A trek up Little Smith MountainPublished 10:34am Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Thursday afternoon Jimmy Lanier, the founder of the Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association, took me, my wife Mary Lyman, TPI’s magazine editor Betsy Iler and her husband, Rev. Rob Iler, on a walk.
It was a walk to remember, a walk on the brand new 2.2 mile Little Smith Mountain Trail.
Jimmy is a personal friend and something of a marvel. He’s 74 and has more energy and stamina than a guy 20 years younger … like me.
Jimmy is an enthusiastic hiker who heads for the trails about three times a week, which probably has a lot to do with his energy level. Many other days you can find him scouting trails, building trails or bolting together the Smith Mountain Fire Tower, a project he headed and spent countless hours on over the past couple of years. Jimmy’s a joy to hike with, especially when he’s showing off one of his new trails. So when he called and asked if I was interested in seeing his newest creation, I packed up my camera and jumped at the opportunity for some fresh air.
If you’ve been to the top of Smith Mountain, you’ve seen one of the most beautiful places on Lake Martin. And you’ve seen Little Smith Mountain, which is the next big rise just south of the fire tower and right beside Lake Martin. The new trail starts at the fire tower and circles Little Smith Mountain in a round-about path that zigzags back and forth across the face of the mountain, around down by the lake, back to the top of Little Smith Mountain, then down to the parking lot.
Along the way, hikers are treated to a number of different ecosystems. My personal favorite is the gorgeous open longleaf pine forest. Longleaf forest is not like any other ecosystem in our area, in contrast to most of the dense woodlands in our area, you can see for hundreds of yards through the longleafs.
The hiking trail is amazingly soft, almost bouncy in places, where years and years of longleaf pine needles cushion the ground. Line after line of vertical dark pine trunks rise up on all sides and the green canopy scores of feet overhead gives the forest a cathedral-like feeling. It feels like you’re walking through a holy place.
That feeling is enhanced in many places where the pine-needle forest floor is carpeted by acres of lush green ferns and tiny wild blueberry bushes. Huge gray boulders dot the forest in places, and lichens growing on their faces painted the rocks bright orange.
As the trail continues around Little Smith Mountain, it winds down through hardwood bottoms and deep groves of rhododendrons and mountain laurel.
This month the mountain laurel is in full bloom. It’s bunches of cup-shaped white blooms flecked with red are a natural treasure in our area that I’d put in the same you-gotta-see-it category as the Cahaba lilies blooming now in our rocky streams. If you’re not able to hike, you can see these flowers from a boat in Lake Martin, but walking through them is an even more impressive sight.
As we continued around the mountain, we walked through patches of dead longleafs killed by an intense fire several years ago.
Jimmy said he used to hate that some of the trees are dead, but he’s grown to love the sight. I agree. The silver trunks are create wild, towering, modern-art shapes that contrast with the living trees nearby.
And when we arrived at the top of Little Smith Mountain just before sunset, we had a view over the forest and out over the lake, sweetened by a strong breeze, that was simply breath-taking. Or maybe that was the hike. In any case, I was quite happy to stay up there for a while to enjoy the majestic view and to catch my breath and attempt to let my soaked shirt dry. It didn’t. And I didn’t care.
We finished our hike as the sky was turning cobalt blue, walking down through the shadowed hardwood forest until we arrived at the foot of the mountain and my truck.
Mary Lyman and I make an annual fall pilgrimage to the Smoky Mountains to hike with friends. It’s a place famous for its beauty. But as we were walking around Little Smith Mountain this week, we both said that we need to invite our Smoky Mountain hiking buddies down to Lake Martin because the trails here in our home forest are just as beautiful.
If you enjoy the outdoors, give yourself a treat and hike the new Little Smith Mountain Trail this month, while the mountain laurels are still in bloom. And if you can’t, be sure to look for the photo essay in June’s Lake magazine.
Boone is publisher of The Outlook.