3/14/09 – Parson Branch Road/Hannah Mountain Trail/Rabbit Creek Trail – 14.3 Miles
Last summer and fall I focused on hiking trails that originated/terminated on park roads that are closed in the winter months. One gamble I took was the Hannah Mountain trailhead off of Parson Branch Road. The hike route is Hannah Mountain and Rabbit Creek Trail to Abrams Campground, a big shuttle hike, and I put it off until the spring. Well, I lost my bet with myself because Parson Branch did not reopen on schedule due to erosion problems from flooding. Once again we were faced with a Plan B – hiking four miles up Parson Branch Road to the trailhead. And it was raining.
The last time that Danny and Lenny and I tried hiking from Abrams Campground we had difficulty finding the place – Danny tracked it down while Lenny and I were on the trail. So on this day Danny led us to the campground entrance, where we left Judy’s car. Then Danny headed off to revisit some popular trails on the way to Sugarlands VC and the three of us drove along the Dragon’s Tail (Highway 129) in search of the exit end of Parson Branch Road. We were a little nervous about finding the right road, not knowing whether it would be marked, not having a lot of time for trial and error, having only a vague idea of mileages. We did find it, although there is no sign naming the road, just a “Do Not Enter” sign and a gate across. For those of you looking, it is at a green-&-white mile marker 4 on Highway 129. So off we went up Parson Branch Road. And it was lightly raining.
Within the first third of a mile we came to a place where Parson Branch flows across the gravel road. A concrete pad has been poured for the width of the creek flow, so no rock hopping here, and the water was several inches deep. Judy’s feet were immediately soaked, Lenny plowed through as usual, and I danced through on my heels clogger style and managed to stay relatively dry. We got to practice our methods 16 more times, some places deeper, some places shallower. And it was raining.
The road walk was okay, a bit steep in places, but a well-graded gravel road. I counted three places where repairs really were needed before I’d take a car on it. There was heavy equipment at the parking area for the Hannah Mountain and Gregory Bald trailheads. Hopefully repairs will be completed and the road will be opened soon. Still raining.
Hannah Mountain trail is truly a pleasure to walk on, few rocks or roots and plenty of pine needles. It’s a ridge walk with little noticeable elevation gain or loss. About 2 miles into the trail Judy found a tree to hug, a great-great-great-grandfather poplar tree with “warts.” We passed one hiker who told Lenny he was delivering supplies to a campsite for a friend. My guess was the supplies were beer or something consumable, or else the friend would have to carry it out again, right? We stopped time and again to adjust clothing, first warm, then chilled, always a little damp. Judy is adjusting something underneath her Packa, a combination poncho/raincoat/pack cover made of silnylon. And it was raining.
The rain was variable all day, light to moderate, and we had several quick snack stops. I watched the clouds drift between the mountains up close and far away, the peaks playing peek-a-boo in the mist. I took lots of photos, none of which really captured the mood. Even though we all prefer sunshine, the colors of the day, black, gray, white, silver, were lovely in their own way. Days like this are necessary for our mountains to be beautiful and alive. And all those pine trees? In one spot there was a fungus growing along the edges of the bark that gave the distinct appearance of snakeskin. And still it was raining.
Because of the brevity of our stops (who wants to sit in the rain?) we reached the junction with Rabbit Creek Trail quickly, turned left and began our one real climb of the day over Pine Mountain. The only thing of interest I saw along this portion of the hike was the abundance of pine cones, long, slender and slightly curved, looked like they were tipped with silver. I kept looking and looking, and finally could not resist arranging a group of them into a swirling star pattern. (Yes, I scattered them again after I took the photo.) And, yeah, it was lightly raining.
At the bottom of Pine Mountain we walked along Abrams Creek, passing obvious homesites in this bottom land. The trail was edged with thick daffodil foliage, that sure sign of past human habitation. And the daffs were nodding heavy with moisture because it was…raining.
At last we arrived at what I had been dreading all day – Abrams Creek. We knew from the Park’s trail cautions page (where the Hazel Creek bridge issue is now also posted) that the footlog across Abrams Creek was gone. (That note is no longer on the website so I don't know the current status.) Lenny had been here before and his recollection was that the crossing was perhaps knee deep but with a smooth bottom. Well, like raising teenagers, you can’t get around it, you gotta go through it…Lenny and I have developed a great system where he goes first and I learn from his mistakes and don’t follow him, but today it wasn’t too hard of a choice. The bottom was relatively smooth and we all waded across just fine. (But Judy and I will never face a creek crossing lightly again.) And it was gently raining.
Now we faced a shuttle to retrieve my car from Parson Branch Road on Highway 129 and a very long drive back to Gatlinburg (Judy clocked the trip at about 100 miles). We stopped briefly at Tribal Grounds coffee shop in Cherokee to revive ourselves. With java in hand and cruising through town, we saw what looked like an accident ahead, cars stopped on the road in both directions. Getting closer, we realized it was an elk standing on a wooded hillside (for those of you intimately familiar with Cherokee, it was between the Totem Pole gift shop and Boundary Tree Road). The elk was a young male just beginning to grow his antlers, and he was chewing and gazing and posing for photos. Dontcha just love wildlife? We met Danny at Smoky Pines, my favorite hotel in Gatlinburg, and after a quick change of clothes we went for dinner at Ogle’s Pizza & Pasta – delish! Then we hung up things to dry and caught some ZZZZ’s before our next day’s hike. Still raining.
Postscript: We got up early the next morning and had breakfast at Shoney’s, watching the rain coming down even harder than yesterday. Judy and I made the snap decision that we did not want to walk another day in the rain. She headed for home, and I shuttled Danny and Lenny to set them up for their hike on Grapeyard Ridge and Baskins Creek, and then I turned towards Charlotte too. Got home in time to see my two younger kids on their last day of spring break before they went back to their respective schools. Rained all the way home.