Scouting Tomahawk Falls May 4, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Chimneys, Sugarland Mountain trail, Sugarland-Chimneys manway, Tomahawk Falls, Tomahawk Prong
Yesterday James Locke and I scouted a hike we will lead July 14 for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. The hike will have two options. People wanting an easy outing can go to Tomahawk Falls and back out again on the Road Prong and Chimneys trails. Those who want something more challenging will go to the falls, return to Road Prong and traverse to an unnamed stream that runs just north of Tomahawk Prong, follow that up to the Sugarland Mountain trail, take the manway connector to the upper Chimneys trail, visit the Chimneys, and descend the trail.
Since access to the Chimneys trail is currently blocked by reconstruction of the bridge over Walker Camp Prong that was damaged by the January floods, we scouted the hike starting from Indian Gap and climbing back up to the gap at the end.
Speaking of the January floods, this was the first time since then that I’d been past the section of US 441 that washed out. For three months I was unable to reach my favorite parts of the Smokies—the areas around Newfound Gap, Mt. LeConte, and the Greenbrier. However, the experience of driving over the reconstructed section didn’t turn out quite as exciting as I’d hoped. I crossed the short stretch of new pavement in a flash, with hardly a chance to admire the major drainage work above and below the grade.
James and I descended the Road Prong trail amidst swathes of spring beauties.
We dropped down from the trail a little above the Tomahawk Prong junction to make sure we didn’t miss it. A small log jam there made it easy to spot once we were down in the stream.
Since Tomahawk Prong is a shallow stream hemmed in by rhodo, the way you get up it is to wade. We kept our boots on to travel the half-mile to the falls—it is too far to wear Crocs or similar footgear.
James, an avid fisherman who spends many hours wading streams, was fast and agile going up the watercourse—and he managed to spot a few brookies along the way. I was slower, slipping and sliding on the mossy rocks. After a half hour we reached the waterfall I had seen pictured as Tomahawk Falls. It was wide, but not very high.
But we’d glimpsed another waterfall just past it, taller and narrower. So we went up to that point.
It was perhaps 18 or 20 feet high, and seemed more impressive to us than the first, which seemed closer to 12 feet than the 15 I’d read in a description. Fortunately, since the two falls are so close together, we can easily visit both.
We returned down the stream and made a short crossing through the rhodo over to the next stream valley. This was a lovely little stream.
The only obstruction we encountered was a couple of large hemlock blowdowns. We saw lots of wildflowers.
The way grew steep as we approached the ridgetop through worlds of wildflowers. We hit the crest just south of a gap and dropped a short distance to the trail.
The manway that connects with the Chimneys trail is about a mile north of where we reached the Sugarland trail. We hunted a short while and found its upper end. The manway is fairly steep but easy to follow.
As we descended the manway, I realized I was getting very hungry. I grabbed a few peanut M&Ms when we reached the Chimneys trail. I figured I’d have lunch on top of the Tourist Chimney.
At the base of the Chimney we encountered one other person. With the trailhead closed off, we hadn’t expected to see anyone at all, but he had come down from Indian Gap as well—though not of course by the same route that we took. We stowed our poles near the Park Service warning sign, and I climbed directly up from that point, realizing halfway up this short pitch that it was sketchy. But I found a nifty handhold, wafer thin but solid, and got up onto the main part of the Chimney. I continued climbing, taking a somewhat unorthodox route. As I neared the top, I realized that James had stopped following. I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t making the climb look realistic.
I enjoyed the view from the top for a few minutes. I especially marveled at the very visible slide that comes down from the Alum Cave trail at Peregrine Peak into Trout Branch. James and I climbed that last fall. He went back this year after the January flood and explored the lower section, finding that it had been enlarged and considerably rearranged by the deluge. I look forward to going back and taking another look.
I descended the Chimney and joined James for lunch. It was not until we’d headed down the trail that I realized I hadn’t taken a single picture from the Chimney. Well, just to prove that I have in fact explored both Chimneys quite a bit, here is a photo from an SMHC outing that I led with Chris Sass that climbed up off-trail from the Chimneys picnic area.
James and I descended to the Road Prong trail junction. Now we faced the 1500-foot climb to Indian Gap. It’s always tough to do a major climb at the end of a hike. At least we had the beautiful waterfalls of Road Prong to occupy our attention.
