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Shanty Mountain manway August 10, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , , ,

Chris holds up a piece of old telephone wire while Kevin looks on

This outing in Cataloochee in the Smokies was an exploration of an old manway running along the crest of Shanty Mountain to the site of the former Spruce Mountain fire tower.  Shanty Mountain is said to have gotten its name from a shack built on the southeast side of the mountain in the early 1800s by a slave called Old Smart who herded cattle for one of the settlers.

I armed myself with quite a hefty sheaf of papers: several map sections and copies of trip reports from a couple of people. A 1931 map shows a manway as it runs up Shanty Branch and joins two other old routes around Wash Ridge (and even continues over the top of the mountain and down to Falling Rock Creek), but does not show the path along the ridgecrest. The map that comes with the old Blue Book guide to the Smokies shows the ridgecrest route—although there’s hardly a need for a map on that stretch, since you just follow the ridge. The ridgecrest route relates to the phone line for the fire tower, while the other routes relate to the Cataloochee residents and the paths they took.

Kevin and Chris and I started at the Beech Grove school and tiptoed through a thriving poison ivy patch to cut across the field west of the school, hitting an old road along the tree line. It was easy to follow.

The manway starts as an old road along Shanty Branch

We came to a chimney at the site of the former George and Mag Caldwell home.

Chimney at old homesite

We passed an inactive hog trap. All along our route—up the mountain and along the ridgecrest—we saw much evidence of hogs. I don’t think I’ve seen so much ground rooted up anywhere else in the park.

The hog trap hasn't been used for a while

Not long thereafter, we reached a “Point of Great Uncertainty” mentioned in both of the trip reports I carried. One person had crossed the branch, run into a lot of rhodo, and fought his way up a laurel-infested slope, while the other had simply gone right up the branch, finding traces of old phone wire in the midst of the creek. Both reports advised avoiding a path into a side hollow, and we did pass one path but followed another that angled up a draw to the right—probably the very route the others had said to avoid. The result: a nice easy walk up to the main ridge! We started finding telephone wire near the top.

The disadvantage of our route is that we hit the ridge east of a shallow gap, so we had to drop back down a little bit. But the way along the ridge remained fairly easy at first. The telephone line appeared intermittently. It seemed that in places where it lay on the ground, it had simply become covered in decomposing leaves that resulted in a few inches of soil over the line. It did not seem to be broken at any point, and there were ceramic insulators on it at points.

Insulator for old phone line

The way steadily got thicker with laurel and rhodo, though we were able to make decent progress for a while, ducking under low branches.

Chris makes his way along the path

Above 5000 feet, we crawled much of the way. It was extremely slow. Finally, we got up into the spruce-fir zone, and things opened up quite a bit.

Into the spruces and firs

The fire tower clearing was completely grown up in blackberries. It was such a dense thicket that we did not try to find the tower’s foundation. We continued following an old, overgrown trail that was riddled with blowdowns to the junction of the Spruce Mountain and Polls Gap trails, where we stopped for a rest.

Break at the Spruce Mountain/Polls Gap junction

Because of certain schedule constraints, we had not started our hike until after 11:00 in the morning. By the time we reached this point, it was 6:30—and we had gone less than five miles. My original idea had been to drop off the north side of Shanty Mountain and go off-trail to Falling Rock Creek, then connect with the Palmer Creek trail. But now we were gun-shy about the conditions. If the north slope turned out to be anything like the upper ridgecrest, it could have been “the slog from hell”—with a real danger of getting caught off-trail in the dark.  So we decided to follow the Spruce Mountain trail to the Balsam Mountain road and walk along that to the upper end of the Palmer Creek trail.

One car passed us on the road, and we stuck out our thumbs. An elderly couple stopped and apologized that their car was too full (the back seat was heaped up with belongings) but offered us some cold sodas. The thought was nice, but we declined and continued along our way. The road distance might have been two or two and a half miles. We had some nice views of the north side of Shanty Mountain, looking very imposing and wild from this angle. Then we started our trek down the Palmer Creek valley, passing a beautiful stand of yellow fringed orchis near the top. My picture didn’t turn out in the dim light, but Chris got a better one.

