AT, Road Prong, and Chimney Tops

Sunday, 9-11-11, we took a short hike on the AT down to the Chimney’s trailhead. I’ve heard wonderful things about Road Prong Trail and was very excited to hike it for the first time. Today was yet another beautiful, sunny, fall-like day that made for enjoyable hiking for sure!

We began our hike at Clingman’s Dome on yet another clear morning. We’ve been very lucky this year to have so many beautifully clear days. We decided to head up to the observation tower for photos since clear days up there are so rare. There was a small amount of haze, but it was still stunning.

Close to 9:20 a.m. we headed out along the AT and on our way to Road Prong. It’s always weird to be able to hear traffic on a hike. This portion of the trail skirts Clingman’s Dome Road, so at times it was almost like we were walking on the road, especially when the trail is just above the road itself. I didn’t find this part of the trail to be particularly enjoyable for one main reason: STAIRS. I get that stairs are a good thing on the trail, especially on a part of the trail that is muddy and badly eroded for damage control. I can tell you that these awkwardly placed and spaced steps were murder on my knees. Going up them was tough, going down them was tougher, and my knees were spent after the first of many, many sets of them. Scenically, there just wasn’t much to see other than uprooted and dead trees. Most of the trees in this area are Fraiser Fir, which are under severe attack by the Balsam Wooly Adelgid, a non-native species wreaking havoc on these poor trees. The skeletons of Frasier Fir are notable all along the roads, as well as the mountain sides and in nearly every photo you see of this area.

Close to 11 a.m. and many stairs later, we reached the junction of the Mount Collins Shelter on Sugarland Mountain Trail. We were in a nice little cove with some logs laid out as benches and took a short snack break here. The trail had been pretty simple, fairly clear walking up until this point and we’d come a quick 3.2 miles from the Dome. The undulation mixed with the stairs though had left me feeling pretty worn out, which is rare for me so early in a hike. After the rest, the trail had more stairs than before and lots of foot logs and steps over muddy and eroded areas. It was well-maintained to say the least! The trail began a steady, steep descent down countless numbers of stairs that even turned a switchback at one point. After the three of us stopping for some photos of some fungi and a little bit of bitching about sore knees, we came to the junction of Road Prong at 12 p.m. This part of the trail was actually near a parking lot and a large grassy area, so we stopped for lunch here in the grass and sunshine after being under heavy tree cover on the AT.

We decided to skip the 1.7 miles (plus 1.7 miles UPHILL back) of the AT to Newfound Gap since all of us had sore knees and we knew the trail would be steeper. We decided to just head down Road Prong instead. This trail was a true beauty and being on a new trail upped our spirits just a little bit. It immediately began what would be a constant descent on a wide roadbed. Road Prong Trail closely follows the only wagon road over the mountain, which was the Oconaluftee Turnpike. The road, started in 1831 and never finished, was used heavily during the Civil War as a way to haul munitions up and over the mountains. The portion of the road on the North Carolina side of the park is now Newfound Gap Road. The Tennessee side of the park is the foot trail. Now that we’ve had a history lesson, let’s talk about the trail!

After the first portion of downhill, we started coming to fairly regular, never difficult, stream crossings that were hopped with minimal wet feet. We saw a little bit of jewel weed and a few patches of turtlehead, but not much other than that in the way of flowers. As we continued our descent of the trail, the forest began to change from the Fraiser Fir into more lush, green forest with lots of ferns and heavy rhododendron. The rocks began to change as well, into Anakeesta rock, which has an acidic and red sediment. This is the same type of rock you’ll see on the Alum Cave trail to give you an idea. There were several pretty cascades all along this trail, as it skirted Road Prong nearly the entire time. At 0.4 miles until the terminus, there was a large foot bridge over Road Prong, which was very deep with many cascades. From here to Beech Flats, the end of our trail, the walk became a little tougher, mostly due to deep erosion and rocks. It was more of a rock hop than a hike at this point. Just before the trail ended, we came to Beech Flats, which was open, lush, and green. From here, it was a short 0.9-mile walk back to the road on a wide gravel grade with large foot bridges.

We saw lots of people, as hiking to the Chimney Tops is a popular hike in the Smokies. Lots of people in shorts and flip flops, as well as kids playing in the creeks and jumping off rocks. We were back at the car at 2:25 p.m. After a long weekend of hiking and sore knees from the combination of stairs and rock climbing on Road Prong, I was ready to get home and go to bed!

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