Friday, August 19, 2016

Smokies 900 Round 2: Mount Cammerer Fire Tower Loop

Smokies 900 Round 2:  Mt Cammerer Loop Hike: Low Gap II/AT/Mt Cammerer/AT/Lower Mt Cammerer – 5/14/1616 – 16.7 miles

Testing, testing… how difficult will the Low Gap Trail be?  Named for the gap between Cosby Knob and Mount Cammerer, this trail feels anything but “low” as it climbs more than 2,000 feet in less than 3 miles.  During my first Smokies 900 experience of hiking all the trails in the GSMNP, there was necessarily some overlap but I planned my routes for minimal repetition of trail miles.  Low Gap’s function as a connector from Cosby Campground to many other trails, though, made it the most repeated trail of the project.  Steady and steep, Low Gap was always a tough start or a rough finish to a day.

The weather was fine early in the morning, promising clear long range views from the Mount Cammerer fire tower up at 5,000 feet.  Cathy and I packed up camp and moved our car to the hiker parking area.  Our route was a loop hike with an out-and-back spur to the lookout tower.  Which way to go around the loop?  We chose to take our punishment up front and then stroll to the finish line, so here we go counterclockwise starting up Low Gap.

An early shock:  In the first ten minutes we faced a missing bridge crossing of Cosby Creek.  Water was churning fast over and around large rocks with no flat, slow-moving place to see the creekbed.  After scouting up and down and finding no good options, I decided to risk it on a slightly underwater log while Cathy removed boots and socks and waded across barefoot. 

Back to the business of ascending to Low Gap.  Cathy motored ahead out of sight, and I was pleased to find that the ascent felt quick and moderate and not terrible, a definitive measure of my increased conditioning.  I passed two other women on the way to the gap and met their jackrabbit friend chatting with Cathy, waiting at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail.

We turned left onto the AT to continue northbound 2.1 miles to the Mount Cammerer spur trail.  The ascent continued, although less steeply.  Up here on the ridge, a blustery wind got our attention with clouds moving in and a noticeable drop in temperature, and we stopped to put on long sleeves and light gloves. Trilliums appeared in profusion along the AT.
Sweet white trillium

Painted trillium

This section of the AT undulates along the ridge line, walking the high wire of the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina.  So high up, still I felt grounded in an awareness of my “location” on the planet, walking on a topo map, as I looked down into the valleys on either side of the ridge.  As many miles as I have hiked on the AT, for me this feeling is unique to the Smokies. 

Surprise!  We met a black bear snacking on the trail.  Fortunately we saw it on a straight stretch, far enough away not to scare it (or us). We watched the bear’s nonchalant behavior for a few minutes; it looked at us a couple of times; then it melted into the trees.  Even though it clearly registered our presence, there was no aggressive behavior, no cubs.  I can’t guess whether it was male or female.  As we passed by the spot a minute later there was no evidence of the bear’s presence, no sight, no sound.  How many have we passed without knowing? [A lesson to always pay attention, look up from your feet, listen even if you’re hiking/talking with someone else.]

Mount Cammerer Trail is a .6-mile spur off of the AT passing through mountain laurel and rosebay rhododendron (not yet blooming). A tall hiker might be able to see above the scrub, but not us.  The fire tower itself sits on top of a sandstone rock outcropping jutting up toward the sky.  A tower was first constructed of native lumber and stone at this location in the late 1930’s and the current structure was built in 1995. 

Mount Cammerer Lookout Tower

Looking at Mount Cammerer Trail from the lookout tower catwalk

Half a dozen people were exploring the tower, which is fully enclosed (can’t really see out the windows), and its catwalk all the way around (unobstructed views galore). The sky was now overcast, the wind had gained strength, and it was too chilly to hang out on the catwalk.  Cathy and I ate lunch inside the tower and chatted with other hikers, some who had never been there before and some who had climbed to the tower many times over many years.

Hoping to stay ahead of the changing weather, Cathy left a tad ahead of me and we met up again back at the AT junction, where we turned left to continue northbound on our loop.  Although we had climbed all morning, the descent on this section of the AT got old fast.  In 2.3 miles we lost 2,000 feet we had gained, going down rutted steps on an otherwise rocky and rooty path.  There is one good viewpoint from atop a boulder at a hard left turn, teasing the northbounder that the end of the Smokies traverse is near. 

For us, the steep descent ended when we turned left onto Lower Mount Cammerer Trail – what a welcome change!  I may have to promote this to my favorite trail in the Great Smokies, at least at this time of year.  The brown book description lends a great visual:  “Imagine a giant cupcake plopped upside down.”  The trail wound in and out of ridges on a gentle downhill grade, lush green, smothered in trilliums. Many of the interior turns crossed little creek draws of trickling water.

We passed a lengthy stretch of flowering doghobble, the most I’ve ever seen at one time. 

