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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

Access to the Quiet Walkway

Access to the Quiet Walkway

The last Quiet Walkway along North Carolina’s stretch of Highway 441 is tucked in the back of Collins Creek Picnic Area. Left of the quite new pavilion is a gated gravel road with a simple brown “Quiet Walkway” sign.  About 30 yards down the road the typical QW marker stands at the beginning of a dirt path winding through a small grassy opening. Don’t be fooled by this rather inauspicious beginning. The Collins Creek QW is among the best.

QW trailhead

QW trailhead

Once it enters the woods, the path follows Collins Creek curving along the base of a steep, unnamed mountain peak (4,564 ft) to the right. The National Geographic map shows a 0.5 mile trail terminating at a bend in the creek.

Two things about this QW set it apart from the others. First, I get a strong sense of walking an established park trail far removed from traffic and people. Part of this could be timing. It’s early evening, not long before the picnic area closes, and no one else is here. There’s something more, though. The quality of the surrounding forest has a maturity to it, less disturbed and weedy, under a shady canopy.

Footlog

Footlog

Second, the richness of this QW in early May is nothing short of remarkable. This too is a matter of timing. Most any trail in the Smokies will have wildflowers now, yet the diversity here is quite high and concentrated. Another plus is the easy accessibility.

The trail is ample in width with smooth footing and a grade so slight, it isn’t worth mentioning. A low wooden bridge and short footlog facilitate crossing two narrow rills feeding into Collins Creek.

A wonderful trail

A wonderful trail

At least seven different fern species, three trilliums including Large White Trillium and Painted Trillium, Fraser’s Sedge, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, Showy Orchis, Bloodroot, Virginia Strawberry, and Hearts-a-bustin’ are tucked among the usual slate of herbaceous and woody plants present in a rich cove. The foliage of a clematis, most likely Virgin’s Bower as it occurs frequently in the park, vies with grasses at the start. Young birches shelter a glade of ferns and Wild Geranium. The geranium flowers vibrate with that deep, luscious shade of reddish purple so often found in the Smokies. Near the end, Intermediate Ferns and Solomon’s Plume are especially robust.

Collins Creek

Collins Creek

The QW concludes at a dry cobble of mossy rocks and rhododendron thicket. This is a little trail to savor in spring. Its welcoming terrain and secret garden feel are free gifts all Collins Creek picnickers and anyone driving 441 with a little extra time should claim.

Interpretive Sign

Interpretive Sign

Three trails converge behind Sugarlands Visitor Center. Gatlinburg Trail stretches 1.3 miles to the town’s outskirts along the Pigeon River’s West Prong. Cove Mountain Trail climbs to that mountain’s crest and coasts along the park boundary ridge for 8.4 miles. Fighting Creek Nature Trail nestles at the base of Cove Mountain, taking people on a relatively straight trajectory to John Ownby’s cabin then looping back via a more scenic route just upslope in 1.1 miles. A short spur trail at the end of the loop works its way down Fighting Creek and under a bridge to join Cove Mountain Trail at its start, providing quick access to Cataract Falls a mere 0.1 mile further.

Sweet birch bark

Sweet birch bark

The threat of severe weather cancels an intended Pilgrimage hike of Sweat Heifer Trail at Newfound Gap. The three leaders and our handful of pilgrims search for alternatives and wind up on Fighting Creek Nature Trail. Brochures in the nature trail kiosk are all gone, leaving us to craft our own narrative for the trail. There’s plenty of history, both natural and cultural, to note in the Sugarlands area. We concentrate on the former.

Mockernut bark

Mockernut bark

The same plant markers found on Pine Oak Nature Trail in Cades Cove announce species of trees and shrubs along Fighting Creek too. We don’t need them though, as Paul Durr’s forestry background makes him a walking, talking tree guide. Bark becomes the focus for large trees: the peeling camouflage pattern of Sycamore, smoothly fluted musculature of Hornbeam, tight gray texture and horizontal lenticels of Sweet Birch, fine brown latticework of Mockernut Hickory, and longitudinal white ridges of an ailing Butternut.

