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Narrow ravine on Kanati Fork Trail

Narrow ravine on Kanati Fork Trail

My final hike this trip is 2.9 miles up and 2.9 miles down Kanati Fork. In my dozen years attending the Pilgrimage, I’ve become quite familiar with this trail’s name as the second part of a 3.7-mile car-shuttle hike beginning at Thomas Divide. Kanati Fork drops 2100 feet in elevation from the divide to Highway 441, so it’s understandable that walking down would be preferable. Until you’ve walked up KFT, however, it’s hard to appreciate just how preferable!

There have been a few trails thus far that I would not be keen to repeat. Kanati Fork is now on that list. Overall, it’s a very good spring wildflower trail, but I wouldn’t bother any other time of year. KFT has several drawbacks: steep, narrow, slanted, and the potential for becoming overgrown. It’s a heart-thumper walking up, a problem easily nullified by planning a downhill hike, but the other three problems will still be issues.

Showy Orchis is still in flower

Showy Orchis is still in flower

KFT torturously climbs the steep, southeastern side of a crooked finger ridge descending from Turkey Flyup, the highest elevation on Thomas Divide (approx. 5100 ft). This spur peters out at the road and represents one side of the Kanati Fork watershed along with the divide and a nameless spur to the southeast. The pitch of the spur leaves no room to spare when cutting a trail.

Shallow root-filled soil is hard (or impossible) to level, and in several locations the trail’s narrow width slants downhill, a condition I detest. Having one leg higher than the other results in an unbalanced posture. Often there is no room downslope to place a trekking pole which induces a slight lean upslope. All this angling plants the feet in one direction and the body in another. It’s tiring and annoying, whether going up or down.

Mountain Bellwort

Mountain Bellwort

This side of the Turkey Flyup spur is densely forested and the steep slope has allowed streams to carve equally steep and deep ravines. The trail zigzags in switchbacks through one ravine three times. The understory herbaceous growth is thick and robust in these deep creases. A few stems of Turk’s Cap Lily are already as tall as me. The lily, Black Cohosh, and any other tall summer bloomer are quite likely to put the squeeze on hikers later in the season. Higher up, brambles are invading more open areas.

Mountain Bellwort fruit with long stigma lobes

Mountain Bellwort fruit with long stigma lobes

A wider, flatter, and drier stretch in the middle with Mountain Laurel, Mountain Bellwort, Cow Wheat, and Hayscented Fern is a welcome relief, as are some sections rounding the outer edges of slope wrinkles not too far from the top. Beyond that, the best trail surface is found on the lowest section near the highway.

Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula) still has a few flowers, but most plants are already setting fruit. This bellwort and one other species don’t have that stem-piercing-the-leaves look. Their leaves attach directly to the stem with no petiole (sessile). To separate these two species, Mountain Bellwort’s foliage has a shine to it, and lines of fine hairs run up the stem. The flower pistil’s stigma lobes are quite long compared to the other species, called Wild Oats. Mountain Bellwort usually grows in denser, sturdier clumps too. Wild Oats has a more sparse and delicate look.

Early Meadow Rue fruit

Early Meadow Rue fruit

Kanati Fork Trail is known for its Painted Trillium, but it also features Large White Trillium, plenty of Nodding Mandarin, and beautiful stands of Solomon’s Plume. Perhaps the most profuse plant throughout the trail is Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum). The female plants are setting seed at lower elevations, and both sexes are still in flower near the top.

At the Thomas Divide junction, I pause for a snack and sit on a log. Suddenly the snout of a German Shepherd dog comes between me and my granola bar. Startled is hardly the word for it. She trots around sniffing everything. She is wearing a collar, but where are her owners?  “I hope she didn’t scare you.” A woman saunters into view, followed by her husband stuffing a sandwich into his mouth.

Junction at Thomas Divide

Junction at Thomas Divide

I felt obligated to tell them dogs aren’t allowed in the park, only in the campgrounds and Oconaluftee and Gatlinburg trails.  “Oh, we didn’t know,” she chirps. “You should at least leash her,” I advise. “OK.” They breeze by. I watch. No effort is made. Finally, I call after them, “For the sake of your dog, you really need to leash her.” The man makes his wife stop and remove a leash from his backpack. Every trail has a sign that says dogs aren’t allowed, but people either don’t look or don’t care…until their dog gets hurt. Then they probably blame the park!

