Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Sugar Fingers (Part 1 of 4)

The Smoky Mountains have a new addition – the Sugar Fingers. That’s not the official name, but it’s what some online, hiker groups are calling them. They were added to the park recently, not through a donation or purchase of new land. They were created in the past few months by fire and rain.

If you are familiar with the topography of the Smoky Mountains, then you are aware of the string of small, scenic pullouts along the road as you travel up from Gatlinburg toward Newfound Gap. Specifically, between the Chimney Tops Picnic Area and the parking lot of the Chimney Tops trail, there are several pullouts along the right side of the road. When you stop at these pullouts, your eyes are drawn east toward the Chimney Tops, those two rocky spires that are among the most heavily-visited sites in the park. Looking south across the valley gives a pleasant view of the slope of Sugarland Mountain, the long ridge that borders the road from Sugarlands Visitor Center (near Gatlinburg) to the Chimney Tops. In other words, as you drive up this road, just look to your right – you are looking at the slopes of Sugarland Mountain.

In spite of its prominent location, Sugarland Mountain is not very well-known. It’s not the highest or prettiest or “most” anything. Walking the Sugarland Mountain trail along its ridgecrest gives fabulous views of Mt. Le Conte, but Sugarland Mountain itself is kind of plain. Its most outstanding feature is the Chimney Tops; although, most of us think of the Chimney Tops as a separate thing – we don’t usually think of them as an appendage of Sugarland Mountain. Sugarland Mountain is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Smokies. No respect.

But all that has changed in the last few months.

You may also be familiar with Charlies Bunion, that wonderfully epic, rocky outcrop on the AT, four miles northeast of Newfound Gap. If you’ve visited the Bunion then you may also have read a bit of its history. Charlies Bunion (and the other rocky ridges in this part of the park) were created in the 1920s by a fire that swept through this area, burning away the flora and soil. Heavy rains over the subsequent years swept away the rest of the soil, leaving bare, rocky ridges that have only partially recovered over the past 90 years.

That same process is now at work on the slopes of Sugarland Mountain. The Chimneys fire of 2016 burned the upper sections of the Chimney Tops, leaving some burned and bare rocky ridges, then it skipped and jumped its way to Gatlinburg. The fire left most of Sugarland Mountain untouched or lightly-touched. However, the parts of Sugarland Mountain that were heavily burned – and washed bare by winter and spring rains – are the several side ridges that have become the Sugar Fingers.

(Note: I wrote about another “new” site in the park – the Third Chimney – in an earlier article.)

 [To be continued]

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Truth (and other casualties of hiking) Part 2 of 2

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern – on a long, hard hike, women often try to be encouraging, even to the point of outright lying. They’ll say things like, “Oh yes, you’re doing great!” Or, “You’re getting close. Just a little farther.” Or, the outright lie, “Yes, you’re almost there.” Even though they know that I’m not almost there, and I know that I’m not almost there, but they don’t know that I know that I’m not. So they lie, expecting me to believe, which sort of makes one wonder about the veracity of the encouragement that we give each other on a daily basis. How often are we faced with this decision: do I give some words of encouragement or do I tell the truth? When you can do both, then do it with grace and enthusiasm, but when you can’t do both, most of us choose to stretch the truth almost to the breaking point. It’s a quaint American custom, but it really isn’t so bad. Lying out of kindness or comfort is better than lying out of greed, pride, and selfishness which, now that I think about it, is also an American custom.  

The other half of the story is hearing what their male hiking partners say. Indeed, I may have found the one area of life in which guys are more truthful than women. On this particular evening hike to the Chimney Tops, a woman had just lied to me: “Yes, just a little bit farther. You’re almost there.” Her lie was so brazen, so deliberate, that I almost called her out, but before I could work up the nerve to chastise her, her husband – who was ten or twenty feet behind her – leaned in toward me, looked ahead to make sure she couldn’t hear him, and he whispered, “Dude, it’s nothing but up from here, and you’re not even close. It’s worth it, for sure, but I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”

