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Unlucky Horseshoe September 10, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Area of Horseshoe Mountain.

Area of Horseshoe Mountain.

For the past month, I have been haunted by the memory of my adventure going up Shutts Prong. I wanted to venture again into those wild streams. And so it was that I came up with the idea of visiting Horseshoe Mountain. I decided I would follow Horseshoe Branch from Porters Creek to the summit and descend via the stream that runs down Horseshoe’s east side into Lester Prong.

I descended that east-side stream, which forms a slide in its upper section, on a trip three years ago, going down the slide and climbing up the Jumpoff. I was accompanied by Brian Reed and Seneca Pressley on that trip.

I set out on a beautiful cool, clear September day. The first challenge I faced was to locate the junction of Horseshoe Branch and Porters. That shouldn’t be a problem, I figured. After all, I’d located the Shutts junction with no trouble at all. Also, you can see Horseshoe Mountain from the trail.

The USGS map shows the junction at just above 3200′.  Just to make sure of the location, I also printed out a copy of a Google map from Tom Dunigan’s Tennessee Landforms website, since it shows a GPS track of a person following the trail. Hmmm—the GPS track looks quite different from the dotted line of the trail on the USGS version.

To make sure I didn’t miss the junction, I left the trail below 3200′ and went to the stream through a wide swath of rhodo, then started rockhopping up Porters. Even though water levels are low these days, Porters is still a large enough creek that working upstream isn’t all that easy. I went from pool to giant boulder to blowdown, on and on, and didn’t see the junction. I went all the way up to 3400′ before heading back to the trail. I came out at the backcountry campsite—obviously past the junction.

“I must’ve just missed it,” I said to myself. “I need to go back and start lower down.”

I went down to 3050′ just to make sure, and once again proceeded upstream. After much work, I saw a wet footprint on a boulder—my own. It’s interesting how long it takes a footprint to evaporate.

I had already been concerned about time. “Okay, time to cut my losses. I’ll reverse the trip, go up the slide and down Horseshoe Branch.”

So along I went to the familiar Porters Creek manway. The stream crossings were all easy with the low water levels.

First crossing on Porters Creek manway.

First crossing on Porters Creek manway.

The manway is becoming more and more obscure with its many blowdowns. The first stretch, just past the backcountry campsite, is one of the hardest to follow. The trick is to look past each blowdown to see traces of foot travel on the ground. When you get to the stream crossings, you have the friendly cairns.

This cairn must have been here quite a while.

This cairn must have been here quite a while.

A cairn with a special shape marks the junction with Lester Prong.

Cairn at Lester junction.

Cairn at Lester junction.

Lester nearly disappeared in places with the low water, the way Styx Branch disappears and reappears.

Hardly any water in this stretch---but it reappeared.

Hardly any water in this stretch—but it reappeared.

I approached the first tributary on the left, the one I have followed many times to reach Rocky Crag (the “Real Bunion”). Distinctive cascades mark this spot.

Near first tributary of  Lester Prong.

Near first tributary of Lester Prong.

This is where you are starting to get past freestone and into bedrock.

This is where you are starting to get past freestone and into bedrock.

The mouth of the first tributary had so little water in it that, if I hadn’t been  familiar with it and hadn’t paid attention at that moment, I could have gone past it without noticing it.

“The mouth of Horseshoe Branch might have been hard to see,” I said to myself. I still don’t know. Perhaps it is located where I passed by on the other side of an island, or where I was struggling with some blowdown/boulder combo and just didn’t pay enough attention right then.

The bottom of the east-side Horseshoe stream was nearly invisible.

Good thing I knew where to look for it.

Good thing I knew where to look for it.

I climbed a pleasant jungle-gym array of rocks, punctuated with blowdown. Trouble with these narrow draws is, all sorts of debris rolls down into them. At times I left the draw to climb along the side.

Snakeroot growing to side of draw.

Snakeroot growing to side of draw.

I got into the bedrock section.

Up around 4700'.

Up around 4700′.

At around this point, I went to the side into open woods, put my hand down on a fallen log, and disturbed a wasp’s nest. I got three good stings near the elbow (I had my long sleeves pushed up). Youch! I could feel my arm stiffening up—it was pretty painful.

“This may not be the day for this hike.” I was already somewhat concerned about the amount of time it would take to descend Horseshoe Branch—especially since going down is harder than going up.

I turned around.

Ferns on the way down.

Ferns on the way down.

Finally I got back down to Lester.

Recent blowdown on Lester.

Recent blowdown on Lester.

I reached the Porters manway. Hard to believe that 25 years ago it was almost like a maintained trail.

Obstacles on Porters manway.

Obstacles on Porters manway.

Berries of witch hobble (viburnum).

Berries of witch hobble (viburnum).

Red fungus.

Red fungus.

As I went back down Porters Creek trail, the light had shifted, and I could see the northern ridges of Horseshoe Mountain more clearly—those are the ridges that give it the horseshoe shape it is named for. The trick is to find the tail of the more easterly of the two ridges, for that is exactly where Horseshoe Branch comes in.

“I will be back.”

Cardinal flower.

Cardinal flower.


1. Clyde Austin - September 10, 2013

Jenny, what you went through here is one of those situations where I like my modern navigation aid! The GPS.
There are times when it just makes some of this stuff a little easier.
(that said, I have made wrong turns even with it…sometimes I am amazed at my own stupidity)
Thanks for the post and the photos,

Jenny - September 10, 2013

Thanks, Clyde, I appreciate your comment. I expected I’d hear that from GPS users. It makes a lot of sense, and yet I prefer to become a more careful observer of natural features (the tail of that easterly ridge) than to use GPS. The SMHC did several trips up Horseshoe Branch in the pre-GPS era. Charlie Farmer and Dick Ketelle led a hike up there in 1977, and Ernie Dickerman led a hike up there in the 60s. So that’s my personal preference.

