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Cucumber Gap Trail

Cucumber Gap Trail

I’ve hiked Cucumber Gap Trail on several occasions — pilgrimage hikes, fern forays, and solo hikes, completing it three times before the official start of my 900 Mile Club quest. Today’s hike is for the record book. I arrive at Elkmont Campground about noon, set up my new four-person tent (luxury!), and eat lunch. The weather is typical for summer in the Smokies — clouds, sun, and distant thunder. My campsite is on the far side of Little River, and I can quickly access Little River and Jakes Creek trailheads via a short path across from site N4. The plan is to see the Avent Cabin off Jakes Creek first, then hike Cucumber Gap and return on Little River Trail.

At the Cucumber Gap junction after my cabin visit, deep gray clouds obscure the sky and thunder is closing in from the west. The forest is so dark, lightning brightens the understory, and photography without flash is almost impossible. The storm’s extended prelude gets me thinking it’s going to be “all show and no go.” A slight rain begins to fall as the thunder fades, yet I hike for some time without getting wet. Raindrops finally filter through the canopy necessitating an umbrella.

Huskey Branch

Huskey Branch

Miry Ridge Trail extends from the Smokies Crest in a wide sweeping curve heading northeast, then north, and finally west over Dripping Spring Mountain. It looks a bit like a question mark on the map. Where that trail begins its turn west, another ridge called Bent Arm strikes a due northeast course for 1.3 miles then crooks northward at a 4,726-foot elevation peak and descends to Cucumber Gap. Bent Arm and its spread of finger ridges fan into a wide arc that drains into Goshen Prong, Huskey Branch, Jakes Creek and other feeder streams reaching Little River. Cucumber Gap Trail follows the northern end of that arc through the low gap between Bent Arm and Burnt Mountain (3,373). That short mountain and two other small hills occupy a skinny triangle of land that separate the gap from Little River.

Dwarf Ginseng

Dwarf Ginseng

Cucumber Gap Trail is 2.4 miles long, rises 500 feet in the first mile (from Jakes Creek Trail) to 3,000 feet and makes a gradual descent to its junction (2,550) with Little River Trail. The three-trail combo makes a fantastic 5.6 mile loop from either parking area. Cucumber Gap is the only real dirt trail of the three, and its mostly smooth path presents no real challenge outside a rock hop or two. Crossing Huskey Branch near Little River can be wet when water is high — no problem today.

Not much flowers in June; spring is king on Cucumber Gap. That first mile climbs through a cove hardwood forest bedecked with bountiful wildflowers — Doll’s Eyes, Wood Anemone, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Blue Cohosh, Speckled Wood Lily, Toothwort, Trout Lily, Wild Geranium, Liverleaf, Bishop’s Cap, Creeping Phlox, May Apple, Solomon’s Seal, Nodding Mandarin, Brook Lettuce, Solomon’s Plume, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, three trillium species, and a wide array of violets.

One of those wildflowers, small and low-growing Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius), barely clears the leaf litter with its whorl of three compound leaves and starry ball of white flowers in April. It is quite easy to miss this scarce little plant, yet once eyes become adjusted to its look, it can be found sprinkled among other wildflowers on this trail. Andro-dioecious, clusters of male flowers (stamens with nonfunctioning pistils) appear on separate plants. Other plants have mostly perfect flowers (functioning pistils and stamens). Reportedly, plants can change sex, staminate one year and perfect the next. Leaves have three to five leaflets, and fruits are yellow. Unlike American Ginseng (P. quinquefolius), this species isn’t touted for medicinal benefits.

Seersucker Sedge

Seersucker Sedge

In late June, it is possible to find Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, Summer Bluets, and Black Cohosh in flower and maybe a few late Umbrella Leaf and Indian Cucumber Root flowers. Hydrangea shrubs are in their glory.  Ferns dominate in summer with at least 13 species here including Southern Lady Fern, Silvery Glade Fern, and Cinnamon Fern. Strappy dark-green leaves of Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus), a rare plant in Tennessee, stand apart from the rest of the summer green, and in spring are adorned with showy flower heads like white tassels waving atop long stalks.

A personal favorite, Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea), loves rich forests. Wide grass-like foliage is pleated and puckered along their length imparting a wonderful texture. It stills looks so fresh and lush along the trail.

Both Fraser’s and Cucumber Magnolias occur in Cucumber Gap, and their bumpy green fruit might have prompted the gap’s name. Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) is scattered lightly throughout the lower Elkmont area. I mainly notice young saplings distinguished by compound foliage with alternate leaflets. I’ve not seen trees of any size, much less flowering, yet they must be here. Fragrant chains of white flowers produce clusters of flat seedpods.

Junction at Little River

Junction at Little River

The descent to Little River runs through a drier, less diverse forest with fewer spring flowers. However, a scattering of Painted Trilliums in spring and Flat-branch Ground Pine reward observant hikers.

One of the first trails I hiked in the Smokies, Cucumber Gap remains a favorite any time of year but especially in spring.

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Twentymile, April 12, 2014Earlier 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.

Twentymile Cascade

Twentymile Cascade

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.

Twentymile Cascade slide

Twentymile Cascade slide

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.

Robin's Plantain

Robin’s Plantain

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.

Rare Toadshade in the park

Rare Toadshade in the park

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.

Likely a juvenile Whitebanded Fishing Spider

Likely a juvenile Whitebanded Fishing Spider

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 think this is Wild Oats rather than Mountain Bellwort.

I think this is Wild Oats rather than Mountain Bellwort.

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.

