Of the various construction projects going on around the park, one I had been eagerly awaiting completion was that along Balsam Mountain Road.  My last visit to that area was only as far as the auto-gate just past the Hemphill Bald trailhead.  That was back in July while construction was still being done along the roadway and Balsam Mountain campground.  Since I was about to drive a ways, I checked the morning I left to ensure that the road was indeed open, and not just the paved section, but the gravel one-way portion that wraps back around to Cherokee as well.  According to the park hotline and website, the roads were open, so I got an early start and hit the highway.  To say the weather conditions were stellar would be an understatement.  The skies were crystal clear for the first time in a long time, enabling one to see to the horizon and beyond.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the temperature was comfortable.  The excitement was building because I knew my entire hike would see me navigating the upper elevations along the lengthy ridge that is Balsam Mountain.  I couldn't wait to arrive at the trailhead, but the action started well before I got there.  If you're someone whose driven across the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, you know that prior to reaching the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, there are a number of flat open fields on either side of the road.  Well in passing through these fields, there was traffic congestion and people getting out of vehicles with cameras.  I found it unusual for I had never experienced any car-jams in this area.  I had also never seen in the Smokies what I was just about to see.  A HERD OF ELK!!!  To my left were a number of cows and calves, but the one that stood out among the crowd was the massive bull.  To finally see one in the park was incredible.  I slowed down, making sure not run over some unattentive tourist, and to allow myself a brief moment to enjoy the animals.  The bull, majestic and statuesque with its impressive spread of antlers, was actually the closest to the highway.  The timing was all but a few seconds but it lingered for an eternity.  I was smiling in such disbelief for much of my remaining drive.  The trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway was exhilarating as always with its numerous overlooks.  Another surprise came about shortly after leaving the parkway while on Heintooga Ridge Road.  Beside the road on the driver's side were yet more elk!  This time it was a mother and her spotted calf grazing.  The cow seemed unaffected while the calf trotted closer to the woods and away from my daunting vehicle.  Since this time the setting was much more intimate and I didn't have to contend with other gaukers or traffic, I was able to say hello and snap a few pictures.  The day just kept getting better, and here I hadn't even started hiking yet.
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          In continuing my drive north, I made it past the parking lot at Polls Gap and through the gate shortly after, now open to traffic.  The construction vehicles that were here a few months prior had moved on.  The road was newly paved making for a pleasant drive.  The campground, which had also seen improvements, was open as well with large campers filing in and out.  Just after that the paved road makes a wide turnaround for vehicles looking to remain on the two-way portion.  There was also a vast collection of construction vehicles, which kind of had me worried.  Sure enough when I started to make my way onto the gravel one-way Balsam Mountain Road, everything changed.  The gate was closed to all vehicular traffic.  Talk about a slap in the face, punch to the stomach, whatever you want to call it.  I was so frustrated and dumbfounded at this.  I stepped outside and approached the gate with wishful thinking that maybe it was loose and just swung closed accidentally.  That clearly was not the case as I came to find a piece of paper taped to the middle.  It stated that the one-way road was temporarily closed for renovations...starting date...today!  I was livid to say the least.  And this was after I had checked both the park hotline and website in regards to road conditions before I left, neither of which mentioned this closure.  And one would think that even though it neither said it was currently closed, there would have been some statement alerting visitors about an upcoming road closure.  That way people could have been notified and planned accordingly, before driving an hour and a half across the park in order to find out.  I was furious!  And with gas prices as ridiculous as they are, I wanted to storm into park headquarters and demand $20 back or something for this debacle.  Yes, I understand that the timing was as close as it could be, but the fact that neither resource for road conditions provided any warning for visitors in advance of the closure.  That was what frustrated me the most.  And here it was, just an amazingly beautiful day for a hike, literally stripped away from me.
          I stomped around creating potholes with each step, burning holes in things with glaring eyes, steam coming out of my ears, and some choice words spilling out of my lips.  I wanted to scream at the top of lungs because it was going to be such an incredible day.  I eventually collected myself, pulled out my map and began to look for alternatives.  I began looking for something close by because I didn't want to feel like I had wasted an entire day just to drive out here and turn back.  The closest and most viable option was the Flat Creek Trail, for it began at the paved road turnaround.  I went back and forth in my mind as to whether I should do it or save it, eventually choosing to just go ahead and get it done.  It was going to be much less than what I was anticipating to do today in terms of miles...about 15 miles less.  So I grabbed my pack and my camera, tightened up the boots, took a deep breath, and got started.