Sassafras bark

Sassafras bark

Dark gray, thick ridged bark of Sassafras has been carved by previous hike leaders revealing its characteristic orange color and spicy fragrance. Paul points to lateral breaks in the ridges that an imagination could attribute to the imprint of a wire. I need to see more Sassafras trees to judge how applicable this character might be in eyeballing an ID. I’ve seen a Sourwood or two that give a similar impression.

Five tiny 'pitch pocket' holes

Five tiny ‘pitch pocket’ holes

Paul also points to the allusive Shortleaf Pine pitch pockets. Yep, they really are those widely scattered, tiny depressions on the flat bark plates, though he can’t explain the confounding illogic that gives us pitch pockets on ‘Shortleaf’ Pine and not ‘Pitch’ Pine. A large Luna Moth distracts us from the tree upon which it rests, and the larva of an underwing moth, Catocala sp., (I think) demonstrates its ability to mimic lichen.

Sweetshrub fruit capsule

Sweetshrub fruit capsule

Various sedges, including Cherokee Sedge (Carex cherokeensis), line feeder streams and occupy an open canopy wetland. The dark green stems of Common Rush (Juncus effusus) contrast with light green leaflets of fresh Poison Ivy, which shows up regularly along the nature trail. In drier sites, Dolls Eyes are picture perfect, and Michaux’s Lily foliage portend summer photo ops. Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) hangs onto a few seed capsules from last year. They resemble the home construction of a bagworms.

Invertebrates from Fighting Creek

Invertebrates from Fighting Creek

An old gnarled Sycamore sporting three young boles from a hollowed base piques the hiding instinct of young children near the bridge over Fighting Creek. Another Pilgrimage program has its pilgrims examine aquatic invertebrates in the creek with a tray of stoneflies, mayflies, craneflies, and water pennies as proof of their success.

Children at Hollow Tree, April 25, 2015Due to its convenient location, this nature trail gets much foot traffic. A steady stream of visitors shuffle between the cabin and the falls. For many, this is as close to nature as they can or wish to get. As for me, I’ll be glad to return to the backcountry where human encounters are often the rarest of sightings!

Possible underwing moth caterpillar

Possible underwing moth caterpillar

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

There are five Quiet Walkways along Highway 441 on the North Carolina side of the park. The first four past Newfound Gap are located at pull-outs along the highway. The final QW, Collins Creek, begins at the back side of the Collins Creek Picnic Area located midway between Kanati Fork Trail and Smokemont Campground. On a gloriously sunny, cool, and breezy morning of the pilgrimage, I set out early to visit as many as I can before my afternoon program through the AT beech gap and manage to complete all but Collins Creek.

View from DCQW

View from DCQW

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway: Just 1.2 miles past Clingman’s Dome Road, Deep Creek QW is an unassuming and easy to miss wide spot in the road that could accommodate a few cars but in no way resembles an official pull-out that might tempt visitors to leave their cars. Not until you spot the equally unassuming Quiet Walkway marker at the edge of the forest is it apparent that there might be something to do here.

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

Deep Creek QW descends rather steeply for a quiet walkway. At just 0.3 mile, it angles down slope to join Deep Creek Trail 0.4 mile from its Hwy. 441 trailhead. From all indications, some people must stop at DCQW because the first part of the walkway is clear and appears well used. This condition peters out before long, however, as herbaceous and small woody vegetation invades the path and downed trees and limbs present impediments. Nothing is significant enough to prevent following the intended route to Deep Creek Trail, particularly at this time of year, but very few people do.

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

By the time the walkway reaches the real trail, it has become so well camouflaged as to be nearly indecipherable from the forested hillside. Only the sharpest eyes looking carefully for the QW at this end could tease out the faint wrinkle and recognize it. I bet most people who begin the walkway descent from the road realize quickly that all this trekking downhill means quite an uphill haul whenever they turn around and in short order determine to do so. Thus the clear upper third and nearly obscure lower two-thirds.

