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Posts Tagged ‘Pink Earth Lichen’

Pinesap

It’s just after 4:00 on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. I’ve reached Parson Branch Road at the end of Gregory Bald Trail and am ready to begin Hannah Mountain Trail. This section of the park is quite isolated from civilization. The road, which is closed to vehicular traffic, and these two trails are the only backcountry access points in the southwestern corner of the park between the Abrams Creek and Twentymile ranger stations. No matter the direction, I’m miles from other people.

The distant southwestern park boundary follows U.S. Hwy 129 and the Little Tennessee River, now bloated into a series of serpentine lakes: Cheoah, Calderwood, and Chilhowee. Between the lakes and Hannah Mountain Trail lies a no-man’s land of wild ridges: Bunker Hill, Skunk, Shop, Deadrick, and Tarkiln draining numerous streams into Panther Creek that drains into Abrams Creek just before its demeaning demise at Chilhowee Lake. Ridges and valleys on the other side of Hannah Mountain drain into Rabbit Creek which also feeds into Abrams Creek below the falls. The point of this geography lesson is twofold: 1) Hannah Mountain Trail is remote, and 2) Hannah Mountain Trail is dry.

Sourwood’s early fall color

Provided preparations are made for these two conditions, there is a third point regarding Hannah Mountain Trail — it’s great. The trail runs 9.5 miles from a cruising elevation of 2800 feet along its namesake ridge line through a gradual descent among other ridges to its wet finale across Abrams Creek at 1300 feet, making a sickle-shaped arc south to north. The path is smooth and often soft with a cushion of pine needles underfoot.

Pelecinid wasp

From Parson Branch Road, Hannah Mountain draws a flat profile for the first 3 miles along the ridge, veering off to skirt the steep right side of Mount Lanier and another lesser peak yet maintaining a near level grade. It’s pine tree heaven on the dry, acidic ridge. White, Virginia, Table Mountain, and Pitch pines are prevalent along with hardwoods such as Red Maple, Sourwood, and Sassafras. Peeking through the leaf litter are scattered clumps of reddish Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys). Like its ghostly white cousin Indian Pipe, Pinesap is parasitic, helping itself to the sugars mycorrhizal fungi have received from their partner trees.

Pink Earth Lichen

Some hardwoods are showing early fall color, and one Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is loaded with large, immature fruits, still pale with only the faintest hint of color. Comb-leaf Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria pectinata) flowers amid its ferny foliage. Sandy soil-loving Pink Earth Lichen (Dibaeis baeomyces) sends up tiny stalks of fruiting bodies that resemble micro-sized pink balloons. A stalk of Yellow Fringed Orchid retains its crown of bright orange blossoms. Several long-tailed insects, the female Pelecinid Wasp (Pelecinus polyturator), rest on foliage. Her long, skinny abdomen is an ovipositor that she drills into the soil to lay parasitic eggs on June beetle grubs underground — Nature’s checks and balances.

S

Comb-leaf Yellow False Foxglove

hortly after starting the trail, rain begins to fall. It’s a light rain, there’s no wind and no thunder. Certain it will stop any minute, I keep walking and it keeps falling. Almost an hour later it does end, and my pants legs are sopping from brushing past wet foliage.

Just past the 3-mile mark, Hannah Mountain begins a gentle descent of 800 feet in 1.25 miles to Flint Gap, the location of Campsite #14 and my destination. A water source at the gap is unreliable, and the Smokies guide suggests getting water at a small stream up trail several hundred yards, small being the key word here. This is the headwaters of Hannah Branch, little more than a narrow wet spot in the trail. Thankfully, a thin sheet of flowing water coats slanted bedrock. I lay the ‘dirty’ bag of my Platypus filter system downslope, hold the open edge flat against the rock, and patiently wait for 3 liters to collect. The water is brown with dissolved tannins from leaves. I hoist my pack and carry the bag of water down to the gap I trust isn’t too far away. Very soon the gap comes into view below. It’s nearly 7:00 p.m.

Flint Gap

The trail bisects Campsite #14 at Flint Gap, a small saddle near the base of Hannah Mountain. I set my tent in a flat grassy area open to the sky and finish evening chores just as it is becoming too dark to see without a headlamp. Despite being alone, I sleep like a baby, awakening only once when a Barred Owl lets out one of those wee-hour piercing screeches. It doesn’t get light enough to see well until almost 7:00 a.m., and I’m off by 8:15.

Hannah Mountain Trail is in very good shape. The primary complaint is lots of blowdowns, but most are small enough to easily slip around or climb over. Some of it could be cleared quickly with a small saw. Trampled paths of dead vegetation circumnavigating the blockages leads me to believe these have been here for some time.

Coker’s Amanita

Pine and oak continue to dominate the canopy. There are some lovely old Chestnut Oaks in this area, including a few very large individuals. Hairy Blueberry and Lowbush Blueberry are overwhelmed by acres and acres of Bear Huckleberry dominating the understory in several places. Occasional blue spires of Downy Lobelia are a welcome sight.