Common Wood-rush is showy in flower.

Common Wood-rush is showy in flower.

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.

Looking back down Long Hungry Ridge Trail

Looking back down Long Hungry Ridge Trail

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).

Rye Patch on Long Hungry Ridge

Rye Patch on Long Hungry Ridge

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.

Gregory Bald Trail

Gregory Bald Trail

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!

Flame Azalea fruit capsules

Flame Azalea fruit capsules

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.

On Gregory Bald

On Gregory Bald

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.

View north from Gregory Bald

View north from Gregory Bald

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.

Campsite #13 at Sheep Pen Gap

Campsite #13 at Sheep Pen Gap

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.

Parson Bald with abandoned tent and sleeping bag

Parson Bald with abandoned tent and sleeping bag

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.

Pellia species liverwort

Pellia species liverwort

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.

Sweeping ridge-line curve on Wolf Ridge where the trail surface smooths

Sweeping ridge-line curve on Wolf Ridge where the trail surface smooths

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.

Catesby's Trillium

Catesby’s Trillium

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.

Twentymile Loop waterfall

Twentymile Loop waterfall

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.

Bronze form of Toadshade or hybrid with Yellow Trillium?

Bronze form of Toadshade or hybrid with Yellow Trillium?

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.

Shuckstack Fire Tower from Twentymile Trail

Shuckstack Fire Tower from Twentymile Trail

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.

Bridge on Twentymile Trail

Bridge on Twentymile Trail

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!

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Dennis, Herb and Todd on Road Prong Trail

Dennis, Herb and Todd on Road Prong Trail

A short trail, Road Prong could be hiked in and out from its upper trailhead in less than five miles, though the trek back to the top would be rather arduous at times. The better approach, if possible, is a one-way 2.4 mile descent, finishing with a 0.9 mile stretch of the lower Chimney Tops Trail. This requires a car shuttle from the Chimneys parking lot up Highway 441 to Indian Gap on Clingman’s Dome Road. Road Prong Trail begins at the gap along the Appalachian Trail in Spruce-Fir forests 5,300 feet above sea level.

Red Squirrel spruce cone midden

Red Squirrel spruce cone midden

As part of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, Todd, another leader, and I sit at the Chimneys parking area on a cool and cloudy Friday morning to await our Pilgrims for a day-long descent of Road Prong. Two gentlemen, old friends familiar with the Smokies and this trail, are our only hikers today. Dennis, who has yet to meet a fish he wouldn’t like to catch, and Herb, a tourism worker for Blount County, look forward to learning more about the trail with a trained botanist and amateur naturalist. Turns out, the botanist and naturalist learn a few things too. True to his vocation, Herb is well versed on the cultural history of the Smokies. His aunt was a former owner of the recently refurbished Spence Cabin (aka the River Lodge) in Elkmont, and he shares historical anecdotes with us.

Golden Knight Moss

Golden Knight Moss

Most normal pilgrimage hikes move at a leisurely pace. This is only 3.3 miles, and we have from midmorning to mid-afternoon to cover it. I drive us to Indian Gap to begin an easy descent examining mosses, lichens, red squirrel middens, wildflower foliage (few things are in flower), and trees. Fraser Fir, Red Spruce, Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Yellow Buckeye, living and dead, are common along the first mile. Littering mossy tree stumps, Red Squirrels or Boomers have left spruce-cone detritus from recent repasts.

Todd exercises fresh skills in moss and liverwort ID on Norwellia curvula coating decorticated logs, Frullania on tree bark, Ctenidium malacodes, Golden Knight Moss, and the tapestry of Dicranium, Thelia, Hypnum, and Thuidium embroidering a single log.  We find all four forms of lichens — crustose, foliose, fruiticose, and squamulous. With a well-aimed squirt of water, we revive Lung Lichen from listless brown to vibrant green. A Winter Wren offers the musical accompaniment of his long twittery tune.

Trout Lilies and a Bluet

Trout Lilies and a Bluet

Despite persistent clouds, a few Spring Beauties open just enough to invite a photo. Two Trout Lilies and a lone Bluet provide the showiest floral display we will see. Foliage announce most herbaceous plants — Skunk Goldenrod, Rugel’s Ragwort, Ramp, Monkshood, and one of the meadow rues maybe Thalictrum coriaceum. In seeps we find Bee Balm, Cutleaf Coneflower, Impatiens, and Golden Saxifrage. The latter is probably in flower, but I don’t risk wet knees to look for the tiny, unobtrusive blossoms. Witch Hobble flower buds are expanding and leaves are set to unfurl.

Spring Beauties are slow to open on a cloudy day.

Spring Beauties are slow to open on a cloudy day.

Road Prong follows the west-to-north arc its namesake stream carves between Mount Mingus and Sugarland Mountain. Known a century ago as the Oconaluftee Turnpike, the main thoroughfare between Sevierville, TN, and Cherokee, NC, Road Prong Trail has returned to a wild state quite removed from the bustle of any busy road.

Log jam in Road Prong

Log jam in Road Prong

A trail of multiple personalities, Road Prong’s initial descent from Indian Gap is rather steep, a bit rutted, and somewhat rocky. As the grade moderates, the wide trail becomes paved path of flat rocks that clink musically underfoot. A second steep section leads to the trail’s “wet” persona. Road Prong bounces back and forth across its stream, demanding rock-hops from bank to cobble bar downstream for long stretches. The stream channels runoff from two mountains and numerous feeder streams. In heavy rains, the volume of water must be impressive. A massive log jam clogs the narrow valley at one point that required rerouting of the trail.

