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Ridges of Upper Bradley Fork February 25, 2013

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

These are the names I’ve given these places. I don’t know of anyone who’s explored here.

Upper Blindside. What an amazing place!

Blindside Ridge. What an amazing place!

Yesterday I set out to circle the entire Bradley Fork watershed. My goal: to see if I could get a good look at the ridges among the upper realms of the three major headwater streams: Chasm Prong, Frowning Rock Prong, and Gulf Prong.

The hike’s dimensions were 24.6 miles and somewhere around 5,000 total vertical feet. (I’d estimated 4,400 beforehand but the cumulative gain function on my altimeter said 5,260 vertical feet. This route has a lot of small ups and downs.)  I started at Smokemont campground, took the Bradley Fork trail to Hughes Ridge to Pecks Corner, followed the A.T. across to what the Park calls the Dry Sluice Gap trail (former Richland Mountain trail), and down that to Bradley Fork to complete my circle.

The light was dim when I started hiking at 6:30, but just light enough that I didn’t need to use my headlamp. Because access to most of the campground was gated off, I had to walk its length to get to the Bradley trailhead. And once I reached the trail, there was no avoiding the tedium of its first four miles, as I slogged along a wide, flat gravel road beside the stream.

The saving grace is that most of the way I had views of one of the lovely big streams of the Smokies.

Lower Bradley Fork

Lower Bradley Fork

Four miles of slogging.

Four miles of slogging. Ho, hum.

But keep in mind that the long, tedious approach is part of why the upper part of the watershed is so wild. People don’t want to go through all that to get there. And apparently Champion Fibre didn’t get up into the headwaters back in the logging days, either. Maps of old-growth forest at the time of the Park’s creation indicate that logging did not take place above the confluence of Chasm and Gulf Prongs, below which is given the Bradley Fork name. In the lower area, of course, Champion had a gigantic timbering operation that fed its mill in Canton.

Even after the Bradley Fork trail leaves the lower valley to climb up to Hughes Ridge, it uses a wide logging grade that only narrows to a footpath about halfway up. Everywhere, I saw evidence of the January floods. Water had scoured leaves, twigs, and topsoil from the trails, leaving rubble with debris piled up behind the stones.

Evidence of flooding.

Evidence of flooding.

In places, the floods had deposited fine silt almost the consistency of quicksand, where a boot could sink in three or four inches deep.

Once on Hughes Ridge, I had good views across the upper Enloe Creek valley to Katalska Ridge, which miraculously avoided the trailbuilding of its neighbors on either side, Hughes and Hyatt. It is covered with red spruce from top to bottom, and I would like to explore there.

I began to encounter snow and ice. Pecks Corner looked wintry, and I put on my microspikes there for traction where snow packed down by footprints had turned icy.

Shelter at Peck's Corner.

Shelter at Peck’s Corner.

I kept the spikes on for eight miles. I ran into bare ground in sunny places, but the ice always returned. In most places things were crispy and crunchy—not much melting going on.

After I turned west on the A.T., I came to my first view of the upper ridges. Although I had been on this trail section once before, it was on a rainy day with zero visibility. Therefore everything that I could see off to the sides was new to me. But I’d been looking at it on maps for a long time.

Nice, but nothing too exciting until you start looking closer.

Nice, but nothing too exciting until you start looking closer.

I could see landslides and rocky ridges.

I could see landslides and rocky ridges.

I continued along the trail, passing big icicles.

Icicles along the trail.

Icicles along the trail.

I came to an old landslide. The Anakeesta rock and the whole aspect reminded me of slides on the Boulevard and Alum Cave trails on LeConte.

Landslide on Gulf Prong headwaters.

Landslide on Gulf Prong headwaters.

I soon came to Bradley’s View, which I’d been looking forward to. I spent a long time here, checking the features I saw against my map, using my compass to match things up. The hard part was that the map had no names that I could refer to for any of the ridges. So I gave them my own names.

Looking straight down from Bradley's View.

Looking straight down from Bradley’s View.

Gulf Prong makes a great sweeping curve around a ridge, the top of which is rocky and impossible to see from most places. I called it Hidden Ridge. The reverse-question-mark shape of the stream reminds me of Raven Fork as it swoops around Breakneck Ridge. And certain patterns repeat in the ridges as well as the streams.

Look at the narrow rocky spine that goes across, a wide ridge close and just behind it, Hughes Ridge in the background.

