Saturday, July 28, 2018

Big Creek - Swallow Fork - Pretty Hollow Gap Backpack

New Miles Completed: 9.6
Total Miles Hiked: 15.1
3 day / 2 night backpack, 25-27 July, 2018

Well... This was supposed to be a 4 day / 3 night backpack that included a couple more trails. But I'll get to that in a minute.

The Big Creek / Cataloochee section of the park is absolutely wonderful - it feels more wild and less visited than some of the more popular areas of the park. I took advantage of a lull in summer activities to go out for a hike.

Big Creek trailhead
 I parked at Big Creek to start off and followed Big Creek trail for 5.3 miles to Backcountry Campsite #37. Big Creek trail is definitely one of the busier trails in this section of the park during the summer because of Midnight Hole, a very popular swimming hole, and Mouse Creek Falls, a pretty little waterfall. So I saw lots of families hiking back from the swimming hole, but once I passed Mouse Creek Falls I pretty much had the trail to myself.

Big Creek

Midnight Hole

Big Creek

Mouse Creek Falls
Something I didn't really expect this time of year was the beautiful floral display. Most of the sections of trail that I was on follow creeks (Big Creek, Swallow Fork, Pretty Hollow), which provides great habitat for a lot of species.

Rosebay Rhododendron is nearly done flowering

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain - a beautiful, if diminutive, summer orchid 
Like many trails in the park, Big Creek follows an old logging railroad grade so it's generally wide and smooth(ish) and follows the creek closely. There's nothing so soothing as the sound of the creeks, and the the little waterfalls, and rocks, and pools of the creeks always make me smile.

Big Creek, like many of the other trails in this part of the park, is a horse & hiker trail. I met a group of horses coming down Big Creek. It's good manners to step off the side of the trail to let horses pass. They are sometimes skittish about hikers, and it's wise to give them plenty of room.

Wide bridge on Big Creek trail

Swallowtails congregating on the trail
At the end of Big Creek trail it meets up with Swallow Fork trail just before crossing over Big Creek one last time and running in to Backcountry Campsite #37.

Big Creek / Swallow Fork trail junction

Big Creek from the bridge at CS #37

Backcountry Campsite #37 (Campsite #36 is just a little ways up the trail and is for horses) 
Campsite #37 is a very nice, and very large campsite that sits right on Big Creek. The trail leads directly through the campsite and what seems to be the main open tent area / fire ring / bear cables. But spread along the bank of the creek are several additional camping areas with fire rings and good tent sites. I chose one of these to set up in.

Hammock & rain-fly set-up

 I have been a tent camper all of my life. I own a hammock, but have usually just used it to hang out in and maybe take a nap. But I've been more and more interested in hammock camping, so I decided to give it a try on this trip. The first time I tried hammock camping I was comfortable, but cold. So this time I took my sleeping pad with me to put in the hammock to give myself some under-insulation. I was much more comfortable and slept really well! I think I might be a convert.

Fire ring area at CS #37
I enjoyed spending the evening in and around Big Creek at CS #37 just enjoying the water and the rocks. I did some exploring down the creek, and some laying on a rock in the middle of the creek staring at the clouds passing over. Super-relaxing, and I slept like a baby with the creek sounds in the background.

Next morning I got up and out and headed back to the Swallow Fork trail. This was going to be a big UP and then DOWN day, following Swallow Fork trail up about 2200' over 4 miles, and then back down Pretty Hollow Gap trail about 2200' over 3.7 miles to CS #39.

Like a lot of trails this time of year, both Swallow Fork and Pretty Hollow Gap trails were crowded with vegetation at the edge of the trails, especially in the wetter areas. Wood nettle, Spotted Touch-Me-Not, Cone Flower, Bee-Balm... Beautiful, but sometime hard to wade through.

Swallow Fork trail. Yes, there's a trail under there.

Foot bridge on Swallow Fork trail

Swallow Fork trail
 There's nothing remarkable about Swallow Fork trail, beyond the "usual" remarkableness of being in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It follows the creek most of the way up, which is beautiful and rocky. It's surrounded at the edges by lots of vegetation. No good views really - a few glimpses through the trees of neighboring ridges, but not much.

