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.
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.
My last days off the mountain were here. The fall season was fizzling out and my nine month hiking blitz was winding down. I still had some work to do in order to reach my 600 mile benchmark regarding all the park's trails. The forecast today called for rain in the afternoon, so I didn't want to drive very far or hike a great distance as not to get caught out in it. I still saw some viable options in the Cosby area. I had been putting off the Gabes Mountain Trail on a number of occasions, so now seemed like a great opportunity. Depending on how I felt and what the weather did would determine the rest of my route after completing the entire stretch across Gabes Mountain. If my body was feeling energized when I reached Maddron Bald Trail, I would head uphill sharply and form a loop hike with Snake Den Ridge. That would be a lot of work, so I wasn't committed to it. The other option would be much shorter and easier, taking Maddron Bald downhill to its trailhead and back.
When I arrived at the Cosby campground, I was the only one there. The campground itself was closed for the winter, and the tourists had basically disappeared after Halloween. Combine that with the chance of icky weather, it all made sense that I had the region to myself. The first part of Gabes Mountain Trail heads uphill most of the way, crossing creeks on footbridges or rock hops. Many of the crossings were picturesque with fallen leaves stuck to the boulders in the streams.
At one point, an unmaintained path cuts in from the right. This used to be an old road that came up from Cosby and served as the old trail to the popular Henwallow Falls. The trail detours a few massive, natural rock walls covered in leaves and moss. It then scales a small ridge before coming to a fork that leads one down to the falls. Henwallow Falls is situated in a steep drainage along the mountainside. Since the canopy was completely bare, I could see through the trees and pick out Cosby and other homes in the valley. It's something that I never really thought about until that moment, but where else in the park can you go to a waterfall and also have view. Even though the falls is spindly compared to others in the park, perhaps it's this view that makes it so popular. There are a good number of boulders below the falls appropriately placed for viewing, resting, and snacking.
After a brief photo session, I returned to the maing trail continued west. The trail then goes above the falls, hits a switchback on a ledge, then ascends steeply. The rest of the way is mostly spent in the woods, so the views are limited. Gabes Mountain Trail weaves in and out of ravines and ridgelines. Not long after the falls, it reaches its crest in terms of elevation change and follows a pretty consistent contour. Just before arriving at Campsite #34, I had to navigate a large blowdown blocking my way. It was recent fall as I could tell from the fresh smells of broken wood and the bright coloration of the interior. There was no way over or under this one, so I had to wander through the brush and around the severed trunk to get back on track.
The trail then dips down into a broad drainage, crosses a creek, and comes out at the campsite. There are terraced lots on either side of the creek. It looked like a very pleasant area to spend some time in the wilderness. It's a quick up past the campground that is short lived. The trail then makes its way down the slopes of Gabes Mountain in a gentle serpentine manner.
After the descent, I came out to a very open intersection with Maddron Bald and Old Settlers trails. There were a couple of carved out benches for weary hikes and several trail signs directing the confused. I heard rumbles of thunder not long before then, so I eliminated the longer loop hike option. I was going to turn right and continue downhill alond the wide, former roadbed of Maddron Bald toward the park boundary. It comes out near a campground and neighborhood notorious for auto theft and break-ins, so avoid parking your vehicle there when doing this section of trail. The path down from the junction is very gradual, and in a short time bypasses the Baxter Cabin. It sits off trail to the left in an open, grassy area all by itself. It's a very simple square building compared to the other cabins being preserved across the park.
Past the cabin, the landscape doesn't change much. Toward the end you begin to see houses and side streets before finally coming out at a back road. A sign there warns hiker about locking their vehicles and taking all valuables with them, and for good reason. I looked around real quick then headed back on up.
The return hike was just that, a repeat of everything I encountered coming out. Clouds were dropping lower so the views I had near the falls were gone. The rumbles of thunder continued. Now there are two trailhead for Gabes Mountain if you come from Cosby campground. The way I first took begins at the parking lot, while the other leads south toward the campground. To be sure and get all the new miles I could, I took the alternative. I also needed to finish up various portions of the horse trail that follows the circumference of the campground, so I literally took the long way back to my vehicle. In the process of extending my hike, it finally decided to rain. It never got heavier than a shower and it fely refreshing. I managed to rake in a few more tenths, but I was still a good deal shy of the 600 mark. It would have to wait til tomorrow. Hopefully the sour weather wouldn't stick around.
