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Bushwhack to Lonesome Pine January 6, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Chris climbs up the ridge.

Chris climbs up the ridge.

This was an oddball route that I thought up on one of my exercise hikes up the Noland Divide trail to the Lonesome Pine viewpoint on Beauregard Ridge. It would be a fun short bushwhack to climb up the steep rocky slope to Lonesome Pine from the bottom, I thought.

We started at the old Bryson City reservoir and didn’t cross the boundary into the national park until well into our climb. We went up Long Branch and returned via the ridge on the west side of the valley.

Our route went up the stream and down the ridge.

Our route went up the stream and down the ridge.

At first we drove past the gate to the reservoir without realizing it, but some helpful people told us where to look. The locked gate with high chain-link fence didn’t look very inviting, but we spotted a hole in the fence that looked like it saw a lot of traffic.

The scenic starting point of our hike.

The reservoir looked weedy and neglected.

The old reservoir.

The old reservoir.

We walked along an abandoned access road to the junction of Long Branch and Lands Creek, then started working our way up the creek. Rhodo and blowdowns occasionally slowed us down, but most of the time we were able to stay on an old path that crossed and re-crossed the creek. We got past the rhodo zone and into a very pleasant valley of open hardwoods that we easily strolled through. We encountered an area of rock piles that indicated past human habitation, where the rocks had been cleared from the fields.

Signs of human settlement.

Signs of human settlement.

We did not find any standing chimney or old artifacts. A friend who grew up in Bryson City says he believes there was one house at the mouth of Long Branch, one further up, and one or possibly more in the area shown above.

The valley got steeper, and in places we scrambled up over loose rock.

Scrambling up the ridge.

Scrambling up the ridge.

I had hoped to hit the area of open rock just below Lonesome Pine, but I had misjudged the overlook’s location on my map (it is not marked), and we ended up coming slightly to the east of it.

Near the top.

Near the top.

The valleys were filled with haze that looked like part fog, part wood smoke.

Hazy valleys.

Hazy valleys.

After enjoying our lunch, we worked through thick laurel and greenbrier to start down the ridge on the valley’s west side.

The ridge unfolded below us.

The ridge unfolded below us.

I expected that once we got off the windblown hump of Lonesome Pine, the going would get easier. It never really did. Short stretches of open woods were punctuated by tangles of briers and blowdowns. It was a reminder of how deceptive appearances can be in off-trail hiking. When we’d looked up at the ridgecrest from the valley on our way up, it seemed to be nothing but large widely spaced hardwoods.

Chris in one of the open stretches.

Chris in one of the open stretches.

View across the Lands Creek valley.

View across the Lands Creek valley.

My Bryson City friend told me that someone had built a road maybe thirty years ago on the ridgetop you see in the photo above, right along the park boundary. It washed out in a heavy rainstorm and caused some houses downstream of the reservoir to be flooded. If it isn’t illegal for road construction to take place in a location on the skyline adjacent to a park boundary, it should be, in my opinion.

The greenbriers never really gave up. I walked into one and got a gory-looking bloody lip that fortunately stopped bleeding before long.

The briers were lurking everywhere.

The briers were lurking everywhere.

Toward the bottom of the ridge, we ran into a lot of doghobble and rhodo.

Near the stream junction.

Near the stream junction.

All in all, it amounted to more brush and less open rock than I’d anticipated, but then again, how many people can say they’ve done this hike? That’s got to count for something!

Nifty orange fungus.

Nifty orange fungus.

A sweaty day on Mt. Winnesoka May 23, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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The north ridge to Lookout Rock was loaded with laurel

This turned out to be a very difficult hike. It’s hard to say how much of that was due to the terrain and how much was due to problems of dehydration. The sweat dripping into our eyes supported the dehydration theory while making it hard to even see how difficult the terrain was—which might have been just as well.

I had intended this to be a pleasant off-trail experience for Amanda and Adam, who are just getting into bushwhacking. I hope they won’t be discouraged from giving off-trail another try. The trip was a variation of one I’ve done before, when I ventured up Long Branch to Long Branch Gap and then headed over to Lookout Rock before following game trails down Potato Ridge past Turkey Rock. This time we would start on the Grapeyard Ridge trail and follow the steep, narrow ridge on the north side of Winnesoka that hits Lookout Rock from the other side. The narrowness of the ridge in its upper section made it look intriguing to me.

I’d seen on one of the forums that people have gone up or down one or another of the three main north ridges. It seemed steep but doable. This morning I went back and looked at that forum discussion again. While the middle ridge has been done, people sounded more enthusiastic about the west one that hits Round Top and the east one that hits Turkey Rock. I think I know why now.

Our day started with a three-mile walk along the Grapeyard Ridge trail. It was already warm and muggy as we headed up toward  Injun Creek and the old steam engine that lies in the stream, where it tumbled over the edge in an accident in the 1920s. As we approached Injun Creek, Adam spotted something else interesting—what he described as a “gray ghost” of a giant stump that was still standing upright just off the trail. He thought it looked like a chestnut, and I think he was probably right.

