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In search of the 150-foot spruce April 15, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains.
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I say this is close.

I say this is close.

Ever since I read a trip report by members of the Eastern Native Tree Society about finding a record-size red spruce in the Raven Fork area, I’ve wanted to go there myself. In a way my mission was silly. I don’t have the scientists’ instruments for measuring the height of trees. Maybe what it boiled down to is that I just wanted to wander around in that incredibly wild area in the quadrant northwest of the Raven Fork/Enloe Creek junction.

The ENTS team found a spruce in the Simmons Branch valley that they measured as 146.7″ tall and 12’8″ cbh (circumference at breast height). Those dimensions combined make it a national champion, they said. They found another leviathan even taller, 155’3″ tall, but not as thick (10’7″ cbh). They also found all kinds of other wild, weird, gigantic trees, such as an enormous yellow birch with adventitious roots like those of a strangler fig.

But what is it about spruces? When my friend Brian Worley and I went exploring up there yesterday, we saw skeletal hemlocks that were bigger. But spruces are not usually as large as hemlocks, and I’ve developed a special fondness for these dark, dense evergreens that crown the heights with their sharp pointed tops. I always look for the first spruce when I climb a mountain, though it’s usually a baby. And I always look for those dark shapes on the remote beckoning tops of the farthest heights.

Our route west of Raven Fork and north of Enloe.

Our route west of Raven Fork and north of Enloe.

On an overcast day with refreshing cold winds, we climbed up the Hyatt Ridge trail and descended to Raven Fork. It was my pleasure to introduce Brian to these places. He is a long-time bushwhacker who lives in East Tennesse and had never visited this area.

We stopped for a rest and a snack at the hemlock boulder on Raven Fork—the one where the Park Service has treated  the landmark trees for the woolly adelgid. We admired the stream.

Raven Fork

Raven Fork

Here came the tricky part—the ENTS report said the team left the Enloe Creek trail “about a third of a mile” past the metal bridge. I actually spent time with my maps and an architect’s ruler, measuring the trail against the map scale. I came up with a plausible departure point. But even if I’d identified the correct spot on the map, we then had to match it to the actual location. I still can’t be certain we selected exactly the same route visited by ENTS, but we left the trail at a nice little stream valley and started to climb.

Lower valley where we left the trail.

Lower valley where we left the trail.

We climbed from about 3800′ to 4800′ up this valley, finding it remarkably free of thick brush. It seemed too good to be true—and in fact the rhodo-free conditions didn’t last. As we climbed, we found the forest floor carpeted with the infinitely variable shapes of new green leaves.

Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman’s breeches.

Spring beauty.

Spring beauty.

Stonecrop---not a flower, but still interesting.

Stonecrop.

We climbed through a boulderfield.

We climbed through a boulderfield.

There were lots of ramps.

There were lots of ramps.

The way grew progressively steeper, and we passed a cascade.

We had to start picking our way around obstacles.

We had to start picking our way around obstacles.

As we reached the top and got into thicker brush, I took a photo looking south, toward Hughes Ridge and Ace Enloe Ridge.

Looking south.

Looking south.

Suddenly we found ourselves in dense rhodo, standing on the ridge that marks the southern boundary of the Simmons Branch drainage. The ENTS route took them down toward the stream to the northwest. But their description said they’d emerged on the ridge in a heath bald, and we saw no heath in any direction. And as we gazed into the incredibly dense, snarled, wild forest between us and Simmons Branch, we realized that we might have bitten off more than we could chew. We’d gotten a late start, and we were facing the possibility of getting caught out in the dark looking for the national champ.

Since the second 150-foot spruce was located near a saddle between Simmons and the next stream drainage to the west, we decided to keep to the high ground and head over to the saddle. We worked our way through the enchanted forest, seeing many tall spruce and one of the largest sugar maples I’ve ever come across. Even the fungus growths were larger than normal.

Interesting fungus.

Interesting fungus.

View toward Breakneck Ridge.

View toward Breakneck Ridge.

Base of large spruce.

Base of large spruce.

We crossed occasional stretches of open ground, but most of the time we fought through rhodo and blackberries. The going was very slow. We reached the saddle and turned west, soon finding the spruce pictured at top. Rhodo hemmed in its base. But as I gazed up the towering trunk, I felt that we were in the presence of a giant. Of course, we’ll never know its actual height or whether it is the second one mentioned in the ENTS report.

We made our way down into the unnamed tributary of Enloe by a small draw choked with rhodo and the thickest blackberry canes I’ve ever seen (thick in their diameter, I mean). Things finally opened up and we were able to make faster progress.

Brian descends.

Brian descends.

This valley had the opposite gradient than the one we’d ascended by, being steepest toward the bottom. The stream cascaded down over attractive waterfalls, and we finally returned to the trail.

Stream where it meets the trail.

Stream where it meets the trail.

Enloe Creek was plunging along with high water levels. It was beautiful.

Enloe Creek.

