Sugarland Mountain and Huskey Gap - 7-17-11

On Sunday, I hiked with some friends of mine down the Sugarland Mountain Trail and we came out Huskey Gap Trail.  We started the hike off Clingmans Dome Road and hiked on the AT for 0.2 miles before reaching Sugarland Mountain.  From the beginning of the hike I was expecting a day much like the one before, as the elevation, temperature, and humidity were all about the same and the trail was just as muddy, but I was in for a big surprise!

After heading down Sugarland Mountain Trail for about 1 mile, the rocky trail ended and the soft dirt began.  As we descended down the spine of Sugarland Mountain, the fog began to lift and the plant life and weather began to change.  Towards the top we saw many fraiser fir trees and not too much in terms of greenery other than a few ferns here and there along the trail.  Once we got closer to the Rough Creek Trail junction, the variety started to show itself.  We also ended up with spectacular views.  

LeConte was highly visible, as well as the valley into Elkmont and Chimney Tops.  It’s very strange to be able to look at the Chimney’s from above, as I’ve only ever done that from the Alum Cave Trail before.  The flora, however, was the real show stopper.  We saw at least 75 turk’s cap lillies, several colors of bee balm, trillium fruiting, ferns everywhere, heal-all, Indian pipe at least 6-7 inches high, FOUR yellow-fringed orchids, rhododenron blooming, one very small section of flame azalea, black cohosh, and I’m sure a few I’m forgetting.  Every time we thought the flowers were probably done, we’d see even more.  For about 4 miles we saw nothing but gorgeous greenery and colorful wildflowers. 

We stopped at the old campsite 21 for a short break and refueling and then we were off again to Huskey Gap.  The Huskey Gap trail didn’t have much in the way of greenery or flowers.  We did see silver bells, but that was about it.  We also spotted a bear on the trail about a quarter-mile in front of us.  We knew we’d see one because the entire way down Sugarland Mountain was covered in bear scat and most all the rocks on the trail had been recently worked loose if you looked down at them.  Fortunately, the bear heard us coming, took a look, and scampered off down the trail.  We didn’t see him again.  

The road really sneaked up on us, which was strange considering how busy Newfound Gap Road is. All of a sudden you could see it, and you can see it before you hear it.  Getting back from this easy 11.2 mile hike wasn’t difficult at all and thankfully we were all able to cross the road quickly and safely. 

Sugarland Mountain Trail was truly an unexpected treat for me.  It’s so beautiful and unspoiled I hate to share the fact that it was so wonderful with anyone else for fear it might become too popular and lose it’s magic. 

Hemphill Bald Trail - 7-16-11

On Saturday, David and I were going to attempt a longer hike in the Balsam Mountain/Cataloochee section of the GSMNP.  We were going to do a loop hike consisting of Hemphill Bald Trail, Caldwell Fork, and Rough Fork Trail.  The weather didn’t cooperate and a sign at the Hemphill Bald and Rough Fork Trailheads let us know that 2.5 miles in on Caldwell Fork a bridge was out.  We didn’t know if we’d be using that bridge and the sign warned us that if it had recently rained the crossing would be dangerous.  

The temperature outside was in the high 50s at 9:30 a.m. when we arrived at the trailhead.  The humidity, however, was a nice near-100%.  The humidity was thick and took your breath as you were hiking a hill.  I had no idea how soaking wet one could be with sweat and condensation at 58 degrees until Saturday!  We decided after hiking for a short time that it would be safer and easier on the lungs if we just went to Hemphill Bald and came back down the trail.  The fog was so thick we could barely see more than 5 feet in front of us and we knew we’d see no views, so we weren’t too disappointed.  

On the way up the trail at about the 1-mile mark, you meet a split rail fence and follow it all the way up until about mile 4, when it turns into a barbed wire fence belonging to the Cataloochee Ranch.  We expected to see animals on this hike, but we were thinking elk.  We saw bulls, lots and lots of bulls, in that barbed wire fence.  We did hear a boar just before the 4-mile area though.  Not something I’d want to see or run in to!

As for wildlife, we truly didn’t see any until we got back into the car.  The flora, however, was much better than expected!  Lately in the Smokies I’ve been seeing lots of fungi due to the moisture and we saw no different today.  Reds, bright orange, yellow, and the standard tans grew all along the trail.  As for flowers we saw crimson bee balm, heal-all, and turk’s cap lillies, which was a true treat.  The elevation of the trail meant that rhododendron were only just starting to bloom, as elsewhere in the park they’re at the end of their flowering.  At the 3-mile mark, we walked through a gorgeous blooming rhododendron tunnel.  With the thick fog it made for a gorgeous sight!  

We didn’t see a soul until we were about 1.5 miles from the trailhead on our way out.  We passed a group of people wearing blue jeans and nice shoes.  At about the 1 mile to go point we passed two people about our age out on a day hike. 

On our way back down Balsam Mountain Road we did end up seeing two elk in the exact same place we saw them the last time we were up here, just a little bit before you reach the end of Flat Creek Trail. 

In summary, Hemphill Bald is uphill both ways and it ain’t no joke in the humidity.  I’d love to do this beautiful trail in the fall.