I appreciated hearing the unblemished truth from this weary stranger, but as he warned me of the fate that awaited me, I noticed one possible blemish on his version of the truth. He failed to mention that he was a smoker – I saw the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket – which would mean that his estimation of the difficulty that lay ahead was a bit exaggerated because his lungs were in a weakened state. I wondered if he was one of those guys that you see occasionally on a trail – they’re slogging slowly uphill, gasping for air, so they stop for a break… to rest… and to suck on another cigarette. I’ve never understood why any rational human would take up smoking, but I’ve also heard that most smokers started when they were in their mid-teens, which sort of answers my own question – you know, the part about “rational” humans. And I understand even less why someone who is gasping for air on a hike would think the delightful mixture of smoke, tar, and nicotine would somehow help. I suppose it helps in a different way, not to help the air flow, but to soothe the nerves and to give courage. Which is really the main reason I’m not a smoker (or drinker) – it’s not so much the health hazard; it’s the fact that I think comfort and courage should come from within oneself, rather than from an outside, psychoactive crutch. About the only crutch I use on a regular basis is a hiking stick.

After his sincere warning, he put his head down and hustled to catch up with his lying wife. He seemed a bit sheepish for having told the unadulterated truth, but I’m sure he was proud of himself for having done his good deed for the day. He had made a valiant effort to save me from the fate he had suffered a few hours earlier – a (literally) breath-taking uphill march, ending in breath-taking views from the top.

I went on, in spite of his efforts, and he was right about one thing – it was well worth it, as the Chimney Tops always are.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Girls Are Such Liiars (Part 1 of 2)

Girls are sometimes such liars… but they mean well.

It was late on a Friday afternoon in July, the peak of tourist season, a few months before the Gatlinburg fires. The traffic had been a bit thick but not yet unbearable, but it would become so in another couple of hours as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge would begin to overflow with tourists lining up to eat or just walk the streets. I’d like to say the most challenging part of spending time in the mountains is the rough, long trails or the impenetrable stands of rhododendron, but to be honest, the biggest challenge is usually the traffic. Even if you intend to spend time in a remote part of the park with very few people, you still have to get there. So traffic – especially in June, July, and August – is an inevitable part of the picture, requiring patience, perseverance, and good music to soothe the savage beast that lurks in the hearts of each of us when we are stuck in traffic.

I slipped through Gatlinburg and drove past Sugarlands and approached the Chimneys area – first the picnic area, then the view of the Chimney Tops in the distance, then the parking lot at the trailhead to the Chimney Tops. This trail is one of the most popular (i.e., crowded) trails in the park. It is two miles, one-way, and mostly up, sometimes steeply. The top end of the trail is an open, airy, exposed, rocky peak that is a bit scary in a few places. It’s a great spot if you can manage the last 50 yards of steep crawling. A lot of people can’t handle those last 50 yards, but a lot of people can, so the entire top is usually full of people. As you drive toward it, if you’ll stop and look carefully at the top, you’ll see what appears to be a colony of ants crawling all along the uppermost ridge and top. The rock itself seems to be heaving and waving. You stop and squint and rub your eyes and look again, and the rock is still moving. But it’s not the rock. It’s the dozens of people on the rock – a colony of tourists, not ants.  

My secret to visiting the Chimneys is to go late in the afternoon, a couple of hours before sunset, as most of the folks are hiking down the trail and back to their cars. From the lofty perch on either the first or second Chimney Top, I watch the sun set, then I turn on my headlamp and walk back down the trail in the dark. I almost always have the Chimney Tops and their trail all to myself. It’s the perfect plan, if you don’t mind hiking in the dark.

Occasionally, I’ll entertain myself on the hike up to the Chimneys by asking an occasional hiker who’s going back down to her car, “Am I getting close?” I’ll ask this at the beginning of the steep part of the hike, knowing that I have a mile to go, which for most of us is definitely not “almost there.” Not to mention the fact that there’s about a half-mile of steep trail just a few minutes in front of me.

