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West Prong in fog and rain October 8, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Our scouted routes on West Prong. Click for zoom. (Map courtesy of Clyde Austin)

This hike on the West Prong of the Little River is a good one for people who enjoy following old manways and logging grades. When we scouted it in May, we took the Bote Mountain and West Prong trails down to backcountry campsite 18, then followed a combination of logging grades and fishermen’s trails south along the stream. We looked for the old unmaintained cross-trail that fords the stream on its way over to Defeat Ridge, but we way overshot our goal and ended up doing a marathon rhodo-crawl up to the Bote Mountain ridge.

The scouted  route shows up on the map as a pinkish red GPS track. The rhodo crawl portion is the segment going west near the southern end of our trip. (The far northern portion of the route is not shown on this map.)

My front leader, Clyde Austin, went back with a couple of other people, doing the top part of the route in the opposite direction. They were easily able to find the point where the cross-trail hits Bote Mountain, exactly opposite where the Anthony Creek trail comes in. That route is shown in yellow. You see that it contours along and hits the stream to the south. It is somewhat difficult to see from the stream.

Clyde and I met at Schoolhouse Gap for the official Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing amidst dense fog and drizzle, uncertain whether we would have any takers for the trip on this bad weather day. But out of the gloom emerged Hiram Rogers, Mike Harrington, and Andy Zimmerman, unfazed by the conditions. We reached the Anthony – Bote junction at 10:00 and proceeded down the cross-trail, making good progress along the clearly discernible dug-out trail with just a few awkward side-hilling spots.

The going got much tougher once we reached the stream. It seemed more difficult than I’d remembered from the May scouting trip. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the wet conditions with visibility so poor that it was hard to read the vegetation in the surrounding terrain: was the small opening that we detected a passageway to open, easy going, or was it merely a brief interruption that would dump us immediately back into the arms of Rhodo Beast? Also, I recall that in May we were able to travel up the stream itself some of the way in the southern part of the route, but this time the water was too high for that. So we proceeded from one rhodo thicket to another, each of us groping for a good passage and calling out to the others.

We moved very slowly. As I recall, it took us about three and a half hours to go two miles. We stopped for a sodden lunch, then pushed on, finding somewhat better conditions in the vicinity of Long Cove Creek.

It was at that point that I suggested bailing out of the stream valley and heading up to the Bote Mountain ridge. I was feeling uncomfortably chilly, and the slow pace did not allow me to warm up. The others generously accepted my plan even though I think some would have preferred to continue along the stream. I would have been willing to go out by myself, but they did not accept that idea.

They did, however, put me at the front of the group as we sought a reasonable route out of the valley. I joked that they only did that so that they could have me to blame if we ended up in another marathon rhodo-crawl. I must say that things did not look very promising as I picked out a slight gap in the vegetation and started climbing through a stand of spindly laurel.

Clyde had been saying that he hates laurel even more than rhodo, but I think laurel varies quite a bit in its difficulty. True, dense scrub laurel on exposed ridgecrests is just about impossible. But this was relatively wimpy laurel, easy to push through.

Along the way we passed some stands of solid blueberry shrubs with brilliant fall foliage, and in another, rather unusual discovery, we encountered a piece of siding that had apparently been flung into the mountains either by the spring 2011 tornadoes or this summer’s intense July 5 storm. Following a narrow ridge that led to Hickory Tree Gap, we climbed over a series of small knobs and—just at the point where we were starting to wonder—we dumped out onto the trail. From there it was an uneventful trip back to the cars, with some very pretty views across to splotches of color along the West Prong valley.

West Prong scouting trip May 21, 2012

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Hydrangea growing out of rock beside West Prong

This was a scouting trip for a hike that Clyde Austin and I will lead next fall for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Terri Cox and Connie Tatgenhorst accompanied us.

We started at the Bote Mountain trailhead, turned to go north on the West Prong trail to backcountry campsite 18, and then followed the traces of an old logging grade along the West Prong. The idea was to hit the very faint cross-trail that connects with the Defeat Ridge manway and follow that a short distance back over to Bote Mountain where it intersects close to the Anthony Creek junction.

This 1949 map shows the cross-trail to Defeat Ridge. The goal was to hit it at the “X” mark. I will explain about the “Y” mark in a bit.

Clyde and Terri had done this hike before, but going the opposite direction, eight years ago (if I am remembering correctly). I myself had never been on the logging grade, and as soon as we started following the West Prong, I realized that the way I’d pictured it was very different from the reality. I had somehow envisioned it as sidehilling along the banks of the valley. If I’d looked at the map more closely ahead of time, I’d have realized just from the contours that a logging grade isn’t going to be up on a hillside when there is plenty of level ground right next to the stream. (By the way, don’t look for the logging grade on the map—it’s not shown.)

