Most people who head out Clingmans Dome Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are there to climb the half mile to the summit of the 2nd highest mountain in the East. But here at Meanderthals, we aren’t most people. Below Clingmans Dome are trails that explore the ridges and drainage on the south face. Included among those are Forney Creek Cascade, a classic slide waterfall three miles down the Forney Creek drainage, and Andrews Bald, at 5,920′, the highest bald in the national park. Either one would stand alone as a delightful hike. Combining the two makes for a good challenge and combines two of our favorite types of hikes… water features, and vistas. This hike occurred on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 from 8:45am to 2:45pm. Our plan was to take the Forney Ridge Trail to Forney Creek Trail, then hike down the mountain to the cascade. Turning around, we would return to Forney Ridge Trail and take it to Andrews Bald, then return to Clingmans Dome.
Hike Length: 8.6 miles Hike Duration: 6 hours Blaze: None
Hike Configuration: Y Elevation change: 1,820 feet Elevation gain: 2,410 feet
Hike Rating: Difficult. Andrews Bald by itself is easy, combining the two makes a lengthy hike. The climb back up from Forney Creek Cascade is strenuous.
Trail Condition: Forney Ridge Trail is very good. Forney Creek Trail is rocky and rooty with slick granite slabs.
Starting Point: Trailhead at the end of Clingmans Dome Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered ten other hikers, all on the way to Andrews Bald.
How to Get There: From Cherokee, NC or Gatlinburg, TN take Newfound Gap Road (Hwy 441) to Clingmans Dome Road near the state line at Newfound Gap. It is seven miles up Clingmans Dome Road to the parking area and trailhead.
When I left the house just past 6:00am, I had a sense this was going to be an eventful day. I love hiking in the Smokies. The 2.5 hour drive to Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was beautiful, as always. The highway travels between two massive ridges of the Smoky Mountains, offering breathtaking scenes along the way. As we turned onto Clingmans Dome Road, I could feel the anticipation building. When we passed the yearling black bear on the side of the road, the excitement became reality.
The large parking area at Clingmans Dome is almost always full in summer. For tourists, it’s an opportunity to catch 6,000′ vistas without having to leave your car. But at 8:30 in the morning, we were able to grab the 2nd parking space from the trailhead. Those same tourists are also late arrivals. Six hours later, the parking lot would be jammed with hundreds of cars, and others circling, waiting for someone to leave.
The downside to an early arrival at Clingmans Dome is the ubiquitous early morning fog. More often than not, you just can’t see anything. So in that regard, this was a typical day. No problem for us though. We had designed a hike that would enable us to see some water features while waiting for the sun to burn off the fog.
The trailhead is just past the sign board at the west end of the parking area. If you head right, you can take a paved path a half mile to an observation platform on the summit of Clingmans. Instead, we went left, downward a tenth of a mile to a trail junction. Right takes you to the Appalachian Trail and another means of crossing Clingmans, while left begins the Forney Ridge Trail, our pathway for this hike.
The tread constructed in 2008 by a dedicated crew of trail builders is quite impressive. They converted an extremely uneven rocky terrain to a gradual descent with excellent water bars and berm rails. Much of the trail is stone slab, sometimes canted, sometimes cut as stairs, to ease the slope as it hugs Forney Ridge. It enables you to look at the scenery, instead of at your feet.
This south face of Clingmans Dome has had its share of past disasters, including fire and infestation, but the foliage is trying to return. Lots of mountain ash, its berries in the pale orange phase before ripening, were evident. Occasional blueberry bushes and new growth fir line the trail as well. It hadn’t popped yet this morning, but on our return through this area in the afternoon, the trail was lined with flaming cardinal bee balm.
1.1 miles down Forney Ridge Trail is the junction with Forney Creek Trail. It was still only 9:30, and a quick glance at the sky indicated that fog was still prevalent. With that in mind, we chose to first check out Forney Creek, then pursue Andrews Bald later in the day.
