False Gap Prong Manway to Grandfather Tree, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is filled with old growth forest, and with lots and lots of creeks draining into the valley from the high mountains of the Smokies above. The path of one of those creeks, False Gap Prong, takes it from near Laurel Top to Greenbrier Cove. A non-supported trail otherwise known as a manway follows False Gap Prong for a few miles past ruins of century-old homesteads and moss covered boundary walls. There’s a stand of giant tulip poplars up there, including one known simply as the Grandfather Tree. A large group of us hiked False Gap Prong on Tuesday, January 6, 2015 between 10:00AM and 2:45PM. The plan was to take the manway to the old growth forest, with the Grandfather Tree being the destination, then return along the same route.

Hike Length: 7 miles Hike Duration: 4.75 hours

Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None, non-supported trail.

Hike Rating: Moderate. Brief stretches of strenuous climbing. Some route finding.

Elevation Change: 1,350 feet, gain 1,530 Elevation Start: 1,675 feet

Trail Condition: Pretty good for a non-supported trail. The first three miles are as good as any maintained trail in the Smokies. The last half mile, as it gets deeper into the forest, is harder to follow and criss-crossed with blow down.

Starting Point: False Gap Prong manway trailhead at Greenbrier Cove.

Trail Traffic: There were 9 of us, but we encountered only 3 other hikers.

How to Get There: From NC take exit 443 on I-40. Cross the Foothills Parkway and turn left on Hwy 321. Go past Pittman Center and turn left on Greenbrier Rd. This road will change to gravel after a short distance. Drive 3.1 miles to Ramsey Prong Rd. Turn left across the bridge. The trailhead is 50 feet on the right. From Gatlinburg, TN travel east on Hwy 321 six miles and turn right onto Greenbrier Rd.

 

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The first thing you notice when you pull into the Greenbrier section of the Smokies is water. It’s water, water everywhere. Creek after creek drains into this valley. There’s Porters Creek and Ramsey Prong, Middle Prong and Little Pigeon River, and the one we would be on this day; False Gap Prong. You turn onto the same road that goes to Ramsey Cascades, but park immediately over the bridge.

I came from NC with Griztrax to meet a couple of his Tennessee friends for this hike to the Grandfather Tree. When we got to the trailhead just up Ramsey Prong Road at Greenbrier Cove, there were more than a couple… all told, we had a hiking party of nine. I can’t recall having been part of that large a group before, so it would be a new and interesting experience. We dispensed with all the introductions, and off we went. Being the lone stranger in the group, I tagged along in the back so I could get a sense of the pace.

We were on a non-trail trail. What I mean by that is you won’t find it on maps. It isn’t supported. It isn’t maintained. It isn’t what the park rangers would call an official trail. But that’s all it isn’t. It still gets so much traffic that the tread is just as good as most trails in the Smokies. It was leaf covered this time of year, but otherwise it was plenty wide for a crew of nine, and easy to follow.

It starts with Porters Creek on the right with a very gentle ascent to the southeast. Within a quarter mile we reached a junction, and those who were leading suggested we take the left fork to go see the old schoolhouse foundation and Plemmons Cemetery. I learned quickly that this area was one of the largest settlements in all of what eventually became Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For all intents and purposes, more than a hundred years ago, there was an entire town here. Now it is fully recovered by forest.

Plemmons Cemetery is perhaps the largest in the national park, at least it is the largest I have so far visited. There are at least 200 headstones, maybe more. The dates on the stones go all the way back to the 18th century, including John Ownby who fought in the War of 1812, and his wife “Granny Coon.” The cemetery is so old that trees are growing around tombstones.

Mary Anne Rudolph shared this wonderful story about the cemetery, "We visited Plemmons Cemetery one Christmas day a couple of years ago. It was a very gloomy, cold day. As we approached Granny Coon's grave, a wonderful sun spire shone through the clouds, exactly onto Granny's grave. It was like she was smiling down on us for visiting her on Christmas. Still gives me shivers thinking about how wonderful that moment was."

