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Posts Tagged ‘Great Smoky Mountains’

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

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

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

Forney Ridge Trail, August 28, 2016

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

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

Andrews Bald

Andrews Bald

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

Maleberry

Maleberry

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

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

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

Southern Harebell

Southern Harebell

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

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

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

Tall Milkweed fruit

Tall Milkweed fruit

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

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

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

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

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

Featherbells past its prime

Featherbells past its prime

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

Yellow-tipped Coral

Yellow-tipped Coral

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

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

American Toad

American Toad

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

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

Species of Blue Aster

Species of Blue Aster

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

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

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

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

Struttin' Street

Struttin’ Street

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

Ollie Cove Trail

Ollie Cove Trail

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

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

Fontana Lake at Ollie Cove

Fontana Lake at Ollie Cove

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

Fairview Cemetery

Fairview Cemetery

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

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil

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

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

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil fruit

Naked-flower Tick-trefoil fruit

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

Strangulated Amanita

Strangulated Amanita

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

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

Chimney in Possum Hollow

Chimney in Possum Hollow

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

Hiker Sign

Hiker sign

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

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

American Beautyberry

American Beautyberry

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

An abandoned car on trail

An abandoned car on trail

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

Hog trap art

Hog trap art

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

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

Doe and fawn on Lakeview Drive West

Doe and fawn on Lakeview Drive West

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

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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.

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Narrow ravine on Kanati Fork Trail

Narrow ravine on Kanati Fork Trail

My final hike this trip is 2.9 miles up and 2.9 miles down Kanati Fork. In my dozen years attending the Pilgrimage, I’ve become quite familiar with this trail’s name as the second part of a 3.7-mile car-shuttle hike beginning at Thomas Divide. Kanati Fork drops 2100 feet in elevation from the divide to Highway 441, so it’s understandable that walking down would be preferable. Until you’ve walked up KFT, however, it’s hard to appreciate just how preferable!

There have been a few trails thus far that I would not be keen to repeat. Kanati Fork is now on that list. Overall, it’s a very good spring wildflower trail, but I wouldn’t bother any other time of year. KFT has several drawbacks: steep, narrow, slanted, and the potential for becoming overgrown. It’s a heart-thumper walking up, a problem easily nullified by planning a downhill hike, but the other three problems will still be issues.

Showy Orchis is still in flower

Showy Orchis is still in flower

KFT torturously climbs the steep, southeastern side of a crooked finger ridge descending from Turkey Flyup, the highest elevation on Thomas Divide (approx. 5100 ft). This spur peters out at the road and represents one side of the Kanati Fork watershed along with the divide and a nameless spur to the southeast. The pitch of the spur leaves no room to spare when cutting a trail.

Shallow root-filled soil is hard (or impossible) to level, and in several locations the trail’s narrow width slants downhill, a condition I detest. Having one leg higher than the other results in an unbalanced posture. Often there is no room downslope to place a trekking pole which induces a slight lean upslope. All this angling plants the feet in one direction and the body in another. It’s tiring and annoying, whether going up or down.

Mountain Bellwort

Mountain Bellwort

This side of the Turkey Flyup spur is densely forested and the steep slope has allowed streams to carve equally steep and deep ravines. The trail zigzags in switchbacks through one ravine three times. The understory herbaceous growth is thick and robust in these deep creases. A few stems of Turk’s Cap Lily are already as tall as me. The lily, Black Cohosh, and any other tall summer bloomer are quite likely to put the squeeze on hikers later in the season. Higher up, brambles are invading more open areas.

Mountain Bellwort fruit with long stigma lobes

Mountain Bellwort fruit with long stigma lobes

A wider, flatter, and drier stretch in the middle with Mountain Laurel, Mountain Bellwort, Cow Wheat, and Hayscented Fern is a welcome relief, as are some sections rounding the outer edges of slope wrinkles not too far from the top. Beyond that, the best trail surface is found on the lowest section near the highway.

Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula) still has a few flowers, but most plants are already setting fruit. This bellwort and one other species don’t have that stem-piercing-the-leaves look. Their leaves attach directly to the stem with no petiole (sessile). To separate these two species, Mountain Bellwort’s foliage has a shine to it, and lines of fine hairs run up the stem. The flower pistil’s stigma lobes are quite long compared to the other species, called Wild Oats. Mountain Bellwort usually grows in denser, sturdier clumps too. Wild Oats has a more sparse and delicate look.

