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Styx July 25, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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View from upper Styx Branch drainage. There's something I don't like in the foreground.

View from upper Styx Branch drainage. There’s something I don’t like in the foreground.

For the first time in weeks, the forecast for Gatlinburg  said nothing about precipitation. I had to get out on this beautiful day!

So I climbed Styx Branch to Myrtle Point on LeConte. I’ve been up Styx four or five times via different routes—some accidental rather than intentional.  This is the first time I’ve done it by myself. Readers may notice that lately I’ve been doing more solo bushwhacks than usual. I always enjoy hiking with my disreputable comrades, but this summer I’ve been in a mood to explore the feeling of being by myself in really wild places.

Yes, being a few hundred vertical feet below the popular tourist destination of Myrtle Point is a really wild place. Check it out sometime if you don’t believe me. From the bottom.

I hiked the familiar lower stretch of Alum Cave Trail until I reached the footlog above Arch Rock, then headed up Styx Branch. At the footlog, it carried a fair amount of water, but soon Styx lived up to its usual identity of a stream that often flows in subterranean paths, offering an unusually dry route for off-trail types. And you thought Styx got its name because it goes through Huggins Hell. No, it’s because it issues forth from diabolical realms far below the earth’s surface. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I expected to see some new landslides after the recent phenomenally heavy rains, and I was not disappointed. Nothing super-dramatic, but noticeable.

New slide coming down from the Parton Peaks ridge.

New slide coming down from the Parton Peaks ridge.

I turned up the left fork and proceeded up the stream.

Small cascade on left fork of Styx.

Small cascade on left fork of Styx.

I encountered the thickest, woolliest vegetation of any time I’ve been up in this area. Has the rainfall been saturated with Miracle-Gro?

A world of vegetation.

A world of vegetation.

I also noticed that more blowdowns blocked the stream than I’d recalled from previous outings. As I’ve whined about on other recent blogs, the heavy rainfall and the thunderstorms seem to make it easy for trees to become uprooted.

I got into one particular spot that gave me ridiculous difficulty. It wasn’t dangerous, it was just incredibly awkward. One of those situations where one foot was on the slimy branch of a blowdown, the other foot on a slippery rock, and I was trying to leverage myself up by one arm—surely the push-ups I’ve been doing lately should help—and the branch I was leaning on snapped off.

Getting into the area of tall cascades.

Getting into the area of tall cascades.

Starting to make upward progress.

Starting to make upward progress.

Saxifrage hangs over stream.

Saxifrage hangs over stream.

Now I'm in the halls of the mountain gods!

Now I’m in the halls of the mountain gods!

Looking down the draw.

Looking down the draw.

I reached the perimeter of a big landslide area (not a new one—it’s been obvious for a long time). I climbed along the edge on steep gravelly soil and opted to move into pleasant open balsam woods.

Moss under balsams.

Moss under balsams.

But when I saw a nice open meadow to my right, I traversed over to it. I was unpleasantly surprised to see that it was covered with a parasitical plant called dodder (which you also see in the top photo).

Cuscuta gronovii, better known as dodder.

Cuscuta gronovii, better known as dodder.

It’s not one of those invasive plants that’s arrived in shipping crates just recently from overseas, it’s been around for a long time. My wildflower book says the Cherokees used it for medicinal purposes. Yet this is the first year that I’ve seen it in any quantity in the Smokies (if you’ve had a different experience, please let me know). I saw it last weekend along the A.T. near Mt. Cammerer, and now I see it all over the upper slopes of Styx, where I haven’t seen it before. Perhaps something to do with our bizarre climate this year?

It’s been around in the Black Mountains for a while, especially the northern Blacks like Celo Knob, where I saw tons of it on a traverse of the Blacks.

The wildflower book describes these vines as “parasitic annuals that lack chlorophyll. They attach themselves to a variety of host plants from which they derive nourishment through rootlike connections.” It’s also known as “love vine,” the book says. Funny! Mistletoe, another plant associated with love, is also parasitic.  Hmmm . . . can anyone come up with a concept of love that doesn’t involve being a parasite?

