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View of Fontana Lake from the picnic parking area

View of Fontana Lake from the picnic parking area

I’m back in the Smokies to tackle a section of the park I’ve been dreading for years — the network of trails on the western end of Fontana Lake. A dry weather window opened, three days of sun with a 10-20% chance of thunderstorms. It will be enough to get me past the toughest trails on this 5-day, 4-night backpack. I book the campsites and cross my fingers. The forecast holds until the day before I leave. The first day on trail is now 80%, sigh. Most of that day will be spent wading across Eagle Creek anyway.

Lost Cove trailhead on teh A.T.

Lost Cove trailhead on teh A.T.

I drive to Fontana Dam the afternoon prior with the intention of spending the night at the shelter known as “Fontana Hilton.” It’s a large A.T. shelter open through the center like a barn with a set of sleeping platforms to either side. It has a great view of the lake, a fresh water spigot, and access to bathrooms with showers nearby. Thru-hikers love the relative luxury of “Fontana Hilton.” There are several people milling around when I arrive around 6 p.m. I ask one section hiker if there is room for me. “Maybe,” she says.  “There’s a group of 14- to 17-year-olds on a camping trip staying here. They are ADHD kids,” she notes with a slightly troubled brow. That’s all I need to know.  “Yeah,” she adds, “I may be pitching a tent tonight myself.”

Brilliant red spore cases of Hot Lips fungus

Brilliant red spore cases of Hot Lips fungus

The tenting area above the shelter lines a ridge arching steeply above the lake. Concrete pads take up most of the narrow space and are not conducive to a non-freestanding tent. I’m resigned to spending the night in my car.  After dinner, I settle down with a cushy sleeping pad and pillow for a surprisingly decent night’s sleep.

Red and Yellow Bolete

Red and Yellow Bolete

Next morning, I move my car to the dam’s visitor center parking area and am on my way before 7:00 a.m.  It is cloudy and certainly looks like an 80% chance of rain. I waste no time covering the nearly one-mile walk to the trailhead. To reach Lost Cove, requires a 3.7-mile hike on the A.T. past Shuckstack fire tower. Climbing to 3,700 feet, I’m ready to begin the first of seven new trails.

Lost Cove descends eastward from the A.T. at Sassafras Gap opposite Twentymile Trail, following Lost Cove Creek’s carved path between Red Ridge to the north and Little Shuckstack’s Snakeden Ridge to the south. Over 2.7 miles, it drops 1800 feet and merges seamlessly into Lakeshore Trail continuing eastward toward Campsite #90.

Corrugated Bolete

Corrugated Bolete

Starting inauspiciously as a narrow slit through Jewelweed, Early Meadow Rue, Wood Nettle, and tree seedlings, the Lost Cove quickly opens into one of the more lovely trails in the park. No one knows where the “Lost” part of its name comes from, but the “Cove” part is obvious. The trail meanders 2.7 miles through beautiful cove forests.  All the markers of a rich and diverse flora, particularly in spring, are here — Mountain Silverbell, Cucumber Magnolia, Lady Fern, Richweed, Cinnamon Fern, Catesby’s Trillium, Blue Cohosh, Nodding Mandarin, Geranium, Great Merrybells, Bloodroot, Sharp-lobed Liverleaf, Maidenhair Fern, Crested Iris, Seersucker Sedge, and many more.

Eagle Creek becomes Fontana Lake

Eagle Creek becomes Fontana Lake

Fungi are in full reproductive mode this time of year, sprouting colorful sporocarps along the trail. Little red knobs of Hot Lips (Calostoma cinnabarina) are beginning to push through the soil, still encased in their firm, clear gelatinous covering. Fresh, velvety Red and Yellow Boletes (Boletus bicolor), wrinkled caps of Corrugated Boletes (Boletus hortonii), and everyone’s favorite summer gastronomic ‘shroom Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) brighten my morning.

Iron bridge over Eagle Creek on Lakeshore

Iron bridge over Eagle Creek on Lakeshore

A half-mile down, the trail’s grade takes a nose dive for another half mile. Progress slows as smaller steps are needed to keep the descent under control. It’s a shame attention must be diverted from the beautiful surroundings to footsteps. The same is true near the end due to multiple stream crossings, some of which could be dicey in high water. My mid-summer hike downhill has the dual advantage of far less exertion and low water.

Both Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails are blocked by the precision fall of a tree.

Both Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails are blocked by the precision fall of a tree.

An uphill hike could work on a colorful cool fall day, and, if the water is not too high, on a colorful cool spring day. On this hot and very humid summer day, I meet two women backpackers struggling up Lost Cove. They look completely wiped, and though I hint at the steeper section to come, I don’t have the heart to undermine what energy they have left.

The upper stream crossings are completely dry. After Campsite #91, a wide level site, lower crossings also pose no problem. The junction with Lakeshore takes me a minute to figure out.  Lost Cove appears to continue straight ahead, but a trail sign indicates I’m now on a different trail. Lakeshore eastbound falls in line with Lost Cove’s trajectory along the creek. Lakeshore westbound toward the dam turns sharply upslope away from the creek.

Cinnabar Chanterelles decorate the mossy banks of Eagle Creek at many crossings.

Cinnabar Chanterelles decorate the mossy banks of Eagle Creek at many crossings.

In 0.4 mile Lakeshore makes another dramatic turn at Campsite #90, a very large and well-used site, though no one is here late on a Thursday morning. Little trails, I guess to bathroom locations, spiral out from the main camp. It takes a little wandering around to relocate Lakeshore Trail proper. Look for a footlog spanning Lost Cove Creek’s last gasp prior to joining lake-tamed Eagle Creek.

I am now walking beside a new creek companion, Eagle Creek. Its eponymous trail splits off in a half mile. Just before the junction, Lakeshore crosses the creek on a bridge trussed in a maze of iron struts, overkill if you ask me, but I’m no engineer. At the trail junction, I’m again stumped momentarily. Not because the paths are confusing, but because a large tree has fallen and strategically blocked both trails at the start. Fighting my way through limbs and foliage, I begin Eagle Creek Trail.

