Saturday, June 28, 2008


Some of the signs from our most recent Smokies trip to Cades Cove:

Pretty new trail sign - I see now that I misspelled "Finley" in my text - oh well...

"Welcome" sign on the women's bathroom door in the Cades Cove campground

Sign inviting you to commune with the forest creatures

This sign was at the cave with bars on it to protect the bat population

My favorite sign

Friday, June 27, 2008

Cades Cove Weekend - Day Three - A Tom Sawyer Detour

Turkeypen Ridge Trail/Schoolhouse Gap Trail and two side trips/Bote Mountain Trail/Finlay Cane Trail - 11.8 miles (plus?)

After a rowdy Saturday night in the Cades Cove campground (we were out for the count by 10:30 PM) we woke up Sunday morning with intentions of packing up and leaving by 8:45 AM for an 11.3-mile hike (Hike #2 in the Tremont/Elkmont section of "Day Hiker's Guide"). But cooking an actual breakfast and then packing up absolutely everything, of course, took forever so we were a little late. We wanted to be off the trail and headed back to Charlotte by 2:00 PM. Our trailhead was close by, though, so no worries, and today was another loop hike. The Turkeypen Ridge Trail begins at a little pull-off spot on Laurel Creek Road, also known as a speed zone for motorcycles, pickup trucks, pop-up trailers and huge camper-mansions. Be careful crossing this road!

At the beginning of Turkeypen Ridge was a warning sign that bears have been very active in the area and it is possible to be hurt or killed..hmmm. Well, we know bears are in the park and we've seen 'em, but this was a little disconcerting. For the prior hikes we had often been out of sight of each other as one (Jim) sped up or one (me) stopped to take pictures, but we agreed that today we would stay within reaching distance of each other. The behavior for discouraging an aggressive bear is to stand tall, look big and shout at the bear, and the two of us clinging to each other for dear life would look bigger than one whimpering person alone.

And on this trail we heard many noises among the trees and stopped often to check it out, thus we made slow progress. We can't swear to another bear sighting, but we can almost promise that we saw one. A funny thing: bears have a magical ability to look exactly like tree stumps. Out of the corner of your eye you know it's a bear, but when you look straight at it, it's just an old stump. We saw dozens of bears who have learned this trick. Pretty cool.

Jim was ahead of me so I could protect his rear end, and he saw wildlife on the trail, including a huge owl taking off silently through the trees and a smaller-than-a-bear-but-bigger-than-a-breadbox animal that we concluded was a wild boar. We saw where the creature had been rooting around in the dirt and we heard him trotting away through the leaves. Later we read that this area has many wild pigs. I myself saw three wild...lizards.

At the end of Turkeypen Ridge, we turned left onto Schoolhouse Gap Trail, a mile out-and-back section that I needed to cover (yet again - seems I am always doing this). Within a few hundred feet we saw a well-worn side trail to the left, and my guidebook invited us to explore an area called White Oak Sinks, a low flat area where a group of 10 or so families had once lived. This area is quite popular in April with an extensive variety of wildflowers in bloom. We didn't know how far the trail went, but we gave ourselves ten minutes out and ten minutes back because of time constraints. We found the area but no evidence of homes. Check out the humongous fungus we saw there.

Back on Schoolhouse Gap, we found ourselves on yet another gravel roadbed. I've learned that there was is no record of a school being located here, but perhaps the name came from this being the route that kids walked over to school in Townsend. We walked about 1.2 miles to the end of this road and ended at the Park boundary, looking at someone's home with a picnic table nearby. As we sat down to take a breather before hiking back, the owner came driving by. When we asked if the picnic table was his, he said, "It belongs to me and it's there for you." This very nice man asked if we were going on the "back" trail and we confessed we knew nothing about it. "Well," he said, "there's caves on that trail and they are a sight to see, and the trail goes through White Oak Sinks." He gave a quick description that neither Jim nor I fully got, something about following the creek and going right and bearing left with the cave to your back, and he wished us a nice day.

So we went on this trail...because it sounded interesting and we are not very smart.

The trail actually was not hard to see and it did follow the creek bed, but it was much fainter and there was much ducking under limbs and scrambling up banks. We soon encountered a fork in the trail and my orienteering skills said, heck, I don't know, let's keep left. Eventually we came upon a cave in the side of the mountain with a warning sign advising that written permission from the park rangers was required to go into the cave. (Read about some folks who did not heed this advice.) As we stood before this black hole, cold air swept all around us and I felt chills, from the air and from the stillness and from the fact that nobody knew where we were...

