Journal about loop hike out of Twentymile to Gregory Bald coming soon!
A small cascade and pool near one of several stream crossings along Wolf Ridge.
Still some strong color showing during the ascent up Wolf Ridge.
A sign marking the summit and remnants of Parson Bald.
Autumn on Gregory Bald is quite a different scene than the vibrant wildflower explosion of late spring.
Crystal clear views over Cades Cove to the north.
The leaves and buds will have to endure the winter before they can dazzle our eyes in June.
Continuing the streak of fabulous firetower hikes, this time up and over Shuckstack toward Doe Knob and accompanied by Bonnie; thus, completing the 72.6 miles of Appalachian Trail in the Smokies.
Ketchup and Mustard were seen all the way up from Fontana.
Even inside the firetower, the chilling winds found their way in...Exhibit A: Bonnie.
Upon leaving the tower for the first time, a few deer pass underneath.
Ta da!!! Reaching the AT junction at Doe Knob having hiked all of the AT within the Smokies! Thanks Bonnie for taking the pic!
Imagine hearing the crunching of leaves underfoot, then the rattles of a 3 foot long Timber Rattlesnake. Luckily, a few yards off the trail and not interested in us, but we wisely chose not to linger and warned hikers heading that direction.
Our second visit to the firetower proved gratifying, as views over Lake Fontana were much clearer and the waters sparkling.
I had to admit, the weather for this week was looking phenomenal. I already had two great days in the park soaking up grand views and fantastic fall foliage. Today was calling for some clouds and rain throughout the morning and early afternoon, but even then it was going to clear off. On top of that, the next two days were looking great as well. No room to complain this week! It's such a great time of year to be in the park, so even with the unfavorable weather conditions today, I still wanted to get something out of it. I also wanted to be able to cover all corners of the park while the changing colors were at their peak. My instincts told me to take the drive across the park, east on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and make my way up, down, and around the one-way Balsam Mountain Road. I would also get in a few short hikes along the way, just to wet my whistle.
The rain that night had done a bad number on the upper elevations around Newfound Gap. Whatever leaves were clinging to the trees before it came were now ripped off with authority. There weren't any views from the various overlooks traveling through the park either. Down lower, the colors were still in decent shape, just a little soggy. As I made my way up the Blue Ridge Parkway, I managed to find one overlook with a view beneath the clouds. I could see the slopes extending from the Balsam Mountain range with patches of color. I also took notice of the fine color display in my immediate vicinity.
Now, the last time I made the drive along Balsam Mountain, it resulted in a great deal of frustration. I made sure to check both online and over the phone to find out if the road would idneed be open upon my arrival. Sure enough, the gate was wide open and inviting. The clouds still socked everything in, so there were no views at the moment. I didn't mind because the rain had ceased along with the wind. It was actually a neat experience to drive along a high mountain road through the clouds. The unpaved road was blanketed in shades of yellow and orange from the recently battered foliage.
A ways out, I came to the pull-off for the Spruce Mountain Trail. The park recognizes and maintains but a half mile of this trail. There used to be a firetower at its summit, but the path to get there has been left to nature. It also connects to the northern end of the Polls Gap Trail at a campsite, but that too is closed because of blowdowns and erosion. As short as this trail is, it doesn't shy away from gaining a chunk of elevation. About halfway up, I came to a point where the forest was in transition from summer to fall. If I looked downhill, the vegetation was entirely green and the path muddy. When I did a 180 degree turn and lookedu phill, the trees were suddenly bright with yellow and the ground was covered in a collage of colors. It was such a sharp and unique contrast in that one small pocket of the woods. When I scaled the ridge, there were a few junctions, the first one leading left and uphill to the old tower. I needed to at least go to the campsite which was a few tenths further. Before arriving there, I passed a sign describing the status of the Polls Gap Trail. Needless to say, my surroundings gave merit to the trail's closure because massive were down and tangled everywhere. It looked like a war zone to be honest. From what I could see, there were dozens of blowdowns and dense brush overtaking the forgotten trail. After visiting the campsite, I was interested in taking the old path up to the summit. There was a large blowdown at that junction as well, blocking the turn, but I could see past it and the trail was obvious. I was intrigued, so I decided to follow it. There was a lot of crawling, climbing, pushing, and pulling through all of the trees and saplings.
