Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Paddling South Chickamauga Creek

From a trip on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

South Chickamauga Creek is a tributary of the Tennessee River that flows out of North Georgia through the terrain of the Valley and Ridge region. The creek has several forks that slowly accumulate to provide several sections suitable for paddling in small craft and features only mild rapids. I joined a group from the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club led by Eric Fleming to explore a section that is rarely run from Ringgold, Georgia to nearby Graysville. There was one person on the trip that had run it before but the rest of us were new to the stretch. Somehow I have not paddled it before even though I live right on the edge of Ringgold and the creek is literally less than a mile from my house as the crow flies, and I've been living there since 2005.

The usual put-in at the Ringgold park. Convenient access to the water on rock slabs just behind those bushes. You can see the vegetation is just starting to green up.

The launch at the public access in Ringgold is extremely convenient but is a little short of parking, especially since the spot is popular with locals to come and stroll beside the creek, fish, or play in the shallows. We had some difficulty fitting the vehicles until we finally headed off to set most of the vehicles at the takeout next to a bridge just upstream from a low head dam and refurbished mill.

The run starts off through Ringgold and passes through an area of woods devastated by the EF4 tornado of April 27, 2011 that carved through the town and killed several people. The forest remains stripped and scraggly even after a couple of years of recovery. You pass behind some buildings before the creek heads into a ravine slightly isolated from the business district along Alabama highway and you pass under the Highway 41 (Nashville Street) bridge and into a rocky section with a class I rapid.

You can see the extensive damage from the tornado of 2011 here. The creek was jammed with logs and a local crew cut out the wood over subsequent weeks. Dim, overcast day.

Public Service Announcement: mandatory portage of a pipe after a mile or two into the run.

The creek meanders around quite a bit and there are plenty of houses and the back of the high school but also plenty of areas of forest and cliffs and rock outcroppings. One of the peculiar features of the run is the presence of numerous caves along the banks. There are so many caves in the rocks and cliffs above the creek that I lost count after a while. I've never seen so many caves along a single stretch of stream.

Caves . . . there are so many I lost count!

The run is extremely long due to a lack of an intermediate public access point to the creek, and since I was chugging along in a whitewater creek kayak, I wasn't particularly fast. Fortunately two friends, Pat Carver and Jamie Wendt were paddling in a tandem canoe and agreed to hang back and paddle with me. This required them to lollygag a little bit and I appreciated their efforts (or deliberate lack thereof) to stay back with me. Much of the rest of the group was in either sea kayaks or recreational kayaks of some type, including at least one sit-on-top kayak - longer, faster boats.

Plenty of sandbars at moderate flows. Our group stopped at the mouth of this small creek. There were a lot of mussel shells underfoot.

The further into the run you get, the better the scenery gets. Soon there are steep slopes and larger rock formations, even a couple of small chimneys rising over caves. The trees were mostly bare of leaves, but there were some towering pines and unusually tall cedars in places and signs of spring were everywhere on the forest floor and creek banks.

I know I say this all the time, but the scenery was much better than I expected. There are a lot of houses but there is also a whole lot of what you see above.
Today's Tom Sawyer. I'm sure a lot of Catoosa County boys and girls grow up on this creek.

The creek starts to drop into an area of steep-sided ravines as you approach the Elsie A. Holmes Nature Park and there are a couple of rapids that I felt were class II, particularly a ledge drop of some 2 and a half feet or more that flipped a couple of boats with no rolls to be had. Even though the level was sufficient for most of the run, this section of ledges got pretty shallow and we had to scrape a little bit. Some people got out of their boats to drag but I was able to avoid that.

Pat and Jamie in the middle of the first set of small ledges. It was a little too low for the rockier parts of the run.
The main feature of the run is in front of the Elsie Holmes Nature Park that I blogged about before. The runnable slot is a little difficult with a curler on the right that got a couple of boats.
Still too early in the year for cooling off in my opinion.

The run eventually crosses under a railroad bridge in a pastoral area and drops into the pool behind the low head dam at the takeout. Nonetheless you still have to paddle for quite a while to get to the takeout, passing under the railroad a second time. This is the area of slowest current and would be bad on a day with headwinds, but we had no issues and enjoyed the clearing skies of the afternoon.

Finally we arrived at the takeout. What you see here is the new road bridge (foreground), the old road bridge, and the old mill, which has been renovated to generate electricity from internal works behind those rust-red gates at water level. The horizon line of the dam is almost invisible here but see the next photo.
Here is a low quality photo of the mill from 2007 when I ran the section below the low head dam (trip report here on my very obsolete website).