The return trip is much faster and generally more pleasant, confirming that Kanati Fork Trail is best approached top down.

Misplaced sign on Beech Gap Trail

Misplaced sign on Beech Gap Trail

These two trails have been hanging over my head as partials, half done, since August 2010. Today I officially check them off the list. I decide to redo all of Hyatt Ridge, and park my car at its trailhead. Beech Gap is a 1.3 mile walk up Straight Fork Road where one half of that trail begins its ascent to Hyatt Ridge.

Beech Gap Trail is split into two separate sections, both originating in an area known as Round Bottom off Straight Fork Road but heading in opposite directions — one climbing 2.8 miles to Hyatt Ridge, one 2.5 miles to Balsam Mountain. The section remaining for me to hike is the former, often noted as Beech Gap Trail II. It begins just before the Straight Fork bridge. Cross the bridge and walk the road a short distance to reach Beech Gap Trail I.

Large-flowered Trillium with possible pollinators

Large-flowered Trillium with possible pollinators

Taking a photo of the trail sign, I am plunged into confusion! An arrow points left with “2.5 miles to Straight Fork Rd.” The road is less than ten feet away. Another left arrow indicates Hyatt Ridge Trail is 5.5 miles away. Hyatt Ridge is either 1.3 miles down the road or 2.8 miles up Beech Gap. Then it hits me, this particular Beech Gap sign should be placed at the Balsam Mountain Trail junction. Whoever put it up wasn’t paying very close attention! Wonder what the sign on Balsam says? I sent photos to park officials. They were appreciative, “That’s a really wrong one!”

Downed flower of Cucumber Magnolia

Downed flower of Cucumber Magnolia

This section of Beech Gap isn’t totally new to me either. I participated in a fern survey on the lower stretch several years ago. I liked the trail and have been looking forward to hiking it. Today is also my ‘easy day,’ just 9.4 miles. I can take my time and enjoy life on this lovely day in May. Beech Gap Trail II proves a perfect match.

Straight Fork begins its journey on Balsam Mountain near Mount Yonaguska. Feeder streams from a broken series of ridges, including Hyatt, to the west and Balsam to the east flow into its lengthy and remarkably straight course. As the river nears the road, unnamed spur ridges from Hyatt and Balsam converge to form a narrow opening accommodating the river and two stretches of the road doubled back on itself. The two arms of Beech Gap Trail splay into a ‘V’ as each works its way up these spur ridges. Beech Gap II undulates along the northeast slope of its spur and overlooks the river’s deep valley.

Blue Cohosh

Blue Cohosh

This northeast aspect encourages a richly diverse floral community, making the trail a wildflower lover’s dream. The trail moves in and out of folds along the wrinkled spur, many with small streams or seeps. The folds and seeps are particularly lush, but the entire trail is nothing short of spectacular. It’s simpler to list what I didn’t see, most notably Doll’s Eyes and Fringed Phacelia, but I could have easily missed both. Hillsides of Solomon’s Plume and Trillium grandiflorum mark either end of the trail that includes Large-flowered Bellwort, Cucumber Magnolia, Dwarf Ginseng, and Vasey’s Trillium.

BGT's false gap view of Hyatt Ridge

BGT’s false gap view of Hyatt Ridge

The trail itself is quite smooth and never too narrow with only a mucky area or two to mar it thanks to horse traffic. The climb is steady but not taxing (1,800 feet). Of course, I stop every few yards to gawk at something. If a great Smokies trail and great mountain weather aren’t enough, a Wood Thrush begins to sing. We can’t chose our time and place of parting, but if I could, reclining in Beech Gap’s spring splendor listening to a Wood Thrush would be hard to beat. That’s my kind of rapture.

Hyatt Ridge

Hyatt Ridge

About a half mile from its terminus on Hyatt Ridge, Beech Gap II reaches a saddle or false gap, a wide and level spot with cooling breezes just perfect for a break or even lunch on a lazy day before heading back down. However, I highly recommend continuing to the ridge, visible northwest of the gap. The remaining climb is no more difficult than the rest of Beech Gap, and Hyatt’s ridge line has its own unique charms, particularly the section leading to Campsite #44 at McGee Spring.

