Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘mushrooms’

The fall of 2016 was crazy busy for me, and I was very lax in writing accounts of my most recent Smokies visits.  There were two trips — backpacking in late August and a set of day hikes in late September.  My apologies for the long delay.  Let’s catch up.

Some of the excellent trail work marking the first mile of Forney Ridge.

Some of the excellent trail work marking the first mile of Forney Ridge.

Forney Ridge Trail, August 28, 2016

Friends Mary McCord and Susan Stahl agree to a four-day, three-night Forney loop from Clingmans Dome. We meet at 12:30 in the parking lot, crowded with cars and people on a Sunday afternoon. Forney Ridge trailhead is tucked into the lot’s western corner, and the trail quickly drops down slope away from all the hubbub.

Clingmans Dome and its tower are not the only attractions up here.  Forney Ridge Trail leads to another visitor hot spot, Andrews Bald.  The 1.8 mile trail section leading to the bald runs through spruce-fir forests over wildly varying terrain from steep and bouldery to flat and mucky.  This stretch takes quite a beating, yet high quality trail rehabilitation along the first mile descent eases difficult passages for hikers while protecting the delicate forest system.  Gravel-filled steps, water diversion trenches, and heavy rock work minimize erosion in the steepest areas.  Raised boards prevent churned, ankle-deep mud in the flat section.

Andrews Bald

Andrews Bald

At 1.1 miles, the trail bottoms out at the Forney Creek Trail junction and begins a gradual 0.7-mile rise to Andrews Bald.  The excellent trail work ends at the junction too, and Forney Ridge turns back into a ‘pumpkin,’ an ordinary dirt path with roots, ruts, and rocks.  Dense stands of Red Spruce limit the understory to mosses and ferns with a few fruiting Bluebead Lilies.  We pass many visitors headed back to Clingman’s Dome. Thunder behind us bodes ill for their staying dry. Thankfully, the drenching rainstorm less than two miles away doesn’t reach us.

Maleberry

Maleberry

Andrews Bald in August is not in its botanical glory, though it does provide that rare open space in the Smokies and a great view on good days.  Roiling clouds limit this day’s view to the nearest set of blue peaks, the rest bleaching into dull sky.  Flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons in late summer are cloaked in green and setting seeds, as is Maleberry, (Lyonia ligustrina).  Grasses, goldenrods, and asters provide the primary floral interest including that high-elevation olfactory gem, Skunk Goldenrod.

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

Gem-studded Puffballs and Black Trumpets

Past Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge demonstrates why it was known as “Rip-Shin Ridge” in the 1800s.  Trail conditions degrade noticeably and our progress slows.  Smooth sections are few and far between.  A bit over 3 miles in, the trail disappears abruptly down the steep slope for several feet, requiring careful treading past the yawning gap, one foot directly in front of the other while leaning upslope.  Trekking poles become a liability as tangles of vegetation snag them and affect balance (carrying a full pack) just enough to pose a real threat.  Susan and I manage to eke our way past.  Mary hasn’t been feeling well, and the trail gap is enough to convince her to turn around.  We are sad to lose her but soldier on.

Southern Harebell

Southern Harebell

Fortunately, trail conditions moderate somewhat after the gap.  Susan and I are able to chat, enjoying the late afternoon and treasures along the trail.  A few large old trees grace the ridge.  Fresh fruiting fungi — Strangulated Amanita, Jack-o-lantern, Gem-studded Puffballs, and Black Trumpets — invite admiration.  Southern Harebell (Campanula divaricata) is in flower, and Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) sports skinny upright seed follicles.

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

Jack-o-lantern Mushroom

Aside from the slight climb to Andrews Bald, Forney Ridge Trail presents a steady downhill trajectory dropping 2,400 feet in elevation over 5.6 miles.  Despite an easier path for the lower half, it still takes us much longer than we’d hoped to reach its terminus at a broad gap.  We take a brief break, but the sky is darkening again, and we can’t tell if distant thunder is headed our way.  We shoulder packs and start the second leg of our descent, this time on Springhouse Branch Trail, to Campsite #64 2.8 miles away.

