Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Smashed Pumpkin

Kephart Prong Trail/Grassy Branch Trail/Dry Sluice Gap Trail/Cabin Flats Trail/Bradley Fork Trail/Smokemont Loop Trail – 15.1 Miles

Judy and I met early in the morning at the entrance to Smokemont Camp-
ground, left one car, and drove to the Kephart Prong trailhead five miles up on Newfound Gap Road. Today’s goal was Hike #2 in the Balsam Mountain section of “Day Hiker’s Guide.” Kephart Prong is a very popular Smokies trail, just two miles long on a gentle railroad grade. There is much evidence of the CCC camp that was based here from 1933 to 1942. During World War II the camp also was home to conscientious objectors. Within the first quarter-mile there are low stone walls, boxwood shrubs that indicate home sites, a large sign plaque made of rounded river stones, a huge rock hearth and chimney, and many other things if you want to explore.

For those not familiar with the name Kephart, more information on this trail is best quoted directly from “Hiking Trails of the Smokies”: The prong (river), trail and mountain above them are named in honor of Horace Kephart, author of “Our Southern Highlanders”, a classic portrait of mountain culture during the first decade of the 20th century. An author, scholar and librarian from St. Louis, Kephart came to the Smokies in 1904 after a nervous collapse, which seems mostly to have been a mid-life crisis and shift in values. Leaving his wife and family, he lived alone in the mountains and wrote lovingly and honestly about the Appalachian settlers and land. He was also a leading park advocate in the 1920s.” Sadly, he did not live to see the birth of the National Park.

Temperatures were in the 30s and we were layered warmly, knowing that we would shed clothing as the trail got steeper and the day grew warmer. However, we were surprised to see a hiker coming towards us with a sleeveless tee shirt and a big smile! Soon we arrived at the Kephart Shelter (one of only three shelters in the Park that are not on the Appalachian Trail and thus another reason for the popularity of this trail) and met the chilly man’s brother, who was packing up to head down the trail too. After a short chat (but, hey, that guy could have talked all day, right, Judy?) and a photo op, we turned toward Grassy Branch Trail and began a serious climb. Now, someone needs to call Ms. Etnier, author of “Day Hiker’s Guide”, and tell her she is pretty much wrong in her description of this trail as “easy.” There wasn’t much talking going on as Judy and I made that 2.5-mile climb!

At the top we paused to re-layer and breathe.
This is me having hot flashes on a cold day on the trail.

At the intersection with Dry Sluice Gap, a left turn takes you 1.3 miles up to the AT, but we turned right and headed down the mountain to the intersection with Cabin Flats Trail. The map is a little fuzzy here and we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss this spur trail that ends at Campsite 49. We did find the campsite, a very peaceful large site near a stream, and we had a short rest and goodies. We could not see bear cables, though, so we walked further back into the camping area, where we finally found the cables (although one set was knocked down) and this jack-o-lantern that someone had left behind. How cute! Now, knowing that pumpkins are food, we were amazed that it had stayed here for any length of time. I took this photo just before we smashed it into bits, stuffed it in a ziplock bag and put it in Judy’s pack to carry out.

Backtracking out to the main trail and turning left, Cabin Flats Trail continues for a little bit (somewhat confusing until you see it firsthand) and then we hit a traffic turnaround, which was Bradley Fork Trail. From here we had a 2.3-mile flat stroll beside the creek. We passed two backpackers on their way to Campsite 49 (happy to see someone was going to enjoy that place tonight.) We also passed a couple of benches and followed Judy’s tradition of sitting on them for a moment. Finally we arrived at our last challenge of the day – Smokemont Loop Trail.

First of all, can we take a vote to change this name to just plain Smokemont Trail? That name is misleading. It is not a loop! It is half a loop. Combining it with Bradley Fork Trail beginning from the Smokemont Campground makes it a loop. I refuse to call this a loop. I’m just saying…

Smokemont Trail is 3.9 miles long with a mountain in the middle. There is no “good” way to hike it. I did this trail last year during my research to see if I liked hiking alone and had the stamina for it. I’m happy to report that it was not half as bad as I had anticipated. But by the time we hit the final downhill my feet were complaining and mentally it was time to stick a fork in me – I was done.

We retrieved cars, changed shoes, and Judy and I waved goodbye and I drove home to Charlotte. I am so fortunate to have Judy as a hiking buddy, as she will say, “just give me the date and I’ll go where you go.” Thanks, Judy, for being so flexible and reliable! Looking forward to more great days in the Smokies!

1 comment:

TnHiker said...

Did you enjoy all of those old footbridges along Kephart Trail? The ones on that trail are some of the most beautiful and probably oldest in the Smokies. Those CCC guys really did great work on any trail where they did the construction--Kephart Prong trail being a good example.

You are right on about the steep slope of Grassy Branch--especially the last mile on the way to the top.

Smokemont "Loop" Trail is a beautiful route to hike in the springtime.

Thanks for sharing your experiences along these trails.