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Archive for the ‘Trail Hikes’ Category

Bridge over Little River nicknamed "Goshen Gate Bridge"

Bridge over Little River nicknamed “Goshen Gate Bridge”

After a two-week summer course at Highlands Biological Station in NC on Forest Ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians, I stop in the Smokies for two nights to check off two trails, using the A.T. to create a 28.9-mile loop from the Little River trailhead to Fighting Creek Gap. I camp Saturday night in Elkmont for an early start Sunday.

To reach Goshen Prong trailhead requires a 3.7-mile walk on Little River Trail, an enjoyable 1 hour, 20 minutes of quiet solitude this fine morning. Goshen Prong Trail is 7.6 miles long, climbing 3,000 feet in elevation from Little River’s easy valley to the Appalachian Trail. It follows Little River tributary Fish Camp Prong southwest to Campsite #23 then curves southeast along its eponymous stream.

Storm damage on Goshen Prong

Storm damage on Goshen Prong

The first 3.3 miles rise a slight 600 feet through forests exhibiting recurring evidence of storm damage with toppled trees in several locations. These gaps on the left side of the trail have become light-filled riots of vegetation vying for unfiltered access to sunshine. On the trail’s right side, Fish Camp Prong provides endless entertainment as waters draining Miry Ridge, Bent Arm, Goshen Ridge, and Smokies crest commingle and dance their way through chutes, slides, cascades, and falls. It seems to defy logic that this lively, laughing stream joins the calm, collected Little River, especially given some of its tributaries’ names — War Branch, Battle Hollow, and Hostility Branch. The last stream tumbles down Bent Arm’s steep and deeply dissected southeastern slope.

Shale rock face

Shale rock face

Slate, part of the Anakeesta or perhaps Copperhill formation, runs through this area. The characteristic foliation, sheet-like layers that separate in flat planes, is visible in rocks along the stream’s edge and a seepy rock face next to the trail. Crevices and ledges on the rock face host a variety of plants, including many mosses and liverworts, ferns, and others adapted to the regularly moist conditions, such as Mountain Meadow-rue (Thalictrum clavatum).

Cave-like crevice in sandstone

Cave-like crevice in sandstone

At the sharp bend where Goshen Prong turns southeast and begins its 4.3-mile climb to the A.T. in earnest, a short spur trail on the left leads to Campsite #23. I pause here to rest and eat a snack. The site is roomy and pleasant. Leaving Fish Camp Prong behind, the trail now follows Goshen Prong. It becomes narrow and rocky in spots, yet remains physically undemanding for the most part. Doghobble and bramble stems spill into the path on occasion, and overall the plant communities don’t appear to be very rich. There are, however, noteworthy points of interest.

Several groups of young, healthy Eastern Hemlock trees, contain saplings ranging from one or two feet tall to a more robust five or six feet. I detect no sign of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on these trees. I doubt the park service treated these individuals so far from public areas, which must mean they either have some natural immunity or have benefited from recent cold winters killing off vast numbers of the pest. Either way, it is thrilling to see these vibrant trees.

Bees love the nectar of Turtlehead

Bees love the nectar of Turtlehead

At the 5-mile mark is a cave of sorts, a large crevice in the jumble of tilted sandstone. The upper two miles of Goshen Prong Trail pass through a northern hardwoods forest community with some impressive Yellow Birch trees and Red Spruce. A small gap allows a quick view toward Miry Ridge to the west.

Not too far from the top a lovely stand of Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) holds many terminal clusters of flowers in a wet seep along with White Wood Aster (Eurybia sp.) Bees are busy nosing their way into the two-lipped turtlehead corollas. One bee repeatedly visits a single flower seeming to find its nectar preferable to the others. A small bee disappears into a blossom. Its squirming gyrations and buzzing cause the flower’s lips to move up and down giving the appearance of a talking turtlehead!

Skunk or Clustered Goldenrod

Skunk or Clustered Goldenrod

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have discovered that some of the secondary metabolites, often natural toxins produced by plants to deter herbivory, present in flower nectar may play an important role in helping pollinators reduce levels of internal parasites. [see article] Chelone contains iridoid glycosides (aucubin and catalpol) and was part of the study showing a marked decrease in parasitic infections in bumble bees within seven days of exposure to these floral compounds. Such hidden connections inspire awe and should come as no surprise.

Somewhere past the campsite, I find a new blue Nalgene bottle nearly full of water lying in the trail. With no idea when it was dropped or where its owner might be, I pick it up and carry it with me, eventually dumping the water to lighten its weight. I plan to eat lunch at the A.T. junction and am startled to find a large group of hikers eating there when I arrive. They had camped at #23 last night and are impressed that I have come 11.3 miles in the time they hiked 4.4. I take my junction sign photo and am about to continue to a more private lunch spot when one man asks if the Nalgene bottle is mine. He dropped it and is glad to retrieve it even without the liquid contents.

Clingmans Hedge Nettle

Clingmans Hedge Nettle

The next 5.7 miles follow the Appalachian Trail over Mt. Buckley, Clingmans Dome, and Mt. Collins, a section I hiked in May 2012. Sunshine and midsummer give the trail a whole new personality to enjoy. Today, I have a clear view into Tennessee, which had been hidden behind a dense curtain of clouds three years ago. In open sections of the trail, summer wildflowers specific to the Blue Ridge Mountains compete for the attention of pollinators — Bee Balm, Appalachian White Snakeroot, and Clingmans Hedge Nettle (Stachys clingmanii).

Skunk Goldenrod (Solidago glomerata), most often noted on trail by odiferous exhalations, demonstrates its other common name, Clustered Goldenrod, and its specific epithet with compressed racemes of large flower heads bulging from leaf axils. This species is found mainly in the park and on Roan Mountain. A male Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from another high elevation resident, Filmy Angelica.

Beaked Dodder

Beaked Dodder

Confined mainly in the Blue Ridge, Beaked Dodder (Cuscuta rostrata) is also in full flower. Lacking chlorophyll, dodder species cannot manufacture their own food and live as parasites, taking their nutrition from other plants. Upon germination, dodder sends a stem upward to latch onto a suitable host, piercing its outer cortex and slipping special structures called haustoria into vascular tissues (the xylem and phloem) to steal water and carbohydrates. Its roots then wither. Dodder not only wraps its thin orange arms around the host but also flings them outward to reach adjacent plants. It’s beautiful in flower and a little creepy.

Witch Hobble fruits, beginning to mature, have yet to assume their bright red color, but the foliage is already previewing autumnal shades of maroon. Bluebead Lily fruits range from rich blue to midnight tones. Globular red fruits of Rosy Twisted-stalk dangle like shiny gum balls from leaf axils. The capsules of Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa) are still green and unassuming, but its leaves exhibit an unmistakeable characteristic — a hardened, light colored tip unique to this shrub.

Rosy Twisted-stalk fruit

Rosy Twisted-stalk fruit

Approaching Mt. Buckley, the flanks of a ridge emanating from that peak appear sparsely treed. A slight dusting of dark green firs and spruce dot the light green ground. During pre-park logging days, a slash fire ravaged the steep slopes, burning deep into the soil to create an unwelcoming environment for seed germination and plant growth, a condition plainly evident nearly 100 years later.

