Tow String Trail/Bradley Fork Trail (?) – 1/30/09 - 4.4 Miles
My edition of the “Day Hiker’s Guide” was published in 2006 and "Hiking Trails of the Smokies" latest edition is 2003. The Park’s $1 trail map is revised every year, so there are a couple of new trails I must figure out for myself. Tow String is one of them. It’s a horse trail originating from the Tow String horse campsite off of Newfound Gap Road between the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Smokemont Campground. Danny hiked this trail last fall and gave me the scoop, so I took my limited memory of her description and some direction from the staff at the VC and set out for a walk on a late Friday afternoon.
I was not particularly looking forward to this trail, expecting another muddy, rocky ditch used mostly by horses. I tried to make my car as unobtrusive as possible in the parking area that was obviously made with horse trailers in mind (although I was the only vehicle there – but who knows when those horse folks will show up?) and then began walking in the direction the sign pointed. Snowflakes were beginning to blow around and the temperature was 31 degrees. Fun! My first hike while it was actually snowing! Within the first tenth of a mile I came to a three-way fork in the trail. To the left the sign said “Concession and Hikers only”…hmmmm…to the right the sign said “unmaintained trail”…hmmm…the middle sign said “Tow String Trail.” Well, so far I give kudos for the signage people. Robert Frost would have chosen the unmaintained trail, but (mixing poems here, Bob, so sorry) I had miles to go before I slept, so I went with Door Number Two (or Tow…I’ve got a million of ‘em, folks!)
Another 50 feet up this trail and I saw one of the intriguing picture signs of a horse with a red circle and a line across it -- “no horses” -- and an obvious side trail. Experience has taught me that this almost always means a cemetery is located nearby, so I walked up the very steep hill less than .2 miles and, sure enough, on a pretty little knoll was a cemetery with about 19 marked graves (and more unmarked, I’m sure). Most were marked with plain flat rocks set on end, small ones at the foot and larger ones at the head, but three graves had carved headstones. Buried side by side are Robert Collins, who died in 1867, and his wife Elizabeth, who died in 1876. I couldn’t decipher the third stone.
Now, today was the second anniversary of my mother’s death and yesterday was the six-month anniversary of my father’s death. Both had been particularly heavy on my mind all week. I did not go back to my hometown to visit their graves, and here I was at a remote cemetery in the mountains looking at a married couple side by side. I remember the day of my mom’s funeral, we stepped outside of the church and snowflakes were blowing. I stood and thought about things.
After a while I moved on back to the main trail and continued to watch the flakes swirl. It didn’t last very long, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, but it was beautiful in the slanted afternoon light. One point of interest on the trail was a car-sized rock with ferns sprouting along the top of it, like a full head of hair. Tow String Trail turned out to be a nice surprise, not rutted, just wide, and I quickly walked to the intersection with Bradley Fork Trail. Now here is another deviation from the “Day Hiker’s Guide” and also an ambiguous section of the Park’s $1 map. I got out my USGS map to determine the best way to get back to my car. I could backtrack on Tow String, or I could walk part of the way back on…was it Bradley Fork? The trail sign says that Bradley Fork Trail is the gravel road back to Smokemont Campground. But there is another trail here labeled “Smokemont Stables Trail, Hikers and Stable Horses Only.” Another intriguing detail was the Benton MacKaye Trail sign attached to this, so I chose this route. Hey, the Benton MacKaye Trail is important, right? (Turns out this trail WAS rocky and rutted…oh, well…) It paralleled the Bradley Fork Trail for the very short distance to the campground and then continued alongside the campground drive (although 20 feet above it – I could have spit on cars if any had driven by) and eventually passed the Smokemont Baptist Church. This is a lovely white building, typical of Smokies churches, and hidden back in the trees at the T where you either turn left to the campground or right to the stables. I’m sure most of the people who come to the Park have missed this church.
From there I walked on the gravel road toward the Smokemont Stables, past the gate and eventually all the way back to my car. (I am making an educated guess at my mileage for today.) Still no horse people in the parking lot. I guess they’ll all be here tomorrow. As I drove on Newfound Gap Road, the wind was blowing more forcefully and the temperature was definitely dropping. I was glad to get to my cozy little hotel in Gatlinburg where they turn up the heat and leave the light on for me.
Postscript: The next day I spoke with a ranger at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and asked about the cemetery. She had an "Answer Book" full of wonderful things, including several pages listing cemeteries in the Park. The name of the cemetery on Tow String Trail is the Chambers Cemetery, 20 graves.