Pinky-beige blush of Lactarius quietus var. incanus

Pinky-beige blush of Lactarius quietus var. incanus

Within minutes, I’m at the first crossing. It’s 12:15 and a good opportunity to eat lunch before shedding my boots. While eating, I’m startled to see a man through the trees walking upstream. He’s fly fishing.  A second man appears.  Both move methodically up Eagle Creek casting their lines. Neither notice me.

With water shoes on and boots secured in my pack, I roll up my pants legs and begin the first of 16 fords across Eagle Creek. The fishermen are walking back downstream, and I can’t resist asking, “Is your name Dwight by chance?”  Dwight, the distracted fly fisherman, is a reader of this blog, and it would be quite cool to catch him in the act. “No, I’m Bill,” he says and asks me where I’m headed. He confirms that the water level is low, and I shouldn’t have much trouble. He tells me to take care; I wish him luck fishing.

Eagle Creek crossing with a logging rail

Eagle Creek crossing with a logging rail

Indeed, I’ve chosen an excellent time to hike Eagle Creek Trail. The water level is easily manageable and not very swift. It comes over my knees only a few times in one or two spots. It is still important to exercise caution, however. The flow remains powerful enough to throw off balance while walking through. Trekking poles are essential gear, providing extra stability with a second pair of ‘legs.’ On one crossing a downed log was perfectly positioned to lean against. The water feels cool and refreshing on my feet.

Thelephora vialis

Thelephora vialis

The first 4.6 miles of Eagle Creek (which is 8.9 miles total), run a serpentine course up the creek valley, crossing and recrossing the creek 16 times. The valley, seeming wide enough on the ground to question the merit of this routing, looks quite different on a topographic map. Eagle Creek is hemmed by an odd collection of steep ridges emanating from the Smokies crest. Though I still question the true need for so many crossings, on this hot summer day, I’m enjoying the regular relief. That last-minute 80% chance of rain was either a misprint or it simply evaporated. The day is as clear and sunny as originally forecast.

Yellow Blusher

Yellow Blusher

This section of Eagle Creek rises a scant 700 feet in elevation. It’s a little rocky and rooty in places, and I’ve encountered a handful of small blowdowns. Yet all in all it’s been smooth sailing. The stream crossings slow the pace somewhat.  At 1.6 miles is Campsite 89, and at 2.7 miles, the trail bisects Campsite 96 with a small site to either side. The Smokies hiking book says #96 is an ‘island’ campsite, but this is certainly not evident to me. However, it’s rather overgrown, and I didn’t stop to explore. If that area is a stream island, it’s a big one.

Ruddy Puffballs on a downed mossy birch

Ruddy Puffballs on a downed mossy birch

As with many areas of the park, Eagle Creek watershed was heavily logged in the early Twentieth Century. I come across two long strips of iron train rail, one lying in the creek. At times the valley widens enough during a straight run of the creek to lay out an avenue. I’m strolling creekside through a park in every sense.

The moist valley is a boon for evergreen Rosebay Rhododendron, Doghobble, and Partridgeberry, all prevalent along Eagle Creek. There are also impressive showings of New York Fern and Hayscented Fern. Fruiting Cateby’s Trillium and budding Yellow Fringed Orchid dot the trail. A female Diana Fritillary suns on a downed branch.

Could this be Amanita frostiana, Frost's Amanita?

Could this be Amanita frostiana, Frost’s Amanita?

Mushrooms are happy here too. Bright red sporocarps of Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) complement the dark green mossy banks of Eagle Creek at several crossings. Understated Lactarius quietus var. incanus features a soft pinkish bloom over the purple-brown caps. False coral (Thelephora vialis) sprouts fresh rosettes, shining like lights against the dark earth.

Around 4 p.m., I arrive at my destination for the night, Campsite 97.  The hiking book indicates there is a site on the far side of the sixteenth and final creek crossing. Not so. The space has been unused for some time with plants sprouting all through it, and there are no bear cables. I cross back to the real site and set up camp.

Montagne's Polypore cap

Montagne’s Polypore cap

It turned into a beautiful day in the mountains, yet there were few people in this remote area of the park. I saw four hikers on the A.T., two backpackers on Lost Cove, and two fishermen on Eagle Creek. No one else comes to Campsite 97 tonight. I sleep well lulled by the shushing sound of the creek.

The next morning I strike camp, cross the creek one last time, and prepare for the final 4.3 miles of Eagle Creek Trail. The grade begins to steepen and undulate and the valley narrows, yet the first 2.7 miles remain easy enough with one stretch perched along a raised rail bed. Wood Betony joins the plants already listed as a notable presence on trail.

The concentric gill-like pores of Montagne's Polypore

The concentric gill-like pores of Montagne’s Polypore

Mushrooms include Yellow Blusher (Amanita flavorubescens), Powdery Amanita, Ruddy Puffballs (Morganella subincarnata), False Coral Mushroom, Gem-studded Puffball, young sprigs of Hericium americanum, and possibly Frost’s Amanita (Amanita frostiana). One bolete looks like a massive pancake bigger than my hand. Montagne’s Polypore (Coltricia montagnei) is a widespread but uncommon fungi whose pores radially elongate to form gill-like concentric rings beneath the cap.

Toothed fungus Hericium americanum

Toothed fungus Hericium americanum

With 1.6 miles to go, the real fun begins on Eagle Creek as the trail makes an abrupt change in grade at 3500 feet and climbs alongside Spence Cabin Branch.  A slow and deliberate pace with pauses to catch my breath and drink water proves a good strategy. One steep section is actually a cobble corollary to the branch, and the rocks are sturdy and stable enough to make decent steps. The trail moderates as it crosses the branch just past the mid-way point.  Here the forest is lush and beautiful. Grasses and sedges that make Spence Field so lovely are here along with Bee Balm, Cutleaf Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Heart-leaf Hedge-nettle, and White Wood Aster. Blue Cohosh is loaded with green fruits not yet ripe.

Raised rail, now trail, bed on the upper half of Eagle Creek

Raised rail, now trail, bed on the upper half of Eagle Creek

I pass three men coming down from Spence Field. They are pleased to learn the stream crossings ahead will be easy. I’m pleased to learn I’m almost at the top. One final steep push puts me at the spring for Spence Field Shelter. I stop here to filter a liter of water, then rest a bit at the shelter, eating a snack and drinking. I’ve got 0.2 mile left on Eagle Creek Trail through the sea of sedges carpeting this area to reach the A.T.  Another 0.3 mile past some tasty blueberry bushes will put me at the start of Jenkins Ridge Trail. It’s a long trail (8.9 miles), but it is mostly downhill. I feel good knowing the hard part is over.

