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Bushwhack to Mill Creek Falls December 13, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The falls is between 2850 and 3000 feet elevation. Go to the purple dot (the map center) and then follow the line of Mill Creek upstream. An old trail shown on this 1931 map goes as far as 2200 feet, but it's probably pretty hard to follow.

Due to a meteorological collision between a cold front and a high-pressure holiday activity system, I haven’t been able to hike the past few weeks. So I offer my loyal readers a blast from the past, a writeup I did in 1987 of a solo bushwhack to Mill Creek Falls in March of that year.  Sorry, I have no photos of my own, just a couple of generic ones from Wikimedia Commons.

You find the Mill Creek waterfall at the head of a secluded valley, about three miles upstream from where the creek runs into Cable Mill at Cades Cove. You have to follow overgrown trails, make many stream crossings, and fight through some brush before you reach this basin of open woods with the waterfall tumbling down in a long white ribbon at the end of it.

Cable Mill in Cades Cove---where Mill Creek gets its name

If you climb all the way up above the waterfall, working around the bluffs next to it, you will see how the upper creek runs between banks packed with glistening rhododendron before it swoops down over the top of the falls. So the waterfall marks a boundary between dense brush above and the stately wide-spaced trees of the valley below.

This place is not well known, even though the waterfall is over 150 feet high, making it one of the highest in the Smokies. When you have been climbing along the stream for a long time and you suddenly look up and see the white water tumbling down and down and down over the lip of the valley, you know you have found a magical place. There is an extravagance in the way this waterfall flows all the time with hardly ever anyone there to see it.

When I came up along Mill Creek alone, I only knew I’d find a waterfall somewhere up the stream but I didn’t know exactly how far I had to go. I stayed right in the creek because I was afraid of missing it if I got off in the brush to the side. Silly fear! I had no idea how big it was. I made my way along a tawny, dappled section of stream where the shallow water flowed between meandering banks. Then the sides steepened, the woods opened up, and I climbed in the creek with high slopes on both sides that came down to form a sharp V.

I waded and scrambled and bushwhacked far enough that I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn, before I looked up and saw the water floating down from high, high above me. I was drawn right away toward the top of this moving white column. I climbed up past old mossy logs that had fallen and rotted across the stream, past heaped-up boulders, past severe blackened bluffs where the spray dampened everything. When I worked my way up beside the waterfall, I had to keep edging outward to stay away from small cliffs that would have gotten me into trouble. The water roared in my ears. At last I clambered up to where the water curls over the brink and suddenly drops through space. Having seen exactly the crucial spot where the creek changes into a waterfall, I felt that I could rest. I downclimbed a bit and found a good spot in the sun to have lunch.

I sat on a squarish bluff overlooking a middle section of the falls. The ground around me had become a small garden that sprouted delicate red-striped spring beauties. After I ate my peanut butter sandwich and apple, I lay back in the sun and closed my eyes.

The early spring warmth enfolded me. I began to doze off. At moments as my thoughts started to drift into that nonsensical half-asleep state, I would open my eyes again and rediscover the wonderful place I was in. The water sang peacefully as it journeyed from the waterfall’s lip to the first set of boulders, then leapt downward again and again in several stages. At last it was time to return to the real world.

The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club has done this hike several different ways, sometimes just staying with the stream going up and back and sometimes climbing over the ridge to the north and following the old trail down Sugar Cove Branch. By the way, this Sugar Cove is not to be confused with the Sugar Cove I wrote about a few weeks ago, even though both are on the southern side of Cades Cove.

Barn at Cable Mill

Visions of Sugar Cove danced through our heads November 22, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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Crossing Tiptons Sugar Cove Branch

This outing of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club was supposed to be a moderate off-trail hike featuring an old road and pleasant open ridges: up Pine Ridge and down Sugar Cove Ridge. However, due to a navigational error, we ended up descending a nameless greenbrier-infested ridge that led into a dense rhododendron thicket along Bower Creek.  I didn’t really mind the rhodo that much. But some people didn’t like it at all—no, no, not one bit.

In spite of the rhodo episode, I think most of us would agree that it was a great outing overall.

The navigational error was a very easy one to make in amorphous, deceptive terrain. Even though a surprisingly large number of our group were experienced enough to have led SMHC off-trail hikes over the years—I believe seven of our group of eleven had been either leaders or co-leaders on those kinds of outings, or a startling 63%—we failed to notice that as we departed the flat area below High Point, we were heading east rather than northeast, and getting onto the divide between two forks of Bower Creek rather than Sugar Cove Ridge.

We started our hike at the Gregory Ridge trailhead. This was the first time I have done a hike in the Cades Cove area since I moved to Asheville. I’ll probably do hikes there again—but not very often. I started driving at 4:45 a.m., thinking to allow plenty of time, as I’m a chronically early person. I blame my parents for instilling in me the idea that keeping anyone else waiting is the ultimate sin.

Driving at 5:00 in the morning has its advantages. I passed exactly one vehicle on I-40 in the 46 miles between Asheville and the Tennessee state line. Patches of dense woolly fog hung over the highway as I wended my way through the Pigeon River Gorge, but each time as I reached the far side of a fog bank, I noticed a lovely silvery tint to the fog as the bright moonlight started to burn through. Fleecy silver clouds dotted the dark blue sky higher up, decorating the space above the shadowy ridges. It reminded me of the packaging for Gitanes, a French brand of cigarettes that I sometimes smoked during my evil teen years.

