Saturday, June 25, 2011

Brushy Mountain summit via Trillium Gap Trail

Trail Miles Completed: 2.1
Trail Miles Hiked: 6.6
25 June 2011

A group of guys from church do hiking trips once in a while and this weekend we had a trip to Brushy Mountain planned.  Up early and at the Grotto Falls parking area by 7 am!  On the way in we saw a young black bear ambling across Cherokee Orchard Road.  And then as we were getting ready to hit the trail we saw another black bear down by the garbage cans at the other end of the parking area.  This one was BIG, and didn't seem at all perturbed to find mere humans in his domain.  In fact, he apparently found us quite interesting...

After rattling the lid on the garbage can trying (unsuccessfully) to get it open he wandered over toward us.  He was getting closer and closer and we were about to jump into the cars when he decided to turn down into the woods.  Phew - nothing like a close encounter of the bear kind to get your blood pumping early in the morning!

Here's our crew getting ready to hit the trail: Greg, Duncan, Emery, Jack & Brad

We headed up Trillium Gap trail and made good time up to Grotto Falls.  This early in the morning the light was dim and misty and the falls had an ethereal quality to them.  We took the required pictures of folks behind the falls :-) and then headed on up the trail.

Duncan & Emery behind the falls.

Trillium Gap trail between Grotto Falls and Trillium Gap is a nice winding trail, in places flat and sandy and in other places rocky and tree root-laced.  It moves continually up, but relatively gently and is never really steep.  It winds through some nice big old trees and often crosses or follows creeks so it's a very pleasant trail.

Trail sign at Trillium Gap.  We were taking the Brushy Mountain trail up the summit of Brushy Mtn.

Trillium Gap apparently used to be called Grassy Gap, which is a much more apt name.  It's a saddle between Brushy Mountain and one of the lower ridges of Mt. LeConte and is full of grass, but apparently devoid of Trilliums.  Regardless, it's a pleasant spot to sit and rest a few minutes before tackling the last 0.4 miles up to the summit of Brushy Mtn.

As the trail climbs up toward the summit of Brushy Mtn. the plants change dramatically.  At Trillium Gap we see some spruce trees starting to appear.  On the dry hike up Brushy Mtn. the trail is lined with Mountain Laurel and Galax (both still in flower at this higher elevation) and some unusual higher elevation species start to appear.  These include Sand Myrtle and Rugel's Ragwort, the latter a Smoky Mountain endemic species found only at higher elevations.  The top of Brushy Mtn. is devoid of trees and instead covered with laurels, rhododendrons and sand myrtle.  This allows some fantastic views around all sides.  To the north we could see Pigeon Forge, to the east Greenbrier Pinnacle and to the west the lower ridges of LeConte.

We stopped here for lunch and took in the amazing views.  Definitely a place worth visiting - I think I'll have to come back here for a view of the trees in the fall.

Heading back down was considerably easier simply because it was all down.  The boys did a good job coming up the trail although it taxed their stamina at some points.  On the way back they were again full of energy.  We stopped again at Grotto Falls so they could climb and jump on the rocks and play in the water.  By now (about 2 pm) the falls were packed with people.

And they were also beautiful in the sunshine!

This was a really nice hike overall.  The weather today was perfect - cool temperatures, yet sunny.  Getting an early start was great since we missed the throngs of people on our way up the trail and had the falls nearly to ourselves the first time we passed them.  The trail is in good shape for most of the way and has interesting plants, creeks and views.  The hike up Brushy Mtn. was really nice - fantastic views and cools plants.  Definitely someplace to go back to!

Til next time, happy hiking!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Baskins Creek and Trillium Gap Trails Loop

Trail Miles Completed: 5.0
Trail Miles Hiked: 7.9
21 June 2011

Happy Summer Solstice!  The beginning of summer seemed like a great excuse to go for a hike, so I headed down to Gatlinburg to the Cherokee Orchard / Roaring Fork area.  Given that it was the longest day of the year I figured I'd have a little extra daylight and didn't leave my house until about 5 pm.  What I forgot to take into account is Sevierville/Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg traffic...  I didn't get to the trailhead until almost 7 pm!  Undaunted I forged ahead.  My loop started at the lower trailhead for Baskins Creek Trail (on Roaring Fork) and went up Baskins Creek trail to Cherokee Orchard where I hopped onto Trillium Gap trail.  I did the 0.7 mile section to the west (junction w/ Rainbow Falls trail) and then back again and continued on to the east to the Grotto Falls parking area, and then road-walked back down to my car.