But we had farther to go and another cave to find and hopefully we would recognize White Oak Sinks since we had been there earlier. Then it got interesting. The vegetation grew taller and the trail divided several times and at some points was harder to discern. We stuck with the wisdom of bearing left and we found another cave. This one was covered by a cage to keep people out and protect the large bat habitat. Cold air was blowing up from this cave also. I'll bet it is really something to see those bats come out at dusk. Batman meets Tom Sawyer!

This cave is where our friend had instructed us to stand with our backs to the cage, head right and then bear left. So far we were not officially lost. As we continued on we noticed the time slipping by - this trail was supposed to be about a mile and we had been following it for 45 minutes. Were we lost yet? Who could tell? What happened to all those rules about telling someone where you were going, sticking to your original agenda, having a map (this trail wasn't on the map) and knowing how to use a compass (I was a little rusty)?

By the grace of God we found the third cave along the trail that our friend had talked about, and this one was awesome. The rock face of the mountain was enormous and there was a small waterfall dripping over the top and down into a black hole. The cold air was incredible. We got out the camera, knowing that our amateur photography skills would not capture the essence of the place. If we were not so concerned about the time or where the trail went next we would have lingered. But miles to go...

And where DO those miles go now? Looking up the mountain beside the cliff face, there seemed to be a trail, but it was ridiculously steep and there was certainly no way that the average wildflower lover would scramble up or down it. Perhaps it was just a vantage point for actual good photographers to shoot the cave and waterfall. Jim went up to check it out, and I followed, realizing that there was no way we could safely get back down. At the top we saw that a trail continued, and we followed it on blind faith and hope that we would recognize something. Within five minutes we were strolling through White Oak Sinks -- and past another side trail that probably was a less steep route to the big cave. But, hey, at least we knew where we were now. We are genuiuses!

Now there was a decision to make, though, because we had lost quite a bit of time and we had gone officially only a few miles. I suggested that we go straight out Schoolhouse Gap Trail to the right to where it intersected with Laurel Gap Road and hitch a ride back to our car and call it a day. We were tired and hot and now almost 2 hours behind our planned departure time. As we walked out, Jim wondered how I would make up the other part of the planned hike, and I said that I could come back any time and pick up the 6 or 7 miles. My Jim is a great guy - he told me that we should just suck it up, go for it and finish the hike and get that feeling of accomplishment.

So we did. We crossed the road, headed up Bote Mountain Trail (gravel roadbed, yawn) and turned right onto Finlay Cane Trail. This trail was a pleasant walk and we soon heard the sounds of motorcycles and saw our car waiting patiently right where we had left it. We had covered 5.3 miles in under 2 hours. We stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to cruise the gift shop and then drove via Gatlinburg and the Foothills Parkway towards Asheville, then Charlotte and home.

When I put my head on my own pillow that night I smiled at the memories of another phenomenal trip that I will always remember. Thanks, Jim.

Another Great Smokies Blog

If you are having fun reading about my Smokies experience and would like to learn more, be sure to check out and for trip reports by Smoky Mountain Hiker. Lots of great information for planning your own trips. I especially like the trail maps that are included at the end of each trip report so that you can see the routes used. A great addition today is his trip report to Gregory Bald, with much better photos than mine! Enjoy!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cades Cove Weekend - Day Two - An OMG Moment

Middle Prong Trail/Lynn Camp Prong Trail/Miry Ridge Trail/Panther Creek Trail/Back out on Middle Prong - 14.9 Miles

I confess, I was not looking forward to today's hike. After yesterday's miles and downhill ending, my feet hurt and I was hearing from some muscles that don't usually say anything. Also, I had seen Lynn Camp Prong Trail described in an online forum as the second-worst trail in the Park (don't remember what the first one supposedly is). But I chose this hike for two reasons: (1) Jim was with me and he loves me anyway and (2) the hike is accessed from the end of Tremont Road, which is closed in winter, so my time frame for hiking it is limited unless I want to walk 3 extra miles in cold weather to reach the trailhead. (Note: yesterday's hike was similar in that Parson Branch Road is closed in winter.)

So we got up early - again - and drove over to Tremont Road, passing the Tremont Institute, an environmental education facility with many wonderful programs and info. Past the Institute the pavement ends and the gravel begins, and three miles later it too ends at a parking area and a steel bridge crossing the convergence of Lynn Camp Prong and Thunderhead Prong to form Middle Prong of Little River (prong means creek, by the way). So the first step on the trail is in front of a wonderful cascade of thundering water - not a bad way to begin!

