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Frowning Rock Ridge April 7, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, plants, Smoky Mountains.
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Looking down Frowning Rock Ridge

Looking down Frowning Rock Ridge

Your faithful blogger goes places for you so that you don’t have to go there yourself. From the comfort of your armchair, you can visit the upper portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.

For some background on my obsession with the headwaters of Bradley Fork, go here. I’ll repeat one of the maps from that post, showing names that I gave to these very wild ridges that no one has ever visited, as far as I can determine:

Part of the headwater streams and ridges of Bradley Fork.

Part of the headwater streams and ridges of Bradley Fork.

In its appearance, Frowning Rock Ridge is the strangest and most interesting of the ridges, to judge from the map. But I couldn’t even see it from any of the viewpoints I visited on my earlier trip of 24.6 miles and 5260 total vertical feet.

My altimeter came up with exactly the same figure today, even though I circled the watershed clockwise instead of counterclockwise this time—after I subtracted out my foray of 300 vertical feet down the ridge. It just so happens that the ridge joins with the A.T. at about 12 miles into the trip whichever direction you take, so it doesn’t matter whether you start with Bradley Fork and Hughes Ridge or with Dry Sluice trail and Richland Mountain.

Last night when I was preparing for the trip, I looked at a satellite image of the ridge at a higher magnification than I’d done before. It looked to me as though the ridge might actually be vegetated on nearly all of its crest even though it has huge slides going off to the left (west).

The wide slides come down the left side of the ridge into a draw.

The wide slides come down the left side of the ridge into a draw.

It is hard to orient yourself with a satellite image. The draw to the west of the ridge almost seems to look like a ridge itself, but that reverses the ridge/valley structure. Two narrow slides come down to the same draw from the other side . . . but things have changed since this image was created.

More about the slides in a moment. For right now, let’s just say that when I looked closely at this image, I thought, “Well, that vegetation will make things safer for me when I explore down the ridge!” It did give me lots of stuff to hang onto. It also made the ridge virtually impenetrable.

After a brief period of spruce forest interspersed with witch hobble, it turned into what you see below.

I crawled through the jungle.

I crawled through the jungle.

Every now and then, the way would be almost clear for a few feet.

It didn't last.

It didn’t last.

I got glimpses of a pretty big slide to the right. This is different than what the satellite image shows.

Telephoto view of slide.

Telephoto view of slide.

Much later in my outing, I had a glimpse of the area from the upper Bradley Fork trail. There is a huge slide that comes down from just west of Laurel Top—exactly what this might be the upper part of. Very intriguing. I wish I could have taken a picture of it, but from that standpoint, there was too much forest in between, and the light was bad.

From the ridge, I had views of what I call Fortress Ridge to the west and Fishtail Ridge to the east.

Fortress Ridge, with a heath-covered side ridge coming down.

Fortress Ridge, with a heath-covered side ridge coming down.

Fishtail Ridge has some interesting exposed rock.

Fishtail Ridge has some interesting exposed rock.

I wrestled with the rhodo and laurel for a while. It was pretty grim, and I saw no signs that it would let up any time soon. In fact, it got worse as the ridge grew narrower and steeper. Plus, I had to take into account the dimensions of my overall outing. So I turned around and crawled back up. Of course, the wind-blasted branches had all been aiming downslope, so to speak, so now I was going against the grain. Experienced bushwhackers will know what I mean.

Valley of Frowning Rock Prong from the A.T. close to the ridge.

Valley of Frowning Rock Prong from the A.T. close to the ridge.

I hadn’t seen anyone all day, but now I ran into a total of six thru-hikers. I had a burst of adrenalin from my mini-adventure, so I galloped past them all with my much lighter pack, turned down Hughes Ridge, and felt great until I hit the junction with the upper Bradley Fork trail. All of a sudden I felt horribly tired, and I still had 7.4 miles to go. I stopped, had something to eat, and pressed on.

It was pretty much of a death march from that point on. Fortunately, once down on the section of trail that goes along Bradley Fork itself, the flowers made a nice show. But I will say that I took all of the photos below at the beginning of the hike, not at the end. In my final miles, I was in that robotic mode where I didn’t even want to break stride to take a picture—and I knew ahead of time it was going to be that way. So below you will see some photos from early in the morning.

A lovely cluster of Trillium grandiflorum.

A lovely cluster of Trillium grandiflorum.

My first geraniums of 2013.

My first geraniums of 2013.

A carpet of phacelia.

A carpet of phacelia.

Mayapples and phacelia.

Mayapples and phacelia.

