Friday, January 9, 2009

Four Waterfalls and a Junked Car, Part 3 of 3

The side path to Indian Flats Falls is perfect. It’s worn just enough to lead you to the falls, but it is not heavily worn – a sign that this is not just a gem, but a hidden gem with very few visitors.

This path leads to the upper of four falls, each about 10 to 15 feet high. During the low-water month of November, the scene is serene, comforting. During the wet months of spring, the scene would be noisy, definitely not serene, maybe intimidating; a good reminder that mother nature has many moods, not all of which are pleasant.

I don’t know whether to use singular or plural nouns in describing these waterfalls (this waterfall?). It’s not quite a single, tumbling cascade. It’s clearly not a single, plunging fall. It guess Indian Flats Falls is a series of four modest falls and for that reason it’s best to step back and take in the whole scene, rather than focusing on each individual waterfall, none of which are overly impressive by themselves. This is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Four modest waterfalls, each by themselves, might not be worth walking two hours to see. Four waterfalls in quick succession, dropping about 60 feet in about 150 horizontal feet, are.

It was easy to find other lightly worn paths twisting through the rhododendron thicket to the lower falls. This is the point in the hike where you take out the book, crackers, tuna, and peanut M & Ms. It’s also the point at which you think, once again, that you really need to bring a small pillow with you on these hikes. Your bundled rain jacket will have to do.

I think the most inspiring view was from the bottom, looking all the way up; although, I know from past experience that scrambling around to the top of the uppermost fall (on dry land, not climbing up the wet rocks) and looking down as the creekbed falls away into the distance would have been impressive. I didn’t do it on this trip. I don’t know why. I guess I just wasn’t in kamikaze mode today. It was more of a slow-paced, “snoop around and see what you can find” kind of day.

When it’s time to leave, you’ll have one more decision to make: the easy route or the hard? The easy route is to backtrack the way you came. The hard route would be interesting but wet – get in the creek at the base of the bottom falls and hike/wade your way back down to the footbridge that you walked across earlier. It’s less than two tenths of a mile down the creek, so it would be very manageable. If you opt for the wet route, bring an extra pair of wool or nylon (definitely not cotton) socks to put on once you are back on the trail and your boots have drained.

As you walk back down the Middle Prong Trail, there are a couple more points of interest. In the Panther Creek Trail area, there are a couple of old chimneys remaining from old homesites. There’s also a deteriorating, old car which looks to me to be a 1920’s era Model T but is reported to be a Cadillac that once belonged to a CCC supervisor. The path to it is obscure. The best directions that I can provide are the following: When you pass the Panther Creek Trail begin looking to your left and you’ll see that the slope is rather steep. It remains steep for about half a mile, after which it begins to spread out, providing space for an old camp or homesite. The old car will be in that open area. My final bit of advice is going to sound useless: the side path is immediately after a rhododendron bush about 15 feet high and 15 feet across. I know, I know. “Turn left at the rhody bush” is like telling someone in East Tennessee to turn at the video store or tanning salon. But in this case it’s pretty good advice. This open area on your left isn’t lined with a continuous thicket of rhododendron. There are only a few significant rhody bushes, so after each one, look for a lightly-worn path.

I suppose providing directions to a junked car isn’t the most glamorous way to end an article on a hike in the Smokies, but Tremont is in East Tennessee, after all. It was only a matter of time before one of these articles ended with a junked car in a field by the side of the road.

A Hidden Gem: Indian Flats Falls, Part 2 of 3

There’s a hidden gem about 3.5 miles from the start of the Middle Prong Trail which starts at the end of the five-mile Tremont road in the Smoky Mountains. Oddly, the Middle Prong Trail follows Lynn Camp Prong, not the Middle Prong. So as I walked along this wide, easy trail, it was the sound of Lynn Camp Prong that kept me company.

The hidden gem is Indian Flats Falls, a series of four modest waterfalls, each about 10 to 15 feet high. I had never heard of these falls until I read about them in the Bearpaw, a small, seasonal newsletter of the Great Smoky Mountains Association. After reading the article, I studied my Smokies map and, sure enough, there it was, clearly marked with a waterfall icon. Indian Flats Falls is a bit out of the way and in a part of the park that I’m not very familiar with, so that might explain my ignorance. But as I thumbed through my Hiking Trails guide, I found another explanation – the description of the Middle Prong Trail didn’t even mention the falls. Could this be one of those spots that very, very few people know about, hearing about it mainly through word of mouth? Further investigation was clearly needed.

The hike up the trail was uneventful, which is a synonym for “peaceful,” so everything was proceeding as planned. I think the trails in the Smokies – the literal trail under your feet – are prettiest in the fall, just as the leaves have begun to cover them. The leaves form a red-yellow carpet that stretches far ahead of you and far behind. The trail glows as the leaves shine like the embers in a dying campfire. The fact that this trail is wider than most makes it especially pleasing to the eye. It’s a broad, bright, leafy turnpike. During this part of the hike, I realized that I should have made this an evening hike, with the return hike after sunset under the light of a bright moon. The trail, with its carpet of freshly-fallen leaves, would glow like new-fallen snow.

