A week in the Smokies June 21, 2009Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Brushy Mountain, Bullhead, Caldwell Fork, Cataloochee, elk, Long Branch, Mt. LeConte, Rainbow Falls, Roundtop Trail, Smoky Mountains, Winnesoka
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Back in the land of towering green ridges and plunging stream valleys… six days of being in the Smokies.
The elk in Cataloochee
I visited Cataloochee to meet up with Ray Payne of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and see the herd of elk that have been introduced there. Ray volunteers with the Park Service as a member of the “Elk Bugle Corps” to give information to park visitors and sometimes keep them from getting up too close to the elk. The best time to view the elk is dusk, but I got there early and did a stroll on the Caldwell Fork Trail, where I saw a lot of laurel along the stream and noticed a good-sized hemlock. The base of it looked fine, but the top is about two-thirds dead, affected by the adelgid like most of the hemlock in the area.
But although I saw a lot of dead hemlock, it didn’t alter the whole appearance of the area as drastically as I had feared.
I connected with Ray at about 4:00. He drives all the way from Knoxville every couple of weeks, going over the infamous Cove Creek dirt road (which has some good dropoffs without guardrails) to get to Cataloochee. I’m not sure which is worse, Cove Creek or driving through the Pigeon River Gorge on I-40. We had a great time catching up on things. He is the conservation chair for SMHC and continues to do a tremendous amount of work on the North Shore Road problem over on Fontana Lake.
It was raining pretty hard when we first drove up past the ranger station, but we saw three bull elk with impressively large antlers and a separate herd of does. We saw them in different combinations as we chatted over the next few hours.
Rainbow Falls/Bullhead loop
The next day I did a climb up to the top of LeConte up the Rainbow Falls trail and down the Bullhead trail. The dimensions of the hike are relatively hefty (about 14 miles and 4000 vertical feet), but the going is very easy, at least compared with the 9-mile, 4000-foot vertical hike I did on Mt. Washington the previous weekend. I picked this hike because I liked the idea of going through all the plant/climate zones on LeConte. I got into fog at about 3500 feet and stayed in it most of the hike, but that didn’t matter at all. At Rainbow Falls, there was a catawba rhododendron in bloom right at the top of the falls.
I had the falls to myself at about 10:00 on a Friday morning, except for some company that seemed interested in sharing my food:
At one spot above the falls, the trail was carpeted with rhodo blossoms.
The myrtle was just starting to bloom along the Rocky Spur side trail.
I was pleased to see that the Fraser firs are looking better on the top of LeConte. Most of them died 20 or so years ago, and areas above 6000 feet used to have a skeletal, devastated look, but now there are a lot of new firs in the 10-15 foot range. People are waiting to see if this new crop will survive.
I ran into a number of people between Rainbow Falls and the top, and the Lodge seemed busy. But as soon as I got down on the Bullhead Trail, I saw not a single person until I was all the way back at Cherokee Orchard. Sidehilling below Balsam Point, the slope (as opposed to the trail) was very steep, and I couldn’t believe that 20 years ago I rockhopped up the headwaters of Big Branch from the Newfound Gap road with an SMHC group. But those places always seem impossible looking down from the trail.
Winnesoka from Long Branch Gap
The next day I attended the concert at Cades Cove described in the post below. One of my poems that was set to music and performed by the Knoxville Symphony was about a solo trip I did up Brushy Mountain from Long Branch Gap. For the following day (Sunday the 14th) I had invited some people to join me for another off-trail hike in the area, but it turned out no one could make it. I decided to go up anyway on my own, back up to Long Branch, but I would head to the other side of the gap, Mt. Winnesoka. It’s an easier hike, since it doesn’t involve crawling through the heath on Brushy.
I left the Brushy Mt. Trail where it comes close to Long Branch and walked through easy open woods for a while on the left bank of the stream. I saw this enormous basswood:
There was a lot of squaw root:
After the valley closed in I started rockhopping up the stream. There were plenty of stinging nettles.
I left the stream and headed up to the gap through woods that was moderately thick. That area has lots of dog hobble (leucothoe):
Once I got up to the ridgecrest, I found the ground carpeted with wintergreen (gaultheria) and galax:
I headed up the slope, tangling with some greenbriers that were lurking in the laurel, and reached the high point of Winnesoka, Lookout Rock, at 4445′. As you might guess, you have to clamber up the rock to get much of a view. The post below about the Cades Cove concert has a photo of the view toward Brushy and LeConte. This photo is a zoom of the same picture to give a better idea of the heath on Brushy, but really there’s no way of understanding what it’s like until you crawl through it:
I opted not to bushwhack over to the northwest prominence of Winnesoka (Round Top, 4308′) but instead to navigate over to Turkey Rock (4000′), a much easier trip. I was able to stay on intermittent game paths near the steep north slope of the ridge. At about the right elevation I found an unimpressive rock, but a bit further on was another rock that I believe is Turkey Rock:
Still not terribly impressive. After touching this point, I continued along the ridge and then dropped back into Long Branch for the trip out.
This trail is hardly used, for two reasons: it has a ford of the Little River at its western end and very restricted parking on Wears Cove Gap road at its eastern end. Going up to the trail’s high point at Joint Rock made a nice easy hike the day after I did Winnesoka, 5 miles roundtrip and 800 vertical feet. The first (easternmost) part of the forest had experienced a burn.
By chance I ran into the trail maintainer, a very nice guy from Chattanooga who is also a 2000-miler on the A.T. He said the burn had started out as a “controlled burn,” but had gotten a little bit out of control in some spots. But life was coming back, including this peculiar lichen:
Even in the burned over area, there were quite a few wildflowers, especially pippsissewa. The burn ends past a private house where the trail touches the park boundary. I saw spiderwort and coreopsis, some lady slippers that had gone by, and some flame azalea near Joint Ridge:
This trail was also good for mushrooms.
These made me think of a parent and child, though they probably actually sprouted at the same time.
The next day I met up with an old friend from Knoxville for a stroll on Lumber Ridge, a place that seemed noteworthy that day mainly for bugs and mugginess. But it was good to catch up before I headed home.
What I always remind myself is that these places are waiting, these streams and these waterfalls are still flowing, at this very moment even though I am now far away.