Hillside path

Hillside path

The path smooths into a gentle curve along a lush hillside of Meadow Rue, Ramp, and Running Strawberry-bush (Euonymus obovatus) overlooking the stream. As the trail descends, the stream gets wider, deeper, and louder. Large boulders narrow the streambed to create a vigorous shot of water plunging over a 15-foot drop into a plunge pool. There’s also a 60-foot cascade that I do not notice, and there are three reasons for this oversight. First, based on the photo in Waterfalls of the Smokies, the cascade is far more horizontal than vertical in a series of small drops. Second, approaching it from upstream is not the best way to view such features. It would be much easier to see and appreciate hiking up the trail. Third, Herb and Dennis, have fallen into old habits. Chatting side by side, they stroll merrily in front while Todd and I tag along behind. We are now simply hiking for the joy of it.

Road Prong Waterfall

Road Prong Waterfall

The lower reaches of Road Prong are not as steep, and bridges are welcome assists in crossing the mature stream nearing its junction with West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. At 1:00, we arrive at the Chimney Tops Trail junction, a relatively flat open area with great sitting logs. We eat lunch and watch other park visitors heading toward and returning from the Chimneys. A few Dutchman’s Breeches still sport flowers nearby, and a large swathe of Fringed Phacelia is poised to blanket the ground with wildflower snow.

Fringed Phacelia poised for a show

Fringed Phacelia poised for a show

Renovation of the Chimney Tops Trail continues, but if the work done in the first 0.9 mile is any indication, it will require a second visit from me when complete. The stone work to create steps on steep sections is masterful, worthy of the beautiful CCC work in the 1930s.

Chimney Tops Trail renovation work

Chimney Tops Trail renovation work

Dennis and Herb drive Todd and me to my car at Indian Gap. As we say our goodbyes, four A.T. hikers approach asking if any of us has cell service. They need to arrange a shuttle pickup for Newfound Gap 1.7 miles away. None of us can get a signal, but I introduce myself to them as a fellow A.T. hiker and offer to call from Newfound Gap, where Todd’s Verizon phone is likely to work. We shake hands all around. One is a large man with a white flowing beard and bright red jacket. He looks like Santa! I fail to write down their trail names and have now forgotten them, but I do reach their hotel by phone and arrange for their ride. I wish them well.

Witch Hobble flower buds

Witch Hobble flower buds

Speaking of the A.T., I heard from “Maineiac”! He contacted me by email and is doing well. He made it all the way, an official 2,000 miler! In the March-April issue of AT Journeys, these fellow 2013 hikers made it to Katahdin for sure: “Oaks” and “Sweet Pea,” “Clever Girl,” “Dumptruck,” “Lady Grey,” “Grim,” “Maineiac,” and “Ned.” Scott “Jean Genie” isn’t listed, but Josh “Duffle Miner” is, and I’m very happy for him. Along with “Oaks,” “Sweet Pea,” “Maineiac,” “Twisted,” and “The Marine,” those two early trail buddies are my favorites. Congratulations to you all, and best wishes for a wonderful life. One day, perhaps, I’ll join you on this special list.

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Cascade, Lynn Camp Prong, Middle Prong Trail

Cascade, Lynn Camp Prong, Middle Prong Trail

October is the busiest month in the park. Sunny days, cool temperatures, and stunning fall colors are a money making combination. Unless a dysfunctional U.S. Congress intentionally sticks its own feet up its own butt and royally screws two beautiful weeks for the rest of the country, punishing park visitors and neighboring communities. What a mess!

Easy rail grade at the start of Lynn Camp Prong Trail

Easy rail grade at the start of Lynn Camp Prong Trail

My camping trip is one casualty. A backcountry reservation for Campsite #30 Three Forks at the end of Little River Trail is suspended. The state of Tennessee and Blount and Sevier counties make a heroic effort to reopen the park Oct. 16, the day of my overnight. It is just a little too late for me to make it. I have to pare the schedule to a Friday day hike, Saturday class on map and compass skills, and Sunday morning exploration of the Quiet Walkways. The Friday day hike is a lollipop loop of four trails — Middle Prong to Lynn Camp Prong to Miry Ridge to Panther Creek and back to Middle Prong — 14.9 miles.

Log Ridge across Lynn Camp Prong

Log Ridge across Lynn Camp Prong

The cultural history of the Southern Appalachians is quite interesting, but for me it has always taken a backseat to natural history. On the western end of the park, Tremont Road runs from Laurel Creek Road at the Townsend Wye through Walker Valley to its terminus at the confluence of Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong, the start of Middle Prong — both the creek flowing out of the mountains and the trail weaving into them. When Will Walker’s family sold their land to timber interests, Little River Company built this rail grade through the valley to harvest the ancient forest.

Veiled Panus fungus

Veiled Panus fungus

A short distance up Tremont Road across from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is a small stand with booklets for an auto tour of the area. Numbered stops along the road pair with information in the booklet to detail WB Townsend’s bustling logging operation and the support community that sprang up like mushrooms after a summer rain. It takes quite a bit of imagination to conjure this scene as little physical evidence remains of the school, hotel, post office, machine shop, store, and homes that thrived on the cut wood from these mountains.

Lynn Camp Prong campsite sign

Lynn Camp Prong campsite sign

Middle Prong Trail (4.1 miles) and the first 1.5 miles of Lynn Camp Prong Trail continue the loggers’ rail grade and provide easy walking for hikers at any level. Middle Prong Trail follows Lynn Camp Prong (the stream) most of the way then switches allegiance to Indian Flats Prong in the final mile, ending at the junction with Greenbrier Ridge Trail and Lynn Camp Prong Trail. I arrive at this junction in one hour and 45 minutes. (For a full account of Middle Prong Trail, please see the blog entry dated June 23, 2011, in the July 2011 Archive.)

