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Traverse of Balsam Point May 16, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Harrell walks along ledge at Ft. Harry falls

Balsam Point (5818′) is a knob west of LeConte that is skirted by the Bullhead trail.  I had cooked up the idea of starting at Fort Harry falls just off the Newfound Gap road, climbing up and over Balsam Point, and dropping down into the valley of LeConte Creek to hit the Rainbow Falls trail a little below the falls.  Two guys had agreed to go along on this hike, Greg Hoover and Greg Harrell.  We can simplify the Greg equation as follows: (Greg Hoover) + (Greg Harrell) = 2 x (off-trail nuts).

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Fort Harry was to see if I could find the exact location of a couple of photos taken by SMHC’ers in the 30s or 40s, when this was a popular destination for hiking club members.  I’m not going to reproduce them here because they are copyrighted, but you can find them here and here.  I had already prowled around the place in January, when I saw some titanic icicles, some of which were breaking off with a frightening roar.

Ft. Harry falls, January 2010

So we followed a herd path up to the falls, and Harrell immediately started capering about on the ledges while Hoover and I looked at copies of the old photos I’d brought and tried to match them up with what we were looking at.  The Chimneys rear up their pointy heads in the background of the old photos, giving a clear indication what direction we should look in, but large trees have inserted themselves into the current picture, making it a bit hard to align ourselves exactly.  It was easy to see the general area where Ben Blackwell was making his climb in the Dutch Roth photo, but the location of Harvey Broome’s perch remains a mystery.

By this time Harrell had scampered quite a long way toward the west end of the bluffs, so Hoover and I clambered along until we came to an obvious chute by which we might be able to get to the top of the bluff and begin our climb up to Balsam Point.

Chute leading to top of bluff

We could see a skimpy-looking rope on the right.  I climbed up the chute a little ways and discovered that Harrell was already up one side of it, backing down because the rocks were too slick.  It seemed possible to get up the side with the rope, but it looked a little iffy, and we figured we’d come to the end of the bluffs pretty soon, so we continued along the bottom.

In fact, those bluffs go on so far that we wondered if we were going to end up back in Gatlinburg.  But the line of smooth gray sandstone finally petered out in the next stream drainage, still erupting in small cliffs here and there.  We saw that by following this drainage we were going to end up on a side ridge instead of a ridge leading directly to Balsam Point, but we could turn right on the side ridge and still get where we wanted.

The steep slope above the bluffs

We climbed up through generous helpings of nettles, moss, blowdown, and rock.  The ridge turned out to be riddled with laurel and greenbrier, but there were bear trails we could follow by shrinking down to the size of our four-footed friends.  At regular intervals troublesome rock formations poked up like bumps on the spine of a stegasaurus, but we were able to work our way around them.

Finally we spilled out onto the Bullhead trail at 5000′, where we rested a bit.  We decided that it would not compromise our off-trail integrity too very much to use the trail to get to a point close to the 5818′ point on Balsam Point.  We walked up to about 5700′, then strolled through evergreen forest (more spruce than balsam) carpeted with a dense floor of clintonia lilies until we reached the high point.

Harrell and Hoover on Balsam Point

By that time I was looking a bit bedraggled.

Jenny on Balsam Point

Note the stringy hair, fogged-up glasses, and scratched-up arm.

Now it was time to plunge down the north side.  We did not run into any bluffs that we couldn’t get down by butt-sliding or hanging onto branches, but we did find that the slope was heaped up with boulders, mainly disguised with thick vegetation so that you could easily drop unexpectedly into a deep hole.  We followed a tributary of LeConte Creek whose boulders were downright slimy—I mean, it was as if they were coated with grease—so I mainly stayed on the bank and worked my way through the brush.  Harrell didn’t mind getting into the slime to look for salamanders.  At 4100′, we reached the Rainbow Falls trail at a pretty cascade.  We looked, well, different from the many trail hikers we saw.

Cascade where the tributary crosses the trail

We didn’t bother to go up to Rainbow Falls.  “Been there, done that.”  We strolled down the trail, spotting some beautiful laurel near the bottom.  It had taken us 8 hours to do 2 miles of off-trail plus 2.5 miles of trail.

Laurel on Rainbow Falls trail


1. Thomas Stazyk - May 18, 2010

Four and a half miles in 8 hours! Somehow you make it sound fun–great pics as usual.

2. Jenny - May 18, 2010

Well, hey—that’s a speedy 0.5625 miles per hour. On a hike I did a couple months ago, it took me three hours to go one mile.

3. MIKE D - May 23, 2010

Nice slog.
Having great spring weather up here so far. I have a pair of cardinals that have been hanging around my house for the last several days. Never seen this before. They chirp alot from the hedge if one of the cats are watching but don’t seem to mind. Could be a nest nearby.
Hope they can avoid the kitty cats.

Hope all is well

Jenny - May 23, 2010

I really like watching pairs of cardinals. Sometimes I have seen the male feeding the female, dribbling bits of seed into her beak. Around my house in Asheville I have seen a few cardinals but mainly robins, robins, robins!

4. RLP - June 3, 2010

The “Gregs” are a curious duo. Methinks these miscreant, trail-shunning, wayfarers cast nefarious aspersions toward all those hard working, trailbuilders that have gone before. I, for one, rather pay homage to those persistant path providers by utilizing the fruit of their efforts all I can. By the way, one would think that between those two PhD’s, at least ONE of them would figure out where they could by appropriate chapeau’s!

Jenny - June 3, 2010

They certainly are lacking in the hiking apparel department. I, on the other hand, maintain complete fastidiousness throughout the duration of every hike, from my perfectly styled coif in which every curl remains in place, down to my immaculately gleaming footwear.

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