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Fork Ridge trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road

Reservations are made for the antepenultimate trip that will bring my quest to hike all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to a close and place me among other Smokies aficionados in the 900 Mile Club. Thanks to a rather oxymoronic combination of laziness and crazy busyness, I still have a few trails from 2016 to post on this blog. In late September last year, Susan Stahl and I stayed at Deep Creek Campground for a series of three day hikes. First up was Fork Ridge Trail.

Fork Ridge Trail

Susan and I drive separately up Hwy. 441, leave a car at the Deep Creek trailhead and continue together to the pull out at Fork Ridge Trail, approximately halfway up Clingmans Dome Road. The morning is cool and foggy at high elevation, perfect to get the juices flowing. Quickly tying into the actual ridge, the trail follows the ridge line and slips to one side or the other of higher knobs along the way, descending 2,800 feet in 5.1 miles. This steady but untaxing drop does include a few short, near-level passages. At the bottom, Fork Ridge Trail crosses Deep Creek and ends at that trail next to Campsite #53. Fork Ridge is part of the 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Clingmans Dome to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The ridge separates Deep Creek’s headwater feeder streams to the northeast from Left Fork Deep Creek and its feeders on the opposite side. Beginning in the dark and damp Spruce-Fir forest, the path is a tad tricky for the first mile or so. Ample moisture at this elevation (5,900 ft) makes the mossy rocks and roots somewhat slippery, but for the most part, the trail is in good shape and easy to negotiate. Given the early fall timing, there is some herbaceous overgrowth of fine branches and leaning stems, yet nothing obscures the trail or impedes progress.

Mountain Bellwort fruit capsule

Speaking of autumn, some Witch Hobbles are feeling the seasonal spirit, decked in rich purplish reds. Mountain Ash drops vibrant orange red fruits. Whorled Aster lifts white daisies above a flat plane of foliage. Mountain Cranberry’s black teardrop fruits dangle on long pedicels. Mountain Bellwort splays its pale tri-lobed capsule over shiny green leaves. Curtis’ Goldenrod appears as wands of yellow flame beside the trail. Red Squirrels chatter among the bounty of Red Spruce cones. Pigskin Puffballs dot the woods like beige golf balls.

The walk down Fork Ridge is easy and uneventful, allowing full enjoyment of the day and surroundings. Most of the way, the trail takes a southeasterly course, but near the bottom, it passes through a wide gap in the ridge called Deep Creek Gap and turns north for the last quarter mile or so.

Deep Creek crossing at the end of Fork Ridge Trail

Maps and the Smokies hiking book note a footbridge (“if it has not been washed away in a flood”) over Deep Creek. I guess there was a flood, as no bridge nor hint of one is visible. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage usually features a hike of Fork Ridge Trail, and I’ve heard tales of surging water thigh deep. Ah, the joys of drier autumn. Susan and I do put on water shoes, but the cool stream barely burbles above our ankles. A tad lower and we could have rock-hopped with ease.

On the opposite bank, the trail climbs through dense rhododendron a few yards to its junction with Deep Creek Trail. The trek down took three hours. Susan and I eat lunch at Campsite #53 before tackling the upper 3.9 miles of Deep Creek. Without pushing ourselves, we cover this uphill stretch in just over two hours for a satisfying 9-mile day and a great warmup for this trip.

Showy Gentian

Two days later, our last hike is quite a bit longer, but the trails are no more taxing. Sunkota Ridge Trail angles off Thomas Divide and turns south, picking up near where Fork Ridge peters out. Sited between Thomas Divide and Noland Divide, all three ridges converge on Deep Creek Campground. The upper half of Sunkota between Martins Gap and Thomas Divide serves both Mountains-to-Sea and Benton MacKaye distance trails.

Sunkota requires 2.0 miles along three different trails on the south end or 4.6 miles of Thomas Divide Trail from the north to reach its trailheads. The 8.6-mile length adheres to the ridge with few deviations, occasionally dipping to one side or the other. All along the trail, however, are brief scenic views of the neighboring divides.

Calico Aster

We start on the Thomas Divide end. From there Sunkota strikes an easy 1,300-foot descent for 4.8 miles to Martins Gap. The upper ridge provides a pleasing walk through recovered forests with a few large trees. This day is simply gorgeous with that deep blue sky that heralds October and soft breezes. Fall flowers are loving it. With a beauty to match the day, Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora) is in its prime and tempts passing butterflies. Three blue asters — Blue Wood Aster, Wavyleaf Aster, and another that has defied all identification attempts — and one white, Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), do their best to lure insects too. Southern Harebell is nearly finished. A few areas on the east side of the ridge have something of a cove hardwood aspect with Cucumber Magnolia, Maple-leaf Viburnum, and a wider array of wildflowers such as Richweed and Nodding Mandarin.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Showy Gentian

We arrive at Martins Gap around 1:30. From here, Sunkota climbs 400 feet over 0.8 mile to a peak along the ridge before descending another 1,300 feet in the final 3.0 miles. This section is drier and more eroded with exposed roots and a slanting trail surface, especially the final 2.0 miles. Aside from the last part, the trail has been in fine shape and enjoyable to hike. The remainder of our 15.2-mile day takes us down the east slope of the ridge on Loop Trail to Indian Creek Trail and finally Deep Creek Trail to the campground.

 

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A double-petaled Large-flowered Trillium

No one knew what to expect for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage this year.  It was scheduled two weeks earlier than the traditional timing (April 11-15), park officials put several restrictions on trails and program size, and the wildfire last November left sections of the park charred and scarred.  The week also corresponded with one of many spring breaks and the Easter holiday.

Traffic and parking proved the only real negatives.  It might as well have been the height of summer in Gatlinburg.  Pilgrimage goers have never seen this town so crowded during the work week.  We think curiosity about the devastating fire and a desire to help the city recover drove the exceptional visitation.

Silverbell

Every year the wildflower status for Pilgrimage week increasingly becomes a roll of the dice.  2017 turned out to be a jackpot year.  Trees were barely leafing out at lower elevations, most ferns were still rolled in tight crosiers, but the herbaceous wildflowers were going nuts.  A concentrated flush of flowering placed remnant Bloodroot, Liverleaf, Trout Lily, Wood Anemone, and Fringed Phacelia in direct competition with emerging Crested Iris, Fire Pink, Yellow Trillium, Wild Geranium, and Robin’s Plantain.  Both Silverbell and Flowering Dogwood were showy, and a few Serviceberries joined in for good measure.  It was simply spectacular.

Yellow Trillium whose flower parts have reverted to leaves.

Some unique sightings added to the flora fun.  During our hikes, we saw a Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) with two sets of petals and a cluster of Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum) whose floral parts had all reverted to mottled green leaves.

The weather was unseasonably warm, daily highs hovering near 80º, and very dry.  No April showers for days is unusual.  These conditions guarantee the colorful parade of flowers will pass quickly.

Burned ridges from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire viewed from the Carlos Campbell Overlook on Feb. 13, 2017

Fire ecology became the default theme of this year’s Pilgrimage.  Officials with the park and southeastern universities helped everyone understand the role fire plays in the natural landscape.  We hiked part of the bleak, blackened forest and witnessed the first stirrings of recovery.  Rob Klein, Fire Ecologist for the park, gave a presentation on fire, including pictures of the most severely burned areas.

