Posts Tagged ‘Abrams Creek’

Rabbit Creek trailhead near Abrams Creek Ranger Station

[This is very late…sorry.] For my final trail this year, I’m day-hiking Rabbit Creek’s 7.8 miles from Abrams Creek Ranger Station to Abrams Falls’ parking lot in Cades Cove. I’m not excited about this trail and don’t expect much from it. The mindset is simple: get from one end to the other, check it off and go home, hopefully before the first remnants of hurricane Harvey hit the Smokies.

Abrams Creek ford

It takes the better part of an hour to get from the Sweetser’s cabin to the trailhead, and I begin at 8:45 a.m. Allen walks me to the Abrams Creek crossing less than a tenth mile from the start. As the trail reaches the creek, a few steps lead down the bank to a big boulder that likely supported the footbridge now gone without a trace. A wet ford is required, but this is not a convenient place to do so. We backtrack several yards to an easier shallow, level location. On the opposite side, I wave goodbye to Allen, slip through vegetation to the trail, and pause to don boots.

Purple-flowering Raspberry fruit

Rabbit Creek Trail begins just inside the park’s far western boundary across the road from the ranger station and runs a contorted route east to the western end of Cades Cove. It climbs nearly 1,000 feet on Pine Mountain, descends 600 feet to cross its eponymous creek, ascends 800 feet to cruise Andy McCully Ridge, and finally drops another 600 feet before crossing Mill Creek at the Abrams Falls trailhead. Both climbs stretch over two miles each.


Pitch Pine (left) has large bark plates. Virginia Pine bark is small, scaly and sloughs off higher up.

The first few tenths of a mile cut through Abrams Creek’s flat valley carpeted with invasive Japanese Stiltgrass and Lady’s Thumb. A length of thick steel cable snaking through the underbrush evidences the logging past. Soon the trail begins to climb Pine Mountain, doing so in stages along a ridge line with a few short steep climbs, mostly moderate grades, and some pleasant level stretches. Despite these steep grades, poor routing up the ridge line’s nose, heavy use, and horse traffic, erosion is minimal. The trail follows an old road and is fairly smooth.

I hiked the initial 2.5 miles of Rabbit Creek a decade ago on my first Fern Foray, part of a survey for Discover Life in America, and there is a feeling of déjà vu. Not much has changed with the trail, though the same cannot be said for me. Despite 10 additional years, I’m a better, stronger hiker now than then and much more knowledgeable about the park, particularly its natural history. This time around, I can fully appreciate what Pine Mountain has to offer.

Big-leaf Aster

The lower slopes feature Devils Walking-stick, Wild Hydrangea, Alternate-leaf Dogwood, and Purple-flowering Raspberry (Rubus odorata). A beautiful old spreading Chestnut Oak graces the ridge, joined by other dry upland species like Red Maple and Sassafras. A Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is decked in colorful fall finery. There are even a few young, healthy Eastern Hemlocks at least 10 feet tall and lush with dense foliage. White and Virginia pines are plentiful. One of the latter growing beside a Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) allows a single photo to capture the perfect bark comparison.

Big-leaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Rabbit Tobacco occupy open, dry exposures. Here, the normally dainty Southern Harebell grows into bushy branched clumps that warrant a double-take. There are two plants I cannot identify. Thick-textured, lanceolate leaves form small but dense swathes across the ground. A stem with narrow, whorled leaves holds a panicle of yellow buds. Without flowers, unknown herbaceous plants are impossible to key.

Glade Fern

These open areas also feature vistas overlooking the valley of Abrams Creek toward Happy Valley and Chilhowee Mountain. The trail becomes rougher and more gravelly descending the back side of Pine Mountain. Past the Hannah Mountain junction, Rabbit Creek becomes overgrown for a brief stretch but soon clears along a narrow path. Not far from the junction is a dry draw literally filled with Glade Fern (Diplazium pycnocarpum). This fern is most often associated with basic soils, a condition indicative of limestone not commonly found in the Smokies. Such an extensive stand is truly an anomaly here.

