That’s one of those standard jokes among hikers, the other being: When hiking, you don’t have to be able to outrun a bear. You only have to be able to outrun your hiking partner.
Greg Harrell, Charlie Roth, and I were making our way up Thunderhead Prong Trail, near Chimney Rocks. I think. I’m not really sure because we never quite figured out what and where Chimney Rocks were. There was no outstanding feature that was obviously Chimney Rocks, and we couldn’t check the trail guide because Thunderhead Prong Trail doesn’t officially exist. In fact, we just made up the name, but that’s probably what it would be called because it follows a stream named Thunderhead Prong for about four miles then climbs up the side of Defeat Ridge and ends at Thunderhead (Mountain) on the Appalachian Trail.
Several weeks earlier, Greg had found this trail on an old map, so we decided to see if we could find any remnants of it leading to Chimney Rocks and Thunderhead. As it turned out, there was a full-blown, visible trail for most of the way. We hadn’t expected that.
This trail was obviously used by a few people – I’d guess the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club – whose feet had kept it worn and visible. After 3 or 4 miles we began to realize that this trail was probably used as an alternative route to Thunderhead on the AT by the few people who knew about it. So it was a good day: we found an old trail, had some great views from Thunderhead and Rocky Top . . . and saw a rattlesnake.
On the way out we were making good time hiking down the trail when Charlie paused for a half-second to step over a small log, and in that momentary pause he saw a tight bundle of brown and black leaves and twigs and shadows – except that it wasn’t leaves, twigs, and shadows. It was a timber rattler.
Apparently the snake had never heard the experts say that the snake is more frightened than you are, or that rattlesnakes will rattle to warn intruders. This snake remained calm and collected, not the least bit nervous, apparently secure in the fact that he had fangs and we didn’t; which meant that he didn’t move, didn’t rattle, didn’t care. He just sat there, either too comfortable to move or too confident to give up his square foot of personal space; or simply doing what snakes do – lying still and depending on his protective coloration to hide him. Whatever his personal motivations, he didn’t budge until we poked and him with sticks – long sticks. Only as he slithered away did he use his rattle, not as a warning but as a parting expletive.
Skeptical non-hikers sometimes ask me if I worry about snakes on hikes, especially off-trail hikes. My response is that I don’t worry about snakes. After all, if I start worrying about snakebites, I might as well start worrying about lightning strikes, hornets, drunk drivers, heart attacks, and wampus cats – all about equally likely to happen. If I thought about them, I wouldn’t go. So I don’t think about them.
Another reason why I don’t worry too much about snakes is that I’m not usually the fastest hiker. I bring up the rear. And although I’ve heard that the first hiker usually scares the snake on the trail and the second hiker gets bit, I still feel a little more comfortable bringing up the rear. Especially if I’m the third hiker, as I was today.
As we finished our hike, our conversation turned to hiking accidents: snakebites, twisted ankles, hypothermia, and broken legs. I innocently wondered aloud what we’d do if I (the old and clumsy one) ever broke my leg on a lonely trail, miles from the car and medical care. Without any hesitation both Greg and Charlie answered (in unison, as if they had discussed and decided this ahead of time): “The doctor says you’re gonna die.”
Finding this little-known, alternate route to Thunderhead is easy. Enter the park through Townsend and bear right at the Y in the road (toward Cades Cove). In less than a mile you’ll cross a rock bridge and see a sign pointing left to Tremont. Take this road to the left. It follows the Middle Prong of the Little River for several miles. Stay on it until it ends at a small, dirt parking area. Walk across the bridge and notice that two streams converge at this point to form the Middle Prong. The stream entering from your right (as you look upstream) is Thunderhead Prong. You’ll see the trail running along side it. I’d recommend that you take a map and compass because there are a couple of tricky turns.
This trail is surprisingly well worn and visible. There are, of course, a lot of blown-down trees to crawl over or under, plus some brier patches to push through. You’ll get a few bumps and bruises. The first 5 miles are relatively clear and easy. The final two miles up to the AT are partially overgrown, but manageable. Lots of overhanging rhododendron branches to bump your head on. I ended the day with more bumps and blood on the top of my head than on my legs. Wear a hat to protect your head.
The standard 7.5 minute U. S. Geological Survey topographical map named Thunderhead Mtn. shows the route of this old trail. The Map Store in Knoxville sells these topo maps. A great online source of (free!) digital Adobe pdf files of all the topo maps for the entire US can be found as follows:
Go to http://store.usgs.gov/ (you can also get there via http://www.usgs.gov/).
Once there, find the option for “Download Topo Maps.”
You’ll probably have to snoop around on your own, but you’ll basically download this program, then run the program to install the map downloading software. (I’m writing this from memory, so I may be leaving out a detail or two.)
Next, you should be able to run this map downloading program, which will show you a map of the US. Probably the quickest way to move this map to the Smokies is to Search for Gatlinburg. This will get you in the vicinity that you want. Zoom in closer on the map, and you’ll see that this US map is actually a grid consisting of all the USGS 7.5 minute topo maps.
To actually download a topo map, click on one of the squares of the map. A red pin will appear. (There may be an option to choose to make this red pin appear, I can’t remember for sure.) Once you see the red pin, click on it and a brief list of maps will show up. Click the one you want, and an Adobe pdf file will copy to your hard drive.
I may have left out a detail or two, so you may need to snoop around to get this to work, but a little persistence should be all you’ll need. (If I can muddle my way through, then anybody can.)
A great, great feature that you can add to this is the GeoPDF Tool. Look for this option on the page where the map of the US is. This GeoPDF Toolbar is a pointer that allows you to run your cursor over any of these downloaded topo maps to see the exact coordinates of any site. You can find a spot on a topo map (like a turn in a trail or the trailhead of an old, unmaintained trail, etc.), then you can use a hand-held GPS to find the spot when you are actually out in the woods. Or you can work in the other direction. For instance, if you find a great spot in the Smokies – a panoramic view or a hidden waterfall or a favorite picnic spot – you can mark it with your hand-held GPS, then when you get home you can find this spot precisely on your topo map. This comes in handy on off-trail hikes when you get to a great spot, but you don’t know exactly where you are. Mark the spot on your GPS, then find yourself on a topo map when you get home.
(Personally, I like the old school approach of figuring out where I am with a map and compass and common sense. Unfortunately, my common sense seems to be inversely related to the distance from the trailhead. So I use my map and compass and make my best guess about where I am – but I’ll also mark the spot with my Garmin Etrex GPS so I can double check my map and compass calculations when I get home.)