Monday, June 15, 2015

Waterfalls and Orchids on the Road Prong

Wood sorrel along the Road Prong trail 

Waterfalls and Orchids Hike on the Road Prong

Dana & Kenny Koogler

Saturday June 13, 2015

Total hike distance 3.3 miles 

Pictures are here: Road Prong Pix

  I got to thinking the other day about all the places I don't go because I get tired of crowds. 
I decided I'd work on that aversion. It has been growing hot and we needed a hike that would be cool.
Kenny is getting better over his leg and back problems, but we decided it would be best to select a shorter, easier hike. My nerves weren't going to take anymore of potentially seeing him pitch down over the side of a mountain.  We had not visited Road Prong in thirteen years for Kenny and probably five years for me.   Last time I was there I hiked up it. I've hiked up it. I've hiked down it.  
We decided in ninety degree temps we'd start high and end low by running a shuttle.   We hadn't done a shuttle hike in a very long time either.   

      We headed to the park from Walland and set my jeep down at Chimney Tops trail head. 
The parking area was already packed and overflowing.   Road crews were working on the Newfound Gap road and there was plenty of traffic.   We jumped in Kenny's truck and went up to Clingman's Dome Road and parked at Indian Gap.   Dan G had suggested checking out the site of the Little Indian Gap shelter. I liked the idea, but couldn't talk Kenny into it. He didn't want to attempt it during hot, snaky, weedy time of year.   He said we'd hold off on that for another trip.  We hadn't got 
far down Road Prong until we both made contact with stinging nettles and that was yet another reminder of why wait?!  

       Road Prong was an old wagon trace down the mountain in the time of the Cherokee Indians.
It was also there and used by settlers and Civil War soldiers.   It was rough going for those folks.
I thought about it, and I believe if I'd had to drag a cannon up that dirt, rock ditch I'd have surrendered. The war would have been over in five minutes. 

  Forest gloom and seventy-one degrees. Cool, clear and deep for the start of our hike. It is 9:30 am.

First creek crossing was a very easy, shallow rock hop.

  The Road Prong as a trail is less used than many others. It is scenic in its deep, rich forest quality.
It is rich in history. I always read the history of these areas before I go. I often read trip reports of others when they are available.  The trail is pretty well maintained, but a little weedy along its edges.

I had hoped we'd encounter purple fringed orchids along this hike and I was not disappointed.
When you see these native orchids remember to look closely at the nectary or the opening
in the center of the flower.  There are two types of purple fringed orchids in the Great Smoky
Mountains National Park.  Small purple fringed orchids are Platanthera psycodes and
Platanthera grandiflora the Large purple fringed orchids. You cannot tell them apart just by
saying "Ok,this one is small and this one is large".  It's a little trickier than that.  In order to tell them apart for certain you must check the nectary.  A round   opening to the nectary means it is the large variety regardless the actual size of the orchid.  A dumbbell shaped opening to the nectary means it is the small variety of orchid.   Take lots of photos while you view them and try to get some up close.
That way if you have trouble on the trail actually telling.. you can zoom in on the orchid photos at home on the computer and get a better glimpse at the nectary. The one above is the Small purple fringed orchid and it is small this time.

View of how the trail looks going down Road Prong. A bit grown up and rhodo on the sides and some weeds, but not too bad.  We never saw a single snake today or  bear or bee. Just one rodent
and a few salamanders.

More purple fringed orchids along the trail.
  We encountered the first waterfall along the trail down to the left.  It is possible to either view it from  the trail or you can climb down to the base of it.  We climbed down to get a closer look.
It is surrounded by  trees and overspread by the limbs of one of the trees.  It is a very attractive hole of water and the entire scene with the rocks in the bottom of the pool are perfect.

First waterfall along the trail.

Same waterfall but a glimpse of the tree branch stretching over it.

   We continued down the trail and in places we were quite high over the stream and could not even see it.  We sometimes got a glimpse at the stream below.

View of Road Prong from the trail

  We passed a waterfall that sounded quite large. We could not see it and there was no apparent way down off the bluff to reach it.    We may try to go back and take rope to visit that one sometime.
The bank was steep, high, and sheer with rhododendron packed tightly against it.  I could see no way down and no signs anyone had attempted it before.  I imagine that access to that falls is going to involve rock hopping up the stream bed. Since we couldn't even glimpse it from above I have no
idea if it will even be possible. All we can do is return and try it.

