Tennessee Hiking Adventures

Honey Creek Burnt Mill Backpack

Honey Creek Burnt Mill Backpack

5 Day Adventure in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Burnt Mill Trail

Johnny cruises by a bluff on the Burnt Mill Trail



Johnny, along with his hiking pal John Cox executed a 4 night backpacking trip in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee.

Johnny left the Leatherwood Ford trailhead on a surprisingly warm winter day, and headed north on the O & W Trail along the Big South Fork.

Big boulder

Typical huge boulder in the geologically fascinating Big South Fork

Johnny found a camp near the historic O & W railroad bridge and spent two days reveling in the mild winter weather before the rain hit. John Cox joined him on the 3rd day and they set out on the new portion of the John Muir Trail toward the Honey Creek Trail, passing the Devils Den Rockhouse and Jakes Falls.

Jakes Falls near the O & W Bridge on the John Muir Trail

Jakes Falls near the O & W Bridge on the John Muir Trail

Looking out from the Devils Den rockhouse in the Big South Fork

Looking out from the Devils Den rockhouse in the Big South Fork

They hiked in the rain to meet the Honey Creek Trail, passing more geological wonders, such as waterfalls and more rock houses, huge boulders. No wonder Honey Creek is a designated state natural area.

Boulder Cave Falls on the Honey Creek Trail

Boulder Cave Falls on the Honey Creek Trail

They pushed on to make the Burnt Mill Trail, where they found a campsite along Clear Fork, a scenic stream that is one of the headwaters of the Big South Fork.

John Cox (left) and Johnny Molloy pose beside Clear Fork

John Cox (left) and Johnny Molloy pose beside Clear Fork

After another night under the stars, the two of them made the Burnt Mill Loop then took the John Muir Trail back to Honey Creek, passing more falls and features before setting up camp near the confluence of Honey Creek and the Big South Fork.

Unnamed falls on Honey Creek Loop

Unnamed falls on Honey Creek Loop

Since the rains had fallen, even Ice Castle Falls was flowing.

Ice Castle Falls

Ice Castle Falls

Honey Creek Overlook

Honey Creek Overlook

The warm weather cooled down after the rain. Johnny and John hung out by the fire at a campsite with excellent camp furniture.

camp furniture

Johnny camping at the Big South Fork relaxing on elaborate camp furniture

The final morning they made their way back to Leatherwood Ford, crossing the O & W Bridge one last time.

View of the Big South Fork from the O & W Bridge

View of the Big South Fork from the O &W Bridge

Then they arrived back at Leatherwood Ford, one more adventure under their belts.

Iron Mountain Trail/Appalachian Trail

40 miles, 4 nights

Circling Shady Valley Tennessee

Johnny relaxes at an outcrop along the Iron Mountain Trail

Johnny relaxes at an outcrop along the Iron Mountain Trail

 Johnny and his friend Steve “Devo” Grayson set forth from Cross Mountain, in northeastern Tennessee, intent on looping around Shady Valley using the Iron Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Thus they joined the Iron Mountain Trail, northbound, and shortly came to an unexpected overlook.

Steve "Devo" Grayson looks toward the convergence of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina

Steve “Devo” Grayson looks toward the convergence of Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina

The chilly, sunny afternoon delivered stellar panoramas and clear skies. They plowed ahead for 4 miles, stopping to make camp at Battleham Gap, where they guessed was a spring. Iron Mountain is notorious for limited water, but they guessed right.

Devo at our campsite at Battleham Gap. Water is near.

Devo at our campsite at Battleham Gap. Water is near.

There was water at the camp but also a scattering of snow! The wind was relentless but what do you expect while winter backpacking in the Southern Appalachians? We made a rip snorting fire and I cooked some burgers. That night a meteor shower provided us with God given fireworks.

Tennessee's Iron Mountain Trail runs the high ridge between Shady Valley and Mountain City

Tennessee’s Iron Mountain Trail runs the high ridge between Shady Valley and Mountain City

Next day we kept north on the Iron Mountain Trail, surprised at more snow on the trail. But the clear skies made the walking fun. Later, we ended up at a gap and made camp one knob north of the IMT intersection with Forest Road 322.

Winter backpacking on the Iron Mountain Trail in Tennessee

Winter backpacking on the Iron Mountain Trail in Tennessee

It remained windy at our camp. I listened to the Tennessee Vols beat Butler in basketball, which was a treat. Later that night the wind shifted and temps actually rose back above freezing. Next day we marched 5 miles into Damascus, Virginia, where the temperatures were much cooler than the highlands.

