If you remember from my first trip to Hemphill Bald, I was blown away by what I saw and experienced. So of course, I had expectations coming into this hike, a return trip to the bald that would have coming in from the west side. Starting from Polls Gap along the Heintooga Ridge Road, I originally thought I would make a loop hike out Rough and Caldwell Forks and finish off Hemphill Bald, heading clockwise. Since the weather called for a strong chance of afternoon storms, I figured it would be best to reverse my direction of travel and hit the bald in the morning while the skies and views were in my favor. It also meant than I would end my hike on a climb up Rough Fork instead of the level walk across the western portion of Cataloochee Divide.
For the first few miles, not much was blooming, a vast change from my hike in early June. Occasionally I would come to small clearings that sported coneflower, pale jewelweed, and turk's cap lilies. Most of the liles had already bloomed and faded, a little disappointing, and a sign of the early summer blooming schedule this year. Once again, I was following a wooden fence the entire way that separated the park from the Cataloochee Ranch to the south. The closer I got to reaching the slopes of Hemphill Bald, I began to see a lot of Fly Poison in bloom, their white and green clusters forming a puffy wand around the stem of the plant.
What made my June hike along the Cataloochee Divide so great were all the crazy surprises. The views, the wildlife, the nicely furnished lawn chairs and hammock on a grassy bald. Well, this time it came when I stepped out of the woods and stood face to face with a herd of cattle. I'm not sure who was more surprised to see who. At least we were separated by a small barbwire fence, but I could have reached out and pulled on their ear tags if I wanted. They watched my every move trying to figure out if they should be scared, charge, or just ignore me. It was just so random to see. One expects to see a deer, bear, snake, or bugs, but how often are you looking off into the woods for cattle? Exactly my point. So I chuckled, took some pics, and carried on. I would pass a few more groups of the big black bulls grazing, but most enjoying the shade of the surrounding forest.
About a mile before reaching the summit of Hemphill Bald, the ranch opens up into long grassy fields that parallel the trail. Wildflowers also began to appear in bunches as well. Tall bellflower, starry campion, coneflower, red bee balm, turk's cap lilies, great mullein, common buttercup, mountain mint, fly poison, and pale jewelweed crowded the edge of the woods to harness the sun's rays. The swallowtail butterflies were in their glory, moving from bloom to bloom, sometimes two or three sharing one blossom at a time.
It took an eternity to reach the summit since I was constantly stopping to take pictures, but I finally managed to get there. The views were much hazier and cloudier compared to the clear blue skies from early June. The bald itself still had some common buttercup gracing the hillsides, but the rest of it was more parched from the sun and appetites of cattle.
As I headed down the eastern side of the bald, I took note of more differences from my first trip. There were more of the wildflowers previously mentioned, replacing the flame azalea and mountain laurel that skirted the forest's edge. Due to the grazing cattle and summer heat, the grasses were either eaten or trampled, so they no longer waved in the wind like they did when they were tall, green, and fresh from spring growth. I was still amazed at the site of cattle, constantly looking back up the slopes of the bald to admire the meaty creatures. I soon arrived at Double Gap, but instead of taking the Cataloochee Divide east, I would be looking to complete my loop hike, which meant heading downhill to the south along the remainder of the Hemphill Bald Trail.
Immediately after leaving Double Gap, the trail conditions worsened. It was more overgrown in places, the ground muddy and rocky, and the footing treacherous. Since it's a horse trail, it gets destroyed easily and requires some intense maintenance. This section was also entirely downhill, so there were a couple places where I was nervous about taking the wrong step on a loose rock or sliding in the mud. There were no wildflowers blooming, but only the occasional berries from umbrella leaf.
It was nice to reach the junction with Caldwell Fork because it meant the horrible downhill was behind me and now I was in for some level walking on a wide path. This section from here to the split with Big Fork Ridge is muddy in places, but much smoother on the feet compared to the rocks and roots of Hemphill Bald Trail. The black and yellow swallowtails were also out in full force, hundreds at a time in their conglomerations on the trail or soaring through the air. When I doubled back and returned to the junction with Hemphill Bald I caught sight of a tall evening primrose. Now I continue on my counterclockwise journey back to Polls Gap. At first the climb is gradual, passing a campsite and crossing some creeks. Before it really starts to climb, their is a sign pointing out two massive tulip poplars. I took the spur trail through the woods to the base of the bohemoths. One was dead and severed in half, for how long I'm not sure, but the closer was still growing strong. Its diameter far greater than my wingspan. Having such large and beautiful trees still flourishing in the park, spared by the logging industries, is such a nice treat. They help put things in perspective in terms of time. Things have been happening here for a long time, well before me or anyone else. They demonstrate the grandeur of the wilderness, but also its delicacy. Their preservation is but a small piece to maintaining the majesty and wonder of the park. When I took a step back, I saw how all other trees dwarfed in comparison, just showing how impressive the mighty tulip is.