Emotions still run high over Lakeview Drive

Emotions still run high over Lakeview Drive

I return to Noland Creek to walk south to Fontana Lake. At Bryson City’s edge just before entering Lakeview Drive proper, a small billboard perches on a steep slope bearing a brightly colored message:
WELCOME TO
THE ROAD TO NO-WHERE
A BROKEN PROMISE!
1943 – ?
NO MORE WILDERNESS

In pristine condition amid closely cropped vegetation, this sign represents the still vivid feelings some local residents have over the original intent of Lakeview Drive and the change of plans that left this intent unfulfilled. To learn the story, see my blog post “Lakeshore, Goldmine, and Tunnel Bypass Trails, Aug. 8, 2012” in the Archive for September, 2012.

Four bridges span Noland Creek in the one mile walk to Fontana Lake.

Four bridges span Noland Creek in the one mile walk to Fontana Lake.

At the Noland Creek trailhead below Lakeview Drive, turn left to follow the old gravel road until it literally peters out at the water’s edge. The road’s grade change during this one-mile course is imperceptible, yet Noland Creek flows heartily. This trail section sticks close to the creek and crosses it four times on sturdy wooden bridges. These bright bridged openings contrast with the dim forested shade in between.

Noland's Creek last gasp entering Fontana Lake

Noland’s Creek last gasp entering Fontana Lake

Nearing the lake, the road narrows, becomes grassy, and sidles next to the creek’s bank. A thin curtain of foliage separates mountain forest from impounded river. Parting that curtain, reveals different scenes at different times of year. In the fullness of summer, you would be met with lake water lapping at your feet. In winter, when the lake is in its drawdown mode, Noland Creek stretches itself a bit further downstream and the raw, muddy, rocky underbelly of a dammed river becomes exposed in glaring display on either side.

A tentacle of Fontana Lake snakes up Noland Creek's valley.

A tentacle of Fontana Lake snakes up Noland Creek’s valley.

In late May, the lake is not yet full.  A vertical slash of bedrock forms a stark linear border between the gray-brown water and lush green trees on the steep far side of Noland Creek. The trail side has something of a “beach” profile, sloping gently for several yards toward an abrupt bank climbing back into forest. This dirt beach is scoured clean annually with rising lake levels, leaving bare soil, open canopy, and little competition in winter and spring. Robust stands of a few herbaceous plants take early advantage before advancing water drowns their ambitions.

Campsite #66 overlooks a drawn down Fontana Lake

Campsite #66 overlooks a drawn down Fontana Lake

A slim footpath of dirt extends down the beach. Apparently, many people walk this way when the water level is low. Burned stubs of wood indicate an illegal campfire. Just upslope from the beach is a legitimate campsite, #66, accessible only by boat….in summer anyway. I see neither an obvious approach from the water nor a sign post, though these may be further down shore. Climbing the hillside, I find a rock fire ring and bear cables on sloping ground with a small opening through the trees to view the lake. When water levels are high, it might be a picturesque place to camp. Not so today, though someone must be here, as a full pack hangs from the cables. There are no other signs of habitation.

Canada Toadflax

Canada Toadflax

Back on the beach, there are scattered but dense stands of a plant 2-4 feet tall with alternate, narrowly lanceolate, toothed leaves. It has the gestalt of a goldenrod, but I honestly don’t know what it is. In between these stands, the ground is liberally sprinkled with a prolific annual, Canada Toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis). From a rosette of short leafy stems that splay on the ground, the sturdy flowering stems grow 20 inches and bear a raceme of tiny light blue flowers.

Death of a mountain stream

Death of a mountain stream

The lake level must have been lower a short time ago, as flowering stems emerge from the water, their leafy rosettes several inches below the surface, circled by tadpoles. Despite this location, Canada Toadflax is not a wetland species. I find a flowering stem protruding from a crack in the asphalt on Lakeview Drive 650 feet above the lake. It appears to be one tough, opportunistic cookie capable of tolerating a wide variety of conditions.

A trash laden pall for Noland Creek

A trash-laden pall for Noland Creek

A small cascade marks the point where Noland Creek officially enters the lake. All semblance of its bubbly personality fades quickly. Within 50 yards, no flow is apparent, the surface smooth and quiet. An unmoving raft of woody debris and trash floats like a pall marking the death of this beautiful mountain stream.

Exiting the beach area, a sign faces the lake, nearly obscured in that veil of foliage, announcing the start of Noland Creek Trail and its divide destination 10 miles away. The creek’s waters dance and sing upon passing, unaware of the ignominious fate ahead.

Lake-side trailhead

Lake-side trailhead

The National Geographic map (Clingmans Dome/Cataloochee) notes a Quiet Walkway on Lakeview Drive a little more than a mile from Noland Creek on the way back to Bryson City. I looked for it when driving to Noland Creek and am scanning the roadside as I leave. There is a pull off and overlook in the general vicinity but no trail that I can find. It is either an error or the trail has been removed. All I find is that Canada Toadflax demonstrating a determination that bodes well for its continued success in a natural world increasingly muddled by humans.

The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

My final full day in the Smokies, emphasis on the word full.  With a wild mix of confidence and trepidation, I take another Cherokee Cab shuttle to the Noland Creek Trail access on Lakeview Drive, the infamous “Road to Nowhere.”  From here I will piece together part or all of five different trails to return to Deep Creek Campground and in the process cover 20.25 miles, a personal best that shatters my old record by nearly three miles. It’s an early start on a chilly late May morning.

A sharp eye is needed to spot the small brown sign, “Noland Creek Trail,” and its little arrow pointing down a rather obscure path that tumbles in a steep pitch off the road. The sign is set at the end of a large parking area on the left just before the high bridge spanning Noland Creek’s narrow valley. The switchbacked access trail is maybe 0.1 mile, but it connects the bright open road above to the densely shaded, almost gloomy, trailhead along the creek.