It’s a gorgeous summer Sunday, and the trail is loaded with people — couples, families, large groups. A few carry packs with a destination in mind, but most are simply hiking short stretches around Clingmans Dome.

The distinctive leaf tips of Minnie-bush

The distinctive leaf tips of Minnie-bush

I reach the Sugarland Mountain junction late in the afternoon. Mt. Collins Shelter, my evening destination, is 0.3 mile away. This section of Sugarland Mountain Trail off the A.T. is flat and smooth, a welcome relief, the light sandy surface in sharp contrast with the dark coniferous forest.

At the shelter’s side trail, a young man and woman collect firewood. They are part of a small group of students from Greenville College in Illinois hiking the Smokies for 10 days. Their itinerary calls for a two-day stay at Cabin Flats near Smokemont where they will fast in solitude and silence. Arriving in the park earlier today, they got off to a bad start by heading in the wrong direction on the A.T. from Clingmans Dome. Not realizing the error until they had reached Goshen Prong junction, this misdirection adds 4.5 miles to their intended first day’s journey.

Mt. Buckley fire scar

Mt. Buckley fire scar

Their leader, a man in his 30s, lies curled in his sleeping bag. He feels unwell, and the others quietly cook dinner. I unpack and start camp chores. Returning from a privy visit, I am surprised to see the leader bent over vomiting in front of the shelter. I don’t know the nature of his illness, but I become paranoid that its a stomach bug and spend the entire evening in fear of catching it.

The students have been working hard to build a fire with sporadic success in hopes its warmth might help the man. It doesn’t. He crawls back into his sleeping bag. My dinner is ready, and I join the rest of the group on the shelter’s left side. They are relaxing with hot chocolate and offer me an Oreo! We chat about their trip. They are curious about my A.T. adventures.

Witch Hobble, Bluebead Lily and Fraser Fir

Witch Hobble, Bluebead Lily and Fraser Fir

All are quiet and respectful, but one young man is quite the braggart. Every topic produces some self-congratulatory feat. He boasts of breaking a kid’s ribs during a middle school football game when he deliberately hit the opposing quarterback hard. I cannot resist calling him out as a jerk for not apologizing to the player. His fellow students find humor my efforts to knock him down a peg or two.

This tall, athletic 20-year-old repeatedly references their day’s hike and the 900-ft elevation gain climbing back to Clingmans Dome as though it were a monumental accomplishment. I completed 17.3 miles with a total gain of 5,050 feet but do not wish to engage in a pissing contest with this turd. Next morning he’s at it again, and the sick leader puts him in his place, “She came from Elkmont. She hiked much further and climbed much higher.” Everyone will be grateful for two days of silence just to shut that guy up.

Mt. Collins Shelter is visible in the background.

Mt. Collins Shelter is visible in the background.

Recently renovated, the shelter incorporates the latest design features and a new privy. Nestled into a small opening among spruce and fir, the setting is peaceful and comfortable. A waning gibbous moon lights the clear, cool summer night while Cassiopeia wheels overhead tied to her torturous chair. Next morning, the sick leader stirs, talks, and even laughs. Turns out he was suffering from an intense migraine, and for a while was not sure he’d be able to continue. I pack, wish them well, and continue my journey.

First 0.3 mile of Sugarland Mountain Trail

First 0.3 mile of Sugarland Mountain Trail

Sugarland Mountain Trail runs 11.9 miles from the A.T. to Little River Road, emerging at the Laurel Falls parking area. For more than half its length, it traces the spine of Sugarland Mountain, heading first north then northwest. An impressive ridge emanating from the Smokies crest, it sports a line of summits, each lower in elevation than the previous.

The angle of descent on the trail’s profile appears quite easy until the final half mile, and the idea of ridge walking invokes images of smooth paths reinforced by the first 0.3 mile. These two thoughts blur into an unshakeable belief that Sugarland Mountain Trail will be a breeze. Thus my astonishment when it instantly morphs into a snarl of boulders within yards of the shelter side trail.

Knight's Plume Moss

Knight’s Plume Moss

I had to negotiate part of this snarl last night since the shelter’s water source lies 0.1 mile down the trail. The rocky challenge continues another 0.1 mile then smooths, reflecting a reality closer to my imagined ideal. However, no trail nearly 12 miles long remains consistent, and Sugarland Mountain often displays conflicting personalities: wide then narrow, on the ridge or off to one side, rocky and smooth, overgrown to open understory.

Sugarland Mountain’s side slopes are quite steep in several places. On one such section, a canopy gap has allowed herbage to grow head high, crowding and masking the trail. Somehow I spot and avoid a large hole at least one foot deep spanning the trail’s width, a potentially nasty surprise for some unsuspecting hiker.

Impressive Red Spruce

Impressive Red Spruce

With a 3,700-foot elevation drop, Sugarland Mountain Trail begins at 6,000 feet and passes through several different community types on its way to Fighting Creek Gap at 2,300 feet. Spruce-fir occupies the first two miles. This coniferous forest is delightfully different from hardwood or pine forests. Dark, moist, and quiet, there’s a primeval quality. The understory is often spare or nonexistent, but usually there are scattered patches of other plants like Bluebead Lily, club mosses, and ferns. Dense mats of true mosses often cover the ground, boulders, and downed logs. Lush patches of Knight’s Plume Moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis) soften Sugarland’s trail edge.

Fraser Fir disappears once the trail slips below 5,500 feet, but Red Spruce remains, grading into a northern hardwoods community. Many of these spruce trees are impressive specimens. Their small brown cones dot the forest floor. Rugel’s Ragwort is still in flower but past its prime…which looks a lot like Rugel’s Ragwort in its prime. Oh, snap, botany slam!

Table Mountain Pine meets Red Spruce at 4500 feet.

Table Mountain Pine meets Red Spruce at 4500 feet.

Several bird species prefer high elevation spruce-fir and northern hardwoods communities. I hear the slow nasal honk of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. One Winter Wren belts out his long, twittery, and rather spastic song, sounding as if he’s had one too many cups of coffee this morning. There’s the high-pitched lisp of a Golden-crowned Kinglet and the two-note “fee-bee” of a Black-capped Chickadee. Another resident, the Red Squirrel, teases me by sitting stock still on a nearby branch and bolting the instant he hears my camera’s focus beep.

Community transitions often result in strange bedfellows. Standing in the shade of a robust Red Spruce, I photograph a Table Mountain Pine perched on a section of dry, exposed ridge line barely 10 yards ahead. The typical ranges for these two species meet at 4,500 feet. At this elevation, Rough Creek is the first trail junction 4.8 miles down Sugarland Mountain. I’ve been piddling my way through the upper third for 3.5 hours! Might be wise to pick up the pace.

Boletus bicolor

Boletus bicolor

Sugarland Mountain defines part of the watersheds for Little River to the west and West Prong of Little Pigeon River to the east, paralleling Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) much of the way. Road noise, mainly after-market motorcycles, penetrates the serenity at times, a grating annoyance.

