Sunday, October 6, 2019

Chestnut Branch Trail

New Miles Completed: 2.1
Total Miles Hiked: 4.2
6 Oct. 2019

Quick post for a short hike - I got to do a Leave No Trace trainer course in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this weekend. It was a really fantastic course, and I'm really grateful to those organizations that supported the course: Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association, and to the folks that ran the course.

There was a little time at the end of the course which was run in the Big Creek area, so I took advantage of the opportunity to do the Chestnut Branch trail. This is a short connector trail that runs from the Big Creek road near the Ranger Station up to the Appalachian Trail. It's 2.1 miles long and gains about 1200 feet in elevation.

Trailhead selfie
 The trail follows the Chestnut Branch for about the first half before it climbs steeply up the ridge toward the Appalachian Trail. It's a very pleasant trail - following the creek, there is a lot of Rhododendron and some nice views of the creek itself. The trail is in good shape generally - some rocks and roots, and some gullying, but overall well-maintained.

Chestnut Branch is a very picturesque little stream
We've not had a significant rainfall for about 6 weeks now and EVERYTHING is drying up. There are reports of springs drying up all over the park, and all of the plants look thirsty. I've never seen Rhododendrons look so sad... 

You know it's either really cold, or really dry when the Rhododendron leaves curl up! Wow - we need some rain!
 Chestnut Branch trail moves along at a reasonable slope for the first mile-ish, then you hit a pretty steep section near the middle where the trail moves away from the creek and starts to climb the ridge on the way up to the AT.

Steep section near the middle of the trail.
There were several nice flowers or fruits on display today.

Indian Cucumber

Fall Aster

Showy Gentian

Turkey Feather
 My feet keep expanding/growing/flattening... The size 12 1/2 Salomon boots I've been wearing for the last year or so have started to beat my toes up. So it was time to try something new. I wanted to give the Altra Lone Peaks a go since they're the new favorite of thru-hikers. This was my first hike with them and I really like them so far. I could feel the different muscles being used in my shins and calves by these zero-drop shoes, but I felt really free in the lightness of the shoe, and I like the big toe box. I'm cautiously optimistic that these will work well for me!

My new shoes - Altra Lone Peaks
 In the last 1/4 mile or so the trail hits another super steep section, but you can start to see the light shining through the trees at the top so you know you're getting close. I always like to touch the white blazes of the AT. Someday...

The Appalachian Trail!
It was great to get out for a quick hike. Looking forward to some temperatures that are less than 90 degrees in the coming weeks, and hopefully some rain. Happy Fall, y'all!

Til next time, happy hiking.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Kanati Fork - Thomas Divide Trails

New Miles Completed: 7.5
Total Miles Hiked: 15.0
7 Aug. 2019

Did a day hike to knock out the Kanati Fork and a chunk of the Thomas Divide trails. Definitely not the most efficient way to do these trails as I hiked every each of each trail twice... But I got them done! And it was a beautiful day - lovely weather with a nice breeze. It was pretty humid, but not terribly hot. 

I hiked up the Kanati Fork trail to Thomas Divide (2.9 miles), hiked north on the Thomas Divide trail to Newfound Gap Road (1.8 miles), turned around and hiked south on Thomas Divide to the junction with Sunkota Ridge trail (2.8 miles), turned back north and hiked to Kanati Fork trail, then down Kanati Fork back to my car.

Kanati Fork and Thomas Divide trail sections completed in orange
 Most of the sections I need to complete in NC will be backpacking trips, but there are still a few that are doable as day hikes, and this was one. Summer is slipping away, and school starts in a couple of weeks so I wanted to get in one more trip.

Kanati Fork trailhead selfie

Beginning of the Kanati Fork trail
Here's the Kanati Fork trail in a nutshell: steep as heck with 5 gazillion switchbacks. 

