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Scouting the Chimneys May 8, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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North Chimney as seen from "Tourist Chimney"

It took two tries to come up with a route that Chris Sass and I felt would be fun for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing we are going to lead in June. Club members would have survived the first route, but it might have caused some folks to swear they’d never go hiking again…

The first route called for starting at the site of Fort Harry, the idea being to do something related to the Civil War in honor of the war’s 150th anniversary. Fort Harry was built in 1862 by Colonel William Thomas’ Legion of Confederate Cherokees. Nothing remains of it—and surprisingly, there is not even a historical marker, even though a parking lot now stands at the spot—but my plan was to tell the group about the history of the fort and walk the same ground where the wooden stockade had been located. The fort served to defend the Alum Cave mines against Union raiders and generally to prevent Union forces from crossing the Smokies along the newly built road to Indian Gap. Union raiders under Col. George Kirk did get across the Smokies by way of Mt. Sterling Gap and victimized the residents of Cataloochee, but the Thomas Legion was able to protect some western NC residents against Kirk’s bushwhackers in late stages of the war.

When Chris and I arrived at Fort Harry, we found that the West Prong was running so high that crossing it would not only be difficult, it would be dangerous. So we went back to the Chimneys trailhead, where we had left a car for a shuttle, and crossed the West Prong on the trail bridge, then walked along the bank of the Prong until we approached the ridge we’d been planning to take. We started climbing fairly steeply and ran into some thick rhodo. After we reached the ridgecrest, we started encountering bluffs. We were able to get up the bluffs by holding onto roots and branches and pulling ourselves up, but it was sketchy.

Two friends who’ve been up that way found a good way to get around the bluffs by traversing to the east. We made the mistake of getting to a point that couldn’t be downclimbed without having first explored around the bottom for a better approach. I consider myself, and not Chris, responsible for this mistake.

Now came a very rewarding moment: at the top of the highest bluff was a beautiful open ledge with a large cairn. All of the off-trail routes to the Chimneys, including the officially banned Essary Route, seem to converge at this spot.

Cairn on Chimney ridge. We came up directly below this.

Above the cairn, we crossed the geological divide between sandstone and Anakeesta. There were a few more bluffs, but each time it was possible to traverse to the left (east).  We got into the really fun part, coming out onto open rock and scrambling up the wonderful Anakeesta formations that have such beautiful handholds and footholds.

Chris makes his way up the ridge

We came out on the north Chimney and paused to enjoy it before heading over the rocky exposed ridge to the tourist Chimney. From there we descended via the trail, stopping along the way to look for the Confederate Cherokee Burial Ground I’d read about. I had heard it was a short distance up the Road Prong trail. We hunted around for it but didn’t find it.

We knew we’d have to scout our hike again. Should we make another try at the Fort Harry route, looking for a better way up the cliffs? We had only one particular weekend to work with for a second scouting trip—we were running up against the deadline for getting a writeup to Charlie Klabunde for the SMHC newsletter—and we decided to be conservative and scout another route we knew would be easier: starting at the Chimneys picnic area and following the left fork of the West Prong tributary that flows through there. This time, Ben Bacot joined us for the fun. I did not take any pictures on this hike.

I arrived to meet Chris and Ben suffering from a severe sleep deficit caused by staying out late the night before celebrating the acceptance of my book for publication. My brain was having a lot of trouble getting in gear, which was soon evident when I became confused about which car(s) needed to be taken down to the picnic area and which one(s) needed to be left at the Chimneys trailhead. Fortunately, the confusion didn’t lead to the ultimate car shuttle fiasco, in which the driver of the end-point car fails to carry the car key along on the hike. (It’s happened.) Further brain fuzz became evident when I was attempting to use my compass and had the needle lined up with South instead of North. I do actually (most of the time) know how to use a compass.

But the route was not complicated, and we walked through beautiful open woods filled with tall white violets. The only annoyance was the ample quantity of nettles. Although Ben was wearing shorts, he was very stoical about the constant stinging of his legs. We ran into a belt of thick rhodo right below the ridge, but worked through it and came out at the same cairn. The upper part of the ridge featured cushions of sand myrtle in bloom, arranged artfully against masses of reindeer moss.

