Saturday, July 28, 2018

Big Creek - Swallow Fork - Pretty Hollow Gap Backpack

New Miles Completed: 9.6
Total Miles Hiked: 15.1
3 day / 2 night backpack, 25-27 July, 2018

Well... This was supposed to be a 4 day / 3 night backpack that included a couple more trails. But I'll get to that in a minute.

The Big Creek / Cataloochee section of the park is absolutely wonderful - it feels more wild and less visited than some of the more popular areas of the park. I took advantage of a lull in summer activities to go out for a hike.

Big Creek trailhead
 I parked at Big Creek to start off and followed Big Creek trail for 5.3 miles to Backcountry Campsite #37. Big Creek trail is definitely one of the busier trails in this section of the park during the summer because of Midnight Hole, a very popular swimming hole, and Mouse Creek Falls, a pretty little waterfall. So I saw lots of families hiking back from the swimming hole, but once I passed Mouse Creek Falls I pretty much had the trail to myself.

Big Creek

Midnight Hole

Big Creek

Mouse Creek Falls
Something I didn't really expect this time of year was the beautiful floral display. Most of the sections of trail that I was on follow creeks (Big Creek, Swallow Fork, Pretty Hollow), which provides great habitat for a lot of species.

Rosebay Rhododendron is nearly done flowering

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain - a beautiful, if diminutive, summer orchid 
Like many trails in the park, Big Creek follows an old logging railroad grade so it's generally wide and smooth(ish) and follows the creek closely. There's nothing so soothing as the sound of the creeks, and the the little waterfalls, and rocks, and pools of the creeks always make me smile.

Big Creek, like many of the other trails in this part of the park, is a horse & hiker trail. I met a group of horses coming down Big Creek. It's good manners to step off the side of the trail to let horses pass. They are sometimes skittish about hikers, and it's wise to give them plenty of room.

Wide bridge on Big Creek trail


Swallowtails congregating on the trail
At the end of Big Creek trail it meets up with Swallow Fork trail just before crossing over Big Creek one last time and running in to Backcountry Campsite #37.

Big Creek / Swallow Fork trail junction

Big Creek from the bridge at CS #37

Backcountry Campsite #37 (Campsite #36 is just a little ways up the trail and is for horses) 
Campsite #37 is a very nice, and very large campsite that sits right on Big Creek. The trail leads directly through the campsite and what seems to be the main open tent area / fire ring / bear cables. But spread along the bank of the creek are several additional camping areas with fire rings and good tent sites. I chose one of these to set up in.

Hammock & rain-fly set-up

 I have been a tent camper all of my life. I own a hammock, but have usually just used it to hang out in and maybe take a nap. But I've been more and more interested in hammock camping, so I decided to give it a try on this trip. The first time I tried hammock camping I was comfortable, but cold. So this time I took my sleeping pad with me to put in the hammock to give myself some under-insulation. I was much more comfortable and slept really well! I think I might be a convert.

Fire ring area at CS #37
I enjoyed spending the evening in and around Big Creek at CS #37 just enjoying the water and the rocks. I did some exploring down the creek, and some laying on a rock in the middle of the creek staring at the clouds passing over. Super-relaxing, and I slept like a baby with the creek sounds in the background.

Next morning I got up and out and headed back to the Swallow Fork trail. This was going to be a big UP and then DOWN day, following Swallow Fork trail up about 2200' over 4 miles, and then back down Pretty Hollow Gap trail about 2200' over 3.7 miles to CS #39.

Like a lot of trails this time of year, both Swallow Fork and Pretty Hollow Gap trails were crowded with vegetation at the edge of the trails, especially in the wetter areas. Wood nettle, Spotted Touch-Me-Not, Cone Flower, Bee-Balm... Beautiful, but sometime hard to wade through.


Swallow Fork trail. Yes, there's a trail under there.

Foot bridge on Swallow Fork trail

Swallow Fork trail
 There's nothing remarkable about Swallow Fork trail, beyond the "usual" remarkableness of being in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It follows the creek most of the way up, which is beautiful and rocky. It's surrounded at the edges by lots of vegetation. No good views really - a few glimpses through the trees of neighboring ridges, but not much.

The most remarkable thing about Swallow Fork to me was just how long that last mile of ascending the ridge to Pretty Hollow Gap seemed to take. The trail takes a hard left across the top of the creek to follow the ridgeline, and then a sharp switchback to the right to ascend the ridge to the gap. It seemed to take forever... And it's steep. And I kept thinking "I can see light through the trees, I must be nearly there." Phew.