Same view April 12, 2017

Chimney Tops 2 fire (the second fire in that area in 2016) started Nov. 23 on the Chimney Tops Trail, initated by two teenagers striking matches in the drought-plagued forest.  It was a slow fire creeping through the underbrush in an area of steep and difficult terrain, nearly impossible to access and fight effectively.  Park officials watched it carefully.  By Nov. 26, it had impacted only 40 acres.  Two days later, an approaching storm system arrived earlier than expected and brought winds much stronger than predicted into the area, generating a phenomenon known as mountain wave winds.

Right hand ridge from Balsam Point, Feb. 13

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes this wind pattern: “Mountain waves develop on the lee, or downwind, side of mountains.  These waves are generated when strong winds flowing toward mountains in a generally perpendicular fashion are raised up over the mountains.  As the winds rise, they may encounter a strong inversion or stable air barrier over the mountains that causes the winds to be redirected toward the surface.  Instead of reaching back down to earth, the winds continue in an up-and-down wave-like pattern downwind of the mountains that may extend for hundreds of miles.”

Close-up view of ridge showing effects of a high severity fire

These mountain wave winds, hitting velocities of 80 to 100 mph, struck November 28 and within hours the 40-acre fire mushroomed into a 17,000-acre conflagration that destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in Gatlinburg and sparked electrical fires from downed trees as far away as Cosby.  Fourteen people lost their lives.

Dead and downed wood smouldered on the Cove Hardwood Trail.

The fire burned 11,000 acres within the park according to Klein.  On half of those acres, the fire was low severity, removing the litter layer and a bit of the underlying duff.  It left evergreen shrub foliage brown on lower branches and green at the top.  A more open forest understory results, which will rebound within 5 to 10 years.  Cove hardwood communities escaped with little to no fire impact.  These moister, protected environments are less likely to support a hot fire even in drought.  The Cove Hardwood Trail at Chimneys Picnic Area, appears mostly untouched except for a few old logs and stumps that smoldered and charred.

Moderately severe fire on Baskins Creek Trail

Twenty-five percent of the burned acres experienced a moderately severe fire.  Litter and most of the duff was consumed.  Shrubs were completely browned to burnt, perhaps compromising the ability of rhododendrons to resprout.  Tree bark and pine needles were scorched.  Moderate fires open the forest and produce changes to its structure and composition.

Areas of high severity fire occurred primarily in the montane oak, pine, and heath communities found along ridges, approximately 1,000 acres.  Litter and duff were completely consumed, shrubs killed, and trees burned top to bottom.  Klein’s photo reveals a bare and blackened landscape with broken stubs of tree trunks like burnt matchsticks.

Bullhead and the severely burned heath bald (far right)

The Carlos C. Campbell Overlook on Highway 441 gives visitors a overall view of seven different community types in the park, and the intensely scorched sections correspond perfectly to the oak, pine, and heath ridges noted on the interpretive signage.  Some people have noted the right ridge line fire scar’s resemblance to an angel.

In the next few years, these areas of high severity will become dense with native herbaceous plants like fireweed and other weedy species that dominate highly disturbed wild lands.  Pine seedlings will germinate and carpet the landscape in a “dog-hair thicket” of saplings within 5 to 10 years.

Open and closed Table Mountain Pine cones

This rebirth has already begun.  The large cones of Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens), an Appalachian endemic, are serotinus.  A resinous substance seals the scales shut and only loosens with higher temperatures from solar radiation or the heat of fire.  Three days after the fire on Dec. 1, park officials documented pine seeds “raining” down.  On March 2, they noted the first sprout, and by April 13, numerous sprouts could be found.

Open cones of Table Mountain Pine on Baskins Creek

These ridge communities of oaks, pines, and members of the heath family are fire adapted, tolerating fires every 5 to 15 years on average.  Thicker bark, an ability to sprout from the stump, and the need for an open canopy to germinate and grow allow them to survive recurring fires.  In turn, these fires ensure regeneration of the species, maintenance of wildlife habitat, and reduction of fuel loads.  This last benefit prevents future fires from becoming too destructive and disruptive to the community.

In fire adapted communities, lack of fire can prove just as disruptive, leading to species decline and the possibility of severe canopy fires.  Along Baskins Creek Trail, the fire was of moderate severity in the Table Mountain Pine stand.  Cones on the trees are open, and pine seedlings are sprouting in the open understory.

Table Mountain Pine seedling

Forests may look very different in the aftermath of a big fire, but they begin their march back almost immediately.  The same is true for Gatlinburg.  Most fire damaged properties have been cleaned up, and construction is booming.  The forests and the town are well on their way to recovery.

CCC chimney at Campsite 71

CCC chimney at Campsite 71

Upon reaching Forney Creek Trail early afternoon August 29, the plan is for Susan and me to split up temporarily.  Campsite #70 at Jonas Creek trailhead, a little more than a mile up trail, is our destination for the night.  First however, I’m going to walk down trail 1.3 miles to the Whiteoak Branch junction and return.  Susan will rest a bit at Campsite #71 and mosey toward #70.  The trip to Whiteoak Branch junction will leave a simple loop at the lower end of Forney Creek to complete both trails, which can be paired with an overnight backpack of Bear Creek Trail in 2017.

The lower 9 miles of Forney Creek Trail mostly follow an old road that ran along the creek itself with two trail routing deviations.  Portions of lower FCT, primarily below Springhouse Branch junction, suffer from the usual maladies inflicting trail surfaces with dual duty as a horse trail — erosion and rockiness.  The deepest erosional ruts occur in that yellow-brown soil, a type apparently quite sensitive to wear.  Aside from horses, I would think FCT receives steady foot traffic as well, given available loop options and its tie-in to Clingmans Dome.

Mosses and lichen

Mosses and lichen

The trail stretch to Whiteoak Branch closely follows Forney Creek’s flow and soon requires a rock hop over feeder stream Bee Gum Branch.  In my version of Hiking Trails of the Smokies, the trail profile notes this stream crossing in the wrong place, putting it just before the Whiteoak Branch junction rather than just after Springhouse Branch junction.  There’s also one of those hillside routes making my return a bit more of a slog.  In general, though, it is unremarkable.

paw print from a running bear

paw print from a running bear

Wildlife encounters keep this leg of the hike interesting.  Not long after setting out, I hear  loud scrambling followed by a distinct ‘thump’.  A small black bear scurried out of a nearby tree and is now booking it down trail ahead of me.  Its size keeps me on alert for others.  A few minutes later, another scrambling noise behind me prompts a swift whirl around in expectation of seeing a disgruntled mother.  It is a spotted fawn, who books it up trail away from me.  I’m spooking animals right and left.

Worm Coral

Worm Coral

The moist creek valley is perfect for mosses.  In one small patch, Brocade Moss (Hypnum curvifolium), Delicate Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum), and Pincushion Moss (Leucobryum glaucum) intermingle with Dog Pelt Lichen (Peltigera canina).  In another spot, slender white cylinders of Worm Coral fungus (Clavaria vermicularis) poke through leaf litter.  Whiteoak Branch Trail junction occurs at the crossing of its namesake stream.  Tall spires of bright red Cardinal Flower grow here.  Drier areas on trail feature one of its blue cousins, Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula).