The entertainment I derive from this little game is in hearing what the down-hikers have to say in response to my query. Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern – women try to be encouraging, even to the point of outright lying. They’ll say things like, “Oh yes, you’re doing great!” Or, “You’re getting close. Just a little farther.” Or, the outright lie, “Yes, you’re almost there.” Even though they know that I’m not almost there, and I know that I’m not almost there, but they don’t know that I know that I’m not. So they lie, expecting me to believe. [To be continued]

Monday, January 2, 2017

Paths Less Traveled

Paths Less Traveled

In the Great Smoky Mountains

Paths Less Traveled and my first book Hallowed Hills, Holy Waters are available at


This blog post is the full Epilogue for Paths Less Traveled. It adds more detail to the abridged version that appears in the book.

Also, as this book and its Epilogue were being finalized, the Chimney 2 Fire (November 28, 2016) burned some of the park, Gatlinburg, and other surrounding areas. Most of this full Epilogue was written before the fire, but a few sections were added after.


More Stuff You Might Want to Know

Preface: Bearways & Another Preface: The 900 Mile Club

Most of our off-trail hiking centers around the Chimneys, Mount Le Conte, Porters Creek and Lester Prong watersheds, and the Greenbrier Pinnacle area. One unforgivable omission in this book is Mount Cammerer on the eastern tip of the park. It’s a great area, but I simply ran out of space.

I’ll just say this: The Groundhog Ridge manway begins on Hwy 32 beyond the town of Cosby, about 4.7 miles past the Cosby post office. The manway parallels Groundhog Creek for a while and crosses the Lower Mt. Cammerer trail on its way to the lookout tower at the top of Cammerer. There are numerous off-trail trips from Groundhog Ridge to Robinson Creek; every ridge and creek is a good possibility. Some are nasty with greenbrier vines and rhododendron. Others are more manageable. Most end with some fine, exposed rocky outcrops near the top as you approach the Mt. Cammerer lookout tower. By the way, you might be surprised how many local folks are familiar with this Groundhog Ridge route. It is not well-known among the general public, yet it is one of the better-known off-trail paths in the Smokies.

Other omissions, some forgivable and some unforgivable:

·        Parton Peaks: hop off Alum Cave trail at Arch Rock, scramble up above Arch Rock, and follow the ridge up. Arch Rock is the bottom tip of this ridge. (If you are using the standard, USGS topo map, Arch Rock is shown in the wrong location.)

·         NoName Ridge: ascend Alum Cave Creek from Alum Cave trail; there’s a Y shaped scar at 35.6354, 83.4262 which we use as the entrance and exit ramp.

·        Anakeesta Ridge: This book described a route on the south side, but Anakeesta Ridge is also accessible from the north via Alum Cave Creek (via Alum Cave Trail, but the split in the creek is a bit hidden from the trail). There’s a magnificent scar (we call it “Anakeesta Canyon;” at 35.63271, 83.41970 you are pretty much in the center of this canyon) that can take you to the top of Anakeesta Ridge. You can go over the top and down the landslide scar on the south slope. You’ll end up on Newfound Gap Road, a mile or two above your car which is parked down at the Alum Cave Trail trailhead. 

·        There’s an interesting, steep “bowl” on Sugarland Mountain – just west of the Chimneys and directly south of the Chimneys Picnic area. I’ve only been on it once, but we called it the Jumpoff’s Little Sister because it was steep and very Jumpoff-ish in some places. Start at the Chimneys Picnic area and head south into the bowl, then top out on the Sugarland Mountain trail. Honestly, I don’t know why this part of the park doesn’t get more attention from us off-trailers. It deserves a closer look. You could do a big, interesting loop by going up this part of Sugarland Mountain, then find the manway off Sugarland Mountain trail to the Chimneys, then to down to the Third Chimney and bear west back down to your car at the Chimneys Picnic Area. [Note from December, 2016, after the Chimney 2 Fire: Some of this section of Sugarland Mountain was burned, but not extensively. It may have opened up some good routes up the Jumpoff’s Little Sister. Another Note, July, 2017: Several side ridges on Sugarland Mountain were burned by the fire and much of the soil and vegetation has been washed away, revealing some great, somewhat-scary routes from the Chimney Tops Picnic Area up to the Sugarland Mountain trail. I've blogged about these "Sugar Fingers" on this blog starting in July, 2017.]

