Shanty Mountain manway August 10, 2010Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Balsam Mountain road, Beech Grove School, Cataloochee, Palmer Creek trail, Shanty Mountain, Spruce Mountain fire tower
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.
We came to a chimney at the site of the former George and Mag Caldwell home.
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.
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.
The way steadily got thicker with laurel and rhodo, though we were able to make decent progress for a while, ducking under low branches.
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.
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.
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.
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.