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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.

Multiflora Rose cultivar locked in a battle with Chinese Yam

Multiflora Rose cultivar locked in a battle with Chinese Yam

Several non-native plant species keep company with the sagging structures on Society Hill in Elkmont. Orange flags of Tawny Daylily wave at visitors in June and July. Some plants, like daffodils and daylilies, are a sure sign of homesteads. I’ve seen Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata), a beastly looking thing, growing on Little River Trail in front of an old cabin. Many of these introduced plants aren’t a problem in the forest, but other species, like English Ivy or Japanese Spiraea, can invade natural areas and displace native plants. Brought in by settlers and/or resort residents, it’s touchy business for the park to tread that fine line between preserving the past and protecting the forest. Some plants won’t stay put and must be removed. Less threatening historic species get a cultural pass.

At the old Jakes Creek trailhead location past the cabins, a pink, fully double garden rose bears the fringed leaf-petiole stipules of Multiflora Rose. [That fringed stipule is clearly visible in the Avent Cabin rose photo from the previous post.] The double rose variety also grows along a stretch of Little River Trail. Park staff target the straight species for removal because of its highly invasive nature, but this unidentified cultivated variety doesn’t exhibit such aggressive tendencies. Kristine Johnson, Supervisory Forester for the park explains, “I don’t like to kill anything without a definite ID, and I’m not able to reliably identify the rose cultivars.” She would welcome assistance from a knowledgeable rosarian.

Coltsfoot foliage, a patch now long gone from Elkmont!

Coltsfoot foliage, a patch now long gone from Elkmont!

“There is a measure of caution in respect for those whose homesite it was (‘granny’s rose!’) as well as the possibility of a long lost variety someone may treasure.” However, if it shows signs of spreading or reverting to the multiflora rootstock, she shows no mercy. Japanese Spiraea got no mercy in 2011. I spotted it flowering at the Jakes Creek parking lot, and Kris had staff there within a day to kill it.

Chinese Yam (Dioscorea oppositifolia), often grown as food for its starchy roots, twines its narrow, heart-shaped leaves through the Jakes Creek rose bush obscuring much of the latter’s foliage. The sight of two invasive plants locked in battle always elicits a smile, hoping each will kill the other! Due to its twining nature, Chinese Yam is difficult to treat without damaging non-target neighboring plants. Fortunately, a fungus helps out. According to Kris, “Over the 20 or so years I’ve seen it here, it seems to die out in shady areas from a foliar fungal disease but remains a problem in disturbed sites like roadsides until a wet season does it in.” A toast to Smoky Mountain rain!

One interloper on Jakes Creek has nothing to do with the past. A small patch of Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) next to the road likely hitchhiked on gravel during road work. It has a sunny little Dandelion-like flower but is the very devil to eradicate. Kris directed park staff to stomp on that patch with vengeance. Good riddance.

Long bridge over Jakes Creek on Avent Cabin spur trail

Long bridge over Jakes Creek on Avent Cabin spur trail

A few log cabins from pre-park settlement days still dot the Smokies’ landscape. Most old homesteads have been removed or weathered away. Those that survive are maintained by the National Park Service as important cultural sites in the mountains. Hiking Trails of the Smokies and other books devoted to the park’s log cabins and historic buildings detail many of these structures, their architecture and owners. These publications consistently ignore one maintained cabin, and despite its hidden location well off an established trail, this home continues to attract numerous visitors.

Avent Cabin, Jakes Creek Trail, June 18, 2014A peek at the Avent Cabin near Jakes Creek has eluded me on two other treks along that trail and remained an itch I need to scratch. The opportunity comes June 18 during a short park visit. The half-park National Geographic map for Cades Cove and Elkmont, pinpoints the cabin’s location on the right side of Jakes Creek Trail across the creek. Not realizing it was that far off trail, it’s little wonder I hadn’t seen it while hiking. Today I will focus on finding the approach path.

Big window and ladder to loft

Big window and ladder to loft

Jakes Creek Trail begins at the paved parking lot next to Daisy Town cabins being stabilized in Elkmont and ascends the old road past deteriorating cabins of Society Hill. Their conditions have worsened noticeably since my visit in June 2011. Those with metal standing seam roofs have faired much better than the cabins with shingle roofing. The latter show significant collapse. Even the caution tape in front of them sags to the ground.

