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Posts Tagged ‘Curtiss’ Milkwort’

Perhaps my final backpacking trip in pursuit of the 900 Mile Club begins today. I spent the night with the Sweetsers near Knoxville, and we left my car at their cabin in Townsend before driving into Cades Cove. Two separate adventures are planned. Susan is dropping me off at Gregory Ridge Trail at the end of Forge Creek Road, then driving Allen back around to the Cooper Road trailhead. While I check off trails on the southwest end of the cove, Allen will explore an old lumber community in the northwest corner. He’ll spend two nights camping on Beard Cane, and I’ll meet him there the second night. We left home at first light, but with so much to do this morning it is approaching 9:00 a.m. before I set foot on trail.

Partridgeberry fruit

Gregory Ridge Trail is 5 miles long and heads mainly south while climbing 2,700 feet to its junction with the Gregory Bald Trail at Rich Gap west of the bald. It follows Forge Creek to Campsite #12, then strikes upslope to follow Gregory Ridge the rest of the way.

I did the lower half of this trail in July 2015 with a Forest Ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians class out of Highlands Biological Station in North Carolina. We explored several different forest types: Acid Cove, Cove Forest, Mixed Hardwood, and Pine-Oak-Heath, discussing the role of wildfire in the latter community and system changes that occur in the absence of fire. There are stands of old growth trees as well. Much of what I see the first 90 minutes invokes deja vu.

Curtiss’ Milkwort

After a short climb, the trail levels out in an Acid Cove of healthy Eastern Hemlocks (treated), Sweet Birch, American Holly, Sourwood, Red Maple, and Tulip Poplar, joined by Doghobble and Rhododendron as the path proceeds up the creek valley. Footlogs span three short crossings of Forge Creek where Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and White Wood Aster brighten the banks. Partridgeberry foliage lines the trail with hardly a fruit in sight until I reach an opening created by the demise of three hemlocks. Some of the Partridgeberry leaves here are bigger than nickels, and dozens of red berries impart a jolly Christmas feel.

I arrive at Campsite #12 about an hour into the hike and take a quick snack break. The forest is a moist Cove Hardwood system with Basswood, Silverbell, and Sugar Maple over a rich herbaceous understory. Above the camp, a very large maple tree wears a wisp of Lung Lichen near its base, and a massive Cucumber Magnolia towers over the trail.

Hairy Blueberry fruit

I climb through a drier oak hardwood forest and arrive at an open exposure facing east. The soil is light colored, sandy, and encrusted with lichens, mostly Cladonia spp. evidenced by their pedestal-like podetias. Whorled Tickseed, Little Bluestem, Trailing Arbutus, and Teaberry are present. Curtiss’ Milkwort (Polygala curtissii) and one lone blossom of Yellow Star Grass provide the only flowers. Hairy Blueberry (Vaccinium hirsutum) sports fruit. The knob above is a mix of dead and live pines including Table Mountain Pine, with young Virginia Pines coming on strong. Further up, large boulders of bedrock protrude.

Blue Cohosh fruit

Before long the forest transitions again into a Northern Red Oak community. I’m excited to reach a level area until I glance at the profile. It’s barely past the 3-mile mark, with 1.6 still to go and 1.25 of that climbing 1100 feet. And it’s 11:40 already! I spend way too much time ogling plants, but it is the main reason I’m hiking these trails. Efficient hiking has never been my objective, and that makes for some long tiring days when carrying a full pack. It’s now 12:30, and the top must be near. Silverbell’s darkly beautiful, flaky bark, Yellow Buckeye, Pale Jewelweed and ripe Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) fruit denote a rich moist area.

Hazy Cades Cove

I reach the bald trail junction and proceed upslope to Gregory Bald, arriving at 1:19. The famous Smoky haze veils the view into Cades Cove. Having hiked this section two years before and with no azalea show to distract me, I proceed down to Sheep Pen Gap and Campsite #13 for a lunch break and meet my first person, a solo hiker/camper exploring side trails off the bald. He’s set up at #13.

At 2:00, I tackle my unfinished section of Gregory Bald Trail, 4.1 miles descending 2,000 feet to Parson Branch Road. This stretch heads north off the bald and turns east-northeast to wend its way around High Point and through broken bits of Hannah Mountain. My goal is two hours to PBR. A clouded sky and occasional thunder help me stay focused.

Beech nuts

Numerous beech nuts on the ground alert me to the fact I’m passing through an American Beech grove (Fagus grandifolia). Each small nut contains two triangular seeds nested inside a hull studded with spreading involucral bracts, like a prickly acorn cap.

Oozing springs create small wet patches in numerous places. Pink Turtlehead, Cinnamon Fern, and Mountain Sweet Pepperbush AKA Cinnamon-bark Clethra (Clethra acuminata) like these mucky areas. The wet soil is often churned on one side of the trail. I cannot decide if hogs or horses are responsible. If hogs, they only rooted in these damp locations. If horses, they always kept to one side of the trail.

Mountain Sweet Pepperbush or Cinnamon Bark Clethra

As if on cue, three horse riders come up the trail, two ladies in front and an older gentleman in the rear. The man warns me of a disturbed hornet’s nest ahead. “A ‘bahr’ dug out their nest, and them hornets is peeved.” When I pass, the nest is quiet.

Drier areas have Maryland Golden Aster, Cow Wheat, Smooth False Foxglove in flower and the now flowerless stalk of a Yellow Fringed Orchid. Other than a lovely cluster of Chicken-of-the-Woods (Laetiporus cincinnatus) near the bald, fungi have been infrequent thus far, though a few Red-and-Yellow Boletes (Boletus bicolor) are up.

Red-and-Yellow Boletes

The trail’s grade is a snap going down and what roots and rocks dot the path can be easily worked around to maintain a decent pace. As the grade lessens, I know I’m nearing the end, and at 4:05 I reach Parson Branch Road at a gap the Smokies hiking guide calls Sams Gap. The gravel road has been closed to traffic for some time, as it regularly washes out. Across the road is a large gravel parking area that serves both Gregory Bald and Hannah Mountain trails.

Gregory Bald trailhead on Parson Branch Road

The remainder of this day I’ll walk 4.4 miles on Hannah Mountain to Campsite #14 for the night. An account of that trail and Hatcher Mountain will be posted in a week.

 

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