Peak of Cammerer, from Groundhog Ridge path

Pam & Keith Oakes, Top of Cammerer

Introduction: In The Beginning

To increase your chances for success, your first off-trail jaunt should be on a trail. Yes, there are actually quite a few old trails in the park that are no longer officially maintained, but they are still clearly defined by the footsteps of that 1% who still know about them. These are trails that are easy to find and easy to follow because they are very obvious – once you know where they are. But you can’t discover them by looking at the park’s maps and literature because the NPS doesn’t advertise their existence. You have to ask the right people in the right way – rangers, backcountry office employees, knowledgeable friends, Google, GoSmokies.

Here a few to get you started: Kalanu Prong (near the start of the side road to Ramsey Cascades), Greenbrier Pinnacle (a decommissioned trail off Ramsey Cascades trail), Indian Flats Falls (just off Middle Prong trail at the end of the Tremont road; only a small part is off-trail), Thunderhead Prong (past Tremont), Rhododendron Creek (near Greenbrier ranger station).

If you try any old paths like this, you should probably do it in the summer, after there’s been enough foot traffic on it to maintain the path. Definitely don’t do these in the late fall when there’s a carpet of leaves on the forest floor which will hide the path. Ditto for winter trips with a carpet of snow. In these two seasons, you’ll see just a broad expanse of brown or white, with no visible path.

If you want to go a step beyond the old paths, I’d suggest the Trout Branch trip. The Trout Branch parking area is on the left side of NFG road (as you go up from Gatlinburg). It’s the third creek crossing under the road beyond the road’s Loop. Rock hop less than an hour to the debris field (a path is being worn on the right side of the debris pile) and then go a few minutes beyond, or keep going all the way to Alum Cave trail. If you get nervous, just backtrack to your starting point. If you make it all the way to AC trail, then hike down the trail. Walk or hitch a ride ¾ of a mile back to your car at Trout Branch. In the white, sandstone cliffs just beyond the debris field, there are some magnificent views of the Chimneys.

There are undoubtedly a lot of off-trail adventures available in all sections of the park, but my partners and I have restricted most of our trips to the northeast quadrant – Le Conte, Greenbrier, Cammerer. About the only time we cross the street is to explore the Chimney Tops. One reason is because there are so many “sharp edges” in this northeast section of the park. Another is that it’s the closest to Jefferson County, where we live. Third, there’s just so much to explore here that we simply haven’t gotten around to migrating west or south.

Chapter 1: Keepers of the Secret

You probably figured out that this chapter is about Mill Creek Cascade (about 3,000’ on Mill Creek). If you ever visit this cascade… there’s also a large cascade on nearby Sugar Cove Branch (about 3,600’ on Sugar Cove Branch).

This quote from the chapter describes several real spots that we’ve discovered over the years: “And, who knows, maybe I’ll discover some out of the way, secret spot – a grove of chestnut trees, a field of boulders covered in ferns, a rocky alcove, a perfect lunch spot – that would be worth keeping to myself.” Yes, we have.

Chapter 2: The Saddest Spot in the Smokies

The Barnes home site (35.71828; 83.35930) is a fairly tame adventure, but the trail does get hazy in a few places. Always bring a map and compass or, preferably, a GPS (and knowledge of how to use them). Always tell someone at home where you are going and when to expect you back. It’s best not to do this or any off-trail hike alone. When lost, two heads are usually better than one. For this particular hike, spring and summer are the best options because the trail is less likely to be hidden under several inches of freshly fallen leaves or snow.

If you look carefully, the trail continues from the graves through the shrubs and forest for about 1 or 2 minutes to a flat, boggy area. An old chimney is on your left as you enter this open area. This is the old Barnes home site. Find the “oak tree spring” and follow its flow down the slope – this leads to Bird Branch, which will lead you up to the base of the cliffs. That’s our standard route to the cliffs of Greenbrier Pinnacle. If you take this route, build a big, rock cairn (or drop a GPS pin) at the spot where the creek from the Barnes homesite merges with Bird Branch. If you come back down Bird Branch at the end of the day, you might need some help in relocating this junction.

