Monday, December 26, 2011

Birthday Hike - Twin Creeks Trail

New Trail Miles Completed: 1.9
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 3.8
26 Dec. 2011

Today is my birthday!  So I gathered up my boys (18 and 11 years old respectively) and we headed down to Gatlinburg.  I wanted something nice and easy for today - just a chance to get out and spend some time on the trail with my sons.

Twin Creeks trail is just under 2 miles long and parallels Cherokee Orchard Road just inside the park from Gatlinburg.  We started our hike at the trailhead near the park boundary, just as Cherokee Orchard Road enters the park.  The trail travels along an area that was heavily settled before the park, and you can see numerous reminders of the previous inhabitants in the form of rock walls and fallen-down chimneys.

The trail also parallels LeConte Creek for much of the way and it was full of water and joyously noisy today.

Along the way we almost ran into (literally) a doe that seemed completely unperturbed by our arrival.  All three of us walked to within 5 feet of her and she just stood and watched us and then meandered away.

The Twin Creeks trail passes by the fairly new Twin Creeks Science & Education Center.  This is a great facility that helps park and associated scientists both do research within the park and share that research with area students.

Finally, the Twin Creeks trail runs into the Noah "Bud" Ogle Nature trail that leads back toward Cherokee Orchard Road and the Noah "Bud" Ogle Cabin.  This little plot contains both a cabin (which appears to actually be a hybrid of 2 cabins stuck together) and a barn.  Both are typical of the construction of the Smokies from the 1800s.

After exploring the cabin and barn we turned around and headed back down the trail to the car.  The elevation difference between the upper and lower ends is pretty small (~ 600 feet) and while I never really noticed the elevation gain as we went up, it seemed like we were flying down the trail on our way back.  Overall this is a pleasant trail - the proximity to the road is strange, but the cultural history that the trail encompasses is pretty rich, and walking along LeConte creek is very nice.  The weather was great - the sun peeked in and out during the day, and the temperatures in the mid-40s were perfect for hiking.  Best of all I got to hang out with my boys - something that happens more rarely now that Jesse is in college.

Hope you all had a Merry Christmas and Happy Boxing Day!  Til next time, happy hiking.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Anthony Creek Loop

New Trail Miles Completed: 8.7
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 13.2
26 November 2011

I've had my eye on this loop for a while...  I had actually intended to do it as an overnight backpacking trip, but decided on the spur of the moment to make a day-hike out of it on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Anthony Creek Trailhead @ Cades Cove picnic area

The loop starts out on the Anthony Creek trail in the Cades Cove picnic area, hooks up with Russell Field trail and follows it up to the Appalachian Trail at Russell Field, traverses the AT over to Spence Field, down the Bote Mtn trail to hook up with Anthony Creek trail again and complete the loop.  At 13.2 miles it makes for a fairly long day-hike (at least for me) and the hike from Cades Cove up to Russell Field gains about 3000 feet in elevation.

I have to start out by saying one thing about this loop - there are a LOT of ROCKS on these trails!  Rocks the size of marbles, baseballs, footballs, soccer balls, Volkswagens...  I spent a lot of my time watching my footing to avoid turning an ankle.  This entire loop is also a horse trail, so there are a lot of places where the trail is pretty beat up and muddy.

The trail follows Anthony Creek for much of the first part, and there were several creek crossings (mostly with footbridges).  The water was running high so that loud chatter of rushing water was a constant companion.

Anthony Creek trail winds its way up along the creek slowly gaining elevation as it wends its way between Leadbetter Ridge and Allnight Ridge.  After 1.6 miles it reaches the junction with Russell Field trail at the base of Anthony Ridge.  Anthony Creek trail continues on to the left (east), while Russell Field trail turns right (south) and ascends the flanks of Leadbetter Ridge on its way up to the AT.

Anthony Creek - Russell Field trail junction

I took the Russell Field trail up, and I do mean UP.  As soon as you get onto this trail the elevation gain starts to kick in.  It gains about 1200' over the first 2 miles, has a nice 0.5 mile stretch of flat ridge-top walking, and then gains another 700' over the last mile up to the AT.