Johnny on the Backbone Rock Trail, which links to the AT

Johnny on the Backbone Rock Trail, which links to the AT

Devo left after dropping me off at the Backbone Rock Trail, which I climbed to meet the Appalachian Trail, then turned northbound, with nary a drop of water for over 7 miles. The day was sunny and got almost warm for winter. I was happy to see the Abingdon Gap shelter. The water is a good ways down the hill, though. Wood was plentiful. That night I enjoyed solitude ’round the fire, plus a little of that dogged winter wind.

Abingdon Gap shelter in winter

Abingdon Gap shelter in winter

It rained overnight, and I left the shelter into foggy, windy, chilly weather. I pounded out the 8.3 miles to Double Springs shelter, simply because stopping wasn’t too fun. Along the way, I saw the old McQueen Gap shelter, built in 1934. It might’ve been cool to camp there, but no water is immediately available.

McQueen Knob trail shelter, built in 1934

McQueen Knob trail shelter, built in 1934

I got to Double Springs Gap at 1 and got a fire going, then spent a cool, damp day by the fire in the fog, while the wind howled in the ridges above. Next morning I arose early and walked the remaining 3 miles to the vehicle back at Cross Mountain.

Springtime at Rocky Fork

Johnny uses binoculars at Buzzard Rock
Johnny overlooks Rocky Fork from Buzzard Rock

April is a good time to visit the newly acquired Rocky Fork tract in the Unicoi and Greene counties. The land acquisition of over 10,000 acres has been completed, though recreational opportunities have not been firmly established. However, a trail system is already in place. The tract is going to be managed by the Cherokee National Forest, as well as the Tennessee state parks.

With my friend Steve “Devo” Grayson, I set out on an exploratory backpacking adventure to experience some of the beauty contained within Rocky Fork. The tract covers much of the Rocky Fork basin, which gets its start high in the Bald Mountains dividing Unicoi and Greene counties. The Rocky Fork drainage also includes the stateline ridge between Unicoi County and Madison, County North Carolina, over toward Carmen.

We started our trip at Lower Higgins Creek (as it is called to differentiate it from the other Higgins Creek in the south end of Unicoi County near Flag Pond), just a few miles from Temple Hill. Devo and I took the Higgins Creek Trail up a narrow gorge. Heavy rains left Higgins Creek a froth of whitewater. Black birch, sycamore, yellow birch and scads of rhododendron, ferns and mosses bordered the path. Boulders big and small lay scattered in the woods.

After a mile, we heard the roar of Lower Higgins Falls. The cataract can be seen from the main trail. The falls starts in a rhododendron thicket as a narrow faucet type pourover, then tumbles in tiers, becoming steeper until it is nearly sheer at its base. The fall totals about 60 feet in height. Beyond Lower Higgins Falls, we climbed until Higgins Creek was but a slender, small streamlet high on Rich Mountain. Trees were greening in the lower terrain but up here, the trees were mostly barren. However, wildflowers were copiously blooming, everything from trillium to bluets to gay wings.

Lower Higgins Falls after heavy spring rains
Lower Higgins Falls after a heavy rain

The two of us made camp in the perched uppermost Higgins Creek valley, just below the crest of Rich Mountain. We banked a fire against the nighttime chill. Overhead, the stars shone bright. Layers of frost covered our sleeping bags overnight, as we slept in the open.

A morning fire knocked off the chill. I sat before its flickering flames while heating coffee water. My toes warmed by the hot coals as I sipped hot java, contemplating the route we were to take. Buzzard Rock was our destination.

After loading up, Devo and I circled past Wilson Knob aiming for the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. Just as we entered a small hollow, I came upon a pocket of bleeding heart wildflowers! What a colorful find. I snapped a few shots with the camera to capture the fleeting moment. Hunting wildflowers in our Tennessee mountains can truly be a treasure!

Bleeding hearts
Bleeding hearts grace the Tennessee mountains

We climbed to 4,600-foot Buzzard Rock. Views opened into Unicoi County from the open rock promontory (Buzzard Rock is visible from Interstate 26, on your way toward Asheville). Below, the Rocky Fork valley spread forth, its tributaries easily recognizable from the hills that divided them. Beyond there, Devo looked out, pointing out Flint Mountain, rising in a wall to the south.

