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Posts Tagged ‘Hazel Creek Trail’

Site of Bone Valley Baptist Church on Hazel Creek Trail

Site of Bone Valley Baptist Church on Hazel Creek Trail

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do. Yesterday’s exhaustion from Jenkins Ridge has become today’s anticipation. Everything will be easier. Hazel Creek Trail’s lower half and Bone Valley are relatively level, both following old roads. Since the morning will involve hiking above Campsite 84, I’ll have to walk right by this spot on my way down to Hazel Creek’s trailhead and Campsite 86. I hang my non-essential hiking gear in a bag on the bear cables and carry only the necessities — water, snacks, rain gear, first aid, etc.

Side trails lead to family cemeteries

Side trails lead to family cemeteries

I’m hiking a rather lop-sided “Y” route this morning, twice, totaling 7.8 miles. Eight-tenths of a mile from Campsite 84, Hazel Creek Trail runs straight into the base of Locust Ridge. I’ll first turn right on HCT for 1.3 miles to the Cold Spring Gap Trail junction and return. At the ridge base once again, Bone Valley Trail heads left 1.8 miles terminating at the Hall Cabin. From there, I’ll hike back to #84 and eat lunch.

Hazel Creek carves a long valley through a maze of ridges large and small, trending the general southwest/northeast direction of Welch Ridge which lies south/southeast of the creek and trail. The trail gains a gradual 1300 feet in elevation during the first 10 miles of its 14.7-mile length. My morning 2.1-mile stretch works its way along the base of two ridge noses — Forrester and Locust ridges, each rising steeply in succession on my left with the creek on my right.

False Fly Agaric

False Fly Agaric

The lower half of Hazel Creek boasts a booming pre-park settlement history centered around the town of Proctor at the trailhead. Here at Campsite 84, there had been the small town of Medlin. Horace Kephart lived nearby. The area was extensively logged, and copper mines operated. There is little to indicate such history today, unless you take unnamed side trails into the woods marked only by a post with a ‘no horses’ symbol. These paths lead to small family cemeteries. One path tackles a steep dirt bank off Hazel Creek, and the park service set a wooden ladder in the ground to assist access.

Park Service bunkhouse

Park Service bunkhouse

Every year the park ferries relatives of those interred across the lake for Decoration Day, when they spruce the grave sites and place colorful new plastic flowers on each. The people bring a picnic lunch and musical instruments for a celebration of their ancestry and mountain heritage. This is why lines of picnic tables are often found in these now remote locations.

Bone Valley Creek ford

Bone Valley Creek ford

Just before Bone Valley Creek and the trail junction, history and Decoration Day festivities merge. Hazel Creek Trail passes an open grassy knoll that was the location of Bone Valley Baptist Church. Across from the church site, a quarter-mile side trail leads to the Bone Valley Cemetery, perhaps one of the larger backcountry cemeteries (82 graves) in the park. The Smokies hiking guide mentions a “massive white oak” at the church site. There are large trees present but none merit the adjective “massive.” Downslope from the knoll, Campsite 83 hides on the backside of the knoll, behind a double phalanx of picnic tables on the flat floodplain of Bone Valley Creek.

Hall Cabin, Bone Valley Trail, GSMNP, July 23, 2016Hazel Creek Trail takes a sharp right turn immediately after the Bone Valley Creek bridge and continues an additional 1.3 miles to its junction with Cold Spring Gap Trail. I will hike Welch Ridge, Cold Spring Gap and upper Hazel Creek trails in 2017.

Opposite the junction, a gravel drive climbs Locust Ridge 30 yards to a bunkhouse used by park service staff. I walk up to snap a photo and notice a sign on the door asking people to respect the privacy of park employees and refrain from disturbing them. From what I can tell, the place appears unoccupied at present.

Hall Cabin interior

Hall Cabin interior

Returning to Bone Valley Creek, I follow an old road branching off Hazel Creek Trail that leads back to the Hall Cabin and site of the Kress mansion. Bone Valley Trail slips between Forrester Ridge and Locust Ridge, rising a scant 200 feet in its 1.8 miles to reach a wide flat plain farmed quite successfully by Jesse Crayton Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Kress lodge chimney

Kress lodge chimney

Settlers in the mountains drove their cattle to the grassy balds each spring to forage when winter’s hold on the high elevations eased. Sometime in the 1870s a late blizzard caught farmers by surprise. Without protection, herds already in the high pastures froze to death. Over the next several years, their bones washed down, scattering through the valley.

Despite the sad tale of its name, Bone Valley is one of the more lovely sections of the park. The trail fords its own creek four times and Mill Branch tributary once. Prolonged or heavy rains could complicate these crossings, but under normal conditions, they are simple, pleasant creek fords. Today, the water grazes mid-calf with a gentle flow producing the perfect the degree of ‘burble’ in this beautiful little stream, a fitting soundtrack to a hike quite unlike the trail trials yesterday.

