Sunday, September 20, 2015

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Big Cataloochee Mountain via Palmer Creek, Balsam Mountain, and Mt Sterling Ridge Trails

It was nice to get a day to myself for some hiking in the great outdoors. I woke up early and headed out the door just before 5:30. I was bound for the Cataloochee section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for an ambitious loop hike on the Palmer Creek, Balsam Mountain, Mount Sterling Ridge and Pretty Hollow Gap Trails with a short bushwhack up to Big Cataloochee's 6,155 foot summit. After a quick breakfast in Newport, I arrived in Cataloochee and drove through a pleasant light fog.
Cataloochee Road
I got out of the car for a quick look at a few members of the park's elk herd, a male and his harem of females,
elk in foggy splendor
and then drove on to the trailhead.

I parked and hit the Pretty Hollow Gap Trail at 7:35. I passed the horse campground and headed into the woods, closely following Pretty Hollow Creek.
Pretty Hollow Creek
After a mile and a half I turned left onto the Palmer Creek Trail and started a pretty steep ascent. The trail followed its namesake Palmer Creek pretty closely at first.
Besides the creek, there were lots of wildflowers in bloom: goldenrods,
and white snakeroot
white snakeroot
being the most plentiful. There were some other species in bloom in riparian areas
turtle head
including jewelweed.
Besides the wildflowers there were some mushrooms scattered here and there
and berries had taken residence where just a few weeks ago wildflowers lived.

After passing some type of monitoring station
monitoring station
I found myself on the Balsam Mountain Road. I followed the road for about .7 mile to the Balsam Mountain Trail.
Balsam Mountain trailhead
There were a few cars parked along the road at the trailhead for the Balsam Mountain Trail. Written in the dust of the rear window on a mini-van was a statement that roughly read: "Saw 2 bears near here. One was close." This would prove to be prophetic. After climbing a bit on the Balsam Mountain Trail, things leveled a bit. As I turned a corner I saw it. It was a bear.
bear on trail
It wasn't too large, but it was standing directly on the trail about 50 yards in front of me. It didn't seem to even notice me, and so I stood silently and watched for a bit. I took a few photos and then started to make some noise to let the bear know I was near. It seemed curious about me.
bear sees me
As it seemed to not be fazed by presence, I started to get a little bit nervous and so I started to yell at the bear. Finally, it got my message and took off into the woods.

As I approached the spot I had seen the bear I was extremely cautious, as I was not sure there weren't more bears nearby. I never did see another bear the rest of my hike though. I would, however, find plenty more evidence of bears on my hike. Eventually I stopped to eat a snack of trail mix.
I found a perfect log to sit on and rest. When I had resumed my hike, the trail was mostly level; up on a high ridge. I passed through some of the thickest white snakeroot patches I've ever seen.
trail thru flowers
The trail was exceedingly pleasant.
winding trail
After the junction with the Beech Gap Trail,
I started to ascend a bit more, up into the spruces and firs.
Eric on trail
I reached the Laurel Gap Shelter and stopped to rest and drink some water.
Laurel Gap shelter
There was a guy there eating lunch. he told me that he was from Toledo and we talked for a bit while we studied our maps. He was headed out to the road after several nights in the backcountry.

Eventually I got up to move on. I soon found the junction with the Mt Sterling Ridge Trail and turned onto it. Information I had read online stated that there was a "manway" leadin up Big Cataloochee summit "50 yards beyond the crossing of a shallow, but wide stream". After crossing a wide, wet seep that flowed across the trail I paced off 50 yards. I saw nothing that resembled a trail and so I decided to just thrash about in the woods. Luckily, I had brought my GPS unit with me and so I plugged in the coordinates for Big Cataloochee summit and slowly plodded up through thick vegetation.
It took a while, but eventually I found the summit, marked by some moss-covered flagging tape.
Big Cataloochee summit
I took a photo there and then thrashed my way down. The descent went much faster than the ascent.

I was relieved to be back on the trail. Bushwhacking in the eastern US is exhausting. I made my way east on the mostly level trail and started to see lots of bear sign. There were bear scat, areas where the earth had been torn up as bears rooted around for roots and  insect larvae, and some of the most perfectly intact bear tracks I've seen!
bear track
Besides bear sign, the high elevation Mt Sterling Ridge Trail offered an early glimpse of fall color.
fall color
Eventually I found myself at the Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, which I had hiked about a year ago for the long descent back down into the Cataloochee Valley.

The hike was all downhill and went pretty fast. The early stages of the descent were high above Pretty Hollow Creek and I could occasionally hear what sounded like people throwing boulders into the water from high above. Could the sound have been a bear turning over rocks in a search for food? I guess I'll never know. The later stages of the hike were close to water and I enjoyed the sound of the cascading creek
another casccade
as I made the return trip to my car.


Jon Henderson said...

Hey Eric and Noelle!
Love your blog! Say, could you give me a little more information about the Big Cataloochee loop you did last year? Where exactly did you park to get to the Pretty Hollow Gap trailhead? Also, what road did you take to get there? Was the road too rough for a passenger car?
Thanks in advance!

Eric and Noelle Grunwald said...

Hi Jon. If I remember correctly I turned right onto the road just after exiting the Maggie Valley exit off I-40. Mostly paved road, but some dirt/gravel. All passable in my Honda Civic. Parked at the turnoff to the horse campground and walked the road/trail past the horse campground to get to Pretty Hollow Gap Trailhead. That's the best I can recall.