It is along this stretch of the AT where you come across an unusual area--unusual for the Smokies anyway. Without warning, the hiker comes to a metal grate and a hogwire fence and a sign that explains this somewhat curious phenomenon.
This exclosure (yes exclosure, not enclosure) holds so many botanical treasures that it has been protected from the digging and rooting damage that you sometimes see in other places in the Smokies backcountry inflicted by the feral hogs brought into the region by settlers long ago. Descendants of hogs which escaped into the wild now present a difficult problem for those who are entrusted with protecting the beauties and rarities that exist in this fragile ecosystem--hence, the fence. This fence keeps OUT those hogs which would otherwise devastate this beech forest. If you get the opportunity to walk through this little piece of heaven in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming, you will instantly understand and appreciate the presence of the fence.
Not long after walking through this area, we came to Indian Gap where Road Prong and the AT intersect. There's a parking area here that you can drive to when Clingman's Dome Road is open, but until April 1, that road is deserted. It's rare indeed to see that heavily travelled thoroughfare vacant of any moving vehicles and be able to stand in the middle of it to take pictures or to take in the spectacular views of the distant peaks.
Now that we've come to the beginning of new miles for this hike, we turn right and begin to head down the mountain toward our waiting car. I knew from the trail descriptions I had read that this trail intersects numerous times with Road Prong (creek) as it gathers water and increases in size while travelling down toward the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. However, the trail books I had read were apparently written before the storms that have impacted this part of the Park in the last couple of years. There were long stretches of this creek that passed through blowdown areas that afforded no other passage except to walk directly down the middle of Road Prong itself. This was rock-hopping at it's finest--not only rock-hopping to go across a stream, but actually finding a path downriver to a place where, eventually, the trail would re-emerge. It was definitely challenging and a tiny bit unnerving, but it was the most fun part of the day. I couldn't help but be in awe of the power of nature that would drop so many massive trees during a storm and then stack them up in a log jam at one point down the creek that looked like a pile of pick-up-sticks. The small creek was undeterred though and simply meandered through, under, and around the trees that attempted to block it's path. Once the trail opened up again through more open terrain and lovely rhododendron thickets, it looked like more familiar sections of this Park. However, without warning at one turn in the trail we were literally greeted with a jaw-dropping sight. Rounding a curve in the trail with not even an auditory warning from the falls, we gazed upon this:
This magical, deep pool and cascade took one's breath away by both its beauty and its unexpected appearance. Pictures absolutely do not do it justice. Had it been a warmer day, I might have attempted the treacherous, steep path that descended to it, but I probably shouldn't have any way. I simply appreciate having had the opportunity to stand on the trail and gaze at its splendor.
The rest of the trail was a pleasant descent to the intersection with Chimney Tops Trail where we were instantly struck by the presence of masses of humanity that have returned to my park now that spring is on its way. I must admit I felt a twinge of sadness to know that the solitude of these great mountains will now be accosted by these "visitors." We spent much of the remaining trip picking up trash--orange peels, energy bar wrappers, even a wine bottle--that folks had carelessly dropped as they ascended to one of the most visited summits in the Smokies. I was jolted by the lack of respect they have for this place. I am unsure how one visits such a spectacular venue and acts with such utter disregard for its almost holy ambience. I am, however, aware that it is the very presence of these millions of visitors that gives me entrance on a routine basis to one of the most special places on Earth. For that, I am eternally grateful.