White clumps decorate the basses of blades of dried grass. Sometimes I passed them wondering if they were trash.
They’re not. They’re one of nature’s glorious temporary sculptures.
The weather channel calls them “rare and ellusive” in spite of just how many I’ve seen this winter near my Loudon Home. Delicate, spiraling, often with the texture of cotton candy but made of stringy ice. The water from the stems of plans leaks out, then freezes. If you’re in Tennessee or nearby right now, look for them.
Imagine the spray of Ramsey Cascades on your face, hot from hiking in the summer. Imagine the water hitting the dark rocks in the tallest waterfall Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer before falling into a pool and a creek flowing down below.
I hope you did a good job imagining that. Because I don’t have a single photograph of it from my trip August 6 this year.
A combination of wanting to shoot videos along the way, which still need editing, and my phone GPS draining itself led me to have my phone completely dead by the time I got there. Sorry. There’s probably far more professional shots of it you can look at. Like the ones on this page. But as with anything else, it’s nothing like being there anyway.
The waterfall is the highest waterfall accessible by trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s not the tallest in East Tennessee (Fall Creek Falls) and especially not the United States (a quick web search shows that to be disputed but probably in Hawaii), it doesn’t matter what records it sets or doesn’t set when sitting in front of it. Watching, listening, and feeling the waterfall was worth the thirsty August walk.
I bring this up because I sometimes see people from out west, especially the Pacific Northwest put down what feels to me like the grandeur of our little-old-grandmother-rounded mountains in favor of bigger ones with sometimes bigger landmarks. Someone in the comments on another website describing Ramsey Cascade posted a waterfall in Oregon, as if to say “Mine is bigger!” Such Freudian waterfall idiocy isn’t the game I’m playing here. Nor should it be your game.
This is where I am: Tennessee. I’m here to explore the wonders of my state before gathering up the time and money to go to other ones. And Ramsey Cascade is one of them. I encourage anyone else to do the same. Maybe the Great Smoky Mountains aren’t your park. Maybe they are. They are, however, themselves.
The route to Ramsey Cascades is not the hardest in the Smokies. However, to out of shape people such as me, the near constant uphill route to the falls made my feet feel tired the next day. It’s eight miles round trip, mostly uphill on the way back.
The trail follows and crosses various streams and heads through an old-growth forest with tall trees untouched by saws.
The area below the falls is more a wading spot than a swimming spot, although there appeared to be a deeper pool just below that, earlier on the trail. In general, though, I still recommend it as a summer hike because the cool heavenly-feeling mist from the falls is the best thing on a hot, sweating face. Granted, as winter rolls in, it will look spectacular frozen, as shown here.
While a decent crowd showed up the day I hiked, many of them connected to the Great Smoky Mountains Hiking and Adventure Group, Ramsey Cascades thrives because of its reputation, not its location. The location isn’t out of the way per se, but the first time I tried to head here, I thought I’d made a wrong turn.
The Greenbriar entrance is accessible from a road on Gatlinburg’s outskirts, as described in many of the links above. The entrance from Gatlinburg, however, is not obvious. It’s gravel, as is the parking area, which is unusual for main entrances to the park, resembling a driveway. The gravel road isn’t in too bad of shape though; it’s driveable with my secondhand 2009 Prius bought from my mother, so most people shouldn’t have any problem.
I’m jealous of the eclipse. Why does it have to grab all the attention? Why? Did the moon spend years of its life writing a book called Wildly Strolling Along about the wonders of the Cumberland Trail State Park and the touching bonding experiences between an adult son and his amazing botanist father? Did the sun? Didn’t think so.
The sun wasn’t a blinding circle. For a moment, a black circle stood in its place, surrounded by white glowing loops, plasma in magnetic fields. For those few glasses-off minutes, the sky was a dim blue, neither day nor night. I was happy to be a rare member of the generation that saw it.
And in a few hours, I would feel jealous of that natural phenomenon, the total eclipse of the sun.
