Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hooper Bald , Huckleberry Knob and Conasauga Falls!

Native azaleas on Hooper Bald

Hooper Bald & Huckleberry Knob & Conasauga Falls 

Dana Koogler solo
Monday June 16. 2014

Total hike distance 4 miles

      I was determined to get out to the woods on Monday again to satisfy my soul's craving for
a visit to the beautiful Cherokee National Forest/NantahalaNational Forest area.   I'd been hanging on by the skin of my teeth to get there.  The weekend trip through the vicinity just
 stoked that fire. Monday I went bopping out the door with my gear and down the road I went. 

        I enjoyed the drive down through Madisonville and Tellico Plains.  I turned and headed up
the Cherohala Skyway toward the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina.   I was heading for Hooper Bald first.   I arrived at the trail and parked at the second access spot instead of the trailhead proper.   I saw only one vehicle there.  I made the short hike up to see the azaleas.
I was not disappointed. I hit it just right.  They were in peak bloom.  I wandered around the bald
checking out the assorted colors.  The shades of color here do not have the wide range and show
less hybridization than on Gregory Bald. It is a far shorter hike and the character of the place is
quite different.   I had the place to myself far as I could tell.  It is wild and wooly up on Hooper Bald.  No horses or horse manure. No crowds.  I stood on the rock pulpit and checked out the view.  The briers are  taking the view away, but I did not care.   I saw shades of orange, gold, copper, peach, and red azaleas.  I saw mountain laurel in shades ranging from deep pink to 
almost white.   I loved the dark black green spruce trees contrasted against the brighter shades of color.   The air was fresh and sweet and cool.  The skies changed from bright blue to cloudy.

        I saw something that made me wonder if I was quite mad?  Tiny specks of white floated 
about the bald especially under the shrub canopy.  Considering the visual problems and brain problems of the past months I was not sure what to make of it?  I took another look and it was not
an illusion.  I saw very small flies carrying puffs of silk and giving them to one another like 
presents.  They looked like balloons.  The term "balloon fly" came to mind. I recalled seeing
a nature program that illustrated this phenomena.  I had never witnessed it myself until today!
I was seeing the mating behavior of the balloon flies!  I had no idea they were around the area.
Below is a short video of the azaleas and in the first few seconds you can see them. They are visible later in the video as well.  


Pulpit at Hooper Bald

Bright red azaleas. Never saw this shade here before! Love the scalloped edges.

      Another key difference in visiting Hooper Bald versus Gregory Bald? 
Hooper Bald is wilder.  It is like wandering through various rooms of a house to see the azaleas as opposed to the more open character of Gregory Bald.  I don't know what the acreage is in comparing the two. The azaleas on Hooper are confined more to one side of the bald.  
I finally found the spring on Hooper Bald this year! It was running quite well.    

Spruce trees, thick vegetation and briars and azaleas!

Top: Briers, weeds, evergreens laced with orange.
Bottom:  A stunted oak tree grows amidst the brush and azaleas.

       I love the Great Smoky Mountains.  They are part of the reason I moved to Tennessee. 
What I never counted on was all the beauty of the wilderness areas down the road.  I am from an area that is far less populated. I am a person who has lived in a remote area much of her life.   Another thing I never counted on was how much I would crave that solitude and quiet that is restorative to my soul.  Wilderness areas like this are like wandering through my dreams.  They are treasures of solace, beauty and joy. The Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests and the wildernesses they hold are a great source of comfort and escape for me and those like me. 
You can't be a tourist every day in a National Park's front country and get the same thing out of the experience.    Coming here is like coming home.  

       I reveled in the marvels of color and the sweet scents. I listened to the birds sing.
I watched the sun appear then disappear as clouds swooped across the bald.   I wandered where ever I felt lead.    I finally tore myself away and headed back to the jeep. It was around noon and my fat cells were screaming to be fed.  I met a crew of trail maintainers as I got to the parking area.   They were trimming grass and checking things out.  They were eating as they worked. 
One guy had a sammidge hanging out of his mouth as he opened the gate. I enjoyed sitting in my jeep watching to see what he'd do next.  I like it when everything is not so prim and proper.
It keeps things interesting. 

