Jenkins Ridge and the Adams Westfeldt Mine

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.

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New Information on Old Trails

I’ve posted a few updates to the site, most notably a few new images and information for the closed and abandoned trails section. I also have about a dozen more trail descriptions in the works, and have started working on some maps and images for that section. Winter is the best season for off-trail hiking, so hopefully I’ll be able to get out there and explore some new trails very soon.

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Old Settlers Trail

Since it’s a new year, I thought I’d update the website and start posting some entries from my trail journal. Since moving back to the Smokies we’ve been spending quite a bit of our free time on the trail and have seen many new areas of the national park. This week, we decided to do something a little different to ring in the new year: a two night backpacking trip on the Old Settlers Trail with several members of our Meetup group.

Initially there were some concerns about the forecast, which called for a 20% chance of rain when we were a week out. Thing is, the forecast always calls for 20% rain more than a few days out… I believe it’s the meteorologist’s way of admitting that they really don’t know what the weather will do more than two days from now. Like we hoped, the forecast improved as the 30th approached.

The eight of us set out from Greenbrier on a sunny, cool morning. Our route would take us east toward campsite #33, 6.7 miles up the trail. Within a few hundred yards we reached the first creek crossing- the fist of too many to count. There were a few slips, a few wet feet, and a few minutes’ break to change into some fresh socks- a ritual that would be repeated, just like the creek crossings, too many times to count over the next few days.

I was always under the misconception that the trail, being at the foot of Greenbrier Pinnacle and close to the park boundary, would be essentially flat. It was… for the first half mile. From there it began sloping gradually, then not so gradually, then became notably steep before cresting a ridge and dropping sharply down to a few creek crossings. We would discover that this pattern would mark the entire hike: a seesawing series of climbs and descents over low ridges that link together a haphazard network of old roadbeds in the bottoms of steeply lined valleys.

My favorite recurring feature of the hike was not the numerous stone chimneys or even the creek crossings, but the stone walls. In some areas, the expertly crafted and still pristine walls stretch for hundreds of yards on both sides of the trail, their outlines marking the boundaries of old fields and homesites. We tried to imagine the countless hours of backbreaking labor that went into stacking thousands upon thousands of rocks into such neatly organized formations. Not much else remains to bear witness to the hundreds of residents that once lived in these valleys… buildings have been demolished, fields have once again become forests, and all but a few of the most resilient tools and washtubs have long since rusted away.

Campsite #33 was the highlight of the trip. It sits in a flat basin amongst a struggling stand of small hemlocks. Many of these small saplings have already died and fallen over, and they make great firewood. Crafty campers have used many of the valley’s flat stones to build a ring of sturdy stone benches that were comfortable, but cold. The site was flat, wide, and very comfortable, with plenty of room to spread out.

The second day, New Year’s Eve, would be the most challenging. We would follow the trail for nearly 11 miles in a series of ascents and descents that would take us successively higher in elevation at each peak. The trail wove it’s way toward the park boundary (and the sound of traffic on highway 321) several times before turning inward to ascend each ridgetop in turn. As it went, each section became a bit steeper, each ridge became a bit taller, and each creek a bit deeper… until a trecherous crossing of Indian Camp Creek had us all taking off our boots to wade across in swift, knee-deep water (no comfortable feat in late December!)

Having stayed at campsite #34 before, I knew that we’d soon be missing many of the things that we had come to love about our previous night’s lodging. Even the larger of the two camping areas had barely enough room to squeeze in 5 tents among the boulders, but we made the most out of what we had. Just enough wood was to be found, which we were thankful for since tonight would be about 8 degrees colder. After a change of clothes and a good dinner we sat around the fire waiting out the rest of the year… but with the sun setting at 5:30 we had a long way to go until midnight. We didn’t make it… our energy ran out at about 8 PM and we headed toward the tents. A few people stayed up to ring in the new year, but we were perfectly content with the warm comfort of our sleeping bags.

And so the new year began, with a 5 mile hike off of Gabes Mountain to Cosby. Having spent many days working with hemlock trees along this trail several years ago, I was eager to see how the trees in our former research plots had fared over the last few years. Sadly, their state was not very good… many trees I recognized, even those that the park’s vegetation crew had repeatedly treated with insecticidal chemicals to ward off the hemlock wooly adelgid, were dead or dying. Occasional scattered hemlocks still clung to life with thin crowns of green needles gracing their tops, but they were few and far between. In one research site, the ropes used by climbers to ascend trees and check crown condition up close still snaked their way up recently dead trees that had since lost all but a few of their largest limbs. In their half-decayed state, these trees would be extremely dangerous to climb today. What was once the oldest hemlock in the park (at least 350 years, but I can’t remember the exact age) is now dead, with it’s top half having blown off in a recent storm. It was alive and still green in 2008.