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

Noland Creek Trail’s 9.9 miles split in two directions from its trailhead. Turn left for a one mile streamside stroll to the not-so-lovely shore of Fontana Lake. I’ll do this tomorrow morning before returning home (report to come). Today, I turn right to follow the creek upstream nine miles to the crest of Noland Divide and its self-named trail. Noland Creek Trail is a wide, remarkably smooth gravel/dirt road with a much appreciated relaxed grade winding through the creek valley. This surface covers the first five miles, and the grade continues until the final 0.7 mile shoots straight up Noland Divide, resulting in 1,800 feet elevation gain over 9.2 miles and 700 feet in 0.7 mile. The toll is paid at the end of this road.

Noland Creek Trail

Noland Creek Trail

The trail passes under the sweeping Lakeview Drive bridge high overhead and zigzags its way up the valley, crossing over Noland Creek numerous times. From the lake shore to Springhouse Branch Trail junction at Campsite #64 (five miles), there are nine wooden bridges barely wide enough for motorized traffic. For hikers this means smooth sailing. Two hours after setting sail, I’m resting at one of the picnic tables at #64.

Hemmed by Noland Divide to the east and Forney Ridge to the west, Noland Creek is a swift and lusty mountain stream carrying waters from dozens of smaller branches. Mill Creek joins Noland at Campsite #64, and the union is a noisy one. Peace and quiet as well as all other forest sounds drown in the tumult.

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

Noisy water aside, Noland Creek Trail feels remote even though it is not difficult to access from either end, traverses an old road half way, and features five backcountry campsites. The narrow valley is deeply shaded by typical Smokies vegetation. The creek’s proximity favors lush growth of Rosebay Rhododendron, Doghobble, Yellowroot, and Wild Hydrangea. Beautiful cascading fronds of Maidenhair Fern mix with robust scrambles of Poison Ivy in flower. Not much else is flowering except one of the Daisy Fleabanes (Erigeron strigosus), which is now opening at the lowest elevations.

Poison Ivy flowers

Poison Ivy flowers

Shady green continues past Campsite #64, but the trail itself begins a slow transformation into a true dirt path, a process complete within the next 1.5 miles. Four of the five campsites allow horses and three of them are located in the upper reaches of Noland Creek Trail past the old road’s end. Rocks, roots, mud, and muck recur regularly requiring a bit of a foot dance to negotiate. Little feeder creeks with their rock hops tend to run down trail as often as run across it, and the potential for slopping through water during big rain events is all but guaranteed, a major pain unless you are perched five feet above it on a horse’s back. Recent precipitation has left its telltale mark, but I manage with little difficulty.

Fabulous new footbridge design

Fabulous new footbridge design

By Campsite #63, a quiet and pleasant place nestled in verdant vegetation, all vestiges of an old road are gone. Only the gentle grade of the valley floor remains. The trail continues to cross Noland Creek, and the first few (at least three) have footbridges.  One of them looks brand new. Well constructed with two artfully designed handrails and large rock steps, it is a beauty to behold. These bridges give me hope that perhaps the unbridged crossings mentioned in the Little Brown Book might be a thing of the past. Wishful thinking.

I finally hit the first ford. No way to cross without wet feet the rest of the day, but I’m prepared. While changing into water shoes, four hikers from Clingmans Dome approach on the opposite side. They tell me there are two more wet crossings after this one, the first rocky and shallow, the second much deeper. I tell them they are now home free. The last two crossings are just past Campsite #62. During the final wade, water comes over my knees. There are more small springs and muddy patches ahead, but it is safe to put my boots back on.

The first big ford on Noland Creek

The first big ford on Noland Creek

After the final stream crossing, I run into several small blowdowns across the trail. Broken limbs of rhododendron or Mountain Laurel, dead hemlock branches, even a small Fraser Magnolia. At Campsite #61, I seem to have reached a dead end. I can find no path that does not circle back around to the campsite. Adding to the confusion is an old sign declaring “this trail closed” and pointing straight into the campsite as the way to Noland Divide. Ten minutes of circling lead me to the back of the campsite once more, where I notice light and space beyond a thick wall of rhododendron branches. It’s another recent blowdown that has completely obscured the trail. Beyond this are more blowdowns, including a tree so large the only way forward is a steep scramble up the bank through shrubs to vault the bole and slide down the other side.

Campsite #61 marks the end of the easy grade. It now requires a steep haul to finish Noland Creek and reach the divide. The last few steps with the top in sight are somehow always the hardest. At the top, I pause for a snack and enjoy cool breezes at 4200 feet. The day is nothing short of gorgeous. The sky is as blue and clear as I’ve seen in the Smokies.

Pole Road Creek Trail (3.3 miles)

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

At the Noland Creek junction, Pole Road Creek Trail starts its 3.3-mile trek down the opposite side of the divide to end at Deep Creek Trail. It too has numerous unbridged  crossings of its namesake creek and one bridged crossing over Deep Creek at the terminus. It starts out pleasant enough, descending through cheerful yellow flowers of Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) and Yellow Stargrass, Vasey’s Trilliums under their shields of foliage, triangular teardrops of Great Merrybells fruit.  Two juncos defending a nest nearby scold my loitering to take a picture. Grasshoppers leap before me like some kind of advance guard.

Common Cinquefoil

Common Cinquefoil

The first 1.2 miles are a breeze. Then comes the first cluster of stream crossings. Pole Road Creek, inspired by last week’s rain, is singing loud and proud. None of the crossings are deep, per se, yet all present a navigation challenge. One misstep means a boot full of water if not a complete tumble. The simple, smart choice would be to take five minutes and change into water shoes so I can stride without hesitation through the 10 crossings. Wish I’d done so. Instead I choose the ‘ornery cuss’ approach and sweat each crossing uttering words I cannot repeat here. Somehow my feet stay dry by sheer luck and definitely not because I deserve it.

The final crossing (of course) is the worst.  No way to get across with dry feet, until I spy a large log spanning the creek. It’s top mossy surface has several spots worn smooth from butts sliding across. My butt buffs it too.

