Three trails converge behind Sugarlands Visitor Center. Gatlinburg Trail stretches 1.3 miles to the town’s outskirts along the Pigeon River’s West Prong. Cove Mountain Trail climbs to that mountain’s crest and coasts along the park boundary ridge for 8.4 miles. Fighting Creek Nature Trail nestles at the base of Cove Mountain, taking people on a relatively straight trajectory to John Ownby’s cabin then looping back via a more scenic route just upslope in 1.1 miles. A short spur trail at the end of the loop works its way down Fighting Creek and under a bridge to join Cove Mountain Trail at its start, providing quick access to Cataract Falls a mere 0.1 mile further.
The threat of severe weather cancels an intended Pilgrimage hike of Sweat Heifer Trail at Newfound Gap. The three leaders and our handful of pilgrims search for alternatives and wind up on Fighting Creek Nature Trail. Brochures in the nature trail kiosk are all gone, leaving us to craft our own narrative for the trail. There’s plenty of history, both natural and cultural, to note in the Sugarlands area. We concentrate on the former.
The same plant markers found on Pine Oak Nature Trail in Cades Cove announce species of trees and shrubs along Fighting Creek too. We don’t need them though, as Paul Durr’s forestry background makes him a walking, talking tree guide. Bark becomes the focus for large trees: the peeling camouflage pattern of Sycamore, smoothly fluted musculature of Hornbeam, tight gray texture and horizontal lenticels of Sweet Birch, fine brown latticework of Mockernut Hickory, and longitudinal white ridges of an ailing Butternut.
Dark gray, thick ridged bark of Sassafras has been carved by previous hike leaders revealing its characteristic orange color and spicy fragrance. Paul points to lateral breaks in the ridges that an imagination could attribute to the imprint of a wire. I need to see more Sassafras trees to judge how applicable this character might be in eyeballing an ID. I’ve seen a Sourwood or two that give a similar impression.
Paul also points to the allusive Shortleaf Pine pitch pockets. Yep, they really are those widely scattered, tiny depressions on the flat bark plates, though he can’t explain the confounding illogic that gives us pitch pockets on ‘Shortleaf’ Pine and not ‘Pitch’ Pine. A large Luna Moth distracts us from the tree upon which it rests, and the larva of an underwing moth, Catocala sp., (I think) demonstrates its ability to mimic lichen.
Various sedges, including Cherokee Sedge (Carex cherokeensis), line feeder streams and occupy an open canopy wetland. The dark green stems of Common Rush (Juncus effusus) contrast with light green leaflets of fresh Poison Ivy, which shows up regularly along the nature trail. In drier sites, Dolls Eyes are picture perfect, and Michaux’s Lily foliage portend summer photo ops. Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) hangs onto a few seed capsules from last year. They resemble the home construction of a bagworms.
An old gnarled Sycamore sporting three young boles from a hollowed base piques the hiding instinct of young children near the bridge over Fighting Creek. Another Pilgrimage program has its pilgrims examine aquatic invertebrates in the creek with a tray of stoneflies, mayflies, craneflies, and water pennies as proof of their success.
Due to its convenient location, this nature trail gets much foot traffic. A steady stream of visitors shuffle between the cabin and the falls. For many, this is as close to nature as they can or wish to get. As for me, I’ll be glad to return to the backcountry where human encounters are often the rarest of sightings!