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“Falling Rock” in Cataloochee November 23, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Falling Rock location.

Falling Rock location.

The strange thing about the famous “Falling Rock” is that it is not located on Falling Rock Creek. It’s located on Palmer Creek, very close to the mouth of Lost Bottom Creek, on the left side of Palmer as you go upstream, but below the confluence with Falling Rock Creek.

For those of you not familiar with the story, here’s the deal: Sometime in the 1920s, Reverend Will Camel, a preacher from Cosby, TN, went camping up Palmer Creek with a friend. It was a cool evening in the spring when they found a cave-like rock formation and decided to stay there for the night. They lit a big fire to keep warm. Sometime during the night, the heat of the fire warmed up a rock slab to the point that it came crashing down on Reverend Camel, pinning his body to the ground and killing him.

His companion was not able to roll the slab off Camel’s body.  He went for help in Cataloochee and enlisted several men and a few schoolboys from Beech Grove School to help, and they succeeded in lifting the slab.

Some people may recognize the story from Wayne Caldwell’s novel, Cataloochee.  Details were changed in Caldwell’s version: in his telling, the rock formation was located at the headwaters of Lost Bottom Creek.

My friend Ken proposed that we go look for the rock formation. We had seen or heard several versions of where it was located. One version stated that it could be found 200 yards above the mouth of Lost Bottom. Other versions said only “somewhere near the mouth of Lost Bottom.” The 200-yard version sounded so specific that we believed it. Turns out it was wrong.

The junction of Lost Bottom and Palmer features a dense rhododendron thicket. In the belief we needed to go 200 yards upstream, we stayed on the trail past the worst of the rhodo before dropping down to the stream. We crossed the stream and worked along slowly—partly to be sure we saw the rock formation and partly because various obstacles of vegetation and boulders made it impossible to go quickly.

The weather had warmed after two nights of mid-teen temperatures, but plenty of ice remained along the stream.

Each rock had its own tailor-made slipcover of ice.

Each rock had its own tailor-made slipcover of ice.

  A pretty little waterfall.

A pretty little waterfall.

Ice and pool.

Ice and pool.

Large pool.

Large pool.

It took us a couple of hours to go the short distance to the Beech Creek/ Falling Rock Creek junction. We had not seen the rock formation, and we realized that we had probably bypassed it just above Lost Bottom. We climbed up to the trail and walked back, looking over at the left streambank to see if we had missed it somehow—perhaps it was higher up the slope.

We found a good place to go back down to the stream, a little above where we’d hit it before, and walked along searching for it again.

We found it, within a stone’s throw—so to speak—of the mouth of Lost Bottom. I took a picture. The picture, and you’ll laugh at this, didn’t come out. Of all the photos I took, that one came out blurry.

But you don’t really need the photo. Just go up Palmer a minute or so from Lost Bottom, and you’ll see it. Have fun!

Ken beside the stream.

Ken beside the stream.

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The old dug road in Cataloochee April 10, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, history, Smoky Mountains.
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We arrived at the dug road after a slight misstep at the start

This outing was organized by Mike Knies as part of his ambitious, far-reaching program for hiking with friends this spring. Do I really mean both ambitious and far-reaching? Isn’t that redundant—in fact, isn’t that an example of just plain lazy writing? But I guess I do mean both of them. Mike’s program is ambitious in the sense that it includes a lot of unmaintained trails and it is far-reaching in the sense that its geographic scope goes from Elkmont to Greenbrier to Cataloochee to the Hyatt Ridge area. Just to put the icing on the cake, he then does a writeup on each hike that nearly always includes a witty title, and more often than not, he throws in some sort of obscure literary parody as a bonus.

In the face of this overwhelming mastery of planning, hiking, and literary sport, I think I am going to avoid reinventing the wheel on this one and refer you to his writeup on the GoSmokies forum. You will find a detailed account of the outing and an excellent map. What I offer here is mainly photos.

The old dug road connects Big Cataloochee with Little Cataloochee by way of Bald Gap (between Bald Top and Noland Mountain). You find its start at a turnoff next to Palmer Cemetery and its end at the apple house across from the Cook Cabin on what is now the Little Cataloochee trail. It was dug out below the grade so that a draft animal could pull goods on a sled along it.