We think this was an old chestnut stump

Around the corner, we came to the old Nichols-Shephard No. 4246 engine lying on its side in the creek.

The engineer jumped clear in time to avoid injury

There was a wheel lying nearby that made a lovely planter for some ferns.

I could picture this as a garden ornament

The bottom of our intended ridge (which is actually Grapeyard Ridge proper) could be approached from a number of directions. We simply walked along until we found a slope of open woods (mainly, unfortunately, dead hemlocks) and started clambering up. We followed some old fence posts for quite a ways.

We found old fence posts under the trees

We started seeing beautiful laurel in great abundance.

I love the shapes of laurel blossoms, so unusual in their pentagonal formation

The vibrant colors of flame azalea mixed in.

A touch of burning color amid the greenery

Some of the laurel was quite pink in color.

Pink laurel, blue sky

It was around this time, at about 3300 feet, that we began to realize that we were in trouble as far as water supply was concerned. The hot afternoon sun beamed down, the open woods had given way to dense brush, and the steepest part of the ridge towered above us. Our progress became slower and slower. Adam and Amanda had already nearly depleted their supply, and while I had most of a second quart remaining, that didn’t matter, because I hadn’t been drinking enough all day, and I probably would have needed to drink that whole quart pretty soon and then start working on a third quart. My problem: I was dehydrated already when I started the hike, due to drinking caffeinated beverages and no water on the way over.

My legs started cramping up continuously, and Adam said he was having muscle cramps as well. I felt weak and lightheaded. We adopted a routine of stopping to rest, pushing forward another couple hundred vertical feet, stopping again. As the ridge grew steeper, we encountered sandstone bluffs. They were not dangerous, but they were encircled with rhodo limbs that made the climbing quite effortful. In between we found sections of heath through which we had to crawl on hands and knees. After a while I started to experience arm cramps as well as leg cramps—even hand cramps. I rationed myself out water bit by bit.

It was at this point that the expedition turned into a “death thrash.” That’s what I’ll call this off-trail that became an ordeal (comparable to a “death march” of a trail hike). We finally dragged ourselves up to the top. I found Lookout Rock and took in the restricted views. Adam and Amanda did not even want to work through the brush to get there—I don’t blame them.

This zoom shows the heath on Brushy Mountain from Lookout Rock

Our urgent need was to find water as soon as possible. We angled southeast to try to hit a tributary of Long Branch as high up as we could. The brush wasn’t quite as bad as sections of the ridge where we’d had to crawl, but it was slow, and we were tired. At last we found a seep of water in a draw, and then—flowing water! Hurray!

We still had a lot of work ahead of us. A nice flat stretch next to Long Branch that was knee-deep in black cohosh (cimicifuga) gave way to a tortuous rhodo hell as I mistakenly led us into its maw in search of an old footpath. We had to retreat into the creek bed, slipping and sliding down a steep slope to get there. At last we reached the open stream bank of the lower section, as a thunderstorm rumbled over our heads. On and on we went, amidst raindrops and flashes of lightning, until at last we reached the Brushy Mountain trail.

Quite an experience.

Occasional catawba rhododendron in bloom helped brighten the way. (I mistakenly told Amanda and Adam it was rosebay.)

A week in the Smokies June 21, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Laurel at 5500 feet

Laurel at 5500 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Back in the land of towering green ridges and plunging stream valleys… six days of being in the Smokies.

The elk in Cataloochee

I visited Cataloochee to meet up with Ray Payne of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and see the herd of elk that have been introduced there.  Ray volunteers with the Park Service as a member of the “Elk Bugle Corps” to give information to park visitors and sometimes keep them from getting up too close to the elk.  The best time to view the elk is dusk, but I got there early and did a stroll on the Caldwell Fork Trail, where I saw a lot of laurel along the stream and noticed a good-sized hemlock. The base of it looked fine, but the top is about two-thirds dead, affected by the adelgid like most of the hemlock in the area.

Base of dying hemlock

Base of dying hemlock

But although I saw a lot of dead hemlock, it didn’t alter the whole appearance of the area as drastically as I had feared.

I connected with Ray at about 4:00.  He drives all the way from Knoxville every couple of weeks, going over the infamous Cove Creek dirt road (which has some good dropoffs without guardrails) to get to Cataloochee.  I’m not sure which is worse, Cove Creek or driving through the Pigeon River Gorge on I-40.  We had a great time catching up on things.  He is the conservation chair for SMHC and continues to do a tremendous amount of work on the North Shore Road problem over on Fontana Lake.

It was raining pretty hard when we first drove up past the ranger station, but we saw three bull elk with impressively large antlers and a separate herd of does.  We saw them in different combinations as we chatted over the next few hours.

The herd of does

The herd of does

Rainbow Falls/Bullhead loop

The next day I did a climb up to the top of LeConte up the Rainbow Falls trail and down the Bullhead trail.  The dimensions of the hike are relatively hefty (about 14 miles and 4000 vertical feet), but the going is very easy, at least compared with the 9-mile, 4000-foot vertical hike I did on Mt. Washington the previous weekend.  I picked this hike because I liked the idea of going through all the plant/climate zones on LeConte.  I got into fog at about 3500 feet and stayed in it most of the hike, but that didn’t matter at all.  At Rainbow Falls, there was a catawba rhododendron in bloom right at the top of the falls.

