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The Swamps of Caldwell Fork

Cataloochee Backpack

Date: May 20 – 21, 2018

Miles: 17.8       

Camping on Mt. Sterling has been on my list from the first time I discovered the evergreen covered ridge top with its fire tower sentinel surveying the northeast end of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  It’s not easy to get there.  The shortest hike is the Mt. Sterling Trail at 2.7 miles from the NC284 gravel mountain road out of Waterville, NC at the NC/TN state line on i -40.  The trail gains over 17oo feet from there at 631 ft./mi. or 12%.  Other options are more ambitious.  The plan was to start a 3 day backpacking trip from that point making two loops out of several trails in the Cataloochee section of the park.  Those plans suddenly changed when the reservations were full for Campsite #38 on top of Mt. Sterling for Saturday and Sunday nights.  The the base of operations was shifted to Cataloochee Valley, which paid off in the end.

Cataloochee has proven to be one of my most favorite sections, first because of its remoteness.  One does not go there by accident as any entrance involves several miles of gravel mountain roads, which are closed in the winter months.  Secondly, the Park reintroduced elk to the area and they make their home in the valley.  And thirdly, because of the diversity of hiking.  The new plan called for two loops.  The first included  Caldwell Fork, Boogerman, a section of Rough Fork and the Big Fork Ridge trails.  The forecast called for rain and it delivered.  As I entered the valley, a shower opened up, giving me an excuse to drive through the valley and check it out.  I met a couple backpackers on the road and offered them a dry ride but they were near their cars and IMG_5619politely declined.  The Caldwell Fork trail head is near the Cattaloochee campground with a small parking area at the footlog bridge over Cataloochee Creek.  The rain abated at around 2:00 as I donned my pack and crossed over.  As footlogs go, this is the best I have seen with stone steps and handrails on either side;  a welcome and fitting entrance.  It’s a short walk to the Boogerman trail, which loops off the Caldwell Fork Trail and back to it 3.9 miles later.  The name comes from one of the early Cataloochee citizens, Robert Palmer, was called upon in primary school to recite what he wanted to be when he grew up.  His reply was to be “the Boogerman” and apparently it stuck.  The trail was named in his honor as he was one of the landowners of the area.

IMG_5547The walk is well graded and carpeted with evergreens as one saunters moderately uphill.  The laurel were blooming with some still in buds while others were already dropping their petals.  A little sprinkle reminded me of the forecast but it lasted only minutes.  About 2.25 miles there is a giant Tulip Poplar at the left of the trail.  This is a granddaddy tree with its root feet reaching out from its 6 foot trunk.  It is notable for its size but one notices a bit of a path around and behind this titan.  I am so thankful that I decided to take a look because on the backside, the tree is hollowed out and large enough to stand tall inside.  The trail continues in its moderate climb until about 2.8 miles when there is a steep climb and the the trail descends back toward Caldwell Fork Trail.  At 3.3 miles there is a well-built stone wall notable because it used no mortar in its construction.  A side trail leads off to the left at around 3.7 miles to a very small cemetery plot with two four small stones marking two graves, mostly like of two children.  There are a few stream crossings to conclude the Boogerman trail as it returns to Caldwell Fork trail.  I followed Caldwell Fork for a half mile and then turned right onto the Big Fork Ridge Trail, making the shape of this hike a bit of a figure 8 loop.


Less than a tenth of a mile in, the trail crosses Caldwell Fork, which on this day was swollen and rushing swiftly.  Fortunately, there is a friendly footlog to keep one’s feet dry.  The path climbs moderately a mile and a half to a small clearing and heads back down to Cataloochee road.  As I neared the end of the trail, I noticed an buck elk in the woods.  Although he had not grown his rack of antlers for the season, he was still an impressive beast and he took note of my presence.  Less than a tenth of a mile later, a female elk was grazing just off the trail.  Stopping to take her picture, I became aware of another presence to my left where I looked and saw the buck watching me through the trees, perhaps checking up on his mate as this stranger invaded their afternoon meal.

IMG_5589The Big Fork trailhead is at the very end of Cataloochee Road, where the trailhead for Rough Fork Trail is also located.  My destination is CS #40, which is a mile and a half down Rough Fork Trail.  The trail is a gravel jeep track and descends ever so slightly as it follows it namesake, which you cross on a sturdy footlog a half mile in.  At one mile, you arrive at the Woody Place, which is a farmhouse that is well preserved and open for exploration.  The house was pretty luxurious by most standards as there are several fireplaces and closets in every room.   The trail leaves the road at the Woody place and continues gently uphill to CS #40, which is my home for the night.

