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Tomahawk Falls July 15, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Tomahawk Falls

Tomahawk Falls

Those of you who read my post about scouting this hike in early May will see that conditions on the official outing of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club turned out completely different. Rainy instead of dry, jungle instead of open woods, high water in the streams.

James Locke was my co-leader. Nine people joined us on a day when the probability of rain was forecast in the 20-30% range. I looked at the weather radar that morning and saw scattered green blobs of precipitation across the area. I figured we’d have intermittent light showers. We ended up with light showers varied by intermittent drenching rain.

The extraordinary amount of rainfall we’ve had the past few weeks has produced thriving vegetation, a bumper crop of insects, and jumbo-sized mushrooms and fungi.

This was about 18 inches across.

This was about 18 inches across.

Our route took us from Chimneys trailhead up the Road Prong trail to 4450′ elevation, where we dropped down a steep bank to the junction of Road Prong and Tomahawk Prong. We waded a third of a mile up to Tomahawk Falls and, after admiring the falls, returned to the stream junction, where some opted to re-cross Road Prong and return to the cars. Others bushwhacked a short distance to an unnamed stream running close to Tomahawk Prong and followed that valley to the crest of Sugarland Mountain. We then took the Sugarland-Chimneys connector manway down to the Chimneys trail and returned to the trailhead.

We did a little bushwhacking even before we left the Road Prong trail.

Tackling a blowdown on Road Prong trail.

Tackling a blowdown on Road Prong trail.

The wet soil and violent thunderstorms we’ve had lately have resulted in blowdowns all over the Park.

Dropping down to the stream, we waded a short distance up Road Prong to the Tomahawk Prong junction.

Lance and Dave work along the edge of Road Prong.

Lance and David work along the edge of Road Prong.

Looking up Tomahawk Prong.

Looking up Tomahawk Prong.

Not far up Tomahawk Prong, I dropped chest-deep into a pool whose depth I misjudged. I performed this maneuver quietly, with no fuss, muss, or bother, remaining upright. I think the people who saw it happen were asking themselves, “Why did she do that?”

Since my camera is waterproof (I acquired it after drowning two cameras in streams) and I had my extra clothing in a plastic bag inside my pack, no harm was done. After all, none of us expected to stay dry while wading a creek on a rainy day. The only problem was that I no longer had a good way to clear the fog and rain droplets from my camera lens.

We slithered and slid our way up the stream until we reached Tomahawk Falls.

The falls flows into a pretty pool.

The falls flows into a pretty pool.

There is another waterfall just upstream which is just as impressive. (Unfortunately my photo of it has too much fog on the lens.)

When we returned to the stream junction, it was raining fairly hard. Five people opted to return to the cars, while six soldiered on.

We traversed a short stretch of rhodo and reached the neighboring stream valley. I was shocked by how overgrown it was. When James and I scouted it on May 3, we had a pleasant stroll through open woods carpeted with wildflowers. Now it was a waist-deep jungle of nettle and blackberry. I consider myself a reasonably experienced bushwhacker, but I have to admit I was taken aback by the contrast. My only excuse is that the rainfall this year has resulted in abnormal growth of vegetation.

This is what the stream valley looked like in early May.

This is what the stream valley looked like on May 3.

This is what the streambank looked like July 14.

This is what the streambank looked like July 14.

With this kind of jungle to wade through, we opted to stay in the stream most of the time, which worked out okay except for the many blowdowns that had fallen across the stream—I’m pretty sure some of them were recent.

Our crew of hardy souls toughed out the adverse conditions. One of our group, Lance Cooper, suffered a deep gash in his shin, but he persevered. I admired his attitude. The others who did the longer, more difficult hike were Cindy McJunkin, David Krispin, Buddy Sanders, and Rob Davis.

At around 4800′ the valley broadened out and the vegetation thinned somewhat, so we were able to get out of the stream and climb up a steep slope to get to the crest of Sugarland Mountain at 5400′.

Crimson bee balm

Crimson bee balm.

The group members seemed pleasantly surprised to find that yes, there really was a trail at the top of the mountain, just as I had promised. We hiked down the trail until we reached the connector manway.

Sugarland-Chimneys connector manway.

Sugarland-Chimneys connector manway.

The manway isn’t hard to follow, but it was slippery and muddy in yesterday’s conditions. When we got down to the Chimneys trail, rain was gusting over the mountain. The group opted to skip going over to scale the Chimney Tops.

Would you believe that we enjoyed the hike despite the conditions? If you do, you would make a good candidate for joining a band of adventurers for an exploration of the Smokies on a rainy day.

Mountain ash berries.

Mountain ash berries.

Scouting Tomahawk Falls May 4, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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James prepares to climb beside the first waterfall.

James prepares to climb past the first waterfall.

Yesterday James Locke and I scouted a hike we will lead July 14 for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. The hike will have two options. People wanting an easy outing can go to Tomahawk Falls and back out again on the Road Prong and Chimneys trails. Those who want something more challenging will go to the falls, return to Road Prong and traverse to an unnamed stream that runs just north of Tomahawk Prong, follow that up to the Sugarland Mountain trail, take the manway connector to the upper Chimneys trail, visit the Chimneys, and descend the trail.