At 0.4 mile the gravel road trail forks left, climbs another 0.3 mile to Cucumber Gap Trail junction, then 0.1 mile more to Meigs Creek Trail. The Avent Cabin path is about a quarter mile or so past the Meigs Creek trailhead. Even in the fullness of June, the path is fairly easy to spot. Log steps descend the steep road bank, and the path winds down past a mucky spot to a long, narrow footlog over Jakes Creek. On the other side of the bridge, the path mingles with a wet spring for a few yards and climbs rather steeply to the cabin. The entire approach path is perhaps 0.15 mile.

Two doors onto the porch

Two doors onto the porch

Staring up at the cabin, I am struck by its good condition, raised porch, and expansive side window. The site seems near idyllic, nestled in the flowing skirts of Blanket Mountain. Forget the Elkmont summer homes at the trailhead. Even in their prime, they would be hard pressed to touch the simple grace and charm of this cabin, and none could offer its quiet and privacy. I could be quite happy here! There is a definite air about this cabin…it’s not your typical Smoky Mountain homestead. A series of pleasant discoveries await.

Fireplace and built-in cupboard

Fireplace and built-in cupboard

Built around 1845 by Humphrey Ownby, the cabin remained in the family until 1918 when purchased (along with 18.5 acres) by Frank Avent. The National Park Service acquired the property in 1932 giving the Avent family a lifetime lease. Logging in Elkmont continued through the 1930s, orchards grew on the hillsides, and city families spent hot summers enjoying cool mountains in their little resort community as the forest gradually returned. In 1992, most of the Elkmont leases expired including the Avent’s, but this did little to ease the long-running battle over Elkmont. (See “Elkmont, June 20-25, 2011” July 2011 Archive).

To thwart park demolition plans, numerous buildings were nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The Avent Cabin tucked far up Jakes Creek was one of the these. NPS had no problem approving historic designation for this cabin. Not only was it one of the oldest log structures still extant, it was also the summer studio for a famous Tennessee artist, Mayna Treanor Avent, Frank’s wife.

Mayna Treanor Avent

Mayna Treanor Avent

This is where things become fascinating for me. Mayna Treanor, was born in Nashville, TN, in 1868. Her parents lived at Tulip Grove, a Greek Revival mansion built in the 1830s by Andrew Jackson’s nephew one mile from Jackson’s home The Hermitage and now an official part of the preserved property associated with the seventh U.S. president. Mayna was a daughter of privilege and a talented visual artist. Her art studies included a two-year stint at the Academie Julien in Paris.

In 1891, she married Frank Avent, a well-connected Murfreesboro attorney who would serve as the state’s railroad commissioner for several years. Working primarily in oils and watercolors as well as wood block prints, Mayna taught painting in Nashville, exhibited her art throughout the country, and was an active member in the Nashville Artists Guild among other organizations. Her portrait of James K. Polk is in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

Rear of Avent Cabin

Rear of Avent Cabin

In the 1920’s, Mayna’s son James modified the recently acquired cabin on Jakes Creek adding an 8-foot-wide window on the southwest end to provide sufficient natural light for his mother’s work. The marvelous window was not the only remodeling work done.

As I approach the cabin, I have no knowledge of this history, but many things immediately distinguish this structure from all the others I’ve seen. There is no external access to the raised porch and railing facing downslope. A stone path between the back of the cabin and a rock retaining wall leads to and beyond the central entrance. Thanks to the large window, natural light lends a spacious feel to the interior. There are three other windows — two in the eaves and one overlooking the porch — and a glass door to the porch. A solid wood door also accesses the porch. The mortared stone-and-brick fireplace with what looks like a concrete hearth commands one wall. After that amazing window, the most unique aspect of this cabin is the finished oak hardwood floor complete with baseboards. An angled ladder of steps leads to a half loft overlooking the main room. There are even a few furnishings — metal bed frames, an old wooden hatrack, and a builtin corner cupboard. An assortment of clean garden tools (rakes, a hoe) and brooms lean against the wall.

Cabin Floor Plan

Cabin Floor Plan

Attached to the far end of the cabin and accessible from the porch and outside is what I had at first assumed might be a ‘stranger room.’ It is a tiny kitchen with two generously sized windows, sink, counter, cupboard, and old iron stove. A visitors’ register with pen hangs by the door nearly full of names, dates, and comments. On the counter is a bound collection of documents including letters on the cabin’s historic place designation, intriguing pictures of the fully furnished interior, a photographic portrait of Mayna, and a floor plan.