Early Meadow Rue fruit

Early Meadow Rue fruit

Kanati Fork Trail is known for its Painted Trillium, but it also features Large White Trillium, plenty of Nodding Mandarin, and beautiful stands of Solomon’s Plume. Perhaps the most profuse plant throughout the trail is Early Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum). The female plants are setting seed at lower elevations, and both sexes are still in flower near the top.

At the Thomas Divide junction, I pause for a snack and sit on a log. Suddenly the snout of a German Shepherd dog comes between me and my granola bar. Startled is hardly the word for it. She trots around sniffing everything. She is wearing a collar, but where are her owners?  “I hope she didn’t scare you.” A woman saunters into view, followed by her husband stuffing a sandwich into his mouth.

Junction at Thomas Divide

Junction at Thomas Divide

I felt obligated to tell them dogs aren’t allowed in the park, only in the campgrounds and Oconaluftee and Gatlinburg trails.  “Oh, we didn’t know,” she chirps. “You should at least leash her,” I advise. “OK.” They breeze by. I watch. No effort is made. Finally, I call after them, “For the sake of your dog, you really need to leash her.” The man makes his wife stop and remove a leash from his backpack. Every trail has a sign that says dogs aren’t allowed, but people either don’t look or don’t care…until their dog gets hurt. Then they probably blame the park!

The return trip is much faster and generally more pleasant, confirming that Kanati Fork Trail is best approached top down.

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Kephart Prong Trail

Kephart Prong Trail

My long-awaited return to the Appalachian Trail is approaching. Three days in Smokemont will allow me to check off some Smokies trails while gauging just how rusty I am. Might as well get right to the heart of the matter with a 15.5 mile day-hike covering five trails (Kephart Prong, Grassy Branch, Dry Sluice Gap, Cabin Flats, and Bradley Fork), the first four of which are new. Thanks to a lift from an NPS employee up Highway 441, I’m able to start Kephart Prong at 8:00 a.m. It’s a clear spring day, darn near perfect.

CCC Camp and old stone sign

CCC Camp and old stone sign

This trail isn’t really new to me. I’ve hiked it on two other occasions at the tail end of a Pilgrimage hike and Fern Foray down Sweat Heifer before my 900 Mile Club ambitions. I remember this short trail as rocky, hard on my feet, and endless. Back in those days I wouldn’t even qualify as a novice hiker, and 7.4 miles (AT, Sweat Heifer, Kephart Prong) was quite an accomplishment. My body had not adjusted to lengthy foot travel in mountainous terrain, and I didn’t have decent boots. Plus, Kephart Prong Trail always wrapped up a long day, its two miles just something to be endured until we reached the car. As the first trail on tap today, I’m giving KPT a chance to redeem itself.

CCC water fountain

CCC water fountain

The trail strikes a due north course along its similarly named stream. Lively and fast-flowing Kephart Prong drains a triangular valley bounded by the Smokies crest, a ridge line off Sweat Heifer Creek Trail to the west, and half of Richland Mountain to the east. KPT and the prong rise 830 feet in two miles from the trailhead on Hwy. 441 to Kephart Shelter at the trail’s junction with Sweat Heifer and Grassy Branch trails. These trails split KPT’s straight trajectory into two winding paths, each working upslope in opposite directions toward the A.T.

CCC chimney

CCC chimney

At the head of this drainage is Mt. Kephart (6,217 ft) and Masa Knob. The mountain, prong, trail, and shelter are named for Horace Kephart. Apparently ill-suited to the constraints of domestic life, Horace left his wife and six children for the wilds of Appalachia in 1904, settling near Hazel Creek. He wrote books on outdoor life and is most famous for his honest portrayal of mountain families in Our Southern Highlanders. Kephart and his good friend Japanese expatriate George Masa were early advocates for the park.