IMG_5592Campsite #40 is amidst a rhododendron thicket, well off the trail with small clearings here and there.  At the back of the site, where the main fire ring is, I found a couple folding camp chairs someone had left.  I chose a couple sturdy trees to hang my hammock and set about my back-country domestic duties that included getting water and cooking supper. It was far too wet to consider building a fire and despite the lush greenery of the site, I found very little dead-and-down wood.  But I did enjoy sitting in a chair while I prepared my freeze dried banquet of Thai chili noodles and a desert of dark chocolate.

After an unusually restful evening (I don’t normally sleep well the first night out…), I made my breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and took off by 7:20 am.  The trail ascends steadily from CS #40 and will take me a mile and a half back to the end of Caldwell Fork Trail.  At that point,  I left Rough Fork Trail as it continued uphill to Polls Gap and I started the full length of Caldwell Fork.

IMG_5596A treat arrives by 1.2 miles in, which is “Big Poplars”.  A short side trail takes you to a huge Tulip Poplar tree which is one of the largest I have seen in the park.  Just past Big Poplars is CS #41 located on Caldwell Fork, which is a nice site for tents.  Crossing the creek on a footlog, the trail gently descends as it follows it namesake all the way back to the trail head.  At 1.7 miles, you pass the intersection with Hemphill Bald Trail marked by a large pile of rocks.  Hemphill Bald is a spectacular site, but it will have to wait for another time.

There are a number of stream crossings along Caldwell Fork, many of which are rock hoppers but these require as much care as any.  One gets complacent by the seemingly simple hop from one rock to another.  But just as the attention wavers, the foot lands on a slick rock and you find yourself getting up out of the mud with a bruise or two on the legs and hands.  I was reminded of this reality about 3 miles in.  McKee Branch Trail comes in at 3.1 miles.  At 3.6 miles, I passed the south end of the Boogerman Trail and the next 2 miles proved to be wet… very wet.  There are a few footlogs but a couple are in bad condition.  This whole section is swampy with several muddy crossings and at 4.4 miles, there is a wet ford in knee deep running water.  At 5 miles, the Caldwell Fork invites back into itself with another knee deep wet ford and yet another deeper one at 5.2 miles, where I had to remove my iPhone from my pocket to keep it dry.  A third ford is at 5.2 and a fourth at 5.3 miles.  With great relief, you get to cross Caldwell Fork on a footlog at 5.4 miles, which was fateful because a ford here would have been a bit treacherous.  At 5.9 miles, I passed the head of the Boogerman Trail letting me know I am close to finishing this wet, muddy, sloppy trail.  The last bit is level, pleasant and ends  where I started at the nice footlog back at Cataloochee Road.

While I did not plan on it, I am glad I hiked Caldwell Fork Trail in the direction I did.  Starting this hike with 4 wet fords in the first two miles would have made for miserably wet feet for the rest of the day.  In future hikes, it should be noted the Boogerman Trail conveniently bypasses the wet section of the Caldwell Fork trail and may be worth the extra 2 miles of hiking to keep your feet dry.  A philosophical dilemma for future discussion.

All in all, this was a nice one-night backpacking loop that leave time for exploring the valley or starting the next loop…

HikerHead 2

Strider Out!



Big Creek to Baxter Creek Loop

Date: February 23, 2018

Miles: 17.2 miles       Elevation Gain: 4029 ft.         Elev./Mi: 363        Grade: 7%

Difficulty: Class 3    Hiking Time: 7:52      Pace: 2.8 mph       Avg. Temp.: 76

The forecast for Friday was 76 degrees, 10% chance of rain and 59% humidity.  It was for FEBRUARY 23!!!  I have no illusions that winter won’t try one more kick but this day was made for hiking and there were no meetings scheduled.  I got a really late start, which for me is unusual.  Normally I am on the road by 7:00 and on the trail no later than 9:00 but that day I slept in and hit Big Creek around 10:30.  I really love the east side of the park.  It is more remote and less visited.  The big attraction for Big Creek is Midnight Hole for its swimming but there would be none of that in February.  That said, the parking lot had about 15 cars despite the facilities being locked up tight.  There was not even a trash can to be found.

