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The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

The only sign of Noland Creek Trail on Lakeview Drive

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

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

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

Lakeview Drive bridge overhead

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

Noland Creek Trail

Noland Creek Trail

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

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

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

Maidenhair Fern and Poison Ivy

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

Poison Ivy flowers

Poison Ivy flowers

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

Fabulous new footbridge design

Fabulous new footbridge design

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

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

The first big ford on Noland Creek

The first big ford on Noland Creek

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

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

Pole Road Creek Trail (3.3 miles)

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

Pole Road Creek Trail at Noland Divide

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

Common Cinquefoil

Common Cinquefoil

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

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

Fraser's Sedge fruit

Fraser’s Sedge fruit

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

Martin’s Gap Trail (3.0 miles)

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

Martins Gap Trail at Deep Creek

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

Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snake

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

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

Rattlesnake Hawkweed

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

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

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

Wooden Bridge on Martins Gap Trail

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

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

Excessive erosion on Martins Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada Mayflower

Canada Mayflower

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

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone

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

budding Chicken of the Woods

Budding Chicken of the Woods

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

Large Whorled Pogonia

Large Whorled Pogonia

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

Cow Wheat

Cow Wheat

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

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

Huge patch of Smooth Lungwort

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

Smooth Lungwort

Smooth Lungwort

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

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

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

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

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

Large Yellow Wood-sorrel

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

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

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

Lower trailhead of Thomas Divide on Tom Branch Road

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

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

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

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

Oconaluftee River Trail's smooth surface

Oconaluftee River Trail’s smooth surface

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

Hornbeam fruits

Hornbeam fruits

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

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

Hairy Woodmint

Hairy Woodmint

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

Hearts-a-bustin' flowers

Hearts-a-bustin’ flowers

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

Sensitive Fern

Sensitive Fern

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

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

Cherokee, NC, town limits

Cherokee, NC, town limits

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

 

The open valley at Oconoluftee with Rattlesnake Mountain in the background

The open valley at Oconoluftee with Rattlesnake Mountain in the background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zigzagging through the beech gap

Zigzagging through the beech gap

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

Trailside cascade, tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek

Trailside cascade, tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek

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

Cascade slide of Sweat Heifer Creek

Cascade slide of Sweat Heifer Creek

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

Great Merrybells

Great Merrybells

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

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

An unlikely shade of Fringed Phacelia

An unlikely shade of Fringed Phacelia

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

Running Strawberry-bush

Running Strawberry-bush

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

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

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

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

Yellow Birch, Appalachian Trail, TN-NC

Yellow Birch, Appalachian Trail, TN-NC

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

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

American Strawberry, Kephart Prong Trail

American Strawberry, Kephart Prong Trail

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

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

Dwarf Ginseng, Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Dwarf Ginseng, Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

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

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

Bridge over Little River nicknamed "Goshen Gate Bridge"

Bridge over Little River nicknamed “Goshen Gate Bridge”

After a two-week summer course at Highlands Biological Station in NC on Forest Ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians, I stop in the Smokies for two nights to check off two trails, using the A.T. to create a 28.9-mile loop from the Little River trailhead to Fighting Creek Gap. I camp Saturday night in Elkmont for an early start Sunday.

To reach Goshen Prong trailhead requires a 3.7-mile walk on Little River Trail, an enjoyable 1 hour, 20 minutes of quiet solitude this fine morning. Goshen Prong Trail is 7.6 miles long, climbing 3,000 feet in elevation from Little River’s easy valley to the Appalachian Trail. It follows Little River tributary Fish Camp Prong southwest to Campsite #23 then curves southeast along its eponymous stream.

Storm damage on Goshen Prong

Storm damage on Goshen Prong

The first 3.3 miles rise a slight 600 feet through forests exhibiting recurring evidence of storm damage with toppled trees in several locations. These gaps on the left side of the trail have become light-filled riots of vegetation vying for unfiltered access to sunshine. On the trail’s right side, Fish Camp Prong provides endless entertainment as waters draining Miry Ridge, Bent Arm, Goshen Ridge, and Smokies crest commingle and dance their way through chutes, slides, cascades, and falls. It seems to defy logic that this lively, laughing stream joins the calm, collected Little River, especially given some of its tributaries’ names — War Branch, Battle Hollow, and Hostility Branch. The last stream tumbles down Bent Arm’s steep and deeply dissected southeastern slope.

Shale rock face

Shale rock face

Slate, part of the Anakeesta or perhaps Copperhill formation, runs through this area. The characteristic foliation, sheet-like layers that separate in flat planes, is visible in rocks along the stream’s edge and a seepy rock face next to the trail. Crevices and ledges on the rock face host a variety of plants, including many mosses and liverworts, ferns, and others adapted to the regularly moist conditions, such as Mountain Meadow-rue (Thalictrum clavatum).

