Horseshoe Mountain—made it! November 21, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Horseshoe Branch, Horseshoe Mountain, Horseshoe slide, Lester Prong, Porters Creek, Porters Creek manway
After two attempts, I finally succeeded in my quest to climb Horseshoe Mountain via Horseshoe Branch. The map below shows my route—up the branch, down a draw that leads to a waterfall above the second tributary of Lester Prong. Then down Lester to the Porters Creek manway to return to the maintained trail. (I drew the manway as a straight line on the map, but as you probably know, it crisscrosses the stream).
This hike offers nothing spectacular. It is for people who like the idea of getting up into a remote stream valley that feels secluded and hidden away because of the two arms of the “horseshoe,” the east and west ridge, that reach around it protectively. I suspect some folks would feel it wasn’t worth the trouble. There’s a lot of vegetation to deal with. But for me, it was definitely worth it.
Heavy rains three days earlier were still affecting the streams, making the rockhopping more difficult than when I tried two weeks ago and went up to the east ridge.
Soon after I started up the stream, I passed evidence of a very hardworking pileated woodpecker.
All the little cascades were pretty because of the higher water. This time, I wasn’t able to keep my feet dry. The stream is so hemmed in by rhodo that if you don’t step in the water you’ll spend too much time working around the pools.
On my trip two weeks ago I passed a waterfall a little below 3800′ that I had seen on Tom Dunigan’s great website. The same thing happened both trips—I went into open woods to the right and climbed a little ways up a hillside, then saw the falls off to the side. For what it’s worth, here’s a zoom photo of the falls partly obstructed by brush. It has two drops.
Speaking of Tom Dunigan’s website, I’ve gotten addicted to one of his links, to the CalTopo maps with slope angle shading. Click on any location in the Smokies and go to CalTopo, and you can see more easily than by the contour lines alone exactly where the steepest parts are. The flattest areas are shown as pale yellow (27-29 degrees) and the steepest ones as violet (46-50 degrees). (There’s a blue, 51-59 degrees, but you only see that at the Jumpoff.) Turned out the only violet terrain I encountered on this trip was at the bottom of the draw I followed down to Lester. More about that in a moment.
I passed the side valley I went up on the earlier trip and encountered a Zone of Uncertainty at 4000′. The map shows the main stem of Horseshoe Branch going nearly due south and a side draw with no permanent water angling south-southwest. When I got to the split, I found no water at all in the supposed main stem, a little bit of water in the side draw, and water seeping out of the ground in the middle.
On my earlier trip in lower water conditions, the stream had disappeared for a bit and re-emerged higher up, as some of the streams do around LeConte—Styx Branch being a prime example. Thinking the water might reemerge, I continued straight south, following a shallow depression that had no water and looked like it practically never carried water. It was full of rhodo. There was a flat area to the right that made for slightly easier going, so I did that for a while. The photo below shows what, believe it or not, was the easier place to go.
I include this blurry photo to show you what the dry streambed looked like when it wasn’t completely swallowed in rhodo.
The water did come back very briefly, and I refilled a water bottle there. As I climbed more steeply, I hit a stretch of open woods, but it didn’t last.
At 4800′ I encountered slimy sandstone bluffs and worked my way around them. I didn’t encounter much Anakeesta in this valley.
Can you imagine what it will be like when all those dead hemlocks come down? I fear that bushwhacking in five or ten years will become terribly arduous.
I hit the summit area a little to the west of the high point. There’s room at the very top for just a few people to stand under the laurels. The ground showed signs of hiker traffic. Those would be, I guess, people using the Horseshoe slide and people following Peter Barr’s example and climbing 5000-footers. I’m willing to bet practically all—probably all—of those hikers came from the direction of the Boulevard or from Lester Prong, not up Horseshoe Branch
Now I had to get off the mountain. I looked at the big slide that runs down the east side. The top is colored violet on the slope angle map.
I have to be honest. Even though I went down the slide three years ago with a couple of friends, fear came into my heart. I could climb up it, and I’d planned to do that in September but didn’t get that far. But not down it, not by myself. I just couldn’t get myself to drop down onto that very steep place. I’ve run into this sort of thing before. It’s a matter of psychology and perception.
I decided I would explore the draw that hits Lester Prong above the second tributary (the one you use to climb the Bunion). I don’t recommend this route. It turned out to be okay in the upper section, bad in the middle, and scary at the bottom. I slid down the upper part on my butt. Since rhodo branches have a way of pointing downhill on steep slopes, you’re going with the grain instead of against it, and you just hold onto the branches to control your speed.
In the middle I ran into greenbrier mixed into the rhodo. That was miserable. The briers finally thinned out, but when I got to about 4200′ I suddenly realized I was just above a cliff. Below me and a little to the side I saw a waterfall, very pretty with the recent rain. The rhodo was so dense that I couldn’t see what was solid ground and what was a dropoff. I decided to traverse away from the waterfall. Danger lurked just below. I cautiously made my way across the slope and saw a spot below that looked doable. I lowered myself down carefully, holding onto branches. Now I saw a series of short little drops. I clung to a branch of witch hobble, slid down—now I had come to the end of the witch hobble branch. I let go and dropped. Fortunately I got down to the bottom without injury. It shook me up a bit, and I didn’t think to take a picture of the nice waterfall. I sat and rested and had something to eat before I was ready to go on.
Once I went on down the stream, I saw that if I had gone a little bit further I would have reached a very manageable slope, but the rhodo was so dense I hadn’t seen that. Looking downslope in dense vegetation is tricky. I continued down Lester Prong, passing the second tributary, the small stream that starts at the Horseshoe slide, and the first tributary. Those tributaries on the east side of Lester are the gateways to the steep crags around the Bunion.
I reached the manway and continued on to the backcountry campsite. It was quite an adventure.