Today was to be our last full day in the park until our return for work in March.  We had already thoroughly enjoyed our short visit, but in a way, it seemed as though something was missing.  February is a winter month, yet it hadn't quite felt like winter, at least for me anyways.  All along I was under the impression that it was early spring, determined by the mild temps, sunny skies, and apparent lack of snow.  Sure there were some slicks patches here and there in the higher elevations, and Mt. LeConte had less than a foot on the ground, but without the snow sticking to the trees it was hard to believe that it was actually winter.
          Well, how's this for timing?  That night a system passed through that saw flurries down low and a dusting of snow up high.  So we knew as we headed out that morning that things were in our favor.  Unfortunately, it was still cloudy and one couldn't see above 5,000 feet where most of the snow had fallen on all the mountain peaks.  Our plan was to drive out to Cades Cove and enjoy the sights there, but with it clouded over, there wouldn't be much difference in what we saw when we were last there together in November.  The weather forecast called for some sun to show up in the afternoon, so with hopes of the clouds either lifting or burning off, we decided to hit up Tremont first and do a short hike on the way.
          The drive out to Tremont was enjoyable and traffic was nearly non existent.  The snowplows were just getting started on clearing the roads and Newfound Gap Road across the park was closed because of the freshly fallen snow.  We had plans to drive that way later in the day, so we were hoping the conditions would improve on our return.  Roads were somewhat slick during the approach to Fighting Creek Gap, but after that the roads cleared and the flurries in the air weren't able to stick to the pavement.  During the drive out we continued to admire the clarity of the water that parallels the road.  I also tried to picture what the roadsides would look like in another month or two when the wildflowers awaken from their chilly slumber and bring the park to life.
          The Spruce Flat Falls Trail was one I hadn't done before, but the pictures I had seen gave me the impression that it was one of the better ones in the park.  I was in need for another new mile and this hike was a perfect fit for what we had planned for the day.  One has to park at the GSMIT and walk a bit to the trailhead because of the facilities there and people's privacy.  If you never been there before,  look for "falls trail" signs where the service road terminates or at the beginning of the Lumber Ridge Trail.  When we got out of the vehicle, it was a bit chilly, but once we got moving and our blood flowing, things would surely warm up.
          Right from the start the trail was covered in a thin but slick layer of snow.  The way up has a number of switchbacks at first and requires a few yards worth of big step-ups.  Careful footing was a must around log steps because they were especially slick and you could find yourself on your rear end in a hurry if caught unaware.  There are a number of spur trails that may spark curiosity, but there are signs that point one in the right direction to the falls.  After making our way around a small water tank, the trail cuts up and over the ridge, away from Tremont, and into the woods.  It was such a relief to be in the woods and simultaneously exciting because of all the snow on the ground.  Finally, a winter hike with the feel of winter!  Some sections were a bit daunting like snow covered leaves still sitting on the trail, or the steps carved into a log that would work better as a launching pad for a sled.
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          The trail itself, not marked on the maps issued by National Geographic, basically follows the gravel portion of the road through Tremont.  The path sits higher up the hillside and is separated from the road by the Middle Prong which is easily heard below.  At one point the trail swings around a corner and an opening in the trees offers a view up toward the surrounding ridgeline.  The clouds were still solid across the sky, but they had risen just enough for us to see snow on the trees higher up.  I tried to snap some photos but the cold air seemed to be having its way with my camera lens.  It didn't bother me too much, because the waterfall was what I really wanted.  The trail descends during the last couple tenths into a ravine that houses the falls and takes you right to the base.  If one would rather drive along the gravel road below, the falls is visible from there but obviously much smaller.  The water was pouring over the rocks intensely, similar to what we saw at Ramsey Cascades, so a long shutter interpretation with my camera wasn't going to work all too well.  The rocks around the falls and its pools were wet, but not that slick, and the rhododendron were coated in light snow creating a neat winter scene.  My camera continued to give me fits but I managed to get in a few shots before leaving.
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          That was the bulk of our exercise for the day.  Once we made it back to the vehicle, the weather conditions in our neck of the woods hadn't changed much.  Still cloudy, no sun, and the peaks remained hidden.  Who knows, maybe that would change a bit just during our drive from Tremont to Cades Cove.  It was strange being at the cove this time of year.  No traffic, bicycles, or hayrides.  No families in the picnic area, campground, or store.  I almost felt out of place...but only for a moment.  It was a great feeling to know that I wouldn't have to contend with traffic going around the loop.  Once we made our way deep into the cove and around the open fields, it was evident the clouds were finally beginning to break.  They were slowly but surely lifting above the peaks and bursts of sunlight shot through gaps in the clouds and danced along the slopes.  The highest of the peaks were the whitest while where we were in the cove was mild and dry like early spring.  We parked the car and took the walk out to the John Oliver Cabin.  On the way back, the summit of Pole Knob kept popping in and out of the clouds and the dense snow cover could be seen at its point.  I could only imagine would Thunderhead, or even the higher peaks to the east like Clingmans Dome and Mt. LeConte looked like after that night's snowfall.
