Month: October 2011

Frozen Head State Park – 10-15-11

David and I had originally planned on hiking Mt. Cammerer that day, but after working two 70-hour work weeks in a row sleeping in felt like an awesome idea to me.  Add to that the fact that our dog was left alone all week and was looking pathetic every time we’d leave the house, we decided that maybe we should do another hike instead, one where we’d be able to bring Gracie along with us.  We quickly decided on Frozen Head, as it is only an hour drive away and the trails are always in such wonderful shape. 

We’d hiked the South and North Old Mac Trails back in March and we remembered the elevation profile, so we had decided to start at the South Old Mac Trail and continue on up to Tub Springs.  From Tub Springs, we’d follow the green-blazed trail 1.1 miles to Spicewood Trail.  From here, we’d have 2.5 miles to the junction of Old Mac Trail and only 0.3 miles back to the car making for an easy and quick nearly 7-mile loop.  

We began our hike on South Old Mac Trail and followed it along a well-graded and nearly level gravel roadway.  We’d passed the North Old Mac Trail and Spicewood Trailheads in the first 0.3 miles and the trail gradually narrowed to a foot path.  Going up a slight incline (we’d gain about 1750 feet in elevation in 2.75 miles) we came to an old CCC dynamite shack on our left at around 0.7 miles in.  We continued upward and passed the second part of the Judge Branch Trail around 1.5 miles in and a group of people looking very tired and taking a break.  We passed over many now-dry stream crossings while continuing to hear Judge Branch downhill to our right.  We paralleled the creek until about 1.8 miles in, when we went up a set of switchbacks that made us believe we were nearly to the top of the hill.  We sort of paralleled the hill for the last 0.7 miles or so until we came up at a gap at the Tub Springs Campsite, which has room for 18 people.  There’s also a fireplace there where there once stood either a homesite or CCC cabin.  There are remains of a car off to the right of the campsite just down the hill.  About 200 feet away stands a springhouse with beautifully clear water in it.

From the trail junction here, you can continue uphill 0.5 miles to a lookout tower or you can turn to your right and follow a green-blazed trail 1.1 miles to the Spicewood Trail or nearly 2.5 miles to Mart Fields Campsite.  When we got on this trail, it was another old roadbed and very wide and level.  We stayed along the ridge top for the entire 1.1 miles.  Every once in a while there’d be a nice view of the mountains off to the right. Along the top of the ridge, there’d be lots of living room-sized boulders.  This part of Frozen Head also appears to have older growth forest as compared to the trees on the South Old Mac Trail.  Several times we’d say “look at that tree” and take in how awesomely large it was.  

After reaching the Spicewood Trail junction, the trail turned back into a foot path and was purple-blazed.  The purple, however, was not the best choice as it blended in quite well with the tree bark.  We decided that next time the blazes need repainting, they should go with neon purple instead!  Spicewood Trail would be mostly downhill, but the grades were fairly easy which was nice due to all the leaves being on the ground.  As this area is so close to The Obed Scenic River, you can imagine the trails here are quite rocky.  All of the stream crossings on this trail were mostly dry as well, but the rocks under the leaves were quite slick and required a little bit more care than those on the South Old Mac Trail.  Every once in a while, the trail would be on the ledge of the hillside with nearly 70% grades dropping down to the ground below more than 40 feet away.  Just as quickly, the trail would follow along and end up on nearly level ground, so the elevation here was quite varied.  

Close to 2 miles down this trail, it dropped off rather steeply in what appeared to be a large creek runoff at one time.  This short portion of trail was steep and rocky and a little bit more difficult to navigate.  When reaching the bottom of the hill, there was a small campsite with a limit of 4 people.  There didn’t appear to be much water at this campsite either, but we knew from here there was only 0.5 miles back to the main trail, so it might be a nice winter backpack when you want to get out into the woods and don’t want to go far to get there!  The trail turned again into a wide gravel road and followed Spicewood Branch, crossing it on a nice and sturdy bridge.  The water in the creek was low, but was stunningly clear.  There were quite a few small fish in the water below and it was neat to see them swimming around.  We reached Old Mac Trail just after the bridge and walked the 0.3 miles back to the car.  Gracie had a wonderful time and I think this hike is just what she (and David and I) needed after two very hectic weeks. 

