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Mt. LeConte via Surry Fork June 16, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Cascade on Surry Fork

Cascade on Surry Fork

This was a solo bushwhack that I undertook for several reasons. One of them was that I wanted to find out why Surry Fork has been so neglected among the streams that tumble down the slopes of LeConte. Perhaps it is upstaged by its neighbor, Roaring Fork, which is a larger stream with bigger waterfalls—I suppose you could say Roaring Fork is more deluxe than Surry.

Another reason for its neglect is no doubt the unfortunate circumstance that Surry Fork is crossed by the Trillium Gap trail a total of four times. To be more exact, the upper valley loses its perennial stream water by the time you get to the third trail crossing, but you still go across the trail as you follow that basic route.

So perhaps that is the reason the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club never goes up it and you never hear talk of Surry Fork among the usual off-trail hard-cores.

The 1931 map shows an old trail that goes up Surry Fork to Trillium Gap. Surry joins Roaring Fork above what is now the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and that is where you would be most likely to pick up the old trail. It’s maybe even an old road in that section that led up to former homesites.

I thought about starting from the lowest point, but I rejected that in favor of going up Trillium Gap trail past Grotto Falls and hitting Surry at the lowest trail crossing, around 4400′. Why, that’s halfway up the mountain, and you might consider that cheating. But I did it anyway. I also cheated a tiny bit at the top, as I will explain.

So I set off along the trail to Grotto Falls. For some reason on this trip I really noticed the bizarre patterns of exposed roots on the trail.

The roots are really quite striking once you pay attention to them.

The roots are really quite striking once you pay attention to them.

I arrived at Grotto Falls. Here is my favorite perspective on the falls.

Behind the falls.

Behind the falls.

Then I trundled along to the first crossing of Surry Fork. It looked extraordinarily green. The photo below has no enhancement of color. In fact, I turned the brightness down a bit.

Here is where I picked up Surry Fork.

Here is where I picked up Surry Fork.

Before long I reached a junction of two branches of Surry Fork. Only the left is shown on the map as a perennial stream, but to me they looked about equal in volume of water flow. Both had cascades flowing down over a band of sandstone that extended pretty far in both directions at that elevation.

I got a better perspective as I climbed up beside it.

I got a better perspective as I climbed up beside it.

I noticed that the rock is pockmarked with holes. I have noticed this in a few other places, such as Kuwahi Branch up near Clingmans Dome summit. I don’t know what the geological explanation is.

Pockmarks in rock.

Pockmarks in rock.

I went over toward the left cascade, but the vegetation was incredibly dense and I needed to find a route up the cascade bluff. So this photo was taken from a distance. Sorry it is blurry.

The left and right cascades were like pages of an open book.

The left and right cascades were like pages of an open book.

I crawled through a lot of rhodo getting up past this general elevation. I saw one—just one—blossom here as if the plant was making a conciliatory gesture. (I saw a lot more rhodo in bloom along roads and other places where you aren’t wrestling with it. Funny thing about that.)

I think the rhodo was making fun of me...

I think the rhodo was making fun of me…

...because this is what it looked like most of the time.

…because this is what it looked like most of the time.

The blackberry canes did the same thing.

The blackberry canes did the same thing.

Rhodo does come in handy for climbing up.

Rhodo does come in handy for climbing up.

Higher up the rhodo didn't look quite so spiffy.

Higher up the rhodo didn’t look quite so spiffy.

Above 5800' I finally got into balsam woods.

Above 5800′ I finally got into balsam woods.

Unfortunately, I got into a zone of intensive balsam blowdown, from the trees that were killed from the balsam woolly adelgid in the late 80s and early 90s.

Balsam blowdown.

Balsam blowdown.

It was at this point that I cheated again. Thing was, I was ridiculously close to the trail—and this is really the problem with Surry Fork. As I clambered over one blowdown after another, I couldn’t forget the trail was literally only yards away from my route, located on the west side of the ridge that led up to the Lodge.

I threw in the towel and dropped down to the trail at about 6000′, climbed up to the Lodge, and then went on to Cliff Top because I wanted to see the myrtle in bloom.