Mushrooms are more plentiful on Hannah Mountain — False Fly Agaric, American Caesars, Yellow Patches, Destroying Angel, Brown Funnel Polypore, a few corals, and 2 fresh young Coker’s Amanitas. Three large Red-and-Yellow Boletes have flattened out and resemble round slices of seedless watermelon!

Shuttleworth Ginger’s foliage

Hannah climbs Polecat Ridge, the only true uphill section before descending to Rabbit Creek Trail. Nearing that junction, tall trailside vegetation thickens and becomes choked with non-native invasive species like Japanese Stiltgrass and Lady’s Thumb. I can hear voices from Campsite #16 which sits below the junction. The same overgrown, invasive-strewn character marks the first few hundred yards past Rabbit Creek where Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) is flowering, but the vegetation soon opens. This stretch receives more use and is more moist with a few small streams. Impressively tall stems of Cardinal Flower grace one stream, and I come eye-to-eye with Purple-disk Sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens). The mottled foliage of Shuttleworth’s Ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) splays against the leaf litter.

Purple-disk Sunflower

The final 0.4 mile of Hannah Mountain is steeper as it drops to the crossing of Abrams Creek, and the trail quality degrades significantly. Densely overgrown, rocky, eroded, and uneven, it’s an accident waiting to happen…apparently waiting for me. My left ankle rolls on one deep gouge, and I fall headlong down trail propelled by the weight of my pack and gravity. My ankle stings but is not badly sprained, and nothing else hurts.

Abrams Creek can be a tricky crossing, even when the water level and flow are modest like today. The bottom is uneven with slippery, algae-covered rocks. I change into water shoes and stow everything (camera, boots, etc.) in my pack. The water reaches mid-thigh in some places but stays just shy of rolled pants legs.

Crossing at Abrams Creek

The far side of Abrams Creek is the end of Hannah Mountain Trail, a three-way junction of Abrams Falls, Hannah, and Hatcher Mountain trails. There is no sign for Hatcher Mountain at all. No sign pointing toward Little Bottoms Trail. For a brief confused moment, I start hiking up Abrams Falls Trail and must pull out my map to regain bearings and retrace those steps.

Hatcher Mountain Trail’s true start has no sign

Hatcher Mountain Trail begins to the left of the junction and angles upslope from Abrams Creek. At 0.2 mile it deviates further, splitting off where Little Bottoms picks up, and soon turns away from the creek valley altogether. I hiked Little Bottoms in the fall of 2012, a year after major storms wreaked havoc on this end of the park. The forest was largely gone, unleashing a riot of vegetation basking in unobstructed sunlight. Now I see this area five years later and can witness firsthand a “dog-hair thicket” of young pine trees. Pines 5 to 10 feet tall crowd the trail’s edges and fill the understory beneath a thin canopy. White Pine and Virginia Pine are prolific. One Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) is loaded with an impressive number of red warty capsules, the most I’ve ever seen on this small retiring shrub.

Young pines form a ‘dog-hair’ thicket

The dry soil is cream colored and graveled with broken slate. Winged Sumac, Whorled Tickseed, Southern Harebell, Little Bluestem, Rattlesnake Hawkweed, Hayscented Fern, various Vaccinium species, goldenrod species, Agalinus sp., Partridge Pea, and more are right at home in what seems a most inhospitable setting. Maryland Golden-aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is lovely in flower and Silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia) is just beginning, its foliage very prominent on trail. An aging stem of Colicroot (Aletris farinosa) is setting fruit. Brambles are present too but not as bad as it could be. The only stream crossing, Oak Flats Branch, barely ranks as a mud puddle.

Silkgrass foliage

Hatcher Mountain Trail runs 2.8 (2.6?) miles from Abrams Creek to Cooper Road Trail. In this direction, it has two climbs. The first gains 400 feet in a half mile and represents a real slog through overgrown vegetation this time of year. The modest second climb gains 300 feet in 3/4 mile. Either end of the trail is in better shape and more interesting than the middle section, which suffers from overly enthusiastic plant growth and horse damage. Compared to Hannah Mountain, Hatcher Mountain falls well short in my opinion. However, if walked from Cooper Road to Abrams Falls and done before summer growth overtakes the trail, it would be quite enjoyable.

Queendevil

One unfortunate mishap mars my experience. About a mile into the trail, I examine the glandular hairs of Queendevil (Hieracium gronovii) with my hand lenses and fail to properly secure these expensive tools in my camera bag. Forty-five minutes later, I discover they are missing. Unwilling to continue without at least trying to find them, I must retrace the better part of a mile downhill and back up again. They are lying in the middle of the trail not far from that Queendevil.

I’m way behind schedule, but stop to eat lunch on a log in a little shady gap. Far from doing my tweaked ankle good, the rest makes it stiff and sore when I resume hiking. Two ibuprofen will kick in before long, but it’s a slow start. The gap is perhaps a half mile or so from Cooper Road. I limp in at 3:00.

This is also the junction with Beard Cane Trail. I’ve still got another 3.5 miles to Campsite #3 where I’ll meet Allen. Stay tuned for the Beard Cane post.

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