We passed a slope covered with luxuriant moss.
Approaching the Tomahawk Prong junction from the direction opposite to the way we’d come in the morning, we identified a couple of features that marked the best spot to drop down from the trail on the club outing. Under a lowering cloud deck, we arrived back at Indian Gap. Things will look very different when we come back in July.
In search of the 150-foot spruce April 15, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Eastern Native Tree Society, Enloe Creek, Raven Fork, red spruce, Simmons Branch
Ever since I read a trip report by members of the Eastern Native Tree Society about finding a record-size red spruce in the Raven Fork area, I’ve wanted to go there myself. In a way my mission was silly. I don’t have the scientists’ instruments for measuring the height of trees. Maybe what it boiled down to is that I just wanted to wander around in that incredibly wild area in the quadrant northwest of the Raven Fork/Enloe Creek junction.
The ENTS team found a spruce in the Simmons Branch valley that they measured as 146.7″ tall and 12’8″ cbh (circumference at breast height). Those dimensions combined make it a national champion, they said. They found another leviathan even taller, 155’3″ tall, but not as thick (10’7″ cbh). They also found all kinds of other wild, weird, gigantic trees, such as an enormous yellow birch with adventitious roots like those of a strangler fig.
But what is it about spruces? When my friend Brian Worley and I went exploring up there yesterday, we saw skeletal hemlocks that were bigger. But spruces are not usually as large as hemlocks, and I’ve developed a special fondness for these dark, dense evergreens that crown the heights with their sharp pointed tops. I always look for the first spruce when I climb a mountain, though it’s usually a baby. And I always look for those dark shapes on the remote beckoning tops of the farthest heights.
On an overcast day with refreshing cold winds, we climbed up the Hyatt Ridge trail and descended to Raven Fork. It was my pleasure to introduce Brian to these places. He is a long-time bushwhacker who lives in East Tennesse and had never visited this area.
We stopped for a rest and a snack at the hemlock boulder on Raven Fork—the one where the Park Service has treated the landmark trees for the woolly adelgid. We admired the stream.
Here came the tricky part—the ENTS report said the team left the Enloe Creek trail “about a third of a mile” past the metal bridge. I actually spent time with my maps and an architect’s ruler, measuring the trail against the map scale. I came up with a plausible departure point. But even if I’d identified the correct spot on the map, we then had to match it to the actual location. I still can’t be certain we selected exactly the same route visited by ENTS, but we left the trail at a nice little stream valley and started to climb.
We climbed from about 3800′ to 4800′ up this valley, finding it remarkably free of thick brush. It seemed too good to be true—and in fact the rhodo-free conditions didn’t last. As we climbed, we found the forest floor carpeted with the infinitely variable shapes of new green leaves.
The way grew progressively steeper, and we passed a cascade.
As we reached the top and got into thicker brush, I took a photo looking south, toward Hughes Ridge and Ace Enloe Ridge.
Suddenly we found ourselves in dense rhodo, standing on the ridge that marks the southern boundary of the Simmons Branch drainage. The ENTS route took them down toward the stream to the northwest. But their description said they’d emerged on the ridge in a heath bald, and we saw no heath in any direction. And as we gazed into the incredibly dense, snarled, wild forest between us and Simmons Branch, we realized that we might have bitten off more than we could chew. We’d gotten a late start, and we were facing the possibility of getting caught out in the dark looking for the national champ.
Since the second 150-foot spruce was located near a saddle between Simmons and the next stream drainage to the west, we decided to keep to the high ground and head over to the saddle. We worked our way through the enchanted forest, seeing many tall spruce and one of the largest sugar maples I’ve ever come across. Even the fungus growths were larger than normal.
We crossed occasional stretches of open ground, but most of the time we fought through rhodo and blackberries. The going was very slow. We reached the saddle and turned west, soon finding the spruce pictured at top. Rhodo hemmed in its base. But as I gazed up the towering trunk, I felt that we were in the presence of a giant. Of course, we’ll never know its actual height or whether it is the second one mentioned in the ENTS report.
We made our way down into the unnamed tributary of Enloe by a small draw choked with rhodo and the thickest blackberry canes I’ve ever seen (thick in their diameter, I mean). Things finally opened up and we were able to make faster progress.