August is prime summer mushroom season. Over these two days I see several beautiful Yellow Patches (Amanita flavoconia) and a newly emerging Blusher. Fresh plump boletes are the stars, however. Red cushions of Boletus bicolor and a pinkish brown Tylopilus species I cannot ID for certain appear on Sugarland. A mighty Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus with its fat purplish stalk graces Goshen Prong.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Below the high elevation communities, Sugarland Mountain Trail traverses moist and drier forests. Red Oak, Silverbell, and Cucumber Magnolia prefer moist, sheltered environments, whereas Sourwood and Red Maple occur on drier sites. On either side of the Huskey Gap junction, dry sunny exposures with Mountain Laurel, Galax, and Teaberry are common.

Massive sandstone boulders, remnants of Sugarland Mountain’s geologic past, cling to the mountain’s steep side, looking solid and precarious at the same time. Courthouse Rock on the 441 side is an example. I perch on a less impressive, yet still huge group of boulders overhanging the valley of Little River and eat lunch staring into canopies barely out of my reach from trees far down slope. Thinking too much about this location can produce a tummy flutter incompatible with good digestion!

Old location of Campsite #21

Old location of Campsite #21

An abandoned campsite, the former location of #21, is about one mile before Huskey Gap. Sited within a shallow ravine, there are very large boulders here too, including one that resembles a whale. A fire ring exhibiting recent use lies under the snout of this leviathan. I cannot spot any decent tent sites among the overgrowth, but food cables still hang from the trees as possible encouragement for stealth campers.

By mid afternoon I am growing weary. My feet begin to hurt, and I’m more than ready to reach Fighting Creek Gap. Apart from brief uphill runs, Sugarland Mountain Trail is mostly downhill with one notable exception. A steady half-mile ascent of 500 feet from Mids Gap provides a short, blood-pumping interval before the final descent. The last mile drops steeply to Little River Road which can be heard most of the way and occasionally glimpsed through the trees.

Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus

Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus

The trail ends at the expansive parking area for Laurel Falls, a spot always packed with visitors in summer. I intend to hitch a ride to Elkmont from here and have high hopes of doing so with ease. So many hikers on the A.T. and elsewhere seem to have little difficulty securing rides. Surely I’ll have good luck here. I stake out a location where people leaving the parking area or driving from Gatlinburg can safely stop for me.

After several minutes of thumbing without success. I take my notebook from my pack and write “ELKMONT” on a piece of paper, hoping my destination barely a mile away will make a difference. It doesn’t. I even ask a few folks walking to their cars from the falls if they might be going to Elkmont. Avoiding eye contact, they say no. I’m a 59-year-old woman wearing high-quality hiking clothes with gaiters, a backpack, and trekking poles. Do I look like an ax murderer? I’ve stood here over 20 minutes, receiving nothing but weird stares from passing motorists. Dejected, I begin the 3-mile walk to my car.

Sugarland Mountain Trailhead at Fighting Creek Gap

Sugarland Mountain Trailhead at Fighting Creek Gap

Walking Little River Road is not the safest activity. There is little to no shoulder in many places with vehicles whizzing past. The only positive is its downhill course, but once I reach the Elkmont turnoff, I’m looking at nearly 2 miles uphill. Every now and then I glance back and hold up my sign for a passing car without much hope. Finally, a white Jeep slows and stops. I rush over. A family from Chicago — mother Alana, daughter Sophia, and son Will — is camping at Elkmont and willing to give me a ride. Yay!!  Alana loves the outdoors and is interested in hiking. Will has just completed the Junior Ranger program at Sugarlands Visitor Center. They drive me to my a car a half mile beyond the campground. I am very appreciative!

Since it has taken me so long to write and post this account, I may as well add that my son works for the Chicago Cubs. The team’s fantastic finish to the regular season and promising performance in the wild card and division playoff games gave hope that perhaps the curse of the goat would finally end. Alas, it was not to be. I don’t know if Alana and her family are Cubs fans, but if so I hope they take heart like all good Cubs fans…there is always next year.

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Narrow ravine on Kanati Fork Trail

Narrow ravine on Kanati Fork Trail

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.

Showy Orchis is still in flower

Showy Orchis is still in flower

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.

Mountain Bellwort

Mountain Bellwort

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.

Mountain Bellwort fruit with long stigma lobes

Mountain Bellwort fruit with long stigma lobes

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.

Early Meadow Rue fruit

Early Meadow Rue fruit

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.

Junction at Thomas Divide

Junction at Thomas Divide

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.

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Misplaced sign on Beech Gap Trail

Misplaced sign on Beech Gap Trail

These two trails have been hanging over my head as partials, half done, since August 2010. Today I officially check them off the list. I decide to redo all of Hyatt Ridge, and park my car at its trailhead. Beech Gap is a 1.3 mile walk up Straight Fork Road where one half of that trail begins its ascent to Hyatt Ridge.

Beech Gap Trail is split into two separate sections, both originating in an area known as Round Bottom off Straight Fork Road but heading in opposite directions — one climbing 2.8 miles to Hyatt Ridge, one 2.5 miles to Balsam Mountain. The section remaining for me to hike is the former, often noted as Beech Gap Trail II. It begins just before the Straight Fork bridge. Cross the bridge and walk the road a short distance to reach Beech Gap Trail I.

Large-flowered Trillium with possible pollinators

Large-flowered Trillium with possible pollinators

Taking a photo of the trail sign, I am plunged into confusion! An arrow points left with “2.5 miles to Straight Fork Rd.” The road is less than ten feet away. Another left arrow indicates Hyatt Ridge Trail is 5.5 miles away. Hyatt Ridge is either 1.3 miles down the road or 2.8 miles up Beech Gap. Then it hits me, this particular Beech Gap sign should be placed at the Balsam Mountain Trail junction. Whoever put it up wasn’t paying very close attention! Wonder what the sign on Balsam says? I sent photos to park officials. They were appreciative, “That’s a really wrong one!”

Downed flower of Cucumber Magnolia

Downed flower of Cucumber Magnolia

This section of Beech Gap isn’t totally new to me either. I participated in a fern survey on the lower stretch several years ago. I liked the trail and have been looking forward to hiking it. Today is also my ‘easy day,’ just 9.4 miles. I can take my time and enjoy life on this lovely day in May. Beech Gap Trail II proves a perfect match.

Straight Fork begins its journey on Balsam Mountain near Mount Yonaguska. Feeder streams from a broken series of ridges, including Hyatt, to the west and Balsam to the east flow into its lengthy and remarkably straight course. As the river nears the road, unnamed spur ridges from Hyatt and Balsam converge to form a narrow opening accommodating the river and two stretches of the road doubled back on itself. The two arms of Beech Gap Trail splay into a ‘V’ as each works its way up these spur ridges. Beech Gap II undulates along the northeast slope of its spur and overlooks the river’s deep valley.

Blue Cohosh

Blue Cohosh

This northeast aspect encourages a richly diverse floral community, making the trail a wildflower lover’s dream. The trail moves in and out of folds along the wrinkled spur, many with small streams or seeps. The folds and seeps are particularly lush, but the entire trail is nothing short of spectacular. It’s simpler to list what I didn’t see, most notably Doll’s Eyes and Fringed Phacelia, but I could have easily missed both. Hillsides of Solomon’s Plume and Trillium grandiflorum mark either end of the trail that includes Large-flowered Bellwort, Cucumber Magnolia, Dwarf Ginseng, and Vasey’s Trillium.