Erect Trillium

Erect Trillium

The sharp elevation drop has one advantage: the road and its noise are immediately left behind in a thicket of Rosebay Rhododendron and Red Spruce. A leafless view through the trees into the valley of Deep Creek imparts a total sense of wilderness. In late April, Spring Beauty, Fringed Phacelia, Halberd-leaved Violet, Erect Trillium, Dwarf Ginseng, Star Chickweed, Trout Lily, and Common Blue Violet are in flower. Early foliage of Bee Balm and Cutleaf Coneflower in the path portend color and impenetrability in summer. Juncos are flitting about, and a reasonably fresh pile of bear scat has me scanning the landscape.

For good exercise and an instant into-the-backwoods experience, stroll down Deep Creek Quiet Walkway on a mild day in winter or early spring.

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway: Travel 0.8 mile down 441 from Deep Creek QW to a major parking area and overlook. Marked with an interpretive sign “Spared the Saw,” the Swinging Bridge QW starts to the right and climbs onto a ridge. Shot Beech Ridge extends nearly two miles due south from the highway before dropping sharply to Deep Creek. One side of the ridge drains into Deep Creek, the other into Cherry Creek. Looking at a topo map, the ridge gently undulates for most of its length with one 375-foot decline in the middle. The final 0.5 mile drop to Deep Creek Trail, however, falls a precipitous 1,000 feet.

Shot Beech Ridge

Shot Beech Ridge

This QW is listed as a half mile, yet that straight shot along the ridge line continues well beyond this point to beckon and lure the more adventurous in spirit. Small piles of deadfall provide most people sufficient incentive to turn around. Those that keep going must negotiate the increasing presence of briars and other understory growth.

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

I have no clue on the origin of this QW’s name. There is no bridge, ‘swinging’ or otherwise, and Place Names of the Smokies does not mention it. The walkway is relatively level with good footing. At this time of year, I find a few Thyme-leaved Bluets and violet species in flower plus an occasional Painted Trillium.

Large oak

Large oak

The parking lot view spans Cherry Creek’s watershed. The interpretive sign informs visitors that only a small percentage of the park’s forest is “old-growth.” Most trees were logged for timber or cleared for agriculture in the early twentieth century. The majority of the forest today is relatively young second growth. There are some old trees nearby, and the sign notes that a few on the ridges though small in diameter could still be hundreds of years old. Large diameter oaks dot the QW.

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway: Continue down Highway 441 another 2.7 miles and look left for a paved pull-out parallel to the road and a wide grassy area funneling toward an orange and white gate. The QW sign stands alone in the middle of the flat lawn to draw people from their cars. That colorful gate prevents vehicular access to an old road winding toward Newfound Gap, and Beech Flats QW travels that road.

Ravine stream

Ravine stream

Grab a topo map of the park and follow Hwy. 441 down the North Carolina side from Newfound Gap. At Thomas Divide Trail, the road makes a wide switchback leaving a ridge to descend into the broad valley carved by Beech Flats Prong. About 0.3 mile before the second, much sharper switchback is Beech Flats QW snuggled at the base of a steep ravine. The QW strikes a northwesterly course across the mountainside running parallel to and well downslope from Hwy. 441. The old road rises steadily along the mountain’s flank, above the prong and below the new road. At Luftee Gap, it makes a sharp curve right to run alongside 441 and hit Newfound Gap at the back end of the parking lot. People can hike down the old road from NFG.

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

Could someone hike all the way from Beech Flats QW to NFG? I haven’t done it and cannot say for certain; however, I walked much further than the 0.6 mile listed for the QW with no trouble at all and found it to be quite pleasant. Might be fun to start a friend with her car at BFQW and another at NFG to meet in the middle and exchange car keys. I roughly put the distance estimate at a minimum of two miles, probably more, but certainly less than three. Climbing a road grade is heaven compared to some trails in the park, and walking down would be delightful. Patches of old asphalt are clearly visible and often felted with a green layer of moss. Hydrangea shrubs, tree saplings, and loops of grape vines dangling from young trees encroach. Nature is doing her best to reclaim what she can, but the road remains wide and inviting for foot traffic.

Confederate Violet

Confederate Violet

Today’s sunshine reflects in the bright blossoms of Fringed Phacelia, Creeping Phlox, and Squirrel Corn. This is only place I recall seeing the Confederate Violet (Viola sororia forma priceana) though it is likely to be in other disturbed areas. Dandelion is here too.

