Saturday, February 28, 2015

Wonderland Hotel via a Winter Wonderland

The snow stretched out undisturbed in front of us as we put on our microspikes and approached what would be our trailhead today. No trail sign greeted us and asked for our obligatory trail sign photo. No longer really a trailhead, this unnamed manway we were about to walk runs from near the Laurel Falls parking area over to the Elkmont Campground area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We had noticed the trail several weeks ago and promised ourselves to explore it when the time was right. Today, the time was right!

Winter storm Quantum had just dumped another 8 or so inches of fresh powder over the trails of the Smokies and many roads remained closed, so as has become a frequent occurrence, we could not reach trails that would give us "new" miles.

The unmolested manway which stretched out in front of us then provided the perfect answer. Knowing only what a ranger had told us several weeks ago when we asked him about the old trail we had seen, that it would lead us back to Elkmont, we stepped into the virgin powder and meandered through the woods watching tracks of woodland creatures who also like to use this old trail.

Since this time-worn manway is no longer a maintained trail, we scrambled under, over and through several blowdowns. It was amusing to see the paths the creatures had made in and around those blowdowns, trying to guess by their path of choice how big they must have been based on whether and where they went under the tree or brush.

At one moment we were surprised to see a well-maintained sign marking the Old Elkmont Cemetery near a former traffic circle on a dirt road (well we assumed it was dirt underneath all of the snow!

We were drawn into the cemetery through the path that led up through the entrance sign, but once at the top of the little hill were so mesmerized by the beauty of the place that we were unwilling to mark the snow of this reverential spot with our footprints.  Tracks of forest creatures were the only breaks in the smooth surface of the fresh fallen powder and that was also how we left it.  

Bearing left on another trail here as opposed to walking down the road toward what we assumed would be the Elkmont Campground Road, we continued to follow a footpath which we felt might be leading us onward toward the Wonderland Hotel, a well-known, deteriorating structure of the Park's former days which none of us had seen. Another triangular intersection presented itself and we had to choose our course. Following antiquated power lines, we veered off to the right and wound around behind and between some of the old Elkmont village homes that I didn't even know existed in this location. Shortly the path opened up and, nestled in the woods, we saw the remains of Wonderland Hotel.

We laughed to ourselves as we remember the internet article which went viral this past year about the hiker who had "discovered" an old abandoned town in the Great Smoky Mountains because it seemed that we, too, had discovered just such a treasure!  We wondered about the free-standing steps that were out in front of the hotel. Could those steps have led to a structure that no longer stands? Could it be that they were used by ladies to mount onto horses or climb up into another mode of transit--buggy or even train or some such thing? No idea, really, but they were beautiful covered in the somewhat diminishing snow.

The back side of the hotel where the deck once stood.
After circling round and exploring the exterior of the old Wonderland Club, we returned to the triangular intersection and continued to follow the road not taken.  Eventually, this path comes out at the Elkmont Campground.  Through the trees, you can see the river as it runs up to the campground as you walk the manway, but there was too much interference from trees and underbrush to get a good picture, until that is, we returned in our vehicle to see from the Elkmont Campground Road where we had just walked.  

Little Pigeon River and the back side of Elkmont Campground

Once we had explored all the way to the campground, we simply turned around and followed our tracks back toward Laurel Falls. The entire trip was only a little less than 3.5 miles but the deep snow made the walking a little more difficult than usual. When we returned, reluctantly, to our waiting vehicle the temperature still read only 23 degrees.  Yes, it had been a cold day on the trail, but the winter wonderland held us in awe no matter the temps.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Not Sure When, but Spring WILL Come!--65th Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage

Dwarf Crested Iris
As I look out at the snow in my yard and see a daunting forecast of even more snow to come tonight and tomorrow, I must remind myself that yes, Spring WILL Come--eventually! When I think about Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains, I always think about the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a yearly event celebrating the flora and fauna of this special place. Buried underneath this week's (and last week's too) snow are the roots of the ephemerals which lay in wait of brighter sun and warmer temperatures before peaking their tiny heads out to shine for us.