The dominant mountain peak above Lynn Camp Prong is Cold Spring Knob (5,520 feet). It sits on the Smokies Crest and juts north into Tennessee. Four ridge lines radiate from the knob in an “X.” Southwest and southeast ridges are part of the crest forming the North Carolina border and featuring the Appalachian Trail. Miry Ridge and its trail strike a course northeast, and Mellinger Death Ridge heads northwest. Drainage from Mellinger and Miry, plus Dripping Spring Mountain and its Log Ridge, supplies the feeder streams and headwaters for Lynn Camp Prong. The trail roughly follows the prong’s east/west course, though removed upslope, skirting the base of Cold Spring Knob.

Mossy ground sprigged with Fancy Ferns

Mossy ground sprigged with Fancy Ferns

From the Middle Prong junction, Lynn Camp Prong Trail climbs 1,200 feet in 3.7 miles, 1,000 of that in the last 2.25 miles — a grade that is never taxing. The path to Campsite #28 is wide and smooth thanks to the logging grade and scallops its way around the finger ridges of Mellinger Death Ridge. Its grisly name derives from the murder of hapless Jasper Mellinger, whose misfortune led him to literally stumble into a bear trap set up inappropriately by two brothers. They found the poor guy near death a few days later and opted to chuck him off a rocky cliff rather than face consequences. For 30 years, Mellinger’s disappearance was a mystery until one brother confessed on his deathbed and told authorities where to look for the dead man’s remains.

Where's Goldilocks?

Where’s Goldilocks?

The tranquil forest belies such horror, and Lynn Camp Prong is lovely and pleasant to hike. Other than the cool October air, asters and goldenrods are the main signs of the season. Autumn has been dry, and the trees remain mostly green. Near the campsite, I catch glimpses of bright color across the prong on Log Ridge. These small pockets of showy yellows and reds hidden in this valley will be the only spots of decent fall color visible on this trip.

During a brief break, I see a small branch studded with rosy beige fungi. The little mushrooms grow pendulously from a central attachment and gills underneath radiate from this point. It could be Tectella patellaris, Veiled Panus. A few sport what appear to be remnants of a veil. They are saprobic, feeding on dead organic matter, and are found from summer to early winter.

Three Bears 02, Lynn Camp Prong Trail, October 18, 2013The campsite is in a broad, nearly flat, area at the opening of Buckeye Cove. It lies straight ahead 0.2 mile from the sign, and Lynn Camp Prong Trail takes a hard right and climbs away from the smooth rail grade. The trail surface is rockier, requiring more attention, but is still relatively comfortable underfoot.

Blue Ground-Cedar on Dripping Spring Mountain

Blue Ground-cedar on Dripping Spring Mountain

The Little Brown Book describes small stream crossings and seeps on the upper section that can make the trail messy, especially with horse traffic, but the dry weather has kept this to a minimum. I find very little mud or muck today, but the moist environment is a boon to mosses and ferns. Thick carpets of the former are sprigged with lush vases of Intermediate (Fancy) Fern.

Round-branch Ground-Pine on Dripping Spring Mountain

Round-branch Ground-pine on Dripping Spring Mountain

LBB also discusses possible wildlife sightings of Boomers and Bears. I get both! A Red Squirrel loudly protests my interruption of its quiet morning, and that stand of Black Cherry trees mentioned in the book is currently serving a lunch buffet for local bears. A crashing noise in the tree tops can only mean one thing. Sure enough, not one but three bears are perched on thick limbs of one tree high in the canopy. One, the largest and likely mom, is stuffing its face as fast as it can grab nearby leafy twigs. The others, smaller in size, aren’t as gluttonous. I snap a few quick photos and prepare to move on. Mom and one cub have spotted me. The third is so still, it may be napping. To my slight discomfort, I realize the trail circles around to pass right under this tree. The bears are quite high up and don’t seem inclined to descend. I put my head down and walk calmly but with purpose through the stand of cherries to the opposite side. None of the bears moves. I watch them for another moment then leave them to eat in peace.

Colorful oak and huckleberry leaves

Colorful oak and huckleberry leaves

I reach Lynn Camp Prong’s junction with Miry Ridge Trail in two hours and pause here for lunch. The sun is shining, but it is quite cool with a slight breeze. I eat quickly and continue 2.5 miles to the Panther Creek and Jakes Creek junctions. I’ve hiked Miry Ridge before in summer (June 24, 2011, July 2011 Archive). Lynn Camp’s junction is near the end of the actual named ridge line, and the trail circles west to climb Dripping Spring Mountain, traversing just south of its wide summit.

Narrow Valley of Panther Creek

Narrow valley of Panther Creek

Huckleberries and young Scarlet Oaks are flaming red on the exposed slope. Tucked into rocky crevices among Reindeer Lichen are Blue Ground-cedar (Diphasiastrum tristachyum) and Round-branch Ground-pine (Dendrolycopodium hickeyi) growing side by side. Not frequently found, these small club mosses prefer the harsher conditions favoring heath balds.

Panther Creek

Panther Creek

Miry Ridge Trail drops from the mountain to its junction with Jakes Creek Trail on the right and Panther Creek Trail to the left. Straight ahead is the vegetation-choked manway up Blanket Mountain (Feb. 2012 Archive).

