Friday, December 16, 2016

Maddron Bald and Albright Grove Loop Trails

New Miles Completed: 8.0
Total Miles Hiked: 15.0
15 December 2016

Maddron Bald trail starts along the northern border of the GSMNP, just south of US Route 321 in between Gatlinburg and Cosby.  The trailhead is a little sketchy and apparently break-ins and vandalism of cars is not uncommon here.  I took a chance, since I was just going to be here for the day, and went ahead and parked at the trailhead - no problems.

At the trailhead.
Let me say right off the bat that the Maddron Bald trail gains about 3500' of elevation over its length of 7.3 miles, and is pretty much continually up, with few level spots.  It's pretty gradual for most of the trail though, and rarely brutally steep.  The bottom section, from the trailhead to Albright Grove is relatively easy hiking along a well-graded trail.  The trail starts off as a gravel road, and passes through parts of the park that were clearly inhabited pre-park.  You can see several rock walls off to either side of the trail (especially easy in the winter when the leaves are gone), and you pass by the well-maintained Willis Baxter one-room log cabin about 0.7 miles up the trail.

Willis Baxter cabin, ca. 1889
A little further on you reach a 4-way trail junction:  Maddron Bald trail runs south-north, Gabes Mountain trail leads east toward Cosby, and the Old Settlers Trail leads west toward Greenbriar.

Old Settler trail

Gabes Mountain trail
From here the Maddron Bald trail continues to lead south and up.  It's still gravel for a while, but narrower and rockier.  The trail leads through typical Smokies Hemlock forest with lots of Rhododenron, Eastern Hemlock, and Tulip Trees.  Ultimately the gravel road peters out, and you find yourself on a narrow trailbed with lots of rocks and roots, still continually climbing.  At nearly 3 miles from the trailhead you cross Indian Camp Creek on the only bridged water crossing of the trail.

Footlog bridge over Indian Camp Creek
Shortly after crossing the bridge you reach the southern junction of the Maddron Bald and Albright Grove Loop trails.  Albright Grove is a 0.7 mile loop that juts off of the Maddron Bald trail and runs up and down the ridge above the Maddron Bald trail through an impressive stand of old growth forest.  I chose to head on up the Maddron Bald trail now, and did the Albright Grove Loop on my way back down.

Northern junction of Maddron Bald & Albright Grove Loop trails

Southern junction of Maddron Bald & Albright Grove Loop trails
It has only been a few weeks since the devastating forest fire swept through the Smokies and then down into Gatlinburg.  This area of the park was not burned, but the strong winds from the storm that swept the fire into an inferno clearly affected this area as well.  There were LOTS of downed trees across and near the trail.  Trail maintenance crews are going to have their work cut out for them this year.

Downed tree blocking the trail.
From Albright Grove it's another 4 miles to the top end of the Maddron Bald trail.  The trail climbs the side of one ridge, then continuously rises in and out along of a couple more ridges until it reaches Backcountry Campsite #29 at Otter Creek, about 2.5 miles above Albright Grove.  This campsite sits on a narrow shelf right along Otter Creek.  It has 2 fire rings and 2 sets of bear cables, but not very many flat spots for tents.  

Backcountry Campsite #29

Backcountry Campsite #29.  Looking up from the bottom toward the trail.
From campsite #29 the Maddron Bald trail turns north and climbs the flank of Maddron Bald itself.  It's about 1.5 miles from #29 to the trail terminus.  The first part of this section is a ridge-side climb that affords some nice views back down into the valley that you have just climbed up through.  The high-elevation trees were coated with rime ice that made a beautiful contrast with the evergreens.

Trees covered in rime ice at high elevation
The trail then reaches the summit ridge of Maddron Bald and traverses that ridge on its way over to the junction with the Snake Den Ridge trail.  Maddron Bald is a heath bald, much like Brushy Mountain.  The top of the ridge has few tall trees, but is covered with Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel and Sand Myrtle, and the trail is deeply rutted into the earth.  This section of the trail is reasonably level, and then even drops off just a bit as it comes off of Maddron Bald and heads over to the end of the trail.  There are several spots with lovely views along the top of Maddron Bald.  The trail ends at its junction with Snake Den Ridge trail, just 0.7 miles below the Appalachian Trail.  I stopped here, glad to be done with the climbing for the day and ate some lunch.  But I didn't stay long - it was too cold!  My little thermometer said 15 degrees.  I stayed just about 15 minutes to eat, drink and rest, and then turned and headed back down.