Yellow Fringed Orchis. Photo by Chris Sass.

Darkness fell when we still had a couple of miles to go, but we put on our headlamps and walked through a wonderful sonic tunnel of katydids calling back and forth in choruses all around us and the rushing, tumbling sounds of the stream. Something blooming filled the air with a pleasant fragrance. By chance, I have done more night hiking than usual this summer, and I feel that it has much to recommend it.

We reached our cars at 9:45, just a bit concerned we might get stuck behind a gate on the Cataloochee road that had a sign saying “Closed at sunset.” It turned out to be closed, but not locked. We passed an elk by the road, and continued out along the twists and turns of the Cove Creek road—I did not meet a single other car all the way to I-40 on this Sunday evening.

We saw countless mushrooms and fungi on this hike---of all different colors!



1. Thomas Stazyk - August 10, 2010

I don’t know how you manage to make it sound fun but you do! Are wild hogs dangerous?

Jenny - August 10, 2010

They can be a bit scary when a herd of them moves toward you, but the real problem is not danger to humans but the damage they do to the forest floor and their contamination of the streams. They were introduced into the area for hunting (there’s no hunting in the park, but it serves as a breeding preserve for the hogs). A hunting lobby prevents the Park Service from killing them on the North Carolina side (but not on the Tennessee side)—it’s a long story.

2. brian - August 14, 2010

Another place you can see an old wire is at Greenbrier Pinnacle. It’s laying in the gully running straight up the steepest part from the head of Bird Branch. Florida swamps are swarming with hogs. They make such a racket rooting around in broad daylight that you often spot them before they spot you. When I first moved here I would sneak up on them. It’s very easy to do because they don’t seem to hear very well and cannot see you at all if you stand still. A couple of times I had one walk right past me. Since then people have told me this is unsafe though.

3. kaslkaos - August 21, 2010

I love the mushrooms, those orange fingers are great. And mushrooms come in EVERY colour, even blue. Also, if you ever smell anise/licorice in the woods, follow your nose and you may end up at a mushroom or punky log that smells delicious. Something to ponder.

4. don casada - August 27, 2010

Nice report, Jenny. I’m not sure about shooting pigs over in Cataloochee, but I ran into a park service employee on the NC side who was armed and hunting pigs late last summer on lower Noland Creek.

Did you, by any chance, notice evidence of the old trail that went up Messer Fork a ways, crossed Wash Ridge and then continued on to the lower end of Shanty Mountain? It’s shown on the 1931 GSMNP east topo. Of course that map also shows the trail you started on turning down and crossing Falling Rock Creek and then climbing Trail Ridge and coming out at Pin Oak Gap (it does not show anything along Shanty Mountain).

Another almost unrelated question: do you know anything about the old trail (or maybe railroad grade) that went from Beech Gap in a generally northeast direction, staying on an almost constant elevation contour (~4700 ft) and ended up toward the upper end of Pretty Hollow Creek? It appears to have been close to 10 miles long, with lots of winding in/out. I keep meaning to look for evidence of it when going up Balsam Mt. but seem to either be running late or get preoccupied with other stuff.


Jenny - August 27, 2010

Thanks for your comments, Don. A few different points here.
1. Wild pigs: I may be out of date in my information about TN/NC practices about controlling them. I should explain that I lived in Knoxville in the 80s and then lived away from the area up until last fall. At the time when I was vaguely knowledgeable about the subject, there was a distinct difference in the way the hogs were controlled on the two sides of the park. I think the NC policy was a matter of hunter preferences that were supported by Jesse Helms. Perhaps this has changed.
2. We definitely saw the trail that went up Messer Fork and Wash Ridge, where it connected with the ridgetop path on Shanty manway.
3. I’m not familiar with the old trail connecting the Beech Gap and Pretty Hollow Creek. This was somewhat along the same line as the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail, but on a separate elevation?

I’m an off-trail explorer much more familiar with the TN side, especially in the Greenbrier, just starting to get to know the NC side. People like Dave Landreth and Mark Barrett are far more knowledgeable about these places than I am, but I am looking forward to learning more!

