October is the busiest month in the park. Sunny days, cool temperatures, and stunning fall colors are a money making combination. Unless a dysfunctional U.S. Congress intentionally sticks its own feet up its own butt and royally screws two beautiful weeks for the rest of the country, punishing park visitors and neighboring communities. What a mess!
My camping trip is one casualty. A backcountry reservation for Campsite #30 Three Forks at the end of Little River Trail is suspended. The state of Tennessee and Blount and Sevier counties make a heroic effort to reopen the park Oct. 16, the day of my overnight. It is just a little too late for me to make it. I have to pare the schedule to a Friday day hike, Saturday class on map and compass skills, and Sunday morning exploration of the Quiet Walkways. The Friday day hike is a lollipop loop of four trails — Middle Prong to Lynn Camp Prong to Miry Ridge to Panther Creek and back to Middle Prong — 14.9 miles.
The cultural history of the Southern Appalachians is quite interesting, but for me it has always taken a backseat to natural history. On the western end of the park, Tremont Road runs from Laurel Creek Road at the Townsend Wye through Walker Valley to its terminus at the confluence of Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong, the start of Middle Prong — both the creek flowing out of the mountains and the trail weaving into them. When Will Walker’s family sold their land to timber interests, Little River Company built this rail grade through the valley to harvest the ancient forest.
A short distance up Tremont Road across from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is a small stand with booklets for an auto tour of the area. Numbered stops along the road pair with information in the booklet to detail WB Townsend’s bustling logging operation and the support community that sprang up like mushrooms after a summer rain. It takes quite a bit of imagination to conjure this scene as little physical evidence remains of the school, hotel, post office, machine shop, store, and homes that thrived on the cut wood from these mountains.
Middle Prong Trail (4.1 miles) and the first 1.5 miles of Lynn Camp Prong Trail continue the loggers’ rail grade and provide easy walking for hikers at any level. Middle Prong Trail follows Lynn Camp Prong (the stream) most of the way then switches allegiance to Indian Flats Prong in the final mile, ending at the junction with Greenbrier Ridge Trail and Lynn Camp Prong Trail. I arrive at this junction in one hour and 45 minutes. (For a full account of Middle Prong Trail, please see the blog entry dated June 23, 2011, in the July 2011 Archive.)
The dominant mountain peak above Lynn Camp Prong is Cold Spring Knob (5,520 feet). It sits on the Smokies Crest and juts north into Tennessee. Four ridge lines radiate from the knob in an “X.” Southwest and southeast ridges are part of the crest forming the North Carolina border and featuring the Appalachian Trail. Miry Ridge and its trail strike a course northeast, and Mellinger Death Ridge heads northwest. Drainage from Mellinger and Miry, plus Dripping Spring Mountain and its Log Ridge, supplies the feeder streams and headwaters for Lynn Camp Prong. The trail roughly follows the prong’s east/west course, though removed upslope, skirting the base of Cold Spring Knob.
From the Middle Prong junction, Lynn Camp Prong Trail climbs 1,200 feet in 3.7 miles, 1,000 of that in the last 2.25 miles — a grade that is never taxing. The path to Campsite #28 is wide and smooth thanks to the logging grade and scallops its way around the finger ridges of Mellinger Death Ridge. Its grisly name derives from the murder of hapless Jasper Mellinger, whose misfortune led him to literally stumble into a bear trap set up inappropriately by two brothers. They found the poor guy near death a few days later and opted to chuck him off a rocky cliff rather than face consequences. For 30 years, Mellinger’s disappearance was a mystery until one brother confessed on his deathbed and told authorities where to look for the dead man’s remains.
The tranquil forest belies such horror, and Lynn Camp Prong is lovely and pleasant to hike. Other than the cool October air, asters and goldenrods are the main signs of the season. Autumn has been dry, and the trees remain mostly green. Near the campsite, I catch glimpses of bright color across the prong on Log Ridge. These small pockets of showy yellows and reds hidden in this valley will be the only spots of decent fall color visible on this trip.
During a brief break, I see a small branch studded with rosy beige fungi. The little mushrooms grow pendulously from a central attachment and gills underneath radiate from this point. It could be Tectella patellaris, Veiled Panus. A few sport what appear to be remnants of a veil. They are saprobic, feeding on dead organic matter, and are found from summer to early winter.