Panther Creek Trail descends 1,600 feet over 2.3 miles closely following the creek’s path between Timber Ridge off Blanket Mountain and Log Ridge off Dripping Spring. Its course also runs mostly east/west. This creek valley becomes very narrow in places, and the trail crosses Panther Creek numerous times and in one location merges with it. The potential for wet, muddy feet is great here, but I have no problem today.

Lacy leaf

Lacy leaf

The trail is steepest within the first mile and moderates thereafter. Evergreen shrubs Rosebay Rhododendron and Doghobble abound here. Deciduous plants are looking ragged. One poor specimen has been so ravaged by insects, it resembles lace more than leaf.

Panther Creek and Trail merge as one

Panther Creek and Trail merge as one

About halfway down, a tree has fallen into the creek, its branches obscuring the path at one creek crossing. As I study my options, three horse riders come down the trail. One lady seems to know about this blockage and deftly urges her horse over the trunk to cross behind it. I slip over the trunk and follow their lead.

The final creek crossing is Lynn Camp Prong, just a few yards shy of the Middle Prong Trail junction. The stream is wide and not very deep, but still too deep for boots. A rock hop is nearly impossible and poses far more dangers than wading. Off come the gaiters, boots, and socks, and up go the pants legs.

The chilly waters of Lynn Camp Prong

The chilly waters of Lynn Camp Prong

The water’s depth changes dramatically, nearly up my knees in places. The rough and rocky bed is slippery. It hurts my feet and challenges my balance. I nearly fall over at one point, sharply banging my knee on a big boulder. The struggle across is taking much longer than desired, and my poor feet start screaming in pain from the icy cold water. By the time I stumble up the opposite bank, I can barely keep from crying. I rub them dry and pull on socks and shoes quickly to restore warmth. It takes several minutes before they function well enough to stand and walk normally.

From here it is 2.3 miles to the parking area down Middle Prong Trail. The 14.9 mile hike takes me 7 hours and 45 minutes.

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Sign Gunter Fork Junction, Camel Gap Trail, July 30, 2013My hopes for a dry Wednesday morning are dashed sometime in the middle of the night. Raindrops patter the tent throughout the wee hours and well past dawn. I resign myself to striking camp in the rain. That isn’t my only problem. Again I sleep fully dressed yet still get cold. I finally admit that I should have brought a heavier sleeping bag. The 55 degree sleep sack is not suited to this unseasonably cool summer in the mountains.

To make matters worse, during the night I get cold underneath, feel the hard ground, and realize my REI insulated air sleeping pad has a slow leak. I struggle to blow it up in a one man tent. By morning, it’s bottomed out again. Things had been going so well and are now all going to hell at once.

Big Creek crossing on Gunter Fork Trail

Big Creek crossing on Gunter Fork Trail

I eat breakfast, put on full rain gear, and load everything but the tent in my pack before emerging from that little cell, then work quickly to wipe off water and splashed debris, take it down, and roll it up. At 8:05, I head up Big Creek and Camel Gap to the Gunter Fork Trail junction.

Gunter Fork's remote wilderness experience

Gunter Fork’s remote wilderness experience

Signs are posted warning hikers to avoid Gunter Fork in high water. One tenth of a mile from the junction, the trail fords Big Creek. Park Service personnel warned me of this with a caution to watch the weather when I made my reservations. Given the rainy year it has been, I carefully eyed Big Creek yesterday and was relieved to see easily navigable water levels. The rain overnight has been light and has not made any appreciable difference to Big Creek. I remove shoes and socks, roll pants to my knees, and walk across with no difficulty.

Falls and Pool

Falls and Pool

There are several more unbridged stream crossings within the first two miles of Gunter Fork. I put my boots on without socks just in case this becomes routine. However, if Big Creek is this uneventful, the others should be even easier. Well, surprise, surprise, they are not.

These crossings of Gunter Fork (the creek) are full of rushing white water, awkward jumbles of rocks, and areas too deep for shoes. I try to plot a dry way across, but there are none. Boots definitely have to come off each time. Tugging on a recalcitrant boot at one crossing, it pops loose, squirts out of my hand, and lands in the water. Fortunately, the water isn’t moving quite as fast at this spot, and I grab it before it washes away. I’m not so lucky with my camera bag cover. It slips off and disappears downstream.

Cascade over Conglomerate and Sandstone

Cascade over Conglomerate and Sandstone

My progress is very slow, and stream crossings aren’t the only impediments. Vegetation crowds the trail. Broken branches of Rosebay Rhododendron obscure and block the way repeatedly. I must bend double to get past them.

Gunter Fork has a very remote feel to it, more like an old manway than an established park trail — like a backcountry bushwhacking wilderness experience in the middle of nowhere. I have not yet had that sensation on a Smokies trail. It is exhilarating and a little scary.

Treacherous trail

Treacherous trail

This wild sensation increases as the trail climbs higher toward Balsam Mountain. The path is very narrow in places, barely clinging to the steep mountainside. A couple of short sections are rough and tricky, held together with a hodgepodge of plant roots, a well placed rock or two, and a few murmured prayers. One misstep and I’d be in a world of hurt. Gunter Fork Trail was closed for a couple of years due to landslides. These scars are not large, but they reinforce the vulnerable and potentially hazardous nature of this trail. It is one of the few trails on this end of the park where horses are not allowed…for obvious reasons.

Having said all this, I will also say that Gunter Fork is beautiful. The raw wildness and sense of isolation are very much a part of that beauty. The trail is 4.1 miles long and climbs the side of Balsam Mountain 2,300 feet to Balsam Mountain Trail.

