By condensing two originally planned hikes into one, I completed a roundabout 25 mile trek in the shape of an "M" from the Tunnel to Nowhere, up and around Springhouse Branch, ascending Noland Creek, then strolling down the Divide to Deep Creek. A long haul but well worth it!
The day's hike began with the long walk down the dark, damp tunnel...
It is the season for many mushrooms, some crazier looking than others. This massive red one was about the size of a basketball, found along the crest of Forney Ridge.
Looking back at one of the first crossings of Noland Creek. The cool waters were refreshing to the feet!
One of the park's more unique flowers in my opinion, the Yellow Gerardia was coming out in force along the Noland Divide.
Looking down the knife edge spine of the Noland Divide from the Lonesome Pine Overlook. I was blown away when I got there, for this overlook may just be one of the most impressive in the entire park, but so little known.
A brief video I took in an attempt to give justice to the grandeur of Lonesome Pine.
My drive back across the park was enhanced by a bright rainbow that stretched form the base of Mount Ambler to the Thomas Divide. I was able to drive under it then circle back around it. By the time I took this picture from Newfound Gap, the colors were starting to fade.
It had been three weeks since my last adventure in the park. Obviously the only hiking I managed to get in during that time were my default trips up and down Alum Cave (one time carrying a wash tub on July 4th...check out highonleconte.com), a few strolls around the mountain some afternoons, and really only one lengthy day hike just two days ago out to Charlies Bunion. Otherwise, my weekly average for miles plummeted and the legs were getting dusty. So I was incredibly anxious to get back on track and start cranking out new miles.
The majority of my hikes from here on out will be spent tackling the North Carolina side of the park. If you were to color in the trails that I've done overall, you would see the Tennessee very full and the NC side very blank. With this week's hikes, that's about to change. Anytime my family would ever drive up the Clingmans Dome Road, one would always see the sign for the Noland Divide Trail of to the left, leading off into the woods, shrouded in mystery. I've been aching to hit this trail for ages, and now was a great time. Like I said, my long distance hiking as of late was lacking, as was my usual push for an early morning start, in which I decided to sleep in. The weather forecast called for a chance of storms, but the radar showed everything still a ways to the north.
The drive up the recently renovated Clingmans Dome Road was a delight. In between the breaks of clouds rocketing over the main ridge one was afforded clear views into the valleys below. Plus the roadside was continually lined with large, dense patches of crimson red bee balm and coneflower in peak bloom. When I pulled into the trailhead, it was somewhat cloudy but pleasantly cool. What would make today's hike so different was that I would begin by descending and finish with all up, the total elevation change being about 3,500 feet. Typically one goes up to a point and the returns by heading back downhill, so I was curious to see how I would handle such circumstances.
The beginning of the trail followed an old roadbed, now heavily overgrown with grasses and thick patches of heal all in bloom. The grass was still wet so my legs were getting soaked right from the get go. At an S-curve in the trail, I passed by what looked to be an abandoned radio tower. Just the way randomly appeared in the woods reminded of a scene in the TV show Lost. It had a taken a beating, with several massive blowdowns falling into and around it. One tall stag had gone straight into the side of it and was tangled somewhere close to the top, while others had smashed in the base and surrounding chain link fence.
The first couple miles of the trail that followed the upper reaches of the ridge were abundant with blowdowns. The trail itself was clear of down trees, evidenced but the numerous fresh cuts made by the park's maintenance crews. But as for the surrounding forest, it nearly looked like I was walking through a war zone or a region slammed by a hurricane. Massive heaps of lumber were all around, most of which were the dead or dying hemlocks, probably unable to hold up against the many strong winds storms that struck the park this past winter and spring.
The trail was occasionally overgrown with brush and those annoying nettles, but nothing that would slow me down. The grade of the descent and smoothness of the trail was especially gratifying, which goes a long way when you've got a lot of miles ahead of you. The first few miles also saw the berries of yellow bead lily coming to fruition in greens and blues.
When I reached the junction with Pole Road Creek, it was time for more downhill. Immediately I was stunned by number of different wildflowers in bloom. Wide leaved sunflowers, yellow gerardia, yellow fringed orchids, sweet joe pye weed, carolina lilies, starry campion, rattlesnake plantain, mountain mint, white asters, and the bright red berries of trillium. The experience reminded me of my trip up Scott Mountain Trail back in April, when I came in with low expectations but was blown away by what I saw. Pole Road Creek is an isolated area of the park, so I bet that plays into it. Two of these wildflowers were of particular interest. Now if you look through my wildflower page and see two pictures that look identical, you'll probably say, "Uh oh, John's losing his mind!" On the contrary I say. The notable difference between the carolina lily and the turk's cap lily is simple. Carolina lilies have only one to four blooms at the top, while the turk's cap lilies have many blooms that spread up and down the entire stem of the plant, plus the bloom has a greenish star at the center. So there ya go! Another plant of interest was the mountain mint, with blooms similar to that of the basil and red bee balm. But as the name describes, the plant's uniqueness comes in its fragrance. If you rub your fingers on the leaves, you stir up the smell of mint. So every time I passed by this plant I would always get a wiff of the minty goodness.
There were several stretches along Pole Road Creek where I had to rock hop over creeks of all widths and depths. It seemed like there were close to a dozen, some hairier than others. I didn't have my trekking poles so that made it interesting as well. Eventually I came out alongside Deep Creek. One problem, the way to get across had decided to take a leave of absence. There I was at water's edge staring at a broken and half missing foot bridge. One chunk had been tied up and pulled to shore on the opposite side. The rest I imagined got lambasted in some washout a while back and the park hasn't gotten around to rebuilding it. The water was deep and moving swiftly, and I didn't have the right gear to wade across. Luckily this was where my trail ended, so really no harm done, just that my picture of the junction sign would require some camera zoom.
After a quick snack, it was time to head back up. The weather was still nice, but I had no idea what the status was on the approaching storms, so I hoofed it. The rock hopping was quite an adventure the second time around since you get a different perspective of how to get across. Sometimes you find better ways, other times you have to take different ways because what you did the first time was insane. Anyways, I made it past all of them without a fuss. The only fuss was having to go back through all those overgrown sections and the nettles. By the end of the hike I looked like I had gone through a meat cleaver.
Despite some of the crazy trail conditions, it was still a very enjoyable hike. I would highly recommend the upper portion of the Noland Divide to those of you looking for something new, but I would do it when it is not overgrown. Say early spring or in the fall after a frost. Plus you might be afforded some views when the trees don't have their leaves.