I could have easily thrown in the towel after yesterday's hike and taken the rest of my off days easy.  But the distance I covered wasn't all the much, so frustration isn't the equivalent to exhaustion.  Plus the weather was supposed to be great, so it would've been a waste not to get out in the park and tackle some miles.  My hiking schedule had fallen by the wayside and my choices for hikes were becoming spur of the moment.  It was easy in the spring and summer because I could work with the wildflowers, but when it gets into the summer, the only major factor is how to cope with the heat.  Obviously I was NOT about to pick a hike that involved breaking trail and bushwacking.  I also didn't want that long of a drive.  So after some scanning over a map, my eyes keyed in on Smokemont.  I saw a vast hole of unfinished trails to the east.
          The courageous juices started to flow and reconsidered a loop hike I had thought over many times.  It was ambitious, but I was up for it.  I was to do the Hughes Ridge Trail, and in order to complete as a day hike required many miles and a decent climb in elevation.  The Peck's Corner shelter is one of the more isolated areas in the park, so I had some ground to cover.  I had been to that very shelter once prior on my 2005 AT backpacking venture, so at least I didn't have to go all the way to the AT...not like that was far away.  So back to the topic of beating the heat, and it being mid August, this hike would demand an early start.
          A number of things were working in my favor.  Whichever way I decided to take up to Hughes Ridge, both trails were on the western side of the ridge.  This meant my ascent which would surely bring about heavy persperation would at least be in the shade if I started early enough.  I also had the luxury of that being the only climb of the day, for when I would reach Hughes Ridge, it would be relatively flat the rest of the way, and then I would have the descent to complete the loop.  So once I hit the crest, I would at least be in somewhat cooler air and wouldn't be working nearly as hard.  All I had to worry about now would be the trail conditions, in which the guide book describes my trails of ascent and descent as rocky and steep.  Wonderful.
          Making my way up Bradley Fork and away from Smokemont, things were damp and the air moist.  My camera lens was constantly fogging up so the picture taking wasn't really working out.  My cadence was clicking and I reached the junction with Cabin Flats in no time.  The intersection here is quite spacious and a few automoblies belonging to the park service were there.  Though the trail follows an old roadbed, it is too narrow for such vehicles.  And the bridge across the Bradley Fork the other direction is only for foot traffic.  I wondered what trail they were working on and if I might meet them up ahead.
          I began the climb and could see the sun starting to come through the canopy to the west.  I wondered how much time I had left before the sun would overtake the ridge and heat things up on my side.  Not much changes in terms of scenery during this kind of ascent.  It makes its way up through a ravine with a creek all the way to the top.  The trail was rocky on average, but it wasn't the worst trail I'd ever been on.  And sure there were a few stints that felt steep, but the climb wasn't that harsh, just persistent.  The most interesting stuff going on during this part were the asters and goldenrods in bloom and the witch hobble trees sporting their bright red berries.  I even passed a few rusty parts, one of which was hanging on a tree trunk.  Before long I reached Hughes Ridge and had done so before the sun's rays could pummel me like a punching bag.  The worst part was behind me, thankfully, so now it was north to Peck's Corner.
          Occasionally, parts of the trail were being encroached by thorny blackberries and ferns.  Other than that, I was impressed by the rest of what Hughes Ridge had to offer.  The path was smooth and the grade relatively flat as it followed the ridgeline.  There weren't any views  because of the dense growth of balsam firs, but they did a fine job of keeping the suns rays at bay.  Add in the slight breeze rising up from the valley and across the ridgetop, the walk up to the shelter was absolutely pleasant. 
Picture
          About a quarter mile from the shelter I came upon an opening in the woods down to my right.  There sat an old and withering park service cabin that served as a horse patrol station and utility shack.  The windows and doors were all caged up so there was no entry, but I could still see inside.  It was neat to see some of the old tools and appliances left behind.  I scoped out the area a little longer to see what else I might find, but the bugs around the building and thick brush were moving in, so I decided to move on out.
