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Naked Ground trail June 23, 2014

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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Along the trail.

Big, small, and medium.

I revisited Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness this weekend and realized that I need to come here more often. It is a very beautiful place.

My friend Gary was visiting from out of town, and he came up with the idea. I don’t have an up-to-date guidebook or map for the area, but we decided to wing it. The only information I have is in the old Sierra Club “Blue Book” guide to the Smokies and surrounding areas, published 1973. Things have changed just a bit since then: for instance, the Naked Ground trail was called the Little Santeetlah Creek trail. There’s a Naked Ground trail in the book, but it was a short ridgetop route.

The Blue Book still has one big thing to offer: it is really good on historical background of the areas (and incidentally contains a lot of great info about trails no longer maintained).

In the world of conservation, there have been two big changes since the Sierra Club published the book. In 1975 Congress designated the basins of Little Santeetlah and Slickrock as the Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness. The Little Santeetlah basin had been protected since 1936 with the creation of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, but the Forest Service was still advertising for bids from logging companies in the Slickrock basin through the late 1960s.

Before 1936, most of the Little Santeetlah basin was spared logging only because the Belton Lumber Co. went bankrupt in 1890.

The other change is the Cherohala Skyway. The Blue Book talks about a proposed scenic highway connecting Robbinsville NC with Tellico Plains TN, and it urges people to write to the Forest Service opposing it. That battle was lost, and the Skyway was completed 1996. It has become super popular with bikers, who use it to connect with the “Tail of the Dragon” on US 129 along the southern boundary of the Smokies.

Well, the consolation is that you leave the biker noise behind pretty quickly when you exit the Skyway and get into those big old-growth woods.

So Gary and I drove to the Joyce Kilmer picnic area and went around the loop trail, a little vague as to trailheads to get up into the basin. When we came to a sign that said “Naked Ground Trail,” we looked it up in the book, found the outdated writeup, and decided to follow the trail anyway. We figured it would take us up along the stream, and it did.

The trail leads through a beautiful forest of big trees carpeted with partridgeberry, ferns, moss, dwarf iris, and many other plants of all descriptions.

Gary.

Gary.

You start at 2,200′ in the parking lot and reach 4,845′. The climb is gradual for the first three miles or so, steepening considerably toward the top. Naked Ground is a saddle in the horseshoe-shaped ridge that surrounds the basin—apparently it used to be bare, but it’s wooded now, with just one viewpoint down into the valley.

We had lunch at Naked Ground and chatted with a nice pair of backpackers who had driven from Atlanta that morning. A big thunderstorm was coming in. As the weather soured, we opted to go back the way we’d come. The rain pelted down as we descended the steep upper switchbacks. Gary was wearing running shoes and found himself slipping and sliding.

The shower let up after a half hour, and we enjoyed the moist woods, where all the trees looked refreshed by the rain.

Gnarly tree trunk.

Gnarly tree trunk.

Tributary of Little Santeetlah Creek.

Side stream.

Red fungus.

Red fungus.

Little Santeetlah Creek.

Little Santeetlah Creek.

Hollow tree.

Hollow tulip poplar.

The sun emerged as we reached the lower section of the trail, and it was the best of both worlds: shining light hitting the moistened leaves and blossoms of the forest.

The Wilderness Society is now working to expand protection for this valuable area.

Rosebay rhododendron.

Rosebay rhododendron.

 

Stewartia walk June 21, 2013

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, nature, plants.
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Stewartia ovata. Wikimedia photo.

Stewartia ovata. (Wikimedia photo.)

The Stewartia are late this year---as we discovered!

We saw buds, not flowers.

Many things didn’t go according to plan on this joint outing of the Southern Appalachian Plant Society and the Wilderness Society. Yet I learned much of interest from the leader of the walk, Jack Johnston, a naturalist who specializes in stewartia.

The obvious disappointment was that the stewartias forgot this year to bloom when they are supposed to—the summer solistice.  Jack told us that the solstice bloom had been reliable for the past twenty years, but he warned the group that because of this year’s cold spring we might see buds fully closed or just barely starting to open.

Jack talks to the group.

Jack talks to the group.

