Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Backpacking loop: Middle Prong - Greenbrier Ridge - AT - Miry Ridge - Panther Creek - Middle Prong

New miles completed: 6.7
Total miles hiked: 20.9
17-18 January 2016

I love winter in the Smokies, and I love the challenges inherent in winter backpacking. My trip this weekend proved to be both beautiful and challenging!

My route for this trip started on the Middle Prong trail in the Tremont section of the park.  I hiked up Middle Prong to its junction with the Greenbrier Ridge trail, and took it up to the Applachian Trail at Sams Gap.  Just 0.3 miles up the AT is the Derrick Knob shelter where I spent the night.  Next day took me northeast on the AT to the Miry Ridge trail, down to Panther Creek trail at Jakes Gap, back down to Middle Prong and my car. There is about a 2100' elevation difference between the trailhead at Middle Prong to the AT.

The weather forecast called for some snow and cold temperatures on the 17th, clearing overnight getting colder on the 18th.  It was spitting snow as I got on the Middle Prong trail about 11 am on the 17th.

Middle Prong trailhead
I've hiked the first few miles of Middle Prong countless times, but it's such a wonderful trail that I never get bored with it.  The trail is wide and easy, and along the way you pass gorgeous waterfalls, a old rusting 1920s Cadillac, a brick chimney (sadly now fallen over), the Panther Creek trail entrance, and a short side-trek to Indian Flats Falls.  

Middle Prong Cadillac in the snow

Panther Creek trailhead on Middle Prong
The side trail to Indian Flats Falls is about 4 miles from the trailhead at one of the switchbacks of the upper section of Middle Prong.  There is no sign, but a rock cairn marks the trail and it's fairly obvious if you're looking for it.  Indian Flats Falls is very pretty any time of year, but it was really nice in the snow, and well worth the short side hike.

Indian Flats Falls
Not too far up from Indian Flats Falls the Middle Prong trail ends at its junction with Lynn Camp Prong and Greenbrier Ridge trails.

Middle Prong - Lynn Camp Prong - Greenbrier Ridge trails junction
My route took me up the Greenbrier Ridge trail, 4.2 miles to the AT.  This was a new trail for me, and it started off with a couple of unbridged stream crossings.  Neither was difficult, although the rocks were icy and slippery so a little extra caution was needed. I was happy to have my trekking poles for extra balance. The little brown books tells an interesting story about this area, Mellinger Death Ridge, involving a bear trap, murder and a death-bed confession.

Greenbrier Ridge trail follows the contours of the ridge as it slowly but steadily gains elevation on its way up to the AT.  The trail is mostly follows a typical pattern of going out to the edge of a ridge, and then back in to cross a stream, and then back out to another ridge.  Along the way there were some beautiful icicle walls, and a few good views of the surrounding mountains. It seems like this is not a terribly heavily traveled trail - there's a fair amount of undergrowth right up to the edge of the trail that slaps at your legs as you go along.

Icicles on the Greenbrier Ridge trail
Greenbrier Ridge trail dead-ends at Sams Gap on the Appalachian Trail at about 4800' elevation. This is also the NC-TN state line. From here I turned right (southwest) for 0.3 miles to get to the Derrick Knob shelter where I stayed the night.

Greenbrier Ridge and Appalachian Trail junction at Sams Gap
The Appalachian Trail - love those white blazes!

I love the trail shelters in the Smokies.  The stone walls, stone chimneys and wooden bunks make me feel at home.  During the winter the park installs tarps across the front of each shelter to keep out the wind.  This makes them much cozier!  And by the way - the chimney at the Derrick Knob shelter draws very well, and thanks to "Tallahassee Tim" for a very clean shelter.

Derrick Knob shelter
Water source at Derrick Knob shelter
I got to the shelter a little before 3 pm which left me plenty of time to get settled in, get water from the spring, and wood for a fire.  The spring is down a steep trail below the shelter on the TN side, and has an old pipe stuck into the spring to make filling your water bottles much easier.  It got dark around 5:30.  I ate dinner, had a fire and enjoyed the solitude, but by around 8 pm it was time for bed.  I had the shelter to myself for the night.  I stayed warm in my zero-degree down sleeping bag, but I sure didn't want to get out of bed in the morning - it was 5 degrees!