Cave-like crevice in sandstone

Cave-like crevice in sandstone

At the sharp bend where Goshen Prong turns southeast and begins its 4.3-mile climb to the A.T. in earnest, a short spur trail on the left leads to Campsite #23. I pause here to rest and eat a snack. The site is roomy and pleasant. Leaving Fish Camp Prong behind, the trail now follows Goshen Prong. It becomes narrow and rocky in spots, yet remains physically undemanding for the most part. Doghobble and bramble stems spill into the path on occasion, and overall the plant communities don’t appear to be very rich. There are, however, noteworthy points of interest.

Several groups of young, healthy Eastern Hemlock trees, contain saplings ranging from one or two feet tall to a more robust five or six feet. I detect no sign of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on these trees. I doubt the park service treated these individuals so far from public areas, which must mean they either have some natural immunity or have benefited from recent cold winters killing off vast numbers of the pest. Either way, it is thrilling to see these vibrant trees.

Bees love the nectar of Turtlehead

Bees love the nectar of Turtlehead

At the 5-mile mark is a cave of sorts, a large crevice in the jumble of tilted sandstone. The upper two miles of Goshen Prong Trail pass through a northern hardwoods forest community with some impressive Yellow Birch trees and Red Spruce. A small gap allows a quick view toward Miry Ridge to the west.

Not too far from the top a lovely stand of Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) holds many terminal clusters of flowers in a wet seep along with White Wood Aster (Eurybia sp.) Bees are busy nosing their way into the two-lipped turtlehead corollas. One bee repeatedly visits a single flower seeming to find its nectar preferable to the others. A small bee disappears into a blossom. Its squirming gyrations and buzzing cause the flower’s lips to move up and down giving the appearance of a talking turtlehead!

Skunk or Clustered Goldenrod

Skunk or Clustered Goldenrod

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have discovered that some of the secondary metabolites, often natural toxins produced by plants to deter herbivory, present in flower nectar may play an important role in helping pollinators reduce levels of internal parasites. [see article] Chelone contains iridoid glycosides (aucubin and catalpol) and was part of the study showing a marked decrease in parasitic infections in bumble bees within seven days of exposure to these floral compounds. Such hidden connections inspire awe and should come as no surprise.

Somewhere past the campsite, I find a new blue Nalgene bottle nearly full of water lying in the trail. With no idea when it was dropped or where its owner might be, I pick it up and carry it with me, eventually dumping the water to lighten its weight. I plan to eat lunch at the A.T. junction and am startled to find a large group of hikers eating there when I arrive. They had camped at #23 last night and are impressed that I have come 11.3 miles in the time they hiked 4.4. I take my junction sign photo and am about to continue to a more private lunch spot when one man asks if the Nalgene bottle is mine. He dropped it and is glad to retrieve it even without the liquid contents.

Clingmans Hedge Nettle

Clingmans Hedge Nettle

The next 5.7 miles follow the Appalachian Trail over Mt. Buckley, Clingmans Dome, and Mt. Collins, a section I hiked in May 2012. Sunshine and midsummer give the trail a whole new personality to enjoy. Today, I have a clear view into Tennessee, which had been hidden behind a dense curtain of clouds three years ago. In open sections of the trail, summer wildflowers specific to the Blue Ridge Mountains compete for the attention of pollinators — Bee Balm, Appalachian White Snakeroot, and Clingmans Hedge Nettle (Stachys clingmanii).

Skunk Goldenrod (Solidago glomerata), most often noted on trail by odiferous exhalations, demonstrates its other common name, Clustered Goldenrod, and its specific epithet with compressed racemes of large flower heads bulging from leaf axils. This species is found mainly in the park and on Roan Mountain. A male Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from another high elevation resident, Filmy Angelica.

Beaked Dodder

Beaked Dodder

Confined mainly in the Blue Ridge, Beaked Dodder (Cuscuta rostrata) is also in full flower. Lacking chlorophyll, dodder species cannot manufacture their own food and live as parasites, taking their nutrition from other plants. Upon germination, dodder sends a stem upward to latch onto a suitable host, piercing its outer cortex and slipping special structures called haustoria into vascular tissues (the xylem and phloem) to steal water and carbohydrates. Its roots then wither. Dodder not only wraps its thin orange arms around the host but also flings them outward to reach adjacent plants. It’s beautiful in flower and a little creepy.

Witch Hobble fruits, beginning to mature, have yet to assume their bright red color, but the foliage is already previewing autumnal shades of maroon. Bluebead Lily fruits range from rich blue to midnight tones. Globular red fruits of Rosy Twisted-stalk dangle like shiny gum balls from leaf axils. The capsules of Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa) are still green and unassuming, but its leaves exhibit an unmistakeable characteristic — a hardened, light colored tip unique to this shrub.