The Beech Gap/Hyatt junction is 0.9 mile from Hyatt Ridge Trail’s upper terminus at the campsite. The trail slips around the western side of Hyatt Bald to reach the narrow ridge crest then turns left, following that crest through Red Spruce and northern hardwoods. No mistaking this ridge line. Sloping terrain falls to either side of the level path.

White Bluets

White Bluets

Trout Lilies and Wood Anemones are flowering, and Appalachian Bunch Flower and Turk’s Cap Lily will get their turn in summer. It is impossible to ignore thick tufts of Thyme-leaved Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia), sunny as a clear sky, and like the bright smiles of babies, impossible to see without smiling back. Today on Hyatt and yesterday on Grassy Branch I find not only the traditional blue-colored flowers, but some that are snow-white with yellow eyes.

Campsite #44

Campsite #44

HRT deviates from Hyatt Ridge, heading left on a course toward Breakneck Ridge, a place name that carries its own warning. Breakneck extends due west into the Raven Fork watershed, but HRT quickly turns right into a broad saddle between the two ridges and a gradual descent to McGee Spring. This spring is the headwaters for a feeder stream into Right Fork, one of three arms that converge into Raven Fork draining the Smokies Crest from Hyatt Ridge at Tricorner Knob to Hughes Ridge at Pecks Corner.

McGee Spring

McGee Spring

The broad saddle supports an open woodland generously sprinkled with grasses, wildflowers, still leafless hardwoods, and a few spruce. It’s an incredibly beautiful and peaceful spot. At the saddle’s far end, food cables and a fire ring of rocks denote Campsite #44.

Viewing the site from behind, a large boggy area on the front right corner supports thick green vegetation of Tassel Rue, False Hellebore, and Cutleaf Coneflower and marks the modest beginnings of McGee Spring. This mass of foliage ‘flows’ northwest with the spring through a sag. A wooded path on the left leads to an equally modest gurgle of water spilling over rocks for campers’ use. The sound of flowing water is stronger further down, but accessibility could be trickier.

McGee Spring flows from the campsite through a sag. Path on left leads to site's water source.

McGee Spring flows from the campsite through a sag. Path on left leads to site’s water source.

Campsite #44 has capacity for 12 people and four horses. The space is wide and roomy, but in my wanderings I only noticed the one main area. It’s certainly big enough to handle several people, yet I can’t help but wonder if there are additional sites elsewhere. Checking the few paths that strayed from this hub, I found no obvious evidence of other locations.

Accounts of #44 note its damp underpinnings. I can certainly see where that could be a real issue. One thing they don’t note though is the relative lack of flat sites. Everything around the central fire ring is on a slight but noticeable slant. Not a problem until bedtime when you keep sliding into the downhill side of your tent.

Beautiful woodland near Campsite 44

Beautiful woodland near Campsite 44

I eat lunch and listen to the stereo call-and-response of two Black-throated Blue Warblers reinforcing their territorial boundary, which must run through the center of camp. No other sounds disturb the serenity. It really is lovely here, and I am reluctant to leave.  However, 4.4 miles of sometimes steep downhill stand between me and my car. Clouds are building up too.

From McGee Spring, Hyatt Ridge Trail steps down the main ridge, alternating level runs and descending sections, sometimes treading the ridge crest, sometimes veering west of knobs. A few cool plants are here — Large White Trillium, Cinnamon Fern, Wood Anemone, and carpets of Canada Mayflower. As Red Spruce drops out, the western exposures are dry, rocky, rutted, and dominated by Mountain Laurel with Trailing Arbutus and Teaberry. One short section is very steep, pitching straight down the nose of the ridge.

Could this be banded gneiss?

Could this be banded gneiss?

