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Camel Gap loop December 2, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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The A.T. between Camel Gap and Low Gap doesn't see much dayhiker use.

The A.T. between Camel Gap and Low Gap doesn’t see much dayhiker use.

This was a rewarding trail loop of 16 miles and 4100′ total vertical. It took me up and over the stateline ridge from Cosby campground into the Big Creek valley above Walnut Bottom and back.

The only section I’d set foot on before was the Low Gap trail out of Cosby, which must be one of the most heavily used trails in the Park, since that is the way most people head up toward Cammerer. I then descended the other, lesser-used half of the Low Gap trail to Walnut Bottom, followed the Camel Gap trail along Big Creek and up to the A.T., returned to Low Gap, then back down to Cosby.

I didn’t see anyone all day, but then, it was a Friday in late November. It was a little below freezing when I started out and climbed up beside Cosby Creek.

Cosby Creek

Cosby Creek

Tree with a wart

Tree with a wart

The sun finally popped up above the ridges.

The sun finally popped up above the ridges.

I stopped at Low Gap to re-layer, having completed a chunk of the day’s vertical. Now, for a digression about dressing for cool weather. (You can skip the next few paragraphs if this is not of interest.)

Despite my experience doing winter hiking in New England in temps well below zero, it’s always a challenge for me in the colder months to find a comfortable balance between staying warm and not getting too sweated up. The crux of the problem is not so much the absolute amount of cold (for this day was not very cold at all) as having the right clothing for each particular set of conditions.

I long ago realized that I am not really “designed” for winter hiking: I have a very narrow comfort range in temperature (get too cold easily, get too hot easily); I sweat no matter how easy it is and how fit I am; and I have real problems with my fingers getting cold to the point where I can’t even unzip a zipper.

For this hike, I wore a thin, tight-fitting fleece top over my inner layer on the climbing portions and did without the shell. For me, that seemed to work well. I did get a bit sweaty—but I would get just as damp with the shell and without the fleece, and I’d feel uncomfortably chilly. The fleece holds the warmth close to my body while being porous enough that I don’t get overheated. Bottom line: That old advice of “Never get sweated up on a winter hike—take off a layer” simply doesn’t work for me. I’d have to freeze in order to stay completely dry.

That’s probably more than you wanted to hear about female perspiration. (And by the way, for colder temps, I know all about heavier layers, mittens, gloves, chemical hand warmers, hats, face masks, etc.)

At any rate, I descended the trail to Walnut Bottom, finding a number of small blowdowns. On the first section, they had all been cleared either by the Park Service or by hikers picking up brush and moving it aside. I noticed that the rhodo blowdowns looked stripped and peeled in the branches rather than snapped. They must have been under heavy snow in the Sandy-related storm we had.

Stripped rhodo branches

Stripped rhodo branches

Despite that past snowstorm and a number of frosts, some plants stayed remarkably green.

Wet area near Walnut Bottom

Wet area near Walnut Bottom

Big Creek certainly deserves its name. Even up above the point where it is shown as a single blue line on the USGS map rather than the river-like indication of blue shading between two lines, it’s still a major stream.

Big Creek is, well, hmmm, big.

Big Creek is, well, hmmm, big.

Past campsite 37 the trail is designated as the Camel Gap trail rather than the Big Creek trail, but it continues going along Big Creek, soon passing the Gunter Fork turnoff. (The Sierra Club blue book says old maps label it as “Mt. Guyot Creek” above the Gunter junction.)

This stretch had a lot of doghobble, all turning that pretty burgundy color that it has in the winter. For this reason, ornamental hybrids have been developed that turn really red.

Doghobble in its winter color.

Doghobble wearing its winter color.

I passed one of those mysterious artifacts from the logging era.

I have no idea what this is.

I have no idea what this is.

It was not long after passing this relic that I came to a portion of stream where a wall had been built along the bank. I could make out a large pool beyond the wall.

Wall and stream

Wall and stream

The pool turned out to be one of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. I took tons of photos. I’ve posted some of them in a piece called “The Shimmering Pool” on my author’s blog. Here are a few:

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I was mesmerized by this place. But eventually I tore myself away. The hike was long enough and the day short enough that I had to think about getting out before dark. I climbed up toward Camel Gap.

View across Big Creek valley from near Camel Gap.

View across Big Creek valley from near Camel Gap.

The elevation at the gap is 4694′, and once on the A.T., I had a bit more climbing to do, up above 5000′, before dropping to Low Gap. I was up among the spruces.

My friend the spruce.

My friend the spruce.

After crossing Ross Knob and dealing with one truly awkward blowdown, I descended to Cosby Knob, where I found that apparently the bears have been acting up.

