Saturday, June 10, 2017

Rabbit Creek - Hannah Mountain

New Miles Completed: 7.6
Total Miles Hiked: 20.6
Total Ticks Removed: 6
8-9 June 2017

The southern end of the Hannah Mountain trail has been a hole in my map for a long time. I've done all the trails around it, but never quite managed to complete this one. So I decided to do a short backpack from Abrams Creek Ranger Station up Rabbit Creek  trail to Hannah Mountain trail. I stayed overnight at backcountry campsite #14, and then finished off Hannah Mountain out to Parson's Branch Road, and then back to Abrams Creek.

Rabbit Creek trailhead at Abrams Creek Ranger Station
To get to Hannah Mountain trail I had to travel the Rabbit Creek trail from Abrams Creek to Scott Gap. Rabbit Creek trail starts off with a ford of Abrams Creek. There used to be a footbridge, but it kept washing away so the park decided just to take it out and let folks ford the creek. Even with all of the rain we've had these last few weeks the ford was less than knee deep and not a problem.

Looking back across Abrams Creek to where the bridge *used* to be
After crossing Abrams Creek, Rabbit Creek trail goes through a flat area that used to be settled. You can often tell old home sites in the Smokies by the plants that are left behind. Boxwoods, yuccas, day-lilies...

Day lilies at an old home site
From here Rabbit Creek starts going UP. There's about 1000' of elevation gain over a couple of miles from Abrams Creek up to the top of Pine Mountain. There are parts of this section that are pretty steep.

Going UP Rabbit Creek trail
The western end of the Smokies is drier than the central chain or the eastern end and it has a distinctly different feel from the Cove Hardwood type forests that I think of as "typical" Smokies. The canopy is dominated by pines, oaks, and hickories, and the understory is a near monoculture of blueberries! But there are some nice wildflowers along the way too.


Purple-flowering Raspberry


We've had several violent storms in the area over the last couple of months, you can see the aftermath on the trails.  LOTS of trees blown down over the trail. None that made the trail impassable, but lots the required a detour over, under or around.

Ultimately Rabbit Creek trail crests Pine Mountain and then descends steeply into Scott Gap, the junction of Rabbit Creek trail (coming in from Abrams Creek on one side, and from Cades Cove on the other side), and Hannah Mountain trail. It's 2.7 miles from Abrams Creek Ranger Station to Scott Gap.

Trail junction at Scott Gap
Here I turned south onto the Hannah Mountain trail and started my new trail miles. Hannah Mountain trail gently ascends from Scott Gap through a pleasant pine-oak forest. The trail, for the most part, is in good shape and easy to travel. It's 3.2 miles from Scott Gap to backcountry campsite #14 which was my destination for the night. There's really not a lot to say about this part of the trail. It rises fairly gently following ridge-lines. There are essentially no creek crossings on the trail, even in the draws. It's a pleasant walk, but not much to break up the scenery.

Backcountry campsite #14 at Flint Gap is really more of a wide spot in the trail than a campsite. The trail literally goes through the middle of the campsite which has one small flat area for tents, bear cables, and fire ring all within about a 25-foot radius. It was pleasant and I was the only one there, but it's pretty small and has very limited flat spots for tents.

Backcountry campsite #14

Backcountry campsite #14
The other unfortunate thing about this campsite is that the water source is about a 5-minute walk further up the trail. As I mentioned, this area of the park is fairly dry with few creeks or springs. According to the Little Brown Book there is an unreliable spring just below the gap that campsite #14 sits in. I looked for a little bit to see if I could find it, but no luck so I headed on down the trail. The water source is a small creek in a draw and had a nice pool that was 3 or 4 inches deep - easy to filter water from. BUT it's been a wet spring and it's still this shallow. I can imagine that in August or September of a dry year that this might completely dry up, and it's the ONLY water source on this whole trail.

Water source for campsite #14
I spent a pleasant evening reading (Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey) until it got too dark, and then sat and enjoyed a campfire. I tried out hammock camping on this trip - I'm usually a tent camper, but thought I'd give the hammock a try to see if I like it. Not sure what I think yet - I'll have to give it another shot. I was a bit chilly so I didn't sleep great. Not sure if the hammock contributed to my lack of sleep, or just the temperature.