          Right where I parked my car there were heart leaved asters, filmy angelica, and white snakeroot in abundance.  Not but a few yards beyond the trailhead was a grand overlook with benches beside the trail.  I had to admit, in all that just transpired, this view took off some of the edge.  There in front of me, as far as the eye could see, endless rides of deep greens and blues, in great definition due to the clear air.  In addition to the clear blue sky, it made for an impressive sight for summer, with views much clearer than one would see in June and July.  The expanse of mountains went as far west as Clingmans Dome and as far east as Mt. Guyot.  I could pick out ever notable point along the Smokies main crest and the Appalachian Trail.  I took several pictures, panoramics, and even a video.
          Now it was time to burn off some steam.  Past the overlook, the trail continues downhill along the broad western slope of Balsam Mountain.  It eventually cuts inward along the mountain top, but since it's so large, it seems like you're walking through an open meadow down in a valley.  The terrain is very flat, there are numerous stream crossings via rock hop and foot bridges, and the woods are very open and grassy.  Evidence of the mountain's logging history.  The scene reminded me of one my favorite destinations in Spence Field.  At one footbridge, there was a large collection of pink turtleheads in full bloom.  This was exciting because I hadn't seen many of them in bloom away from Mt. LeConte and its six trails.  What was also interesting was the variety of color.  Some blooms were a dark pink, a light pink as pictured below, and a few in solid white.
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          Shortly thereafter, I came to a place where a trail sign was off to my right in overgrown brush.  It provided distances to the trailheads in either direction, but nothing else.  Surely a sign situated in the middle of the woods would mark something of importance, like at an intersection with another trail, or a spur to an overlook or waterfall.  I figured I would check it out on my return trip.  Continuing on I came to a fun rock hop.  What made it so neat were the leaves floating down the stream and sitting on the rocks.  Here it was the last day of August, still in the throws of summer, and there were already leaves falling and changing color.  A number of the leaves that were sitting in the shallow parts of Flat Creek had a shiny, metallic appearance.
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          In several places there were large stands of yellow and orange jewelweed in bloom.  I remembered seeing them in droves beside the roadway as well.  After the last footbridge, the trail swings up hill, and steeply in places, as it makes its climb back to the paved road.  If you aren't looking for this end of the trail when you drive by, you'll surely miss it as I did.  But it's located somewhere between Poll's and Black Camp Gaps.  When I reached the road, I looked around, took some pics, watched a car pass, then turned right around to head back.  Again, the rock hops and pleasant meadow walking was a treat.  When I made it back to the peculiar sign, I did some more exploring.  Sure enough, the overgrowth had obstructed the path leading away from the main trail and downhill toward a ravine.  I elected to follow for a few tenths, curious to see where I would end up.  Sure enough, I could hear the sounds of rushing water grow louder as I got closer.  Then the path took several forks, one down to the right and another straight and then way down.  I took the first, and after climbing over some roots and branches, I came out at the top of a long cascade.  I read later that this was indeed the Flat Creek Falls.  To be honest it was more like a shute, since the water was moving so fast through a narrow space between the rocks.  It was also very steep for I could see all the way down to the bottom.  I went back up to the path and took the other way to the base of the falls.  I probably could've done without this, because the trail disappeared and there wasn't a whole lot to see where I ended up.  Making my way down entailed clinging on to trees, roots, exposed rock, and if I couldn't find any, it meant having to slide down smooth rock faces on my rear end.  There further down I went, the more I dreaded the trip I would have to make back up.  When I came to a flat spot beside the falls, there just wasn't anyway to get a picture of the entire falls.  It was too overgrown with rhododendron and the ravine was so narrow.  So with careful foot placement and patience, I made my way back up to the path and the main trail.  When I finished out the trail and arrived at my vehicle it was still morning, and I wanted to do some more hiking, especially since I had originally planned to put on over 20 miles today.  So I looked at my map and saw that the Balsam Mountain Nature Trail was nearby.  Yes it was very short, but it was something, so I gave it a go.  In no time I took the path which comes out at the campground, looked around, turned back, passed a couple of people enjoying an easy hike, and I was done.  I tried to make the most of what I could while I was there, but I was still livid over the one-way road being closed.  So I made my way back to Gatlinburg, taking my time to at least stop at the various overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Newfound Gap Road.  I was still in awe at how spectacular the views were, and so clear at that.  One of my favorites would be the Mile High Overlook in which you can look out over the Balsam Mountain expanse as well as the main ridge of the Smokies.
