Monday, April 27, 2009

Still Bald, After All These Years (Part 2 of 3)

I walked alone, with a strong, evening wind whisping through the trees. This top two miles of Forney Ridge Trail is mostly spruce and fir trees. Normally, you can tell the spruce by their pointed, stiff needles and the fir by their rounded, flexible needles. Unfortunately, there’s an easier way to distinguish between the two: the big trees are spruce and the small ones are fir. The fir trees don’t get big because they are all killed by the balsam adelgid once they get 10 or 15 feet tall. So anything taller than about 20 feet is almost certainly a spruce.

As I hiked to Andrews Bald and encountered the hikers heading in the opposite direction, we’d swap “howdies” and keep walking, occasionally stopping to ask, “Are we there yet?” As we’d pass on the trail about an hour before sunset, I could see the unspoken question in their eyes and expressions: “Hey, man. Are you sure you know what you are doing? It’s getting late, and you’re heading in the wrong direction, aren’t you? You’re going to be out there in the dark, all alone.” I can guarantee you that every single person I encountered thought exactly that, not knowing that being out there in the dark, all alone, was the whole point.

A great thing about Andrews Bald is that it’s still a bald, one of only two remaining in the park. Years ago you could enjoy Spence Field, Russell Field, or other grassy areas on the high ridges of the western half of the park. They had been maintained as mountaintop pastureland by cows grazing in the pre-park 1920s and 30s, and even as late as the 1980s they were still impressively open and grassy. However, the NPS is letting all the balds revert to their original, natural, wooded state – except Andrews and Gregory. They may not be pure, unadulterated wilderness, but they are still beautiful, unique reminders of the park’s previous incarnation as a home to farm families with cattle to feed. It’s the same policy that keeps Cades Cove open, grassy, and attractive or that keeps a few cabins and barns standing as a testament to the human side of the Smokies. Whatever the philosophical debates about wilderness preservation, the Smokies’ two remaining grassy balds are worth a visit, and Andrews is by far the easier of the two.

I emerged from the dark woods and into the open field around 7:30, leaving plenty of time to explore. The top of Andrews Bald is a serene, grassy field with scattered clumps of spruce and fir trees, flame azaleas, and catawba rhododendron. There are numerous, faint, meandering trails leading to various rocks, high spots, or shady spots – good places to sit, eat, sleep, or all three. As I walked I paid careful attention to a few landmarks and my general direction of travel. Over the years I’ve learned that I have a pretty poor sense of direction, so I have to make a deliberate effort to pay attention at times like this. On past family vacations I could get us from Tennessee to Montana or Maine on interstates, two-lanes, and dirt roads, but if we pulled into a McDonalds, I couldn’t figure out whether to turn left or right as we pulled out of the drive-thru and back onto the road. My wife or kids would have to point the way back to the interstate. So finding my way back across a grassy bald was not a foregone conclusion, especially at night. As it turned out, this was easy – Forney Ridge Trail across Andrews Bald is the deepest trail, having been worn down 6, maybe 12, inches below the grassy surface.

I explored the faint trails to enjoy the changing view into this southwestern part of the park. There are good views of Fontana Lake and the Nantahala Mountains to the south and High Rocks and Gregory Bald to the west. It was the perfect stage for a sunset; however, my moonlit, return hike wasn’t shaping up very well. Those clouds I had seen in the west a couple of hours earlier were now much bigger, broader, and closer. This could make for a pretty sunset, but I could see that my window of opportunity for a moonlight hike was closing fast. The moon would soon be covered with clouds. [To be continued.]

The Path Less Traveled to Andrews Bald (Part 1 of 3)

April, I am shocked at your behavior! I’ve come to expect this sort of thing from March, but not from you. On Thursday it was a muggy 75 degrees. Friday brought severe thunderstorms. Saturday was 70 degrees, clear, and windy. By Sunday there would be increasing clouds and a chance of snow. What has gotten in to you?

Saturday – clear but windy – would be my only chance to hike to Andrews Bald. I would walk there in the evening, watch the sunset, sit while darkness settled in, then walk back to my truck under a waxing half moon, meaning that as the sun set, the moon would be directly overhead. If the clouds cooperated, then I’d have a moonlit walk back to my truck.

A night-time hike is not as foolish or unnerving as it sounds. It’s not easy, mind you, but it can be safe and memorable, even magical. But the moon and weather (not to mention your job) have to align because in hiking, as in comedy and fishing, timing is everything. There is a window of opportunity that is only a few days or hours long. So when the window opens, you’d better jump through.

After doing chores around the house for most of the day – with an eye on the sky – I drove through Pigeon Forge with only a moderate amount of traffic. There would be, I was told, a hot rod show the following Saturday; US 441 would be shut down and crowded for hours. I was glad to have dodged that bullet, but I knew that I had just used up several pounds of good luck. My account was severely overdrawn already, so I knew I’d have to pay some dues in the near future. The clouds on the far western horizon suggested that maybe I’d be struck by lightning tonight – a small price to pay for avoiding a crowded hot rod show in Pigeon Forge.