Pretty Hollow Gap - top of the trail!

Swallow Fork - Pretty Hollow Gap - Mt Sterling Ridge trail junction @ Pretty Hollow Gap
I stopped here at Pretty Hollow Gap for a break in the sunshine. Put up my hammock and had some lunch, and just lazed around. It was nice to sit in the sun for a bit. This area is in the Spruce-Fir elevational range, and there were lots of BIG spruce trees both here in the gap, and on the way down the upper reaches of Pretty Hollow Gap trail.

After a good rest I saddled up and headed down Pretty Hollow Gap trail. Pretty Hollow Gap was a lot like Swallow Fork, but in reverse. Vegetation was thick along the trail, lots of pretty wildflowers, and following the creek most of the way. The biggest difference was the mud. Pretty Hollow Gap trail is VERY wet and muddy, especially at the upper end. It looks as if feral hogs might use this trail as a highway as it was really churned up.

Beginning of Pretty Hollow Gap trail @ Pretty Hollow Gap

Footbridge on Pretty Hollow Gap trail

Pretty little Garter Snake along the edge of the trail

Bear print in the mud - the knife is about 3.5" for reference
The trip down Pretty Hollow Gap was pleasant. In some ways going down is easier, at least on the lungs, but it's tougher on the knees. Ultimately I rolled in to Campsite #39 mid-afternoon.

Campsite #39 trail marker

Campsite #39 sits along the edge of Pretty Hollow creek, on an open slope. There seems to be only one official fire ring and set of bear cables, although a couple of other fire rings have been built. It was a good spot for hammocking, but there are not a lot of flat spots to put a tent (another reason I'm starting to really like hammock camping).

Since I got in early in the afternoon, and to try to make the next day easier on me, I hung my pack up on the bear cable and headed the 1.9 miles down to the end of the trail at Cataloochee Road, and back. My plan was to take Little Cataloochee trail over to Long Bunk trail to Mt. Sterling trail up to Mt. Sterling fire tower and CS #38 the following day. I wanted to get the 0.8 mile section of Pretty Hollow Gap trail between Cataloochee Road and Little Cataloochee trail out of the way so I wouldn't have to do it in the morning...

Turk's Cap Lily

Yellow-Fringed Orchid

Pretty Hollow Gap - Palmer Creek trail junction

Pretty Hollow Gap - Little Cataloochee trail junction

Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead on Cataloochee Road

So after that little 3.8 mile round trip (sans backpack) I settled down in CS #39 for dinner (mashed potatoes & spam), lounged around the creek, had a small campfire and then headed to bed.

The next morning I packed up and got ready for what was supposed to be my long day: 13 miles of Little Cataloochee - Long Bunk - Mt. Sterling. But it was not to be.

Just as I was approaching the Pretty Hollow Gap - Little Cataloochee trail junction I got stung on my left calf by something - I never did see what it was. But the pain was intense, and almost immediately my hands and feet were tingling and burning. I could see my hands swelling and felt my face starting to swell and go numb. I (stupidly) thought, "Ok, I just need to walk this off and get it out of my system" so I kept hiking. I turned down Little Cataloochee trail, but probably didn't make it more than 50 yards when I got so dizzy I had to sit down. I ended up spending about an hour sitting by the trail, unable to stand up or walk because of the dizziness. I (again, stupidly) had taken the Benadryl out of my first aid kit so I didn't even have any antihistamines to help me out. I have NEVER had a bee sting reaction this bad before, but I will be better prepared in the future.

I finally felt well enough to walk, so I hiked back the way I had come and made it to the Cataloochee Road. Some nice folks gave me a ride down to the Cataloochee Campround where I had just enough cell phone service to call my sweet wife who came and got me. All's well that ends well, and I am fine now, but that was a scary episode for me. 

The Big Creek and Cataloochee sections of the park are super nice. It's a long way from home for me, so I don't get over there very often, but I would like to spend more time here. I've got several trails I need to finish in the Cataloochee section, so I will be back eventually.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Oconaluftee River Trail

New Miles Completed: 1.5
Total Miles Hiked: 3.0
28 June 2018

I was in Cherokee NC today for a meeting, and took the opportunity before heading home to stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor's Center, and hike the short Oconaluftee River Trail. The trail starts at the visitor's center, and heads south for 1.5 miles to the park border / Qualla Boundary border. The trail essentially follows the corridor between the Oconaluftee River on the east side, and US Highway 441 on the west.

Interesting tidbit: the Oconaluftee River trail and the Gatlinburg trail are the only two trails in the GSMNP that allow pets.


