It pays to do your research. Think The Boulevard is the easiest way to and from LeConte? Oh, but it was the least elevation gain! Yeah, sure, add snow into the mix and it instantly becomes the worst way. Exhibit A - section of trail that navigates around Myrtle Point. It was a clear day, making for great views over the valley and into North Carolina. But the trail conditions here were a bit unnerving. The majority of the way was like walking a tight rope, but unlike what I had experienced on Bull Head, these stretches were on cliff edges with little or no vegetation to hold on to. Whatever cables existed were completely buried and little foot traffic meant a narrow pathway around hazardous ledges. It would take several minutes just to move a couple feet because it was important to establish a good foothold and secure pole placement. It was nice to finally reach the south side of the mountain where the snow had melted away. Normally, that big landslide is the scary part. This time, it was a welcome relief! I chose to go as far out as Anakeesta Knob and back. The snow along the spine that connected the knob to LeConte was void of snow but had several blowdowns yet to be cleared. I ran into a family of four that had spent the previous night at the Lodge. I couldn't believe that they made it around the mountain unscathed, but was glad to see they had. They were in the clear while I had to make my way back through that mess. I made it back without a fuss, and even managed to sun myself at Myrtle Point for a bit.
One cure for getting rid of so much snow...rain! With temps above the freezing mark, its just what LeConte got. The mountain would spend the entire day in the clouds with passing showers and rumbles of thunder, but I wasn't about to let it dampen my spirits. Another good thing about rain and melting snow, the rivers and waterfalls receive a boost. That afternoon, one destination came to mind...Rainbow Falls. I had plenty of time to make it there and back, and I had the gear to weather the storm. Much to my surprise, the snow had melted off about a quarter mile past the junction with Bull Head. Rocks, roots, and blowdowns were the norm, but I didn't mind because it wasn't snow for once. The lower I got in elevation, the more I was reminded of spring's presence. The green ground cover was filling in and there were a few splashes of sunlight when I dropped below the cloud ceiling. When I reached the falls, the water roaring over the cliff was the most I had ever seen in all my trips there. It was nice to relax in a spring like environment and take a much appreciated break from my usual snowy surroundings.
It was time to hike somewhere different, and with all the clouds I wasn't going to concern myself with looking for views. I was curious about the trail conditions along the Bull Head Trail. From what I had seen two days prior, the trail had not been broken. When I reached the junction, a few tracks could be seen from the park service crews that cleared the blowdowns the day before, but many of them had been recovered. The trail was treacherous in many places, especially as it made its way around the slopes of West Point. It was nice to be equipped with my Stabilicers and Leki hiking poles, because without them, there were a number of instances I could have been rolling downhill for a long way. Several stretches were drifted over to stomach level, and whatever trail existed was like walking a tight rope. I could see that the snow line along the northern face of the mountain was around 5,000 feet, but the other side of the LeConte crest told a different story. As soon as the trail swung to the south side of Balsam Point, the snow vanished and the path was clear. Weather on the mountain is a peculiar thing...to the north, winter...and to the south, spring. Unfortunately, my way back to the Lodge meant no green and lots of white.
Happenings at the Lodge were getting into full swing, and with fresh snowfall the night before, I chose to get away that afternoon and look on the mountain from the outside. To go somewhere far would have been time consuming and risky, but the Rocky Spur overlook along Rainbow Falls Trail would give me just the perspective I needed. The snow all the way to the junction with Bull Head Trail was well trodden but not entirely packed, leading to the occasional step that left one waist deep in snow. After that point, the sun was melting the snow off the trees rapidly and it seemed as though it was raining the entire trek down. Nobody had been to the overlook recently, so I had the chance to break trail here as well. It was great to finally look up to the mountain on which I was living the past week and a half and see how it looked with so much snow from the outside. The entire northern face was glazed in a bright white and the clouds had broken for a few hours to provide a nice blue backdrop.
The morning gave way to clear skies and an impressive sunrise tattered with oranges and pinks. The clouds were nestled below the park's highest peaks and stretched as far as the eye could see. Again, unable to go through with the airlift, the afternoon was open for an adventure. All day the sky was a deep, rich blue and I thought it would make for a great background with the white that blanketed the mountains and cotton candy clouds. It was time to visit Myrtle Point, which required breaking trail beyond High Top. I got my workout for the afternoon, and boy was it worth it. I came to find out that the clouds extended north to the horizon but were cut off at the Smokies main ridge. The North Carolina side was crystal clear with unlimited visibility. I was hesitant to walk around the point because I enjoyed the look of a smooth, snowy surface untouched by boot holes.
