I figured this trail would be overrun with summer growth because it isn't popular by any means, despite its accessibility from Clingmans Dome Road. But it did garner some attention this past week when a bear tore open the roof of a convertible parked at the trailhead. When Bonnie and I drove up the dome road last week we saw a park vehicle there the morning it happened, but had no idea at the time that such an event occurred. So maybe my delay in hiking down Fork Ridge for a week turned out to be a good thing!
With the oppressive heat still roasting the lowest elevations, it's probably wiser to do upper elevation hikes this time of year, and Fork Ridge fits that description. It is also the last hike I need to do to have completed every trail that emanates from the dome road. I had plenty of incentive to knock it out, despite the potentially unfavorable trail conditions. The weather forecast called for a chance of storms in the afternoon, so I hit the trail early with hopes of being done and back in town by lunchtime.
Skies were mostly clear on the drive up with the occasional cloud getting hung up on the highest ridges. The trailhead and sign for Fork Ridge was completely covered by coneflower and filmy angelica, so it took a couple seconds to find the path. It was obvious from the start that if the trail was overgrown here, it wouldn't be any better the rest of the way down. Unfortunately, my projection was correct.
Wildflowers that were common much of the way down were the coneflower, white snakeroot, erect goldenrod, white wood asters, filmy angelica, wide leaved sunflowers, and hawkweed. Some wildflower firsts for the year included the miniature, blue southern harebells and Canada goldenrod. Like the spring beauties and trout lilies of spring, the southern harebells and hawkweed almost always appeared together. There were some yellow gerardia still lingering while most of the yellow fringed orchids had turned sour. As soon as I saw the orchids, I hoped I could find at least one in full bloom for I was yet to see one in such fashion. On previous hikes they were all budding and here they were fading. Finally I caught one beside the trail in decent shape and took time to enjoy its presence.
When I came to the shores of the river, there was no bridge crossing to be seen. The first time I passed by on the other side during my Deep Creek hike I didn't see one then either. Well, I like going away from hikes knowing that I saw and did everything I could, hiking every mile, every tenth, every foot of each trail. This meant crossing the creek and reaching the trail's terminus at the junction with the next trail. I found a decent rock hop to my right and determined it to be the best way across. Every rock was slick, it didn't matter the size, so paying close attention to footing was essential. Some rocks were close, others farther apart, and all were surrounded by deep pools of water, so one slip and it was a wet rest of the morning. Patience was the key as it took me at least five minutes to get across. At times I would double back a few rocks to get the right foot placement for future steps. I even squatted a couple of times to assure my balance or use my hands to grip a rock as I stretched out a leg. The distance between one rock and the next might have been a couple inches, but the time between each step felt like an eternity even then. My last step to reach the shore was the riskiest, for the rock face was angled and slick with no spot for the boot to catch and expect to stand. It meant that I had to make long strides and hot foot it to the shore speedily, even over some deep pools. After another squat, a few deep breaths, and envisioning my path several times in my head, I went for it..................SUCCESS!!!
It was a great feeling to look back in amazement that I was able to cross the stream unscathed, but my joy quickly faded when the obvious struck me...I would have to recross in order to get back. But first, I needed to reach the intersection with the Deep Creek Trail, finish the trail, and say hello to some backpackers at the nearby campsite. They were curious about my trek down, and I didn't shy away from telling them to find another way out. They appreciated my advice, but too bad I couldn't follow it. In attempt number two, I chose to take a different way across the creek. But this time I came prepared, strategically chucking rocks from shore to create a more suitable path across. It allowed for better footing and eased the tension in places that otherwise would have been very risky. There were still places that required second and third looks for me to feel sure about what I was doing. I managed to make it across without a hitch, instantly putting my hands on my knees and chuckling when I touched solid ground. The water was finally behind me, only nettles, briers, and blowdowns standing in my way.
As frustrating as such a hike can be, I still came away with a feeling of satisfaction. For one, I was glad to have it all behind me, another section of the map filled in. But a trip like that can also be adventurous and unforgettable. Should I choose to hike Fork Ridge in the future, at least I now know for sure NOT to do so in the summer...or wait til the park service decides to rip through there with saws and axes.