Maddron Bald - Snake Den Ridge trail junction

Brrr!  15 degrees at the top
I retraced my steps back down Maddron Bald trail, taking time to do the Albright Grove Loop trail as well.  The 0.7 mile Albright Grove Loop meanders along a ridge side, and then meets up with Dunn Creek before junctioning back to Maddron Bald trail.  Because this area was not logged some of the trees are absolute giants.  Tulip Trees, Hemlocks and Silver Bells are among some of the biggest trees.  Sadly, the storms had knocked down a lot of trees along here as well, and the trail was littered with the debris of broken trees and branches.

The distinctive bark of a huge Silver Bell tree
I made it back to my car safe and sound, happy, but tired and cold.  It was a tough hike - the elevation gain was really strenuous.  But the views were amazing and the solitude rewarding.  I only saw one other person on the trail, and that was when I was nearly back to my car.  Winter hiking in the Smokies is really rewarding if you are ready to brave the cold, and prepared.  

Til next time, happy hiking!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Wet Bottom Trail

New miles completed: 1.0
Total miles hiked: ??? around 4 I think...
15 October 2016

The Wet Bottom trail has been a missing link on my trail map for quite a while.  I tried to do this trail a couple of winters ago, but it had rained a LOT and the trail was under water.  Well, it's been a long dry summer and early fall, so I figured this was a great time to knock this trail out (finally!).  Good grief...  Happy to have it done, and don't expect I'll ever feel the need to do it again.

Wet Bottom trail runs between the Abrams Falls parking lot and the Cooper Road trail in Cades Cove.  It's only a mile long, but it is TERRIBLY marked in between the Elijah Oliver Cabin and Abrams Falls parking lot, and there are LOT of side trails that look like the real thing that lead off to nowhere.  So here's what happened today.

Wet Bottom trailhead on the Cooper Road trail
We drove down to Cades Cove (bad idea on a Saturday in October, by the way) and finally made it around the Cades Cove loop and parked at the Cooper Road trailhead.  Followed Cooper Road trail 0.2 miles to the northern end of the Wet Bottom trail, and turned south.  Wet Bottom trail first runs south to the Elijah Oliver Cabin road, takes a right (west) onto the road to the cabin, and then turns south again toward the Abrams Falls parkings area.

Trail sign #1 on Elijah Oliver Cabin road 
Trail sign #2 on Elijah Oliver Cabin road
We decided to head on down to the end of the road to see the Elijah Oliver Cabin first, and then took the high water route that runs from Elijah Oliver Cabin down to Abrams Falls parking area, thinking it would be easy enough to follow the Wet Bottom back north from the parking lot...  That was our first mistake.

Wet Bottom trailhead at Abrams Falls parking area

Sarah along the Wet Bottom trail
The Wet Bottom trail leads north from the parking area through the woods and shortly reaches the banks of Abrams Creek as the creek meanders west.  The trail (or as we came to realize later, a trail that is NOT the Wet Bottom trail) meanders along the southern bank of Abrams Creek for quite a while...  Following this trail we ultimately came out to the edge of the woods near where the road to Abrams Falls parking area meets the Cades Cove loop.  And then the trail just disappeared...  Faint trails seemed to lead back into the woods, or along the edge of the woods, or out toward the road.  But the obvious trail simply was gone.  

Abrams Creek

The clear trail (that turned out NOT to be the real trail) 
Beautiful views of the end of Cades Cove from the edge of the woods.

A bit dismayed, we decided to hike the road back to the Elijah Oliver Cabin and try the Wet Bottom trail from the north end where at least it was clearly marked.  So we started back where we had already been: at the Wet Bottom trail junction with the Elijah Oliver Cabin road.

Back to where we started...

We headed south from here and the trail was pretty easy to follow.  A couple of times there were side trails, but the main trail was fairly easy to identify.  Eventually we reached the northern bank of Abrams Creek, and looked across the creek to the the trail we had been on before on the southern bank, across a relatively shallow ford.

Ford across Abrams Creek where the Wet Bottom trail crosses.
So we had been here before, but on the other side of the creek and with NO indication that the trail crossed here.  No sign indicating the ford, and an obvious trail that continued along the southern bank.  Way too easy to make a mistake here.  It was kind of frustrating, to say the least.  So we followed the trail back to the end at the Abrams Falls parking area and then turned around to head back north, having (finally!) completed the Wet Bottom trail.

So the take-home message is this:  if you decide to hike the Wet Bottom trail (not sure WHY you would do this unless you are trying to join the 900-miler club), you should definitely start at the northern end and head south.  Much easier to figure out where you are.  Starting at the southern end is a recipe for for wandering off the real trail and ending up coming out of the woods at the road.