Downy Lobelia

Downy Lobelia

Returning to Campsite #71, I photograph the large stone and brick chimney marking an old CCC building before tackling the last mile of the day.  At the end of this camp, Forney Creek Trail takes a sudden right turn upslope.  In the past it had continued along the creek, and that wide old route is still visible enough to spark momentary confusion.  A sign and clear path upward, however, persuade me to ignore the overgrown yet level way straight ahead and reluctantly trudge uphill.  Perched on a steep slope above the creek for about 0.75 mile, the trail descends to the bank again at Locust Cove.  I run into Susan here.  She had not been persuaded to trudge uphill and followed the old creek path past downed trees and other signs of an unmaintained trail.  She had also walked to the Jonas Creek trailhead about a half mile away and did not see Campsite #70.

Abrupt end of bridge over Forney Creek at Jonas Creek Trail junction

Abrupt end of bridge over Forney Creek at Jonas Creek Trail junction

This is where an experienced Smokies’ backpacker like me having thoroughly prepared for the trip is supposed to rise to the occasion and set things straight…except I hadn’t fully prepared.  I’d consulted a map and made visual assumptions regarding the location of #70 but failed to read the trail accounts, an oversight that cost us unnecessary energy and aggravation.  Certain that #70 is on Forney Creek Trail, we walk past the Jonas junction for a half mile to the first big Forney crossing.  That’s when I sit down and pull out the trail descriptions: #70 is on Jonas Creek Trail on the opposite side of Forney Creek.  We double back to the junction, cross the partial footlog bridge that leaves hikers stranded above Forney Creek’s cobble floodplain, and climb the bank to find a large, level campsite nestled between the two creeks.  JCT passes right through the middle of camp.

Susan and I set up our tents immediately to air out the morning condensation while we do other chores.  A horse camp, this site opens to the sky in the center and is in very good shape.  Someone cobbled together a small and very rough table near the fire ring.

I haven’t done much backpacking this year. It was a hot and humid August day with few breezes.  Susan and I are both grateful to kick off boots and lounge a bit before bed.  Bats are flying overhead.

Jonas Creek Trail, August 30, 2017

Small-headed Sunflower

Small-headed Sunflower

Today we climb Jonas Creek Trail 4.2 miles to Welch Ridge and return. We can leave much of our gear hanging on bear cables and carry only the essentials for a day hike.

The trail follows Jonas Creek, Little Jonas Creek, and Yanu Branch nearly 3 miles into a deeply dissected landscape of finger ridges emanating from the Smokies crest and Welch Ridge.  Suli Ridge, Firescald Ridge, Yanu Ridge, and Scarlet Ridge direct feeder streams into Jonas Creek.  These protected stream valleys harbor quintessential Smokies forests — soothing green shade with mossy logs and boulders, a rich herbaceous layer, and Northern Red Oaks shedding their crop of barrel-shaped acorns. It is a fine summer day, and there can be no better way to enjoy it.  As Susan and I perambulate this quiet wilderness, we flush a grouse and disturb a small black bear who, despite his distance from us, scurries away in the underbrush.

Silverrod

Silverrod

Jonas Creek Trail has an elevation gain of 2,100 feet.  The first two miles account for a third of that gain and feature six stream crossings.  None are noteworthy, particularly in August, nonetheless water shoes make these crossings simpler and safer.  A few mucky areas could be annoying in wet weather, but on the whole, the trail condition is in relatively good shape bottom to top.  Susan and I wear water shoes until we are past the creek crossings then change into our boots.

Rock Tripe and Toadskin lichens

Rock Tripe and Toadskin lichens

Just past the final crossing, the trail zigzags its way up Yanu Branch along the base of Yanu Ridge then doubles back on itself to climb the northern flank.  JCT doubles back once more to follow the ridge line and continue climbing in stair-step fashion, interspersed with short stretches of near level terrain, to the junction with Welch Ridge Trail.  The junction itself is unassuming.  JCT obliquely ties into WRT on the side of a steep slope.  I rest a moment, eat a snack, and make some notes before heading down.  Not bound by 900 Miler constraints, Susan turned around about a half mile back.

fruit of Mountain Holly

Mountain Holly fruit

I really like Jonas Creek Trail.  Its slope, surface, aesthetics, variety, and peaceful atmosphere make for a delightful day’s hike.  August flowers include Whorled Tickseed, Silverrod (Solidago bicolor), Allegheny Hawkweed, Small-headed Sunflower (Helianthus microcephalus), Southern Harebell, that unidentified blue aster, and Tall Rattlesnake Root in bud.  Mountain Holly (Ilex ambigua var. montana) has ripe fruit.

For a moist trail there are surprisingly few fruiting fungi.  Hydnellum sp. in stands of rhododendron and a rusty orange Lactarius, maybe L. volemus, are most common.  A large rock near the top supported various lichens and mosses, including two umbilicate lichens Rock Tripe and Toadskin.  Several more American Toads are pushing our trip total near two dozen.  Round-bodied millepedes are also out in force today.  Back at camp, we eat a leisurely lunch and spread our tents in the sun to dry thoroughly.

Upper Forney Creek Trail, Aug. 30-31, 2016

old road drops out at one crossing of Forney Creek

Old road drops out at one crossing of Forney Creek

Next, we’ll move 1.5 miles up Forney Creek Trail to Campsite #69.  This requires three unbridged crossings of Forney Creek.  These crossings are wide and bouldery, but the water level and flow present no real problem.  The primary challenge is foot placement.  Light glinting from the water’s surface makes it difficult to gauge exact depth and evaluate the suitability of submerged rocks.  Careful steps are necessary to avoid slips, especially with a full pack.

old wash tub by the trail

Cultural artifact, a wash tub by the trail

At two of the crossings, the road/trail descends to ford the creek.  One crossing, however, must have been bridged.  The wide trail approaches Forney Creek and stops abruptly.  Across the stream, the wide trail picks up again at the same level. In between the creek flows several feet below, requiring a boulder-filled descent to get there.  An old galvanized wash tub sits next to the trail.

Campsite #69 extends on either side of the trail.  The left location is perched on a bench well above the trail, though level tent sites are hard to find.  The right-hand site is immediately adjacent to the trail, and has two level spots for our tents.  Sleeping trailside shouldn’t be an issue; we haven’t seen a soul for two days.  Next morning, we’re off at 8:00.

One of many crossing on Forney Creek

One of many crossing on Forney Creek

Forney Creek Trail is 11.4 miles long, descending the creek’s long valley from a gap on Forney Ridge to its juncture on Lakeshore Trail.  I’ll complete nearly 10 miles from Whiteoak Branch to the ridge on this trip.  From the Jonas Creek junction to Fontana Lake, FCT’s lower 4 miles are something of a poster child for poor, abused trails.  Erodible soils, high water flows, and horse traffic translate into ruts, rocks, roots, and muck.  Routes sometimes take the trail up and down hillsides away from the old road.  These factors impart an unfavorable impression.  Since I haven’t actually walked the 1.5 miles near Lakeshore, I’ll be curious to see if this impression holds. I’m betting it will.