Tall Milkweed fruit

Tall Milkweed fruit

Within minutes it begins to rain.  It is not a hard rain, just steady, and we are able to maintain a decent pace, reaching the campsite in 1.5 hours.  Along the trail, we see several American Toads.  This amphibian will prove a reliable companion in the forest and come to characterize our entire trip.  At least 10 individuals grooving on the summer rain hop out of our way on Springhouse Branch.  The rain stops as we near trail’s end.

It’s late when we arrive at camp and waste no time erecting tents, fixing dinner, and preparing for bed.  We hang our packs by the light of headlamps.  As a side note, Campsite #64, a small horse camp, has picnic tables!  Precious few backcountry sites are blessed with this luxury.  Next morning the sky is clear, but our tents are dripping with condensation from the damp ground.

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Viscid Violet Cortinarius

Springhouse Branch Trail (7.1 miles) crosses over Forney Ridge, connecting Noland Creek and Forney Creek trails.  From a trailhead at Campsite #64, situated in the confluence of Mill and Noland creeks, the trail climbs the eastern slope of Forney Ridge, crossing and following first Mill Creek then the feeder stream for which the trail is named.  Springhouse Branch reaches the ridge at Board Camp Gap in 2.8 miles and continues an upward course for another half mile, remaining on or near the ridge line for more than a mile and peaking at 4,100 feet elevation.  From there, the trail descends Forney Ridge’s western slope into a valley carved by Bee Gum Branch, twisting its way to Campsite #71 and its terminus on Forney Creek Trail.

We begin hiking at 9:00 a.m. Bridges facilitate the early crossings of Mill Creek.  Since the trail follows two streams for more than a mile, there are other small creek crossings but no challenges.  Considering Springhouse Branch is used by horses and this section is situated in stream valleys, the trail’s general condition is remarkably good.  There is little trenching, not much muck, and minimal rocky-ness.  A handful of spots have some herbaceous plants leaning into the trail, but most of it is low and poses no real impediment, an important note given the late summer timing of this hike.

Featherbells past its prime

Featherbells past its prime

The trail maintains an good width throughout, and the grade is not taxing.  My version of the “Little Brown Book” (Hiking Trails of the Smokies) portrayed a trail in varying states of degradation, particularly the western leg to Forney Creek.  The trail has obviously been rehabilitated at some point in the past, as it is in fine shape throughout.  The main complaint in the book was an uneven trail sloping from side to side.  I hate this condition (one foot higher than the other) and am relieved and pleased to discover a mostly excellent trail tread.

Yellow-tipped Coral

Yellow-tipped Coral

Springhouse Branch is a marvelously rich trail that would be a delight to hike in spring. Wild Geranium, Broad Beech Fern, Seersucker Sedge, Rattlesnake Fern, Black Cohosh, Rue Anemone, Foamflower, Meadow Parsnip, Solomon’s Plume, Maidenhair Fern, Trillium sp., Hydrangea, Umbrella Leaf, Nodding Mandarin, Meadow Rue, Silverbell, Round-leaf Violet, Indian Cucumber Root, Marginal Woodfern, Intermediate Woodfern, Large Yellow Wood-Sorrel, Cinnamon Fern, Astilbe, and Flame Azalea attest to a lively display in April or May.

Summer and fall seasonal plants include Joe Pye-weed, Appalachian Bunchflower, Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum), White Wood Aster, Southern Hairbell, Grape Fern, Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis), Spikenard, Partridgeberry, Tall Rattlesnakeroot, Tall Meadow Rue, Turk’s Cap Lily, White Bergamot, Goldenrod spp., Hawkweed sp., and one of the blue-flowered asters.