Three Barnes Kids

Chapter 3: Don’t Do It!

You’ll be surprised how well-worn this old manway is. Apparently quite a few people know about it. Not a lot of people, but enough to keep it worn. It’s one of the best-known off-trail routes in the park, probably because it’s described in the “blue book” – that’s the old 1970’s Sierra Club Hiker’s Guide to the Smokies.

The most important detail in finding this old manway is this… when you get to campsite #31, the trail officially ends, but it actually splits at the small, wooden marker that says “31” in it. Bear left at that split. In less than a minute, the manway will take you down and across a gully that is about five feet deep and ten or twenty feet across. As soon as you rise out of the gully onto level ground, do not follow the path straight ahead. Instead, look for a fainter path to the right. Go right. That’s the Porters Creek manway.

If you are a Smokies off-trailer, you may be familiar with the name Jenny Bennett. Her body was found near the manway’s first crossing of Porters Creek. This is where she chose to die, which I completely understand.

Brian & Seneca's Cairn

Chapter 4: The Hunt for Drinkwater Pool

To make this a really big trip, cross over the ridge at Drinkwater Gap (just up the slope from Drinkwater Pool), and descend to Buck Fork. Slosh down this pretty creek to the Middle Prong and down to the spot where Ramsey Prong pours into it. At this point, hop back on the Ramsey Cascade trail to take you back to your car at the Ramsey Cascades trailhead. (You’ll get wet, and you’ll need a long day to do this before dark, so do this in the hot, long days of July.)

SMHC, Top of Second Cascade (Buck Fork Cascade)
A long descent behind us

Clayton Carver "Baptized" at Drinkwater Pool

Chapter 5: Place of the Balsams

There are easier and safer ways to visit landslides and debris fields, places that snakes avoid and rangers approve of: namely, Alum Cave Trail.

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. 

The small, inconspicuous creek that is at the bottom of Anakeesta’s 1984 debris field (the one Greg and I scrambled down in this chapter) is on Newfound Gap Road about 1.9 miles below Newfound Gap. (If you are following the small mile markers from Sugarlands, it near milepost #13.) You could park near 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.

By the way, the tricky split on Anakeesta Ridge that Greg and I inadvertently took on our first trip (i.e., the one that took us south) is 35.63083, 83.41886. I hesitate to call it a split because it’s invisible. It’s more like a time warp.

Scars of south side of Anakeesta Ridge

Chapter 6: A Gorge, A Ranger, and Raven Fork

Wow! What a great place! I can’t imagine carrying a kayak up there, but people do it. To hike it, wait until there’s been a long, dry spell, so the water flow will be safe and manageable. In this gorge – and every river – keep an eye and ear on the weather upstream. A thunderstorm a couple of miles above you could send a wall of water down the river valley. It rarely happens, but it does happen.

A reasonable option for doing the Gorge is to hike up the trail to the Enloe Creek backcountry campsite, then hike downstream into the Gorge, then hike back up to the campsite at the end of the day and back down the trail to your car. This isn’t the exact route that we took, but it would be less complicated than our route (but a bit longer).

Chapter 7: Friends in High Places

The falcon family on Little Duck Hawk is well documented and even advertised. I’ve seen an occasional reference in NPS literature about the falcons on this ridge. A second pair near Charlies Bunion is a bit more enigmatic. In the fall of 2010 several of us on a ridge just east of Charlies Bunion witnessed three peregrine falcons harass and attack a hawk that had soared into their territory between us and the Bunion. (It was a great bird-watching moment for all of us; even the non-bird-watchers among us were greatly impressed.) From what I’ve read, protecting territory is “consistent with nesting behavior.” So we definitely saw three peregrines in the area – at one point, they flew right over our heads, within about 50 feet; we could even hear the wind in their wings as they turned and dove – but we don’t really know for certain that they are nesting in the area, nor do we know if the NPS has actually studied them to determine if they are nesting and breeding.

We’ve also seen falcons on Mt. Cammerer, a bit below the lookout tower, on the Tennessee side of the mountain, but not every year. They seem to be sporadic, but if it’s a decent nesting site, a pair ought to eventually settle in permanently, once all the better spots are taken, right?