Timbered gully crossing

Timbered gully crossing

From the Jonas Creek junction to Forney Ridge, however, the trail’s upper 7.4 miles are different in all respects.  Horses are not allowed past JCT, and with few exceptions the trail is friendly, particularly the modest road grade for 5 miles to Campsite #68 (1600 feet elevation gain).  The unbridged stream crossings present one of those exceptions.  There are a few more crossings past Campsite #69.

Eroded gully

Eroded gully

A second exception is a series of deep gullies that have eroded across the old roadbed.  A few are narrow and wet.  It’s possible to climb down into the them, but not practical.  Single timbers slightly wider than a boot have been embedded in the trail to span the gaps, and they are very old.  One is missing its handrail.  Another sits slightly askew across a wide gap with no indication there had ever been a handrail.  It takes several steps to get across.  We weave and wobble like nervous drunks with outstretched arms.  Falling into that gap wouldn’t kill you, but you’d likely be in pain for the rest of the hike.

Rock wall along road

Rock wall along road

Other gullies, wider, deeper, and mostly dry, require scuttling down into them and climbing out again.  These are ultimately easier with much less anxiety than the timbered crossings.  An iron train rail has been put to use as a waterbar across the trail.  The old road makes a switchback which necessitated a stone retaining wall.

Campsite #68 marks the road’s end.  At least Susan and I justifiably assume it to be #68.  The guidebook places it here.  There’s a fire ring with sitting logs.  Someone has gone to great lengths to sort and stack firewood.  Susan spies bear cables.   She and I have been smelling woodsmoke most of the morning, but no one camped here last night.

Rock Slab Falls at Campsite 68

Rock Slab Falls at Campsite 68

From this point, the trail becomes steeper, gaining over 1700 feet in 2.4 miles. We turn off the road to climb in earnest.  A campsite sign post is pointing upslope.  In 0.4 mile, we reach what must be the new location for #68 and find the source of our woodsmoke.  A young couple is camping here.  It’s a neat spot situated next to Rock Slab Falls, a smooth rock slide with a sheet of cascading water.  My trail guidebook notes this feature with a warning, “Camping is absolutely not permitted here.”  I have another bet.  So many people ignored this warning, the park decided to move #68 and establish a site on their terms that would be regularly monitored.

Beech Drops

Beech Drops

Susan and I approach the trail ascent at a steady pace, working our way through northern hardwoods into spruce-fir forests.  It’s somewhat rocky and steep yet not hard to climb.  I think I’d rather go up Forney Creek than down it.

On the way up, we find Beech Drops (Epifagus virginiana) and Appalachian White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima var. roanensis).  We continue to see our friends, the toads.  Can’t give a definitive tally, but the trip count must be at least 30.

Appalachian White Snakeroot

Appalachian White Snakeroot

Rounding a bend, I can see the junction sign on Forney Ridge…and Mary is standing next to it.  She’s come to greet us, bearing gifts of ice water and fresh fruit.  We pause a little too long for snacks and conversation, and it starts to sprinkle. I pull out my umbrella for the 1.1 mile climb to Clingmans’ parking lot.  The clouds unleash a torrent that highlights the water shunting capacity of the trail work I’d praised three days before.  My umbrella keeps my head and shoulders dry, but everything else gets drenched.  Had we been just 30 minutes earlier, we’d have made it to the car dry!

The fall of 2016 was crazy busy for me, and I was very lax in writing accounts of my most recent Smokies visits.  There were two trips — backpacking in late August and a set of day hikes in late September.  My apologies for the long delay.  Let’s catch up.

Some of the excellent trail work marking the first mile of Forney Ridge.

Some of the excellent trail work marking the first mile of Forney Ridge.

Forney Ridge Trail, August 28, 2016

Friends Mary McCord and Susan Stahl agree to a four-day, three-night Forney loop from Clingmans Dome. We meet at 12:30 in the parking lot, crowded with cars and people on a Sunday afternoon. Forney Ridge trailhead is tucked into the lot’s western corner, and the trail quickly drops down slope away from all the hubbub.

Clingmans Dome and its tower are not the only attractions up here.  Forney Ridge Trail leads to another visitor hot spot, Andrews Bald.  The 1.8 mile trail section leading to the bald runs through spruce-fir forests over wildly varying terrain from steep and bouldery to flat and mucky.  This stretch takes quite a beating, yet high quality trail rehabilitation along the first mile descent eases difficult passages for hikers while protecting the delicate forest system.  Gravel-filled steps, water diversion trenches, and heavy rock work minimize erosion in the steepest areas.  Raised boards prevent churned, ankle-deep mud in the flat section.

Andrews Bald

Andrews Bald

At 1.1 miles, the trail bottoms out at the Forney Creek Trail junction and begins a gradual 0.7-mile rise to Andrews Bald.  The excellent trail work ends at the junction too, and Forney Ridge turns back into a ‘pumpkin,’ an ordinary dirt path with roots, ruts, and rocks.  Dense stands of Red Spruce limit the understory to mosses and ferns with a few fruiting Bluebead Lilies.  We pass many visitors headed back to Clingman’s Dome. Thunder behind us bodes ill for their staying dry. Thankfully, the drenching rainstorm less than two miles away doesn’t reach us.

Maleberry

Maleberry

Andrews Bald in August is not in its botanical glory, though it does provide that rare open space in the Smokies and a great view on good days.  Roiling clouds limit this day’s view to the nearest set of blue peaks, the rest bleaching into dull sky.  Flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons in late summer are cloaked in green and setting seeds, as is Maleberry, (Lyonia ligustrina).  Grasses, goldenrods, and asters provide the primary floral interest including that high-elevation olfactory gem, Skunk Goldenrod.

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

Past Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge demonstrates why it was known as “Rip-Shin Ridge” in the 1800s.  Trail conditions degrade noticeably and our progress slows.  Smooth sections are few and far between.  A bit over 3 miles in, the trail disappears abruptly down the steep slope for several feet, requiring careful treading past the yawning gap, one foot directly in front of the other while leaning upslope.  Trekking poles become a liability as tangles of vegetation snag them and affect balance (carrying a full pack) just enough to pose a real threat.  Susan and I manage to eke our way past.  Mary hasn’t been feeling well, and the trail gap is enough to convince her to turn around.  We are sad to lose her but soldier on.

Southern Harebell

Southern Harebell

Fortunately, trail conditions moderate somewhat after the gap.  Susan and I are able to chat, enjoying the late afternoon and treasures along the trail.  A few large old trees grace the ridge.  Fresh fruiting fungi — Strangulated Amanita, Jack-o-lantern, Gem-studded Puffballs, and Black Trumpets — invite admiration.  Southern Harebell (Campanula divaricata) is in flower, and Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) sports skinny upright seed follicles.

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

Aside from the slight climb to Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge Trail presents a steady downhill trajectory dropping 2,400 feet in elevation over 5.6 miles.  Despite an easier path for the lower half, it still takes us much longer than we’d hoped to reach its terminus at a broad gap.  We take a brief break, but the sky is darkening again, and we can’t tell if distant thunder is headed our way.  We shoulder packs and start the second leg of our descent, this time on Springhouse Branch Trail, to Campsite #64 2.8 miles away.

