Kanati Fork Trail Out-and-Back – 1/10/09 - 5.8 Miles
I had a spur-of-the-moment invitation to hike on Sunday, January 11, with Don from the Carolina Mountain Club. Knowing that we would have a very early start time, I needed to spend the night before close by, so I drove over to the Smokies on Saturday afternoon for a little warm-up hike before meeting Don for dinner. The trail I was aiming for was Kanati (pronounced “Kuh-NAH-tee) Fork Trail up to its intersection with Thomas Divide Trail (where I would be tomorrow with Don). It goes from 2,900 to 5,000 feet in 3 miles, a lot of huffing and puffing. But what a treat this trail turned out to be!
The air was cold and damp and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee was desolate. I stopped to chat with the rangers and see what their forecast was showing. Yep, rain and yuck and temps in the high 30’s. I estimated 3 hours to finish the trail and then a nice cozy hotel room awaited me. The parking lot for the trailhead was empty and a couple of cars drove by as I walked across the road, the occupants staring as though I were a rare sight. (What, a person walking, in the rain, on purpose?? Oh, my word, Agnes, she’s going into the woods!)
The biggest payoffs of Kanati Fork are within the first mile, and I’m here to tell you, everyone who visits the Smokies in winter should take the time to walk this trail. Kanati Fork itself was flowing fast after the recent rains and it looked like a ribbon of white coursing down the mountain. At first I thought I was seeing snow, but it was the white water of a multitude of small cascades. As you’ve heard me say many times now, the lack of foliage gives a magnificent long view into the coves and crevices and valleys between the mountains and you can see water that you can only hear at other times of the year.
After about one mile there is a very sudden sharp switchback and right in front of the hiker’s eyes is a magnificent example of Dutchman’s pipe vines. Wow! The main section in my photos is about 20 feet tall and disappears into the treetops. Wow! The ropelike vines are larger than my forearm. Wow! I stayed here enthralled by the vines for a long time, taking photos as best I could while staying on the trail. (Although I could see where others had climbed up the banks to get a closer look, it was very wet and slippery and I was, after all, by myself and did not want to get hurt and spend the night there.)
Finally I turned to continue on up the trail. It soon began to drizzle and I put on my rain jacket and my backpack cover. You know, once you have hiked in the rain and seen what a non-issue it is, a whole new hiking experience opens up. The sound of the soft rain (or a downpour), the smell of the dampness, splashing in the puddles (hey, you’re already wet, and those boots are supposed to be waterproof, right?), rock hopping where there is usually no water at all, it’s a delight to be in the woods when it rains. Don’t get me wrong - I like sunshine a lot too! – but don’t let the rain or the clouds keep you off the trails.
Farther up the trail were more Dutchman’s pipe vines, though not as impressive as the first one. There were also several fallen trees across the trail, most easy to get by, but a couple were challenges like this one. I crawled over it the first time and, unbeknownst to me, the pack cover got caught on it and pulled off. On the way back down the trail I retrieved the pack cover, and from that angle it looked like it was possible to crawl under the tree. The verdict: under is easier.
On the way back down I paid more attention to the side creeks feeding into Kanati Fork and the main creek itself, marveling at how far I could see that white ribbon, and I spotted this great tree formation which I totally missed on the way up. Then suddenly...I was back at the trailhead and my car was sitting by the road. Even with the picture-taking and the tree-wrangling I was finished in less than three hours. I stopped back by the Visitors Center to ask the rangers about the vines I saw, and from their reference books we determined that it was indeed Dutchman’s pipe rather than grapevines. (Grapevines have bark that looks shredded and Dutchman’s pipe bark is very smooth.) I showed them my photos and they took note so they could recommend it to more visitors. It was close to closing time, raining steadily outside, and I went on my way. My head and my heart were full from my wonderful walk in the woods that day.
"Keep close to nature's heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." ~John Muir