There really not a whole lot to recommend about this trail. The elevation profile in the little brown book shows a constantly ascending straight line going from 2900' up to 5000' - a 2100' elevation gain over 2.9 miles. While the trail is named for the creek that it parallels, there are really no views of the creek as the trail is on the ridge high above the creek. The trail climbs consistently up toward Thomas Divide climbing up the sides of the ridge, crossing small creeks that feed into Kanati Fork, and then a switchback to continue the ascent.

This is a good trail for wildflowers, especially in the wet areas where the trail crosses the feeder creeks. There are some nice stands of crimson beebalm and cone flower, and big clumps of brook lettuce growing in the creeks. There is also LOTS of stinging nettle in the wet sections.

Crimson Beebalm & Coneflower

Brook lettuce
For the most part the Kanati Fork trail is in good shape. It's mostly reasonably wide and not terrible rooty or rocky. The sections where it crosses the creeks are rocky, of course, and there are a few stretches (especially in the upper part of the trail) where it's narrow and eroded, but overall it's in good shape.

Kanati Fork trail ends when it junctions with the Thomas Divide trail. It's a nice flat spot for a trail junction with some tree trunks for sitting on. I stopped for a quick snack before turning north on the Thomas Divide trail.

Kanati Fork - Thomas Divide trail junction

Chestnut trees on Thomas Divide trail: an old downed trunk, and a new stump sprout

Thomas Divide Trail
The section of Thomas Divide that I did doesn't have a huge amount of elevation change. From the Kanati Fork junction north, the first mile is absolutely lovely, flat and grass and fern-lined. It made me think of the John Muir quote about "sauntering" through the mountains - it was a lovely stroll!

Toward the northern end (as you approach Newfound Gap Road) the trail does drop in elevation, which means it climbs from Newfound Gap Road if you are headed that direction, but only for about 3/4 of a mile. This section of trail had LOTS of chestnut trees, ranging from small saplings to trees that are up to 6" in diameter and maybe 15' tall. I love seeing the chestnut trees, even though I know these trees will also eventually succumb to the blight. I love to imagine what the forests looked like when the chestnuts were dominant.

Thomas Divide trailhead at Newfound Gap Road 
Gigantic boulder smack dab in the middle of the trail near the Thomas Divide trailhead

From here I turned around and retraced my steps back south toward Kanati Fork. Stopped for a quick lunch at the Kanati Fork - Thomas Divide trail junction, and then headed south on Thomas Divide toward Sunkota Ridge trail. In this section the trail rises about 200' in elevation over the first half mile, then drops about 600' over the next mile as it heads towards Tuskee Gap, and then climbs back up another 300' or so as it nears Sunkota Ridge trail. So it's kind of a roller coaster, up then down then up, but it's never terribly steep. In some spots the trail is wide and fern-lined, in others it's narrow and vegetation is encroaching over the trail. But overall it's a very pleasant walk in the woods.

Ridge-side walk on the Thomas Divide trail
Saw some more nice wildflowers on this chunk of the trail including Yellow Fringed Orchid, Indian Pipe, Black-eyed Susan, LOTS of Goldenrod that was a favorite with the bees and butterflies, and even a couple of Columbines (they were flowering at low elevation back in April!)

Yellow Fringed Orchid

Swallowtail butterfly & Goldenrod

Black-eyed Susan

A VERY late-blooming Columbine

Indian Pipe
When I reached the Thomas Divide - Sunkota Ridge trail junction I stopped for a snack and water break and got out my map to peruse the trails in this area. The section from here south is all new to me - still blank spots on my map. So I was mentally planning how to best get those done while I rested for a bit.

Thomas Divide - Sunkota Ridge trail junction
From here I turned around and retraced my steps back up to the Kanati Fork trail junction, and then back down Kanati Fork to my car. It was a truly lovely day. Not the ideal way to check off miles, doing everything twice, but it got the job done. Late summer at high elevation on the Smokies is really nice.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Forney Ridge - Springhouse Branch - Forney Creek - Clingmans Dome Loop

New Miles Completed: 19.4
Total Miles Hiked: 20.6
25-26 July 2019

My map on the TN side is pretty well filled in, but still have lots of trails to do on the NC side. This week I did a nice 20 mile loop from Clingmans Dome down into the NC side. Started at Clingmans Dome, hiked down Forney Ridge trail to Springhouse Branch trail to Forney Creek trail and stayed the night at campsite 70 (Jonas Creek). Then hiked up the rest of Forney Creek, and up the Clingmans Dome bypass trail and down the Clingmans Dome "trail" (paved walkway). I've been to Clingmans Dome and out to Andrews Bald several times, but never checked those sections off of my trail list.