I feel as though I don’t want to set foot on the lower Bradley Fork trail again for quite a while, but I do want to explore some of the slides in the headwaters area, possibly going out from Newfound Gap. For now, I will just daydream about it.

I don’t expect many people will be interested in this.

Hepatica with furry new leaves just starting to grow. It's spring!

Hepatica with furry new leaves just starting to grow. It’s finally spring!

Ridges of Upper Bradley Fork February 25, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Bradley east half

These are the names I’ve given these places. I don’t know of anyone who’s explored here.

Upper Blindside. What an amazing place!

Blindside Ridge. What an amazing place!

Yesterday I set out to circle the entire Bradley Fork watershed. My goal: to see if I could get a good look at the ridges among the upper realms of the three major headwater streams: Chasm Prong, Frowning Rock Prong, and Gulf Prong.

The hike’s dimensions were 24.6 miles and somewhere around 5,000 total vertical feet. (I’d estimated 4,400 beforehand but the cumulative gain function on my altimeter said 5,260 vertical feet. This route has a lot of small ups and downs.)  I started at Smokemont campground, took the Bradley Fork trail to Hughes Ridge to Pecks Corner, followed the A.T. across to what the Park calls the Dry Sluice Gap trail (former Richland Mountain trail), and down that to Bradley Fork to complete my circle.

The light was dim when I started hiking at 6:30, but just light enough that I didn’t need to use my headlamp. Because access to most of the campground was gated off, I had to walk its length to get to the Bradley trailhead. And once I reached the trail, there was no avoiding the tedium of its first four miles, as I slogged along a wide, flat gravel road beside the stream.

The saving grace is that most of the way I had views of one of the lovely big streams of the Smokies.

Lower Bradley Fork

Lower Bradley Fork

Four miles of slogging.

Four miles of slogging. Ho, hum.

But keep in mind that the long, tedious approach is part of why the upper part of the watershed is so wild. People don’t want to go through all that to get there. And apparently Champion Fibre didn’t get up into the headwaters back in the logging days, either. Maps of old-growth forest at the time of the Park’s creation indicate that logging did not take place above the confluence of Chasm and Gulf Prongs, below which is given the Bradley Fork name. In the lower area, of course, Champion had a gigantic timbering operation that fed its mill in Canton.

Even after the Bradley Fork trail leaves the lower valley to climb up to Hughes Ridge, it uses a wide logging grade that only narrows to a footpath about halfway up. Everywhere, I saw evidence of the January floods. Water had scoured leaves, twigs, and topsoil from the trails, leaving rubble with debris piled up behind the stones.

Evidence of flooding.

Evidence of flooding.

In places, the floods had deposited fine silt almost the consistency of quicksand, where a boot could sink in three or four inches deep.

Once on Hughes Ridge, I had good views across the upper Enloe Creek valley to Katalska Ridge, which miraculously avoided the trailbuilding of its neighbors on either side, Hughes and Hyatt. It is covered with red spruce from top to bottom, and I would like to explore there.

I began to encounter snow and ice. Pecks Corner looked wintry, and I put on my microspikes there for traction where snow packed down by footprints had turned icy.

Shelter at Peck's Corner.

Shelter at Peck’s Corner.

I kept the spikes on for eight miles. I ran into bare ground in sunny places, but the ice always returned. In most places things were crispy and crunchy—not much melting going on.

After I turned west on the A.T., I came to my first view of the upper ridges. Although I had been on this trail section once before, it was on a rainy day with zero visibility. Therefore everything that I could see off to the sides was new to me. But I’d been looking at it on maps for a long time.

Nice, but nothing too exciting until you start looking closer.

Nice, but nothing too exciting until you start looking closer.

I could see landslides and rocky ridges.

I could see landslides and rocky ridges.

I continued along the trail, passing big icicles.

Icicles along the trail.

Icicles along the trail.

I came to an old landslide. The Anakeesta rock and the whole aspect reminded me of slides on the Boulevard and Alum Cave trails on LeConte.

Landslide on Gulf Prong headwaters.

Landslide on Gulf Prong headwaters.

I soon came to Bradley’s View, which I’d been looking forward to. I spent a long time here, checking the features I saw against my map, using my compass to match things up. The hard part was that the map had no names that I could refer to for any of the ridges. So I gave them my own names.

Looking straight down from Bradley's View.

Looking straight down from Bradley’s View.

Gulf Prong makes a great sweeping curve around a ridge, the top of which is rocky and impossible to see from most places. I called it Hidden Ridge. The reverse-question-mark shape of the stream reminds me of Raven Fork as it swoops around Breakneck Ridge. And certain patterns repeat in the ridges as well as the streams.

