Elk and Views - Cataloochee Hike - Uphillhike
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Elk and Views – Cataloochee Hike

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thursday night I slept in the van parked at an overlook near Cove Creek Road. Cove Creek Road was as I remembered it from the time 33 years ago when my brother, John, and I spent a dark night negotiating this winding narrow road for 30 plus miles; a prelude to a Smoky Mountain thru-hike via the Appalachian Trail.

I was up early Friday morning, munching on a half disk of cold spinach quiche while driving back up to the Cataloochee Divide to cache my backpack (hidden near the trail) and food bag. After some effort I managed to toss my bear line over a limb. These items would be unattended for couple of hours while I positioned the van at the Caldwell Fork trailhead and returned by bike on a 1200 foot climb over 4 miles.

I passed a couple of large Elk along the side of the road as I descended to the Caldwell Fork. Returning uphill on bike, I came upon an Elk positioned in the middle of the road. As I approached, it walked, then trotted and stopped and turned. I continued pedaling and as I grew closer I was forced to slow. Just as I was slowing to a stop the Elk turned and disappeared over the guardrail.

The weather was fine; cool with passing clouds. The Cataloochee Divide followed the park boundary marked most of the way by a split rail fence that extended for miles. The rails were wrapped onto posts by thick strands of rusty bare wire. A lane or dirt road often followed the trail alongside the opposite side of the fence.

Here is the Cataloochee Divide Trail.



Here is Taylor’s Turnaround and a barn cabin with a great view.

Occasionally, I passed by vacation houses and cabins. One in particular that was under construction was placed so close to the park boundary and trail that I could stand next to the fence, reach over and nearly touch it. In my opinion, placing your house 3 – 4 feet from any property line is really obnoxious, particularly when it is National Park with a trail along the line. The views of the valley, towns, I-40, and other roads made this walk interesting in its own way.

Other than a couple sitting at Purchase Gap Nature Trail and the sight of a few cars and sounds of construction workers I was by myself these 2 days. There were no other hikers.

Here are open views while walking along the park boundry.


Cataloochee Ranch with Hemphill Bald and the view of Maggie Valley was a point of interest. Maggie Valley’s north facing ski slopes were covered with man-made snow. The wide ski trail looping toward the south was waiting for natural snowfall. This slope need only wait a day to be covered in slushy white as well as its neighbor. Hemphill Trail also followed the park boundary which was marked with split rail fence as well, however, it soon began short divergences into the interior of the park.

Hemphill Bald is half bald. The Cataloochee Ranch side of the divide is open while the National Park side is completely wooded. Cataloochee Ranch placed this land into a conservatorship of some sort. It provides tax advantages, allows continued use by the owners, and prevents the land from ever being developed. The land can even be sold, but the conservatorship follows the property meaning that the land cannot be developed by new owners. The Smoky Mountain National Park only maintains 2 balds, Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald. I have stealth camped on the first and camped at the nearby campsite on the second. The remaining bald areas in the Smokies that can be seen along the Appalachian Trail are not maintained and will disappear in a few more years; however, the half bald of Hemphill will be maintained on the Cataloochee Ranch side. When 16 and 17 years old, John and I found expansive balds on the AT Smoky Mountain section.

I hadn’t mentioned that the legs felt an extra degree of strain right from the beginning. This was due to the early morning ascent by bike followed by immediate and continuous hiking. The ridgeline hike was followed by miles of gradual descent then steeper descent making it much easier than my typical mountain hike, but by the time I reached Campsite 41 on the Caldwell Branch Trail it was nearly dark (5:30 PM) and my legs were long since ready for relief. I skipped the “Big Poplars” so that could get into camp with a little light still left. After Joyce Kilmer and Yosemite, those Poplars don’t seem so big anyway.

I replenished with much needed water. I only had 48 oz all day. It was a ridge walk. There were plenty of cabins, but no streams. I chose not to leave the trail to hunt water at one of these residences.

Here were some of the nice points of the hike…..

Really cool! A map sign with bearing and profile of mountains that could be seen from Hemphill Bald. I was able to pick out Standing Indian (major cool) and Mount Pisgah with its giant antenna. You could track the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Other spots that supposedly could be seen included a who’s who of all of the important places I had been in the Southern Appalachians. Beauty Spot (Camped there in the snow.), Max Patch (my favorite bald), Mount Mitchell (Rode bike in Century to top.), and Roan Mountain (I climbed in the snow).

Christmas Ferns and Icicles Hanging on ledges along southern end of Hemphill Trail.

Lots of Elk poop on Rough Ridge Trail. (It looks like black jelly beans)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Here are Christmas Ferns and Icicles on Hemphill Trail.

Exhausted from the long day, I listened to podcasts of Prairie Home Companion and ATHiking Southeast (Lenfoot Lodge Episode). I was probably asleep by 7:30 pm. I remember a brief light sprinkle of sleet or rain hitting the tarp roof at 4AM. It was overcast in the morning and not too cold. Breakfast was the usual coffee and homemade oatmeal with raisins, walnuts, brown sugar, and some crunched up Heath Bar.

Since I was hiking a loop of the Caldwell Fork Trail – Big Fork Trail – Rough Ridge Trail – Caldwell Fork Trail, I left my tarp in place with my sleeping bag stuffed in a plastic bag and placed under the tarp. I put my food bag on the bear cables. My pack was lighter, but I still carried my lunch and all of my rain gear and warm clothing. After a couple of hours of hiking, it began to sleet and rain. The weather gradually worsened and grew colder. By the time I started climbing to a little higher elevation up the Rough Ridge, snow had coated the ground and I was sloshing around in mud. My raingear was soaked on the outside, but I was relatively dry. Earlier I had changed my clothing around as I warmed up and as it later started to rain. Now I was in raingear without much other layering. By the descent on Caldwell Fork back toward camp I was cooling down. By the time I reached the tarp I was a little chilled. I scraped the snow and slush from the drooping tarp and opened the side of the tarp with hiking pole and stick to form a sort of lean-to. This gave me more area and more importantly headroom needed to change into dry layers. Once changed, I felt better, but I had gotten a little chilled and I couldn’t shake it. I had retrieved my food bag, but had forgotten to resupply with water before I had changed into dry clothes. As luck would have it, it started raining very hard preventing a trip to the stream without getting wet again. I was reluctant to put wet raingear over my dry clothing, but I was thirsty. Eventually, there was a slight lull and I quickly filled a couple of bottles. Now, I could make hot tea and eat hot Trader Joe’s spiced soybeans. Finally, I was warm. In fact, I was charged up and thoroughly energized. Amazing!

It was only about 1:30 PM and the idea of sitting around all day in camp didn’t sound good. The idea of hiking the next leg back up to Purchase Gap 5000 plus feet elevation was even less appealing when I considered the likely snow and weather. I was only 4 – 5 miles from the car via the lower elevations of a flat Caldwell Fork trail, so I decided to hike out to the van and return to Roswell. It seemed that the weather would only worsen once colder air moved in behind the front. I was right. There were snow showers for the following two days with lows at 10 degrees F.

The Caldwell Fork section north of the Big Fork turnoff must set the record for number of split log footbridges. I didn’t bother counting. The book says that the longest split log footbridge in the Smokies is on this section. There were a number of fairly long log bridges. If you enjoy these bridges you need to hike this section. After I started hiking again, the rain backed off and didn’t begin to return until I was nearly to the car.