 I arrived at Clingmans Dome parking area in the middle of the day on a beautiful summer's day... And this is what the traffic looked like. EVERY parking spot was taken and traffic was backed up a half mile down the road. I found a spot to park along the side of the road and hiked up the last bit to the parking area.
Clingmans Dome road on a beautiful sunny afternoon
 My trip started here at the Forney Ridge trailhead, just off of the Clingmans Dome parking area. This is a very busy section of trail because of Andrews Bald, and LOTS of folks were on the trail both headed down, and headed back up.

Forney Ridge trailhead @ Clingmans Dome parking lot
The trail from Clingmans Dome down to Andrews Bald was reconstructed several years ago and now includes lots of rock steps to replace the badly rutted trail of old. Just 0.1 mi below the parking lot there is a trail junction: Forney Ridge trail continues left out to Andrews Bald and beyond, while the Clingmans Dome bypass trail goes to the right.

Along the side of the trail (and all over Clingmans Dome) the Filmy Angelica is starting to flower. The bees & wasps LOVE this plant and congregate on the flowers. This is a high-elevation specialist and is also known as the Mountain Angelica.

Filmy Angelica in flower
 Below the constructed rock steps the Forney Ridge trail flattens out for a bit on its way out to Andrews Bald. 1.1 miles below the parking lot is the junction of the Forney Ridge and Forney Creek trails. This is where I would come back up tomorrow.

Forney Ridge - Forney Creek trail junction
 Andrews Bald is a popular destination for good reason. Any time of year you can get amazing views down into the NC side of the park. You can see range after range of mountains, and all the way down to Fontana Lake. It's an especially amazing place in late June when the Flame Azaleas, Mountain Laurels and Rhododendron are all flowering.

Exiting the Spruce-Fir forest out onto Andrews Bald

View from Andrews Bald
Below Andrews Bald the traffic on Forney Ridge completely disappeared. I didn't see another soul from here through the end of the day. Because of the warren of trails across Andrews Bald there is a sign directing you to the real Forney Ridge trail at the bottom of the bald. And the trail from here down for quite a ways was as much a creek as a trail - rocky and full of water!

Forney Ridge trail sign at the bottom of Andrews Bald

Forney Ridge trail / creek - it was WET!
Forney Ridge in mid-summer after good rain may be one of my new favorite trails! The wildflower display was amazing!!! So many beautiful high-elevation species in flower. The walking was slow and tough because of the water and rocks and roots, but the lush growth and all of the wildflowers made it very well worth it. Some of my favorites include the Turk's Cap Lily, the Pink Turtlehead, the Yellow Fringed Orchid, and the Crimson Bee Balm.

Forney Ridge trail drops through the Spruce Fir forest and then into a drier oak / rhododendron / mountain laurel forest as it passes by Buckhorn Bald and approaches Board Camp Gap and its junction with Springhouse Branch trail. Through this lower section there are LOTS of American Chestnut stump sprouts, a few of which reached 6 inches in diameter and up to about 15 feet tall. The story of the demise of the American Chestnut is one of the saddest invasive species stories there is. The character of the North American eastern deciduous forest was forever changed by the accidental introduction of a fungal disease from Asia. You can read more about this story at the American Chestnut Foundation site

American Chestnut stump sprout
 As usual, human trails are often used by wildlife as well. I saw lots of bear sign like this, some of it old, but some quite fresh. I did see a bear Friday morning along the Forney Creek trail - he flashed across the trail in front of me, more than happy to get away from me.

