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Left fork of Styx Branch August 20, 2011

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

Dave climbs the staircase of the stream

For more photos and another perspective on the outing, go to Dave’s trip report.

A year ago, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club set off to climb the left fork of Styx to the top of LeConte but accidentally climbed the right fork instead. Yesterday three of us succeeded in climbing the left fork. It does involve paying close attention at the junction, which is located not by looking at separating watercourses in this complicated, braided stream, but by observing the shape of the valleys.

So I returned to the area on the south slopes of LeConte known as Huggins Hell and to the appropriately named stream that runs through it.

"Crossing the Styx" by Gustave Dore

My companions were Seth O’Shields and Dave Landreth, who proved to have the right combination of determination, strength, and insanity to pursue this quest.



The first time I saw Seth’s orange shirt, I said, “But it’s not hunting season!” However, Seth just likes that shirt, and Dave points out that it makes him easy to spot in the underbrush and also makes him stand out clearly in photos.

We relied on my altimeter to identify the elevation (4750′) where we should look for the junction. The going in the lower part of the stream was easy, as the streambed held very little water and we were able to rockhop along at good speed. After a brief false move going up a dead-end side draw, we rejoined the main stream and recognized the junction. The lower Left Fork was clogged with rhodo, which made it even more obscure, but we wrestled our way through this section and emerged onto a nifty stone staircase. The rock seemed like a combination of sandstone and Anakeesta—fairly large solid blocks mixed with the sharp-edged slaty pieces that make for great handholds.

Studying the situation

The rock got slimier as we got higher, making for some tricky spots.

Slimy climb

It was a beautiful, wild place, a ribbon of rock and trickling water that led into the steep, mysterious, sometimes dangerous fastnesses below Myrtle Point.

Wild place

Eventually, around 5800′, the stream disappeared and we found ourselves working through worlds of lush vegetation: wildflowers of all kinds, blackberries, and cushions of deep moss so plush you could kneel comfortably in it and feel yourself sinking in without any discernable bottom.

The underbrush was so thick here that even Seth's orange shirt disappeared

Dappled light

We weren’t sure exactly where we were going to come out—we hoped somewhere in the vicinity of Myrtle Point. As we approached the top, we ran into steep cliff bands. I reached a spot where I could not manage to go straight up, so I did an interesting traverse making use of some good handholds. Dave took this picture of me—what it doesn’t show is the dropoff below my feet. He called it “the crux.”

"The crux." Photo by Dave Landreth.

On the far side of the traverse stood a tangled mess of rhodo and laurel, incredibly dense. I fought for a few minutes and got nowhere, but then noticed a little slot through the growth that led to the right. I crawled through it and found myself on a narrow ridgecrest with a view down to the Boulevard. We were just a short distance east of Myrtle Point. We’d expected to encounter a large slide, but it turned out we came up a little to the right of it.

Bears had traveled back and forth on this ridge, making for a decent path where you could almost stand up straight. There was just one point where the bears, probably chuckling to themselves, led the way up a steep outcrop that could only be descended by crawling down a blowdown. Before long we came out on a herd path made by curious humans investigating out from Myrtle Point.

Herd path leading to Myrtle Point

I love the interwoven vegetation there, the mounded cushions of myrtle mixed with ferns and dense masses of wind-sculpted Rhododendron minus with its aromatic leaves. From this understory rise scattered mountain ash and spruce. In the distance, a crazed jumble of jagged green ridges. Two peregrines soared high above as we watched, seemingly playing with each other.

We stopped at the lodge and met some of the friends Seth has there—he has frequently stayed there for a few days at a time, doing chores in exchange for room and board. After relaxing for a while, we wended our way down the Alum Cave trail. We saw beautiful flowers.


Grass of Parnassus

This was one of those journeys that touches my imagination in a certain way and makes me long to return quickly to those difficult, hidden, beautiful places.

View from Foothills Parkway---taken on the drive over


1. TWL - August 20, 2011

“This was one of those journeys that touches my imagination in a certain way and makes me long to return quickly to those difficult, hidden, beautiful places.”

That is what I feel about your writing.

Jenny - August 20, 2011

I appreciate your comment. We writers need all the moral support we can get!

2. Thomas Stazyk - August 20, 2011

Great pics and story–definitely took me outside my comfort zone!

3. Ben Bacot - August 21, 2011

Very Jealous!

Jenny - August 21, 2011

Ben, hate to leave you out. A few of us are planning on hunting down the record red spruce (146′ high) in a certain tributary of Raven Fork. I’ll keep you posted about that on the off chance you might be able to join us.

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