Saturday, May 9, 2009

Laurel Falls wildfire hike

On Monday, we hiked out Laurel Falls Trail to examine for ourselves the effect of a recent wildfire, which was sparked by an illegal campfire during high-fire-risk conditions. Although some areas were heavily burned the damage appears relatively minimal and concentrated in pockets, thanks to firefighting efforts and soaking rains.

Laurel Falls Trail is one of the most heavily traveled trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.... so much so that the park service has paved the 1.3 miles to the falls in order to combat erosion due to excessive foot traffic.

What this all means is that you will encounter a wad of people. Young people, old people, people with strollers, people with canes, church groups.... experienced hikers who keep a 'rapid' pace in comparison with the casual tourist will find themselves bobbing and weaving through slower parties.

About halfway to the falls, evidence of the fire appears. It is hard to visualize firemen out here battling a blaze. Reportedly water and fire retardant were airlifted in via chopper, as well. All that dangerous effort and expense because somebody had to break the rules of common sense.

Just before you reach the falls, you pass the last of the fire damage. There are some very nice views here across the surrounding ridges, great photo ops.

The trail crosses the falls on a concrete footbridge, built because crossing was very dangerous and many injuries occurred. They still do.... in fact two weeks ago as we drove past the trailhead parking lot, there was a person being lugged out strapped to a stretcher board.

Many people were crowded into the small space, milling around and taking photos.... I snapped one quick shot with nobody in it to show the high water after the rains. We've been there before and our goal was further along.

As we walked away from the falls, we also walked away from virtually all the other people and that's the way we like it. There is little more annoying to me than being forced to listen to loud, inane chatter while trying to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the mountains. We usually avoid crowd-trails.
So, onward and upward. The trail winds around the ridge then into a beautiful old growth forest with huge trees. The ground was carpeted with violets, foam flower, and a few trillium.
It started drizzling a bit, which gave us a nice break from the bugs. We passed a couple , early-mid 20s, headed back down the trail.

What a specimen of orange shelf fungus! It grows on rotting trees and this log was quite covered. The best display I've ever seen.

Farther on, we reach the intersection with Little Greenbrier Trail. If we turned onto that trail, it would bring us out near the Walker Sisters' Cabin. We kept straight on toward Cove Mountain.

At last we reach the junction of Cove Mountain Trail, and a 0.1 leg up to the fire tower. By this time, the elevation gain and high humidity had sapped our energy pretty well.

The tower.
You can't go inside because it is now used as an air quality monitoring station. Air conditioner or something was running....
It started raining. Hard. We huddled under the tower, broke out the ponchos, and refreshed with trail mix and water. After about 5 minutes it slacked off and we headed back down.
At the Greenbrier junction sign we passed an older couple, and then we passed a 40-ish couple about 1.5 miles from the falls.

On a huge tree trailside up from the falls I spotted this 5-inch leopard slug. Yargh.

Thru the falls again, dodge some strollers, and back into the fire zone. The smoky wood smell hangs in the air. But new growth will emerge soon..... and before long many of the burn marks will be covered with leafy greens.

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