Clyde Austin - September 10, 2013

Jenny, I certainly respect your preference, and it does make you more careful about watching natural features. I navigated for a long time without a GPS, but bought one purely and simply to make navigation easier.

Brian Reed - September 10, 2013

I’ve had the same thing happen looking for creek mouths a couple times. Sometimes the smaller ones come out in several trickles in rhodo covered boulders and fool me. Yeah, I never used GPS in the Smokies. I can’t think of any really good reason beyond that’s what I’ve always done and I’m a creature of habit. Also I like the feeling of being a little unsure where I am. Hey, I’ve seen references to a very early trail up Horseshoe Mountain’s east ridge including a map. Wish I could remember where but I know there was mention in an early SMHC newsletter. This Dutch Roth photo was taken from the east ridge. I’d assumed it was from the summit till I went there with Peter and compared it with a photo he took.


Jenny - September 11, 2013

Brian, those old photos always boggle my mind with the total barrenness of the area around the Bunion. Incidentally, the Ernie Dickerman handbook writeup mentioned good views from the top of Horseshoe, which wasn’t the case when I was there with you and Seneca.

2. Ronnie - September 10, 2013

Great report as always,been exploring the forks of Walker Camp Prong Jenny,lots of new adventures under Anakeesta Knob and the Boulevard.Love hearing your stories

3. Jim Plant - September 10, 2013

Jenny, a smart hiker knows when to turn back. You can always scramble up that way another day. Good thing you can handle a few bee stings. That would surely ruin my day. I always enjoy hearing of your adventures.

4. Al - September 11, 2013

Is there a write up on your trip 3 years ago of the route you all took to get to Horseshoe Mtn.

Jenny - September 11, 2013

Al, we started and ended at Newfound Gap. We left the Boulevard trail where it heads north paralleling the Jumpoff, shortly before it bends to the west. Then we followed the ridge out to Horseshoe Mountain. There was rhodo on it, but not too bad. You can also reach Horseshoe by going to the end of the Jumpoff side trail and continuing toward the Horseshoe ridge. Once on Horseshoe Mountain, we descended to Lester Prong via the east-side slide that I climbed most of the way up. Extremely different conditions—it rained all day and Lester was raging. Then we climbed up the Jumpoff. You can click on the link where I mentioned that trip and read the whole report.

5. Al - September 11, 2013

OK, tnx, that was like I expected but was not sure. Sounds like a long day especially with a climb up to the Jumpoff at the end.

6. Gary Howell - September 16, 2013

Even if unlucky, sounds a great hike, nice pictures.

7. Al - September 17, 2013

Jenny, the cairns are a beacon of reassurance. Porters Creek seems to be cairn headquarters.
Do you remember the cairn we came across descending that small branch east of Wolly Tops ? We were heading down from a club hike led by C.K. where we went up via Little Laurel Branch. Matt K. joined up with us somewhere along the trip up. That was somewhere around 1985 or maybe 1986. Seems like a fellow named Andy was co-lead. We waded for a long time down Eagle Rocks Prong. Finally reached Buck Fork and a nice manway.

Jenny - September 17, 2013

I like seeing cairns. And you’re right, Porters Manway is Cairn City. I don’t know if you’ve seen the super-giant cairn on Lester Prong about halfway between Porters and the first Lester tributary (that goes to the “Real Bunion.”) It is a work of art. What I don’t like is surveyor’s tape of any of those hideous fluorescent shades of pink and orange. Whenever I see that, I pull it down. It’s usually in the wrong place anyway.

Now, regarding Woolly Tops, my recollection was, it was Dicky Simpson’s voice we heard crying through the wilderness as we marched relentlessly up the steep slopes of the mountain. He caught up to us. It was Charlie and Matt Kelleher who were the hike leaders. Andy Zenick was along but not one of the leaders. He was a great fan of big trees, so appropriately enough has been living for these many years out in the Pacific Northwest. On the Woolly Tops hike, we went down Shirttail Branch and hit Eagle Rocks Prong.

Big Laurel Branch, not Little Laurel, is the truly incredible way to climb Woolly Tops, in my opinion. If you use the search box on this blog you’ll find reports on both the trip from the 80s and a fantastic trip in late 2009.

8. Al - September 18, 2013

The super giant cairn was probably not there when we went up on that club hike using the first Lester drainage towards the bunion years ago. I seem to recall you were the first one up to the top. I did see that Woolly Tops trip you made in 2009 and the sheer cliffs.

Somewhere I may still have a picture of the folks from back in the eighties eating lunch on Woolly Tops. No smiling faces. Maybe we realized the trip down was to be the most difficult part. How could I have forgotten the unusual named Shirttail Branch !

Jenny - September 18, 2013

You’re right, the big cairn on Lester Prong wasn’t there back in the 80s. It is actually kind of artistic, with a stick running through it that’s been there at least a couple of years. There’s another cairn on the Porters Manway down at the bottom of the really steep stretch that folks refer to as the “Mother Cairn.” It rivals the pyramids of Egypt. 🙂 By the way, as you know, people always used to call that manway the Dry Sluice Manway. But since the Park Service renamed the Richland Mountain trail the Dry Sluice trail, I have gone with the flow and referred to the manway as Porters to avoid confusion between the manway and the trail.

9. Tom - September 21, 2013


Thanks for another wonderful account.I first learned about the Porter Creek Manway reading your blog and I am still a little obsessed with it.


Jenny - September 21, 2013

Yes, and you went out there and did it solo a few years ago! I admire you for that.

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