January 26, 2019

Laurel Fork Trail/Pond Mountain Trail

Laurel Fork Trail

  • 1.23 miles
  • :48 duration
  • 116 foot elevation gain
  • 1 impassable creek crossing
  • 32° F

Pond Mountain Trail

  • 4.41 miles
  • 4:28 duration
  • 1065 foot elevation gain
  • 37° F high/28° F low
  • 1 geocache found
  • 1 geocache replaced

During last week’s adventure, LakeBum (Rob) and I attempted to hike the Laurel Fork Trail in Carter County to Dennis Cove Falls. However, with the temperatures steadily dropping throughout the day and slippery road conditions driving across the mountain into Dennis Cove, we decided we did not want to get stuck in the cove. We drove back out and found other adventures to fill our day.

When we started talking about a possible adventure for this week, Rob suggested we try once again to visit Dennis Cove Falls. I was happy with that plan, and prepared myself for the three “wet foot” creek crossings I knew this hike involved.

We left my house at 8:40 and drove to Dennis Cove. The conditions on the road across the mountain were much better this week. There was a small amount of snow on the ground, but none of the snow and ice on the road that we had encountered the week before.

We drove to the parking area for the Laurel Fork Trail. Here we had a surprise. We had parked here in December 2017 when we hiked to White Rock and Coon Den Falls. Since that time, someone has left an old boat here, anchored in what is typically a small pool of water but on this day was frozen. Being the LakeBum and boat collector that he is, Rob had to climb aboard and check it out. I later sent a photo of him in the boat to his wife, warning her that he would be bringing home a new boat.

Rob driving his new boat

Getting back out of the boat was harder than getting in, since he was having to step onto the thin, slippery ice surrounding it. One foot plunged through the thin ice and into the shallow water. Fortunately, Rob was already wearing his waterproof socks and water shoes in anticipation of the creek crossings.In fact, both of us had prepared for the creek crossings. We were wearing SealSkinz socks and Keen water sandals. This would allow us to wade through the water while keeping our feet warm and dry. I was also wearing thin socks beneath my SealSkinz to give me an extra layer of warmth.

Hiking in sandals in January? Yes, but only with waterproof socks!

Since the temperature was right at freezing, I had dressed in my Singbring hiking pants, layered over Cuddle Duds. I was wearing a long sleeve wicking t-shirt, a fleece shirt, my blaze orange New Cache Order hooded sweatshirt, and my thin New Cache Order rain jacket. I decided it wasn’t cold enough for my balaclava, and instead opted to wear a beanie cap. Signal the Frog rode in the kangaroo pouch of my jacket.

Signal likes this view of the trail.

We set off on our hike, enjoying the gentle route along Laurel Fork and through tunnels of mountain laurels. The snow on the ground and vegetation added to the beauty of the area.

Snowy path through the laurels.

We crossed three small wet-weather streams along the way. We saw several examples of needle ice along the trail. This is a phenomenon that occurs when the temperature of the soil is above freezing and the air temperature is below freezing. Water beneath the soil is pulled to the surface and freezes as it comes into contact with the air. This makes for some interesting ice formations along the trail.

Ice sculpture on the trail.

After hiking a little over half a mile, we came to the first of three crossings over Laurel Fork. It was at this point that Deban and I had had to turn back on a hike in March 2012. We had our four dogs with us on that trip, and she had been able to make it across with two of them. The other two were nearly swept downstream in the high and swift water, so we decided to turn back.

Rob looks for a way across.

Unfortunately, the water on this day was even higher than on my previous visit. Rob and I spent about 15 minutes here studying the situation, and trying to find a way across. No matter what route we chose, we would have ended up in water that was thigh to waist deep – not a good choice on a day with temperatures in the low 30’s. We finally turned around and headed back to the truck, discussing along the way other options for the day.

Rob mentioned that there were two geocaches nearby on a hike to the top of Pond Mountain. This would be a short, but extreme hike, but I was game for the adventure. Once back at the truck, we drove further in to Dennis Cove. We were planning to log a geocache in the Dennis Cove Campground, but the gate was closed so we decided to save it for another day.

Shortly after we passed the campground, the paved road ended. We continued on the gravel road, climbing up the narrow, winding track. As we gained altitude, there were areas of snow on the road, but it was not too slick.

We parked across the road from the trail head, next to gate blocking another gravel road. I briefly wondered where it led, but then got busy preparing for our second hike of the day. We changed our footwear, taking off the water shoes and waterproof socks we had worn on our first hike. I put on my Smartwool socks and Ahnu Sugarpine II boots. Since there was snow on the ground, we both added traction aids to our footwear. I strapped on Quik Solve Cleats and Rob put on Yaktrax.

More suitable footwear for a snow hike.

We had read that the previous hunter had not found one of the caches. I had an extra plastic ammo can in my truck, so I loaded it up with swag and a log book, and put it in my backpack just in case we couldn’t find it as well.

