Earlier this spring, when I still planned to hike a section of the AT, I knew I needed some backcountry miles to shake the lethargy of winter, and two nights/three days in the Twentymile area of the park would fit the bill. It finally came together the weekend before the Pilgrimage. The weather forecast led me to wisely shift from a Sunday start to Saturday, despite a previous commitment that kept me in Nashville until noon and dimmed hopes to complete Twentymile Trail and make Campsite #92 before dark.
The warm, beautiful Saturday inspired a full complement of sports cars and motorcyclists to wend the sinuous curves of Hwy 129. Photographers stationed themselves at regular intervals to snap pictures, and each raised his camera as I drove by. I had to laugh. Who’d want a photo of a 1994 Camry on the Tail of the Dragon? It was 4:30 p.m. when I shouldered my pack at the Twentymile Ranger Station.
The gravel entrance is tucked into a cove where Moore Springs Branch and Twentymile Creek, the two main rivers draining this section of the park, join forces and empty into a finger of Cheoah Lake, which isn’t much more than a bloated Little Tennessee River. Several parking spaces are just past the small house serving as ranger station. I’ll wager this is not a heavily trafficked area. Its location in the fairly remote southwest corner along two-lane NC Highway 28, makes it a planned destination, and its lack of frontcountry camping, tubing rivers, and visitors center eliminates most of the park’s typical clientele. People come here to hike and are treated to beautiful trails, lovely forests, comfortable campsites, and from Gregory Bald, spectacular views. Twentymile won my heart.
April 12 — Twentymile Trail to Long Hungry Ridge Trail and Campsite #92, 4.2 miles: I have not yet given up on the possibility of completing Twentymile Trail — five miles to the A.T. plus a 1.9-mile return to Long Hungry junction and another 1.1 miles to the campsite totaling eight miles. I need to finish before 8:00 p.m. to avoid hiking in the mid-April dark. Under this motivation, I move with purpose up the broad, smooth gravel road, rising 1,000 feet in 3.1 miles to Long Hungry. The grade varies in intensity and periodically levels, like interval training. Carrying a backpack in the early spring heat provides a sweat-inducing workout.
There are lots of wildflowers at the beginning of the trail. Robin’s Plantain, Golden Ragwort, Star Chickweed, Pussytoes, large mounds of Long-spurred Violet, Catesby’s Trillium, and Large-flowered Trillium. This section of the Smokies features a unique plant species for the park — Trillium cuneatum, called Toadshade, Whippoorwill Flower or Sweet Betsy. It’s common in Middle Tennessee and parts of other southeastern states mainly west of the Appalachians, but slips into the Smokies through a Piedmont and Blue Ridge distribution in North Carolina.
At the start, Twentymile Trail follows Moore Springs Branch to the Wolf Ridge Trail junction a half mile up. There, Twentymile turns right to follow its namesake stream. About a tenth mile further is a spur trail to Twentymile Cascade, a series of short drops that culminate in a smooth rock slide. Emerging foliage block a good photo of the slide. Seven wooden bridges span first Moore Springs, then either Twentymile Creek or its tributaries on the way to Long Hungry Ridge junction.
I arrive at the junction at 5:55 p.m., 3.1 miles in 90 minutes. The remaining 1.9 miles of Twentymile Trail climb 1300 feet. There is no way I can do it and return to camp before dark, so I turn up Long Hungry and head for #92. Tent up, water filtered, and dinner prepared, I feel something tickle the back of my hand while eating. It is a large tick! Believe it or not, this is the first tick I’ve gotten in a decade of hiking the park. Without thinking, I flick him off and spend the rest of the night waiting for him to crawl back.
A family of four from Chattanooga occupy the back site and invite me to join them around the fire. We share pleasant conversation until dusk. The evening is as mild as the day was warm. A bright moon serves as my nightlight.
April 13 — Long Hungry Ridge to Gregory Bald to Wolf Ridge, 13 miles: The next morning is cloudy and a little cooler yet still mild. I’m packed and on my way just after 8:00. Immediately past the campsite are two unbridged crossings of Twentymile Creek. A dry rock hop is elusive, so I plunge through boots and all. The water is not deep and gaiters help, but the second crossing is less successful. Not an ideal start to a 13-mile hike.