Hidden Ridge: look at the narrow rocky spine that goes across, another ridge close behind it, Hughes Ridge in the background.

Location of Hidden Ridge.

Location of Hidden Ridge.

The Castle is the blocky heath-covered point across from Hidden Ridge.

The Castle is what I call the blocky heath-covered point that rises from Gulf Prong near the Frowning Rock junction.

To the west, Fortress Ridge divides Chasm Prong and Frowning Rock Prong.

Fortress Ridge is the long bumpy ridge below Richland Mountain.

Fortress Ridge is the long bumpy divide between Chasm and Frowning Rock, shown here below Richland Mountain.

Blindside Ridge, Fishtail Ridge behind it.

Blindside Ridge, Fishtail Ridge behind it.

I called the second ridge over to the west Fishtail because of the way it terminates in two points. My view of it from this angle was partially obstructed, but the ridge beyond that—Frowning Rock Ridge—could not be seen at all. On the map at the top of this post, you’ll see its very strange-looking contours, coming to a pronounced spine with impressively vertical sides. As it turned out, I could not get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge from any point near the trail. It would have to be seen from Fishtail Ridge or Fortress Ridge.

At last I left Bradley’s View and continued west. Looking back beyond Peck’s, I could see Eagle Rocks, which I hope to visit (via Eagle Rocks Prong) later this year.

Telephoto view of Eagle Rocks.

Telephoto view of Eagle Rocks.

View down from close to Blindside - A.T. junction.

View down from close to Blindside – A.T. junction.

I followed the A.T. where it wends around the north side of Laurel Top. The only other time I’ve been here was on the famous October 2009 backpack up and over Woolly Tops, when we ended up exiting the Eagle Rocks drainage to Laurel Top because of heavy rains.

Junction of Laurel/Woolly ridge with A.T.

Junction of Laurel/Woolly ridge with A.T.

Laurel Top 2009.

Same place, 2009.

Before yesterday, I’d never been on the stretch of A.T. from Laurel Top west to Porters Gap. You might think that’s an odd gap in my trail experience—no side trails join the A.T. at those two points. Yes, those are the odd sorts of things that happen with bushwhackers.

As I came around the west side of Laurel Top to join the main ridge again, I had a view of the upper west flank of Fishtail.

Upper West Fishtail.

Upper West Fishtail.

I explored off the south side of the trail to see if I could get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge, which joins the A.T. very close to this point. I could see the topmost spruce-covered portion but not the interesting portion of bare rock.

Spruce-covered top portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.

Spruce-covered top portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.

I’d hoped to do a downclimb of the ridge just far enough to reach the rocky section, but given the time, I decided this was too much to add on to my trail marathon.

I continued along the A.T., passing False Gap and Porters Gap. Along the way I met two separate thru-hikers (early birds!), trail maintainer Pete Berntsen with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, out with his hand saw (dedicated!), and two other guys backpacking.

Glancing down the familiar top chute of Dry Sluice manway, I turned off on the Dry Sluice trail. I wonder if the Park calls it by that name so that people will stop talking about and using the manway of the same name? But I have to admit the former “Richland Mountain” name was confusing too, as the current trail leaves the old CCC Richland trail to drop into the Bradley valley along Tennessee Branch.

I still had nine miles to go, and I officially entered Death March mode at this point, checking my watch, estimating my arrival time for each junction. When I reached Bradley Fork, I made an effort to admire the stream as I retraced those long four miles along it. And it was beautiful, but I was too glazed over to appreciate it.

I’ve been talking to people over the past weeks about the Bradley Fork headwaters. It’s interesting that despite my picking the brains of various victims and reaching out to old-timer bushwacking types who’ve explored on the North Carolina side, I haven’t come up with a single person so far who’s journeyed up those streams, climbed up those ridges, ventured into that mysterious region. Let me know if you have.

The Bradley headwaters could be reached by going out the A.T. from Newfound and dropping down, or going up and over from False Gap Prong and/or Kalanu Prong in the Greenbrier, but the “righteous” way is to go up Bradley. That probably means camping at the Cabin Flats backcountry site, up at that four-mile point. Maybe with a fishing rod or a deck of cards, that wouldn’t be so bad…

Snow on the A.T.

Snow on the A.T.


1. AdamB - February 25, 2013

Hey Jenny I did 2 loops in that area in the last 6 months. One of them along the Grassy Branch trail and Hughes Ridge trail I could see several big slides in that area you are talking about.