He also pointed out Interstate 26, running through the Indian Creek Valley in the distance. The grassy meadow of Big Bald, on the far side of I-26, formed an eastern backdrop. Budding trees spread in delicate greens in Rocky Fork Valley, while the white blooms of serviceberry trees dotted the hillsides. Spring had really arrived in the hills of East Tennessee. It could not be denied.

After savoring our view from Buzzard Rock, we descended to Rocky Fork Valley. The day was warming. That is one interesting aspect of springtime in the mountains – temperatures can range from the 20s to the 70s in one day!

A bright spring sun reflected off the fast-moving waters of Rocky Fork as Devo and I descended the deep vale. Wildflowers carpeted the woodland floor. There is a reason springtime flowers mostly bloom early in the season. The flowers time their blooming period before the leaves of the trees block out the sunlight, minimizing the amount of energy that plants on the forest floor can receive.

Then, as the trees begin their process of regenerating, and a canopy forms above the forest floor, ground level plants are cutoff from the sun. Of course, many plants thrive in the shade of our mountain valleys, namely rhododendron, of which there is plenty along Rocky Fork and its feeder streams.

Lucky for me, Devo is a forester by trade and something of a plant biologist by hobby. He is always pointing out interesting flora, and is a whiz at identifying wildflowers. He was a great asset to have on hand in the flower and plant rich Rocky Fork Valley. However, plant fans like him also stop a lot, working their craft, and can slow the hike down. Almost always, I will end up ahead on the trail. I use my waiting time wisely, scouting for campsites, fishing too.

On the other hand, Devo seems to show up at after the wood has been gathered, and just after the fire has been started. I have sometimes wondered if he sits on a hill above camp, watching for the chores to get done, then saunters in, smile on his face, ready to share an interesting plant discovery as a distraction.

By late afternoon, we made our final camp at Hidden Lake, perched at 4,000 feet, on the headwaters of Birchfield Camp Branch. It was a pretty good climb out of lower Rocky Fork up to Hidden Lake. The April day had turned almost hot.

Hidden Lake
Hidden Lake is an alluring part of Rocky Fork

Did you know there was a lake at Rocky Fork? Hidden Lake is small, just a few acres, but makes for a pretty sight, rimmed in yellow birches. Rumor has it there’s some trout in there but I haven’t fished it yet. This was strictly an exploratory trip, to understand the trail system, to literally get the lay of the land, and see a few wildflowers.

Cooking hot dogs at Hidden Lake campsite
Cooking hot dogs at Hidden Lake campsite

We enjoyed a milder evening at our Hidden Lake campsite. Clouds had rolled in. I cooked hot dogs over the fire that evening, roasting them on sticks placed before the coals. Next morning we followed the lake’s outflow, Birchfield Camp Branch, steeply down trail, passing an old logging truck from decades back. It is amazing the truck ever made it up to this rough valley, and stands still, the object of buckshot from passing hunters.

Old logging truck along Birchfield Camp Branch
Old logging truck along Birchfield Camp Branch

Devo and I followed Birchfield Camp Branch to its confluence with Higgins Creek. The streams were lower now, and easier to cross since the storm flow had run its course. And it wasn’t long before this adventure at Rocky Fork had run its course, and we were back at the Higgins Creek trailhead, more appreciative of Rocky Fork than ever.

Consider making your own adventure at Rocky Fork, the latest treasure of our Tennessee mountains.


Bald Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina

A Loop Through the Cherokee and Pisgah national forests

One of many falls along the Hickey Fork Trail

Winter Waterfalls

Exploring the Streams of the Bald Mountains

Just a little south of Johnson City, the crest of the Southern Appalachians, forming the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee, curves in a great arc, from Devil Fork Gap in Unicoi County to Allen Gap in Greene County. The popular Appalachian Trail travels the state line ridge and below it, on both sides of the mountain lie lesser used trails that present waterfalls flowing down remote hollows, views from wooded ridges and solitude galore, especially in winter.

In Tennessee, the Cherokee National Forest locale part of the Bald Mountains Scenic Area. In North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest the area is known as Shelton Laurel Backcountry. Together, the two areas add up to over 20,000 acres of wildland waiting for you to explore.

We started on a rainy, cold Sunday afternoon, typical of December, at the Marguerite Falls trailhead in the Shelton Mission community of Greene County. We headed up the Bullen Hollow Trail, taking a side trip on the redone Marguerite Falls Trail. Heavy

 rain made the falls bolder than normal and was our first highlight.

