Wednesday, March 17, 2010

High Rocks: There's No App For That (Part 4 of 4)

The seven mile hike on Bear Creek Trail up the eastern slope of Welch Ridge was wonderfully, deathly calm. It was so serene and lonely that if a tree had fallen, it would not have made a sound, regardless of whether or not I had been there to hear it. The solitude caused me to stop several times to simply appreciate the fact that this is how it would have felt in October, 1491, or October, 3,000 BC. Same birds. Same clouds and fog, although a bit less acidic than now. Similar trees, but probably not the identical species – all the chestnuts are now gone, and the hemlocks are fading fast. Definitely the same quiet, the same feel. That’s the kind of stuff you think about when you are lucky enough to spend an entire day in the mountains without seeing another human being. Even if you aren’t the contemplative type, the stillness and loneliness forces it on you, if for no other reason than there’s nothing else to do.

About three hours after leaving Melissa and John at the Forney Creek campsite, I arrived at the Welch Ridge Trail. This portion of Welch Ridge is very easy, but I was only on it for about half a mile. As I began walking on Welch Ridge, I was hoping the trail to High Rocks would be well-marked and obvious. If I missed it, I would be alerted by Cold Spring Gap Trail which would be about half a mile past the High Rocks side trail. If I reached Cold Spring Gap, I’d just turn around and try again.

After a few minutes I changed my mind. I began to hope that the High Rocks side trail was obscure and poorly marked. Maybe the trail would be overgrown and the wooden sign would have rotted and washed away. After all, the point of this trip is to have this peak all to myself, right?

Well, no such luck. After a mere ten minute stroll on Welch Ridge, I came to the well-maintained side trail to High Rocks, marked with a solid wooden sign pointing the way. For about two seconds I considered tearing the sign down and throwing it in the bushes, but my conscience intervened at the last second, as it occasionally does in moments of severe temptation. Hikers tend to be good, altruistic people. They love wilderness and solitude, but they tend to be accommodating of other hikers, too. Just one, big, happy family. That’s why the sign was still standing there for me to see.

The side trail to High Rocks was quick and easy. There was an interesting spot where a few stairs had been cut into some rocks. There were shrubs growing in and around the steps. It looked like part of an old, undiscovered Mayan temple.

A few yards beyond the Mayan stairs was the site of the old firetower (four concrete pads) and a deteriorating cabin with a large blue tarp over the top of it, probably a sign that the NPS is trying to save the cabin and would soon repair the rotting roof and floors. Nevertheless, the inside of the cabin was still partly intact. Windows, paint, and even a few old tools. Someone had taken an old metal chair out of the cabin and set it up on the exposed rocks next to the cabin. I’m thrilled and amazed that it’s possible to find hidden jewels like this – old cabins that have not been ransacked by looters and defaced by vandals. High Rocks is a good, lonely spot.

High Rocks

The view? Well, it’s good, I suspect. High Rocks is one of the highest spots in this neck of the woods, but thick clouds were speeding across the peak, so the visibility was about 30 feet. It would be a good view, weather permitting – but keep in mind that in the Smokies weather often does not permit. Even on a clear day, the view would not be 360 degrees, but I can say with confidence that the trip was well worth the effort. A pleasant hike on a beautiful trail. A good variety of experiences – rivers, ridges, a fine view (“weather permitting”), an old cabin, mist, wind, and isolation. It’s the real world at its best, or to quote a recent commercial: “There’s no app for that.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fall Colors on Welch Ridge (Part 3 of 4)

On a crisp October afternoon, my daughter, her husband, and I had paddled across Fontana Lake to the Lower Forney Creek campsite. As evening approached, Melissa and John sat in their camp chairs by the small fire they had built. Wood is not plentiful at these backcountry sites, but we can always find enough downed wood if we’ll just search away from the trail. I’m not much of a fire builder, which gives the appearance of a thoughtful, low impact, wilderness ethic, but the truth is simpler – I’m lazy. I like a campfire, but I can do without it. Fortunately, just about every other person on the planet enjoys a good camp fire, so unless I’m camping alone, I usually have a fire provided for me. I felt guilty for letting Melissa and John do all the work, but not guilty enough to actually get up and help. In their youthful enthusiasm, I don’t think they even noticed.

Later that night, well after we had settled into our tents and sleeping bags, it started to rain. Rain on a tent fly, one of life’s best sounds. We all slept well. Mud in the morning is a small price to pay for rain at night.

The next morning was cloudy and wet, but not rainy. I ate a brown and orange breakfast – cheese crackers, granola bars, ginger snap cookies, and filtered river water. Lunch will be the same, plus some peanut M&M’s. One of the best things about hiking is that I can eat chocolate and peanuts with reckless abandon – a guiltless pleasure with no consequences; although, I have discovered that if I hike more than 12 hours, something amazing and unexpected happens – I get tired of the chocolate and peanuts. That’s something that has never happened in the other, civilized part of my life. It’s one of those indescribable mysteries that can happen in the mountains.

After breakfast I took off on another excursion – a seven mile hike up Bear Creek Trail to Welch Ridge and High Rocks. Melissa and John had decided to lounge around the campsite and attend to three essential campsite chores: eating, reading, and napping. Through self-discipline and sheer determination they managed to accomplish all three in the seven hours I was gone.

I didn’t necessarily expect High Rocks to be the most dramatic spot in the mountains because I don’t think there is a “most dramatic spot” in the Smokies. There are numerous great spots, and I don’t waste my time debating which one is the very best. However, it did seem that High Rocks could be one of the most isolated spots in the park – a site rarely visited even by avid hikers. It’s not a famous or dominant peak; although it is high, almost 5,200’. It is too far from any roads for it to be the destination of a reasonable day hike, the shortest route being a 10 mile (one way) walk from the Road to Nowhere. Twenty miles is beyond the upper limit for a day hike for most folks.

And, High Rocks is not really “on the way” to anything famous. It’s sort of on the way to Hazel Creek; although it’s near just one of several trails to Hazel. Actually, High Rocks is at the end of a half-mile, dead-end, side trail off Welch Ridge Trail, so to go there you have to intend to go there. All I can say is, I didn’t see anyone else at High Rocks or on the trails.

So I set off on this cloudy, cool, almost-drizzly morning. I soon arrived at Bear Creek Trail and began ascending the eastern slope of Welch Ridge with Bear Creek flowing next to the trail. Like many trails in the Smokies this one is wide and smooth because it was once a railroad bed for the lumber companies of the early 1900s. The fall colors were vivid – mostly yellows at these lower elevations, with brilliant reds and corals kicking in at the higher elevations. I love all the colors, even brown, but there’s something about the reds and corals that just make me stop and stare, as if God had just invented them and was showing them to me to see what I thought about the idea.

I paused for a second to tell Him that I was impressed and pleased. [To be continued]