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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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Cucumber Gap Trail

Cucumber Gap Trail

I’ve hiked Cucumber Gap Trail on several occasions — pilgrimage hikes, fern forays, and solo hikes, completing it three times before the official start of my 900 Mile Club quest. Today’s hike is for the record book. I arrive at Elkmont Campground about noon, set up my new four-person tent (luxury!), and eat lunch. The weather is typical for summer in the Smokies — clouds, sun, and distant thunder. My campsite is on the far side of Little River, and I can quickly access Little River and Jakes Creek trailheads via a short path across from site N4. The plan is to see the Avent Cabin off Jakes Creek first, then hike Cucumber Gap and return on Little River Trail.

At the Cucumber Gap junction after my cabin visit, deep gray clouds obscure the sky and thunder is closing in from the west. The forest is so dark, lightning brightens the understory, and photography without flash is almost impossible. The storm’s extended prelude gets me thinking it’s going to be “all show and no go.” A slight rain begins to fall as the thunder fades, yet I hike for some time without getting wet. Raindrops finally filter through the canopy necessitating an umbrella.

Huskey Branch

Huskey Branch

Miry Ridge Trail extends from the Smokies Crest in a wide sweeping curve heading northeast, then north, and finally west over Dripping Spring Mountain. It looks a bit like a question mark on the map. Where that trail begins its turn west, another ridge called Bent Arm strikes a due northeast course for 1.3 miles then crooks northward at a 4,726-foot elevation peak and descends to Cucumber Gap. Bent Arm and its spread of finger ridges fan into a wide arc that drains into Goshen Prong, Huskey Branch, Jakes Creek and other feeder streams reaching Little River. Cucumber Gap Trail follows the northern end of that arc through the low gap between Bent Arm and Burnt Mountain (3,373). That short mountain and two other small hills occupy a skinny triangle of land that separate the gap from Little River.

Dwarf Ginseng

Dwarf Ginseng

Cucumber Gap Trail is 2.4 miles long, rises 500 feet in the first mile (from Jakes Creek Trail) to 3,000 feet and makes a gradual descent to its junction (2,550) with Little River Trail. The three-trail combo makes a fantastic 5.6 mile loop from either parking area. Cucumber Gap is the only real dirt trail of the three, and its mostly smooth path presents no real challenge outside a rock hop or two. Crossing Huskey Branch near Little River can be wet when water is high — no problem today.

Not much flowers in June; spring is king on Cucumber Gap. That first mile climbs through a cove hardwood forest bedecked with bountiful wildflowers — Doll’s Eyes, Wood Anemone, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Blue Cohosh, Speckled Wood Lily, Toothwort, Trout Lily, Wild Geranium, Liverleaf, Bishop’s Cap, Creeping Phlox, May Apple, Solomon’s Seal, Nodding Mandarin, Brook Lettuce, Solomon’s Plume, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, three trillium species, and a wide array of violets.

One of those wildflowers, small and low-growing Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius), barely clears the leaf litter with its whorl of three compound leaves and starry ball of white flowers in April. It is quite easy to miss this scarce little plant, yet once eyes become adjusted to its look, it can be found sprinkled among other wildflowers on this trail. Andro-dioecious, clusters of male flowers (stamens with nonfunctioning pistils) appear on separate plants. Other plants have mostly perfect flowers (functioning pistils and stamens). Reportedly, plants can change sex, staminate one year and perfect the next. Leaves have three to five leaflets, and fruits are yellow. Unlike American Ginseng (P. quinquefolius), this species isn’t touted for medicinal benefits.

Seersucker Sedge

Seersucker Sedge

In late June, it is possible to find Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, Summer Bluets, and Black Cohosh in flower and maybe a few late Umbrella Leaf and Indian Cucumber Root flowers. Hydrangea shrubs are in their glory.  Ferns dominate in summer with at least 13 species here including Southern Lady Fern, Silvery Glade Fern, and Cinnamon Fern. Strappy dark-green leaves of Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus), a rare plant in Tennessee, stand apart from the rest of the summer green, and in spring are adorned with showy flower heads like white tassels waving atop long stalks.

A personal favorite, Seersucker Sedge (Carex plantaginea), loves rich forests. Wide grass-like foliage is pleated and puckered along their length imparting a wonderful texture. It stills looks so fresh and lush along the trail.

Both Fraser’s and Cucumber Magnolias occur in Cucumber Gap, and their bumpy green fruit might have prompted the gap’s name. Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) is scattered lightly throughout the lower Elkmont area. I mainly notice young saplings distinguished by compound foliage with alternate leaflets. I’ve not seen trees of any size, much less flowering, yet they must be here. Fragrant chains of white flowers produce clusters of flat seedpods.

Junction at Little River

Junction at Little River

The descent to Little River runs through a drier, less diverse forest with fewer spring flowers. However, a scattering of Painted Trilliums in spring and Flat-branch Ground Pine reward observant hikers.

One of the first trails I hiked in the Smokies, Cucumber Gap remains a favorite any time of year but especially in spring.

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