Middle Prong Trail follows the railroad bed used to haul lumber out of the Tremont area during logging's heyday. We walked along trying to imagine the lumber camp there, complete with homes, a post office, a hotel and the company store where currency was scrip or coins made by the company that could not be used anywhere else (cue Tennessee Ernie Ford .) Middle Prong Trail is a pleasant walk, which is good because we will be coming out the same way. At 2.3 miles we pass the junction with Panther Creek Trail, where we will be coming back to in a loop, and we check out where we will have to cross Lynn Camp Prong (creek, remember?) without a bridge. We have brought water shoes just in case, but it doesn't look too bad. Might feel good by the end of the day!

At 4.1 miles we come to (eek!) Lynn Camp Prong Trail and 3.7 miles of pure....not too bad! In fact, we had a pretty nice walk. This is a horse trail, as are many in the Smokies, but because there has not been much rain lately the trails are dry, so no mud wrestling. We reached the intersection with Miry Ridge Trail where 3 men, 1 teenage boy and 1 elementary age boy were taking a rest break as they were backpacking in the same direction we were headed. Trail junctions are great places to pause and chat with fellow hikers, who are always interested in where you are coming from, where you are going, etc.

Left onto Miry Ridge and our favorite hiking: little ups and downs on the ridge line. After just a short while the trees changed and we found ourselves at..the beach? The tall trees were gone, the ground was sandy and there were mountain laurel bushes blooming all around, reminding me of a beach path through blooming oleander shrubs. Wow! We've seen azaleas, rhododendrons, and now mountain laurel blooming at their peak. What a treat! And if only someone had cut a few down over there to the left maybe we could see a view! Let's see if we can go up a little higher off to the side...We took a few steps off the trail and....Oh My God!
Now, this was not a taking-the-Lord's-name-in-vain thing, this was truly an exclamation for what God had done. It was truly grand.
As we set off along Miry Ridge Trail again I noticed the petals of mountain laurel along the path, looking like a wedding had taken place earlier in the day.

We soon came to our last new trail of the day, Panther Creek, which was 2.3 miles of downhill again. Well, at least it wasn't 5! We crossed Panther Creek 9 times, all easy rock hops. There were many clusters of galax blooming along the way.

We reached the end of Panther Creek Trail and made it across Lynn Camp Prong without needing water shoes. Rock hopping is great fun but one false move can get your foot stuck and bones broken. Walking back out on Middle Prong Trail again we checked out all the little side paths down to this creek, which was growing larger with each step. There are many small waterfalls and cascades. This is an easy and delightful trail that I would recommend to everyone.

Near the end we plunged our feet in nature's spa and congratulated each other. This hike was nearly as long as yesterday's but seemed easier. Happy hiker tip: frequent intersections make us feel like we are making more progress. Two 2.5-mile sections is easier than one 5-mile section any day!

Our reward was going out to dinner in Townsend at the Back Porch Restaurant where you must save room for peach, apple, blackberry or pecan cobbler. I ate so much pecan cobbler that I hated myself. Apparently they take a quarter of a pecan pie and dump it upside down in a bowl and put a spoon in it. All together now: YUUUMMMM!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cades Cove Weekened - Day One Continued - Bear Photos

Jim and I began the gradual but long descent of Gregory Ridge Trail. Five miles is a long distance with no way to mark your progress, no intersections, no artifacts, no GPS (okay, okay, I'll learn how to use it by next time!), just a watch that seemed to have stopped. Jim is always faster than me on the uphills with those cyclist thighs, but I am actually slightly faster on the downhill. We were trucking along, heads down to watch our footing, and I was about 20 paces ahead when Jim called my name. When I turned around, he was looking up the steep slope near the ridge and he whispered, "Bears!" I snuck back to stand beside him (to protect him, of course). He had seen a small bear climbing a dead tree trunk. I didn't see the small bear, but I saw a large black shape turn, take a couple of steps, and then Mama spotted us and gave us a good stare for three hundred hours, three seconds in real time. Then she moved out of sight and we heard a very strange, loud sound, something between a growl and a shriek and a snuffle that every human and animal child since time began understands to mean, "Get over here RIGHT NOW!" Then some crashing steps and silence. Were they still there or had they gone over the ridge?

Here is my photo of the bear: (pretend...)

Oh I could do in the heat of the moment. I think I actually took a picture of the inside of my pocket. I'll get one next time!
Seeing the bears was not scary, but it taught us a valuable lesson where to look - up! From then on we scanned the slopes and stumbled a lot. Our feet were grateful to reach the car.

Forgot to mention - at the lower elevations the white rhododendrons were blooming profusely near the ground, overhead, absolutely everywhere. (This would prove to be the case on all three hiking days.) Along Parson Branch Road the bushes bloomed three stories high. The buds are a gorgeous pink and then fully open to beautiful white with a pink tinge. It was difficult not to take a photo of every single bloom! (Click on photos to see full screen.)