Fraser's Sedge fruit

Fraser’s Sedge fruit

As a hiking experience, Pole Road Creek Trail isn’t terrible, but it isn’t good either. Stream crossings aside, the trail is fairly narrow and at this moment very overgrown. At times it feels like I’m swimming through foliage right in my face. There is large tree down, which requires crawling on hands and knees. The trail surface runs the gamut from smooth dry to wet muck with rocky sections and tripping roots. Water would run down this trail during wet weather. However, it’s the Smokies and a horse trail, so some of these conditions are inevitable. I’ve certainly hiked horse trails in much worse shape.  One unexpected and nice surprise is a small grouping of Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus) in fruit.

Martin’s Gap Trail (3.0 miles)

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

Arriving at Deep Creek Trail, I turn right for 0.75 mile to Martins Gap Trail. Martins Gap climbs the west flank of Sunkota Ridge (1,000 feet, 1.5 miles) and descends the east flank at an equal distance and elevation change. The elevation profile looks mild on paper. The reality is somewhat different, though it is good to keep in mind that my ascent of Martins Gap comes seven hours and 13 miles into the day.

Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snake

Maps show a gnarled and crooked route to Sunkota Ridge. The impression is more ‘straight up.’ I haven’t really rested today, and food consists of quick snacks — energy gels, power bars, a Snickers, beef jerky — things I can eat while moving. As a result, the trek up Martins Gap takes an agonizing amount of time. I sit down in the trail, ostensibly to photograph Indian Cucumber-root but in reality to get off my feet and rejuvenate a bit. I waste a good 45 minutes piddling during the climb to Sunkota. “Waste” may be too harsh a word. My rest will come in handy shortly.

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

The western leg of Martins Gap is generally drier and more acidic yet features a few small moist coves as well, providing a plant palate shifting between Partridgeberry, Galax, and Rattlesnake Hawkweed on one end with Summer Bluets, Crested Iris, and Robin’s Plantain on the other. Bear Huckleberry is setting fruit. During one of my many pauses along the way, I happen to stop right beside an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). He stares at me but doesn’t so much a twitch a muscle, allowing me to shoot as many photos as I like.

The eastern leg is more uniformly moist and crosses the upper reaches of Indian Creek twice. Wild Geranium and Blue-eyed Grass are flowering. The second footlog is twisted on the upslope end giving the tread a decided slant. Care must be taken with foot placement to avoid slipping off.

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

Horse traffic necessitates a short railed bridge across a draw that is little more than a deep slit with water cascading through it on the western side. Horse traffic is also likely responsible for the 8” tread trenching on sections heading straight uphill. The back side of Martin’s Gap features a trench that could easily contend for worst trail erosion in the Smokies. Wet muck with standing water is held in place by a large root. On the other side of that root, the trail is gone. In its place is a sheer two-foot drop into orange mire that engulfs my boots. Vegetation crowds either side of the trail, and past efforts to sidestep the trench have only worsened the erosion and widened the gulf, leaving current hikers no safe option but lowering themselves two feet into ankle deep mud.

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

I don’t want to go on yet another horse rant, but these things make me furious. It is a condition that surpasses mere wilderness challenge. It is a serious hazard to hikers and horses alike.  Many of these trails, their construction, their soils, are just not supportive of horse use. In some instances heavy foot traffic is enough to cause problems and much more so the hooves of 1,000-pound horses. Trail soils are continually gouged and churned then washed away in the 60+ inches of annual rainfall.

Not only do walking park visitors suffer the consequences, the park itself — the resource — is harmed. The most appropriate time to act on this issue was decades ago. However, this shouldn’t prevent some positive action today.  As extreme weather events become more common, this kind of damage could well escalate. National parks are already starved for funds, so repairs are unlikely, and in some instances the only remedy is to relocate the trail, an even less likely prospect. We need to advocate for protection of the park environment and the hiking experience.

Horse Poop Feather, Noland Creek Trail, GSMNP, May 23, 2016My day began with a pile of horse poop sporting a turkey feather near Noland Creek trailhead. It made me laugh. The day draws to a close in a precipitous two-foot trench of muck. I’m not laughing.

Martins Gap Trail ends at Campsite #46. Indian Creek Trail seamlessly begins at this same spot. Like Noland Creek Trail, it is a smooth gravel/dirt roadbed that runs alongside a boisterous mountain stream. Indian Creek Trail merges into Deep Creek Trail at the bottom; a total of 4.3 miles lies between me and supper. I’ve already hiked these sections and am determined to make short work of them.  Whether its my rest on Martins Gap or just the desire to be done, I reach the campground in 87 minutes, covering 20.25 miles for the day and topping it off with a sprint to the finish. I spend the rest of the evening nursing a serious case of ‘hiker hobble!’

Thomas Divide traverses more than six miles of northern hardwoods forest.

Thomas Divide traverses more than six miles of northern hardwoods forest.

Up early this morning, I strike camp and move from Smokemont to Deep Creek campground. Cherokee Cab Company meets me at the camp check-in station at 8:30 a.m. and drives me to the Thomas Divide trailhead on Highway 441. From there, I’ll hike the full length of TDT (13.6 miles) to Tom Branch Road plus an additional road mile to the campground.

Canada Mayflower

Canada Mayflower

Beginning at 9:15 a.m. and an elevation of 4700 feet, it is breezy and cool enough to warrant gloves. I’m looking forward to the first climb a quarter mile in. Thomas Divide easily undulates between 4600 and 5200 feet for the first 6.5 miles, with a single descent of 1.25 miles between that peak and trough. At this elevation, it feels like TDT transports me to Pennsylvania, walking in a northern hardwoods forest with American Beech, Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple, Red Oak, Mountain Maple, and Serviceberry. Fine sedges and small grasses wave along the trail. Tiny Northern White Violet (Viola macloskeyi), found at these higher elevations, is in flower.

