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Chimney Rock on Defeat Ridge January 19, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Thunderhead Mtn. from Bote Mtn. road. Photo by Brian Stansberry

I wrote this account 20 years ago or so.  It is about a portion of the Defeat Ridge manway, which leads from the valley of the Middle Prong of the Little River to the summit of Thunderhead Mountain in the Smokies.

Chimney Rock is located on the section of the Defeat Ridge manway that rides along the crest of the ridge, after the manway has climbed up out of the Middle Prong valley but before it leaves the crest to work its way through the rhododendron hell on the slope of Thunderhead Mountain.  Its elevation is  about 4000′.

On a day in late summer, we started our journey at the abandoned logging grade beside Sams Creek.  These grades crisscross the whole Middle Prong valley, an area that was heavily logged before the days of the Park.  As you walk through the thriving second growth forest, you can pick up pieces of coal that were thrown off by the logging locomotives.  You can imagine men shouting as they sawed down the giant trees.

But the deep green woods are quiet now.  We followed the grade to a small chasm once crossed by a trestle, rockhopped across the stream, and scrambled up the bank on the other side.  Cutting across a switchback, we  pursued the weedy grade as it chugged its way up along Thunderhead Prong.

We wrestled our way through a place where dense grapevine had overrun the woods.  Every now and then we would come out into the sun, poke our heads around, and see how the vine had poured itself over everything, turning trees into shapeless green lumps.  Under the warm summer sky, it smelled like a pasture run to weed.

Once past the vines, we crossed Thunderhead Prong on a disintegrating bridge to start the climb up to Defeat Ridge.  For the first time, we left logging grades to follow a trail that had been created as a footpath.  This path had long since been abandoned, but we had no trouble following it through the thick debris of the woods as it snaked up the side of the ridge.

On the ridgetop, the manway swings around and climbs slowly southward, staying a little below the crest so that you walk along the side of a steep slope with the spacious woods below.  You approach the crest gradually, reaching it at an intersection of abandoned paths.  There is something pleasing about standing in the center of this junction that is hidden away in the wild woods, which no one knows about any more.

You continue straight ahead on the manway, carpeted here softly with pine needles.  The rhododendron that you’ve noticed here and there gets thicker, closes in.  Its wiry brown arms bend over the path, which has become a child’s path or a troll’s path, not high enough for you to stand up straight.  You tunnel under the arching branches.  Dwarf pines grow on both sides.  And upward you climb, the ridge dropping off to your left and to your right.

You don’t have to go far beyond the junction to reach Chimney Rock.  You notice a mass of stone just off to the left.  You climb up out of the trough of the path and find yourself at the base of a large gray lichen-covered rock.  You grasp its cool knobs and haul yourself up on top of it, your toes scrabbling for a foothold.

And suddenly the great blue valley opens up before you.  The dense pines and rhododendron that roofed over the world for so long have subsided into green waves lapping at your feet.  You see that you are sitting on top of a wart on a broad fold of mountain.  This hump stretches up to the very top of Thunderhead.  Ahead, Davis Ridge rises up to the giant Smokies crest, and across the vast bowl you see Blanket Mountain and beyond that mountains behind mountains.

We reached this spot at midday.  The sky had gone a light pearly gray.  We ate the sandwiches and cheese and apples we’d brought, dropping our crumbs into the treetops.

And then we saw the hawks.  There were two of them, riding the air currents over the valley.  They made fast silent tracks through the substance that was invisible to us, but which flowed thickly under their wings.  They were not performing for us.  But they stayed overhead, wheeling to slice back over the ridge, to soar, turn, dive, turn.  I asked myself what they saw, how they thought.

We climbed down from the rock, swallowed up again by the forest.  We had left behind the realm of the sky.

Another time when I was there, with six or eight people, one man stayed behind on the rock to yodel into the valley.  We waited on the path and listened.  When he stopped, we cheered and laughed and clapped.  We couldn’t have explained why we were so happy.

Thunderhead Prong. Photo by Brian Stansberry

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Comments»

1. Peter - January 20, 2010

i’ve wanted to hike the defeat ridge trail to chimney rock and thunderhead for a long time. five years ago i made a list of smokies bushwhacks i wanted to do – i hadn’t even completed my first smokies bushwhack yet. defeat ridge was on it, and on the list it remains!

Jenny - January 20, 2010

Definitely one of the classics! It’s been so long since I’ve been up that way, I have no idea what shape the manway is in now. One thing I didn’t put into the post–my scariest bear encounter ever was on the Defeat Ridge manway!

2. Peter - January 21, 2010

seems like you may have mentioned this to me: didn’t you encounter one head on while on hands and knees in the rhodo tunnel??!?!

Jenny - January 21, 2010

Yup, that’s what happened! We were shocked, and the bear was shocked, too. He started making those “chuffing noises” you hear about. My hiking buddy Paul Threlkeld and I started yelling and clapping our hands and stretching out our arms to “make ourselves look larger,” which is one of those funny tips you hear for when encountering aggressive wildlife. Fortunately, the bear went off the side of the manway.

3. Elizabeth - January 21, 2010

I would love to hear the whole bear story. How many have you encountered?

Jenny - January 21, 2010

Oh, I have seen many bears! One of my favorite encounters was near the Cades Cove picnic area (a place you’re almost guaranteed to see bears at dusk, when they come in for dinner). I saw three cubs climbing up the trees, just effortlessly! Mama bear was behind them, watching but not moving toward us. Another time I saw two cubs and then realized Mama was on the other side of us. That was a bit scary, but nothing happened. I am not usually afraid of black bears. Grizzlies are another story. One time in grizzly country I washed a boulder with hot soap and water after I accidentally spilled some of my dinner on it… have never seen a grizzly up close.

4. Doug Borton - February 26, 2012

I really enjoyed re-reading your post this afternoon after studying GPS topos of this area last night. This post is one of my ‘new’ favorites. Thanks, Jenny.

Jenny - February 27, 2012

Glad you enjoyed it, Doug. I’d like to go back there one of these days.

5. dadsonat2013 - April 26, 2015

This afternoon I made it up to where the old bridge must have been crossing Thunderhead Prong. I missed the turn through the rodo tunnel, decided to just head back to the car and saw a faint trail back to my left. My goal was to make it to where it crossed Thunderhead and thankful I succeeded!

Jenny - April 26, 2015

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you persisted with that. I haven’t been back there for many years. The main reason is that I now live in North Carolina rather than Knoxville, and for me it’s a long drive around to that area. I tend to focus more on the central Smokies (like around LeConte or Anakeesta Ridge or upper Lester Prong) and the areas like Raven Fork near the Cherokee reservation.


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