Rosy Twisted-stalk fruit

Rosy Twisted-stalk fruit

Approaching Mt. Buckley, the flanks of a ridge emanating from that peak appear sparsely treed. A slight dusting of dark green firs and spruce dot the light green ground. During pre-park logging days, a slash fire ravaged the steep slopes, burning deep into the soil to create an unwelcoming environment for seed germination and plant growth, a condition plainly evident nearly 100 years later.

It’s a gorgeous summer Sunday, and the trail is loaded with people — couples, families, large groups. A few carry packs with a destination in mind, but most are simply hiking short stretches around Clingmans Dome.

The distinctive leaf tips of Minnie-bush

The distinctive leaf tips of Minnie-bush

I reach the Sugarland Mountain junction late in the afternoon. Mt. Collins Shelter, my evening destination, is 0.3 mile away. This section of Sugarland Mountain Trail off the A.T. is flat and smooth, a welcome relief, the light sandy surface in sharp contrast with the dark coniferous forest.

At the shelter’s side trail, a young man and woman collect firewood. They are part of a small group of students from Greenville College in Illinois hiking the Smokies for 10 days. Their itinerary calls for a two-day stay at Cabin Flats near Smokemont where they will fast in solitude and silence. Arriving in the park earlier today, they got off to a bad start by heading in the wrong direction on the A.T. from Clingmans Dome. Not realizing the error until they had reached Goshen Prong junction, this misdirection adds 4.5 miles to their intended first day’s journey.

Mt. Buckley fire scar

Mt. Buckley fire scar

Their leader, a man in his 30s, lies curled in his sleeping bag. He feels unwell, and the others quietly cook dinner. I unpack and start camp chores. Returning from a privy visit, I am surprised to see the leader bent over vomiting in front of the shelter. I don’t know the nature of his illness, but I become paranoid that its a stomach bug and spend the entire evening in fear of catching it.

The students have been working hard to build a fire with sporadic success in hopes its warmth might help the man. It doesn’t. He crawls back into his sleeping bag. My dinner is ready, and I join the rest of the group on the shelter’s left side. They are relaxing with hot chocolate and offer me an Oreo! We chat about their trip. They are curious about my A.T. adventures.

Witch Hobble, Bluebead Lily and Fraser Fir

Witch Hobble, Bluebead Lily and Fraser Fir

All are quiet and respectful, but one young man is quite the braggart. Every topic produces some self-congratulatory feat. He boasts of breaking a kid’s ribs during a middle school football game when he deliberately hit the opposing quarterback hard. I cannot resist calling him out as a jerk for not apologizing to the player. His fellow students find humor my efforts to knock him down a peg or two.

This tall, athletic 20-year-old repeatedly references their day’s hike and the 900-ft elevation gain climbing back to Clingmans Dome as though it were a monumental accomplishment. I completed 17.3 miles with a total gain of 5,050 feet but do not wish to engage in a pissing contest with this turd. Next morning he’s at it again, and the sick leader puts him in his place, “She came from Elkmont. She hiked much further and climbed much higher.” Everyone will be grateful for two days of silence just to shut that guy up.

Mt. Collins Shelter is visible in the background.

Mt. Collins Shelter is visible in the background.

Recently renovated, the shelter incorporates the latest design features and a new privy. Nestled into a small opening among spruce and fir, the setting is peaceful and comfortable. A waning gibbous moon lights the clear, cool summer night while Cassiopeia wheels overhead tied to her torturous chair. Next morning, the sick leader stirs, talks, and even laughs. Turns out he was suffering from an intense migraine, and for a while was not sure he’d be able to continue. I pack, wish them well, and continue my journey.

First 0.3 mile of Sugarland Mountain Trail

First 0.3 mile of Sugarland Mountain Trail

Sugarland Mountain Trail runs 11.9 miles from the A.T. to Little River Road, emerging at the Laurel Falls parking area. For more than half its length, it traces the spine of Sugarland Mountain, heading first north then northwest. An impressive ridge emanating from the Smokies crest, it sports a line of summits, each lower in elevation than the previous.

The angle of descent on the trail’s profile appears quite easy until the final half mile, and the idea of ridge walking invokes images of smooth paths reinforced by the first 0.3 mile. These two thoughts blur into an unshakeable belief that Sugarland Mountain Trail will be a breeze. Thus my astonishment when it instantly morphs into a snarl of boulders within yards of the shelter side trail.

Knight's Plume Moss

Knight’s Plume Moss

I had to negotiate part of this snarl last night since the shelter’s water source lies 0.1 mile down the trail. The rocky challenge continues another 0.1 mile then smooths, reflecting a reality closer to my imagined ideal. However, no trail nearly 12 miles long remains consistent, and Sugarland Mountain often displays conflicting personalities: wide then narrow, on the ridge or off to one side, rocky and smooth, overgrown to open understory.