Fresh bear scat on Forney Ridge trail
 All of the trails on this loop seem to be fairly lightly used, but by their very nature of being narrow trails on steeply sloped ridges, there was a LOT of erosion where the trail was slipping away downhill leaving a network of roots to traverse.

Trail erosion on lower Forney Ridge trail
 After nearly 4 hours of hiking, taking it slow because of trail conditions and to take a lot of pictures, I arrived at Board Camp Gap which is the end of Forney Ridge trail and its junction with Springhouse Branch trail. I couldn't believe I had only come 5.6 miles, and was only about half-way to my destination!

Forney Ridge - Springhouse Branch trail junction
Springhouse Branch trail between Forney Ridge and Forney Creek trails traverses a couple of ridges and follows Bee Gum Branch on its way over to Forney Creek. The trail does a little up, a little down, is narrow, and this time of year at least, pretty overgrown. I was wading through dog-hobble...

Springhouse Branch trail overgrown with Dog Hobble

Not much remarkable to say about Springhouse Branch trail - maybe because by this time of the day I was just trudging along and wading through the overgrown underbrush. The trail tends to stay on the ridge above Bee Gum Branch, so you can hear the creek, but don't get many views.

Right at the end of Springhouse Branch trail where it junctions with Forney Creek trail is backcountry campsite 71. This is the site of an old CCC camp, and there's plenty of evidence of it, including an amazing old chimney still standing in the middle of the site! The campsite is big and open with LOTS of spaces for tents and a few separate fire rings. Lots of neat history to explore and artifacts to enjoy. 
Backcountry campsite 71 

Springhouse Branch - Forney Creek trail junction
From here I just had 1.2 miles up Forney Creek to the Jonas Creek trail and campsite 70 which was where I was spending the night. This lower part of Forney Creek trail was also overgrown in places. Sometimes you are right next to the creek, other times on the ridge above it. The trail has obviously been re-routed a few times in a few different places too. Sometimes this was quite obvious with signs and logs across the old trail, and other times not quite so obvious... I missed on of the re-routes and took the old trail through a very steep, rutted section for about a 1/2 mile.

More Dog Hobble encroaching on the lower Forney Creek trail
 I finally reached the Jonas Creek trail, and crossed over Forney Creek on a nice bridge to reach campsite 70, my home for the night. Phew - I was beat!

Forney Creek - Jonas Creek trail junction

Bridge over Forney Creek at Jonas Creek trail junction
 Backcountry campsite 70 at Jonas Creek is very nice. The Jonas Creek trail runs directly through the campsite. There are a couple of different fire rings / bear cables, and several other flat spots for tents. The site is large and open and sits at the confluence of Jonas Creek and Forney Creek, so it's surrounded by the sound of running water. I set up my hammock, made dinner, sat in the sun and read for a while before turning in around 10 pm.

Backcountry campsite 70 - Jonas Creek
Friday morning I got up and got breakfast and coffee, packed up and got ready to go. I was a little apprehensive about the day. I knew that there were several un-bridged creek crossings on Forney Creek and we had a lot of rain in the previous few weeks so the water was high.

Five of the unbridged water crossings on Forney Creek trail
The water crossings turned out not to be a big deal. For the first two I stopped, took off my boots, put on my water shoes, waded across, stopped, and put my boots back on. That got old, so after the first couple I just walked through, boots and all. So I had wet boots for the rest of the day... The first two crossings were about thigh-high (the bottom of my shorts got wet, but not all the way up to my waist), the next two were about knee-high, and the others could be rock-hopped.

From Jonas Creek back north the Forney Creek trail generally follows Forney Creek, but is not always right next to it, and is often on the ridge-side high above the creek. The trail is sometimes rocky with river rocks, sometimes smooth and fern-lined. The primary foliage along the trail is Rhododendron and Dog Hobble. There are lots of switch backs as the trail ascends the ridge, and lots of rock walls on what was once a railroad bed for the pre-park logging industry.