On my way back to the main trail, I saw a team of three horses heading downhill, their kicking of rocks echoing through the trees. They were most likely headed back to Cataloochee, and too bad that wasn't my direction of travel or a I might have asked one rider for a pick-me-up. Now the climb really started to kick into gear. This section of Caldwell Fork would be the steepest, combined with the fact that the heat and humidity was oppressive. Storms could be heard building in the distance as a result. Along the climb I spotted a handful of black-eyed susans in full bloom as well as some goldenrods.
By the time I reached the junction with Rough Fork, I was a soaking wet mess, the hot air and killer climb the culprits. Unfortunately the climbing for the day was not over, for I still had a mile of steep ascending before it leveled out. After a short snack and water break, the rain started to trickle, but nothing was penetrating the forest canopy yet. Around the time I hit the ridgeline it began to downpour and rainwater was reaching my level. The trail instantly became a river causing me to hop and skip around for better footing that wouldn't soak my boots. I didn't even bother to pullout my raincoat because the shower was such a welcome relief. It's coolness and washing away of the stinky sweat actually made for a pleasant last few miles. I have no pictures from this part of the hike because I packed my camera for its protection, so only visual memories to share. Rough Fork Trail is attached to Balsam Mountain, which is appropriately named, because the majority of this trail that follows the ridge is lined with balsam firs, quite different than most hikes I've been on in the park.
As soon as I completed the loop hike and stepped out at Polls Gap, the rain had ceased and the sun shined brightly. What timing! It didn't take long for it to heat up again as well. My drive back down Heintooga Ridge and the Blue Ridge Parkway was pleasant. When I stopped in Cherokee to get some gas, the brief thunderstorm came over and drenched the area. Some cars were hydroplaning in the pourly drained roadways. As soon as entered the park it had ended and the drive over Newfound Gap saw the sun's return. But of course, shortly after I arrived at my motel, another powerful storm hit the mountains, soaking the city and apparently pounding Mt. LeConte with hail. That's summer for ya!
I was originally going to do the hike out of Smokemont up Bradley Fork the last time I was down, but since I didn't know if the work was completed at the campground, I chose to swap it with the Deep Creek hike and shorten the drive. Whether that was a good decision or not is yet to play out. Depends on if and when the park decides to clean up the Deep Creek Trail and what I end up seeing along today's hike. Regardless, any day in the park is a good day.
The morning drive across Newfound Gap and into North Carolina saw views that were cloudy and quite hazy. The forecast called for a chance of showers and thunderstorms this week, but I couldn't let that hold me back. Oddly enough, when I passed by the upper trailhead for Deep Creek, the park trail maintenance crew had just arrived. Wow, how convenient. Only a week late, or I was just a week early. I would still be hiking ahead of them anyways in what would probably be even more overgrown trail conditions, so I say I hit it at the better time. Rolling into the Smokemont campground, one could tell normalcy had returned, for the entire place was full of campers, trailers, tents, and people all enjoying their summer in the mountains. I was just glad the thing was open again so that I could access the trailheads.
The climb up Bradley Fork was enjoyable the whole way. Early on I was greeted by a clearing dotted with various wildflowers that included wild bergamot, the pink variation of bee balm, spiderwort, Queen Anne's lace, blackberries, asters, and evening primrose. The trail itself follows an old roadbed, so it's wide and well graded. It is also quite pleasant as it runs parallel to the waters of the Bradley Fork, sometimes at the same level, so you're afforded nice shots of the stream. Later on I passed some of the yellow fringed orchids like the ones I saw a week prior on Pole Road Creek. Toward the latter half of Bradley Fork Trail, you come to several stream crossings over wide bridges, obviously meant for horses or vehicles. The last bridge is the most interesting, it being an enclosed metal and wooden one with gravel at your feet. Quite fancy compared to most in the park. And the view overlooking the river on either side of the bridge was nice as well.
At this point I have left the Bradley Fork Trail and turned uphill on the much narrower path of Cabin Flats. This section of trail is brief, leading to a vast streamside campsite in a mile and serving as a buffer between the Bradley Fork and Dry Sluice Gap Trails. Before reaching the campsite I stumbled some tall bellflower, a new one to add to the list. When I reached trail's end at the site, I didn't stay long since the annoying bugs that buzz around one's face were out in full force, so the only solution was to keep moving.
When I returned to the junction with Dry Sluice Gap it was time to head uphill, but no longer the smooth ascent I had up til that point. Now I would climb 2,200 feet in 2.8 miles. Compare that to the popular Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte which gains about 2,500 feet in 5.0 miles. So as you can see the hardest part of the day was still in front of me. The heat only added to the adversiy. The trail conditions weren't all the bad, only a few parts being overgrown or rocky. Near the end of the climb, the trail ventured through a wet and shaded ravine blanketed in coneflower, crimson red bee balm, love vine, and sweet joe pye-weed. I did all I could to not disturb the buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies as I pushed through the overgrown path.