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone

It also feels like I’ve stepped back in time. Plant species flowering at the base of the mountains a month ago during the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage are colorful and fresh-faced or still in bud up here: Toothwort, Solomon’s Plume, Wood Anemone, Foamflower, Thyme-leaved Bluets, Nodding Mandarin, Canada Mayflower, Star Chickweed, Indian Cucumber-root, Meadow Parsnip, Wood Betony, Mountain Bellwort, Doll’s Eyes, Wild Geranium, Mayapple, Vasey’s Trillium, Rue Anemone, Bear Corn, and Solomon’s Seal. Silverbells are dropping pristine blossoms on the trail. Painted Trillium and Bloodroot are in the minority setting fruit.

budding Chicken of the Woods

Budding Chicken of the Woods

On a map, TDT plots a curving line from the highway, trending first southeast, then south, and finally southwest as it closely follows ridge lines, including Thomas Ridge, for its entire length. Three trails join TDT during its high elevation stretch, two climbing from Highway 441 near Smokemont (Kanati Fork, Newton Bald) and one from Deep Creek (Sunkota Ridge). Thomas Divide climbs to 5000 feet in the first 0.8 mile hitting Beetree Ridge and leveling for one mile to the Kanati Fork junction. There are signs of minor hog rooting on the flat ridge.

Large Whorled Pogonia

Large Whorled Pogonia

Past Kanati, TDT rises another 200 feet then descends to Tuskee Gap, the lowest elevation within the first six miles (4600). The flora is rich in moist draws on the steep slope of Nettle Creek Bald. A downed log is lined with a clumpy bright orange fungi that looks as though it could develop into a large batch of Chicken of the Woods. As the trail continues toward the gap, a more acid-soil community takes shape with Bracken Fern, Mountain Laurel, Galax, Blueberry, and Cow Wheat (Melampyrum lineare). Several Large Whorled Pogonias (Isotria verticillata) are just beginning to open. Seed capsules from last year still stand in their midst. Nearby and in several spots further down trail, small clusters of Pink Ladies Slippers are in their prime.

Cow Wheat

Cow Wheat

The trail climbs again (4950) and drops slightly (4750) to the junction with Sunkota Ridge Trail. Another four-tenths mile climb (5000) reaches the Newton Bald Trail junction. Cinnamon Fern is plentiful as is Wild Hydrangea, and I find Alternate-leaf Dogwood too. A foliose lichen, likely Smooth Lungwort (Lobaria querzicans) has grown to massive proportions on hardwood trees, forming patches well over a foot wide. In the mile past Newton Bald, the trail dips (4700) and rises (4950) one final time before leaving these high elevations behind.

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

TDT’s two-mile descent to Deeplow Gap veers from the ridge line for a short stretch and passes through a lush, narrow draw with the early trickle of an incipient stream. Wild Geranium in flower thickly lines the trail interspersed with Lady Fern, Cinnamon Fern, and Intermediate Fern. Fat clumps of Umbrella Leaf hopscotch down the developing creek.

Smooth Lungwort

Smooth Lungwort

I reach the gap at 1:14 p.m., 8.1 miles in four hours, and break for lunch. Deeplow Gap Trail crosses here, and two more trails originating in Deep Creek (Indian Creek Motor, Stone Pile Gap) will join Thomas Divide in the 5.5 miles remaining. Thus far, Thomas Divide has been a delightful trail. Its easy surface makes for a pleasant journey. A few areas are slightly overgrown with mostly herbaceous plants and some small trees or shrubs. There are few brambles.

The last three miles of Thomas Divide follow an old road.

The last three miles of Thomas Divide follow an old road.

After Deeplow Gap, TDT makes a steady 550-foot climb in 0.9 mile. A small stream crossing the trail spills down it, and thanks to horse traffic, turns a short patch into wet black muck. Cresting at 4300 feet at mile nine, TDT is all downhill from here. One and a half miles later, I reach the Indian Creek Motor Trail junction. From here the trail follows an old road, and the grade and surface make for smooth sailing. An occasional eroded gully poses no impediment.

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

Cruise control at the end of a long day always brings the risk of missing neat stuff on trail. Plants and animals darn near have to jump out in front of me, yet a few things do penetrate my consciousness. Great Yellow Wood-sorrel (Oxalis grandis) still has a few bedraggled flowers. Running Ground Cedar completely covers a steep bank doing what it does best…running. Befitting the intrusive road, Poison Ivy is prominent, and Multiflora Rose makes an entrance.

I buzz past the Stone Pile Gap junction with 1.1 miles to go. One-tenth mile from the trailhead, the Wiggins cemetery is visible on a small knoll to the right. Several different families rest here.

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

The gated trailhead features a large circular gravel parking area to accommodate horse trailers. Tom Branch Road (sometimes referred to as Galbraith Road) continues the downhill trajectory roughly following Tom Branch, which terminates as a lovely waterfall at Deep Creek. One mile from TDT, Deep Creek Campground comes into view on the left. A grassy road bed blocked by big boulders divides the lower tent sites from the upper and provides easy foot access to these upper campsites. The hike takes seven hours, a two-mile-per-hour pace. I can live with that.

Mountain Farm Museum at the start of the Oconaluftee River Trail. Historic structures were brought here in the 1950s from various locales in the park. The house belonged to the John Davis family in Deep Creek.

Mountain Farm Museum at the start of the Oconaluftee River Trail. Historic structures were brought here in the 1950s from various locales in the park. The house belonged to the John Davis family in Deep Creek.

I’m back in the Smokies for a quick visit. The impetus for this trip, a Saturday bushwhack into Raven Fork watershed with Ken McFarland, had to be cancelled at the last minute, but I elect to come anyway and hike the trails I’d planned for Sunday and Monday. The weather forecast for those days is simply too perfect to pass up. Rain Friday and Saturday morning is moving out, leaving clear blue skies and cool breezes. I will stay at Smokemont campground Saturday evening and arrive late afternoon with the intent to check 1.5-mile Oconaluftee River Trail off my list.

Oconaluftee River Trail's smooth surface

Oconaluftee River Trail’s smooth surface

The trailhead is located behind Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Mountain Farm Museum, and the sign clearly directs trail hikers to the right and farm visitors to the left. In my haste, I ignore this and walk to the farm entrance. From there, several root-filled dirt paths braid along the river, and though surprised to find such a rough, confusing surface, I gamely strike out thinking I’m on trail. However, it doesn’t make sense, and being a somewhat intelligent person, it doesn’t take long for me to realize the error and join the real path farther up the bank. From the true beginning, the trail loops around the outer fence of the farm museum then turns southeast beside the river on a wide, silky smooth, packed gravel route to the park boundary and town limits of Cherokee, NC.