Sugarland Mountain’s side slopes are quite steep in several places. On one such section, a canopy gap has allowed herbage to grow head high, crowding and masking the trail. Somehow I spot and avoid a large hole at least one foot deep spanning the trail’s width, a potentially nasty surprise for some unsuspecting hiker.

Impressive Red Spruce

Impressive Red Spruce

With a 3,700-foot elevation drop, Sugarland Mountain Trail begins at 6,000 feet and passes through several different community types on its way to Fighting Creek Gap at 2,300 feet. Spruce-fir occupies the first two miles. This coniferous forest is delightfully different from hardwood or pine forests. Dark, moist, and quiet, there’s a primeval quality. The understory is often spare or nonexistent, but usually there are scattered patches of other plants like Bluebead Lily, club mosses, and ferns. Dense mats of true mosses often cover the ground, boulders, and downed logs. Lush patches of Knight’s Plume Moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis) soften Sugarland’s trail edge.

Fraser Fir disappears once the trail slips below 5,500 feet, but Red Spruce remains, grading into a northern hardwoods community. Many of these spruce trees are impressive specimens. Their small brown cones dot the forest floor. Rugel’s Ragwort is still in flower but past its prime…which looks a lot like Rugel’s Ragwort in its prime. Oh, snap, botany slam!

Table Mountain Pine meets Red Spruce at 4500 feet.

Table Mountain Pine meets Red Spruce at 4500 feet.

Several bird species prefer high elevation spruce-fir and northern hardwoods communities. I hear the slow nasal honk of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. One Winter Wren belts out his long, twittery, and rather spastic song, sounding as if he’s had one too many cups of coffee this morning. There’s the high-pitched lisp of a Golden-crowned Kinglet and the two-note “fee-bee” of a Black-capped Chickadee. Another resident, the Red Squirrel, teases me by sitting stock still on a nearby branch and bolting the instant he hears my camera’s focus beep.

Community transitions often result in strange bedfellows. Standing in the shade of a robust Red Spruce, I photograph a Table Mountain Pine perched on a section of dry, exposed ridge line barely 10 yards ahead. The typical ranges for these two species meet at 4,500 feet. At this elevation, Rough Creek is the first trail junction 4.8 miles down Sugarland Mountain. I’ve been piddling my way through the upper third for 3.5 hours! Might be wise to pick up the pace.

Boletus bicolor

Boletus bicolor

Sugarland Mountain defines part of the watersheds for Little River to the west and West Prong of Little Pigeon River to the east, paralleling Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) much of the way. Road noise, mainly after-market motorcycles, penetrates the serenity at times, a grating annoyance.

August is prime summer mushroom season. Over these two days I see several beautiful Yellow Patches (Amanita flavoconia) and a newly emerging Blusher. Fresh plump boletes are the stars, however. Red cushions of Boletus bicolor and a pinkish brown Tylopilus species I cannot ID for certain appear on Sugarland. A mighty Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus with its fat purplish stalk graces Goshen Prong.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Below the high elevation communities, Sugarland Mountain Trail traverses moist and drier forests. Red Oak, Silverbell, and Cucumber Magnolia prefer moist, sheltered environments, whereas Sourwood and Red Maple occur on drier sites. On either side of the Huskey Gap junction, dry sunny exposures with Mountain Laurel, Galax, and Teaberry are common.

Massive sandstone boulders, remnants of Sugarland Mountain’s geologic past, cling to the mountain’s steep side, looking solid and precarious at the same time. Courthouse Rock on the 441 side is an example. I perch on a less impressive, yet still huge group of boulders overhanging the valley of Little River and eat lunch staring into canopies barely out of my reach from trees far down slope. Thinking too much about this location can produce a tummy flutter incompatible with good digestion!

Old location of Campsite #21

Old location of Campsite #21

An abandoned campsite, the former location of #21, is about one mile before Huskey Gap. Sited within a shallow ravine, there are very large boulders here too, including one that resembles a whale. A fire ring exhibiting recent use lies under the snout of this leviathan. I cannot spot any decent tent sites among the overgrowth, but food cables still hang from the trees as possible encouragement for stealth campers.

By mid afternoon I am growing weary. My feet begin to hurt, and I’m more than ready to reach Fighting Creek Gap. Apart from brief uphill runs, Sugarland Mountain Trail is mostly downhill with one notable exception. A steady half-mile ascent of 500 feet from Mids Gap provides a short, blood-pumping interval before the final descent. The last mile drops steeply to Little River Road which can be heard most of the way and occasionally glimpsed through the trees.

Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus

Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus

The trail ends at the expansive parking area for Laurel Falls, a spot always packed with visitors in summer. I intend to hitch a ride to Elkmont from here and have high hopes of doing so with ease. So many hikers on the A.T. and elsewhere seem to have little difficulty securing rides. Surely I’ll have good luck here. I stake out a location where people leaving the parking area or driving from Gatlinburg can safely stop for me.

After several minutes of thumbing without success. I take my notebook from my pack and write “ELKMONT” on a piece of paper, hoping my destination barely a mile away will make a difference. It doesn’t. I even ask a few folks walking to their cars from the falls if they might be going to Elkmont. Avoiding eye contact, they say no. I’m a 59-year-old woman wearing high-quality hiking clothes with gaiters, a backpack, and trekking poles. Do I look like an ax murderer? I’ve stood here over 20 minutes, receiving nothing but weird stares from passing motorists. Dejected, I begin the 3-mile walk to my car.

Sugarland Mountain Trailhead at Fighting Creek Gap

Sugarland Mountain Trailhead at Fighting Creek Gap

Walking Little River Road is not the safest activity. There is little to no shoulder in many places with vehicles whizzing past. The only positive is its downhill course, but once I reach the Elkmont turnoff, I’m looking at nearly 2 miles uphill. Every now and then I glance back and hold up my sign for a passing car without much hope. Finally, a white Jeep slows and stops. I rush over. A family from Chicago — mother Alana, daughter Sophia, and son Will — is camping at Elkmont and willing to give me a ride. Yay!!  Alana loves the outdoors and is interested in hiking. Will has just completed the Junior Ranger program at Sugarlands Visitor Center. They drive me to my a car a half mile beyond the campground. I am very appreciative!

Since it has taken me so long to write and post this account, I may as well add that my son works for the Chicago Cubs. The team’s fantastic finish to the regular season and promising performance in the wild card and division playoff games gave hope that perhaps the curse of the goat would finally end. Alas, it was not to be. I don’t know if Alana and her family are Cubs fans, but if so I hope they take heart like all good Cubs fans…there is always next year.

Non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Day Twelve, June 17, Upper Laurel Fork Camp, 13.2 miles: I rise early, eager to leave Mountain Harbor and return to the peace of the trail. Waving to ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy,’ we will meet at Mountaineer Shelter (9.3 miles) for the night, I head for the highway. The prospects for a lift are slim, so I trudge uphill without trying.

The first few trail miles negotiate strips of disturbed land snaking among small streets emanating from US 19E and state road 1302. Overgrown fields, power lines, and a cemetery are evidence of human habitation close at hand. Poison ivy, further proof of civilization’s intrusion to the natural order, is also prevalent. The fields are in sore need of that weed-whacking couple I saw near Beauty Spot. Grasses and other plants like Black-eyed Susan approach waist height or higher and carry a full load of dew this morning, soaking my pants within minutes. Stems and leaves catch on my trekking poles.

Meadow plants are drenched in dew.

Meadow plants are drenched in dew.

The drag of fighting through resistant herbage, an uphill trajectory, and my lack of energy due to poor rest and no dinner make a debilitating combination. I still manage a respectable 3.8 miles in about two hours, crossing Buck Mountain Road with its church visible on the right. My brain, however, is not in the game today. Two miles later, I walk right past the 0.1 mile side trail to Jones Falls, a lovely spot well worth the visit. Oops. Maybe some other day.

Path Rush, a small grass-like plant loves the disturbance and compaction found along the A.T. A different texture and darker color from other weedy, trail-side species, it stands out lining either side of and even intruding into the dirt track. The trail sidles along the Elk River for a short stretch with adjacent flat campsites. From the river, it is a very gradual rise to Mountaineer Shelter through the forest.

Church at Buck Mountain Road

Church at Buck Mountain Road

I startle a Ruffed Grouse who startles me with its thrumming wing beats. During lunch, a mouthy Pileated Woodpecker treats me to his extensive oratory. I scan the trees looking for him throughout my break, and finally set eyes on him right at the end. A Scarlet Tanager and Black-throated Green Warbler attempt to get a few words in edgewise. In the distance, an American Robin is less deterred by the loquacious woodpecker and sings enthusiastically.

Since Erwin,TN, the trail has remained above 4,000 feet. Descent from the Roan massif puts the A.T. below that mark where it will remain for the next several days of my hike. Mid June temperatures are running noticeably higher than normal with an increase in humidity. There has also been little precipitation in the mountains. Rain events have been short-lived and widely scattered.

Darker green Path Rush lines the trail.

Darker green Path Rush lines the trail.

Today I officially pass the halfway mark…my twelfth day on trail with 11 more to go. Psychologically, this countdown is important. I learned in 2013 that three weeks is likely to be my enjoyability limit. By that time, I’ll be ready to go home. I’ve already been thinking of my sweet little Siamese kitty all alone in Nashville and even begun plotting how I’ll clean my gear. Not the best signs with half the trip still ahead.