A small dry draw is full of Glade Fern

As the trail continues a gradual descent toward Rabbit Creek, it passes through a very narrow valley. Descriptions in the Smokies hiking guide (the little brown book) don’t often wax poetic, but Rabbit Creek Trail’s author Woody Brinegar comes close, calling this section “one of the most delightful trail features in all of the Smokies…dark, sheltered…the sun slips in at noon only, and then is excluded by the thick forest canopy…absolutely unchanged since the first human passed through…time stands frozen.” It doesn’t seem quite that captivating at face value, but those words running through my mind as I ‘pass through’ serve to enhance its charm and create a special experience. In this stretch, the trail and a tiny rocky creek become one, providing an easy challenge that breaks things up a bit and keeps it interesting.

The narrow valley where “time stands frozen.”

The trail bottoms out at Rabbit Creek near the halfway mark. It’s a shallow, lovely creek maybe 20 feet across. Two lines of small stones laid in an ‘X’ pattern provide options for dry crossing. On the other side is Campsite #15. I stop here to eat lunch.

Close enough to the creek for ease of access but distant enough for the water to be a low soothing burble, Campsite #15 is a spacious and beautiful location. A grove of tall treated hemlocks shade the back site, encompassed by a ring of Partridgeberry carpeting the sloping edges. I’d love to stay here sometime. I must confess Rabbit Creek Trail is defying my negative expectations at every step.

Campsite 15

The second climb, a little on the rocky side, takes me to Andy McCully Ridge. Here the trail joins a wide old road cruising about one mile nearly level with slight undulations. Circumventing blowdowns is the only impediment. I find a log studded with the interlocking blocks of Ceramic Tile fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus).

Three-quarters of the way along the ridge, the trail dips slightly, levels a bit, then rises again. This is Coon Butt. Mr. McCully farmed on the ridge, and Coon Butt was part of his land. There has to a compelling story behind this place name, and I am sorely disappointed to discover Coon Butt isn’t even listed in Place Names of the Smokies! Other than the official definition of a “butt” (the end of a ridge), one can only assume that a family of raccoons shared this ridge end with Mr. McCully. Wikipedia claims Coon Butt is the 422nd highest peak in Tennessee at 2,326 feet.

Ceramic Tile fungus

Past Coon Butt, the trail descends gently for a half mile through pines and hardwoods, levels for a half mile, and descends again more steeply. Walking is easy until the final descent. There are more wet areas and another long stretch walking down a rocky stream bed. This one is neither as charming nor interesting as the narrow valley earlier. And thanks to choking stands of Japanese Stiltgrass, there is no flora here worth spit.

Mill Creek

Quite suddenly, the trail bottoms out and the gurgle of Mill Creek greets my ears. I round a corner and find this shallow stream lying like a glistening sheet of paper before me. At or slightly above ankle depth, it is a fitting bookend to Rabbit Creek’s first ford. The trailhead proper is about 30 yards past the far shore. My car is visible in the parking lot as I cross. I’ve been on trail 5 hours.

Dark clouds carrying what’s left of Harvey must have frightened away visitors. There are few cars in the lot, few on the cove’s road, and few at the visitor center as I pass. Driving home, I can’t pinpoint the source of my initial low expectations for Rabbit Creek, but I really enjoyed it and would welcome another hike there some day.

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It’s just after 4:00 on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I’ve reached Parson Branch Road at the end of Gregory Bald Trail and am ready to begin Hannah Mountain Trail. This section of the park is quite isolated from civilization. The road, which is closed to vehicular traffic, and these two trails are the only backcountry access points in the southwestern corner of the park between the Abrams Creek and Twentymile ranger stations. No matter the direction, I’m miles from other people.

The distant southwestern park boundary follows U.S. Hwy 129 and the Little Tennessee River, now bloated into a series of serpentine lakes: Cheoah, Calderwood, and Chilhowee. Between the lakes and Hannah Mountain Trail lies a no-man’s land of wild ridges: Bunker Hill, Skunk, Shop, Deadrick, and Tarkiln draining numerous streams into Panther Creek that drains into Abrams Creek just before its demeaning demise at Chilhowee Lake. Ridges and valleys on the other side of Hannah Mountain drain into Rabbit Creek which also feeds into Abrams Creek below the falls. The point of this geography lesson is twofold: 1) Hannah Mountain Trail is remote, and 2) Hannah Mountain Trail is dry.

Sourwood’s early fall color

Provided preparations are made for these two conditions, there is a third point regarding Hannah Mountain Trail — it’s great. The trail runs 9.5 miles from a cruising elevation of 2800 feet along its namesake ridge line through a gradual descent among other ridges to its wet finale across Abrams Creek at 1300 feet, making a sickle-shaped arc south to north. The path is smooth and often soft with a cushion of pine needles underfoot.