BGT's false gap view of Hyatt Ridge

BGT’s false gap view of Hyatt Ridge

The trail itself is quite smooth and never too narrow with only a mucky area or two to mar it thanks to horse traffic. The climb is steady but not taxing (1,800 feet). Of course, I stop every few yards to gawk at something. If a great Smokies trail and great mountain weather aren’t enough, a Wood Thrush begins to sing. We can’t chose our time and place of parting, but if I could, reclining in Beech Gap’s spring splendor listening to a Wood Thrush would be hard to beat. That’s my kind of rapture.

Hyatt Ridge

Hyatt Ridge

About a half mile from its terminus on Hyatt Ridge, Beech Gap II reaches a saddle or false gap, a wide and level spot with cooling breezes just perfect for a break or even lunch on a lazy day before heading back down. However, I highly recommend continuing to the ridge, visible northwest of the gap. The remaining climb is no more difficult than the rest of Beech Gap, and Hyatt’s ridge line has its own unique charms, particularly the section leading to Campsite #44 at McGee Spring.

The Beech Gap/Hyatt junction is 0.9 mile from Hyatt Ridge Trail’s upper terminus at the campsite. The trail slips around the western side of Hyatt Bald to reach the narrow ridge crest then turns left, following that crest through Red Spruce and northern hardwoods. No mistaking this ridge line. Sloping terrain falls to either side of the level path.

White Bluets

White Bluets

Trout Lilies and Wood Anemones are flowering, and Appalachian Bunch Flower and Turk’s Cap Lily will get their turn in summer. It is impossible to ignore thick tufts of Thyme-leaved Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia), sunny as a clear sky, and like the bright smiles of babies, impossible to see without smiling back. Today on Hyatt and yesterday on Grassy Branch I find not only the traditional blue-colored flowers, but some that are snow-white with yellow eyes.

Campsite #44

Campsite #44

HRT deviates from Hyatt Ridge, heading left on a course toward Breakneck Ridge, a place name that carries its own warning. Breakneck extends due west into the Raven Fork watershed, but HRT quickly turns right into a broad saddle between the two ridges and a gradual descent to McGee Spring. This spring is the headwaters for a feeder stream into Right Fork, one of three arms that converge into Raven Fork draining the Smokies Crest from Hyatt Ridge at Tricorner Knob to Hughes Ridge at Pecks Corner.

McGee Spring

McGee Spring

The broad saddle supports an open woodland generously sprinkled with grasses, wildflowers, still leafless hardwoods, and a few spruce. It’s an incredibly beautiful and peaceful spot. At the saddle’s far end, food cables and a fire ring of rocks denote Campsite #44.

Viewing the site from behind, a large boggy area on the front right corner supports thick green vegetation of Tassel Rue, False Hellebore, and Cutleaf Coneflower and marks the modest beginnings of McGee Spring. This mass of foliage ‘flows’ northwest with the spring through a sag. A wooded path on the left leads to an equally modest gurgle of water spilling over rocks for campers’ use. The sound of flowing water is stronger further down, but accessibility could be trickier.

McGee Spring flows from the campsite through a sag. Path on left leads to site's water source.

McGee Spring flows from the campsite through a sag. Path on left leads to site’s water source.

Campsite #44 has capacity for 12 people and four horses. The space is wide and roomy, but in my wanderings I only noticed the one main area. It’s certainly big enough to handle several people, yet I can’t help but wonder if there are additional sites elsewhere. Checking the few paths that strayed from this hub, I found no obvious evidence of other locations.

Accounts of #44 note its damp underpinnings. I can certainly see where that could be a real issue. One thing they don’t note though is the relative lack of flat sites. Everything around the central fire ring is on a slight but noticeable slant. Not a problem until bedtime when you keep sliding into the downhill side of your tent.

Beautiful woodland near Campsite 44

Beautiful woodland near Campsite 44

I eat lunch and listen to the stereo call-and-response of two Black-throated Blue Warblers reinforcing their territorial boundary, which must run through the center of camp. No other sounds disturb the serenity. It really is lovely here, and I am reluctant to leave.  However, 4.4 miles of sometimes steep downhill stand between me and my car. Clouds are building up too.

From McGee Spring, Hyatt Ridge Trail steps down the main ridge, alternating level runs and descending sections, sometimes treading the ridge crest, sometimes veering west of knobs. A few cool plants are here — Large White Trillium, Cinnamon Fern, Wood Anemone, and carpets of Canada Mayflower. As Red Spruce drops out, the western exposures are dry, rocky, rutted, and dominated by Mountain Laurel with Trailing Arbutus and Teaberry. One short section is very steep, pitching straight down the nose of the ridge.

Could this be banded gneiss?

Could this be banded gneiss?

HRT’s upper 2.6 miles range in elevation between 5,200 feet at Hyatt Bald and 4,400 feet at the Enloe Creek Trail junction, a wide level gap with ample room to spread out and take a break. Hyatt’s ridge line and upper trail ‘T’ into the gap with Enloe Creek Trail beginning to the right, and HRT continuing to the left. The final 1.8 miles drop 1500 feet. This steeper pitch is offset somewhat by the wider path of a graded road or railway remnant from spruce logging operations for WWI military planes. Intermittent rocky areas are annoyances. I’ve climbed this stretch in the heat of August, and believe me, rocks or no rocks, walking down in May is the way to go.

Southern Nodding Trillium

Southern Nodding Trillium

The ‘little brown book’ notes the presence of banded gneiss not far from the gap at Enloe. I examine every rock for a half mile. Many contain quartz and appear to have faint striping. Most online photos of this rock type show more pronounced banding, but a few resemble the look of HRT’s rocks. I haven’t the knowledge to state yea or nay, but the best image I have is posted. Maybe someone with more geology skills will chime in…Scott?

One trillium variant whose petals are not very reflexed

One trillium variant whose petals are not very reflexed

Between Enloe Creek Trail and the crossing of Hyatt Creek about 0.8 mile down, the trail cuts across a very steep hillside below Hyatt Ridge facing east into the carved ravine of Hyatt Creek and its tributaries. Cradled by the towering ridge and protecting cove, the relatively lush herbaceous layer hosts a diversity of species. Scanning the trailsides to compile a list as I walk, a unique trillium stops me cold.

Back side of these large white trilliums

Back side of these large white trilliums

It’s the size of a Vasey’s Trillium with the flower tucked below a dinner-plate whorl of green leaves, but the recurved petals are white. Other details are odd: petal width varies from narrow to wide but not overlapping, petal texture appears thinner, anther sacks are purplish to ashy gray, ovaries are purplish red with bits of white. These details match Southern Nodding Trillium (Trillium rugelii).

However, there’s also a red-flowered version with narrow petals, and one that bears all the hallmarks of a true Vasey’s Trillium. I may have stepped into the middle of hybrid swarm! Several of the pedicellate (or pedunculate) trilliums listed for the park — T. erectum, T. simile, T. flexipes, T. vaseyi, and T. rugelii — belong to the “Erectum Group,” characterized by rhombic leaves and six-angled ovaries. Flower stalks of the last two species dip below the leaves. In areas where any of these species overlap, the possibility of hybridization exists.