We headed back up Parson Branch Road, stopped at the Cades Cove Visitor Center with the multitudes, and got in line on the merry-go-round one-lane loop road to go back to our campsite. Patience was required in amounts larger than I possessed, as cars do stop in the middle of the road when they see something interesting, people leaning out of car windows to take photos. Often they stop in front of the friendly signs that say, "Please be courteous and pull over."

Back at camp we cooked a fabulous noodles-and-canned-chicken extravaganza and walked to the little camp store for soft-serve ice cream. This is a great family campground, kids riding bikes everywhere, burgers cooking, campground TV going (i.e. campfires), and it makes for great people-watching. Makes you feel good that some folks still take their kids outside. I guarantee you those kids will always remember their family camping trips. Jim and I gave our feet the rest of the day off, sat and read our books until it got dark, and then got packs ready for another adventure tomorrow. Another happy hiking tip: earplugs!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cades Cove Weekend - Day One - Fire On The Mountain

Gregory Bald Trail/Gregory Ridge Trail Plus a Road Walk and a Side Trip - 15.7 Miles

Up at 6:05 AM (every minute of sleep helps) because we wanted a very early start on the fabulous hike we had planned. One of our secrets to happy hiking is we each have a customized food bag filled with our favorite hiking-friendly foods for the weekend and we just grab a few things for the day and go. We don't eat lunch but we snack all day, sometimes at every trail junction. Boots on and packs ready, we took off along the Cades Cove loop road to the far end and Parson Branch Road, a gravel road that is two-way to a parking area, then one-way continuing out of the park on the North Carolina side. If you get on the one-way part you face a multi-hour drive back around the western edge of the Park to Cades Cove

Today's hike was in the "Day Hiker's Guide" again, Hike #1 in the Twentymile/Fontana section (even though we were camping in Cades Cove). Jim and I wanted to hike up the Gregory Bald Trail and down the Gregory Ridge Trail, but there are four miles of walking between the trailheads at the bottom of the mountain - the one-way Parson Branch Road. We had only one car, so our brilliant scheme was to park at the end of the two-way portion and start walking along the one-way, hoping to hitch a ride (no, I would NEVER do this alone.) Soon a car approached....and passed us by without a glance. Now, keep in mind, there is no reason to be on this road at all except to get to the trailhead we are walking towards. I guess the half-eaten bagel in my hand looked dangerous.

Twenty minutes of walking and we heard another vehicle approaching. I turned to walk backwards facing them, thumb out, smile on, and fell straight into a ditch.

My ploy worked! They stopped to see if we needed help and were glad to give us a ride. We were all going to the same place, Gregory Bald. Thanks, Jerry and Richard, for saving us three miles of road walking. Jim and I headed up the trail, and as karma always comes back around, on the way up we passed the two guys who had passed us by earlier, smiling and saying, "Great day for a hike, huh?"

Our holy grail today was Gregory Bald, one of several mountain balds in the Smokies and famous for its profusion of flame azeala bushes at their peak bloom in late June, and our visit did not disappoint. The day was a bit hazy and my photography skills are still lacking, but it was a huge area of meadow grasses and azaleas taller than a person ranging from white to yellow to pink to every shade of orange imaginable, with a backdrop of rows of blue mountains. This is a sight to visit over and over and over.

During our leisurely hour on the bald we chatted again with Jerry and Richard and discovered that we both knew an avid Smokies hiker (hi Wendell!) who has completed his Smokies map and keeps on going. Hopefully I will hike with their Wednesday group someday.

Interesting story from "100 Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park" by Russ Manning: The bald is named after Russell Gregory, who lived in Cades Cove but also had a stone cabin on the bald where he tended his own and others' cattle in the summertime. "During the Civil War, Gregory was loyal to the Union, though his son Charles had joined the Confederacy. With the young men gone to war, Gregory organized and led the women, children and old men to confront a band of Confederate raiders who had been pillaging the area during 1864. Unknown to Gregory, Charles was part of the raiding party. No one was killed in the confrontation in which the raiders were turned back, but some of them returned in the night and murdered Russell Gregory in retaliation."

Past the bald, Jim and I came to Rich Gap (where cattle were kept and their droppings made for great fertilizer, hence the name - I'm not making that up) and the intersection with the Gregory Ridge Trail, but here we turned right onto a faint trail in search of Moore Spring, where a hiker's shelter was located until it burned in the 1970's. (Hey, sometimes you've got to get off the interstate and check out the world's largest ball of string.) This was a .2-mile out-and-back just to see if we could find it. Click on the photo for full size and you can see the water bubbling from under the rock. I felt like Jed Clampet finding his bubbling crude!
Back to the main trail and making a right turn, we followed Gregory Bald Trail to its terminus at the Appalachian Trail. Actually, Gregory Bald was part of the AT until a re-route in the late 1940's. Then we backtracked to Rich Gap once again and turned right onto Gregory Ridge Trail to head down the mountain to our car. By now we were getting tired and our feet were not happy so we were not looking forward to 5 miles of downhill. Hikers out there, which is harder, uphill or downhill?

