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!



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