Sweet White Trillium
I attended my first Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage probably 15 years or so ago with my daughter who would have been about 8 years old then. We enjoyed a guided hike to White Oak Sinks while it was in full bloom, and that set in motion the beginnings of a love and passion shared between mother and daughter which we've enjoyed almost every year since. Work and school schedules interfere most years now with us participating in the pilgrimage itself, but almost without fail, we make it into the mountains bearing camera equipment and wildflower identification books, stopping to appreciate these often tiny blossoms that many of the Park's visitors never stop to notice at all.

Pink Lady's Slipper
I will always be thankful that in the years when we had the opportunity we took advantage of the many programs offered by the event. This year's 65th Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage takes place April 21-25 and offers walks, talks, and workshops on birding, bears, salamanders, natural history, ferns, mosses, photography, sketching, and of course wildflowers. Online registration is going on now at the above link, but on-site registration will also be available during the event.

Trout Lily

You do not have to attend the pilgrimage in order to enjoy the wildflowers though. Beginning usually mid to late March, wildflowers will most-assuredly make their appearance.  Here are some wonderful trails and reference books for you to check out if you want to simply explore on your own:

My Favorite Wildflower Trails:

  • Chestnut Top Trail
  • Porter's Creek Trail
  • Cove Mountain Hardwood Trail (at Chimney's Picnic Area)
  • Bud Ogle Nature Trail
  • White Oak Sinks (not really ON a trail, but easy to find)
  • almost any trail in the Smokies has some wildflowers on it

My Favorite Wildflower Reference Books:

Great Smoky Mountains Wildflowers is organized by the season or time you will find the flowers in our mountains. So, from front to back, you can see the progression of the bloom that will take place in the Smokies from early spring to fall. This book provides pictures and descriptions as well as locations where you can expect to find particular flowers and the approximate dates of their appearance.

 Wildflowers of the Smokies is organized by bloom color, so if you are looking at a flower and are unsure of its identity, you simply look in the pages which carry the appropriate bloom color tab until you find the one that matches what you are seeing.

I carry both of these books with me when I go looking for wildflowers. Each is useful in its own way and not all flowers you will find on the trails are in either book. The diversity which we enjoy in the Smokies is just too vast to be housed in any volume small enough to carry on the trails.

Happy wildflowering (or for now simply dreaming of wildflowering!) Just remember, Spring WILL Come! And when it does, you'll find me enjoying the ephemeral beauty of the tiny jewels in which Nature clothes the Smokies.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Winter not go unprepared!

On the Appalachian Trail near Mt. Cammerer 
After having read the terribly sad article about the death of Kate Matrosova this week in the White Mountains, it made me thankful that the mountains in which I hike, the Great Smoky Mountains, are not quite so unforgiving. You can read that article HERE and you will probably wonder, as I do, why in the world she ventured forward in the face of numerous warnings and horrific weather forecasts. She paid the ultimate price for her mistakes and that is such a terrible shame.  Although the Smokies do not boast some of the worst weather in the world as does the Presidential Range, it is important to respect them and how quickly conditions can change if you venture into the mountains during the winter.

So how does one prepare for winter hiking in the mountains of the Southern Appalachian range? Firstly, if conditions are forecast to be extreme, I simply do not venture out! But by the same token, I do love a good hike in the snow if other conditions are favorable!  So what are some gear that I include in my winter pack or on my person? Here are some of my old faithful gear friends for winter hiking:

Katoohla Microspikes--I used to try to hike in the snow without these, but was always worried about falling and getting hurt which would interfere with this obsession with hiking that I currently have. These microspikes have solved that problem, that's for sure! They simply pull on over my Keen boots and I'm ready for pretty much anything the trail can throw at me.  At first I worried about using them on those days when some stretches of trail were covered in snow but other stretches which lay in the sun no longer had snow cover.  I don't worry about that anymore. These spikes are tough!