Tall Milkweed fruit

Tall Milkweed fruit

Within minutes it begins to rain.  It is not a hard rain, just steady, and we are able to maintain a decent pace, reaching the campsite in 1.5 hours.  Along the trail, we see several American Toads.  This amphibian will prove a reliable companion in the forest and come to characterize our entire trip.  At least 10 individuals grooving on the summer rain hop out of our way on Springhouse Branch.  The rain stops as we near trail’s end.

It’s late when we arrive at camp and waste no time erecting tents, fixing dinner, and preparing for bed.  We hang our packs by the light of headlamps.  As a side note, Campsite #64, a small horse camp, has picnic tables!  Precious few backcountry sites are blessed with this luxury.  Next morning the sky is clear, but our tents are dripping with condensation from the damp ground.

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Springhouse Branch Trail (7.1 miles) crosses over Forney Ridge, connecting Noland Creek and Forney Creek trails.  From a trailhead at Campsite #64, situated in the confluence of Mill and Noland creeks, the trail climbs the eastern slope of Forney Ridge, crossing and following first Mill Creek then the feeder stream for which the trail is named.  Springhouse Branch reaches the ridge at Board Camp Gap in 2.8 miles and continues an upward course for another half mile, remaining on or near the ridge line for more than a mile and peaking at 4,100 feet elevation.  From there, the trail descends Forney Ridge’s western slope into a valley carved by Bee Gum Branch, twisting its way to Campsite #71 and its terminus on Forney Creek Trail.

We begin hiking at 9:00 a.m. Bridges facilitate the early crossings of Mill Creek.  Since the trail follows two streams for more than a mile, there are other small creek crossings but no challenges.  Considering Springhouse Branch is used by horses and this section is situated in stream valleys, the trail’s general condition is remarkably good.  There is little trenching, not much muck, and minimal rocky-ness.  A handful of spots have some herbaceous plants leaning into the trail, but most of it is low and poses no real impediment, an important note given the late summer timing of this hike.

Featherbells past its prime

Featherbells past its prime

The trail maintains an good width throughout, and the grade is not taxing.  My version of the “Little Brown Book” (Hiking Trails of the Smokies) portrayed a trail in varying states of degradation, particularly the western leg to Forney Creek.  The trail has obviously been rehabilitated at some point in the past, as it is in fine shape throughout.  The main complaint in the book was an uneven trail sloping from side to side.  I hate this condition (one foot higher than the other) and am relieved and pleased to discover a mostly excellent trail tread.

Yellow-tipped Coral

Yellow-tipped Coral

Springhouse Branch is a marvelously rich trail that would be a delight to hike in spring. Wild Geranium, Broad Beech Fern, Seersucker Sedge, Rattlesnake Fern, Black Cohosh, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, Meadow Parsnip, Solomon’s Plume, Maidenhair Fern, Trillium sp., Hydrangea, Umbrella Leaf, Nodding Mandarin, Meadow Rue, Silverbell, Round-leaf Violet, Indian Cucumber Root, Marginal Woodfern, Intermediate Woodfern, Large Yellow Wood-Sorrel, Cinnamon Fern, Astilbe, and Flame Azalea attest to a lively display in April or May.

Summer and fall seasonal plants include Joe Pye-weed, Appalachian Bunchflower, Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum), White Wood Aster, Southern Hairbell, Grape Fern, Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis), Spikenard, Partridgeberry, Tall Rattlesnakeroot, Tall Meadow Rue, Turk’s Cap Lily, White Bergamot, Goldenrod spp., Hawkweed sp., and one of the blue-flowered asters.

American Toad

American Toad

Fungi are in their prime: Black Trumpets, Gem-studded Puffballs, Hydnellum, Caesar’s Amanita, Viscid Violet Cortinarius (Cortinarius iodes), Yellow-tipped Coral (Ramaria formosa), Coker’s Amanita, Bitter Hedgehog (Sarcodon scabrosus [S. underwoodii]) and Panther Cap.  On occasion, we pass through an area with the sickly sweet smell of decay.  It might be fungi too.  We see a lot of old mushrooms covered with cottony molds or swarming with little gnats.

And of course those companionable American Toads hop, skip, and jump to the side when we walk by.

Species of Blue Aster

Species of Blue Aster

Susan and I reach the Forney Creek junction (at Campsite #71) early afternoon.  We’ll now be hiking Forney Creek Trail.  An account of FCT and the rest of our trip is forthcoming.

Proctor Bridge over Hazel Creek, site of the town of Proctor

Proctor Bridge over Hazel Creek, site of the town of Proctor

Four years ago, I hiked the eastern half of Lakeshore Trail (17.9 miles). Over the next two days, I will complete this roughly 35-mile trail (16.9 miles), walking to Chesquaw Branch and returning to finish at the dam. I’m on my way Sunday morning before most campers at #86 are even awake. With the majority of my gear secure in a bag on the bear cables, I can more comfortably tackle the 12.8 total miles to and from Chesquaw plus the 0.6 mile out and back on Ollie Cove Trail.

Struttin' Street

Struttin’ Street

A kiosk next to Proctor Bridge tells of the area’s evolution over two centuries. Wilderness largely untouched for thousands of years began to harbor settlers farming the land in the 1830s. It became the town of Proctor in 1886 with the establishment of a post office. Twenty years later, W.M. Ritter Lumber Company turned sleepy Proctor into a booming “company town” complete with cafe, barber shop, movie theater, and its own dentist. Twenty years after that, Ritter left town having harvested the timber, and Proctor became a quiet farm community once more. World War II sealed its fate with impoundment of the dam and Tennessee Valley Authority deeding land north of the lake to the new park.

Ollie Cove Trail

Ollie Cove Trail

Images of the town 100 years ago on the kiosk are hard to reconcile with the bucolic scene today. A wide grassy avenue that is now Lakeshore Trail was once Struttin’ Street. The only things struttin’ here this morning are American Plantain and White Clover. Lakeshore exits the grass-covered roadbed and starts uphill following another old road that had connected farmsteads and small communities near the Little Tennessee River, now Fontana Lake.

At 0.7 mile, Ollie Cove Trail drops to the right along another old road ending at the lake. This 0.3 mile route is often used by boat shuttles when lake levels are too low to access Hazel Creek. Steep and eroded, its utilitarian purpose is all that recommends this trail. There are some colorful Indigo Milky mushrooms fruiting here, and the lakeside view has merit.

Fontana Lake at Ollie Cove

Fontana Lake at Ollie Cove

These old roads expose a soil type that is prone to serious erosion, particularly when the grade and trail trajectory provide a perfect sluice for rain water. Add the churn of horse hooves, and deeply trenched, rocky trail sections are insured. This is the case climbing Welch Ridge. It’s a short but steep half-mile haul. Following a one-mile descent, Lakeshore Trail bottoms out below 2,000’ and remains there the rest of the way. Small stream crossings like Whiteside Creek, Mill Branch, and Calhoun Branch plus low mucky areas dot the next 1.5 miles.