Narrow petaled white

Narrow petaled white

More plants are visible downslope, but the steep hillside prevents me from checking more than a handful of individuals next to the trail. Two are classic white T. rugelii; one seems classic red T. vaseyi. Others show variation in petal width and the degree to which they are reflexed, both white and red, but anther color tends toward purplish. Flower color intergrades of rose and pink are possible including bicolor, but none exhibited these colorations that I could see.

HRT continues its sharp descent, crossing Hyatt Creek and following the stream course into Round Bottom. The grade finally moderates about a quarter mile from Straight Fork Road.

Red-flowered variant

Red-flowered variant

It’s sunny as I finish the trail and drive back to Big Cove Road

in Cherokee. Within a few minutes big rain drops hit the windshield. I reach Oconaluftee Visitor Center in a driving rain storm. Pulling into Smokemont, pea-sized hail bounces off the car hood. Lightning, thunder, and a second round of hail keep me stuck in my car at the campsite for an hour. I finally give up and drive back to Cherokee looking for an open restaurant.

Classic Vasey's Trillium look

Classic Vasey’s Trillium look

The choice seems to be Hardee’s or Happy Garden Chinese Buffet. I warily choose Chinese, and it is fairly good…a bit of a surprise considering it’s in Cherokee, NC. Double helpings of General Tsao’s chicken and vegetable lo mein, along with green beans, egg-drop soup, two egg rolls, and a few other bits take my mind off the rain.

Driving up Highway 441 to Smokemont in the evening light, I come upon an ‘elk jam.’ Before dinner, two or three of the large grazers were standing in an open field. Now, there are over a dozen, a loose herd of mothers and yearlings, most bedded down in the wet grass. The felted knobs of new antlers are visible on a few. I stop to enjoy the sight and take photos. The rain, thankfully, has ended.

Elk in a field by Highway 441

Elk in a field by Highway 441

 

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Charlies Bunion with Mt. LeConte in the background, Masa Knob and Mt. Kephart are out of the frame on the left.

Charlies Bunion with Mt. LeConte in the background, Masa Knob and Mt. Kephart are out of the frame on the left.

Grassy Branch Trail ties into Dry Sluice Gap Trail 1.3 miles from DSG’s Appalachian trailhead. To complete this trail today, I must double that mileage out and back. Fortunately, DSG’s otherwise relentless climb of Richland Mountain ends at Grassy Branch junction on Richland’s ridge line, and further upward progress along this ridge moderates substantially before descending to Dry Sluice Gap on the A.T.

Following a short 300-foot climb from the Smokies crest trailhead, Dry Sluice Gap Trail tops out at 5700 feet through a cool Red Spruce forest. Old spruce needles carpet and soften the ground, a refreshing and much appreciated sensation underfoot. From a clearing, look northwest to see Charlie’s Bunion, Masa Knob, and Mt. Kephart lined along the crest, with Mt. LeConte looming blue in the distance.

Skunk Goldenrod

Skunk Goldenrod

Parts of this ridge line section are rutted and rocky but never bad enough or long enough to become problematic. There are mini beech gaps with Trout Lilies and Spring Beauties in flower. Some deciduous openings have more birch trees than beech, and they typically lack the flowering trout lily/spring beauty combo. They do have sky-blue clusters of Thyme-leaved Bluets though. Under Mountain Laurel, Trailing Arbutus is still in flower, and forking branches of Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) splay across the ground.

Rugel's Ragwort

Rugel’s Ragwort

I take a moment to compare and contrast the foliage of Skunk Goldenrod and Rugel’s Ragwort. These two Aster family members are plentiful at high elevation, and while their late season flowers are distinctly different, their leafy rosettes in spring can be confused. Skunk Goldenrod produces longer, lanceolate leaves with gradually tapering or attenuate bases. Rugel’s Ragwort leaves are ovate in shape (fatter below the middle) with rounded to heart-shaped bases. Both species have toothed margins and ridges of leafy tissue on the petioles.

Skunk Goldenrod feels thicker in texture and displays a fine network of veins on the smaller leaves. Emerging Rugel’s foliage sport whitish coats of hairs. Sometimes Skunk Goldenrod gives off an unmistakeable foul odor, but attempts to locate the source are futile. Unlike Pepé LePew, Skunk Goldenrod can somehow perfume the air around it without possessing definably smelly parts. From my experience, the odor is more readily detected later in the season and could be related to aging tissues and decomposition. It may also act to deter herbivores. Galax is another mountain plant infamous for its elusive pungency.

Witch Hobble

Witch Hobble

From its start, Dry Sluice Gap Trail has been following the ridge line of Richland Mountain, a long mountain trending southeast from the Smokies crest more than six miles and stepping down gradually before petering out at Smokemont Campground. DSG traverses about 20 percent of Richland’s ridge before intersecting Grassy Branch Trail and slipping onto the eastern side. Here it begins a steep, 2.9-mile, 2,300-foot descent to the large dissected valley carved by Bradley Fork and its many tributaries.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

About 15 minutes into the downward journey, I hear a cough below me. Two very exhausted people, a man with a full backpack and a woman, soon come into view. They are breathing heavily, sweating profusely, and look completely dejected. “You’re doing this trail the hard way,” I say. The man shakes his head, “We’re trying to get to the A.T. and Peck’s Corner, but I don’t know if we’ll make it.” They’ve come from the campsite at Cabin Flats and must have gotten a late start. It’s 1:30 p.m. I let them know Grassy Branch isn’t much further, and once there the trail becomes easier as will the A.T. Relief floods their faces. “You’ve given us hope,” the woman says with a smile.

Movement in the underbrush just off trail draws my eye. It might be a turkey. I approach slowly and realize the size and color don’t fit. This bird has a short neck and deeply spotted brown coloration. It’s a Ruffed Grouse. It stops long enough to take a look at me and give me a chance at some photos, then calmly continues upslope into the woods. No alarming thumping of wings to take flight.

pink Erect Trillium

pink Erect Trillium

The eastern slope is rich and densely populated with herbaceous wildflowers. Everything is here. Of particular interest are pink Erect Trilliums, Tennessee Chickweed, and Painted Trillium. Trillium erectum has two color varieties, white and maroon red. The red variety is mostly found at higher elevations, and the white variety covers a wide elevational range. It is not unusual to find intermediate colors where the two overlap. All Erect Trilliums I’ve seen today have been white, until I spy this singular clump of three pale pink plants. Perhaps there are red individuals on the ridge above. The flowers are fresh and lovely. Beautiful specimens of Painted Trillium also grow further down Dry Sluice Gap.

Tennessee Chickweed

Tennessee Chickweed

Large or Great Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) is a native plant with showy white flowers common at low to mid elevations. On occasion, however, look-a-like Tennessee Chickweed (Stellaria corei) shows up in the same range. The two species may be distinguished by the length of the sepals, the green leaf-like structures that lie beneath the petals. If these green sepals are as long or longer than the petals, the plant is Tennessee Chickweed, and quite of bit the chickweed named for my state is hanging out on the North Carolina side of the park.

Hillside of wildflowers

Hillside of wildflowers

After the rich hillside, the trail takes a sudden turn for the worse — really dry, rocky and rutted — quite the beast. It’s temporary, but the rocks and ruts return periodically during this dry section. Plant diversity has taken a dive too. Rounding the nose of a spur ridge, I find two Pink Lady’s Slippers in flower, happy as pigs in dry acidic soil facing due south.