Oconaluftee River trailhead


Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum
As the trail follows the river and road, it is absolutely flat. It's wide and graveled, and easy walking. Today it was a bit muddy because of the torrential early morning rains, but still quite walkable.


Rosebay Rhododendron in bud
Rosebay Rhododendron in flower

The trail was lined with Rosebay Rhododendron which is still in flower. Other typical riverbank species were common like stinging nettle, and touch-me-not.


Oconaluftee River

We had a LOT of rain over the last 24 hours in the area, so all of the park's rivers and streams were running high. Several roads were closed early in the day, and campers were evacuated from Elkmont campground for fear of flooding. The Oconaluftee River was running high, and fast, and muddy.


Trailside marker and bench
This is a nice trail for meandering and learning a little history. There are benches and educational signs at several points along the trail.


Cherokee NC end of the trail
The trail ends at the Qualla Boundary border at the edge of Cherokee NC. This was a fun and quick little trip that allowed me to stretch my legs after sitting in meetings all day, and to check off one more trail.

Been battling a foot injury, so I haven't been hiking much lately. Hope to get out and do some more this summer, and certainly in the fall. Time to head to the NC side and do some long backpacking trips!

Til next time, happy hiking!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Old Settlers - Gabes Mountain Backpack

New Miles Completed: 20.3
Total Miles Hiked: 22.4
2-day / 1-night Backpack, 27-28 December 2017

I love winter in the Smokies. No bugs, fewer people, great views because the leaves are off the trees... It's a great time to get in some good trail mileage. I had intended to this chunk of trails earlier in the fall as a 3-day / 2-night trip with overnight stays at backcountry campsites #33 and #34. But #34 was closed for much of the fall because of aggressive bear activity, so that plan never came to fruition. SO - I decided to make a 2-day winter trip out of it. My sweet wife helped me drop my car off at Cosby campground, and then shuttled me over to Greenbrier to drop me off at the Old Settlers trailhead.

At the Old Settlers trailhead

The Old Settlers trail winds in and out, and up and down through ridges and valleys that were heavily settled prior to the establishment of the Park. A few things stand out to me about this trail:

1. If you just look at the trail profile, it really doesn't look difficult. I found it to be harder than I expected, with lots of ups and downs, some of them fairly steep. (I also had a pretty full backpack with my winter gear, which I'm sure contributed to the difficulty level)

2. There are SO MANY cool old homesites with rock walls and chimneys all over the place - this is especially true of the middle of the trail - between campsite #33 toward Gabes Mountain trail.

3. There are also SO MANY creek crossings. There is one crossing near the Gabes Mountain end that has a bridge, but all others are not bridged. But all of them were also easily rock-hopped at least at the water level this time of year.

4. There are also SO MANY blow-downs across the trail, and many sections where the trail is very narrow, and plants crowd the edges of the trail. The blow-downs made for slow-going, and it was difficult to effectively use trekking poles in the crowded sections.

Day 1: 6.7 miles - Greenbrier to Backcountry Campsite #33 (Settlers Camp)

I left the trailhead at Greenbrier at about 12:30, and made it to the campsite around 3:30. This included lots of stops for pictures of rock walls and chimneys, and numerous creek crossings. There are also several old cemeteries in this section of the park. One of them is just off of the Old Settlers trail and you can't miss it - the Green Cemetery. There is a sign nailed to a tree pointing out the side trail to the cemetery, and spray-painted arrows on the trees pointing the way.

Sign to the side trail to the Green Cemetery

Spray-painted arrows point the way

Minerva Green - 1845 to 1910

Juxtaposition of an old slate-rock headstone with plastic flowers

There are also lots of places where other (unmaintained and unofficial) trails come in to meet the Old Settlers trail. There must have been a big system of trails between homes & communities in this area. Luckily, at nearly all of the dubious junctions where one might get lost there are signs that point you in the direction of the "real" trail.

Directional sign to keep you on the Old Settlers trail instead of veering off on to an old manway


Backcountry campsite #33 is just awesome. There are sites on either side of the trail. One is literally just off of the side of the trail on the north side, and the other is further back in the trees away on the south side of the trail. The campsite has its own old chimney and rock wall in keeping with the nature of this trail. I opted to stay in the north-side site because it has a great fire ring area, and sits right above the creek.

Backcountry Campsite #33 - Settlers Camp

Old chimney in campsite #33

Fire ring at campsite #33, complete with rock chairs

I got in to camp, got my tent set up and commenced to gathering firewood. I knew it was going to be a pretty cold night, so I wanted to be sure to have a good fire going so I didn't have to go to bed at 6 pm!

