At the 2015 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, my Sweat Heifer hike was cancelled due to the potential for strong storms including possible tornadoes. Twelve months later, the all-day trek looks good to go. A rain-soaked Friday gives way to a cloudy but clearing Saturday, and Paul Durr, Dee Montie, and I are ready to take interested pilgrims on a 7.4 mile hike up the A.T., down Sweat Heifer, and out Kephart Prong.
I’ve done this route twice, both times prior to my 900 Mile Club aspirations and thus without visual documentation. I am carrying my small backpacking FujiFilm camera to rectify this situation and check Sweat Heifer off my list. Since I have hiked it before, it shouldn’t be difficult to snap a few quick pics along the way. Yeah, right.
You never know how many pilgrims will show for a hike. Registration may be full, but when the day and time arrive, only a handful of people may follow through. By Saturday, weariness must set in for some of them. I’ve co-led hikes where the leaders out-number the pilgrims. My first trek down Sweat Heifer years ago had two leaders and two pilgrims. We have 26 registered, but if the past is any indication, most won’t show, allowing me time to reacquaint myself with the trail and take photos for this blog post. Turns out the past isn’t a very good indication at all; twenty-one eager pilgrims arrive at Newfound Gap.
Once the car shuttle down Highway 441 to Kephart Prong trailhead is complete, we are ready to hit the trail with Paul in the lead, Dee playing sweep, and me bouncing around in the middle. It is quite cool and breezy at Newfound Gap, but a 1.7-mile rocky climb (800’ elevation gain) along the A.T. gets our blood pumping. Paul talks about threats to the high elevation Spruce-Fir forests — balsam woolly adelgid, acid rain, windthrow, wild hogs, climate change — and their devastating effects on this rare, fragile community.
At the junction with Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, we turn right and begin our descent through a beech gap on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. In pre-park days, settlers drove their cattle upslope 2300 feet for summer grazing at higher elevations. Man or beast tackling that kind of climb in 3.7 miles is definitely going to break a sweat. Those high meadow grasses must have tasted mighty sweet! A downward trajectory is much more pleasant.
The trail obliquely tackles concentrated contour lines delineating the Smokies crest on a topo map, then runs into creek draws and around finger ridges as it descends to Kephart Prong. Its surface is better than I remember, not hard on the feet or the knees. After two miles, the trail flattens to a very gentle grade and crosses a tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek. Yesterday’s rain is evident, and the cascading falls by the trail is photo worthy. I catch pilgrim Kelly snapping a picture. Colorfully dressed, she refers to herself as a “Crayola crayon box.” She is preparing for a trip to Yosemite.
Entering the narrow draw carved by Sweat Heifer Creek, an impressive cascading water slide carries exuberant rain-swollen waters downslope, and the crossing above that slide presents a rock-hop challenge for those who wish to avoid wet feet. It takes a while to get everyone across, yet most manage to stay relatively dry. The easy grade covers more than a half mile before resuming a steeper decline.
Beginning at 5850’ elevation and dropping to 4500 at the creek crossings then 3,500 at Kephart Shelter, Sweat Heifer meanders through several community types from beech gaps and northern hardwoods to rich coves and rhododendron thickets. The cove sites feature numerous spring wildflowers — the purpose of our hike. Beginning with higher elevation plants such as Bluebead Lily and Carolina Spring Beauty, we find a few Trout Lilies hanging on, Toothworts, Thyme-leaved Bluets, Dwarf Ginseng, Great White Trillium, Fringed Phacelia, Creeping Phlox, Wood Anemone, Great Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), Crested Iris, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and several violet species. At the start, flowers are mostly closed or drooping from Friday’s rain, but as we descend, the day’s dryness spurs most flowers to perk up and open for business.
The phacelia here present a botanical conundrum. Many are white, as would be expected with Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata), a showy annual restricted to the North Carolina border in Tennessee and found occasionally at mid to high elevations in the park. However, several of the flowers are blue, as would be expected with Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii), another showy fringed annual with a broader western distribution in Tennessee and noted as scarce in its occurrence at low elevations in the park. Botanical keys separate them by flower color and stem hairs, the former having spreading hairs, the latter closely appressed. I can see spreading hairs on the white flower in my photo, but haven’t got enough clear detail on the blue one to judge. It is rare, but sometimes Fringed Phacelia flowers can be “bluish-white.” Characteristics such as flower color may vary with individual genetics. The phacelia flowers we see on Sweat Heifer appear as definite blue to me, no wishy-washy “bluish.” Given the small number of blue flowers amid the white and the elevation, this is likely a rare genetic expression of color in some Fringed Phacelia plants making a bid to stand out from the crowd.
Herbaceous wildflowers rule in spring, yet they don’t have a monopoly. Distinctive foliage of Tassel Rue (Trautvettaria caroliniensis) occurs near the major creek crossings. It will flower within a month. Clumps of Ramp leaves flow down the hillside. Ferns are emerging — Mountain Wood, Fancy, Southern Lady, Rattlesnake, and scattered populations of Flat-branch Ground Pine dot the trailsides. Eye-catching flower clusters of Witch Hobble recur periodically to the end of the trail. Subshrub Running Strawberry-bush (Euonymus obovatus) is in bud, as are thousands of little Canada Mayflowers liberally scattered along the lower quarter of the trail. One perfect Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) greets us just before a final bridged stream crossing at Kephart Shelter and the trail’s end.
From the shelter, two-mile Kephart Prong Trail descends an additional 800 feet on a sometimes cobbly path. We’re pretty much heading for the barn at this point, but we do pause on occasion to appreciate a few flowering plants here too. At the highway, we pile into five cars and drive back to Newfound Gap, completing the hike program.
Combining trail documentation with hike leading is not a good strategy. It’s hard to juggle both hats as each suffers neglect while the other is being worn. I’ve been down this trail three times now, and though I got several photos today and have enough cumulative exposure to speak somewhat confidently about it, I still feel as though I haven’t really seen or experienced it. Fortunately, it’s a delightful mountain trail and a fourth trip down Sweat Heifer under quieter circumstances would be welcome any time. I might even attempt a sweaty jaunt up!