I was scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. The eclipse was at 1 p.m. While plenty of earlier events at Head of Sequachie got decent crowds, the ones afterwards? Not so much.
I remember standing there, looking at all these crowds, before the eclipse thinking: This has to be my big break. Who knows? Maybe they were here to see me. This was my chance.
Nope. It was the eclipse. Only a once in a lifetime event. Only the great dance of the Cosmos. Woop-de-do. I had a book! And a slideshow about the Cumberland Trail! Isn’t that more amazing?
Only five people came to my talk and only one person bought my book, Wildly Strolling Along. Which is an excellent work, but apparently did not grab any attention. I also had my books at the Cumberland Trails Conference table, but only one person bought one.
I don’t have any pictures of the eclipse. Why would I? So many people could do it better. But my day at Head of Sequachie was more than just those couple of minutes. The area is only open on a few days of the year.
The area is, as its name implies at the head of the Sequachie River, as it leaves the ground in a channel that at one point was connected to a now nonexistent mill according to one of the rangers present, although the present walls along the channel are not the original ones.
On such a hot day it’s cool water was refreshing. I waded among children with their state park-service provided nets. They pulled in sculpins, crawdads and even a young, harmless water snake.
As a side note, crawdad is the scientifically accurate name. They are not craw or cray fish because they are not fish. They’re crustaceans. Happy to settle that debate.
A short trail, marked by bird glyph designs, leads to what signs stated was a sacred cave to the area’s ancient and modern indigenous peoples. The area is known as Devilstep Hollow Cave a name that seems like an insult to native beliefs, but one that seems pretty widespread, so I’m using it. The cave has various ancient carvings in its walls and drawings in charcoal and mud, none of it visible to the public. And that’s for the best, because no one really needs “Bob was here” or something more obscene next to some old, sacred carvings. But when the area’s open, you can still see the entrance, deep in a sinkhole.
I hiked the trail twice, once with my mom, dad (who presented with me later) and girlfriend, and then as part of an interpretive trip with a ranger. While it was supposed to be a birding trip, we only spotted a distant vulture and a small hummingbird. A dung beetle grabbed the children’s attention, however. The area also had various summer wildflowers.
Various other presenters had tents in the area as well. People shot arrows, made arrowheads, played old time music and engaged children in crafts.
I’ve just scraped the surface of history both human and natural of this area which is near Crossville. But I’ll be happy to return, with or without an eclipse. And the sun and moon can know I’ll get over my jealousy. Some time.
With its fields surrounded by mountains, its trails, both very long and very short, its campground, its old buildings, including cemeteries, its bike shop and its sometimes wildlife, Cade’s Cove has lots going for it. It’s one of the few places with the kind of open scenery people crave, apart from the mountain tops.
What it doesn’t have is solitude.
Visitors to Cade’s Cove should expect crowds and traffic, even if my pictures don’t show it. Moving slow through a field amid mountains isn’t the worst thing on Earth though. Far from it. It’s actually amazing. But people who want to get away from traffic jams and crowds? You’ve got the wrong place. Cade’s Cove isn’t an escape from other people, at least not in summer. It’s kind of like rush hour in Los Angeles, if Los Angeles was a field surrounded by lovely rounded mountains.
But that’s just it. Being stuck in beautiful scenery is glorious, at least to me. I may have just lost my Great Smoky Mountains hipster cred for loving a place that’s so well-traveled, but I still love it. There’s a part of me with restless legs that gets tired of being stuck in a car. But given how great my last trip there was in terms of scenery wildlife and just general beauty, I’m happy I went.
The area’s roads connect to many trails, some longer, some just short paths near cabins. As I was traveling with less long-walk inclined folks, my last trip there stuck entirely to the former.
Here are a few highlights of my last trip earlier this year. It’s not everything to see there, but I can always go back.
I will warn you the wildlife photos from the trip may not be the best. I’m the sort of person who will give wildlife a proper respectful distance. Unless it’s frogs. So just imagine what bear and turkeys look like. You probably know what bears and turkeys are.