My fresh KPT assessment acknowledges a reasonably smooth trail disrupted by occasional rocky patches. The upward trend isn’t difficult, but it does induce sweating, even on a cool morning. KPT crosses the prong four times, and the trail sometimes appears to head straight into the water. These are horse fords. In times of low flow on hot summer days, step right through if desired. If not, look to the side for narrow paths connecting to footlogs. One footlog is a well constructed narrow bridge spanning a steep-banked and boulder-filled section of Kephart Prong. I did not notice if there was a ford nearby, so it is possible horses cross on this bridge too.

Great foot bridge over Kephart Prong

Great foot bridge over Kephart Prong

The Civilian Conservation Corps had a large camp along the lower reaches of KPT for a decade in the 1930s and 40s, and during World War II conscientious objectors were quartered here. All associated buildings are long gone, leaving only the remains of a stone sign, water fountain, and fireplace chimney plus a few boxwood shrubs as evidence. Dead hemlocks studded with fruiting bodies of Hemlock Varnish Shelf fungus (Ganoderma tsugae) surround the chimney.

Marsh Violet

Marsh Violet

About a quarter mile further up, concrete platforms believed to be cisterns associated with a fish hatchery in the 30s are nearly hidden behind a camouflage of mosses, birches, and rhododendrons. The only other hint of this area’s past life is the trail itself, whose grade indicates its origins as a Jeep road and railway line. Rail irons should be found near the trail’s end. I saw them on previous walks but not today amid May’s expansive herbaceous growth.

As noted in the last post, any Smokies trail this time of year should be beautiful. KPT is no exception. Most spring wildflowers expected in a mid-elevation stream valley are setting seed or currently flowering. A large patch of Speckled Wood Lily glows fresh and bright. Clusters of Marsh Violet (Viola cucullata) flowers perch on stalks with perfect posture along a trickle of water working its way to the prong.

Quite large Rattlesnake Fern

Quite large Rattlesnake Fern

The sterile frond of a husky Rattlesnake Fern (Botrypus virginianus) features lower pinnae nearly as large as the rest of the blade, giving the appearance of triple fronds. There are a few of these strapping ferns clustered together.

I arrive at the renovated shelter midmorning (later than planned) and find Kristin savoring a slow morning in the mountains. She’s completed all course work for her degree in nursing at Auburn and is enjoying a bit of R&R backpacking before graduation on Sunday. We chat a bit as I snack.

Kristin at the Kephart Shelter

Kristin at the Kephart Shelter

She found a small book on her way to the mountains in a used bookstore, The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. It advocates walking in the practice of mindfulness, using each step to ground yourself in place and fully embrace the present moment. Here is the opening poem:

“I have arrived
I am home
in the here
in the now
I am solid
I am free
in the ultimate
I dwell”

Rerouted trail on Grassy Branch

Rerouted trail on Grassy Branch

The Smokies are my second home, where I ground each step in the present to dwell free and solid in these mountains, the ultimate place for me. With mindful tread, I begin Grassy Branch Trail.

Grassy Branch is also named for a stream…two of them.  The trail’s midsection climbs a finger ridge of Richland Mountain between Upper Grassy Branch and Lower Grassy Branch. These two along with Hunter Creek and flow from Icewater Spring converge into Kephart Prong.

Rosy Large White Trilliums

Rosy Large White Trilliums

The trail zigzags its way 1,800 feet upslope to Dry Sluice Gap Trail in 2.5 miles. Recent work rerouted a section of the lower trail resulting in an exceptional walking surface and well-set stonework reinforcing some of the steeper switchbacks. Small “Trail” signs with an arrow at either end of the new section were placed to deter people from taking the old route, and Mother Nature’s quick reclamation has rendered them all but useless. I stand a minute trying to determine a reason for the first sign. At the second one, I deduce the purpose yet see no further need for them. Nothing resembling a working trail on the old route appears evident.

Umbrella Leaf

Umbrella Leaf

Following streams for the lower third, Grassy Branch Trail stays within a rich cove forest boasting early May wildflowers. Large White Trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum) are in their rose-colored phase, and massive clumps of Umbrella Leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) stake a claim in each seep or stream. After crossing Lower Grassy Branch, the trail cuts along a western slope of Mountain Laurel, Trailing Arbutus, Galax, and blueberries on mossy banks. A view into the valley below reveals distant flowers of Fraser Magnolia, identifiable from their size, and Downy Serviceberry. Cool shade of a rhododendron tunnel provides relief from the sun and rapidly warming temperature.