By the end, I was drenched because of the rainwater sticking to the leaves. Through it all, I never lost site of the trail. I eventually reached the summit, looked around, and headed back. It would be neat if there was still a tower here to offer rare views into this area of the park. It was nice to reach the maintained trail and no longer have to fight through obstructions. When I returned to the road, I looked around first and admired the scenery and enjoyed the solitude.
I dried off before hopping back into the vehicle, then continued north along the one-way road. Along the way, the clouds were beginning to break and sunlight was passing through the gaps intermittently. It appeared the day was about to get a whole lot better. I reached the trailhead of Balsam Mountain Trail, the very spot I was hoping to begin back in early September. So I had a 2.3 mile stretch to do, and with the weather improving, I was very excited to see it through. There is a bit of elevation gain this way to Beech Gap, but not nearly as much as coming up from Round Bottom along the gap's namesake trail. The forest canopy was bare for the most part, but every so often I would look up and find a big beauty. One that really stood out was loaded with bright red leaves near Ledge Bald. At that point the clouds had all but dissipated. The sun was high and bright, and the blue sky served as a sweet backdrop for the lingering fall color.
The trail continues to scale the gently sloping ridge of Ledge Bald. With all of the trees stripped of their leaves, the area appeared very open. A lot of light was shining in now, like it would in April and May when wildflowers bloom along the ground but the trees are yet to fill in. You could catch glimpses of nearby ridges and peaks through the trees. The entire bald on down to Beech Gap was covered thick in white snakeroot. It was no longer blooming, but I remember what it looked like at that very gap a month and half ago. You had to fight through it at points because it grew in so thick. Ledge Bald is rather extensive as it twists around the spine of Balsam Mountain. Not nearly as famous as the park's other maintained balds, but I still found it special.
After the bald, the trail drops rapidly into Beech Gap. You lose the views and find yourself surrounded by more firs than before. I had filled in this gap on the map, so I didn't need to go any further. I reminisced for a moment then turned right around. The weather continued to improve the rest of the way. I made it back to my vehicle and would spend the rest of the afternoon driving around. My hiking for the day was done. I followed the one-way road down toward Straight Fork and out toward Cherokee. Another corner of the park seen and thoroughly enjoyed this autumn.
Journal about my hike to kickoff the week of fall color at its finest up and across the Mount Sterling Ridge coming soon!
The crunching of freshly fallen leaves underfoot accompanied much of the hike.
At this elevation there's less foliage and more firs and spruces covering the ridges.
Autumn is in high gear on the slopes of Mount Cammerer, tomorrow's destination!
It had been a few days since I had done any hiking. Of course, last Saturday I put on enough miles for the whole month, so some rest and recovery was well deserved. I was able to see my family and friends off on Sunday as they made their return back to Michigan. It was also great to see Bonnie for a brief moment later that afternoon before she made her way back up to the lodge. Interestingly enough, Sunday night saw the first snowfall in the park since early May. A few inches piled up at the upper elevations while those of us down below and in town received only rain. Imagine if that weather had happened but a day earlier. The last third of my hike navigating Mt. LeConte would've been hairy to say the least. After that, I had a few days to myself with nothing planned. On Monday I did nothing but sleep, eat, and waltz around town a little bit, but nothing I did that day required a lot of effort. but by Tuesday I was getting the itch to hike again, and I knew I needed to get going on pulling in some new miles for the year. I didn't want to go anywhere far or do something strenuous, so I found a suitable hike yet to be done in Smokemont.