Typical section of the Russell Field trail.

About a mile up you come to Backcountry Campsite #10.  All I can say is "ugh."  This is a rationed site due mostly I suspect to its size.  It's a tiny site directly off the trail and there is really only 1 flat spot, and it was a muddy mess.  Maybe it's nicer in the summer (the little brown book says nice things about it), but I was glad I wasn't staying there.

As the trail heads up Leadbetter Ridge there is a nice flat section of ridge-top walking where you are staring straight ahead toward the ridge that you will ultimately be climbing up.

View of McCampbell Knob and the main ridge of the Smokies from Russell Field trail

After climbing around the western slopes of McCampbell Knob the trail dead-ends into the AT at Russell Field.  The area had been cleared of trees by Russell Gregory (for whom it, and also Gregory Bald are named) to graze cattle during the summers.  Most of the area has been overgrown with trees again, but there's one small area that is still clear that you can reach by taking a side trail once you near the top.  At the Russell Field - AT junction is the Russell Field shelter.  This is a very nice shelter, and has been upgraded in the last few years.  There are cooking & eating benches and tables around the front, a skylight over the sleeping area, and a tarp has been hung over the front to keep the wind out.  I stopped here for a few minutes to rest and have a snack.

 Russell Field shelter

Sleeping area & skylight inside Russell Field shelter

Russell Field - Appalachian Trail junction

From here I headed east (north) on the AT toward Spence Field.  This stretch of the AT is 2.9 miles and reminded me of many of my early days of hiking.

These white blazes marking the Appalachian Trail mean a lot to me.  My first real backpacking trip took place in October of 1985 when I was a freshman in college near Johnson City, TN.  For fall break some friends and I backpacked a short section of the AT near Roan Mountain.  And I was immediately captivated, both by hiking and backpacking, and by the AT itself.  I've been a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy ever since, and still dream that one day I'll be able to do a thru-hike.  It felt great to be back up on top of the Smokies - there's nothing quite like the feeling of walking along the top of a ridge and looking down in to North Carolina on one side and Tennessee on the other.

The 2.9 miles from Russell Field to Spence Field went fairly quickly.  About this time the sun started to peek out occasionally from behind the clouds giving the whole landscape a nice glow.  Spence Field still has a lot more open area than Russell Field which makes it quite picturesque.

The Appalachian Trail running through Spence Field

Just 0.2 miles down Eagle Creek trail from Spence Field is the Spence Field shelter - a twin to the Russell Field shelter.  I dropped in here for a break and to eat some lunch and met some other hikers who were settling in for the evening (despite the fact that it was only 1:30 pm).  

Self-portrait at Spence Field shelter

Here in Spence Field is where the Bote Mountain trail meets up with the AT, and this was to be my path back down.

Appalachian Trail - Bote Mountain trail junction

Once on the Bote Mountain trail I again had to contend with the rocks...  But at least I was headed down instead of up this time.  The trail is pretty steep here - drops about 1200' in 1.7 miles to where it junctions with the Anthony Creek trail.  There were lots of Beech groves along this stretch.  I love Beech trees in the winter because they hold on to their golden brown leaves throughout the winter giving some really nice color to the landscape.

Beech grove along the Bote Mountain trail

The junction with the Anthony Creek trail put me back on my original trail, just 3.5 miles from Cades Cove, but still had to contend with the rocks.  This section continuously follows Anthony Creek and the trail is often on a ridge well above the creek providing some amazing views.  I stopped several places just to contemplate the beauty of a rushing mountain stream and the many little waterfalls.

Beautiful little waterfall on Anthony Creek

Along this section you come to Backcountry Campsite #9.  In contrast to site #10, this one was quite pleasant.  It's fairly large with a couple of nice fire pits, a wide space, and sits just above Anthony Creek.  Definitely someplace I'd love to come back to.