HRT’s upper 2.6 miles range in elevation between 5,200 feet at Hyatt Bald and 4,400 feet at the Enloe Creek Trail junction, a wide level gap with ample room to spread out and take a break. Hyatt’s ridge line and upper trail ‘T’ into the gap with Enloe Creek Trail beginning to the right, and HRT continuing to the left. The final 1.8 miles drop 1500 feet. This steeper pitch is offset somewhat by the wider path of a graded road or railway remnant from spruce logging operations for WWI military planes. Intermittent rocky areas are annoyances. I’ve climbed this stretch in the heat of August, and believe me, rocks or no rocks, walking down in May is the way to go.

Southern Nodding Trillium

Southern Nodding Trillium

The ‘little brown book’ notes the presence of banded gneiss not far from the gap at Enloe. I examine every rock for a half mile. Many contain quartz and appear to have faint striping. Most online photos of this rock type show more pronounced banding, but a few resemble the look of HRT’s rocks. I haven’t the knowledge to state yea or nay, but the best image I have is posted. Maybe someone with more geology skills will chime in…Scott?

One trillium variant whose petals are not very reflexed

One trillium variant whose petals are not very reflexed

Between Enloe Creek Trail and the crossing of Hyatt Creek about 0.8 mile down, the trail cuts across a very steep hillside below Hyatt Ridge facing east into the carved ravine of Hyatt Creek and its tributaries. Cradled by the towering ridge and protecting cove, the relatively lush herbaceous layer hosts a diversity of species. Scanning the trailsides to compile a list as I walk, a unique trillium stops me cold.

Back side of these large white trilliums

Back side of these large white trilliums

It’s the size of a Vasey’s Trillium with the flower tucked below a dinner-plate whorl of green leaves, but the recurved petals are white. Other details are odd: petal width varies from narrow to wide but not overlapping, petal texture appears thinner, anther sacks are purplish to ashy gray, ovaries are purplish red with bits of white. These details match Southern Nodding Trillium (Trillium rugelii).

However, there’s also a red-flowered version with narrow petals, and one that bears all the hallmarks of a true Vasey’s Trillium. I may have stepped into the middle of hybrid swarm! Several of the pedicellate (or pedunculate) trilliums listed for the park — T. erectum, T. simile, T. flexipes, T. vaseyi, and T. rugelii — belong to the “Erectum Group,” characterized by rhombic leaves and six-angled ovaries. Flower stalks of the last two species dip below the leaves. In areas where any of these species overlap, the possibility of hybridization exists.

Narrow petaled white

Narrow petaled white

More plants are visible downslope, but the steep hillside prevents me from checking more than a handful of individuals next to the trail. Two are classic white T. rugelii; one seems classic red T. vaseyi. Others show variation in petal width and the degree to which they are reflexed, both white and red, but anther color tends toward purplish. Flower color intergrades of rose and pink are possible including bicolor, but none exhibited these colorations that I could see.

HRT continues its sharp descent, crossing Hyatt Creek and following the stream course into Round Bottom. The grade finally moderates about a quarter mile from Straight Fork Road.

Red-flowered variant

Red-flowered variant

It’s sunny as I finish the trail and drive back to Big Cove Road

in Cherokee. Within a few minutes big rain drops hit the windshield. I reach Oconaluftee Visitor Center in a driving rain storm. Pulling into Smokemont, pea-sized hail bounces off the car hood. Lightning, thunder, and a second round of hail keep me stuck in my car at the campsite for an hour. I finally give up and drive back to Cherokee looking for an open restaurant.

Classic Vasey's Trillium look

Classic Vasey’s Trillium look

The choice seems to be Hardee’s or Happy Garden Chinese Buffet. I warily choose Chinese, and it is fairly good…a bit of a surprise considering it’s in Cherokee, NC. Double helpings of General Tsao’s chicken and vegetable lo mein, along with green beans, egg-drop soup, two egg rolls, and a few other bits take my mind off the rain.

Driving up Highway 441 to Smokemont in the evening light, I come upon an ‘elk jam.’ Before dinner, two or three of the large grazers were standing in an open field. Now, there are over a dozen, a loose herd of mothers and yearlings, most bedded down in the wet grass. The felted knobs of new antlers are visible on a few. I stop to enjoy the sight and take photos. The rain, thankfully, has ended.