Mary Anne Rudolph shared this wonderful story about the cemetery, “We visited Plemmons Cemetery one Christmas day a couple of years ago. It was a very gloomy, cold day. As we approached Granny Coon’s grave, a wonderful sun spire shone through the clouds, exactly onto Granny’s grave. It was like she was smiling down on us for visiting her on Christmas. Still gives me shivers thinking about how wonderful that moment was.”

From the back of the cemetery, follow the trail west for a couple hundred feet where it rejoins the main manway. We were now alongside False Gap Prong, and would be for the next couple miles. We reached one particular place in the creek where you can cross over an old 2×10 board to abandoned settlements on the other side. False Gap Prong was roaring on this day however, and the rotting board didn’t look like it could take the weight of nine people walking across and then back. Common sense prevailed and we skipped this side expedition.

We saw plenty enough settlements along the way as it was. As we continued to climb up the drainage we happened upon old foundations, and old boundary walls with stones now totally covered in moss. Throw in the occasional fireplace or chimney and it was quite remarkable. There seemed to be another homestead about every tenth mile. Some of the guys with sharper eyes than mine even noticed old, rusty pieces of metal, one that appeared to be a Model T fender.

All of my new hiking companions were very friendly. Each and every one of them made a point of spending a few minutes walking beside me just to share a little about themselves and ask me the same. I felt welcome, and was warmed by the graciousness. I didn’t know what to expect from large group hiking, but at least with this crew it was extremely pleasant. They were also helpful. There was one creek crossing where they all pitched in to make sure everyone got across safely.

After a couple miles of following the prong, the trail turns more to the east away from the water and begins a final, steeper climb. It’s along about here too, that the manway becomes more troublesome to follow. There is quite a bit of blow down making it difficult to discern the path. Fortunately everyone but me had already been here before and had a general idea where to proceed. We were also getting into old growth country. We had to crawl over many a downed tree trunk a yard in diameter. It was quite a bit easier for those with longer legs.

As the climb became steeper, the trees became bigger. Griztrax was telling me stories of adventures up Woolly Tops Branch to the old hemlock and tulip trees, and past the Grandfather to a particularly beautiful grove up Kalanu Prong. In fact, if you continue far enough up the drainage you will end up on the Appalachian Trail at Charlies Bunion.

As the climb became steeper, the trees became bigger. Griztrax was telling me stories of adventures up Woolly Tops Branch to the old hemlock and tulip trees, and past the Grandfather to a particularly beautiful grove up Kalanu Prong. In fact, if you continue far enough up the drainage you will end up on the Appalachian Trail at Charlies Bunion.

As the path got harder, the group became more scattered. Crawling over some of those downed giants took time. Some had better stamina than others, and some had better route finding skills. The rabbits continued on ahead while those of us in the middle of the pack waited for the turtles to catch up. As I was waiting I scanned the forest, checking the terrain, and the ridge lines. About every hundred yards there would be a gentle giant quietly standing in the woods high above all the others.

If you’ve never spent any time in old growth forest before, you must take yourself some time. In all my 60+ years I had never experienced the awe and admiration until I moved near the Smokies in the past decade. Stately comes to mind; imposing, majestic, elegant. And when we all reached the Grandfather Tree, it was the grandest of them all. There were even downed logs at the base of the tree that enabled all of us to sit together and break bread in reverence of this incredible living being.

After posing for pictures with the Grandfather Tree, we got everything back together for the return trip. Going back was easier. We could see our own previous tracks better, and of course it was downhill now. I got to walk with different people and continued to make new friends along the way. There’s just something about being out in the wilderness together that lowers everyone’s guard, that promotes shared fun and common aspirations. As John Muir once said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

To summarize, I found it exciting to get off the beaten path so to speak. If you only have a park map or something like Trails Illustrated, you would never know about the False Gap Prong manway. That’s why it’s great to have hiking friends who have been around the area their entire lives, and know of places and trails that have been retired over the years because of budget cuts. My first experience hiking with a large group was very positive. They tell me this area is absolutely alive with wildflowers in Spring, and that there is so much more beyond the Grandfather Tree. Look for me to experience this again, and again.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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