      I drove the short distance up the Skyway to the trailhead for Huckleberry Bald. I had only hiked here once before.  I was very excited thinking I might find wonderful things there. My head was swimming with daydreams of more loads of azaleas of different colors and other beautiful flowers.    I could hardly wait to get started.  I parked and began the hike on a grassy path that is very manicured and looks like it belongs in someone's lawn or in a city park.  It climbs to the highest point along Unicoi mountains in North Carolina.   Since I was up so high here it was no 
surprise the mountains made their own weather.  I was soon hiking in a cloud.  I was enveloped 
briefly by it.  I had yet to cross Oak Knob. I could see far in the distance the cross on Huckleberry marking Andy Sherman's grave.   It looked so far away and like such a daunting climb from where I now stood. I knew it was not, but it still appeared intimidating.  

Clouds rolling in to swallow me up at the start of the Huckleberry hike.  I hiked across Oak Knob.
The rain began in earnest.  I donned my rain jacket.   I walked about 100 feet.  The rain stopped
just as abruptly as it began.   The clouds moved out and the sun shone.  The weather did all that 
in five minutes or less.  Ah the whims of the mountains of the South Land.  The saying about living here if you don't like the weather.. wait five minutes.. it'll change is TRUE! 

     I hiked the gentle grade up to Andy Sherman's grave site.  I hiked around the knob exploring.
My trip to Huckleberry for azaleas was a joke.  I saw one massive azalea bush way back in the spruce trees.  It was inaccessible.  No wildflowers  unless you counted the gazillion buttercups lining the path on the way up here.   They were quite pretty.   I enjoyed watching the cloudscapes around me on all sides.  I decided that while it is a pretty spot it is NOT a good wildflower hike.
My Autumn hike here was by far prettier.   The mountain ash trees up here in Autumn are splendid!  I would like to come back on a clear Autumn day again.  I looked around me and could see the clouds swirling over the mountains nearby. See the image below for a view to the North.

Look at the difference on my hike out! No more dark skies. Now I've got sunshine and a Sound of Music Von Trapp Family day! Birds chirped and I did see sparrows and the rufous sided towhees in the grass and bushes.  Butterflies fluttered along the path ahead of me and swooped around me.
It was a grand time to the in the mountains!

       I was feeling ambitious and craving to see a waterfall so I returned to the jeep and 
considered what I wanted to do next?  Fall Branch Falls was very near.  It made the most sense
as far as closeness and ease of hike. It is always pretty.  I really wanted to find Holder Cove Falls
down on FR 210, but felt I'd best gather some better info from Paul Gamble before attempting that one.  I only had the most general idea where it was located.   I had not visited Conasauga Falls in a long while. I wanted to go there so I headed in that direction.   It is an easy hike to a waterfall
that is always a sure bet.         
   I drove to Tellico Plains enjoying the blue skies and sunshine.   I had some groovy tunes
on the radio and iPod.   I was sipping a cold drink.  Life is good.  I enjoy the back roads almost
as much as I do the trails.   I got to Tellico Plains and turned left (south) onto SR 68.
I went a couple miles and turned right onto Conasauga Falls road. It is signed.  I followed it out to its end. It goes from pavement to gravel back and forth until it ends at a gravel and dirt parking lot.    I saw one vehicle there. A little silver car.  I grabbed my pack and began the easy hike down.
Its all down hill on the way in and all uphill on the way out. Switchbacks make the hike much gentler.    Arrowwood bloomed along the edges of the woods.  It has creamy white blooms.
I also saw a little bit of mountain laurel mostly faded.  I saw pipsissewa.  I saw no snakes today.
Not a single one!  It was hot. The pine forest here smells sweet.  I made my way down to the river.
I could hear Conasauga Creek roaring long before I got to it.  The only other visitors here were two ladies sitting in the sun on the rocks.  They had been in the water cooling off but were just
relaxing there and talking.   Damselflies flitted about me.  I saw some salamanders in the water and minnows.  The falls roared past and down the creek.  Numerous other small riffles and cascades were along the stream both above and below the falls.   It was beautiful as always.

Conasauga Falls       
  I was growing tired and  had a limited amount of time to tarry here today.  I had to get back to 
Muravul to pick up my new computer from the store.  It had been giving me problems.  I was 
to pick it up today fully restored.   I knew they closed at 7 pm.    Regretfully I trudged back up the hill to the jeep and headed back to town.    I can't complain. I had good weather and mostly solitude today. I filled my head up with beautiful things.  Good things!
I was unable to resist taking a turn on the dirt road out to see where it lead?  It was so pretty and quiet.    I still had to turn around and make myself go back to town. I had it in my mind that
this road must come out at Coker Creek or that area? A later look at the map revealed that yes! It did come out on Hot Water Road down in the Coker Creek vicinity.  The trails, the wander thirst and back roads go on forever. 

     Here is a short video of Conasauga Falls from my hike.

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