Hemlock and stone seat

Hemlock and stone seat

The floor plan shows that half the porch had been glassed in as a dining room connecting the main cabin to the kitchen via the glass door, and the rest of the porch was screened. There had been a small storage area off the kitchen, but it is now gone. The stone path across the entrance side of the cabin had continued around to the outer kitchen door, turned left and led to the privy. The plan also notes a large tree in front of the porch nicknamed the “bear tree.” It too is gone.

These renovations smoothed the ‘rough edges’ found in most preserved Smokies cabins. This must be why park books on historic structures don’t mention the Avent cabin. Mid-nineteenth century authenticity was compromised for early twentieth century comfort.

Rose cultivar

Rose cultivar

Following a dirt path up hill from the back kitchen door leads to a large, healthy hemlock whose roots cradle one large stone arranged with a smaller one into a makeshift chair. The view from this shady seat looks back toward the cabin as the sound of Jakes Creek downslope mingles with birdsong. What a pleasant place to sit. Flatbranch Ground Pine grows behind the tree. Near the kitchen, an old double rose cultivar sports flowers in a rich color Mayna must have loved.

The bound collection of documents highlights one of Mayna’s signed watercolors on the cover — a brilliant hued rendering of “‘The Log Cabin’ Smoky Mountain Park, Tennessee, July 1934.” Vibrant turquoise, yellow, rose, and green surround the more subdued cabin. Two black kittens are playing in the grass. Mayna used the cabin as her mountain studio for 20 years.

Mayna's watercolor of the cabin

Mayna’s watercolor of the cabin

Images of some of Mayna’s other works can be found online, such as an oil still life of fruit and silver coffee pot in cool blues and turquoise, warm yellows and orange. Another of her watercolors traces pale blue and rose washes of jagged mountain peaks behind dense, dark foliage on a steep slope. It looks more Rocky Mountain than Smoky Mountain.

Mayna died in 1959, her son in 1995. She was 90, he was nearly 100. In the debate of nurture versus nature, one must give genetics the first nod for such longevity. However, all that time amid a regenerating forest, breathing its fresh air, relaxing in its peace and serenity, may well have bolstered their genetic dispositions, and if not, it certainly made those years much more delightful.

The links below provided some of the information for this article and include additional photos of the cabin plus a video tour.

http://www.chasingcarolina.com/2011/03/avent-cabin-hike/
Melanie Cantrell, a former park ranger at GSMNP, photographer

http://williambritten.com/wordpress/great-smoky-mountains-national-park/favorite-trails-mayna-avent-cabin/
William Britten, photographer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MQrENNucY8    (video tour)
TheDayHikerGSM

http://smithdray1.net/angeltowns/gsmnp/ac.html
Ray Smith, East Tennessee historian

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!

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.

Purple Phacelia

Purple Phacelia

It was a long hard winter. Thank heavens! Cold winters can offer multiple benefits. 1. Insect control: Initial reports suggest as much as a 90% kill rate for Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. Woo Hoo!! 2. Plant control: While native plants may experience a bit of die back, often it is non-native species that suffer most. 3. An awesome spring: Blessed with deep dormancy, native species wake up raring to go. Plants seem to flower more profusely with greater vigor.

A month ago, Little River Road was lined with large swathes of Purple Phacelia and Wild Columbine dangled fountains of red and yellow bells. White pedicellate trilliums, possibly both T. erectum and T. simile, stood like proud sentinels, and the sunny vernal face of the Smokies, Yellow Trilliums, were everywhere. Monday of Pilgrimage week, the weather was wet and warm. Tuesday brought sleet and snow. Wednesday, my first Pilgrimage hike to Courthouse Rock invoked fear that these colorful displays were doomed.

White Trillium

White Trillium

One to two inches of snow coated the ground, tree branches, and rhododendron foliage, and it was cold enough for down jackets, gloves, and hats. Most of the plants that morning appeared frozen solid with translucent, crunchy tissue, but by the time we walked out — having at long last seen that big rock! — the air was warming and many of the plants miraculously thawed and revived. The rest of the Pilgrimage was graced with warmer temperatures, sun, clouds, a little rain by Saturday, and gorgeous floral displays, particularly in the lower elevations.

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock

Three years ago I co-led a hike to Courthouse Rock that never reached its destination. We couldn’t find the rock! This year I get a do-over. The rock I pooh-poohed in 2011 is indeed an impressive geologic sight, a tall skinny slab of rock standing on end, having fallen free of Sugarland Mountain long ago. Someone said it landed upside down, with younger rock formations at the bottom. I don’t know if that is true or not.