Well, Jim says that my posts are sometimes too long, so I will wait until tomorrow to tell you about the bears.

Destination: Cades Cove Is How Far?

Someday we will realize that a camping/hiking weekend requires more than ten minutes of preparation, but apparently we need a few more painful lessons. Jim had to work a full day on Thursday and I also had work to finish, then buy food, pack clothes, pack camping supplies, pack hiking supplies, pick up my car from a maintenance check, go to the bank, lose my mind a few we were both in excellent frame of mind when I picked Jim up at the train station. But on the road we soon could see the mountains of western North Carolina in front of us and the day behind us disappeared. Our destination was Cades Cove, on the "quiet" Tennessee side of the Smokies. We have visited Cades Cove once in the past for a day and remembered it as crowded and congested. We expected it to be the same this time, but since we were staying a few days we hoped to get into the flow and enjoy the family atmosphere (which we did when we weren't in the car stuck behind truckloads of people in lawn chairs in the middle of the one-lane loop road looking at the wild turkey across the field...but I digress). As the navigator and family map reader, I chose the longer way to Cades Cove, not because I wanted to drive farther in the dark but because I was more familiar with the route. We drove through Maggie Valley, then across the Park on Newfound Gap Road, then over to Cades Cove and the campground, a total of 5 hours from Charlotte. Arriving at our reserved campsite at 10:30 PM, we quietly set up our tent and it was lights out. Hike preparations would have to wait until morning.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

All Over The Map

We are finally back home late tonight from a super weekend on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. We completed three hikes in three different parts of the Park. It will take a while to get it all posted, but keep checking in for tales of adventure including flora and fauna and a Tom Sawyer detour...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Getting Out Of Town

Jim and I are headed for GSMNP after work today with plans to hike Friday, Saturday and Sunday, returning home Sunday night. I'll tell you all about it when we get back. One thing I can tell you now - we'll have plenty of company!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Postscript for Cataloochee - Read the Book

Between my visit to Cataloochee last fall and my latest visit in May I read the novel "Cataloochee" by Wayne Caldwell, a native of nearby Waynesville. This is Caldwell's first novel. It has been compared to "Cold Mountain" and includes a blurb by Charles Frazier on the book jacket. Similarities abound, but I found "Cataloochee" to be an entrancing story in its own right, weaving families together through generations and hard times, and in walking the mountains and meadows of the present day I felt constant chills as I pictured characters and homesteads. I realized that my ability to come to this place was a direct result of the residents having to leave it. The book ends (although a sequel is coming) as the government is buying the land for the national park, and although this is not the focus of the book, the feeling of endings is palpable. In conversation with one of the park volunteers as we were watching the "elk show" one evening, I asked her if she had read "Cataloochee." She smiled and said indeed she had, that she thought it was a fascinating book, and many locals who have read it feel they know which fictional characters are based on real residents of days past. She also shared that some descendants who come back for the annual reunions feel that losing the land to the park also saved it: it did not become just another commercially developed community and its preservation has been a blessing. I don't know that all the families feel that way, but I am selfishly grateful. I highly recommend this book, especially if you are planning a visit to Cataloochee. The story moves back and forth in time and you have to concentrate to keep the events in order, but that's just the way I like a good story - make me work for it and keep turning the pages to witness the cliffhangers. Hint: Watch out for heavy objects falling...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Update on Dad

Many thanks to those of you who have expressed concern about my dad. His health is declining and we are in a day-to-day mode. My brother lives in Richmond near him and is bearing most of the load, and I will be going back and forth as the situation changes. My dad's assisted living center staff is absolutely fantastic and it is very comforting to know that he is loved and cared for there. I am planning another Smokies trip soon if we feel that things are stable enough. Keep checking in!

Cataloochee - Day Five - Bumping Up Mileage

Monday, May 26: Rough Fork Trail to Woody House and Back (Again) - 2 Miles

After another night snoozing to the babbling sound of the creek at our campsite, we breakfasted in style once again courtesy of Nora. Then we proceeded to figure out how the items we had packed for our trip had doubled in size and yet had to fit back in the vehicles that brung 'em. Have you ever noticed that? Even though the food has been consumed and theoretically there is less stuff, it seems to take up more space. I was hitching a ride home with Taryn (since Stephanie had left the previous day) and Taryn's car is smaller, but still...why did I bring two pairs of boots? And two pairs of sandals? And those Crocs? The Girl Scout motto is be prepared!

