Saturday, June 2, 2012

Swallow Fork Trail and a Few Other Thoughts

After a day of rest, we’re feeling our normal “old” selves again.  We did get up off the sofa yesterday long enough to deal with all the wet and dirty gear we brought home for our backpacking trip.  That wasn’t as easy a chore as we’d expected.  Normally, we would have spread the tent, pads, and sleeping bags out in the sun to dry thoroughly.  It was raining here yesterday so that wasn’t a possibility.  The other option was to spread everything out inside and we cranked the AC to very cold to help eliminate the moisture inside the motorhome.  That left very little room for walking, but we weren’t much up for walking around anyway so it worked out fine. By mid-afternoon everything was dry and ready to put away.

I don't know fungi, but we saw some pretty big ones this trip.

Our real purpose for this backpack was to hike Swallow Fork Trail.  This short 4-mile trail is a major connector for several trails.  It makes a nice loop from Big Creek campground connecting Big Creek Trail and Mt Sterling Ridge trail.  A hike across the mountain from Cataloochee to Cosby is possible using Swallow Fork to connect between Low Gap and Pretty Hollow Gap trails.

Swallow Fork trail follows Swallow Fork upstream for about 3 miles.  This is a pretty little creek with several cascades.  We had to cross Swallow Fork three times.  The first time we had a footbridge and the other two times were easy rock hops.  The guidebook mentions the site of an old homestead along Swallow Fork.  We didn’t see any evidence of such a place, but did notice a flat area that would have been large enough for a home and garden.

The trail is open for horse use, but apparently isn’t very popular with the horse people.  It was a moderately easy walk along a dirt path about two feet wide.  The trail climbs gently for the first couple miles before the grade increases.  The last two miles are fairly steep, but a few switchbacks make the climb a little easier.  The first half of the trail had the water and the last half had blooming rhododendron to cheer us along.

Traveling from Big Creek we ended Swallow Fork Trail at Pretty Hollow Gap on Mount Sterling Ridge Trail.  This is a large grassy gap and a great place for a break. This is a beautiful trail.  It’s too bad is it so difficult to reach from a road.

Found a few of these flowers in bloom, but we don't know what they are.

When planning this hike, we originally thought of it as a very long dayhike making this loop from Big Creek about 16.5 miles.  That was the shortest option without driving down Cove Creek Road (a very bad gravel road with a reputation for cars being vandalized at trailheads).  When we changed our minds from a dayhike to a backpack, we never stopped to reconsider our options for hiking Swallow Fork.  In retrospect, it probably would have been better for us to have hiked up Swallow Fork and then turned around at Pretty Hollow Gap and retraced our steps back to Big Creek.

The hike into campsite 37 was a very easy 5 miles.  The next morning we could have left our camp set up, hiked the 4 miles up and back on Swallow Fork with a small pack of water and snacks.  Back at campsite 37 we could take down our camp and walked out the easy 5 miles in the afternoon.  That 13 miles would have been much easier than carrying heavy packs up Swallow Fork and then 2 more uphill miles of Mt Sterling Ridge.  We were pretty spent after those 6 miles of uphill which made the 6 miles down Baxter Creek Trail pretty tough going.

Doing the same loop only in the opposite direction might also have been a better option.  I’ve hiked those 6 miles up Baxter Creek before and that’s tough, but probably would have been easier on the first day while we were well rested even though our packs were a little heavier, than the 6 uphill miles we did on the second day.  Campsite 38 on top of Mt Sterling is very nice, but it’s water source is almost a half mile away.  That’s a major drawback.  Still, it’s a beautiful spot and our hike the second day would have been a less steep downhill trek.

Gene's little pile of treasures he found around camp.
2 tent pegs, 3 rubber bands, a metal clip, and 3 cents.

Every time I talk with my mother she asked if we’ve seen a bear.  The answer to that question is still “no”.  I can’t believe it.  We’ve been here so long and still no bear.  On this backpack we saw two small garter snakes and heard lots of birds.

The highlight for wildlife this trip were the synchronous fireflies.  Each year during early June, folks flock to Elkmont Campground on the Tennessee side of the Park to see this phenomenal natural light show.  We had our own private showing at campsite 37 on Wednesday night.  We didn’t have the large numbers of fireflies like there are at Elkmont, but it was a pretty spectacular event nevertheless.  What a treat and totally unexpected.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.

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