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Styx Branch and Spruce Flats Branch back-to-back February 26, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Tributary of Styx Branch

Spruce Flats Falls

This was a study in contrasts. Up Styx Branch on LeConte in fog and sleet one day, up Spruce Flats Branch at Tremont in blustery sunshine the next.

Styx was an aborted mission for me. Yes, it happened again, for the first time since early November—my knee popped out of joint. I was wearing the brace, but I’d gotten lazy about it and hadn’t tightened it as much as it should have been, not liking the constricted feeling it can give me.

Therefore I’m not as discouraged about it as I might be, because I believe that if I use the brace properly, this will not keep happening.

Dave and Seth and I were following a small tributary of Styx that hits the Alum Cave trail at about 5600′, just below where the trail makes a sharp switchback and heads over to the drainage of Trout Branch.  Dave has developed a route that goes to the switchback (which he calls the Devil’s Elbow) and then, after a very short stretch on the trail, departs to climb a slide up to High Top. The tributary might be given the unfortunate name of “Toilet Roll Creek,” because the helicopter that supplies the Lodge miscalculated the drop point and managed to drop two large cases of toilet rolls into the streambed. Other than that minor detail, it is a nice, exhilarating example of high creek climbs in the Huggins Hell area.

After my knee popped out, we decided the smartest thing was to angle to the left to hit the trail at the closest point. We climbed up a steep rubbly slope covered with moss, blackberries, and witch hobble.

Seth above the steepest point

I’ve found that I can actually use blackberry canes to pull myself up in places like this. As long as I don’t give them an abrupt tug, they don’t come out by the roots.

Dave shortly before we intersected the trail

These photos may give the impression of ugly conditions, but as I watched streamers of mist flowing up the valleys, I felt it was actually beautiful. Streams and mist, fog and water in all its forms, are the essence of the Smokies.

At the trail I turned to descend, while Dave and Seth continued on to the High Top slide. I walked down slowly, feeling my knee starting to stiffen. At Inspiration Point the mist briefly turned over to sleet. A family of Floridians was there, marvelling at the “hail.” Three teenage boys in the group wore only t-shirts and weren’t carrying any extra layers.

The next day I was scheduled to co-lead a hike for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club with Michael Vaughn over in the Tremont area. That part of the Smokies is such a haul from Asheville that I’d figured I’d spend the night at a motel in Townsend. However, since I got down from the Styx hike by mid-afternoon, I decided I might as well go back home.

I felt that, as far as my knee was concerned,  one way or another I would meet my commitment with the group. Went home, got to bed early, set the alarm for 4:30, and headed over through the dark, empty Pigeon River Gorge.

It worked out fine. My knee was stiff and I moved awkwardly, but I wasn’t in pain at all. We had 20 people turn out for the outing on this chilly but mostly sunny day. The route was from the Tremont Institute to Spruce Flats Falls, up the well-defined manway along Spruce Flats Branch to Buckhorn Gap, over to Upper Buckhorn Gap, and down the old overgrown Meigs Mountain road.

We opted not to ford Lynn Camp Prong at the end—water levels were somewhat high, and it would have been a foot-numbing experience. So instead we dropped steeply off Wilkinson Ridge along a route kindly marked for us with a cairn by Gretchen, a.k.a. Slowalk, who’d just been there with the “Thursday hikers.” This took us to a point just downstream of the bridge, in other words, to a place where the road was on the “right” side of the stream instead of the “wrong” side.

After reaching the falls, we went up the manway and saw many artifacts from logging operations of the Little River Company.

Old logging cable

We crossed the stream many times.

One of maybe eight or ten crossings

A large grate called forth inconclusive speculation about its purpose.

The mysterious grate

Our group photographed and contemplated the grate.

A good photo op

We made the final steep ascent to Buckhorn Gap amidst slippery oak leaves and opted to have lunch in a more sheltered spot, as the wind was gusting through.  We found a good patch of sunshine out of the wind and stopped there before moving on a short distance to Upper Buckhorn. The slightly confusing thing about the old Meigs Mountain road is that it does not descend down an obvious draw very close to the start point but actually climbs a short slope before making a long sidehilling descent. This had bamboozled me and Michael when we scouted it, but this day we found it with no problem—Michael had gone back to investigate.

I will say that when doing one of these unmaintained routes that sidehills a long time, either your left foot or your right foot takes a continuous beating because of the way the trail or road has started to slide off the mountain! But we were rewarded with some lovely views of scuttling clouds and shifting light and shadow.

I got to know some great people on this outing, and I declare that the day was a success.

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