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Woolly Tops April 10, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Andy Zenick on left with grimy t-shirt, Matt Kelleher with sodden jeans, Charlie Klabune as usual looking at map

Andy Zenick on left with grimy t-shirt, Matt Kelleher with sodden jeans, Charlie Klabunde as usual looking at map

“Thank goodness rhododendron doesn’t have thorns!”

(Quote from someone who went on the Woolly Tops hike)

I just love that name.  Don’t you?  It is the name of the most ridiculous mountain in the Smokies, a mountain that is visited only by people who are weird enough to love off-trail hiking for its own sake, not because of any views or any nice pathways or any other reason.  (Actually, there is one important exception.  People have been strange enough to climb it because it is a 5000-footer.  Sorry, Peter and Brian.)

Jenny with stringy hair on Woolly Tops

Jenny wins stringy hair award on Woolly Tops

I have only climbed it once, in August 1986 with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club.  (Note from Jenny:  I’ve since been back and had a great adventure.) It is an eight-mile hike in which you climb 3400+ vertical feet, and it takes about ten or eleven hours if you go up Little Laurel Branch and come down Eagle Rocks Prong.

It had of course rained heavily the night before our outing, and more drizzle and fog engulfed us as we maneuvered our way up Little Laurel Branch.  It seemed we were climbing into the color green, a living emerald gloom.  The rainwater jumped from the brush onto our clothes.  Somewhere above the dense Smokies Rain Forest lurked a sulky sky that threatened us all day.  We climbed up the magic staircase of the stream, stepping off the boulders, pushing off the armlike roots that twined them.  It was a world of water.woolly-tops-2

Someone thought there might be a more direct route than the one scouted by leaders Charlie Klabunde and Andy Zenick.  Silly idea!  If the distance is shorter, that means the rhodo is thicker.

After our chilly lunch, we dropped down into the Eagle Rocks Prong watershed via a tributary that is labelled as Shirttail Branch on some old maps.  The powerful orb that we call the sun finally managed to penetrate through the gray as we reached Eagle Rocks and started our rockhop down to the Middle Prong.  We were able to identify the large boulder known as Elephant Rock.

Use the zoom, and you can make out the trunk of the elephant

Use the zoom, and you can make out the trunk of the elephant

Below that point, we encountered the section of Eagle Rocks Prong that had been completely scoured by one of the famous raging flash floods that are a regular occurrence in the Greenbrier.  All of the rocks had been scrubbed clean, and Charlie took a brief rest on a log that crossed the stream.


There was a difficult stream crossing down at the end to get over to the Ramsay Cascade trail.  Half of the group managed to get across without falling in.  I won’t say which half I belonged to.

Beware, oh beware, of Woolly Tops, casual hiker!  It is not for you!

Note:  I benefited from photos taken by Al Watson (seen in this post) and the “For the Record” report written by Charlie Klabunde.  These brought back into focus what had become in my memory only a blur of tangled rhodo and flowing streams.