It was a great run and it was also good to be back out on a TVCC trip after having mostly stayed away for a year or more. I highly recommend the creek for paddlers that don't mind class I-II and a nice long day on the water but it is probably suited neither for composite sea kayaks, nor for the more adrenaline seeking whitewater crowd. That said it is still a pleasant and surprisingly scenic section.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mountain Biking the Brush Creek Trail, Cherokee National Forest

Normally I only write about new or unique experiences but there are some very good trails I first rode on a mountain bike before I started blogging. I revisited a trail today that is an old favorite of mine and I decided it was well worth writing about. Familiarity does not always breed contempt. My favorite local mountain bike ride that is true singletrack in a National Forest is the Brush Creek Trail, just off Highway 64 between Ocoee, Tennessee and Ducktown, Tennessee. The trail winds away from the highway around the side of the complex Sheep Top (2020 ft), a small mountain attached to the nearby Little Frog Mountain, along the drainage of Brush Creek and the right bank of the Ocoee River, now a reservoir flooded behind the hydroelectric Ocoee Dam #3 of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Brush Creek features exceptionally smooth, buff trail by East Coast standards as well as spectacular views and a wilderness experience that cannot be found in the busy suburban parks in and around Chattanooga. The entire trail is located within the boundaries of Cherokee National Forest, Ocoee Ranger District and is just over an hour drive from my house.

The view from Boyd Gap. This photo was taken in Spring 2012 on a previous ride. That is Big Frog Mountain on the right, 4224 feet above mean sea level.

There are multiple access points to the trail but I like to start at the main trail head on the highway where my vehicle will be parked within sight of the busy road. Break-ins are more of a problem in National Forests than one might think due to infrequency of law enforcement patrolling. If you have the option, it's best to park in a well traveled lot.

From the trail head, the trail runs downhill sort of in the wrong direction and it's necessary to ensure you don't miss the greater than 90 degree turn to stay on the trail and not wander off onto another connecting hiking trail. If you've made the right choice, you pass under the road bridge heading in the opposite direction from your start and begin riding along very smooth, flowing trail that is surprisingly sunny and open, with views to your left across the valley of Brush Creek, although the stream itself is not visible from the trail.

A typical section of the Brush Creek Trail. You can see the open, sunny nature of the forest due to the thin canopy here. Actually the canopy is completely absent in places but I don't have a photo. This was taken October 17, 2010 but it hasn't changed significantly.

In this area you are likely to encounter deer browsing in the grassy areas. The forest here has obviously been cleared in the past, due to road construction as well as logging. I've seen signs of a fire on past rides, although the evidence has faded and it is possible that it was a controlled burn. At any rate the scene is sunny and grassy and very reminiscent of the type of riding found in the Rocky Mountains.

The trail intersects some connectors that provide shortcuts back up to the highway. These are convenient on the return trip if you want to cut short your ride a little. These intersections are obvious and currently are well marked so it's pretty easy to stay on the main trail. The trail weaves in and out of ravines, maintaining fairly constant elevation with just some minor rolling hills. As a consequence, it is perfectly suitable for beginning mountain bikers.

One of the ravines has a healthy creek flowing through it that must come out of a large spring somewhere up in the forest because I've never known it to be dry, even during deep drought. There are well constructed bridges over this branch and a couple of other minor streams that flow out of the ravines. You will start getting warmed up about the time the trail turns above the confluence of Brush Creek with the Ocoee and you start to get good views of Ocoee Lake #3, with the accompanying mountains over on the far side. It's a beautiful little lake and is extremely isolated from civilization. Sometimes you are lucky and see waterfowl cruising on the lake. It's a serene view.

A view of the rarely seen Ocoee Lake #3 with the slopes of Big Frog Mountain just visible in the distance. Photo taken October 17, 2010. That's a fishing boat in the distance but most times there are no boats. Speed boats are banned on the lake.

The trail winds through several stands of pine and the trail is covered with a bed of pine needles, muffling the sound of your passage and smoothing the trail even further. Is there anything better than riding a bicycle quietly in the shade of pine trees on a smooth mat of needles? It's a question that came to mind this afternoon as I was riding.

I've periodically startled wild animals of various sorts on the Brush Creek Trail, with turkey and deer being common. Bears are typically reported from this trail so I'm always aware of the possibility of an encounter but I have not had that experience yet. I started a herd of deer on the return ride today, their white tails raised high as they bounded off across a small meadow. It was a beautiful moment,although I was sorry to frighten them.