Elk in a field by Highway 441

Elk in a field by Highway 441

 

Charlies Bunion with Mt. LeConte in the background, Masa Knob and Mt. Kephart are out of the frame on the left.

Charlies Bunion with Mt. LeConte in the background, Masa Knob and Mt. Kephart are out of the frame on the left.

Grassy Branch Trail ties into Dry Sluice Gap Trail 1.3 miles from DSG’s Appalachian trailhead. To complete this trail today, I must double that mileage out and back. Fortunately, DSG’s otherwise relentless climb of Richland Mountain ends at Grassy Branch junction on Richland’s ridge line, and further upward progress along this ridge moderates substantially before descending to Dry Sluice Gap on the A.T.

Following a short 300-foot climb from the Smokies crest trailhead, Dry Sluice Gap Trail tops out at 5700 feet through a cool Red Spruce forest. Old spruce needles carpet and soften the ground, a refreshing and much appreciated sensation underfoot. From a clearing, look northwest to see Charlie’s Bunion, Masa Knob, and Mt. Kephart lined along the crest, with Mt. LeConte looming blue in the distance.

Skunk Goldenrod

Skunk Goldenrod

Parts of this ridge line section are rutted and rocky but never bad enough or long enough to become problematic. There are mini beech gaps with Trout Lilies and Spring Beauties in flower. Some deciduous openings have more birch trees than beech, and they typically lack the flowering trout lily/spring beauty combo. They do have sky-blue clusters of Thyme-leaved Bluets though. Under Mountain Laurel, Trailing Arbutus is still in flower, and forking branches of Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) splay across the ground.

Rugel's Ragwort

Rugel’s Ragwort

I take a moment to compare and contrast the foliage of Skunk Goldenrod and Rugel’s Ragwort. These two Aster family members are plentiful at high elevation, and while their late season flowers are distinctly different, their leafy rosettes in spring can be confused. Skunk Goldenrod produces longer, lanceolate leaves with gradually tapering or attenuate bases. Rugel’s Ragwort leaves are ovate in shape (fatter below the middle) with rounded to heart-shaped bases. Both species have toothed margins and ridges of leafy tissue on the petioles.

Skunk Goldenrod feels thicker in texture and displays a fine network of veins on the smaller leaves. Emerging Rugel’s foliage sport whitish coats of hairs. Sometimes Skunk Goldenrod gives off an unmistakeable foul odor, but attempts to locate the source are futile. Unlike Pepé LePew, Skunk Goldenrod can somehow perfume the air around it without possessing definably smelly parts. From my experience, the odor is more readily detected later in the season and could be related to aging tissues and decomposition. It may also act to deter herbivores. Galax is another mountain plant infamous for its elusive pungency.

Witch Hobble

Witch Hobble

From its start, Dry Sluice Gap Trail has been following the ridge line of Richland Mountain, a long mountain trending southeast from the Smokies crest more than six miles and stepping down gradually before petering out at Smokemont Campground. DSG traverses about 20 percent of Richland’s ridge before intersecting Grassy Branch Trail and slipping onto the eastern side. Here it begins a steep, 2.9-mile, 2,300-foot descent to the large dissected valley carved by Bradley Fork and its many tributaries.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

About 15 minutes into the downward journey, I hear a cough below me. Two very exhausted people, a man with a full backpack and a woman, soon come into view. They are breathing heavily, sweating profusely, and look completely dejected. “You’re doing this trail the hard way,” I say. The man shakes his head, “We’re trying to get to the A.T. and Peck’s Corner, but I don’t know if we’ll make it.” They’ve come from the campsite at Cabin Flats and must have gotten a late start. It’s 1:30 p.m. I let them know Grassy Branch isn’t much further, and once there the trail becomes easier as will the A.T. Relief floods their faces. “You’ve given us hope,” the woman says with a smile.

