| Adventure in the Smokies Day 1: Ramsey Cascades
Ramsey Cascades Trip Report
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Trailhead: Greenbriar entrance --> Ramsey Cascades trail
Elevation: 4200 feet (gain: 2100 feet from TH)
Distance: 4.0 miles one way
Who: Me, Jason
July 19, 2010
This was our first full day in the Smokies. The night before, we drove to our cabin and went to dinner in Gatlinburg with relatives. Our cabin hosts had given us "back road" directions to the cabin, and we understood why when we tried to leave on the main roads at the end of the week... wow, and double wow. And triple wow. I've never seen anyplace as touristy as Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, and I've been to Vegas, Orlando, Navy Pier, Fisherman's Wharf. The kitsch is overwhelming. We had fun people-watching, eating dinner at a steak house, and hunting for a back-scratcher souvenir (they had them in the first shop we entered) and postcards.
Today, we had a big thunderstorm and a lot of rain starting in the wee hours of the morning and extending through breakfast. We chose Ramsey Cascades as our first hike in the Smokies because we didn't need a clear day for big vistas. We wanted to see the forest and a waterfall. Some sources tell me this is the highest waterfall in the park at about 90 feet. Our hiking guidebook, "Hiking Trails of the Smokies" by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, says this is the highest waterfall you can access by trail... no mention of the highest that's *not* accessible by trail. Who knows! On the map you can see the Ramsey Prong drains a fairly small area off the slopes of Mt. Guyot, so we expected a waterfall that was tall but with little flow.
The Greenbriar entrance is quiet. The road is paved for about half of it, and then gravel. It's always narrow. There are some dropoffs down into the Middle Prong gorge. We saw only one other car - a family was taking pictures of the river. We were the only hikers at the trailhead. We started our hike at 10:45am under gloomy skies and damp greenery all around us.
The trail follows what used to be a jeep track for the first 1.5 miles. It is not terribly steep. We hadn't been hiking long when we encountered a wild turkey standing in the trail in front of us! Cool! She disappeared through the trees before we could get good pictures. We also saw lots of lovely black-and-blue butterflies. I found out later they are "Red-spotted purple butterflies" (the red spots are on the undersides of their wings). They are very common in the Smokies. They moved quickly and were hard to photograph. It was very damp and although it wasn't terribly hot, we sweated a lot in the still, dewy air. Everything was dripping.
It was so damp, the fungus had moss growing on it.
At 1.5 miles, the jeep track ended in a little circle turnaround. The trail to Ramsey Cascades continues from here as singletrack and it gets more serious. It is quite rugged, with slippery rocks and roots everywhere. It also has a dark, spooky appearance because of the rhododendrons that arch over your head and make a tunnel. You would think it would be nice and cool in the rhododendron tunnel, but the dense greenery makes the air very still and you get really sweaty.
A rhododendron tunnel
We crossed a "footlog" over a VERY rapidly-running Ramsey Prong. The rains from this morning swelled the river. Most bridges we saw were footlogs - a single log with a rail built into one side, and perhaps some chipseal sprinkled on the log for grip. Most of the rails don't feel very sturdy and are more for confidence than anything.
One of the many footlogs we crossed
Gradually, we entered old-growth forest. The trees along the jeep track had once been logged, perhaps even clearcut. But this far into the drainage, the logging companies did not reach it before the National Park Service took over. Biologists think that 90% of all of the old-growth forest in the eastern US is inside GSMNP. About 25% of the park is old-growth that has never been logged. (source: "Trees of the Smokies", Great Smoky Mountains Association) We were looking at a real treasure in this forest.
Old-growth eastern hardwood forest is beautiful and it gets under your skin. I found myself kind of puzzling over it, trying to find something to connect it to that I've seen before. I've hiked in lots of places around the US and internationally, and this wasn't like any of them. It was different it ways I can't fully describe. The understory of rhododendron and ferns was very dense, yet if you got your head above them, the forest was airy with greenish light filtering through the canopy. Some trees were enormous, with leaves so high up off the ground you had trouble identifying the tree. New growth was coming out of decaying logs. Many trees were rotted from the inside out, and it made me nervous to pass under them. How did they not fall over? The smell was fresh and clean even though all around us was dampness and decay.
The canopy is up there somewhere.
We passed under a stand of truly huge tulipwood trees. One of them had graffiti carved into the trunk. Our book says these are close to record-size trees. The biggest tree in the park is a tulipwood tree not far from this trail, in Albright Grove.
Dem's big trees!
We crossed one more footlog and the trail got much steeper and a little treacherous. The rocks were slippery and little streamlets often drained right down the trail. It was as steep as stair-steps and we had to use our hands to climb up sometimes. We also finally started getting passed by other hikers who had started after us but were hiking faster. Just before the falls, the trail crossed a stream with no footlog. The stepping stones in the cascade were not quite close enough together, and the water ran over our boots. The waterproofness in our boots held up, but the hikers coming up behind us in tennis shoes got pretty wet. We were the only people we saw on the trail who actually wore boots.
At 1:30pm, we were very sweaty when we finally reached the cascade - it far surpassed expectations! It was huge - I expected a sort of slope of water crashing over boulders, but Ramsey Cascade is a full-blown waterfall, very tall and wide and with a roar and a blast of wind that knocks you over! Its drainage is really not that big... where does all the water come from? Because of the wind from the falls, it was almost too cold at the viewing area. We couldn't have a conversation because of the roar! The hikers who passed us were a group of teenage boys, and they took turns walking in the water and going behind the falls. You'd really have to be careful where you step. The water is powerful. I thought we'd see an accident, but the boys made it out OK. This was an impressive waterfall , well worth the difficult hike. We ate snacks, took pictures, and enjoyed the cool breath of the falls for quite some time before packing up and heading down at 2:15.
Cool and refreshing by the waterfall.
The trip down was mostly uneventful but for encountering many more hikers - the people of the Smokies. I saw one hiker wearing Keds, carrying a Dasani water bottle in one hand and finger on the trigger of a can of bear spray in the other. No jacket, no food, no boots... but you wouldn't want to be the bear that runs into her. Two young people wearing down vests and smelling of cologne passed us. Down vests in 85 degrees and 80 percent humidity. Still, the crowds were considerably less than what you'd find on a Colorado 14er on a summer day. The Smokies are the most-visited national park in the country, but once you start on a hiking trail, you get quite a bit of solitude.
The strangest thing about our hike down was that we noticed really odd behavior from the butterflies we saw on the way up. We spied a cluster of red-spotted purple butterflies on the ground near a tree stump... we snuck up quietly so we didn't disturb them and took some pictures. They barely flapped their wings - they were very passive. We were really happy at our luck, because those butterflies hardly stood still for us all day. Then we came across another cluster of sleepy butterflies. And another. And more. They were everywhere, butterflies resting all over the ground in groups, doing nothing. They wouldn't move if you came close.
Lazy butterflies. They were everywhere!
We got back to the car around 4pm (5 hrs, 15 minutes round trip). There were clusters of butterflies in the parking lot. Cars had run over some of the butterflies and yet their companions still sat there in the clusters among their dead friends and didn't move. It was really kind of sad and we couldn't figure out what would make the butterflies act so strangely. The heat of the afternoon? End of their life - time to mate and lay eggs and die? We tried to avoid running over butterflies on the drive out, but sometimes it was impossible as a cluster of them would just be sitting there in the middle of the road.
We were satisfied and happy with our hike to Ramsey Cascades. The Smokies are a magical place. I was so enchanted with the virgin forest that I wanted to plan more hikes in areas that we knew would have the old-growth. We had 3 more days to do it.
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