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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.