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Chimney Rock on Defeat Ridge January 19, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Thunderhead Mtn. from Bote Mtn. road. Photo by Brian Stansberry

I wrote this account 20 years ago or so.  It is about a portion of the Defeat Ridge manway, which leads from the valley of the Middle Prong of the Little River to the summit of Thunderhead Mountain in the Smokies.

Chimney Rock is located on the section of the Defeat Ridge manway that rides along the crest of the ridge, after the manway has climbed up out of the Middle Prong valley but before it leaves the crest to work its way through the rhododendron hell on the slope of Thunderhead Mountain.  Its elevation is  about 4000′.

On a day in late summer, we started our journey at the abandoned logging grade beside Sams Creek.  These grades crisscross the whole Middle Prong valley, an area that was heavily logged before the days of the Park.  As you walk through the thriving second growth forest, you can pick up pieces of coal that were thrown off by the logging locomotives.  You can imagine men shouting as they sawed down the giant trees.

But the deep green woods are quiet now.  We followed the grade to a small chasm once crossed by a trestle, rockhopped across the stream, and scrambled up the bank on the other side.  Cutting across a switchback, we  pursued the weedy grade as it chugged its way up along Thunderhead Prong.

We wrestled our way through a place where dense grapevine had overrun the woods.  Every now and then we would come out into the sun, poke our heads around, and see how the vine had poured itself over everything, turning trees into shapeless green lumps.  Under the warm summer sky, it smelled like a pasture run to weed.

Once past the vines, we crossed Thunderhead Prong on a disintegrating bridge to start the climb up to Defeat Ridge.  For the first time, we left logging grades to follow a trail that had been created as a footpath.  This path had long since been abandoned, but we had no trouble following it through the thick debris of the woods as it snaked up the side of the ridge.

On the ridgetop, the manway swings around and climbs slowly southward, staying a little below the crest so that you walk along the side of a steep slope with the spacious woods below.  You approach the crest gradually, reaching it at an intersection of abandoned paths.  There is something pleasing about standing in the center of this junction that is hidden away in the wild woods, which no one knows about any more.

You continue straight ahead on the manway, carpeted here softly with pine needles.  The rhododendron that you’ve noticed here and there gets thicker, closes in.  Its wiry brown arms bend over the path, which has become a child’s path or a troll’s path, not high enough for you to stand up straight.  You tunnel under the arching branches.  Dwarf pines grow on both sides.  And upward you climb, the ridge dropping off to your left and to your right.

You don’t have to go far beyond the junction to reach Chimney Rock.  You notice a mass of stone just off to the left.  You climb up out of the trough of the path and find yourself at the base of a large gray lichen-covered rock.  You grasp its cool knobs and haul yourself up on top of it, your toes scrabbling for a foothold.

And suddenly the great blue valley opens up before you.  The dense pines and rhododendron that roofed over the world for so long have subsided into green waves lapping at your feet.  You see that you are sitting on top of a wart on a broad fold of mountain.  This hump stretches up to the very top of Thunderhead.  Ahead, Davis Ridge rises up to the giant Smokies crest, and across the vast bowl you see Blanket Mountain and beyond that mountains behind mountains.

We reached this spot at midday.  The sky had gone a light pearly gray.  We ate the sandwiches and cheese and apples we’d brought, dropping our crumbs into the treetops.

And then we saw the hawks.  There were two of them, riding the air currents over the valley.  They made fast silent tracks through the substance that was invisible to us, but which flowed thickly under their wings.  They were not performing for us.  But they stayed overhead, wheeling to slice back over the ridge, to soar, turn, dive, turn.  I asked myself what they saw, how they thought.

We climbed down from the rock, swallowed up again by the forest.  We had left behind the realm of the sky.

Another time when I was there, with six or eight people, one man stayed behind on the rock to yodel into the valley.  We waited on the path and listened.  When he stopped, we cheered and laughed and clapped.  We couldn’t have explained why we were so happy.

Thunderhead Prong. Photo by Brian Stansberry