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          We didn't stop much between there and the visitor center half way around the loop just because the cloud cover was slow to change and the views one gets to the south were getting repetitive.  After a quick stop at the restrooms and Cable Mill area we were back on the loop.  Now the clouds were really beginning to break, offering up more blue sky, warmer temps, and unobstructed views of the mountains.  Rich Mountain which lies to the north was just about completely clear now and snow along its crest could be seen.  The second half of the drive around the loop is a bit more wooded in places, but that doesn't keep people from stopping to take in the other sights of the cove, that being the wildlife.  Our one jam of the day came in one of these areas where a few deer were hanging out by the road, sifting through leaves and watching cars.  I managed to capture a shot of one deer in its dark winter coat as I waited for the car in front of me to continue on.
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          We were stopping more frequently now because of the various homesteads along the route and their close proximity.  I also felt the need to beef up my historic structures section on this site.  It always seems like everybody and their brother gets the same pictures of these buildings, that's why I enjoy getting out in the backcountry to see the sights and capture images that hardly anybody sees.  Nevertheless, I felt compelled to get several of the arbitrary shots this time around.  One of the neater stops came at the Dan Lawson Place because the sun was really shining at this point and the surrounding ridges topped in snow served as a unique backdrop.
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          We finished out the remainder of the Cades Cove loop having enjoyed our time there, but now we were eager to learn of the conditions of Newfound Gap Road.  Surely if the higher peaks were blanketed in snow, if the skies were clear, and the road was open, we would be in for one heck of an afternoon for sight seeing.  Much of the snow that we saw beside the road on our way out to Cades Cove that morning had already melted off, so that was a positive sign.  Once we made it back to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, we rounded the corner with anxiety.  Sure enough, the cones and signs had been pulled out of the intersection, the gate was open, and traffic was coming from both directions.  My oh my, was the anticipation building.  First up was Campbell Overlook.  We couldn't see above Balsam Point which lies in the center because the clouds seemed to be hung up on Mt. LeConte, but snow could still be seen below the cloud base.  It was about to get better though.  What's great about the drive along Newfound Gap Road is that the views of so many unique landmarks are much more intimate, where in Cades Cove, the vast distance between you and the surrounding peaks makes it feel out of reach.  Cue the drive below Chimney Tops.  It is one of the more interesting landscapes in the park, and for good reason.  In the spring, the heath covered slopes sport whites and pinks.  In autumn, the valley explodes with vibrant colors.  And in the winter, the exposed rocks shine above its steep slopes cloaked in white.  I wouldn't be in any hurry to climb up there at a time like this, but it sure is a beautiful sight to behold.
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          As we made our way past Chimneys, the snow on the ground was getting higher and the amount stuck to the trees was getting thicker.  They had done a fine job of clearing the roads for traffic so there were no worries.  Another bonus was that the clouds sitting between Sugarland Mountain and Mt. LeConte were about all that was left.  The rest of the skies had cleared up for the most part, especially in North Carolina.  Right before we arrived at Newfound Gap, the scenery continued to impress, turning our eyes as big as basketballs.  The white of the conifers against the rich blue of the sky behind has such an incredible contrast.  Everything just kept getting better the higher up we got.  The views from the parking lot at Newfound Gap were as breathtaking as they've ever been, crystal clear and limitless.  The white of snow was pristine and variances of blue in the mountains and sky were vivid.  I had never been able to see that far with such great definition and clarity before from Newfound Gap.  I was blown away to the say the least.
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          We drove a short ways into North Carolina to check out the views from the first few vistas at Luftee Gap and over Deep Creek.  They were equally as impressive.  The fact that it was incredibly cold anytime we stepped out of the vehicle was easily disregarded because of the excitement and satisfaction.  It was difficult to leave such beauty behind, but we were so grateful that our last day in the park for a month gave us that winter fix we were hoping for.  Today was a merely the culmination of a fantastic getaway that once again served as a reminder of why the mountains are home.
 
Entry regarding loop hike with Bonnie west of Cades Cove coming soon!
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A serene morning beside Abrams Falls.
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Some lingering fall color along a dry Hatcher Mountain Trail.
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View across Cades Cove from trailhead of Cooper Road.
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Crossing a fortunately dry flood plain via Wet Bottom Trail.
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A popular Cades Cove overlook as seen from Rich Mountain Road.
 
          With this week's potential for rain and storms, I needed to figure out which trail I wanted to do while the weather was still nice.  From my recent treks to the Cades Cove area, I knew that the mountain laurel and flame azalea were kicking into gear.  I also know that their blooms can easily get weather beaten, so seeing them on a clear day is preferrable.  That said, it was off to the cove to hit up Rich Mountain.