Fairview Cemetery

Fairview Cemetery

Before Campsite 81, Lakeshore crests two small ridges. Spur trails follow these ridges to cemeteries, Fairview and Cook. Fairview sits on a small knob overlooking the lake and ringed by trees that obscure the view in summer. The access trail just outside the cemetery is lined with three long picnic tables. Graves in these small cemeteries typically face east, an orientation that places the approach to Fairview from behind. Each site is graced with colorful plastic flowers.

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil

A half-mile past #81, the trail no longer follows old roads and becomes a pleasant footpath through the forest, rising and falling with each hillside wrinkle. The area between Calhoun and Chesquaw branches was farmed using stone terraces. Despite vigilance, the only evidence of terracing I can see comes just before Chesquaw, where at least three levels of stone walls can be detected.

Chesquaw Branch is somewhat unique, its waters sheeting down a narrow rock slide for almost 30 feet, one of a few such stream conditions found during my hikes and, interestingly, most on the North Carolina side of the park. I sit next to Chesquaw to eat lunch and rest before heading back. I’ve seen this lovely little stream twice and may never have occasion to visit again.

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil fruit

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil fruit

Yesterday at Proctor Bridge, today walking to Chesquaw, and again on my return trip, I encounter an older man (father or grandfather) and his teenage son (grandson). Both look tired and the teenager also looks bored and sullen. They are hiking an ambitious loop from Clingmans Dome following the A.T., Hazel Creek, Lakeshore, and Forney Creek. The man’s maps are so tiny as to be worthless, not even realizing he’s looking at them upside down. He knows little about the trails, and I suspect has no camping permit from the park. I show him my National Geographic map so he can get a better idea of where he is and what is in store. He’s a nice guy, but what makes this duo stand out is the teenager’s hair. This skinny white kid is sporting a massive reddish-brown afro that reminds me of the movie Naked Gun’s club scene flashback with O.J. Simpson character Nordberg’s “doorway-wedging” do. The kid needs a two-person tent to accommodate his hair!

Strangulated Amanita

Strangulated Amanita

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil’s (Desmodium nudiflorum) tall racemes of pinkish purple flowers and strings of triangular seeds are a consistent presence on trail, joined sporadically by Sweet Joe Pyeweed. A few mushrooms, False Fly Agaric and Strangulated Amanita, can be found. Otherwise, it is an uneventful stroll through the summer forest.

Back at Campsite 86, I filter water (it’s hot and I’ve been drinking a lot), eat a snack, and load up to move 1.4 miles further down Lakeshore to Possum Hollow, Campsite #88. Across Proctor Bridge and past the Calhoun House, Lakeshore is a gravel road (formerly Calico Street) heading uphill a quarter mile then dropping slightly past Proctor Cemetery. In this section, Lakeshore Trail moves away from the lake and cuts straight across a thumb of land between Hazel and Eagle creeks, working its way up Shehan Branch through Possum Hollow for the first half. A tall chimney rises from a flat bench just below the road surrounded by lush greenery.

Chimney in Possum Hollow

Chimney in Possum Hollow

Campsite #88 hides off trail 0.1 mile, camouflaged amid a resurgent forest. Look carefully for the small wooden sign as the faint access trail will escape notice. This isn’t helped by the fact that you must cross a tiny walled creek, then meander aimlessly a bit before reaching the campsite. This site is listed for 12 people, but there was only one tent location anywhere in the vicinity. It would be hard pressed to accommodate 2! Heaven knows when the last person camped here. The water source is that little trailside creek. Its walled sides make access more difficult than it needs to be. I feel more ‘stuck in the boonies’ here than at any other time on trail. I hang my gear on the cables and half-joking think it might be a good move to hoist myself up there too. However, the night is quiet aside from a coyote yipping around 5:00 a.m.

Hiker Sign

Hiker sign

Monday morning I’m off early for the final day…10 miles to my car. Lakeshore climbs the side of Pinnacle Ridge and joins the ridge line during a 3.5-mile stretch to Eagle Creek and Campsite #90. The fallen tree that blocked Lakeshore and Eagle Creek trails on Thursday is still there. I snack at #90 and keep going, 5.6 trail miles to go. Lakeshore continues to do what it does best…up and down, up and down, up and down…working its way around the bases of Snakeden and Shuckstack ridges and major draws in between.

Three miles past #90, the trail’s route mirrors old North Carolina Highway 288 for 1.5 miles. The road must have been a tempting alternative to the trail at one time. NPS posted a little metal hiker sign with an arrow to indicate the true path. The road behind the sign is now dense with impenetrable vegetation. No one could mistake it for a viable route. Yet the sign remains, bearing all manner of scratches, including a rather devilish looking smily face.

American Beautyberry

American Beautyberry

The 288 stretch is level and wide, though vegetation is trying to reclaim the inner half. One plant proves a shocker, American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). I would never have anticipated finding this southeastern native species in the Smokies, but it is healthy, happy, and flowering. The park lists it as a rare plant at low elevation. Its clusters of pink flowers will result in thick bracelets of magenta purple fruit encircling the twigs at each foliage node. Mockingbirds love the fruit.

An abandoned car on trail

An abandoned car on trail

Old Highway 288 boosts some interesting cultural artifacts as well. World War II not only necessitated electrical generation through impoundment of the Little Tennessee, it also made rubber a scarce commodity. Some locals leaving their homes before the dam was closed did not have tires for their vehicles and were forced to abandon them. Scavenged car bodies litter the trail. I find 5 chassises in varying states of disassembly.

Hog trap art

Hog trap art

I don’t see very many wild hog traps on trail these days, but here is one with its door raised close to the path.  Someone has exercised artistic license to decorate the solid door panel with a cute cartoon rendering of this exotic animal.  This will be the only time “cute” and “wild hog” occur in the same paragraph.

A bit more up and down, then the trail levels out through a groundcover of Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and slips into the trailhead at Lakeview Drive West. It’s 1:35 p.m. My car is at the dam visitor center one mile (25 minutes) away. On the road is a doe and her fawn. The little spotted deer is frisky, prancing and dashing about on the asphalt, as mom stands like a statue, giving me an unwavering stare.

Doe and fawn on Lakeview Drive West

Doe and fawn on Lakeview Drive West

Fontana’s bathroom facilities provide an opportunity to shower away the stink and grime and don fresh clothes before my five-hour drive home. It’s a fantastic feeling to have this trip successfully behind me!

Site of Bone Valley Baptist Church on Hazel Creek Trail

Site of Bone Valley Baptist Church on Hazel Creek Trail

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do. Yesterday’s exhaustion from Jenkins Ridge has become today’s anticipation. Everything will be easier. Hazel Creek Trail’s lower half and Bone Valley are relatively level, both following old roads. Since the morning will involve hiking above Campsite 84, I’ll have to walk right by this spot on my way down to Hazel Creek’s trailhead and Campsite 86. I hang my non-essential hiking gear in a bag on the bear cables and carry only the necessities — water, snacks, rain gear, first aid, etc.

