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.