Massive trunk of an old growth Tulip Poplar

Massive trunk of an old growth Tulip Poplar

I pause for a late lunch in rhododendron shade and delight to the attentions of a Black-throated Blue Warbler. He hops through the shrubs angling for a better view of this strange animal in his midst and stakes his claim “zee-zee-zee-zay.”  He must perceive that I’m no threat and leaves to patrol the rest of his territory.

A mile from the trail’s end, DSG crosses Tennessee Branch and follows the stream through a rich and pleasant ravine. At a lower crossing, stands one giant Tulip Poplar. Pockets of old growth are said to be here, but this single tree — a fine one in good shape — is all I see.

Campsite 49

Campsite 49

Reaching Cabin Flats Trail, I turn left and walk 0.6 mile to Campsite #49. The trail is virtually level, rising slightly then dropping to the flat bank of Bradley Fork. Upon arrival an ideal site appears on the left, but a “no camping” sign and the Campsite 49 wooden post direct attention to the right along a path heading downstream. I note at least two sites, and the path continues to others. It also accommodates horses. I only got a quick glimpse, but 49 made a favorable first impression.

Dutchman's Pipevine unopened flower

Dutchman’s Pipevine unopened flower

Back at Dry Sluice Gap junction, Cabin Flats takes the left path down an easy grade for 0.3 mile to Bradley Fork Trail. Hanging at eye level is a stem of Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla) with an unopened ‘pipe’ flower awaiting maturity. The trail widens, reveals its roadway roots, and curves left, bringing into view a steel framed bridge. An unexpected and unusual sight, the bridge with its graveled surface provides easy passage over Bradley Fork.

Steel Bridge

Steel Bridge

Just past the bridge, Cabin Flats Trail seamlessly transitions to Bradley Fork Trail’s lower section, a continuation of the road and its gentle grade. The stream remains to the right all the way to Smokemont, 4.0 miles. Last time I did this stretch in January of 2013, the park had experienced heavy rains and serious flooding that wiped out a section of Highway 441. This old road trail had taken quite a hit too. I’m pleased to say that its condition is much improved, and my final miles, though at the end of a long day, are smooth and pleasant.

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Kephart Prong Trail

Kephart Prong Trail

My long-awaited return to the Appalachian Trail is approaching. Three days in Smokemont will allow me to check off some Smokies trails while gauging just how rusty I am. Might as well get right to the heart of the matter with a 15.5 mile day-hike covering five trails (Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Gap, Cabin Flats, and Bradley Fork), the first four of which are new. Thanks to a lift from an NPS employee up Highway 441, I’m able to start Kephart Prong at 8:00 a.m. It’s a clear spring day, darn near perfect.

CCC Camp and old stone sign

CCC Camp and old stone sign

This trail isn’t really new to me. I’ve hiked it on two other occasions at the tail end of a Pilgrimage hike and Fern Foray down Sweat Heifer before my 900 Mile Club ambitions. I remember this short trail as rocky, hard on my feet, and endless. Back in those days I wouldn’t even qualify as a novice hiker, and 7.4 miles (AT, Sweat Heifer, Kephart Prong) was quite an accomplishment. My body had not adjusted to lengthy foot travel in mountainous terrain, and I didn’t have decent boots. Plus, Kephart Prong Trail always wrapped up a long day, its two miles just something to be endured until we reached the car. As the first trail on tap today, I’m giving KPT a chance to redeem itself.

CCC water fountain

CCC water fountain

The trail strikes a due north course along its similarly named stream. Lively and fast-flowing Kephart Prong drains a triangular valley bounded by the Smokies crest, a ridge line off Sweat Heifer Creek Trail to the west, and half of Richland Mountain to the east. KPT and the prong rise 830 feet in two miles from the trailhead on Hwy. 441 to Kephart Shelter at the trail’s junction with Sweat Heifer and Grassy Branch trails. These trails split KPT’s straight trajectory into two winding paths, each working upslope in opposite directions toward the A.T.

CCC chimney

CCC chimney

At the head of this drainage is Mt. Kephart (6,217 ft) and Masa Knob. The mountain, prong, trail, and shelter are named for Horace Kephart. Apparently ill-suited to the constraints of domestic life, Horace left his wife and six children for the wilds of Appalachia in 1904, settling near Hazel Creek. He wrote books on outdoor life and is most famous for his honest portrayal of mountain families in Our Southern Highlanders. Kephart and his good friend Japanese expatriate George Masa were early advocates for the park.

My fresh KPT assessment acknowledges a reasonably smooth trail disrupted by occasional rocky patches. The upward trend isn’t difficult, but it does induce sweating, even on a cool morning. KPT crosses the prong four times, and the trail sometimes appears to head straight into the water. These are horse fords. In times of low flow on hot summer days, step right through if desired. If not, look to the side for narrow paths connecting to footlogs. One footlog is a well constructed narrow bridge spanning a steep-banked and boulder-filled section of Kephart Prong. I did not notice if there was a ford nearby, so it is possible horses cross on this bridge too.

Great foot bridge over Kephart Prong

Great foot bridge over Kephart Prong

The Civilian Conservation Corps had a large camp along the lower reaches of KPT for a decade in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II conscientious objectors were quartered here. All associated buildings are long gone, leaving only the remains of a stone sign, water fountain, and fireplace chimney plus a few boxwood shrubs as evidence. Dead hemlocks studded with fruiting bodies of Hemlock Varnish Shelf fungus (Ganoderma tsugae) surround the chimney.

Marsh Violet

Marsh Violet

About a quarter mile further up, concrete platforms believed to be cisterns associated with a fish hatchery in the 30s are nearly hidden behind a camouflage of mosses, birches, and rhododendrons. The only other hint of this area’s past life is the trail itself, whose grade indicates its origins as a Jeep road and railway line. Rail irons should be found near the trail’s end. I saw them on previous walks but not today amid May’s expansive herbaceous growth.

As noted in the last post, any Smokies trail this time of year should be beautiful. KPT is no exception. Most spring wildflowers expected in a mid-elevation stream valley are setting seed or currently flowering. A large patch of Speckled Wood Lily glows fresh and bright. Clusters of Marsh Violet (Viola cucullata) flowers perch on stalks with perfect posture along a trickle of water working its way to the prong.

Quite large Rattlesnake Fern

Quite large Rattlesnake Fern

The sterile frond of a husky Rattlesnake Fern (Botrypus virginianus) features lower pinnae nearly as large as the rest of the blade, giving the appearance of triple fronds. There are a few of these strapping ferns clustered together.

I arrive at the renovated shelter midmorning (later than planned) and find Kristin savoring a slow morning in the mountains. She’s completed all course work for her degree in nursing at Auburn and is enjoying a bit of R&R backpacking before graduation on Sunday. We chat a bit as I snack.

Kristin at the Kephart Shelter

Kristin at the Kephart Shelter

She found a small book on her way to the mountains in a used bookstore, The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. It advocates walking in the practice of mindfulness, using each step to ground yourself in place and fully embrace the present moment. Here is the opening poem:

“I have arrived
I am home
in the here
in the now
I am solid
I am free
in the ultimate
I dwell”

Rerouted trail on Grassy Branch

Rerouted trail on Grassy Branch

The Smokies are my second home, where I ground each step in the present to dwell free and solid in these mountains, the ultimate place for me. With mindful tread, I begin Grassy Branch Trail.