Look at the narrow rocky spine that goes across, a wide ridge close and just behind it, Hughes Ridge in the background.

Hidden Ridge: look at the narrow rocky spine that goes across, another ridge close behind it, Hughes Ridge in the background.

Location of Hidden Ridge.

Location of Hidden Ridge.

The Castle is the blocky heath-covered point across from Hidden Ridge.

The Castle is what I call the blocky heath-covered point that rises from Gulf Prong near the Frowning Rock junction.

To the west, Fortress Ridge divides Chasm Prong and Frowning Rock Prong.

Fortress Ridge is the long bumpy ridge below Richland Mountain.

Fortress Ridge is the long bumpy divide between Chasm and Frowning Rock, shown here below Richland Mountain.

Blindside Ridge, Fishtail Ridge behind it.

Blindside Ridge, Fishtail Ridge behind it.

I called the second ridge over to the west Fishtail because of the way it terminates in two points. My view of it from this angle was partially obstructed, but the ridge beyond that—Frowning Rock Ridge—could not be seen at all. On the map at the top of this post, you’ll see its very strange-looking contours, coming to a pronounced spine with impressively vertical sides. As it turned out, I could not get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge from any point near the trail. It would have to be seen from Fishtail Ridge or Fortress Ridge.

At last I left Bradley’s View and continued west. Looking back beyond Peck’s, I could see Eagle Rocks, which I hope to visit (via Eagle Rocks Prong) later this year.

Telephoto view of Eagle Rocks.

Telephoto view of Eagle Rocks.

View down from close to Blindside - A.T. junction.

View down from close to Blindside – A.T. junction.

I followed the A.T. where it wends around the north side of Laurel Top. The only other time I’ve been here was on the famous October 2009 backpack up and over Woolly Tops, when we ended up exiting the Eagle Rocks drainage to Laurel Top because of heavy rains.

Junction of Laurel/Woolly ridge with A.T.

Junction of Laurel/Woolly ridge with A.T.

Laurel Top 2009.

Same place, 2009.

Before yesterday, I’d never been on the stretch of A.T. from Laurel Top west to Porters Gap. You might think that’s an odd gap in my trail experience—no side trails join the A.T. at those two points. Yes, those are the odd sorts of things that happen with bushwhackers.

As I came around the west side of Laurel Top to join the main ridge again, I had a view of the upper west flank of Fishtail.

Upper West Fishtail.

Upper West Fishtail.

I explored off the south side of the trail to see if I could get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge, which joins the A.T. very close to this point. I could see the topmost spruce-covered portion but not the interesting portion of bare rock.

Spruce-covered top portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.

Spruce-covered top portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.

I’d hoped to do a downclimb of the ridge just far enough to reach the rocky section, but given the time, I decided this was too much to add on to my trail marathon.

I continued along the A.T., passing False Gap and Porters Gap. Along the way I met two separate thru-hikers (early birds!), trail maintainer Pete Berntsen with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, out with his hand saw (dedicated!), and two other guys backpacking.

Glancing down the familiar top chute of Dry Sluice manway, I turned off on the Dry Sluice trail. I wonder if the Park calls it by that name so that people will stop talking about and using the manway of the same name? But I have to admit the former “Richland Mountain” name was confusing too, as the current trail leaves the old CCC Richland trail to drop into the Bradley valley along Tennessee Branch.

I still had nine miles to go, and I officially entered Death March mode at this point, checking my watch, estimating my arrival time for each junction. When I reached Bradley Fork, I made an effort to admire the stream as I retraced those long four miles along it. And it was beautiful, but I was too glazed over to appreciate it.

I’ve been talking to people over the past weeks about the Bradley Fork headwaters. It’s interesting that despite my picking the brains of various victims and reaching out to old-timer bushwacking types who’ve explored on the North Carolina side, I haven’t come up with a single person so far who’s journeyed up those streams, climbed up those ridges, ventured into that mysterious region. Let me know if you have.

The Bradley headwaters could be reached by going out the A.T. from Newfound and dropping down, or going up and over from False Gap Prong and/or Kalanu Prong in the Greenbrier, but the “righteous” way is to go up Bradley. That probably means camping at the Cabin Flats backcountry site, up at that four-mile point. Maybe with a fishing rod or a deck of cards, that wouldn’t be so bad…

Snow on the A.T.

Snow on the A.T.