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          I still had tomorrow left to get in a good hike, and I still had my heart set on hiking the Balsam Mountain Trail to Tricorner Knob.  Of course, with the road closure it would mean finding an alternative starting point.  And I would have given anything to have another crystal clear day like this one.  Whatever was going to happen, all I could do was sleep on it and hope for the best in the morning.
 
          The most interesting thing about the Roundtop Trail is how does one go about hiking from one end to the other.  It is somewhat of a dilemma because the trail's western end comes out along the shoreline at the Townsend Wye.  Unfortunately, in order to access the trailhead from the parking lot at the Wye one must wade or swim across the river.  So if you're one who doesn't carry around waterproof gear, an inflatable raft, doesn't like getting wet, or simply lacks a car shuttle, you are probably forced to back-track the entire trail to reach your vehicle.  In the process, you are doubling your miles for the day from 7.5 to 15.  For some of you that might be a turnoff.  For someone like me, it's just another day in the park.
          Like the Little River Road between Metcalf Bottoms and the Townsend Wye, the Roundtop Trail goes from end to end with the only exits being those very ends.  It's also apart of a network of trails that connect along the park's northern boundary, stretching from the Sugarlands Visitor Center west to the Beard Cane Trail above Cades Cove.  It's a trail that isn't difficult or flashy, but just long if you elect to do the out and back method like I did.  Those of you who wish to start at the eastern trailhead along Wear Cove Road, know that it has no parking lot.  You'll have to walk a few hundred yards down from the parking lot for the Little Greenbrier Trail at the park boundary.
          When I arrived at the trailhead, many of the late summer flowers that grace roadsides were in bloom.  Sweet-joe pye-weed, Maryland golden asters, black-eyed susans, and mountain mint were some of the notables.  Like many of the trails along the northwest portion of the park, the earth and vegetation were dry.  A common theme here would be the sandy feel and appearance of the dirt on the trail along with the abundance of pine trees.  Early on there were several places that showed evidence of forest fires.  My guess would be due to the prevailing dryness of the area, possibly sparked by a lightning strike sometime ago.  On a relatively low elevation hike like this, one doesn't expect much in terms of views.  Although, I was offered a neat glimpse of Roundtop itself a little ways into the trek.  The trail doesn't ever summit the sharp knob, but merely skirts around it, eventually reaching its crest along the neighboring Joint Ridge.
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          Like many trails that tip-toe along the park boundary, Roundtop Trail passes behind houses, roads, and private property.  I awlays wonder what people think when they are sitting on their porches in silence, looking off into the woods, perhaps unaware that a park trail parallels the property, and then they see an unassuming hiker walk past and disappear in a few seconds.  The trail quickly turns south away from the border and makes a gradual climb around Roundtop and over Joint Ridge.
          The exciting part comes 3.7 miles in during the descent of Joint Ridge.  At one point the trail ceases to follow the same contour, but takes a ninety degree turn to the left and straight down the mountainside.  I read about it in my guide book and knew to prepare for its potential dangers, but finally seeing it in person was a different beast.  I chuckled as I went about making my way down.  Sometimes I held on to trees to slow my descent.  Other times, gravity would take over.  I was forced to take several quick steps, almost like a run, or else I'd lose my balance and be bouncing down like a rolling stone.  Eventually the trail swings around to once again parallel the contour of the ridge as opposed to straight down it, but even then it was still a steep descent.  I took a picture at one point to see if I could capture the steepness.  It looks as though I'm taking a picture straight down at the ground when in reality I was looking directly ahead from a standing position.  This quarter mile stretch sure gives Roundtop some uniqueness, regardless of what the rest of the day would bring.  Further along I stumbled across a snake that was long but thin in body.  I almost stepped on it before I finally recognized what it was.  I knew it was harmless so I grabbed a long stink and wanted to move it off trail and into the brush.  Oddly enough the snake stayed outstreched and stiff like metal rod, unwilling to budge.  At some point my persistence paid off and circled around a few times and even coiled up.  Again, this little guy was no threat to me, so I finally convinced it to latch on to the end of the stick and gently placed off the trail.  I took a visual image of the area so that I would know to watch out for it on my return trip.