At about 3.5 miles you’ll cross a wide footbridge that spans Indian Flats Prong, a small tributary of Lynn Camp Prong. Without realizing it, for the last five minutes we’ve been hiking along Indian Flats Prong as Lynn Camp turned away from us, heading east while we walked south along Indian Flats. Five or ten minutes after this bridge you’ll encounter a sweeping U turn to the left. As you reach the “tip” of this big U, look down to your left, inside the U. I’d bet all the money in my wife’s savings account that this was the site of an old CCC or lumber camp or both. If you’ll take a few minutes to hop off the trail and explore this broad, flat area, you’ll find several old road beds. Something human happened here – either the lumbermen ravaging the area or the CCC restoring it, or both.

After you reach the end of the broad U turn, you’ll take a hard switchback to the right. At railroad switchbacks like this, the engine would alternately pull, then push, the train of lumber cars back and forth up these switchbacks, like a pendulum swinging back and forth, gradually working its way up or down the slope. As you reach the end of this first switchback, you’ll encounter another sharp switchback, this time to the left. Stop here and look around. (If you have a GPS, your location should be 35.593, 83.632.) Right in front of you you’ll see a natural rock “wall” about 5 to 10 feet high. Instead of following the Middle Prong Trail to the left, look for a lightly worn path leading to the right along the base of this wall. You may see that someone has scratched an arrow and the word “Falls” into the rock, about knee high.

This path is perfect. It’s worn just enough to lead you to Indian Flats Falls, but it is not heavily worn – a sign that this is not just a gem, but a hidden gem with very few visitors. In less than five minutes you’ll be at the falls. Mission (almost) accomplished. [To be continued.]

Middle Prong Trail, Part 1 of 3

There’s no better month for Smokies hiking than November. The leaves, the sky, the temperature. It’s all there. So, it was on a clear, mild November morning that I made a quick trip through Townsend and into the Tremont area of the Smokies.

This area was heavily logged by the Little River Lumber Company from about 1900 to 1939. Through a special agreement with the government, this logging company was permitted to continue its logging operations for four years after the national park was established. But don’t let the “heavily logged” part dishearten you. Most of the Smokies (about 75%) was logged, but it’s recovering nicely, and this portion is no different. It’s a beautiful part of the park; just don’t expect any 200 year old trees here. Almost all of them are 75 years or less, which is fine. Shoot, if I had a 75 year old tree in my yard, I’d carry a picture of it around in my wallet, right next to my granddaughter. I’d show both pictures to friends and unsuspecting strangers at every opportunity: “Yeah, she’s precious, but look at the size of my sugar maple. Ain’t she a beaut? You should see her the first week in November!”

Tremont’s logging past does have some benefits. There are occasional glimpses of the park’s human history – rock walls, old roadbeds, old RR tracks and camps. These human remnants catch some folks by surprise because they expect the Smokies to be an untouched wilderness. But they’ll understand what’s going on if they’ll stop for a second to notice that they are in the eastern US in a national park that is about 75 years old. You just can’t expect vast, virgin wilderness under such circumstances. This isn’t Yellowstone or Glacier. Fortunately, the fall foliage on a 75 year old sugar maple or scarlet oak is just as magnificent as that of a 200 year old, maybe better. (Not to mention the fact that Yellowstone and Glacier have very few of the beautiful hardwoods that we have. There’s a reason why all the talk of fabulous fall colors centers on the East, not the West.)

If you like nicely graded, wide trails, then you’ll love the Middle Prong Trail at the end of the road past the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Because this was a major railroad artery into this section of the park, the trail which follows the old RR bed is wide, smooth, and gradual. Some books call it “moderate,” but I’d call this portion of the trail “easy” because it rises only about 250 feet per mile.

This trail begins at the bridge where Lynn Camp Prong converges with Thunderhead Prong to form the Middle Prong of the Little River. (Not to be confused with the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River on the other side of Gatlinburg.) Your five mile drive to the trailhead paralleled the Middle Prong, while most of your hike will meander along the banks of Lynn Camp Prong; although the last 10% of the hike will focus on a small tributary called Indian Flats Prong.

Other than the river, trees, leaves, shrubs, and wildflowers, the first significant sight of this trip is Lynn Camp Prong Falls, about one mile into your hike. This falls is not a vertical plunge; rather, it’s a long, winding, sliding, cascading chute. It’s very nice even in the low-water month of November.

One thing I’ve learned about waterfalls is that the terrain surrounding the falls is often just as impressive as the waterfall itself. I think I had noticed this long ago, but like subliminal advertising, it took several years for it percolate up into my consciousness. Many waterfalls are in narrow gorges, squeezed together by steep slopes, huge boulders, and dramatic rock ledges. This becomes really apparent if you find yourself standing at the bottom looking up and wondering how you might get to the top of the falls. Of course, climbing up the rock wall of the falls itself is really, really stupid. Instead, look for an alternative route among the rocks, trees, and shrubs (usually rhododendron and dog hobble) along the sides. You’ll quickly see that there is no easy route. The terrain is usually mostly rock ledges. It would be an impressive sight even if there were no water at all.

If you ended your hike here, it would have been well worth your time. But if you can afford to spend four more hours on this trail, there’s a hidden gem at the end that will be worth your while. [To be continued.]