On a happier note, the descent along Gabes Mountain Trail from Hen Wallow Falls to Cosby is a very enjoyable one. The trail is nice and wide, streams are crossed on sturdy log footbridges, and the deep woods are quiet and calm. There are many spur trails that circle the campground, and they make for a very nice walk. We knew where we were going, but it’s easy to get lost amongst the thick woods and twisting trails. Of course, that may be a good thing…

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The storm of the century?

Recently, the Daily Times (our local paper) reported that the tornado which blew through southern Blount County and Great Smoky Mountains National Park was rated an EF-4. Last week, I finally got to observe some of the damage in person. From overlooks along the Foothills Parkway, a swath of downed trees nearly half a mile wide can be seen stretching more than 10 miles from Chilhowee Lake to Ace Gap. Most of the hiking trails in the area are closed, being completely impassable. Miraculously, no fatalities or injuries were reported, and no buildings were damaged.

Driving to the end of the parkway at Chilhowee Lake, one can see the damage up close. A broad swath of the hillside on the Monroe County side of the lake has been stripped bare, and a high voltage power line sits twisted and mangled in the water. I can only imagine the destructive force required to pull over the structure! From there, the tornado continued upstream along Abrams Creek, unimpeded by the low ridges and wooded hills that compose the western edge of the park.

The tornado finally broke apart when it hit the steep slopes of Mount Nebo above Walland, and that’s where I saw it face to face. The evening of the storms, I got off of work at 7 and was listening intently to radio reports as I drove home through Townsend. One storm cell had just blown from Loudon to Semour, and had blown right past our house. It brought some wind and quite a bit of rain, but caused no serious damage. A second cell (the tornado, although nobody knew so at the time) was heading toward Walland, and I was just a few miles away. As I approached the storm, I slowed down a bit, not wanting to wind up in the middle of the fray. Not only did the quickly moving storm concern me, but I’ve never seen so much lightning at one time. I’ve heard that tornadoes often cause clouds to become colored red, brown, or even green from dirt or leaves that get swept up into the storm, but this cloud only appeared dark grey. Very dark grey.

As I approached Walland, the storm grew closer, and darker. I didn’t know so at the time, but what I observed was the tornado breaking apart as it hit the side of Mount Nebo. Later, a patch of downed trees could be seen high above Foothills parkway where the storm hit the slopes with all it’s might. At the time, however, all I could see was the swirling, tiered layers of cloud, each moving in a different directions and each darker than the one above. I slowed the truck waiting for it to pass over the highway, knowing that I didn’t want to get any closer. The rain began pouring sideways in torrents as the power suddenly went out along the highway. Out of view just up the road, trees and power lines were being blown down as the remains of the tornado passed over the highway less than a mile ahead. Fortunately, however, the storm lost it’s force as it hit the mountain. Fierce wind and rain continued on toward Seymour, but the tornado itself never reformed.

I’ve never been so close to a tornado, and have rarely seen clouds so dark and sinister. I’m just thankful that the worst of the storm was confined to a wilderness area, or damage could have been much, much worse. It wasn’t the only storm to pass through our area, however; another damaging cell blew through Knoxville within the hour followed by one that dumped marble sized hail and six inches of rain on our house over a 40 minute period. Although our electricity was out until the next morning, we had no property damage. From the aftermath I’ve observed around south Knoxville and Louisville, we were very lucky.

The Smoky Mountains Association is hosting a very informative video of storm damage in the park. Many trails are still closed a month after the storm, but the most popular portion of Abrams Falls Trail from Cades Cove to the falls is now open again.

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Site Updates

After a lengthy hiatus, I have decided to devote a bit more attention to my long forgotten site. Long story short, I began by attempting to update a few software packages and ended up scrapping the entire blog engine and redoing a good bit of the site under the hood. Becca and I decided that we were tired of the cobbled-together feel of the editor in b2e and wanted to go along with the crowd by giving WordPress a try.

Unfortunately I’ve had to scrap all the old posts, since I couldn’t find a way to gracefully (read: with automated scripts) convert them from one blog software to another. I decided not to convert each one manually, since I couldn’t justify spending the time on something that’s not all that important to save in the end.

Life has been pretty busy, between two jobs and a new home, but I’ll make an effort to post some new content here soon.

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