This valley had the opposite gradient than the one we’d ascended by, being steepest toward the bottom. The stream cascaded down over attractive waterfalls, and we finally returned to the trail.
Enloe Creek was plunging along with high water levels. It was beautiful.
All through the day, we saw countless white trillium.
We stopped for a snack beside my favorite Raven Fork pool before making the climb back up to Hyatt Ridge.
We descended along Hyatt Creek in a light, gentle rain. All the plants were once again being nourished by the rain clouds so that they will grow and thrive. Ah, the Smokies in April. Indescribable.
Frowning Rock Ridge April 7, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, plants, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Bradley Fork, Dry Sluice trail, Frowning Rock Prong, Frowning Rock Ridge, geranium, hepatica, Hughes Ridge, mayapple, trillium
Your faithful blogger goes places for you so that you don’t have to go there yourself. From the comfort of your armchair, you can visit the upper portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.
For some background on my obsession with the headwaters of Bradley Fork, go here. I’ll repeat one of the maps from that post, showing names that I gave to these very wild ridges that no one has ever visited, as far as I can determine:
In its appearance, Frowning Rock Ridge is the strangest and most interesting of the ridges, to judge from the map. But I couldn’t even see it from any of the viewpoints I visited on my earlier trip of 24.6 miles and 5260 total vertical feet.
My altimeter came up with exactly the same figure today, even though I circled the watershed clockwise instead of counterclockwise this time—after I subtracted out my foray of 300 vertical feet down the ridge. It just so happens that the ridge joins with the A.T. at about 12 miles into the trip whichever direction you take, so it doesn’t matter whether you start with Bradley Fork and Hughes Ridge or with Dry Sluice trail and Richland Mountain.
Last night when I was preparing for the trip, I looked at a satellite image of the ridge at a higher magnification than I’d done before. It looked to me as though the ridge might actually be vegetated on nearly all of its crest even though it has huge slides going off to the left (west).
It is hard to orient yourself with a satellite image. The draw to the west of the ridge almost seems to look like a ridge itself, but that reverses the ridge/valley structure. Two narrow slides come down to the same draw from the other side . . . but things have changed since this image was created.
More about the slides in a moment. For right now, let’s just say that when I looked closely at this image, I thought, “Well, that vegetation will make things safer for me when I explore down the ridge!” It did give me lots of stuff to hang onto. It also made the ridge virtually impenetrable.
After a brief period of spruce forest interspersed with witch hobble, it turned into what you see below.
Every now and then, the way would be almost clear for a few feet.
I got glimpses of a pretty big slide to the right. This is different than what the satellite image shows.
Much later in my outing, I had a glimpse of the area from the upper Bradley Fork trail. There is a huge slide that comes down from just west of Laurel Top—exactly what this might be the upper part of. Very intriguing. I wish I could have taken a picture of it, but from that standpoint, there was too much forest in between, and the light was bad.
From the ridge, I had views of what I call Fortress Ridge to the west and Fishtail Ridge to the east.
I wrestled with the rhodo and laurel for a while. It was pretty grim, and I saw no signs that it would let up any time soon. In fact, it got worse as the ridge grew narrower and steeper. Plus, I had to take into account the dimensions of my overall outing. So I turned around and crawled back up. Of course, the wind-blasted branches had all been aiming downslope, so to speak, so now I was going against the grain. Experienced bushwhackers will know what I mean.
I hadn’t seen anyone all day, but now I ran into a total of six thru-hikers. I had a burst of adrenalin from my mini-adventure, so I galloped past them all with my much lighter pack, turned down Hughes Ridge, and felt great until I hit the junction with the upper Bradley Fork trail. All of a sudden I felt horribly tired, and I still had 7.4 miles to go. I stopped, had something to eat, and pressed on.
It was pretty much of a death march from that point on. Fortunately, once down on the section of trail that goes along Bradley Fork itself, the flowers made a nice show. But I will say that I took all of the photos below at the beginning of the hike, not at the end. In my final miles, I was in that robotic mode where I didn’t even want to break stride to take a picture—and I knew ahead of time it was going to be that way. So below you will see some photos from early in the morning.
I feel as though I don’t want to set foot on the lower Bradley Fork trail again for quite a while, but I do want to explore some of the slides in the headwaters area, possibly going out from Newfound Gap. For now, I will just daydream about it.
I don’t expect many people will be interested in this.