Hornbeam fruits

Hornbeam fruits

The river is never far away, though not always in sight, and neither are roads. Sandwiched between Highway 441 and Big Cove Road (NC 1410), the trail dips under the Blue Ridge Parkway and crosses Saunooke Bridge Road near Cherokee.  Road noise is inescapable, but absent after-market motorcycles, it isn’t intrusive either. The path is perfect for families or people of limited mobility, as the surface easily accommodates wheels of chairs, walkers, or strollers, and there are benches.

Just as the farm museum exemplifies the lifestyle of European settlers in the Appalachians, interpretive signs on the trail relate Cherokee legends of Rattlesnake Mountain, rivers, the origin of the mountains, trees, and water to illustrate the spiritual relationship the Eastern Band of Cherokee have with this land. Signs are written in both English and Cherokee languages. The word Oconaluftee is an English corruption of the Cherokee Egwanulti, “By-the-river Towns,” applied to the native villages that were once found along the river.

Hairy Woodmint

Hairy Woodmint

After the Oconaluftee River passes Smokemont, its floodplain widens, and at the confluence with Raven Fork becomes an open valley near the visitor center and Mountain Farm Museum. The river trail meanders that floodplain and features plants quite at home in these moist lowlands. Sycamores line the river, their white upper trunks glowing through late May’s flush of green. Hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana) dangle racemes of winged fruit resembling little Chinese pagodas.

Hearts-a-bustin' flowers

Hearts-a-bustin’ flowers

Sprays of tiny fruit clusters hide beneath thick tufts of compound foliage on knee-high patches of Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima). Elderberry, Wild Hydrangea, and Hearts-a-bustin’ shrubs are in flower or preparing to.  Herbaceous lovelies Cream Violet, Spiderwort, Woodland Bluets, and Hairy Woodmint join them, while Cutleaf Coneflower, Bee Balm, and Jewelweed bide their time until summer. Robust populations of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), a scarce species in the park, are found on the river trail. Only sterile fronds are present. Leaflets of the fertile fronds roll into tiny tight balls enclosing spore-producing structures. These fronds look like linear clusters of beads, accounting for its other common name, Bead Fern.

Sensitive Fern

Sensitive Fern

Disturbed areas in the park are often havens for a native plant no one likes, Poison Ivy. Rhus toxicodendron loves the river trail, growing lush and large up trees and on the ground. Unfortunately, no disturbed area is complete without a few invasive species. Multiflora Rose, Vinca, Japanese Stiltgrass, Japanese Honeysuckle Vine fit that bill, though native Jewelweed and violets are putting up a good fight.

A crow flailing in the water’s edge catches my attention. It’s dragging what appears to be a dead fish onto the rocky shore for an evening meal. On my way back, it has attracted a few friends looking to score a dinner invitation. Oconoluftee River Trail is one of only two official trails in the park that allow dogs. One owner has taken the trouble to bag his pet’s waste then left it sitting trailside. Unintentional? Deliberate? What a sad commentary that it could be the latter.

Cherokee, NC, town limits

Cherokee, NC, town limits

Just past the Saunooke Bridge Road crossing, the trail ends at the park boundary as shady forest gives way to sunny landscaping and asphalt in Cherokee, NC.

 

The open valley at Oconoluftee with Rattlesnake Mountain in the background

The open valley at Oconoluftee with Rattlesnake Mountain in the background

View from Newfound Gap into North Carolina where we are heading on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.

View from Newfound Gap into North Carolina where we’ll be on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail

At the 2015 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, my Sweat Heifer hike was cancelled due to the potential for strong storms including possible tornadoes. Twelve months later, the all-day trek looks good to go. A rain-soaked Friday gives way to a cloudy but clearing Saturday, and Paul Durr, Dee Montie, and I are ready to take interested pilgrims on a 7.4 mile hike up the A.T., down Sweat Heifer, and out Kephart Prong.

I’ve done this route twice, both times prior to my 900 Mile Club aspirations and thus without visual documentation. I am carrying my small backpacking FujiFilm camera to rectify this situation and check Sweat Heifer off my list. Since I have hiked it before, it shouldn’t be difficult to snap a few quick pics along the way. Yeah, right.

Sign at A.T. junction shows wear from the high elevation climate.

Sign at A.T. junction shows wear from the high elevation climate

You never know how many pilgrims will show for a hike. Registration may be full, but when the day and time arrive, only a handful of people may follow through. By Saturday, weariness must set in for some of them. I’ve co-led hikes where the leaders out-number the pilgrims. My first trek down Sweat Heifer years ago had two leaders and two pilgrims. We have 26 registered, but if the past is any indication, most won’t show, allowing me time to reacquaint myself with the trail and take photos for this blog post. Turns out the past isn’t a very good indication at all; twenty-one eager pilgrims arrive at Newfound Gap.

Zigzagging through the beech gap

Zigzagging through the beech gap

Once the car shuttle down Highway 441 to Kephart Prong trailhead is complete, we are ready to hit the trail with Paul in the lead, Dee playing sweep, and me bouncing around in the middle. It is quite cool and breezy at Newfound Gap, but a 1.7-mile rocky climb (800’ elevation gain) along the A.T. gets our blood pumping. Paul talks about threats to the high elevation Spruce-Fir forests — balsam woolly adelgid, acid rain, windthrow, wild hogs, climate change — and their devastating effects on this rare, fragile community.

Trailside cascade, tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek

Trailside cascade, tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek

At the junction with Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, we turn right and begin our descent through a beech gap on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. In pre-park days, settlers drove their cattle upslope 2300 feet for summer grazing at higher elevations. Man or beast tackling that kind of climb in 3.7 miles is definitely going to break a sweat. Those high meadow grasses must have tasted mighty sweet!  A downward trajectory is much more pleasant.

Cascade slide of Sweat Heifer Creek

Cascade slide of Sweat Heifer Creek

The trail obliquely tackles concentrated contour lines delineating the Smokies crest on a topo map, then runs into creek draws and around finger ridges as it descends to Kephart Prong. Its surface is better than I remember, not hard on the feet or the knees. After two miles, the trail flattens to a very gentle grade and crosses a tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek. Yesterday’s rain is evident, and the cascading falls by the trail is photo worthy. I catch pilgrim Kelly snapping a picture. Colorfully dressed, she refers to herself as a “Crayola crayon box.” She is preparing for a trip to Yosemite.