The Enloe Creek trail is mine now August 18, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains, trail maintenance.
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The trail has a few minor problems

Last month I attended a session for people interested in becoming an “Adopt-a-Trail” volunteer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have done trail maintenance on and off over the years, and it’s become sort of a habit with me.

When I lived in Knoxville in the 80s, I maintained an A.T. section between Sassafras Gap and Doe Knob, which included the infamous Birch Spring shelter (since removed due to drainage problems and possibly because it was simply hideous). In my more recent residence in New England, I maintained a really great section of the Carter-Moriah trail, going up to Mt. Moriah over beautiful granite ledges with views to the Presidential range. That was a side trail to the A.T.

Now, back in the Smokies, I felt the urge to go out there once more and clean out waterbars, lop branches, and whack stinging nettles. So off I went to learn more at a informational meeting held at a mysterious complex of buildings, not often seen by the general public, not far from the Oconoluftee visitor center. Actually, I have to admit there wasn’t anything that exciting about this building complex, which seemed to be a collecting point for a whole lot of machinery and vehicles and trail equipment.

About 35 people were present. Christine Hoyer, the head of the AAT volunteers for the Park Service, gave us a whirlwind explanation of the scope and objectives of the program, complete with an overview of the Leave-No-Trace program, a description of all park regulations affecting hikers and campers, a description of the various tools and their purposes, and last but not least, a lot of info about safety concerns. Christine was a very entertaining presenter, though she kept claiming that she was really an introvert deep down inside.

She gave us a list of available trails. It looked like an awful lot were up for grabs, including very well-known ones like the Chimney Tops and Alum Cave. (No way would I ever adopt one of those—just too many people to deal with!) I decided right away that I wanted the Enloe Creek trail, because it crosses Raven Fork, and I have a history with Raven Fork.

Christine came up with a complicated, even suspenseful, system of having us draw numbers to be picked out of a hat to help make the process of assigning trails more fair. It was actually so complicated that I won’t try to describe it here. But at any rate, for me there was no problem, because no one else wanted Enloe Creek.

So I went out to visit my trail on August 9 with my friend Gary and his daughter Noura, who is an engineering student at Olin College. It occurs to me that I should have picked Noura’s brain a bit more about engineering aspects of the trail.

Noura and Gary near Raven Fork bridge

Christine had told us that our first visit to the trail should just be a walk-through to survey conditions and determine what areas would need work—and what tools would be needed. We did bring along a pair of loppers and attacked some witch hobble and rhodo between the Hyatt Ridge turnoff and the Raven Fork bridge.

There was a sidehill section before the bridge that had a severe erosion problem.

Not too bad for someone on foot, maybe bad for someone on horseback

We had lunch on the beautiful boulders above the metal bridge, which is in fine shape (unlike the log bridge seen at top). Noura did some good scrambling around in the grotto-like spaces between the boulders.

This giant boulder has its own mini-forest on top

The logs are a good reminder of the terrific floods that roar down Raven Fork sometimes. In one that occurred in 1992, a 12-foot wall of water swept down into the Qualla reservation.

Gary and Noura had to turn around at that point, for this was the end of a weekend trip for them and they needed to drive back to the Raleigh-Durham area. I continued on and found that past the bridge, the trail was terribly overgrown with nettles and blackberries.

I have my work cut out for me

I enjoyed following the beautiful stream of Enloe Creek. I encountered the bridge shown at top. It wasn’t hard to cross halfway by rockhopping and then get onto a truncated bridge section, but it could be tricky in high water.

Past the bridge, there was a large blowdown, but you could duck under it—at least if you weren’t on horseback.

Blowdown past the log bridge

I continued on, enjoying views of Katalska Ridge, a very remote, woolly-looking place. The conditions were similar the rest of the way to the end of the trail at Hughes Ridge. It is a fairly hefty trip to do the whole trail. Because you have to do a piece of the Hyatt Ridge trail at the start, the whole outing amounts to 11 miles and about 3200′ vertical, with all the ups and downs.

The other significant problem I discovered was a big stack of folded tarps and cast-iron cooking pans at campsite #47 that looked like they had been brought in on horseback and just left there. Sorry folks, it may be convenient for you to leave that stuff there for return trips, but the rest of us don’t want to look at your clutter right there at such an otherwise beautiful spot. Unfortunately, it will probably take someone on horseback to get that stuff back out.

I’ll be back in a week or so to start tackling the underbrush with a swingblade.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Adopt-a-Trail program can contact Christine at christine_hoyer@nps.gov .

I saw my first pink turtleheads of the season