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Cammerer via Whiterock Ridge December 16, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Hoar frost on upper Whiterock Ridge

Hoar frost on upper Whiterock Ridge.

You won’t find Whiterock Ridge on the map. But I’ll be nice and show you where it is.

It's the half-ridge between Groundhog Ridge and Rowdy Ridge.

It’s the half-ridge between Groundhog Ridge and Rowdy Ridge.

I have to give credit to Greg Harrell for pioneering this route.

I started out with my hiking buddies Chris Sass and Cindy McJunkin. We were fueled by muffins provided by Chris’s wife Bethann—sweet potato muffins with crystallized ginger and chocolate chips, if I am remembering the details right.

Actually, our original plan (pioneered by me) was to explore the upper left fork of Shutts Prong starting from Newfound Gap, going down to the stream from the Boulevard trail and then following the stream up to the Horseshoe Lead. But the Newfound Gap Road had been closed for more than a day and we couldn’t take a chance on wondering when the road would re-open today. So we shifted plans.

It was an utterly beautiful hike that entailed all the different degrees of frost with their distinctive patterns as we climbed from the no-frost elevation up to thin snow and beyond that to the hoar frost zone. It was a day of a luminous blue sky and crystal formations in the trees.

Even in the lower elevations we could see the patterns of frost and wind on the trees and the understory vegetation.

This is what the forest looked like in the lower elevations.

This is what the forest looked like in the lower elevations.

Even individual rhodo leaves had the windblown frost.

I like the way you see the action of the wind in the frost.

I like the way you see the action of the wind in the frost.

We decided to go up to the ridgecrest directly from the Lower Cammerer trail. The ridge was inhabited by a fair amount of vegetation, but it was manageable.

Chris grapples with the brush.

Chris grapples with the brush.

We climbed up steeply and reached the junction of two worlds.

Here to there---is connection possible?

Here to there—is connection possible?

We tackled a series of rock bluffs, the last of which was the most difficult, leading up into a rock slot with one handy laurel to aid the way to the top. It led us to a viewpoint where we had open views of worlds of frost.

We saw the view over the glowing ridgeline shown at top, and we could also see up past some serious cliffs to the tower. If you look very closely at the photo below, you’ll see the famous tower.

The tower is visible as a faint shape on the horizon. Note the cliffs directly below.

The tower is visible as a faint shape on the horizon. Note the cliffs directly below.

Above this viewpoint, we gradually merged with the Groundhog Ridge manway, with a few points of uncertainty, but it didn’t matter, because all we had to do was continue upward. Eventually we got up above the forest and onto the open rocks close to the summit.

Cindy climbs last boulders to the tower.

Cindy climbs last boulders to the tower.

It was an incredible day. The one strange thing was that I managed to get my eye injured early on the way up even though I always wear glasses. Somehow a branch stabbed me from the side. It was the kind of injury that looks a lot worse than it really is, the eye swelling and saturated with blood. I saw a doctor this evening and, after examination, she told me it’s not a big problem—my eye will just look “impressibly horrible” for a week or so.

Groundhog Ridge manway November 25, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Mt. Cammerer tower from upper manway

This outing came about when a reader of my blog expressed an interest in getting off trail in the Smokies.  Like many hikers, Tom had put in years of following regular maintained trails before becoming aware of the strange parallel universe of bushwhackers and manway prowlers.  So I took him up the Groundhog Ridge manway.

Tom was in Gatlinburg for a week with his family, so we picked a day and met at the Cosby campground.  We considered doing a true off-trail hike up the north side of Cammerer, but I thought Groundhog Ridge would be a good introduction.  I hadn’t been on the manway in 20 years, but I remembered what the starting point looks like, where McFalls Branch crosses Route 32.  The hardest part is finding a place to put the car other than the driveway of the nearby house.

Note: Since doing this hike, I have learned that the McFalls Branch route of the lower manway has fallen into disuse, although that is the route that was generally used in the 80s. People now follow Groundhog Creek. There is much better parking available for that route—the only disadvantage is that you miss out on the nice cascade. Coming down that way on the SMHC outing up Leadmine Ridge, I could see where the old McFalls Branch path joined it at the ridgecrest.

We followed the stream up past the pretty cascade at 2900′, not finding traces of the manway until the point where the stream valley pinches in around the cascade.  Above the cascade we lost the manway again among the thick carpet of leaves, but the going was easy on the left and we walked through pleasant open woods.  We needed to angle over to the right toward the ridgecrest to pick up the manway, but I decided we might as well continue off-trail up to the Lower Cammerer Trail and then do a short jog over.  We pushed through a patch of relatively tame, nonaggressive rhodo just below the trail, and Tom seemed impressed that we actually did hit Lower Cammerer before long.  In a minute or two we walked over to the manway.

Where the manway crosses the trail, it seems to beckon the explorer to follow it.  It looks like a pathway for trolls.  An unobservant person could easily walk past it without noticing it, but there it is, a soft, narrow footway among the shadows of the trees.

We turned up it and climbed increasingly steeply, for the slope seems to steepen in a perfect geometric progression, and got our first glimpse of the distinctive octagonal tower perched on Cammerer.  Its sharply defined geometric bulk contrasts nicely with the scattered fringe of broadleaf evergreens around it.  Soon we were up in the zone where the dark, chocolatey-looking dirt has gotten scraped away by the boots of previous manway visitors.  Possibly the most recent group of any size to use it was the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, which climbed Cammerer off-trail via Rich Butt in late October and came down Groundhog Ridge.  (I was looking at the newsletter writeup—apparently one of the group was an A.T. maintainer who carried a swing blade up with him all the way up the narrow Rich Butt ridge and split off from the group to do some trail work!)

This part of the manway requires a bit of grabbing onto roots and manuevering up over some ledges, all through a tunnel of thick, twisting laurel and rhodo.  Some of the laurel has remarkably thick, ancient-looking limbs.

Tom pauses amidst the laurel branches

From that point we soon broke out into the open for the final push up to the tower.  We scrambled up over some ledges.

Getting near the top

We arrived at the tower, where we encountered a few other hikers, and had our lunch.  As Peter J. Barr points out in his book Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers, “Contrary to most descriptions, the Mount Cammerer Lookout is not atop the mountain’s 5,042-foot summit.  That peak, two-thirds of a mile southwest, is covered in rhododendron only a few feet off the Appalachian Trail.  Instead, the tower rests at 4,928 feet on the narrow, rocky spine of Cammerer Ridge…”  Peter knows better than possibly anyone else about the true locations of the 5,000 footers of the Southeast, because he has climbed all of them.

The tower is truly a lovely structure.  My favorite part of it is the ceiling inside, where the beams come together from the octagonal corners in a pleasing pattern.

After lunch Tom and I made a loop going out the Cammerer spur trail and along the A.T. to Low Gap, then down to Cosby campground, where our other car was waiting.  (We did not touch our toe to Peter’s true summit.)

After the hike, we had homemade soup and fried apple pie at Carver’s Apple House Restaurant, where you can find apple fritters, apple butter, apple chow-chow, and just about anything else made out of apples.