The trail is a skeleton key loop, there being a short spur near the end of the trail that circles back over a haunch of the mountain to rejoin the main trail, but I always take a connector trail that climbs to Boyd Gap first. The gap is the original point where the old Copper Road once went through a cut between Sheep Top and the rest of Little Frog Mountain. The trail now goes through the cut but the highway has been moved over to a new, massive cut on the other side of a forested hill. The climb from the Brush Creek Trail up the connector to Boyd Gap is short but stiff and I have to constantly remind myself to keep moving and choose my line carefully to avoid momentum-killing rocks and roots in order to make the climb without stopping. When my fitness is up it's easy but today it was difficult.

The original road cut at Boyd Gap. The old Copper Road used to run through here. It was used to haul copper from the mines near Ducktown, Tennessee down to the Tennessee River valley. From October 17, 2010.

When you finally break out of the old road cut into the Boyd Gap overlook parking lot, you are greeted by one of the best views in the region. You can see the Ocoee River far below, some 700 feet or more down, and on the other side of the river, the 4224 foot summit of Big Frog Mountain, the westernmost 4000 foot mountain until you cross the Great Plains. Also visible are more distant mountains of the Blue Ridge including Chilhowee Mountain (2618 ft) and Oswald Dome (3020 ft).

The view west, approximately downstream over the Ocoee River Gorge. I believe the crest just to the right of center is Oswald Dome. Photo from October 2010.

The view the other directioin from Boyd Gap, similar to the one at the beginning of this story but taken in October 2010.

On the way back to the car, it is possible to take a shortcut on the road from the overlook to Highway 64 and a short, fast downhill will bring you back to the trail head, but I haven't done that in quite a while. It cuts off several miles of great singletrack in the wild! Instead, I usually ride back down the connector to the Brush Creek Trail and take the spur to the left to complete the skeleton key loop. The spur features a steep, fast descent with rapid fire switchbacks so be careful not to let your speed get away from you. After the spur rejoins the main trail, turn left and you are retracing your mileage back to the car and a couple of side trails that follow fire roads back up to the highway are available to cut off some of it if you are feeling tired. I followed the main trail all the way back to my car and was sad when it was over. It's a great trail and has been one of my favorites since I started riding it 4 years ago. I'll be back!

A Note Regarding Elevations
I apologize if any of the elevations are different than figures you have seen elsewhere. I've noticed over the years that different sources provide different peak elevations for mountains. This problem definitely dates back to the era of print media but disappointingly has not improved since the advent of the internet. Apparently measuring height above mean sea level remains a difficult task.

Source for elevations: http://listsofjohn.com/PeakStats/search.php?c=1194

Photo Dump

The dry Ocoee riverbed. It's "dewatered" most of the time due to the hydroelectric dam, which diverts water through a tunnel to a powerhouse far downstream (and therefore downhill). This photo was taken today and you can see why I chose to use photos from previous rides. The lighting was terrible and the trees are still bare, although truly it was still beautiful in person.

Yet another view of Ocoee Lake #3 from Fall 2010.
A similar view to one of the photos above of Ocoee Lake but taken May 28, 2012.

Fall colors at the Brush Creek Trail, October 17, 2010.
The new road cut at Boyd Gap where Highway 64 runs towards North Carolina. Some of those peaks in the distance are likely the Nantahala Mountains but I'm not positive. Also might be the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, which is not far away. Photo from October 2010.

Here is the Strava track. I'm still pretty slow from a relatively inactive winter but my fitness is definitely improving.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mountain Biking - Oswald Dome Summit

From Sunday, March 2, 2014

I'm developing an obsession with exploring the vast quantity of US Forest Service Road in the Southeast via mountain bike. If you pick the right routes, Forest Service roads offer thousands of feet of climbing combined with good views and plenty of solitude. My favorites are those that run at high elevations and have enough openings in the trees to allow for looking at the spectacular landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. After reviewing my map of the Ocoee region, I took a notion to ride FS Road 77 on Chilhowee Mountain in Cherokee National Forest, Polk County, Tennessee.

The Blue Ridge Mountains from Forest Service Road 77 on the flanks of Chilhowee Mountain. This is on the paved section of road and is one of the earlier views you come to if you drive up 77 from US Highway 64. The lake below is Parksville Lake, also known as Ocoee Lake #1, a reservoir on the Ocoee River.
Slightly different angle with Big Frog in the center. Chilhowee Mountain is in Tennessee but much of what you see here is Georgia.

It's about an hour drive from my house in Ringgold, Georgia to get to the top of the mountain. I parked at the Chilhowee Recreation area, a very nice fee use area with seasonal campgrounds, a small lake, and an elaborate trail system with many trails open to bicycles. My intention was to first ride one of the major trails over to a waterfall that drops off the side of the mountain, Benton Falls, before hitting road 77, but a trail runner in the parking lot who also mountain bikes reminded me that it was significantly downhill to get to the falls. Therefore it would be a significant climb to get back to the car. Since I had already visited the falls before, I decided to hit the road first to make sure I had the legs to complete the ride on 77. If I had realized I was going to do that I could have saved the parking fee by just parking along the road, but it was only $3 anyway.