Long Hungry Ridge Trail is essentially flat for the first 1.25 miles and final 0.9 mile. In between, it climbs the east slope of Long Hungry Ridge for two and third miles at a steady grade. The trail surface is smooth and easy on the feet. It reminds me of Newton Bald Trail. However, since I’ve done no hiking for months, it is kicking my butt.
Few wildflowers dot the leafless, gray/brown landscape. Wild Oats (Uvularia sessilifolia) and Trout Lily greet me early on, and Spring Beauty is flowering along the ridge line. During the climb I find more subtle attractions — red fruiting bodies of British Soldiers lichen, fallen flowers of Red Maple, and tiny ‘flowers’ of Common Wood-rush (Luzula multiflora).
Upon reaching the top at Rye Patch, Long Hungry turns sharply and rides the ridge to Gregory Bald Trail. Hogs have been rooting on both sides of the path. Spring Beauties, their fleshy underground corms nearly exposed, flower despite the disturbance.
It’s windy and cool up here, sunshine breaks through the clouds, and after a quick snack at the junction, I head east along Gregory Bald’s long ridge. The trail mainly trends downward before rising in short spurts to the Appalachian Trail and is a pleasure to walk. Glimpses of Cades Cove filter through a screen of bare tree branches. I lunch at Doe Knob, the AT junction, then return to pass Long Hungry Ridge and Gregory Bald Ridge Trails on my way to the bald itself. During the climb, my right quadricep tightens. Tip: A trekking pole makes an effective muscle roller!
My final climb of the day summits Gregory Bald. The toughest part is a short, rocky section just past Gregory Ridge Trail junction. The remainder gently approaches an open, rounded mountaintop with grassy meadows and solid blocks of head-high Flame Azaleas, a mass of orange tones in peak flowering each June, leafless and sprinkled with last year’s seed capsules in April. Occasional clumps of Thyme-leaved Bluets and violets flank the rutted path. A couple, the first people I’ve seen on trail, relax in the grass absorbing an unobstructed view into Cades Cove.
A handful of White Pines and deciduous trees exhibit low branched, gnarled architecture amid the open meadow. Within the park, Gregory, Parson, and Andrews balds are grassy balds, unique plant communities found on a few high ridges in the Southern Appalachians. The first two were documented as such in 1821. The origin of this community type sparks continued debate with grazing, and sometimes fire, most often cited. Elk and bison may have played a role in the nineteenth century and domestic livestock in the twentieth. Absent ongoing disturbance, woody species begin to take over. Gregory and Andrews are being actively maintained by the park service to restore native grasses and wildflowers and protect the showy azaleas, while Parson Bald is slowly disappearing in the forest’s encroaching shade.
The trail on the opposite side of Gregory Bald is steep, rocky, and somewhat rutted until it reaches Campsite #13 at Sheep Pen Gap, a generously wide and level area that looks very inviting. I would love to camp here one night. At the gap, Gregory Bald Trail continues down the mountain for another four miles to the trailhead at Parson Branch Road. I must save this section for another day and perhaps an opportunity to overnight at #13.
Wolf Ridge Trail splits off at Sheep Pen Gap and follows a flat ridge line off Gregory Bald for a half mile to what remains of Parson Bald. Along the trail, a tent and sleeping bag lie crumpled on the ground with no sign of an owner. Interesting factoid: From Doe Knob down Gregory Bald Trail over the main bald to Parson Bald on Wolf Ridge Trail, I’m hiking a pre-1948 section of the original Appalachian Trail before its relocation at Fontana Dam.
Past shrinking Parson Bald, Wolf Ridge Trail follows a snaking descent of its self-named ridge to join first Dalton Branch then Moore Springs Branch down to Twentymile Trail. In all, the trail is 6.3 miles long and drops from an elevation of 4700 feet to 1500. The start of this descent is rather rocky and rutted, but at a sweeping ridge-line curve, the path smooths appreciably. This section is very dry, and little occupies the understory. Evergreen White Pine, Mountain Laurel, and American Holly stand out.