Our team of experts took down and folded the world's largest tarp and somehow everything got stowed into Ginger's truck so that Jessie did not have to become a hood ornament. We parted ways - Jessie, Nora and Ginger headed to see more historical buildings and I took Taryn to see the Woody House, which the rest of us had already visited. (I had an ulterior motive: Up to this point I had hiked 39.8 miles and I wanted to boost it over the 40-mile mark, and the 2-mile walk to and from the Woody House would do the trick, even if it was repeat mileage.)

Taryn and I also checked out the Beech School (see the story from Day Four) and imagined ourselves as pupils there, learning in the two rooms and playing in the creek that runs alongside it. Is life better now with schools that house thousands of students?

Then the long drive home (thanks Taryn) and re-entry into civilization. I had not washed my hair in four days and really did not mind. I did notice that Jim was not as enamored of me as usual...All in all, I am now quite spoiled, as this was a dream of a trip for my hiking project: Friends to hike with and camp with, someone to drive me around, someone to provide sustenance, and fellowship and conversation at the end of the day. I hope people are lining up to spend more weekends like this!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I have gotten off track in writing because my dad has become very ill. He has been in an assisted living facility in Virginia since my mom passed away in January 2007 and until lately has been doing fine. I will be going back and forth to see him as much as possible in the foreseeable future. My youngest daughter is graduating from high school on Friday, June 13, so there's a lot of juggling going on. Thanks to those of you who are faithful readers. I will stay in touch.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cataloochee - Day Four - Another Walk Through History

Sunday, May 25: Mt. Sterling Trail/Long Bunk/Little Cataloochee/Pretty Hollow Gap - 11.1 Miles:

Stephanie was heading home on Sunday and Jessie and Taryn were my hiking buddies (good sports) for the day. Overnight I had decided that I needed to cleanse the car break-in scare and go back to the same trailhead, but with a different scenario. Nora and Ginger, our chef and camp comfort expert (have I told you how Ginger has every campsite luxury you can name in the back of her truck? Chairs, gazebo, lanterns, full-size propane tank, coolers!) were up for a hike as well, so out came the trusty maps and a scheme developed. We left a car and a truck at our terminus along Cataloochee Road near the Beech School and then Stephanie drove us all back up Cove Creek Road. First she dropped off Jessie and Taryn and me at the Mount Sterling Trail trailhead and then she dropped off Nora and Jessie at the Little Cataloochee Trail trailhead. The first group's hike would be 9.1 miles and the second group's hike would be 6 miles. Long Bunk Trail ends at Little Cataloochee Trail, so we would be trailing Nora and Ginger all day. Remember to click on photos to see full screen!

Those of you who are really interested can find all this on a park trail map. It makes a lot more sense with visuals!

We had just a half-mile to hike up the Mount Sterling Trail before turning left onto Long Bunk. This half-mile was a lung-buster. I don't even want to know what the elevation change is. We spent a short minute lamenting that we could not go on up to the fire tower, since it was such a gorgeously clear day, but time did not permit (our lungs thanked us). Long Bunk was delightful, gradually descending to the sound of gurgling water. Taryn did not have trekking poles so we shared my two, and she quickly learned how helpful they are for crossing creeks. At most creek crossings there was enough flat land to imagine a home site, and indeed folks once lived along Long Bunk Trail. Hiking Trails Of The Smokies, a guide that describes each Smokies trail in-depth, complete with elevation drawings and much history, advises, "While contemplating this trail, imagine the children of Mr. and Mrs. David B. Nelson, who lived one mile north of Mount Sterling Gap and hiked this route five miles to Little Cataloochee school arriving there daily at 10:00 a.m." Yes, in the snow, too...

Long Bunk Trail also afforded our best examples yet of animal tracks. There were muddy places, now somewhat dry, where we were able to distinguish deer and elk tracks, and one place in particular where the elk prints skidded as though the elk was running. We saw what we swear are bear tracks close by to explain the running. We also swear that we saw large cat tracks (I mean LARGE). So our story is that the bear was chasing the elk and the mountain lion was stalking the bear, really...come on now...

My photography skills are still lacking, but here is a photo of a great American chestnut tree felled by blight in the '30s. The trail goes alongside it. I'm thinking the tree was there first.

Jessie showed me how to take flower close-ups! This is mountain laurel.

Just before the end of Long Bunk Trail we passed the Hannah Cemetery and then arrived at Little Cataloochee Trail. Taryn and Jessie elected to have lunch while I set off yet again to "tag" the eastern end of Little Cataloochee, a mile out and then a mile back in. (This would make 11.1 miles for me for the day). This end of Little Cataloochee is a gravel road maintained because of Little Cataloochee Church that we would soon be visiting. The road is opened once a year for a reunion at the church of former residents and descendants of Little Cataloochee Valley, where I am told that they ring the bell once for each person who has passed away that year.

