It was a long hard winter. Thank heavens! Cold winters can offer multiple benefits. 1. Insect control: Initial reports suggest as much as a 90% kill rate for Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. Woo Hoo!! 2. Plant control: While native plants may experience a bit of die back, often it is non-native species that suffer most. 3. An awesome spring: Blessed with deep dormancy, native species wake up raring to go. Plants seem to flower more profusely with greater vigor.
A month ago, Little River Road was lined with large swathes of Purple Phacelia and Wild Columbine dangled fountains of red and yellow bells. White pedicellate trilliums, possibly both T. erectum and T. simile, stood like proud sentinels, and the sunny vernal face of the Smokies, Yellow Trilliums, were everywhere. Monday of Pilgrimage week, the weather was wet and warm. Tuesday brought sleet and snow. Wednesday, my first Pilgrimage hike to Courthouse Rock invoked fear that these colorful displays were doomed.
One to two inches of snow coated the ground, tree branches, and rhododendron foliage, and it was cold enough for down jackets, gloves, and hats. Most of the plants that morning appeared frozen solid with translucent, crunchy tissue, but by the time we walked out — having at long last seen that big rock! — the air was warming and many of the plants miraculously thawed and revived. The rest of the Pilgrimage was graced with warmer temperatures, sun, clouds, a little rain by Saturday, and gorgeous floral displays, particularly in the lower elevations.
Three years ago I co-led a hike to Courthouse Rock that never reached its destination. We couldn’t find the rock! This year I get a do-over. The rock I pooh-poohed in 2011 is indeed an impressive geologic sight, a tall skinny slab of rock standing on end, having fallen free of Sugarland Mountain long ago. Someone said it landed upside down, with younger rock formations at the bottom. I don’t know if that is true or not.
The area has more attractions. On the way up, a small rock outcrop to the right presents a great view into Sugarlands valley. Near Courthouse Rock is another large, cracked boulder called The Judge. A pretty waterfall on Road Turn Branch and a rock house are further up the valley. Old home sites, including the Quilliams family, are marked by relatively flat terrain and crumbled chimneys, mostly near the bottom. We didn’t spot any of those in the snow but did find part of an old teakettle hanging on a tree.
Courthouse Rock isn’t that easy to find; we can be forgiven for our failure in 2011. The manway off Highway 441 is not maintained and quickly overgrows in summer. Even this light snowfall hampers our efforts. Late fall, a mild winter day, or early spring would be the best times to try. Beware — people have combed this area quite a bit, and side trails veer off in various directions as red herrings. At the appropriate side trail, there is a long rectangular stone embedded in the main trail. A “C” and arrow have been scratched into its surface pointing the way. Courthouse Rock will come into view through the trees within several yards.
Parts of the hike from the road are fairly steep, and a wide stream crossing requires a rather tricky rock hop. A few of our Pilgrims struggle. Since our program is a half day hike, we do not have time to look for the rock house or waterfall. I’d like to go back someday and take my time to explore the area and locate these other features.
Before and during the Pilgrimage, I am also able to complete a few more park trails. A two-night backpacking trip in the Twentymile section of the park nets me three full trails and two partials the weekend prior. Another leader and I descend Road Prong Trail with two charming Pilgrims my last full day in the Smokies. Accounts of these trails are forthcoming.
A.T. Note: My plans to cover another 205 miles on the Appalachian Trail had to be canceled for this year. My best friend and indispensable partner, Pickles Hunter, the sweetest tabby cat in the world and the man of this house, was unexpectedly diagnosed with a terminal illness. He showed up in our backyard in 1998 just nine months old and told us quite definitively he wanted to be part of our family. We formally took him in on my birthday and have been blessed with his love and incredible personality ever since. I was by his side when the time came, here at home where he was so dearly loved. His ‘brother’ Tucker and I are heartbroken.
Since little Tucky arrived 14 years ago at the tender age of 8 weeks, Pickles has been his constant companion, and leaving him alone for 20 days wasn’t an option. He needs me, and frankly, I need him. The A.T. will be there next year. Some short Smokies trips this summer and fall are possible.