Hattie Caldwell Davis, in her book Reflections on Cataloochee Valley, has a nice photo of a horse pulling a sled (see p. 48). She wrote, “Wagons were common, but sleds were more common. They were easy to build with two bent sourwood runners. There seemed to be one for every purpose: tobacco, hay, logging, and general hauling. Sleds were cheap and went where wagons couldn’t go.”* The road was dug 48” wide in 1854 by the first two couples to live on the “back side” of Noland Mountain, doing the hard work with mattocks, pick, and shovel.

Our group consisted of Mike, myself, Barbara Morgan, and Cindy McJunkin. Mike and Barbara had followed the dug road before, but it had been a long time, and it turned out we made a mistake at the very beginning and found ourselves on the west side of Jesse Ridge instead of the east. Around the time we realized we were on the wrong track, we spotted some elk in the woods.

Not a prizewinning wildlife photo, but look closely and you will see elk

We bushwhacked east over the top of the ridge and eventually reached the dug road. It was easy and pleasant to follow.

Barbara strolls along dug road

At 3500′ we started running into remains of old homesites and continued to find old walls, foundations, and various relics nearly up to the gap.

Old wall

Yellow violets spangled the ground.

Yellow violets

We rambled upward to a very nice foundation.

Mike explores the foundation

We found an old metal container.

I don't know what this would have been used for. Tell me if you know.

And a large ceramic jug.

Jug, simple and beautiful in design

There was a lovely chimney in good condition.

Double chimney

And part of a stove.

Stove part, complete with flourishes of ornament

From the gap, the plan was to bushwhack over to hit a contour northwest of Noland Gap, intersecting the road further along instead of following it down immediately from the gap. The reason was that Barbara had tried unsuccessfully twice before to stay on the road and we felt we’d have a better chance of hitting it closer to its end. We did some steep sidehilling and arrived near Noland Gap. I would have just bushwhacked down to the Little C trail, but Mike hunted around and found the road.

A bit shaded over with laurel, but not hard to follow

We came out right opposite the Cook cabin and sat on the porch for lunch.

Cook cabin

On the return, it was not hard to follow the road past where we’d hit it, up over Noland Gap, and down the other side. Our goal was to use the old path along the branch east of the gap and eventually arrive at the Cataloochee group camp, where we had a shuttled car waiting.

Mike near Noland Gap

We did come to a “Zone of Uncertainty” where the path runs very close to Hall Branch (formerly Nelson Branch). But eventually, by continuing downward and aiming toward flat areas likely to have old pathways, we picked up the track again. We found more homesites at around 3000′, with lots of old walls and piles of stones.

A mossy heap of stones

We stopped for a rest break at a pretty place on the stream, not quite realizing yet that we were actually only five minutes away from our destination.

The moss here seemed especially lush

Just above the campground, we passed a spring house made of cobblestones.

Spring house

We spied an owl in a tree near Cataloochee Creek as we drove back to our starting point, but my camera didn’t do justice to the subject, so I will not include the photos here. Apparently this is good owl territory, as several people have mentioned seeing owls haunting this section of the creek.

Mike provided us with a sampling of cold sodas when we got back to his van. He has been trying to convert me to a beverage I hadn’t even heard of before I moved to Asheville, Sun Drop and Diet Sun Drop. As it turned out, he had another chance to win me over. I absentmindedly left my boots in his van, and when he returned them to me a few days later, I found that he had tucked a Sun Drop into the left boot and a Diet Sun Drop into the right. You know, Mike, you’re right—it is a superior beverage to Mountain Dew or other caffeinated lemon-lime flavored sodas.

* Hattie Caldwell Davis, Reflections of Cataloochee Valley and its Vanished People in the Great Smoky Mountains. 1999. Available from Ms. Davis at P.O. Box 274, Maggie Valley NC 28751.

Shanty Mountain manway August 10, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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Chris holds up a piece of old telephone wire while Kevin looks on

This outing in Cataloochee in the Smokies was an exploration of an old manway running along the crest of Shanty Mountain to the site of the former Spruce Mountain fire tower.  Shanty Mountain is said to have gotten its name from a shack built on the southeast side of the mountain in the early 1800s by a slave called Old Smart who herded cattle for one of the settlers.