After playing tag (I won) we set off. This trail has a couple of restored home sites, the first of which is Hannah Cabin, built in 1864 and restored in 1976
 using original construction practices.

After more elevation gain we arrived at the much- photo- graphed Little Cataloochee Church.

It is small, plain and lovely. There are tables set up out back for the reunion picnics.

 The cemetery for the church is close by. This simple round stone with the yellow flower was very touching. The inscription reads
"Rebecca Elwood, 1869-1909."

Miles to go and the tough climb is still ahead. Another home site along the way is the Dan Cook place. The Cook cabin has been restored similar to the Hannah Cabin, but the most fascinating sight is the ruins of the apple house. (Click on the photo to see the stone wall behind me.)

Gee whiz, it's amazing how much water one consumes on a warm hiking day! Taryn was running low so we decided to get water from the creek that followed the trail. We treated the water with my AquaMira drops (one solution purifies the water, the other takes away the yucky purifier taste). It does work, tastes just fine. You might not want to think about the fact that, unlike a water filter that removes the bad things, with water droplets the bad things are still there. They just can't hurt you now. But I did use this system on the backpack trip at Hazel Creek with no ill effects, so I'm happy with it. And Taryn is still alive!

Past the Cook cabin the gravel road disappeared and became a true trail again and we found ourselves climbing a mountain. Then...we found ourselves going down a mountain. I think this is Noland Mountain and it divided Big Cata- loochee from Little Cata- loochee. This is where the children of the first settlers of Big Cataloochee went as they married and began families. Trying to get away from the in-laws? It worked! Many small creek crossings again, including an interesting use of a downed hemlock tree.

Eventually Little Cataloochee Trail ended. We turned left on Pretty Hollow Gap Trail and followed it .8 miles to our car on Cataloochee Road. Near the end we passed the horse camp section which is quite extensive. If you have horses, this is the place to take them!

Nora and Ginger had finished their hike ahead of us and were touring the Beech School and other restored buildings. Once we were all back at camp, Nora thrilled us with pizza cooked on the camp stove, complete with choice of olives and pepperoni. Heaven! Thanks once again, Nora. We quickly cleaned up and hopped in the car and truck to go to the drive-in, as I was the only one who had seen the "elk at dusk" feature. This being Memorial Day weekend, the crowd was big, and it was as much fun people-watching as elk-watching.

There were Park volunteers at the edge of the meadow answering questions and checking out the elk, as there were two pregnant females that were beginning to separate themselves from the herd, presumably to give birth. The volunteers were an absolute wealth of information, telling fascinating stories of life in Cataloochee. One story went that every year for several years the menfolk went over the mountain to Waynesville to ask the school board to build a new school for the growing community. Each time they were turned down, citing budget, etc. (some things never change, right?) This particular year the menfolk bought a bottle or two and "discussed the situation" around the campfire on the way back home. Then they went to the school, removed the desks and other things, and set fire to the school. A disaster for sure! A new one was built. The men promised to keep the secret and only the last man left alive would tell. And he did.

Back at camp after the elkfest and it's time for a Girl Scout tradition: a campfire and marshmallows. What's not to love about this life?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Cataloochee - Day Three - A Change In Plans

Saturday, May 24: Cataloochee Divide Trail/McKee Branch Trail/Big Fork Ridge Trail - 13.8 miles

6:00 AM comes early in a tent - I think Stephanie's watch was running fast. Maybe we should have slept in the car with seat belts fastened to get a few more minutes of sleep...We were on the road by 6:30 AM headed to Mount Sterling. The hike du jour was 17 miles from Mount Sterling to Balsam Mountain and Pretty Hollow Gap, ending in a parking area near the restored Beech School in Big Cataloochee. There is a small area for parking alongside Cove Creek Road at the Mt. Sterling trailhead. Our buddies were going to get up at a reasonable hour, retrieve our car and move it to the Beech School parking area. I'm telling you, having people move cars for you is an absolute dream!

In the first meadow we passed after leaving the campground there were three male elk munching on grass, passing the time, posing for photos. Early morning hours are even better for elk-gazing than dusk (less people). Stephanie demonstrated her NASCAR skills with tight turns as we negotiated the one-lane gravel road further into this remote corner of the Park. The distance is only eight miles on the map but it's hard to judge distance when going between 15-25 miles per hour. I was a little nervous about walking 17 miles, and we were going rather deep into the Park with only one bail-out point at about 3 miles in, but we felt we were giving ourselves plenty of time with a 7:00 AM start.