          With the loop road finally open, vehicles going in and out of the cove is more like normal.  Fortunately, I haven't had to get tangled up in the stop-and-go traffic by starting my hikes around the cove.  Today would be no different, with hopes of completing the popular Rich Mountain Loop that goes up, across, and down the mountain.  The first time I did this hike was in late October of last year, so I was curious to see all the differences between seasons.  There were many.
          Early on, the petals from tulip tree blossoms blanketed the forest floor instead of crunchy leaves.  I found myself looking down for wildflowers instead of up toward a colorful canopy.  The air was hot and humid instead of mild and comfortable.  Instead of hundreds of butterflies, moths, and grasshoppers, there were only a handful.  If there was one similarity it was that the Rich Mountain Loop Trail coming down was as rocky as I remembered.
          Despite the rain from the day before, there wasn't a lot of water pouring over the Crooked Arm Cascade.  Continuing up Crooked Arm Ridge, the trail was often lined with princess trees, yellow ragworts, white milkweed, and galax.  All the way across the mountain the buttercup blooms of mountain laurel trees were in peak bloom.  At one point I was admiring the numerous bloom clusters that adorned a large tree at a switchback in the trail when I made the turn and nearly stepped on a small critter.  To my dismay, it was something I had never seen before and almost missed as it was camouflaged with the rock and dirt of the trail.  It was a northern fence lizard, intent on remaining motionless as if I hadn't seen it.  So I took my pictures and wished him well before moving on.
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           When I reached the junction with the Scott Mountain Trail, I was quick to take note of the differences in my surroundings since my last visit here a month prior.  The trees were full, the underbrush tall, the forest green and dark.  Last time everything was bare and bright without a canopy to block the sun's rays.  Now making my way across the mountain along the Indian Grave Gap Trail, mountain laurel was the constant, but with a new element thrown into the mix...flame azalea.  In several places there were blooms and buds in various shades of orange.  There were a few bushes with weather beaten blooms that were redder than the others as well.
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          A surprise came when I stumbled across a pair of pink lady's slippers close to the summit.  Of course it made sense to see them since the Ace Gap Trail from last week's hikes is located just downhill of Rich Mountain, but today's total was far less impressive.  As I passed by the places where the trail dances along the park boundary, I managed to have views north toward Townsend, though this time the land was in spring green and blue rather than the yellows, reds, oranges, and browns of autumn.  I made a quick stop by the site of the old firetower that used to sit upon Cerulean Knob.  Now only the large cement blocks of the foundation remain.  Imagine the views one could be afforded if it was still there.  I had reached my high point for the day, but I still had some ascending to do.
          The stretch of Indian Grave Gap Trail between the Rich Mountain Loop and the Rich Mountain Road, a little more than a mile, was something I hadn't hiked yet, so it was necessary to check it off the list.  It meant descending to the gravel one-way road, but then hiking back up to the loop trail.  When I reached the actual Indian Grave Gap, the trail conditions changed dramatically.  At the gap, there were the fruits of wild strawberry's, some still blooming sweet shrub, and daisies.  After the gap, I almost didn't recognize where I was.  The forest canopy disappeared with dead trees sticking out everywhere.  The trail was wide, dry, and sandy.  Grasses and brush were competing for space at ground level.  The good that came from it were the nice views down into the cove and south to the Smokies crest.  In time, I reached the road, guzzled some water, and headed back up.  When I returned to the area of unusual terrain, the air became instantly hot, humid, and heavy.  Wiping the sweat from my forehead became a pointless endeavor.  The look of the scorched and butchered forest combined with the climate made me feel like I was on an African safari during the dry season.  Getting back into the shade of the woods was welcome relief after that stretch.
          As soon as I reached the Rich Mountain Loop, it was all down the rest of the way.  Again, I found myself scanning over my surroundings, now all green, but imagining them in the collage of fall colors.  At one point I made a sharp turn to cross a small creek, coming face to face with a deer.  The doe was completely unphased by my presence, even after my abrupt arrival.  It continued to stand in the trail and search for food even as I stepped closer.  She refused to move, shooting me the occasional glance in between bites.  I could have jumped on her back if I was crazy enough, but I elected not to startle her and gave a simple wave for her to move to the side.  She gladly obliged, strutting off a couple yards to watch me pass.
          When I came out at the John Oliver Cabin, I assumed there would be masses of people everywhere, especially since it was a weekend and tourist activity in the park is on the rise.  A park volunteer appeared to be leading some sort of presentation on one of the porches for a crowd of people, while other visitors made their way in and around the cabin.  Amazingly, I was able to get in the arbitrary picture of the cabin during a brief a moment where no person could be seen.  Score!
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          Since I was in the open, I looked up and saw that the clouds were moving in fast and that rain was beginning to hit the mountains in the distance.  There was no time to linger, so speedily I went on to finish out the loop.  Before leaving the cove for the day, I had to stop by the campground store for some ice cream, nice after such a hot day.  The drive back to Gatlinburg was mostly uneventful, only one car jam for a bear.  Shortly after arriving at the motel, the heavy rains came in full force.  Looks like I timed everything just right this day.