Marguerite Falls Trailhead               Bullen Hollow Trail             Bullen Hollow Trail

A misty drizzle dampened us while hiking past cliffs and into Bullen Hollow, shrouded in hemlock and rhododendron. About two miles in we set up camp and spent a drizzly evening warming by the fire. I knew we might have difficulty starting a fire, and brought dry newspaper upon which I dripped candle wax. I then found some semi-dry hemlock twigs and started the conflagration. When getting rained on, having a fire somehow makes it more tolerable. So does a quality rain suit. Around 9 we turned in beneath our tarps.

View of Camp Creek Bald from nearby knob

Johnny at Pounding Mill Trail junction   John Cox at campsite on Hickey Fork

A fog shrouded our campsite the next morning. John toasted bagels over the hot coals for breakfast but a climb into the high country took us into a warm and welcoming sun, headed for the state line. I ended up following a faint trail that disintegrated in brush thickets, but ended up on an isolated knob that offered a wonderful view. I fought my way through the laurels to meet John and the Appalachian Trail near Camp Creek Bald, enough fodder in my scalp and down my shirt to feed a cow. We headed southbound on the AT, soon reaching the Pounding Mill Trail.

Our descent into North Carolina led into a narrow, cold and shady gorge on the Hickey Fork, where waterfalls galore sliced through naked rock. An extremely long water slide was also a highlight. Campsites were nonexistent and the short December day was closing. Eventually, we settled for a lumpy locale enshrouded by rhododendron. Clouds and rain came that night and a strong wind pushed down the valley from dusk to dawn.

A Sea of Rhododendron on upper Hickey Fork

Next day, we broke camp quickly and headed northeast, jumping over to the next watershed, Whiteoak Flats Branch. A former homesite still has vestiges of fields in the actual Whiteoak Flats, but below the flats, the stream cuts a steep gorge with more waterfalls. Leafless trees allowed us open views of all the trailside cascades. Our reward for making it to the lower reaches of Shelton Laurel Backcountry was a lung busting climb up Fork Ridge Trail.  We ascended into fog and clouds and rejoined the Appalachian Trail, where a short jaunt brought us to Jerry Cabin Shelter. It is a great place to spend a winter’s eve, as the three sided open fronted shelter has a fireplace within it.

Hiking through Whiteoak Flats      Waterfall on the Jerry Miller Trail

Jerry Cabin Shelter                   Rime Ice on the Appalachian Trail

A warm fire at Jerry Cabin Shelter cut the chill on the 20° night. Overnight, the fog dropped a layer of rime ice on the trees, making for a scenic trek on the AT to meet the Phillips Hollow Trail. The seldom-used, often overgrown path took us back into Tennessee. The stream along Phillips Hollow Trail, a branch of Dry Creek, showed off its own waterfalls. The steep terrain of the Bald Mountains results in all these cataracts. The trail was rough going, with numerous creek crossings. In winter you are always trying to make the crossing dry shod. It adds to the challenge. Our rock hops were successful, leading back to the trailhead and civilization.

Stairstep Falls on Phillips Hollow Trail         Another Fall on Phillips Hollow Trail

Roan Highlands AT Hike

View from Grassy Ridge near Roan Mountain

Johnny and Pam set out on an end-to-end Appalachian Trail/Cherokee National Forest backpack adventure. The first day was short, as they went from Carvers Gap to Grassy Ridge, over 6,000 feet high, setting up camp in a tight rhododendron thicket. The wind was blowing but the views were worth it. They enjoyed a great sunset and sunrise from the camp.

Sunset near Roan Mountain

Next day they trudged northbound on the AT under very clear summer skies. The views were stupendous. They kept wanting to stop and enjoy the vistas. Eventually they left the high open bald and dropped into Doll Flats, still a high spot, but in the woods.


Hiking the AT on the balds           Johnny near Hump Mountain

Doll Flats is a level spot, still way up there. The trees up here hadn’t fully leafed out but there was still enough shade for a nice camp. The winds blew continuously that night, chilling them, despite the time of year.

     Pam with the Southern Appalachians in the background

    View from Doll Flats        Pam at Doll Flats campsite       Doll Flats Spring

After leaving Doll Flats, they wound their way down to US 19E. More views opened before and after the road crossing. They kept up and down the path, with a long day ahead of them, but many beautiful sights to keep them tuned into nature.

               Appalachian Trail view                   Tennessee Mountain Meadow

 False Solomon’s Seal                          Flame Azalea

They dropped off the Appalachian Trail in Carter County, Tennessee, then joined a mountain stream, Laurel Fork, where they found a camp after a 17 mile day — and a few stream fords, which contrasted with the bald walking of the day before. A stream bath was in order and relaxing at camp was next.