The "Train Wreck" at the bottom of
the Thousand Foot Scar on Trout Branch
Scrambling up exposed rock on
Thousand Foot Scar


Chapter 8: The Land of Sharp Edges

This story was actually a compilation of three separate trips, all done within one month. Once I went left, twice I went right. They were all great and hard, and so far there’s no “standard” route that I could recommend. Just try to survive.

Since that one-month fling, I’ve been back a few times to the base of the Jumpoff at 4,700’ just to look and take pictures. I love Lester Prong! It’s a wonderland.

In Novemer, 2016, several of us hiked to the base (at 4,700’) of Jumpoff Cascade. (This was the Ken Wise “Oh, my gosh!” moment I mentioned in the book’s Epilogue.) I exited via Lester Prong and Porters Creek. The others went up the Jumpoff. It was a big day for them, but they may have found what might be called a standard route up the Jumpoff. I didn’t think that was possible, but they say maybe it is. Wherever it is, it will be hard to describe in words, but maybe Greg Harrell will try to explain it in his book, if he actually gets around to writing it.  

A small piece of Jumpoff Cascade

Charlie Roth & Keith Oakes on
Jumpoff Cascade

Chapter 9: Cat Stairs, Falcon Cliffs, and Snake Dens

The trail to the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle was closed sometime in the 1980s because of a “hacking” program that was being carried out at that time. (Hacking is raising the falcons in captivity and then releasing them into the wild, hoping they’ll survive, nest, and reproduce.) A pair of peregrines were spotted in 2003 near the cliffs at the western end of Greenbrier Pinnacle, but they didn’t stay longer than one or two seasons and were not seen again… until Greg Harrell and I saw a nesting pair in the spring of 2013. As I write this in late 2016, we’ve seen them every spring since 2013, so maybe they are here to stay.

From the Barnes home site: Behind the chimney a path goes north to a spot on Copeland Divide where you can make a sharp right turn and follow this ridge up through the Cat Stairs to the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle. The GPS location of this sharp right turn is 35.7259, 83.3619. But beware, if you return by the same route you came up, the path down Copeland Divide through the Cat Stairs can be tricky. In short, it’s almost impossible to get lost when you go up a ridge. However, it’s very easy to get off course when you go down a ridge. (It’s the same reason – but in reverse – that it’s easy to get off track when you go up a creek, but not down.) If that doesn’t make sense, you probably haven’t done enough off-trail hiking to try the Cat Stairs section of this extended hike (unless you have a GPS that you can use to mark routes and waypoints).

As you could perhaps tell by the story, we rarely hike the Copeland Divide route anymore. We always go to the Barnes site, then drop down into the creek (Bird Branch) and follow one of its branches up to the cliffs.

By the way, if you are familiar with the old, decommissioned Greenbrier Pinnacle trail, you are probably familiar with the one, good view at the overlook just before you make a sharp right turn to head up to the summit and the site of the old firetower. As you stand at that one, good overlook, look down. The deep ravine you see below you is our Cable route. You can actually crawl down into it (via the rhody and laurel thicket a few yards up the trail) and scramble down through this cut in the cliffs. As you near the impassable base of the cliffs, you’ll probably need to bear to the right, up into the rocks, to find a route down – going straight down the middle of the ravine at the bottom of the cliffs is a bit too steep and messy. Go right and scramble down.

Greg Hoover on Split Rock, near Best Lunch Spot
in Cat Stairs of Greenbrier Pinnacle
Keith Oakes at Best Lunch Spot
Falcon Cliffs in background
(before the falcons had returned)
A local resident of Bird Branch near Cat Stairs

Chapter 10: The Three Sisters

I included the part about the Tourist Bunion (today’s Charlies Bunion) because we did it. But really, I won’t do it again, and I would advise against anyone else doing it. It really, truly has some dangerous spots where a slip would be fatal. I distinctly remember that one of those spots didn’t have an abundance of good, solid handholds.