The campsite is in a broad, nearly flat, area at the opening of Buckeye Cove. It lies straight ahead 0.2 mile from the sign, and Lynn Camp Prong Trail takes a hard right and climbs away from the smooth rail grade. The trail surface is rockier, requiring more attention, but is still relatively comfortable underfoot.
The Little Brown Book describes small stream crossings and seeps on the upper section that can make the trail messy, especially with horse traffic, but the dry weather has kept this to a minimum. I find very little mud or muck today, but the moist environment is a boon to mosses and ferns. Thick carpets of the former are sprigged with lush vases of Intermediate (Fancy) Fern.
LBB also discusses possible wildlife sightings of Boomers and Bears. I get both! A Red Squirrel loudly protests my interruption of its quiet morning, and that stand of Black Cherry trees mentioned in the book is currently serving a lunch buffet for local bears. A crashing noise in the tree tops can only mean one thing. Sure enough, not one but three bears are perched on thick limbs of one tree high in the canopy. One, the largest and likely mom, is stuffing its face as fast as it can grab nearby leafy twigs. The others, smaller in size, aren’t as gluttonous. I snap a few quick photos and prepare to move on. Mom and one cub have spotted me. The third is so still, it may be napping. To my slight discomfort, I realize the trail circles around to pass right under this tree. The bears are quite high up and don’t seem inclined to descend. I put my head down and walk calmly but with purpose through the stand of cherries to the opposite side. None of the bears moves. I watch them for another moment then leave them to eat in peace.
I reach Lynn Camp Prong’s junction with Miry Ridge Trail in two hours and pause here for lunch. The sun is shining, but it is quite cool with a slight breeze. I eat quickly and continue 2.5 miles to the Panther Creek and Jakes Creek junctions. I’ve hiked Miry Ridge before in summer (June 24, 2011, July 2011 Archive). Lynn Camp’s junction is near the end of the actual named ridge line, and the trail circles west to climb Dripping Spring Mountain, traversing just south of its wide summit.
Huckleberries and young Scarlet Oaks are flaming red on the exposed slope. Tucked into rocky crevices among Reindeer Lichen are Blue Ground-cedar (Diphasiastrum tristachyum) and Round-branch Ground-pine (Dendrolycopodium hickeyi) growing side by side. Not frequently found, these small club mosses prefer the harsher conditions favoring heath balds.
Miry Ridge Trail drops from the mountain to its junction with Jakes Creek Trail on the right and Panther Creek Trail to the left. Straight ahead is the vegetation-choked manway up Blanket Mountain (Feb. 2012 Archive).
Panther Creek Trail descends 1,600 feet over 2.3 miles closely following the creek’s path between Timber Ridge off Blanket Mountain and Log Ridge off Dripping Spring. Its course also runs mostly east/west. This creek valley becomes very narrow in places, and the trail crosses Panther Creek numerous times and in one location merges with it. The potential for wet, muddy feet is great here, but I have no problem today.
The trail is steepest within the first mile and moderates thereafter. Evergreen shrubs Rosebay Rhododendron and Doghobble abound here. Deciduous plants are looking ragged. One poor specimen has been so ravaged by insects, it resembles lace more than leaf.
About halfway down, a tree has fallen into the creek, its branches obscuring the path at one creek crossing. As I study my options, three horse riders come down the trail. One lady seems to know about this blockage and deftly urges her horse over the trunk to cross behind it. I slip over the trunk and follow their lead.
The final creek crossing is Lynn Camp Prong, just a few yards shy of the Middle Prong Trail junction. The stream is wide and not very deep, but still too deep for boots. A rock hop is nearly impossible and poses far more dangers than wading. Off come the gaiters, boots, and socks, and up go the pants legs.
The water’s depth changes dramatically, nearly up my knees in places. The rough and rocky bed is slippery. It hurts my feet and challenges my balance. I nearly fall over at one point, sharply banging my knee on a big boulder. The struggle across is taking much longer than desired, and my poor feet start screaming in pain from the icy cold water. By the time I stumble up the opposite bank, I can barely keep from crying. I rub them dry and pull on socks and shoes quickly to restore warmth. It takes several minutes before they function well enough to stand and walk normally.
From here it is 2.3 miles to the parking area down Middle Prong Trail. The 14.9 mile hike takes me 7 hours and 45 minutes.