Movement in the underbrush just off trail draws my eye. It might be a turkey. I approach slowly and realize the size and color don’t fit. This bird has a short neck and deeply spotted brown coloration. It’s a Ruffed Grouse. It stops long enough to take a look at me and give me a chance at some photos, then calmly continues upslope into the woods. No alarming thumping of wings to take flight.

pink Erect Trillium

pink Erect Trillium

The eastern slope is rich and densely populated with herbaceous wildflowers. Everything is here. Of particular interest are pink Erect Trilliums, Tennessee Chickweed, and Painted Trillium. Trillium erectum has two color varieties, white and maroon red. The red variety is mostly found at higher elevations, and the white variety covers a wide elevational range. It is not unusual to find intermediate colors where the two overlap. All Erect Trilliums I’ve seen today have been white, until I spy this singular clump of three pale pink plants. Perhaps there are red individuals on the ridge above. The flowers are fresh and lovely. Beautiful specimens of Painted Trillium also grow further down Dry Sluice Gap.

Tennessee Chickweed

Tennessee Chickweed

Large or Great Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) is a native plant with showy white flowers common at low to mid elevations. On occasion, however, look-a-like Tennessee Chickweed (Stellaria corei) shows up in the same range. The two species may be distinguished by the length of the sepals, the green leaf-like structures that lie beneath the petals. If these green sepals are as long or longer than the petals, the plant is Tennessee Chickweed, and quite of bit the chickweed named for my state is hanging out on the North Carolina side of the park.

Hillside of wildflowers

Hillside of wildflowers

After the rich hillside, the trail takes a sudden turn for the worse — really dry, rocky and rutted — quite the beast. It’s temporary, but the rocks and ruts return periodically during this dry section. Plant diversity has taken a dive too. Rounding the nose of a spur ridge, I find two Pink Lady’s Slippers in flower, happy as pigs in dry acidic soil facing due south.

Massive trunk of an old growth Tulip Poplar

Massive trunk of an old growth Tulip Poplar

I pause for a late lunch in rhododendron shade and delight to the attentions of a Black-throated Blue Warbler. He hops through the shrubs angling for a better view of this strange animal in his midst and stakes his claim “zee-zee-zee-zay.”  He must perceive that I’m no threat and leaves to patrol the rest of his territory.

A mile from the trail’s end, DSG crosses Tennessee Branch and follows the stream through a rich and pleasant ravine. At a lower crossing, stands one giant Tulip Poplar. Pockets of old growth are said to be here, but this single tree — a fine one in good shape — is all I see.

Campsite 49

Campsite 49

Reaching Cabin Flats Trail, I turn left and walk 0.6 mile to Campsite #49. The trail is virtually level, rising slightly then dropping to the flat bank of Bradley Fork. Upon arrival an ideal site appears on the left, but a “no camping” sign and the Campsite 49 wooden post direct attention to the right along a path heading downstream. I note at least two sites, and the path continues to others. It also accommodates horses. I only got a quick glimpse, but 49 made a favorable first impression.

Dutchman's Pipevine unopened flower

Dutchman’s Pipevine unopened flower

Back at Dry Sluice Gap junction, Cabin Flats takes the left path down an easy grade for 0.3 mile to Bradley Fork Trail. Hanging at eye level is a stem of Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla) with an unopened ‘pipe’ flower awaiting maturity. The trail widens, reveals its roadway roots, and curves left, bringing into view a steel framed bridge. An unexpected and unusual sight, the bridge with its graveled surface provides easy passage over Bradley Fork.

Steel Bridge

Steel Bridge

Just past the bridge, Cabin Flats Trail seamlessly transitions to Bradley Fork Trail’s lower section, a continuation of the road and its gentle grade. The stream remains to the right all the way to Smokemont, 4.0 miles. Last time I did this stretch in January of 2013, the park had experienced heavy rains and serious flooding that wiped out a section of Highway 441. This old road trail had taken quite a hit too. I’m pleased to say that its condition is much improved, and my final miles, though at the end of a long day, are smooth and pleasant.

Kephart Prong Trail

Kephart Prong Trail

My long-awaited return to the Appalachian Trail is approaching. Three days in Smokemont will allow me to check off some Smokies trails while gauging just how rusty I am. Might as well get right to the heart of the matter with a 15.5 mile day-hike covering five trails (Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Gap, Cabin Flats, and Bradley Fork), the first four of which are new. Thanks to a lift from an NPS employee up Highway 441, I’m able to start Kephart Prong at 8:00 a.m. It’s a clear spring day, darn near perfect.