While I’m pleased to have reached this point, I am also very tired from last night. Due to the weather, I find myself sweating much more despite the far less physically demanding terrain. I’ve been guzzling water all day. After a long lunch communing with the birds, I reluctantly hoist my pack and head for the shelter.

Elk River

Elk River

Mountaineer Shelter is located in a very unlikely spot. Most shelters are near a spring or stream on a plot of land somewhat wide and level. Positioned near Mountaineer Falls, this shelter has the requisite water source, but the surrounding landscape is neither wide nor level. Tucked within steeply sloping hillsides, it can be tricky to simply walk around. A depression below the shelter could handle a few tents.

Despite the sloping terrain, Mountaineer is one of the newer and nicer shelters I’ve seen since Hot Springs. Reminiscent of Curly Maple Gap, it’s a double decker accommodating 14 with a covered sitting/cooking area. The shelter’s front is perched at the edge of the slope downhill toward the fire ring and tenting area. A lack of convenient bathroom options appears to be the main drawback.

Mountaineer Shelter

Mountaineer Shelter

I arrive around 1:30 and spend time simply resting. The trail profile for the next 8 miles undulates gently at 3500 feet. My plan tomorrow calls for a Herculean 17.5 miles including a difficult rocky section near Laurel Falls. I’ve certainly got time, if not much energy, to knock a few of tomorrow’s miles off today should there be suitable stop.

The next shelter is nearly 10 miles away, and its water source is noted as “a long way downhill.” That option is a non-starter. A few campsites are indicated in between. One is four miles away next to a ‘waterfall’ on Upper Laurel Fork. I could manage this.

Pipsissewa

Pipsissewa

While plotting my options, a man and his son from Bristol, TN, stop at the shelter. They are out for a few days to get in shape for further hikes later in the year. We chat a bit. They too are interested in taking advantage of the afternoon and like the idea of the waterfall campsite. I hate passing up a night at a decent shelter, especially considering my current state, but the chance to get a leg up on tomorrow is too enticing. I head for the spring to fill my water bladder and bottle.

At the spring, I hear a whistle and turn around. It’s ‘Roachy.’ She and ‘Storm’ have arrived and want to keep going as well but need a food break first. I’m ready to hit the trail and tell all four I’ll see them at the campsite later this afternoon.

Park bench on the A.T.

Park bench on the A.T.

It is easy hiking through this section. A half mile from the campsite, a vista to the south opens where a wood and metal park bench has been mounted trailside for quiet contemplation, allegedly the only such bench on the A.T. I sit for a long while enjoying the peaceful view. An American Holly is flowering overhead, dropping its small spent blossoms like bits of confetti.

One would think a campsite at a waterfall would be fairly easy to locate, but the trail crosses a stream conveniently identified as Upper Laurel Fork on a sign tacked to the bridge. There is no waterfall, but there are two very small cleared spots that could be campsites. There is also a flagged side trail that leads to a hostel, noted in Miller at the waterfall location. I pause a moment wondering if this might be the site and decide to continue. Surely there is something better. The trail follows Upper Laurel Fork and is often wet and miry. In about 0.1 to 0.2 mile, I see a wider opening ahead and hear the sound of fast water. The “waterfall” is a small cascade, the stream pouring past a progression of descending rocks maybe 15 to 20 feet. A fire ring cinches the site and there is room for all five of us. Miller’s guide apparently conflated the two spots.

View from the park bench

View from the park bench

I begin setting up my tent and search for that ever elusive food bag limb. A dead hemlock branch is within tossing distance on the slope across from the campsite. I toss my line and hook the branch. However, the end of the line tangles and hovers above my reach. I must pull it down and try again. The tangled end catches on a tiny branchlet and instantly knots. *&%#@! I tug, I pull, I bounce, I curse, I throw things. Some of the tangle releases, but the knot remains firm. AAARRRGGGHHH!!!

Cascading "waterfall"

Cascading “waterfall”

The others have not arrived, and I begin to suspect that they have been fooled by the small clearings. Carrying my food bag, I walk back to the bridge. There they are trying to figure out how to make those tiny sites work. When we are all at the right camp, ‘Storm’ helps me with that dang food line. I’m sure I’ll have to cut it and want to do so as near the end knot as possible. I even attempt to lash my knife to a stick in hopes of leaving as little rope as I can stuck in that tree. ‘Storm’ tries another path. Putting his entire 6-foot heft into it, he finally gets the limb to break. Once again, I’ve retrieved my rope unscathed from what appeared to be certain shortening. I move to the other side of camp, find an ideal limb, and hang my food without angst. Wish I’d looked there first.

