November 17, 2022
The western portion of the Smokies has always held a certain mysterious aura for me. Given how far I have to drive from Charlotte to hike here, perhaps that mystery stems from a lack of familiarity. Maybe it comes from hearing numerous stories of AT hikers abandoning their thru-hike attempt after hiking its terrain, or the countless bear stories that are traded around these parts by old men with a chaw in their cheek. From my initial foray into this area of the park, it seems much more rugged, akin to many of the trails that I hiked in the Pisgah Ranger District.
Looking at my Knoxville raised topo map, Bear Creek Trail rises from the hollow that carries Forney Creek to Fontana Lake up the very sharp spine of Welch Ridge. Cut by the CCC, the first mile of the trail is wide, obviously used at one point for carts and trucks. After Poplar Flats and campsite #75, the trail becomes more rugged and substantially steeper. It follows Jumpup Ridge until it reaches Welch Ridge Trail.
The weather atop Welch Ridge was a far cry from the temperate Bryson City, thousands of feet below. At the intersection, the wind was gusting. On this clear day, our ultimate destination of High Rocks soon became visible. At one time, High Rocks housed a fire tower and ranger cabin. The only remnants now are a dilapidated structure, barely standing.
Welch Ridge and High Rocks is unique. It extends well beyond the ridge the carries the Appalachian Trail to the south provides unparalleled views of Joyce Kilmer, Stecoah Gap and Georgia.
In his 2015 book, Blue Ridge Fire Towers, Robert Sorrell notes that
“[a]nother Swain County tower was dismantled in 1985, but its lookout cabin remains on site. Of March 2014, the High Rocks cabin is in need of restoration, according to several sources. The cabin is located on a 5,185-foot-high mountain In the Great Mountains National Park. The CCC constructed the tower and the cabin between 1935 and 1936.
Laura Ingle, a Clemson University historic preservation graduate, wrote in 2011 about the towers of the Smokies in her thesis, “Every Day Is Fire Day; A Study of Historic Fire Towers Life in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” She described both the construction of the tower and cabin, as well as the issues surrounding the restoration of the High Rocks cabin, with excerpts from park letters and emails.
An October 9, 1935 letter, she cites, reported that seventeen men worked on the tower and cabin. They set up tents to provide shelter while constructing the site. The High Rocks Fire Tower was forty-six feet tall, according to Ingle, which was lower than other park fire towers. The national park and TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] removed High Rock Tower in the 1980’s. The decided to retain the log cabin, making it the only lookout cabin remaining in the national park.”
In Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains, George Ellison describes speaking with Pearly Kirkland, a former park service lookout at High Rocks.
“That’s where I picked up the habit of talking to myself. No one else up there except the bears, so I just got to talking to myself about this and that… The bears was a bother up there at High Rocks. Scared me some. They would come and break the windows out trying to get into the little cabin situated below the tower. So we put up wooden shutters.”
On this November day, as we approached High Rocks, the trees had suffered a flash freeze the night before. While the surrounding area below us remained untouched, the shimmery whiteness of ice surrounded the summit. The views from the top were beyond amazing. Not a single person in sight, not a soul for miles, just an unforgettable view.
Total mileage is 20.6 miles.