Side trails lead to family cemeteries

Side trails lead to family cemeteries

I’m hiking a rather lop-sided “Y” route this morning, twice, totaling 7.8 miles. Eight-tenths of a mile from Campsite 84, Hazel Creek Trail runs straight into the base of Locust Ridge. I’ll first turn right on HCT for 1.3 miles to the Cold Spring Gap Trail junction and return. At the ridge base once again, Bone Valley Trail heads left 1.8 miles terminating at the Hall Cabin. From there, I’ll hike back to #84 and eat lunch.

Hazel Creek carves a long valley through a maze of ridges large and small, trending the general southwest/northeast direction of Welch Ridge which lies south/southeast of the creek and trail. The trail gains a gradual 1300 feet in elevation during the first 10 miles of its 14.7-mile length. My morning 2.1-mile stretch works its way along the base of two ridge noses — Forrester and Locust ridges, each rising steeply in succession on my left with the creek on my right.

False Fly Agaric

False Fly Agaric

The lower half of Hazel Creek boasts a booming pre-park settlement history centered around the town of Proctor at the trailhead. Here at Campsite 84, there had been the small town of Medlin. Horace Kephart lived nearby. The area was extensively logged, and copper mines operated. There is little to indicate such history today, unless you take unnamed side trails into the woods marked only by a post with a ‘no horses’ symbol. These paths lead to small family cemeteries. One path tackles a steep dirt bank off Hazel Creek, and the park service set a wooden ladder in the ground to assist access.

Park Service bunkhouse

Park Service bunkhouse

Every year the park ferries relatives of those interred across the lake for Decoration Day, when they spruce the grave sites and place colorful new plastic flowers on each. The people bring a picnic lunch and musical instruments for a celebration of their ancestry and mountain heritage. This is why lines of picnic tables are often found in these now remote locations.

Bone Valley Creek ford

Bone Valley Creek ford

Just before Bone Valley Creek and the trail junction, history and Decoration Day festivities merge. Hazel Creek Trail passes an open grassy knoll that was the location of Bone Valley Baptist Church. Across from the church site, a quarter-mile side trail leads to the Bone Valley Cemetery, perhaps one of the larger backcountry cemeteries (82 graves) in the park. The Smokies hiking guide mentions a “massive white oak” at the church site. There are large trees present but none merit the adjective “massive.” Downslope from the knoll, Campsite 83 hides on the backside of the knoll, behind a double phalanx of picnic tables on the flat floodplain of Bone Valley Creek.

Hall Cabin, Bone Valley Trail, GSMNP, July 23, 2016Hazel Creek Trail takes a sharp right turn immediately after the Bone Valley Creek bridge and continues an additional 1.3 miles to its junction with Cold Spring Gap Trail. I will hike Welch Ridge, Cold Spring Gap and upper Hazel Creek trails in 2017.

Opposite the junction, a gravel drive climbs Locust Ridge 30 yards to a bunkhouse used by park service staff. I walk up to snap a photo and notice a sign on the door asking people to respect the privacy of park employees and refrain from disturbing them. From what I can tell, the place appears unoccupied at present.

Hall Cabin interior

Hall Cabin interior

Returning to Bone Valley Creek, I follow an old road branching off Hazel Creek Trail that leads back to the Hall Cabin and site of the Kress mansion. Bone Valley Trail slips between Forrester Ridge and Locust Ridge, rising a scant 200 feet in its 1.8 miles to reach a wide flat plain farmed quite successfully by Jesse Crayton Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Kress lodge chimney

Kress lodge chimney

Settlers in the mountains drove their cattle to the grassy balds each spring to forage when winter’s hold on the high elevations eased. Sometime in the 1870s a late blizzard caught farmers by surprise. Without protection, herds already in the high pastures froze to death. Over the next several years, their bones washed down, scattering through the valley.

Despite the sad tale of its name, Bone Valley is one of the more lovely sections of the park. The trail fords its own creek four times and Mill Branch tributary once. Prolonged or heavy rains could complicate these crossings, but under normal conditions, they are simple, pleasant creek fords. Today, the water grazes mid-calf with a gentle flow producing the perfect the degree of ‘burble’ in this beautiful little stream, a fitting soundtrack to a hike quite unlike the trail trials yesterday.

Female Spring Azures looking for sweat salt

Female Spring Azures looking for sweat salt

Tributaries run through rich sheltered coves into Bone Valley. As with so many places in these mountains, Bone Valley was logged. A rail line ran through, and splash dams were built to float the logs down stream to the Little Tennessee River. It is so peaceful and pleasant now, I can’t help but wonder how marvelous it must have been before our thirst for industry altered thousands of years of natural forest existence.

Downed trees on lower Hazel Creek Trail

Downed trees on lower Hazel Creek Trail

The Hall Cabin sits in a grassy opening, perched high on mortared stone pilings. Originally built around 1880 to accommodate ‘Crate’ Hall’s growing family, it’s designed in a single pen style with a front porch and two rooms — an upstairs loft spanning the entire cabin and a single large room downstairs. The paneled front door is centered, as is the staircase to the loft.  In fact, the door will smack into the stairs if fully pushed open. There are several multi-paned windows including two double-hung on the porch wall. Moth balls are sprinkled throughout the cabin and on the ground underneath. They must be fresh, the odor is strong.

Gauging station on Hazel Creek

Gauging station on Hazel Creek

Remains of the Kress family hunting lodge can be seen in the woods on the far side of the cabin. Dubbed a “mansion” and “grand lodge,” it was used by wealthy friends of the department store’s founder as a fishing retreat. The large chimney that was once graced with marble mantels still stands over the crumbling, moss-covered foundation.

During a relaxing snack on the front porch, I am entertained by three Spring Azures intent to sip the salts of my sweat on the camera bag and trekking poles. Clouds are building as I begin the walk back to Campsite 84. Shod in water shoes for the creek crossings, I only need my umbrella to fend off a 30-minute rain shower. All is dry when I arrive for lunch and pack to continue down Hazel Creek.

Another view of the gauging station

Another view of the gauging station

The 4.5-mile walk to Lakeshore is uneventful, even boring, though there are lots of downed trees across the trail from a recent storm. Summer foliage masks most indications of the bustling enterprises present here a hundred years ago. Wooden structures were burned, leaving only a three made of concrete and brick. The large dry kiln sits far off the trail and requires a sharp eye to spot in July. Those sited on the trail are much easier to spot, though one small concrete building, a valve house, is quickly losing out to nature. The most interesting structure is a cylindrical river gauging station. It looks like a turret stuck between the road and creek.

Unless you consult a decently scaled map, it is difficult to decipher the end of Hazel Creek Trail.  The trailhead is positioned at Proctor Bridge.  The Calhoun House, which appears to be a dead end straight ahead, actually sits on Lakeshore Trail, which runs past the house toward Fontana and across the bridge toward Bryson City.

Calhoun House near the Hazel Creek trailhead

Calhoun House near the Hazel Creek trailhead

To reach Campsite 86, I must cross the bridge and turn right. About 0.2 mile down this lake access trail, a series of little paths run into the woods on the right and lead to a warren of sites large and small. It is Saturday, and I won’t be camping solo tonight. #86 looks like party central. The large group next door offers me some of their pinto beans, but I’m stuffed from my own dinner and tired. My morning was wonderful, but the walk down Hazel Creek with a full pack reignited my back and feet woes from yesterday.