Above is the John Oliver cabin, no relation to the HBO comedian. John Oliver fought in the war of 1812, arrived in 1818 with the present cabin finished in 1820. The 1.4 mile fairly-level trail to this point is just the start of a far more foot-busting 8.5 mile hike, the 8.5 mile Rich Mountain Loop.
As a short little stroll, the John Oliver Cabin route has much to recommend it, with an alternate route in the shade, shown below, and a route through a field, offering views of the surrounding mountains as in the first image on this blog.
The meadow was, in May, also a good place to spot butterflies.
Back in the car, we drove to Cade’s Cove Primitive Baptist Church, where John Oliver is buried. It’s on a bit of a side road. We happened on good luck there, however, in that a bear was nearby.
Black bears often stop traffic in the Smokies in what are called “bear jams,” and this one was no exception. They’re the kind of cute, furry creatures that attract the kind of idiots who think they’re harmless and want to take selfies really close to them. Fortunately for me, I’m not one of those people. I prefer not to be torn to bloody bits. Unfortunately for you, that means you’ll have to make do with this mysterious shadow bear rather than something brighter. If you don’t know what a black bear looks like there’s always Google.
Cade’s Cove is not a zoo. Animals don’t just show up to entertain you. So I suggest relaxing. You may see a bear. You may not. You may get a good picture. You may not. Enjoy what you see. Don’t expect it, and it may come.
I do not mean “Primitive” here as an insult. There are many kinds of Baptists and Primitive just means they consider themselves the original ones in their denomination as opposed to Missionary Baptists.
I appreciate Oliver’s grave’s honesty about John Oliver’s role and not ignoring the people who were in the area before him. It lists him as the “First permanent, white settler in the area, italics mine. Cemeteries like the one here make it clear how early people died back in those days too.
Here are some other cabins, barns and structures we saw while in Cade’s Cove.
“Although it’s difficult to describe, the most accurate description of the Callery’s budding flowers would be something like a pungent whiff of freshly excreted semen. Sure, you could euphemize and say it smells like a wet, dirty mop dipped in floury fish guts, but isn’t that much more disgusting than likening it to a natural bodily fluid?”
Among the earliest of my area’s spring flowers, the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), just finished its little white explosions and started opening its leaves. My house’s lawn came with a row of them, and I’ve grown to like them, even though everybody hates them and I should too. I’m working on it.
Heck, I even like their little white explosions out on the edges of fields, although, again, I shouldn’t.
Probably the best source on the subject is this scholarly paper, although I’m just summarizing it here.
It’s an ornamental tree from Asia, popularly known as the “Bradford,” although the “Bradford” is just one of many cultivars (varieties created by grafting). It wowed Americans with its ability to stand up to droughts and disease. However, Bradfords split in half easily, so they’re really not as hardy as people thought.
All the varieties of Calleryana we have are cultivars, meaning they have to be grafted and can’t self fertilize like other trees. However, different cultivars can cross pollinate, and the trees have gone wild.
Tennessee Invasive Plant Council considers it an invasive species, meaning that it pushes out native plants. My Dad, plant ecologist Dr. Larry Pounds agrees and told me some feral varieties can get pretty thorny.
I doubt, however, we’ll ever see the Great Smoky Mountains covered in white round trees that smell of semen however. Dad told me he hasn’t seen them growing in forests and it’s easy to see why. Like many ornamental trees, they don’t exactly tower. They stay at a pretty small size.
People say they’re part of spring, but they were here in Loudon, Tennessee all winter. In fact, I saw them in flocks, their red breasts showing off against the darkening winter sky and the gray of their branches. They sat on branches and flew in clusters. Cornell Ornithology Lab, probably one of the best sources for birds said that’s typical behavior. These tree flocks can sometimes include a quarter million birds.
The above photo was from near my home. The number only looks small here because I couldn’t get a crowd shot this pretty. Cornell says it can be up to a quarter million roosting in trees.