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          I knew I was getting close to the end when I was hearing the sound of water and motor vehicles grow louder.  The trail makes its way around a number of exposed rock walls in the process of descending to the Townsend Wye.  It makes a sharp turn at one point and gives a hiker the vantage point of looking out over the Wye and to the surrounding slopes.  Down below I could see a family sitting on the western shore as their kids played around in the water.  In no time I made my way down to the bottom.  It gets interesting at the end because there's no trail sign.  The path sort of spreads out and dissipates, leaving the hiker to guess which direction to take.  I was curious so I explored all the options.  They all came out beside the river, eventually making there way along the shore to meet at a sandy and unwooded area.  There I could see the convergence of Laurel Creek and Little River where they flow north together toward Townsend.  Along the outskirts of the woods, coneflower and sweet-joe pye-weed were in bloom.  I wandered around for a bit taking in the sights and flashing some photos.  I also began to look for ways in which one could cross the water without getting wet.  Well, there were none.  And no bridge magically appeared in time for my arrival as I had hoped.  I guess I would have to put in another 7.5 miles before I could call it a day.
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          I sat down in a dry spot among the stones and sand to enjoy some Donut Friar cinnamon bread for lunch.  It was nice to be able to look out over the water in peace and quiet.  This late in the summer all the crowds that overrun the Wye to frollick in the water and bathe in the sun have all gone.  I walked around some more, took a few more pictures, then ambled back through the brush to find where the trail supposedly came out.  Once you leave the shore the trail wastes no time in ascending.  Before long I was already looking down on the Wye and the converging rivers below.  I gavae it one last look, turned the corner, and the sounds of traffic and water were behind me.  Now nothing but the solitude of the forest.
          The second half of the hike, the return trip, wasn't all that exciting but still pleasant.  The part I looked forward to though was the steep quarter mile climb on the slopes of Joint Ridge 3.8 miles east of the Wye.  For as quickly as I descended the first time, I'm sure it would be a lung puncher of a climb on the way back up.  Sure enough, my cadence plummeted when it was time to literally scale the side of the mountain.  I had to hold on to a few saplings to sure up my footing in order to keep from rolling downhill.  As much as I would love to see the park come through there and ease the grade with some switchbacks, I have to admit, that section does give Roundtop some character.  After that, I made it back to Wear Cove in good time, all fifteen miles behind me.  Now it was time to rest, refuel, and get fired up for the next day's hike...a twenty mile jaunt atop the Balsam Mountain range!
 
          After my lengthy hike yesterday, I was surprised at how good I felt.  Nothing was sore or stiff, and I wasn't tired.  This morning, though, I was slow to get moving.  I got a later than usual start up the West Prong Trail out of Tremont but I was alright with that since today's hike would be smooth sailing compared to the last two days.  I hadn't done this trail before, and I still had the middle section of Bote Mtn. to complete, so a simple up and back kind of morning was in store.
          Right from the start, there was a side trail leading to a cemetery, but I neglected to follow it, choosing to hit it on the way back.  The first mile of West Prong is all up through open woods and broad hillsides.  Very few wildflowers could be seen in the dark, green forest.  After leveling out for a quarter mile, the trail descends a few hundred feet to a feeder creek crossing and then over a long footbridge over the West Prong.  The bridge provides a safe crossing, offers a pleasant view of the river, and unites the two halves of campsite #18.  This campsite is well kept and situated in a small gorge with sounds of the West Prong filling the air.
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          Upon leaving the campsite, the trail again heads uphill, but this time it would last all the way til my turnaround at the junction with Lead Cove Trail.  West Prong eventually comes out atop the ridge to meet up with the Bote Mtn. Trail, the former roadway that led up to Spence Field.  Bote Mtn. is steep in places and level in others, and almost always rocky.  At least the path is wide; thus, discouraging spiders from constructing their pesky webs across the trail.  Views are limited to the few openings were old wildfires ripped open the forest canopy.  The ridge here is very dry, covered in pine trees, and the dirt is red like the rocks of Sedona, Arizona.  At this point, wildflowers that could be seen were erect and canada goldenrod, wide leaved sunflowers, and the occasional Hercules club.  Views could be seen down into the valley of the West and Middle Prongs and up the slopes of Thunderhead Mtn. whose peaks were clouded in today.  The heat was more prevalent today and it was welcome relief to finally reach the junction with Lead Cove and catch a cool breeze from time to time.  Still a long day ahead of me, I didn't linger and quickly headed back to Tremont.
          As promised on the way back, I took the side loop to the Walker Family Cemetery which actually looks down upon the parking lot for West Prong.  It is an impressive cemetery to say the least, with a carefully crafted wooden fence and entrance gate.  There was a decent path around the gravestones and the fake floral arrangements were everywhere, brightening up the dark surrounding woods.  Most of the names included Walker, Stinnett, Moore, and McCarter, some old, some young, some from the past, others just recently passing.  I was also impressed by the obvious loop trail that one could follow to get there.  In so many places throughout the park, cemeteries are hidden, overgrown, poorly situated, and disregarded.  But this one is certainly looked after by the families and the park which was nice to see.
