Dapper Dan and I both had busy weekends, but it’s so hard to just stay off the trail, especially when one has good weather on a winter weekend. We decided to do a short dayhike and start early. Our hike would take us on five trails in the Smokies, West Prong, Bote Mountain, Finely Cane, Turkey Pen Ridge, and Schoolhouse Gap, making a loop so we would only need to take one car. We hiked a total of 14.3 miles in five hours and felt like a million bucks, all before 12:30 on a sunny and chilly afternoon.
We started off just after daybreak on a cold morning in Tremont in the Smokies. Our trail immediately began a gentle, but continuous, climb up the side of Fodderstack Mountain. In our first 1.1 miles, we’d see three side connecting trails meeting ours, two of them forming a rough loop to a maintained cemetery and one of them a horse concession. The ground was frozen beneath our feet and the leaves covered in a layer of frost. In the first mile we began to break a sweat, which I always find amusing on a cold day, and continued up to our top point. From here we walked down into campsite 18, a huge campsite directly on West Prong, and then up a short and easy hill to the Bote Mountain Trailhead. We have awesome views here up to the AT and there was a lot of snow visible up there. It appeared to still be snowing up there as well, but it could have just been mist. We get to Finely Cane Trail in less than 10 minutes.
Finely Cane is normally not my favorite trail. It’s fairly easy to hike and very easy to follow, but it’s usually a nasty and muddy mess after it has been raining like it had this week. Thankfully, the ground was still pretty frozen and we had easy and uneventful walking on this trail as well. The “dark” sides of the hills still had a dusting of snow on them and the stream crossings were low and cold. We reached the end of Finely Cane quickly and crossed over Laurel Creek Road to Turkey Pen Ridge.
When reaching Turkey Pen, we were met immediately by two deeper creek crossings, thanks in part to the recent rains and the high water on Laurel Creek. Thankfully, it was Dapper Dan to the rescue who wanted to keep my feet dry so I wouldn’t get cold. He piggy-backed me over the two crossings and we started our way uphill. While going up the hill, you could see back into the “holler” and it was evidently an old homesite with farm land, rock piles and flat land around a creek. The trail is relatively uneventful until we get to Pinkroot Branch, when I cross and jump directly in to a pile of mud and leaves and cold, stagnant water halfway to my knees. It was good for a laugh considering the lengths we went to so my feet would stay dry. With soggy feet and a good laugh, we continue onward to the top of the ridge, then around to the back side of the hill we’re on. The temperature dropped at least 10 degrees on the other side of the hill and we pressed on, knowing we were close to the trailhead.
At the Schoolhouse Gap Trailhead, we see the first people we’ve seen all day at close to 11 a.m., heading up for a backpack on Scott Mountain. We wished them a happy trip and walked down the old wide, muddy gravel road to where Laurel Creek Road meets up at the parking lot. Close to the parking area, we see two day hikers and we get excited, bringing our people count to four, a stark contrast to the nearly 30 we saw last weekend by this time. We stopped for a light snack at about 11 at the trailhead and continued onward.
We crossed Laurel Creek Road for the second time and started up Bote Mountain, another old road that is wide, gently graded, and easy to hike. By now, the sun is really shining and the skies are bright blue. We saw our first wildlife of the day as well, a squirrel, about halfway up. We noticed fresh horse tracks in front of us, but never caught up to the horses. This 1.2-mile segment ended quickly and brought us back to West Prong Trail for the second time, which we would take out to the car. At 2.7 miles, we were out in less than 1 hour. About 0.25 miles from the trailhead, we saw our last set of people, bringing the total headcount for the day to six.
There wasn’t much scenery or wildlife on any of the trails today, which is common in winter hiking. The views we did get were from West Prong Trail and Bote Mountain. The skies were clear and the company was fantastic. The fact we got all of our hiking done that fast and early was a pleasant surprise.