Gitanes cigarette pack

Okay, enough of these irrelevant autobiographical musings. I made good time going through Cosby and Gatlinburg and along the Little River Road. But as soon as I reached the Cades Cove loop, everything changed. I got stuck in a clump of about 12 vehicles following a very slow pickup truck. I know what the driver of the pickup was thinking: “Hey everybody, just slow down and enjoy it. That’s what we’re here for.” If I had been closer to the offending vehicle, I would have explained to the driver that some of us have visited Cades Cove many times and were simply trying to reach the starting point of a hike.

So, after traveling at 5 mph around the loop (I am not exaggerating), I arrived at the trailhead exactly at 8:15, the time I was in fact supposed to be there. But being who I am (okay, here comes another irrelevant autobiographical musing), I would have preferred to make my own decision about my timing rather than having it controlled by someone else. I had fantasized getting in a 30-minute nap at the trailhead.

But I was instantly invigorated by the hearty good cheer of our group as soon as the others arrived, and we walked briskly up the Gregory Ridge trail a short distance to where we left it for an old road that goes up past the foundations of some settlers’ houses. Ed Fleming had a map of the house locations, marked with the residents’ names—some of them were kind of funny, like a guy with the nickname of “Chicken Eater.”

We made the creek crossing shown at top and found some of the foundations.

This foundation had part of an old stove sitting on the remains of the chimney

This particular house also featured part of some old bedsprings hanging from a tree.

Bedsprings hanging from tree trunk

Where the streambed and old road started to get brushier, we headed up to the west to top out on Pine Ridge. It was a moderately steep climb through open woods, very pleasant. After a break for something to eat, we continued climbing the ridge, reaching a relatively flat area at about 4000 feet, north of High Point. It was when we started descending from there that we made our navigational mistake. The greenbrier was a bit annoying, and then we came down to a rhodo-infested creek, where our mistake became obvious.

But we recovered, after a short stretch of rhodo-thrashing (and rhodo-trashing, as well).

Claudia fights the rhodo

We got through the worst of it and climbed up a side ridge of Sugar Cove Ridge. (When we reached the top, I thought we were on main Sugar Cove Ridge. I was wrong, as I was able to see with the help of a compass.) We continued up and did some steep sidehilling until we did in fact top out on the main ridge. We had been forced to re-climb about 400 vertical feet and to do some serious backtracking, but it was the best way to recover from the mistake. And it really wasn’t that bad. So we descended the ridge that was pleasant and open, just as described in the hike writeup.

Descending Sugar Cove Ridge

I liked the way the surrounding mountainsides were glowing in the late afternoon light.

Glowing mountainsides through the trees

From a gap at 2400 feet, we dropped back down to the old road on the branch. We made the lower creek crossing, noticing some interesting marks on a dead hemlock. Some hemlocks in the park have been marked with spots of blue paint to indicate that they should be treated for the hemlock woolly adelgid. But this one had been painted in a slightly different way.

Grumpy hemlock

We got back to the trailhead just as it was starting to get dark. I’d hoped to take the one-way Parsons Branch Road to get over to the NC side of the park, but it was gated, so I got to experience another stint of 5-mph driving as I exited Cades Cove. But after that it was fine, as I gambled that the Newfound Gap Road and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Soco Gap would be virtually empty of traffic on a Sunday evening in November, and I turned out to be right about that.

Off-trail hiking in words and music June 18, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, music, poetry, Smoky Mountains.
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Brushy Mtn. and flank of LeConte from Winnesoka

Brushy Mtn. and flank of LeConte from Winnesoka

I took the photo 6/14 from the other side of Long Branch Gap from a place described in the composition. I will post about this outing soon.

On June 13 I had the unusual and wonderful experience of hearing words that I’d written about off-trail explorations performed as part of an orchestral piece.  The occasion was a concert in Cades Cove to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The piece was called “Off-Trail in the Smokies.”  It was composed by Jim Carlson and performed by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lucas Richman on a sunny afternoon before an audience seated in folding chairs in the meadow beside Cable Mill.

It was an honor to have three of my poems selected to be narrated to an orchestral accompaniment.  This spring I’d heard from my friend Stephanie Seay in Knoxville that the piece had been commissioned and that the composer was looking for material.  I sent him a batch of poems and was delighted when he chose them.  You can see the words and play an audio file here.  This version has the composer doing the narration; at the concert the narration was done by Katy Wolfe Zahn.KSO with Katy Wolfe Zahn at Cades Cove

What an interesting thing it was for me to have what I’d written interpreted musically.  Jim’s interpretation gave my experiences a form that was new and yet harmonized with what I’d described.

The second part of the three-part composition was about a solo bushwhack I did up Brushy Mountain from Long Branch Gap.  It describes how I’d just managed to work my way through the thick laurel to the summit when a thunderstorm hit.  By a convergence of circumstance, thunderstorms also threatened on the day of the concert.  But the storms held off until afterwards, when the clouds opened with a drenching rain that once again replenished the infinite greenness of the Smokies.

Click on image below, then zoom in for better view.