On Trail

Hiking the Great "Soaky" Mountains - My Flash Flood Experience

I recently had a brand new experience during a guided trip - a flash flood.  While many of us go through our daily lives and hear or see the words "Flash Flood Warning" pop up on our phones or scrolling across the screen during a weather report, none of us ever actually get a chance to see or experience one.  While I hope you never do, I'd like to recount my experience, share a video, and let you know how you can avoid a situation like that while you're out on your next hike.  

During my most recent Women in the Wilderness trip thunderstorms were again in the forecast.  So far this year it has rained on every single trip I've taken.  Granted, after our severe drought last year, the rain is a welcome sight.  Even though I'm grateful for the rain and the fact that we are now two inches over our normal rain level, I'm starting to get a bit sick of it.  Knowing rain was in the forecast I made sure I had packed my usual rain kit for a guided hike, including my uncomfortable and hot rain jacket and a large and incredibly heavy (when it's dry) tarp for my clients to relax under.  While our first day on the trail only gave us a sprinkle or two when we first took off, our second day was calling for afternoon thunderstorms.  It was while we were lunching that we heard our first thunder clap, but after about 45 minutes of all bark and no bite the storm never materialized.  However, just as we arrived at camp, around 3:30 in the afternoon, the sky in front of us was nearly black.  I knew we'd be pushing the rain and we hiked downhill to my favorite campsite in the park, campsite 49 (Cabin Flats).  We walked back to the farthest site from the trail, right next to the river, and immediately put up our tarp to keep us dry.  We assembled all the tents and got underneath the tarp as the first rain drops started to fall.  Our group joked how this would be our trip high point - we assembled the tents and tarp just before it got wet, assuring that when we finally set up our tents on the inside (putting our sleeping gear inside) it would be nice and dry.  

At first, the rain was steady and not out of the ordinary; however, after approximately 15 minutes, the rain began falling in heavy sideways sheets.  The tarp quickly slackened from becoming wet and due to the sideways rain and winds we ended up holding some of the edges, moving to the middle of the tarp with all our gear and hoping the storm would let up.  The sideways rain continued for about a half hour before it finally let up, but the rain continued steadily.  After approximately 1.5 hours the rain had let up to the point where one of my clients asked "so, how much longer will we have to do this?" meaning stand under the tarp before we set up the rest of our gear.  As if on cue, as soon as those words escaped her mouth, we all heard a deafening roar.  Looking toward the river, we all watched the water level rise from normal to just at the shoreline and ready to breach.  After looking at each other and saying "did everyone just see that?" we ran over to the tents, picked them all up, and moved them to a higher point in the campground.  After standing for a few minutes and chatting, we decided I would head up to the top of the campsite, which was higher up, and see how the river looked.  When I got there, the water had risen to above the shoreline and was beginning to cover the upper part of the area.  I instructed everyone to grab their packs and head up the hill, leaving the tents for the moment.  

After bringing all our gear, minus the tarp and tents, to a safe point we came up with a game plan.  We definitely weren't staying at the campsite because it could still be raining upstream and the water could get higher.  We now had a few choices - grab the tents and stay right on the main trail, hike up to a different site about 3.5 miles away and stay there illegally without a permit, or hike out to our cars.  My group was shaken, but not ready to call the trip.  We decided to grab the gear and camp somewhere else.  Staying as a group, we broke down the tarp and three tents quickly and brought them up the hill to pack them up.  On our way back the second time, the water level had risen even more, despite the rain stopping where we were.  We sloppily packed the gear as best we could and decided to make the 3.5 miles trek to campsite 50.  

My biggest concern with hiking down to campsite 50 was the fact that it was at an even lower elevation than our campsite at 49.  I also knew the water would be higher down lower and that we had four bridges to cross to get there.  After approximately half a mile we came to the largest and what I considered the most secure of those bridges and I looked to see the water was only about a foot and a half from the bottom of the bridge.  This water, at normal levels, comes up to about my mid calf.  We paused on the bridge to take photos of the water and I shot a video as well.  You can see that below: 

 For reference - this is what the river normally looks like. 

For reference - this is what the river normally looks like. 

Our walk continued along the Bradley Fork Trail and over a few more bridges that spanned the raging river.  We could see several walls of debris that were freshly piled up on the shorelines at the turns of the water.  Thankfully though, the water never breeched the trail.  When we got to campsite 50 we were shocked to find it was empty on a Saturday night.  We set up our tents, cooked dinner, and spent a dry night cozy inside them.  

I would be lying if I told you I felt 100% calm about the situation.  I've never experienced water like this in the Smokies before, although flash floods have been known to happen in other parts of the park.  Now that I've been through the experience, I can be better prepared for dealing with this situation in the future.  Here are my tips for dealing with a flash flood: 

1) Stay Calm:
If you panic your body won't help you make a rational decision.  In retrospect, it may have been safer to break down the tents and the tarp first to avoid taking that second trip down to the site.  Either way it would have taken the same amount of time.  

