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Scouting Lower Richland June 13, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Cindy on the Secret Footbridge.

Yesterday Cindy McJunkin and I scouted a hike we will lead September 21 for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. It connects three unmaintained manways to make an interesting journey in the Richland Mountain area.

The hike starts at the Kephart Prong trailhead but soon leaves the trail in the vicinity of the old CCC camp to climb the Smith Branch manway to the crest of Richland. It then goes south along the ridgeline until the Smokemont Loop trail hits the ridge. Just a few feet away from that point, the hike turns west to descend via the Will Branch manway. Near the bottom of Will Branch, we visit an old cemetery and cross the Oconoluftee on an obscure footbridge that has no maintained trail access. We end at a shuttled car parked on a grassy shoulder not far from the Collins Creek picnic area.

The blue line shows the route.

The blue line on the 1949 map shows the route.

It was my old friend Al Watson who cooked up the idea for this hike and suggested it to the SMHC Program Committee. Al has been on these manways—he’s been on just about every manway in the Park—and he kindly offered to show me where the Smith and Will manways begin. It was a good thing he did, because the start points of these routes are not obvious.

Evelyn and Al Watson.

Evelyn and Al Watson.

I met with Al and Evelyn last month. We drove to the hard-to-find spot where the path to the footbridge starts, crossed the bridge, walked to the lower end of Will Branch and visited the cemetery. Then we drove up to Kephart Prong and located the Smith Branch start point. You head off into the woods just past this old artifact of the CCC camp.

A marker for the start of Smith Branch manway.

A marker for the start of Smith Branch manway.

Cindy and I deposited my car at the footbridge path and drove in her car to Kephart. Soon we turned into the woods and looked for the manway. It is not visible near the trail; you have to go on faith for a bit before the old grade shows up. We found it near a hog trap and started following it as the trail switchbacks up the mountain on a classic gentle CCC grade.

Azaleas along Smith manway.

Azaleas along Smith manway.

Although we encountered many minor obstructions such as blowdowns and brush, we had no trouble following it up to around 4000′. There we lost it but found a faint path with branches along it that showed old pruning cuts. Eventually that faded out and we proceeded up the stream itself, which has shallow water flowing over a flat bottom covered with small stones—rather unusual, but it made for easy walking. We reached the point where the stream issued forth from a large spring and refilled our water bottles there, for it was a warm muggy day and the Richland crest would be dry.

We climbed through steep open woods and hit the gap between Points 4891 and 4768, exactly where we wanted to be.

I’d worried that the Richland crest might be overgrown with dense laurel and rhodo, but we were pleasantly surprised to find it relatively open. The major problem was greenbrier. Most of the time we followed a faint path. It is impossible to tell whether this is actually the remains of the old trail or just the tracks left by people and/or bears in more recent years.

Looking along Richland crest.

Looking along Richland crest.

Azalea buds along Richland crest.

Azalea buds on Richland crest.

It was nice to do this hike when the laurel was in bloom.

It was nice to do this hike when the laurel was in bloom.

We came to the only halfway decent viewpoint we encountered along the ridge and stopped there for lunch.

Looking over toward Thomas Divide.

Looking over toward Thomas Divide.

As we went along, I said to Cindy, “The ridge forks, and we’ll have to be careful to bear left at that point.” In fact, the ridge forks twice, and in both spots one bears to the southeast rather than the southwest. Well, guess what happened? At the second fork, below Point 3975, we went the wrong way.

I checked my compass and saw that we were going southwest. I’d been so  certain we were continuing along the leftmost (east) side of the ridge that I  hadn’t checked it soon enough. By that time, we had already descended far enough along the wrong ridge that we were reluctant to climb back up and hunt around for the other fork. We looked at the map and saw that we could drop into Shell Bark Branch and arrive at the river not far above the footbridge and the cemetery, which are located about halfway between Shell Bark and Will.

We descended through open woods and found an old road running next to the stream. There were pretty cascades along the stream, and the way seemed so pleasant that I said, “This route might be better than Will Branch.” It all worked out great—until we got close to the river.

Indian pipes along Shell Bark Branch.

Indian pipes along Shell Bark Branch.

We crossed an old road that I thought might be the Will Thomas Turnpike, which parallels the Oconoluftee, but at that point we were still a good distance above the river. Not being sure where the road went, we decided it would be safest to keep going down to the river. I’m now pretty sure the road was in fact the old turnpike, located above the section of small ravines and dense brush that we soon found ourselves struggling through. I believe the turnpike angles down along a broad ridge before re-approaching the river near the footbridge location.

That last bit was tough going. We eventually arrived at the river and worked right along the edge of it, with the rain-swollen waters foaming next to our feet, because the vegetation was so dense. Things gradually eased up, and I spotted a welcome sight—the footbridge.

We walked the short distance to the old cemetery, which is the reason the footbridge exists. When I visited the site with Al and Evelyn last month, it was near Mother’s Day and someone had placed a new flower on the joined graves of Reverend Conner and his wife.

The cemetery does have visitors.

The cemetery does have visitors.

The Conners' headstone.

The Conners’ headstone.

I plan to go back and hike up Will Branch and the bottom section of Richland to Point 3975, then retrace my steps past the tricky fork that fooled us on this trip. But despite the error, it was a fine outing.

Child's grave. The third grave in the small cemetery.

Child’s grave. The third grave in the small cemetery.