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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.