Enloe Creek.

All through the day, we saw countless white trillium.

Trillium grandiflorum.

Trillium grandiflorum.

Countless trillium.

Countless trillium.

Variegated violets.

Variegated violets.

We stopped for a snack beside my favorite Raven Fork pool before making the climb back up to Hyatt Ridge.

A magical place.

A magical place.

Polypody ferns attached to tree trunk.

Polypody ferns attached to tree trunk.

Lousewort (wood betony).

Lousewort (wood betony).

We descended along Hyatt Creek in a light, gentle rain. All the plants were once again being nourished by the rain clouds so that they will grow and thrive. Ah, the Smokies in April. Indescribable.

Hyatt Creek.

Hyatt Creek.

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Comments»

1. iamlenise - April 15, 2013

Wonderful photos…looks like it was an awesome hike! Fungus was a little scary, but the beautiful stream looks absolutely enchanting..Thanks for sharing…Lenise

Jenny - April 15, 2013

Thanks for visiting! Glad you enjoyed it.

2. Clyde Austin - April 15, 2013

Thanks for sharing Jenny. Great photos, neat fungus. Looks to me like you went well past 1/3 mile past bridge before leaving the trail?
Have you ever been up Raven Fork to Three Forks?
Clyde

Jenny - April 15, 2013

Have never been there! It’s been on my list for a long time.

3. Clyde Austin - April 15, 2013

Slips, I guess you went up where I thought you came down. You went up and then came down the blue line drainage?
Clyde

Jenny - April 15, 2013

Yes, we went up the line closer to the bridge and came down the other line.

4. Brian - April 15, 2013

Jenny, great account of a great day. And great photos. The terrain in the photos looks so open compared to the memories of deep thickets of rhododendron and numerous bramble thickets.

Jenny - April 15, 2013

Yeah, I guess I didn’t bother taking photos of the rhodo, so the reader might not realize how much of that there is! And I should have taken a picture of what you might call the national champion blackberry cane. 🙂

5. Al - April 15, 2013

The ENTS is noted for their work in the Park. They also found the much visited hemlock in the Greenbrier and last year the largest poplar in North America in the Fork Ridge area.

Wonder if you could see any trace of the Raven Fork manway on your way in or out ?

The narratives and pictures bring this magic of the smokies right into our living rooms.

Al

Jenny - April 15, 2013

I’ve looked for where the manway hits the trail, but it has long since been swallowed up in the jungle and completely disappeared. Glad you enjoyed the post.

6. James Locke - April 16, 2013

Great report Jenny! I wish I could have been there, I love that area. According to Josh Kelly from ENTS he would never go up from the Raven Fork proper again, and suggested going up Hideaway Brook for the easiet access to the big trees.

Jenny - April 16, 2013

Hideaway Brook sounded interesting in the report that I saw. We’ll have to talk about this. For anything in Simmons Branch, it seems like approaching from Raven or lower Enloe is the best way for the big trees. But your comment makes me wonder if they’ve found other larger trees further west, in the Hideaway basin.

Al - April 18, 2013

To reach Simmons Branch there is an old manway leading down from “Hyatt Gap”. A dug trail in 1982 but who knows now. See ATC map of 1981. A chance too to see what, if anything, might be left of the Raven Fork manway.

Jenny - April 18, 2013

Yes, that shows up on the Blue Book map, too. It comes down from the gap to the small tributary south of Jones Creek and then you would have just a short trip up Raven Fork to Simmons Branch. I’ve looked for where that hits the trail but have never found it. In fact, I thought that was the “official” start of the old manway, but I guess there is another route that left the trail closer to the bridge (but not right down at the bridge—that is too steep on that side next to the stream).

7. Al - April 18, 2013

It could well be where the old Raven Fork manway began at one time. The manway at the gap is not visable. We noted this when we came up in 1982 from the Raven Fork manway. We just kinda stumbled on the old path to the gap and decided to try it as a short cut. Our route was up from the Straight Fork road near Round Bottom to McGee Spring campsite and down that small trib to the right fork of Raven, wading down to Big Pool (in some ice) and then down the manway to the manway we happened on below Jones Creek. Nov 13, 1982. Bill Hart, Bob Kranich and myself.

8. Volbike - April 21, 2013

I I too love the spruce trees though i don’t often get that high.
there are two standouts on on Canada Top in LC that stand out in their lonesome greenness. I pointed them out to Buddy last week.
I have a list of all the large trees by species in the Smoggies and the general locations if you would like to see it.
I know the NPS must have the GPS coordinates from ENTS but I don’t know how you can get ahold of them.
One very small area that has a huge number of large trees is Jim Branch behind Steve Woody’s place in BC. Of course most of the Hempines in their are dead or dying but there are manyother species.
Also The Boogerman trail has a pine that is 180+feet tall that I have never been able to identify though as there are many very tall ones there not to mention the Sag branch poplar. That pine used to be 196 feet tall but lost a few fee to an ice storm.


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