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Maddron Bald via Buckeye Lead March 21, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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I crossed the dividing line between the laurel slick and the forest

I’d been wanting to get to the Smokies for some off-trail hiking for ages.  Finally came a day when the sky was blue, the temperature was warm, and I didn’t have some other silly, tedious, nonhiking activity that I was supposed to do, like meeting an editing deadline, replacing a computer monitor that died, or unpacking from my move to Asheville.

Years ago with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club I’d led a hike up Greenbrier Creek to Maddron Bald.  I decided to return to the same area and go up Buckeye Lead, the ridge next to the west branch of the creek.  I thought maybe I’d see some large buckeyes.  The fact that the name of the ridge actually shows up on the National Geographic Smokies map seemed somehow to indicate that the gods were smiling on this choice of route.

I did not in fact see any large buckeyes, though on my way to the ridge via the Gabes Mountain trail I encountered large trees, some of them dead hemlocks.

This one was 100% dead and the one next to it 50% dead

The tulip poplar is such an impressive tree that even when it is cut up into segments, it is still impressive.

The cross sections were almost perfectly round

I reached campsite 34 and there abandoned the comfort of the trail for the uncertainties of the ridge. For the first quarter mile I walked through mostly open woods.

It started out fairly easy

But very soon I hit a dense, green, shiny wall of laurel.  At times I could make out a faint bear trail, so I attempted to shrink down to the height of a bear as I crawled through laurel that had the occasional greenbrier woven between the branches.

Bears could get through this with no problem

After a couple of hours of this, I came to a spot where I could see over to the next ridge.  I could make out a big patch of heath bald on it, and that was obviously exactly the same as what I was going through.

You can see the patch of heath to the right of the dead tree

At last I reached the upper boundary of the laurel, which you can see in the top picture.  At about the same time, I encountered snow.  I had actually expected more of it and that it would start lower down.  The depth was about five or six inches on the steep upper slope, making the going a bit slippery (a ski area would have called it “loose granular”), but I had lots of rhododendron to pull myself up with.  Finally I emerged on the Maddron Bald trail at the hairpin turn at 4900 feet, exactly where I’d planned to hit it.

The spot where I climbed out onto the trail

From there it was a short stroll up to the Bald, which is not very bald these days.  But I could see that the higher ridges had a fair amount of snow on them.

Restricted view from Maddron Bald

After having some lunch, I made my way back via the trail.  Altogether, it took me 4.5 hours to go 10.5 miles on trail and 3.0 hours to go 1.0 mile off trail.

A micro-garden of myrtle, laurel, and spruce on Maddron Bald

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.