2012 was a pretty busy year, but still a good year for hikes. Over the last year, I was able to complete most of my remaining trails in the Smokies, and although I haven’t had much time to keep up with a hiking journal I have been keeping my logs up to date. By mid January, I was left with only six trails: Beard Cane, Mingus Creek, Jonas Creek, parts of Noland Creek and Springhouse Branch… and Jenkins Ridge.
If only because of its remote location, Jenkins Ridge would be one of the most difficult and inaccessible trails in the park. It turned out that not only location, but access, elevation, weather, and even the steepness of the trail itself would make Jenkins Ridge one of my most strenuous logistically challenging hikes to date. Despite being only 20 miles, this is easily the most difficult day hike I’ve completed in the Smokies.
Normally, I would have saved a hike like this for warmer months, but as my list of uncompleted trails dwindles I’ve been determined to finish the map so that I can focus on shorter and more relaxed hikes in the spring. The date for the hike was set at February 2, and we hoped for good weather.
What we got was snow, and temperatures below freezing for the entire day. Mount LeConte received 6 inches the day before our hike, and we knew that we faced the possibility of similar conditions with additional snow in the forecast for hike day. Despite this, we decided to stick with our plans and prepare for wintry weather.
Six of us decided that the weather wasn’t going to scare us off. Rebecca dropped us off at the Fontana Marina, where we would catch a boat shuttle over to Hazel Creek. Heavy rains over the last few weeks had filled up Fontana Lake and had forced TVA to resort to using the dam spillway to drain off the water, which they did… very quickly. The week before our hike, the lake was emptied at a rate of several feet per day. This can present a problem because when lake levels are low, the boat cannot get all the way up Hazel Creek and must drop off hikers at the Ollie Cove trail. This adds not only an extra mile to the hike, but also a steep climb out of the cove, then back downhill to Proctor. Fortunately for us, the boat ride turned out better than we expected – not only because we were able to land at Hazel Creek, but also because the boat was screened in and not as chilly or windy as we had feared.
We breezed through the former settlement of Proctor and up the first five miles of Hazel Creek trail. I had never been through the area in the winter, and was pleased to see that many of the historic ruins that remain well hidden in the summer months, such as the remains of the Ritter mill, could be easily spotted from the trail. We were fortunate to be joined on this hike by JD, an avid hiker who runs an outdoor apparel company called Trail Hard and who possesses a wealth of knowledge about Smokies history. Along the way, he pointed out a number of features of the lower Hazel Creek valley that I was not aware of.
After crossing several dangerously icy bridges, we stopped to break at a row of picnic tables near the junction with Jenkins Ridge trail. The 8.9 miles from here up to Spence Field were the last section of trail I needed in this section of the park. The road that composed the first few miles of Jenkins Ridge trail, Unlike the nearly flat paths along Hazel Creek, climbed steadily with just enough of a grade to be noticed. The route took us past the Higdon Cemetery, then through several reclaimed fields and over swiftly flowing streams. Our goal was to find the Little Fork of Sugar fork, a small branch on which sat the Adams Westfeldt copper mine and the former residence of Horace Kephart during part of his stay in the Hazel Creek area. The correct fork is hard to find… not only because the mine isn’t marked on many maps (USGS quads of the area produced before the 1960′s didn’t extend this far north, and the mine isn’t shown on the famous 1934 topo map… although the general location is indicated by a benchmark at 2771′ elevation), but also because several other streams in this area aren’t even shown on the most detailed topo maps. About 1.4 miles from Hazel Creek trail, we reached a suspiciously flat area that formed a natural “bowl” against the hillside to the south, and which had a swiftly flowing creek running downward from the north and underneath the road. the site matched my description, as well as that found in the “brown book” of smokies trails, and JD confirmed that it looked familiar from his last visit.
We walked several yards above the junction of Little Fork and Sugar Fork, then left the maintained trail at this point and headed north. The left side of Little Fork was overrun with rhododendron, but we hopped across several branching streams and pushed our way directly up the slope of the hill. After a climb of several dozen yards, we popped out at a flat roadbed above the creek. From here, the way was easy to follow and mostly clear of brush. Within half a mile we reached a flat clearing dominated my massive slag piles that filled the eastern wall of the valley. At the bottom of the valley sat numerous metal artifacts, the remains of a stone building, and the remains of a wooden sign post that appeared to be a more recent addition. A quick search revealed a small mine shaft, flooded with water, right at the edge of the creek. From here, we climbed directly up the slag piles in search of other openings. Fortunately, the ice helped make our climb easier by cementing together the loose gravel and preventing most of it from sliding away underneath us. At the top of the pile were two more shafts, one sealed off by a gate and partially flooded with water, the other surrounded by a damaged chain link fence and marked with one of those ubiquitous laminated signs dated 2009 and describing white nose syndrome (a disease of bats that has recently been found in the region). It’s a good thing that this shaft was fenced off, too, since just below the mouth of the horizontal opening was a second shaft that descended vertically into what looked like a potentially deadly fall… we weren’t about to get close enough to see how deep it was!
