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Smith Branch manway April 17, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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7 comments
There were way too many of these.

There were way too many of these.

Every year the unmaintained trails of the Smokies get harder to follow. Many of them are old CCC trails constructed in the 30s and 40s. For various reasons the Park Service has let them go. The Smith Branch trail connected the big CCC camp at Kephart Prong with the former Richland Mountain trail. The latter no longer exists, except for the upper section above the Grassy Branch junction which the Park Service has redesignated as the so-called Dry Sluice trail.

Just in the past two years, this manway has become harder to follow. I have created a very rough map to show the routes I discuss below.

Smith Branch routes.

Smith Branch routes.

As you all know, I don’t use a GPS, so the routes above are hand-drawn based on my noting of various landmarks with compass and altimeter along the way. I’ve put in a question mark at a particularly dubious area. The map above is the current USGS map, which does not show the Smith Branch manway. The 1949 map below does show what was then a trail, but it is so lacking in detail as to be practically useless.

Not a whole lot of help.

Not a whole lot of help.

Two years ago Cindy McJunkin and I went up the manway to scout a route suggested by Al Watson. The idea was to go up Smith Branch and follow the Richland Mountain crest to another manway at Will Branch, and take that back down to the Luftee. We ended up coming down Shell Bark Branch instead of Will Branch, but that’s another story.

Cindy and I successfully followed the manway to point “V” on the upper map, where there is a sharp switchback to the left hidden by rhodo. We missed the switchback and continued straight up the stream along a faint path with pruning cuts that indicated others had been that way as well. (Route shown in red on upper map.) The path gradually faded out and we realized we’d strayed off the manway, but we just continued upward through open woods and arrived without any trouble exactly where we needed to be, the col between Point 4891 and Point 4768. Then we continued southeast along the Richland crest.

I went back on my own a couple of months after that to see if I could correctly follow the manway. I made exactly the same mistake going up—missed the switchback and continued up the creek. But this time, instead of heading down Richland Mountain, I followed the Smith manway back down from the col so that I could see exactly where it went. It’s easy to find where it hits the ridgetop, and the upper section is hard to lose, though you have blowdowns and rhodo to deal with. I managed to follow the manway all the way down to point “V” and finally saw where the switchback comes in.

So this month I invited Ken Wise to join me to go up the Smith manway and come back down the same way. I didn’t anticipate any serious problems. But… we did have problems!

The Oconaluftee running high.

The Oconaluftee running high.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain the past few days, and the Luftee was running high where we crossed it on the Kephart Prong bridge. We passed a group of hikers going up the trail, and they must have been startled to see us suddenly veer off the trail and head into the woods. We picked up the manway without any trouble near a hog trap and followed it around into the Smith Branch valley.

Here I made a dumb mistake. I knew we had to look out for a switchback before long, but I started looking too soon, and when I saw a herd path heading up to the left I thought it must be people shortcutting to the higher trail section. Wrong! After wandering a bit, we corrected our course and continued past some large new blowdowns until we reached this first switchback.

We continued along with just a few moments of hesitation to point “V”, which I easily recognized this time. The path was clear until we came to a big conglomeration of blowdowns—about the same scale as the one shown in the top photo—and there we lost the manway.

Shouldn’t be that hard, right? These old CCC trails don’t meander around aimlessly. They keep along the same course until they make a switchback, then continue along steadily in the new direction.

But we could not find it. Ken went down, I went up, we went backwards and forwards, and finally I suggested we just follow a nearby ridge up to the Richland crest. Point “W” on the map is where we lost the manway, and point “X” shows the ridge we followed. After a steep push to get onto the ridge, it was fairly easy going except for patches of briers. We followed a bear path and found something really strange—a beer can that had been punctured by bear teeth. Had the bear carried the beer in its jaws from some other point? Had someone brought the beer up there and left it on this obscure side ridge? A mystery.

Rock tripe on boulder along the side ridge.

Rock tripe on boulder along the side ridge.

Finally we reached the magnificent summit of Point 4891. You can see its breathtaking alpine characteristics.

Mighty summit of 4891.

Mighty summit of 4891.

From there it is an easy walk down to the col, provided you go in the correct direction. I was glad I took a compass bearing from the map, because it’s easy to get turned around up there.

It started raining as we had lunch. We layered up and eventually headed down the upper manway. We passed the large blowdown shown at top.

Ken on upper manway.

Ken on upper manway.

The going was easy enough that I could stop and enjoy the wildflowers.

Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman’s breeches.

Mayapple unfurling like an umbrella against the rain.

Mayapple unfurling like an umbrella against the
rain.

Endless variety of leaf shapes.

Endless variety of leaf shapes.

Forest floor becomes carpeted with green.

Forest floor becomes carpeted with green.

We encountered the usual blowdowns but made good progress for a while.

Typical stretch of upper manway.

Typical stretch of upper manway.

Then we got into rhodo, and we lost the manway again. Same deal: Ken went up and I went down, we went back and forth looking for it, and couldn’t find it. For lack of a better alternative, we kept heading in the same direction. We made a detour into a terrible brier thicket. It was about this time that Ken started joking that the sawbriers were making fun of us. Ha, ha!

(He later spoke in an email of “out-stretched welcoming arms of hundreds of over-friendly Smoky Mountain sawbriers.” Yes, that about sums it up.)

Eventually we headed straight down through a patch of open woods. We knew that if worst came to worst, we could just go down to Smith Branch and pick up the manway there. It’s this stretch on the map that has a question mark next to it, because I don’t know exactly the route we took.

After dropping down a few hundred feet, what d’you know, we found the manway again. Followed it onto a ridge, lost it, found it again. Now we were angling southwest and crossed a tributary of Smith.

