Smokies Hike With Judy – 4/13/12 – Turkeypen Ridge Trail/White Oak Sinks/Schoolhouse Gap Trail – 7.5 Miles
My friend Judy is narrowing down to her goal of finishing the Smokies 900 – only 20-something miles to go, but they are in bits and pieces that require extra miles to reach. It’s been 18 months since we’ve hiked together and we had lots to catch up on: children, her Lightheart gear business, and other hiking adventures, including her hiking on the Wonderland Trail at Mount Ranier and my Mount Whitney summit.
Our goal today was to hike 3.6-mile Turkeypen Ridge Trail, which begins at Laurel Creek Road on the Tennessee side of the GSMNP (near Cades Cove). Ordinarily this is a pleasant but ordinary little jaunt, not too much elevation gain or loss, and it can be combined with a couple of other trails criss-crossing Laurel Creek Road to make a decent dayhike loop. But...today the wildflower show was in full swing and we were thrilled to get an eyeful of nature’s best offerings.
Crested dwarf iris - so delicate and so detailed
I had seen crested dwarf iris on my solo backpack trip on the NC side of the park, but not in such profusion
Flame azaleas at eye level. Unlike the shrubs in the typical Southern yard, wild azaleas grow like wispy trees and their colors seem to float
Judy has always been good at seeing tiny details at her feet and she spotted this lone yellow ladyslipper on the down slope
Yellow lady slipper
Can’t get enough photos of mountain laurel
Before we knew it we were at the end of Turkeypen Ridge Trail where it T’s into Schoolhouse Gap Trail. And like the Holy Grail with a spotlight, there was a clump of yellow ladyslippers about 15 feet off the trail, with several worn paths encircling it where wildflower pilgrims have walked and knelt to photograph this rare orchid. So glad to see it appreciated and not disturbed.
While we were having a lunch break by the ladyslippers, a large school group from Chattanooga strolled up, carrying notebooks/journals and cameras. Their instructor seemed very laid back, said the process of their exploration was less important than the destination of their walk. Their assignment was to record anything they saw of interest.
Rather than rack up more Smokies 900 miles, Judy and I decided to explore the area called White Oak Sinks, not an official trail or area in the Park but well known to wildflower enthusiasts for its riotous display of spring flowers. Even the school group was headed there. The unofficial and unmaintained (but really good) trail into White Oak Sinks is off of Schoolhouse Gap Road. And what is there?
Dozens (hundreds?) of pink ladyslippers spread on a hillside
And mayapple blooms
We walked deeper into the Sinks, at first discerning the main trail from numerous side trails and then finally giving in to explore several of the intertwining paths. Judy and I had both been here before and had pretty good memory maps. Purple phlox filled the open areas and gave off a distinct perfume.
Waterfall in White Oak Sinks – some people were descending down into the grotto but we stayed at the top.
Blowhole Cave in White Oak Sinks, no people allowed, just bats. (Bats in the Smokies are suffering from white nose syndrome.)
Following a side trail as it climbed up a small ridge overlooking one of the meadows, Judy showed me a single grave of Abraham Law (1790-1864). I have seen some information online that he and his wife had nine children and that the correct death date is 1844. I wonder why he is buried up on that hill all alone?
That is one big grapevine
After roaming around the Sinks trails for a bit, we left the Chattanooga crowd behind and located another unofficial trail that runs about a mile up a creek bed to the park boundary at the end of Schoolhouse Gap Trail. Jim and I first hiked this trailback in 2008, when a homeowner on the boundary pointed it out to us. We didn’t know what we were getting into at the time, but today Judy and I easily walked to the end. There a good old hound dog good-naturedly guarded his homestead, but was not above begging for food as we took a snack break.
We walked back to our cars via Schoolhouse Gap Trail, a wide gravel road bed, a little boring unless you meet some horses, but it gets you from A to B. And you better believe I marked it on my second Smokies 900 map.
(Another great blog post about White Oak Sinks is here.)