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West Prong scouting trip May 21, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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Hydrangea growing out of rock beside West Prong

This was a scouting trip for a hike that Clyde Austin and I will lead next fall for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Terri Cox and Connie Tatgenhorst accompanied us.

We started at the Bote Mountain trailhead, turned to go north on the West Prong trail to backcountry campsite 18, and then followed the traces of an old logging grade along the West Prong. The idea was to hit the very faint cross-trail that connects with the Defeat Ridge manway and follow that a short distance back over to Bote Mountain where it intersects close to the Anthony Creek junction.

This 1949 map shows the cross-trail to Defeat Ridge. The goal was to hit it at the “X” mark. I will explain about the “Y” mark in a bit.

Clyde and Terri had done this hike before, but going the opposite direction, eight years ago (if I am remembering correctly). I myself had never been on the logging grade, and as soon as we started following the West Prong, I realized that the way I’d pictured it was very different from the reality. I had somehow envisioned it as sidehilling along the banks of the valley. If I’d looked at the map more closely ahead of time, I’d have realized just from the contours that a logging grade isn’t going to be up on a hillside when there is plenty of level ground right next to the stream. (By the way, don’t look for the logging grade on the map—it’s not shown.)

An old sidehilling grade tends to be fairly easy to locate, since it’s carved out of the hill. The problems are usually the blowdowns that have fallen over it and the places where it has eroded and “slid down the hillside,” so to speak. But here we were simply following the stream, crossing it and recrossing it depending on steepness and vegetation on one side or the other. It was virtually impossible to tell whether we were on the grade, but it didn’t matter that much—we just had to go up the stream.

Typical section of West Prong

We waded through dog hobble much of the time

We saw more Indian pipes than I’ve seen anywhere else

The going was not all that difficult, but it was somewhat slow because of the need to cross and recross the stream many times. We’d stop and confer, then either rockhop over to the other side or just wade. We all resigned ourselves to getting wet feet.

Where we ran into patches of rhodo near the stream, we were generally able to bypass it. We passed through many beautiful open glades with large tulip poplars and buckeyes. In many places, the ground was carpeted with partridge berry in bloom.

I loved the carpets of partridgeberry with its small white flowers

Clyde said he thought we would not see the cross-trail until 3800′, as it hits the stream further south than where it connects with Bote Mountain. The challenge, clearly, was not to walk across it without seeing it, especially since missing the trail would mean climbing up a steep slope that was full of rhododendron.

However—that’s exactly what ended up happening. We stayed with the stream, kept going, going, going, and did not see the cross-trail. We’d started hiking at 9:00, and it was now after 5:00. Connie had plans to meet people for dinner that evening, and I wanted to get home and get some sleep before going on a tough off-trail hike the next day. We had to bite the bullet and climb the rhodo-choked slope.

It had seemed like there might be a slight passage through the rhodo a little ways back down the stream, so back down we went, started up the passage, and found that (typically enough) it dead-ended after 20 yards or so. We spent the next hour and a half or so climbing about 600 vertical feet, crawling through the brush, and going maybe a quarter of a mile.

When we lead the hike for the club, we will probably reverse the direction, since the cross-trail is easier to find where it joins Bote Mountain.

Naturally, we hit the ridge at a wide place where the trail ran on the far side of it (marked with the “Y” on the map), but we finally emerged at 7:00. I left the others to try to make the six miles back to my car as fast as I could. At first I jogged, but I couldn’t keep up that pace with my heavy waterlogged boots. It took me two hours to get down, just as the fireflies were starting to come out. I got home a little after 11:00.

Then it was time to get ready for the next day’s hike.

Note added later: Clyde has sent the others of the outing a GPS track of our route, lamenting that he didn’t recommend that we start looking for the cross-trail earlier. In my opinion, these mistakes are so easy to make, and I have made many of them myself. Scouting trips are notorious for the mistakes made in route finding! I’m sure that it will work out fine for the club trip, and in any case, as co-leader, I am just as responsible for locating the correct route.

Clyde walks through an open glade


1. AdamB - May 21, 2012

I am up in that area 2 or 3 times a year fishing. I usually stay at cs 18 and fish upstream a mile or so. There is a spot close to the creek that I found last time where someone had illegally camped and built a small log cabin out of cut trees. They didn’t do such a good job only had stacked 3 or 4 trees on each side so in order to make the inside bigger they had dug out a basement like hole. Of course that had filled with water. It was kind of a creepy place to be though by yourself and seeing that camp. You guys probably didn’t see it cause I think the manway is further back from the creek through there. There are lots of flat field like areas back up there.