Appalachian Chanterelle

Appalachian Chanterelle

There are two gorgeous cascades on Gunter Fork, both worth the effort to visit. A lovely cascading waterfall and plunge pool is just off the trail on the right about 1.5 miles from Big Creek. The pool is visible from the trail, but it is best to step down the embankment to the water’s edge for a good view of the cascade. It would be a great spot for a summer picnic and swim!

Narrowleaf Leek or Ramp fruit

Narrowleaf Leek or Ramp fruit

About 0.3 mile further is an unusual and impressive cascade. Water from falls visible far in the background slides in a thin sheet down 150 feet of smooth rock. It forms a shallow ditch at the base and funnels in a narrow stream across the trail. One easy (and dry) step gets me to the other side. The cascade rock clearly shows two different rock types, smooth brown sandstone under rough gray conglomerate, joining at a distinct line. The Little Brown Book includes a vivid description of this cascade cloaked in ice.

There aren’t as many mushrooms on Gunter Fork as would be expected. Some lovely green mushrooms, one a rich turquoise color, could be a Russula or maybe Lacterius species. Appalachian Chanterelle (Cantherellus appalachiensis) is growing in an eye-stopping yellow cluster.

Beautiful turquoise mushroom

Beautiful turquoise mushroom

I find more Ramp plants. These are setting seed and have no more than 16 “flowers” per stem. They may be the narrowleaf variety, Allium tricoccum var. burdickii.

An occasional view of ridges to the east opens through the forest. One view shows the smooth look of a heath bald or laurel slick on adjacent ridge tops and slopes. Nearing the top, Red Spruce appear and the ground becomes thick with deep carpets of moss. A large grouping of Indian Pipes sparkles like crystal against the hushed green.

Landslide area

Landslide area

After a long time, much longer than I had anticipated, I reach the Balsam Mountain junction, turn left, and head for Laurel Gap Shelter. I hiked Balsam Mountain just a few days shy of three years ago. I remember it being a much smoother trail than the rutted mess facing me today. Chafing with impatience, the 1.1 mile walk seems to take forever.  I pass the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail junction and finally reach the shelter after 1:00. No one else is there.

Mossy upper elevations with Indian Pipes

Mossy upper elevations with Indian Pipes

The shelter looks starkly different from my last visit. The dingy, dirty rock structure with an opening covered in chain link fencing was gutted to the walls. Sleeping platforms were replaced and benches added. The new enlarged roof covers a roomy food prep area and features a big skylight. It is very similar in design to Russell Field.

I start to unpack and consider a water run before taking off my boots. The water source is a long, muddy walk downhill. It is lightly raining, misty, foggy, windy, and cold. In short, it is miserable. I’m hesitant to commit and eat lunch instead, giving me time to think things through.

Renovated Laurel Gap Shelter

Renovated Laurel Gap Shelter

My sleeping pad is compromised. I’ll have to blow it up two or three times during the night. My sleeping bag did not keep me warm at 3,000 feet. Imagine how much worse it will be at 5,500. I don’t know what the weather will be this afternoon or tonight. Nine point seven miles, all downhill, stand between me and my car, and that hike will likely take at least five hours or more. I’m tired and wet. It would be wonderful to relax in this dry shelter and write in my journal. If I had warmer gear and a working sleep pad I would stay, but my best move is to get moving.

At 2:20 I set out for Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. It’s soupy and misty most of the way to Pretty Hollow Gap. The sky lightens, and the afternoon warms as the miles tick by. I reach my car at 6:45 — 9.7 miles in 4.5 hours, a total of 16.2 miles for the day. I now face a five hour drive home, but at least I’m sitting down.

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Camel Gap, A.T. junction

Camel Gap, A.T. junction

The night was clear and quite cool. I slept in long pants and long sleeved shirt. The morning is equally clear, and I am excited to hike carrying only what I need for the day.

Today’s adventure is Camel Gap Trail. About halfway between Campsite #37 and the start of Gunter Fork Trail, Big Creek Trail simply ends, turning seamlessly into Camel Gap Trail. A sign marks this inauspicious and rather arbitrary junction in Walnut Bottom. From this point, Camel Gap gradually rises 1,700 feet over 4.7 miles to the Appalachian Trail.

Ramp flowers

Ramp flowers

Its A.T. junction is equidistant to Snake Den Ridge Trail (to the left) and Low Gap Trail (to the right, past Cosby Knob Shelter), both descending to Cosby Campground on the north side of the Smokies crest. Low Gap also descends southeast to Big Creek Trail just 0.1 mile from Campsite #37, a convenient 10.3-mile loop. Due to Camel Gap’s hiker friendly profile and complimentary account in the Little Brown Book, my plan to is hike it twice — up and back. It is just 0.1 mile longer and much easier than the loop.

Mini cascade

Mini cascade

The first mile or so of Camel Gap lies in or near the flood plain of Big Creek. The trail is narrow, wet, and overgrown in one area before Gunter Fork. After that junction, a short rocky stretch skirts Big Creek’s bank and is scoured by high water. These brief inconveniences are quickly left behind. Camel Gap is in fine condition, only a few eroded trenches as testament to horse use. Built along an old logging grade all the way to the A.T., it is one of the most pleasant uphill treks in the park. Other old logging grades are sometimes visible on opposite slopes.