The route for the day was Big Creek Trail to Swallow Fork Trail to Mount Sterling Ridge, Mount Sterling Trail to the tower and back down Baxter Creek.  I chose that order because I figured the 4,00 ft climb would be easier spread over 11 mile than the 6.2 up Baxter Creek.  I was right!

Cascade on Big Creek

Mouse Hole

Mouse Creek Falls















The Big Creek Trail has to be one of my favorites.  It follows its namesake all the way to Walnut Bottom, which is one of my favorite camping areas.  The hiking is easy and the creek offers one who saunters its surprises and gifts.  the trail is a wide gravel path its entire length and the 4.7% grade is quite friendly as ascents go in the Smokies.  The views of the creek all along the path are spectacular.  There are many opportunities to take in a cascade.  Midnight Hole is at 1.4 miles.  This is a popular swimming hole in the summer attracting visitors sporting swim suits and flip flops in sharp contrast to those in hiker garb.  But Today, there were only a couple other hikers taking in the morning and I had Midnight Hole to my self for a few “peopleless” pictures.  The lovely Mouse Creek falls is a mere half mile ahead and is a great place to pause and enjoy a concert of water music.  The sun was high over the falls reflecting back a wash of white light but a couple suitable pictures were captured.  Big Creek continues on another lovely 3.2 miles to Walnut Bottom and Campsite #37.

I have a really fond memory of a night spent in CS#37 back in July of 2016.  As I drifted off to sleep, I awoke later in the night to this bright flashing of light coming through the tarp of my hammock fly.  Wondering why there might be a vehicle this far up the trail spurred me to exit my cocoon and to my utter surprise and amazement, it turned out to be the synchronous fireflies the Smokies are world famous for. There were no crowds, no shuttles to Elkmont, no noisy people, no traffic.  Just thousands of fireflies that somehow manage to blink in unison for several seconds before the rhythm breaks down.  And then someone gets it going again and they all chime in.  I wish the bands I have played in were this tight.

There is a wide bridge over the creek in Walnut Bottom.  I enjoyed my lunch near the bridge down at the side of the creek.

Swallow Fork Trail leaves Walnut Bottom and heads 4 miles up to Pretty Hollow Gap on the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail.  The climb is no longer easy at this point gaining 2,200 feet in 4 miles at a 10% grade.  There are 4 stream crossings starting with a footlog over Swallow Fork on the route, none of which involved a wet ford.  The climbing is mostly steady.  The trail is pretty brushy in places but clears up about a mile in becoming a nicely graded single track.  There is much winter greenery including moss along the fallen trees and rhododendron.  At around 2.7 miles, the climbing turns from steady to strenuous, which is a wake-up call for legs that have had a long winter off.  The trail leaves the company of the Fork at about 3 miles and turns up the ridge.  The stillness surrounds you with an occasional bridsong for entertainment as you continue the climb.  At 4 miles, you enter Pretty Hollow Gap where I enjoyed a brief nap in the warm February Sun.  The gap has some briar growth in the summer but there is still plenty of cool grass to stretch out upon for a welcome break after all the climbing.

The Mount Sterling Ridge Trail runs through Pretty Hollow Gap and my route turned left heading along the ridge to Sterling Mountain.  The ridge is blessed with conifers along the top. The first 0.4 miles is uphill, then levels off for a half mile and then heads steady up to the Mount Sterling Trail.  The route heads northeast a quarter mile to the tower and Campsite #38.

Mt. Cammerer gets all the press for a great lookout view but Mount Sterling tower is a well kept secret.  Surrounded by fairly dense Fraser fir trees, the site is also home to Campsite #38, which is another bucket list campsite I have yet to enjoy for a night.  But I do plan to return soon.  The view from the fire tower is spectacular, even better in my opinion than Mt. Cammerer and the reward is even greater knowing one has to earn the view.  After many pictures from the tower and a good break and a stretch of the legs, It was time to find Baxter Creek Trail and head back to Big Creek.