We paused at Phillips Cemetery, which I remembered from my previous hike.  It is a high and lonely place with no signage, just eight gravestones, the only legible one marking the life of two-year-old G. Estes Phillips.   Read a detailed description at the blog post here. 

At one outward curve I noticed an unmarked but obvious trail bisecting Lower Mount Cammerer Trail.  Researching later, I read about the Ground Hog Ridge manway which goes steeply up to the lookout tower.  That’s two intriguing unofficial trails in two days piquing my interest.

As pleasant as the trail was, it was also 7.5 miles long.  A brief sit-down at Campsite 35 gave new life to my weary legs and tenderized feet – 3.3 miles to go.  We skipped the short-but-steep spur up to a view on Sutton Ridge but a little ways further down we were treated to a look at Gabes Mountain.  I believe I sighed out loud.  So many emotions stirred up by a green mountain and a blooming mountain laurel!
Like most Smokies trails as they approach the valleys, the last mile of Lower Mount Cammerer Trail is a near-level walk on a wide old road bed, crossing creeks on footbridges, even passing through two old traffic circles.  Stone walls trigger the imagination of former house sites with vegetable gardens, patches of crops and small pens for the family’s cow and pigs. 

When Cathy and I reached the intersection with Low Gap Trail, the memory of the morning wade across Cosby Creek made us ignore the right turn to repeat it.  Instead we kept straight, aiming towards the back end of Cosby Campground, which we could then walk through to reach the hiker parking area.  We still had to cross Cosby Creek, but lo and behold, a nice big bridge carried us over. 

We washed up, changed clothes, and began our long journey home at 4:30 p.m., relishing the feeling of a beautiful day, a varied and interesting hike, a challenge well met – and a bear!  

Read about my previous hike on the same loop to Mount Cammerer fire tower, clockwise, in 2009.

"When I saw the mountains, my weight lifted and my restless spirit calmed. I knew this is where I belong."  ~John Muir

Monday, August 15, 2016

Smokies 900 Round 2: Ramsay Cascades

Smokies 900 Round 2:  Ramsay Cascades – 5/13/16 – 10 miles

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and parks units across the country are celebrating in ways large and small.  Among other highlights, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is featuring a Smokies Centennial Challenge to hike 100 miles in the park.  You know I am going to hike that 100 miles. 

My friend Cathy has covered some miles in the Smokies, including the length of the AT, but some highlights she hadn’t yet experienced were Ramsay Cascades and Mount Cammerer.  We made Cosby Campground our home base for a couple of days in the GSMNP.  The stormy weather forecast helped us decide to save the Mount Cammerer hike for tomorrow in hopes of catching the views from the lookout tower.  After some fits and starts and my less-than-perfect memory of the back roads of Tennessee, we found the Ramsay Cascades trailhead, crowded with cars. 

No better way to celebrate Friday the 13th than on a trail!  Crossing a bridge over the robust Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River

A tree that split, fell and landed standing up

White Clintonia aka Clinton’s lily


I wrote about Ramsay Cascades during my Smokies 900 project.  It would have been a good idea to read that blog post or at least review the write-up in the brown book, Hiking Trails of the Smokies, but no, I still relied on my imperfect recall – thus we added two miles to this seemingly simple out-and-back hike.

The trail climbed gently uphill through hardwood forest on a wide road bed for the first 1.5 miles to an old traffic circle, but Cathy and I weren’t looking for the traffic circle because we didn’t read up.  We saw an inviting trail turning left, so we did too, still climbing.  Eventually we noticed the trail narrowing and conditions deteriorating, and we certainly weren’t following along any water flow.  We backtracked nearly a mile to what was now the obvious traffic circle, complete with a sign.  I researched later that we’d been following the old Greenbrier Pinnacle Trail.  There are many blog posts about it with good instructions for exploration – we’ll save that for another day.

Back on track, Ramsay Cascades Trail narrowed and the challenge increased.  Steep and rugged with roots and rocks, the trail is well established with rock steps and long footbridges. 

Great lunch spot, watching hikers both timid and relaxed crossing Ramsay Prong on the bridge overhead

Two ancient tulip trees stand like columns  as the trail passes between.  Loggers did not work this far up the mountains.  Tulip, basswood and silverbell trees of near record size tower along the trail.

Anticipation of the waterfall builds and several places along the creek look like they qualify as whitewater rushes over boulders.  The last few hundred yards of the trail twist up and around to a warning sign and a glimpse of the real thing.
Ramsay Cascades, 90 feet high, loud and spraying boisterously after a good rain.

 Sweaty from hiking but chilled by the spray on an otherwise cool day, we spent just a short time at the cascades before our return hike.  The trail was just as much fun hiking out, a little quicker on the downgrade, appreciating the spring flowers and green mosses of the deep woods.  First 10 miles of the Smokies 100:  done!

