March 21, 2020

Porter Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  • 4 miles
  • 4:06 duration
  • 912 foot elevation gain

Social Distancing: A term that I would say none of us had heard of just weeks ago, or thought would be so important in our lifetime. Yet, this is where we are in March of 2020, urged by our political leaders and medical professionals to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10, to work from home if possible, to rethink our whole way of life. Our world has been turned upside down by COVID-19. The news each day brings us a new alarming count of active cases. The grocery stores are struggling to keep up with the demands of shoppers who are frantically clearing the shelves. Toilet paper is suddenly worth its weight in gold.

Thankfully, we can still escape the confines of our homes and the ever-present news alerts to enjoy nature, as long as we are careful to maintain a distance of six feet or more and be hyper-diligent about personal cleanliness. In fact, fresh air and sunshine are thought to be helpful in staying healthy. At the time of this writing, we have received news that even the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is closed to visitors, but on the day of our visit, we were able to enjoy a nice hike along the Porter Creek Trail.

I had thought that I would not be able to do much hiking this spring. I was hoping to get one or two hikes in during March, but my April and May calendars were filled with out of town trips – both work and pleasure. That has all changed within the last two weeks. Each of those events that would have taken me out of town – three of which would have included air travel – have been canceled. Suddenly, I find that I will have ample time to enjoy spring hikes, as long as I can stay healthy and find locations to hike that aren’t crowded or closed.

My first opportunity came on the first Saturday of spring with a trip to Porter Creek in the Greenbriar area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is a hike that I enjoy doing each year – sometimes more than once – to see different types of wildflowers blooming.

I was joined on this hike by friends Melissa, Walter, Lisa and Lori. We came from four different cities in East Tennessee, meeting at the trailhead at 10:00 am. It was difficult to resist hugging friends that I had not seen in months or even a couple of years in one case. Instead we greeted each other from a safe distance with “air hugs”.

I had watched the weather anxiously all week, hoping that the rain would clear enough for us to hike. Even on the previous evening, the forecast was for a 20% chance of showers on Saturday morning, but we decided to take our chances.

When we began our hike, the temperature was 52° with cloudy skies and a very light mist. This was to be the situation for our whole hike. I started out wearing a short sleeve t-shirt and rain jacket.

The parking lot was already crowded, but we easily found available spaces right next to each other. Thankfully, despite the many people taking advantage of the opportunity to hike, we were spread out enough along the trail so as to not pose a danger to one another.

Almost immediately upon starting our hike, I began spotting wildflowers. I hoped that I would not slow the rest of my group down too much with my frequent stops to take photos, but the rest were doing the same. It was not a race, but a time to enjoy the beauty of spring. Both Melissa and I carried our Nikon cameras as well as our cell phones, while the others depended on their cell phones for photos. I have found that often I am able to capture pictures that are nearly as good on my cell phone as with my “good” camera, and it certainly is a lot easier to carry. I found myself using my phone more often than my camera.

Lisa had brought along a laminated pamphlet that showed some of the common flowers of the Smokies. I was able to provide the names of many that we saw, having studied at the feet of my mother and my older sisters over the years.

I had worried we might be too early in the year to see many wildflowers, but there were many of the early bloomers in evidence. Many of these are the tinier flowers that require a watchful eye as you walk the trail. Having hiked this trail in the spring nearly every year since 2011 (I think I missed 2013 and 2014) I have a pretty good idea of where to look for certain wildflowers.

The first mile of Porter Creek Trail is a wide, dirt and gravel road that is closed to traffic. It is a gentle climb of less than 300 feet in elevation gain. With the many stops for photographs of both flora and the creek, it took us nearly an hour to hike that first mile.

Keeping our distance

Some of the flowers we spotted along this first mile were:

As you would expect from the name of the trail, it follows along Porter Creek, which was roaring after all of the rain we have had this spring.