I've got to be honest, Low Gap Trail isn't on the list of favorites. And since going anywhere out of Cosby involves a lot of up, it's still the one to take since it's the shortest. This meant I would be taking this route for the third time in a month and a half. Like my last ascent, I wanted to just get it behind me as soon as I could, so I tucked the camera away and focused on my cadence. Along the way, there was still some mountain laurel in bloom, but many more woodland bluets. When I rounded the corner about a mile below Low Gap, I had visions of running into the two yearling bears again. Thankfully, no repeat encounter occurred and I passed without incident.
Before I knew it, I had scaled Low Gap. The forest was even greener and fuller than last time, but there was a welcomed surprise. The workers from Trails Days the past weekend had done a great job of clearing the AT of debries and overgrown brush. You could hear my shines give a big sigh of relief with the absence of crud like nettles. Heading west on the AT, I was going in reverse of last week's hike. Even at this elevation, far fewer plants were in bloom. The amazing displays of false solomon's seal were gone, but a good number of catawba rhododendron were still blooming, especially the higher I got.
After moving through Camel Gap, I was once again on new terrain. This 2.3 mile section from Camel Gap to Inadu Knob was all I needed to have completed all the AT between Gregory Bald and Lower Mount Cammerer Trails. Usually when you're hiking the AT through the Smokies, you're following the contours of the main crest; thus, higher than the rest of your surroundings. This portion, though, is interesting in that several vistas along the way afford a hiker the chance to look up at a more dominant mountain ridge extending from the main crest. From a vantage point of about 180 degrees, one can see the entire range from the park's second highest summit, Mt. Guyot, out across the long ridge of Balsam Mountain, then Big Cataloochee Mountain, finally ending at Mt. Sterling with the old firetower visible. The clear skies and heath covered slopes ablaze in reds, whites, pinks from all the mountain laurel and rhododendron added to an already impressive sight.
Continuing westward, the AT ascends toward Inadu Knob, sometimes along a narrow ridgeline and even rockier trail conditions. At one point I spooked a deer off the trail and out of sight, but the sound of its snorting could be heard through the trees. It's a sound I've heard before when a deer is digusted with something. They exhale air rapidly through their nostrils and the subsequent sound is like screeching car brakes. I took it that my presence there was unwelcome, so I scooted along. I eventually reached Inadu Knob and knocked out another section of the AT. The last time I was here was five years prior on a backpacking trip with my father. We had come from Newfound Gap and descended from this junction down Snake Den Ridge toward Cosby in two days time. To complete today's loop hike, I too would descend Snake Den Ridge yet again.
This time I would take a side a trip out to Maddron Bald, now a heath covered ridge, to soak in some views and see what was still blooming. I found that the bald holds a striking similarity to Rainbow Falls' Rocky Spur. Both are well forested at their edges, far enough away as not obscure the views. Sand myrtle, galax, low growing rhododendron, and mountain laurel dominate the immediate vicinity of the overlooks. And with both, one will see the arm of a ridge extending left and upward toward a much higher mountain crest whose slopes form a wall directly in front of you. At the Rocky Spur, one sees the crest of Mt. LeConte on down to Balsam Point of the Bull Head Trail. Here at Maddron Bald, your eyes follow the roller coaster of a ridge left from Inadu Knob, over Old Black, and right across the long Pinnacle Lead.
Choosing to press on, I returned to the Snake Den Ridge Trail and dreaded the descent. As I remembered it was steep and rocky the entire way down to Cosby. Well, in those five years since, nothing had changed. About halfway down, though, I ran into several teams of trail maintenance crews for the park clearing out culverts in the trail to help divert water flows. They had covered a lot of territory earlier that day, so the majority of my trek down had me taking long strides and leaps over the numerous ditches. There was only one viewpoint the entire way, a place where the trees had been purposely cut to allow a glimpse of Mt. Cammerer to the west. Looking closely, the windows and triangular top of the firetower were discernible.
Before long, I had strolled into the Cosby campground, recently renovated and reopened entirely to public access. After today's hike, I'm another step closer to completing this corner of the park, and now just ten miles away from finishing the Smokies' portion of the AT.