An old sidehilling grade tends to be fairly easy to locate, since it’s carved out of the hill. The problems are usually the blowdowns that have fallen over it and the places where it has eroded and “slid down the hillside,” so to speak. But here we were simply following the stream, crossing it and recrossing it depending on steepness and vegetation on one side or the other. It was virtually impossible to tell whether we were on the grade, but it didn’t matter that much—we just had to go up the stream.

Typical section of West Prong

We waded through dog hobble much of the time

We saw more Indian pipes than I’ve seen anywhere else

The going was not all that difficult, but it was somewhat slow because of the need to cross and recross the stream many times. We’d stop and confer, then either rockhop over to the other side or just wade. We all resigned ourselves to getting wet feet.

Where we ran into patches of rhodo near the stream, we were generally able to bypass it. We passed through many beautiful open glades with large tulip poplars and buckeyes. In many places, the ground was carpeted with partridge berry in bloom.

I loved the carpets of partridgeberry with its small white flowers

Clyde said he thought we would not see the cross-trail until 3800′, as it hits the stream further south than where it connects with Bote Mountain. The challenge, clearly, was not to walk across it without seeing it, especially since missing the trail would mean climbing up a steep slope that was full of rhododendron.

However—that’s exactly what ended up happening. We stayed with the stream, kept going, going, going, and did not see the cross-trail. We’d started hiking at 9:00, and it was now after 5:00. Connie had plans to meet people for dinner that evening, and I wanted to get home and get some sleep before going on a tough off-trail hike the next day. We had to bite the bullet and climb the rhodo-choked slope.

It had seemed like there might be a slight passage through the rhodo a little ways back down the stream, so back down we went, started up the passage, and found that (typically enough) it dead-ended after 20 yards or so. We spent the next hour and a half or so climbing about 600 vertical feet, crawling through the brush, and going maybe a quarter of a mile.

When we lead the hike for the club, we will probably reverse the direction, since the cross-trail is easier to find where it joins Bote Mountain.

Naturally, we hit the ridge at a wide place where the trail ran on the far side of it (marked with the “Y” on the map), but we finally emerged at 7:00. I left the others to try to make the six miles back to my car as fast as I could. At first I jogged, but I couldn’t keep up that pace with my heavy waterlogged boots. It took me two hours to get down, just as the fireflies were starting to come out. I got home a little after 11:00.

Then it was time to get ready for the next day’s hike.

Note added later: Clyde has sent the others of the outing a GPS track of our route, lamenting that he didn’t recommend that we start looking for the cross-trail earlier. In my opinion, these mistakes are so easy to make, and I have made many of them myself. Scouting trips are notorious for the mistakes made in route finding! I’m sure that it will work out fine for the club trip, and in any case, as co-leader, I am just as responsible for locating the correct route.

Clyde walks through an open glade

Sharing the fun of the Chimneys February 19, 2012

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Dusty crosses from the North Chimney to the Tourist Chimney

Friends had been saying they wanted to go up the Chimneys off-trail from the picnic ground. So Chris Sass and I gladly volunteered to take them up by the same route we led a Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing last June. Many variations exist, and we could have gone a different way, but this is the best way to go if you want to visit what I’ve come to think of as the Magic Cairn.

The friends joining us were Dave Landreth, Seth O’Shields, and Dusty Allison.

We’d thought of descending via the ridge that leads northwest from the North Chimney, but we decided, looking at the cliffs on it as we climbed up the other side of the valley, that it had best be done going up rather than down. Another possible descent route, down a ridge from Sugarland Mountain, was rejected as being too time-consuming by the time we reached the Sugarland-Chimney connector manway.

The first point of interest encountered on this trip is a manmade dam on the stream.

Dam on tributary of West Prong

Not far above the dam, where the route follows pleasant open woods beside a small stream, we saw our first spring wildflowers of 2012—on February 18!

Wood anemones

The way steepened steadily as we approached the ridgecrest.

Dave nears the ridgetop

Past a small curtain of briers, we crawled through a bearway, hearing the sounds of traffic on the Newfound Gap road nearly directly below us. A short descent through an opening, and voila! The Magic Cairn!

One of the great destinations of the Smokies

I like the way the road disappears into the tunnel immediately below.

View from the cairn

Everyone was taking pictures

Our destination

We climbed along the narrowing ridge, negotiating a few bluffs and traversing around a couple of them.

One of many small scrambles

Eventually we emerged onto the really fun part—the open Anakeesta scramble.

Looking down the ridge. You can see the loop-the-loop on the Newfound Gap road to the right.

We arrived at the top. As we chatted and ate our lunch, we saw a fellow in an orange shirt over on the Tourist Chimney who tried a couple times to go across to where we were, but he gave up the effort after a short distance and retreated.

View over to Tourist Chimney

We crossed and passed through the crowds without stopping, then descended the trail. We stopped at the bridge over the West Prong. (I guess technically it is still Walker Camp Prong at that point, just barely above the junction with Road Prong.)

Greenish pool below the bridge

I noticed a small waterfall emerging from right under the bridge. And so a very pleasant outing concluded.