A couple of miles above Jonas Creek you reach backcountry campsite 69. The campsite is right of the side of the trail and has kind of a run-down feel to it. There are several different fire rings and a couple of bear cables, but it's very bare and didn't seem terribly inviting.

Backcountry campsite 69 on Forney Creek trail

A couple of miles above this, I was kind of confused when I reached the "campsite 68" site pictured below complete with the old style metal sign campsite marker. According to my map I shouldn't have been at campsite 68 yet, but here was the sign and right behind it a campsite, right at a spot where the trail takes a hard left. It's a very small site with room for just 1 or 2 tents, and a set of bear cables. It does sit right on Forney Creek and has a trail that runs out the backside that seems to follow the creek.

Backcountry campsite 68 - part 1
 Maybe half a mile above this site you come to what shows on the map as the "real" campsite 68 complete with the newer style wood post campsite marker. There was a trail coming up along the creek into this campsite that I assume must connect with the old campsite below. This campsite is also small with room for very few tents, but it sits right at the base of a really awesome water slide! I can imagine this is a super popular swimming hole when the weather is hot.
Backcountry campsite 68 - part 2
From campsite 68 on up Forney Creek trail gets much steeper as it climbs up toward Clingmans Dome. The trail returns to the rocky, wet, and sometimes narrow and eroded character. This section was tough both mentally and physically, but I slogged on.

Upper end of Forney Creek trail - rocky and wet
 Near the upper end of Forney Creek trail, almost to where it meets the Forney Ridge trail, there is an unmarked side trail that leads out to an old abandoned steam engine left from the logging days. The beginning of this side trail is close to a pretty distinctive looking rock, so it wasn't hard to find. The trail is faint, but pretty clear if you're looking for it. It took me about 15 minutes from the Forney Creek trail out to the site of the steam engine, so I would guesstimate it's about a half-mile. The trail is generally easy to follow and stays on a pretty even elevation. Along the way, and around the steam engine are lots of other pieces and parts that were left behind. It's amazing to me to imagine what this area looked like in the 1920s and 1930s when it was actively being logged, and how different it looks now. Evidence of the park's history lies rusting away in the woods.

Abandoned steam engine from logging operations
 From here it was just a little further to the end of the Forney Creek trail at its junction with the Forney Ridge trail that I had passed yesterday on my way to Andrews Bald.

Forney Creek - Forney Ridge trail junction
From here I headed back up the Forney Ridge trail, retracing my steps from yesterday, back to the junction with the Clingmans Dome Bypass trail. I've been up Clingmans Dome many times on the paved "nature trail", but had never done the bypass trail, so I took this opportunity to knock it out. It was just another 1/2 mile, right?

Clingmans Dome Bypass - Forney Ridge trail junction
 The bypass trail is rocky and rutted, and climbs steeply paralleling the paved trail.

Clingmans Dome Bypass trail
 The bypass trail tops out at the Appalachian Trail just 0.3 mi from the Clingmans Dome tower. From here I turned right (northeast) on the AT toward Clingmans Dome.

Clingmans Dome Bypass - Appalachian Trail junction

View to the north from the AT near Clingmans Dome

White blaze of the Appalachian Trail
I love, love, love the Appalachian Trail, and the sight of a white blaze always fills me with joy. I especially love the AT through high elevation sections like the Smokies, with the smell of the spruce-fir forest, the views the go on forever, and the rocks that are the spine of these great mountains.

The AT passes directly by the Clingmans Dome tower. I stopped to climb the tower one more time - it was a good day for views, with relatively little haze. Lots and lots of folks had made the walk up the paved trail to see the views from the tower on this beautiful summer day.

Side trail from the AT to Clingmans Dome tower

Selfie from Clingmans Dome tower. 
I hiked back down the paved trail to the parking area, and then another half mile back down to my car parked on the side of the road. I was tired - that was a tough section, but so beautiful and challenging! Glad to be getting to spend some time on the NC side, on some sections of trail that are less well-traveled.

Til next time, happy hiking!