2) Know your outs:
Even if you're backpacking someplace new to you, having an evacuation plan is key for a situation like this.  The most important thing you can do during a flood like this is getting yourself to higher ground.  Knowing how you can get back to your car is even more helpful, but it's not always possible. 

3) Keep paying attention:
Even though we had a plan to continue onward with our hike, and even though we were still talking, laughing, and joking, I was still paying attention to that water and listening for anything out of the ordinary.  While you want to get out of the area quickly if possible, it's also important to stay safe while doing so.  

4) Report the incident to the proper people ASAP:
I had no cell phone service on this entire trip.  For me to report what I had seen I actually had to talk to the backcountry office at the park once I drove to it.  Letting the proper people know will get someone out there to check the site for anything unsafe and possibly close it to keep other people safe as well.  

While I hope I never have to deal with a situation like that again, I know that hiking for a living in a park with more than 3,000 miles of flowing stream it is a distinct possibility that I will.  I'm hoping to be better prepared and even more in control if I ever do. Have you ever experienced a flash flood?

Reflections of the Appalachian Trail - Four Years Later

I recently had the opportunity to hit the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia right in the middle of thru hiker season.  It was such a wonderful chance for me to relive some memories from my first few days on the AT with a woman who was setting out on her own to try tackling the trail.  From meeting newbies in the Springer Mountain parking area to seeing the Benton MacKaye Trail terminus to summiting Springer for the third time this trip was full of memories.  Here are some reflections I have from those few days down on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. 

Since it was a long ride down to the southern terminus I had lots of time to think about all the feelings I had flowing through me.  No matter how many times I head to Springer over the course of my lifetime, I suspect that I'll always feel that nervous energy.  While I know I've successfully completed two trails with a terminus here, the feeling in your stomach is always the same - the excitement of getting out on trail and the uncertainty of knowing what each day will bring.  When we went to Amicalola Falls Lodge to pick up the friend I'd be hiking with I was just so excited to be seeing the Approach Trail.  While I've been to Springer twice before, I have never hiked the Approach Trail to the top.  There were quite a few newbie thru hikers (thrubies I've seen them called) and you could almost feel their excitement.  From the lodge we had about an hours' drive to the top of Springer going the back way the GPS device took us (which I would never recommend by the way - ALWAYS take Doublehead Gap Road!)

After climbing out of the car in the Springer Mountain parking lot the nervous butterflies mostly disappeared and I was mostly feeling excitement - excitement for both myself and my friend who would be experiencing the trail for the first time.  I made the 0.9 mile walk up to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail with her, talking to all the other thrubies hitting the trail for the first time.  To my surprise, I met several blog followers and Instagram followers up there!  For being a Tuesday in April there was a lot of activity happening up there at the summit.  Signing the registry book in the rock up there for the third time just made me feel like I was at home.  After walking the 0.9 miles back to the parking area I was reintroduced to Warren Doyle, whom I had met briefly when working at the AT Lodge in Millinocket back in 2013.  

 Hey there, Springer Mountain! 

Hey there, Springer Mountain! 

The first day and evening on trail were a flurry of happy activity.  We did approximately 4 miles down to a campsite near a stream where I taught my friend how to throw a bear bag and we camped in relative cold temperatures.  The next day brought more hiking and quick thinking, using my finely tuned Yogi skills to get us a ride to cell phone service and a shuttle to Wolfpen Gap Country Store/Hostel in Suches, Georgia.  Riding through the Georgia countryside gave me a whole new view of the BMT and AT - it was very cool to see the mountains I have climbed so many times from a different perspective.  We stayed in the hostel and I got to see two old friends - Carry-On from my 2012 hike and Odie (of Hiker Yearbook fame) from my time working in the hostel in 2013 and going to The Gathering in 2014. I helped Carry-On do pack shakedowns at the amazing Top of Georgia Outfitters satellite store at Wolfpen Gap.  By the time our ride came to pick us up the next day I had felt like I already assimilated back into the Hikertrash Culture and wasn't ready to hit the real world again. 

 Doing a pack shakedown with a client at the outfitter. 

Doing a pack shakedown with a client at the outfitter. 

Being back on the Georgia section of the AT brought back so many fond and happy memories for me.  I made it through Georgia in about 5 days during my thru hike, so going a little slower and meeting those hikers in the beginning really reminded me more of meeting hikers up in Maine.  Too many people with no experience wearing packs that don't fit and carrying so much gear they're blowing out their knees.  We saw so many injuries and so many ill-fitting packs!  I often wonder about some of those people I met down in Georgia that first week of April and I hope to see some evidence of them making it through the Smokies soon.  It was such a great experience to get to go back to those first few miles of trails with a thrubie and share those wonderful memories with her.  I can't wait for my next trip back one day. 