Jenny - May 21, 2012

Just south of backcountry campsite 18, we followed a very clear path that looked like a fisherman’s path. But then it petered out, and we didn’t see the improvised cabin. It’s amazing what people will do out there. One of our group was talking about seeing a path cleared out in that area where limbs had been cut with bow-saws, etc. Yuck! Being a person who doesn’t even like to see surveyor’s tape flagging, this sort of stuff just repels me.

2. Michael V. - May 30, 2012

There is a lot to be seen up in West Prong. I did a couple trips up that way with Clyde and Terri back in the mid-2000’s back in our heyday. Very good memories, also remembering that it’s tough to spot landmarks up in there.

One time was a scout for an SMHC outing that Clyde and Terri later did that went up Edens Garden Branch to the Defeat Ridge manway.

Another time, we went up Defeat Ridge to the Cross Trail, went out that way and discovered the USGS-opened ridge path that went down to West Prong. That was quite an outing. That was probably around 2006. I don’t know if that USGS ridge path is still open, but it was then. I’m thinking that’s what Jenny was talking about above when she said “One of our group was talking about seeing a path cleared out in that area where limbs had been cut with bow-saws, etc.” Maybe either Clyde or Terri will respond and give more of the story on that route. If not, I will in a week or so.

I’m glad that the outing just ran long. The distance from upper West Prong over to Bote Mtn. Trail isn’t long, just very thick with rhodo. Recently, an outing that went out Cross Trail got lost in the dark and could not find the Cross Trail on the other side of West Prong. They kept going in the dark and went up to Bote Mtn Trail through that rhodo in the dark! What an awful story. But they made it to BMT and then on out after waiting until daybreak.

3. Jenny - May 30, 2012

That area seems to be famous for unplanned rhodo crawls. I recall an outing back in the early 80s when we went up Eden Garden Branch and attempted to traverse over to Defeat Ridge manway. We chose a bad route and were literally crawling on our bellies—it was even more severe than the usual crawling on hands and knees.

4. Michael V. - May 31, 2012

I’ll go ahead and write a bit about the USGS route that C, T, and I discovered.

I’m not sure now of what the game plan was as far as dropping down Long Branch to West Prong from the Cross Trail. The day that we did that outing, we were just seeing an absolute mess in the vicinity of Long Branch below. Nobody was very excited about doing anything like a dropping off.

We were not sure of what to do, at all, so at that point we decided to have lunch and talk more. There was some discussion of just going back to Tremont and bailing on the outing.

We were sprawled out horizontally in the midst of a huge rhodo thicket. It was difficult to see where the Cross Trail ran through it. It was simply disgusting, all the way around. Suddenly, the ground started shaking. Clyde had gone on ahead to poke around, and Terri and I were wondering what was going on. It was a little scary. We were on a root ball for a tree, as it turned out, that was getting blown in the breeze, but we didn’t know that when we plopped for lunch.

For some reason, when we figured out what was going on, I started laughing and looking around at the periphery of the root ball. That’s when I saw a “hole” in the vegetation right behind where I was laying down for lunch. I crawled through the hole,and in the span of about fifteen feet, it opened up, and I was able to stand up. I started seeing signs of clipping and sawing, I continued for some distance, and saw where fairly large trees had been sawed at their bases.

I went back up to the Cross Trail and told Terri what I discovered. Clyde showed up shortly thereafter and we decided that the trail would be heading down a side ridge bordering Long Branch. We took off down the ridge and it was cleared and open all the way down to West Prong.

Near the bottom, we spied a tent set up in a strange location. We didn’t see anyone there, so we kept going. Then we hit West Prong and were able to head on down the creek to the campsite and then exit.

Later, we reported the strange, illegal campsite to the NPS. Ranger Kent Looney asked if one of us would take him back to investigate what he thought would be a possible pot operation.

I took Kent back in there, and he advised me to lay low out of site while he approached the tent with his sidearm drawn. No one was in the camp, but before Kent had finished his assessment of the site, a man strolled in with a fishing pole. As it turned out, the illegal site and the illegally cut trail was the work of a US Geological Survey team who was in the process of resurveying that particular valley of West Prong. They were shooting survey lines off that ridge. They had also not bothered to check in with the NPS about their operations- the NPS was totally unaware of the USGS operation there. There wasn’t anything Kent Looney could do, so we headed on out.

On the way out, Kent fell in West Prong several times, and also got eaten alive by yellow jackets. He was dropping “F-Bombs” left and right at the top of his voice. I was so nonplussed by a park ranger swearing like that, I was dying laughing. But we did make it out alright.

That’s the story, and it’s one of the better ones I tell. I have a few more.

Jenny - June 1, 2012

What a story! Clyde and Terri did mention finding a cut trail, but I don’t recall them saying it was created by a USGS team. Maybe they were talking about ANOTHER cut trail!

I had no idea the USGS set up camps and cleared paths like that.

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