I got a good stack of firewood ready, and got my fire going. Had dinner (Mountain House Rice & Chicken - it was pretty good!), and then Oreos for dessert.

Nothing like a nice fire and some Oreos for dessert to make a good night in camp
I managed to make it to about 8 pm before I got cold enough, and tired enough to hit the sack. Climbed into my 0 degree sleeping bag and quickly fell asleep.

Day 2: 15.8 miles - Backcountry Campsite #33 to Cosby Campground

Brrrrrrrrr....  15 degrees at 8 am when I finally got the courage to get out of my sleeping bag.

8 am Thursday morning - 15 degrees F

I got up & got moving to stay warm. Mountain House biscuits and gravy for breakfast (forgot my coffee though :-/  Not a good way to start the day). Got my gear packed up and was on the trail by 9 am.

This section of the trail is especially rich with rock walls and chimneys from homesteads that were here before the Park. It's quite literally a walk through history. I was imagining the lives of the people who lived here, and how difficult things must have been. Imagine living in a drafty log cabin with nothing but one small fireplace for heat when the temperatures are down in the teens...

Chimney at an old home site 
Rock walls lining the trail

There are LOTS of ups and downs in this part of the trail, and lots of creek crossings. I love trails that follow or cross creeks in the Smokies - there is something really magical about the sound of a mountain stream. And this time of years there is the bonus of really cool ice formations forming at the edges and on overhanging branches.

Directly after one creek crossing you get to a rock wall. A sign directs you to the right (south) to stay on the Old Settlers trail, or left (north) toward the Tyson McCarter place. This is well worth the short side trip to see. There is an old barn that the park service is clearly working to preserve, and then a little further on down the trail is the homesite complete with old chimneys and a still-standing spring house.

"Tyson McCarter Place. Built about 1876"

Tyson McCarter barn

Tyson McCarter spring house

From here I continued on up and the down the roller coaster of the Old Settlers trail, and then finally pulled in to junction of Old Settlers with Gabes Mountain and Maddron Bald trails about 1:00. Stopped here for lunch, and chatted with a few pairs of day hikers who were going up Maddron Bald trail. At this point I had already come about 9.2 miles and had 6.6 left to go.


Gabes Mountain trail sign at jct w/ Old Settlers & Maddron Bald trails

Beginning the climb up Gabes Mountain trail
The first mile and a half of Gabes Mountain climbs about 800 feet reasonably gently to reach the top of the ridge. This part of the trail is on a north-facing slope, so it doesn't receive much sunlight. It was colder and snowier than anything I had yet been on. It was a walk through pleasant forest lined with Rhododendron and Hemlock trees. The only downside is that the trail is REALLY rooty, especially on the eastern side between Cosby and Henwallow Falls. You've got to watch your step or you could take a tumble by catching your toes on the roots.

Interlacing roots on the Gabes Mountain trail
Shortly after cresting the ridge the trail comes to backcountry campsite #34 - Sugar Cove. I didn't stop to explore, but from the trail it looks like a really nice campsite. Lots of open spots, and it sits on a spot just above a stream.

Backcountry campsite #34 - Sugar Cove
From here the trail meanders gently up and down along the ridge. This was very nice walking, although the trail is often narrow and sits directly along the side of the ridge. There are several streams that cross the trail, sometimes with amazing ice formations.

Frozen trailside beauty

Ultimately the trail brings you to the side trail down to Henwallow Falls. I've been to Henwall Falls a few time previously, and debated about whether or not I should take the time to go down and see it again. But man, am I glad I did. Henwallow is really more of a cascade than a falls, with water cascading down a sheer rock face. With the frigid weather the sides of the falls were draped in icicles - absolutely breathtaking!


View down into the valley outside the Park from Henwallow Falls

Side trail to Henwallow Falls

Frozen Henwallow Falls - absolutely breathtaking!
From here it was just 2.1 miles to the Cosby picnic area and my car. Luckily, it's also almost all downhill from here. I saddled up and headed down the trail. This section of the trail is more well-traveled than the western end because a lot of folks day hike from Cosby campground up to Henwallow Falls.

Ultimately, right at 5 pm I ambled in to the Cosby picnic area to my car. What a couple of days! The weather was cold, but enjoyable. The trail was challenging, but beautiful and full of amazing history. I'm so glad that I get to call this area home, and that the Smokies is in our big back yard.

I made it! 22.4 miles in 2 days from Greenbrier to Cosby.

It was a great way to end this year of hiking. Looking forward to more and more in 2018. 

Til next time, happy hiking!