creek to Camel Gap and will follow the A.T. back to Low Gap and Cosby — a 15 mile day.
Returning to the flats of Walnut Bottom, I find a new mushroom. It is whitish to pale gray with dark gray conical warts like little steel studs sprinkled liberally on top. It’s Amanita onusta, common names Loaded Lepidella and Gunpowder Lepidella. “Onusta” derives from a Latin word meaning “charged, load-carrying, burdened,” and Amanitas are divided into sections — A. onusta is in the section Lepidellus.
While photographing this Loaded Lepidella, I notice a snail is making a beeline for it. Sitting down in the trail, I watch (and photograph) the snail’s determined progress. The little guy stretches its ‘neck’ and even appears to pucker its ‘lips’ in its rush to reach the mushroom stem — to the extent a snail can rush! It climbs the stem, clutching firmly with that big muscled foot to hoist its home in the air. I get a humorous series of photos.
Past the Gunter Fork junction, there is a showy Flowering Raspberry shrub (Rubus odoratus) sporting large pinkish purple flowers with a center cushion of stamens. It looks more like a rose than a raspberry. I find quite an assembly of Velvet Earth Tongues (Trichoglossum hirsutum) poking through the leaf litter. These slender black club fungi are coated in fine hairs.
A large, beautiful mushroom growing on the mossy trailside has a frilled, concave cap that looks as if it’s been slathered with white cake frosting. The gills and short, stocky stem are yellowish. I should know this one but cannot make a certain ID. Near the Low Gap junction is a log covered with Fluted Bird’s Nest fungi in all stages — blackened empty cups, open cups with “eggs,” and fresh shaggy brown cups with the white protective membrane intact.
I left camp this morning shortly after 8:00 and return shortly after 4:00, 10.4 miles in eight hours. No heavy weight to haul, no pressure to rack up miles, freedom to relax and enjoy everything along the way, and a fairly remote yet accommodating trail. I had so much fun! Camel Gap earns a spot as one of my Top Five Trails!
The weather has been very cooperative during my Smokies trip. Apart from that drenching on the A.T.’s Walnut Mountain Friday afternoon, the skies have been dry and the temperatures mild. Today, blue skies became cloudy around lunchtime but cleared during the afternoon. High clouds are gathering again this evening. Rain is forecast for tomorrow (Wednesday), and I am hoping it will wait until I’ve climbed Gunter Fork Trail and reached Laurel Gap Shelter for my final night.