NOTE: IN ORDER TO BETTER SEE PHOTOS IN THEIR FULL 1600 PX. RESOLUTION, VIEW THEM IN THE ALBUM FORMAT BY CLICKING ON THE LEAD PHOTO OR ANY PHOTO IN THE POST. This is especially true for landscape shots. Thanks to Mark for the idea of adding this alert so the photos can be seen at their best!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Just as Much Fun the Second Time Around - Little River to Cucumber Gap

Last Wednesday I ignored the sign at the entrance to Elkmont campground that said it was full, figuring there had to be a small site or two unsuitable for campers available.  They had most of the campground closed off, and half a dozen sites still available but I had to pick one fast because I wasn't the only one driving around trying to pick one out.

Once I had my tent set up (too many neighbors, fingers crossed that everyone was too tired for campfires) I got back in my car and drove up the hill to the trailhead for the Little River Trail, eager to hike it for the second time around.

The first mile of the trail runs up a gravel road past sites of past cottages that the NPS just recently finally demolished due to their dangerous condition.  When I visited in 2016 some of the cottages were still standing and I peeked in windows but there was broken glass and crumbling walls so I kept my distance for the most part.  Now all that is left is the stone foundations and fireplaces.

Four of the cabins were renovated instead of being taken down and here is a link with more information about that endeavor.

The cottages were part of the Appalachian Club and the Wonderland Club, where wealthy Knoxville residents came in the summer to beat the heat and maybe do a little fishing.

Large boulders painted with lichen crop up just past the old cottage area, with wildflowers mixing in happily with non-native neighbors.

Cymophyllus  fraseriana - Fraser's Sedge

Before it was a resort the area was sold to the park by the Little River Logging company which ceased operations in 1938, and had rolled up its tracks by early 1940. While the majority of old growth trees are gone thanks to the logging, the benefit of new growth forest is it's easier to see the undergrowth, the wildflowers and the streams.

The Yellow Trillium was especially plentiful.

Trillium luteum

The old railroad bed follows the river, reportedly home to Hellbender salamanders and even river otters though all I've seen are Blue Herons both on this visit and when I hiked this in 2016.  Click the link to see what this hike will look like in a month!

If you look closely in the center of the photo below you might see a turkey or two that was eager to avoid my prying eyes.

I found a stream to play around beside, where I discovered some trout lilies in the undergrowth.  I thought about turning over rocks to look for salamanders but the day was getting short and I wanted to make it to the Cucumber Gap intersection at least.

Trout lilies, trillium, rue anemone, even spring beauty, all the early spring wildflowers were opening up and visible alongside the trail.

In one spot under a seeping rock wall I even found one lonely Dutchman's Breeches blooming!

At the 2.2 mile point the trail crosses Huskey Branch Falls, which was roaring along nicely.

Huskey Branch Falls is 20 feet high and a wooden bridge extends right across the middle of it along the trail.  Of course I had to climb up the rocks alongside of it and look back down to the river!

Easier to climb without the backpack, it looks so small on the bridge!

And looking out from the wooden bridge is a nice view down the river.  Where are those otters?

Little River Trail is also home to the Smokies’ famous “synchronous fire flies.” In early summer, groups of male fireflies flash in unison, transforming the forest from total darkness to a spectacular light show every few seconds. Do a google search for information on this amazing sight, though you can only get in to watch by entering the lottery and taking a shuttle bus.  Maybe some June in the future we'll be in line, who knows?

I did make it to the junction with Cucumber Gap, and would have loved to go on another 1/2 mile to see the old railroad bridge, but with 2.5 miles to go back to the parking area and dusk already upon me I sadly turned around.  I highly recommend hiking just before dark sometime - I got to see the river glowing with the shine of the moon and the bats come out and circle above me.  Breaking into a jog a few times got me down to the last half mile as dark finally fell, safe on the wide paved pathway and soon snuggled up in my down sleeping bag in a surprisingly quiet campground.  No electricity at the park and a day on the trails probably contributing to folks going to bed early!

Before I sign off, I found this mystery flower scattered around the area where the buildings had been located along the trail.  It's not in my "Wildflowers of the Smokies" handbook so I'm assuming it was planted by the inhabitants.  Help identifying it would be appreciated, chime in down in the Comment section if you know what it is!

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