We had a great time. A gallery of viewers was watching us from the tourist Chimney as we approached the north Chimney, but they were disappointed when we sat down to have lunch and they couldn’t pepper us with questions.

I had obtained new information that said the Confederate Cherokee Burial Ground was not up the Road Prong trail but to the right (west) of the Chimneys trail just below the Road Prong junction. We looked. We didn’t find it, although we did spot a very interesting rock with thin, straight white bands running across it. Maybe I’ll just tell the group that the banded rock is the grave marker.

Mt. LeConte via Styx Branch July 26, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Chris Sass and Ed Fleming above right fork of Styx Branch

Seven people went on this outing of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Our goal was to climb the left fork of Styx Branch to Myrtle Point. But in fact we climbed the right fork of Styx Branch to a side ridge east of Myrtle Point—even better!

"Crossing the Styx" by Gustave Dore

Styx Branch is not only a nice little stream, it may also be the only stream in the Smokies that bears a name from Greek mythology. The area through which it flows is known as Huggins Hell, and its name is very appropriately borrowed from the River Styx, by which sinners and evildoers of all stripes enter their new residence for eternity. It joins Alum Cave Creek below Arch Rock.

We left the trail for the creek at the bridged crossing just above Arch Rock. The rockhopping was so easy due to the low water levels that it almost felt like cheating.

Low water level in Styx Branch

The only real navigational challenge of this outing was to follow the correct fork at the split around 4800 feet. Our leaders, Ed Fleming and Mark Shipley, had scouted the hike in April and found the left fork without any problem. We stopped at the approximate elevation and turned to the left where another small flow of water came in on the right. It must have been a minor side branch. I’ve made that kind of mistake myself. As we continued along, Ed and Mark commented that the way looked unfamiliar—a sandstone cliff ran along the right side, and they didn’t recall having seen that before. Then, when the stream made a distinct turn to the east, we had the proof that we were in the righthand fork.

No problem. After a while we got up on a ridge to the right that looked like good going, and on the other side of that we could see an open slide area. We climbed up the slide for a bit.

Slide on slope southeast of Myrtle Point

We reached a grassy area above the slide.

The grass made for a short stretch of easy going

Eventually we topped out on a ridge that runs parallel to and just south of the Boulevard trail. We could see how far we would need to travel along the ridge to get to Myrtle Point.

Looking along ridge to Myrtle Point

Eventually we decided to drop down to the trail, which runs very close to the ridge. The way down was steep and rough. Just as we came out on the path, Jim Quick came along. He was the rear leader of another bunch of SMHC hikers who were going up LeConte via the trail.

Soon we arrived at Myrtle Point and met the rest of the trail hikers. We relaxed and had lunch.

View from Myrtle Point

From there we descended by the Alum Cave trail. But my day was not over. I headed over to the Chimneys trail and climbed up to the top to meet some friends who were coming up off-trail from the Chimneys picnic area.

Not long after I got to the top of the first chimney, I heard some animated voices coming through the underbrush and caught the sound of a strangely familiar, slightly maniacal laugh. Soon I saw Greg Harrell, Keith Oakes, and Greg Hoover striding purposefully over the rocks to the outer chimney, and then they made their way up to the first chimney. They wolfed down some large meaty sandwiches (I had no appetite whatsoever myself) and got into a discussion about whether there is any point in putting healthy items such as raisin bran into a trail mix. It appeared that there was in fact no point, since Hoover was tossing flakes of raisin bran into the underbrush and gulping down the M&Ms.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, all soft and hazy in the warm humid air, and the full moon popped over the top of Mt. Mingus and beamed at us radiantly. Mt. LeConte had a cap of cloud draped just over the very top (just large enough to cause irritation to sunset viewers at the Lodge). Tufts of fleecy cloud floated close to the moon. We explored the “window” below the chimney, and some students of Hoover’s joined us up there for a little while. We stayed until about 9:30 and descended with headlamps.

Sunset from Chimney Tops. Photo by Greg Harrell.

The Chimneys via a strange route December 10, 2008

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Outer Chimney seen from Inner Chimney.  We came up the back side of this.

Outer chimney seen from the inner chimney. We came up the back side of this.

Note:  The route described here has been officially closed by the Park Service following a fatality.