A big grapevine overhangs the Smith Branch tributary.

A big grapevine overhangs the Smith Branch tributary.

Streamside trillium.

Streamside trillium.

Eventually we came to a trail section just below point “W” and made our way down to point “V.” From here on out the going was pretty straightforward… just a lot of work dealing with the continuous blowdowns and overhanging rhodo. That sort of thing gets kinda old when you’ve been doing it all day.

We reached the CCC camp just as a heavy rain began to fall. An interesting excursion. I swear there’s a Bermuda triangle in there somewhere.

Stone structure from old CCC camp.

Stone structure from old CCC camp.

A spring morning in the Smokies May 8, 2014

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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15 comments
Spring is the morning of the year.

The morning woods invite me in.

The Luftee runs straight toward a green vanishing point.

The Luftee runs straight toward a green vanishing point.

Kephart Prong tumbles toward the Luftee.

Kephart Prong tumbles toward the Luftee.

Geraniums.

Geraniums.

Phlox.

Phlox.

A pinkish phlox and a bluish phlox grow together.

Pinkish phlox and bluish phlox growing together.

Showy orchis.

Showy orchis.

Painted trillium.

Painted trillium. Everything in threes.

An encyclopedia of leaf shapes.

An encyclopedia of leaf shapes.

Flow of water and flow of sunlight.

Flow of water and flow of sunlight.

Toothwort.

Toothwort.

The valley of Grassy Branch lives up to its name.

The valley of Grassy Branch lives up to its name.

Bluets.

Bluets.

Arbutus pushes up from winter into spring.

Arbutus pushes up from winter into spring.

Spring beauties still thriving at 5500'.

Spring beauties still thriving at 5500′.

Witch-hobble.

Witch-hobble.

Morning sun shines on the serviceberry.

Plants, trees, and people all reach up toward the spring sunlight.

Point 5520′ March 27, 2014

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Looking down into the valley of Kephart Prong.

Looking down into the valley of Kephart Prong.

The original idea was to go to Rocky Crag, starting at the Kephart Prong trail. But once I got above the Kephart Prong/Grassy Branch side of the mountain and up to the stateline ridge, I got blasted by cold blustery winds. It was just too darn cold to go sit on the most exposed point in the Smokies.

Point 5520′ made a good consolation prize. It is the high point between Rocky Crag and the A.T. The map below should clarify things. Just don’t let the words “Charlies Bunion” confuse you into thinking we’re at the Tourist Bunion. I’ve discussed this too many times to go into it here.

Ignore the words "Charlies Bunion."

Ignore the words “Charlies Bunion.”

Here is a profile view of the ridge taken on another occasion (from the Tourist Bunion).

The "tooth" on the ridge is Rocky Crag.

The “tooth” on the ridge is Rocky Crag. Point 5520′ is out of sight to the right.

As I expected, the weather today changed dramatically partway through. I was just a bit off on my guess about when the new weather system would move in (the preview for tomorrow’s warm rain) and the old weather system would move out (which gave LeConte a low of zero degrees, night before last). I was probably up top three or four hours too early. I bet it’s comfy up there now, at 6:30 in the evening.

So I started up the boring old Kephart Prong trail. I always smile at the four footlog bridges. The first one is so beautifully made, wide and flat and solid, as if to lure in the unsuspecting hiker. The second one is not so nice, the third one worse, and the fourth one crappy, with a tilted, wobbly handrail. Of course, this morning the fourth one was the one that had the most ice.

But I persevered, and started running into snow on the shadier sections of trail.

Is it really late March?

Is it really late March?

Everything was crispy and crunchy. It was definitely below freezing at this point.

Tender green plants huddle beneath big icicles.

Tender green plants huddle beneath big icicles.

I got up to what the Park Service calls the Dry Sluice Gap trail and achieved the day’s high point of 5700′. The trail then drops 300′ to where it meets the A.T. By the way, total elevation gain for this hike is around 3400′, distance about 12.5 miles.

The wind was roaring out of the north. It was cold, and the A.T. was icy. I walked the short distance to the unmaintained side path and climbed up.

Heading up to 5520'.

Heading up to 5520′.

I stopped below the very top in a sheltered spot and put on my down jacket and my mittens. Brrr!

Then I climbed up the slabs to get views.

Anakeesta slabs.

Anakeesta slabs.

Horseshoe Mountain and its scar.

Horseshoe Mountain and its scar.

Looking down into Lester Prong valley.

Looking down into Lester Prong valley.

Middle Crag in foreground, Jumpoff in background.

Middle Crag in foreground, Jumpoff in background.

The view of the Tourist Bunion was blocked by Middle Crag.

The photo below shows the divide between Shutts Prong and Boulevard Prong, where I had one of my best adventures last year.

Telephoto view. LeConte looms in the background.

Telephoto view. LeConte looms in the background.

I climbed up to the actual high point and got views toward Porters Mountain.

Sawteeth in foreground, Porters Mtn. in background.

Sawteeth in foreground, Porters Mtn. in background.

Looking down valley of Porters Creek.

Looking down valley of Porters Creek.

I peered down the rabbit hole that forms the start of the traverse to Rocky Crag. It was full of snow. It didn’t look very inviting. So I turned back toward the south and descended to the A.T., enjoying the big cushions of myrtle and the wind-sculpted spruces.

By the time I got to the lower elevations, a big thaw was underway. The footlogs had lost their snow and ice, and tons of people were wandering up the trail.

It was an enjoyable day.

Micro-garden with a bonsai balsam, myrtle, and Rhodo minus.

Micro-garden with a bonsai balsam, myrtle, and Rhodo minus.