The Baskins Creek trail is very nice, and at 2.7 miles in length, a very reasonable hike.  Baskins Creek Falls is roughly in the middle, and is at the lowest point on the trail, so either way you go in you're going to go down and then back up.  I started at the Roaring Fork end, and just a little ways in you pass an old cemetery with a sign that says it's being renovated.  The signs that say it's being renovated look like they need to be renovated, so I'm guessing this has been going on for a while...

The trail passes through prototypical Smokies deep, dark forest (I kind of felt like I was in Fangorn Forest in Middle Earth).  It's dark and damp, the trail lined with rhododendron and hemlock.  The Rosebay Rhododendron are just about at their peak right now, so I was walking under a ceiling of flowers and on a carpet of fallen flowers.  Absolutely gorgeous!

The side trail to Baskins Creek Falls appears about mid-way through the hike.  I'd guess it's about a quarter mile from the main trail down to the falls, with the last little bit being very steep and rocky down to the base of the falls.  The falls themselves are impressive - there is a very wide rock rim with the falls spilling over one little section into a rocky pool at the base.  A salamander was sitting on a rock looking at me when I arrived, but unfortunately he dove for the water as soon as I reached for my camera.  This would be a lovely spot for a picnic on a hot summer afternoon.

From Baskins Creek Falls the trail steadily gains elevation on its way up toward Cherokee Orchard.  The trail follows Falls Branch much of the way, and there are some really pretty little cascades and cool rock shelters along the trail as well.  Along the way there is another side trail, this one leading to Baskins Creek Cemetery.  About a quarter mile hike takes you up to a small clearing with a dozen or so graves, almost all of them marked with roughly shaped pieces of slate as gravestones.  While you can make out some writing on some of them, they are all so worn that they are illegible.

As the trail nears the top it comes out on a drier side of the ridge and the mountain laurels abound.  There are some nice views here out toward Mt. LeConte and points further west.  The trail ends at Cherokee Orchard Road, and I arrived at about 8:30.  It was starting to get fairly twilightish by now - a combination of the late hour and the clouds.

From here I took the little spur trail that connects Baskins Creek trail with Trillium Gap trail.  I took the Trillium Gap trail west 0.7 miles to its junction with Rainbow Falls trail, and then turned around and headed back up Trillium Gap to its junction with the spur trail that leads down to Roaring Fork Road at the Grotto Falls parking area.  This particular section of the Trillium Gap trail parallels Roaring Fork Road and is not often used during the summer.  But it's a nice trail - fairly level with just a few ups and downs, and the trail is remarkably flat and generally free of rocks and tree roots.  Which is a good thing, since by now it was getting full dark and I was still hiking.  At one point the winds started howling and rushing through the trees - a pretty amazing feeling to be hiking through!  Ultimately the rain started in, but luckily not terribly hard, nor for very long.  I discovered (happily) that my rain coat is big enough to cover both me and my daypack, which is a good thing since I didn't bring my pack cover.

About a half mile from the Grotto Falls parking area I finally had to dig out my head-lamp - it was so dark under the trees that I couldn't even pretend I could see the trail anymore.  So I finished the hike up via head-lamp and made it safely back to Roaring Fork Road.  The evening finished up with a 1.2 mile road walk back down to my car.

All in all it was a neat hike.  Baskins Creek Falls and the Baskins Creek Cemetery are both well worth a visit, and the Baskins Creek trail in general is quite nice.  Plus I got to finish off the lower section of Trillium Gap trail to complete the loop and I was surprised at how pleasant a walk it was.  I'll be back in this area soon - going up Trillium Gap trail to Brushy Mountain with some friends from church on Saturday!

Til next time, happy hiking!
(and don't forget your raincoat and headlamp)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Gregory Ridge and Gregory Bald trails

Trail Miles Completed: 12.3
Trail Miles Hiked: 17.3
3-4 June 2011

I've always heard amazing things about Gregory Bald while the Flame Azaleas are flowering. This weekend was unexpectedly free, so I called my buddy Shane who was game to join me for a backpack.  It's a little early in June for the azaleas to be flowering (they're usually at peak about the 3rd week of June), but I was hoping that since we've had an early spring they'd already be started.