Grassy woodland

Grassy woodland

Soon the trail rounds to an eastern slope and passes through a grassy woodland of young birch and beech trees beginning to break bud with sprigs of Witch Hobble in flower plus Thyme-leaved Bluet, Common Blue Violet, Hayscented Fern, and Spring Beauty. Red Spruce enters the mix with sidekicks Skunk Goldenrod and Rugel’s Ragwort in tow. Near the top, leafy spirals of False Hellebore are sprinkled among thick stands of Tassel Rue (Trautvetteria caroliniensis) in a wet area. Rising through one final gauntlet of Mountain Laurel, Grassy Branch ends where Dry Sluice Gap Trail begins its precipitous decent.

Bluets and Violets

Bluets and Violets

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Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

There are five Quiet Walkways along Highway 441 on the North Carolina side of the park. The first four past Newfound Gap are located at pull-outs along the highway. The final QW, Collins Creek, begins at the back side of the Collins Creek Picnic Area located midway between Kanati Fork Trail and Smokemont Campground. On a gloriously sunny, cool, and breezy morning of the pilgrimage, I set out early to visit as many as I can before my afternoon program through the AT beech gap and manage to complete all but Collins Creek.

View from DCQW

View from DCQW

Deep Creek Quiet Walkway: Just 1.2 miles past Clingman’s Dome Road, Deep Creek QW is an unassuming and easy to miss wide spot in the road that could accommodate a few cars but in no way resembles an official pull-out that might tempt visitors to leave their cars. Not until you spot the equally unassuming Quiet Walkway marker at the edge of the forest is it apparent that there might be something to do here.

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

Emerging Hayscented Fern Frond

Deep Creek QW descends rather steeply for a quiet walkway. At just 0.3 mile, it angles down slope to join Deep Creek Trail 0.4 mile from its Hwy. 441 trailhead. From all indications, some people must stop at DCQW because the first part of the walkway is clear and appears well used. This condition peters out before long, however, as herbaceous and small woody vegetation invades the path and downed trees and limbs present impediments. Nothing is significant enough to prevent following the intended route to Deep Creek Trail, particularly at this time of year, but very few people do.

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

Junction with Deep Creek Trail

By the time the walkway reaches the real trail, it has become so well camouflaged as to be nearly indecipherable from the forested hillside. Only the sharpest eyes looking carefully for the QW at this end could tease out the faint wrinkle and recognize it. I bet most people who begin the walkway descent from the road realize quickly that all this trekking downhill means quite an uphill haul whenever they turn around and in short order determine to do so. Thus the clear upper third and nearly obscure lower two-thirds.

Erect Trillium

Erect Trillium

The sharp elevation drop has one advantage: the road and its noise are immediately left behind in a thicket of Rosebay Rhododendron and Red Spruce. A leafless view through the trees into the valley of Deep Creek imparts a total sense of wilderness. In late April, Spring Beauty, Fringed Phacelia, Halberd-leaved Violet, Erect Trillium, Dwarf Ginseng, Star Chickweed, Trout Lily, and Common Blue Violet are in flower. Early foliage of Bee Balm and Cutleaf Coneflower in the path portend color and impenetrability in summer. Juncos are flitting about, and a reasonably fresh pile of bear scat has me scanning the landscape.

For good exercise and an instant into-the-backwoods experience, stroll down Deep Creek Quiet Walkway on a mild day in winter or early spring.

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

View of Cherry Creek from Swinging Bridge parking area

Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway: Travel 0.8 mile down 441 from Deep Creek QW to a major parking area and overlook. Marked with an interpretive sign “Spared the Saw,” the Swinging Bridge QW starts to the right and climbs onto a ridge. Shot Beech Ridge extends nearly two miles due south from the highway before dropping sharply to Deep Creek. One side of the ridge drains into Deep Creek, the other into Cherry Creek. Looking at a topo map, the ridge gently undulates for most of its length with one 375-foot decline in the middle. The final 0.5 mile drop to Deep Creek Trail, however, falls a precipitous 1,000 feet.

Shot Beech Ridge

Shot Beech Ridge

This QW is listed as a half mile, yet that straight shot along the ridge line continues well beyond this point to beckon and lure the more adventurous in spirit. Small piles of deadfall provide most people sufficient incentive to turn around. Those that keep going must negotiate the increasing presence of briars and other understory growth.