CCC Camp and old stone sign

CCC Camp and old stone sign

This trail isn’t really new to me. I’ve hiked it on two other occasions at the tail end of a Pilgrimage hike and Fern Foray down Sweat Heifer before my 900 Mile Club ambitions. I remember this short trail as rocky, hard on my feet, and endless. Back in those days I wouldn’t even qualify as a novice hiker, and 7.4 miles (AT, Sweat Heifer, Kephart Prong) was quite an accomplishment. My body had not adjusted to lengthy foot travel in mountainous terrain, and I didn’t have decent boots. Plus, Kephart Prong Trail always wrapped up a long day, its two miles just something to be endured until we reached the car. As the first trail on tap today, I’m giving KPT a chance to redeem itself.

CCC water fountain

CCC water fountain

The trail strikes a due north course along its similarly named stream. Lively and fast-flowing Kephart Prong drains a triangular valley bounded by the Smokies crest, a ridge line off Sweat Heifer Creek Trail to the west, and half of Richland Mountain to the east. KPT and the prong rise 830 feet in two miles from the trailhead on Hwy. 441 to Kephart Shelter at the trail’s junction with Sweat Heifer and Grassy Branch trails. These trails split KPT’s straight trajectory into two winding paths, each working upslope in opposite directions toward the A.T.

CCC chimney

CCC chimney

At the head of this drainage is Mt. Kephart (6,217 ft) and Masa Knob. The mountain, prong, trail, and shelter are named for Horace Kephart. Apparently ill-suited to the constraints of domestic life, Horace left his wife and six children for the wilds of Appalachia in 1904, settling near Hazel Creek. He wrote books on outdoor life and is most famous for his honest portrayal of mountain families in Our Southern Highlanders. Kephart and his good friend Japanese expatriate George Masa were early advocates for the park.

My fresh KPT assessment acknowledges a reasonably smooth trail disrupted by occasional rocky patches. The upward trend isn’t difficult, but it does induce sweating, even on a cool morning. KPT crosses the prong four times, and the trail sometimes appears to head straight into the water. These are horse fords. In times of low flow on hot summer days, step right through if desired. If not, look to the side for narrow paths connecting to footlogs. One footlog is a well constructed narrow bridge spanning a steep-banked and boulder-filled section of Kephart Prong. I did not notice if there was a ford nearby, so it is possible horses cross on this bridge too.

Great foot bridge over Kephart Prong

Great foot bridge over Kephart Prong

The Civilian Conservation Corps had a large camp along the lower reaches of KPT for a decade in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II conscientious objectors were quartered here. All associated buildings are long gone, leaving only the remains of a stone sign, water fountain, and fireplace chimney plus a few boxwood shrubs as evidence. Dead hemlocks studded with fruiting bodies of Hemlock Varnish Shelf fungus (Ganoderma tsugae) surround the chimney.

Marsh Violet

Marsh Violet

About a quarter mile further up, concrete platforms believed to be cisterns associated with a fish hatchery in the 30s are nearly hidden behind a camouflage of mosses, birches, and rhododendrons. The only other hint of this area’s past life is the trail itself, whose grade indicates its origins as a Jeep road and railway line. Rail irons should be found near the trail’s end. I saw them on previous walks but not today amid May’s expansive herbaceous growth.

As noted in the last post, any Smokies trail this time of year should be beautiful. KPT is no exception. Most spring wildflowers expected in a mid-elevation stream valley are setting seed or currently flowering. A large patch of Speckled Wood Lily glows fresh and bright. Clusters of Marsh Violet (Viola cucullata) flowers perch on stalks with perfect posture along a trickle of water working its way to the prong.

Quite large Rattlesnake Fern

Quite large Rattlesnake Fern

The sterile frond of a husky Rattlesnake Fern (Botrypus virginianus) features lower pinnae nearly as large as the rest of the blade, giving the appearance of triple fronds. There are a few of these strapping ferns clustered together.

I arrive at the renovated shelter midmorning (later than planned) and find Kristin savoring a slow morning in the mountains. She’s completed all course work for her degree in nursing at Auburn and is enjoying a bit of R&R backpacking before graduation on Sunday. We chat a bit as I snack.