Oh, the myrtle was beautiful!

Oh, the myrtle was beautiful!

L:ooking toward West Point.

Looking toward West Point.

I had hardly seen anyone all day (no big surprise there), but two young couples came up while I was sitting at Cliff Top. They asked me if I’d come up the Alum Cave trail. I was seized with a strange fit of awkwardness. I said I’d gone up past Grotto Falls and climbed up a stream, and I knew I couldn’t possibly explain it. They saw my dirty clothes, the fact that I was wearing long sleeves and long pants, dirty gaiters.

For some reason instead of seeing myself as a glorious explorer I could only see myself as kind of a weirdo, at least in their eyes. I had the same feeling when I got back down to Grotto Falls and ran into tons of tourists on the trail. It was uniformly family groups wearing t-shirts and shorts, and here I was, a solitary female who looked dirty and dressed differently than everyone else. I should have felt superior, I guess. Instead I only felt odd. Sorry for the deep psychological digression.

While I was up on Cliff Top, I saw a Rhodo minus in bud. It’s one of my favorite plants.

Rhodo minus next to myrtle.

Rhodo minus next to myrtle.

And then I had to face up to the long trip down Trillium Gap trail. One nice thing happened—I saw a very tame deer near the Lodge!

That grass looks very tasty!

That grass looks very tasty!


1. Clyde Austin - June 16, 2013

I didn’t know Surry Fork existed till today! Guess I have crossed it a bunch of times!
Is it ok if I keep my GPS?

Jenny - June 16, 2013

Ah, great! A person who’s extremely familiar with the Smokies who hadn’t heard of Surry Fork. Proves my point. Thank you, thank you! As far as GPS is concerned, I don’t actually hate the devices, I just do without them as I have for many years of bushwhacking (car driving, too, come to think of it). To me something that works off magnetic north just can’t go wrong (as long as you’re familiar with declination). A lot of folks don’t want to bother with that.
P.S. Readers, the exchange about GPS refers to comments on my recent blog about scouting Lower Richland Mountain.

2. AdamBeal - June 17, 2013

Nice post Jenny I have fished up Surry Fork from the Roaring Fork confluence. There are rainbow trout in it down low. There are also falls similar to the one in your first pic and some large pools.

In regards to GPS I recently obtained one and have had a good time playing around with it. Helped some during a hike in the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock area over the weekend. Although I have found the best thing about it is having an accurate altimeter something which I have been lacking for a while. I would say off trail in the Smokies is made much easier by map, compass, and an altimeter. Although the compass is always right one has to be careful and not make assumptions such as the ridge you started on going due East is probably still going due East at some point in the future.

Jenny - June 17, 2013

It is a long, long way from the Surry/Roaring Fork confluence to the Surry headwaters! (By the way, I’ve corrected my earlier statement that the confluence is below the road. I wasn’t looking at the map when I wrote that.) I looked at it and thought, maybe I’ll traverse over from Roaring to Surry somewhere in between there and the lowest trail crossing of Surry. But I got lazy, and I must say it was a hard enough climb as it was. Gets pretty steep.
This was a hike where a GPS wouldn’t have made much difference. It could have made a difference on my Lower Richland scouting trip. But paying better attention to my compass would have made a difference too! They’re both good approaches—it’s just a question of finding your personal preference.

Clyde Austin - June 17, 2013

I agree on most of the LeConte routes a GPS is an extra appendage for navigation! What I do like is that on something like the West Prong route we did where you don’t have much elevation change it tells me how far I have gone and how far I have left to go. On most routes that is it’s major use! For me it is like a security blanket to have map, compass, GPS and altimeter! Funny, I am the opposite of the other guy who commented, I trust my wristwatch altimeter more than the GPS altimeter.

3. Al - June 18, 2013

Another old route that would challenge is the Leconte Creek old phone line trail. It intersects off and on with the Rainbow Falls trail.

Jenny - June 18, 2013

Al, I plan to do that one in the near future!

Al - June 18, 2013

Good, I think you were one of the Club members that EF contacted about a possible hike up to LeConte going that way. We remember talking on that phone from up there when Herrick Brown had the lodge back in ’74

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