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

I have no clue on the origin of this QW’s name. There is no bridge, ‘swinging’ or otherwise, and Place Names of the Smokies does not mention it. The walkway is relatively level with good footing. At this time of year, I find a few Thyme-leaved Bluets and violet species in flower plus an occasional Painted Trillium.

Large oak

Large oak

The parking lot view spans Cherry Creek’s watershed. The interpretive sign informs visitors that only a small percentage of the park’s forest is “old-growth.” Most trees were logged for timber or cleared for agriculture in the early twentieth century. The majority of the forest today is relatively young second growth. There are some old trees nearby, and the sign notes that a few on the ridges though small in diameter could still be hundreds of years old. Large diameter oaks dot the QW.

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway

Beech Flats Quiet Walkway: Continue down Highway 441 another 2.7 miles and look left for a paved pull-out parallel to the road and a wide grassy area funneling toward an orange and white gate. The QW sign stands alone in the middle of the flat lawn to draw people from their cars. That colorful gate prevents vehicular access to an old road winding toward Newfound Gap, and Beech Flats QW travels that road.

Ravine stream

Ravine stream

Grab a topo map of the park and follow Hwy. 441 down the North Carolina side from Newfound Gap. At Thomas Divide Trail, the road makes a wide switchback leaving a ridge to descend into the broad valley carved by Beech Flats Prong. About 0.3 mile before the second, much sharper switchback is Beech Flats QW snuggled at the base of a steep ravine. The QW strikes a northwesterly course across the mountainside running parallel to and well downslope from Hwy. 441. The old road rises steadily along the mountain’s flank, above the prong and below the new road. At Luftee Gap, it makes a sharp curve right to run alongside 441 and hit Newfound Gap at the back end of the parking lot. People can hike down the old road from NFG.

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

Moss-covered asphalt on Beech Flats QW

Could someone hike all the way from Beech Flats QW to NFG? I haven’t done it and cannot say for certain; however, I walked much further than the 0.6 mile listed for the QW with no trouble at all and found it to be quite pleasant. Might be fun to start a friend with her car at BFQW and another at NFG to meet in the middle and exchange car keys. I roughly put the distance estimate at a minimum of two miles, probably more, but certainly less than three. Climbing a road grade is heaven compared to some trails in the park, and walking down would be delightful. Patches of old asphalt are clearly visible and often felted with a green layer of moss. Hydrangea shrubs, tree saplings, and loops of grape vines dangling from young trees encroach. Nature is doing her best to reclaim what she can, but the road remains wide and inviting for foot traffic.

Confederate Violet

Confederate Violet

Today’s sunshine reflects in the bright blossoms of Fringed Phacelia, Creeping Phlox, and Squirrel Corn. This is only place I recall seeing the Confederate Violet (Viola sororia forma priceana) though it is likely to be in other disturbed areas. Dandelion is here too.

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

Eroded pit with Waterleaf

At the walkway’s start a small stream cascades down the steep ravine and works it way into something of an eroded pit that flows under the old road and emerges far below on the other side. Walking up the road, the right side falls away steeply toward Beech Flats Prong and the left side rises equally steep often featuring large moss-covered boulders and more small streams that have begun to cut through the roadbed. This side of the mountain faces northeast and remains cooler and more moist.

Short-winged Blister Beetle

Short-winged Blister Beetle

I find one of those bright blue oil beetles, the Short-winged Blister Beetle, and stoop to take its picture. It seeks refuge in an unfavorable camera angle. Hoping to get it back on track, I offer one little poke of my finger, at which it instantly flops on its side, curls up, and starts oozing orange liquid from its leg joints. Nothing I do now will get that possum-playing insect to cooperate, so I photograph its faux demise and leave it in peace to ‘revive’ and get on with its day. (See Smokies Manways, March 2012, for more on the oil beetle.)

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

Steps at Kanati Fork QW

Kanati Fork Quiet Walkway: Drive 3.6 miles further into North Carolina to the Kanati Fork Trailhead parking area. On the left side is the QW marker, and several stone steps lead down to a path crossing a wooden bridge. Here the path splits; turn left for a short meander through the woods to a dead end or turn right to reach Beech Flats Prong. This part of the prong is just above its confluences with Kanati Fork and Kephart Prong, after which Beech Flats Prong becomes the Oconaluftee River.

