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Smith Branch manway April 17, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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There were way too many of these.

There were way too many of these.

Every year the unmaintained trails of the Smokies get harder to follow. Many of them are old CCC trails constructed in the 30s and 40s. For various reasons the Park Service has let them go. The Smith Branch trail connected the big CCC camp at Kephart Prong with the former Richland Mountain trail. The latter no longer exists, except for the upper section above the Grassy Branch junction which the Park Service has redesignated as the so-called Dry Sluice trail.

Just in the past two years, this manway has become harder to follow. I have created a very rough map to show the routes I discuss below.

Smith Branch routes.

Smith Branch routes.

As you all know, I don’t use a GPS, so the routes above are hand-drawn based on my noting of various landmarks with compass and altimeter along the way. I’ve put in a question mark at a particularly dubious area. The map above is the current USGS map, which does not show the Smith Branch manway. The 1949 map below does show what was then a trail, but it is so lacking in detail as to be practically useless.

Not a whole lot of help.

Not a whole lot of help.

Two years ago Cindy McJunkin and I went up the manway to scout a route suggested by Al Watson. The idea was to go up Smith Branch and follow the Richland Mountain crest to another manway at Will Branch, and take that back down to the Luftee. We ended up coming down Shell Bark Branch instead of Will Branch, but that’s another story.

Cindy and I successfully followed the manway to point “V” on the upper map, where there is a sharp switchback to the left hidden by rhodo. We missed the switchback and continued straight up the stream along a faint path with pruning cuts that indicated others had been that way as well. (Route shown in red on upper map.) The path gradually faded out and we realized we’d strayed off the manway, but we just continued upward through open woods and arrived without any trouble exactly where we needed to be, the col between Point 4891 and Point 4768. Then we continued southeast along the Richland crest.

I went back on my own a couple of months after that to see if I could correctly follow the manway. I made exactly the same mistake going up—missed the switchback and continued up the creek. But this time, instead of heading down Richland Mountain, I followed the Smith manway back down from the col so that I could see exactly where it went. It’s easy to find where it hits the ridgetop, and the upper section is hard to lose, though you have blowdowns and rhodo to deal with. I managed to follow the manway all the way down to point “V” and finally saw where the switchback comes in.

So this month I invited Ken Wise to join me to go up the Smith manway and come back down the same way. I didn’t anticipate any serious problems. But… we did have problems!

The Oconaluftee running high.

The Oconaluftee running high.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain the past few days, and the Luftee was running high where we crossed it on the Kephart Prong bridge. We passed a group of hikers going up the trail, and they must have been startled to see us suddenly veer off the trail and head into the woods. We picked up the manway without any trouble near a hog trap and followed it around into the Smith Branch valley.

Here I made a dumb mistake. I knew we had to look out for a switchback before long, but I started looking too soon, and when I saw a herd path heading up to the left I thought it must be people shortcutting to the higher trail section. Wrong! After wandering a bit, we corrected our course and continued past some large new blowdowns until we reached this first switchback.

We continued along with just a few moments of hesitation to point “V”, which I easily recognized this time. The path was clear until we came to a big conglomeration of blowdowns—about the same scale as the one shown in the top photo—and there we lost the manway.

Shouldn’t be that hard, right? These old CCC trails don’t meander around aimlessly. They keep along the same course until they make a switchback, then continue along steadily in the new direction.

But we could not find it. Ken went down, I went up, we went backwards and forwards, and finally I suggested we just follow a nearby ridge up to the Richland crest. Point “W” on the map is where we lost the manway, and point “X” shows the ridge we followed. After a steep push to get onto the ridge, it was fairly easy going except for patches of briers. We followed a bear path and found something really strange—a beer can that had been punctured by bear teeth. Had the bear carried the beer in its jaws from some other point? Had someone brought the beer up there and left it on this obscure side ridge? A mystery.

Rock tripe on boulder along the side ridge.

Rock tripe on boulder along the side ridge.

Finally we reached the magnificent summit of Point 4891. You can see its breathtaking alpine characteristics.

Mighty summit of 4891.

Mighty summit of 4891.

From there it is an easy walk down to the col, provided you go in the correct direction. I was glad I took a compass bearing from the map, because it’s easy to get turned around up there.

It started raining as we had lunch. We layered up and eventually headed down the upper manway. We passed the large blowdown shown at top.

Ken on upper manway.

Ken on upper manway.

The going was easy enough that I could stop and enjoy the wildflowers.

Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman’s breeches.

Mayapple unfurling like an umbrella against the rain.

Mayapple unfurling like an umbrella against the
rain.

Endless variety of leaf shapes.

Endless variety of leaf shapes.

Forest floor becomes carpeted with green.

Forest floor becomes carpeted with green.

We encountered the usual blowdowns but made good progress for a while.

Typical stretch of upper manway.

Typical stretch of upper manway.

Then we got into rhodo, and we lost the manway again. Same deal: Ken went up and I went down, we went back and forth looking for it, and couldn’t find it. For lack of a better alternative, we kept heading in the same direction. We made a detour into a terrible brier thicket. It was about this time that Ken started joking that the sawbriers were making fun of us. Ha, ha!

(He later spoke in an email of “out-stretched welcoming arms of hundreds of over-friendly Smoky Mountain sawbriers.” Yes, that about sums it up.)

Eventually we headed straight down through a patch of open woods. We knew that if worst came to worst, we could just go down to Smith Branch and pick up the manway there. It’s this stretch on the map that has a question mark next to it, because I don’t know exactly the route we took.

After dropping down a few hundred feet, what d’you know, we found the manway again. Followed it onto a ridge, lost it, found it again. Now we were angling southwest and crossed a tributary of Smith.

A big grapevine overhangs the Smith Branch tributary.

A big grapevine overhangs the Smith Branch tributary.

Streamside trillium.

Streamside trillium.

Eventually we came to a trail section just below point “W” and made our way down to point “V.” From here on out the going was pretty straightforward… just a lot of work dealing with the continuous blowdowns and overhanging rhodo. That sort of thing gets kinda old when you’ve been doing it all day.

We reached the CCC camp just as a heavy rain began to fall. An interesting excursion. I swear there’s a Bermuda triangle in there somewhere.

Stone structure from old CCC camp.

Stone structure from old CCC camp.

Scouting Lower Richland June 13, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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P1020164

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.