Sunday, January 8, 2017

Smokies 900 Round 2: Cataloochee Ramble

Smokies 900 Round 2: Cataloochee Ramble - Caldwell Fork Trail & Big Fork Ridge Trail – 6/26/16 – 6.4 Miles

Frontcountry campgrounds (aka car camping) can be noisy places, dogs, kids, and adults who party late into the night as though no one else exists.  Okay, dogs and kids don’t bother me, but I have little patience (none) for adults who crank up the tunes, keep the fire stoked at chin height and holler every not-funny observation that occurs to them.  Not a fan of car camping.  But…this visit to Smokemont was very nice.  I met some calm neighbors who expressed surprise at a woman camping alone (some PR work still to be done there).  My tent site was as close as possible to Bradley Creek. Nighttime was as peaceful as could be. On Sunday morning I woke up at dawn-thirty, stretched, packed up and drove into Cherokee to meet my hiking buddy for the day. 

I’d met René (trail name “Legs”) as a hiker shuttle driver the previous fall and was fascinated by her freestyle spirit and life choices.  When I planned this trip to the Smokies, I threw the idea of a short dayhike out to her and she grabbed it. After a little bit of missing each other at our meeting spot (Peter’s Pancakes – I was inside eating a huge breakfast while she waited for me outside) we connected and created a hike plan. René had a shuttle pickup near Big Creek later in the day, so the decision to introduce her to Cataloochee Valley was easy.  We could have a ramble and she could pick up her hiker easily on time. 

It’s no secret that Cataloochee is my favorite part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

1)      It is closest to where I live – 3 hours from my driveway to the campground
2)      Although smaller in acreage, its history and preserved buildings rival Cades Cove which is 5 hours from where I live – thus I repeat #1
3)      The valley was the stage for the successful reintroduction of elk to the area
4)      Hiking, hiking, hiking with lots of creeks
5)      Cataloochee Campground, snuggled up beside its robust namesake creek, is intimate (27 sites) and delightful (car camping, yes, but it never seems to get crazy)
6)      Great page-turner historical fiction about inhabitants of the valley by Wayne Caldwell Cataloochee and Requiem By Fire

We only had time for about 6 miles, but with two cars we were not limited to a loop or an out-and-back hike.  We dropped one car at the end of the valley road and backtracked to start at the trailhead of Caldwell Fork Trail.  Our route was Caldwell Fork Trail to Big Fork Ridge Trail to the valley road. 

The temperature was hot but the elevation gain was barely noticeable as we chatted nonstop following Caldwell Fork upstream.  It’s a popular horse trail with numerous creek crossings and there are log footbridges for hikers – except when there aren’t.  [Always check the GSMNP website before you hike to determine trail conditions, i.e. if bridges along your route are washed out.] Wading the creek was welcome in the heat of the day.

Downed trees are interesting challenges, not obstacles

Rhododendron blooms along Caldwell Fork

Our hike was over in a blink, but the clock was ticking and we had time to visit just one of the historic buildings in the valley: Beech Grove Schoolhouse. 

Who knows how long René will be in western North Carolina relishing her nomad life?  I am envious of her freedoms, but I realize that my life is pretty good, too.  I’m happy that this love of hiking enables my life to intersect with folks of different ages and interests.  Hope to see you on the trails again, Legs!

"When you try to control everything, you enjoy nothing. Sometimes you just need to relax, breathe, let go and live in the moment." ~Unknown

Monday, December 5, 2016

Super Opportunity: Smokies 900 Round 2 - Bradley Fork & Smokemont Loop Trails

Bradley Fork & Smokemont Loop Trails – 6/25/16 – 5.6 Miles
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.  2016 was the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, a year-long celebration of events across the country.  Did you know there are 413 National Park units?  We can easily name some of the large parks, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, but there are many national historical parks, battlefields, military parks, historic sites, seashores, recreation areas, preserves, rivers, scenic trails, memorials, monuments, and even an “other” category.  What a gift to ourselves, preserving and protecting spaces that, if lost, cannot be re-created, both wild and manmade, part of our history and heritage.  The newest addition, on the eve of the National Parks birthday, is Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. 

My favorite national Park (surprise!) is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). In early 2016 a calendar of centennial events was introduced and the most intriguing invitation was a hike with the park superintendent, Cassius Cash.  I was more than a little excited to join the group on a Saturday morning. Bonus: Also leading the group was Backcountry Management Specialist Christine Hoyer, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting and working for on a Trails Forever project in 2012 (rebuilding Chimney Tops Trail).

 Superintendent Cash and Christine Hoyer

Superintendent Cash inspired the “Hike 100” challenge for GSMNP and he, along with his wife and their younger daughter, has been leading the way to get past the parking lots and hike 100 miles during the centennial.  On a warm June day our group of 18 enthusiastic participants hiked the classic loop of Bradley Fork and Smokemont Loop Trails counterclockwise from the Smokemont campground. Now, 18 people do not hike efficiently but our purpose was fellowship and fun rather than speed. We split into two predictable groups, a-little-bit-fast and a-little-bit-slow.  The faster folks were happy to stop and catch a breeze as the slower folks made their way along the trail. 

Cash adeptly spent time walking with each hiker, chatting about the park, its history and his vision for the future.  He is directing a great amount of energy to promoting the outdoors for the next generation and his enthusiasm for the empowering and healing benefits of nature is infectious.  Read and/or watch this video about his background and his work at GSMNP here.

Crossing Bradley Fork on one of the longest footbridges in the Park

Lunch break

I don’t have much description for the trails on this hike because I was concentrating on the energy of the group.  Several of us found that we had mutual friends in the hiking community.  I especially enjoyed Cash and Christine’s stories and dreams for the Park.  I’m sad that I live too far away from the Smokies to play a bigger part in the day-to-day life of the Park - but I can strive to increase my visits.

Hanging with the rock stars: Cassius Cash, Christine Hoyer and little ole me

This hike took place in June 2016, but I am writing in early December 2016.  On November 28, a wildfire originating near the summit of Chimney Tops Trail, exacerbated by high winds, swept down through the Park, felling trees and power lines, sparking more fires, and consuming a vast portion of the town of Gatlinburg.  More than 15,000 acres in all were burned.  While the devastation to the Park is heartbreaking, the loss of 13 lives and over 1,000 buildings outside the Park is an even greater tragedy.  Nature will renew itself and buildings can be rebuilt, but loved ones are gone and livelihoods are forever altered.  

The fire is believed to be human caused.