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Indian Flats Falls - A Tuesday Adventure

My recent trek on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia may have been cut short, but I still had an opportunity to go hiking over the weekend.  My friend Shannon and I headed up the Middle Prong Trail to see Indian Flats Falls on a chilly, overcast Sunday morning.  Since Spring Break season is finally over, we are in that beautiful lull period between vacations and summertime making for an easier commute to the park, as well as for emptier trails.  This peaceful and relatively easy hike began in a nearly empty parking area and really gave us the solitude we were looking for. 

Middle Prong Trail begins at the very end of the gravel road in the Tremont section of the Smokies.  After crossing a large steel bridge, you begin following an old railroad bed up the trail at a gentle grade.  The first 3/4 of a mile on this trail follow alongside the Middle Prong of the Little River - the water on one side and rocks and downed trees on the other.  This scenic first portion of our hike had us seeing blooming doghobble, several varieties of wildflowers, and mosses growing on the rocks and decaying logs.  It was incredible peaceful walking next to the water as well.  When you hit the 0.7 mile mark on this trail there was a bench off to the left overlooking a waterfall.  The waterfall here is actually the remains of a splash dam used by the logging companies.  The trail from here turned a little bit rockier and muddier due to horse use, but still followed the same gentle grade.  Approximately 2 miles in there is a well-defined side trail off to the right where you can find an old skeleton of a Cadillac from the 1930s off in the woods.  According to local lore, the car belonged to a foreman of the logging camp.  The car quit running one day and the men of the work crew got it off the road, and pushed it to where it still remains today. 

 The skeleton of a Cadillac. 

The skeleton of a Cadillac. 

After hopping back on trail from our snack break at the Cadillac, we continued up the hill through an area of old fields, once farmed by the Walker family.  A little further up we came to the site of the former CCC camp where at one time a crew of 172 men lived in the area.  These men created trails, bridges, and roads in the park during the late 1930s.  All that remains of the camp today is a brick chimney.  Now that we walked through the camp the trail begins to switchback up the hill and across a wide bridge.  At the bridge you've gone 3.5 miles from the parking area.  The trail switches back a few more times before coming to an unmarked side trail off to the right.  This is the site of Indian Flats Falls.  We took the side trail down about 0.25 miles and were treated to a serene sight - not one other person at the waterfall!  We got a few photos and took a lunch break before heading back down to our car.  After leaving the waterfall, we passed many other hikers headed up to the waterfall for the day.  We were very glad to have gotten an earlier start!

 The fallen chimney of the CCC camp. 

The fallen chimney of the CCC camp. 

 Indian Flats Falls. 

Indian Flats Falls. 

Indian Flats Falls is a great beginner hike here in the Smokies!  The old railroad grade makes for easy walking and everyone loves a waterfall!  Since this trail is an out-and-back hike, you'll get approximately 8 miles of hiking in.  Over the course of nearly 4 miles you gain approximately 1000 feet of elevation, so you'll barely gain 250 feet of elevation per mile.  If you want to try this hike, drive to the Tremont section of the Smokies.  Instead of turning left into the Tremont institute, go straight onto the gravel road instead.  Driving approximately 2.5 miles on this road you'll dead end into the parking area.  From here, cross the steel bridge and bear left at the fork in the trail (the right side of the fork is a nature trail).  Elevation and map for this hike are below.  

 Map and elevation profile for Indian Flats Falls. 

Map and elevation profile for Indian Flats Falls. 

Have you ever hiked Indian Flats Falls?  What do you think of this area of the park? I'd love to talk with you about your favorite hikes.  Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!

Porters Creek Trail to Campsite #31 - A Tuesday Adventure

The Porters Creek Trail in the Smokies is well-known to locals and visitors alike in the springtime.  It's known as the wildflower hike and is popular among hikers and photographers from late winter until mid spring for the variety and beauty of the flowers growing alongside the trail.  I recently did a backpacking trip up to Campsite 31 for the night and got to enjoy all kinds of weather - from sunshine to rain to mist to sleet all in the span of about 30 hours!  Here's a recap of my recent hike on Porters Creek Trail. 

We arrived around 11 a.m. to a packed parking area at the end of the gravel road in Greenbrier.  While usually a packed trailhead means for busy hiking, we knew many hikers would be turning around before they reached our final destination for the evening.  It also was a good sign that the wildflowers were going to be extraordinary today!  Word tends to travel fast in this park about the flowers blooming, so busy trailheads mean pretty sights much of the time.  We began our walk gently uphill on the former roadbed that is the first mile of the Porters Creek Trail.  After reaching the old traffic circle, the literal end of the road, we took a detour over to the John Messer Barn and the old Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Cabin before continuing up trail.  