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

At the walkway’s start a small stream cascades down the steep ravine and works it way into something of an eroded pit that flows under the old road and emerges far below on the other side. Walking up the road, the right side falls away steeply toward Beech Flats Prong and the left side rises equally steep often featuring large moss-covered boulders and more small streams that have begun to cut through the roadbed. This side of the mountain faces northeast and remains cooler and more moist.

Short-winged Blister Beetle

Short-winged Blister Beetle

I find one of those bright blue oil beetles, the Short-winged Blister Beetle, and stoop to take its picture. It seeks refuge in an unfavorable camera angle. Hoping to get it back on track, I offer one little poke of my finger, at which it instantly flops on its side, curls up, and starts oozing orange liquid from its leg joints. Nothing I do now will get that possum-playing insect to cooperate, so I photograph its faux demise and leave it in peace to ‘revive’ and get on with its day. (See Smokies Manways, March 2012, for more on the oil beetle.)

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

Kanati Fork Quiet Walkway: Drive 3.6 miles further into North Carolina to the Kanati Fork Trailhead parking area. On the left side is the QW marker, and several stone steps lead down to a path crossing a wooden bridge. Here the path splits; turn left for a short meander through the woods to a dead end or turn right to reach Beech Flats Prong. This part of the prong is just above its confluences with Kanati Fork and Kephart Prong, after which Beech Flats Prong becomes the Oconaluftee River.

Little bridge

Little bridge

Kanati Fork QW is just 0.2 mile. Perfect for visitors who aren’t prepared for or interested in the 2.9 mile Kanati Fork Trail and its 2,000-foot elevation gain located across the road. The QW provides easy access to the prong for a little toe-dipping and a taste of Smokies flora.

Water Strider's shadow

Water Strider’s shadow

Water Striders ski against Beech Flats’ flow in the shallows, casting shadows on the sandy bottom. Canada Mayflowers are in bud as the Painted Trilliums fade. They are joined by Trout Lily, Sweet White Violet, Indian Cucumber Root, Lady Fern, New York Fern, Hearts-a-bustin’, Witch Hobble, Witch Hazel, Striped Maple, Yellow Birch, and a large colony of Buffalo Nut among others.

Beech Flats Prong

Beech Flats Prong

I don’t have time to hike Collins Creek today, but an upcoming Smokies trip will include a few nights stay at Smokemont to hopefully complete all remaining trails in this vicinity except ill-fated Sweat Heifer. My co-leaders Paul Durr and Larry Pounds have promised a raincheck for the 2016 Pilgrimage.

Pink Lady's Slippers

Pink Lady’s Slippers

Feels great to be back in the Smokies after a too-long hiatus. Mild sunny days showcase near perfect wildflower displays for hikes full of enthusiastic pilgrims. Plants past their flowering prime, Purple Phacelia, Great White Trillium, Merrybells and other early-flowering species, are easily offset by the beauty of Doll’s Eyes, Crested Iris, Creeping Phlox, several violets, Solomon’s Plume, Silverbell, Flowering Dogwood, and Yellow Trillium. Stunning clumps of Pink and Large Yellow Lady’s Slippers dotted about the park generate a buzz of excitement among photographers.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

Along the Smokies crest, a handful of white Erect Trilliums are breaking bud, but the main high elevation action is in the beech gaps. White carpets of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) underlie bare American Beech branches to bask in the sun. A keen eye will spot a few bright yellow Trout Lilies sprinkled among the Spring Beauties. The hog exclosure (fence and metal trail stiles) protect this delicate and unique community from rototilling snouts of wild hogs.

Beech Gap

Beech Gap

Pilgrims hiking the AT from Indian Gap to Newfound Gap step aside with regularity to let thru-hikers pass. I shuttle several up and down 441 between the trail and Gatlinburg. Young ‘Baloo’ getting his first taste of long-distance hiking, ‘Mover’ a veteran of the AT and PCT, Forrest and Cole (both without trail names as yet), and ‘Genghis Khan’ with his fur-lined hat all appreciate the lift. I enjoy talking with them. So many people I did not know reached out to help me in 2013, I’m gladly paying a bit that forward. Good luck to them all. The ride up and down is graced by a profusion of Silverbell trees in full flower following spring up the mountainside.

