Thursday, June 16, 2011

One Big, Nasty, Tangled Mess (Part 5 of 5)

Any landslide in the Smoky Mountains will have two parts. The upper portion – the scar – consists mostly of bare rock where acres and acres of soil, shrubs, rock, and trees once resided. The lower portion – the debris field – consists of all those acres of soil, shrubs, rock, and trees, all thrown together into a tangled mess. Those high elevation scars are frighteningly beautiful and make for dramatic pictures. If you want to impress your friends, point to one of these scars on a mountain slope across the valley and tell them you’ve scrambled or slid down it.

The debris field at the bottom of the scar is a different matter. It’s wild and chaotic and not at all photogenic, definitely not postcard material. If you watch the welcome video at Sugarlands Visitor Center, you’ll see images of creeks, deer, mountain tops, and foggy mornings, but one thing you won’t see is a debris field. If the Smokies were a city, a debris field would be a ghetto or maybe the municipal landfill. It’s just not the sort of thing you advertise to the tourists because it isn’t pretty.

Debris fields are also difficult to maneuver because they consist mostly of tangled, criss-crossed trees and piles of rocky dirt. It’s bumpy going with plenty of opportunities to step into a hole or a soft spot or to slip off the tree trunk that you are walking on or climbing over. Then, of course, there are the snakes.

To be honest, I’ve walked through about a dozen debris fields, and I’ve never seen a snake in any of them, but there’s no question in my mind that these places must be full of them. When I’m hiking in the Smokies, I rarely think about snakes and other creepy, crawly things because dwelling on those possibilities would probably get me too spooked to go. So I put them out of my mind. Except, that is, for when I’m picking my way through a debris field. The rattlesnakes I’ve seen in the Smokies are usually lying in the middle of a tangle of rocks and tree branches -- and that’s exactly what a debris field is, multiplied by about 10 gazillion. For that reason, I try to avoid this tangled habitat in warm weather, preferring those cold days that push those cold-blooded critters into dormancy.

 The particular debris field that Greg Harrell and I picked our way through near the bottom of Anakeesta Ridge was impressive in a big, nasty, tangled sort of way. It’s impressive not because of its beauty but because of the sheer power that was required to create it. You can’t look at this sort of scene the way you look at Cades Cove or a sunset. Those sights are breathtakingly beautiful. No, you have to look at the debris field at the bottom of a landslide the way you look at the wreckage after a tornado or a tsunami. There’s a mixed sense of sadness and awe at the raw power that was momentarily unleashed to do its destructive work.

 It’s funny, then, that the spot where this mass of wreckage meets Newfound Gap Road at the south base of Anakeesta Ridge appears as a modest, little creek full of broken rock and young, birch trees. You’d never know, as you drive past, that the remnants of a massive, natural catastrophe lie just a few yards uphill from the road, hidden from view. When this landslide happened back in 1984, tons of mountainside were funneled down into a narrow valley and sped down the chute and out onto Newfound Gap Road. Bulldozers and dump trucks did such a good job of cleaning up the mess on the road that the typical car tourist hasn’t a clue that several hundred yards of debris begin just a few yards above the road.

 The best indicator that something out of the ordinary happened is the pure stand of yellow birch trees, all about four inches in diameter, filling up that narrow creekbed. There’s a similar stand of yellow birches along the bottom 1.5 miles of Alum Cave Trail where landslides of 1951 and 1993 both came roaring down the river valley, so apparently yellow birch trees are a pioneer species which specializes in the disturbed soil of a landslide. You can recognize these distinctive birches by their golden, papery bark that peels off in horizontal strips. I would have been tempted to call them paper birch, but my tree books tell me that paper birches don’t live in the Smokies. So these papery birches are actually yellow birches.

 As far as I know, there’s no law against exploring Anakeesta Ridge --- as far as I know – because being firm believers that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, we didn’t ask. (And if you don’t get caught, then… well… you don’t have to ask for forgiveness.) Luckily, our national parks really are parks for “the people,” and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of restrictions on our right to wander in the Smokies. If we had asked permission, we’d have received a brief lecture about safety and discretion, and then we’d have been told to have fun and be careful – which is exactly what we did.

