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Posts Tagged ‘High Rocks’

I spend the vast majority of my Smokies time in more remote regions of the park, far from the madding crowd. So when I’m thrust in the midst of its millions of visitors, it’s always a bit of a shock. Clingmans Dome on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in June is one of those shockers. Parked cars line the road long before we arrive at the lot. Fortunately for us it’s 3:00 p.m., and enough people are leaving that Susan and I find open spaces for our cars on the first drive through. The second portion of my trip begins.

Smooth Carrion Flower

We must descend the first 0.2 mile on Forney Ridge Trail to reach the lower end of Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. At a sharp left switchback in the former, CDB heads right, cutting across the steep southwestern slope of the second highest mountain peak in the eastern United States. The term ‘bypass’ seems to carry the implication of being easier in my mind, a notion that is soon dispelled. Clingmans Dome Bypass is a rocky beast climbing over 300 feet in a half mile to the Appalachian Trail. One saving grace is its short distance, but the toll comes in bursting lungs one way and throbbing knees the other. Thank heavens the day is dry! In rain, CDB would become a flowing creek.

What it does bypass are throngs of tourists plodding the paved path to the dome’s iconic observation tower. Small children and teens in flip-flops would not fare as well here. The trail weaves through young Fraser Firs and Red Spruce lining a rocky gully and arrives at the Smokies crest 0.3 mile west of the tower and 2.3 miles east of our destination, Double Spring Gap shelter.

Scaly Chanterelle

Beautiful, clear weather allows spectacular views north into Tennessee and south into North Carolina. Scaly Chanterelles (Turbinellus floccocus) are fruiting, and Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea) is in its full, yet understated, glory. Unlike most Smilax, this vine species has no clothes-gripping, skin-ripping spines along the stem, sending out tendrils instead. Flowers in globular clusters on this individual plant are staminate, containing only male reproductive structures. Bright white anthers shine against the green tepals (similarly colored petals and sepals).

Twisted tree stump

Even though this section of the A.T. descends 1,000 feet, there are nonetheless a few brief uphill stretches. The first crests Mt. Buckley and is followed by a steep decline. From there, the trail is less challenging and passes through shady conifer forests. Near the Goshen Prong Trail junction, Susan spies the marvelously twisted trunk of a massive tree whose top was wrenched away in a storm.

We roll into the shelter late afternoon where an interesting mix of people are already preparing their dinners. A father and son, two brothers from my hometown, an older man, and three retired ladies enjoy good conversation in the sun’s fading warmth. Over 13 years, the ladies have hiked all of the A.T. to the north and wrap up at Fontana later in the week. Next year, they’ll return to complete the trail to Springer Mountain. Ridge Runner Morgan, in residence tonight, has got the cutest dimples I’ve seen on twenty-something man. He is also from my hometown, and we share a high regard for Arnold’s Country Kitchen, whose roast beef, mashed potatoes, and turnip greens sound wonderful right now.

Welch Ridge Trailhead

Double Spring Gap Shelter is well built and in good shape, but it is still a shelter. Bold mice run through the busy quarters in broad daylight. One of the ladies snores most of the night. The older man rises in the pre-dawn hours and is still there when Susan and I leave at 7:00 a.m before anyone else pops out of a sleeping bag. My tent will be a welcome relief tonight.

Carpet of ferns on upper Welch Ridge

The morning is cool and misty. Welch Ridge Trail junction is 1.5 miles beyond the shelter, and we arrive before 8:00. In profile, the 7.3-mile trail descends 1,000 feet overall but bounces up and down several times in the lower half. The ridge separates the Forney Creek and Hazel Creek watersheds, striking a southwesterly course which the trail follows a majority of its length and adheres to rather faithfully in the first 1.5 miles. It’s very pleasant to walk the smooth, broad ridge among a carpet of ferns, quite different from the rockier, jagged A.T. Trail junctions for Hazel Creek on the right and Jonas Creek on the left are less than a mile apart. WRT dips off the ridge line to meet Jonas Creek Trail then returns, deviating only to skirt a few peaks like Mt. Glory and Hawk Knob.