Mountain Hardwear Soft Shell Jacket--This is the most versatile jacket I have ever owned! I can wear this jacket from early fall through spring, and it has never failed to keep me warm and with rare exception, dry.  This jacket is warm, but not too warm, water resistant, and I bought it big enough to allow for adding layers, even down if necessary, underneath it depending on conditions.  The only time it did not keep me dry was one day when we hiked for hours in an absolute deluge and I didn't put a poncho over it.  It finally soaked up enough water to override the water resistance, but that was entirely my fault.  I was afraid I had ruined it, but no! I simply bought a water resistance treatment at the local outfitters, ran it through the wash cycle in my washing machine, and it is once again good as new! I think I've had this jacket now for going on four years.  The hood and high neck zipper feature allows you to zip up and tighten down the laces of the hood until only your eyes show and are exposed to the weather.

Thermolite Reactor Sleeping Bag Liner--I put this lightweight liner in my pack beginning in the fall when temperatures in the mountains can plummet at night just in case anyone in my group takes a spill and has to wait for help to arrive. I have a healthy respect for hypothermia and easily feel that the few ounces that this adds to my pack weight are more than worth it if anyone ever really ends up needing it. I certainly hope it is never needed, but if something happens it might make a huge difference.  I just put it in my pack and forget about it. I never even know it's there it takes up so little space.

Mountain Hardwear Phantasia Sleeping Bag--Once winter really sets in, even for day hikes, I add my sleeping bag to my pack for the same reasons I carry the sleeping bag liner in fall and spring.  It only weighs 1 lb 5 oz and might be the thing that saves someone's life in case of a true emergency. You just never know when someone in the group might fall and get hurt. Hypothermia can set in very quickly in the winter when you stop moving, especially if the hike you've been on is strenuous and therefore, you've been sweating underneath all your layers of clothing.  Even if you wear wicking fabrics, and I hope you do, coming to a stop on a really cold day can get you very cold, very quickly.  This is just one piece of insurance that I carry in case of an accident that makes it impossible to keep moving.

Another secret for winter hiking is to dress in layers--moisture wicking, insulating layers.  Many kinds are available, and you will need to search out the ones that feel the best to you.  My husband swears by the Icebreaker wool base layers, but I simply cannot wear them.  I have found an REI-brand base layer that works great for me. They are so soft and feel so good, I've tried sleeping in them at home, but they're just too warm! My top has a 1/4 zip feature at the neckline which enables me to unzip it on the trail if I need a little air. I do love that feature.  The thumbhole feature is great too, making it easy to put my gloves on without exposing my wrists to frigid temps.  Carrying extra layers in your pack including extra wool socks is also a good idea.  The little hand-warmer pouches are always in my pack too, although I've never had to use them.

However, the story of Kate Matrosova proves that gear isn't everything when considering winter hiking and neither is physical or even mental conditioning and/or keen determination.  She had ALL of that! Sometimes you just have to know that the mountains rule and realize that there are times they will not be conquered! Sometimes the best decision is just not to hike at all.

What are some items you won't hike without during cold weather?  I know some of you are much more adventurous than I, so what things are your "safety blankets" when planning your wintertime hikes?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Waterlogue--An App for a Watercolor Wannabe

Since my children were little, I've tried to draw and paint what I see in nature, but you know, sometimes you've got it, sometimes you just don't! Eventually, I moved from drawing to photography for many reasons, but the biggest of which was talent (or lack thereof!) Can technology change all that? Well, in a sense, yes! It has for me!  I shot a photo of the Hiker's Tunnel last week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park shortly after finding its hidden location. See some of those photos here.  Then last night, I turned that photo into a watercolor at the touch of a button on a $2.99 app on my iPhone. The name of the app, you ask? "Waterlogue"--how sweet is that???

What do you think? I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Treasure Hunt Hiking--the Hiker's Tunnel and More!

Getting in new miles on our quest to hike all the trails in the Smokies is a bit of a challenge right now, what with short days, faraway trailheads, and one of the three of our group members with an injury, so we've resorted to hikes of a different sort.  Last week's trip to the Old Stone House was our first off trail adventure, but it certainly won't be our last. Today, Jennifer and I met to do a little more off-trail adventuring.