Porter Creek

In addition to the joy of experiencing the rebirth of spring, it was great to spend time with friends that I don’t often see. We updated each other on our families, and of course shared stories and concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

After the first mile, the trail narrows and becomes a bit harder to travel. I was concerned for Lori who is suffering with sciatica pain, but she seemed to be doing well thus far.

I began to warm up, and stopped to take off my jacket, choosing to hike in short sleeves the rest of the way to the waterfall. Melissa, Lori and Lisa did the same.

I was lagging behind to take photos and noticed that they others had stopped to look at something in the trail. When I caught up to them, I saw an orange salamander. I’m not sure if he was posing for photographs, was frozen in place with fear since he was surrounded by humans, or if he was no longer among the living.

What is everyone looking at?
Little orange feller

We also saw a cool tree that must have held tasty treats at one time. It held evidence of woodpecker attacks all the way around and as far up the trunk as we could see.

Woodpecker food court

There were more wildflowers along this stretch of trail:

Eventually, we came to the footbridge that allows hikers to cross the rushing Porter Creek. This narrow bridge high above the water is not for the faint of heart, but as I customarily do, I paused halfway across to take some photos of the water, taking care to not drop my hiking stick, camera or phone in the process.

Porter Creek
Okay, okay! I won’t get too close.
Lisa and Lori crossing the bridge

Just across the bridge, I spotted the first of the fringed phacelia and pointed it out to my companions. Melissa had hiked this trail with me in the past, and joined me in reassuring them that they would see much more of it soon.

A small taste of the greatness to come

I also spotted the first evidence of Dutchman’s breeches, and was pleased to show these to Lori – the first time she had seen them in person.

Dutchman’s Breeches

Nearby was a nice example of a sweet white trillium.

Sweet White Trillium

Bishop’s Caps were abundant in this area.

Bishop’s Caps
Extreme closeup of a Bishop’s Caps blossom

Soon, we reached the bend in the trail that leads into one of the most beautiful spots on this hike, where fringed phacelia covers the forest floor like a carpet. I was not expecting to see it blooming this early. It was still not at full peak, but was further along than it had been this time last year.

Lots of phacelia, a trio of monkeys

As Lisa asked me to once again spell the name of his flower (phacelia) Walter exclaimed, “You’re just making this stuff up!” Ever the jokester.

Sprinkled amidst the phacelia were lots of Dutchman’s breeches. This prompted Walter to impart the sage advice, “Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the Dutchman’s breeches.” Ewwww!

Lisa asked about the yellow flowers she spotted. As I struggled to pull the name from the recesses of my brain, Melissa jumped in with “trout lily”. She was correct.

Trout Lily

We slowly continued through this magical area, stopping to take far too many photos to share. On the side of a moss covered tree trunk, Melissa spotted a cute little snail, making good time as he crawled up the tree. No one had ever told him that snails are slow.

Snail on a tree

On the same tree trunk, I was enamored by a single sprig of bishop’s caps.

Also found along this stretch of trail are yellow trillium, but they were not quite opened yet. A few examples of wild geranium were blooming.

Melissa taking picture of yellow trillium
Wild Geranium

I caught up with Lisa and Lori who were staring several feet off trail at a tree that was embracing a rock with its roots. I informed them that this is a tree-ock. Lori thought that it looked quite magical in the mist.

Tree-ock

As we left the fringed phacelia wonderland, we spotted some strange, puffy lichen on a tree. Someone said it looked like marshmallows. As we were looking up and taking photos, a family with two young girls passed by. One of the little girls said, “What are you looking at?” I replied, “A Great North American Marshmallow Tree.” She peered up with an incredulous look on her face. I said, “See! It has marshmallows growing on it! Did you know that marshmallows grow on trees?” Before she could continue thinking that I had totally lost my mind, Walter jumped in with, “She’s just joking.” The girl moved on looking relieved, and likely spared a lifetime of ridicule for believing my tall tale.