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          The conclusion of today's hike and my eventual return to the mountain marks a fifty mile week.  One that saw me knock out seven different trails in the park and put me well over the 400 mile mark out of the park's 900.  I'm coming to the point where sections of the map are getting filled in fast.  I only have one hike to do in places like Tremont, Elkmont, Greenbrier, Little River Road, Newfound Gap Road and Smokemont and those areas of the park are complete.  Going by prospective hiking schedule, the month of September should see it done.  But until then, I have the rest of August to enjoy on top of Mt. LeConte and out of this ridiculous summer heat!
 
          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. 
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          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.
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          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.
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          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.
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          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.
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          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.
 
          Last week saw me scrap two hikes that threw off my goals in terms of miles, so I had to totally revamp my scheduled hikes for the rest of the year.  I'm glad I did, though, because I was able to condense some trips to the same place into one hike.  In some cases it meant more long hikes, especially those above 19 miles long, and even some steeper ones that involve 4,000+ feet in elevation change.  But it also means I can achieve my goal of reaching 600+ miles out of the park's 900 this year should I stick to my guns.  With that said, I decided to give the Fork Ridge Trail another this week.
          I figured this trail would be overrun with summer growth because it isn't popular by any means, despite its accessibility from Clingmans Dome Road.  But it did garner some attention this past week when a bear tore open the roof of a convertible parked at the trailhead.  When Bonnie and I drove up the dome road last week we saw a park vehicle there the morning it happened, but had no idea at the time that such an event occurred.  So maybe my delay in hiking down Fork Ridge for a week turned out to be a good thing!
          With the oppressive heat still roasting the lowest elevations, it's probably wiser to do upper elevation hikes this time of year, and Fork Ridge fits that description.  It is also the last hike I need to do to have completed every trail that emanates from the dome road.  I had plenty of incentive to knock it out, despite the potentially unfavorable trail conditions.  The weather forecast called for a chance of storms in the afternoon, so I hit the trail early with hopes of being done and back in town by lunchtime.
          Skies were mostly clear on the drive up with the occasional cloud getting hung up on the highest ridges.  The trailhead and sign for Fork Ridge was completely covered by coneflower and filmy angelica, so it took a couple seconds to find the path.  It was obvious from the start that if the trail was overgrown here, it wouldn't be any better the rest of the way down.  Unfortunately, my projection was correct.
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          Immediately I was already having to fight off nettles and briers, wiping off spiderwebs, and scaling downed trees.  I tried to admire the changing environment as much as I could despite the distractions.  Early on, the trail passed through a fir and fern forest, combined with the morning light passing through the trees making for a pleasant scene.  About a mile out, the last sounds of traffic from the dome road faded from existence, leaving me to only the trail...and the spiderwebs.  Seriously, they were everywhere, from tree to tree and at all heights.  There frequency and abundance was appalling and annoying.  I was so sick of constantly having to shed them that I went with holding branches for a few miles to try catch them before they'd get strung across my face.  Sometimes the plan worked, while other times I swear the webs found ways to dodge the branches and still find my face.  To say I broke through a thousand webs in all would be the truth.  And when I didn't have to deal with webs, I had to navigate blowdowns that continually slowed my progress.  And when there weren't blowdowns, I was getting hacked by the thorns and teeth of nettles and briers.  My arms and legs were covered in red railroad tracks by days end, all itchy and burning.  Still, I tried to enjoy myself as much as I could.  I took note of not only the wildflowers but the plethora of different mushrooms growing along the trail.  They were in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes the whole way down.
          Wildflowers that were common much of the way down were the coneflower, white snakeroot, erect goldenrod, white wood asters, filmy angelica, wide leaved sunflowers, and hawkweed.  Some wildflower firsts for the year included the miniature, blue southern harebells and Canada goldenrod.  Like the spring beauties and trout lilies of spring, the southern harebells and hawkweed almost always appeared together.  There were some yellow gerardia still lingering while most of the yellow fringed orchids had turned sour.  As soon as I saw the orchids, I hoped I could find at least one in full bloom for I was yet to see one in such fashion.  On previous hikes they were all budding and here they were fading.  Finally I caught one beside the trail in decent shape and took time to enjoy its presence.