American Toad

American Toad

Fungi are in their prime: Black Trumpets, Gem-studded Puffballs, Hydnellum, Caesar’s Amanita, Viscid Violet Cortinarius (Cortinarius iodes), Yellow-tipped Coral (Ramaria formosa), Coker’s Amanita, Bitter Hedgehog (Sarcodon scabrosus [S. underwoodii]) and Panther Cap.  On occasion, we pass through an area with the sickly sweet smell of decay.  It might be fungi too.  We see a lot of old mushrooms covered with cottony molds or swarming with little gnats.

And of course those companionable American Toads hop, skip, and jump to the side when we walk by.

Species of Blue Aster

Species of Blue Aster

Susan and I reach the Forney Creek junction (at Campsite #71) early afternoon.  We’ll now be hiking Forney Creek Trail.  An account of FCT and the rest of our trip is forthcoming.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Camel Gap, A.T. junction

Camel Gap, A.T. junction

The night was clear and quite cool. I slept in long pants and long sleeved shirt. The morning is equally clear, and I am excited to hike carrying only what I need for the day.

Today’s adventure is Camel Gap Trail. About halfway between Campsite #37 and the start of Gunter Fork Trail, Big Creek Trail simply ends, turning seamlessly into Camel Gap Trail. A sign marks this inauspicious and rather arbitrary junction in Walnut Bottom. From this point, Camel Gap gradually rises 1,700 feet over 4.7 miles to the Appalachian Trail.

Ramp flowers

Ramp flowers

Its A.T. junction is equidistant to Snake Den Ridge Trail (to the left) and Low Gap Trail (to the right, past Cosby Knob Shelter), both descending to Cosby Campground on the north side of the Smokies crest. Low Gap also descends southeast to Big Creek Trail just 0.1 mile from Campsite #37, a convenient 10.3-mile loop. Due to Camel Gap’s hiker friendly profile and complimentary account in the Little Brown Book, my plan to is hike it twice — up and back. It is just 0.1 mile longer and much easier than the loop.

Mini cascade

Mini cascade

The first mile or so of Camel Gap lies in or near the flood plain of Big Creek. The trail is narrow, wet, and overgrown in one area before Gunter Fork. After that junction, a short rocky stretch skirts Big Creek’s bank and is scoured by high water. These brief inconveniences are quickly left behind. Camel Gap is in fine condition, only a few eroded trenches as testament to horse use. Built along an old logging grade all the way to the A.T., it is one of the most pleasant uphill treks in the park. Other old logging grades are sometimes visible on opposite slopes.

View of Balsam Mountain

View of Balsam Mountain

Camel Gap follows Big Creek most of the way, crossing small feeder streams with lush growth of Bee Balm and Cut-leaved Coneflower. One small spring spills down a miniature cascade into a tiny pool. At approximately three miles, Big Creek curves left, and the trail begins to follow a feeder stream, Yellow Creek, named for the colorful autumn foliage of Tulip Poplar and Sugar Maple. Originally, the trail was called Yellow Creek too. “Camel” is thought to be a family name, perhaps the corruption of Campbell.

Appalachian Waxy Cap

Appalachian Waxy Cap

A short distance above the confluence of Yellow and Big Creeks, the trail hooks a hard right, moves away from the water, and ascends to the Smokies crest and Tennessee/North Carolina border, though its grade changes little. The lovely, peaceful cove forests in the protected stream valleys, where Ramp (Allium tricoccum var. tricoccum) is in flower, blend into northern hardwoods, mixing Silverbell, Yellow Birch, Fraser Magnolia, and Basswood among maples and oaks. Green fruit of Mountain Holly (Ilex montana) will turn red in the fall. There is a good view of Balsam Mountain on the way up. Near the A.T., occasional long wands of Catbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) reach into the trail, sometimes bearing thorns and sometimes waving slender, thornless tips with delicate, curling tendrils.