Grassy Branch is also named for a stream…two of them.  The trail’s midsection climbs a finger ridge of Richland Mountain between Upper Grassy Branch and Lower Grassy Branch. These two along with Hunter Creek and flow from Icewater Spring converge into Kephart Prong.

Rosy Large White Trilliums

Rosy Large White Trilliums

The trail zigzags its way 1,800 feet upslope to Dry Sluice Gap Trail in 2.5 miles. Recent work rerouted a section of the lower trail resulting in an exceptional walking surface and well-set stonework reinforcing some of the steeper switchbacks. Small “Trail” signs with an arrow at either end of the new section were placed to deter people from taking the old route, and Mother Nature’s quick reclamation has rendered them all but useless. I stand a minute trying to determine a reason for the first sign. At the second one, I deduce the purpose yet see no further need for them. Nothing resembling a working trail on the old route appears evident.

Umbrella Leaf

Umbrella Leaf

Following streams for the lower third, Grassy Branch Trail stays within a rich cove forest boasting early May wildflowers. Large White Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) are in their rose-colored phase, and massive clumps of Umbrella Leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) stake a claim in each seep or stream. After crossing Lower Grassy Branch, the trail cuts along a western slope of Mountain Laurel, Trailing Arbutus, Galax, and blueberries on mossy banks. A view into the valley below reveals distant flowers of Fraser Magnolia, identifiable from their size, and Downy Serviceberry. Cool shade of a rhododendron tunnel provides relief from the sun and rapidly warming temperature.

Grassy woodland

Grassy woodland

Soon the trail rounds to an eastern slope and passes through a grassy woodland of young birch and beech trees beginning to break bud with sprigs of Witch Hobble in flower plus Thyme-leaved Bluet, Common Blue Violet, Hayscented Fern, and Spring Beauty. Red Spruce enters the mix with sidekicks Skunk Goldenrod and Rugel’s Ragwort in tow. Near the top, leafy spirals of False Hellebore are sprinkled among thick stands of Tassel Rue (Trautvetteria caroliniensis) in a wet area. Rising through one final gauntlet of Mountain Laurel, Grassy Branch ends where Dry Sluice Gap Trail begins its precipitous decent.

Bluets and Violets

Bluets and Violets

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Twentymile, Wolf Ridge trails junction

Twentymile, Wolf Ridge trails junction

Last April, I hiked all the trails in the Twentymile section of the park with the exception of a 1.1 mile stretch of Wolf Ridge. On my way to a fungi class at Highlands Biological Station in early August, I make a brief detour to finish the job on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The Wolf Ridge junction is a half mile up Twentymile Trail, immediately past the first bridge. This bridge crosses Moore Springs Branch, and Wolf Ridge Trail dances with this stream, weaving first to one side then the other for a total of five crossings within the first 1.1 miles.  All crossings are on sturdy foot logs, though the first has some spring to it that causes the far end embedded in the ground to move slightly — just a tad disconcerting.

One of the horse fords of Moore Spring Branch

One of the horse fords of Moore Spring Branch

The branch is wide with a hearty water flow and would definitely produce wet feet without these bridges. Early versions of the ‘Little Brown Book’ noted at least two, maybe three of these crossings as unbridged. Thanks to additional bridges here and another at the end of the Twentymile Loop Trail, a pleasant 7.6 mile lollypop hike along these three trails won’t even wet your boot soles.

Not everyone places a premium on staying dry. Wolf Ridge is a horse trail, and wide fords accompany each of the foot logs. On a hot summer day with appropriate footwear or just bare tootsies, hikers have a relatively easy and refreshing alternative if desired.

The somewhat rocky and rutted beginning of Wolf Ridge smooths after the second stream crossing. It must have been an old road too, though neither grade nor surface compares with the silky, graveled ease of Twentymile Trail.

The final double bridged crossing of Moore Spring Branch

The final double bridged crossing of Moore Spring Branch

Technically, there are five and half bridged crossings in this lower 1.1 mile stretch of Wolf Ridge. At the final crossing, a sliver of Moore’s Spring splits from the main stream bed to gouge its own path. Across the main bridge, the trail doglegs right to a short second footlog over this narrow channel.

Twentymile Loop Trail junction is not far beyond the final crossing. From here Wolf Ridge continues a moderate grade to Campsite #95 on Dalton Branch, then begins a steady 3.5 mile climb to Parson Bald and Sheep Pen Gap off Gregory Bald. Twentymile Loop traces a gentle arc over the tail end of Long Hungry Ridge to a junction with Twentymile Trail in 2.5 miles. From there, it is 3.1 miles down Twentymile Trail to the trailhead parking.

A bee on one of the last Yellow Leafcup blossoms

A bee on one of the last Yellow Leafcup blossoms

Very few plants are in flower along lower Wolf Ridge in early August. On Twentymile Trail, however, I see Three-lobed or Thin-leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia triloba), Flowering Spurge, fading Yellow Leafcup (Smallanthus uedivalis), Starry Campion (Silene stellata), Summer Bluets, and several ferns including Southern Lady Fern, Broad Beech Fern, and Maidenhair Fern. Bees are working the flowers, and a cluster of Spring Azures puddle on the side of the trail.

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Trailside gazebo near the start of Little River Trail

Trailside gazebo near the start of Little River Trail

Little River is a trail I both love and loathe. Its pluses are many — wide smooth surface, beautiful mountain stream, botanically rich valley, easy 1200-foot rise spread evenly over 6.2 miles. For these reasons and its Elkmont location, it also attracts nearly as many visitors as Laurel Falls or Alum Cave. Thank heaven there is no showy waterfall or, god forbid, tubing. The crowds would be unbearable. Little River Trail simply provides an exceptionally pleasant walk in the woods. My early start leaves behind most Elkmont campers (still snoozing) and less committed park visitors. I pretty much have the trail to myself. What joy!

Trashy lawn chair

Trashy lawn chair

While the smooth trail surface is marvelous, it does have a drawback. As I’ve mentioned before, these gravel roadbeds make it easy to strike a rhythm and become absorbed in private thoughts, walking right past interesting plants, animals, and fungi without a glance. It can be hard to stay in the moment during a cool, summer’s daydream stroll in the mountains.

At the beginning, Little River Trail nabs attention with the slowly decaying summer homes of Elkmont’s wealthier inhabitants. This section of the old resort community was called “Millionaires Row.” Decades later that distinction makes little difference, and the structures

Huge Dutchman's Pipevine leaf

Huge Dutchman’s Pipevine leaf

are succumbing to the twin ravages of weather and neglect. Only the Spence Cabin, also known as the River Lodge, has been spared and refurbished for day use.

Some of these houses sit further back in the woods, but near the trail a not-very-old lawn chaise lounge molders among the boulders. I know the park service hesitates to remove historical artifacts indicative of life in the mountains — cars from the 1920s and 30s, tea kettles, and washtubs — but this more recent ‘artifact’ just looks trashy.