Remember my glowing description of the trail maintenance on Forney Ridge above? We shortly found out what it had once been like, prior to 2008. Forney Creek Trail, while wide and navigable, is a rocky and rooty holloway that is slippery and wet.
It’s the kind of track that demands you wear hiking boots. Try some other footwear and you’ll likely end up with twisted ankles and very sore souls of your feet, not to mention the slipping hazard. I never went down, but I caught myself innumerable times after slips and slides on exposed roots and wet, mossy granite. The saving grace was the kind trail angels who had recently been through with scythes trimming the grasses and weeds along the trail. It kept our legs dry from the chill morning dew.
It’s a moderately steep descent through dark hardwood forest into the Forney Creek drainage, dropping about 1,500 feet below Forney Ridge to the first sighting of Forney Creek. The trail makes a hairpin turn at the creek and increases in steepness as it now follows alongside. As Forney Creek switches back, so too does the trail.
Approximately two miles down, we reached a crossing of Forney Creek, one that likely would have been impossible a few short weeks ago. Western North Carolina has received record-breaking rain this summer, including the Smokies, so this crossing would have been too dangerous when the water was in torrent mode. As it was, this was still no piece of cake. The boulders used for hopping across are covered with moss and algae, more appropriate for skating than for hiking.
As I’ve become more experienced at hiking, I’ve learned to appreciate pain more. So like most hazards encountered on the trail, I used care and caution when crossing, and all turned out well. There’s a small two-tiered waterfall at the crossing that was the reward for a safe arrival on the other side. While pointing my camera, a hummingbird appeared out of nowhere and hovered around my bright orange shirt. I suppose it was the only thing in the forest that wasn’t green.
Just a few hundred yards later, you will notice large campsites on the left by the creek. Aside from the level, terraced landings, there’s a reason they are there. Forney Creek Cascade! Comprised of two large slide waterfalls, back to back, totaling more than a hundred feet of declination, this was our goal for the first portion of our hike.
The upper slide appears a little bumpy. With a nice catch pool at the bottom, the lower cascade looks like it would be ideal for sliding on a hot summer day. Oh, to be young again.
While I took a bunch of pictures, including this one just below the cascade, my hiking companion went on down the trail a few hundred yards to see if there was more worth seeing. Upon his return, he reported that this was indeed the main cascade. So we paused for a brief energizing snack, and prepared for the long climb back up to Forney Ridge.
I have to admit to tiring. After all, it does climb 1,500 feet in two miles. That’s a pretty serious incline/mile. The loose rock and twisted roots don’t make it any easier, requiring careful placement of each and every step. It was past noon by the time we reached the junction with Forney Ridge Trail again, and headed east to Andrews Bald.
The reward for finishing the climb up Forney Creek is… that you get to climb some more. The trail junction sits in a small gap. We now had to climb another 300 feet, or so, over Andrews Bald. The trail traverses boardwalk laid to keep the touristy types in their flip-flops out of the mud. The forest is spruce and fir krummholz. I’m told lilies of the valley bloom here in June, complementing the rhododendron and azalea that also appear in the grassy bald meadow at that time. We encountered other hikers for the first time all day.
Our patience paid off. The fog had lifted. The grassy meadow is on the south side of Andrews Bald. For the best views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains head about 500 feet south along the trail. There are excellent vantage points for gazing every direction. Except for the forest you just came out of to the north, the long-distance vistas include Fontana Lake to your south, the Smokies of North Carolina to the east, and the Smokies of Tennessee to the west.
By now we were ready for lunch, so we found a nice patch of grass beneath a shady fir, and sat down for some rest, nourishment, and awe. The swallowtail butterflies were having a party on the goldenrod, and we even saw a monarch or two flitting about the milkweed. Our late August timing was perfect for a dessert of fresh mountain blueberries from the wealth of bushes that surround the meadow.