The area has more attractions. On the way up, a small rock outcrop to the right presents a great view into Sugarlands valley. Near Courthouse Rock is another large, cracked boulder called The Judge. A pretty waterfall on Road Turn Branch and a rock house are further up the valley. Old home sites, including the Quilliams family, are marked by relatively flat terrain and crumbled chimneys, mostly near the bottom. We didn’t spot any of those in the snow but did find part of an old teakettle hanging on a tree.

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock isn’t that easy to find; we can be forgiven for our failure in 2011. The manway off Highway 441 is not maintained and quickly overgrows in summer. Even this light snowfall hampers our efforts. Late fall, a mild winter day, or early spring would be the best times to try. Beware — people have combed this area quite a bit, and side trails veer off in various directions as red herrings. At the appropriate side trail, there is a long rectangular stone embedded in the main trail. A “C” and arrow have been scratched into its surface pointing the way. Courthouse Rock will come into view through the trees within several yards.

Courthouse Rock

Courthouse Rock

Parts of the hike from the road are fairly steep, and a wide stream crossing requires a rather tricky rock hop. A few of our Pilgrims struggle. Since our program is a half day hike, we do not have time to look for the rock house or waterfall. I’d like to go back someday and take my time to explore the area and locate these other features.

Before and during the Pilgrimage, I am also able to complete a few more park trails. A two-night backpacking trip in the Twentymile section of the park nets me three full trails and two partials the weekend prior. Another leader and I descend Road Prong Trail with two charming Pilgrims my last full day in the Smokies. Accounts of these trails are forthcoming.

Spring snow

Spring snow

A.T. Note: My plans to cover another 205 miles on the Appalachian Trail had to be canceled for this year. My best friend and indispensable partner, Pickles Hunter, the sweetest tabby cat in the world and the man of this house, was unexpectedly diagnosed with a terminal illness. He showed up in our backyard in 1998 just nine months old and told us quite definitively he wanted to be part of our family. We formally took him in on my birthday and have been blessed with his love and incredible personality ever since. I was by his side when the time came, here at home where he was so dearly loved. His ‘brother’ Tucker and I are heartbroken.

Since little Tucky arrived 14 years ago at the tender age of 8 weeks, Pickles has been his constant companion, and leaving him alone for 20 days wasn’t an option. He needs me, and frankly, I need him. The A.T. will be there next year. Some short Smokies trips this summer and fall are possible.

brrrrrip

brrrrrip

Quiet Walkway sign

Quiet Walkway sign

Last October, I hiked two of the Quiet Walkways on US Highway 441 and recently posted an account. Last week, I hiked the other two QWs and discovered some of what I had written was in error. The account from a few weeks ago has been substantially revised and is reposted here to correct those inaccuracies.

A small wooden bridge sits a the base of 0.2 mile Bullhead View Quiet Walkway loop.

A small wooden bridge sits a the base of 0.2 mile Bullhead View Quiet Walkway loop.

There are four Quiet Walkways on US Highway 441 in Tennessee between Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Chimneys Picnic Area, each on the left side of the road overlooking the Little Pigeon River’s West Prong. The first three, Bullhead View Quiet Walkway, Riverview Quiet Walkway, and Jim Carr Place Quiet Walkway, are connected to each other and to the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook, forming a pleasant, roughly 1.5-mile walk (with occasional obstructions) along the river. Balsam Point Quiet Walkway, the last one before Chimneys Picnic, stands apart, despite the National Geographic map indicating it is connected to the others.

Complementary cairns flanking Little Pigeon West Prong

Complementary cairns flanking Little Pigeon West Prong

Bullhead View is a mile from Sugarlands Visitor Center and features a small parking lot. The trail is to the left and steps down rather steeply from the road to a wooden bridge over a tiny creek. Splitting here, the trail forms a very short loop of less than 0.2 mile, leading back to the river and the main walkway. The trail at this point is nearly level with the river. A small rock cairn where the river walk begins its trek upstream mirrors a counterpart across the Little Pigeon, marking (I assume) a short path to Old Sugarlands Trail, which runs along the opposite bank before turning east between Twomile Lead and Bullhead.

Riverview Walkway is often wide, smooth, and level.

Riverview Walkway is often wide, smooth, and level.

The river walkway often follows a wide, level roadbed built well above the water. A short distance into the hike a concrete bridge support can be seen across the river. This open, easy valley was heavily settled before the park’s creation. The area is now a young, scrubby forest with birch, beech, sycamore, red oak, and sweetgum.