I armed myself with quite a hefty sheaf of papers: several map sections and copies of trip reports from a couple of people. A 1931 map shows a manway as it runs up Shanty Branch and joins two other old routes around Wash Ridge (and even continues over the top of the mountain and down to Falling Rock Creek), but does not show the path along the ridgecrest. The map that comes with the old Blue Book guide to the Smokies shows the ridgecrest route—although there’s hardly a need for a map on that stretch, since you just follow the ridge. The ridgecrest route relates to the phone line for the fire tower, while the other routes relate to the Cataloochee residents and the paths they took.

Kevin and Chris and I started at the Beech Grove school and tiptoed through a thriving poison ivy patch to cut across the field west of the school, hitting an old road along the tree line. It was easy to follow.

The manway starts as an old road along Shanty Branch

We came to a chimney at the site of the former George and Mag Caldwell home.

Chimney at old homesite

We passed an inactive hog trap. All along our route—up the mountain and along the ridgecrest—we saw much evidence of hogs. I don’t think I’ve seen so much ground rooted up anywhere else in the park.

The hog trap hasn't been used for a while

Not long thereafter, we reached a “Point of Great Uncertainty” mentioned in both of the trip reports I carried. One person had crossed the branch, run into a lot of rhodo, and fought his way up a laurel-infested slope, while the other had simply gone right up the branch, finding traces of old phone wire in the midst of the creek. Both reports advised avoiding a path into a side hollow, and we did pass one path but followed another that angled up a draw to the right—probably the very route the others had said to avoid. The result: a nice easy walk up to the main ridge! We started finding telephone wire near the top.

The disadvantage of our route is that we hit the ridge east of a shallow gap, so we had to drop back down a little bit. But the way along the ridge remained fairly easy at first. The telephone line appeared intermittently. It seemed that in places where it lay on the ground, it had simply become covered in decomposing leaves that resulted in a few inches of soil over the line. It did not seem to be broken at any point, and there were ceramic insulators on it at points.

Insulator for old phone line

The way steadily got thicker with laurel and rhodo, though we were able to make decent progress for a while, ducking under low branches.

Chris makes his way along the path

Above 5000 feet, we crawled much of the way. It was extremely slow. Finally, we got up into the spruce-fir zone, and things opened up quite a bit.

Into the spruces and firs

The fire tower clearing was completely grown up in blackberries. It was such a dense thicket that we did not try to find the tower’s foundation. We continued following an old, overgrown trail that was riddled with blowdowns to the junction of the Spruce Mountain and Polls Gap trails, where we stopped for a rest.

Break at the Spruce Mountain/Polls Gap junction

Because of certain schedule constraints, we had not started our hike until after 11:00 in the morning. By the time we reached this point, it was 6:30—and we had gone less than five miles. My original idea had been to drop off the north side of Shanty Mountain and go off-trail to Falling Rock Creek, then connect with the Palmer Creek trail. But now we were gun-shy about the conditions. If the north slope turned out to be anything like the upper ridgecrest, it could have been “the slog from hell”—with a real danger of getting caught off-trail in the dark.  So we decided to follow the Spruce Mountain trail to the Balsam Mountain road and walk along that to the upper end of the Palmer Creek trail.

One car passed us on the road, and we stuck out our thumbs. An elderly couple stopped and apologized that their car was too full (the back seat was heaped up with belongings) but offered us some cold sodas. The thought was nice, but we declined and continued along our way. The road distance might have been two or two and a half miles. We had some nice views of the north side of Shanty Mountain, looking very imposing and wild from this angle. Then we started our trek down the Palmer Creek valley, passing a beautiful stand of yellow fringed orchis near the top. My picture didn’t turn out in the dim light, but Chris got a better one.

Yellow Fringed Orchis. Photo by Chris Sass.

Darkness fell when we still had a couple of miles to go, but we put on our headlamps and walked through a wonderful sonic tunnel of katydids calling back and forth in choruses all around us and the rushing, tumbling sounds of the stream. Something blooming filled the air with a pleasant fragrance. By chance, I have done more night hiking than usual this summer, and I feel that it has much to recommend it.

We reached our cars at 9:45, just a bit concerned we might get stuck behind a gate on the Cataloochee road that had a sign saying “Closed at sunset.” It turned out to be closed, but not locked. We passed an elk by the road, and continued out along the twists and turns of the Cove Creek road—I did not meet a single other car all the way to I-40 on this Sunday evening.

We saw countless mushrooms and fungi on this hike---of all different colors!