Monday, June 25, 2012
West Prong Trail
We needed to get away from this house buying/furniture shopping project we’ve been wrapped up in for so many days. We wanted some exercise and fresh air. One of the closest trails from our campground is West Prong. It is less than 15 miles from our campsite to the trailhead and all on paved road. East Tennessee is experiencing a record breaking heat wave this week so an early start was essential.
West Prong Trail gets its name from the West Prong of the Little River. In the old days, folks around here called forks of a river prongs. The trail actually begins closer to the Middle Prong, but quickly climbs away from the water and crosses West Prong at campsite 18.
The trailhead is across Middle Prong from the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. This educational facility conducts programs for school age children and workshops for adults throughout the year. Their goal is to connect people with nature especially within Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Our trailhead parking lot was on the other side of Tremont Road from the Institute. The parking lot is large enough to accommodate about 6 cars. It is also possible to park at the Institute.
West Prong Trail is a little over two and a half miles in length and ends at the junction with Bote Mountain Trail. We weren’t going all the way to the end, but planned to stop at backcountry campsite number 18 about 2 miles from the trailhead.
Our hike started with a climb of 500 feet in the first mile. The profile looks worse than the actual climb; it was fairly gentle on a wide trail relatively free of rocks and roots. Hikers share this trail with horses, so you gotta watch where you put your foot. Almost immediately we passes an obvious trail junction. Even though there was no indication on the sign where this side trail went, we knew it led to an old cemetery. We passed by wanting to save that exploration for the end of our hike.
At about one mile we topped out on our climb and began our descent to West Prong and the campsite. We had been walking in a forest of hardwoods on the dry side of Fodderstack Mountain. As we came around to the other side the vegetation changed to include many more rhododendron and we began crossing small seeps.
The super bloom of rhododendron has been beautiful and there are still many blossoms on the trees, but it is past its prime and many petals littered the trail.
Campsite 18 was our turning around point, but first a break was in order. This campsite is designated to accommodate 12. It’s a large area so backpackers have plenty of room to spread out. West Prong flows through the middle of the campsite and the fire ring and large cooking area is located near the water. It made a perfect place for a break.
There is a footbridge across West Prong and the trail continues on to connect with Bote Mountain Trail. Bote Mountain Trail could serve as a connector to various trails leading to Cades Cove or to the Appalachian Trail at Spence Field. We weren’t going that way, so after our break we headed back the way we came.
On our way back we did a little exploring. At about halfway, we came to an obvious trail leading down the mountain. There was a sign identifying West Prong Trail, but nothing to indicate where the side trail led. The trail looked maintained so down we went. We sorta expected another old cemetery, but we didn’t find one after about a half mile of hiking. We also thought it might be another trail connecting to the Walker Valley cemetery at the beginning of West Prong Trail, but we seemed to be going in the wrong direction for that. We also thought it might be one of those secret wildflower trails and it might be, but we didn’t see much evidence of dying spring flowers. Not even trillium which is everywhere. In the end, we suspected it’s an abandoned trail from times past. There are several of these trails around the park and many of those who remember them still hike them. We finally gave up and made our way back up the hill to continue on our way.
Our next spot to explore was Walker Valley Cemetery. This is a large cemetery compared to many in the Park. The trail and cemetery are maintained by the park service for the benefit of descendants. Many pioneer communities occupied the area which eventually became the National Park. Some of these settlements were long gone by the time the park was established in the 1930s, but many of them were thriving communities. Naturally, there were cemeteries in those communities and they dot the park in every direction. Walker Valley Cemetery, being close to a paved road, obviously sees lots of visitors. We were surprised to see grave markers with fairly recent dates. Perhaps it’s still being used.
It was good to be out and stretch our legs. We enjoyed our hike along West Prong Trail and really enjoyed the little bit of exploring we did.
That’s all for today. Thanks for tagging along.