Other things went wrong. The road we planned to drive into the Fires Creek basin near Hayesville, NC, was closed for construction, as we found after we’d nearly reached our destination. We then drove a long way around to bypass the closure and did manage to reach our starting point at the Leatherwood Falls picnic area. And when we proceeded on our hike to the point where we needed to wade across Fires Creek several times, we found that the stream was running too high and fast for a comfortable crossing. Only the first crossing was manageable for the group.

And then there was an awful lot of logistical confusion around shuttling cars and people to a point along a Forest Service road where we might approach stewartia locations from another direction.

Nevertheless.

Two things in particular interested me in Jack’s information. The first was that the root of a stewartia can be hundreds of years old. A main stem grows to an age of 80 or 100 years old and is replaced by a newer stem growing from the same root.

Old and new stem growing from same root.

Old and new stem growing from same root.

Leaves of stewartia.

Leaves of stewartia.

The other point I found especially interesting was the concept of canopy gap. Stewartias like to live on edges of streams, which form permanent gaps in the forest canopy. They like other gaps that let in light on one side, such as gaps formed by rock bluffs. A temporary canopy gap may be formed by a downed tree, but that gap will not persist in the long run as other vegetation grows in to fill the empty spot.

Stewartias frequently grow in the company of red maples, hemlocks, certain pines, sourwoods, and rhododendron. The bloom usually occurs at about the same time as the rosebay rhododendron. This rhododendron at least gave us something pretty to look at.

Rosebay rhodo.

Rosebay bloom.

The first place we wanted to cross the creek worked out even though it was downstream of the other planned crossings because the stream was flowing at a flatter gradient at that point, therefore had slow-moving water.

The one successful stream crossing.

The one successful stream crossing.

Fires Creek was simply running higher than normal this year. Rainfall in western NC to date in 2013 has been more than 16 inches above average levels.

We saw a deep pool that some members of our group have used as a swimming hole in hot weather.

The pool is about five feet deep in the middle.

The pool is about five feet deep in the middle.

Patterns of light in the pool.

Patterns of light in the pool.

We followed a Forest Service road as far as a bridge, looked at a possible wading spot a little downstream of that which could take us to our unmaintained pathway, and decided we didn’t like the look of it. At that point we opted to cut our losses and head back. But still, it was an outing worthwhile in certain respects.

The Fires Creek Basin is an area designated as one of North Carolina’s  “Mountain Treasure” by the Wilderness Society, which is working to obtain higher levels of protection for these areas within the current revisions to management plans for Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.

Fires Creek from the bridge.

Fires Creek from the bridge.

Boteler Peak March 15, 2013

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, Wilderness Society.
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View northwest from Boteler Peak

View northwest from Boteler Peak.

This post is one of a series about “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures,” lands targeted for higher protective designation by the Wilderness Society.  For more information about this campaign, please visit the Mountain Treasures website. The review of  management plans for Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests is now underway.

Boteler Peak (elev. 5010′) links the Tusquitee Bald/Fires Creek Rim area with the southern Nantahala mountains. The area contains significant old-growth acreage, although big portions of the lower elevations have been logged. It is known for outcrops of serpentine rocks and unusual combinations of plants in what are called the serpentine barrens.

Boteler is reached via the portion of the Chunky Gal trail that goes northwest from Glade Gap on US 64. When I set off to visit Boteler yesterday, the toughest challenge I met was finding the trailhead. If you are driving from Franklin NC, you’ll find it several miles west of the Macon – Clay county line. The best tactic is to look out for the top of a sustained climb, where you find a side road on the right marked “Old Hwy 64” just before the main highway drops down toward Hayesville. That is where you pull off.  It is hard to spot the Forest Service marker from the highway.

This is the second marker, tucked into the woods.

This is the second marker, tucked into the woods.

After a false start on a gravel road just down the highway, I figured things out and set off along the dirt road where the trail starts. Following blue blazes, I dropped down into the valley of Glade Creek and started to climb along the stream. Total elevation gain was 1500′, and distance was about 6 miles roundtrip.

I crossed the stream at a pretty spot where rhodo overhung a small cascade.

Pretty little waterfall.

Pretty little waterfall.

The night before, temps got down into the teens at this elevation, and ice was hanging on even though it was now in the low 40s.

I liked this ice formation.

I liked this ice formation.

I figured it was too early for spring wildflowers above 3600′. (I spotted my first trout lilies of the year the other day at 3000′ in the Plotts.) So I looked for other forms of interest.