 Pam fords at the end of a 17 mile day     Johnny Molloy at campsite

 Next day, the two went but two miles down the campsite Johnny call Bear Beach, since he saw bruin tracks there before. They had a relaxing day and later Johnny fished, keeping a pair of brown trout to supplement their 4th night’s meal.

Bear Beach campsite                  

The final morning was cloudy and they broke camp at Bear Beach then made the numerous fords of Laurel Fork and completed their 40 mile trek on the AT and through the Cherokee National Forest.

Big South Fork November Backpack

View of the Big South Fork from Angel Falls Overlook

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is one of my favorite fall destinations. Located at the Tennessee-Kentucky line north of Knoxville, the elevations are lower than Johnson City and our surrounding mountains, allowing fall’s leaves to hang on a little longer. Plus the different terrain of the Cumberland Plateau results in geological features unseen in our neck of the woods.

My friend John Cox and I decided to backpack at the Big South Fork, starting at an area known as Leatherwood Ford, west of Oneida, Tennessee and a place where canoers, rafters undertake paddling adventures. But it was deep into autumn when we embarked on our adventure, so no paddlers were around. Over the years both of us have been endeavoring to hike all the trails in this preserve and this five day trip put a big dent in mileage we had left to hike.

John and I left Leatherwood Ford under a gray autumn sky, traveling northbound on the John Muir Trail. After crossing Falling Branch we cruised along the edge of the river and found an exposed flat rock outcrop just above Angel Falls and camped directly on the river. The day was fairly cold and never rose above 50. The camping was a little chilly as a breeze blew off the river.


        Departing Leatherwood Ford         Riverside campsite on the Big South Fork

Next day, we hiked the Grand Gap Loop, a scenic trail which curves along the rim of the Big South Fork. The views from the Grand Gap Loop were inspiring, as the sandstone bluffs were more exposed with lesser leaves on the trees. After that five plus miles we worked our way to Laurel Fork Creek, then headed up the Laurel Fork Trail. The leaves were mostly down, affording more distant views but there was plenty of color on the remaining trees and also on the fallen leaves. This day stayed cool as well and we were glad to make the crossings of Laurel Fork creek dry-footed during the 14-mile day.


    Big South Fork rockhouse                Heading up Laurel Fork

The second night was quite cool but we were lucky because the rain that came didn’t fall until we were breaking camp, where we had set up in a grove of hemlock trees. So far, hemlock trees are not affected by the woolly adelgid in the Big South Fork as they have been affected in the Appalachian Mountains.                           

 John fords Laurel Fork   Fresh Beaver Sign   Johnny Hiking in the Rain

The third day of hiking was cold and rainy as we cruised up Laurel Fork. In these conditions it is better to keep going than stop. The Salt Pine Trail led us away from the valley. We made our way to the Twin Arches Natural Area, a special locale in the Big South Fork. Here we made a stop at Slave Falls, then saw Needle Arch, which is but one of the many geological features in this special place.

Needle Arch

We continued rambling through the Big South Fork, dropping into the Charit Creek drainage in the vicinity of Jake’s Place. This former farm, still marked with a crumbling chimney, is successionally reforesting. The young trees and brush made it challenging to find a campsite, but we finally did farther down along Charit Creek. John got a fire going and I set up the tarps, as the rain was falling lightly. Despite the drizzle we hung out by the fire.


         Jakes Place Homesite                          Camp on Charit Creek

Waking up to rain is never fun. We broke a wet camp, welcoming the hike as a chance to warm up. We climbed along the Hatfield Ridge Trail, then dropped back down to Station Camp Creek, eating lunch under the boughs of a thick hemlock, to retard the rain.

John and I headed down the Big South Fork to reach Big Island. Here, we forded the Big South Fork, which really is big, amid the cold and rain. Luckily the river was very low, so the actual crossing part wasn’t too difficult. We both went barefoot, going through a period of misery to keep our boots dry for the long haul.


         Fall colors at the Big South Fork                       Big Island Ford

After making the ford, we dried off our feet, rebooted, and walked just a short distance to our overnighting spot. That night it rained more but we were on the porch of an old hunter cabin. We were glad to be warm and dry after the 12 mile day. The hunt cabin even had a fireplace inside. We huddled around the fireplace, feeling blessed at our good fortune. The final day the two of us followed River Trail East 11 miles all the way back to Leatherwood Ford to end our November adventure..