Little bridge

Little bridge

Kanati Fork QW is just 0.2 mile. Perfect for visitors who aren’t prepared for or interested in the 2.9 mile Kanati Fork Trail and its 2,000-foot elevation gain located across the road. The QW provides easy access to the prong for a little toe-dipping and a taste of Smokies flora.

Water Strider's shadow

Water Strider’s shadow

Water Striders ski against Beech Flats’ flow in the shallows, casting shadows on the sandy bottom. Canada Mayflowers are in bud as the Painted Trilliums fade. They are joined by Trout Lily, Sweet White Violet, Indian Cucumber Root, Lady Fern, New York Fern, Hearts-a-bustin’, Witch Hobble, Witch Hazel, Striped Maple, Yellow Birch, and a large colony of Buffalo Nut among others.

Beech Flats Prong

Beech Flats Prong

I don’t have time to hike Collins Creek today, but an upcoming Smokies trip will include a few nights stay at Smokemont to hopefully complete all remaining trails in this vicinity except ill-fated Sweat Heifer. My co-leaders Paul Durr and Larry Pounds have promised a raincheck for the 2016 Pilgrimage.

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Pink Lady's Slippers

Pink Lady’s Slippers

Feels great to be back in the Smokies after a too-long hiatus. Mild sunny days showcase near perfect wildflower displays for hikes full of enthusiastic pilgrims. Plants past their flowering prime, Purple Phacelia, Great White Trillium, Merrybells and other early-flowering species, are easily offset by the beauty of Doll’s Eyes, Crested Iris, Creeping Phlox, several violets, Solomon’s Plume, Silverbell, Flowering Dogwood, and Yellow Trillium. Stunning clumps of Pink and Large Yellow Lady’s Slippers dotted about the park generate a buzz of excitement among photographers.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

Along the Smokies crest, a handful of white Erect Trilliums are breaking bud, but the main high elevation action is in the beech gaps. White carpets of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) underlie bare American Beech branches to bask in the sun. A keen eye will spot a few bright yellow Trout Lilies sprinkled among the Spring Beauties. The hog exclosure (fence and metal trail stiles) protect this delicate and unique community from rototilling snouts of wild hogs.

Beech Gap

Beech Gap

Pilgrims hiking the AT from Indian Gap to Newfound Gap step aside with regularity to let thru-hikers pass. I shuttle several up and down 441 between the trail and Gatlinburg. Young ‘Baloo’ getting his first taste of long-distance hiking, ‘Mover’ a veteran of the AT and PCT, Forrest and Cole (both without trail names as yet), and ‘Genghis Khan’ with his fur-lined hat all appreciate the lift. I enjoy talking with them. So many people I did not know reached out to help me in 2013, I’m gladly paying a bit that forward. Good luck to them all. The ride up and down is graced by a profusion of Silverbell trees in full flower following spring up the mountainside.

Carolina Spring Beauty

Carolina Spring Beauty

I hike to Courthouse Rock again (and think I’ve finally got the directions to that sucker firmly in my brain), cover Ash Hopper for the gardening program, walk Baskins Creek manway to the falls, and do the AT past the beech gap. On an off morning, I head up 441 to begin sampling the Quiet Walkways on the North Carolina side. More on those later.

Silverbells in the forest

Silverbells in the forest

The last hike I have scheduled is an all-day trek down Sweat Heifer and Kephart Prong trails from the AT to 441. A hike I’ve done on two other occasions, I plan to document it this time for the blog.  However, an ominous early morning weather forecast (storms, hail, possible tornadoes) persuades us to change plans. We drive down from windy and cloud-socked Newfound Gap to Sugarlands for a walk on Ash Hopper (again) and Fighting Creek Nature Trail behind the visitors center. As luck would have it, not only did the bad weather not materialize, but the day turned warm and sunny. Oh well, better safe as they say. Sweat Heifer will have to wait for another day.

Yellow Lady's Slippers

Yellow Lady’s Slippers

I’ll post accounts of Fighting Creek and NC’s Quiet Walkways in the days to come.

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