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Interesting weather on Breakneck Ridge May 16, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Meteorology, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , , ,
Beautiful sky.

A lively sky.

I woke up this morning to cool, clear, radiant skies. By 12:30 today, I was walking through sleet.

I didn’t know the weather would get so fantastically complicated.  The forecast called for clouds to develop later in the day and for possible showers overnight into tomorrow. To me, it looked like a great day for a hike.

I decided to take the Breakneck Ridge manway from Hyatt Ridge down to Three Forks, the place where the Left, Middle, and Right Forks of Raven Fork join and form the famous Big Pool. When I got down to the pool, I’d decide whether to retrace my steps or follow Right Fork around to a tributary that leads up to McGee Springs.

As it turned out, I made it about a third of the way on the manway before I decided to turn around because of the weather.

The temperature was 43 degrees at the Beech Gap trailhead on Straight Fork Road. Chilly! But the sun shone brightly and everything looked fresh and green.

Only a half hour passed before clouds dotted the sky. I’ve been trying to do a better job of understanding weather, and I said to myself, “Looks like those puffy convection clouds that form on clear spring days. It’s not a front coming in.”

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It was neither (a) convection nor (b) a front coming in but (c) an upper-level disturbance associated with a short-wave trough (according to the “Scientific Forecaster Discussion” on my weather website).

I still had periods of sunshine on the upper Beech Gap trail.

I still had periods of sunshine on the upper Beech Gap trail.

Cold, gusty winds hit me when I reached Hyatt Ridge. I’d guess it was in the upper 30s.  I turned north on the trail and before long came to the eastern terminus of the manway. There are three ways you can find it: pay attention to the shape of the ridge, look for a landmark sugar maple, or find the piece of pink surveyor’s tape.

This maple with a see-through trunk is at the junction of the manway and the Hyatt Ridge trail.

This maple with a see-through trunk is at the junction of the manway and the Hyatt Ridge trail.

I didn’t need the tape to find the start of the manway, but it became helpful as I went along, especially since I’d never been on Breakneck Ridge before. I’m not crazy about surveyor’s tape, and I’ve been known to take it down in certain places, but this manway seems like the kind of place where tape is useful and appropriate. It helped that the pieces of tape were short and unobtrusive, unlike the long streamers you see sometimes.

I found three vintages of tape: a faded pink, a newer pink, and a blue. In places the manway was close to invisible.

Manway runs straight ahead. See it?

Manway runs straight ahead. See it?

In other places it was obvious.

In other places it was obvious.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of hog damage at the eastern end of the manway. I spotted a pair of the critters. They gave me a loud snort and trotted away.

Hogs have been rooting up the ground through this area.

Hogs have been rooting up the ground through this area.

The sky was getting quite dark.

Dim sky on the ridge.

Dim sky on the ridge.

A shower came through. It lasted about five minutes. But at that point I decided to turn around. The weather had changed so quickly that I figured anything could happen—including a hypothermia-inducing downpour. Reluctantly I retraced my steps.

Even with the fluctuating skies, I enjoyed being up in the enchanted forest above 5000′ in a very wild part of the Smokies, full of moss and gnarly old spruce and all kinds of thriving green plants.


Mini-garden at base of mossy old tree.

Mini-garden at base of mossy old tree.

Big swath of false Solomon's seal.

Big swath of false Solomon’s seal.

New beech leaves.

New beech leaves.

This yellow birch seemed more like a golden birch.

This yellow birch seemed more like a golden birch.

Light showers came and went, as if individual clouds were spattering moisture and moving on. I got back to the Hyatt Ridge trail, walked down to the Beech Gap trail, and heard a strange seething noise unlike rain. It was sleet pattering down on the leafed-out trees.

Violets and sleet pellets.

Violets and sleet pellets.

At lower elevations, it turned back to intermittent rain. When I got back home, I learned that LeConte received a dusting of snow.

It was a beautiful day, even though it didn’t turn out the way I expected. I’ll be back to continue my exploration of Breakneck Ridge.

The circular world of a fern.

The circular world of a fern.



1. Kent Hackendy - May 16, 2014

Interesting weather for May, indeed. Still, I’d rather be hiking in any weather in the Smokies than endure the dismal, cool, rainy weather we’ve had up here in Illinois, all week. It hasn’t gotten out of the 50s for the past three days (or longer, perhaps, I’ve lost count.)

Better days on the horizon, though. : )

Jenny - May 16, 2014

Many kinds of weather get tiresome if they continue the same for a long time. Cool, rainy weather would be great after a hot dry spell, but not if it goes on and on!

2. Pat_H - May 16, 2014

We’re still getting snow here.

Jenny - May 16, 2014

I’m not surprised. It’s Wyoming!

3. Al - May 16, 2014

Great effort and great pics . It gets steep going down once you get out the B N Ridge at some point. At Big Pool there was a back country camp site there once. You would have to wade across. Bill Hart , Bob Kranich and myself went down the McGee Springs Branch in ’82 and waded down to Big Pool in ice on Nov 13. That place seems to attract cold days. Bob fell in and iced up. We exited down the former manway. We found a coke can on a small parachute that was labeled Knoxville Worlds Fair down in there between Bulldie Creek and Jones Creek. Bear bitten. I was kinda surprised that hogs had gotten that far east.

