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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.