By the way, we don’t climb a lot of vertical cliffs and outcrops, and we don’t use ropes to keep us safe. (It’s my understanding that technical rock climbing using ropes, harnesses, etc. is prohibited in the park.) So that’s the trade-off: we don’t usually need ropes to keep us safe, but that means that we have no safety ropes if, by chance, we do need them (or, want them, to feel safer).

For most of our favorite spots in the park, we have a “standard” off-trail route, and the Three Sisters is no exception. This chapter, however, didn’t describe our standard route that we’ve adopted. Greg Harrell would say his standard route is to start at the Porters Creek trailhead, hike to campsite 31, take the manway to the junction of Porters Creek and Lester Prong. Take Lester to the First Trib and use that creek as your access to the Rocky Crag ridge. At the end of the day, you walk on the AT to the top of the Dry Sluice (aka Porters Creek) manway, then take Dry Sluice back to campsite 31, etc.

I, on the other hand, have an easier standard route which starts and ends at Newfound Gap. Hike on the AT a bit past Charlies Bunion to the top of the Middle Crag ridge. Scramble down this Middle Crag ridge to the swag across from the Pyramid, then drop right (east) off this Middle ridge to the base of the Pyramid. Then hike up the edge of the Pyramid to its peak on Rocky Crag ridge. Then hike and climb this ridge up and over Falcon Point to the very top. From the top it’s an easy five minute hike down the brushy slope to the AT.

Your first time or two, you might miss the base of the Pyramid and the “edge” that you scramble up. The base of the Pyramid (at the edge that you want to climb up) is at about 4,400’ in the First Trib between Rocky Crag and Middle Crag ridges. My GPS coordinates for the spot to begin your ascent of the edge of the Pyramid are 35.6416, 83.3759. As I recall, my GPS signal wasn’t strong when I read those coordinates, so they might not be accurate.

By the way, if you wonder why we call it the Pyramid, you need to stand on Charlies Bunion and scramble a few yards to the north of the trail. Just as you are scrambling on the rocks of Charlies Bunion and getting into scary territory, look east at the Middle and Rocky ridges, and (on the Rocky Crag ridge) you’ll see the top and edge of the Pyramid become clear and obvious. If you are fearful of heights (or widths?), don’t do any of this.

Pyramid and Falcon Point
on Rocky Crag Ridge
(from Charlies Bunion)
Looking up at Falcon Point
(where I had my meltdown)

My favorite picture ever: Greg Hoover & Lucas McHamm
on Falcon Point
(My apologies: I can't remember who took this picture. Maybe Ronnie McCall?)

Chapter 11: A Road Runs Through It

I enjoy finding old roads or railroad grades – on the ground and on maps. There are usually the remnants of old homes and fences by these old roads. The history is interesting, and old maps are great for this. There’s an old “1931 map” that off-trailers use. There’s also a “1949 map” that is useful. There are plenty of dotted lines on these and other old maps. Of course, the standard USGS topo quad maps have dotted lines as well.

We started our off-trailing experiences by finding lines on old maps, but after a couple of years we broke free from the dotted lines and began focusing on ridgecrests and creeks. So it’s been a while since I’ve scoured old maps for dotted lines. But I do fondly remember poring over those maps, looking for new adventures. If you enjoy maps, then getting into this aspect of loving the Smokies will be a lot of fun for you.

Chapter 12: Alone on the Chimneys

This chapter describes a great plan for visiting the Chimneys without the crowds, but it doesn’t describe any off-trail routes. So, here’s a bit more info.

Our standard Chimneys off-trail route is to start at the road tunnel below the Chimneys trailhead. Find the bottom of the U in the river below the tunnel (the U in the river is formed by the end of the ridge that the tunnel cuts through.), then cross the river at the bottom of the U and head up the slope. This is a somewhat wide slope with no clear, obvious central ravine to ascend. We tend to stay slightly to the right of center in this slope, but not so far right that we enter the rhododendron. Eventually, a creek forms underneath you, and there’s a decent waterfall/cascade to go up and around. Stay in this wet ravine (bearing slightly to the right when in doubt) and this will lead you to the ridgecrest that will lead up/left to the lower, north Chimney.

