A daunting yet beautiful climb up Gunter Fork turns hairy when I stumble across a trio of fresh landslides, causing me to change my plans on the fly. Instead of an up and back hike, I circled around to Mount Sterling and back down to Big Creek.
The deep green waters of Midnight Hole were very appealing to jump in. I would look to take a dip on the return trip when it would get super hot.
Here's a look at the location of Midnight Hole in relation to the waters of Big Creek.
Gunter Fork is the only trail in the park that possesses such a sign, and for good reason.
The deepest crossing was the first at Big Creek, with water rising above my knees. And that was with streams at low water. This picture is one of many crossings of Gunter Fork, one of the easier ones at that. Some were over boulder fields, others through log jams, and a few required tip-toeing the edges of small waterfalls.
For much of the way the trail follows its namesake stream. There was a great deal of evidence of recent flash floods with Gunter Fork overriding its banks to flood the trail and low lying areas.
About 100 feet below the trail sits a magnificent pool along Gunter Fork fed by a peaceful cascade. The pool is deeper, more serene, and obviously more isolated than the very popular Midnight Hole.
This is Gunter Fork at low levels, but you can see much more ground it covers after heavy rains and snow melts. To say it's a beast of a stream would be an understatement.
Standing at the base of Gunter Fork Cascade which sits before the last of the stream crossings. At this point it was starting to sprinkle, and with all the signs of recent and potential flooding, I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to come back this way.
Here's a look up at the tall expanse of Gunter Fork Cascade.
Everything changed about a half mile before the junction with Balsam Mountain. I stumbled upon a massive landslide that wiped out the trail and the rest of the major drainage. From what I could gather, it was a recent slide that probably happened within the last week due to the great deal of rain we've been getting. There were no signs along the way giving hikers warning, so it was safe to assume the park service knew nothing about it, and the I was the first to discover it. To try and go directly across the slide to reach the trail was impossible because the dirt pack was as slick as ice.
This is the view from trail's edge looking directly down the slide. The drainage wraps around the corner so I couldn't tell exactly where the massive pile up of dirt, rock, and trees would be. I had to weigh my options. Since I had to come ten miles just to get here, and only had a half mile to go, I began to look for a way up and around the slide. Where the earth gave way was but a hundred feet above the trail, but it didn't go all the way to the top of the ridge. So I deliberated one last time about turning around, then decided to bushwack my way up to the ridge, across, then back down through some of the thickest rhododendron you ever did see. I took me about forty five minutes to complete. It wasn't the most pleasant bushwack I've ever done, and it cost me the screen of my phone. Oops. I dusted off, gathered my thoughts, then pressed on. Amazingly, I came across a second slide, this one about fifteen yards across. It was as steep and fresh as the first, but there were more rocks sticking out of the earth to offer good footholds. I made it halfway out before I had to turn up the slide then bushwack down through the woods. Guess what? The fun didn't stop there, because I came to find yet another slide. This one being the smallest of the three at all but ten yards across. It was much broader and was an easy walk straight across. I finally arrived at the junction with Balsam Mountain in a daze of frustration and exhaustion. I ate some food and sat down for a bit thinking the situation over. There was no way I was going back that way to Big Creek, so I chose to add a few more miles and circle around Mount Sterling Ridge and down Baxter Creek. It lengthened my day but I knew it would be safer, especially if rain was in the forecast. Apart from the slides, Gunter Fork was overgrown with nettles and other thorny tangles that clawed me up. The trail was eroding in places, and there were numerous blowdowns. My suggestion to the park service as soon as I could reach them would be to close the trail for sure.
It took a while, and was not where I was expecting to end up today, but I made a trip to Mount Sterling none the less. Not much in the way of views, but it felt nice to sit up top and feel the cool breeze and relax. I needed it after a day like that.
I knew coming into this week that my hikes would entail a lot of elevation gain and loss. Many of my hikes do, but most have been over four or five days across many miles if you include the commute up and down Alum Cave. This week only involved two trails outside of Alum Cave, and less total distance. Today, I would be tackling the Low Gap Trail, one of the park's steeper sustained ascents, so I had my work cut out for me.