Jenny - May 16, 2014

I’ve heard that route on McGee Springs Branch and Right Fork can be very pleasant. But not on an icy November day! Regarding the hogs, they’re a big problem in Cataloochee now. The only place I don’t see hog damage is the central high-elevation Smokies, like around LeConte. And I guess I haven’t seen evidence of hogs in the northeast section, like around Cammerer.
I’ve seen photos of Big Pool back in the days when Tom and Jane Alexander of Cataloochee Ranch led fishing trips there. Big platform tents, long strings of fish.

4. Clyde Austin - May 16, 2014

Sounds like a great day to be out. Jenny, I assume (watch that word) you have been warned that the actual manway is very different leaving Breakneck from what the quad shows. It took me three tries to get there. I was looking for where it leave Breakneck in the wrong place. If Dave Wetmore had not told me where to look, I don’t think I would have ever gotten there. I did not particularly enjoy Right Fork, spent a lot of time in the water on it.

Jenny - May 16, 2014

I noticed that the route even as far as I got did not match the quad exactly regarding the route around the various knobs. I would simply try to follow the route either by observing traces of the manway or by following the tape. I would hope that since there were at least three different vintages of tape, that it wouldn’t be a case of following one person’s mistaken track. A couple of people I know who did it a couple of years ago followed it down without too much difficulty, though there were of course places of uncertainty. Perhaps it’s been getting more use recently. Fisherman traffic helps keep it open.

Clyde - May 16, 2014

Jenny, as you go further out there is tape where there shouldn’t be. It goes past where the manway turns right off the ridge. Rather than turning right in the gap, it turns right just past the peak prior to the gap. Once you get on it there it is easy to follow

Brian Reed - May 19, 2014

Yeah, that’s right. Just a few steps past the highest peak and almost invisible since it takes advantage of an open area in the rhodo. The mapped route down has been abandoned for decades if it was ever accurate.

5. Jim Cornelius - May 18, 2014

Enchanted forest… Two of the best words ever.

Jenny - May 18, 2014


6. gary howell - May 19, 2014

great pictures .. in northern Brevard County, FL, there are 500 acres of sand dunes (covered with sand pines) and oak hammocks .. saved from development by calling it the Enchanted Forest. Friends worked hard to preserve that, but your forest looks even more worthy of the name.

Brian Reed - May 19, 2014

Hey I live near there! I’m more a fan of the swamps and wet hammocks of Brevard County than the sandhills. Some are as beautiful to me as the Smokies. Especially one that I wish was not on private land…

7. Brian Reed - May 19, 2014

Ah so beautiful, thank you Jenny. Breakneck is one of my favorites in non hypothermic conditions. Walked up there with Dave, Peter, and Chris a couple years ago on a fall day as fine as any I ever had in the Smokies. I’ve got confused before coming your direction figuring which is the peak where it turns off down the ridge. Bearwallow Peak is Dave Wetmore’s name for it. I squirmed 40′ up a spruce there and took this panorama:

Jenny - May 19, 2014

Very nice. I remember Chris describing how they suddenly saw you up in a tree!

8. Clyde Austin - May 19, 2014

Glad to know I am not the only one who only made it to Three Forks courtesy of Wetmore’s knowledge! Next question is who has been from Three Forks down to the bridge. I have heard two wildly varying reports on what that is like.

Brian Reed - May 20, 2014

I waded up from the Enloe Creek Trail bridge about 1995 and never saw any sign of the old path Al mentioned even then. If you are fast at creek walking it goes pretty quick if the water is not high. I believe James Locke came from there and exited McGhee Springs as a long dayhike while we were camped in Three Forks. He is a paddler\fisherman so probably rock hops faster than most.

I’m a big fan of the Raven Fork section, but I wish it was easier to get away from the creeks like you can in other areas. Maybe it’s just because I’m less familiar with it than my usual territory in Greenbrier but it seems like all you can do there is follow creeks or Breakneck. Wetmore did say the route on early maps from Bulldie over Highland Ridge to Enloe is passable. There’s also the old Hyatt Ridge trail to Balsam Mountain but that is very tough and you need overnight gear.

Jenny - May 20, 2014

I have not been above the bridge. I can tell you that it is difficult BELOW the bridge (through the Gorge).

Brian Reed - May 28, 2014

Oh yeah, I remember that story! Emphasis on “if the water is not high”.

9. iceaxe@suddenlink.net - May 20, 2014

Brian, I have a suspicion after talks with Wetmore way back when Hyatt Ridge and Enloe Creek are going to stay on the permanent “to do” list. Strange though, I have had reliable folks say they found the manway on Enloe Creek and it was good going.

Brian Reed - May 28, 2014

Go for it Clyde! Man I would love to have a talk with Wetmore. I’ve just exchanged a couple emails and read his comments on the Griztrax board. Ah, I miss message boards. Full disclosure I was 17 when I went up from the Enloe bridge and not so experienced detecting faint trails. But I did go up and down either side of the valley searching.

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