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Walker Sister’s Cabin – 10-8-11

David and some guys went on a “men only” backpack trip that weekend, so I decided to do a short hike of my own with a girlfriend I hadn’t seen in a few months.  Since my knees had been bothering me, I’d wanted to do something short and not too difficult.  As it turned out, my friend hadn’t hiked due to the heat this summer, so we decided on a round trip to the Greenbrier School and Walker’s Sisters Cabin, following Little Greenbrier Trail back to our car.  With the walking on the road, our hike was a short 5 miles and it was a beautiful day for a walk. 

We started out by parking our car at the terminus of the Little Greenbrier Trail and walking down the road to the Metcalf Bottoms Trail.  Traffic wasn’t too heavy that morning, but we were passed a little too closely by quite a few cars!  It was a relief to finally see that trail sign!  We started up past the gate and up a short and fairly easy hill.  This part of the trail is still very clearly a gravel road and probably used for maintenance.  Just on the left around mile 0.2 there was very clearly a home site with lots of plants on the side of the hill.  The land on top was nice and level.  As we crested the hill, we went through a rhododendron tunnel and slowly made our way down to the stream crossing with a nice and sturdy footbridge.  It’s obvious that lots of picnic-ers must use this trail, as it was in wonderful shape and it’s an easy 0.8 miles from their fried chicken to the school house.  

After crossing the footbridge we went in to explore the school, which operated from 1882 to 1936.  There was also a church on this site, as evidenced by the cemetery across from the school entrance.   I remember taking that 0.8 mile hike as a child on a school trip and thinking it was weird to have a cemetery instead of a playground across from the school!  

From here, we followed the road up a small hill and past another gate and started on our 1.1 mile walk to the Walker Sister’s Cabin on the Little Brier Gap Trail.  Most of this trail was also well-traveled and maintained gravel road.  I’m sure the park service uses it to maintain the homesite of the Walker Sister’s Cabin, as it is still in wonderful shape for being over 100 years old.  We quickly made our way up the small incline and reached the 0.75 mile marker, which was where the trail switched back and turned grassy.  Just about 0.3 miles off to the right (not on the main trail) is the homesite, which still has the cabin, springhouse, and a corncrib in excellent condition.  Even the windows are still in place.  We walked around the home site and then made our way up to the junction of Little Brier Gap and Little Greenbrier trails, about 0.5 miles away. After we’d passed the junction of the spur trail off to the homesite, the trail began to look less like a road and more like a foot path.  It wound around the side of a small hill and up to the trail junction.  

At the junction, you can go about 5 miles to the right to Laurel Falls or you can go about 2 miles to the left, which is where we’d parked the cars.  Little Greenbrier Trail was a pleasant and nearly level walk with some downhill towards the trailhead.  About every 0.25 miles or so we’d have a nice view down into Wears Valley on our right or a pretty view of Cove Mountain off to our left.  The leaves were just starting to turn, so every once in a while we’d come across a magnificent bright red tree.  Sometimes we’d see one or two of them turning on Cove Mountain as well.  

We’d gotten back to the car pretty quickly and the day had turned out to be sunny and warm.  This short and easy hike was a great way to catch up with an old friend. 

A weekend on Forney Creek – 10-1-11

Three friends and myself had reservations to stay at popular campsite #71 in the Lakeshore area of the Smokies this weekend.  We were all looking forward to a fall backpack at a large and beautiful campsite.  We got everything we expected, plus something we didn’t – SNOW!

We started our hike Saturday morning by carpooling from the Road to Nowhere tunnel up to Clingman’s Dome where we’d hike downhill for nearly 10 miles to campsite 71. David and I originally planned to take the AT and Jonas Creek Trail down to the site, but our later meeting time would have us pushing against daylight and we didn’t want to rush to camp.  We all four hiked in together down Forney Creek Trail to camp instead.  

As we drove up from Bryson City, we watched the temperature drop from 49 degrees at the tunnel to 30 degrees at Clingman’s Dome.  Halfway up the 7-mile road to the trailhead, we noticed the trees all were looking very strange… we quickly discovered it was indeed snow!  Our first snow of the year and it was barely fall!  When we got out of the car at Clingman’s our bodies were not happy! We all quickly added layer upon layer of clothing and I put some extra socks on my hands as I hadn’t brought gloves.  It was amusing, however, when we’d see tourists hop out of their cars in shorts, T shirts, and flip flops!  They didn’t stay in the parking lot too long as you can imagine!  We took some photos in the snow and headed off for the Forney Ridge Trailhead and headed down the hill. 