Backcountry campsite #9

Shortly thereafter I got back to the Anthony Creek - Russell Field trail junction and retraced my steps back to the Cades Cove picnic area.  It took me just about 6 hours exactly to make the loop, including a couple of breaks for food.  Pretty good time for me, especially considering the elevation gain over the first 5 miles.  It was a great day in a lot of ways.  The loop was challenging, but not overly difficult.  The weather was great - temperature around 45-50 degrees most of the day, with some nice sunshine.  I alternated between hiking in just a t-shirt to a t-shirt + polypro long underwear shirt to t-shirt + polypro + fleece jacket + stocking cap depending on the wind and the sun.  Met lots of other hikers too.  One guy who had been out for a solo backpack, a guy out on his horse, a family who was out for an extended backpacking trip, and a couple of guys who were staying at the Spence Field shelter.  Not to mention several sets of day-hikers.

This was another good hike for me in terms of making connections too.  I had done the first little bit of Anthony Creek trail a couple of times before.  Once with my family and my brother, his wife and a friend on New Years Day, 2000.  I seem to remember that it was about 60 degrees then!  And Duncan and I had hiked the 0.2 miles between Cades Cove and the Crib Gap trail a couple of years ago.  I had also been to the Bote Mountain - Anthony Creek junction earlier this year, and remember plotting to do the Anthony Creek loop at the time.  Best of all, I had previously done the whole AT from Newfound Gap to Fontana Dam many years ago - it was one of my first backpacking trips in the Smokies not too long after we moved here.  It was great to retrace those steps and stop in at the shelters where I had visited before.

This is a great time of year to be out on the trails, so don't let the cooler weather scare you off.  Be prepared with some good layers, but head on out there!  With the leaves off the trees the views are often spectacular.  Til next time, happy hiking!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Grapeyard Ridge Trail

Trail Miles Completed: 7.6
Trail Miles Hiked: 7.6
26 October 2011

Autumn is, without a doubt, my favorite season for hiking.  The temperatures are ideal, the fall colors are amazing, the views are outstanding...  Add in some good company and you've got an excellent combination.  Today I had the pleasure of hiking with a friend who's also working on hiking all of the trails in the Smokies.  Margie and I started our quests independently, but at nearly the same time (Dec. 2009).  We met at the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Smokies several years ago and got reacquainted through our mutual interest in hiking in the Smokies.  Margie blogs about her hikes here.

Today's trail was the Grapeyard Ridge trail - a 7.6 mile trail that connects Roaring Fork and Greenbrier.  I arrived at the Greenbrier trailhead at about 8 am so we could leave a car there (our ending point) and then shuttle up to Roaring Fork where we would start our hike.  I had a few minutes alone just as the sun was starting to peek over the top of the ridges.  Early morning is a magical time in the mountains.

Sunrise over the Little Pigeon River

Our hiking party: me, Allen, Clarence, Margie and Susan

The Roaring Fork end of the Grapeyard Ridge trail starts out with about a 1 mile section with a steady elevation gain of about 600 feet, and then it's (mostly) downhill from there.  The first 3 miles or so of the trail skirt the northern edges of Mt. Winnesoka and travel through beautiful mixed woods - lots of hardwoods and the occasional patch of pines as well.  The tree color was great - the maples and tulip poplars in their yellows, and the sourwoods in the scarlet.

There's not a lot going on wildflower-wise this time of year.  A few asters are still flowering, but most everything else is settling in for winter.  There were patches of the showy gentian still in flower here and there that were quite beautiful!  I didn't get any good pictures, but Margie had her awesome camera and got some nice shots.

The trail is named for the proliferation of grape vines in the area, and I have to say I've never seen more grape vines or bigger grape vines any place else.  Some of the vines were as big around as me!

REALLY big grapevine climbing up a tree

About 4.4 miles from the Roaring Fork end of the trail you come to the site of Backcountry campsite #32 which is a little ways down a side trail.  While we didn't take the time to visit the campsite, you could see it from the trail above and it looks to be in a nice flat spot with a nearby creek for water.