Female Spring Azures looking for sweat salt

Female Spring Azures looking for sweat salt

Tributaries run through rich sheltered coves into Bone Valley. As with so many places in these mountains, Bone Valley was logged. A rail line ran through, and splash dams were built to float the logs down stream to the Little Tennessee River. It is so peaceful and pleasant now, I can’t help but wonder how marvelous it must have been before our thirst for industry altered thousands of years of natural forest existence.

Downed trees on lower Hazel Creek Trail

Downed trees on lower Hazel Creek Trail

The Hall Cabin sits in a grassy opening, perched high on mortared stone pilings. Originally built around 1880 to accommodate ‘Crate’ Hall’s growing family, it’s designed in a single pen style with a front porch and two rooms — an upstairs loft spanning the entire cabin and a single large room downstairs. The paneled front door is centered, as is the staircase to the loft.  In fact, the door will smack into the stairs if fully pushed open. There are several multi-paned windows including two double-hung on the porch wall. Moth balls are sprinkled throughout the cabin and on the ground underneath. They must be fresh, the odor is strong.

Gauging station on Hazel Creek

Gauging station on Hazel Creek

Remains of the Kress family hunting lodge can be seen in the woods on the far side of the cabin. Dubbed a “mansion” and “grand lodge,” it was used by wealthy friends of the department store’s founder as a fishing retreat. The large chimney that was once graced with marble mantels still stands over the crumbling, moss-covered foundation.

During a relaxing snack on the front porch, I am entertained by three Spring Azures intent to sip the salts of my sweat on the camera bag and trekking poles. Clouds are building as I begin the walk back to Campsite 84. Shod in water shoes for the creek crossings, I only need my umbrella to fend off a 30-minute rain shower. All is dry when I arrive for lunch and pack to continue down Hazel Creek.

Another view of the gauging station

Another view of the gauging station

The 4.5-mile walk to Lakeshore is uneventful, even boring, though there are lots of downed trees across the trail from a recent storm. Summer foliage masks most indications of the bustling enterprises present here a hundred years ago. Wooden structures were burned, leaving only a three made of concrete and brick. The large dry kiln sits far off the trail and requires a sharp eye to spot in July. Those sited on the trail are much easier to spot, though one small concrete building, a valve house, is quickly losing out to nature. The most interesting structure is a cylindrical river gauging station. It looks like a turret stuck between the road and creek.

Unless you consult a decently scaled map, it is difficult to decipher the end of Hazel Creek Trail.  The trailhead is positioned at Proctor Bridge.  The Calhoun House, which appears to be a dead end straight ahead, actually sits on Lakeshore Trail, which runs past the house toward Fontana and across the bridge toward Bryson City.

Calhoun House near the Hazel Creek trailhead

Calhoun House near the Hazel Creek trailhead

To reach Campsite 86, I must cross the bridge and turn right. About 0.2 mile down this lake access trail, a series of little paths run into the woods on the right and lead to a warren of sites large and small. It is Saturday, and I won’t be camping solo tonight. #86 looks like party central. The large group next door offers me some of their pinto beans, but I’m stuffed from my own dinner and tired. My morning was wonderful, but the walk down Hazel Creek with a full pack reignited my back and feet woes from yesterday.

Tomorrow, I begin a two-day effort to complete Lakeshore Trail, hiking to Chesquaw Branch and back before continuing to Campsite 88 for the night and the trailhead on Monday. Once again, I will leave most of my gear hanging in camp for the Chesquaw trek.

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Jenkins Ridge Trail Sign AT, GSMNP, July 22, 2016This morning I climbed more than 2,500 feet in 4.3 miles to the Eagle Creek trailhead on the A.T.  The first clue that the “hard part” may not be over for the day comes 0.3 mile later at the Jenkins Ridge trailhead when I cannot find the trail. There is no dirt path visible, only a faint crease in the vegetation. Within a few yards, I disappear into foliage. From the A.T., there is now no evidence that the trail or I exist.

Other than long thorny arms of Rubus sp., I cannot recall a single plant for certain. All my time and energy is devoted to pushing through a gauntlet of herbaceous growth often well above my head. Protecting my eyes and face becomes the first priority, but an equally critical second priority is locating the actual foot path to avoid rocks or roots or branches or holes or bear poop.

The only sign of a trail off the A.T. is a strip of lower growing grasses leading into a wall of foliage.

The only sign of a trail off the A.T. is a strip of lower growing grasses leading into a wall of foliage.

There really is a narrow path under here somewhere, but it takes tremendous effort and time to push vegetation aside enough to see it. I wind up scooting my feet along in some places to avoid twisting an ankle on hidden impediments. My trekking poles rarely touch the ground. They stay arm’s length in front of me like the blade of a plow opening a furrow of space ahead. The poles catch on plants; plants catch on me. My clothes are snagged. There’s a cut on my cheek. My left arm looks like it was attacked by a vicious herd of feral cats.

For the first three miles, Jenkins Ridge clings to the steep side of the Smokies crest, circumnavigating the headwaters of several feeder streams to Eagle Creek. With the mountain rising on the left and falling away on the right, there’s not much room for error.  There’s also no room for maneuvering should I encounter wildlife. However, given the racket I make hacking my way through this stuff, bears and other animals can hear me coming a mile away. I’m not too worried. What’s scarier are the outer edges of the trail. Jenkins Ridge is also a horse trail, and hoof-sized gouges slip down the steep slope. Unexpectedly keeling off the trail sideways is a bigger threat.