Immediately I was amazed at the vast number of turkey vultures that rode the winds rising up from the valley. There must have been a hundred that would shoot up the slopes of Myrtle Point, glide across the crest of LeConte, and rocket back down near Cliff Tops, continually repeating the cycle. The clouds, the snowy peaks, and the deep blue atmosphere made for an incredible panorama. As much as I wanted not to leave, I figured I would check out Cliff Tops on my way back to the Lodge. Along the way I witnessed a red-tailed hawk soar above me before I lost it in the trees. The cliffs were still blanketed in white, and the ridge went from West Point to Balsam Point before disappearing underneath the clouds. The weather conditions remained the same throughout the day, resulting in a fantastic sunset. The sights from this day certainly rank with some of my more memorable moments in this park.
After three straight days of snowfall, LeConte has become a winter wonderland. Strong winds from the night before reshaped the snow and ice, forming horizontally off of tree branches and buildings. Unable to begin airlifting supplies, I had the afternoon to explore what Mother Nature had done to the mountain away from the lodge. It was still cloudy and going anywhere meant pushing through the deep snow. I broke trail for a group of us all the way to High Top. The notable rock cairn was almost entirely hidden by a snow drift. After building a snowman at the LeConte Shelter, the clouds actually began to break and we could see blue sky for the first time in a while. The deep blue provided a picturesque backdrop for the white that adorned the trees. With the boost in morale, we were excited to break trail all the way to Cliff Tops. The clouds still blocked the views but it was refreshing to have a change of pace in regards to the weather. Shortly after returning to the lodge the clouds returned and all was as it was before.
Click Here to check out the rest of the photos from the Snow Day.
Consensus among the locals is that it has been a strange winter this year. The warm temperatures and early wildflowers that typically show up with March have been delayed. The good thing about the rain that arrived today is that it should begin to wash away the snow and ice that still covers the uppers elevations. Just in time for me to begin work up on LeConte.
Yesterday I decided to head out to Greenbrier and inspect the Porters Creek Trail. I wasn't surprised that I wouldn't see any wildflowers, but it would have been neat to see one, as a good sign of things to come perhaps. The overcast sky and warm air made for a great afternoon. The last time I was here was back in June when the forest was full and green, so it was neat to see everything so open, especially around the old homestead and Fern Branch Falls.
There were no wildflowers to be seen anywhere, which wasn't a surprise, but now I can be sure that I haven't missed anything. The only wildlife action were four friendly deer sifting through the leaves for food. It was still a pleasant afternoon for a stroll in the park.
Today has been very laid back and logistical, just doing some last minute shopping before work begins and in preparation of the supply airlift for the Lodge. The rain has put a damper on things, but it is necessary for winter to wave bye-bye and for spring to arrive, and when it does, I'll be ready!
What better feeling than to leave the clutches of winter in Michigan for the 60+ degree spring teasers of Tennessee. My first day of many to come here in the Smokies was greeted by sunny skies and friendly new acquaintances. Soon I will begin work at LeConte Lodge, so I arrived a few days early to get acclimated and psych myself up for being here. I hadn't hiked since the end of October, so it was time to shake off the dust and get the legs churning again over roots and rocks. (Oh...and to see if I remembered how to use my camera.) After arriving at the motel and a quick bite to eat, I was curious to see what work had begun in Cherokee Orchard. Large trucks were cycling up and down the roadway and tourists couldn't drive past the Ogle Place. I took some of the typical shots of the old buildings and decided to take a stroll on the Junglebrook loop trail. I thought I might see a wildflower peaking out of the forest floor, but none were to be seen this day. I ran into three tame deer searching for food and that was about it for the action. If you make it to the upper reaches of the trail that parallel the road, you'll see that all of the pavement has been torn up. It'll be nice to return here in April when the Dogwoods have opened up with their numerous white blooms.
With the threat of rain in the forecast, I wanted to get up to Newfound Gap to see the snow and ice I'd been hearing about for weeks, and maybe take in some views in case the ridges get clouded over. Along the upper reaches of the highway, several impressive columns of ice had formed. Places where the ice turns blue are particularly attractive. Makes me wonder what I'll run into at spots like Alum Cave Bluffs, renowned for its car sized ice chunks that rocket downward toward unsuspecting hikers, should cool temps keep the ice hanging around.
Good to be back in the mountains. Put more miles on in the wheels than the boots today, but ya gotta start somewhere. If you would like to see the rest of the day's photos from the Ogle Place and Newfound Gap Road, just click on the two links. Until next time!