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.
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.
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!