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          The second half of the trail wasn't much different than the first.  Same grade of descent, several blowdowns, tons of mushrooms, more teething nettles and briers, wildflowers in bloom, overwhelming spiderwebs.  At times I could get glimpses through the trees of the Noland Divide towering to the west, but views were otherwise hard to come by this day.  After the trail hooks around the ridgeline for the last half mile, it plummets into the woods toward the river valley and a sea of nettles.  I knew I was close as the sounds of the flowing Deep Creek got louder.
          When I came to the shores of the river, there was no bridge crossing to be seen.  The first time I passed by on the other side during my Deep Creek hike I didn't see one then either.  Well, I like going away from hikes knowing that I saw and did everything I could, hiking every mile, every tenth, every foot of each trail.  This meant crossing the creek and reaching the trail's terminus at the junction with the next trail.  I found a decent rock hop to my right and determined it to be the best way across.  Every rock was slick, it didn't matter the size, so paying close attention to footing was essential.  Some rocks were close, others farther apart, and all were surrounded by deep pools of water, so one slip and it was a wet rest of the morning.  Patience was the key as it took me at least five minutes to get across.  At times I would double back a few rocks to get the right foot placement for future steps.  I even squatted a couple of times to assure my balance or use my hands to grip a rock as I stretched out a leg.  The distance between one rock and the next might have been a couple inches, but the time between each step felt like an eternity even then.  My last step to reach the shore was the riskiest, for the rock face was angled and slick with no spot for the boot to catch and expect to stand.  It meant that I had to make long strides and hot foot it to the shore speedily, even over some deep pools.  After another squat, a few deep breaths, and envisioning my path several times in my head, I went for it..................SUCCESS!!!
          It was a great feeling to look back in amazement that I was able to cross the stream unscathed, but my joy quickly faded when the obvious struck me...I would have to recross in order to get back.  But first, I needed to reach the intersection with the Deep Creek Trail, finish the trail, and say hello to some backpackers at the nearby campsite.  They were curious about my trek down, and I didn't shy away from telling them to find another way out.  They appreciated my advice, but too bad I couldn't follow it.  In attempt number two, I chose to take a different way across the creek.  But this time I came prepared, strategically chucking rocks from shore to create a more suitable path across.  It allowed for better footing and eased the tension in places that otherwise would have been very risky.  There were still places that required second and third looks for me to feel sure about what I was doing.  I managed to make it across without a hitch, instantly putting my hands on my knees and chuckling when I touched solid ground.  The water was finally behind me, only nettles, briers, and blowdowns standing in my way.
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          After recrossing the creek for the second time, I took a break for a snack and water to refuel for the wonderful trek up.  I also chose to pack my camera away because I had seen everything I needed to see on the way.  Similar to my hike through the traveshamockery of a trail called Deep Creek, my focus on the ascent was to waste no time and battle through, over, and under all that stood in my way.  The good thing about doubling back on a rarely used trail is that all the spiderwebs are broken, so that's one less annoyance to deal with.  One also has the advantage of knowing what to expect when it comes to the overgrown places and how to traverse the blowdowns.  Like a hiker possessed, I blazed through the nettles, briers, wildflowers, trunks, and branches without hesitation.  If I recall, it took me two hours getting down with all the fidgeting and picture taking.  The push up was a different story, seeing my return take an hour and forty minutes.
          As frustrating as such a hike can be, I still came away with a feeling of satisfaction.  For one, I was glad to have it all behind me, another section of the map filled in.  But a trip like that can also be adventurous and unforgettable.  Should I choose to hike Fork Ridge in the future, at least I now know for sure NOT to do so in the summer...or wait til the park service decides to rip through there with saws and axes.
 
          A change of pace can be a good thing.  Yesterday I decided to scrap a hike and just relax in town.  Sure, it slows my progress in terms of miles, but I'll find a way to get them in later on anyways.  Today's hike would be one I had done before, but it was going to be extra special because I had somebody to share it with.  My girlfriend, Bonnie, also on crew at LeConte, and I were able to coordinate our days off to get a hike in together.  We've done several hikes up and around the mountain with our afternoons and evenings, but this was our first time to go elsewhere in the park, so we were very excited.
          We met at Clingmans Dome about mid-morning for a trek out to Silers Bald and back.  Things looked promising from the get-go.  For this summer being so scorching hot, we were both amazed at how clear views were all around.  The skies were a rich blue, the mountains a lush green, and you could see for miles without the interference from haze.  Since it was early in the day and we were so high in elevation, the way up the Dome Bypass Trail was nice and cool, a much appreciated break from the oppressive heat down below.  I knew it wouldn't last much longer, so I enjoyed it as much as I could.