Pelecinid wasp

From Parson Branch Road, Hannah Mountain draws a flat profile for the first 3 miles along the ridge, veering off to skirt the steep right side of Mount Lanier and another lesser peak yet maintaining a near level grade. It’s pine tree heaven on the dry, acidic ridge. White, Virginia, Table Mountain, and Pitch pines are prevalent along with hardwoods such as Red Maple, Sourwood, and Sassafras. Peeking through the leaf litter are scattered clumps of reddish Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys). Like its ghostly white cousin Indian Pipe, Pinesap is parasitic, helping itself to the sugars mycorrhizal fungi have received from their partner trees.

Pink Earth Lichen

Some hardwoods are showing early fall color, and one Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is loaded with large, immature fruits, still pale with only the faintest hint of color. Comb-leaf Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria pectinata) flowers amid its ferny foliage. Sandy soil-loving Pink Earth Lichen (Dibaeis baeomyces) sends up tiny stalks of fruiting bodies that resemble micro-sized pink balloons. A stalk of Yellow Fringed Orchid retains its crown of bright orange blossoms. Several long-tailed insects, the female Pelecinid Wasp (Pelecinus polyturator), rest on foliage. Her long, skinny abdomen is an ovipositor that she drills into the soil to lay parasitic eggs on June beetle grubs underground — Nature’s checks and balances.


Comb-leaf Yellow False Foxglove

hortly after starting the trail, rain begins to fall. It’s a light rain, there’s no wind and no thunder. Certain it will stop any minute, I keep walking and it keeps falling. Almost an hour later it does end, and my pants legs are sopping from brushing past wet foliage.

Just past the 3-mile mark, Hannah Mountain begins a gentle descent of 800 feet in 1.25 miles to Flint Gap, the location of Campsite #14 and my destination. A water source at the gap is unreliable, and the Smokies guide suggests getting water at a small stream up trail several hundred yards, small being the key word here. This is the headwaters of Hannah Branch, little more than a narrow wet spot in the trail. Thankfully, a thin sheet of flowing water coats slanted bedrock. I lay the ‘dirty’ bag of my Platypus filter system downslope, hold the open edge flat against the rock, and patiently wait for 3 liters to collect. The water is brown with dissolved tannins from leaves. I hoist my pack and carry the bag of water down to the gap I trust isn’t too far away. Very soon the gap comes into view below. It’s nearly 7:00 p.m.

Flint Gap

The trail bisects Campsite #14 at Flint Gap, a small saddle near the base of Hannah Mountain. I set my tent in a flat grassy area open to the sky and finish evening chores just as it is becoming too dark to see without a headlamp. Despite being alone, I sleep like a baby, awakening only once when a Barred Owl lets out one of those wee-hour piercing screeches. It doesn’t get light enough to see well until almost 7:00 a.m., and I’m off by 8:15.

Hannah Mountain Trail is in very good shape. The primary complaint is lots of blowdowns, but most are small enough to easily slip around or climb over. Some of it could be cleared quickly with a small saw. Trampled paths of dead vegetation circumnavigating the blockages leads me to believe these have been here for some time.

Coker’s Amanita

Pine and oak continue to dominate the canopy. There are some lovely old Chestnut Oaks in this area, including a few very large individuals. Hairy Blueberry and Lowbush Blueberry are overwhelmed by acres and acres of Bear Huckleberry dominating the understory in several places. Occasional blue spires of Downy Lobelia are a welcome sight.

Mushrooms are more plentiful on Hannah Mountain — False Fly Agaric, American Caesars, Yellow Patches, Destroying Angel, Brown Funnel Polypore, a few corals, and 2 fresh young Coker’s Amanitas. Three large Red-and-Yellow Boletes have flattened out and resemble round slices of seedless watermelon!

Shuttleworth Ginger’s foliage

Hannah climbs Polecat Ridge, the only true uphill section before descending to Rabbit Creek Trail. Nearing that junction, tall trailside vegetation thickens and becomes choked with non-native invasive species like Japanese Stiltgrass and Lady’s Thumb. I can hear voices from Campsite #16 which sits below the junction. The same overgrown, invasive-strewn character marks the first few hundred yards past Rabbit Creek where Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) is flowering, but the vegetation soon opens. This stretch receives more use and is more moist with a few small streams. Impressively tall stems of Cardinal Flower grace one stream, and I come eye-to-eye with Purple-disk Sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens). The mottled foliage of Shuttleworth’s Ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) splays against the leaf litter.