We headed up the trail at 11:04. In the light snow covering we could see paw prints that we thought could possibly be that of a dog or perhaps a wolf. We saw those prints several more times along the trail, and I kept an eye out for the beast that left them.

Paw print in the snow

A short distance up the trail we saw a post with a box attached and a wooden sign that had nothing on it. Inside the box were visitor registration cards. I asked Rob if we should fill one out, but then noticed that they stated it was not a requirement and decided not to take the time. Rob then handed one of the cards to me and said, “Check this out.” It had been completed by a family in 2012. They had written on the comment page that they had visited this trail to do some geocaching. We decided that if this card had been in the box since 2012, that the forest service really didn’t care if we filled one out or not, so we continued on with our hike.

Signal posed for a picture on the registration box on the way back down the mountain. The sun had come out by then.

We were following an old forest road, climbing steadily for the first .4 mile. There was a short downhill section, and we had to navigate over several fallen trees that crossed the road. Fortunately, they were small and we were able to step over most of them. When we wound around to the other side of the mountain, there was more snow on the ground.

I was beginning to feel hungry, and was glad I had put a protein bar in my pocket. I often carry Quest bars with me when hiking, biking or kayaking, and have tried several different flavors. I recently discovered my favorite flavor – White Chocolate Raspberry. It is delicious, and with 20 grams of protein in each bar they give me a good boost of energy.

The sun was bravely trying to break through the clouds, and soon we actually saw some blue skies peeking through the trees.

Our first glimpse of blue skies.

The road became more overgrown, and we had to fight our way through the laurels. We had to be careful not to jostle the foliage too much, because that caused snow to fall off the leaves and down the back of our necks. I raised my hood to prevent this and Rob stopped to put on his balaclava. This effort proved to be quite comical as his first attempt had it crooked leaving one ear exposed and half of his face covered. Too bad I didn’t get a photo of that.

Battling our way through the snow covered foliage.

Several times along the way we saw dirty icicles hanging off of dead trees and limbs. They weren’t the pure white or clear that I am accustomed to seeing, but the contrast of brown against the white snow was striking.

What flavor is that icicle?

After hiking for about an hour we neared the location of the first geocache. I was looking on one side of the trail when Rob found it on the other side. This cache was hidden in a hollow tree, and it took quite a bit of effort for Rob to free it because it was frozen in place. By the time I made my way over to him, he finally had it in hand.

Found it!

I signed the log book while he dug in his pack for a travel bug to leave in the cache. Once we had replaced it, the tough part of our journey began. To this point, we had traveled about a mile and a half, and had only gained about 300 feet in elevation. Stretching above the geocache site was a long, steep hill to climb. We slowly began trudging upward.

Along the way, I noticed a very interesting phenomenon. All of the trees had a line of ice and snow reaching from top to bottom on the same side of each tree. Apparently, there had been a strong wind during the snowstorm that caused the snow to stick to the sides of the tree trunks.

Snow on one side of the trees

Over the next half mile we climbed over 600 feet in altitude. It was a steep, unrelenting mountain, and apparently the builders of this trail didn’t believe in switchbacks. At times, we were pushing through thick vegetation that was choking out the trail. For quite some time, I just kept my head down and followed the footprints of what I had come to believe was a wolf. Surely a dog would not have ventured this far alone. At one point I stopped to rest and told Rob that if I was going too slowly he was welcome to go around me. He laughed. Apparently he was struggling as mightily as I to make it up this steep slope.

At last the trail leveled out, and we could see the top of the mountain not far above us. We were only a few hundred feet from the geocache site, so began looking for a place to leave the trail and climb up toward it. We had to pass by it before finding an area clear enough to head up, and then had to backtrack as we made our way through the snow covered woods. The mountain top was covered with large rocks, which did not make us happy. That is because the hint for the geocache said that it was hidden between two waist-high rocks.

We searched for the geocache for a long while without finding it. The GPS on our phones kept bringing us back to a spot that matched the hint, but the cache was nowhere to be seen. At one point, we both chose separate routes to climb to the top of the rocks and look around. It felt much colder here because of the strong winds that buffeted the mountain top. Our phones still indicated that the original spot we had looked was the correct location. We decided to climb back down, find a place to sit and eat lunch, and then look some more when we were refueled.

I had brought chicken noodle soup in my Thermos. It felt good to have something warm to eat on such a cold day. Sitting still on a cold rock was not very comfortable, and since I had taken my gloves off to eat my hands were very cold. We both finished our meals quickly, packed up and got moving again.

We continued searching for the cache, and finally decided that it was missing. Perhaps it was carried off by some animal. I doubt very seriously a two-legged muggle stumbled across it in this remote spot. I pulled the replacement out of my backpack, Rob signed our names to the log book, and he dropped two travel bugs in the cache.

One of them was a cute little yellow duck that looked vaguely familiar. He told me it was on the ducks that trailed along behind the canoe during his and Kara’s wedding.

