Clingmans Dome Hikes – 10/10/08 – Day One – Spruce Mountain Trail and Hyatt Ridge/Enloe Creek/Hyatt Ridge/Beech Gap II – 17.7 Miles
Okay, okay, so these trails are nowhere near Clingmans Dome…but the rest of the hikes during this trip are!
Jim and I left Charlotte at the end of the work day on Thursday, driving two cars so that I could stay a couple of days longer and hike with Danny once Jim headed back home. We caught a few hours of sleep at a Maggie valley motel and as the sun was rising on Friday we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway, out along Heintooga Ridge Road and onto the one-way Balsam Mountain Road looking for the Spruce Mountain Trail trailhead. This little trail once connected with Polls Gap trail (which then led to Polls Gap and Hemphill Bald) but now it ends at Campsite 42. As we walked to the campsite and back we could smell the evergreens and enjoy the sunshine of the beautiful day. I was very happy as this was the last trail I needed to complete before Balsam Mountain Road closes on November 1.
Continuing on down Balsam Mountain Road we reached Round Bottom Road and the Beech Gap II trailhead, where we left Jim’s car, and then on to Straight Fork Road. At the Hyatt Ridge trailhead we set out again. This is Hike #4 in the Balsam Mountain area of the “Day Hiker’s Guide.” The first 1.8 miles up Hyatt Ridge was surprisingly steep. I thought I was getting better at this, but I guess up is still up. Along this section we saw a mason jar – a remnant from moonshine days or left there by some weekend backpackers to fortify their trip back to their car?
Turning left on Enloe Creek Trail, we descended even more steeply down into Raven Fork Gorge until we came upon Raven Fork. The “brown book” or “Hiking Trails of the Smokies” tells us that this is one of the largest streams in the park that does not have a trail along it and it has a remarkable steel bridge across it. The brown book describes how this area is prone to flash flooding and that the bridge was built several years after a backpacker died trying to ford Raven Fork during high water. We stopped here for a snack and chatted with the two fishermen who were camping for the weekend at Campsite #47 on the far side of the bridge. One of the fellows saw Jim’s Virginia Tech hat – turns out he is a Hokie too.
We continued on past the campsite and hiked to the intersection of Enloe Creek and Hughes Ridge Trail. From here was just a 5.6-mile hike to Smokemont Camp- ground, where we would be camping the next two nights…but we had miles to go so we turned around and backtracked crossing the bridge again and going up, up, up out of Raven Fork Gorge. The leaf color on this trail (really everywhere we went today) was magnificent, with enough green leaves left to make everything else pop. People keep wanting to know when THE peak leaf day is – well, on Balsam Mountain it was October 10. I took many photos of individual leaves on the ground and overhead.
Back at the intersection we turned left to continue on Hyatt Ridge Trail and followed it to its terminus at Campsite #44. (At one time the trail continued on up the ridge to intersect with Balsam Mountain Trail.) Campsite 44 looked seldom used, and a fallen tree had knocked down the bear bag cables. I later contacted the Park service about this, but who knows when they will have a chance to repair this? I would hate to arrive at this site expecting to hang my pack on cables and then have to fool with stringing ropes…but it’s a good reminder to always have rope with you. The dying ferns along this trail were the pale yellow color of hay.
Once again we backtracked out from the campsite, this time turning left onto Beech Gap II Trail for the long steep walk down to Jim’s car. We were getting tired and hungry and wanted to get our tent site set up before dark so we were hurrying down the mountain, but still we stopped often to marvel at the predominantly yellow leaves. The late afternoon light slanted through and cast a pale yellow glow everywhere.
As we came out of the woods onto Round Bottom Road we stopped to talk with a couple of fly fishermen. Several backpackers came across the bridge from the Beech Gap I trail and a group of mountain bikers passed us. This quiet little gravel road was quite busy with people enjoying the day in many different ways.
We got to our reserved campsite at Smokemont. The campground was full and we had a family of excited small children on one side and a family with teenagers behind us, so it would be a noisy night in camp, but at least these folks were outside instead of playing video games or watching TV, right? My trusty tent was newly waterproofed and the poles with the deteriorated shot cords (guess I didn’t tell you about that, did I?) were duct taped together and everything worked great. We ate, changed, crawled into sleeping bags, popped in the ear plugs and passed out for the night. Aaaahhhhh.....And it wasn’t even cold.