Coker's Amanita

Coker’s Amanita

Camel Gap has its share of beautiful mushrooms, including a picture perfect Coker’s Amanita, with pure white cap and conical warts. Several groupings of red Appalachian Waxy Cap (Hygrocybe appalachiensis) are regularly spotted near Fraser Magnolias and Silverbells, but according to Roody’s field guide, these mushrooms are saprobic (feeding on dead wood) and not mycorrhizal. I also see American Caesar’s and a bright group of Yellow Spindle Coral (Clavulinopsis fusiformis).

Yellow Spindle Coral

Yellow Spindle Coral

At the A.T., I rest a few minutes before starting down. A flat mossy area to the left of the trail on the way up is calling me for lunch. It takes about an hour to get back there. Juncos flitting through the trees are not pleased by my presence but soon get over it. Winter Wrens don’t seem to mind and sing heartily while I eat. Two new Poison Pigskin Puffballs are nestled in the grass and moss here. It is such a pleasant spot, I pull out my journal to write a little and even sketch a nearby Indian Cucumber-root. How wonderful to have the leisure for such indulgence!

Catbrier tendrils

Catbrier tendrils

I meet a father and daughter day hiking. They began in Cosby Campground and took Low Gap to Big Creek to Camel Gap and will follow the A.T. back to Low Gap and Cosby — a 15 mile day.

Returning to the flats of Walnut Bottom, I find a new mushroom. It is whitish to pale gray with dark gray conical warts like little steel studs sprinkled liberally on top. It’s Amanita onusta, common names Loaded Lepidella and Gunpowder Lepidella. “Onusta” derives from a Latin word meaning “charged, load-carrying, burdened,” and Amanitas are divided into sections — A. onusta is in the section Lepidellus.

Loaded Lepidella lures a snail

Loaded Lepidella lures a land snail

While photographing this Loaded Lepidella, I notice a snail is making a beeline for it. Sitting down in the trail, I watch (and photograph) the snail’s determined progress. The little guy stretches its ‘neck’ and even appears to pucker its ‘lips’ in its rush to reach the mushroom stem — to the extent a snail can rush! It climbs the stem, clutching firmly with that big muscled foot to hoist its home in the air. I get a humorous series of photos.

Flowering Raspberry

Flowering Raspberry

Past the Gunter Fork junction, there is a showy Flowering Raspberry shrub (Rubus odoratus) sporting large pinkish purple flowers with a center cushion of stamens. It looks more like a rose than a raspberry. I find quite an assembly of Velvet Earth Tongues (Trichoglossum hirsutum) poking through the leaf litter. These slender black club fungi are coated in fine hairs.

Velvet Earth Tongue

Velvet Earth Tongue

A large, beautiful mushroom growing on the mossy trailside has a frilled, concave cap that looks as if it’s been slathered with white cake frosting. The gills and short, stocky stem are yellowish. I should know this one but cannot make a certain ID. Near the Low Gap junction is a log covered with Fluted Bird’s Nest fungi in all stages — blackened empty cups, open cups with “eggs,” and fresh shaggy brown cups with the white protective membrane intact.

Unknown mushroom

Unknown mushroom

I left camp this morning shortly after 8:00 and return shortly after 4:00, 10.4 miles in eight hours. No heavy weight to haul, no pressure to rack up miles, freedom to relax and enjoy everything along the way, and a fairly remote yet accommodating trail. I had so much fun! Camel Gap earns a spot as one of my Top Five Trails!

reaching.....

Reaching…..

The weather has been very cooperative during my Smokies trip. Apart from that drenching on the A.T.’s Walnut Mountain Friday afternoon, the skies have been dry and the temperatures mild. Today, blue skies became cloudy around lunchtime but cleared during the afternoon. High clouds are gathering again this evening. Rain is forecast for tomorrow (Wednesday), and I am hoping it will wait until I’ve climbed Gunter Fork Trail and reached Laurel Gap Shelter for my final night.

contact!

Contact!

Cue Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture
Cue Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture

Read Full Post »