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Springtime at Rocky Fork

Johnny Molloy • Apr 18, 2013 at 9:24 AM

April is a good time to visit the newly acquired Rocky Fork tract in the Unicoi and Greene counties. The land acquisition of over 10,000 acres has been completed, though recreational opportunities have not been firmly established. However, a trail system is already in place. The tract is going to be managed by the Cherokee National Forest, as well as the Tennessee state parks.

With my friend Steve “Devo” Grayson, I set out on an exploratory backpacking adventure to experience some of the beauty contained within Rocky Fork. The tract covers much of the Rocky Fork basin, which gets its start high in the Bald Mountains dividing Unicoi and Greene counties. The Rocky Fork drainage also includes the stateline ridge between Unicoi County and Madison, County NC, over toward Carmen.

We started our trip at Lower Higgins Creek (as it is called to differentiate it from the other Higgins Creek in the south end of Unicoi County near Flag Pond), just a few miles from Temple Hill. Devo and I took the Higgins Creek Trail up a narrow gorge. Heavy rains left Higgins Creek a froth of whitewater. Black birch, sycamore, yellow birch and scads of rhododendron, ferns and mosses bordered the path. Boulders big and small lay scattered in the woods.

After a mile, we heard the roar of Lower Higgins Falls. The cataract can be seen from the main trail. The falls starts in a rhododendron thicket as a narrow faucet type pourover, then tumbles in tiers, becoming steeper until it is nearly sheer at its base. The fall totals about 60 feet in height. Beyond Lower Higgins Falls, we climbed until Higgins Creek was but a slender, small streamlet high on Rich Mountain. Trees were greening in the lower terrain but up here, the trees were mostly barren. However, wildflowers were copiously blooming, everything from trillium to bluets to gay wings.

The two of us made camp in the perched uppermost Higgins Creek valley, just below the crest of Rich Mountain. We banked a fire against the nighttime chill. Overhead, the stars shone bright. Layers of frost covered our sleeping bags overnight, as we slept in the open.

A morning fire knocked off the chill. I sat before its flickering flames while heating coffee water. My toes warmed by the hot coals as I sipped hot java, contemplating the route we were to take. Buzzard Rock was our destination.

After loading up, Devo and I circled past Wilson Knob aiming for the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. Just as we entered a small hollow, I came upon a pocket of bleeding heart wildflowers! What a colorful find. I snapped a few shots with the camera to capture the fleeting moment. Hunting wildflowers in our Tennessee mountains can truly be a treasure!

We climbed to 4,600-foot Buzzard Rock. Views opened into Unicoi County from the open rock promontory (Buzzard Rock is visible from Interstate 26, on your way toward Asheville). Below, the Rocky Fork valley spread forth, its tributaries easily recognizable from the hills that divided them. Beyond there, Devo looked out, pointing out Flint Mountain, rising in a wall to the south.

He also pointed out Interstate 26, running through the Indian Creek Valley in the distance. The grassy meadow of Big Bald, on the far side of I-26, formed an eastern backdrop. Budding trees spread in delicate greens in Rocky Fork Valley, while the white blooms of serviceberry trees dotted the hillsides. Spring had really arrived in the hills of East Tennessee. It could not be denied.

After savoring our view from Buzzard Rock, we descended to Rocky Fork Valley. The day was warming. That is one interesting aspect of springtime in the mountains — temperatures can range from the 20s to the 70s in one day!

A bright spring sun reflected off the fast-moving waters of Rocky Fork as Devo and I descended the deep vale. Wildflowers carpeted the woodland floor. There is a reason springtime flowers mostly bloom early in the season. The flowers time their blooming period before the leaves of the trees block out the sunlight, minimizing the amount of energy that plants on the forest floor can receive.

Then, as the trees begin their process of regenerating, and a canopy forms above the forest floor, ground level plants are cutoff from the sun. Of course, many plants thrive in the shade of our mountain valleys, namely rhododendron, of which there is plenty along Rocky Fork and its feeder streams.

Lucky for me, Devo is a forester by trade and something of a plant biologist by hobby. He is always pointing out interesting flora, and is a whiz at identifying wildflowers. He was a great asset to have on hand in the flower and plant rich Rocky Fork Valley. However, plant fans like him also stop a lot, working their craft, and can slow the hike down. Almost always, I will end up ahead on the trail. I use my waiting time wisely, scouting for campsites, fishing too.

On the other hand, Devo seems to show up at after the wood has been gathered, and just after the fire has been started. I have sometimes wondered if he sits on a hill above camp, watching for the chores to get done, then saunters in, smile on his face, ready to share an interesting plant discovery as a distraction.

By late afternoon, we made our final camp at Hidden Lake, perched at 4,000 feet, on the headwaters of Birchfield Camp Branch. It was a pretty good climb out of lower Rocky Fork up to Hidden Lake. The April day had turned almost hot.

Did you know there was a lake at Rocky Fork? Hidden Lake is small, just a few acres, but makes for a pretty sight, rimmed in yellow birches. Rumor has it there’s some trout in there but I haven’t fished it yet. This was strictly an exploratory trip, to understand the trail system, to literally get the lay of the land, and see a few wildflowers.

We enjoyed a milder evening at our Hidden Lake campsite. Clouds had rolled in. I cooked hot dogs over the fire that evening, roasting them on sticks placed before the coals. Next morning we followed the lake’s outflow, Birchfield Camp Branch, steeply down trail, passing an old logging truck from decades back. It is amazing the truck ever made it up to this rough valley, and stands still, the object of buckshot from passing hunters.

Devo and I followed Birchfield Camp Branch to its confluence with Higgins Creek. The streams were lower now, and easier to cross since the storm flow had run its course. And it wasn’t long before this adventure at Rocky Fork had run its course, and we were back at the Higgins Creek trailhead, more appreciative of Rocky Fork than ever. Consider making your own adventure at Rocky Fork, the latest treasure of our Tennessee mountains.

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