The most remarkable thing about Swallow Fork to me was just how long that last mile of ascending the ridge to Pretty Hollow Gap seemed to take. The trail takes a hard left across the top of the creek to follow the ridgeline, and then a sharp switchback to the right to ascend the ridge to the gap. It seemed to take forever... And it's steep. And I kept thinking "I can see light through the trees, I must be nearly there." Phew.

Pretty Hollow Gap - top of the trail!

Swallow Fork - Pretty Hollow Gap - Mt Sterling Ridge trail junction @ Pretty Hollow Gap
I stopped here at Pretty Hollow Gap for a break in the sunshine. Put up my hammock and had some lunch, and just lazed around. It was nice to sit in the sun for a bit. This area is in the Spruce-Fir elevational range, and there were lots of BIG spruce trees both here in the gap, and on the way down the upper reaches of Pretty Hollow Gap trail.

After a good rest I saddled up and headed down Pretty Hollow Gap trail. Pretty Hollow Gap was a lot like Swallow Fork, but in reverse. Vegetation was thick along the trail, lots of pretty wildflowers, and following the creek most of the way. The biggest difference was the mud. Pretty Hollow Gap trail is VERY wet and muddy, especially at the upper end. It looks as if feral hogs might use this trail as a highway as it was really churned up.

Beginning of Pretty Hollow Gap trail @ Pretty Hollow Gap

Footbridge on Pretty Hollow Gap trail

Pretty little Garter Snake along the edge of the trail

Bear print in the mud - the knife is about 3.5" for reference
The trip down Pretty Hollow Gap was pleasant. In some ways going down is easier, at least on the lungs, but it's tougher on the knees. Ultimately I rolled in to Campsite #39 mid-afternoon.

Campsite #39 trail marker

Campsite #39 sits along the edge of Pretty Hollow creek, on an open slope. There seems to be only one official fire ring and set of bear cables, although a couple of other fire rings have been built. It was a good spot for hammocking, but there are not a lot of flat spots to put a tent (another reason I'm starting to really like hammock camping).

Since I got in early in the afternoon, and to try to make the next day easier on me, I hung my pack up on the bear cable and headed the 1.9 miles down to the end of the trail at Cataloochee Road, and back. My plan was to take Little Cataloochee trail over to Long Bunk trail to Mt. Sterling trail up to Mt. Sterling fire tower and CS #38 the following day. I wanted to get the 0.8 mile section of Pretty Hollow Gap trail between Cataloochee Road and Little Cataloochee trail out of the way so I wouldn't have to do it in the morning...

Turk's Cap Lily

Yellow-Fringed Orchid

Pretty Hollow Gap - Palmer Creek trail junction

Pretty Hollow Gap - Little Cataloochee trail junction

Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead on Cataloochee Road

So after that little 3.8 mile round trip (sans backpack) I settled down in CS #39 for dinner (mashed potatoes & spam), lounged around the creek, had a small campfire and then headed to bed.

The next morning I packed up and got ready for what was supposed to be my long day: 13 miles of Little Cataloochee - Long Bunk - Mt. Sterling. But it was not to be.

Just as I was approaching the Pretty Hollow Gap - Little Cataloochee trail junction I got stung on my left calf by something - I never did see what it was. But the pain was intense, and almost immediately my hands and feet were tingling and burning. I could see my hands swelling and felt my face starting to swell and go numb. I (stupidly) thought, "Ok, I just need to walk this off and get it out of my system" so I kept hiking. I turned down Little Cataloochee trail, but probably didn't make it more than 50 yards when I got so dizzy I had to sit down. I ended up spending about an hour sitting by the trail, unable to stand up or walk because of the dizziness. I (again, stupidly) had taken the Benadryl out of my first aid kit so I didn't even have any antihistamines to help me out. I have NEVER had a bee sting reaction this bad before, but I will be better prepared in the future.

I finally felt well enough to walk, so I hiked back the way I had come and made it to the Cataloochee Road. Some nice folks gave me a ride down to the Cataloochee Campround where I had just enough cell phone service to call my sweet wife who came and got me. All's well that ends well, and I am fine now, but that was a scary episode for me. 

The Big Creek and Cataloochee sections of the park are super nice. It's a long way from home for me, so I don't get over there very often, but I would like to spend more time here. I've got several trails I need to finish in the Cataloochee section, so I will be back eventually.

Til next time, happy hiking!

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