Despite the frustration it was a nice day in the woods.  Fall is definitely in the air, although summer is holding on pretty tightly.  Another couple of weeks and we should have some real fall weather.  Sarah and I have nearly completed the Smokies Centennial Challenge Hike 100!  Planning to do Alum Bluff Cave trail up to Mt. LeConte soon to wrap up the 100 miles.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Appalachian Trail - Sweat Heifer - Grassy Branch - Dry Sluice Gap - Appalachian Trail loop hike

New miles completed: 7.5
Total miles hiked: 14.6
13 July 2016

A few weeks ago we did the Kephart Prong trail as an out-and-back.  So this week I decided to go ahead and knock out the other trails around this area.  I had previously done the hike along the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Newfound Gap north a few times, but on this trip I made a loop out of it.  Started out on the AT from Newfound Gap, then down the Sweat Heifer trail to Kephart Shelter, then up the Grassy Branch trail to Dry Sluice Gap trail, then back to the AT for the return to Newfound Gap.  Along the way I stopped by Charlie's Bunion, Icewater Springs Shelter, and for the first time took the hike out to the Jumpoff.

Got to Newfound Gap and the trailhead around 8:30 am, and there were already lots of folks there.  Upon arrival I discovered that I had left my boots back in my dining room, which left me doing a 14+ mile hike in my trail runners.  That was an experiment I had intended to try, but not on this particular day.  Oh well!

AT trailhead at Newfound Gap

Left my boots at home...
The 1.7 mile section of the AT from Newfound Gap to the junction with Sweat Heifer trail was already fairly busy with day hikers headed out towards Charlie's Bunion.  The trail here is on or skirts the central ridge of the Smokies and you can tell - it's like you're walking on the bones of the mountains.  The trail is pretty rocky, with big chunks of exposed boulders, and it rises pretty steadily, gaining about 800 feet in elevation.  There are occasional views off to the side.

I reached the junction of the AT and Sweat Heifer trail, and turned downhill.  Here I met Tom - a fellow hiker and 900-miler club aspirant who was doing the same loop as me.  We chatted briefly and then met each other off and on through the rest of the day which was pretty cool.

AT - Sweat Heifer trail junction

Beginning of the Sweat Heifer trail - very overgrown!
Sweat Heifer trail loses about 2200 feet of elevation over 3.7 miles from the AT down to its end at the Kephart Shelter.  The top half is a pretty steady descent, there's a very pleasant section in the middle that levels out a bit, and then it drops off again heading down and into the the shelter.  It doesn't seem to be a terribly well-traveled trail. The top bit coming down from the AT was VERY overgrown, with grass up to my knees growing over the trail - at times it was tough to see where the trail was!  The walk was through very pleasant forest, there are constructed steps in many of the steep places, and there were lots of wildflowers to look at including crimson bee-balm, white bergamot, and monkshood.

Sweat Heifer cascades

Sweat Heifer creek

Once I reached the Kephart Shelter I met up with Tom again.  We both stopped here to eat and rest a bit.  We chatted about trails, and gear, boy scouts, and our experiences in the Smokies.  It was really very nice!  We also both knew that the next part of the hike was going to be the most grueling part of the day.  The ascent up Grassy Branch trail.

Kephart Shelter

Sweat Heifer - Grassy Branch trail junction @ Kephart Shelter
Grassy Branch trail gains about 1800 feet over 2.5 miles from Kephart Shelter to its junction with Dry Sluice Gap trail.  And it is relentless...  There are lots of switchbacks and it just goes up and up and up.  The day was pretty warm and very humid - I was soaked with sweat pretty much right away.  The surrounding woods here are pleasant, but nothing exceptional.  No waterfalls, or great views.  Towards the top the trail becomes deeply rutted and eroded.  I can tell you I was happy to reach the junction with Dry Sluice Gap trail!

Grassy Branch - Dry Sluice Gap trail junction
The section of Dry Sluice Gap trail between Grassy Branch and the AT is quite nice.  It rises a bit, then levels out, before descending gently to the AT, but is never steep.  To whoever does trail maintenance on this trail - thank you!  The grass at the trail edge was so neatly cut it looked as if someone had recently been through with a weedeater!  This little 1.3 mile chunk passed quickly and pleasantly, and brought me back to the Appalachian Trail.

The very well-kept Dry Sluice Gap trail

Dry Sluice Gap - Appalachian Trail junction
From here I turned back southwest on the AT toward Newfound Gap.  Along the way are outstanding views to either side of the trail.

View from the AT
Just a little bit down the trail brought me to the side trail to Charlie's Bunion - a really great destination on the AT.  A big rock outcrop sticks out of the side of the mountain and affords really outstanding views of the surrounding mountain ranges, as well as impressive views of the steepness of the mountains in the immediate vicinity.