But before you turn left at the crest of that ridge, you might want to turn right on the ridge and follow its crest for about five or ten minutes to the Third Chimney. This Third Chimney is our name for an open point/bend of this ridge. If this area were denuded of trees and shrubs like the two main Chimneys are, then this area would be another, bare ridge leading from the second, lower Chimney to a third, lowest Chimney. Of course, this ridge is not denuded, so this spot could be a third, bare Chimney, but it isn’t.

Our Third Chimney has some history of visitation to it because there’s a three foot rock cairn on it. That’s how you’ll know you’ve found it. At this Third Chimney, the ridge bears left just enough to inadvertently lead you past and away from the Third Chimney and the 3’ cairn. If you find yourself on your hands and knees in a mountain laurel thicket you are in the right vicinity. Bear to your right just a bit as you crawl through this thicket. This will lead you to an open, rocky ledge and the cairn.

Of course, there are also routes from the Chimneys Picnic area to the Third Chimney and then up the ridgecrest to the Second Chimney. After trying several routes, we settled on the route I just described as our preferred, standard off-trail route to the Chimneys. Others might prefer one of the routes from the picnic area.

A PostScript from after the November, 2016 fire.

The Chimney 2 Fire (probably intentionally started by two stupid teenagers) burned the lower Chimneys area, including the east slope of the Chimneys and the Third Chimney. The Third Chimney and the ridge leading down to it from the Second Chimney are now (as of December, 2016) bare. So, there is presently a Third Chimney which is accessible from the Second Chimney as well as from below. Time and rain will tell us whether this ridge and Chimney will remain bare or whether there’s enough soil remaining to allow vegetation to repopulate and enclose them. There’s also probably some question as to whether the NPS will even allow off-trail hiking in the burn area. (My blog that you are presently visiting has two blog posts in December, 2016, about the fire and the new, Third Chimney.)

There are also a couple of interesting ridges leading up the east slopes of the First and Second Chimneys. These slopes, side ridges, and the Third Chimney are best viewed from the east – Big Duck Hawk Ridge, the Thousand Foot Scar of Trout Branch, and Le Conte’s Cliff Tops are the prime candidates. Best views are early in the morning, before the sun moves above and behind these eastern-slope ridges.

Picture taken Dec. 2016, from Thousand Foot Scar on Trout Branch
 (a few weeks after the fire)
Chimney Tops, upper left
Third Chimney, far right

Zoomed in on Third Chimney
December, 2016

Chapter 13: The Simple Gifts of Styx Branch

This isn’t an easy route, but it’s the “easiest” off-trail route to the top of Le Conte, simply because it starts at a higher elevation than any other routes on either the south or the north sides of Le Conte. There’s less elevation change on this route; although, it doesn’t feel like it while you are doing it.

If you decide to explore the north side of Mount Le Conte, one of the best-known routes is Roaring Fork. To do this hike you should hike up Trillium Gap trail to Grotto Falls. At Grotto Falls, scramble around to the top of the falls and follow the creek (Roaring Fork) to the top of Mount Le Conte. As you ascend, bear right at the significant split at 4,600’ and continue through an endless series of 50’ and 100’ waterfalls and cascades all the way to Basin Spring on the top of Mount Le Conte. If you pop out onto a trail, but not right at Basin Spring, you are probably near the Le Conte Lodge. If unsure of your whereabouts, go up and you’ll end up near the lodge. Le Conte is too “civilized” at the top for you to stay lost for more than a few minutes. Again, take a GPS device as a security blanket. Don’t do this alone. If fact, do it with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club whenever they do it.

The route that I describe in the story requires that you bear right at the fork in Styx at 4,700’, then left at 4,850’ and left at 5,050’. This is my favorite route. As you near the top, you may not come out right at Myrtle Point because there’s not an obvious ravine or bearway to follow. You may do some wandering, but once you reach the ridgecrest, just follow it up to Myrtle. By the way, there’s not a single, “right” route to take; you can go left at 4,700’ and you’ll be fine, but you’ll probably end up above Myrtle Point, perhaps near High Top.

Typical terrain on Styx
More typical terrain

Greg Harrell's Selfie on Styx