Purple-disk Sunflower

The final 0.4 mile of Hannah Mountain is steeper as it drops to the crossing of Abrams Creek, and the trail quality degrades significantly. Densely overgrown, rocky, eroded, and uneven, it’s an accident waiting to happen…apparently waiting for me. My left ankle rolls on one deep gouge, and I fall headlong down trail propelled by the weight of my pack and gravity. My ankle stings but is not badly sprained, and nothing else hurts.

Abrams Creek can be a tricky crossing, even when the water level and flow are modest like today. The bottom is uneven with slippery, algae-covered rocks. I change into water shoes and stow everything (camera, boots, etc.) in my pack. The water reaches mid-thigh in some places but stays just shy of rolled pants legs.

Crossing at Abrams Creek

The far side of Abrams Creek is the end of Hannah Mountain Trail, a three-way junction of Abrams Falls, Hannah, and Hatcher Mountain trails. There is no sign for Hatcher Mountain at all. No sign pointing toward Little Bottoms Trail. For a brief confused moment, I start hiking up Abrams Falls Trail and must pull out my map to regain bearings and retrace those steps.

Hatcher Mountain Trail’s true start has no sign

Hatcher Mountain Trail begins to the left of the junction and angles upslope from Abrams Creek. At 0.2 mile it deviates further, splitting off where Little Bottoms picks up, and soon turns away from the creek valley altogether. I hiked Little Bottoms in the fall of 2012, a year after major storms wreaked havoc on this end of the park. The forest was largely gone, unleashing a riot of vegetation basking in unobstructed sunlight. Now I see this area five years later and can witness firsthand a “dog-hair thicket” of young pine trees. Pines 5 to 10 feet tall crowd the trail’s edges and fill the understory beneath a thin canopy. White Pine and Virginia Pine are prolific. One Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) is loaded with an impressive number of red warty capsules, the most I’ve ever seen on this small retiring shrub.

Young pines form a ‘dog-hair’ thicket

The dry soil is cream colored and graveled with broken slate. Winged Sumac, Whorled Tickseed, Southern Harebell, Little Bluestem, Rattlesnake Hawkweed, Hayscented Fern, various Vaccinium species, goldenrod species, Agalinus sp., Partridge Pea, and more are right at home in what seems a most inhospitable setting. Maryland Golden-aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is lovely in flower and Silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) is just beginning, its foliage very prominent on trail. An aging stem of Colicroot (Aletris farinosa) is setting fruit. Brambles are present too but not as bad as it could be. The only stream crossing, Oak Flats Branch, barely ranks as a mud puddle.

Silkgrass foliage

Hatcher Mountain Trail runs 2.8 (2.6?) miles from Abrams Creek to Cooper Road Trail. In this direction, it has two climbs. The first gains 400 feet in a half mile and represents a real slog through overgrown vegetation this time of year. The modest second climb gains 300 feet in 3/4 mile. Either end of the trail is in better shape and more interesting than the middle section, which suffers from overly enthusiastic plant growth and horse damage. Compared to Hannah Mountain, Hatcher Mountain falls well short in my opinion. However, if walked from Cooper Road to Abrams Falls and done before summer growth overtakes the trail, it would be quite enjoyable.


One unfortunate mishap mars my experience. About a mile into the trail, I examine the glandular hairs of Queendevil (Hieracium gronovii) with my hand lenses and fail to properly secure these expensive tools in my camera bag. Forty-five minutes later, I discover they are missing. Unwilling to continue without at least trying to find them, I must retrace the better part of a mile downhill and back up again. They are lying in the middle of the trail not far from that Queendevil.

I’m way behind schedule, but stop to eat lunch on a log in a little shady gap. Far from doing my tweaked ankle good, the rest makes it stiff and sore when I resume hiking. Two ibuprofen will kick in before long, but it’s a slow start. The gap is perhaps a half mile or so from Cooper Road. I limp in at 3:00.

This is also the junction with Beard Cane Trail. I’ve still got another 3.5 miles to Campsite #3 where I’ll meet Allen. Stay tuned for the Beard Cane post.

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