Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Flat Creek and Spruce Mountain Trail

Black Betty tagged along today for a little Smokies adventure which involved hiking two separate trails and working in a bicycle shuttle to boot.

To start with, we drove to the Heintooga picnic area and left our bikes at the trail head for the Flat Creek trail. Then we drove back down Heintooga Ridge Road to the southern trail head and hiked north on the beautiful and moderate Flat Creek Trail.

This trail was actually built in 1934 by the C.C.C. and still seems to receive regular maintenance. And if you can believe it, the lush grass which borders the trail for most of its 2.6 miles seemed to have been very recently weed whacked! We certainly enjoyed the beauty of the pristine creek and surroundings and the rather gentle grade of the trail in general. This would be a great one to take kids hiking on.

When we reached the picnic area, we hopped on our bikes and rode downhill 3 1/2 miles to the car.

Next, we drove the one-way Balsam Mountain Road about 6 miles to the Spruce Mountain Trail. Interestingly enough, we saw a turkey hen with about a dozen little chicks and then a ruffed grouse hen with several chicks while driving between the hikes. 

Spruce mountain trail is a short and sweet 1 miler which runs up to the junction of the now closed Polls Gap Trail. It featured a pretty little stream crossing and several large beeches, yellow birches, and red spruce trees. I hiked the 2/10 mile to campsite #42 to check it out. Distant thunder and threatening skies prevented us from hanging out too long so we headed back down hill to the car.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gregory Bald Hike

I hiked up to Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park yesterday via the Gregory Ridge Trail. I drove through a persistent rain the entire way to the trail head on Forge Creek Road in Cades Cove, but the rain let up just as I was starting my hike.

The trail provided a pretty and pleasant hike. It ambled gently for the first two miles along Forge Creek eventually crossing it three times on foot logs. The walk through beautiful stands of in-bloom rosebay rhododendrons, old-growth hemlocks, and tuliptrees was magnificent to say the least.

The climb really starts at campsite 12, where you begin the 2400' climb (over 3 miles) up Gregory Ridge to Rich Gap. Although this works out to about 800' gain each mile, the climb really didn't seem too bad to me on this particular day. I guess I must have remembered to eat my Wheaties for breakfast. The thrill of the hike came about 1/2 mile below Rich Gap when I encountered a LARGE BLACK BEAR heading downhill on the same trail that I was heading uphill on. The bear behaved exactly like I wanted it to and promptly exited the trail with a loud crashing lope through the woods as soon as it saw me.

At Rich Gap, I joined the Gregory Bald trail for a short and easy 6/10 mile hike to the Bald. At this point, the mountain was enshrouded in heavy cloud with very limited visibility which was a bit of a disappointment. It made it difficult to fully appreciate this 10 acre open grassy bald situated on the Tennessee / North Carolina border for what it really is.  The famous Gregory Bald display of azaleas were a bit beyond their prime but the colors were still brilliant and beautiful. In spite of the heavy fog and mist, I was able to spot azaleas blooming in oranges, reds, pinks, yellows, whites, creams, and various combinations  The fragrance in the air was magnificent. I must say I don't remember ever encountering anything like it in all my years of hiking.

I think that I will have to return later this summer to enjoy some of the many blueberries scattered about the bald. Maybe I'll luck out and get a view next time.

Overall, I will have to rate this 11 mile round trip as a must do!

As an Appalachian Trail through hiker, I feel that I must also mention that the Appalachian Trail originially crossed Gregory Bald on its route through the Smokies. The relocation to the current route took place in 1948.

 1940 Great Smoky Mountain map showing the Appalachian Trail crossing Gregory Bald.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Copper Bald Azaleas

I hiked up to Cold Springs Shelter on the Appalachian Trail this morning with a trash bag and rake to clean up the camping areas and put a new pipe in the spring.  Afterward, I ambled on up to the top of Copper Bald and shot a few pics of the Copper Bald Azaleas hiding among all the blooming Mountain Laurel and Flame Azaleas.

                                             Rhododendron arborescens, the Sweet Azalea, has white to blush pink flowers with red stamens, and a very strong fragrance similar to heliotrope. It blooms in late spring to early summer and individual flowers measure 1.5 to 2 inches across.
First described by John Bartram in 1814, this species has a wide distribution in the eastern United States, but can usually be found growing near streams or moist areas. It is sometimes known as the "Smooth Azalea" because the stems are very smooth and do not have hairs similar to the other azaleas.


I am not certain if the pink azalea is also R. arborescens or another naturalized hybrid. I'll have to look a little closer next time.

The AT does tunnel through the laurels towards the top of Copper Bald.

 There's a pretty decent and flat campsite right behind this sign. I'll have to bring the grandsons here to camp in a few years.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Winding Stair to Fontana Hike

I joined my brother Matt and AT buddy Floyd for a hike from Winding Stair Gap near Franklin to Fontana Dam last week. It's a beautiful and rugged 56 mile stretch of the Nantahalas and one of my favorite sections to hike.

Highlights (besides getting to spend time with Matt and Floyd) were: camping on the Wesser Bald tower with its spectacular sunsets and sunrises and unspoiled views, rolling into the Nantahala Outdoor Center for lunch, showers, and then packing pizza out for supper on the trail, walking among lots of old growth giants, seeing thousands of beautiful flame azaleas and mountain laurel in bloom, and listening to Floyd yelp as he stepped on a timber rattler! 

Did I mention we had beautiful weather? Thanks once again to Connie and Andrew Sampson who  provided us with yard camping, meals, and shuttle at Stecoah Gap!