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West Prong scouting trip May 21, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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Hydrangea growing out of rock beside West Prong

This was a scouting trip for a hike that Clyde Austin and I will lead next fall for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Terri Cox and Connie Tatgenhorst accompanied us.

We started at the Bote Mountain trailhead, turned to go north on the West Prong trail to backcountry campsite 18, and then followed the traces of an old logging grade along the West Prong. The idea was to hit the very faint cross-trail that connects with the Defeat Ridge manway and follow that a short distance back over to Bote Mountain where it intersects close to the Anthony Creek junction.

This 1949 map shows the cross-trail to Defeat Ridge. The goal was to hit it at the “X” mark. I will explain about the “Y” mark in a bit.

Clyde and Terri had done this hike before, but going the opposite direction, eight years ago (if I am remembering correctly). I myself had never been on the logging grade, and as soon as we started following the West Prong, I realized that the way I’d pictured it was very different from the reality. I had somehow envisioned it as sidehilling along the banks of the valley. If I’d looked at the map more closely ahead of time, I’d have realized just from the contours that a logging grade isn’t going to be up on a hillside when there is plenty of level ground right next to the stream. (By the way, don’t look for the logging grade on the map—it’s not shown.)

An old sidehilling grade tends to be fairly easy to locate, since it’s carved out of the hill. The problems are usually the blowdowns that have fallen over it and the places where it has eroded and “slid down the hillside,” so to speak. But here we were simply following the stream, crossing it and recrossing it depending on steepness and vegetation on one side or the other. It was virtually impossible to tell whether we were on the grade, but it didn’t matter that much—we just had to go up the stream.

Typical section of West Prong

We waded through dog hobble much of the time

We saw more Indian pipes than I’ve seen anywhere else

The going was not all that difficult, but it was somewhat slow because of the need to cross and recross the stream many times. We’d stop and confer, then either rockhop over to the other side or just wade. We all resigned ourselves to getting wet feet.

Where we ran into patches of rhodo near the stream, we were generally able to bypass it. We passed through many beautiful open glades with large tulip poplars and buckeyes. In many places, the ground was carpeted with partridge berry in bloom.

I loved the carpets of partridgeberry with its small white flowers

Clyde said he thought we would not see the cross-trail until 3800′, as it hits the stream further south than where it connects with Bote Mountain. The challenge, clearly, was not to walk across it without seeing it, especially since missing the trail would mean climbing up a steep slope that was full of rhododendron.

However—that’s exactly what ended up happening. We stayed with the stream, kept going, going, going, and did not see the cross-trail. We’d started hiking at 9:00, and it was now after 5:00. Connie had plans to meet people for dinner that evening, and I wanted to get home and get some sleep before going on a tough off-trail hike the next day. We had to bite the bullet and climb the rhodo-choked slope.

It had seemed like there might be a slight passage through the rhodo a little ways back down the stream, so back down we went, started up the passage, and found that (typically enough) it dead-ended after 20 yards or so. We spent the next hour and a half or so climbing about 600 vertical feet, crawling through the brush, and going maybe a quarter of a mile.

When we lead the hike for the club, we will probably reverse the direction, since the cross-trail is easier to find where it joins Bote Mountain.

Naturally, we hit the ridge at a wide place where the trail ran on the far side of it (marked with the “Y” on the map), but we finally emerged at 7:00. I left the others to try to make the six miles back to my car as fast as I could. At first I jogged, but I couldn’t keep up that pace with my heavy waterlogged boots. It took me two hours to get down, just as the fireflies were starting to come out. I got home a little after 11:00.

Then it was time to get ready for the next day’s hike.

Note added later: Clyde has sent the others of the outing a GPS track of our route, lamenting that he didn’t recommend that we start looking for the cross-trail earlier. In my opinion, these mistakes are so easy to make, and I have made many of them myself. Scouting trips are notorious for the mistakes made in route finding! I’m sure that it will work out fine for the club trip, and in any case, as co-leader, I am just as responsible for locating the correct route.

Clyde walks through an open glade