Sunday, December 28, 2008

On The Border

Part 2 - 12/7/08 - Metcalf Bottoms Trail/Little Brier Gap Trail/Little Greenbrier Gap Trail/Cove Mountain Trail – 13.9 Miles 

  Leaving behind the Walker Sisters’ home, Judy and I hiked up to the end of Little Brier Gap Trail and turned right onto Little Greenbrier Trail, Judy's thermometer still confirming what the rhododendron leaves already knew - baby, it's cold outside!

Little Greenbrier Trail runs along the Park’s border. Now, I have a pretty good compass in my head and a pretty good visual memory of maps,, but this trail made me question those abilities. It gently curves around the mountains, turning north, then south, and at least half a dozen times I saw houses in Wear Cove over my right shoulder on the “wrong” side of trail. How could we be headed east, looking south into the park (on my right) and see houses?? Very disorienting…at one point when we thought we had it straight we got out the USGS map and determined that we were looking across at the spine of the Smokies and Clingmans Dome.

At the end of Little Greenbrier Trail we turned left for a short jaunt (.9 miles) on Laurel Falls Trail up to its terminus at Cove Mountain and then turned left again for the short walk to the fire tower located on the mountaintop. This particular tower has a big shed type building on it so the top is no longer accessible. The shed houses equipment for monitoring air quality. At the base we met four men who were dayhiking as part of a guys’ weekend, and we all departed the tower together swapping stories about trails and lamenting that spouses often do not share this passion for walking in the woods. One of the fellows, Dale, walked with us for a while but eventually took off to catch up with his friends.

We followed Cove Mountain Trail for 8.4 miles back to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This trail also hugs the Park boundary, frequently paralleling gravel roads and coming within spitting distance of private homes (all on the correct left side now!) The fence of one home doesn’t even require spitting – you can reach out and touch it. The sign says “Private property – thank you!” which is so much nicer than “keep out”!

Judy and I heard and saw the snow blowers blasting and the chair lifts moving for Ober Gatlinburg ski resort. This trail is not for wilderness and solitude lovers! But I’m not a solitude hiker and I was interested to see this aspect of the Park’s neighbors.

One interesting discovery along Cove Mountain Trail was these things which are extremely prickly (see photo). Judy did a little internet research and found that they are chinquapin nuts, which sounds reasonable since the “brown book” ("Hiking Trails of the Smokies") says that we were on Chinquapin Ridge, although the Park’s official word is that there are no chinquapin trees…Chinquapins are a relative of the American chestnut tree and the nuts are edible…if you can get to them!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the joy of winter hiking is the views. My favorite photos have become those looking through bare branches at distant peaks. Along Cove Mountain Trail on this beautiful, cold, clear day we walked for hours in full view of majestic Mt. LeConte, with its three peaks and what the “brown book” tells me are the shoulders of the “bull” at Balsam Point. This was truly an awesome hike and I felt a thrill every time I looked up and saw those imposing peaks. It was so awesome that I stopped taking photos and just enjoyed the experience.

At last we wound our way down the mountain and began to see roads and cars. The trail is deceptive here, though, as we passed Cataract Falls and expected to walk straight into the VC parking lot. But first we meandered through the nature trail for what seemed like a ridiculously long time – it seems that no matter how long or short the trail, the last mile is the longest! But we reached the VC, changed shoes and drove back to Metcalf Bottoms to retrieve my car. Then Judy and I parted ways once again, knowing that before long we would be back again hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.


snodgrass said...

I'm not as familiar with Chinquapins as with Chinese Chestnuts (a close relative)... which your photo closely resembles. There are several Chinese Chestnut trees along West Deep Creek Road near the Bryson City GSMNP entrance.

smoky scout said...

Of course at this time of the year we don't have any leaves to help with identification (not that I'm very good at that anyway!) I think I will post this on the GoSmokies site and see if anyone out there can provide more info.