The fall of 2016 was crazy busy for me, and I was very lax in writing accounts of my most recent Smokies visits. There were two trips — backpacking in late August and a set of day hikes in late September. My apologies for the long delay. Let’s catch up.
Forney Ridge Trail, August 28, 2016
Friends Mary McCord and Susan Stahl agree to a four-day, three-night Forney loop from Clingmans Dome. We meet at 12:30 in the parking lot, crowded with cars and people on a Sunday afternoon. Forney Ridge trailhead is tucked into the lot’s western corner, and the trail quickly drops down slope away from all the hubbub.
Clingmans Dome and its tower are not the only attractions up here. Forney Ridge Trail leads to another visitor hot spot, Andrews Bald. The 1.8 mile trail section leading to the bald runs through spruce-fir forests over wildly varying terrain from steep and bouldery to flat and mucky. This stretch takes quite a beating, yet high quality trail rehabilitation along the first mile descent eases difficult passages for hikers while protecting the delicate forest system. Gravel-filled steps, water diversion trenches, and heavy rock work minimize erosion in the steepest areas. Raised boards prevent churned, ankle-deep mud in the flat section.
At 1.1 miles, the trail bottoms out at the Forney Creek Trail junction and begins a gradual 0.7-mile rise to Andrews Bald. The excellent trail work ends at the junction too, and Forney Ridge turns back into a ‘pumpkin,’ an ordinary dirt path with roots, ruts, and rocks. Dense stands of Red Spruce limit the understory to mosses and ferns with a few fruiting Bluebead Lilies. We pass many visitors headed back to Clingman’s Dome. Thunder behind us bodes ill for their staying dry. Thankfully, the drenching rainstorm less than two miles away doesn’t reach us.
Andrews Bald in August is not in its botanical glory, though it does provide that rare open space in the Smokies and a great view on good days. Roiling clouds limit this day’s view to the nearest set of blue peaks, the rest bleaching into dull sky. Flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons in late summer are cloaked in green and setting seeds, as is Maleberry, (Lyonia ligustrina). Grasses, goldenrods, and asters provide the primary floral interest including that high-elevation olfactory gem, Skunk Goldenrod.
Past Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge demonstrates why it was known as “Rip-Shin Ridge” in the 1800s. Trail conditions degrade noticeably and our progress slows. Smooth sections are few and far between. A bit over 3 miles in, the trail disappears abruptly down the steep slope for several feet, requiring careful treading past the yawning gap, one foot directly in front of the other while leaning upslope. Trekking poles become a liability as tangles of vegetation snag them and affect balance (carrying a full pack) just enough to pose a real threat. Susan and I manage to eke our way past. Mary hasn’t been feeling well, and the trail gap is enough to convince her to turn around. We are sad to lose her but soldier on.
Fortunately, trail conditions moderate somewhat after the gap. Susan and I are able to chat, enjoying the late afternoon and treasures along the trail. A few large old trees grace the ridge. Fresh fruiting fungi — Strangulated Amanita, Jack-o-lantern, Gem-studded Puffballs, and Black Trumpets — invite admiration. Southern Harebell (Campanula divaricata) is in flower, and Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) sports skinny upright seed follicles.
Aside from the slight climb to Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge Trail presents a steady downhill trajectory dropping 2,400 feet in elevation over 5.6 miles. Despite an easier path for the lower half, it still takes us much longer than we’d hoped to reach its terminus at a broad gap. We take a brief break, but the sky is darkening again, and we can’t tell if distant thunder is headed our way. We shoulder packs and start the second leg of our descent, this time on Springhouse Branch Trail, to Campsite #64 2.8 miles away.
Within minutes it begins to rain. It is not a hard rain, just steady, and we are able to maintain a decent pace, reaching the campsite in 1.5 hours. Along the trail, we see several American Toads. This amphibian will prove a reliable companion in the forest and come to characterize our entire trip. At least 10 individuals grooving on the summer rain hop out of our way on Springhouse Branch. The rain stops as we near trail’s end.
