Ridges of Upper Bradley Fork February 25, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Appalachian Trail, Bradley Fork, Chasm Prong, Frowning Rock Prong, Gulf Prong, Hughes Ridge, Katalska Ridge, Pecks Corner
Yesterday I set out to circle the entire Bradley Fork watershed. My goal: to see if I could get a good look at the ridges among the upper realms of the three major headwater streams: Chasm Prong, Frowning Rock Prong, and Gulf Prong.
The hike’s dimensions were 24.6 miles and somewhere around 5,000 total vertical feet. (I’d estimated 4,400 beforehand but the cumulative gain function on my altimeter said 5,260 vertical feet. This route has a lot of small ups and downs.) I started at Smokemont campground, took the Bradley Fork trail to Hughes Ridge to Pecks Corner, followed the A.T. across to what the Park calls the Dry Sluice Gap trail (former Richland Mountain trail), and down that to Bradley Fork to complete my circle.
The light was dim when I started hiking at 6:30, but just light enough that I didn’t need to use my headlamp. Because access to most of the campground was gated off, I had to walk its length to get to the Bradley trailhead. And once I reached the trail, there was no avoiding the tedium of its first four miles, as I slogged along a wide, flat gravel road beside the stream.
The saving grace is that most of the way I had views of one of the lovely big streams of the Smokies.
But keep in mind that the long, tedious approach is part of why the upper part of the watershed is so wild. People don’t want to go through all that to get there. And apparently Champion Fibre didn’t get up into the headwaters back in the logging days, either. Maps of old-growth forest at the time of the Park’s creation indicate that logging did not take place above the confluence of Chasm and Gulf Prongs, below which is given the Bradley Fork name. In the lower area, of course, Champion had a gigantic timbering operation that fed its mill in Canton.
Even after the Bradley Fork trail leaves the lower valley to climb up to Hughes Ridge, it uses a wide logging grade that only narrows to a footpath about halfway up. Everywhere, I saw evidence of the January floods. Water had scoured leaves, twigs, and topsoil from the trails, leaving rubble with debris piled up behind the stones.
In places, the floods had deposited fine silt almost the consistency of quicksand, where a boot could sink in three or four inches deep.
Once on Hughes Ridge, I had good views across the upper Enloe Creek valley to Katalska Ridge, which miraculously avoided the trailbuilding of its neighbors on either side, Hughes and Hyatt. It is covered with red spruce from top to bottom, and I would like to explore there.
I began to encounter snow and ice. Pecks Corner looked wintry, and I put on my microspikes there for traction where snow packed down by footprints had turned icy.
I kept the spikes on for eight miles. I ran into bare ground in sunny places, but the ice always returned. In most places things were crispy and crunchy—not much melting going on.
After I turned west on the A.T., I came to my first view of the upper ridges. Although I had been on this trail section once before, it was on a rainy day with zero visibility. Therefore everything that I could see off to the sides was new to me. But I’d been looking at it on maps for a long time.
I continued along the trail, passing big icicles.
I came to an old landslide. The Anakeesta rock and the whole aspect reminded me of slides on the Boulevard and Alum Cave trails on LeConte.
I soon came to Bradley’s View, which I’d been looking forward to. I spent a long time here, checking the features I saw against my map, using my compass to match things up. The hard part was that the map had no names that I could refer to for any of the ridges. So I gave them my own names.
Gulf Prong makes a great sweeping curve around a ridge, the top of which is rocky and impossible to see from most places. I called it Hidden Ridge. The reverse-question-mark shape of the stream reminds me of Raven Fork as it swoops around Breakneck Ridge. And certain patterns repeat in the ridges as well as the streams.
To the west, Fortress Ridge divides Chasm Prong and Frowning Rock Prong.
I called the second ridge over to the west Fishtail because of the way it terminates in two points. My view of it from this angle was partially obstructed, but the ridge beyond that—Frowning Rock Ridge—could not be seen at all. On the map at the top of this post, you’ll see its very strange-looking contours, coming to a pronounced spine with impressively vertical sides. As it turned out, I could not get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge from any point near the trail. It would have to be seen from Fishtail Ridge or Fortress Ridge.
At last I left Bradley’s View and continued west. Looking back beyond Peck’s, I could see Eagle Rocks, which I hope to visit (via Eagle Rocks Prong) later this year.
I followed the A.T. where it wends around the north side of Laurel Top. The only other time I’ve been here was on the famous October 2009 backpack up and over Woolly Tops, when we ended up exiting the Eagle Rocks drainage to Laurel Top because of heavy rains.
Before yesterday, I’d never been on the stretch of A.T. from Laurel Top west to Porters Gap. You might think that’s an odd gap in my trail experience—no side trails join the A.T. at those two points. Yes, those are the odd sorts of things that happen with bushwhackers.
As I came around the west side of Laurel Top to join the main ridge again, I had a view of the upper west flank of Fishtail.
I explored off the south side of the trail to see if I could get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge, which joins the A.T. very close to this point. I could see the topmost spruce-covered portion but not the interesting portion of bare rock.
I’d hoped to do a downclimb of the ridge just far enough to reach the rocky section, but given the time, I decided this was too much to add on to my trail marathon.
I continued along the A.T., passing False Gap and Porters Gap. Along the way I met two separate thru-hikers (early birds!), trail maintainer Pete Berntsen with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, out with his hand saw (dedicated!), and two other guys backpacking.
Glancing down the familiar top chute of Dry Sluice manway, I turned off on the Dry Sluice trail. I wonder if the Park calls it by that name so that people will stop talking about and using the manway of the same name? But I have to admit the former “Richland Mountain” name was confusing too, as the current trail leaves the old CCC Richland trail to drop into the Bradley valley along Tennessee Branch.
I still had nine miles to go, and I officially entered Death March mode at this point, checking my watch, estimating my arrival time for each junction. When I reached Bradley Fork, I made an effort to admire the stream as I retraced those long four miles along it. And it was beautiful, but I was too glazed over to appreciate it.
I’ve been talking to people over the past weeks about the Bradley Fork headwaters. It’s interesting that despite my picking the brains of various victims and reaching out to old-timer bushwacking types who’ve explored on the North Carolina side, I haven’t come up with a single person so far who’s journeyed up those streams, climbed up those ridges, ventured into that mysterious region. Let me know if you have.
The Bradley headwaters could be reached by going out the A.T. from Newfound and dropping down, or going up and over from False Gap Prong and/or Kalanu Prong in the Greenbrier, but the “righteous” way is to go up Bradley. That probably means camping at the Cabin Flats backcountry site, up at that four-mile point. Maybe with a fishing rod or a deck of cards, that wouldn’t be so bad…