I used to know a girlfriend who would panic at the possibility of crossing streams, or climbing over rocks in a way that might lead to broken bones.
She’s not the Yvonne Rogers I took with me to Laurel Falls last March.
We were sitting down below the part of the falls most people see, a bit off the main trail, but still with all the crowds above us.
Yvonne climbed over a rock, held on to a falling tree and grabbed a bottle that had fallen, held in an eddy.
“I didn’t really like being there all that much,” Yvonne tells me now. She still says she doesn’t like being in danger. But that bottle bothered her.
“Here, catch!” she shouted.
And then it tumbled down further. But, thankfully, it landed somewhere more convenient. She climbed down and grabbed it, later shoving it in my backpack.
Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of many with that name in Tennessee, comes crashing down before a bridge crosses, then it crashes down further.
The path to it is paved, passing mountain views and lichen decorated-rock formations. Orange beetles gathered on them.
The falls is, for Tennessee, very crowded. The crowds are often people of many different ages, races and even languages and to me anyway, part of the place’s charm.
Still, seekers of solitude should keep walking. At least last March, once Yvonne and I passed the falls and climbed up on the dirt trail beyond it, we were alone.
The trail continues into old growth forest full of tall wide trees untouched by any recent ax.
Also near the falls, look out for salamanders. We saw one, briefly. It was brownish and probably a dusky, meaning as stated in my book, I should probably give up on finding the precise species.
Some time in the 1930s, Harold Roitman, my grandfather, Grampie as I called him when he was still alive, came all the way from Boston to visit this dam. My Chinese roommate in college knew about it. To them it was a symbol of progress, understood by both to be an unambiguous good movement forward, providing electricity to people who didn’t previously have it.
We can debate what progress is now, a debate I’m honestly not in the mood for now. Right now, I and others just want to look at and listen to the sheer volume of water spilling over the dam right now after all the recent rain.
It’s not every day I get a striptease from a waterfall. But that’s what Yvonne and I saw at Rainbow Falls.
When we arrived at the bridge we were staring at a cloud with a tiny white line of the falls’ edge. Then slowly the cloud passed slowly undressing to show a cliff like a shoulder unveiled and finally a view of the water, white and glorious free-falling through the mountain air, a slow build to consummation.
Yvonne started the day in a terrible mood, but ended it happy. Nature can do that for people. In fact, she was so happy to hike down, looking at the lights of Gatlinburg through the winter trees, that she wasn’t stressed out at all by us getting separated in dark, losing the trail briefly and both of us forgetting our flashlights.
For other people, smart people who plan trips ahead, the Rainbow Falls trail is not going to lead to getting trapped in the dark.
We arrived at around noon and tried to find a trail head for the Baskins Creek Falls Trail. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is very good at marking most trailheads but apparently not this one. In fact, I’d brought my copy of Five Star Trails but had only skimmed it and apparently missed the description of the Trailhead as “hard to find.” We tried to stop at Rainbow Falls Trailhead which was crowded except for a parallel parking spot. Please note that I am a Tennessee idiot who can’t parallel park if there are other cars involved nearby.
After failing to find it and panicking, accidentally turning around at the parking lot and heading back down, we took the Noah “Bud” Ogle Place Nature Trail, which will probably be a subject for a future post, and walked up the Roaring Fork Motor Trail from that parking area to the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. Then at the last minute, since all I really wanted to do was see a waterfall after the recent rain, and didn’t want to depress Yvonne by insisting on visiting the cemetery which the Baskins Creek Falls Trail includes, I just decided to go ahead and take the Rainbow Falls Trail.
While the trail is just a little over two miles to the falls (5.4 miles round trip) and impossible to get lost on in daylight due to the lack of side trails, about half of that is uphill. The other half is downhill on the way back. The trail is popular on winter Saturdays, possibly too popular for some people who just want to be by themselves. Various groups of families and friends met Yvonne, and I as we climbed, giving us a general sense of how much further there was to go.
To many visitors, the highlights of the walk up are obvious with no ambiguity, no stress at all: the soothing sounds of LeConte Creek. ferns, mosses, lichens and rocks. Views of surrounding mountains through the bare trees. Tall wide trees in places, seemingly untouched by axes for decades. Not just one waterfall, but two. And the Rhododendron hells (yes that’s the right name) add greenery in the winter. They will be lovely with their flowers the summer.
But I spent much of my time looking around for bits of black, charred wood and fallen trees. Since the fire, work crews have not only repaired the fire damage but also added many improvements such as stone stairs. The trail is, at present, well-kept.
Still, the signs this was a disaster zone are still there.
I know what happened here, even if I don’t know if every piece of burned wood is from it. Three years ago, high winds carried wildfires through this area. And it wasn’t just the woods. Fourteen people died.
I remember visiting the nearby tourist town of Pigeon Forge not too long after and seeing resort marquees with information on relief efforts. I even wrote about my love of Gatlinburg after the disaster, with gratuitous American Gods quotes.
Is it wrong to find beauty in charred wood? Is it wrong that it reminds me more of campfires and good times than of death and destruction?
The remains of a dead tree against mountains and blue sky reminded me of a piebald horse of the old west. Or of a cow. Or of cowboy pants. The black and white spots combined look beautiful. And its all the more beautiful with a reminder of death and frailty.
