Tuesday, March 19, 2013

While doing the write up for Ramsey Cascades it occurred to me that I had left out my hike to Rainbow Falls a few weeks ago. I had a frustrating time finding a place to hike that day because my first and second options for hiking were closed due to flood damage, but the old saying stands true, the third times the charm. Rainbow Falls trail head is off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and like all trails in the Smokies, immensely popular. I got to the parking lot around noon due to my crisscrossing Gatlinburg and found the parking lot to be full, but I found an overflow parking lot just up the road and the walk back to the trail head stretched my legs before starting up the mountain. Since it wasn't my original choice I knew nothing of elevation gain, distance, or difficulty, I just knew there was a waterfall up there somewhere.
Strolling through the Smokies
First foot bridge and the snow piling up.
Large old pine tree at around the two mile mark.

The weather was nice that day and the sun was starting to light up the trail as I journeyed up the mountain. At about the half mile mark, I started seeing snow along the trail as I was gaining elevation. The climb was constant and the snow started mounting quickly. The trail was also rocky and ice accumulation along the way made for slippery footing. I was having a good time considering how frustrated I had been earlier, and hiking by myself always helps me clear my thoughts and forget about the stresses of life. I eventually came to a switchback that took the trail toward an adjacent ridge and the roar of water, I thought I was getting close to the falls so I hurried toward the sound. As I rounded a bend, I seen a nice footbridge crossing the creek but no waterfall. I took a break here, I had broke a good sweat and I could see down the valley back to the cabins and hotels in Gatlinburg. As I was I resting, a young couple hiked up the trail toward me and also joined me on my break. They were from Maryland and had also had a change in hiking plans that day due to the floods. We continued up the trail and started seeing some huge old pine trees. I asked them to photo me next to one of the biggest and my pace eventually left them out of sight. I measured the snow with my hiking stick and it was at least six inches or more and all the laurel was bowed by it's weight.
Rainbow Falls
Lots of snow and ice around the falls

At over two miles in, I found myself at the second foot bridge and as I wound up the left side of the stream I just crossed I could see Rainbow Falls ahead and another foot bridge crossing just below the falls. The flow was unimpressive but the snow made for some unique photos. The drop of the falls had formed a large blue ice mound at it's base and even though signs warned not to climb on the rocks I continued on for better views and photos. I found a large rock and pushed the snow off so I could take a break. The trail continued on up the mountain and as I would find out later continued on to Mount LeConte.
Deep snow hiking back out.
Second foot bridge on the trail.
muddy trail after losing some elevation
Down the valley toward Gatlinburg.

The hike out was extremely difficult, the snow was slick and several times I almost found myself on my backside. There was a lot of people heading up the trail which was kind of alarming considering it was 3pm and only three hours of daylight was guaranteed. I thought of the other Rainbow Falls in North Carolina and how many waterfalls share the same name that I've hiked to. The most common waterfall name by far is Laurel Falls, I can think of eight waterfalls with that name alone. My legs were tired when I got back to the truck so I pulled up the GPS stats on the hike. It was a 5.6 mile hike with almost 1700ft elevation gain and an average of almost 700ft a mile. If I had continued on to LeConte it was still another four miles and 2200 more feet of elevation! If I had got to the trail head earlier, I probably would have went on to the summit but there's always next time. Enjoy the photos and happy trails!

Friday, March 15, 2013

A few weeks ago I finally decided to hike to Ramsey Cascades, which is the largest waterfall in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. I wanted to visit it early in the year because in the summer months the towns and trails are swamped with tourists and I prefer a more secluded feel to my hike. In February, the Smokies received four inches of rain in less than a 24 hour period. The raging flood waters took their toll on some of the most popular trails, the pedestrian foot bridge at the Chimney Tops trail head was destroyed after standing since 1950, and unbeknownst to me, the road leading to Ramsey Cascades was washed away.
Little Pigeon River
First bridge crossing the Little Pigeon River
The turn up Ramsey Prong
Pretty large cascade before log bridge crossing.