I think that you must have run into Pete Berntsen he maintains that section of the AT for the SMHC I have worked with him on that section before. He is a great guy very gregarious.

As far as the area up above Cabin Flats I have collected quite a bit of information on it as there is an interesting artifact in the middle of the creek up there at the confluence of Gulf and Chasm prongs. It is a rather large engine from an air force F-15 eagle that detached after a crash at 60,000 feet above Pecks Corner back in the late 1990s. The engine dropped all the way down and ended up in the water right at the confluence of Gulf and Chasm Prongs smack in the middle of the creek there. I first found out about it several years ago when camping at Cabin Flats I met an old fisherman there who told me he had seen it up there. I later asked on the LRO forum if any other fisherman had been up there and got a few interesting responses. I asked Jeff Wadley author of Mayday Mayday about it and he confirmed it. Here is the thread I was part of back in 2009. I was “Crockett” on there:

Now as far as anyone venturing above the confluence of Gulf and Chasm prong I am sure some fisherman have been up there but probably not terribly far above it. That would probably be virgin territory once you get about a half mile above that intersection in either stream. I certainly have never heard of anyone climbing those scars from that side. Probably because the distance would make it pretty hard to do in a day without overnighting somewhere.

Jenny - February 25, 2013

Hi Adam, good to get your thoughts on the area. If I can get a group together to do some exploring up there, we’ll have to look for that F-15 engine. Fascinating! But then, I keep finding out about stuff that drops out of the sky into the Smokies—everything from planes that crash to a pallet-load of toilet paper that was supposed to be dropped at LeConte Lodge and ended up on a fork of Styx Branch.

Thanks also for the mention of Pete Berntsen. I fixed his name in the blog.

2. Al - February 25, 2013

24.6 miles in Winter may be a smokies record. Once you got up on Hughes and then part way up to Pecks did you notice the Balsam Ridge manway entering from the left ? I did this manway with Bill Hart and Ed Hina like years ago. We did a camp out at Cabin Flats and then up the creek to a point well above Washout Branch and near that junction of Gulf and Chasam. Then up the Balsam Ridge manway to Pecks were we stayed the second night. We parted company there and I did the rest of the trip back to Smokemont as you did. Bill and Ed went on to Three Forksvia upper Enlow Creek to search out a route up to the AT from Middle Fork Ridge but were stymied by heavy under brush and returned back to Three Forks and out via Breakneck and over to Straight Fork Road.

I suggested this OT to Ed Fleming a month or so back. Not the same loop you took but up Bradley and then up to Washout and above and then the manway up Balsam Ridge to Hughes and back by Taywa Creek to Bradley Fork. Have not heard back from him yet. That manway even had rocks building up the trail. Maybe old CCC work ?

I guess this was before the plane crash.

Great pictures too.


Jenny - February 25, 2013

I did that Balsam Ridge manway back in the 80s. My former husband and I saw it as a dotted line on the Blue Book map and figured we’d try it. It wasn’t hard to follow. I thought of it as I went up Hughes Ridge but didn’t look for the upper end. Wow, that route via upper Enloe to Three Forks sounds insane. Very long way around. There’s lots of good exploring in that area.

3. Brian Reed - February 26, 2013

That was one whale of a hike. I’m sure there’s some good adventure waiting for you on those untrodden ridges. Been wondering about Frowning Rock Ridge especially for years and now I have a name for it. Looking forward to hearing what it’s actually like up close. Adam, that is incredible about the F-15 engine. Where’s the rest of it? Al, Dave Wetmore tried and gave up on that Middle Fork Ridge “trail” as well and deemed it the most impossible thicket he ever encountered. And he’d be one to know.

Jenny - February 27, 2013

Frowning Rock Ridge is the one that most intrigued me on the map and the one I didn’t get a good look at. Now that I’ve taken a look at the area, I might go back and zero in on that ridge, downclimbing as I originally planned to do.

AdamB - February 27, 2013

Brian I would guess that the rest of the plane is scattered around the adjoining ridges. As far as I know it wasn’t recovered would be cool to find some other parts of it namely the cockpit. Interestingly there were 2 F-15s and they clipped each other while doing maneuvers at 60,000 feet. One pilot ejected his plane crashed there but the other pilot was able to land his plane. Just to give you guys an idea on how remote the area is the incident happened in 1992 but the engine wasn’t found even though it is huge and in the middle of the stream until 1999. So obviously only one or two fishermen make it that far above cabin flats every 10 years or so.

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