Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trail Report - Panther Branch to North Old Mac - Frozen Head SP - 7/16/2011

So this past weekend we went camping and hiking in lieu of backpacking at Frozen Head State Park. After we arrived and got camp all setup, we were ready to embark on our first hike of the weekend. We sat at the picnic table at our campsite considering our options and finally concluded on hiking the Panther Branch trail to North Old Mac trail and back down for a nice 6.25 mile loop hike.

Once we had our plan, we headed out of the park momentarily to pick up some soft drinks for our cooler and a sweet snack to eat before heading up the trail. Once we were done at the store we headed back to the park and parked our car at the Shelter C parking lot. We decided to park here at the Old Mac trailhead, instead of up at the Panther Branch trailhead at the end of Flat Fork road, since we would come off the trail there. Once out of the car we got our packs out, harnessed and leashed Clover, fired up the GPS and set off up Flat Fork Rd towards the Panther Branch trailhead. Yes, we count the road as part of our hike. We walked it with gear on so it counts.

It was definitely a great day or weekend for that matter to be at the park and it was evident, as there were a lot of people out and about with children on the playground and all the shelters full of families and whatnot celebrating this and that. We continued up the road past all that to the trail and in no time set our feet upon dirt and rock. I forgot to mention that at the parking area, there was a trio who'd come off the trail looking quite dirty. After a very brief conversation, Robin and I knew were going to get dirty ourselves as it had rained a good bit the past week and it showed.

Once on the trail there were a few people out and about but for the most part it was regular park visitors heading to Debord Falls for a refreshing dip in the pool of the falls. There was only one couple with a dog that shared the trail with us that day, well at least only part of the way. They were a young couple and had a pretty big dog on a long leash. It helped to keep Clover moving forward once they past us. You know, it gave her something to sniff after. :P

Up the trail we opted not to stop at Debord Falls as we have been there a countless number of times, and from the sounds of it, there were several people down there doing what people do best when there's water around. Besides we only had the point and shoot and that made it senseless to try and get any "good" pictures of the falls. Onward we walked and finally came to the junction with the Emory Falls trail. At this point, we had already hiked almost 2 miles. We turned to the right continuing the Panther Branch trail following the Panther Branch creek coming down the mountain gully. At this point the trail turned from a wide and rocky old jeep service road, to a pleasant single track trail. The footing of the single track starting out is pleasant. However after about .2 miles just past the Panther Branch campsite, the terrain drastically changes to what we expect out of the Cumberland Mountains; rough, rocky, and drastically uphill.

We continued to make our way up the trail after a brief rest stop at the Panther Branch campsite which accommodates up to 8 campers. The scenery through here is absolutely breathtaking as the creek flows down the mountainside through the gully over rocks and cascades finally making its way to meet up with Flat Fork. It's like paradise through here after some good rains. Had it been a couple years back, it wouldn't have been so gorgeous with the drought we had. Robin, Clover and I continued to make our way up the trail and came to another foot bridge. It was at this point that the other couple that went ahead of us had apparently turned around and past us going the other way. We exchanged hellos again and continued on. It wasn't long before we figured out why they turned around: a large, steep, slippery cascade that cut across the trail into Panther Branch. It was a bit intimidating actually, but with lots of extra care and caution, we all three made our way across and continued our journey up the mountain.

Before long we hit the switchback on the trail that took us away from Panther Branch and on up the side of Old Mac Mountain at a much steeper grade. At this point in the trail we had already hiked a good 3 miles and decided it was time for another short break to enjoy our surroundings and for all three of us to catch our breath.

After a good five minutes or so, we continued up the mountainside occasionally looking out and down to the valley below us. Of course in these parts you can't take your eye of the trail in front of you for too long, otherwise you'll find yourself lying face down on the trail with skinned up elbows, knees and a mouthful of dirt. Up we continued to trek and finally reached the junction with the North Old Mac trail after about a half mile from the switchback. Finally we got to walk downhill.

About .2 mile from the junction we came across a side trail to the right, we weren't looking at the map but according to the Garmin Dakota 10 GPS I was trying out (to be reviewed in a later post) there was another campsite at the end of the trail and an unmarked overlook. We decided to walk back to the campsite and check it out. This would make a great backcountry site as it is secluded from the trail, affording nice privacy from other hikers. The overlook affords a nice view as well. Water access would be a haul though.

After checking out the campground, we started back down North Old Mac descending down Old Mac Mountain. As we continued to descend we watched the scenery change before our eyes. It was apparent in a few of the runoff crossings that the storms over the last couple of months have done a bit of damage to the woods. At one point the canopy of the trees was non-existent which is abnormal for the area.On our way to the junction with the Old Mac Trail we saw an orange salamander, mountain laurel, blue cohosh berries, and more. We crossed over several runoff crossings, and hurried our pace down the mountain as the clouds seemed to have darkened a bit. We had no idea what the weather held in store but we knew we didn't want to be caught in any possible storms.

About 2 miles from the Panther Branch/North Old Mac junction we finally reached the Old Mac Trail. It was time to head off the mountain and back to camp. From this point it was a straight walk down the wide easy Old Mac trail to the parking area. We covered 6.25 miles in just over 5 hours, which included a few rest stops. Elevation gain was just over 1300ft. If you ask me, I think Robin is a beast having done that at 5 months pregnant. We had a wonderful time on the trail and afterwards went back to camp, ate our suppers and hung out around the campfire I built with soggy wood. It was a great day and a great hike spent with my best friend and our super trail dog, Clover.

We will have the next day's hike from our trip posted soon so stay tuned for our trek up "our" mountain (Bird Mountain) and the failed attempt at hiking the Frozen Head Loop.

Happy Trails,
Tim and Robin

P.S. Again excuse the abnormally poor quality of the photos. We only had that crazy point and shoot with us. :P

More technical details of our hike on Trimble: