Friday, May 20, 2016

Great Smoky Mountains NP: Albright Grove (Blog Hike #571)

Trails: Maddron Bald and Albright Grove Loop Trails
Hike Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Cosby, TN
Length: 6.8 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2016
Overview: A long gradual to moderate climb to Albright Grove.

Directions to the trailhead: Between Gatlinburg and Cosby, take US 321 to Baxter Road.  This intersection is located 4.4 miles southwest of Cosby or 15.7 miles east of Gatlinburg.  There is a green street sign but no park sign at this intersection.  Turn south on Baxter Rd.  Drive narrow but paved Baxter Rd. 0.3 miles to the turnoff for the Maddron Bald Trailhead.  There is a park sign at this turn, but it may be obscured by rhododendron.  Take a sharp right on the gravel trailhead access road, and reach the trailhead on the left 150 feet later.  Park on the left side of the road, taking care not to block the vehicle gate.

The hike: Each of my return visits to Great Smoky Mountains National Park reminds me that there is nothing quite like hiking in the Smokies.  This and the next three hikes mark my third visit to the park.  See my Abrams Falls hike from 2007 and my Flat Creek Trail hike from 2012 for my first two visits and an introduction to Smoky Mountain hiking.
            This hike leads to Albright Grove, one of the few patches of virgin forest remaining in the national park.  The grove is named for Horace Albright, who served as the second director of the National Park Service from 1929 until 1933.  The loop trail through the grove is only 1 mile long, but to get to the loop you have to hike the first 2.9 miles of the Maddron Bald Trail, thus forming the 6.8 mile route described here.  This hike gains roughly 1500 feet of elevation, but the gradual, persistent grade combined with the well-developed treadway make this hike doable for most people in decent physical condition.
Maddron Bald trailhead
            The first 2.3 miles of the Maddron Bald Trail uses an old gravel road that is now closed to public vehicles, so this hike starts by walking around an orange and white vehicle gate.  The Maddron Bald Trail and its namesake summit are named for Lawson Maddron, a Cocke County minister who lived in the late 1800’s.  The winding gravel road uses a couple of switchbacks to climb above a branch of Buckeye Creek, which can be heard but not seen through rhododendron downhill to the left.
When I hiked this trail in mid-May, I passed a park maintenance crew using hedge trimmers to tame the vegetation that lined the trail.  The crew called this procedure “cutting” the trail, and it was being done to make the gravel road passable for Memorial Day visitors (descendents of people who lived here) to decorate cemeteries located up this old road.  This encounter was a strong reminder of the people who lived and farmed this land before the park was established.
            At 0.7 miles, you reach another reminder of the people who lived on this land: the Willis Baxter Cabin.  Made of chestnut logs, the Willis Baxter Cabin was built by Willis Baxter in 1889 as a wedding present for his son.  Today the cabin sits in a sunny grassy clearing that had been mowed recently on my visit.
Willis Baxter cabin
            Continuing to climb, the trail crosses Cole Creek on a concrete and stone culvert before beginning the steepest part of the old road.  At 1.2 miles, you top the steep area and reach a major trail intersection at a wide spot in the road.  The Old Settlers Trail exits right to head 15.8 miles west to the Greenbrier section of the park, while the Gabe Mountain Trail exits left to head 6.6 miles east to the park’s Cosby Campground.  Our hike continues straight on the old gravel road.  A pair of wooden benches made of fallen logs provide an opportunity to rest here if needed, and some strategically placed boulders block further vehicle access.
            The grade becomes nearly level for awhile as the trail traces the hillside with Indian Camp Creek audible but not visible downhill to the right.  At 2.3 miles, you reach a very overgrown cul de sac where the old gravel road ends.  The Maddron Bald Trail now assumes a dirt treadway built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  The grade intensifies once again, and some large hemlocks beside the trail provide a nice prelude to the real tree show that is to come.
A large hemlock beside the trail
Crossing Indian Camp Creek on a footlog
            2.7 miles into the hike, you cross Indian Camp Creek on a footlog, the only footlog on this hike.  After crossing the creek, the trail curves right and then left while climbing a little more to reach the fork that forms the Albright Grove Loop at 2.9 miles.  You could go either way here, but I chose to angle right and use the left trail as a return route in order to take my time climbing through Albright Grove.  Such a route hikes the loop counterclockwise.
            The narrow dirt trail climbs in fits and starts as it heads into the grove’s virgin forest, or forest that has never been logged.  The tallest trees in the grove are tulip poplars, although some large hemlocks also make great scenery.  Some of the grove’s trees are estimated to be over 200 years old.  The sound of cascading water from nearby Dunn and Indian Camp Creeks reverberates through the grove.  Some logs from fallen trees make nice places to sit, eat a trail snack, and enjoy the ambience.
A large tulip poplar in Albright Grove
Another large tulip poplar in Albright Grove
            After a brief steep drop, you reach the upper end of the Albright Grove Loop at 3.6 miles, where it intersects again with the Maddron Bald Trail.  Turning right would continue the climb to Maddron Bald, so you need to turn left to begin heading back to the trailhead.  0.3 miles of moderately steep descending closes the loop.  2.9 miles of retracing your steps mostly downhill returns you to your car to complete the hike.

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