Since access to the Chimneys trail is currently blocked by reconstruction of the bridge over Walker Camp Prong that was damaged by the January floods, we scouted the hike starting from Indian Gap and climbing back up to the gap at the end.

Speaking of the January floods, this was the first time since then that I’d been past the section of US 441 that washed out. For three months I was unable to reach my favorite parts of the Smokies—the areas around Newfound Gap, Mt. LeConte, and the Greenbrier. However, the experience of driving over the reconstructed section didn’t turn out quite as exciting as I’d hoped. I crossed the short stretch of new pavement in a flash, with hardly a chance to admire the major drainage work above and below the grade.

James and I descended the Road Prong trail amidst swathes of spring beauties.

Carpets of spring beauties.

Carpets of spring beauties.

Bluets along Road Prong.

Bluets along Road Prong.

We dropped down from the trail a little above the Tomahawk Prong junction to make sure we didn’t miss it. A small log jam there made it easy to spot once we were down in the stream.

Looking past the small logjam down Road Prong.

Looking past the small logjam down Road Prong.

Since Tomahawk Prong is a shallow stream hemmed in by rhodo, the way you get up it is to wade. We kept our boots on to travel the half-mile to the falls—it is too far to wear Crocs or similar footgear.

Looking up Tomahawk Prong.

Looking up Tomahawk Prong.

James, an avid fisherman who spends many hours wading streams, was fast and agile going up the watercourse—and he managed to spot a few brookies along the way. I was slower, slipping and sliding on the mossy rocks. After a half hour we reached the waterfall I had seen pictured as Tomahawk Falls. It was wide, but not very high.

The waterfall I'd seen in a photograph.

The waterfall I’d seen in a photograph.

But we’d glimpsed another waterfall just past it, taller and narrower. So we went up to that point.

The second waterfall.

The second waterfall.

It was perhaps 18 or 20 feet high, and seemed more impressive to us than the first, which seemed closer to 12 feet than the 15 I’d read in a description. Fortunately, since the two falls are so close together, we can easily visit both.

We returned down the stream and made a short crossing through the rhodo over to the next stream valley. This was a lovely little stream.

The stream we followed to the Sugarland crest.

The stream we followed to the Sugarland crest.

The only obstruction we encountered was a couple of large hemlock blowdowns. We saw lots of wildflowers.

Umbrella leaf starting to unfurl.

Umbrella leaf starting to unfurl.

Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman’s breeches.

Hobblebush (viburnum) and spring beauties.

Hobblebush (viburnum) and spring beauties.

Vasey's trillium.

Vasey’s trillium.

Trout lily.

Trout lily.

The way grew steep as we approached the ridgetop through worlds of wildflowers. We hit the crest just south of a gap and dropped a short distance to the trail.

The manway that connects with the Chimneys trail is about a mile north of where we reached the Sugarland trail. We hunted a short while and found its upper end. The manway is fairly steep but easy to follow.

Sugarland - Chimneys connector manway.

Sugarland – Chimneys connector manway.

As we descended the manway, I realized I was getting very hungry. I grabbed a few peanut M&Ms when we reached the Chimneys trail. I figured I’d have lunch on top of the Tourist Chimney.

At the base of the Chimney we encountered one other person. With the trailhead closed off, we hadn’t expected to see anyone at all, but he had come down from Indian Gap as well—though not of course by the same route that we took. We stowed our poles near the Park Service warning sign, and I climbed directly up from that point, realizing halfway up this short pitch that it was sketchy. But I found a nifty handhold, wafer thin but solid, and got up onto the main part of the Chimney. I continued climbing, taking a somewhat unorthodox route. As I neared the top, I realized that James had stopped following. I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t making the climb look realistic.

I enjoyed the view from the top for a few minutes. I especially marveled at the very visible slide that comes down from the Alum Cave trail at Peregrine Peak into Trout Branch. James and I climbed that last fall. He went back this year after the January flood and explored the lower section, finding that it had been enlarged and considerably rearranged by the deluge. I look forward to going back and taking another look.

I descended the Chimney and joined James for lunch. It was not until we’d headed down the trail that I realized I hadn’t taken a single picture from the Chimney. Well, just to prove that I have in fact explored both Chimneys quite a bit, here is a photo from an SMHC outing that I led with Chris Sass that climbed up off-trail from the Chimneys picnic area.

Photo from SMHC outing June 2011. We came over from the outer Chimney.

Photo from SMHC outing June 2011. We came over from the outer Chimney.

James and I descended to the Road Prong trail junction. Now we faced the 1500-foot climb to Indian Gap. It’s always tough to do a major climb at the end of a hike. At least we had the beautiful waterfalls of Road Prong to occupy our attention.

Talking Falls.

Talking Falls.

We passed a slope covered with luxuriant moss.

Lots of moss.

Lots of moss.

Approaching the Tomahawk Prong junction from the direction opposite to the way we’d come in the morning, we identified a couple of features that marked the best spot to drop down from the trail on the club outing. Under a lowering cloud deck, we arrived back at Indian Gap. Things will look very different when we come back in July.

Snapped-off spruce trunk---one of the markers for the Tomahawk junction.

Snapped-off spruce trunk—one of the markers for the Tomahawk junction.