On Forney Ridge Trail, we saw several maintenance workers installing stone stairs on the trail and greeted them. These were the only people we’d see for nearly 9 miles.  We reached the junction of Forney Ridge and Forney Creek fairly quickly, in less than 45 minutes, and began a descent down Forney Creek Trail.  You could tell that most people that travel Forney Ridge Trail were only going to Andrew’s (Anders) Bald, as Forney Creek was in a lot different shape than Forney Ridge to this point.  Until now, the trail was well-graded, wide, and free of debris with stairs and raised portions of trail due to erosion and mud.  Now, the trail was narrow, rocky, and steep with many slick spots.  We continued downward, going around several switchbacks, and on our way down the hill.  There was a lot of evidence of the heavy logging this area experienced in the pre-park days.  There were remnants of rail and spikes everywhere, as well as some erosion into the rocks in the form of straight lines so you could actually see where the railroad was laid out up the hill.  

We continued down to mile 2 on this trail to come to the upper portion of campsite 68, which was currently closed due to aggressive bear activity.  This site was absolutely stunning and had some evidence of a logging camp in the forms of cables laying about.  Also, this site is where you’ll find Rock Slab Falls, which looks like a giant waterslide made of rocks, which goes about 50 feet down the mountain and ends in a somewhat deep pool of water.  Located approximately 0.4 miles down the trail from here is the lower part of campsite 68 which lies on Steeltrap Creek.  From here, we went across the creek and down through a few gullies where there were some stone walls used to keep the trail in place along the hill. We went down several switchbacks and through some rhododendron thickets that were deeply gulched into the hillside before we came to a larger and more difficult creek crossing near mile 6 and just before campsite 69.  This campsite had lots of metal remnants left behind, parts of what used to be a stove and railroad pieces. The site was very large and completely empty.  Shortly after the site was another difficult crossing that required a little planning as we didn’t want wet feet in the near-freezing temperatures. 

After two more difficult crossings, we came to the junction of Jonas Creek and Forney Creek trails and campsite 70.  We were jealous that there was a great-looking foot log going up to Jonas Creek as we didn’t have that on our trail!  Here we ran into not one, but two groups of hikers, totaling 6 people. They all decided to head up to campsite 69 and were very friendly.  From here, we only had 1.2 miles to go to get to our campsite for the night.  About 0.5 miles before the campsite, the trail climbed away from the creek (finally some uphill!) and we were very grateful for our bodies to get a break from the constant downhill.  We came to campsite 71 pretty quickly and settled in for a pretty quiet night with an amazing campfire. 

Campsite 71 is a large, beautiful site that used to be home to a post office (Bushnell, NC in the pre-park days), a CCC camp during the depression, and finally a ranger station before being turned into a back country site.  The site boasts a 2-story chimney on the site of the old building, as well as some chestnut stumps and some hemlock trees.  The trail here looks like a road, as it was driven on for many years before the days of the park. 

Day 2 would be a short day of close to 6 miles back to the cars at Lakeview Drive (Fontana Road).  We started by leaving camp at 9:15 a.m. and crossed a few branches and downhill to reach Forney Creek again.  We followed the old roadbed out of Bushnell and up to Whiteoak Branch Trail.  From here, we’d have a little bit more undulation in the trail and it was so nice get in some uphill walking for a change, considering Saturday most mostly downhill.  We quickly traveled the 1.8 miles to Lakeshore Trail and had a bigger climb up to saddle ridge in the trail.  We had hiked this part of the trail a few times and knew it was our last climb and that we’d be back to the cars in no time flat at that point.  We passed an old homesite and the Goldmine Loop Trail (where there never was gold or a goldmine) and passed the Tunnel Bypass Trail and made it to the tunnel at the Road to Nowhere by 11:00 a.m.

For those who don’t know, the “Road to Nowhere” is called so by the locals of this area.  Lakeshore Drive was begun as a way for families displaced by the park service and the war as a way for them to get back to the places of their birth, as well as to visit the cemeteries of their relatives.  The road project was abandoned shortly after it was started in the 1960s due to the road causing so much environmental damage and the fact that there was a perfectly good road (NC 28 and US 129) on the other side of Fontana Lake. The park service does, however, take families back into these towns free of charge once a year by boat and then by jeeps to visit the land their families once owned.  The tunnel at the end of Lakeview Drive still exists and is 365 yards long and wide enough for two lanes of traffic.  It’s very strange to walk through and it is riddled with graffiti.  It’s a good idea to take a headlamp if you’re going to walk through, however.  I’ve stepped in a few piles of horse poo on trips through in the past!