After a two hour ride, including some mind numbing traffic for a weekday in Pigeon Forge, I was really frustrated to find the road gated over five miles away from the actual trail head. I decided to head across town and hike the Chimney Tops since it was the first hike Amber and I took as husband and wife. Imagine, if you will, my anger when I also discovered it to be closed. Luckily, my friend Jeff is a GSMNP hiking connoisseur and recommended a worthy replacement hike off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail to Rainbow Falls.
downstream from the log bridge
Beautiful log bridge heading across Ramsey Prong.

When Jeff told me earlier in the week the necessary road work had been completed and the Ramsey Cascades trail was reopened, I vowed to hike there my next off day. Yesterday I packed up early trying to get a better jump on the tourist traffic and arrived at the trail head at 11am. I was a little discouraged with the parking lot being so packed but at least if I were to get injured I would have some help. I loaded my pack a little heavier than normal considering the hike is almost 10 miles round trip and started up the gravel road that eventually breaks off and follows Ramsey Prong to the falls.
The first giant along the trail.
Tulip Poplar, one of the largest in the Smokies and all of the East coast.
The same tree only the top portion
The trail going between two more of the old growth trees.

The first part of the hike is easy and lots of older couples were strolling up the trail with their dogs, everyone was friendly and soon I was at the first crossing of the Little Pigeon River. A massive bridge is high above the water here, and I took time to photograph the gorgeous cascades. The trail stays with the river and I picked off trail at a blistering clip. The first 1.5 miles went by in less than 30 minutes. The trail comes to a circle and I found a sign telling me I was 2.5 miles from the falls. The nice gravel flat road is soon a distant memory as the trail narrows and begins gaining elevation. Ramsey Prong was flowing good and between the sound of the roaring water and my heavy breathing I was lost to my thoughts. Considering how many people were at the parking lot I was encountering very few of them on my journey and I was worried they would all be camped out ruining my chances of shooting the falls only. I had overtook three groups of hikers already when I met my first outbound hiker, he walked by with his head down looking exhausted. I couldn't believe how many cascades and deep pools were along the trail and I was bummed it was too cold to take a dip.
Rocky portion of trail.
Third bridge crossing and damage from flooding.
Ferns growing on tree branches.
...and more stairs
Narrow trail just before the main attraction.

I soon arrived at a large log foot bridge across the creek, the stunning thing about it was the log was one piece, indicating it was a massive tree at one time. As I wound up the right side of the creek I started seeing some ice accumulation and some large trees. The trail winds through an "old growth" forest and it is incredible. The trail splits between two towering Tulip Poplars and a short time later arrives at one of the largest trees in the national forest (also a poplar). I walked around it's base and it was 27 paces toe to toe. It's almost eight feet in diameter and rises well over 100 ft dominating the forest canopy. I put my arms around it but I was merely a child compared to this giant. I wasn't sure how far I was in but I knew my legs were already tired and my ingrown toenail was on fire. I pushed on still rising in elevation with each  step becoming heavier than the last. My spirits were lifted when I caught up to another group of hikers, they appeared in much better shape than me but the trail had made their legs jelly. I caught my second wind and climbed several rock stair cases and arrived at the third bridge of the hike. It was a curved log bridge completed in two segments, a large tree had been washed in against it from the February flood and had warped the entire structure. I continued on crossing several small side streams and eventually was winding out of earshot of the creek. I really hated this part of the hike, it was not only silent but steep and slick. I caught some more hikers winded from the climb and continued on past them. I was starting to swing back toward the creek and I soon entered a really rocky section of trail. The climb is unrelenting and I passed between large boulders and up winding rock stair cases. The creek crashes over a 20ft drop but I couldn't get out to take good pictures because of all the ice covered rocks. In the summer this looks to be a great swimming hole. The scenery kept me moving and I could see blue sky as if I was about to cross a ridge. I rested on a stump off the trail, it felt good to be off my feet and I was sure that I had traveled 2.5 miles. My ears were ringing and I felt like I might pass out. I fished my water out of my pack, gulped some down, and that seemed to help steady my head. When my ears quit ringing I thought I could hear the roar of the waterfall. I climbed another winding staircase and to my delight, Ramsey Cascades came into view! A large tributary cuts in from the left and is a beautiful picture in it's own right but Ramsey was magnificent.
Ramsey Cascades
Notice how the falls look like they are at the top of the mountain.
I was behind the large rock here, as you can tell it's almost seven feet tall.
buzz kill