A sunny Saturday in mid-April should be fairly crowded in the Smoky Mountains, but since it was getting late in the day, most folks were either at the picnic areas, or in restaurants, or driving through Cades Cove looking for wildlife. I pulled into a half-full parking lot at Clingmans Dome around 6:30pm. A few people were starting their half mile walk to the concrete observation tower at the top of Clingmans Dome. They were, I presume, planning to enjoy the 360 degree view, followed by a sunset, all from the highest point in the park. It’s a pretty good plan for this time of year.

Of course, none of that matters to me tonight because, like Robert Frost, I’m going to take the path less travelled, hoping it will make all the difference. So, at the start of the paved trail to the top of Clingmans, I’ll veer off to the left onto Forney Ridge Trail which will take me a quick and easy 1.8 miles to Andrews Bald. I hesitate to even call it a hike. It’s more of a walk, almost a stroll. Yet, two miles is more than enough to deter virtually everyone who visits the park. This is enhanced even further by the fact that Clingmans Dome – the highest point in the park – acts as a magnet which draws most visitors to it and away from Forney Ridge Trail. Ask the typical Smokies visitor, or even experienced locals, about Forney Ridge, and they’ll have no idea where it is nor why anyone would care.

When I arrived, there were maybe 50 cars in the parking lot, but on my walk to Andrews I saw only five small clumps of people who had just ended their afternoon on the bald and were hiking back to the parking lot. That’s five cars belonging to Andrews Bald hikers. The other 45 cars belonged to the Clingmans visitors. Yes, taking the path less travelled does make a difference. [To be continued.]

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Second Day in the Smokies

For the past month we’ve been talking about how to spend just one day – presumably your first time – in the Smokies. We’ve hit the most popular spots that every Smokies visitor is obligated to see: Cades Cove, Newfound Gap, etc. But what about your second visit? Let’s consider some popular places that are easily accessible by the main roads but will get you out of your car and onto the ground.

One of the easiest and most convenient hikes in the park is Laurel Falls. It is, therefore, crowded and for that reason you’ll need to start this hike either before 9am or after 3pm. Otherwise, you won’t find a parking spot. The trailhead is a modest parking area about 4 miles west (toward Cades Cove) of Sugarlands Visitor Center. The hike is 1.3 miles (one way) to the falls, then backtrack out. The falls are about 70 feet long, so be sure to walk a bit past the falls to get a good, full view from a distance.

The walk to the Walker Sisters’ cabin is a quick and easy history hike, with plenty of parking. This hike starts at the bridge in the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area which is about 9 miles west of Sugarlands. You’ll walk less than a mile on Metcalf Bottoms Trail to an old school building and then a mile on Little Brier Gap Trail to the Walker Sisters’ cabin. These five sisters were celebrities in the park during the 1940s and 50s, so be sure to read a little bit about them before you go, so you’ll know what you are seeing.

There’s a “secret” entrance into the park that leads directly to Metcalf Bottoms. Between Pigeon Forge and Townsend, in the community of Wears Cove, on US 321, turn onto Lyon Springs Road (some maps call it Line Springs) which will take you quickly to Metcalf Bottoms. You’ll recognize this intersection by the nice, log building and a small sign for Wears Valley Ranch.

The hike to Andrews Bald gives you a lot of bang for your buck. It’s fairly easy and accessible, with an impressive payoff at the end, but not many people visit it. Park at the Clingmans Dome parking lot (before 10am or after 4pm during the peak season), and while almost everyone else takes the paved trail to Clingmans Dome, you will turn off to the left onto Forney Ridge Trail. Walk about 2 miles to Andrews Bald and enjoy the open views of the southern half of the park from a high, grassy field.

Abrams Falls is a good addition to a drive through Cades Cove. Look for the short road to Abrams Falls Trail at the western tip of the 11 mile loop road. The 2.5 mile hike to the falls is a pleasant river walk ending in a picturesque, 20 foot falls with a large pool at its base. It’s a great spot for a summer swim.

One of the most popular hikes in the park is Chimney Tops, about 7 miles south of Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road. To find a parking space you must arrive before 9am or after 3pm. The first mile of this classic Smokies hike is moderate while the second mile is tough, but the payoff at the end is fabulous and even a little scary. The last few hundred feet are not for the extremely young nor the faint of heart. On the other hand, thousands of soft, urban-dwellers do this hike every year, so you can, too. Just use good judgment at the top.

Alum Cave Trail (about 9 miles south of Sugarlands) to the top of Mount LeConte is one of the best hikes in the park. It’s hard and long, but the reward at the end is worth every drop of sweat. Because parking spaces fill quickly and because this is an all-day affair, arrive by 8am. The hike up will take about 4 hours but will take you to the crown jewel of the Smokies – Mt. LeConte. Once on top, you should take at least an hour to visit Myrtle Point and Cliff Top. Bring a map and compass so you can figure out what you are seeing. Almost every step of this trail has something dazzling to offer, so take your time and enjoy the journey. This trip has literally changed people’s lives. Yes, it’s that good.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’ve called these hikes Second Day hikes, but of course you can’t do all of them in a single day. So take your time. Spread them out over several months. Try them during different seasons (April through June, also November, are magnificent). They might just change your life.