I climbed steeply through these meadows of dodder, trying a route to the side that led to a combination of Rhododendron minus and Anakeesta bluffs, worked my way through, and popped out on the Myrtle Point side trail just steps away from the Point.

Some people came through just as I emerged from the brush. This time, oddly enough, they assumed that I was some sort of worker attached to the Lodge. Two separate groups both said something like “Thank you for your efforts” as I stood by the trail, removing my gloves, attempting to brush spruce and balsam needles from my clothing.

After this and my other recent experiences arriving on LeConte’s top, I’ve come to the conclusion that people can understand workers on the summit, but they cannot understand a person (especially a female on her own) bushwhacking just for the enjoyment of it. I responded to one of the groups, “What’s really nuts is that I do this for fun, not for a job.” I said I’d come up off-trail through the stuff they saw just to the side, but once again they had no questions for me along the lines of “What was it like?” or “Where did you start?”

Come to think of it, I didn’t see any other solo female hikers even on the Alum Cave Trail going down. I like to think of it as sort of a blank area of experience. In the end, I’m glad it’s that way.

View from Myrtle Point.

View from Myrtle Point.

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Comments»

1. Ronnie - July 25, 2013

Very nice!Looks like a nice little trail up to Parton?

Jenny - July 25, 2013

The great thing is it isn’t covered up with vegetation like the route we did a couple years ago down from the saddle on the ridge. I looked up at that, and it seemed like a jungle. But what I don’t know is how high up it starts.

2. masterbias - July 26, 2013

An absolute JUNGLE! (Rainforest). The Rockies are SO different. I’m surprised you could find a place to walk. 🙂

Jenny - July 26, 2013

Thanks for visiting. I’ve hiked in the Rockies on occasion, in Colorado and Montana. Done some Fourteeners (in San Juans, Sangre de Cristos, Front Range, Sawatch—reader of Gerry Roach—“consider your future”). I love the clear dry environment of the west, but the Smokies will always be my first love. And I will say that bushwhacking in the Smokies is probably more challenging than in the Rockies. Including steep rock (try Charlies Bunion or the Jumpoff from the bottom). But they’re all good.

3. seth - July 28, 2013

I like being disreputable. Makes me feel special

Jenny - July 28, 2013

You are highly disreputable, Seth.

seth - July 29, 2013

Although I do prefer infamous.

Jenny - July 29, 2013

🙂

4. Al - July 31, 2013

beautiful pictures, beautiful place. I had to climb a small pine once to gain the Myrtle Point ledge from that approach up Styx.

Jenny - July 31, 2013

Thanks, Al. Yes, I ran into a couple of Anakeesta bluffs at the top!

5. Jeff - July 31, 2013

What you’re doing must be extremely strenuous. What is your workout regimen?

Jenny - August 1, 2013

Styx is strenuous and gets quite steep, but it’s shorter than the approaches to LeConte from the Greenbrier side, so I don’t think of it as the ultimate challenge. My workout regimen is mainly doing short but steep trail hikes in the Plott Balsams, near where I live in Sylva NC. I try to do certain amounts of elevation gain as fast as I can. I also do yoga, pushups, situps, and free weights standing on one leg on a wobble board.

6. Elizabeth - August 1, 2013

Beautiful! I haven’t been up Styx branch, but I want to someday….
I’ve seen some “blankets” of dodder like your pictures show along the crest, near the junction of the AT and sweat heifer, I think, and also out to the east of Newfound Gap (maybe near Mt. Collins?).

Elizabeth - August 1, 2013

I saw dodder in past years in the places I mentioned in the above post- I can’t remember which years, though. Probably sometime in the past five years?

Jenny - August 1, 2013

Thanks for your input, Elizabeth. I know I’ve seen dodder in the Smokies before, but it seems as though this year it has become much more dominant. This is one of those subjective impressions that is hard to back up. I think you’d have to go to the same spot at several points over the years and photograph the vegetation to come up with something definitive.


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