As always, the drive up and over Newfound Gap was pleasant, a bit cloudy this day and on the cool side. Thanks in part to the snowfall of a few nights past, the changing of the leaves had accelerated noticeably, especially in the vicinity of Newfound Gap. When I arrived at the Smokemont campground, trees were beginning to transform there as well. I parked at the Bradley Fork trailhead for the third time this year, but this time, the hike would be much shorter and easier on the legs. The air was cool and crisp, but it felt tantalizing. It was wonderful to finally be out in the park again, hitting the trails without a worry in the world. I was curious to see how my legs would react to moving again, since the last couple days around town my gate was more of a waddle than a walking stride. Luckily the ascent up Bradley Fork is slight as it follows the river. Occasionally, I'd come across a sudden but brief climb in which the back of my thighs would tighten. The more I pressed on, the looser my legs got, and I eventually forgot the matter all together. Many of the trails out of Smokemont are also used by horses, so they're wide but extremely muddy, especially after recent precipitation. There were a few places I had too dodge puddles or mounds of goop.
Finally I reached the intersection with the Smokemont Loop Trail. This meant I was putting the horse trails behind me and raking in some new miles. Immediately one has to cross over the Bradley Fork on a lengthy single log footbridge. It has to be one of the longest of its kind in the park, for it's suspended the entire way across and extremely bouncy. A cable extending along one side serves as a meager handrail. Certainly one of the more interesting bridges I've crossed in the park, but I made it to the other side without a fuss. After that, the trail became narrower, less traveled, and steeper. The Smokemont Loop Trail reconnects the campground with Bradley Fork Trail by going up and over the crest of Richland Mountain's southern end. The ascent is gradual and satisfying. You never come to an overlook or a summit, but along the way it's possibly to see through the canopy and look down on the Oconaluftee River valley to the west. It was even better since the leaves were starting to change on the mountain opposite. My cadence was steady, but it sure seemed like an eternity before I finally reached the high point of the hike. I passed an older couple just before reaching the top, the only people I had seen on the trail all day, who had stopped for lunch and were thoroughly enjoying their afternoon as seen by the smiles on their faces.
The descent wasn't all that exciting, and it passed quickly, perhaps because I was eager to be finished or that my mind was racing. Not quite sure, but I made it down with ease. The trail comes out near a cemetery and follows a service road for a few tenths before returning to the campground. I crosses an old stone bridge that is now gated off and also lacks a sign marking the trailhead.
Since my vehicle was parked at the Bradley Fork trailhead, I had to walk some more around the campground to complete the loop. Along the way I saw the sign for the Smokemont Nature Trail and elected to do that as well. There were some neat footbridges to cross and then some rather steep climbs. Who knew that a nature trail would be more rigorous than it's longer, bigger brother? After that, I made it back to my automobile. It had started to warm up that afternoon, but not much, making it a very soothing atmosphere. Autumn had arrived in the Smokies for certain. I drove slowly out of the campground, with the windows rolled down. I was taking in the cool air, the sounds of leaves crunching under my tires, the smells of the campfires burning, and the sounds of families enjoying each other's company in the wilderness around the their tents and RV's. I enjoy being out in the woods and getting dirty, but I also enjoy the luxury of going back to a motel room with a comfy bed, warm shower, and a TV afterward. My simple reward after putting on so many miles. There were still some lingering clouds on the drive back, but when I reached the overlook at Luftee Gap, I pulled off real quick to snap a photo. One of the larger trees there was beginning to transform, appropriately signifying the changing of the seasons in the park. It's about to become a great time of year!
Journal describing my 50 mile hike fest up, down, and all around Mt. LeConte in one day coming soon!
Ever wonder what The Jumpoff looks like at night? Here ya go!
Arriving at Myrtle Point around 7:30 to catch the sunrise.
The grassy Helipad located near the Lodge.
Catching some early morning light from Cliff Tops, though famous for its sunsets.
One of three trips to the Horse Gate along Alum Cave Trail, the midway point of each lap between there and the Alum - Rainbow junction.
Stack of boards near location of former Horse Barn just up from Trillium Gap Trail.
View from Brushy Mountain towards Pigeon Forge at trail's terminus.
Arrival in Greenbrier at 11:30, excited about how little time it took getting down.
Looking down on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, just reopened that morning, from the Trillium Gap Trail.
A late afternoon pass by a decently flowing Rainbow Falls.
View of Mount LeConte from the Rocky Spur after sunset.
Crossing the finish line in 16 hours and 48 minutes...what a day!