We started at the Gregory Ridge trailhead at the end of Forge Creek Rd in Cades Cove.

The first mile or so gains elevation, but fairly gently, until it reaches Campsite #12. This is a fairly nice site - right near a creek and with a nice fire ring area, but not too many good tent sites, and the best one is right next to the fire ring and bear cables.  Might be good for a small group.  There is an upper tenting / fire ring area too, but a lot of downed trees up there.

From Campsite #12 the trail immediately climbs a steep ridge over to the west side of Gregory Ridge and stays steep the rest of the way up (it's about 5 miles from the trailhead to the junction with Gregory Bald trail). We were huffing and puffing all the way up, and made many more rest stops than I'd care to admit. In the upper reaches of the Gregory Ridge trail we started seeing a lot of flame azalea and mountain laurel in flower - they were absolutely gorgeous!  The trail is in pretty good shape despite its steepness.  There is one area where it's fairly badly rutted, but for the most part it was good trail.

We reached the junction of Gregory Ridge trail with Gregory Bald trail and decided to spend an extra hour or so to do the 2 miles of the eastern end of Gregory Bald trail out to Doe Knob on the A.T.  This is a nice little trek that meanders up and down - there were lots of flame azalea and mountain laurels on this trail in full flower.

Reaching the junction of the Gregory Bald trail and A.T. made another connection for me.  I had hiked the A.T. from Newfound Gap down to Fontana Dam about 9 years ago - one of my very first long-distance backpacks in the park.  It was cool to come back to this place and know that I had been here before.

From here we turned back around up the Gregory Bald trail up to Gregory Bald itself.  The 0.6 miles from the Gregory Ridge - Gregory Bald trail junction up to the bald itself were rough - partly because it's pretty steep, but mostly because we'd already hiked 9 miles, most of them uphill...  But it was SO worth it.  Gregory Bald is an amazing place - covered with blueberry bushes, blackberry brambles and flame azaleas.  A few of the flame azalea were flowering, but you could see the buds on all of them - in a week it will be an amazing carpet of yellow-orange-red flowers!

The trail goes straight across the top of the bald, and there are gorgeous views in all directions.  We were there late in the afternoon and the sun was slanting downwards giving everything a warm glow.  Unfortunately in the throes of exhaustion and wonder I forgot to take any panoramic pictures...  But trust me - it's well worth the climb.  We found the USGS marker at the top: 4,949 feet!

And also got to see a deer amble across the bald.  She knew we were there, but didn't seem perturbed.

After soaking in the views for a while we headed down over the other side of the bald about 0.5 miles down to Campsite #13.  This is a beautiful campsite.  You have to make a reservation to camp there since it's heavily used, but it's really nice.  It's in a fairly level area, and there are about 4 or 5 tent sites, all nicely spaced so every group can have some privacy.  There were deer wandering all through the campsite for most of the evening, and a herd of them woke Shane up in the middle of the night.

After setting up camp we ate and chatted the night away, finally getting to bed around 11 pm.  In the morning we were up and around by about 7 am, had breakfast and broke camp.  We were both a little stiff and sore from the day before, but that quickly wore off.  Campsite #13 sits at the junction of Gregory Bald trail and the Wolf Ridge trail which comes up from the North Carolina side of the park around Twentymile.

We continued on the Gregory Bald trail which terminates at Parson Branch road. Parson Branch roads leads one-way out of Cades Cove and dumps out on U.S. 129 on "the dragon" (318 curves in 11 miles).  We turned down Parson Branch and back to the trailhead - about a 3 mile road walk.  This is the trail marker sign for Gregory Bald trail at its junction with Parson Branch road.

Along the way down we saw many nice plants still in flower including some mountain laurel in full flower.  This is one of my favorite flowers - my sweet daughter Laurel is named after it.

There are some big trees in this section - I can imagine it would have been very difficult to log up in the upper reaches of this area given how steep the terrain is.  Here's Shane standing by a really big old tulip poplar.

We arrived back at the car around noon, tired out but happy.  This was a very challenging hike, but very well worth the effort to see Gregory Bald.  Some day I'll have to go back at the right time to see all of the flame azaleas out in full flower on the bald and spend some time just lazing among them.

Til next time, happy hiking!