Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains
By Lynda McDaniel
[Fig. 43(5)] The literature of the movement to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is steeped in the enthusiasm of early advocates for whom the mountains represented a heady mystery to be both investigated and shared. Page after page of these booklets declare the wonders of the Smokies. Interestingly, a relatively new invention in the 1920s, the automobile, is also touted in these pages. Horace Kephart, one of the Smokies' most outspoken proponents and one of the great preservers of its ways and lore, even predicted a time when "a skyline highway" would run along the crest of the Smokies to connect its peaks.
Happily, this did not come to pass. Yet such roads as Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cades Cove Loop Road are in keeping with the spirit of those bygone days, allowing visitors to tour highlights of the park by car, with plenty of places to pull over and enjoy its still-mysterious beauty.
Beginning and ending within miles of downtown Gatlinburg, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-lane, one-way road that for 5.5 miles winds along and across the creek from which it takes its name. As it spills down one of the steepest water gradients in the eastern United States, the rowdy, aptly named Roaring Fork seems to be rushing forward at a greater speed than traffic, which is limited to 15 miles per hour.
The drive passes through an old-growth forest of Eastern hemlocks. The spires of the tall, straight evergreens sometimes reach more than 100 feet, the diameter of the sturdy trunks below stretching as much as 5 feet across. Hardwoods such as sweet birch and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) grow in these damp woodlands, as does silverbell (Halesia tetraptera), a primarily southern Appalachian tree whose white, bell-shaped flowers emerge in spring. Below these trees thrives an understory of rhododendron, mountain laurel, flame azalea, and dog-hobble.
The area along the creek is home to an abundance of birds and other wildlife, such as black-capped and Carolina chickadees (Parus atricapillus and P. carolinensis), tufted titmice (Parus bicolor), and pileated woodpeckers, as well as the barred owl (Strix varia), which can easily be identified by its loud call of "Who cooks for you?" The retreating flanks of a black bear are frequently seen hustling out of sight of an oncoming car.
A portion of the drive travels along an old roadbed constructed in about 1850 by local men who used picks, shovels, dynamite, and sweat to clear a level path through the rock. Roaring Fork was then a community of 25 families who all shopped at the same single store and attended the same church and school. Two of their old homesteads, a small tub mill, and a barn are some of the historic buildings preserved along the trail.
Cherokee Orchard lies at the outset of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Before it became park property in 1942, a commercial orchard and nursery raised neat ranks of apple trees on this acreage, but the fruit trees have since been shaded out by rapidly growing tuliptrees, silverbells, locusts, and red maples. Rainbow Falls Trail and Trillium Gap Trail leave from here to course up the side of Mount LeConte to its summit, the second highest in the park (see Alum Cave Bluffs).
These trails lead to two of the park's most dramatic waterfalls: Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. LeConte Creek flows over a wide lip of Thunderhead sandstone in a 75-foot freefall to form Rainbow Falls. Afternoon sun catches in the mist thrown up by the water in the bottom pool, producing the rainbow effect that gives the falls its name. Located on Trillium Gap Trail, Grotto Falls is a much smaller waterfall of 25 feet. Yet it still manages to drum out all surrounding noise, befitting of the noisy reputation of Roaring Fork which rushes over from its source near the top of Mount LeConte. Here the resistant Thunderhead sandstone is underlain by a softer and siltier layer of Elkmont Sandstone. Salamander sightings are frequent in the pools below these two falls, the zigzag (golden brown and dark green) and dusky (charcoal gray) varieties being most common.
The lower slopes of these two trails are blanketed in a cove hardwood forest of silverbell, hemlock, yellow-poplar, basswood, and scattered white pine. Both red and sugar maples flourish here. Winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), Kentucky warbler (Oporornis formosus), red-eyed vireo, indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), and American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) flit and sing in the branches along the trails. On the higher slopes, a mixed forest of hardwoods and hemlock gives way to red spruce and Fraser fir, many of the latter dead as a result of the exotic aphids that infested the park in the 1960s (see Clingmans Dome).
Wildflowers abound along both trails. Rainbow Falls is noted for its rosebay rhododendron, shiny galax, and trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). In summer, bee-balm, sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), and pink turtlehead (Chelone lyoni) all come into flower. Not surprisingly, Trillium Gap is known for its namesake flower. Three species grow there, erect painted trillium (Trillium undulatum), large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), and yellow Vasey (Trillium viride var. luteum). At Trillium Gap, about 5 miles along the trail, stands a beech gap with attendant spring flowers of fringed phacelia, trout lily, and Dutchman's breeches.
[Fig. 43(7)] While abundant thickets of mountain laurel justify the first half of this trail's name, the word "falls" is actually a misnomer. As Laurel Branch flows downward from Cove Mountain, it crosses over massive ledges of sandstone that act as stairsteps for the creek on its journey toward the Little River. Because the water steps downs from ledge to ledge and never clears the rock in a free fall, this spot is more properly called a cascade.
Misnaming, however, has not marred the loveliness of the display, which features a spectacular 85-foot drop. Nor has it kept visitors from flocking here. The walk to the falls is paved and only 1.3 miles long, making this well-shaded watering hole a popular and crowded destination on weekends and sunny afternoons.
The same sandstone that forms Laurel Falls also can be seen in the steep rock faces that rise along the trail. This tough and coarse-grained metasandstone, interbedded with thin layers of slate and phyllite, is part of the Thunderhead formation, whose resistance to weathering has helped to create so many of the park's waterfalls (see Rainbow Falls). A crew from the CCC blasted through the rock to cut this wide trail into the hillside.
When it reaches Laurel Falls, the trail cuts between two of the ledges that form the cascade on a concrete bridge. Beyond the falls, the trail gets both rougher and, as a result, quieter. The height must have discouraged loggers because the trail climbs through a venerable old-growth forest of cove hardwoods (one of the park's research plots on old- growth oaks is located just a mile above the falls). Visitors to the Smokies are often amazed by the size of its tuliptrees and yellow buckeyes, and it becomes clear why when viewing fine specimens along this ascent. Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri) come into flower with their huge white blossoms in early May.
[Fig. 43(6)] This beautiful trail along the Middle and Ramsay prongs of the Little Pigeon River courses through several interesting features, including some of the largest trees found in the park. Tulip poplar (up to 5-foot diameter), silverbell (2.5-foot diameter), sweet birch (3.5-foot diameter), and black cherry (3-foot diameter) thrive here. Unusual-looking yellow birch trees grow along the trail, their roots rising noticeably above the forest floor. These trees grew from seedlings sprouted on downed trees that have since rotted away, leaving the birch roots exposed in midair.
The trail follows an old roadbed through block fields of Thunderhead Sandstone boulders measuring 30 to 40 feet in diameter. These fields are thought to have formed during the Pleistocene era, falling from the cliffs of sandstone on the mountain slopes above. Today, 10,000 years later, the block fields have been altered and obscured by years of weathering and the growth of thick vegetation.
After 1.5 miles the trail leads to the confluence of the Ramsay Prong and Middle Prong with a more strenuous climb through the hardwood and hemlock forest to the sandstone bluff over which picturesque Ramsay Cascades flows, crashing against the sandstone boulders 60 feet below. Ramsay Cascades is the highest falls in the park that can be accessed by trail. To return to the parking area, backtrack on the trail.
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