Great Merrybells

Great Merrybells

Entering the narrow draw carved by Sweat Heifer Creek, an impressive cascading water slide carries exuberant rain-swollen waters downslope, and the crossing above that slide presents a rock-hop challenge for those who wish to avoid wet feet. It takes a while to get everyone across, yet most manage to stay relatively dry. The easy grade covers more than a half mile before resuming a steeper decline.

Beginning at 5850’ elevation and dropping to 4500 at the creek crossings then 3,500 at Kephart Shelter, Sweat Heifer meanders through several community types from beech gaps and northern hardwoods to rich coves and rhododendron thickets. The cove sites feature numerous spring wildflowers — the purpose of our hike.  Beginning with higher elevation plants such as Bluebead Lily and Carolina Spring Beauty, we find a few Trout Lilies hanging on, Toothworts, Thyme-leaved Bluets, Dwarf Ginseng, Great White Trillium, Fringed Phacelia, Creeping Phlox, Wood Anemone, Great Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), Crested Iris, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and several violet species. At the start, flowers are mostly closed or drooping from Friday’s rain, but as we descend, the day’s dryness spurs most flowers to perk up and open for business.

An unlikely shade of Fringed Phacelia

An unlikely shade of Fringed Phacelia

The phacelia here present a botanical conundrum. Many are white, as would be expected with Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata), a showy annual restricted to the North Carolina border in Tennessee and found occasionally at mid to high elevations in the park. However, several of the flowers are blue, as would be expected with Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii), another showy fringed annual with a broader western distribution in Tennessee and noted as scarce in its occurrence at low elevations in the park. Botanical keys separate them by flower color and stem hairs, the former having spreading hairs, the latter closely appressed. I can see spreading hairs on the white flower in my photo, but haven’t got enough clear detail on the blue one to judge. It is rare, but sometimes Fringed Phacelia flowers can be “bluish-white.” Characteristics such as flower color may vary with individual genetics. The phacelia flowers we see on Sweat Heifer appear as definite blue to me, no wishy-washy “bluish.” Given the small number of blue flowers amid the white and the elevation, this is likely a rare genetic expression of color in some Fringed Phacelia plants making a bid to stand out from the crowd.

Running Strawberry-bush

Running Strawberry-bush

Herbaceous wildflowers rule in spring, yet they don’t have a monopoly. Distinctive foliage of Tassel Rue (Trautvettaria caroliniensis) occurs near the major creek crossings. It will flower within a month. Clumps of Ramp leaves flow down the hillside. Ferns are emerging — Mountain Wood, Fancy, Southern Lady, Rattlesnake, and scattered populations of Flat-branch Ground Pine dot the trailsides. Eye-catching flower clusters of Witch Hobble recur periodically to the end of the trail. Subshrub Running Strawberry-bush (Euonymus obovatus) is in bud, as are thousands of little Canada Mayflowers liberally scattered along the lower quarter of the trail. One perfect Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) greets us just before a final bridged stream crossing at Kephart Shelter and the trail’s end.

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

From the shelter, two-mile Kephart Prong Trail descends an additional 800 feet on a sometimes cobbly path. We’re pretty much heading for the barn at this point, but we do pause on occasion to appreciate a few flowering plants here too. At the highway, we pile into five cars and drive back to Newfound Gap, completing the hike program.

Combining trail documentation with hike leading is not a good strategy. It’s hard to juggle both hats as each suffers neglect while the other is being worn. I’ve been down this trail three times now, and though I got several photos today and have enough cumulative exposure to speak somewhat confidently about it, I still feel as though I haven’t really seen or experienced it. Fortunately, it’s a delightful mountain trail and a fourth trip down Sweat Heifer under quieter circumstances would be welcome any time. I might even attempt a sweaty jaunt up!

Yellow Birch, Appalachian Trail, TN-NC

Yellow Birch, Appalachian Trail, TN-NC

Overall 2015 was another light year for trail miles, logging 145.6 on the Appalachian Trail and 64.3 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of those Smokies miles, 37.4 were new miles representing 7 entire trails and the completion of two partials. I still have unfinished business on Lakeshore and Gregory Bald trails. To date I have completed 118 park trails (79%) with 941.1 total miles and 592.3 new trail miles (71%).

The cavernous no-man’s land between Highway 441 and Fontana has been thumbing its nose at me for years. I am determined to chip away at that formidable block of remote trails in 2016. Even though my weather-shortened attempt to close the Tennessee-Virginia gap on the A.T. left 123 miles untraveled, I think I’d rather take the 12 days necessary to finish that and reinvigorate my original Smokies quest. A concerted effort there could put me within striking distance of the 900 Mile Club for 2017.

American Strawberry, Kephart Prong Trail

American Strawberry, Kephart Prong Trail

I enjoy the A.T. The sense of community is tangible, special. You rarely feel alone. I’m committed to hiking at least the southern half — Springer Mountain to southern Pennsylvania. However, the understanding that I will not likely hike all 2,189 miles gives me permission to follow new interests rather than a slavish schedule of section miles.

These interests aren’t really new, just a determination to sharpen my naturalist focus on Tennessee’s ecological communities. Various courses and workshops I’ve attended the last two years have dramatically increased my knowledge and provided fresh insights to the varied landscapes around me. I am eager to put this into practice and solidify my understanding of plants, fungi, lichens, mosses, and the diverse fauna living among them.

Dwarf Ginseng, Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Dwarf Ginseng, Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Right now, I probably know the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as I know my own backyard. That’s a great start, yet Tennessee hosts a rich assortment of natural communities, each with a distinct personality and look. I want to broaden my acquaintance beyond the Smokies (which will always remain my second home) and explore everything from the sandstone capped Cumberland Plateau to the bottomland forests of West Tennessee. I’m beginning with the harsh extremes of the Central Basin’s cedar glades and the organisms that thrive in those demanding conditions.

Tennessee has 56 state parks and 85 state natural areas not to mention Big South Fork and Land Between the Lakes with hundreds of trail miles and spectacular natural features. So this blog will now include another section, Tennessee Hikes, to share local adventures. These efforts to increase my “native intelligence” should provide regular opportunities for one or two days of hiking and theoretically shorten the down time between posts. That’s the goal anyway. We’ll see.