“The forest is for me a temple, a cathedral of tree canopies and dancing light.”  ~Dr. Jane Goodall

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Pisgah National Forest: Dill Falls & Upper Dill Falls

Pisgah NF Waterfalls and Pisgah 400 hike – 4/24/16 – 4 miles

Dill Falls/Upper Dill Falls/Bad Fork Trail

For the record, birthdays are celebrated every night at Lazy J Campground.

Jim and I crafted a hike/bike plan with an agreed-upon time to meet.  Assuming there would be no cell coverage, we set a couple of variables and check points.  “If I’m not at X location when you get there at Y time, that means to meet me at Z.” This flexibility allowed for unforeseen conditions.  For example, I wasn’t sure how far in I could drive to the waterfalls I planned to visit.  I might walk a few miles or not far at all.

We left  camp at 8:15 a.m., me in the car and Jim on his bike, both heading up Highway 215 to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  He had decisions to make also about how far he wanted to ride, based on road conditions (what looked a little foggy in the valley could be clear skies high on the BRP – or worse fog) and traffic.

Dill Falls: a long way down a forest road on the west side of Highway 215, In Nantahala National Forest, not in Pisgah NF where we explored yesterday.  The turn off of 215 looks deceptively like someone’s driveway.  Some directions to the falls say road conditions are poor and describe a parking area a half-mile from the ultimate destination where three old roads intersect (some web blogs say two roads).  I was not interested in blowing a tire in the back of beyond on a Sunday morning.  However, proceeding with caution, my vehicle clearance felt fine and I was able to drive all the way in.  Of the three old roads, the middle one (not drivable now, but plenty wide for walking) leads only .2 miles downward to Dill Falls. As the trail crosses the creek, the waterfall is to the right.   

What a beauty!  A short drop at the top and then a steep sliding cascade, total height 60 feet. On either side of Tanasee Creek as the trail crosses there are sweet little campsites, great to hang out with kids and let them explore, and the sound of the falls could lull a nighttime dreamer.  But I don’t know how you could get the place to yourself.  First come, first served?  I’d hate to be settled in a spot like this, especially with young’uns, and then have party campers show up.  I guess I’m a camping snob…

All by myself today, nobody to share the awesomeness with, I didn’t linger.  I retraced my steps back up to the three-way intersection, this time choosing the old road on the far right. Following it up and down mounds of dirt for a few hundred yards, I could hear Upper Dill Falls as I reached the short scramble trail on the left. 

A very different character, smaller, more intimate, able to get closer to this lovely 25-foot, multi-tiered cascade.  I felt the invitation to sit and watch and listen for a little while in this peaceful sanctuary of solitude on a Sunday morning.
 More posts about these waterfalls are here and here

Waterfall objective accomplished!  Now for my little out-and-back Pisgah 400 hike, chosen for its Parkway trailhead and easy access for Jim to meet up with me.  Speaking of Jim, I passed him on the BRP as I drove to that trailhead, confirming we were on the same time frame.

On paper the Bad Fork Trail intersects the BRP at Bent Creek Gap.  In real life it is out of sight of the Parkway on Wash Creek Road where it passes underneath the BPR via a tunnel. The forest road is a favorite staging area for mountain biking.  I left my car in plain sight on the Parkway shoulder and moseyed down to Bad Fork.
A super straight trail with a very steep start -- am I going to hate coming back up?  It is named after the creek that it follows.  What is the origin of the name?

Less than a half-mile down the trail forks – left or right?  Of course there is no official signage and no trail markings to indicate that one fork is closed.  This is (one of the things) that irks me about Pisgah NF and national forest management in general.  Yes, I understand it – I just don’t like it.  So I took the right fork, but after five minutes something about it made me turn around.  The trail seemed a little narrower, a bit more debris on the trail, and maybe my “trail sense” is now well-honed.

I backtracked to the left fork, which made a large (still steep) arc of descent.  Ten minutes later I passed a faint trail on the right, which I assumed was the bottom end of that right fork trail again. Conclusion: the left fork was created to replace the right fork for erosion control and a gentler descent.  Also another reason to call it “bad fork.” 

The fun factor increased as the trail made eight crossings of tributaries of Bad Fork Creek.  The grade lessened and I gained momentum in the second mile, following the main creek on my right side.  A few crossings were bridged, but even with the recent rainfall they were easily rock hopped.

The last half-mile of Bad Fork Trail is level and still following the creek before ending at a large group camp area at Wash Creek Road.  I turned right around and retreated a hundred yards to sit beside the creek and grab a bite of lunch.  Butterflies were flitting from bloom to bloom beside the bubbling water.  How hard can the return trip be? 

Okay, not so hard as I first anticipated. I got to repeat all those little creek crossings.  And at that pesky fork I placed branches across the false trail to warn the next hiker.  I wonder how long they will remain there?

With excellent timing, Jim arrived at the car about one minute ahead of me.  What did he do all day? What he loves best.
A relaxing and delicious stop at Bold Rock Cidery in Mills River, NC.  We have developed a habit.  Cheers and happy anniversary!

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” ~Annie Dillard