The Chimney Tops are one of the best-known features of the Smokies.  You see them as you drive up the Newfound Gap road, and thousands of hikers march up to them via a popular trail.  One day in March 1983 I went up by a different route with my former husband, Chris.

We started at the Chimneys picnic area.  Despite its name, the picnic area is not where the trail starts. That begins considerably further up the road at 3500 feet and takes 2 miles to climb 1300 vertical feet to the top.  The picnic area is at 2800 feet, directly under the Chimneys, and we would climb 2000 feet in about three-quarters of a mile.  The last 1000 vertical goes in about a quarter of a mile.  (You do the math.)  We had heard that certain members of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club had gone up this way at some point in the murky past.  It is not always wise to repeat what the Hiking Club does.

We followed a ridge that lies between two branches of an unnamed tributary of the West Prong.  (That’s the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, not to be confused with the West Prong of the Little River.  People call both of them just “the West Prong.”)  At the bottom, the ground was carpeted with early spring wildflowers.  Soon we were squirming and clawing our way through tangles of rhododendron.   It was hard to look at anything other than the limbs and leaves right before us, but when we stopped to catch our breath we raised our eyes to a quiet gray cliff just above, partly obscured by elegant twistings of rhododendron.  We sidehilled until we came to an ingeniously sculpted mass of boulder and root and blackberry that provided a route we could take to the top, and then adjusted the size and shape of our bodies in order to squeeze around, between, and under in the appropriate places.

Things got a little easier until we came to another larger, steeper cliff.  This is the place between 4300 and 4400 feet on the USGS map where there is no space between the contour lines.  At first it looked impossible, but with a bit of imagination, you could connect the dots between footholds and roots that were available for hanging onto.  I have to admit that I didn’t like the look of it, but Chris was braver than I, and he thought it could be done.  And with various toe jams and by hauling and flailing our way up, we did indeed get up.  I had dirt under my fingernails, dirt on my face, sweat in my eyes, and dirt down the back of my neck.

Before long, we emerged on the open Anakeesta* of the Chimneys, stepping onto the tilting layers of rock.  We had come out on the outer Chimney, the one that you are not supposed to go over to from the other, officially sanctioned, Chimney.  The weather had changed.  Cold gray clouds were silently enclosing the Chimney Tops.  We could see the lacy, delicate edges of cloud as it streamed over the rock backbone between the Chimneys, and we could sense the icy crystals that were packed up inside them.  As we stopped for some food, the clouds swallowed up the further mountains, then nearby Mt. Mingus and Sugarland Mountain, and then the other Chimney, until we and the sand myrtle bushes right around us floated in a dense blank grayness.  After putting on extra sweaters (this was the pre-fleece era), we started our descent.  Now we found traces of the old unmaintained manway we’d heard about.  As hard little pellets of sleet started pelting us, we followed the manway down, sometimes losing it, then re-finding it, until we lost it for good at the top of a ten- or fifteen-foot bluff.  Chris turned himself around to face the bluff and downclimbed it in proper rock climbing style.  Once again, I did not like the look of it, but then I noticed a small tree growing up against the bluff.  I jumped outward several feet from the bluff, landed in the treetop, and scrambled down.

A bit lower, the woods a bit deeper, the sleet changing over to rain, another 15-foot cliff.  This time I found a ladder of birch roots and started climbing down.  Now Chris was the one to go airborne.  Picking his way down a smoother, more difficult section, he suddenly fell.  I cried out in alarm, but he somehow twisted around and found his own treetop to land in.  The scrubby little sapling bent low from his weight, but it saved him from a nasty landing.

The way  got less steep below that.  More rhodo, followed by yet more rhodo, and then we followed the stream.  We found a little glen filled with flowers—white phacelia.  They completely overran the ground, like an idea that has turned into a daydream that has turned into a wild fantasy.  We came down off the hillside ankle deep in flowers as rain came down harder and harder on our backs.

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*Anakeesta is a distinctive dark, slaty metamorphic rock found at higher elevations in the Smokies.  It has many thin layers and can provide good footholds if the layers happen to run across your route rather than parallel with it.  Anakeesta is found on the Chimneys, Charlies Bunion, the top of LeConte, and other places, usually above about the 4500 foot elevation mark.

The Chimneys are the points on the left side of the ridge

The Chimneys are the points on the left side of the ridge