After a three month hiatus from hiking any new miles in the park, it was time to get back on track. This was to be my best day in terms of weather, and with fall color peaking at the lowest elevations, the trails I had left west of the cove were screaming at me to be hiked. I gladly obliged and got an early start. I was nervous about reaching my destination because of the prescribed burns that park must do to preserve the cove and prevent the forest from moving in and eating it up. Alas, the trailhead at Abrams Falls was open when I arrived. I was also excited to be here because two more trails that were bombarded by the EF-4 Tornado back in April, Cooper Road and Rabbit Creek, had been reopened to public access. I was anxious to see what nature had done and how the park service had responded. It was shaping up to be a long but thoroughly rewarding day.
What appears as a serene morning mist hovering over Cades Cove is actually the result of the park service's prescribed burns to maintain the current look of the fields. At least you can't smell it through the picture!
Within a few miles, the evidence started to pile up in the form of broken trunks, uprooted stumps, and severed limbs. The path of the tornado has clearly left its mark on these mountains.
Despite the destruction, the fall color was living up to and exceeding expectations. Here I look up at one of the most vibrant red maples and red oaks I have ever seen, and here they are side by side. Score!
The out and back along Cane Creek was indeed monotonous, but occasionally broken up by unbridged stream crossings and pretty trees. At this crossing, leaves, water, sun, and sky meet in dramatic fashion.
It took a while but I finally reached the terminus of Cooper Road at Abrams Creek Campground. Before beginning the final leg of the day's hike, I enjoyed a snack at this serene spot beside the water in silence.
The Little Bottoms Trail is unique in that it is not a graded a trail much of the way. It skirts steeply up and down hills, meanders through boulders, tip-toes along the shore of Abrams Creek, and now possesses one of the most awesome and impressive sights in the park. In the last half mile heading southeast, one rounds a corner past a campsite and gets introduced to a rare sight. The trees - stripped, battered, and missing - now give way to a view that will surely take your breath away. You look up, out, and all around you and soak in the devastation. Your jaw drops, your eyes widen, and your steps get shorter. You yourself feel smaller in the grand scheme of things because the sight makes you realize that there are forces in this world that are infinitely greater and stronger than you'll ever be. It is one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had.
Like the sands of the desert, the winds mold, crack, snap, and reshape the face of the Earth.
Will the injuries sustained by this tree bring its end, or will it survive and prevail? Only time will tell here. The landscape has been altered forever, and the next several decades will see a great amount of change in this corner of the park.
The response by the trail maintenance crews of this park and the others that came to its aid was incredible. Their work in removing the debris and reconstructing trails amid the devastation has been masterful and should be commended. The trails they've been able to reopen are those that criss-crossed the path of the tornado. Those that the twister basically followed for miles and miles, Hatcher Mountain and Beard Cane, remain closed and will take a great deal of time and effort to clear and reconstruct. But from what I've seen, the crews are up to the task and the end product should be first class. Job well done!
I call this Tulip Poplar now the "Tree of Hope." It stands tall and proud, yet severely battered, approximately 70-80 feet in the air. It has been completely stripped of all its limbs from bottom to top, like a utility pole, save for this little bush at the very top. Somehow, this tree was able to weather the storm and cling to life. It serves as a reminder that there is always hope, that all things are possible, whatever the conditions, despite the great adversities one may face.
My original plan to finish out the remaining trails west of the cove fell short once I reached the junction with Abrams Falls Trail. Instead of taking Hannah Mountain and Rabbit Creek back to my vehicle, I decided to save the toll on my legs and shave off a few miles and elevation change. I also wanted to be able to enjoy those trails instead of dreading them by dragging my feet as dark approaches. I took Abrams Falls because it was the quickest and most direct way back. When I reached the falls, the lighting was optimal for good pictures, so I stopped for a bit and enjoyed it. Those last few miles of the hike saw me in a state of shock and humility from the scene I had just witnessed. If you ever have a chance to hike the trails west of Cades Cove, especially when all the trails have been reopened, I would highly recommend doing so. It is an unforgettable sight to see.