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.
Took the time for an early morning jaunt out of Tremont up Panther Creek and down Lynn Camp Prong before returning to work.
One of the more beautiful and serene settings in the park, the Middle Prong Trail circles hikers right around the Lower Lynn Camp Prong Cascades.
After a good deal of ascending, I was grateful to arrive at Jakes Gap.
The Rosebay Rhododendron at the mid to upper elevations were adding beauty to the landscape much of the day.
The trip down Lynn Camp Prong was dotted with mud pits that required some fancy footwork on my part.
Looking back at the rickity old steel beam bridge over Thunderhead Prong.
I finally made my way out to the Albright Grove Loop to explore one of the park's sacred stands of old growth forest. Completed the remainder of the Maddron Bald Trail in the process and soared down Snake Den Ridge before the storms hit.
Peering up at one of the first in an overwhelming number of gargantuan Tulip Poplars along the lower reaches of Maddron Bald Trail.
One of the prettier stream crossings, this with a footbridge unlike those later in the hike.
A dead Hemlock still stands tall in Albright Grove. Most of the Hemlocks were dead, more were dying, and only a handful were still alive. A sad reality across the park.
Throughout the mid elevations of the hike, there was Rosebay Rhododendron as far as the eye could see, covering the mountains in white and pink puffs.
Standing atop an overlook a ways below Maddron Bald, looking out at two Sourwoods in bloom.
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's the third week of June, my favorite time of year in the Smokies because it means azalea time at Gregory Bald. This time I had the pleasure of sharing it with my dear Bonnie, her first ever visit to the beautiful mountain peak. With the flowers peaking and the prospect of storms all week, we elected to give it a go and see whatever we could before the weather turned sour. It paid off in the long run and in between heavy downpours I was able to fulfill the day's mission...asking Bonnie to marry me. So next to a bright orange bush under the cover of an oak tree, I got down on one knee and asked her to be mine. She said yes and their was much rejoicing. Then wind. Then rain. Then lightning. So we bolted to the woods and rode the river of a trail back down the mountain laughing and smiling the whole way.
The famous Flame Azaleas were at their peak upon our arrival, but the oncoming storms were about to leave their mark.
Bonnie crouches under an azalea bush to shield herself from the rain, scrambling to secure her belongings and add layers.
Usually one of the first to drop their blooms, I was surprised at how well the white hybrids were doing this late in the bald's overall display.
We were fortunate to be able to enjoy the wildflowers, I guess the views will have to wait til next year.
The trek down the mountain saw us both get completely soaked from head to toe. Our boots and socks were water logged, so we chucked them into the truck bed as soon as we finished.
With everything blooming on the early side this year, we decided to hit up Andrews Bald on a morning before returning to work. It turned out to be a good choice since the rhododendron were already on their way out.
When we arrived at Clingmans Dome we found ourselves above the clouds.
Despite the dry conditions of the past two weeks, the Catawba Rhododendron that were protected by the woods were in peak bloom.
The atmospheric conditions were stellar to say the least.
One of the golden Flame Azaleas found near the bottom edge of the bald.
A demanding loop hike that saw me accumulate some new miles in the process of returning to a favorite destination near Cataloochee.
Flame Azalea and Mountain Laurel were out in full force along the Blue Ridge Parkway making for a spectacular drive.
Peering down the staircase inside the old Woody House.
My first ever trip to the depths of Cataloochee.
Watching a storm cell pass by a few miles away to the south from the comfort of Gooseberry Knob.
Fields of gold atop Hemphill Bald.
Several patches of Wild Columbine were still blooming strong along the trail back to Polls Gap.
I finally found the ambition to knock out the entire Old Settlers Trail from near Cosby to Greenbrier.
A side trail lead to the unique Tyson McCarter Barn.
One of several massive rock walls marking the locations of old settlements.
The Galax and Partridgeberry were dominating the ground cover most of the way.
Anytime I scaled the nose of a ridge I would come across some of the most impressive displays of Mountain Laurel I've ever seen, lining the trail and filling the canopy with solid pink and white.
We were in the mood for a return trip to Mount Cammerer to see how it looked with so much more spring greenery than in April.
The Catawba Rhododendron were beginning to bloom along the crest of Mount Cammerer.
Shortly after our arrival, the clouds enveloped the tower, but not before we could snag some great views of the park's east side.