Ultimately I managed to force myself out of the warmth of the sleeping bag and get the coffee and oatmeal going.  Once I was up I got up and out pretty quickly.  No better way to warm up than to start hiking.  While the day before had been mostly cloudy and spitting snow, the morning was glorious and clear, with the snow sparkling on everything.

Leaving Derrick Knob shelter on the AT
I hiked about a 2.7 mile section of the AT from Derrick Knob to the Miry Ridge trail.  The AT stays on or near the NC-TN state line here and is either on top of the ridge or just below on one side or the other.  This is one of my favorite kinds of hiking - ridgetop, with great views of mountains on either side.  In the winter, with leaves gone from the trees, the views are even better.  The AT through here is a bit like a roller coaster, with lots of ups and downs.  The last little bit, going up and over Cold Spring Knob, had me huffing and puffing.

Appalachian Trail - Miry Ridge trail junction
From here I turned down the Miry Ridge trail - this part of the trail was new for me.  Much like the Greenbrier Ridge trail coming up, the Miry Ridge trail doesn't seem to get a lot of use and is fairly overgrown.  It varies between walking on top of the ridge, to a ridge-side trail.  It's often narrow, sloped and badly eroded, made all the more tricky by the snow and ice.  Much of it is bordered by Rhododendron and Mt. Laurel, and there's even the occasional spruce tree. There are some wonderful winter views, especially along the upper section.

View through the trees from the Miry Ridge trail
About half-way down from the AT you reach the junction with the Lynn Camp Prong trail.  From here the Miry Ridge trail continues on down toward Jakes Gap.

Miry Ridge - Lynn Camp Prong trail junction
Along this section you pass by backcountry campsite #26.  This campsite sits about 0.1 mile down a spur trail, and is a nice looking site with several flat areas for tents, and a central fire ring area under a beautiful grove of hemlocks.

Backcountry campsite #26 trail marker

Backcountry campsite #26
 A bit further down, the trail crosses below the summit of Dripping Springs Mountain, and there's a wonderful rocky outcrop that can be climbed to get a view over the hedge of Mountain Laurel the edges the trail.  The view here is spectacular!

View from Dripping Springs Mountain
From here on down the trail descends towards Jakes Gap where the Miry Ridge trail ends at its junction with Jakes Creek and Panther Creek trail.  Along the way I passed one of the trickiest sections of my trip, where thick ice covered the trail for quite a distance.  A bit of careful maneuvering was required to stay upright on this section!

Ice covered trail along lower section of Miry Ridge trail
Miry Ridge - Jakes Creek - Panther Creek trail junction
From Jakes Gap I turned down the Panther Creek trail.  I was a bit worried that this might be a rocky, icy mess.  Instead it turned out just to be a rocky, wet mess, as usual.  Panther Creek descends fairly steeply, losing about 1500' in elevation in just over 2 miles.  Fairly quickly you start to hear the beginnings of Panther Creek which keeps you company the whole way down.  There are several rock-hops across Panther Creek, but none of them are any trouble.  That is, until you get to the very end, just before Panther Creek trail reaches its junction with Middle Prong. Here there is a 20 or 30 foot, knee-deep crossing.  I had hoped to be able to find a way across without wading, but the rocks looked icy enough that I figured cold legs were better than a fall.  So I shed my pants, socks and shoes and waded across.  It was a bit chilly.

Lynn Camp Prong ford.  Brrrrrrrr!
At this point I was back on the Middle Prong trail, and just 2.3 miles from the parking area on a wide, easy trail.  I made quick work getting back down and was at my car by 3 pm - not bad for a 12.6 mile day!

 Winter is a special time in the Smokies. The scenery takes on a whole new kind of beauty, and the weather just offers new and different challenges.  I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, and look forward to a good new year of hiking in the Smokies.

Til next time, happy hiking!