Fern glade

Fern glade

Day Thirteen, June 18, Braemar Castle Hostel, 14.4 miles: I’m up at first light, wanting a head start on the day’s heat and the more difficult trail conditions ahead. The five of us are going to Laurel Fork Shelter (13.6 miles), and I’m on trail at 7:05. There isn’t a breath of wind this morning and the humidity is brutal. Sweat pours down my face. It is slow going.

Despite the lack of rain, this section has many wet, miry areas that would be ankle-deep, sloppy puddles with normal precipitation. There are frequent small stream crossings and footbridges. About 1.5 miles from Moreland Gap Shelter, the trail begins a 500 foot climb up White Rocks Mountain to crest slightly over the 4,000 mark before its short, sweet descent into the gap. I’ve gone 5.7 miles in 3 hrs, 40 mins, a very disappointing performance for easy terrain during morning hours. The humidity is killing me.

Old corn crib along the trail

Old corn crib along the trail

I break for lunch at the shelter and meet ‘K-2’ from Seattle. He started in Hampton, TN, 8 miles back and is lying prone on the shelter’s platform, his shirt drenched in sweat. He hiked the majority of the A.T. last year SoBo and only lacks Hampton to Springer, just over 400 miles, to complete the trail.

‘K-2’ tells me that Laurel Fork Shelter is in horrible shape, perched on a rocky ridge with little to recommend it, and points to excellent campsites along the Laurel Fork river. Miller’s guide notes a campsite at Waycaster Spring 0.3 mile beyond the shelter. I’ve read its spring emerges from the base of a pine tree. That’s where I set my sights. I will leave ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ a note on a rock at the final stream crossing before Laurel Falls, letting them know of my plan to stay at Waycaster.

Bridge over Laurel Fork in the Pond Mountain Wilderness

Bridge over Laurel Fork in the Pond Mountain Wilderness

Atmospheric conditions have not improved. Any exertion generates profuse sweating, and my water supply is getting low. Problem is, so are area streams. At the last spring noted in the guide for the next few miles, I stop to filter water, the first time I’ve had to do so on trail. I’ve pulled into camp with very little remaining in the pack bladder, but three liters have always been sufficient to get me through the day. Not today. I will drink five liters by day’s end. The spring is a mere trickle, it takes time to collect enough water to filter.

The trail bounces just over and just under 4,000 feet for the next three miles, then begins a 2,000-foot plunge to Laurel Fork. This descent isn’t difficult and proves far less sweat inducing. The slightest incline, though, immediately activates sweat glands.  At Dennis Cove Road, the terrain flattens as the trail enters Pond Mountain Wilderness.

Pond Mountain Wilderness, located south of Watauga Lake and east of Hampton, TN, is a small section of Cherokee National Forest encompassing Pond Mountain, Pond Flats, and the gorge of Laurel Fork with its waterfall. The A.T. zigzags through its western edge traversing the river’s gorge and summiting Pond Flats before leaving the wilderness to circumnavigate one end of the lake and ascend Iron Mountain, where the trail blazes an arrow-straight, 14-mile course toward Shady Valley.

Laurel Fork

Laurel Fork

The trail is flat and smooth as a baby’s butt at the start of Pond Wilderness, a very disarming contrast to what lies ahead. Narrow passage between massive rock walls with piles of boulders at the base on either side is the first hint of things to come.  Crossing a beautiful bridge over Laurel Fork, hikers enter the sheer rock gorge, and the fun begins. First is a climb (yes, a climb) winding up steep rocks along the sheer wall of the gorge. The trail flattens out again and runs a smooth gauntlet through more canyon-like alleys of rock walls and boulders. Then the trail plummets a few hundred feet straight down on nothing but rocks strewn in an uneven, haphazard, never-ending series of steps tumbling to the river.

Hellish descent to the waterfall

Hellish descent to the waterfall

Periodically some youthful summer visitor to the falls would breeze past leaping rock to rock like some graceful mountain goat as I’m literally sweating each foot placement. Even ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ catch up and pass me here. Well, more power to them. With uncanny accuracy, the A.T. always finds a way to hit its hardest at the end of tough day. I’m plain whipped.

Laurel Falls is impressive, and I enjoy watching ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ play in Laurel Fork. However, I still have a mile to go before I can get these boots off and relax.

At Laurel Falls, the A.T. slips along the river’s waterline following a partly natural rock, partly cemented trail that hugs a massive rock face bulging into the river’s course. During flooding events, the trail disappears under rushing water. A short distance up that rocky descent is a bypass trail for such conditions. Laurel Fork Shelter is located on the bypass trail. I stick with the “real” trail and have more fun with rocks.