After the trail rounds the base of Mt. Winnesoka it crosses over Grapeyard Ridge proper and then drops down into the creek bottoms of Injun Creek and then Rhododendron Creek.  Depending on which book you consult, the name Injun Creek either comes from the Native Americans that lived in the area, or from the wrecked steam engine that still lies in the creek ("Engine Creek" thus became "Injun Creek").  The steam engine was being used by a lumber company in 1920 when it went off the road and crashed into the creek.  It was too big to remove so there it is still, over 90 years later.

The last mile or so of the trail follows Rhododendron Creek and crosses it several times.  There are no bridges and several of the crossings are 5-10 feet across so it was game of rock-hopping to make it across.  Water is low this time of year, so it wasn't any problem, but I could imagine it could be challenging in the spring.  Somewhere in this area is a side trail that leads to the Dodgen-Rayfield Cemetery.  It's supposed to be marked by a pile of rocks, but despite keeping an eye open we somehow missed it.  There are apparently a LOT of old homesites, etc. in this area near the Greenbrier end of the trail.  I look forward to going back sometime and exploring off-trail in this area more.  We did run across a single gravestone just off the side of the trail.  No discernible writing on it - just one lonely grave marker.

Shortly thereafter we made it back to Greenbrier Road and my car.  What an absolutely gorgeous day to be out on the trails!  Thanks to Margie for the invitation, and to Margie, Allen, Susan and Clarence for the great company.  I look forward to more opportunities to hike together.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cooper Road - Gold Mine - Cane Creek Trails

Trail Miles Completed: 5.3
Trail Miles Hiked: 16.2
7-8 October 2011
Campsite #2

Autumn is upon us, and what better time of year for hiking is there?  This weekend was an opportunity to get out and enjoy fall and take care of some trails in the extreme western end of the park for me.  I've been up the first part of Cooper Road trail (out of Abrams Creek Campground / Ranger Station) MANY times, but had never done the Gold Mine or Cane Creek trails, both of which dead-end at the park boundary.  This means they are by necessity up-and-back sorts of trails.  I had originally intended to make a bit of a loop at the end of the hike by taking Hatcher Mountain trail, but it remains closed due to the tornado that went through the park last May.

Cooper Road trailhead

So I took off from this familiar trailhead Friday afternoon and re-hiked the Cooper Road trail from Abrams Falls Campground up to Gold Mine Gap and the junction with Gold Mine trail.  I didn't expect much from the Gold Mine trail - some trail descriptions I'd read are less than complimentary - so I was surprised by how pleasant it was.  It's short (just 0.8 miles) and has some steep ups and some fairly rutted parts, but it's not difficult and it runs through very pleasant woods.  The trail dead-ends at the park boundary near Top of the World and you can see evidence of civilization just beyond the end of the trail.

 Trail marker at the park boundary

Old barn just outside the park boundary at the end of the Gold Mine trail

Coming back down the Gold Mine trail

After arriving back at Gold Mine Gap I headed 0.6 miles further up Cooper Road trail to Cane Gap.  Here the Cane Creek trail leads 2.1 miles to the northern boundary of the Park, and the Cooper Road trail continues east toward Cades Cove.

Trail marker at Cane Gap

I took the Cane Creek trail north to my destination for the evening, Campsite #2, which is just 0.6 miles north of Cane Gap.  Again, I wasn't expecting much from this trail or this campsite.  The little brown book says that #2 is one of the least used sites in the park so I didn't expect it to be very nice or well-maintained.  But it is a wonderful campsite!  Not especially large, with room for 2 or 3 tents at most it lies in a nice flat clearing with a great fire ring / sitting area, it isn't far from the water source (Cane Creek), and firewood was abundant.  It seems very well-maintained.

It was nearly dark when I arrived so I put up my tent, gathered some firewood and got a nice fire going before cooking dinner.  I spent a wonderfully relaxing evening just enjoying the fire.  The moon was beautiful that evening and the moonlight made amazing patterns coming down through the trees.

The temperature was perfect for camping.  Cool enough in the evening to enjoy the fire, but warm enough for comfortable sleeping.  I finally climbed out of my sleeping bag on Saturday morning to a crisp 40 degree morning, but feeling very refreshed and ready for a 10-mile day.