This is one of the easier overgrown sections.  Photos of the worst would just show a fuzzy blob of green leaves in front of the lens.

This is one of the easier overgrown sections. Photos of the worst would just show a fuzzy blob of green leaves in front of the lens.

Vegetation density is tied to the canopy. Whenever the trail passes through sufficient forest shade, the riot of forb and shrub growth relaxes, and Jenkins Ridge opens into a respectable trail. Unfortunately, this condition is rare in the top one-third of the trail. The energy expended battling plants has been enormous thus far.

Jenkins Ridge begins at 5,000 feet. Over the next 2.8 miles, it dips a few hundred feet then returns to the starting elevation at a place called Haw Gap, a small opening through a saddle full of the same overgrown mix of head-high brambles and forbs. I plunge ahead on sheer faith that the trail is somewhere in the vicinity.

There are some monster Boletes on Jenkins Ridge.

There are some monster Boletes on Jenkins Ridge.

Back in the woods, I begin the first major descent, dropping 800 feet in one mile.  Shortly past Haw Gap, the trail hits the ridge line for which it is named and remains on or near that line for the next 3.5 miles. During this run it will surmount two small but steep knobs and make several ridiculously steep declines. After Haw Gap, I leave the claustrophobic vegetation behind but now face bare dirt, loose rocks, and exposed roots pitching straight down the eroded nose of Jenkins Ridge with nary a switchback in sight. One stumble and it’s ass over tea kettle straight into a world of hurt.

Jenkins Ridge violates nearly every rule of Trail Building 101. As bad as it is for humans, it is beyond me how anyone could possibly take a horse down this trail or up it for that matter. Yet I find horse poop, along with lots of bear poop. At one point, a big downed tree blocks the trail. Its bole is too large to climb over and too low for crawling under with a pack. I lie down on my side and slither beneath the trunk.

Michaux's Lily

Michaux’s Lily

Everything slows to a crawl, and I lose all sense of the trail. Have I passed Cherry Knob? Which steep descent is this one? Staring at the hiking book’s elevation profile, I cannot get a handle on my location, but I know where I am…in hell. The day is warm, even at this elevation, and very humid. My feet are killing me and so is my back. It’s been more than a year since I carried a full pack, and I’m feeling it.

There are nice plants, such as Michaux’s Lily (Lilium michauxii), and some monster mushrooms on Jenkins Ridge, as well as one of the largest patches of Trailing Arbutus I’ve ever seen. Today, photography takes a backseat to survival. A pair of Broadwinged Hawks let out a series of cries as I hike past.

Flying squirrels chew perfectly round holes in nut shells like this acorn.

Flying squirrels chew perfectly round holes in nut shells like this acorn.

The trail moderates at Pickens Gap, and on two occasions I think I’ve reached that holy grail only to have my spirits crushed with another lung-busting uphill or heart-stopping downhill. Part of me wants to sit down and cry while another part screams obscenities.

Finally, I see a sign post in a wide flat area below me. To get there, I have to crab walk on hands and feet down an almost sheer 8-foot slide of slippery dirt. Pickens Gap, thank god!  The sign points left for Hazel Creek in 2.4 miles. Including two breaks, it has taken me 5 hours and 15 minutes to hike 6.5 miles on Jenkins Ridge.

Another small sign to the right simply says “Unmaintained Trail.” This is the old trailhead for Pinnacle Creek Trail, abandoned by the park several years ago. Yesterday, I saw the other end on Eagle Creek Trail. Now a manway, PCT ends (or begins) with a ford of Eagle Creek.

The last 2.4 miles of Jenkins Ridge follows an old road.

The last 2.4 miles of Jenkins Ridge follows an old road.

From Pickens Gap, Jenkins Ridge Trail joins a wide road, also overgrown, following the course of Sugar Fork. The hard part really is behind me now, but I’m so exhausted I can’t take advantage of the relative ease. Plodding along for another 90 minutes, I drag into Campsite 84 at 7:00 p.m. A small site, it sits at the confluence of Sugar Fork and Hazel Creek. It’s Friday night, but no one is there, no one shows up, and no one walks by. The only people I saw today were those three men on Eagle Creek this morning. It’s getting dark by the time I finish camp chores. I pop two ‘Vitamin I’ (ibuprofen) and crash.

After my trip, I emailed a friend who works at the park and is an accomplished hiker herself. I railed against Jenkins Ridge. In her response, she said the park’s trails coordinator recently asked her which trail she considered the worst in the park. “Guess which one I told him?” She forwarded my diatribe to the coordinator, and his response was, “I agree!”  He’d prefer to close it or mark it as unmaintained.

Anyone pursuing the 900 Mile Club must tackle Jenkins Ridge. Two bits of advice: take a partner and take a machete. I never really thought I’d be one of those who, upon completing all the park trails, would start over for a second sweep. Jenkins Ridge has just insured that I won’t!

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