Rainbow Falls and rhodo

Rainbow Falls and rhodo

I had the falls to myself at about 10:00 on a Friday morning, except for some company that seemed interested in sharing my food:

Friendly squirrel at Rainbow Falls

Friendly squirrel at Rainbow Falls

At one spot above the falls, the trail was carpeted with rhodo blossoms.

Rhodo blossoms on trail

The myrtle was just starting to bloom along the Rocky Spur side trail.

Myrtle coming out on LeConte

Myrtle coming out on LeConte

I was pleased to see that the Fraser firs are looking better on the top of LeConte.  Most of them died 20 or so years ago, and areas above 6000 feet used to have a skeletal, devastated look, but now there are a lot of new firs in the 10-15 foot range.  People are waiting to see if this new crop will survive.

I ran into a number of people between Rainbow Falls and the top, and the Lodge seemed busy.  But as soon as I got down on the Bullhead Trail, I saw not a single person until I was all the way back at Cherokee Orchard.  Sidehilling below Balsam Point, the slope (as opposed to the trail) was very steep, and I couldn’t believe that 20 years ago I rockhopped up the headwaters of Big Branch from the Newfound Gap road with an SMHC group.  But those places always seem impossible looking down from the trail.

Winnesoka from Long Branch Gap

The next day I attended the concert at Cades Cove described in the post below.  One of my poems that was set to music and performed by the Knoxville Symphony was about a solo trip I did up Brushy Mountain from Long Branch Gap. For the following day (Sunday the 14th)  I had invited some people to join me for another off-trail hike in the area, but it turned out no one could make it.  I decided to go up anyway on my own, back up to Long Branch, but I would head to the other side of the gap, Mt. Winnesoka.  It’s an easier hike, since it doesn’t involve crawling through the heath on Brushy.

I left the Brushy Mt. Trail where it comes close to Long Branch and walked through easy open woods for a while on the left bank of the stream.  I saw this enormous basswood:

Near Long Branch

There was a lot of squaw root:

Squaw root near Long Branch

After the valley closed in I started rockhopping up the stream.  There were plenty of stinging nettles.

Nettles on Long Branch

I left the stream and headed up to the gap through woods that was moderately thick.  That area has lots of dog hobble (leucothoe):

Dog hobble and rhodo

Dog hobble and rhodo

Once I got up to the ridgecrest, I found the ground carpeted with wintergreen (gaultheria) and galax:

Galax, wintergreen near Long Branch Gap

I headed up the slope, tangling with some greenbriers that were lurking in the laurel, and reached the high point of Winnesoka, Lookout Rock, at 4445′.  As you might guess, you have to clamber up the rock to get much of a view.  The post below about the Cades Cove concert has a photo of the view toward Brushy and LeConte.  This photo is a zoom of the same picture to give a better idea of the heath on Brushy, but really there’s no way of understanding what it’s like until you crawl through it:

Heath on Brushy Mountain

I opted not to bushwhack over to the northwest prominence of Winnesoka (Round Top, 4308′) but instead to navigate over to Turkey Rock (4000′), a much easier trip.  I was able to stay on intermittent game paths near the steep north slope of the ridge.  At about the right elevation I found an unimpressive rock, but a bit further on was another rock that I believe is Turkey Rock:

Turkey Rock

Still not terribly impressive.  After touching this point, I continued along the ridge and then dropped back into Long Branch for the trip out.

Roundtop Trail

This trail is hardly used, for two reasons: it has a ford of the Little River at its western end and very restricted parking on Wears Cove Gap road at its eastern end.  Going up to the trail’s high point at Joint Rock made a nice easy hike the day after I did Winnesoka, 5 miles roundtrip and 800 vertical feet.  The first (easternmost) part of the forest had experienced a burn.

Burn on Roundtop Trail

By chance I ran into the trail maintainer, a very nice guy from Chattanooga who is also a 2000-miler on the A.T.  He said the burn had started out as a “controlled burn,” but had gotten a little bit out of control in some spots.  But life was coming back, including this peculiar lichen:

Interesting lichen

Even in the burned over area, there were quite a few wildflowers, especially pippsissewa.  The burn ends past a private house where the trail touches the park boundary.  I saw spiderwort and coreopsis, some lady slippers that had gone by, and some flame azalea near Joint Ridge:

Flame azalea

This trail was also good for mushrooms.

100_0878

These made me think of a parent and child, though they probably actually sprouted at the same time.

The next day I met up with an old friend from Knoxville for a stroll on Lumber Ridge, a place that seemed noteworthy that day mainly for bugs and mugginess.  But it was good to catch up before I headed home.

What I always remind myself is that these places are waiting, these streams and these waterfalls are still flowing, at this very moment even though I am now far away.