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The lure of Eagle Rocks November 18, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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A tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong

For years I have been intrigued by the idea of following Eagle Rocks Prong all the way up to the A.T.—up the Eagle Rocks cliffs themselves. A year ago, a group of five attempted to go over the top of Woolly Tops, down into a tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong, and then up to the cliffs. After spending a night on Woolly Tops, we had to abort our plans because of high water conditions. The rhodo was too thick on the streambanks, the water on our minor side stream too fast and too high to wade.

This was taken on last year's trip

Now there are rumblings of another attempt to be made next spring. It remains to be seen whether we will actually be able to coordinate schedules for what now looks like could be a three-day trip, going up the Prong, camping at the base of the cliffs, going up the cliffs and back down for a second night, then going back out the Prong with a possible side trip to Rock Den on Chapman Prong.

The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club did this trip back in the 30s and 40s, following an old footpath along the stream that was already hard to find back then. We’ll assume that above Buck Fork or so, there is no trace at all of any path. Here is a description of a 1942 trip from Harvey Broome in Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies:

The next day we walked up Eagle Rocks Prong along the old trail which is so far gone that we were off it as often as we were on it… At the Laurel Top fork we took to the creek, and skirted great pools as we moved readily along the dry rocks at the edges. We climbed gradually through comparative flats and open woods until the Stateline loomed ahead of us, appallingly steep. At the first great cliff, lying close to its base, we found snow—a drift 40 feet long and two feet thick. There was momentarily a wintry sting to the air. We climbed the spikes of a leaning spruce and surmounted the first falls. Once we pushed over a loose rock which dropped with sickening momentum, hit with a splintering crunch and bounded on, gaining speed as it fell. It was frightening even to think of falling in such places. Then we saw the Black Cliff—a dry, warm, gnarled, lichen-covered surface with the water trickling in a fissure at the side. The cliff opened out over a gulf so steep we could look into the tops of trees, and on across a wide-flung blue world of mountains.

You can see Dutch Roth’s photo of hikers, probably SMHC members, climbing a cliff in the area here. It’s fun to read about these trips from the middle decades of the last century. One of the people who plans to do the trip next spring stumbled across an article about a trip done up the Prong in 1956 using equipment that sounds outlandish to us now, such as a “Trapper Nelson packboard.” Reading that whets the appetite to explore what could be considered the wildest, most rugged area of the park. And so, as I go through the winter months ahead, I will have this wonderful place to think about.

Resting on a log on lower Eagle Rocks Prong, SMHC trip 1986

Traverse of Balsam Point May 16, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Harrell walks along ledge at Ft. Harry falls

Balsam Point (5818′) is a knob west of LeConte that is skirted by the Bullhead trail.  I had cooked up the idea of starting at Fort Harry falls just off the Newfound Gap road, climbing up and over Balsam Point, and dropping down into the valley of LeConte Creek to hit the Rainbow Falls trail a little below the falls.  Two guys had agreed to go along on this hike, Greg Hoover and Greg Harrell.  We can simplify the Greg equation as follows: (Greg Hoover) + (Greg Harrell) = 2 x (off-trail nuts).

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Fort Harry was to see if I could find the exact location of a couple of photos taken by SMHC’ers in the 30s or 40s, when this was a popular destination for hiking club members.  I’m not going to reproduce them here because they are copyrighted, but you can find them here and here.  I had already prowled around the place in January, when I saw some titanic icicles, some of which were breaking off with a frightening roar.

Ft. Harry falls, January 2010

So we followed a herd path up to the falls, and Harrell immediately started capering about on the ledges while Hoover and I looked at copies of the old photos I’d brought and tried to match them up with what we were looking at.  The Chimneys rear up their pointy heads in the background of the old photos, giving a clear indication what direction we should look in, but large trees have inserted themselves into the current picture, making it a bit hard to align ourselves exactly.  It was easy to see the general area where Ben Blackwell was making his climb in the Dutch Roth photo, but the location of Harvey Broome’s perch remains a mystery.

By this time Harrell had scampered quite a long way toward the west end of the bluffs, so Hoover and I clambered along until we came to an obvious chute by which we might be able to get to the top of the bluff and begin our climb up to Balsam Point.

Chute leading to top of bluff

We could see a skimpy-looking rope on the right.  I climbed up the chute a little ways and discovered that Harrell was already up one side of it, backing down because the rocks were too slick.  It seemed possible to get up the side with the rope, but it looked a little iffy, and we figured we’d come to the end of the bluffs pretty soon, so we continued along the bottom.

In fact, those bluffs go on so far that we wondered if we were going to end up back in Gatlinburg.  But the line of smooth gray sandstone finally petered out in the next stream drainage, still erupting in small cliffs here and there.  We saw that by following this drainage we were going to end up on a side ridge instead of a ridge leading directly to Balsam Point, but we could turn right on the side ridge and still get where we wanted.

The steep slope above the bluffs

We climbed up through generous helpings of nettles, moss, blowdown, and rock.  The ridge turned out to be riddled with laurel and greenbrier, but there were bear trails we could follow by shrinking down to the size of our four-footed friends.  At regular intervals troublesome rock formations poked up like bumps on the spine of a stegasaurus, but we were able to work our way around them.

Finally we spilled out onto the Bullhead trail at 5000′, where we rested a bit.  We decided that it would not compromise our off-trail integrity too very much to use the trail to get to a point close to the 5818′ point on Balsam Point.  We walked up to about 5700′, then strolled through evergreen forest (more spruce than balsam) carpeted with a dense floor of clintonia lilies until we reached the high point.

Harrell and Hoover on Balsam Point

By that time I was looking a bit bedraggled.

Jenny on Balsam Point

Note the stringy hair, fogged-up glasses, and scratched-up arm.

Now it was time to plunge down the north side.  We did not run into any bluffs that we couldn’t get down by butt-sliding or hanging onto branches, but we did find that the slope was heaped up with boulders, mainly disguised with thick vegetation so that you could easily drop unexpectedly into a deep hole.  We followed a tributary of LeConte Creek whose boulders were downright slimy—I mean, it was as if they were coated with grease—so I mainly stayed on the bank and worked my way through the brush.  Harrell didn’t mind getting into the slime to look for salamanders.  At 4100′, we reached the Rainbow Falls trail at a pretty cascade.  We looked, well, different from the many trail hikers we saw.

Cascade where the tributary crosses the trail

We didn’t bother to go up to Rainbow Falls.  “Been there, done that.”  We strolled down the trail, spotting some beautiful laurel near the bottom.  It had taken us 8 hours to do 2 miles of off-trail plus 2.5 miles of trail.

Laurel on Rainbow Falls trail