At 0.6 mile, a narrow path strikes off the main trail to the right. This is a rough trail (complete with downed trees) that climbs 0.3 mile to the parking area for QW #2 Riverview, the one across from Huskey Gap Trail with ample parking. The main river walkway continues another 0.2 mile to a log bench facing the river on the left and another path, this one wider and much smoother, to the right.

Log bench overlooking the river on Riverview Quiet Walkway

Log bench overlooking the river on Riverview Quiet Walkway

This 0.4 mile path is essentially level as it winds back to a small opening (to the left) and a copse of Pawpaw trees (on the right) before turning up the smooth, gentle grade of an old road past more benches to the same QW #2 parking area. Most people hike this wide, smooth section down and back. There are lovely and varied flowering plants in spring. We’ve found Crested Iris, Dutchman’s Pipe, Silverbell, Doll’s Eyes, Toothwort, Wild Geranium, Creeping Phlox, Bloodroot, Yellow Trillium, Foamflower, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, and many others.

Old roadbed from Riverview QW parking lot

Old roadbed from Riverview QW parking lot

To make a 0.9 mile loop at QW #2, stitch together the 0.4 mile old roadbed path down to the bench, turn left for 0.2 mile along the river walk, and find the narrow 0.3 mile path that will return you to the parking lot. This path may be hard to spot. Look for a tight cluster of four Tulip Poplars and one maple to the right of the river walk. The 0.3 mile trail cuts left just before the trees.

During the Pilgrimage, folks who don’t mind the more difficult footing and steeper elevation on the narrow 0.3 mile section will hike the loop. This section features old stone walls, an Umbrella Leaf Magnolia, and if my identification is correct, a Scentless Mock Orange (Philadelphus inodorus).

The last 1.1 miles of the River Walk are less traveled.

The last 1.1 miles of the River Walk are less traveled.

Returning to the main river walk (at the intersection of the log bench and smooth, roadbed section from QW #2), the trail looks much rougher and overgrown heading up river. There are downed trees and limbs right at the start. However, the trail is still easy to follow if you don’t mind occasional hurdles.

At the time of my October hike, I am blissfully unaware there are two more QWs up Hwy. 441, I just don’t recall noting them on my many drives up and down that road. Therefore, the less-travelled air surrounding this section seems fitting, and I assume the ‘trail’ won’t go very far. To my surprise, it continues for what seems like another mile, snaking between the river below and the highway above.

Massive rock slab in river

Massive rock slab in river

There is a good reason to not recall the two upper QWs. There are no little brown “Quiet Walkway” signs along Hwy. 441 to announce their presence from either direction. The only cues are paved parking and the little square interpretive sign at the trailhead, this latter marker very easy to miss while driving.

Massive rocks along the trail

Massive rocks along the trail

As I noted last fall, the river trail from Riverview QW continues to follow Little Pigeon’s West Prong, moving away from the road and becoming steeper. Maybe a half mile past Riverview, a massive flat slab of rock sits with a slight tilt in the river below and looks big enough to serve as an impromptu dance floor, albeit on a slant. Twenty-five yards further, the trail becomes a wet, rocky gully for a short climb, but quickly resumes a smoother surface. The path is always evident weaving past large boulders and rock hopping one stream. Near the end it makes a high banked curve to the right as though headed toward the road again, but just past this point, the trail simply vanishes. Along the way, I only spotted one likely trail upslope and did not follow it. After the fact, I assumed it was the Jim Car Place QW, but my spring explorations disprove that assumption.

Jim Carr Place QW Trailhead

Jim Carr Place QW Trailhead

April 19, I stop at the Jim Carr Place QW (a paved pull-off with room for four or five cars parking parallel to the road) to see where it ties into the river walk. This QW is 0.6 mile up the road from Riverview QW and just past the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook. The trail for JCPQW is remarkably smooth and clear. With last year’s leaves well trampled, it almost looks mulched.

Nodding or Yellow Mandarin

Nodding or Yellow Mandarin

Spring is the season to visit these QWs. Sections along the river walk, particularly around the upper three trails, are characteristic of mixed-mesophytic cove forests with Yellow Buckeye and Silverbell trees, each area quite rich with seasonal wildflowers. Bloodroot, Cutleaf Toothwort, Squirrel Corn, and Sharp-lobed Liverleaf are already fruiting. Fringed Phacelia, Purple Phacelia, Wild Ginger, Yellow Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, Nodding Mandarin, Creeping Phlox, Sweet Cicely, Star Chickweed, Rue Anemone, Early Meadow Rue, Blue Cohosh, Erect Trillium, and several different violet species are flowering in mid April. Meadow Parsnip, Solomon’s Plume, and Mayapple will soon follow suit with Black Cohosh, a species of waterleaf, Turk’s Cap Lily, Jumpseed, and Smooth Hydrangea waiting their turns.

