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Hyatt Gap manway March 26, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Mike Knies on the manway

Those of you familiar with the Smokies may be asking yourselves, “What does she mean by Hyatt Gap? There is no Hyatt Gap!” That is the same question I asked myself when I received an e-mail from Mike Knies suggesting an outing at Hyatt Gap. But I quickly realized that he meant the gap on Hyatt Ridge situated where the Hyatt Ridge trail makes a right-angle turn to the north and the Enloe Creek trail issues forth, making a descent to Raven Fork. Its official name is actually Low Gap, but I like Mike’s name better, since to most people Low Gap refers to another place entirely, on the A.T. near Cosby.

I was already familiar with Hyatt Gap, since I have adopted the Enloe Creek trail for maintenance, and I have to hike the 1.9 miles, 1500 vertical feet to the gap from the Straight Fork road just to get to the start of my trail.

Map section showing unmaintained manway from Hyatt Gap. It crosses the reservation boundary.

Mike provided this map section from the 1951 map. Our quest was to follow the dotted line southward from the gap, cross the boundary of the Cherokee reservation a little to the east of the top corner, and pick up the old railroad grade that angles back to the Straight Fork road. We weren’t sure exactly where the railroad grade came out on the road, but we knew it was at about 2700′, so we left a car a little above that elevation point for shuttling back to the trailhead.

Our group consisted of Mike, David Hughes, Seth O’Shields, and myself. I had arrived in the area a little early, so I detoured up to Oconoluftee for a few minutes and spotted some elk in the big meadow.

Elk near Oconoluftee visitor center

Before we started down the manway, we made the trip down to Raven Fork. Where the Enloe Creek bridge crosses the stream is one of the most magical places in the Smokies, in my opinion. This time I became fixated on a particular deep, beautiful pool just below the bridge. Its translucent green-blue water seemed to contain myriad shapes that kept shifting, as if they represented some sort of prophecy—or perhaps some retelling of events of the deep past. The next three pictures show in succession the upper part of the pool, the middle, and the lower. Click twice for zoom if you want to clearly see those shifting shapes.

Water tumbles over a small fall into the pool

The water is instantly transformed from foaming white and blue to green

The pool endlessly empties into the lower stream

After clambering around for a bit on the big boulder above the bridge that has the three hemlocks growing out of it, we tackled the climb back up to the gap. The start of the manway is quite obvious there once you look for it, though I have to admit I had never really noticed it before. But that is what’s really wonderful about these unmaintained trails.

We never had much trouble seeing where the manway went. At the beginning it was quite wide and comfortable for walking. We saw lots of ramps (for those of you not familiar with this local delicacy, ramps are a pungent kind of wild onion).

Yumm! Ramps!

We saw a lot of wildflower foliage, but not much that was actually blooming except for spring beauties.

Tender green leaves were sprouting up everywhere

We did see some Dutchman’s breeches at a spot near where a little stream trickled down the slope.

Dutchman's breeches

It was somewhere around this spot, a mile or so into an estimated three miles of manway, that the treadway narrowed and the slope steepened—clearly, the steeper the slope, the more rapidly the pathway erodes and “slides” down the mountain. The footing became awkward and somewhat uncomfortable, with the left foot (on the outside) taking the brunt of the weight. Seth developed a blister and David’s left bootlace snapped in two.

We passed a tree with a corkscrew vine.

Corkscrew tree

We persevered and eventually crossed the boundary into the reservation. Just past the boundary, we encountered a confusing network of paths and old roadways that weren’t shown on any of our maps—even though Mike had brought along three or four different maps, seemingly representing all decades of the mid- to late-twentieth century. Some of these paths were probably ATV trails. Our manway widened out into a roadbed and started to climb fairly steeply. This didn’t seem right to us at the time, although Mike now theorizes that this was actually the correct route. We opted to angle downslope (east) along another faint roadbed and see if we could pick up the railroad grade.

When we became mired in thickets of unusually thorny blackberries punctuated by swarms of aggressive gnats, we decided to break away and head straight down off-trail and intersect the railroad grade. We went down right along the boundary and found the grade before long. From there it was not too far to the Straight Fork road, which we reached a little below the stashed car, as planned.

Our ankles and heels complained somewhat from the extensive sidehilling, but it was an interesting and enjoyable outing nevertheless. The weather had been turning all day, and it started drizzling just as we completed our adventure.