Appalachian Trail/Shelton Laurel Backcountry

It was early fall when I drove to Camp Creek Bald, straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina State line. My buddies John Cox and Steve Grayson were to meet me later as I set off down the Appalachian Trail, admiring the clear skies and stellar views from this section of the AT, which scrambles over Firescald Ridge amid rocks emerging above the forest.

View of The Blackstack Cliffs from Camp Creek Bald

Fall flowers were blooming and it was a great day to be alive and in the Southern Appalachians. I cruised on 4 ½ miles to the Jerry Cabin Shelter, where the day slowly cooled, so I made a warming fire and waited for my comrades to show up. Unfortunately they didn’t show up till late – Steve at 1 am and  John Cox the next morning!


Views from the Appalachian Trail at Firescald Ridge

Johnny atop the Blackstack Cliffs

Jerry Cabin Shelter

The morning low went to 47°. The three of us left the shelter and headed northbound on the Appalachian Trail, cruising over Coldspring Bald and stopping at the Shelton Laurel Graves, internment of slain Civil War soldiers. We stopped for views at Big Rock, then checked out the meadow atop Big Butt,  which appeared to be in the process of being restored.

Finally, we left the AT and joined the Green Knob Ridge Trail and headed into North Carolina and the Shelton Laurel Backcountry. Numerous switchbacks took us down to Dry Creek, which truly was dry. We eventually found a little water and had a late lunch,  then picked up the Jerry Miller Trail and followed it up to Whiteoak Flats, which is an attractive meadow and former homesite that is becoming grown over.

         Views from Coldspring Bald

John Cox checks out the Shelton Laurel Graves on the AT

We found  camp in a hemlock flat adjacent to the meadow and relaxed after the 10 mile day. The evening grew dark and windy as a storm was coming but it didn’t rain that night.


Crossing Big Creek on Jerry Miller Trail     Johnny poses by colorful sourwood

Next morning we hurriedly broke camp. I did get a fire going enough for coffee but then the rain began to fall and it was a wet climb up to the crest of the Appalachians and the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Once back at Camp Creek Bald we jumped in our vehicles and happily changed clothes enjoying the dry ride home.

AT from Hot Springs, NC to the Smokies

It was early December when Johnny and longtime hiking pal John Cox left Hot Springs, NC, southbound on the Appalachian Trail.  They made the short uphill walk to Deer Park Mountain shelter, and set up the first camp.  They gathered plenty o’ wood for the long dark night, but it wasn’t quite as cold as they thought it would be.

Winter Skies offer Clear View of the Smokies from Max Patch

The hiking got a little tougher as they made the long slug up to Bluff Mountain on a cooling day, eventually making Walnut Mountain shelter, after a 9 miles on the trail.  The wind was howlin’ up there and thus began a 40 plus hour period of subfreezing temperatures, which qualifies as a “Freeze-out” hike.

Johnny and John at the Walnut Mountain shelter

Sunset from Atop Walnut Mountain

The wind was howling the next morning as they continued south, passing some open views from balds being restored.  It was a lot of ups and downs getting to Max Patch, where the views were incredible and so was the wind.  Beyond the fields of Max Patch, the cold sunny day led them 13 total miles to Groundhog Creek shelter, where we once again had the shelter to ourselves. That is the upside of winter hiking, you have the backcountry to yourselves.  (I saw one other hiker in 4 days on the most popular trail in America)

                      Johnny and John Cox at Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail

The sun soon sunk after getting to the campsite. The two gathered wood aplenty for the cold night, where temps dropped to single digits.


Plenty of wood at the shelter        View of John at a warming fire

Next day we pushed it south nearly 12 miles, passing I-40, then making Davenport Gap as the sun was lowering on another cold day in the Southern Appalachians.  After this hike, I completed the goal of hiking the entire part of the Appalachian Trail where it traverses through or near Tennessee, a total of 280 miles.

Iron Mountain Trail

December can mean snow.  Bryan Delay and I took off from Backbone Rock Recreation Area in the northeast corner of the Cherokee National Forest near the Virginia border.  We headed up a maze of old roads to make the Iron Mountain Trail.  The short days and our road guesswork left us fighting dark and trying to find a campsite on a narrow ridgeline.  Finally I dropped off a gap and found a flat former logging road by a creek.  Just in time!


            Bryan with NC in background       Iron Mountain Trail at sunset

While light snow was already on the ground, we were in for more, and woke up to snow falling and it continued to fall throughout the second day.  Our travel slowed and we had to alter our plan, finally setting up camp near a highland stream.