JD pointed out the general site of Horace Kephart’s residence, but no traces of the old cabin remain to this day. It was at this point that we decided to turn back to the trail and begin our ascent of Jenkins Ridge, and a quick peek toward the hills to our west indicated that snow was beginning to fall. As if to remind us to stick to our schedule, the first few flakes of snow began to reach us as we turned away from the mine. We quickly descended back to the maintained trail and began our climb out of “the back of beyond.”
The ascent to Pickens gap was via a wide roadbed that gradually became steeper as it climbed the valley. From the gap, Lakeshore trail used to continue down Pinnacle Creek toward Eagle Creek, but the poor conditions of the trail and numerous stream crossings led park crews to close this section several years ago and reroute it up Possum Hollow to the south. I followed this old trail for a short distance, but it became quickly overrun with downed trees and I could never escape the thought that Jenkins Ridge still loomed above us.
The upper portion of Jenkins Ridge trail is nothing like the lower half. From Pickens Gap, it leaves the wide, gently graded roadbed and ascends straight up the hill… no, not with switchbacks nor with any grading whatsoever, but straight up the hill along the spine of the ridge. For a few seconds, I stood scratching my head at Pickens gap wondering where the trail was, then I realized that the cleared line of brush ascending the hill in a straight line WAS the trail. I’m convinced that in order to construct this portion, somebody pushed a huge boulder straight off the side of the ridge and called the cleared path of destruction a trail. There are no switchbacks, no water breaks, and no steps to help with the ascent. Several disheartening sections feature a quick climb of 250 feet over a tenth of a mile, immediately followed by an equally steep descent over which all of the previous elevation is quickly lost. Along other sections, the trail gains as much as 600 feet in half a mile (in contrast, many “steep” trails in the Smokies gain 300-350 feet every half mile) with no breaks.
The brown book calls one particular ascent “a lung buster or a knee breaker” depending on the direction of travel. In the snow, I think it’s both. The snow was about two inches deep at this point, and it would not be accurate to say that more was falling… it was actually moving horizontally and sometimes even slightly upward as the wind hit the side of the ridge below us and followed the slope upward. The pelting, blowing snow stung our faces and clung to our hair, and our water bottles began to freeze. Slowly we continued onward, seesawing our way up and down along the crest of Jenkins Ridge while gaining elevation.
The final half mile ascent to Haw Gap is the toughest section of trail I’ve ever hiked in the Smokies. The combination of steep slope, deep snow (about 5 inches at this point), blowdowns, lack of graded trail, and bitterly cold wind made for a dangerous combination. We found ourselves taking numerous breaks along the way, not wanting to stop for too long due to the biting wind. However, with perseverance and determination, we pressed on and eventually found ourselves at Haw Gap. JD’s comment as we approached the bald was, “this place is very overgrown in the summertime.” A moment later, as we entered the bald, I replied, “it’s pretty overgrown in the winter, too.” Blackberries – not the thornless kind – now dominate the bald at Haw Gap.
The trail from this point is probably one of the most pleasant high elevation summer hikes in this part of the park, but today we found ourselves traversing a valley covered in 8 inches of powdery snow. The trail was a bit hard to follow in places, but a few checks of the GPS and our maps kept us on track as we descended to Gunna Creek. We were pleased to find that the creek crossing was an easy rock hop and that the trail maintains a fairly gentle grade as it crosses through the high elevation valley south of Rocky Top. The last half mile is not steep, but our exhaustion made the trek very difficult. Not wanting to stop because of the incessant cold, we had neglected to break for lunch. This mistake caught up to us during the final ascent to Spence Field, and we found ourselves breaking out our snacks for a quick boost of energy. After numerous breaks and a slow ascent, we finally emerged at the sign marking the junction with the Appalachian Trail.
I had planned to stop at this junction, but the unimpeded wind was even more fierce at the top of the bald than it had been along Jenkins Ridge. The swirling, grey clouds and driving snow forced us to seek shelter in a grove of bushes, where we waited for the rest of our party to catch up. Within five minutes, all were over the ridge and ready to descend Bote Mountain.
The switch from uphill to downhill and the promise of less than 5 miles of trail to go gave us renewed energy, and we tore through the next few miles at a blinding pace. Gradually, the snow tapered off to reveal the orange mud of the Bote Mountain trail underfoot. As we dropped down below the clouds, the wind gradually subsided as well. By the time we hit the Lead Cove trail and dropped below 3,000 feet, only a dusting of snow remained. It was on this final section that we passed the first person we had seen since leaving the boat at Fontana Lake, and the presence of another hiker was a good sign – it meant that the snow had not reached the valley bottom and that the park roads were still open. This had been a subject of discussion when the snow had started falling – what would we do if Laurel Creek Road was snowed in and impassable? Fortunately, the weather at low elevations had been warm enough that this wouldn’t be a problem.
We returned to the car at about 5:20 PM, a bit earlier than I had anticipated. Our total distance was about 20 miles, with 8 hours on the trail. Overall, we had an average pace of 2.6 miles per hour, with an average of 3.9 miles per hour on both Hazel Creek and Bote Mountain trails. Our overall elevation change was 7020 feet total ascent and 6900 feet total descent. What’s more, I finally marked one of the most remote Smokies trails off of my map.