View from Mount Sterling Tower

Middle Earth on Baxter Creek

The descent down Baxter Creek Trail is stark and wastes no time.  The trail descends 4,000 feet over 6 miles for a 12% grade.  Not the steepest but it is a steady 640 ft. per mile drop.  After 11 miles of climbing, it is still a physical challenge heading downhill.  The only charm of Baxter Creek Trail is the Middle Earth quality of the dense fir trees and the heavy green moss that carpets the ground.  The water source for CS#37 is about a quarter mile down as the trail continues its descent.  Fortunately, the trail is not very rugged.  About a mile down, rhododendron show up but the conifers are still in firm control of the landscape.  Along this section there are the standing skeletons of huge hemlocks that the Creator has not yet given permission to fall.  Large conifers are the old men of the Smokies, keeping watch over the centuries and it is sad to see so many will fall in the next time but the cycle of life continues as the mos and new growth spring forth from the giants once they rest on the ground.

The conifers leave you by the time you are 2 1/2 miles down Baxter Creek Trail.  With 57 years old knees, I find that steep downhills are less efficient than ascents.  My rate is about 2.5 miles per hour and while the heart rate is less, the legs (knees) control the speed.  There are few landmarks along the remainder save a switchback and a bend here and there.  At 4.3 miles the sound of water music encourages you to pick up the pace toward the end.  The descent levels a bit and the walking becomes more pleasurable.  At this point, I noted that the most exciting aspect is watching the GPS count the mileage.  About a quarter mile from the end, one can make out the pathway from the campsite across Big Creek until finally, the bridge comes into view and you cross over to the parking area.

It’s always good to get back to the car before dark although it was a bit too dark for a picture of the Creek from the bridge.  But I’ll be back!  It’s an hour drive back to Knoxville and  burger at Aubry’s.

Strider Out!

Campsite #35 – Gilliland Fork

IMG_2780Campsite #35 – Gilliland Fork

Lower Mount Cammerer Trail – 3.3 miles from the Trailhead at Cosby Campground and , 4.1 miles from the trailhead on the Appalachian Trail.  Elevation 2,680

Capacity: 12

Rating: 5

Water: Gilliland Creek

Gilliland Fork Campsite is a bit unusual in that it is arranged in several sections labeled A, B, C, D and E.  The first 3 sites are near the creek.  A & B have nice grassy spots that appear to drain well for tents.  Site C is a little more impacted for some reason and may not drain as well.  Sites D & E are about 100 yd’s further up the trail.  They are much more secluded although level ground may be a challenge.  It seems that often among the flattest best places for a tent is directly under the bear cables and such is the case here.  But for hammocks, the upper sites offer much more privacy.

IMG_2779Rating Summary:

  • Well Drained Sites
  • Low Impact
  • Good Water
  • Bear Cables
  • Leave No Trace Layout




HikerHead 2  Shalom…

Campsite #18 – West Prong

CS #18

CS #18

Campsite #18 – West Prong

West Prong Trail – Campsite #18 is 2.1 miles from the trailhead at the parking area off Tremont Road.

Capacity: 12

Rating: 4

Water: Available from West Prong.

The hike in is relatively for overnighters and the site lays along the picturesque West Prong of the Little River.  The site is actually several sites but they are principally located in a front IMG_2640area on the West Prong and a more suitable area further behind.  The site’s capacity is listed as 12 but there is profound impact on the front area indicating a fair amount of overuse.  The area opens up immediately upon crossing the footlog over West Prong and the trial appears to pass through the middle of the site.  There is little ground cover and much exposed dirt which would drain poorly.  But there are plenty of level sites for tents.  There is no seclusion whatsoever in the front area.  The back area is a much better option.  In fact, the bear cables are located in the back section which may indicate that is IMG_2645the intended site.  But flat areas along the West Prong proved too attractive.

Rating Review

  • Bear cables – generally a given but some site may not have them
  • Good water source
  • Level tent sites
  • X Factor – West Prong is pretty nice.

HikerHead 2  Strider Out…

Getting the Word Out

IMG_2393 Blogging without sharing is a diary.  There’s nothing wrong with a diary and journals are often published.  One is never sure if what he has to share is worth sharing but there is only one way to find out.  So it is with  The site has been up a few months now and many of the kinks are straightened.  There is a flow and a bit of a routine and now there is enough content to prove to myself that this is more than a foggy idea.  Now it’s time to see if there’s anybody alive out there.

There is a growing community of those who desire to complete all the hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  I am 120 miles into my second tour and I created this website to capture the experience start-to-finish.  Hopefully it will serve as an online guidebook and offer insights on equipment, techniques and a bit of spiritual connection to creation and its Creator.

