By Lisa Duff
Memorial Day Monday found me with a mild case of cabin fever, which was a bit strange since CF is typically a wintertime ailment. What happened was this: I’d successfully managed to add a few at-home days to the end of my vacation to allow for ease of real-world re-entry, and Monday, as it turned out, was one day too many.
As is my habit when seeking a quick CF cure, I pulled out my trusty park trail map and began contemplating a loop hike – what some playfully call a lollipop – with the potential to whet my appetite for adventure. Glancing far right (or east), I landed on Chestnut Branch Trail, a two-mile, Appalachian Trail access route out of Big Creek. Once I hit the A.T., I knew I’d find a respite from the 90+ degree temperatures that were plaguing the lower elevations..
Most A.T.-access trails come complete with kick-butt inclines, and Chestnut Branch is no exception. Because they appear to exhibit similar profiles in Hiking Trails of the Smokies, I wondered as I started up how the Chestnut Branch climb would compare to Chimney Tops. My lungs soon provided an answer: these trails most certainly share heart-pumping requirements. That, however, is where the similarities end.
Chestnut Branch is quiet, despite the number of cars in the parking lot. Most of those folks, I imagine, were headed for Midnight Hole and skin-cooling submersions. Hikers of Chestnut Branch share this path with horses, which I did not encounter in any way other than their excrement. Chestnut Branch has not undergone a Trails Forever renovation like Chimney Tops, but it remains in good condition, nonetheless.
Finally, another difference I noticed was that the forest type did not vary much on the way up, which was a little concerning to one who relishes the sights and smells of the spruce-fir experience found along most of the famed A.T. ridges through the Smokies. The sweat accumulating between my skin and shirt would dry easily if I were to find a cool breeze and lower temperatures at the intersection.
As it turned out, I did find a breeze and a quiet place to sit while my breathing returned to normal. I took a minute to realize that as the A.T. leaves the Smokies near Davenport Gap, it does so at a much lower elevation than its height at Clingmans Dome. In fact, a very different looking and feeling A.T. than what I’m used to passes out of the park two miles down the path where it intersects with N.C. Highway 32 at just 2,000 feet.
From here, I continued my downward stroll for a little more than a mile along what can only be described as a quiet country road. I completed my lollipop by turning right, crossing back into the park and heading for my car. It was just past lunchtime by then, and while a dip in Midnight Hole would have felt amazing, I opted to save it for another day.