Selfie at Charlie's Bunion

View of the steep mountainsides adjacent to Charlie's Bunion
From Charlie's Bunion the trail climbs steadily as you head southwest, passing Icewater Spring, and the nearby shelter.  A quarter of a mile or so past Icewater Spring Shelter you reach the junction with the Boulevard trail which leads to Mt. LeConte.  It also shortly leads to a side trail to the Jump Off - a spot at the top of a very sheer cliff that provides really amazing views.  I'd never been out to the Jump Off, so I decided to give it a go.  

Appalachian Trail - Boulevard Trail junction

Side trail to the Jump Off

View from the Jump Off
While a rough trail with some tall steps and steep ups and downs, it was well-worth the trip.  The Jump Off is just a small open spot at the top of a tall and sheer cliff.  For people like me with a healthy respect for heights it can be a bit unnerving - the only thing between you and a several hundred feet sheer drop is a couple of bushes...  But the views are outstanding, and I'm really glad I took the time to visit.

From here the AT heads mostly downhill back to Newfound Gap in about 2.7 miles.  Even though it was nearly 4 pm by this time I still ran into a lot of folks who were heading out from Newfound Gap!  Summer time in the GSMNP.

I happily made it back to Newfound Gap and my car after my 14+ miles day, including a lot of up and down.  My feet felt surprisingly good after the day in my trail runners.  They certainly were not as tired as they normally are in my big boots, but I also felt the rocks more and was more careful about where I stepped to avoid turning my ankles.  Undoubtedly there are pros and cons to both approaches, but I think I might try a real pair of trail shoes next.

All in all, another great day on the trails in the Smokies!  Amazing views from the AT, and some very nice hiking through beautiful high-elevation forest.  Looking forward to knocking off a few more trails this summer.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Kephart Prong trail

New miles completed: 2.0
Total miles hiked: 4.0
29 June 2016

I've reached the point in my quest when I have done nearly all of the trails on the Tennessee side of the park (where I live), so new trails are going to have to be added on the North Carolina side, which means more driving and better planning.  OR, somedays, like this day, we will take a nice drive over the mountains just to do a little 2 mile section of trail...  It was a beautiful summer day spent with good friends exploring a little more of our big back yard.

The Kephart Prong trailhead is on Newfound Gap Road, about 8.8 miles south of Newfound Gap or 5.0 miles north of Smokemont Campground.  The trail is only 2 miles long, and gains about 800 feet in elevation as it follows the Kephart Prong (stream) along an old jeep road turned trail.

Our hiking crew at the trailhead

The trail begins at at large footbridge over the Oconaluftee River right where the Kephart Prong flows into the Oconaluftee.  Pretty much the entire length of the trail is a nice walk through the woods while following the Kephart Prong, banks lined with Rosebay Rhododendron.  This time of year the Rhododendron and Scarlet Bee Balm are in flower - they put on a lovely show!  Also found a nice patch of Pipsissewa in flower.

Rosebay Rhododendron
Pipsissewa, aka Spotted Wintergreen
Scarlet Bee Balm

Kephart Prong
Almost immediately up the trail you start to see signs of prior habitation.  There are many side trails that now lead off into the woods and just peter out...  Some even have old stonework entrances.

Side trail off of the Kephart Prong with stone walls flanking the path.
Shortly thereafter you reach the site of an old CCC camp.  The little brown book and the History Hikes book both give good info about this site.  The CCC did a huge amount of work in the Smokies in the 1930s building trails, bridges and buildings.  This site has some of the most obvious leftovers I've seen in former CCC campsites in the park.

River stone sign board

River stone water fountain

From here on up the trail follows a familiar pattern of hugging one side of Kephart Prong for a while, then crossing over to the other side for a while.  Beyond the first bridge at the trailhead, there are four additional footbridges that cross Kephart Prong.

Footbridge #1

Footbridge #2

Footbridge #3

Footbridge #4
At all of the stream crossings you have a choice - you can either take one side trail and ford the creek, or you can take a different side trail and cross the footbridge.  There are even signs to point you in the right direction!

"Foot Log" - sign pointing to the bridge crossing
The trail is very rocky.  It's fairly wide in the first mile (the old jeep road), but then narrows further on.

Ultimately, 2 miles from the trailhead, you reach the end of the Kephart Prong trail where it reaches a junction with both the Sweat Heifer and Grassy Branch trails, and the Kephart backcountry shelter.

Trail junction with Sweat Heifer and Grassy Branch trails.

Kephart backcountry shelter 
We stopped here to snack and drink and play in the water just around the corner from the shelter before heading back down the trail.  It was a beautiful summer day and a very pleasant hike.  Kephart Prong is a very pretty stream, and the creek crossings provide plenty of opportunities to play in the water if you wish!

Hope you all are having a great summer on the trails.
Til next time, happy hiking!