Monday, June 9, 2008

Ramsey Cascade, Parts 1 & 2

Choosing the best waterfall in the Smokies is like trying to choose the best movie of the year, or the best song. Ask 100 people and you probably won’t get 100 different answers, but you might get several dozen. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. If you ask 100 Smoky Mountains enthusiasts to name the best waterfall, a fist-fight might break out. I don’t know why, but some folks get really passionate about their waterfalls.

My favorite waterfall is one that doesn’t even show up on today’s maps. It’s sort of a secret, so I can’t reveal much information. I’ll just say that it’s a beautiful waterfall that’s really hard to get to. There’s no discernable trail, so it involves some interesting off-trail hiking. And that’s what makes it my favorite. I guess it’s that ol’ Protestant Work Ethic – in order for something to be valuable, there’s got to be some suffering involved.

Maybe that’s one reason why Ramsey Cascade is a favorite for a lot of people. Not only is it high (about 90’) and noisy, it’s four miles from the nearest road. So there’s a moderate amount of work involved. And as most of you know, it only takes a little exertion to keep most people away, which is too bad, because it’s the exertion that makes it worthwhile. Nevertheless, Ramsey can be a bit crowded on summer day. Even if only one tenth of one percent of the park’s visitors hike to the cascades, that’s about 10,000 people a year. So, it’s best to visit it during the off-season.

I suppose I could add that the hike to it is beautiful, but you could say that about all the trails in the park. But there are some unique features. The first mile of this trail is littered with car-sized, truck-sized, and house-sized boulders – more than the typical Smokies trail. At 1.5 miles the Ramsey Prong converges with the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. I’ve fished a quarter mile up the Middle Prong and caught only two small fish. But they were both brook trout. You fishermen will understand the significance of that. The second half of this trail was lightly logged, so it has some big trees, with several particularly impressive tulip poplars called the Roman Columns at 2.6 miles.

Not long ago, Greg Harrell and I decided that we’d like to explore the territory above and beyond Ramsey Cascade. According to Harvey Broome in Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, sixty years ago there was a faint trail that went further upstream to another cascade and a camping spot called Drinkwater Pool and then continued up to the main crest near Old Black and Mt. Guyot. Neither the trail nor the campsite appear on any recent maps, but we’ve had some luck finding the remnants of other old, unmaintained trails in the Smokies, so we hoped we might get lucky on this one as well. So we turned onto Hwy 416 off US 411 in Sevierville, drove into the Greenbrier area of the northeast quarter of the park, and parked my truck at the small parking area at the trailhead of the Ramsey Cascade Trail.

This trail is very typical in one important way: its gradient is almost exactly a 500 foot rise per mile. That seems to be the magic formula that the CCC used in constructing the trails in the Smokies. In fact, that’s my personal method of determining how hard a hike will be. This 500’ rise is manageable. Anything steeper is, well… steep. (The bible of Smokies hikers, Hiking Trails of the Smokies, gives a helpful diagram – called a “trail profile” – of the gradient of every trail in the Smokies. Once you know that 500’ per mile is about right, then you can look at a trail’s profile, and you’ll immediately know how difficult it will be.)

Greg is a fast hiker who thrives on those internal, personal challenges that some folks create for themselves. While he appreciates the majesty of the outdoors, he does like to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, just to see how fast he can do it. I, on the other hand, don’t.

[To be continued]

I’d like to say that the wisdom which I’ve accumulated over these 50+ years has taught me to savor the moment, to appreciate the details of creation that can only be seen by those who will slow their pace, to bask in the colors and sounds of a riverside ramble, to… blah, blah, blah. The truth is, I’m just plain slow. And on this particular day, my hiking partner, Greg Harrell, slowed his pace to match mine, which is about two miles an hour on a modest, uphill hike.

After about two hours, we arrived at Ramsey Cascade. The spring rains had made the river and its cascades full and loud. We rock hopped to the middle of the creek and relaxed, letting the noise of the rushing water – one of life’s few loud noises that I actually enjoy – work its cleansing magic. I know, I know. “Cleansing magic” sounds overly poetic, and I’m not normally a poetic guy. But honestly, I do feel somehow cleansed by the roar of a river. When you walk away from that relentless water-thunder, the silence is overwhelming.

The warning sign near the foot of the falls (there’s always a warning sign at a waterfall) said that four people have died here. It didn’t give the details, but it probably involved hiking to the top of the cascade and standing too near the edge. When we are in the mountains, Greg has a tendency to tempt fate, perhaps the result of some subconscious death wish. After I had pointed the sign out to him, I wondered if the warning made him less likely or more likely to stand too close to the edge when we got to the top.

