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Posts Tagged ‘Mountain Bellwort’

Fork Ridge trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road

Reservations are made for the antepenultimate trip that will bring my quest to hike all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to a close and place me among other Smokies aficionados in the 900 Mile Club. Thanks to a rather oxymoronic combination of laziness and crazy busyness, I still have a few trails from 2016 to post on this blog. In late September last year, Susan Stahl and I stayed at Deep Creek Campground for a series of three day hikes. First up was Fork Ridge Trail.

Fork Ridge Trail

Susan and I drive separately up Hwy. 441, leave a car at the Deep Creek trailhead and continue together to the pull out at Fork Ridge Trail, approximately halfway up Clingmans Dome Road. The morning is cool and foggy at high elevation, perfect to get the juices flowing. Quickly tying into the actual ridge, the trail follows the ridge line and slips to one side or the other of higher knobs along the way, descending 2,800 feet in 5.1 miles. This steady but untaxing drop does include a few short, near-level passages. At the bottom, Fork Ridge Trail crosses Deep Creek and ends at that trail next to Campsite #53. Fork Ridge is part of the 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Clingmans Dome to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The ridge separates Deep Creek’s headwater feeder streams to the northeast from Left Fork Deep Creek and its feeders on the opposite side. Beginning in the dark and damp Spruce-Fir forest, the path is a tad tricky for the first mile or so. Ample moisture at this elevation (5,900 ft) makes the mossy rocks and roots somewhat slippery, but for the most part, the trail is in good shape and easy to negotiate. Given the early fall timing, there is some herbaceous overgrowth of fine branches and leaning stems, yet nothing obscures the trail or impedes progress.

Mountain Bellwort fruit capsule

Speaking of autumn, some Witch Hobbles are feeling the seasonal spirit, decked in rich purplish reds. Mountain Ash drops vibrant orange red fruits. Whorled Aster lifts white daisies above a flat plane of foliage. Mountain Cranberry’s black teardrop fruits dangle on long pedicels. Mountain Bellwort splays its pale tri-lobed capsule over shiny green leaves. Curtis’ Goldenrod appears as wands of yellow flame beside the trail. Red Squirrels chatter among the bounty of Red Spruce cones. Pigskin Puffballs dot the woods like beige golf balls.

The walk down Fork Ridge is easy and uneventful, allowing full enjoyment of the day and surroundings. Most of the way, the trail takes a southeasterly course, but near the bottom, it passes through a wide gap in the ridge called Deep Creek Gap and turns north for the last quarter mile or so.

Deep Creek crossing at the end of Fork Ridge Trail

Maps and the Smokies hiking book note a footbridge (“if it has not been washed away in a flood”) over Deep Creek. I guess there was a flood, as no bridge nor hint of one is visible. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage usually features a hike of Fork Ridge Trail, and I’ve heard tales of surging water thigh deep. Ah, the joys of drier autumn. Susan and I do put on water shoes, but the cool stream barely burbles above our ankles. A tad lower and we could have rock-hopped with ease.

On the opposite bank, the trail climbs through dense rhododendron a few yards to its junction with Deep Creek Trail. The trek down took three hours. Susan and I eat lunch at Campsite #53 before tackling the upper 3.9 miles of Deep Creek. Without pushing ourselves, we cover this uphill stretch in just over two hours for a satisfying 9-mile day and a great warmup for this trip.

Showy Gentian

Two days later, our last hike is quite a bit longer, but the trails are no more taxing. Sunkota Ridge Trail angles off Thomas Divide and turns south, picking up near where Fork Ridge peters out. Sited between Thomas Divide and Noland Divide, all three ridges converge on Deep Creek Campground. The upper half of Sunkota between Martins Gap and Thomas Divide serves both Mountains-to-Sea and Benton MacKaye distance trails.

Sunkota requires 2.0 miles along three different trails on the south end or 4.6 miles of Thomas Divide Trail from the north to reach its trailheads. The 8.6-mile length adheres to the ridge with few deviations, occasionally dipping to one side or the other. All along the trail, however, are brief scenic views of the neighboring divides.

Calico Aster

We start on the Thomas Divide end. From there Sunkota strikes an easy 1,300-foot descent for 4.8 miles to Martins Gap. The upper ridge provides a pleasing walk through recovered forests with a few large trees. This day is simply gorgeous with that deep blue sky that heralds October and soft breezes. Fall flowers are loving it. With a beauty to match the day, Showy Gentian (Gentiana decora) is in its prime and tempts passing butterflies. Three blue asters — Blue Wood Aster, Wavyleaf Aster, and another that has defied all identification attempts — and one white, Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), do their best to lure insects too. Southern Harebell is nearly finished. A few areas on the east side of the ridge have something of a cove hardwood aspect with Cucumber Magnolia, Maple-leaf Viburnum, and a wider array of wildflowers such as Richweed and Nodding Mandarin.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Showy Gentian

We arrive at Martins Gap around 1:30. From here, Sunkota climbs 400 feet over 0.8 mile to a peak along the ridge before descending another 1,300 feet in the final 3.0 miles. This section is drier and more eroded with exposed roots and a slanting trail surface, especially the final 2.0 miles. Aside from the last part, the trail has been in fine shape and enjoyable to hike. The remainder of our 15.2-mile day takes us down the east slope of the ridge on Loop Trail to Indian Creek Trail and finally Deep Creek Trail to the campground.

 

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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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