Picture
          As I mentioned, the backcountry shelter wasn't that far away.  I was looking up at Peck's Corner directly ahead where the Hughes Ridge Trail eventually intersects the AT.  I didn't have to go that far becaues the shelter itself is located about 0.4 mile down.  As the trail entered the shelter's vicinity I could see down the hill and in the woods.  I came to junction where the elaborate privy sat to my left, the AT was straight ahead, and the shelter was down to the right.  This started to bring back memories from my 2005 overnight stay here with my father.  If you take a look at my "Memorable Hikes" page, you'll see that I describe this area and the events that occurred upon our arrival.  My entire time at the shelter while I ate my lunch was incredibly nostalgic.  Not to mention I had just covered a great distance to reach this isolated part of the park, so I was pretty geeked in that regard.  I had the entire place to myself, but there were these birds that would constantly go back and forth between the trees and the metal roof of the shelter.  It was both entertaining and a racket, but I didn't mind.
Picture
          After soaking up my surroundings, I reluctantly packed up my stuff and headed out.  It was great to make it back here after five years, and who knows when I'll be back.  Of course I had to repeat the section of Hughes Ridge to the point where I came up Bradley Fork, but after that it was all new again.  At least he miles anyways, the terrain was very similar with the smooth trail, rolling yet modest elevation change, and not really any views.
          The most exciting part came before the junction with Enloe Creek.  I had just passed through a large gap in crest of Hughes Ridge and managed to spook a wild boar.  It let out a loud grunt that lasted a few seconds and filled the air before finally sprinting away from me and downhill.  I obviously couldn't snap a picture of it in time, but I did see its color.  Most are that hideous black, but this one I wondered may have been a mix of wild boar and domesticated pig.  It was a much lighter tan color, darker in the front but lighter toward the back.  Looking around I could see signs of the destruction those beasts cause as they sift around for food.  It is rather unfortunate.  I gathered myself after a brief moment and continued heading south.
          The rest of the Hughes Ridge Trail from that point on saw more of the same.  Although, there were a good number of summer wildflowers.  Most included the asters, goldenrod, hawkweed, gerardia, and hare bells.  I passed the Enloe Creek split and soon came upon my turnoff down Chasteen Creek.  At one time the Hughes Ridge continued on toward Big Cove, but that trail has since been left to nature.  The descent was somewhat rocky and steep.  I was making great time because there wasn't much in the way of distractions.  About halfway down it began to rain.  For a while the forest canopy was doing a stellar job at blocking out the rain and keeping my dry.  Even when it finally did break through, the cooling sensation was welcome relief.  Now I hadn't packed my rain coat, so my pace had quickened in order to reach the Bradley Fork.  Fortunately, the downpour was short lived and ceased aroung the time I reached Chasteen Creek Cascade.
          There are number of eroded paths that cut down toward the falls, but I remember reading about them in the guide book and I knew to look for a marked path up ahead.  I took that to the base of the falls and took a few pictures and even a video.  The picture makes it look flat and small, when in reality the falls is quite long and wide.
Picture
          Upon leaving the falls, a large group of people had arrived on horseback.  It appeared to be a group of tourists not all that into hiking, evidenced by there overdressed attire.  They were interesting to watch as they dismounted and then nervously stepped around mud, rocks, and roots while holding onto cameras, purses, and hats.  It must've been a paid ride because two people, obviously not with the main group, stayed behind to tie up and tend to the horses.  Now that the rest of my hike would be along a trail made especially for horses, I just knew the mud was coming, and that recent rain could have only made things worse.  Sure enough, what I dreaded became reality.
Picture
          Seriously.  Just look at that mess!  All of the mud is deep and squishy and those murky brown puddles look more like the land of a thousand lakes.  What gets me is how some of the trail descriptions in guide books tell hikers not to go off trail and through the woods, but to deal with the conditions and just go through the junk.  Really?  I mean, really?  I am a bit disturbed that the park has done nothing to resolve this mess in a way that serves both hikers and horses.  Couldn't they pour down gravel?  What about building narrow boardwalks like on other horse trails?  And this picture only shows but a small segment.  It was like this all the way from the falls to the junction with Bradley Fork.  Hiking was more like prancing through a mine field.
          At least when I made the turn onto Bradley Fork to finish out the loop, the trail conditions improved somewhat.  My boots weren't sinking into the mud and there were drier and rockier surfaces to work with.  As daunting as that recent portion was, I wasn't about to let it dampen how I felt about the entire day.  It really turned out to be a fantastic hike.  I was grateful that it turned out to be not nearly  as difficult as projected.  I also came out of with a lot of new miles and a sense of accomplishment.  Needless to say, my state of mind and body compared to 24 hours prior was far better.



Leave a Reply.