Friday morning I broke camp and headed out to finish off the remaining 4.4 miles of Hannah Mountain trail. From campsite #14 the trail ascends about 800' over about a mile and half before leveling out on a ridge top. This section of the trail seemed rarely traveled. It was overgrown in many places with the blackberry brambles, wild hydrangea bushes and greenbriar vines crowding into the trail (I was wearing shorts and my legs are pretty scratched up). There were some botanically interesting sights along the way:

Stump sprouts from an American Chestnut tree

REALLY big old Tulip Poplar tree


Flame Azalea
Parts of the trail are ridge-side walking, with a narrow footbed, and often along fairly steep banks. Combined with the overgrown shrubs and the occasional blow down it made for challenging walking in part. Other sections are open piney woods with a wide and even trail on a carpet of pine needles - easy and pleasant walking. Ultimately the trail descends to its terminus at Parson's Branch Road that comes up out of Cades Cove (as of this writing Parson's Branch Road is closed to vehicular traffic because of downed trees). I stopped here for a snack and a drink and to sit and read a while before heading back.

The end of Hannah Mountain trail at Parson's Branch Road

Hannah Mountain trail sign

A deer that kept me company while I sat and read.
After sitting and reading and snacking and relaxing for a half hour or so I reluctantly saddled up again to head back the 10.3 miles to Abrams Creek and my car. I really need to be better about figuring out how to do these trips as loops or shuttles instead of "out and back" trips. To do the 7.6 miles of Hannah Mountain trail I ended up hiking 20.6 miles, including 14.7 on Friday!

I made it back safe and sound, and was happy to put my tired feet into the cool waters at the ford of Abrams Creek.

Selfie in the middle of the Abrams Creek ford
I recently crossed the 50% mark in terms of trail mileage for the park. I've also completed nearly all of the trails on the Tennessee side and plan to finish the rest of those off this summer. Time to start taking longer backpacking trips over on the North Carolina side! I'm looking forward to exploring that part of the park - it will all be new territory for me.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Low Gap - Camel Gap - AT - Low Gap Loop

New Miles Completed: 6.6
Total Miles Hiked: 15.8
1 June 2017

I really love the Cosby area of the park. It feels to me much more like the GSMNP must have been in the early years, compared to the hustle, bustle and ultra-touristy feel of Gatlinburg... And on this day the Cosby entrance sign was framed by beautiful Rhododendrons in flower.

Cosby entrance to the GSMNP
The goal for this hike was to make a loop out of the Low Gap, Camel Gap, and Appalachian Trail. Starting at the Cosby hiker's parking lot, up and over Low Gap down to it's junction with Big Creek, hooking up there with Camel Gap and taking it up to the AT, then back down to Low Gap and Cosby Campground. I had previously done the north side of the Low Gap trail (what the Little Brown Book calls "Low Gap II"), but had never done the southern half ("Low Gap I").

Trailhead is at the Cosby hiker's parking area, which requires hikers to navigate the maze of trails surrounding Cosby campground in order to get to the real beginning of Low Gap trail.

Low Gap trailhead

Low Gap junction with Lower Mt. Cammerer trail
The hike up and out of Cosby to Low Gap is only 2.9 miles, but gains over 2000 feet in elevation over that distance. It's a butt-kicker way to start your day! While steep, it is also beautiful with wildflowers and follows Cosby creek for much of the lower section. It is also well-traveled though and can by very rocky and rooty.

Cosby Creek

Worn trail leaving behind a network of roots to trip over.


Mountain Laurel

Clinton's Lily or White Clintonia

At Low Gap you cross the Appalachian Trail which leads left (northwest) toward Mt. Cammerer or right (southeast) toward Cosby Knob shelter. The elevation at Low Gap is 4242 feet according to the USGS marker there.

USGS marker at Low Gap

Trail sign at Low Gap
From here I plunged down the southern side of Low Gap trail down toward Walnut Bottom and Big Creek. The trail going down from Low Gap is much the same as the trail going up on the other side. Along the way down I paused at a water crossing and looked closely at the source of the stream only to realize I was standing right beside a constructed spring house that someone had built around a lovely spring. There is evidence of the people who lived here all around us, although nature is slowly, but surely taking it back. There are lots of lovely little cascades along this section too.

