Posts Tagged ‘Heintooga Ridge Road’

Smokemont Nature Trail bridges over Bradley Fork

Smokemont Nature Trail

Located in Smokemont Campground and forming a 0.75-mile loop, Smokemont Nature Trail fits the typical pattern with one notable exception. There is more elevation change than most, about 125 feet. It climbs the last gasp of Richland Mountain petering out at the confluence of Bradley Fork and Oconoluftee River. The oblong loop ascends and descends the eastern slope, cruising the near level ridge line in between.

Smokemont Nature Trail ridge laurel tunnel

The signed trailhead is next to several parking spaces across from campsite B 32. Three log bridges span broken sections of Bradley Fork to connect the campground and trail. This is not a good time of year to assess wildflowers, but there seems to be little evidence for rich spring displays. Most of the plants indicate an affinity for acidic soil and the dark understory below Eastern Hemlocks and evergreen shrubs — Christmas Fern, Round-leaf Violet, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, and Little Brown Jugs. Cinnamon Fern and Alumroot add a bit of variety. The ridge is a long tunnel of Rosebay Rhododendron followed by Mountain Laurel.

It’s a pleasant little trail that provides a shady retreat from the campground’s bustle. There does not appear to be a self-guiding brochure for Smokemont Nature Trail.

Balsam Mountain Nature Trail

Balsam Mountain Campground is the highest elevation campground in the Smokies at 5,300 feet, and as a result has one of the shortest seasons — late May to early October. This is the place to be on a hot summer day, where temperatures can be 10 degrees cooler than low country campgrounds and nights might require a jacket.

It’s a long way from anywhere. One mile inside the park boundary out of Cherokee, NC, take the Blue Ridge Parkway 11 miles to Heintooga Ridge Road and drive another 8 miles to the campground entrance. Just past the check-in kiosk, Balsam Mountain Nature Trail begins on the right, opposite the first couple of campsites.

Balsam Mountain Trail

The trail meanders approximately a half mile or so through the ‘northern hardwoods’ forest type. At one time, there had been a self-guiding brochure discussing as many as 12 stops along the trail. However, the brochure box minus its lid has only a splash of rainwater inside, and many of the numbered trail markers are missing or damaged. Nonetheless, its a pleasant stroll along a narrow path, mostly level but a bit rooty and slick in the rain. Foliage and fruit of spring flowering Canada Mayflower, Thyme-leaved Bluets, and Painted Trillium mingle with summer flowers of Pale Jewelweed and Bee Balm. Appalachian White Snakeroot will open soon. Fine-foliaged sedges, perhaps Pennsylvania Sedge, carpet parts of the trail. A hollowed old tree with gnarled burls inspires admiration.

Balsam Mountain Nature Trail terminus on Heintooga Ridge Road

Balsam Mountain Nature Trail is one way, ending on Heintooga Ridge Road near the picnic area, which marks the end of the paved road. Balsam Mountain Road begins here, a one-way gravel road snaking down the flank of Balsam Mountain and eventually tying into Straight Fork Road at Round Bottom and then Big Cove Road into Cherokee. From the nature trail’s terminus, it’s 0.4 mile back to the campground entrance on Heintooga Ridge Road.

Benton MacKaye Connector trailhead at the entrance to Smokemont Campground

Benton MacKaye Connector Trail

Benton MacKaye Trail incorporates nearly 300 miles of wilderness trails from Springer Mountain, GA, to Big Creek Campground on the eastern end of the park. Sharing its southern terminus with the Appalachian Trail and intersecting it twice more (in the middle and at the end), BMT offers a variety of lengthy loops for adventurous backpackers.

BMT enters the Smokies at Fontana Dam and follows Lakeshore, Noland Divide, Pole Creek Road, Deep Creek, Martin’s Gap, Sunkota, Thomas Divide, and Newton Bald to Highway 441 where it crosses the road to Smokemont Campground. To spare hikers a trek through the campground, BMT shares a one-mile access trail with horses from Smokemont Stables connecting to Towstring and Bradley Fork trails. For BMT hikers, Bradley Fork initiates the final stretch through the park, including Chasteen Creek, Enloe Creek, Hyatt Ridge, both Beech Gaps, Balsam Mountain, Mt. Sterling Ridge, and Baxter Creek trails.

Female Eastern Box Turtle

Turning off Highway 441, the road crosses Oconoluftee River and splits right to the stables, left to the campground, and straight ahead into a large paved area. A small sign with green and white Benton MacKaye markers in this paved area points the way to Bradley Fork. Upslope and out of sight the entire way, the trail parallels campground roads. At about 0.9-mile, Towstring Trail strikes off to the right, and the connector trail continues a short way before slipping down to intersect with Bradley Fork Trail 0.2 mile from its trailhead at the back of the campground.

I have the misfortune to hike this connector in the middle of a rainy spell. Much of it is wet, sloppy, goopy, and mucky. A female Eastern Box Turtle much better suited to the weather and ground conditions is the only bright moment in an otherwise tiresome insult to my boots. I stomp back to my campsite along the road hitting every rain puddle to dislodge mud from the soles.


Towstring Trail junction with Benton MacKaye Connector

Towstring Horse Trail

Given the sloppy shape of the Benton MacKaye connector, I’m dreading Towstring, a dedicated horse trail between a park horse camp and park trails. I intended to hike Towstring five years ago as physical conditioning for my 2013 hike on the Appalachian Trail. It was January and the start of the trail from the connector was a rocky, rutted climb masked beneath a thick layer of fallen leaves. I feared twisting an ankle and opted to forego it. Since it isn’t listed in Hiking Trails of the Smokies, I assumed it wasn’t an essential trail. The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, apparent keepers of the 900 Mile Club, beg to differ.

Carolina Lily

At this time of year, leaf litter isn’t a problem, and I’m as prepared as I can be for the rutted mess that awaits. Towstring clings to the lower slope of Hughes Ridge and roughly parallels the connector trail and Highway 441 to the horse camp 2.2 miles away. I head up the rocky, rutted path. Within 0.1 mile to my delight, the trail smooths out along an easy grade and defies all negative expectations.

Concessionaire trails intersect Towstring

Plant surprises add to the fun. False Goatsbeard or Astilbe has finished flowering and Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) is just beginning. Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii) are in their prime.

Fenced field near horse camp Towstring trailhead

Other horse trails associated with concessionaire Smokemont Stables join or cross Towstring at various points. The trail passes a fenced grassy field near the end, turns left on a gravel road, and terminates at a gate next to a large turnaround accommodating horse trailers. This trailhead sits as the end of an access spur past the horse camp off Tow String Road, located on Highway 441 south of Smokemont Campground and north of Oconoluftee Visitor Center. This road tees at the base of Hughes Ridge. Turn left for the horse camp and Towstring Trail. To the right, Tow String Road exits the park and enters the Qualla Boundary, a land trust set aside for the Eastern Band of Cherokees.

Towstring trailhead at horse camp

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