It sounds so insensitive. But forests are full of death and decay, just usually in more subtle hidden forms. And to me that’s a part of its beauty.
As winter continues, I look back at the many-icicle strewn hikes I’ve taken through evergreen rhododendrons in the Great Smoky Mountains. Icicles are a glorious part of winter in the Smokies. Ice is rare here in Tennessee, but that makes its formations, in places where water drips over rocks, more special.
Here is my story on Cucumber Gap Loop in the Elkmont Area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nearly three years ago, in 2017. As usual, the News Sentinel can only scratch the surface of the pictures I took for the story. Here are some more views of the area.
First, we started out in Elkmont, which was at the time full of old abandoned vacation homes, no longer open, but one of the places where people first contemplated the park that would surround them. I have not returned since 2017 and don’t know how many are still standing, but here they are, abandoned. It’s not the most popular set of cabins for photos, but indeed an out of towner “discovering” the town made headlines at Huffington Post to which a Knoxville TV station responded “We didn’t know it was missing.” To be fair, the word “discover” has multiple meanings. I continue to discover new things here in Tennessee and the Smokies.
Beyond Elkmont is the natural charm of the Cucumber Gap Loop, with small, but beautiful waterfalls and the “sights and sound” of streams. Be warned you’ll have to cross one of them, but if you’re careful, even in the winter, everything should be all right. Overall, it was a quiet place to spend a winter day in the Smokies. Here’s a slideshow of some highlights, but you should go out and enjoy the route for yourself.
On a short winter day sometimes you just want to escape from town (Oak Ridge Tennessee) and climb a gravel path, up and down hills through woods and fields, looking down from above at Melton Hill Lake. If so, Gallaher Bend Greenway may be the one for you. At least you won’t get lost. It’s just one path the whole way and, due to study of the surrounding area, you can’t leave it. The trail is a gravel road, but closed to traffic starting at Clark Center Park. The 4.5 mile route is not flat at all though but quite hilly, making for good exercise if you’re running.
The trail’s highlight is the open field area shown above, from which you can look down at Melton Hill Lake below, bright blue on a clear day amid the gray of winter.
With big places to go like Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberlands nearby, places like Gallaher Bend Greenway may feel too mundane for me to share, but there’s a place for simple trips as well as long ones. I look forward to a year full of enjoying many different trails: showy and understated, long and short near to me and a ways away, and you can look forward to reading about the full range of them here.
Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement is my hometown’s worst-named collection of trails, but the area has its charms in spite of the bland name. It’s worth exploring if you’re in Oak Ridge. New Years Day brought many different people there: individual cyclists, a family with a dog, a group of college aged men. Some spoke in other languages.
Many of the trails are old gravel roads now bike, foot and sometimes hunting paths but still sporting road signs, that look just like the road signs in parts of town with houses. These seemingly post-apocalyptic country roads lead nowhere, in a good way. They take visitors through forests of red cedars and other, often young, trees, alongside and over gurgling streams with no houses or even structures at all in site for the most part.
On New Year’s Day Yvonne and I passed an old, remote graveyard, the kind that would have filled my young mind with gleeful Halloweenish thoughts of ghosts dancing about away from living human eyes. Nowadays the most striking thing about those old graveyards to me is the saddeningly short lifespans of the people, sometimes children, buried there. I can thank Yvonne for pointing that out to me on another occasion, but now I can’t unsee it. We walked on rather than bothering ourselves with that.
Cemeteries in Oak Ridge are usually a sign of what Oak Ridge replaced. The US government built Oak Ridge to enrich uranium for the bombs that dropped on Japan during World War II. It left the graves from old communities though, even if the old communities have become the city of Oak Ridge in some places and grown up into forests elsewhere, many accessible to the public through trail systems, like BORCE, Haw Ridge and others.
Decades later, the Department of Energy, the modern-day descendant of those World War II gave BORCE land it owned to the public as a way of compensating for water pollution and decreased fishing opportunities elsewhere.
You can visit BORCE’s charming, gravel woodland paths without ever once thinking about things like war, pollution, or death at all though. They offer a quick chance to escape and explore.
The BORCE route had other, subtle signs of a hidden probably pre-World War II past, like this very reflective greenish pool, possibly an old quarry site, probably the most beautiful feature we saw. I plan to return to these trails, hopefully some time soon and do more research.
Zoo Knoxville through its promotions is considering this its 70th anniversary. That’s a little debatable, even by its own website. The News Sentinel, a local paper did, in 1948 launch an effort to start a zoo, which included various animals starting with an alligator, although the zoo’s own website dates the “modern zoo” to 1971.
That modern zoo, however was not the same as the present one. I know because I have been coming at different times throughout my life. The zoo has recently added playgrounds to make itself more exciting to children and sometimes even they’re related to exhibits, like monkey bars near gibbons.
The zoo is more or less divided by continent now as far as its major areas. Asia Trek is the zoo’s new showcase exhibit, showing off tigers …
And red pandas who did not feel like posing for me, even though those racoon-like critters are a distinctive feature of the zoo. Don’t expect them to be bear sized.
Elsewhere the zoo boasts exotic beasts like giraffes and rhinos along with local favorites like otters.