Spring house

About 2.5 miles below Low Gap the trail runs into Big Creek and the Big Creek trail near backcountry campsite #37. 

Low Gap - Big Creek trail junction

I turned right along Big Creek toward Camel Gap trail and backcountry campsite #36 where I stopped for lunch. Campsite 36 was build to accommodate horses and so comes complete with a set of stalls in addition to the usual bear cables and fire pit. There was also some unidentified metal scrap. This trail is an old rail line right-of-way from the logging days before the park, so there are a lot of railroad artifacts along the way.

Horse stalls

Campsite sign and scrap metal

Fire ring

Big Creek which is right beside CS #36
This is a nice, big open campsite that is right along Big Creek. Because it's a horse trail and campsite it was really buggy, but otherwise a lovely site. I stopped here for lunch, and sat on a rock on the creek bank soaking in the sights and sounds. After finishing up lunch I headed further up Big Creek trail toward Camel Gap. Now here's an odd thing: most trails begin and end at significant spots like road crossings or junctions with other trails. Not so with Camel Gap trail... Apparently Big Creek trail ends and Camel Gap trail begins at some completely indistinguishable spot on the trail between CS #36 and the junction with Gunther Creek trail. There is a sign here that points out the change, but there's no rhyme or reason as to why it is at that particular spot.

End of Big Creek trail / beginning of Camel Gap trail.
Camel Gap - Gunther Fork trail junction

Camel Gap trail seems to me to be one of those trails that is simply not well-traveled, which makes sense. It's not an important connector between other well-traveled trails, nor are there big, exciting things to see like big waterfalls or amazing vistas. So the trail is kind of grown over (unfortunately for me in my shorts, it is grown up with a lot of stinging nettle). But it is really a wonderful trail that follows the beautiful Big Creek essentially to it's source. Along the way there are LOTS of great views of small waterfalls and cascades, and just gorgeous shots of the river itself. 

Camel Gap trail

Big Creek along the Camel Gap trail

Unkown (to me) chunk of metal along Camel Gap trail

This section of the trail is still on an old railway, so parts of it are held up by rock walls presumably originally built for the rail lines. The trail alternates between walking creekside and being on the floodplain just on the other side of a wall of Rhododendron from the creek. The valley you are climbing up is lush and green. The lower section of Camel Gap trail is reasonably flat - it does gain some elevation, but slowly so you don't really feel it. Then about half-way up the trail you start to climb away from Big Creek and up the ridge toward the crest of the mountain and the Appalachian Trail. Here the trail gets steeper, and the upper section of this trail is no joke. It climbs up and then along the ridge, and at least at one spot provides a wonderful view.

Old piece of railroad track slowly getting lost under the foliage

Blue-eyed Grass

Upper section of Camel Gap trail

View from Camel Gap trail

Ultimately the Camel Gap trail empties out at the Appalachian Trail about 2.4 miles southwest of Low Gap. I had naively assumed that the section of the AT from Camel Gap down to Low Gap would be mostly downhill. I was sorely disappointed... The AT from here climbs up and over Ross Knob before flattening out and following the ridge for a ways before ultimately descending into Low Gap. This was actually a really pleasant part of the day (despite the uphill) because I LOVE being at high elevation and there were lots of great wildflowers still going strong.

Camel Gap - AT junction 
White blaze of the Appalachian Trail

Canada Mayflower

Solomon's Plume / False Solomon's Seal

Bluebead Lily

Catawba Rhododendron


Finally I made my way back to Low Gap and then back down the Low Gap trail the way I had come up earlier that morning back to Cosby hiker's parking lot. Camel Gap trail was a pleasant surprise. Next time I go I will wear long pants (or go in the winter), but it's a neat trail and Big Creek is an absolutely gorgeous creek. 

The whole loop of nearly 16 miles took me about 7 hours to complete. The hike up Low Gap and then the upper section of Camel Gap were steep and tough. I was pretty worn out by the time I got back to the car. But it's always a great day when you're in the mountains, and this day was no exception.

Til next time, happy hiking!