View of Balsam Mountain

View of Balsam Mountain

Camel Gap follows Big Creek most of the way, crossing small feeder streams with lush growth of Bee Balm and Cut-leaved Coneflower. One small spring spills down a miniature cascade into a tiny pool. At approximately three miles, Big Creek curves left, and the trail begins to follow a feeder stream, Yellow Creek, named for the colorful autumn foliage of Tulip Poplar and Sugar Maple. Originally, the trail was called Yellow Creek too. “Camel” is thought to be a family name, perhaps the corruption of Campbell.

Appalachian Waxy Cap

Appalachian Waxy Cap

A short distance above the confluence of Yellow and Big Creeks, the trail hooks a hard right, moves away from the water, and ascends to the Smokies crest and Tennessee/North Carolina border, though its grade changes little. The lovely, peaceful cove forests in the protected stream valleys, where Ramp (Allium tricoccum var. tricoccum) is in flower, blend into northern hardwoods, mixing Silverbell, Yellow Birch, Fraser Magnolia, and Basswood among maples and oaks. Green fruit of Mountain Holly (Ilex montana) will turn red in the fall. There is a good view of Balsam Mountain on the way up. Near the A.T., occasional long wands of Catbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) reach into the trail, sometimes bearing thorns and sometimes waving slender, thornless tips with delicate, curling tendrils.

Coker's Amanita

Coker’s Amanita

Camel Gap has its share of beautiful mushrooms, including a picture perfect Coker’s Amanita, with pure white cap and conical warts. Several groupings of red Appalachian Waxy Cap (Hygrocybe appalachiensis) are regularly spotted near Fraser Magnolias and Silverbells, but according to Roody’s field guide, these mushrooms are saprobic (feeding on dead wood) and not mycorrhizal. I also see American Caesar’s and a bright group of Yellow Spindle Coral (Clavulinopsis fusiformis).

Yellow Spindle Coral

Yellow Spindle Coral

At the A.T., I rest a few minutes before starting down. A flat mossy area to the left of the trail on the way up is calling me for lunch. It takes about an hour to get back there. Juncos flitting through the trees are not pleased by my presence but soon get over it. Winter Wrens don’t seem to mind and sing heartily while I eat. Two new Poison Pigskin Puffballs are nestled in the grass and moss here. It is such a pleasant spot, I pull out my journal to write a little and even sketch a nearby Indian Cucumber-root. How wonderful to have the leisure for such indulgence!

Catbrier tendrils

Catbrier tendrils

I meet a father and daughter day hiking. They began in Cosby Campground and took Low Gap to Big Creek to Camel Gap and will follow the A.T. back to Low Gap and Cosby — a 15 mile day.

Returning to the flats of Walnut Bottom, I find a new mushroom. It is whitish to pale gray with dark gray conical warts like little steel studs sprinkled liberally on top. It’s Amanita onusta, common names Loaded Lepidella and Gunpowder Lepidella. “Onusta” derives from a Latin word meaning “charged, load-carrying, burdened,” and Amanitas are divided into sections — A. onusta is in the section Lepidellus.

Loaded Lepidella lures a snail

Loaded Lepidella lures a land snail

While photographing this Loaded Lepidella, I notice a snail is making a beeline for it. Sitting down in the trail, I watch (and photograph) the snail’s determined progress. The little guy stretches its ‘neck’ and even appears to pucker its ‘lips’ in its rush to reach the mushroom stem — to the extent a snail can rush! It climbs the stem, clutching firmly with that big muscled foot to hoist its home in the air. I get a humorous series of photos.

Flowering Raspberry

Flowering Raspberry

Past the Gunter Fork junction, there is a showy Flowering Raspberry shrub (Rubus odoratus) sporting large pinkish purple flowers with a center cushion of stamens. It looks more like a rose than a raspberry. I find quite an assembly of Velvet Earth Tongues (Trichoglossum hirsutum) poking through the leaf litter. These slender black club fungi are coated in fine hairs.

Velvet Earth Tongue

Velvet Earth Tongue

A large, beautiful mushroom growing on the mossy trailside has a frilled, concave cap that looks as if it’s been slathered with white cake frosting. The gills and short, stocky stem are yellowish. I should know this one but cannot make a certain ID. Near the Low Gap junction is a log covered with Fluted Bird’s Nest fungi in all stages — blackened empty cups, open cups with “eggs,” and fresh shaggy brown cups with the white protective membrane intact.

Unknown mushroom

Unknown mushroom

I left camp this morning shortly after 8:00 and return shortly after 4:00, 10.4 miles in eight hours. No heavy weight to haul, no pressure to rack up miles, freedom to relax and enjoy everything along the way, and a fairly remote yet accommodating trail. I had so much fun! Camel Gap earns a spot as one of my Top Five Trails!

reaching.....

Reaching…..

The weather has been very cooperative during my Smokies trip. Apart from that drenching on the A.T.’s Walnut Mountain Friday afternoon, the skies have been dry and the temperatures mild. Today, blue skies became cloudy around lunchtime but cleared during the afternoon. High clouds are gathering again this evening. Rain is forecast for tomorrow (Wednesday), and I am hoping it will wait until I’ve climbed Gunter Fork Trail and reached Laurel Gap Shelter for my final night.

contact!

Contact!

Cue Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture
Cue Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture

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Wild Hydrangea

Wild Hydrangea

Returning to day two of my trip, I’ve completed Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and the northeast section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. After a quick lunch at the gap, I head down the northwest side of the ridge on Swallow Fork Trail. Swallow Fork descends 2,200 feet in four miles from Pretty Hollow Gap to Big Creek Trail in Walnut Bottom.