Once we had placed the cache in its hiding spot, we carefully made our way back to the trail and started the hike back. Signal was already snow covered from snow falling off the vegetation we passed under, and he asked if he could make a snow angel. I told him yes, but once he was laying in the snow he didn’t move his arms and legs to make an angel. We decided that the imprint he left was cute enough and left it as it was. Much like the face plant I did during our last significant snowfall, it produced a good likeness of the little fellow.

Signal’s snow print

The trip back down the mountain was long but uneventful. I was very happy for the snow cleats on my boots since we were descending such a steep slope. We went slowly, but it was still faster than the trip up. Both of us were glad to be back on relatively level ground after the first .4 mile. A few hidden roots and rocks tried their best to trip me on the journey back. That happens much more often toward the end of a hike. My sister blames this on trail trolls. It sounds like a plausible explanation to me. Surely it can’t be because I am tired and not picking up my feet as high on each step.

Heading back down the steep trail.

At one point in the trail we rounded the hill and suddenly there was no more snow on the trail. This section of trail receives plenty of sun that had melted the snow away. The snow soon returned further down the trail.

Finally, we could see my truck far below us through the trees. It was a welcome sight, and gave me a renewed energy.

Once back in the truck, we looked at the map and saw that we were close to the point where Firescald Branch passes under the road. We hoped that meant that Firescald Branch Falls was nearby, and decided to drive there in search of it. I had read about these falls online, but had not paid much attention to the directions. I did remember reading that it was just about 100 feet off the road.

We found the spot where the branch flows under the road, parked and got out to look for the falls. Unfortunately, we did not see anything nearby, so decided to research these falls more back home, and visit them another day.

When we got back in the truck to leave, I had to put it in four-wheel drive to get it moving on the snowy road. I drove a bit further out the road until I found a place to turn around and head back. On the way home, we stopped off at Walmart in Elizabethton so that Rob could look for someone he had not been able to find at the other area Walmart stores. I’m sure it was quite comical to see us shuffling across the parking lot like 90 year olds – stiff from our hike.

It was a great day on the trail, despite the strenuous hike. I made it home in time for supper with the family, and then had Sunday to rest and recover before going back to work on Monday. I did some research on Firescald Branch Falls and learned that the road behind the gate we had parked at for our hike up the mountain would have taken us there. I look forward to the day that we are finally able to reach Dennis Cove Falls, and hope we can visit Firescald Branch Falls as well.

We continued searching for the cache, and finally decided that it was missing. Perhaps it was carried off by some animal. I doubt very seriously a two-legged muggle stumbled across it in this remote spot. I pulled the replacement out of my backpack, Rob signed our names to the log book, and he dropped two travel bugs in the cache. One of them was a cute little yellow duck that looked vaguely familiar. He told me it was on the ducks that trailed along behind the canoe during his and Kara’s wedding. Once we had placed the cache in its hiding spot, we carefully made our way back to the trail and started the hike back. Signal was already snow covered from snow falling off the vegetation we passed under, and he asked if he could make a snow angel. I told him yes, but once he was laying in the snow he didn’t move his arms and legs to make an angel. We decided that the imprint he left was cute enough and left it as it was. Much like the face plant I did during our last significant snowfall, it produced a good likeness of the little fellow.The trip back down the mountain was long but uneventful. I was very happy for the snow cleats on my boots since we were descending such a steep slope. We went slowly, but it was still faster than the trip up. Both of us were glad to be back on relatively level ground after the first .4 mile. A few hidden roots and rocks tried their best to trip me on the journey back. That happens much more often toward the end of a hike. My sister blames this on trail trolls. It sounds like a plausible explanation to me. Surely it can’t be because I am tired and not picking up my feet as high on each step.At one point in the trail we rounded the hill and suddenly there was no more snow on the trail. This section of trail receives plenty of sun that had melted the snow away. The snow soon returned further down the trail.Finally, we could see my truck far below us through the trees. It was a welcome sight, and gave me a renewed energy.Once back in the truck, we looked at the map and saw that we were close to the point where Firescald Branch passes under the road. We hoped that meant that Firescald Branch Falls was nearby, and decided to drive there in search of it. I had read about these falls online, but had not paid much attention to the directions. I did remember reading that it was just about 100 feet off the road.We found the spot where the branch flows under the road, parked and got out to look for the falls. Unfortunately, we did not see anything nearby, so decided to research these falls more back home, and visit them another day.When we got back in the truck to leave, I had to put it in four-wheel drive to get it moving on the snowy road. I drove a bit further out the road until I found a place to turn around and head back. On the way home, we stopped off at Walmart in Elizabethton so that Rob could look for someone he had not been able to find at the other area Walmart stores. I’m sure it was quite comical to see us shuffling across the parking lot like 90 year olds – stiff from our hike.It was a great day on the trail, despite the strenuous hike. I made it home in time for supper with the family, and then had Sunday to rest and recover before going back to work on Monday. I did some research on Firescald Branch Falls and learned that the road behind the gate we had parked at for our hike up the mountain would have taken us there. I look forward to the day that we are finally able to reach Dennis Cove Falls, and hope we can visit Firescald Branch Falls as well.

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