So with this social media debut, all the connections to Twitter and Facebook have been made and this is the maiden voyage.  (It’s really a test to see if it actually shows up anywhere).  If you manage to find it, give me a buzz and let me know what you think…

HikerHead 2  Shalom. Strider out…


Every journey has a beginning and an ending.  Given that humans are creatures bound by time and space, we tend to measure our journeys with various milestones and devices including clocks and maps and events.  All this effort serves to provide the stuff we use to tell the stories of our adventures.

The AT Thru-hiker starts somewhere, usually Springer Mtn., GA and ends, usually on Mt. Katahdin, ME.  Thru hikers will count the days and in some cases the hours.  They may track dates and locations and miles covered.  Rituals mark the start and finish such as signing in at the ranger stations in Amicalola State Park and at Baxter State Park.  Packs are weighed.  Pictures are taken.  Good-byes are said.  Tears are shed.  Memories are forged.

I suspect with 900 Milers, many don’t mark the beginning of their 900 miler journeys; at least the first time.  With me it was an awareness of having hiked several trails and then reaching the point where I decided to start tracking the mileage and the dates of which trails were hiked.  As a consequence, the actual “beginning” of the journey is not marked by any ritual or celebration.

But the second map is different.  A second 900 Miler is deliberate.  One begins with an awareness of what is to come and the challenges ahead.  Such an undertaking should be marked with a worthy kickoff.  Some sort of event that is befitting a four-year project such as starting on an iconic mountain.  Perhaps a unique challenge that is difficult and memorable.  Perhaps it is an activity for which the answer to the question “Why?” is difficult for the casual observer. Perhaps the answer to that question is simply, “because I wanted to see if I could…”

Mt. LeConte – Sunset from the Lodge

So why not hike all the trails up Mt. Leconte?  In 24 hours?  It’s a 45.7 mile challenge and it’s doable.  I know this because I did it 4 years ago.  That hike was documented in detail at  My original hiking partner for that hike was Brian Thomas and he is joining me again for this chapter. From what we learned the first time, Brian designed a route that minimizes altitude climbing and shuttling between trailheads.  With this new route, we hope to cut 2 hours off our original time of 22 hours and it will save about 900 feet of climbing.

Here is the new itinerary:

  1. Park at Rainbow Falls/ Bull Head Trail head
  2. Up Rainbow Falls (4,000 ft.) – Down Trillium Gap
  3. Up Bull Head (4,000 ft.) – Down Alum Cave
  4. Shuttle to Newfound Gap
  5. Up Boulevard (3,724 ft.) – Down Brushy Mtn.
  6. Car at Brushy Mtn. Trailhead in Greenbriar.

Date and time:  Saturday, September 19, 2015, 9:00 am EDT.

And so it begins…

A new map, a new journey

This blog began with the start of my second “900 Miler” quest.

For those who don’t know, there is an informal club of people who have hiked all the maintained trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  It is called the 900 Miler Club, which is a misnomer really because there are only officially 800.4 miles on the list.  On the other hand, if you complete this quest, you manage to hike over 1,000 miles to log the official list.


On the brushy summit of Brushy Mountain

On August 7, 2015, I summited Brushy Mountain in a rainy fog to complete the trek.  On my first “map” as it is called, I was fairly haphazard about documenting the experience.  The effort took many years and didn’t really take shape as a concerted effort until well into it.  On top of that, my main focus was to get it done.  I took a lot of pictures and tracked my mileage but there is no record of the experiences beyond the telling of tales around the water cooler.

I tend to hike alone mostly,  The reasons will be revealed as we go but for now let me say that one has a lot of conversations with himself and his Creator over a 900 mile odyssey.  One also meets interesting people, animals and as Mr. Muir would say, one also delights himself among the plant people.  So it seems appropriate this time that I should capture as much of the next experience as possible.

I intend to document the various hikes, of course, and we will end up with a fairly extensive photo account.  But I also want to share my encounters with Creator and Creation alike for this is the reason I saunter.  I’ll tell you about my gear and whether or not I like it or would buy it again.  We’ll talk about food and aches and pains.

If you’d care to reply, please do so.  I’d love to hear form you.

Enjoy the Smokies with me!

Mt Leconte from Clingmans Dome

Mt. LeConte – A Treasured Place Taken from Clingmans Dome