Tomorrow, I begin a two-day effort to complete Lakeshore Trail, hiking to Chesquaw Branch and back before continuing to Campsite 88 for the night and the trailhead on Monday. Once again, I will leave most of my gear hanging in camp for the Chesquaw trek.

Jenkins Ridge Trail Sign AT, GSMNP, July 22, 2016This morning I climbed more than 2,500 feet in 4.3 miles to the Eagle Creek trailhead on the A.T.  The first clue that the “hard part” may not be over for the day comes 0.3 mile later at the Jenkins Ridge trailhead when I cannot find the trail. There is no dirt path visible, only a faint crease in the vegetation. Within a few yards, I disappear into foliage. From the A.T., there is now no evidence that the trail or I exist.

Other than long thorny arms of Rubus sp., I cannot recall a single plant for certain. All my time and energy is devoted to pushing through a gauntlet of herbaceous growth often well above my head. Protecting my eyes and face becomes the first priority, but an equally critical second priority is locating the actual foot path to avoid rocks or roots or branches or holes or bear poop.

The only sign of a trail off the A.T. is a strip of lower growing grasses leading into a wall of foliage.

The only sign of a trail off the A.T. is a strip of lower growing grasses leading into a wall of foliage.

There really is a narrow path under here somewhere, but it takes tremendous effort and time to push vegetation aside enough to see it. I wind up scooting my feet along in some places to avoid twisting an ankle on hidden impediments. My trekking poles rarely touch the ground. They stay arm’s length in front of me like the blade of a plow opening a furrow of space ahead. The poles catch on plants; plants catch on me. My clothes are snagged. There’s a cut on my cheek. My left arm looks like it was attacked by a vicious herd of feral cats.

For the first three miles, Jenkins Ridge clings to the steep side of the Smokies crest, circumnavigating the headwaters of several feeder streams to Eagle Creek. With the mountain rising on the left and falling away on the right, there’s not much room for error.  There’s also no room for maneuvering should I encounter wildlife. However, given the racket I make hacking my way through this stuff, bears and other animals can hear me coming a mile away. I’m not too worried. What’s scarier are the outer edges of the trail. Jenkins Ridge is also a horse trail, and hoof-sized gouges slip down the steep slope. Unexpectedly keeling off the trail sideways is a bigger threat.

This is one of the easier overgrown sections.  Photos of the worst would just show a fuzzy blob of green leaves in front of the lens.

This is one of the easier overgrown sections. Photos of the worst would just show a fuzzy blob of green leaves in front of the lens.

Vegetation density is tied to the canopy. Whenever the trail passes through sufficient forest shade, the riot of forb and shrub growth relaxes, and Jenkins Ridge opens into a respectable trail. Unfortunately, this condition is rare in the top one-third of the trail. The energy expended battling plants has been enormous thus far.

Jenkins Ridge begins at 5,000 feet. Over the next 2.8 miles, it dips a few hundred feet then returns to the starting elevation at a place called Haw Gap, a small opening through a saddle full of the same overgrown mix of head-high brambles and forbs. I plunge ahead on sheer faith that the trail is somewhere in the vicinity.

There are some monster Boletes on Jenkins Ridge.

There are some monster Boletes on Jenkins Ridge.

Back in the woods, I begin the first major descent, dropping 800 feet in one mile.  Shortly past Haw Gap, the trail hits the ridge line for which it is named and remains on or near that line for the next 3.5 miles. During this run it will surmount two small but steep knobs and make several ridiculously steep declines. After Haw Gap, I leave the claustrophobic vegetation behind but now face bare dirt, loose rocks, and exposed roots pitching straight down the eroded nose of Jenkins Ridge with nary a switchback in sight. One stumble and it’s ass over tea kettle straight into a world of hurt.

Jenkins Ridge violates nearly every rule of Trail Building 101. As bad as it is for humans, it is beyond me how anyone could possibly take a horse down this trail or up it for that matter. Yet I find horse poop, along with lots of bear poop. At one point, a big downed tree blocks the trail. Its bole is too large to climb over and too low for crawling under with a pack. I lie down on my side and slither beneath the trunk.

Michaux's Lily

Michaux’s Lily

Everything slows to a crawl, and I lose all sense of the trail. Have I passed Cherry Knob? Which steep descent is this one? Staring at the hiking book’s elevation profile, I cannot get a handle on my location, but I know where I am…in hell. The day is warm, even at this elevation, and very humid. My feet are killing me and so is my back. It’s been more than a year since I carried a full pack, and I’m feeling it.

There are nice plants, such as Michaux’s Lily (Lilium michauxii), and some monster mushrooms on Jenkins Ridge, as well as one of the largest patches of Trailing Arbutus I’ve ever seen. Today, photography takes a backseat to survival. A pair of Broadwinged Hawks let out a series of cries as I hike past.

Flying squirrels chew perfectly round holes in nut shells like this acorn.

Flying squirrels chew perfectly round holes in nut shells like this acorn.

The trail moderates at Pickens Gap, and on two occasions I think I’ve reached that holy grail only to have my spirits crushed with another lung-busting uphill or heart-stopping downhill. Part of me wants to sit down and cry while another part screams obscenities.

Finally, I see a sign post in a wide flat area below me. To get there, I have to crab walk on hands and feet down an almost sheer 8-foot slide of slippery dirt. Pickens Gap, thank god!  The sign points left for Hazel Creek in 2.4 miles. Including two breaks, it has taken me 5 hours and 15 minutes to hike 6.5 miles on Jenkins Ridge.

Another small sign to the right simply says “Unmaintained Trail.” This is the old trailhead for Pinnacle Creek Trail, abandoned by the park several years ago. Yesterday, I saw the other end on Eagle Creek Trail. Now a manway, PCT ends (or begins) with a ford of Eagle Creek.

The last 2.4 miles of Jenkins Ridge follows an old road.

The last 2.4 miles of Jenkins Ridge follows an old road.

From Pickens Gap, Jenkins Ridge Trail joins a wide road, also overgrown, following the course of Sugar Fork. The hard part really is behind me now, but I’m so exhausted I can’t take advantage of the relative ease. Plodding along for another 90 minutes, I drag into Campsite 84 at 7:00 p.m. A small site, it sits at the confluence of Sugar Fork and Hazel Creek. It’s Friday night, but no one is there, no one shows up, and no one walks by. The only people I saw today were those three men on Eagle Creek this morning. It’s getting dark by the time I finish camp chores. I pop two ‘Vitamin I’ (ibuprofen) and crash.

After my trip, I emailed a friend who works at the park and is an accomplished hiker herself. I railed against Jenkins Ridge. In her response, she said the park’s trails coordinator recently asked her which trail she considered the worst in the park. “Guess which one I told him?” She forwarded my diatribe to the coordinator, and his response was, “I agree!”  He’d prefer to close it or mark it as unmaintained.

Anyone pursuing the 900 Mile Club must tackle Jenkins Ridge. Two bits of advice: take a partner and take a machete. I never really thought I’d be one of those who, upon completing all the park trails, would start over for a second sweep. Jenkins Ridge has just insured that I won’t!