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Mt. LeConte via Surry Fork June 16, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Cascade on Surry Fork

Cascade on Surry Fork

This was a solo bushwhack that I undertook for several reasons. One of them was that I wanted to find out why Surry Fork has been so neglected among the streams that tumble down the slopes of LeConte. Perhaps it is upstaged by its neighbor, Roaring Fork, which is a larger stream with bigger waterfalls—I suppose you could say Roaring Fork is more deluxe than Surry.

Another reason for its neglect is no doubt the unfortunate circumstance that Surry Fork is crossed by the Trillium Gap trail a total of four times. To be more exact, the upper valley loses its perennial stream water by the time you get to the third trail crossing, but you still go across the trail as you follow that basic route.

So perhaps that is the reason the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club never goes up it and you never hear talk of Surry Fork among the usual off-trail hard-cores.

The 1931 map shows an old trail that goes up Surry Fork to Trillium Gap. Surry joins Roaring Fork above what is now the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and that is where you would be most likely to pick up the old trail. It’s maybe even an old road in that section that led up to former homesites.

I thought about starting from the lowest point, but I rejected that in favor of going up Trillium Gap trail past Grotto Falls and hitting Surry at the lowest trail crossing, around 4400′. Why, that’s halfway up the mountain, and you might consider that cheating. But I did it anyway. I also cheated a tiny bit at the top, as I will explain.

So I set off along the trail to Grotto Falls. For some reason on this trip I really noticed the bizarre patterns of exposed roots on the trail.

The roots are really quite striking once you pay attention to them.

The roots are really quite striking once you pay attention to them.

I arrived at Grotto Falls. Here is my favorite perspective on the falls.

Behind the falls.

Behind the falls.

Then I trundled along to the first crossing of Surry Fork. It looked extraordinarily green. The photo below has no enhancement of color. In fact, I turned the brightness down a bit.

Here is where I picked up Surry Fork.

Here is where I picked up Surry Fork.

Before long I reached a junction of two branches of Surry Fork. Only the left is shown on the map as a perennial stream, but to me they looked about equal in volume of water flow. Both had cascades flowing down over a band of sandstone that extended pretty far in both directions at that elevation.

I got a better perspective as I climbed up beside it.

I got a better perspective as I climbed up beside it.

I noticed that the rock is pockmarked with holes. I have noticed this in a few other places, such as Kuwahi Branch up near Clingmans Dome summit. I don’t know what the geological explanation is.

Pockmarks in rock.

Pockmarks in rock.

I went over toward the left cascade, but the vegetation was incredibly dense and I needed to find a route up the cascade bluff. So this photo was taken from a distance. Sorry it is blurry.

The left and right cascades were like pages of an open book.

The left and right cascades were like pages of an open book.

I crawled through a lot of rhodo getting up past this general elevation. I saw one—just one—blossom here as if the plant was making a conciliatory gesture. (I saw a lot more rhodo in bloom along roads and other places where you aren’t wrestling with it. Funny thing about that.)

I think the rhodo was making fun of me...

I think the rhodo was making fun of me…

...because this is what it looked like most of the time.

…because this is what it looked like most of the time.

The blackberry canes did the same thing.

The blackberry canes did the same thing.

Rhodo does come in handy for climbing up.

Rhodo does come in handy for climbing up.

Higher up the rhodo didn't look quite so spiffy.

Higher up the rhodo didn’t look quite so spiffy.

Above 5800' I finally got into balsam woods.

Above 5800′ I finally got into balsam woods.

Unfortunately, I got into a zone of intensive balsam blowdown, from the trees that were killed from the balsam woolly adelgid in the late 80s and early 90s.

Balsam blowdown.

Balsam blowdown.

It was at this point that I cheated again. Thing was, I was ridiculously close to the trail—and this is really the problem with Surry Fork. As I clambered over one blowdown after another, I couldn’t forget the trail was literally only yards away from my route, located on the west side of the ridge that led up to the Lodge.