Sign at Cosby Knob shelter.

Sign at Cosby Knob shelter.

I continued on to Low Gap and made the descent to Cosby. I’ve noticed that when coming down this trail after a substantial hike, it seems to take forever to get past all the little junctions and side paths around the campground. But it was worth it. I highly recommend this loop for its variety of terrain, the beauty of the streams, and the experience of getting up into the remoter part of the Big Creek valley.

I saw one tiny little snow patch on Ross Knob.

I saw one tiny little snow patch on Ross Knob.

Mouse Creek to Mt. Sterling September 23, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Notice how the cascade starts way up on a distinct upper level.

Today Mark Shipley, Ed Fleming, and I scouted a route that will be on the program of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club next May. It has so much to recommend it. More than anything else, the magical cascade on Mouse Creek at 3560′ elevation makes the trip worthwhile. But if that isn’t enough for you, consider also these factors: (1) It is a great hike for people who like the challenge of a significant climb—in this case 4,000 vertical feet; (2) The going was relatively easy, making use of old logging grades up to nearly 5000′ elevation; (3) You can see interesting old artifacts from the logging days; (4) Most of the time the vegetation was not bad, by Smokies off-trail standards, more dog hobble than rhodo; (5) You get the view from the fire tower!

We met up at 7:00 this morning at the Big Creek trailhead, right before dawn, because Mark (who will lead the hike) rightly considered that the journey along Mouse Creek could turn out to be incredibly time-consuming. As it turned out, we reached the fire tower by 1:15 and were back at our cars by 4:30. That is only because we were lucky with the vegetation.

Mark provided us the only writeup he could find of a hike along Mouse Creek, a backpack in 1968 led by Bruce Ketelle of the famous Ketelle hiking family in which they descended Mouse Creek through what was described as “open woods.” Well, things can grow up a little in 44 years.

We followed the Big Creek trail for 2.0 or 2.5 miles, depending on which information source you use, passing the notorious Midnight Hole on the stream and reaching the lower Mouse Creek falls where the smaller stream joins the bigger one. We’d already decided that we’d probably continue on the trail a bit further so that we could cross Big Creek on a bridge. The distance to the bridge was further than we expected (or, again, further than information sources indicated), but it did allow us to avoid a wet crossing. At this time of year with fairly low water levels, it would have been possible to wade in a couple of places. In May, with higher water levels, probably the safest thing will be to use the bridge. Big Creek is really more of a river than a stream.

Mouse Creek falls (the lower one) as seen from the trail.

We went over the bridge and took advantage of a logging grade to get us back to the falls.

Ed and Mark follow the grade.

Despite the relatively easy conditions, it still took us a while to work our way back to the falls on the other side of the stream. Mouse Creek just above the falls was a pretty little stream, full of moss-upholstered boulders.

Easy rockhopping along this lovely stream.

After a half hour or so of making our way up the stream, we had our only negative experience of the day. We discovered remains of camping equipment, plus trash and a digging tool that we decided must have been left by a ginseng poacher. There is no other reason anyone would camp in that spot.

Not much later, we found far more interesting artifacts, but we had trouble identifying their exact purpose. If anyone reading this blog can shed light on this, we would appreciate it. First of all, we found a rounded item of very thick cast iron, nearly an inch in thickness, that did not seem like a household item but rather part of a locomotive or other segment of a train.

Ed displays the item that we can’t identify. There were others we couldn’t identify, either.

We next found a very large, heavy bucket.

Still doesn’t seem like something for household use. Something used in connection with a locomotive boiler?

Finally, we found something that looked more like a kiln or something used for charcoaling operations than a regular stove.

Another mystery item.

We continued up the stream.

Not much water in the stream here—in this picture you identify it by the contrast between moss and dog hobble.

We were about to encounter the highlight of the day—the incredible cascade pictured at top.

Our first view of the cascade.

What I liked best was the way the top of the cascade seemed to flow out of the sunshine itself. The top glowed with light.

The water came straight out of sunlight.

Above this marvellous place where the water flows constantly with practically no one ever seeing it, we found continuing logging grades that aided our climb.

These vines were twined together in a tight spiral.

Eventually, on the upper slopes, we climbed through a region of beautiful dense moss.

The moss was an extra-luxurious variety.

We reached the summit and lunched before climbing the lookout tower, where we had crystalline views in all directions.

View to the northwest, as seen through one of the panes of the tower’s cab.

View to the southwest.

We then descended 6.2 miles on the Baxter Creek trail. Total mileage for the hike was around 12. A great day, and two great people to do it with.

Huge swath of jewelweed near the bottom of the Baxter Creek trail.