The climb out of the parking lot at the Chilhowee Recreation area gets you off to a bad start. I kind of wish I had ridden some of the easy trail around the lake to get warmed up because I burned my leg muscles a little bit on the way up to FS Road 77 and that would haunt me all day.

A view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Chilhowee Mountain. This view was actually on the entrance road to the Chilhowee Recreation Area, where I left my truck.
Road 77 is paved from Highway 64 where it intersects next to the Ranger Station for the Ocoee Ranger District but it turns to gravel at the turnoff to the recreation area, which suits me just fine. Within a short distance I was cruising along on relatively level gravel road with some nice views, although partially obstructed by trees. The elevation around this area is about 1900 feet above sea level. I would imagine the views are more restricted from late spring through mid-fall due to foliage but I was enjoying my late winter ride, which pretty much went along the crest of the Blue Ridge front, with huge views to the left into the broad Tennessee River Valley and view of opposing slopes of Chilhowee Mountain and other nearby, taller mountains such as Little Frog Mountain and Big Frog Mountain (4224 ft above sea level - 1287 m). Big Frog is the westernmost mountain above 4000 feet before the mountains of the Big Bend region of Texas or the Black Hills of South Dakota. The views were a bit hazy when I started due to overcast but cleared up and were spectacular on the return ride.

The US Forest Service has been replacing signs with these new, colorful signs on complex natural stone mountings. I think I miss the brown but maybe I'm just an old fool. Also, we know what brown means, don't we? This is where the gravel section of 77 begins, also known as Oswald Dome Road.
Big Frog Mountain as seen from FS Road 77. As usual the clarity and sense of scale are lost in the photography.
Eventually I came upon a large rock outcropping that rose on the left (western) side of the road and it looked like a hangout spot for locals. Unfortunately it is a bit defaced by graffiti and the small parking area is littered with broken glass and so forth but it still looked worth the climb. I actually saved the climb up for the return trip but either way I would recommend stopping here if you don't mind some rock scrambling. It's nothing you will ride a bike up but the views are worth it. There are sweeping views of the Tennessee River Valley and the Blue Ridge Thrust Front, a geological formation where the Blue Ridge Mountains dramatically rise above the relatively flat valley of the Tennessee.

. . . from the rock outcropping. This is the trail, such as it is. Difficult and risky hiking in bicycling shoes with metal clips on the soles. I found a less exposed route on the way back down but it wasn't a whole lot safer.
The view from the massive rock outcropping. I was headed up to the summit with a radio tower on it on the right, Oswald Dome. It's a monster climb on gravel to get up there. This is the Blue Ridge Front. To the left, the Tennessee River Valley and the Ridge and Valley province, to the right, the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountains in the distance at center are the Unicoi.

Slightly obstructed view of Big Frog Mountain and the Cohutta Range (very faint just to the right) from the ever-present power line cut. Seems like every National Forest in the Southeast is diced up by the path of electricity transmission lines.
Unfortunately the road drops down significantly into Lillard Gap separating the bulk of Chilhowee Mountain from Oswald Dome thus adding to the climbing required for the route. After passing the gap you start the real climb. My legs were already burning by the time I got to the low point at Lillard Gap where 77 turns down the mountain and I was to take the spur 77C up Oswald Dome. What followed was a suffer fest, the likes of which I have rarely endured since I started mountain biking. I've had a busy winter and just haven't had the time to get out and train on my bike, and I dislike using stationary bikes to train. I paid for the lack of fitness. The Strava track shows sections with over 20% grade and a 1068 foot climb for the segment - a category 2 climb.

I climbed and climbed and climbed until finally I had to stop and rest. I consider that a personal defeat because I'm usually pretty good at climbing without stopping, but sometimes you just have to stop. I pushed my bike a little bit and then got back on and rode a while. The cycle repeated a couple more times until I got to the top. It's necessary to go around a closed gate that leads up to the radio towers at the summit. That gave a welcome reprieve to take a photo.