Carolina Spring Beauty

Carolina Spring Beauty

I hike to Courthouse Rock again (and think I’ve finally got the directions to that sucker firmly in my brain), cover Ash Hopper for the gardening program, walk Baskins Creek manway to the falls, and do the AT past the beech gap. On an off morning, I head up 441 to begin sampling the Quiet Walkways on the North Carolina side. More on those later.

Silverbells in the forest

Silverbells in the forest

The last hike I have scheduled is an all-day trek down Sweat Heifer and Kephart Prong trails from the AT to 441. A hike I’ve done on two other occasions, I plan to document it this time for the blog.  However, an ominous early morning weather forecast (storms, hail, possible tornadoes) persuades us to change plans. We drive down from windy and cloud-socked Newfound Gap to Sugarlands for a walk on Ash Hopper (again) and Fighting Creek Nature Trail behind the visitors center. As luck would have it, not only did the bad weather not materialize, but the day turned warm and sunny. Oh well, better safe as they say. Sweat Heifer will have to wait for another day.

Yellow Lady's Slippers

Yellow Lady’s Slippers

I’ll post accounts of Fighting Creek and NC’s Quiet Walkways in the days to come.

Cades Cove Campground Nature Trail

Cades Cove Campground Nature Trail

The 2014 review won’t take long! It’s been one slim year for hiking. No A.T. miles, and 57.8 park miles. Only 35.9 were new with eight completed trails and one partial.  Stats to date: 554.9 miles (67%) and 109 trails (73%) with 893.9 total miles. Partials remaining include Beech Gap, Hyatt Ridge, Lakeshore, and Gregory Bald trails. I planned a four-day, three-night backpacking hike on trails along Forney Creek and Ridge in mid-October which had to be canceled at the last minute due to bad weather. Severe storms and high water would have made the trip a nightmare.

The paucity of hikes isn’t for lack of interest, just unfortunate timing. The loss of my beloved Pickles and bad weather precluded the few open windows I had this year for hiking. I may not have hit the trails that much, however, I did indulge an appetite for natural history knowledge. A two-week course, Macro Fungi of the Southern Appalachians, at Highlands Biological Station (NC) in August and two college courses, Field Botany and Natural History of Vegetation in Tennessee, at Austin Peay State University this fall, were informative, challenging, and fun.

Bear Huckleberry fruit

Bear Huckleberry fruit

This extra education will provide new insights while on trail, because in 2015, I’ve got plans. If all goes well, I’ll hike 268 miles on the A.T. from Hot Springs, NC, to Atkins, VA, closing the gap through upper East Tennessee and giving me 858 continuous miles from Springer Mountain to Rockfish Gap. I’d love to complete at least two multi-day backpacking trips in the Smokies too. There’s another Highlands course I’m keen to take as well. We’ll see what 2015 delivers.

In the meantime, here is an account of Cades Cove Campground’s Pine Oak Nature Trail from July 11, 2014. I participated in a fungi bioblitz for Discover Life in America and spent the night there. This blog does not discriminate against Quiet Walkways or campground nature trails, so enjoy a bit of Smokies summer in December.

A fuzzy and lazy Pileated Woodpecker

A fuzzy and lazy Pileated Woodpecker

Pine Oak Nature Trail, a one-mile loop, slips up, over, and down a small wooded hill then follows a feeder branch of Cooper Creek (itself a feeder branch of Abrams Creek) back to the beginning. From the road circumnavigating Section C of the campground, Pine Oak steps into flat woods stripped of most understory plants, a shady landscape of leaf litter and tree trunks. A few flowering Rosebay Rhododendrons and an occasional sprig of Pipsissewa join scattered seedlings of Eastern White Pine and Chestnut Oak.