A couple of hikers that had actually caught me and blew by me as I was taking photos earlier were leaving the falls and a family was sitting on a large rock at it's base. I had to take my time crossing the side stream though, the ice was a couple inches thick on every rock. I helped the young boy across the stream and then his father, then I had to maneuver around a freshly fallen tree, before finally climbing onto the big rock at the base of the falls. The family was packing up their belongings and soon I had Ramsey Cascades to myself!
Icy waters...this was from sitting on that old log.
The missing bark is not from age, but tourists over the years taking a piece of the park home.
My turn to hug the tree, probably the highlight of the hike.

The waterfall can't be done justice with a photo, it's truly massive dropping 65 feet over a large rock cliff and cascading an additional 30 feet below the large rock. It appears it flows out of the sky as there is no mountain visible beyond the falls. Before I could take any photos I drank the rest of my first water and laid on the rock staring straight up at the sky. It's rare that a hike winds me so much, but Ramsey is a long uphill grind. I finally felt good enough to explore and shoot the falls. Ice was coated on everything and a sign was posted with the current death toll. The sun was high in the sky but still I couldn't use my normal camera settings cause of the brightness. I took as many pictures as I could before another hiker arrived at the falls. I was courteous (pay attention everyone) and moved out of his way so he could take pictures also. I went downstream and found a potential crossing. An old tree had fell across the creek about ten feet above the water. I laid my pack down, straddled the log, and started scooting across with my camera swaying from my neck. I only made it a short distance before good sense and the squeaking log turned me back. My dream shot of the entire waterfall would have to wait.
This bridge once was a massive tree, look how long!
Not a very wide bridge.
Cascade just before rejoining the Little Pigeon River.

I was the bearer of good news as I hiked my way out, each weary hiker asked "Am I almost there?" and to each one I giddily said "yes, you are!" no matter the distance they had left. I met people from Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Minnesota, Louisiana, Texas and of course, good ol' rocky top. As I arrived back at the large Tulip Poplars I waited for someone else to show up so that I could be photoed with the giants. A nice college couple from Indiana agreed to oblige, and I was on my way to the truck.
For Jeff.

Ramsey Cascades was everything I hoped it would be and more. The waterfall was beautiful and the ice was a nice effect for photos. The old growth forest was intimidating and the foot bridges ancient yet sufficient. The creek itself has so many beautiful photo ops you could spend a day just exploring it. The trail is listed as being 8 miles in length and over 2300 feet in elevation but most GPS units track this trip closer to 10 miles.  I will return in the summer for some swimming and hopefully that photo from the opposite side of the creek, until then...happy trails.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A clear day on Roan Mountain is a rare occasion. The high elevations can cause weather shifts that are both quick and dangerous. The Balds of Roan offer no form of shelter or protection from incoming storms and if you found yourself caught in one, you might not be hiking back. Earlier this week, winter gave us one more snow storm. Here in Gray, it was more of a dusting, but I knew Roan would have snow, and lot's of it.
Crossing Round Bald, the Humps off to the left (snow capped)
Jane Bald summit
North Carolina view from Jane Bald
The road leading to Carver's Gap as seen from Jane Bald