          Johnny treks in deepening snow        Bryan at second camp

It snowed throughout the second day and we woke up to over a foot on the ground!  Our planned loop was hopeless, so we broke camp and hiked a few miles to a road near Mountain City, TN, then caught a ride back to the car.

Unnamed Creek in the Cherokee National Forest

May is a great time to backpack fishing for trout.  Recently, Johnny and buddy Steve “Devo” Grayson embarked on a 4 day trip to Unnamed Creek in the Cherokee National Forest.  This Unnamed Creek is one of Johnny’s favorite haunts and he refuses to divulge its location to even the webmaster.

The first afternoon was sunny, then major storms moved in, and Johnny got bombed by lightning, thunder and heavy rain, but he still managed to get some fishing in, between rounds of hanging out under the tarp.  That night, it was drip, drip, drip under the tarp.

Next morning, Johnny got a fire going then cooked pancakes for breakfast, along with coffee, then headed up to the Yellow Birch Campsite.

     Johnny vying for trout on Unnamed Creek

After a respite, he once again tackled Unnamed Creek, this time keeping three for the frying pan.  Devo showed up later at the camp, and he went for a late evening session, snagging one dink.  Good thing they weren’t relying on him for dinner!


               Yellow Birch Campsite                      Brown Trout that were eaten

The next day was cool and sunny, a perfect mountain day.  Johnny and Devo headed upstream to one of Johnny’s favorite campsites, White Pine Campsite, nestled in white pine woods next to a clearing next to Unnamed Creek.  Nary a person came by.  Along the way, the pair spotted a colony of pink Lady Slippers.


                 Pink Lady Slippers                          Devo takes trailside photo

The day proved both beautiful and productive, with many trout caught, some ending up in our bellies.  What fun!  The third night was cool, too.  We arose at dawn, enjoying one last mountain morning, before returning to the trailhead, at the lower end of Unnamed Creek, passing beaver dammed side streams, which also held trout.


Fish Eye View of Unnamed Creek                  Devo fishes from beaver dam

Gentry Creek/Rogers Ridge

Streams, Balds and Tri State Corner on Northeast Tennessee

I am always trying to go unvisited places, and so Bryan Delay and I headed to the Cherokee National Forest for a May trip.  The weather was great and we loved being in spring and seeing all the wildflowers.  First, we headed up Gentry Creek, a beautiful stream with a scenic waterfall.  I did a little trout fishing.


    Gentry Falls             Bryan scrambles past Gentry Falls      Painted Trillium

 After camping along the creek, we headed into the high country, following unmaintained trails up to Rogers Ridge.  We weren’t sure we were going the right way until we got there.  But once atop, the views were spectacular.  The bald stretched a long ways.


Atop Rogers Ridge

 We kept cruising higher, just taking in the atmosphere, then we ran into some fellows from Kingsport, TN and they led us to Tri State Corner, the point where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina come together.

      Bryan and Johnny at Tri State Corner

 We returned from Tri State Corner to our fellow Tennesseans, and they made us lunch.  We visited around the fire, then headed back down Rogers Ridge, taking more wildflower pictures before heading back to the trailhead.


    Bryan takes pictures near Gentry Creek    Wood betony

Unaka Wilderness/Dicks Creek Hike

Hiking Tennessee’s Unaka Mountain in the Cherokee National Forest

It was a warm spring day when I left Rock Creek Campground in the Cherokee National Forest near Erwin, Tennessee.  I soon crested a ridge then dropped into the Dicks Creek drainage. I followed the stream until I found Dicks Creek Falls, by listening for the roar.  The fall is hidden by rhododendron.  From there I headed over to Limestone Cove, then took the Limestone Cove Trail up nearly 2,500 feet to the upper reaches of Unaka Mountain, where red spruce grow in abundance.


    Unaka Wilderness        Dicks Creek Falls         Wake Robin

 I found a campsite in a gap near a spruce grove.  Water wasn’t too far.  I surprised at the chill up there.  Of course, the leaves were weeks behind those at home in nearby Johnson City.  The high country, with its fragrant evergreens was very nice.

     Campsite near junction of Limestone Cove and Stamping Ground trails

The long May day finally turned dark and I retired.  The temperature went down to 50 degrees.  Next day I climbed up Stamping Ground Ridge Trail which offers great vistas and interesting vegetation.  I had to walk Unaka Mountain Scenic Drive a bit to reach the next trail, Rattlesnake Ridge.