The primary goal for today's off trail hike was the old hiker's tunnel that kept hikers from having to cross Clingman's Dome Road. Some folks say this was once on the Appalachian Trail while others say it was Thomas Divide Trail that traversed through the tunnel. I'm still researching all of that. But, it was indeed special!  This tunnel is actually very easy to find and within easy walking distance of where you must park your car in the winter.  Since Clingman's Dome Road is closed to all vehicles in the winter, the gate is as far as you can drive.  We parked our car there and walked up the snow-covered road for about .2 miles. We have driven over this tunnel innumerable times without knowing of its existence but today we were better informed!  It looks like you're just driving over another bridge or stone-walled culvert, but when you walk down you find one of the most unique structures I've ever found in these mountains.

Once I returned from the hike, I contacted the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Regional Office to see if they could shed any light on the questions this tunnel raised in my mind. Their response was fast and fascinating! I received an email with lots of information and several attachments. The email attachments include a pdf (89 pages) with detailed information about the construction of Newfound Gap Road which I've found fascinating, including the fact that my father would have sold Caterpillar machinery to one of the construction companies who did work between 1962-1966 on the NC section of NFG Rd. However, back to the question of whether or not the tunnel was ever a part of the AT, I'll pass this information along which was provided in the body of the email (not the 89 page pdf). All that follows in quotations marks are pertinent excerpts from the email:
"The Thomas Divide Trail tunnel under the Clingman’s Dome Road is quite fascinating. While I have wondered about the possibilities of this being an early route of the Appalachian Trail, early reading and site investigations were not conclusive. Only in the last few years has more careful reading of the old guidebooks and the acquisition of other documents led me to believe that the tunnel has probably not been part of the Appalachian Trail. That is the short answer....
Newfound Gap Road as we know it today from the Appalachian Trail crossing in the gap down the North Carolina side to Kephart Prong was built between 1961 and 1964 (see pages 77 and 76). Newfound Gap Road was routed along 0.15 mile of the Clingman’s Dome Road before dropping off on the North Carolina side of the ridge below the Clingman’s Dome Road but above the Old Newfound Gap Road. It continued out Thomas Divide for nearly three miles before circling down toward Kephart Prong. This effectively destroyed the upper part of the Thomas Divide Trail, and left the south side of the tunnel at the top of a steep road cut....
There are a few things that are certain: 
1) The A. T. has always passed within sight of the north end of the tunnel; 2) the A. T. has not passed through the tunnel since 1939. Beyond that, there is simply some evidence in favor of the notion that the A. T. passed through the tunnel between 1934 and 1939 and some evidence against the notion."

So it appears that the tunnel was probably never part of the AT, but the upper part of the Thomas Divide Trail which was obliterated by the building of Newfound Gap Road as we know it.

We are developing an intense respect for the work of the Civilian Conservation Corp men who created so much of the infrastructure of the Great Smoky Mountains all created out of local stone. I located a photo of the workers cutting stone for their structures from the massive boulders and rock veins which make up these mountains: 

After exploring the tunnel to our hearts content, we resumed our search for other old parts of the Park. Comparing maps that dated back to 1931 and 1942 with today's topographical map, Jennifer and I went in search of several things. There was an old road that once left off of Newfound Gap Road and went over to the Stone House that we found last week. That was one thing we were looking for. We also spent time looking for Jim Carr's Mill which was denoted on one of our maps, but we went down the wrong creek. 

At one point when we became concerned about returning to our car at the appropriate point along the river, we stopped to build a cairn of our own on one of the large boulders along the side of the stream.  We did find old structures there, but they wouldn't have been the mill. We'll have to come back to that another day. 
An old Ball "Perfect Mason" jar found while
looking for the Jim Carr Mill.

These mountains, in winter, are like a whole new world, exposing structures you simply cannot access once the underbrush (and snakes) start to re-emerge.

I'd love to hear about your off trail adventures and what treasures you've found while exploring these vast mountains.  Please comment below with your own stories!