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Scouting Tomahawk Falls May 4, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , ,
James prepares to climb beside the first waterfall.

James prepares to climb past the first waterfall.

Yesterday James Locke and I scouted a hike we will lead July 14 for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. The hike will have two options. People wanting an easy outing can go to Tomahawk Falls and back out again on the Road Prong and Chimneys trails. Those who want something more challenging will go to the falls, return to Road Prong and traverse to an unnamed stream that runs just north of Tomahawk Prong, follow that up to the Sugarland Mountain trail, take the manway connector to the upper Chimneys trail, visit the Chimneys, and descend the trail.

Since access to the Chimneys trail is currently blocked by reconstruction of the bridge over Walker Camp Prong that was damaged by the January floods, we scouted the hike starting from Indian Gap and climbing back up to the gap at the end.

Speaking of the January floods, this was the first time since then that I’d been past the section of US 441 that washed out. For three months I was unable to reach my favorite parts of the Smokies—the areas around Newfound Gap, Mt. LeConte, and the Greenbrier. However, the experience of driving over the reconstructed section didn’t turn out quite as exciting as I’d hoped. I crossed the short stretch of new pavement in a flash, with hardly a chance to admire the major drainage work above and below the grade.

James and I descended the Road Prong trail amidst swathes of spring beauties.

Carpets of spring beauties.

Carpets of spring beauties.

Bluets along Road Prong.

Bluets along Road Prong.

We dropped down from the trail a little above the Tomahawk Prong junction to make sure we didn’t miss it. A small log jam there made it easy to spot once we were down in the stream.

Looking past the small logjam down Road Prong.

Looking past the small logjam down Road Prong.

Since Tomahawk Prong is a shallow stream hemmed in by rhodo, the way you get up it is to wade. We kept our boots on to travel the half-mile to the falls—it is too far to wear Crocs or similar footgear.

Looking up Tomahawk Prong.

Looking up Tomahawk Prong.

James, an avid fisherman who spends many hours wading streams, was fast and agile going up the watercourse—and he managed to spot a few brookies along the way. I was slower, slipping and sliding on the mossy rocks. After a half hour we reached the waterfall I had seen pictured as Tomahawk Falls. It was wide, but not very high.

The waterfall I'd seen in a photograph.

The waterfall I’d seen in a photograph.

But we’d glimpsed another waterfall just past it, taller and narrower. So we went up to that point.

The second waterfall.

The second waterfall.

It was perhaps 18 or 20 feet high, and seemed more impressive to us than the first, which seemed closer to 12 feet than the 15 I’d read in a description. Fortunately, since the two falls are so close together, we can easily visit both.

We returned down the stream and made a short crossing through the rhodo over to the next stream valley. This was a lovely little stream.

The stream we followed to the Sugarland crest.

The stream we followed to the Sugarland crest.

The only obstruction we encountered was a couple of large hemlock blowdowns. We saw lots of wildflowers.

Umbrella leaf starting to unfurl.

Umbrella leaf starting to unfurl.

Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman’s breeches.

Hobblebush (viburnum) and spring beauties.

Hobblebush (viburnum) and spring beauties.

Vasey's trillium.

Vasey’s trillium.

Trout lily.

Trout lily.

The way grew steep as we approached the ridgetop through worlds of wildflowers. We hit the crest just south of a gap and dropped a short distance to the trail.

The manway that connects with the Chimneys trail is about a mile north of where we reached the Sugarland trail. We hunted a short while and found its upper end. The manway is fairly steep but easy to follow.

Sugarland - Chimneys connector manway.

Sugarland – Chimneys connector manway.

As we descended the manway, I realized I was getting very hungry. I grabbed a few peanut M&Ms when we reached the Chimneys trail. I figured I’d have lunch on top of the Tourist Chimney.

At the base of the Chimney we encountered one other person. With the trailhead closed off, we hadn’t expected to see anyone at all, but he had come down from Indian Gap as well—though not of course by the same route that we took. We stowed our poles near the Park Service warning sign, and I climbed directly up from that point, realizing halfway up this short pitch that it was sketchy. But I found a nifty handhold, wafer thin but solid, and got up onto the main part of the Chimney. I continued climbing, taking a somewhat unorthodox route. As I neared the top, I realized that James had stopped following. I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t making the climb look realistic.

I enjoyed the view from the top for a few minutes. I especially marveled at the very visible slide that comes down from the Alum Cave trail at Peregrine Peak into Trout Branch. James and I climbed that last fall. He went back this year after the January flood and explored the lower section, finding that it had been enlarged and considerably rearranged by the deluge. I look forward to going back and taking another look.

I descended the Chimney and joined James for lunch. It was not until we’d headed down the trail that I realized I hadn’t taken a single picture from the Chimney. Well, just to prove that I have in fact explored both Chimneys quite a bit, here is a photo from an SMHC outing that I led with Chris Sass that climbed up off-trail from the Chimneys picnic area.

Photo from SMHC outing June 2011. We came over from the outer Chimney.

Photo from SMHC outing June 2011. We came over from the outer Chimney.

James and I descended to the Road Prong trail junction. Now we faced the 1500-foot climb to Indian Gap. It’s always tough to do a major climb at the end of a hike. At least we had the beautiful waterfalls of Road Prong to occupy our attention.

Talking Falls.

Talking Falls.

We passed a slope covered with luxuriant moss.

Lots of moss.

Lots of moss.

Approaching the Tomahawk Prong junction from the direction opposite to the way we’d come in the morning, we identified a couple of features that marked the best spot to drop down from the trail on the club outing. Under a lowering cloud deck, we arrived back at Indian Gap. Things will look very different when we come back in July.

Snapped-off spruce trunk---one of the markers for the Tomahawk junction.

Snapped-off spruce trunk—one of the markers for the Tomahawk junction.


1. Al - May 4, 2013

Great pictures as usual. Did you all take that old manway up to Sugarland Mtn that is shown on some old maps ? I remember that first falls from a Club hike back in the 1980s. We dodged around the falls on the left side and took the fork to the right. Seems we came out a lil ways down the Sugarland trail and then went on out via the cross over to the chimneys.

Jenny - May 4, 2013

Al, I see that manway on the 1949 map, but it’s hard to tell which valley it goes up. The valley we followed to the crest was so easy to travel that you didn’t really need a manway. If you took the fork to the right on the 80s trip, you probably went up Moccasin Branch.

2. Al - May 5, 2013

It was Moccasin Branch.I had been up the left fork on an earlier trip. I seem to remember that the ’49 map manway came into the SMT right near where Sweet Creek departs on the other side.

3. AdamBeal - May 5, 2013

Thanks for the post Jenny and the beautiful pics. James is quite a character he took me and my son Jack down lower Abrams Creek a couple of weeks back in a kayak. Was quite an adventure one I had been wanting to do many times. I have fished up Road Prong and below the Tomahawk Prong confluence a short ways there is a waterfall with a giant pool. Any idea how Tomahawk Prong got its name?

Jenny - May 5, 2013

Yes, James is quite a good character and a fun person to hike with! Regarding the name of Tomahawk Prong, I took a look in that book titled “Place Names of the Smokies,” and it mentioned that “tomahawk” is an Algonquin word. Makes me suspect that someone took off from the name “Indian Gap” and bestowed Indian-themed names on surrounding features, including Moccasin Branch.

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