The higher I got in elevation I could see the ridges of the AT and upper Richland Mountain, but much of the sky was clouded over and gray. I was also getting the occasional breeze up from the valley which felt wonderful on such a hot day. I finally pulled into the junction with the Grassy Branch Trail which comes up from the western side of Richland Mountain, and a way I ventured up back in mid May in a loop hike past Charlies Bunion. Of course this time, I had no intention of going even further to reach the AT, so this intersection would be my turnaround. Thankfully it would be all downhill from this point on. I moved at a blistering pace, rarely stopping for pictures so that I could make it back to Gatlinburg to spend as much time as I could with friends and family that were visiting for the week. That also meant some quality time relaxing in the pool where we were all staying, and on such a hot afternoon after a good hike, one can't think of anything much better.
I was originally planning to hike up from Smokemont along Bradley Fork and finish out what I left to do on Dry Sluice Gap Trail, but since I forgot to check the status of the construction projects at the Smokemont campground, I had a change of heart. I decided to postpone that hike and switch it with one I had planned for the end of this month, a long venture down Deep Creek. It also meant less driving in the crazy summer tourist traffic. I was adamant about getting an early start this time, and the drive up and over Newfound Gap was a treat. I had gone above the clouds that now filled in the lower valleys and the bright morning sunshine lit up the green and blue slopes of North Carolina. One thing I've noticed in all my trips to this side of the park is that the lighting for pictures from the various overlooks is best in the morning. The opposite is true for the Tennessee side, especially at places like Campbell Overlook and below Chimney Tops, were late afternoon light is preferrable. One of my favorite lookouts is just past the trailhead for Deep Creek Trail where one gets a vast panoramic view of the Thomas Divide and Deep Creek Valley.
Today's hike would entail much less elevation change and the further down one goes, the easier the trail grade becomes. That was about the only bright spot of the day's hike. As the trail started down the mountian, there were numerous switchbacks. I thought I was back in the Grand Canyon again. Occasionally there would be nice patches of coneflower and crimson red bee balm, a tad weather beaten from yesterday's late afternoon showers. The first portion of the hike up to the junction with Fork Ridge Trail wasn't all that exciting. There were a few overgrown areas and one downed tree that required some time, but not much else going on.
It was after this trail junction when the adventure began. It became instantly clear that this section of trail sees little use or has poor standing with trail maintenance, despite the many campgrounds in the vicinity. The bushwacking was frequent and arduous, having to push through nettles, raspberries, rhododendron, and many others. And since it had rained recently, the leaves on everything were still holding water. It didn't take long for me to become soaking wet. And since the trail is low lying and parallels the creek much of the way, it covers muddy terrain. Having to navigate the numerous mud pits was a real treat. Sometimes you think you'd be stepping on a rock or log, only to find your boot sinking down into the squishy brown goo. The many rock hops and stream crossings only added to the madness. At times the trail would swing so close to the river...well, in fact you were in the river, having to guess at which boulders made up the actual trail. In some instances you had a rock wall or thick brush on one side, and rushing water on the other, with only a narrow and eroding trail to follow. Any pace I was setting had disappeared because this stretch took an eternity.
Eventually I started passing up the many campsites, almost all of them a half mile apart. I also came to the point where I made my turnaround yesterday with Pole Road Creek. Now I was on the other side of the washed out bridge looking across. It gave me a different look at the creek, but it still made me feel good about my decision not to cross the first time.
I could have stopped here, but it was only 0.8 miles more til the next junction, so I chose to press on. Surprisingly, the trail conditions improved!!! The trail was wider, there was less brush, less mud, and several boardwalks had been installed. Not to mention the grade was relatively flat here on out. I arrived at the last campsite near the junction, had a bite to eat, and dreaded having to go back through that mess of a trail, but I had no choice. So I packed away the camera and decided that I would just churn the legs and bulldoze through what ever stood in my way. Sure it meant some more scrapes and getting re-soaked, but at least it would end faster. I roared on like a man possessed, sometimes averaging more than a 4 mph pace. Luckily the sun was shining and the skies were clear, so I was able to dry out faster once I got by the Fork Ridge junction. Not the most pleasant of hikes, but it certainly was an adventure and I'm glad for the experience. I'm just not in any hurry to do it again any time soon!
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.
July has arrived and so has the heat of summer. The park and the valley have seen some scorching weather, and now the trails are starting to fill in with dense greenery. I'll start to plan hikes higher in elevation as an attempt to avoid the heat. But not this week. I had the privilege of participating in good friend, Matt Ayre's wedding, all the way up in Pennsylvania! It was the first time I had been north of the Mason-Dixon and away from the mountains in several months. I met up with my parents again and we were able to find some time to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park. I hadn't been there in over a decade, and the entire area is so surreal. This was the anniversary week of the famous battle, and we managed to take the walk of Pickett's Charge across the open field, a two mile roundtrip hike...though I can't count those miles.
As more friends and family arrived, we were crazy enough to pay a visit to Chocolate World at Hershey the morning of the wedding. Oh my, if you have a sweet tooth and walk in on an empty stomach, you could easily spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on all the different kinds of chocolate madness. I got enough for me to bring back to the mountains and enjoy. The wedding itself was a joyous occasion, with a beautiful ceremony and an eventful evening reception. Congratulations to Matt and Charity and may their years together be blessed. It was great to see and catch up with friends and family, but it didn't take long for me to get that itch to return to the mountains.