However, I was surprised though when I started up the mountain today and encountered snow very early on. The past two days have been in the 60's so I thought most of it would be melted off. As I traversed the final few curves before arriving at Carver's Gap (elevation 5514ft), the road was covered and snow was piled over the guard rails. I fully expected to open my truck door to whipping wind but it was calm and very pleasant, even at 10am. I had brought my day pack, camera, and the new hiking stick my 76-year-old Uncle had cut and carved for me. A couple of weeks ago at Jones Falls, I forgot the one I had made and my uncle was furious that someone wouldn't try to return it. The parking lot was full of cars already so I figured I would be annoyed by the crowds on the mountain. I started the hike across the road on the Appalachian Trail northbound and began the climb up Round Bald.
Deep snow and steep climbing
Mt. Mitchell
Final approach on Grassy Ridge
More climbing, snow drifted over three feet in places.

Round Bald is a nice Roan Mountain sampler and can be completed by even the most novice of hikers. There are wonderful views into North Carolina and the hike through the old pine forests are nice too. When the trail leaves the wooded area a sign indicates you have made it to the summit of the Bald and in the distance the ominous Hump Mountain rises in front of you.  I continued on and down the backside of Round and on to the next bald, Jane. The climb up Jane Bald gives your legs the first real workout of the hike and the snow was starting to drift making some of the climb in three feet potholes created by hikers before me. The melting snow was also slick, but the hiking stick was serving it's purpose of keeping me balanced. The azalea bushes frame the trail and in winter are nothing more than annoyances as they scratch your arms and catch on your pack. There is a real nice rock outcrop just before the Jane Bald summit that I decided to have my break and eat some crackers. I could see other hikers coming across Round Bald and could hear some others just above me on the summit having a break. I didn't spend much time resting because I planned on having lunch at Grassy Ridge and I wanted it to myself. The down slope of the Bald was tough going as I waded through several large drifts and the steepness of the path made me make sure every step was certain. When it leveled my destination is in full view, Grassy Ridge rises steeply and the mountain winds around off to the right to some large boulders and that's where I was heading to have lunch.
A group of hikers leaving Grassy Ridge
Memorial plaque atop Grassy Ridge and views over 6000ft!

One of the largest drifts, even packed down from hikers over four feet and over top the azaleas.
Hump Mountains to the left and Houston Ridge. Far right is Grandfather Mountain

The snow became a real hassle climbing Grassy Ridge, It was three feet deep and trenched steeply the entire climb up the bald. I had to stop and catch my breath several times and I could feel my shirt getting soaked from the sweat of wearing a pack. Just before the summit of Grassy Ridge, there is a large Azalea tunnel, I'm so tall I have to crawl through this section but when it finally opens, the trail levels off and begins the turn to the right toward the boulders at one of the highest points in the south. There was a massive drift of well over four feet through some azaleas and it was so tall I was actually walking on top of them! It was a neat feeling but I was scared with my weight I would fall through and break a leg. When I finally made it to the boulders and the large plaque dedicated to a Roan Mountain resident from years ago, I shed my pack and hopped up on the rock. I couldn't have picked a better day for views! In every direction large mountain ranges rose in the distance. The Humps were straight ahead, Grandfather to the left, Table Rock and Hawksbill to my right, and Beech Mountain at roughly two o'clock. I chugged down my Gatorade and waded off in the snow to take pictures. There were several other people sprawled out on the ridge but they didn't distract from my photography.
Quality work from both God and Jim Bowlin
Spring showing it's first signs of life.
The strange peaks to the left on the horizon are Table Rock and Hawksbill Mountain in the Linville Gorge

I could feel my cheeks getting hot and realized I was sunburned! The sun was reflecting off the snow and had burned both arms, and my face badly. I tried to hike out quicker than when I came in, but the snow made for slow going. As I write this tonight, I look like an overcooked lobster and the sting of the burn makes me shiver. Time for some aloe vera and ibuprofen, until next time...happy trails.
Heading out and down Grassy Ridge
Winding out of the woods near Carver's Gap.

Goodbye, Winter.