We soon found a steep, twisting, rocky route in the forest to the left of the river. The scramble itself was dirty and sweaty, but not dangerous because our route wasn’t along the water’s edge, and we emerged from the forest about 10 or 15 yards upstream from the edge of the falls. We stood in the river, several yards back from the edge so that a slip wouldn’t end in tragedy, and enjoyed the wild noise of the river and the open view of the sky and Mt. LeConte in the distance. I made a mental note that one might, with a good pair of binoculars, be able to see Ramsey Cascade from Mt. LeConte.

After soaking in the scenery for a few minutes we turned upstream, scanning the riverbanks for some sign of a gap in the rhododendron, perhaps indicating an old trail. What we actually found were a few, small pieces of pink surveyor’s tape tied to some of the rhody branches hanging over the riverside. At first we thought that this might be where we would leave the river and enter the thickets and forest, but we soon saw more pink tape leading upstream. The river was the trail. We’d have to rock hop (a slippery undertaking) or wade (not only slippery, but also wet) upstream. The going would be interesting, but very, very slow. We desperately wanted to see how far and where this route would lead us – Drinkwater Pool maybe? – but we would run out of time and daylight rather soon.

We ended our excursion sooner than we would have liked, after sloshing about 100 yards upstream, but we were able to console ourselves with the knowledge that we’d seen one of the best waterfalls in the Smokies from the bottom and the top on a fine spring day. We also now knew that someone had blazed (can you use the word “blaze” if you’re talking about little, pink pieces of plastic?) a route upstream – a route that probably went somewhere. So we had another potential adventure to add to our Smokies “to do” list. All in all, I’d call it a successful trip.

We also had the satisfaction of knowing that very, very few people explore up here because it’s hard, dirty, uncharted, and maybe a little bit dangerous. Those things that keep most people away were the things that had brought us here. We weren’t disappointed. If you can spare a day to make this trip, you won’t be disappointed either. Just don’t stand too near the edge.

Addtional Information:

One good thing about this Greenbrier section of the park is that it’s off the main Sevierville-Pigeon Forge-Gatlinburg corridor. The traffic and crowds can be substantial during the summer, but they won’t be nearly as bad as US 441 through Pigeon Forge. This is one of those off-the-beaten-path parts of the park. You can get there via I-40 and Cosby (US 321), or you can drive into Sevierville and turn left on Dolly Parton Parkway (US 411). After 3 or 4 miles, turn right on Hwy 416 which will take you right to the Greenbrier entrance to the park. If you live in Jefferson, Hamblen, or Cocke County, you must become acquainted with this northeast quadrant of the park. It’s right on your doorstep.

Even though this part of the park has fewer visitors, during the peak season it can get crowded – simply because the road in the park is narrow and there’s not much parking. This Ramsey Cascades hike is just popular enough that you should do it during the off-season. If you do it during the peak season, arrive early – 7 or 8am. Even earlier if you try it on a weekend. Personally, I wouldn’t do it during the peak season, no matter how early, because the crowds will arrive soon after you do. You won’t have much quality, quiet time at the Cascade.

During the peak season, I haunt those spots in the park that are way, way, way off the main thoroughfares. Save the popular (i.e. crowded) spots for the off-season. I’d classify this hike as a popular/crowded spot; although, not as crowded as Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Newfound Gap, etc.

Of course, if you want to explore above the cascade, then there will be no crowds. There’s no real trail leading to the top. You just have to slither your way up the slopes and between the boulders. Follow your nose and you’ll find your way. If you don’t mind getting dirty, it’s fun. You’ll probably emerge 10 or 20 yards above the lip of the cascade.

I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t even think about getting close to the edge. That’s just incredibly, incredibly stupid. River rocks are deceptively slippery. If you want a good view over the edge, find a spot a bit away from the river, off to the side, well away from the edge, on dry land.

Once you are upstream of the cascade, slog or rock hop your way upstream. You’ll probably see some pink or orange surveyor’s tape tied to some of the overhanging rhododendron branches. These lead up the stream for a ways. Greg and I haven’t returned to explore more, but we suspect that these tape blazes will eventually lead you out of the river and onto an old, unmaintained trail. It just doesn’t make much sense to blaze a “trail” in the river if the river is the only trail. We think the tape blazes lead to something. We just don’t know what.

Harvey Broome, in Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, mentioned an old campsite called Drinkwater Pool. It’s possible that the tape blazes do stay on the river and simply mark the way to this old campsite. If you find out, I’d love to hear from you.