Carolina Tassel-rue

On these deviations, the trail narrows to the width of two boots and clings to steep slopes, yet remains level side-to-side and easily navigable. However, our horse friends from Bear Creek came this way two days ago, and the soft soil is pockmarked with deep, hoof-sized gouges breaking away the trail’s outer edge, sometimes claiming as much as half its width. Susan and I have to watch our steps to avoid a potentially harmful tumble. I marvel at the level of damage a few horses inflicted on this otherwise excellent foot path. Why the park continues to allow them in these areas is beyond comprehension. When one considers that hikers outnumber horses exponentially then factor in the work, time, and expense of rehabilitating a degraded trail, such a policy simply defies logic, especially in an era of shrinking park budgets and increasing visitation.

Poke Milkweed

Welch Ridge Trail starts at 5500 feet, but six miles of it ranges between 5000 and 4500 feet, a mid-elevation reflected in its flora. The sparkling white stamens of Carolina Tassel-rue (Trautvetteria caroliniensis) arrest the eye amid the cool purple of Zigzag Spiderwort, warm orange of Flame Azalea, sunshine yellow of Sundrops or Glaucous Evening Primrose (Oenothera tetragona), and loose globes of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata). A large fragrant stand of Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata) crowds the trail in a light gap. Shiny black buttons of the fungus Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans) sprout along a downed log.

Sundrops

We are making good time and pause for lunch at the Bear Creek junction. Just 0.3 mile further is a side trail, also 0.3 mile long, to a former fire tower site called High Rock or High Rocks. At nearly 5185 feet, this prominence rises 250 feet above the ridge trail and overlooks the Hazel Creek watershed. High Rocks Trail leads to a set of steep stone steps with a lush line of Canada Mayflower foliage growing between two of the steps. From there, the trail passes Mountain Laurel and Galax still in flower and Painted Trillium in fruit.

The trail appears to peter out but continues up a large slanting boulder and finally breaks through to the narrow rocky top encircled with trees and shrubs. Four concrete foot pads are all that remains of the 46-foot tower, but perched on exposed Thunderhead Sandstone is an old metal, high-back stool. It’s a startling sight upon arrival, and I burst out laughing. If nothing else, this picture is worth the climb.

Black Bulgar fungus

Someone likely took it from the caretaker’s cabin which was left in place after the tower was removed. The cabin is all but hidden from view behind a screen of foliage. A faint path west of the tower site walks you straight into the side of the structure. The log cabin clad with wood shakes on exterior walls and roof must have been a real beauty when built. I’ve read that it is the only caretaker cabin still standing in the park, though that distinction may not last much longer. The southern wall has completely collapsed, allowing ceiling beams to fall in and causing the eastern wall to buckle. The forest has grown up so close around the cabin, it is impossible to stand back far enough to get more than a small part of its exterior in the camera frame. Supposedly there was a six-foot wide porch, but that has disappeared under the fallen wall. It’s a shame but understandable I suppose. The cabin’s remote location would make preserving and protecting it difficult and expensive if not impossible.

Susan and I head back to WRT. The main ridge line follows the side trail to High Rocks, so from the side trail junction, WRT heads down slope 400’ feet to its terminus at Cold Spring Gap near the start of a lower ridge line that retains the Welch Ridge name and heads toward Fontana Lake. From the A.T. to High Rocks, WRT has been excellent, horse damage notwithstanding. The final 0.6 mile, however, suffers from erosion and resembles a rocky wash, a disappointing end to an otherwise enjoyable trail.

Stone steps on High Rocks access trail

Our disappointments are just beginning. We take a quick snack break at 1:30, and pop some ibuprofen in preparation for the 2,000-foot descent to come. Cold Spring Gap Trail follows Cold Spring Branch 3.5 miles down to Hazel Creek, and 1,300 feet of that drop comes in the first 1.5 miles. To say it’s steep is an understatement. Not quite a mile down, the grade begins to moderate somewhat as the trail hooks up with the branch. Now the real fun begins.

