Friday, March 21, 2014

McKee Branch and Cataloochee Divide

On the first gorgeous day of Spring following the winter of Polar Vortexes, we went across state lines to the Maggie Valley, North Carolina area to come in the back side of the Cataloochee Valley.  I had made some phone calls and determined that we could park a car at the gate of the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center even though they don't open until May.  Parking there meant we had to hike up the road a full two miles before we ever got to the trailhead to begin the day's "new miles."  The first thing we noticed as we approached the gate was a young black lab who obviously wanted to go on a hike with us.  Although dogs aren't allowed in the Park, we had no way of preventing him from accompanying us except by being mean to him, and we certainly weren't going to do that to this sweet thing!  So, after donning boots and packs, we made our way up the gravel road toward the Science Center and the access trail that would lead us to our trailhead.  When the road reached Purchase Knob (bought by the Park in 2001), we took a left toward Ferguson Cabin, a lovely homestead with a nice view of the Knob.
After exploring the well-preserved inside of the cabin, we found the access trail that lead us right to the intersection of McKee Branch Trail and Cataloochee Divide Trail.  We had lunched at this intersection a few weeks ago when we hiked Cataloochee Divide Trail in to this point from the road that goes to Cataloochee Campground.  Our plan on this day was to hike the remainder of Cataloochee Divide Trail and also do McKee Branch Trail.  After considering elevation changes, we decided to do the most difficult trail first while we were at least somewhat fresh (even though we'd just finished a two-mile ascent from the car to the trailhead).  That decision almost cost us either my backpack or our planned two trail day.  

We were aware that the elevation change on McKee Branch was intense, rivaling Chimney Tops Trail. What we were UNaware of was the condition of the trail we would find on McKee Branch. This is a horse trail that is apparently oft-used. Not only was it steep, but going down was tricky to say the least due to deep cover of leaves masking the dangers of roots and rocks which could so easily trip up even the careful hiker.  At some places the leaves were almost knee deep! We had a couple of near misses and one fall, but we did make it down this trail to the intersection with Caldwell Fork Trail.  We debated not going back up, but instead making a loop up Caldwell Fork toward Hemphill Bald to prevent having to go back up what we had just come down.  No one in the group was looking forward to that ascent.  However, we knew that there were two deep water crossing with no bridge on this section of Caldwell Fork and we were trying to wait for warmer weather to do those crossings, so we dug in our heels, gathered up our fortitude, and headed back up that trail.  I must say, I don't know if it was because we've only hiked about 3 times since December, or because I'd been sick with either a stomach flu or food poisoning earlier in the week, but this was the toughest 2.3 miles I've done since I started hiking. There was so much slipping on rocks or roots and climbing up onto rocks that made for too tall risers that it was exhausting.  I also decided on that stretch of trail that I carry WAY too much stuff!  My Deuter Futuro 26 pack is unnecessarily heavy for a day hike in all but the coldest weather.  There was one point along this section that I considered heaving it off the side of the mountain and into the valley far below us.  I'm currently looking for a smaller, lighter pack that won't enable me to carry everything but the kitchen sink with me.  I'll update when I find the right pack.
After finally making our way to the top, we and our four-legged friend stopped to rest back at the intersection that was our starting point.  

Resting on the planks the Park had put down to walk on to avoid damp areas on this horse trail was the difference between me being able to finish the second trail or not.  That stuffed, heavy pack did make a pretty good pillow.  After a rest and lunch, we had enough strength to don the packs again and head up Cataloochee Divide Trail toward The Swag.  We had no idea what awaited us! I am so very glad we didn't quit for the day before doing this trail.  I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

We ended our "new miles" at the base of Hemphill Bald where Cataloochee Divide Trail ends.  We'll save that loop for another day.  

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