          After scaling Mt. Buckley, the tower at the dome was behind us and out of sight; thus, beginning our descent toward Silers Bald four and a half miles out.  No matter which way you approach or depart Clingmans Dome, the trail is steep and rocky, unless it's the paved path up from the parking lot, in which case it's just steep.  At least we had several vistas along this stretch that afforded views into both sides of the park.  Again, we were astonished at how clear the views were for this time of year.
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          What also makes this part of the hike so unique is that you are rarely in the typical fir forest for this elevation.  Many of the slopes west of the dome are open fields of grasses, wildflowers, and blackberries.  The first half of the hike saw a lot of filmy angelica, coneflower, white snakeroot, pink turtleheads, and goldenrod in bloom, especially in those open areas.  You do eventually descend back into the forest and lose the impressive views, but you also swap the steep and rocky trail conditions for a flatter and muddier path.  Finding detours around the little mud pits actually made for some fun.
          About halfway out you come to a clearing at Double Spring Gap which houses a backcountry shelter.  When I was last here four years ago, it hadn't been renovated yet, but now it was and certainly looked more pleasing to the eye than that old raggedy chain link fence.  What really brightened up the gap were the dense patches of coneflower, glowing in the late morning light.  Of all the park's AT shelters, I think the one at Double Spring Gap has one of the better setting behind Mt. LeConte and Icewater Spring.
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          In leaving the gap you make a climb up Jenkins Ridge.  At one point we looked through the woods to our right and found a fenced enclosure.  We weren't sure what it was at first, but when we looked around the ridge and saw all the devastation caused by those pesky wild hogs, it all made sense.  Upon further inspection on our return trip, I saw that the park had sealed off a small area, similar to many of their beech enclosures to help protect the plants and wildlife from hog destruction.
          Pressing on, the surroundings continue to change.  The ridge crest that the AT follows gets narrower and grassy, signs of the old balds that used to exist here.  For this very reason, the stretch just east of Silers Bald is called The Narrows.  They are entirely grown over at this point, but we both pondered how impressive the views would be here in the fall when the trees drop their foliage.  As we got closer to our destination, you could catch glimpses through the trees of the steep climb that awaited us.  Once you pass the junction with Welch Ridge, the trail wastes no time in heading up.  Thankfully, it passed by quickly, and we were atop Silers Bald looking back at Clingmans Dome, impressed by the distance and drop in elevation we just covered.  Hopefully the park at least maintains that view from the bald unlike the many others now forested over.  Aside from the white blazes marking the AT, I followed a well trodden path to the north side of the bald that came out to a small rocky ledge.  The view was fascinating as it overlooked the valley below of the Little River, with Mt. LeConte towering in the distance to the right, and the long spine of Miry Ridge, Dripping Spring Mountain, and Bent Arm Ridge to the left.  And even now in the afternoon, the air was still clear.
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          We ventured down the western slope of Silers Bald to scout for more views and ended up reaching the shelter for a snack break.  The area around this shelter is much more closed in than that of Double Spring Gap.  This point was our turnaround, so we headed back up and over Silers Bald.  It would be all up to the dome, and now we were starting to get into the heat of the day.  The views were just beginning to haze up as well, so at least our timing for the way out was spot on.  We also began to see a lot of day hikers and backpackers.  The heat really started to turn up when we began climbing Mt. Buckley, but luckily that meant we were close to the end.  It's always a strange feeling when you make it to the dome and step off the AT, leaving solitude and serenity behind you, onto the paved, populated, and noisy trail to the tower.  The views from the tower impeccable, as they always are on a clear day.  We both look forward to our next outing together off the mountain, but it'll certainly be hard to beat this amazing day.
 
          This hike almost didn't happen.  The last I had heard about the work being done to The Sinks was that it hadn't been completed.  Plus, what I had seen from the park's list of construction projects throughout the year showed that work had already begun in Elkmont.  So the two possible starting points for this hike were supposedly closed off.  Luckily, The Sinks reopened just in time for me to do the hike as originally planned.  This hike was also the first I would do on the Tennessee over a month, excluding stuff around Mt. LeConte.  And since a lot of people other than me have been waiting for such an occasion, I figured an early start would be in order just to secure a decent parking spot and avoid the hustle'n'bustle of the crowds coming to enjoy the views and grand swimming hole below the falls.