Great American Marshmallow Tree

As we continued along this section of trail, I remembered a trip here in 2016 when I was joined by Deban and several other friends. I kept telling her we were almost to the waterfall, expecting it to be around the next curve in the trail. But, this stretch between the phacelia and the waterfall is always longer than I expect. I think she was ready to murder me by the time we reached the waterfall.

On today’s trip, we finally arrived at the waterfall, only to barely be able to see it from the trail because of the foggy weather. Lisa and Walter headed up the near side of the stream, while Melissa crossed and headed up the other side. I stood on the trail with Lori who was unsure she wanted to try climbing the rocky terrain. Lifting her legs too high caused a lot of pain in her back. I gave her my hiking stick to help with balance, and we made our way upward a short distance.

Lying on a fallen log I found a funny looking twisted piece of wood and proclaimed it to be Yoda’s hiking stick.

Yoda’s hiking stick. Photo courtesy of Lori

Fern Branch Falls is a magical place, even on a foggy day. Below the 40 foot waterfall, the water continues to cascade down a valley of moss-covered rocks.

Fern Branch Falls
Photo courtesy of Melissa

I found wild ginger along the base of one of the largest boulders, still in a tight bud.

Wild Ginger

Raindrops still clung to a lovely spiderweb.

Since it was noon, we settled on rocks to have lunch. I put my jacket back on since it was cooler here at the waterfall. Lisa read to us the description of Fern Branch Falls from the book Waterfalls of the Smokies, co-authored by our friend Charles Maynard.

We posed for a selfie (groupie?), taking care to maintain our safe distances in the process.

A great hiking crew

Soon it was time to pack up and move back down the trail. The fog still had not lifted from the waterfall, so I resigned myself to not getting any decent pictures of it today.

I told Lori she could continue using my walking stick on the trip back, knowing that going back down the rougher top portion of the trail would be difficult for her. It felt a little strange hiking without it, but also freed my hands for photo taking.

We found some nice examples of great white trillium just below the waterfall, including one that was growing in the creek.

I also found some more longspur violets and yellow violets.

As we headed back down the trail, I told my companions that there are usually some dwarf ginseng along this section on the right. I kept an eye out for the tiny blooms, but wasn’t seeing any.

I stopped to take a picture of anemone and wild geranium side by side…

…when suddenly I spotted a dwarf ginseng blossom next to it. I shouted my excitement to the others, and they doubled back to see it.

I used the clip on macro lens for my iPhone camera to get a close up of the bloom with water droplets.

We made our way back through the phacelia fields, maintaining a safe distance from one another the whole way.

Photo courtesy of Melissa

As we neared the bridge across the creek again, I related to my companions the story of a hike I had done with my friend Mary two years before. We had sat here next to the creek to eat lunch, and I pulled out my phone to take a selfie of us. I had already snapped the photo and turned to look at Mary, when I noticed activity behind her. A little boy was peeing in the creek. When I check my photo I found I had captured him in all his glory.

No little boys here today

Lisa started across the bridge first, with Walter waiting until she was nearly on the other side before he started. He explained that she didn’t like for him to cross bridges at the same time she did, because she says he bounces too much.

Patiently waiting his turn

I stopped again as I crossed, this time taking video of the rushing water.

Taking video from the bridge
Video of Porter Creek

The trip back down the trail went much more quickly than the ascent. We only stopped a couple of times for photos. One of these stops was to get a closer look at some phlox that were starting to bloom. It was hard to get a good photo of them because the rain had them turned downward and the blooms were not completely open.

Pretty lichen

I also spotted a specimen that I did not recognize, so took a photo of it to get help later. My sisters were unable to identify it, so I posted the photo on a private Facebook group I am part of, that shares wildflowers of Tennessee photos.

The Facebook group identified this as Smooth Rockcress

Lisa stopped to pick up some trash she saw, and realized it was a pocket knife. She had no use for it and gave it to me.

We finished up the hike just over four hours after we had started. Once again it was hard to part with my friends without hugs, but we managed. I hope that I will see them again soon, without the necessity of social distancing, so that we can make up for the missed hugs!

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