It’s late when we arrive at camp and waste no time erecting tents, fixing dinner, and preparing for bed. We hang our packs by the light of headlamps. As a side note, Campsite #64, a small horse camp, has picnic tables! Precious few backcountry sites are blessed with this luxury. Next morning the sky is clear, but our tents are dripping with condensation from the damp ground.
Springhouse Branch Trail (7.1 miles) crosses over Forney Ridge, connecting Noland Creek and Forney Creek trails. From a trailhead at Campsite #64, situated in the confluence of Mill and Noland creeks, the trail climbs the eastern slope of Forney Ridge, crossing and following first Mill Creek then the feeder stream for which the trail is named. Springhouse Branch reaches the ridge at Board Camp Gap in 2.8 miles and continues an upward course for another half mile, remaining on or near the ridge line for more than a mile and peaking at 4,100 feet elevation. From there, the trail descends Forney Ridge’s western slope into a valley carved by Bee Gum Branch, twisting its way to Campsite #71 and its terminus on Forney Creek Trail.
We begin hiking at 9:00 a.m. Bridges facilitate the early crossings of Mill Creek. Since the trail follows two streams for more than a mile, there are other small creek crossings but no challenges. Considering Springhouse Branch is used by horses and this section is situated in stream valleys, the trail’s general condition is remarkably good. There is little trenching, not much muck, and minimal rocky-ness. A handful of spots have some herbaceous plants leaning into the trail, but most of it is low and poses no real impediment, an important note given the late summer timing of this hike.
The trail maintains an good width throughout, and the grade is not taxing. My version of the “Little Brown Book” (Hiking Trails of the Smokies) portrayed a trail in varying states of degradation, particularly the western leg to Forney Creek. The trail has obviously been rehabilitated at some point in the past, as it is in fine shape throughout. The main complaint in the book was an uneven trail sloping from side to side. I hate this condition (one foot higher than the other) and am relieved and pleased to discover a mostly excellent trail tread.
Springhouse Branch is a marvelously rich trail that would be a delight to hike in spring. Wild Geranium, Broad Beech Fern, Seersucker Sedge, Rattlesnake Fern, Black Cohosh, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, Meadow Parsnip, Solomon’s Plume, Maidenhair Fern, Trillium sp., Hydrangea, Umbrella Leaf, Nodding Mandarin, Meadow Rue, Silverbell, Round-leaf Violet, Indian Cucumber Root, Marginal Woodfern, Intermediate Woodfern, Large Yellow Wood-Sorrel, Cinnamon Fern, Astilbe, and Flame Azalea attest to a lively display in April or May.
Summer and fall seasonal plants include Joe Pye-weed, Appalachian Bunchflower, Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum), White Wood Aster, Southern Hairbell, Grape Fern, Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis), Spikenard, Partridgeberry, Tall Rattlesnakeroot, Tall Meadow Rue, Turk’s Cap Lily, White Bergamot, Goldenrod spp., Hawkweed sp., and one of the blue-flowered asters.
Fungi are in their prime: Black Trumpets, Gem-studded Puffballs, Hydnellum, Caesar’s Amanita, Viscid Violet Cortinarius (Cortinarius iodes), Yellow-tipped Coral (Ramaria formosa), Coker’s Amanita, Bitter Hedgehog (Sarcodon scabrosus [S. underwoodii]) and Panther Cap. On occasion, we pass through an area with the sickly sweet smell of decay. It might be fungi too. We see a lot of old mushrooms covered with cottony molds or swarming with little gnats.
And of course those companionable American Toads hop, skip, and jump to the side when we walk by.
Susan and I reach the Forney Creek junction (at Campsite #71) early afternoon. We’ll now be hiking Forney Creek Trail. An account of FCT and the rest of our trip is forthcoming.