The Stool

For long, maddening sections, the trail and the stream are one. Small bouldery rocks cascade in a jumble — wet, dry, wobbly, slippery. It’s like negotiating a mine field. Where the bank would allow a narrow strip of relief, previous hikers had taken advantage, and we follow the beaten path of their lead, sometimes just a few feet long. Any respite however brief from these rocks is welcomed. The ‘Little Brown Book’ account of this trail truthfully depicts the steep, eroded, rocky nature of Cold Spring Gap, but it also says the rough part is “over 1 mile.” I suggest changing that “1” to a “2.” Susan and I think it will never end. If we aren’t coping with rocks and water, we’re stepping over woody debris from blowdowns, large tree limbs and branches. The precious few smooth sections are short-lived and only serve to underscore how god-awful the rest of the trail is.

Cabin interior at High Rocks

We are walking through a beautiful forest, but we don’t dare look up from our feet without risking injury. The book says spring wildflowers are profuse, and I believe it, though I’m not likely to return to verify it. Jenkins Ridge Trail is still the park’s worst trail in my view, but Cold Spring Gap Trail is, to borrow a phrase from the music industry’s record charts, “number two with a bullet.”

Staring at our feet yields one interesting find. What appears to be a bear paw track in the mud has a coyote paw print right in the middle of it.

Cabin at High Rocks

A quarter mile from the end, CSGT crosses wide, shallow Hazel Creek and rises gently to meet Hazel Creek Trail, a big sigh of relief at the end of a path that’s more trial than trail. At the junction, we turn right and head up HCT 1.75 miles to Campsite 82, arriving at 5:00 p.m. HCT is a wide gravel road with a steady grade the whole way. Susan and I plod like old work horses, an apt metaphor since we elect to stay on the horse camp side of 82. The campsite splits to either side of the trail, and non-horse campers stay down slope between the trail and creek. The section up slope from the trail accommodates horses, though it doesn’t appear to get much four-legged use. We are the only ones here, and we want to get away from the creek noise. My ears appreciate the lower decibels, but my feet resent the longer trek for water.

These poor feet are killing me. I lay down my tent ground cloth and stretch out for at least 15 minutes, staring into the maple canopy overhead, before I begin any evening chores. We retire well before dark with light sprinkles of rain overnight portending more challenges tomorrow.

Bear track with Coyote track superimposed

The next morning is cloudy but dry. Earlier forecasts called for possible thunderstorms on this final day of the trip, and we’re hiking by 7:30. I’m starting out in water shoes, anticipating the numerous stream crossings ahead. Susan opts to stay in her boots.

HCT’s graveled road grade continues nearly 2 miles past #82. Less than a mile along, Walkers Creek flows over the trail in a wide level valley. The area is called Walker’s Fields, which accommodated a large settlement prior to park establishment. Here the trail T’s into the base of a steep ridge, with a road bearing left to Walker Cemetery. HCT turns right between the base of the ridge and Hazel Creek. Two back-to-back wet crossings of the creek can be avoided by following a foot trail upslope. Susan chooses this route while I splash through the creek. Each takes about the same amount of time, but she has to scramble over some blowdowns.

Cold Spring Gap Trail

We reach another large flat area near the confluence with Proctor Creek. It was the site of a lumber camp long ago, and now contains a large metal horse corral overgrown with weeds. There is no evidence of recent use. From this point, horses are not allowed on Hazel Creek Trail. The trail becomes a true foot path, more intimate with the forest, yet still charting a modest grade. There is a footlog over Proctor Creek, but it will be the last dry stream crossing of the day.

Between crossings 12 and 13, I lose track of my count. In total we cross Hazel Creek or its tributaries 17 or 18 times. None are particularly deep or swift. However, two things add spice to our morning. First, it begins to rain lightly after Proctor Creek. Protected under the tree canopy, it takes a while for the drippy weather to penetrate down to us, as we notch one stream crossing after another in the course of 2-plus miles.

Cold Spring Gap Trail

Finally, the trail turns sharply upslope and begins to switchback. Assuming the crossings are over, I stop to change shoes. The rain is now steady, and I put on my rain coat, stow my camera, and cover my pack. I’m ready for the climb to Welch Ridge…until we come to another stream crossing. Susan’s boots cannot get any wetter and she plods across. I cannot see going to all the trouble to change shoes again but am loathe to step through in dry boots. I do what any obstinate foolhardy hiker would do. I take off my shoes and go barefoot.