Jim Carr Place QW Trail

Jim Carr Place QW Trail

The trail starts gently down to the right then switches back to the left, following the general contour of the road. At the lowest point, there is a T intersection, a right turn descends to the river walk and straight ahead rises to the Carlos C. Campbell Overlook. From the overlook, not many people would be tempted to follow the narrow slit of dirt flanked by grasses that curves sharply below the road and disappears into the forest. Those that do will find the trail quickly widens and becomes as smooth and inviting as the rest of the QW. The distances are probably about 0.15 or 0.2 from the JCPQW trailhead to the intersection and maybe 0.15 further to the overlook. From the intersection to the river walk is maybe another 0.2 mile.

Wild Ginger

Wild Ginger

This part of the QW is a little steeper, wending to a nearly rotted log bench about halfway down and reaching the river walk at the exact spot where that large ‘dance floor’ slab of rock sits in the Little Pigeon. Mere feet from the river walk, the trail appears to split offering two routes down. The left fork is a steep, rocky wash emerging between a large sycamore and a mossy buckeye straddling a boulder. The right fork is smooth and hits the river walk about 20 feet past the sycamore.

Flat area at the end of the river walk

Flat area at the end of the river walk

Following the river walk upstream, the wet, rocky gully I found last fall is no more than 30 yards beyond the JCPQW junction, followed by the large boulders, stream rock hop, and high-banked curve. The area just above this curve is expansive and relatively flat. On the way I’ve passed those ubiquitous signs of habitation — daffodil and daylily foliage, which were gone or hidden last fall. People lived here, and apparently one resident was Jim Carr.

The ‘trail’ past the curve that petered out on me in October seems a bit easier to follow in the clear understory of early spring, and I am able to go much further this time. However, it soon becomes more a product of the imagination than any truly evident path, and I turn around.

Balsam Point QW trailhead and parking

Balsam Point QW trailhead and parking

Between the JCPQW trailhead and the T intersection, I notice a small path resembling a game trail. On the way back to my car, I decide to follow it and can recommend that others skip it. It is steeper with downed trees and emerges on the river walk at the wet, rocky gully. It is far better to follow the true QW trail.

Balsam Point's graveled path

Balsam Point’s graveled path

One more to go. The Balsam Point Quiet Walkway is one mile beyond Jim Carr. The parking area is larger with many lined spaces. This QW is a short loop as well, maybe 0.3 mile total, and the path is lightly graveled in places. About halfway, it splits, and the right path strikes a level course across slope, paralleling a rock wall. The left fork descends quite steeply to a visible log bench in a clearing.

Balsam Point Log Bench

Balsam Point Log Bench

The loop trail rounds to the right of the bench at an easier grade up slope to the rock wall. Visitors have created a path through an opening in the wall. To the left is a flat area with a narrow stream amid a carpet of Fringed Phacelia and large patches of daffodil foliage. Step back through the wall and follow the QW’s level path to complete the loop.

Balsam Point flat area at end of rock wall

Balsam Point flat area at end of rock wall

A trail to the left of the log bench leads to a good view of the river both upstream and down. I wander a bit to see if there is some way to keep going and maybe find that elusive connection to the river walk, but no amount of imagination can conjure a trail worth following.

Little Pigeon's West Prong at Balsam Point

Little Pigeon’s West Prong at Balsam Point

Reader Michael Ray said he’d found another QW between Balsam Point and Chimneys Picnic with several parking spaces. From the picnic area, I drive down 441 watching carefully. From what I could tell, Balsam Point is the first QW on the highway from Chimneys Picnic and the first parking area with numerous spaces.

Now, there is a large gravel pull-off between Balsam and Jim Carr. There is no QW interpretive marker here, but a very steep, narrow, and rough trail does work its way down slope. I did not find that it joined the river walk, but I did not explore it very long either, preferring to stick with the established QWs.

Bloodroot foliage and fruit

Bloodroot foliage and fruit

These Quiet Walkways are far more interesting and rewarding than I’d imagined. Never underestimate the Smokies!

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