            Next we came to a small falls we could reach.

2nd waterfall along Road Prong that is accessible from the trail if you climb down over the bank.
Right below this one was another long slide. I think this one may be Talking Falls on Tennessee Landforms.  It is about 15 ft high.

Kenny shot a video of the one below this and showed it to me, but he deleted it! He could not remember how to rotate it correctly on his phone so he got aggravated and deleted the video.

            Next we hiked a pretty stretch of trail and had tall meadow rue and before we knew it we arrived at the Standing Rock Ford.   We were getting hungry so we sat at the ford and ate our lunch. It is a very pretty spot. We laughed and talked. We hate ham and cheese sandwiches. I ate  dill pickles and Kenny told me no more kisses for me today. I told him we'd see about that and breathed pickle breath in his direction.  I thought of the various times we've crossed this thing in high water.  We noticed a large tree washed down and lying across the stream.  Below that was what at first appeared to be just another log. It was a bridge!  They bridged this crossing and it got washed out before we ever had the first chance to use it.  Standing Rock Ford gets its name from a
tall, thin slab of rock standing up on edge.
    Harvey Broome's journal Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies  tells a story about this place.   Harvey, his wife Anne, and some hiking companions were enjoying a hike down this trail when a thunderstorm had overtaken them.  The heavy downpour of rain caused the creek level to rise in a flash food.  Crossing the unbridged Road Prong during a flash flood would be terrifying.   Harvey wrote that Anne, a petite woman, was nearly lost to him by being washed down the stream. He caught her by her rain coat and stopped her.   What an adventure that had to be.  I used to think if something like that happened to me I'd cry or quit going. I know from experience that is not what happens.
While the realization of a near miss episode is scary and hard to cope with... sometimes the relief at having survived it is enough to keep you joyful at having made it.

Beautiful Standing Rock Ford.

Looking out from under a mossy tree limb at some cascades at Standing Rock Ford

Blown out bridge lying to one side below the ford.

   We crossed here today after our lunch with dry feet.  It was a fairly simple rock hop. We held on to the fallen tree and got across without having to don water shoes.   Today was perfect. Just enough water in the stream to be pretty and yet easy to cross. The temperatures were perfect.  We had enough clouds drifting across the sky to provide sunshine and shadow. Good cloud cover for waterfall photography.  We both remarked how beautiful it was and why had we not done this again sooner?
We shared memories of being on this stream the first time with Caleb and Jared as little boys. They played in the water and had the most fun.  We recalled being here with Kelvin and Cathy and having a grand adventure in Winter.   Lots of laughs that day for sure.

      Down the trail a bit further we began we now had the Road Prong on our right.
We encountered another series of beautiful cascades that were partly visible from the trail.  Lots of downed trees here ,but they had been cleared.  We continued down until we found a tunnel through the rhodo that lead to the base of the falls.   It was not bad reaching them at all.   We rock hopped up
to the base of two falls to view them.  We had reached Trickling Falls which is supposed to be the largest falls on this stream.  It was absolutely beautiful. Green, mossy, pretty rocks in the stream.
Hemlock forests around us.  Utter perfection.

Un-named Falls above Trickling Falls

     Trickling Falls viewed at a distance.  This view permits you to take it all in. The entire scene is pretty.

I moved up closer to Trickling Falls to get a closer shot.

   We climbed back up the dirt ditch to the trail.  We passed one more set of pretty cascades we need revisit next time with rope.  We wound through the rhodo tunnel and emerged at Beech Flats where the Chimney Tops trail intersects Road Prong.   We continued down the newly improved trail to the parking area.   The trail is much nicer and more forgiving now.
We began seeing the first people of the day.   It appears that many folks do not even hike up to Chimney Tops but stop at Walker Prong and swim or enjoy the stream. I can't blame them for it was hot down here compared to the upper reaches of the mountains.

     We made our way back to the jeep and picked up the truck up top and home we went.
Just right day in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Days like today and hiking with friends here in these mountains causes me to fall back in love with them and rediscover them.  I fell asleep that night
dreaming of all the neat hikes I hope to take this Summer in the Smokies.
Below is a video of the various scenes, clips of the different falls strung together and set to music
so you can preview this trail and see if you might want to visit there yourself.

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