Kristin at the Kephart Shelter

Kristin at the Kephart Shelter

She found a small book on her way to the mountains in a used bookstore, The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. It advocates walking in the practice of mindfulness, using each step to ground yourself in place and fully embrace the present moment. Here is the opening poem:

“I have arrived
I am home
in the here
in the now
I am solid
I am free
in the ultimate
I dwell”

Rerouted trail on Grassy Branch

Rerouted trail on Grassy Branch

The Smokies are my second home, where I ground each step in the present to dwell free and solid in these mountains, the ultimate place for me. With mindful tread, I begin Grassy Branch Trail.

Grassy Branch is also named for a stream…two of them.  The trail’s midsection climbs a finger ridge of Richland Mountain between Upper Grassy Branch and Lower Grassy Branch. These two along with Hunter Creek and flow from Icewater Spring converge into Kephart Prong.

Rosy Large White Trilliums

Rosy Large White Trilliums

The trail zigzags its way 1,800 feet upslope to Dry Sluice Gap Trail in 2.5 miles. Recent work rerouted a section of the lower trail resulting in an exceptional walking surface and well-set stonework reinforcing some of the steeper switchbacks. Small “Trail” signs with an arrow at either end of the new section were placed to deter people from taking the old route, and Mother Nature’s quick reclamation has rendered them all but useless. I stand a minute trying to determine a reason for the first sign. At the second one, I deduce the purpose yet see no further need for them. Nothing resembling a working trail on the old route appears evident.

Umbrella Leaf

Umbrella Leaf

Following streams for the lower third, Grassy Branch Trail stays within a rich cove forest boasting early May wildflowers. Large White Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) are in their rose-colored phase, and massive clumps of Umbrella Leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) stake a claim in each seep or stream. After crossing Lower Grassy Branch, the trail cuts along a western slope of Mountain Laurel, Trailing Arbutus, Galax, and blueberries on mossy banks. A view into the valley below reveals distant flowers of Fraser Magnolia, identifiable from their size, and Downy Serviceberry. Cool shade of a rhododendron tunnel provides relief from the sun and rapidly warming temperature.

Grassy woodland

Grassy woodland

Soon the trail rounds to an eastern slope and passes through a grassy woodland of young birch and beech trees beginning to break bud with sprigs of Witch Hobble in flower plus Thyme-leaved Bluet, Common Blue Violet, Hayscented Fern, and Spring Beauty. Red Spruce enters the mix with sidekicks Skunk Goldenrod and Rugel’s Ragwort in tow. Near the top, leafy spirals of False Hellebore are sprinkled among thick stands of Tassel Rue (Trautvetteria caroliniensis) in a wet area. Rising through one final gauntlet of Mountain Laurel, Grassy Branch ends where Dry Sluice Gap Trail begins its precipitous decent.

Bluets and Violets

Bluets and Violets

Access to the Quiet Walkway

Access to the Quiet Walkway

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

QW trailhead

QW trailhead

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

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

Footlog

Footlog

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

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

A wonderful trail

A wonderful trail

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

Collins Creek

Collins Creek

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

Interpretive Sign

Interpretive Sign

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

Sweet birch bark

Sweet birch bark

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

Mockernut bark

Mockernut bark

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

Sassafras bark

Sassafras bark

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

Five tiny 'pitch pocket' holes

Five tiny ‘pitch pocket’ holes

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

Sweetshrub fruit capsule

Sweetshrub fruit capsule

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

Invertebrates from Fighting Creek

Invertebrates from Fighting Creek

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

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

Possible underwing moth caterpillar

Possible underwing moth caterpillar

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

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

View from DCQW

View from DCQW

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

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

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

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

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

Erect Trillium

Erect Trillium

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

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

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

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

Shot Beech Ridge

Shot Beech Ridge

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

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

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

Large oak

Large oak

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

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

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

Ravine stream

Ravine stream

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

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

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

Confederate Violet

Confederate Violet

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

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

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

Short-winged Blister Beetle

Short-winged Blister Beetle

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

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

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

Little bridge

Little bridge

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

Water Strider's shadow

Water Strider’s shadow

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

Beech Flats Prong

Beech Flats Prong

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

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