The road and campsites are visible, yet the trees’ dense shade offers an immediate sense of separation. To reinforce that notion a noise at the base of a snag reveals a Pileated Woodpecker poking at the tree half-heartedly, eyeballing the results, and making another lazy stab or two. No skull-jarring thrums, no crazy laughter, just a quizzical red-crested male whiling the evening. He flies to two other tall snags with the same lackadaisical air.

Hairy Blueberry fruit

Hairy Blueberry fruit

The trail leads straight back about 20 yards to the loop intersection and an arrow sign pointing left. Following directions like a good hiker, the trail soon curves right and approaches the base of the low hill where it appears to climb steeply about 20 feet as a mud path zig-zagging up through trees. Stop and look to the right for the actual trail skirting the hill’s base before moderately curving upward on terraced steps. Avoid the steep off-trail climb, as it just contributes to already evident erosion. I missed the real trail and scrambled up that dirt path wondering why on earth the park hadn’t mapped out an easier route. Park officials should put another arrow sign at this juncture for the unobservant and slow-to-catch-on among us.

Between Anthony Creek and the Cooper Branch feeder stream are three low hills southeast of the campground, apparent remnants of Ledbetter Ridge descending from Russell Field. Behind them are the camp’s water tanks. Pine Oak Nature Trail rises 150 feet to the summit (2,000 ft) of the southwestern most hill. As I climb, the leaf strewn ground disappears under a widespread layer of Bear Huckleberry (Gaylussacia ursina) with fruits in various stages of maturity. On the hill’s crest, a few Hairy Blueberry plants (Vaccinium hirsutum) join the huckleberries. Leaf undersides and stems are quite hairy. Even the fruits, both green and ripe, sport sparse hairs.

Bear Cub

Bear Cub

Another noise prompts me to look for my redheaded friend, but I find a bear cub ambling just down slope. At the sound of my camera click, the little guy rears up on its hind legs to stare at me. Another cub and their mother are close behind, but neither takes notice of me or the first cub’s reaction. All three quietly disappear in the undergrowth.

When I checked in at the camp office, I was warned of bear activity in the area and practically swore an oath and my firstborn to store all food and odorous items. It’s quite a year for bears in the park. The population is robust and threatens to outstrip food supplies. Ruminating a math question of sorts, I wonder how many tiny Bear Huckleberry fruits it would take to satisfy three hungry black bears tonight?

Tree signs along the nature trail

Tree signs along the nature trail

Serving as something of an arboretum, the trail features attractive markers identifying different tree (or large shrub) species at intervals. Each small sign notes the common and scientific names, a cultural or natural history fact, and a drawing of significant identifying features, such as leaf, flower, fruit, or bark. Interesting facts tell of traditional Cherokee uses (Virginia Pine to scent soap) or settler usage (Eastern White Pine to build churches and mills) and cover everything from tea for coughs (Shortleaf Pine needles) to birch beer (Sweet Birch). Some note plant distribution, wildlife value, or flowering time. There are signs for 15 species including Black Gum, Mountain Laurel, American Beech, Sourwood, Tulip Poplar, Chestnut Oak, Rosebay Rhododendron, Eastern Hemlock, Fraser Magnolia, Pignut Hickory, and American Holly.

After descending the hill, the trail wends along the creek through the deep shade of rhododendrons. Three short footlogs assist passage across the shallow trickles of water. A scarce fern in the park, Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata), grows on the creek bank at the first crossing.

Netted Chain Fern

Netted Chain Fern

Standing at the third bridge making notes, a racket in the dense undergrowth on the opposite side of the creek draws my attention. I can just make out what appears to be a black furry face staring at me through a narrow gap in the foliage. It huffs loudly twice. I don’t need a third warning. In a couple of minutes I’m back in the open understory flat woods and head for my campsite wondering if there are enough Bear Huckleberry fruits for four hungry bears!

That night the young couple camping next to me hunch over their fire ring for nearly two hours struggling to light a fire. Nearby campers offer advice, and another camper whose struggles exceed those of the young couple ask them for advice! It’s 10:00 p.m., and I’m almost asleep when bright orange flickers signal their success, of sorts. It still takes much work to keep the flames up, but they are now roasting hot dogs!

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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