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…