Coming around a curve we saw a car already pulled over at the Mount Sterling trailhead and the driver's side and back passenger door on the driver's side were open. I was looking for the driver ("why doesn't that guy close his doors?") when Stephanie said, "Sharon, look at the window, there's glass." The driver's side window was completely smashed, glass all over the ground - no people in sight. Inside the car, there were bed pillows pushed up against the front and back passenger doors as though people had been sleeping there. I could not see into the back seat.

We had not passed another car all morning and we were there alone...hopefully. Everything was very still and ominous. We decided very quickly that not only did we not want to leave our car there, but we did not want to walk up that trail. What to do? We turned around and headed back toward camp, where we tracked down a ranger and made a report. Apparently this trailhead has been notorious for break-ins and the situation is getting worse as gas prices have climbed. So more lessons learned: don't park at remote trailheads, ask a ranger where it's safe to park, and have a plan in case your car does get broken into. The owner probably backpacked in and was going to have a very unpleasant surprise. No cell phone service and no car and a few miles to walk to a bigger road.

A lot of excitement and nervous energy and it was only 8:30 AM! Still a beautiful day ahead of us so it's time to change plans. Our camp buddies were up and moving and we convinced Jessie to drive us to the trailhead for the Cataloochee Divide Trail. From here we would hike nearly 14 miles and end up at the same parking area that we started from on Friday (remember the Jethro's Johnnies?)

Cataloochee Divide follows the Park boundary for 6.4 miles and offers long views of the Park to the west and the NC mountains to the east. After hiking under the tree canopy the day before, it was wonderful to see the blue Smokies lined up row after row. The first couple of miles is bordered by an old wooden fence originally built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930s. Clouds flirted with the mountaintops and we felt some light raindrops but not enough to pull out the rain gear, and eventually the day brightened. Perfect hiking weather once again.

At one point we met a fellow studying a slope with several trilliums and he told us that soon we would pass a place with an abundance of them. Sure enough, around a curve there were trilliums everywhere! For those of you who know these things, there were white erect trilliums, Catesby's trilliums, Vasey's trilliums and purple wakerobins. If you can explain the difference between those last two, please tell me. All I know is there were white and purple flowers everywhere...what a treat! (Let me state here that I am NOT a good flower photographer.)

At Purchase Gap, the junction with McKee Branch Trail, we paused. A right turn would take us 5.5 miles down the mountain to our car, but I needed to go 1.8 miles further to complete the Cataloochee Divide Trail, then backtrack to this junction. We decided that I would go ahead and Stephanie would do a portion of this section at a more leisurely pace and we would meet back up at the junction. This part of Cataloochee Divide goes past The Swag, a scrumptious inn that will be happy to host you if the price is right. The views and accommodations are heavenly. You be the judge!

Back together, Stephanie and I ate and relaxed and then set off down the McKee Branch Trail. We soon concluded that the only good thing about this trail was the fact that it was dry on this day. It's a horse trail that goes straight down (1,800 feet in 2.3 miles) and in places it is worn down so deeply that we were walking in a ditch. Constantly stepping down into deep holes filled with dry leaves was very disconcerting. Even near the bottom where the trail levels out with evidence of former home sites, we were too worn out to enjoy it. Swear words are allowed on the McKee Branch Trail. We have a pact to never see that trail again.

At the end of McKee Branch we crossed Caldwell Fork (hey, this looks familiar - our lunch stop yesterday!) and started down Big Fork Ridge Trail, not quite so steep. By now Stephanie's knee was talking and she was not. Every time I asked her how she was doing she smiled and said, "Fine," and I realized that she would say that with her last breath. What a pal! (By the way, her knee was fine after a day's rest). An interesting fact about Big Fork Ridge: about a mile from the end (or beginning if you're coming the other way - ha!) is the area where the elk were kept before they were released into the park. There is an enormous fenced area and a chute that the elk were put through to get into the pen. You can climb up on the platform and look in, but watch your step! This is not a maintained facility and boards are loose and missing. Don't know what the future is for this structure - maybe more elk?

Wait -- I think I see a road! Can it possibly be? Yes! And there's our car! And there's the cooler with the Diet Coke! Across the last footbridge to drop off packs and poles and then back to sit creekside and toast our accomplishment - 13.8 miles on a different trail than we planned when we shut our eyes last night.

Back at camp, our friend Taryn had arrived and was ready to kick back and chat. Nora was making so much linguine she finally had to toss it in a dishpan. Nothing tastes better than food that someone else has cooked for you while you walked your fanny off. As we enjoyed our dinner we made plans for the next day...reminded now that plans are always subject to change.