GSMNP X (Cataloochee Divide loop), 12/09

Dec. 5-7, 2009
37 miles

Bob stood me up for the 8th annual Thanksgiving Death March because he went to the BEACH instead!!!  But we made it up the following weekend.  Trying to figure out a loop in the Cataloochee area of the Smokies is next to impossible because of the lack of campsites and Chuck’s favorite trail (Poll’s Gap) is now closed making it even harder, so a death march was called for to tie it all together.  We were in search of views, snow, cold, wildlife and wild people, we found it all.  We also went 3 whole days and didn’t see another person except one ranger out on the road, hard to do in the Smokies.

Following our usual MO, we drove into the teeth of the gale, knowing some early trip discomfort would yield clear weather following the storm.  As we drove past the Waynesville exit on I-40 it turned from rain to snow.  By the time we started up the Cove Creek road to Cataloochee Valley Bob’s truck (which couldn’t pull a wet string out of a cats ass) was sliding around.  We got to the trailhead at Cove Creek Gap and parked it there, daring not to go down into the valley for a backcountry permit, making this an outlaw trip from the beginning.  We jumped out of the truck and the wind was howling and the snow flying, we thought about jumping back in and reconsidering but didn’t.

Climbing up the Cataloochee Divide trail into 3-5 inches of snow and temps in the 20’s the wind slowed and we were having a great time.

We passed the side trail to Purchase Knob and the webcam and got to the next trail junction and decided we had to drop the packs and go back.  An hour early from our projected webcam appearance we spent some time jumping up and down in front of the camera, to no avail.  The webcam is on the little building.

This is an archived shot from the park website, two hours later, you can see our footprints in the snow heading down towards the bush in the lower right.

The next stop along the trail was Gooseberry Knob on the property of the SWAG a tony Inn right on the park boundary where Bob says he is going to take Jenny sometime soon.  This is the artsy gazebo on the Knob.

By now the snow fall had stopped and the clouds were beginning to lift some.  We got to Double Gap and we could see part way up the side of Hemphill Bald but it would have to wait for a few days.  The signs at the trail junction indicated that the elusive Poll’s Gap trail did infact still exist.

We turned off the Cataloochee Divide and dropped down 1800′ into the Caldwell Fork drainage and through some giant old trees, here Bob is doing is best tree hugger imitation

We ended the 9.5 mile day at Chuck’s favorite Smokies campsite #41 on Caldwell fork creek, fire, the perfect food and to sleep under a clearing sky.

Day two dawned clear and cold, 19 degrees, up early cooking as we had the monster day planned.  Notice Bob’s new, fancy, red, 0 degree sleeping bag.  He didn’t even snore he was so warm and comfortable!

Down the Caldwell Fork trail to the Boogerman trail, which Chuck had said was really nice.  Indeed there were lots of old historic sites and old growth trees as it climbed up and around the side of the Caldwell fork valley.  Bob has already identified a short cut up to the Cataloochee Divide trail, he is just waiting for Chuck to be able to try it.  Here Bob is studying an old wall so he can write the trip off.

Taking the Boogerman trail added a couple of miles on the day but was well worth it and helped us avoid a bunch of mud on the heavily, horse used, Caldwell Fork trail.  We hit the Cataloochee valley road and walked it, up stream, towards the Rough Fork trailhead.  This began the wildlife portion of the trip.  There are now, supposedly, 120 elk in the park but we only managed to count 28 or 29.

And Bob tried to get on the big guy for a ride but he wasn’t going for it.

On up the valley we saw lots of wild turkeys who didn’t move when we came by

And a couple of deer fighting with each other

Bob was so excited he had to take a break, notice he has to use the handicapped room

We had a leisurely lunch before starting the real death march, up the Rough Fork trail, a steady climb up 2400′ to Poll’s Gap.  We began to follow the only footprints we would see the whole trip and this guy was flying, was he the Wild Man of Cataloochee who was last seen here in 1976?  When we got to Poll’s Gap part of the mystery of wether the Poll’s Gap trail was open was solved, Bob still wants to try and walk this closed trail though.

We were running out of daylight and we turned away headed down the Hemphill Bald trail looking for water and a flat place to camp, following the Wild Man’s prints.  At dark we found a gap to camp at and the winds were once again howling across it.  We managed to find some shelter and had a great nights camp.  17 miles today.

The next morning it was only 28 degrees and we headed out at 8:00 with almost 11 miles to do by 1:00.  Beautiful trail along the top and side of the Cataloochee divide and as Bob said, definately worth the price of admission.  Snow still 3-4 inches deep in most places.  Big views down the Caldwell Fork valley.

We finally get to Hemphill Bald and it is big, it must run for at least a mile or more.  Here is Bob climbing up the bald with the Plott Balsams behind him.

We took a long break at the top, weather was moving in but the air was still really clear.  This is a panorama (which is huge if you click on it so you can see it better) and you could see from Max Patch past Big Bald and Roan mountain to the long ridge of the Black Mountains and Mt. Mitchell in the center.  You can see the steam from the paper plant in Canton in the center.  On around on the horizon you can see Mt. Pisgah and then Cold Mtn.  In the foreground left is Purchase Knob, where the webcam is, Maggie Valley in the middle and on the front right is Cataloochee ski area and you can see them making/blowing snow.

After dropping off the high point for the trip (5500′) we retraced out steps to the truck.  Great trip, saw lots of wildlife including bear and bobcat sign and almost caught the Wild Man.

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