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Chestnut Branch to Cammerer (again) December 18, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Even in December, it was a beautiful day to enjoy the teeming life of the Smokies.

I’d done the Chestnut Branch/Cammerer hike this past January.  Since I’ve been holding off on bushwhacking the past six weeks because of my knee problem, I was looking for a really good trail hike—and this is one that brought back good memories, so why not try it again? There aren’t that many places to get in a decent amount of vertical on a trail dayhike in the Smokies, but this one gives you 3500′ or so, 12 miles roundtrip.

Starting out in the upper 20s, the morning was about five degrees warmer than the last time—no old snow today, but a few spots of ice—with brilliant, luminous sunshine. But the really great thing today was that I discovered that, after weeks of physical therapy, I have legs of steel! (No matter that I also have brain of silly putty.) I will never underestimate strength training again.

I averaged 2.75 mph over the whole distance. All those hours of lunging, squatting, stepping, hopping, and balancing seem to be paying off. In early January I will find out what the doctor has to say, and I hope very much to get back to off-trail. Something short would seem appropriate—like one of the routes on the north side of Cammerer.

You may be surprised that I took no pictures from the summit of Cammerer despite the crystal clear visibility. All I can say is that some photos can be beautiful and boring at the same time. The first picture I took was on the way back down, of some frost needles pushing up through the soil.

Extruded frost

At around 4500′, the giant spruce trees loomed overhead. This is my favorite kind of forest. The only problem for photographers is that it’s nearly impossible to get tall trees into the lens.

In the halls of the giant spruce

I emerged from the pleasant gloom of the evergreens at a switchback where a dramatic rock outcrop leads down, down, down into the complicated stream valleys. Pines—I believe they were pitch pines—grew along the spine of the rocks.

Layer upon layer of depth and distance

Looking south, I noticed the same ridge I’d observed on my January hike. This time, just below the heath I’d noticed before, I spotted tall green healthy evergreens above a forest of brown hardwoods, with probably dead hemlocks mixed in.

Alternation of green and brown

Just past the outcrop, I passed a beautiful wall constructed by the CCC crew—obviously the same hands were at work here as at the Cammerer lookout.

CCC wall

On the way up, a seemingly infinite series of log steps on the trail had caused me some annoyance. They weren’t quite as irritating on the way down, but they still seemed gratuitous. For some reason, trail maintenance crews installed these dozens and dozens of steps on the section of the A.T. between the Lower Cammerer junction and the upper Mt. Cammerer turnoff. They are not waterbars—they are definite steps, placed along a very moderate grade where the footing is not difficult. The result, for a hiker climbing upward, is a constant little burst of extra effort every few feet—not so bad for a dayhiker, but I think probably pretty aggravating for someone with a full pack. On one of the Smokies hiking forums, I recently came across a comment that the Chestnut Branch/A.T. approach to Cammerer was strangely tiring. I believe this is the reason why.

Why are there so many of these *#@! steps?!

I enjoyed the music of Chestnut Branch as I descended into the lower portion of the valley, listening to the water resounding over all the little cascades and pools. The water was descending to Big Creek and then to the Pigeon River. I leave you with a few photos I took at the Pigeon, down by the Waterville hydro plant, in the morning shortly before I started my hike.

The Pigeon River is never quiet

The waters of Shining Rock, Middle Prong Wilderness, and the eastern Smokies all join here

Ceaseless flow

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Cammerer via Chestnut Branch January 4, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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Looking toward Mt. Guyot from Cammerer. Note snow on upper slopes.

This was a trail hike of 11.8 miles and 3500 vertical feet, starting from the Big Creek ranger station and going to the Mt. Cammerer fire tower. I’d never been on the Chestnut Branch trail before or on any part of the A.T. east of the Mt. Cammerer trail junction. I decided to grab a day of good weather and get in some decent mileage and vertical.

The temperature was in the mid-20s when I started up through the valley formerly occupied by many homesites. I noticed some old fence posts still standing along the trail, and I was on the lookout for old rusty washtubs, since Bill Hart’s writeup in the brown Smokies trail guide says, “The washtub is probably one of the most common artifacts found at abandoned homesites throughout the Smokies.”  Sure enough, I spotted one!

Old washtub along Chestnut Branch

It did make me wonder, though, if the folks forced out when the park was created maybe thought they were going to places that had more sophisticated laundering devices, or whether they just were so fed up with life at that point that they just left some important things behind.

The Chestnut Branch trail ends steeply at the A.T. after two miles. The grade on the A.T. is steady and moderate. I passed a large dead hemlock that showed a reddish color where the bark had dropped off. This seems to happen with all of the large hemlocks after the woolly adelgid kills them off.

The bark drops off the dead hemlock, leaving a reddish color

There were heaps of bark fragments on the ground around it.

Bark fragments were heaped around the tree's base

Shortly thereafter, I met the only two hikers I saw the whole day—a pair of southbound thru-hikers, “Ragamuffin” and her husband, whose trail name I didn’t quite catch.  Coming down from Hot Springs a couple of weeks ago, they had arrived at the I-40 crossing just before a lot of snowy weather came in. They had very wisely decided to bypass the Smokies and continue on southward from Fontana. They’d made it nearly to Springer and were now coming back to do the Smokies before completing the final segment of their hike, begun July 1 at Katahdin. They were breaking the Smokies into two segments with a stay in Gatlinburg in between: first Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap, where I crossed paths with them a couple of hours before they finished that half, and then Newfound to Fontana. They said there was still a fair amount of snow from Newfound as far as Tricorner Knob.

I saw my first spruce at 4050′ and my first stretch of icy trail at 4500′.

Icy trail

I decided to put on my microspikes. As it turned out, the ice was spotty, and I could have manuevered around it without the spikes (which I did on the way back down). Nevertheless, the spikes are a very useful tool (far superior to instep crampons, for instance), and I always wonder why people down here don’t all get them instead of whining, “It’s too icy to hike now…”

Easy to put on and take off, and effective

After three hours of hiking I arrived at the tower. It was the first time I’ve ever been there that I haven’t encountered a single other hiker.

Mt. Cammerer fire tower

It was a bit chilly and windy, so I went into the tower to have my lunch. I am fixated on how beautiful the tower’s ceiling is.

Ceiling of the fire tower

On my way out, I noticed some ferns growing between the stones of the tower.

Ferns growing between the cracks

On my way back down, I stopped at an overlook rock on the A.T. looking into the extensive valley of Chestnut Branch. Across the valley I noticed one particular ridge that is covered with heath. This is something I have often wondered about: what determines the particular places where the heath develops? Adjacent ridges did not have any heath.

And I might as well bring up my other question of the day: why is it that quartz is found in many places in the Smokies, but always as an isolated rock or boulder, not as part of any apparent larger bedrock complex? It is almost as if quartz was scattered randomly across these mountains from some overhead source. And with these profound ponderings occupying my brain, I completed my hike.

Heath-covered ridge surrounded by non-heath terrain