5. don casada - August 28, 2010

Jenny, Good on you for the off trail exploring. I do a bit of it, but nothing nearly as ambitious as you, Greg Hoover (and his buddy, Greg Harrell, who I know personally and professionally) undertake. Most of what I take on (off-trail) is stuff that is of personal interest – such as going up to the upper end of Juneywhank Branch where my father grew up or from the Noland Divide trail out to Kelly Bennett Peak (the only place that I know of named for an individual I have known personally – I grew up in Bryson City where Doc Kelly ran Bennett’s Drug Store).

I’ve covered all the maintained trails in the park – most several times – and prefer to go solo. For on trail, no big deal. But going solo off-trail is of course another deal. I’m 59 and don’t have the same level of energy/stamina that I did years ago, so have to use a little discretion.

That said….I really love the Cataloochee Basin (even if it isn’t in my home county – Swain). So I’m looking into several bushwhacks there this fall, including what I think should be a pretty straightforward one – of course you never know – down off the Cataloochee Divide and Sag Branch (crossing the Boogerman Trail in the vicinity of the virgin timber).

A second one is what was definitely a railroad bed that takes off of the Rough Fork trail at about 4760 ft elevation and heads toward George Ira Creek. This one doesn’t show up on the 1931 GSMNP east map, but does on my Mapsource software (which I bought along with a Garmin unit). I’ve also seen where it starts – very obvious.

And a third one is the one I mentioned from Beech Gap. To answer your question, yes, it sort of parallels the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, but has lots of winding in and out – according to the 1931 map (and Mapsource) – to stay on a relatively constant elevation. The fact that it appears to have a relatively level profile makes me think it’s likely that it was an old railroad grade.

Here’s the link to the 1931 GSMNP east – hope this works. You need to download “MrSID viewer” to look at it.


I’ve got other stuff that I plan to pursue on the NC side, including some old trails in the Noland and Forney Creek basins that have long since been abandoned. One of those I walked around 1960 when I accompanied a buddy of mine and his father on the way to the old water gauge station on Noland. Nowadays, you can’t even tell there was a water gauge there – let alone a trail to get to it by way of Massey Gap. Again – a personal thing only; not the kind of thing that would be of interest to folks that do serious bushwhacking.

Keep up the good work and reporting. Great reading.

6. Clyde Austin III - October 29, 2010

Jenny, I noticed somebody asked you about the old RR grade that runs from just west of Laurel Gap almost all the way into Little Cataloochee. I have hiked most of it. I don’t know who did the post, but he will E-mail me, I can give a rundown on most of that grade. I am missing about 4 miles out of the middle of it.

Jenny - October 30, 2010

Okay, Clyde, I’ll let him know. I’m sure he will appreciate it.

Clyde Austin III - October 30, 2010

Jenny, if you don’t mind, send me your E-mail address. I thought I had it. We might be able to swap some info and help each other on occasion.

7. Al - February 18, 2013

I enjoyed the shot of the phone wire and insulator. It was just like the insulators that you can see today on Indian Creek, Sunkota Ridge and up Bumgardner Branch toward the Bryson Place where the line terminated.

Jenny - February 18, 2013

Hi Al,

Yes, I like those old phone insulators. Another place I’ve seen them is on Greenbrier Pinnacle straight down the south side from the top.

Al - June 29, 2013

Jenny, for those who might want to see an old phone line without a strenuous walk there is a coiled up line near the loop crossing between Deep Creek and Indian Creek. From the gap on the loop trail at the trail signs walk OT down ridge a short ways. Its right on the ridge crest. Looks like it was hauled down from overhead at some point.

Jenny - June 29, 2013

Thanks for the information, Al. I will definitely look for that, since I do that Deep Creek Loop sometimes when I want a short hike.

8. Al - June 30, 2013

Insulator(s) can be seen too on the loop trail just down from the trail sign on top on the Deep Creek side. Maybe 3-4th pine tree from the gap on the right, a few paces. Another insulator is visible on a tree on the right side of the Indian Creek truck trail just a few paces after you cross the bridge right above Indian Creek Falls. The slightly cleared area directly on the left is the phone line route and a few more insulators are seen as you ascend that area and not far from the truck trail.

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