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]

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