My final hike this trip is 2.9 miles up and 2.9 miles down Kanati Fork. In my dozen years attending the Pilgrimage, I’ve become quite familiar with this trail’s name as the second part of a 3.7-mile car-shuttle hike beginning at Thomas Divide. Kanati Fork drops 2100 feet in elevation from the divide to Highway 441, so it’s understandable that walking down would be preferable. Until you’ve walked up KFT, however, it’s hard to appreciate just how preferable!
There have been a few trails thus far that I would not be keen to repeat. Kanati Fork is now on that list. Overall, it’s a very good spring wildflower trail, but I wouldn’t bother any other time of year. KFT has several drawbacks: steep, narrow, slanted, and the potential for becoming overgrown. It’s a heart-thumper walking up, a problem easily nullified by planning a downhill hike, but the other three problems will still be issues.
KFT torturously climbs the steep, southeastern side of a crooked finger ridge descending from Turkey Flyup, the highest elevation on Thomas Divide (approx. 5100 ft). This spur peters out at the road and represents one side of the Kanati Fork watershed along with the divide and a nameless spur to the southeast. The pitch of the spur leaves no room to spare when cutting a trail.
Shallow root-filled soil is hard (or impossible) to level, and in several locations the trail’s narrow width slants downhill, a condition I detest. Having one leg higher than the other results in an unbalanced posture. Often there is no room downslope to place a trekking pole which induces a slight lean upslope. All this angling plants the feet in one direction and the body in another. It’s tiring and annoying, whether going up or down.
This side of the Turkey Flyup spur is densely forested and the steep slope has allowed streams to carve equally steep and deep ravines. The trail zigzags in switchbacks through one ravine three times. The understory herbaceous growth is thick and robust in these deep creases. A few stems of Turk’s Cap Lily are already as tall as me. The lily, Black Cohosh, and any other tall summer bloomer are quite likely to put the squeeze on hikers later in the season. Higher up, brambles are invading more open areas.
A wider, flatter, and drier stretch in the middle with Mountain Laurel, Mountain Bellwort, Cow Wheat, and Hayscented Fern is a welcome relief, as are some sections rounding the outer edges of slope wrinkles not too far from the top. Beyond that, the best trail surface is found on the lowest section near the highway.
Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula) still has a few flowers, but most plants are already setting fruit. This bellwort and one other species don’t have that stem-piercing-the-leaves look. Their leaves attach directly to the stem with no petiole (sessile). To separate these two species, Mountain Bellwort’s foliage has a shine to it, and lines of fine hairs run up the stem. The flower pistil’s stigma lobes are quite long compared to the other species, called Wild Oats. Mountain Bellwort usually grows in denser, sturdier clumps too. Wild Oats has a more sparse and delicate look.
Kanati Fork Trail is known for its Painted Trillium, but it also features Large White Trillium, plenty of Nodding Mandarin, and beautiful stands of Solomon’s Plume. Perhaps the most profuse plant throughout the trail is Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum). The female plants are setting seed at lower elevations, and both sexes are still in flower near the top.
At the Thomas Divide junction, I pause for a snack and sit on a log. Suddenly the snout of a German Shepherd dog comes between me and my granola bar. Startled is hardly the word for it. She trots around sniffing everything. She is wearing a collar, but where are her owners? “I hope she didn’t scare you.” A woman saunters into view, followed by her husband stuffing a sandwich into his mouth.
I felt obligated to tell them dogs aren’t allowed in the park, only in the campgrounds and Oconaluftee and Gatlinburg trails. “Oh, we didn’t know,” she chirps. “You should at least leash her,” I advise. “OK.” They breeze by. I watch. No effort is made. Finally, I call after them, “For the sake of your dog, you really need to leash her.” The man makes his wife stop and remove a leash from his backpack. Every trail has a sign that says dogs aren’t allowed, but people either don’t look or don’t care…until their dog gets hurt. Then they probably blame the park!
The return trip is much faster and generally more pleasant, confirming that Kanati Fork Trail is best approached top down.