University of Tennessee professor Ken McFarland, who also helps organize the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, asked me to check any wet areas for a certain liverwort and provided a good description of the plant. Despite the dryness, there are a couple of seeps, and one has bright green clumps of a liverwort that seems to fit that description. I take several pictures and carefully note the location. How exciting! But alas, it proves to be a completely different species, this one in the genus Pellia. Oh well. A bit further along, there is another little spring, trickling down a small rocky wash to run over the face of a boulder and disappear into a crack on its surface.
It’s late in the day, and while my knees are doing great, my feet are killing me. The weight of my pack is taking its toll. Campsite #95 is 4.3 miles down Wolf Ridge at the end of a short spur trail, maybe 0.2 mile. In my weary state, it seems like a full mile! My socks and shoes are all but dry from their early morning crossings of Twentymile Creek. Chores done and dinner eaten, I relax and enjoy the campsite all to myself. Given the time of year, the section of the park, the day of the week (Sunday evening), and the weather forecast (rain and falling temperatures), I couldn’t feel more remote and removed from civilization if I was in the wilds of Montana.
The site is near Dalton Branch, tucked between Wolf Ridge and Dalton Ridge. Dotted around my tent, Catesby’s Trilliums have just opened their white flowers with wavy, reflexed petals. The evening is quite mild again, but insistent clouds race across the moon, and winds moan loudly through the wee hours.
April 14 — Wolf Ridge, Twentymile Loop Trail, Twentymile Trail, 10.7 miles: The weather remains dry and warm through the night, though major changes are on the way. Rain is predicted for today with dropping temperatures. I’ve been plotting how to salvage the 1.9 section of Twentymile Trail to the A.T. If I can reach it by 10:00 this morning, I’ll do it. A short 0.9-mile stretch of Wolf Ridge and 2.9 miles of Twentymile Loop come first.
Wolf Ridge Trail moderates substantially after Campsite #95, gently dropping 650 feet in its remaining two miles. Twentymile Loop trailhead is near the halfway point, and it gradually arches over the tail end of Long Hungry Ridge to the junction of Twentymile and Long Hungry Ridge trails. Barely a tenth mile into the Loop, a small footlog bridge with a broken handrail crosses Moore Springs Branch at a short waterfall gushing between boulders. The narrow trail twists in and out of little finger ridges and is lined with an assortment of spring wildflowers. Near the other end are a rock hop and two bridged stream crossings, the last spanning deep water of Twentymile Creek.
The Loop trail along with 1.1 miles of Wolf Ridge and 3.1 miles of Twentymile (plus another half mile back to the parking area) would make a fantastic 7.6 mile Spring Pilgrimage hike to see the rare park Toadshades. On the Loop trail, I find what may be a “hybrid swarm.” The petal color of Trillium cuneatum can vary from the typical maroon to bronze, yellow, or green. Plus, it can hybridize with Trillium luteum, Yellow Trillium. There appear to be populations of each species close together with interesting flower-color intergrades present. Pilgrims would enjoy that, though the two-hour drive from Gatlinburg could prove tiresome.
I arrive at the Twentymile junction at 10:00 on the dot. This area, called Proctor Field Gap is quite level. The wide gravel road ends here, but Twentymile Trail continues as an obvious road bed with a consistent, though steeper, grade to Sassafras Gap on the A.T. The trail is very smooth and not quite as taxing as its profile might suggest. Bird’s-foot Violets are flowering in the middle of the path. About halfway up, Shuckstack Fire Tower becomes visible through the trees. Located just 0.2 mile from the A.T. junction, this is a simple route to access the tower and its grand views on clear days.
It takes me an hour and twenty minutes to reach the top and an hour to return to the junction. A steady rain begins during the journey down necessitating full rain gear. Only the sight of two lovely rain dappled Toadshades can prompt me to dig out my camera at this point. I have 1.1 miles of lower Wolf Ridge Trail to complete between Twentymile and the Loop trail, but once I slop down to that junction, I haven’t the patience or the time to tackle it. There will be an opportunity in August to return and check this small section off my list.
Back at my car just before 2:00 p.m., I face a long drive to U.T.’s field station in Greenbrier where I’ll help organizers with final preparations for the Pilgrimage. April 15’s wet snowfall will make the following morning’s hikes quite an adventure!