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Cammerer via Chestnut Branch January 4, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , , ,

Looking toward Mt. Guyot from Cammerer. Note snow on upper slopes.

This was a trail hike of 11.8 miles and 3500 vertical feet, starting from the Big Creek ranger station and going to the Mt. Cammerer fire tower. I’d never been on the Chestnut Branch trail before or on any part of the A.T. east of the Mt. Cammerer trail junction. I decided to grab a day of good weather and get in some decent mileage and vertical.

The temperature was in the mid-20s when I started up through the valley formerly occupied by many homesites. I noticed some old fence posts still standing along the trail, and I was on the lookout for old rusty washtubs, since Bill Hart’s writeup in the brown Smokies trail guide says, “The washtub is probably one of the most common artifacts found at abandoned homesites throughout the Smokies.”  Sure enough, I spotted one!

Old washtub along Chestnut Branch

It did make me wonder, though, if the folks forced out when the park was created maybe thought they were going to places that had more sophisticated laundering devices, or whether they just were so fed up with life at that point that they just left some important things behind.

The Chestnut Branch trail ends steeply at the A.T. after two miles. The grade on the A.T. is steady and moderate. I passed a large dead hemlock that showed a reddish color where the bark had dropped off. This seems to happen with all of the large hemlocks after the woolly adelgid kills them off.

The bark drops off the dead hemlock, leaving a reddish color

There were heaps of bark fragments on the ground around it.

Bark fragments were heaped around the tree's base

Shortly thereafter, I met the only two hikers I saw the whole day—a pair of southbound thru-hikers, “Ragamuffin” and her husband, whose trail name I didn’t quite catch.  Coming down from Hot Springs a couple of weeks ago, they had arrived at the I-40 crossing just before a lot of snowy weather came in. They had very wisely decided to bypass the Smokies and continue on southward from Fontana. They’d made it nearly to Springer and were now coming back to do the Smokies before completing the final segment of their hike, begun July 1 at Katahdin. They were breaking the Smokies into two segments with a stay in Gatlinburg in between: first Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap, where I crossed paths with them a couple of hours before they finished that half, and then Newfound to Fontana. They said there was still a fair amount of snow from Newfound as far as Tricorner Knob.

I saw my first spruce at 4050′ and my first stretch of icy trail at 4500′.

Icy trail

I decided to put on my microspikes. As it turned out, the ice was spotty, and I could have manuevered around it without the spikes (which I did on the way back down). Nevertheless, the spikes are a very useful tool (far superior to instep crampons, for instance), and I always wonder why people down here don’t all get them instead of whining, “It’s too icy to hike now…”

Easy to put on and take off, and effective

After three hours of hiking I arrived at the tower. It was the first time I’ve ever been there that I haven’t encountered a single other hiker.

Mt. Cammerer fire tower

It was a bit chilly and windy, so I went into the tower to have my lunch. I am fixated on how beautiful the tower’s ceiling is.

Ceiling of the fire tower

On my way out, I noticed some ferns growing between the stones of the tower.

Ferns growing between the cracks

On my way back down, I stopped at an overlook rock on the A.T. looking into the extensive valley of Chestnut Branch. Across the valley I noticed one particular ridge that is covered with heath. This is something I have often wondered about: what determines the particular places where the heath develops? Adjacent ridges did not have any heath.

And I might as well bring up my other question of the day: why is it that quartz is found in many places in the Smokies, but always as an isolated rock or boulder, not as part of any apparent larger bedrock complex? It is almost as if quartz was scattered randomly across these mountains from some overhead source. And with these profound ponderings occupying my brain, I completed my hike.

Heath-covered ridge surrounded by non-heath terrain


1. Thomas Stazyk - January 4, 2011

Great pictures–it looks like a spring day! How warm did it get? And do you know when the fire tower would have been built?

Jenny - January 5, 2011

Thanks to my friend Peter Barr’s excellent book titled “Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers,” I can tell you that construction of the unique octagonal tower began in 1937 and was completed in 1939. CCC workers hiked up each Monday and stayed at a small camp near the site, returning to a larger CCC camp each Friday. It was staffed as a fire lookout until 1966.

In a way the weather was springlike—we had a big thaw last weekend that melted a lot of snow—but we’re expecting more snow tonight. This much cold and snow isn’t typical for this area. December was the coldest in Asheville since 1917.

2. brian - January 9, 2011

I’ve wondered about heath balds as well. When people talk about why balds occur they usually are only interested in the grassy balds so I never heard an explanation. Maybe they occur where the terrain causes the wind speed to be higher, such as an isolated knife edge ridge. Oftentimes, like on Clifftop, the trees growing immediately beside them are stunted or even “flag shaped” from the wind like they are near the limit of their growing conditions.

I’m just guessing but I think the quartz formed after the sandstone. “Rock” really means an aggregate of minerals. Quartz is a mineral and big pieces of it had to precipitate from water under just the right conditions in a crack or void in the surrounding rock. It’s also very tough and won’t wear away when the rock around it is eroded later. It could even remain as a boulder when that rock has crumbled away.

Jenny - January 10, 2011

The heath does seem to grow in areas exposed to wind—for instance on ridgetops rather than in valleys—but on the other hand, in the photo above, the lower ridge has the heath, while the adjacent higher ridge has tall spruces growing on its spine. So there must be some other ingredient in addition to wind exposure. Very mysterious.

brian - January 11, 2011

The shape of the ridge as well as the height affects wind. A very steep slope or cliff with a sharp edge accelerates the air flow. For instance Clifftop and Myrtle Point have a very abrupt drop offs. But then gaps accelerate wind as well and it doesn’t seem like those are associated with heath very much..

3. TWL - January 9, 2011

A nice, strenuous hike, keenly observed, as always.

You are our “pedestrian” (ahem!) poet laureate of Smokies hiking.

I wish you a wonderful New Year, with all of the hikes, adventures, writing, and relationships that you desire!

Jenny - January 10, 2011

And a very happy New Year to you too!

4. Jenny - January 11, 2011

I’m maybe going to repeat something I said elsewhere. Anyway, just in case it hasn’t appeared before, what I say is, I think very acidic plants like blueberries appear in these places, so that acid-loving plants would grow there, regardless of the wind and elevation conditions. Once they are established, they tend to reinforce each other.

5. brian - January 12, 2011

This seems to be the definitive study. Looks like you are right about the acidity. Just skimming through it looks like they didn’t come up with a very clear answer. Something like %10 of the Smokies has conditions predisposing it towards heath but only %10 of that actually is. They speculate you need some sort of event like fire, blowdowns, landslide that clears the trees and lets heath take over in these areas. Once it’s in place trees can’t grow back.

Click to access White_Wilds_Stratton.pdf

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