Balsam Mountain Trip – Day One – Balsam Mountain Trail/Mount Sterling Ridge Trail/Pretty Hollow Gap Trail/Palmer Creek Trail – 17.7 Miles
On our first night on the ridge at Balsam Mountain a thunderstorm swept through that aged me a few years. At least twice the lightning and thunder were simultaneous. As I waited for the trees to flatten us, I thanked the good Lord for my life and looked forward to shaking hands with Saint Peter. If I had picked up the camera we would have evidence of my terror-stricken self. I am happy to report that my little tent kept us safe and dry…until we stepped out into the fog the next morning.
We ate, packed up and headed off to the end of the paved Heintooga Ridge Road (passing a small village of wild turkeys, 4 adults and at least 15 little ones) and onto the one-lane 14-mile wonder that is Balsam Mountain Road, which is closed in winter. Like a couple of the Cades Cove ventures, my time for completion of today’s hike is limited to the summer and early fall months, so I was happy to be here. I challenge anyone to exceed the 15 MPH speed limit on Balsam Mountain Road. The road is extremely well maintained but very twisty. Seven miles in we parked at the trailhead for Palmer Creek Trail (where we would be coming out) and walked the road .6 miles (.7 by some sources but I’m being conservative) to the Balsam Mountain Trail trailhead. We figured we would like to see the car as soon as we came out of the woods (foreshadowing: boy, were we right!)
Our 4.3-mile section of the Balsam Mountain Trail is a nice climb up where cattle were once driven from Cataloochee to graze. We were walking in and out of fog so there was no views, though. At Beech Gap the trail meets Beech Gap Trail and we could imagine Native Americans meeting at this natural intersection to pause and rest. We stayed on Balsam Mountain Trail to Laurel Gap Shelter, a stone shelter that sleeps 14. This is one of a few shelters in the park that still has the chain link bearproof fence over the opening, making it, in my humble opinion, a dismal place to stay. These fences were placed to keep the bears out and the hikers in with their food, but the Park is gradually renovating all the shelters to be open. The theory is that hikers were careless with their food because they felt protected by the fencing, but now they must be more proactive by hanging their food properly via the cable systems provided.
We next approached a four-way intersection for our right turn onto Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Here the trail is quite overgrown in places and nearing this junction it was downright ridiculous (see Carol – she is on the trail). I could have passed two feet from a buffalo and never noticed him. This is where you make lots of noise so as not to surprise snakes, bears, buffalos and elephants.
Mount Sterling Trail was a great 3.9-mile ridge walk. Carol is a strong hiker with long legs and we moved along at a good clip. Almost before we know it we came to our next right turn onto Pretty Hollow Gap Trail – and found ourselves again thrashing through overgrown vegetation AND going downhill in mud. The rain the previous day was soaking through my zipoff pants and I was glad that I had opted not to zip off the legs. Carol looked very attractive in her shorts and mud-decorated calves. Just as we were steeling ourselves for a 4-mile slip-and-slide, the trail view opened up to a…well, a pretty hollow! I would love to see this trail in dry weather. Much of it follows Pretty Hollow Creek and rhododendrons were blooming profusely. Past the junction with Palmer Creek Trail I had to continue on for .8 miles to tag up with Little Cataloochee Trail and come back to Palmer Creek. At this point Carol stopped to doctor her heels, as the wet conditions were making her boots rub. And it would get worse…
Palmer Creek Trail began with a picturesque footlog crossing of Pretty Holly Creek, the rhodies in abundance. More mud and a steady uphill, but hey, we were strong hikers and already filthy, right? And at the end of 3.3 miles would be our car! In the mud we saw several tracks that were either a barefoot hiker with a toenail problem or…a bear? The prints were huge, very recent and pointing toward us. We spent a moment feeling creepy and then…what is that SOUND? It’s…rain…pouring! We could hear it coming through the trees. We had already put on pack covers, but there was no chance to get on rain jackets before we were drenched, and it was warm enough and strenuous enough uphill to make rain gear unnecessary. Halfway up the trail the thunder began to boom and I began to think about crouching on a rock. We agreed that there was no other choice than to keep going. At each bend in the trail I expected to see the car and each time I didn’t I muttered, “Crap!” I must have said this 300 times.
Finally back at the car, we changed shoes and clothes as best we could and headed the rest of the way down the still one-way Balsam Mountain Road. At the end we were near the main entrance to the Park, so we stopped at the Occonaluftee Visitor Center but missed its closing by 20 minutes…oh well…back to camp. But at least it had stopped raining. We used the inside of the car as a clothes drying rack. They never did get dry.