 Trail marker for Campsite #2

Fire ring / sitting area at Campsite #2

My first task for the day was to head up & back down Cane Creek trail.  It's about 1.5 miles from Campsite #2 up to the park boundary.  I left my pack hanging from the bear cables at the campsite and just took some snacks and water with me.  The trail is an old road and is wide and rutted, but passes through beautiful woods.

Cane Creek trail

About 0.7 miles north of campsite #2 is the Buchanan Cemetery up on a slight rise to the west of the trail.  Like most of the cemeteries within the Smokies it's small (probably no more than 20 or 30 graves), many of the grave markers are simple stones that either never had anything written on them or the writing has faded with time, and most of the occupants are from a single family.  This particular cemetery is clearly still maintained - the weeds are down and it's decorated with numerous plastic flowers.

 Buchanan cemetery

The gravestone above was especially sad to me.  Two children from the same family, born 17 years apart (1892 & 1909), both of whom died when they were less than a year old.  The top of the marker reads "Our darlings together in heaven."  It's not uncommon to see infant graves in Smokies' cemeteries, and it always makes me think of how hard life must have been for the settlers who lived here over 100 years ago.

The end of Cane Creek trail is at the northern park boundary, and it's quite clear that one should go no further.  I've heard that there is a manway that connects the Cane Creek trail with the Ace Gap trail further to the north and east, but it lies on private property with No Trespassing signs clearly placed.

No Trespassing sign at the end of Cane Creek trail

From here I retraced my steps back to the campsite to retrieve my pack, and then headed back to Cane Gap in order to jump back on to the Cooper Road trail.  This section of Cooper Road trail (from Cane Gap to the junction with Beard Cane & Hatcher Mtn trails) is 1.8 miles long and gains about 500 feet in elevation.  The uphill is pretty steady with just a few flat areas to give your lungs a rest.  It's rarely very steep, but it gave me a workout.  It was here that I saw the only other trail users of my whole trip - 3 trail runners coming down the trail as I was heading up.  The trail is pretty rocky (and fairly eroded and rutted in many places) and climbs up a dry, sandy ridge that offers some nice views to the west, looking back toward Chilhowee Mountain.  At about 2000 feet in elevation the fall color was starting to take hold.  The dogwoods and sourwoods were turning scarlet, the sassafras orange, and the hickories and maples bright yellow.

Fall colors along Cooper Road trail; Chilhowee Mountain in the background

After what seemed like significantly more than 1.8 miles I finally reached the junction of Cooper Road trail with the Beard Cane and Hatcher Mountain trails.  Both of these trails remain closed due to downed trees that resulted from the tornado that ripped through the area last May.  I stopped here for lunch and rest and pondered when these trails would be cleared.

Self-portrait at the Cooper Road - Beard Cane - Hatcher Mtn trail junction

This was the end of new trail for me on this trip.  I packed up after lunch and headed back down the Cooper Road trail the 5-ish miles to Abrams Creek Ranger station and my car.  Luckily, from here it really is almost all downhill and the hike out was quite pleasant.  In addition to the beautiful fall colors, the New England Aster and Goldenrod were in flower all along most of the trails, and there was a lot of an interesting pale blue mushroom (some kind of Lactarius I believe).  And I ran across what I think is a wild turkey tail feather.

Turkey tail feather? 

 New England Aster & Goldenrod


All in all it was a wonderful backpack.  Fall is my favorite season for hiking, and it was luxurious to get to spend a night alone in the wilderness with a roaring fire and cool night air.  I'm also happy to have gotten a few of the "dead-end" trails finished off from this section of the park.  A couple more loops and I'll have the whole Cades Cove / Abrams Creek section of the park finished (assuming they ever open up Beard Cane and Hatcher Mountain trails again...).

I'm looking forward to another hike again soon.  My friend Margie who's also working on doing all the trails in the park (see her blog here) is coming over in a couple of weeks and we're going to tackle the Grapeyard Ridge Trail.  So - get out there while it's still autumn and check out the fall colors!

Til next time, happy hiking!