Atop Stamping Ground Ridge on Unaka Mountain

I then made then descent from spruce country along Rattlesnake Ridge, dropping 2,500 feet in 3 miles.  Many views opened on the descent, especially in the dry, south facing piney areas.  Before long I left Unaka Wilderness and was back at Rock Creek Campground.

Big Laurel Branch Wilderness
A Mix of Fall and Winter on One Three Night Trip

 Bryan Delay and I set forth on the Appalachian Trail near Shady Valley, TN.  Bryan was finishing his quest to hike the entire Tennessee portion of the AT, from Damascus, VA to Fontana Lake Dam, on the south side of the Smokies.  It was cold and the trees were turning.  The chill air brought snow and we stopped at Double Springs Gap shelter, where a fire warmed us through the evening, despite the strong wind.

Bryan on the  colorful AT

Johnny warms up at Double Springs shelter

Icy precipitation continued the next morn, as we kept southbound, reaching the Iron Mountain shelter 8 miles later.  The snow was still flyin’ as Bryan went to get water.  I was at a fresh fire when Bryan returned with a bag of snow!  The spring was dry!  We gathered and melted water for snow, grateful for the snow, which provided us with aqua.  We kept laughing about going to “gather” water, in the form of snow to melt for food and drink.  The fire was warm but the incessant wind kept blowing smoke in our faces.

Monument to loner Nick Grindstaff

View of Watauga Lake and Roan Mountain

The next day dawned clear, the snow melted as dropped in elevation. We enjoyed the far reaching views from the crest of Iron Mountain, including the Vandeventer shelter, which we spurned for a campsite in a gap below the shelter.  A cold clear night ensued, but the winds were nil.  We kept southbound the next day, passing through the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, circling around Watauga Lake, then climbed Pond Mountain, where we were disappointed had no water.

Watauga Lake and Pond Mountain

Atop Pond Mountain

So we dropped on down to Laurel Fork, my second favorite stream in the world, and camped there.  The 14 mile day left us whipped.  We camped on the banks of Laurel Fork, enjoying the milder temperatures.  The final day we walked up Laurel Fork back to my waiting vehicle.  Bryan had then completed his goal of hiking all the AT through Tennessee.

Fall Trip in Citico Wilderness

This Place is a Gem of the Southern Cherokee National Forest

View from South Fork Citico Trail

Late October is a great time to hike Tennessee’s mountains.  My pal, Tom Lauria, a South Florida resident, and I headed into the Citico Wilderness for some, hiking, trout fishing, mountain climbing and general camaraderie.  The weather was great – warm days, cool nights and just a few drops of rain on a 5 night trip.


          At 1st camp near Ike Camp Branch

   I picked Tom up at the airport, then we went on a nightmare grocery run before hitting the South Fork Citico trailhead.  After that we found a camp, and cooked steaks for dinner.  Next day we set forth up Citico, making the fords, then getting well up the creek before finding a campsite on the creek.  The woods were colorful up here.  We headed up South Fork, climbing waterfalls for good deep trout pools, landing several small but feisty rainbow trout.


         Tom with rainbow trout    Fall on South Fork Citico

             Next day we headed up South Fork climbing steeply to Bobs Bald, where it was warm in the sun and cool in shade.  Fall had taken over at this mile-high destination.


        At Cold Springs Gap          Almost to the Top            

 We soaked in the rays, ate lunch, then made the drop to Naked Ground.  After that we took the rough upper Slickrock Trail through seemingly endless rhododendron thickets, arriving down on Slickrock Creek just before dark.  Tom was whipped and sat there while I did all the chores.  I laughed every time he groaned in pain.

View from Bobs Bald

We decided to do a little fishing while on Slickrock, so traveled the next day just a couple of miles to a nice, wide flat of a campsite.  We went on a couple of fishing sessions, and enjoyed the above average temperatures.  That afternoon, thunder sounded in the distance but very little rain fell.  Our fourth night was windy as a front was moving through, promising colder temperatures.


  Cold foggy Crowder Place campsite    View from Pine Ridge Trail

 After yet another pancake breakfast, the two of us climbed Big Stack Gap Branch Trail then made camp at Crowder Place, which was cold and foggy. We listened to football and hung out by the fire, lamenting our last night in the mountains.  A real chill set on the camp that night.  Our final day we took Fodderstack Trail to Pine Ridge Trail and took it back to the car, completing our 5 night loop.