The terrain was different compared to when I was here a month prior. There were no wildflowers growing down low, just green brush and saplings. Since I was so concerned about maintaining a good cadence on such a climb, I never stopped for pictures. The more time I spend in the mountains, the more in tune I become with the air and my ability to travel very long distances without needing to catch my breath, drink water, or have a snack. I was curious to see how I would hold up climbing Low Gap out of Cosby. Without ever really breaking a sweat, I managed to cross the gap in fifty minutes without stopping, a testament to my physical conditioning. Low Gap looked so strange this time around. There was little sunlight. The spring beauties, white fringed phacelia, trout lilies, and violets were all gone and replaced with tall overgrown brush. The forest was thick and dark. Certainly not nearly as impressive a sight as it was a month ago. The worst of the up was behind me, and it was time to drop down the other side.
The southern leg of the Low Gap Trail takes one down a steep and rocky path for about two miles before leveling out near Walnut Bottom. Obviously the less popular half of the trail, it isn't as wide and already overgrown with grasses and brambles in many places. When I reached Walnut Bottom, you could hear the roar of the nearby Big Creek. Between the campsites, the trail is that of an old roadbed and easy on the feet. The trees that grew trailside were noticably tall and proud.
I would follow the creek for the next few miles as I made my gradual ascent up toward Camel Gap. Everything about the creek is big. It is wide, the boulders are large, and the various falls, cascades, and slides are bigger than average. The trail reminded me a lot of the upper part of the Little River Trail...narrow, overgrown, paralleling the creek, flies buzzing around your face, and relatively flat terrain. Along the way I almost stepped on a foot and half long snake. I've noticed that I almost step on snakes a lot. Of all the places, they have to sun themselves right in the middle of the trail. I knew it wasn't any threat to me, so I took his picture then watched him slither back into the brush.
Much of the climb up to Camel Gap was monotonous until the it leaves creek and swings to the northeast. At one point, the trees make room for mountain laurel, catawba rhododendron and an open view to the green and blue wall that is Balsam Mountain. Luftee Knob stands front and center along a ridge that extends over to TriCorner Knob and the towering Mount Guyot, both just in sight. It was nice to finally reach the AT at Camel Gap because it meant I was on a maintained trail, break from all the grasses, nettles, and other junk most of the way up. From here to Cosby Knob, the trail follows much of the ridgecrest covered in ferns. I was impressed by the long and dense patches of false solomon's seal still blooming. They were more abundant here and with bigger blooms compared to what I had come across elsewhere in the park.
After a quick lunch at the Cosby Knob Shelter, it would be all downhill the rest of the way. I completed the loop when I reached Low Gap and began my descent down to Cosby. Things got real interesting about a mile down, when I rounded a corner and came face to face with two yearling bears. At the onset of me, one of sprinted uphill and out of sight. The other one didn't move, his eyes fixated on me. Reaching for my camera was the furthest thing from my mind. I began the process of going through all the steps one should take to stave off a bear. I began yelling, clapping, waving my arms, standing tall to give an impression of dominance. The fuzzy bear did nothing but remain on the trail. Thankfully, on Low Gap Trail, there are a lot of rocks lying around, so I grabbed several and started throwing them close to but not at the bear. I wanted to spook him away, not aggravate him. He didn't budge, so I threw closer. Still nothing. So I said what the heck, maybe he needs a few shots to get the hint. One rock hit him in the side, then a second, and a third right on his forehead. The silly thing didn't even flinch. I began to laugh, and I'm sure he already was. The next item I could use in my arsenal was my backpack, so I took it off and began waving it around in the air combined with more yelling. FINALLY, he trotted up the hill a few feet. He was still close by and watched my every move. I kept my eyes on him as I crab stepped down the trail, holding my pack in one arm like a shield, and in my other hand, a sharp and shiny item that I hope I wouldn't have to use in case he charged. I made it by without a fuss and left him in the dust. I held onto a few rocks the rest of the way down in case I ran into some of his friends. An interesting finish to another great hike in the park.
Thus comes the end of May. It has been a month that exceeded my every expectation. And now comes June, when the mountain laurel, flame azalea, and rhododendron kick into high gear. I'm looking forward to some great hikes, expanding my horizons deeper into North Carolina, all leading up to the culmination at Gregory Bald. Until next time, Happy Memorial Day to all!