The first mile or so of the trail serves both wildflower and fern walks for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Eighteen fern species can be found. At least one resort resident enriched the native fern selection adding Royal, Sensitive, Cinnamon, and Bracken ferns to the landscape where these species were not naturally occurring and perhaps several of the others as well. The first two are scarce in the park. Two tiny ferns also scarce but not likely to inspire gardeners, Southern Adder’s-tongue (Ophioglossum pycnostichum) and Daisy-leaf Moonwort (Botrychium matricariifolium), grow there too.

My favorite view of Little River

My favorite view of Little River

In spring, clumps of Showy Orchis dazzle hikers and are now setting seed. Young Alternate-leaved Dogwood trees with their greenish bark are scattered up the trail. A very happy Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla) lives up to its scientific name, producing massive leaves twice the size of my spread hand.

Park vehicles can drive the road/trail about a mile from the gated entrance to a turnaround where large boulders block further wheeled traffic, but the wide gravel path continues as smooth and easy as ever. A short wooden bridge spans narrow Huskey Branch as it tumbles straight down the bluff into Little River. Cucumber Gap Trail junction is about 0.3 mile beyond.

Squared boulder

Squared boulder

Four-tenths mile further is a wide wooden bridge with no sides that crosses Little River. From its headwaters to its eponymous road, Little River drains a large chunk of the Smokies from Sugarland Mountain west to Miry Ridge and Blanket Mountain, yet I’ve always seen it as mild-mannered and kind. The view up river from the bridge is one of my favorites in the park. It’s a calming and beautiful scene. This crossing puts the river to the right of the trail where it will remain until the terminus at Campsite #30.

Summer Phlox

Summer Phlox

Next is Huskey Gap Trail junction. Expansive colonies of New York Fern carpet the ground in this area. Gravel in the trail surface thins, yet the path remains smooth and wide. Just off the trail, a boulder appears cut into precise 90-degree angles on three sides. White Bergamot, Summer Phlox, and Mountain Mint are in flower leading to the Goshen Prong Trail junction, and there are bridged crossings of feeder streams up to Rough Creek Trail junction.

The only rough patch on Little River Trail, just before Campsite #24

The only rough patch on Little River Trail, just before Campsite #24

Just before Rough Creek near Campsite #24, the trail becomes tricky for the first time as a small rill associated with Little River presents a jumble of rocks and shallow water to cross. The rock hop is easy, and the smooth trail resumes, though the track is narrower and grade a bit steeper. Two guys at #24 are preparing to break camp and wave hello.

In the final 0.4 mile, Little River Trail runs the gauntlet of three challenging creek crossings. The first, Meigs Post Prong, isn’t very wide, but the water is over boot tops and no simple rock hop appears possible. Some surefooted sprite might skip across successfully but not me. I came prepared and change into water shoes for the remainder of the trail.

The final crossing of Little River before Campsite #30 doesn't look that bad...but trust me, it is a challenge.

The final crossing of Little River before Campsite #30 doesn’t look that bad…but trust me, it is a challenge.

The last two crossings are close together and both are channels of Little River. Today, the middle one is nothing more than a dry ditch of small boulders, though it could accommodate significant flow in high water. Ramp flower stalks emerge between rocks on the far bank.

Campsite #30 -- flat and noisy!

Campsite #30 — flat and noisy!

The final river passage would be a bear in wet weather and probably impossible in high water. It isn’t wide at all, but the channel is cut deep into steep banks with large slippery boulders, pockets of deep water, and fast flow. Even on this dry day, it’s a struggle to cross.

Campsite #30 is perfectly positioned at the base of a bowl on a flat slab of land several feet directly above the river and its confluence with Grouse Creek draining numerous feeder streams from the fanned out flanks of Goshen Ridge and the Smokies crest. Pausing for a midmorning snack, I’m struck by the incredible noise these waters generate! It’s a great site, but this isn’t my idea of soothing burbles. Ear plugs would be essential for a good night’s rest.

Rough Creek Trail junction on Little River Trail

Rough Creek Trail junction on Little River Trail

It’s time to head back, and my second crossing of Little River doesn’t go as well. I slip and fall forward catching myself with both hands on a mossy boulder inches from a dip in the drink, scaring the daylights out of a salamander in the process. It pauses briefly right under my nose. Most people spread-eagled over a rushing mountain stream might be more concerned with finding a way out of the situation. My first thought, “Which species is it?” My second thought, “Could I possibly get to my camera?” The salamander shows more sense and runs away. It was dark colored and likely a Dusky of some sort. It’s the best ID I can manage under the circumstances given my limited knowledge of these amphibians.

Whorled Loosestrife

Whorled Loosestrife

Back across Meigs Post Prong, I dry my feet, put on my boots, and return to Rough Creek Trail, which climbs 2.8 miles (1,500 feet) to Sugarland Mountain Trail. The trail follows Rough Creek most of the way, crossing it three times (no bridges) and an unnamed feeder branch once. These crossings are not difficult. Rough Creek appears a gentle soul as does the trail…at least through the last creek crossing.

For the first two miles the trail’s condition and grade make for smooth sailing. Up to the first crossing, the area is rich with a variety of spring wildflowers. After the crossing, this richness fades but Doghobble remains. Variety returns past the second crossing of Rough Creek with large stands of Wild Geranium plus Blue Cohosh, Yellow Buckeye, and Sugar Maple. I lunch past the third crossing.

Waxy-leaf Meadow Rue

Waxy-leaf Meadow Rue

The last 0.8 mile demonstrates a ‘Mr. Hyde’ personality — steep, narrow, overgrown, uneven, rooty, and rocky. In places, the trail barely etches a line across the pitched flank of Sugarland Mountain. It’s slow going. I meet two backpackers coming down. They look tired and warn me of difficult passage at a downed tree. A small diameter trunk leans up slope requiring one step around and leaves me scratching my head how those guys could have found this “difficult.”

Mountain Wood Sorrel, Waxy-leaf Meadow Rue, Summer Bluets, Partridgeberry, and Whorled Loosestrife flowers brighten the taxing climb. It takes two hours and five minutes total to reach the top (counting lunch). I’m dreading the first part of the descent, but it isn’t bad. That 0.8 mile take 30 minutes, and 45 more for other two miles.

Galax and ferns at Rough Creek - Sugarland Mountain trails junction

Galax and ferns at Rough Creek – Sugarland Mountain trails junction

Back at Little River Trail, an easy 4.5 mile hike to Elkmont remains. Though late in the afternoon, I pass many people casually walking the trail. I look out of place with daypack and hiking poles. Somewhere past Cucumber Gap junction, I meet a park ranger. He asks me where I’ve been and if I’ve seen anyone needing help on the trail. They’d received a third-hand report of such. I tell him no and he walks on. His car is parked at the turnaround.

Maybe 0.7 mile from the trail’s end, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel and move over to let him pass. He slows beside me and asks if I’d like a ride. “You have to sit in back,” he says. Gate-to-gate, today’s hike would total 18 miles…a new personal best by a full mile, but how many chances might I get to ride with a ranger…not under arrest? I wriggle into the cramped back seat.

Little River turnaround and ranger car

Little River turnaround and ranger car

He’s been at the park a few years having served at Grand Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Family brought him east, but he misses the West. I hop out at the gate and thank him for the lift. I hiked 17.3 miles, still a personal best!

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