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 www.greghoover.blogspot.com.)
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.