It was fast approaching 2:00, and we still had two hours of driving to do, so as much as we hated to, we bid adieu to Andrews Bald. My friend usually likes to do a speed burn whenever we’re out for our regular hike, so when we reached the Forney Ridge/Forney Creek junction, he took off back up the hill to Clingmans Dome. While I’m in pretty darn good shape for a 60-year-old, I can’t begin to keep up with him, so I continued at my regular steady pace.
Remember that sense of anticipation I had when I set out in the morning? It was this separation from my friend that enabled it to happen. I was still about a half hour from the finish, and was feeling the affects of nearly six hours of hiking. Plodding along, taking the occasional breather, I was deep in thought about what a great day it had been.
When I glanced up the trail, I saw a young women in a brightly colored shirt approaching about 100 feet away. Suddenly, she turned and scampered away. I thought, “what the heck?” And then I saw her. There, standing right in the middle of the trail about half way between the woman and I was a smallish female black bear.
She turned her head to peer at the woman, then turned it again to look at me. Determining that neither of us was a threat, the bear began slowly walking toward me on the trail, perhaps another 15 feet closer. My mind flashed rapidly to all the reports I’ve read about what to do, and what not to do, and I decided I had no reason to be afraid. The she bear stopped again, stood still for about a minute, and then suddenly here comes a cub tumbling out of the woods to my right. Now the she bear was a mama bear. That put this situation in an entirely different perspective.
I kept my distance, but held my ground, stayed still, and raised my camera to shoot some pictures. I knew that the mama didn’t want to see me, or other hikers, so she began encouraging junior to head into the woods to the left. He wasn’t having any of that though, as he was enjoying blueberries on the side of the trail. For a couple minutes this comical scene played out as the anxious mom and the carefree cub went back and forth at the edge of the trail.
Finally the cub had enough, and down the hillside into the brush he went, followed by his mama. I waited for another minute, then began cautiously stepping the 50 feet up the trail to the point where they went in the bushes. The closer I got, the slower I proceeded, peering around the corner for any sign that they were still there. And sure enough, there was mama, no more than 15 feet away, sitting down, staring directly at me.
For the briefest moment, I thought about going for a closeup photograph, but then my sanity kicked in. Who knows what the act of raising the camera would do? Who knows what the click of the shutter would do? What I did know is that I needed to keep moving. I reached the woman above me on the trail, who was with a companion, and warned them that mama bear was still sitting right near the trail. I continued ahead myself, and eventually saw that the couple was now following behind. So I guess they decided they didn’t want to chance passing the bear.
By now I was completely giddy with excitement. The last half mile of the climb I was floating on air. I couldn’t wait to get back and tell my friend about my good fortune. You know how you don’t really want to encounter bears when out hiking, but you kinda do? Well, now that I had, and all went well, I was completely overflowing with awesome. Strangely, I never did feel fear. I knew to be cautious. I knew how I had been trained, and I behaved appropriately. As a result, I was fortunate to experience the great gift of a close proximity wildlife encounter. I will never forget.
To summarize, if you want an easy hike, you certainly don’t have to go to Forney Creek Cascade. It is only 3.5 miles round trip to Andrews Bald. But my companion and I generally like to hike more than that, especially when driving more than two hours each way. I recommend getting an early start. We didn’t see anyone else on the trail until after noon, and by the time we got back to the parking lot it was teeming with madness.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. The cascade on Forney Creek was very nice, and Andrews Bald has some amazing high country vistas. Peak season is June when the rhodos and azaleas are in bloom, but expect bigger crowds as a result. I think it would be cool to see in winter, but Clingmans Dome Road is closed from December through March.
It’s kinda ironic when you think about it. Here there were hundreds of people, milling about, totally unaware that a bear and her cub were a stones throw away over the hillside. I’ve heard that the bear population in Great Smoky Mountains National Park averages out to about one every square mile. Makes you wonder how many times you hike within a matter of 50 feet of one and never know it’s there. I guarantee it knows you’re there.