          What I had in mind for the day was an ambitious 19 miles, but nothing overbearing.  The elevation change would be minimal compared to other hikes just short of being that long, so I felt the miles would pass quickly.  I would have to ascend Meigs Creek and much of Meigs Mountain Trail would be relatively level out to Elkmont.  Now with the oppressive heat that has been lambasting the lower elevations of Tennessee this summer, some might frown upon my decision to do this hike now.  Well, there are several other factors that come into play.  One, it's a new hike, so new miles to be added on.  Two, there are some wildflowers that bloome here at this time of year that I've never seen.  And three, Meigs Creek apparently has eighteen stream crossings according to my guide books, so tackling this trail while the water is down is an advantage.  And if I started early enough, I could get done before the heat of the day even arrived, so I stuck to the plan.
          When I pulled into The Sinks, nobody was there, so I snatched my good parking place and took my time enjoying the newly paved parking lot and restructured balconies overlooking the falls and Little River.  There were numerous fenced enclosures with signs sealing off areas requiring revegetation due to the work done.  One spot had some red cardinal flower, but it was too far into the woods to get a decent picture, so I had to hope I saw it elsewhere on the trail.  I took some shots of the water now while there weren't people everywhere.  But lingering wasn't an option, for I had many miles ahead of me.
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          Heading up Meigs Creek, much of the trail conditions were very dry and what were probably muddy places were easy walking.  Coming over a ridge about a mile in felt like walking through a furnace, even for early in the morning.  After a brief descent you come to the first of many stream crossings.  This one being the deepest and widest of them all, it was actually a breeze.  I have the lack of rain to thank for that.  Despite there being so many crossings, all are easy in low water.  It's when there's high water that hikers need to use caution.  In fact, since conditions were so dry, I only counted about thirteen notable crossings, a sign of the scorching summer we've been having.  Somewhere around the fourth crossing the trail passes by a nice cascade below and to the right.  The setting reminded me a lot of the Crooked Arm Cascade below Rich Mountain.  After some quick shots, it was time to starting heading uphill for a while.  The stream crossings were rather enjoyable because they broke up the menotony and served as good mile markers.
          In no time I was reunited with the Meigs Mountain Trail and would begin the long push east to Elkmont.  After the ascent to Upper Buckhorn Gap, the rest of the way is gradual in its slight climbs and drops except for one stretch past Campsite #19.  But before I got there, I had to revisit a 1.9 mile section that I had done the first week in April.  At that time the trail was often lined with violets, hepatica, bloodroot, and trillium.  This time around, there was nothing.  In fact I never saw wildflowers the entire way.  Nothing but green woodlands and heavy hot air.  The lone exciting moment came when I spooked a toad across the trail.
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          The four mile portion between the Curry Mountain junction and Elkmont is the least appealing, broken up only by one campsite.  In such conditions all you want to think about is the heat because there's nothing else to distract you.  A deer, a bear, a waterfall, anything just to change it up.  To make matters worse, I was constanly peeling off spiderwebs.  These had to be the worst of the year thus far.  I'll walk through hundreds in just one hike, and they're often silky.  But this time, they were snapping like fishing line.  You could feel the tension and cracking of the webs either on your arms or face.  The only good thing about doubling back on a hike is that the webs won't be there for the return.
          I knew I was getting close to Elkmont when the hillsides became broader and evidence of former settlements popped up.  There were some rockwalls and rusty artifacts left behind in several places.  Shortly after crossing a footbridge and a short rise to the junction with Jakes Creek, I finally reached my turnaround.  I wanted somewhere to sit comfortably and cool off a little while I had lunch, but there was nothing appealing at the junction, so I wandered back down to the footbridge and sat on a streamside boulder.
          I wasted no time heading back, just wanting to get the miles and heat behind me.  At this point I was soaking wet, despite the very few short climbs.  At least there weren't anymore of those ridiculous spiderwebs.  It was a relief to eventually be back on the Meigs Creek Trail because I knew I had the stream crossings again.  About a half mile from the end I started hearing traffic down on the Little River Road and the sounds of people frolicking in The Sinks.  At one point the trail sort of backtracks away from the parking lot and crossings a flat flood plain.  The first time around I missed it, but this time a caught a decent patch of cardinal flower just off the trail.  A welcome sight, because this would have been the first hike of the year where I didn't see any wildflowers along the trail.
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          When I stepped off the trail and into the parking area, cars and people were everywhere.  People of all ages were laying out on the rocks and leaping off ledges into the water.  The parking lot was overloaded with vehicles waiting for spots.  Fortunately, mine was in the first spot making for a quick and easy exit.  The heat, the crowds, and my current longest hike of the year were all behind me.  Now I'm closing in on two hiking benchmarks for the year, 400 miles out of the park's 900, and 700 total miles of hiking for the year.  Both should come before my return to the mountain later this week.