Finally made it to the gate up to the gate on the road that leads to the summit of Oswald Dome.It get steeper than what you see here.
Proof of the summit. Just over 3000 feet above sea level. Really windy up there, with no open views, just some radio towers and the gratification of having made it.
I stopped to tank up on water at the top from my CamelBak, and to catch my breath and take a couple more photos before beginning the descent. As usual the way back down passed extremely fast but I braked carefully to avoid crashing and could not resist stopping to take more photos, since the atmospheric conditions had improved as the day grew long (most of the photos in this post were actually taken on the return trip). I'm not into bicycle racing so I don't pay much heed to the time penalties for caution and photography:-) It seemed like in no time at all I was back at my truck trying to recover and plotting a trip to the Whitewater Grill on Highway 64, one of my favorite local restaurants for after-ride feasting (and after whitewater feasting - I also paddle a whitewater kayak on the Hiwassee and Ocoee Rivers). It was a scenic day and a ride I'll remember for a long time. Spare photo dump and Strava track below . . .

Bonus photo taken on the way back down the mountain. The small peaked mountain in the center is Sugarloaf. The dam of the lake is right at the base of the mountain. The Ocoee River sneaks between Sugarloaf and the nearer Little Mountain to drop out into the Tennessee River Valley. In the hazy distance are the Ridges of the Appalachian Valley and Ridge province.
Here is the Strava track.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Porters Creek Trail and Fern Branch Falls

From February 22, 2014

After a short hike to the overcrowded Laurel Falls Trail, I planned out an afternoon hike up part of the Porters Creek Trail in the Greenbriar area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a slightly more secluded experience. Greenbriar was formerly a small settlement populated from the late 1800s through the early 1900s until the creation of the park. The drive up the mostly gravel Greenbriar Road takes you along the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Following the signs you end up at a dead end gated road that marks the beginning of the Porters Creek Trail.

The trail actually begins on this gated road.

Following the road bed for quite some distance, the trail wanders past remains of old properties and a family cemetery, although forest has now completely overgrown the ruins. We walked on past these points of interest in order to get up the trail to try to view Fern Branch Falls, 1.8 miles into the trail, before dark. It's a steady climb, rarely steep but relentless. There is a small, neat log bridge over a side tributary of the creek.

A log bridge over a side tributary of Porters Creek. On this particular day the stream was so shallow that it could have been waded in Gore-Tex hiking boots. Hiker: Carolyn Rand

From the trail there are abundant views of beautiful Porters Creek and a surprising amount of greenery, even in winter. The creek and much of the ravine are populated with Rhododendron and there are ferns and smaller evergreen plants carpeting the open forest floor. Some trees are towering giants and moss covers almost everything in areas. The greenery only increases as you hike up the valley and gain elevation.

A lower stretch of Porters Creek, near the confluence with the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
Green everywhere, in late February no less!
Eventually the trail leaves the rough roadbed and crosses Porters Creek on another log bridge, and a fairly sketchy one at that, some 8 or 10 feet above the rocky whitewater of the creek. I was a little nervous and I'm glad it wasn't much higher or I would have had serious doubts about it. One of the hikers elected not to proceed over the bridge while two of us continued on to march hard for Fern Branch Falls, another few tenths of a mile up the trail on a mountainside. The trail became true single track and also became rockier and steeper. It seemed a longer hike up to the falls than it should have been although I think it was an illusion because the going was more difficult.

Sketchy log bridge over the roaring Porters Creek. It's at least an 8 foot drop to the rocky whitewater. Hiker: Lois Newton.

Fern Branch Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have seen. Trail guides and websites do not do it justice and it is usually referred to as a minor waterfall but I thought it was spectacular. The only problem is that it is visible only from a distance from the main trail and it is necessary to rock hop your way up a scree slope through which Fern Branch flows to get a very good view of it. Almost everything in this area was covered with moss. It's a beautiful place!

The view of Fern Branch Falls from the trail. Even though it was getting late and we had someone waiting for us back at the log crossing I couldn't resist going off trail to check out the waterfall up close. Green!
View of Fern Branch Falls from near the base of the waterfall.

A short video from closer to the waterfall.

On the way back to the trail I came through this cool slot, which is bigger than it looks here.

As expected the downhill return to the Porters Creek crossing went much faster and felt easier. Soon we were back at the stream crossing and on our way back to the truck. Since we still had plenty of daylight left, we took the time to explore the historic family cemetery and stopped to ponder and discuss the rock walls that wind their way off into the forest.

A family cemetery, still somewhat maintained, just off the Porters Creek trail, not far from the gate. It's easy to miss when you are hiking out, uphill, but easy to see on the way back. There are several graves of children from the year 1909 - must have been an epidemic.
Remains of the old Greenbriar settlement.
We got back to the vehicle with plenty of daylight and reflected on a good day in the Smokies and started plotting where and when to eat. Porters Creek Trail is a great day hike option in the low elevation areas of GSMNP. I fully recommend it!