Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Toadally Awesome Trip to Russell and Spence Fields

The view on the Appalachian Trail between Russell and Spence Fields
Starting out early proved to be a very good idea on this very hot Saturday morning in East Tennessee.  We hit the Anthony Creek trailhead at the Cades Cove Picnic Area at 8:00 a.m. because we knew the forecasted highs were in the 90s for that day even though at the time, we all wore light shirts or jackets we would shed fairly soon.  This trek up Thunderhead Mountain is a nice 13.4 mile loop through beautiful forest filled with hemlocks and flame azaleas and rhododendron.  In fact, the reason we chose this hike at this particular time was to see the rhododendron in bloom.  Although we did not traverse it during the blooming shrub's peak season, there were enough in bloom to make us realize just how gorgeous it would be to hike this during peak season. 

Camouflaged perfectly--we almost stepped on this guy!
Sunning Salamander in the bottom left
We debated which direction to ascend Thunderhead Mountain by:  up via Russell Field Trail and then down Bote Mountain Trail and Anthony Creek Trail or vice versa.  The Russell Field Trail is longer but not as steep, and the stretch of Bote Mountain Trail we had been on before was rocky and rough.  We decided to go up Russell Field Trail to avoid having to climb the steep ascent of Bote Mountain Trail while also watching our footing on those loose rocks.  This made for about a 5 mile hike to the summit, but I'm glad we went that way.  Along this part of the trail, especially the first couple of miles, we just kept seeing toads!  During the trip we counted 8 toads altogether.  In this moist, lower region of the slopes we also found salamanders in some of the creek crossings (small crossings today or made easy by footbridges).  One of our favorite salamanders was seen in a little puddle from a tiny waterfall.  He was perfectly content to lie there in his own private paradise and gaze up at his personal waterfall while basking in the dappled sunlight coming through the canopy.  He never budged the entire time we sat for a rest, took pictures, and rinsed our bandanas out in the cool water just below where he was sunbathing.

We reached Russell Field shortly before the intersection with the Appalachian Trail.  Just as a heads up, there is no sign or marked trail to the actual field where former inhabitants of these hills once grazed their cattle.  A "social path" takes off a short distance to the left.  Luckily, we took that social trail or we would have missed the field altogether.  It was a beautiful respite on the top of this mountain surrounded by encroaching forest and underbrush.  There was no view of the valley below as I had hoped, just wide open blue sky above, but this field and the trees that rimmed it were quite peaceful.  I stood and wondered what it would be like to have lived in the time when these mountain men (or more likely their children) herded their cattle to such a place so that they could graze on these wild grasses. 
One of the shady areas on the edge of Russell Field
I was able to imagine, during the hottest part of the day, these shady areas surrounding the field full of cattle grazing under the protection of these old trees, nibbling at the plants and grasses that grow here.  It was one of those magical places you wanted to linger in, transported out of the hustle and bustle of our world into the beauty and respite of this mountaintop world.  However, we lingered only briefly and soon made our way up to the Appalachian Trail shelter for rest and a quick snack.  While we were there, we met a thru-hiker, Matt Campbell, who is hiking the AT from Georgia to Maine to raise money for military families.  It was very apropos that we would meet him on Memorial Day Weekend.  His journey can be followed at www.activeheroes.org/trail.  I will be checking up on him occasionally and wishing him well. 

Some of the prettiest views of the day came as we hiked along the AT between Russell Field and Spence Field.  I love the AT anyway because much of it is just like what we experienced on this day.  This section of the AT runs predominately along the ridge line with drop offs on both sides.  I just love that feeling!  Some of it was draped, unexpectedly on my part at least, by gorgeous flame azaleas blooming to cheer us on.  These tall, lanky beauties spread their blossoms out wide in areas which were not as densely covered by the canopy as the other parts of the trail. 

As we came to Spence Field, there was no need for a side trail.  The expanse simply opened up before you.  Here there were lush green grasses bending slightly in the wind surrounded again by cool areas protected by large trees.  Blackberries were in bloom along one edge of the field and I thought to myself that I was sure glad they weren't ripe.  I'd hate to have a bear think I would hike all the way up there to steal his supply of berries.     

From here, we rested for a while, ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and then began our descent.  We were correct in assuming this part of the Bote Mountain Trail would be as rocky and steep and the previous section of it we had done on an earlier hike.  Once you begin the trek down Thunderhead Mountain, there's little you can do except watch carefully where to place your foot with every step. It's times like these I'm glad my Keen Targhee II hiking boots are high enough to keep my ankles from turning.  I sure needed them on this part of the hike.

The rocky path of Bote Mountain Trail passes through blooming rhododendron tunnels
There were a few times when we could stop and take in the rough beauty of this trail too though.  Some of it moves through dense rhododendron tunnels.  This is the part of the trail which would have been exquisitely beautiful if we had caught the rhododendron in full bloom as we had hoped; however, there was still plenty of beauty and serenity to make this hike worthwhile. Although it is a strenuous hike, I will make this one again.  I'd like to do it when I had more time at the top to enjoy the respite offered especially by Spence Field.  The hike took us a total of about 8.5 hours including the stops we made, but I could have spent all day at the top!  Next time...!

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