Sunday, January 8, 2017

Smokies 900 Round 2: Cataloochee Ramble

Smokies 900 Round 2: Cataloochee Ramble - Caldwell Fork Trail & Big Fork Ridge Trail – 6/26/16 – 6.4 Miles

Frontcountry campgrounds (aka car camping) can be noisy places, dogs, kids, and adults who party late into the night as though no one else exists.  Okay, dogs and kids don’t bother me, but I have little patience (none) for adults who crank up the tunes, keep the fire stoked at chin height and holler every not-funny observation that occurs to them.  Not a fan of car camping.  But…this visit to Smokemont was very nice.  I met some calm neighbors who expressed surprise at a woman camping alone (some PR work still to be done there).  My tent site was as close as possible to Bradley Creek. Nighttime was as peaceful as could be. On Sunday morning I woke up at dawn-thirty, stretched, packed up and drove into Cherokee to meet my hiking buddy for the day. 

I’d met René (trail name “Legs”) as a hiker shuttle driver the previous fall and was fascinated by her freestyle spirit and life choices.  When I planned this trip to the Smokies, I threw the idea of a short dayhike out to her and she grabbed it. After a little bit of missing each other at our meeting spot (Peter’s Pancakes – I was inside eating a huge breakfast while she waited for me outside) we connected and created a hike plan. René had a shuttle pickup near Big Creek later in the day, so the decision to introduce her to Cataloochee Valley was easy.  We could have a ramble and she could pick up her hiker easily on time. 

It’s no secret that Cataloochee is my favorite part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

1)      It is closest to where I live – 3 hours from my driveway to the campground
2)      Although smaller in acreage, its history and preserved buildings rival Cades Cove which is 5 hours from where I live – thus I repeat #1
3)      The valley was the stage for the successful reintroduction of elk to the area
4)      Hiking, hiking, hiking with lots of creeks
5)      Cataloochee Campground, snuggled up beside its robust namesake creek, is intimate (27 sites) and delightful (car camping, yes, but it never seems to get crazy)
6)      Great page-turner historical fiction about inhabitants of the valley by Wayne Caldwell Cataloochee and Requiem By Fire

We only had time for about 6 miles, but with two cars we were not limited to a loop or an out-and-back hike.  We dropped one car at the end of the valley road and backtracked to start at the trailhead of Caldwell Fork Trail.  Our route was Caldwell Fork Trail to Big Fork Ridge Trail to the valley road. 

The temperature was hot but the elevation gain was barely noticeable as we chatted nonstop following Caldwell Fork upstream.  It’s a popular horse trail with numerous creek crossings and there are log footbridges for hikers – except when there aren’t.  [Always check the GSMNP website before you hike to determine trail conditions, i.e. if bridges along your route are washed out.] Wading the creek was welcome in the heat of the day.

Downed trees are interesting challenges, not obstacles

Rhododendron blooms along Caldwell Fork

Our hike was over in a blink, but the clock was ticking and we had time to visit just one of the historic buildings in the valley: Beech Grove Schoolhouse. 

Who knows how long René will be in western North Carolina relishing her nomad life?  I am envious of her freedoms, but I realize that my life is pretty good, too.  I’m happy that this love of hiking enables my life to intersect with folks of different ages and interests.  Hope to see you on the trails again, Legs!

"When you try to control everything, you enjoy nothing. Sometimes you just need to relax, breathe, let go and live in the moment." ~Unknown