Downy Rattlesnake-plantain, the victim of a swing blade

Downy Rattlesnake-plantain, the victim of a swing blade

The trail’s lower part follows an old logging railroad bed, and the CCC’s construction to the gap in the mid-30s continued that pitch with little variation. The smooth surface has few impediments and no evidence of horse use, much less abuse. Walking up Swallow Fork would still provide serious exercise, but walking down is the proverbial ‘stroll in the park,’ a marvelous change from this morning’s trails.

Shrubs Wild Hydrangea and Rosebay Rhododendron are still in flower near the gap. A flower of Indian Pipe is turning its face toward the sky. This action indicates it has been pollinated and is preparing to set seed. The flower still looks fresh.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Further down are attractive rosettes of Rattlesnake-plantain. For some reason, I can never recall the exact difference between the two species Downy R-p (Goodyera pubescens) and Dwarf R-p (G. repens). The first is common in low to mid-elevations often seen in decent-sized patches. It is taller (6 to 20 inches) with a large white stripe running along the center vein of each leaf and a network of thin white veins patterning the rest of the leaf tissue. Dwarf R-p occurs infrequently in scattered locales at mid to high elevations. This species is smaller (4-8 inches) with no central white stripe and fainter overall veining pattern.

Powdery Amanita

Powdery Amanita

These distinctions blur and blend in my mind leaving me frustratingly confused every time I see a plant following a long absence. Today is no exception. Tingling with excitement, I am convinced I’ve finally found the smaller species. Wrong.

Someone must have been clearing the trail this morning, running a swing blade through and decapitating the flower stalks. I place a still fresh stalk of buds next to the foliage to photograph. I wish a couple of those buds were open! The flat circle of leaves and tall upright stalk make this plant a challenge to photograph intact and keep everything in focus and plainly visible.

Coker's or Carrot-foot Amanita?

Coker’s or Carrot-foot Amanita?

Several beautiful mushrooms are on display. There are three different species of Amanita. Two are easy to identify through their field characters. Yellow Patches (Amanita flavaconia) has a bright yellow-orange cap with thick yellow warts (the remains of its universal veil), a yellow stem, and a skirt. Powdery Amanita (Amanita farinosa) is gray with a coating of fine granular powder, also the remains of its universal veil, and a striate margin on the cap.

I think this is Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus.

I think this is Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus.

The third species is most likely Coker’s Amanita (Amanita cokeri), a white to ivory mushroom with conical warts on the cap, a skirt, and a swollen base. The two young fruiting bodies haven’t developed enough just yet to clearly show the first two characteristics. It is possible, given the wart coloration and enlarged base, that these could be Carrot-foot Amanitas (Amanita daucipes). All of these Amanitas are mycorrhizal, forming mutually beneficial relationships with trees through their roots and the fungi’s underground hyphae.

Could be a Tylopilus sp. with a very thick and tall stalk

Could be a Tylopilus sp. with a very thick and tall stalk

I have frequently seen a thick-fleshed, purplish brown bolete while hiking in the Smokies. Thanks to my field trips with the Cumberland Mycological Society, I believe I’ve been seeing Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus and am pleased to find some excellent specimens on Swallow Fork. I run across two massive mushrooms of purplish coloration, both victims of the trail-clearing swing blade. Their stalks are huge, over an inch in diameter, and are several inches tall. The caps are poorly developed, and I cannot identify them but suspect they may be a species of Tylopilus too. I photograph them with my boot and hiking stick in the pictures for scale.

Imitator Salamander

Imitator Salamander

While intent on mushrooms and mistaken Goodyera, I’m caught off guard by the swift movement of a large salamander. The dark amphibian snuggles against a large stick in the trail and pauses there long enough for me get a few photos. None are great. I can’t get that head in focus. It has distinctive red cheeks, and my first thought is Jordan’s Salamander. I did get his back half in focus and the larger hind legs suggest an Imitator Salamander (Desmognathus imitator) when researching it at home.

Pipevine and Tiger Swallowtails plus a Comma

Pipevine and Tiger Swallowtails plus a Comma

I meet a family of four hiking up Swallow Fork to camp at Mt. Sterling I suppose. The teenager in front asks wearily how much further to the top. I’m terrible at estimating distances, a task made more difficult by the amount of time I’ve spent photographing. “You’re at least half way,” I say with a smile. He grimaces.

Recently pollinated Indian Pipe flower

Recently pollinated Indian Pipe flower

Even though I’m going downhill, the lower half drags out for me too. There are four big stream crossings, and only one of them is bridged, the stream for which the trail is named. Two of the three rock hops are fairly substantial. Swallow Fork wanders around a flat area and finally drops to Big Creek Trail. Campsite #37 is 0.1 mile to the left just past a bridged crossing of Big Creek. Butterflies are puddling nearby.

Several sites are scattered to either side of the trail. I take what appears to be the only empty spot nestled at the base of a steep rise and next to a wet, swampy area that drains into Big Creek. The fire ring is full of half burned trash left by previous campers, and there is an unmistakable odor of human waste. There are no easy toilet locations without a long trek down the trail, thus people foul their own sleeping area. It is a damp and rather undesirable location, but I’m stuck here two nights.

Darn rodents.

Darn rodents.

After setting up my tent, I repair my chewed food stuff stack with Tenacious Tape and the plastic bag with duct tape, eat dinner, and prepare for tomorrow’s day hike. The sun sets behind the steep rise at the back of my site simulating twilight long before it arrives. Dampness from the swampy area induces a chill. With no comfortable place to sit, I retire to my tent early to write in my journal.

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