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Groundhog Ridge manway November 25, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Mt. Cammerer tower from upper manway

This outing came about when a reader of my blog expressed an interest in getting off trail in the Smokies.  Like many hikers, Tom had put in years of following regular maintained trails before becoming aware of the strange parallel universe of bushwhackers and manway prowlers.  So I took him up the Groundhog Ridge manway.

Tom was in Gatlinburg for a week with his family, so we picked a day and met at the Cosby campground.  We considered doing a true off-trail hike up the north side of Cammerer, but I thought Groundhog Ridge would be a good introduction.  I hadn’t been on the manway in 20 years, but I remembered what the starting point looks like, where McFalls Branch crosses Route 32.  The hardest part is finding a place to put the car other than the driveway of the nearby house.

Note: Since doing this hike, I have learned that the McFalls Branch route of the lower manway has fallen into disuse, although that is the route that was generally used in the 80s. People now follow Groundhog Creek. There is much better parking available for that route—the only disadvantage is that you miss out on the nice cascade. Coming down that way on the SMHC outing up Leadmine Ridge, I could see where the old McFalls Branch path joined it at the ridgecrest.

We followed the stream up past the pretty cascade at 2900′, not finding traces of the manway until the point where the stream valley pinches in around the cascade.  Above the cascade we lost the manway again among the thick carpet of leaves, but the going was easy on the left and we walked through pleasant open woods.  We needed to angle over to the right toward the ridgecrest to pick up the manway, but I decided we might as well continue off-trail up to the Lower Cammerer Trail and then do a short jog over.  We pushed through a patch of relatively tame, nonaggressive rhodo just below the trail, and Tom seemed impressed that we actually did hit Lower Cammerer before long.  In a minute or two we walked over to the manway.

Where the manway crosses the trail, it seems to beckon the explorer to follow it.  It looks like a pathway for trolls.  An unobservant person could easily walk past it without noticing it, but there it is, a soft, narrow footway among the shadows of the trees.

We turned up it and climbed increasingly steeply, for the slope seems to steepen in a perfect geometric progression, and got our first glimpse of the distinctive octagonal tower perched on Cammerer.  Its sharply defined geometric bulk contrasts nicely with the scattered fringe of broadleaf evergreens around it.  Soon we were up in the zone where the dark, chocolatey-looking dirt has gotten scraped away by the boots of previous manway visitors.  Possibly the most recent group of any size to use it was the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, which climbed Cammerer off-trail via Rich Butt in late October and came down Groundhog Ridge.  (I was looking at the newsletter writeup—apparently one of the group was an A.T. maintainer who carried a swing blade up with him all the way up the narrow Rich Butt ridge and split off from the group to do some trail work!)

This part of the manway requires a bit of grabbing onto roots and manuevering up over some ledges, all through a tunnel of thick, twisting laurel and rhodo.  Some of the laurel has remarkably thick, ancient-looking limbs.

Tom pauses amidst the laurel branches

From that point we soon broke out into the open for the final push up to the tower.  We scrambled up over some ledges.

Getting near the top

We arrived at the tower, where we encountered a few other hikers, and had our lunch.  As Peter J. Barr points out in his book Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers, “Contrary to most descriptions, the Mount Cammerer Lookout is not atop the mountain’s 5,042-foot summit.  That peak, two-thirds of a mile southwest, is covered in rhododendron only a few feet off the Appalachian Trail.  Instead, the tower rests at 4,928 feet on the narrow, rocky spine of Cammerer Ridge…”  Peter knows better than possibly anyone else about the true locations of the 5,000 footers of the Southeast, because he has climbed all of them.

The tower is truly a lovely structure.  My favorite part of it is the ceiling inside, where the beams come together from the octagonal corners in a pleasing pattern.

After lunch Tom and I made a loop going out the Cammerer spur trail and along the A.T. to Low Gap, then down to Cosby campground, where our other car was waiting.  (We did not touch our toe to Peter’s true summit.)

After the hike, we had homemade soup and fried apple pie at Carver’s Apple House Restaurant, where you can find apple fritters, apple butter, apple chow-chow, and just about anything else made out of apples.


1. Brian - December 3, 2009

Looks like a fine hike and a fine way to introduce someone new to the wonders of “manway stalking”. I checked out that path during a hike with a group that I didn’t have a chance of ever convincing to follow me down. Took some willpower to pull myself away and head back down the trail!

Jenny - December 4, 2009

Looking toward the manway from the top, most people would probably have trouble believing that a neat little path really does lie tucked underneath all the laurel and rhodo!

2. kaslkaos - December 5, 2009

Those Rhodo’s and Laurels look so exotic to me. I’ve only seen them in gardens, and never had the opportunity to be enclosed in their embrace. Wonderful photos.

Jenny - December 5, 2009

I appreciate these plants more now than I did during Phase I of my Smokies exploring, 20 years ago. On recent hikes I have been especially admiring the amazing shapes of the laurel branches. Their bark has a beautiful texture–almost feathery, and peeling slightly in narrow strips—and I would love to know how old some of them are. People talk about the age of trees, but the age of shrubs is interesting too.

3. Claude Campbell - October 18, 2011

I, Claude Campbell of Spartanburg, S. C. recently walked the Appalachian Trail from the North Carolina side to Mount Cammerer, Tn. on October 17, 2011 with a friend of mine from Cosby, Tn. Peck Vallentine. It was challenging coming down Ground Hog Ridge. Most people call it the Catstairs. The weather was nice but a little hazy when we reached the summit. Since we are both in our late 60’s the challange might not come soon but will consider.

Jenny - October 18, 2011

Thanks for visiting, Claude! People use a lot of different names for these routes. My understanding is that Groundhog Ridge goes between Route 321 east of Cosby and Cammerer. On the other hand, the Cat Stairs goes between lower sections of Bird Branch or Little Bird Branch (near Middle Prong in Greenbrier) and Greenbrier Pinnacle. So the Cat Stairs is a good 10 miles or so west of Groundhog Ridge. But that is just according to the way people I know use the names, and everyone uses them differently.

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