I threw in the towel and dropped down to the trail at about 6000′, climbed up to the Lodge, and then went on to Cliff Top because I wanted to see the myrtle in bloom.

Oh, the myrtle was beautiful!

Oh, the myrtle was beautiful!

L:ooking toward West Point.

Looking toward West Point.

I had hardly seen anyone all day (no big surprise there), but two young couples came up while I was sitting at Cliff Top. They asked me if I’d come up the Alum Cave trail. I was seized with a strange fit of awkwardness. I said I’d gone up past Grotto Falls and climbed up a stream, and I knew I couldn’t possibly explain it. They saw my dirty clothes, the fact that I was wearing long sleeves and long pants, dirty gaiters.

For some reason instead of seeing myself as a glorious explorer I could only see myself as kind of a weirdo, at least in their eyes. I had the same feeling when I got back down to Grotto Falls and ran into tons of tourists on the trail. It was uniformly family groups wearing t-shirts and shorts, and here I was, a solitary female who looked dirty and dressed differently than everyone else. I should have felt superior, I guess. Instead I only felt odd. Sorry for the deep psychological digression.

While I was up on Cliff Top, I saw a Rhodo minus in bud. It’s one of my favorite plants.

Rhodo minus next to myrtle.

Rhodo minus next to myrtle.

And then I had to face up to the long trip down Trillium Gap trail. One nice thing happened—I saw a very tame deer near the Lodge!

That grass looks very tasty!

That grass looks very tasty!

Roaring Fork June 18, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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This is where the hike begins

This was a trip up LeConte that left the Trillium Gap trail at Grotto Falls and followed Roaring Fork to its headwaters. Brian Worley and I were scouting the route for an outing with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club that we will lead July 8. The SMHC does this hike every five or six years—it’s a classic. Roaring Fork tumbles over an endless series of cascades from its very steep heights. If you look at a contour map, you’ll see that the section in the mid 5000′ range is especially vertical.

I have only a handful of photos, and most of them are fogged. Well, that’ll give you a better idea of the damp, mysterious nature of these hidden realms! By the time we reached the top of LeConte, we were soaking wet, though it hadn’t rained—a combination of moving through dense and damp vegetation, climbing up wet rocks, and plain old sweat! Some of the people we saw up by the lodge looked concerned and asked us, “What happened to you? Are you okay?”

Not far above Grotto Falls is a cascade that flows into a deep pool.

Doesn’t everything look lush and green?

Small cascades in foreground and background

At 4600′ we looked for a major split in the stream. The left fork goes up a valley that intersects a switchback on the Trillium Gap trail, climbing less steeply and hitting the upper T.G. trail northeast of the lodge. The right fork has the big waterfalls on it. This is where we had what I will call the Ken Wise Distraction. Wise’s elegantly written book about Smokies trails includes a description of what he calls the Roaring Fork trail—although it is not a trail. He talks about Twin Falls and Dome Falls, which sources agree are on the right fork. But his directions call for going to the left and eventually hitting the Trillium Gap trail 0.6 miles below Roaring Fork’s source at Basin Springs. He doesn’t mention the lower meeting of the left fork with the trail’s switchback at 5200′.  I am still puzzled about all this.

We took the right fork and came to a waterfall well over 100′ high. This might have been Twin Falls—but I’m not sure. I arrive at that conclusion simply because of its height, not because it fits the description in other respects. But maybe there’s no need to obsess about the “correct name” for a waterfall rather than simply enjoying it.

I’ll just say it’s a nice waterfall

Eventually we reached the top, encountering a bit of vegetation along the way.

Brian is swallowed up by the vegetation—but isn’t the rhodo pretty?

As we sat on a bench having something to eat, a familiar-looking person came by. It was Alan Householder, who ran the llama trains up to the lodge before a hiking accident in New Zealand did in an already troublesome knee. He has many hiking achievements to his credit and has explored off-trail all over the Park. He recognized me and said he had my book, “Murder at the Jumpoff,” with him up there—would I sign it? Of course, I was delighted to do so!

Trailhead scene on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Road