This morning I climbed more than 2,500 feet in 4.3 miles to the Eagle Creek trailhead on the A.T. The first clue that the “hard part” may not be over for the day comes 0.3 mile later at the Jenkins Ridge trailhead when I cannot find the trail. There is no dirt path visible, only a faint crease in the vegetation. Within a few yards, I disappear into foliage. From the A.T., there is now no evidence that the trail or I exist.
Other than long thorny arms of Rubus sp., I cannot recall a single plant for certain. All my time and energy is devoted to pushing through a gauntlet of herbaceous growth often well above my head. Protecting my eyes and face becomes the first priority, but an equally critical second priority is locating the actual foot path to avoid rocks or roots or branches or holes or bear poop.
There really is a narrow path under here somewhere, but it takes tremendous effort and time to push vegetation aside enough to see it. I wind up scooting my feet along in some places to avoid twisting an ankle on hidden impediments. My trekking poles rarely touch the ground. They stay arm’s length in front of me like the blade of a plow opening a furrow of space ahead. The poles catch on plants; plants catch on me. My clothes are snagged. There’s a cut on my cheek. My left arm looks like it was attacked by a vicious herd of feral cats.
For the first three miles, Jenkins Ridge clings to the steep side of the Smokies crest, circumnavigating the headwaters of several feeder streams to Eagle Creek. With the mountain rising on the left and falling away on the right, there’s not much room for error. There’s also no room for maneuvering should I encounter wildlife. However, given the racket I make hacking my way through this stuff, bears and other animals can hear me coming a mile away. I’m not too worried. What’s scarier are the outer edges of the trail. Jenkins Ridge is also a horse trail, and hoof-sized gouges slip down the steep slope. Unexpectedly keeling off the trail sideways is a bigger threat.
Vegetation density is tied to the canopy. Whenever the trail passes through sufficient forest shade, the riot of forb and shrub growth relaxes, and Jenkins Ridge opens into a respectable trail. Unfortunately, this condition is rare in the top one-third of the trail. The energy expended battling plants has been enormous thus far.
Jenkins Ridge begins at 5,000 feet. Over the next 2.8 miles, it dips a few hundred feet then returns to the starting elevation at a place called Haw Gap, a small opening through a saddle full of the same overgrown mix of head-high brambles and forbs. I plunge ahead on sheer faith that the trail is somewhere in the vicinity.
Back in the woods, I begin the first major descent, dropping 800 feet in one mile. Shortly past Haw Gap, the trail hits the ridge line for which it is named and remains on or near that line for the next 3.5 miles. During this run it will surmount two small but steep knobs and make several ridiculously steep declines. After Haw Gap, I leave the claustrophobic vegetation behind but now face bare dirt, loose rocks, and exposed roots pitching straight down the eroded nose of Jenkins Ridge with nary a switchback in sight. One stumble and it’s ass over tea kettle straight into a world of hurt.
Jenkins Ridge violates nearly every rule of Trail Building 101. As bad as it is for humans, it is beyond me how anyone could possibly take a horse down this trail or up it for that matter. Yet I find horse poop, along with lots of bear poop. At one point, a big downed tree blocks the trail. Its bole is too large to climb over and too low for crawling under with a pack. I lie down on my side and slither beneath the trunk.
Everything slows to a crawl, and I lose all sense of the trail. Have I passed Cherry Knob? Which steep descent is this one? Staring at the hiking book’s elevation profile, I cannot get a handle on my location, but I know where I am…in hell. The day is warm, even at this elevation, and very humid. My feet are killing me and so is my back. It’s been more than a year since I carried a full pack, and I’m feeling it.
There are nice plants, such as Michaux’s Lily (Lilium michauxii), and some monster mushrooms on Jenkins Ridge, as well as one of the largest patches of Trailing Arbutus I’ve ever seen. Today, photography takes a backseat to survival. A pair of Broadwinged Hawks let out a series of cries as I hike past.
The trail moderates at Pickens Gap, and on two occasions I think I’ve reached that holy grail only to have my spirits crushed with another lung-busting uphill or heart-stopping downhill. Part of me wants to sit down and cry while another part screams obscenities.
Finally, I see a sign post in a wide flat area below me. To get there, I have to crab walk on hands and feet down an almost sheer 8-foot slide of slippery dirt. Pickens Gap, thank god! The sign points left for Hazel Creek in 2.4 miles. Including two breaks, it has taken me 5 hours and 15 minutes to hike 6.5 miles on Jenkins Ridge.
Another small sign to the right simply says “Unmaintained Trail.” This is the old trailhead for Pinnacle Creek Trail, abandoned by the park several years ago. Yesterday, I saw the other end on Eagle Creek Trail. Now a manway, PCT ends (or begins) with a ford of Eagle Creek.
From Pickens Gap, Jenkins Ridge Trail joins a wide road, also overgrown, following the course of Sugar Fork. The hard part really is behind me now, but I’m so exhausted I can’t take advantage of the relative ease. Plodding along for another 90 minutes, I drag into Campsite 84 at 7:00 p.m. A small site, it sits at the confluence of Sugar Fork and Hazel Creek. It’s Friday night, but no one is there, no one shows up, and no one walks by. The only people I saw today were those three men on Eagle Creek this morning. It’s getting dark by the time I finish camp chores. I pop two ‘Vitamin I’ (ibuprofen) and crash.
After my trip, I emailed a friend who works at the park and is an accomplished hiker herself. I railed against Jenkins Ridge. In her response, she said the park’s trails coordinator recently asked her which trail she considered the worst in the park. “Guess which one I told him?” She forwarded my diatribe to the coordinator, and his response was, “I agree!” He’d prefer to close it or mark it as unmaintained.
Anyone pursuing the 900 Mile Club must tackle Jenkins Ridge. Two bits of advice: take a partner and take a machete. I never really thought I’d be one of those who, upon completing all the park trails, would start over for a second sweep. Jenkins Ridge has just insured that I won’t!