 [There are easier and safer ways to visit landslides and debris fields, places that snakes avoid and rangers approve of: namely, Alum Cave Trail and Road Prong Trail. Both of these are popular and safe, yet challenging and beautiful, and I’d highly recommend them. For more details, visit the end of this article at

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A landslide took place on June 28, 1993 in the area called Huggins Hell, located above Alum Cave Trail. This is the same general area where the 1951 slides occurred, so there are still a few signs from the earlier slides, but most of these have been covered up by the passage of time and the more recent slide of ’93. To see part of this landslide, walk about 1.5 miles up this trail until you reach Arch Rock. At this point the trail turns right, crosses the creek (Styx Branch) on a small footbridge, and goes through Arch Rock. Before you cross the footbridge to enter Arch Rock, take a brief side trip by bearing to the left on the narrow path. You’ll only need to walk about 20 feet up this trail, then stop and look at the thin forest (yellow birch) up the slope, then look at the lumpy ground you are standing on, then turn around and look back down the trail and river valley that you just walked up. You are actually standing in the middle of the old, 1993 landslide debris field, full of yellow birches.

Now backtrack a few feet and follow the trail through Arch Rock and continue for about five minutes. You’ll cross Styx Branch again on a small footbridge, and within a couple of minutes you’ll cross a rocky creekbed that is not really a creekbed. (Although, it may have water running in it after a rainy spell.) It’s the scoured out path of the 1993 landslide that you were standing in five minutes ago. To see a little more you can walk five minutes uphill on this rocky route, then walk back downhill across the main trail. After about 10 minutes of walking down this rocky, messy route you’ll find yourself back at Arch Rock. You’ve been exploring the path of that 1993 landslide, a tangle of rocks and trees. This landslide consisted of a section of land about a quarter mile long and twenty feet deep sliding down into the Styx Branch riverbed, then Alum Cave Creek, and ending at Newfound Gap Road. In other words, your entire hike today has been in the path of a landslide. Before you leave Arch Rock, look downstream. Most of the trees in the creek valley are small birches that have sprung up since 1993. You probably didn’t notice that fact as you walked up the trail at the start of your hike; now, on your return trip, those young birches will be obvious and will accompany you all the way back to your car. Also accompanying you along the way are occasional lumps and gullies. Several places in the last mile down to your car, you’ll notice that the river is to your left and another ravine runs parallel to the trail to your right. This ravine and the rough embankment between you and it were all a part of this debris field.  

For good, up close views of landslide scars you’ll need to continue up Alum Cave Trail all the way to the top of Mt. LeConte. The top mile or so of this great, great trail will take you across several rocky scars, both old and recent, some overgrown with grass, some still bare. (The views from the top of LeConte are icing on the cake that makes this trail doubly worth the effort.)

Another landslide was the result of Hurricane Opal in 1995. This landslide is better known to hikers than drivers because no roads were affected. The Road Prong Trail is squeezed between Mount Mingus and Sugarland Mountain, just south of the Chimney Tops. Near the top of this popular trail, about a mile below the ridgecrest, there are very obvious, visible remnants of this event. There are large tangles of trees and rocks on both sides of the trail – and above the trail. There is one point where a tangle of large trees spreads over the creek and trail like a bridge. If this had been a road, the wreckage would have been cleared away quickly by chainsaws and bulldozers, but because this is a backcountry trail, the remnants of the slide remain.

The only other detail I’ll give about Anakeesta is that the small, inconspicuous creek that is at the bottom of Anakeesta’s 1984 debris field (the one Greg and I scrambled down) is on Newfound Gap Road about 1.9 miles below Newfound Gap. (If you are following the small, brown mile markers from Sugarlands, it would be about 12 ½.) You could park there and hike up into this debris field, the main risk being slippery rocks – although I’d do it in cold weather to avoid any unwanted encounters with snakes. There’s a good story about this 1984 landslide in Smokies Life Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1. It’s sold in most of the visitor centers in the park.