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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.

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