Hazel Creek Crossing on Cold Spring Gap

This crossing is dicey because a large sloping boulder is the primary point of entry and the water behind this boulder is deep. I step out onto the mossy rock, bend down to steady myself with my hands, and slip my left foot down the slope into the water. The damn rock keeps sloping, and I can’t feel the bottom. Fearing what my bare foot may hit, I wind up slipping most of me into the water as well, dipping in as far as my waist and plunging one arm past the elbow before I can find footing and stand up. Fortunately, my camera is in my pack, and my boots, tied around my neck, bob on the water’s surface like boats remaining dry…the whole reason for this escapade.

On the other side, I have no idea if there are more crossings and decide to continue barefoot for a while. The bottoms of my feet are not tough, and to my relief, the trail isn’t either. I must walk slower, stepping carefully. This tactic pays off. There is another wet crossing. After about 0.2 mile, I decide to don the boots sans socks just to maintain a better pace. There is one more crossing, but this one is a thin sheet of water coating a flat boulder. I go a bit further for good measure before putting on my socks again. This time we really are climbing Welch Ridge.

Horse Corral on Hazel Creek Trail

All this effort to spare my boots ultimately does little good. The rain continues non-stop. The trail is sloppy with puddles and running rivulets. I can’t avoid wet feet, but at least they aren’t squishing inside.

The night before, I mapped the day in my mind, figuring 4 hours to reach the Welch Ridge junction 6.5 miles away, and another 4 or 5 to reach Clingmans. Overall, we are climbing 3,900 feet in 12.8 miles, and mindful of my soft condition, I plan a generous time schedule. Despite the rain, we are only 30 minutes behind, mostly from my pulling boots on and off. Because of the rain, we don’t take real breaks, just pause a moment for a snack and sip of water. Our first real break with packs off comes at 2:00 when we stop at Double Spring Shelter for lunch. It’s cool and breezy on the crest. I slip a long sleeve capilene top and shirt over my regular top to avoid the wet chill.

Upper Hazel Creek at a crossing

Several AT section hikers from Indiana are drying off here too. They are headed to Mt. Collins shelter past the dome and are in high spirits. As we prepare to hoist packs and resume our climb, the rain slackens. We wish the others well and begin the final push to our cars. The heavy rain is past, but waves of mist continue most of the way. Climbing Mt. Buckley is tough under any conditions, but the cooler temperature is a blessing. Plus my legs are feeling stronger, though I’m still breathing like a heavy smoker climbing stairs.

Interior of the High Rocks Cabin

We take it slow and steady. The group from Double Spring passes us. We reach Clingman’s Dome at 5:00. A short gravel path connects the A.T. to the paved observation tower road. Despite being wet and socked in with clouds, a steady stream of people walk up and down the road. At the visitor center, we see two of the guys from Double Spring. One of them, Jeff from Evansville, took the bypass trail and exhibits the blank stare of someone who has hit his limit. As I suspected, Clingman’s Dome Bypass was a rocky river. We commiserate, say goodbye, and head for our cars.

As I’m arranging wet gear, pulling off those muddy boots for the last time, and lining the driver’s seat with dry towels, Jeff walks up and asks if I would give him a ride into Gatlinburg. He wants a shower, clean laundry, and a dry night before rejoining his friends the following day. I take him down the mountain to NOC at the edge of town. They should have a list of hostels and shuttles he can contact.

Summer Phlox on Welch Ridge

On the way, I tell him things about the park and the Chimney Tops 2 fire. We stop at the Campbell overlook to view the fire scars. We even run into a bear jam. He gets to see a mother bear with 3 cubs! This is a treat for me too. The mother is small and so are her babies. Adorable is the only suitable adjective.

At NOC, Jeff thanks me for the ride, and I drive Little River Road to Townsend, stopping for a half gallon of low fat chocolate milk to drink with my Sonic chicken sandwich and tater tots in Maryville. I’m back home with my little Tucky-bear (Tonkinese cat) at 10:00 p.m. It’s been a long day, but only 7 trails now stand between me and the 900 Mile Club.

 

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