This club moss provided a luxuriant shade of green.

This club moss provided a luxuriant shade of green.

A squirrel could take a shortcut underneath.

A squirrel could take a shortcut underneath.

The trail reached an old Forest Service road and followed the road for a half mile or so. It is well-signed and easy to follow. (The Mountain High Hikers based in Young Harris, Georgia, maintain it.)

Forest Service road.

Forest Service road.

I’d heard that wild hogs are common in the area, and I saw their hoofprints and signs of rooting in several places.

Earth rooted up by hogs.

Earth rooted up by hogs.

At the point where the trail left the road again to climb along the ridge, I saw something that really startled me: balsams. I would never expect to see them as low as 4500′, nearly down at the Georgia line. Planted by stealth? Escapees from a Fraser fir plantation? Beats me.

They stood innocently along the edge of the road.

They stood innocently along the edge of the road.

Yes, they really were balsams.

Yes, they really were balsams.

A few more spindly ones appeared on the other side of the trail, and then they disappeared, replaced by the occasional unhealthy hemlock that one would expect.

I passed a few more interesting specimens of plant life.

Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens).

Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens).

Reindeer moss.

Reindeer moss.

The trail stayed almost level for a while as it followed the ridge. It went through a series of rhodo tunnels.

Sun-dappled rhodo tunnel.

Sun-dappled rhodo tunnel. (The sun was soon to disappear.)

I will have to come back in June.

I will have to come back in June.

As I climbed slightly higher, I entered a zone affected by wind and fog. Twisted oaks rose above the rhodo understory, their branches covered with the lichens and moss caused by long immersion in mist. Areas of severe wind damage had been tended to by the Mountain High Hikers: I saw stacks of rhodo blowdown laid neatly beside the trail. I passed a tree that had become a real mecca for woodpeckers.

Woodpecker heaven.

Woodpecker heaven.

After following the ridge without much change in elevation for quite a while, I passed what I thought might be the high point and dropped down. I’d heard of a side trail to a view, so I kept going. Apparently this side trail has been improved by the Mountain High Hikers in the past couple of years.

Boteler or Boetler? It's anyone's guess.

Boteler or Boetler? It’s anyone’s guess.

From that point I climbed another 150′, to what was the true high point, before I reached the dramatic viewpoint among yellow birches and low, huddled vegetation—perhaps the serpentine barrens? The best view was across to the Tusquitee range.

We could be looking at Potrock Bald and Tusquitee Bald. Correct me if I'm wrong.

We could be looking at Potrock Bald and Tusquitee Bald. Correct me if I’m wrong.

I liked the wind-stunted birches, but it was surprisingly chilly up there. I had two layers of fleece under my shell, plus my mittens. The sky had turned overcast. I could swear it was completely clear until I approached the summit and then cleared up again as soon as I left.

Yellow birches clung to the boulders.

Yellow birches clung to the boulders.

Christmas ferns embraced by birch root.

Polypody ferns embraced by birch root.

As I headed back down the side trail, I noticed an ancient laurel. Its trunk was massive.

The texture of the bark was beautiful.

The texture of the bark was beautiful.

I had glimpses of Chatuge Lake to the south (see photo at bottom).

The trip back to the trailhead went uneventfully. As I reached my car, another car pulled up and a man with a map stepped out. “Can you tell us where to find the Chunky Gal trail?” I pointed to the obscure Forest Service marker just a few yards away.  It turned out he had a house near Tusquitee Bald and was scouting out the trailhead location for a weekend hike. I gave him some information about my trip to Boteler, and he thanked me profusely.

I got in my car and headed home toward Sylva. As I neared the A.T. crossing, I sped past three hitchhikers with large packs. I thought, “I can’t fit them into my small car!” and drove by. But a minute later I was turning around to pick them up. We’d figure out a way to squeeze everyone in. Sure enough, they were thru-hikers, and they’d had a tough day. Their water had frozen solid the previous night, and they’d gone quite a few miles without anything to drink. It had been a chilly day. They were headed into Franklin for some R&R and a “zero” day (a rest day with zero mileage). I was happy to take them to the place they planned to spend the night in downtown Franklin. “You made our day!” they said.

No, you made my day. It is such a pleasure to be able to help.

View to Lake Chatuge.

View to Lake Chatuge.