'Storm' splashing 'Roachy' at Laurel Falls

‘Storm’ splashing ‘Roachy’ at Laurel Falls

The cemented path at the river’s edge is narrow, and bulky packs can bump against the rock face, yet it presents an interesting and fun variation to the typical trail. The rest of the trail in this area, though, is just maddening, full of ridiculously steep, precipitous, treacherous, rock-step climbing followed by ridiculously steep and slippery descents on loose shaley rock and dirt. Two years ago I’d have been blubbering like a baby negotiating this crap. Today, I’m cursing like a stevedore.

What’s amazing to me is that Laurel Falls, an understandably popular destination, has families and folks of all ages and abilities accessing the site the same way I just did. They don’t carry 30-pound packs, but still…you’d think some effort would go into decent trail building here for safety if nothing else. The high volume of foot traffic has seriously strained trail conditions in some places. Locals and other visitors run up and down this part of the A.T. like a freeway. I see no excuse for the obvious lack of any attempt to construct a trail surface that is safer, more durable, and less damaging to the natural surroundings. Pond Mountain Wilderness could take a few cues from Chimney Tops Trail in the Smokies.

A.T. path by Laurel Fork disappears under water during flooding events.

A.T. path by Laurel Fork disappears under water during flooding events.

There are large roomy campsites by the river, and none are occupied. I remain bound for Waycaster. At last, the trail settles down next to the river and becomes a smooth forest path. Nailed to a tree, a small sign announces my destination about twenty yards from a bridge spanning Laurel Fork. A narrow campsite sits between the trail and river with the spring hidden in a dense, nearly impenetrable grotto choked in overgrowth and downed woody debris. Not exactly the idyllic spot I’d hoped for.

People pass with regularity. One young man warns of two cubs he’s seen about 300 yards up trail. The mother has to be somewhere. A quick scan of the tall, smooth-trunked trees, predicts no easy task throwing a food line tonight. ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ finally arrive. He is not impressed with Waycaster and is nervous about the number of non-hikers on trail.

A half mile further is a one-mile side trail to Hampton, TN. ‘Storm’ wants to get to Hampton and stay at Braemer Castle hostel. He and ‘Roachy’ will be leaving the trail there. As game a hiker as she has been, the high mileage days and hot, humid weather are taking their toll. I don’t really want to leave the trail. I sense that if I get off here, I won’t return, yet staying in this spot alone is not an attractive alternative. I pack my gear and walk another 1.5 miles to US Hwy 321. We find a family at the parking area willing to give us a ride to the hostel.

Braemer Castle hostel

Braemer Castle hostel

Braemer Castle, an old two-story stone building (former offices) with wooden floors and an attic fan, is run by the Brown family who also own Brown’s Grocery in town. I take a lovely private room on the second floor for $25. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ grab bunk beds on the first floor. Each floor has a kitchen and bath. The second floor features an airy back sitting room with wall to wall windows and ceiling fans, the place to be on a hot, still summer night. It’s clean, comfortable, and quiet, the best accommodations I’ve experienced thus far on the A.T. Several hikers are in residence including ‘Snuzz’ and ‘Shamrock’ who I met earlier on trail.

‘Roachy’ comes to my room and asks if I’d like to join them for dinner at Subway. Weary doesn’t begin to describe my state. I thank her very much for the invitation but decline in favor of a shower and lying prone on my bed. I’ve got a decision to make.

The next shelter, Watauga Lake, is closed due to bear activity. Signs warn hikers not to even stop along the trail for a break through that entire 5-mile section from the base of Pond Flats to the start of Iron Mountain. Water sources are scarce through this area, and the elevation change from Hampton to the next shelter, Vanderventer (15.3 miles plus the one-mile side trail), totals 6,000 feet, two-thirds of that uphill. The lady at Braemer hostel said it was very unusual for June to be this hot in the mountains and forecasts were offering no relief. I call my son Sam and talk things over with him, but it’s an academic exercise. My instincts were right at Waycaster. I’m headed home.

My room at Braemer Castle

My room at Braemer Castle

Later that evening ‘Storm’ brings me his MSR gas canisters. He can’t take them on their flight home to Houston. I follow him downstairs to say goodbye to ‘Roachy.’ A cramp in her leg has her limping, but her spirits are as cheerful as ever, even as she begins to nod off while ‘Storm’ and I talk. I give her a hug and a kiss on top the head and thank her for being such a wonderful camp mate. This young woman will go far, shining brightly all the way. I’m proud to know her.

Friend Allen Sweetser arrives the next morning in my car and graciously agrees to chauffeur me to Knoxville where I buy him a thank you lunch before returning to Nashville and little Tucker who can’t give me enough welcome home head butts and nose licks.

I covered 145.6 miles in 13 days. My plan now is to return to Hampton at some point, leave my car there, and hire a shuttle to the Groseclose exit on I-81 in Virginia. I can hike southbound through Damascus back to Hampton to finish the remaining 123 miles. It’s high time I experience trail life as a SoBo!