 The flowers really look like snow covering the hillside! 

The flowers really look like snow covering the hillside! 

We got onto the more narrow foot path and kept climbing at our gentle grade, crossing a unique log bridge and walking into the section of this trail that contains the old growth forest.  Now our trees are bigger and more varied!  We turn the corner to switch back up the hill and the forest is now carpeted in gorgeous fringed phacelia!  As we are walking through and admiring the flowers we also see a few trout lillies that are just about to open.  It's been raining for a few minutes now, so the flowers are starting to wilt and close up a little.  We spot some spring beauties and continue up to the side trail to Fern Branch Falls. While here we begin to spot white trillium and even the makings of some yellow trillium.  We also spot a small patch of Dutchman's Britches.  

 Fern Branch Falls in the rain. 

Fern Branch Falls in the rain. 

After a break at the waterfall most people are now turning around in the rain to head back down to their cars.  We, however, will continue uphill toward campsite 31.  We see the endemic (only found in this park) flower Fraiser's sedge along the way.  The sun begins to come out about 30 minutes from the campsite making for pleasant walking and happy campers!  We roll into the site around 5 p.m. with only two other people there for the night.  We are able to set up camp, collect water, and have dinner and a small campfire before finally calling it a night.  

 Some white trillium along the trail. 

Some white trillium along the trail. 

We wake in the morning to a misty, nearly imperceptible rain falling.  We have coffee and breakfast together before finally breaking camp and heading back down trail.  The misty rainfall never stops and we even have a few periods of sleet.  At this time I sure am glad I have my new Swing liteflex umbrella keeping me dry!  I had been using it the whole trip and can even go hands-free if I need to since it attaches to the sternum strap on my pack! The rain finally let up as we reached the end of the trail and got back onto the old gravel roadbed.  We were all very happy to be close to the cars, meaning the relative warmth of our cars and hot showers at home awaited us!

 The Porters Creek Trail and elevation profile

The Porters Creek Trail and elevation profile

If you want to try this hike for yourself, either as a day hike, trail run, or backpacking trip it's easy to find!  Get your campsite reservation at https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/ for campsite #31 if you want to backpack.  You'll drive to the Greenbrier entrance of the park and follow the road approximately four miles straight back to the Porter's Creek Trailhead.  Be prepared to walk a little ways if you're hiking on a weekend - parking tends to fill on beautiful weekends!  You'll follow the Porter's Creek Trail approximately 3.7 miles back to the campsite.  See the map and elevation profile below. 

Rich Mountain Loop - A Classic Smokies Hike

The Rich Mountain Loop hike is a classic day hike in the Smokies.  Starting in the breathtaking Cades Cove, this hike is on the list of newbies and experienced hikers alike.  You don't have to drive the one-way Cades Cove loop and endure the traffic, you get amazing views down into the Cove, and you hardly see many people while taking the 8.5ish mile hike.  While you have a fair amount of uphill hiking to get to Cerulean Knob, the high point, this trail makes it all worth while.  I recently took this hike with NoKey and my friend Shannon and we were treated to the solitude of hiking on a busy Easter weekend.  Here's a recap of how our adventure went. 

We met up at 9 a.m. in the parking area.  We usually start later in the day, but since it was Easter Sunday we were nervous the lot would be packed with families looking to spend their holiday together in Cades Cove.  Imagine our surprise when we were some of the very few people there this morning!  There was a chance of thunderstorms all day and rain was forecasted at 70% chances, but we only heard one rumble of thunder in the parking area and no rain ever really materialized.  We started our hike by following a muddy and eroded horse path out to the John Oliver Cabin.  While headed to the cabin, we crossed a stream and found some teaberry to sample before heading over to the old homesite.  The cabin had quite a few people visiting and running around, so we decided it was time to start our strenuous section and head up the mountain. 

 The John Oliver Cabin just before heading up hill. 

The John Oliver Cabin just before heading up hill. 

From the Oliver Cabin you now begin the uphill portion of the hike.  This old roadbed is rocky due to horse travel, but maintains a steady grade all the way up.  We followed several streams and even saw a doe on the mountainside as we climbed.  NoKey pulled ahead and Shannon and I took our time hiking uphill.  We stopped halfway up at a black birch tree, where I found a stick that was fresh enough to still have some wintergreen scented oil inside.  We talked about how the settlers would look for black birch (also called sweet birch) and used the branches as a natural toothbrush.  The oils inside have a naturally antiseptic quality for keeping breath (and teeth!) clean.  We continued upward and the trail leveled a bit as we reached the trailhead.  

 Hiking uphill - a woodpecker has been busy here! 

Hiking uphill - a woodpecker has been busy here! 

We had lunch with NoKey there, sharing some of my famous hiker crack cookies, and sent him down to do the 2.2 round-trip bonus miles on the side of Indian Grave Gap.  He needed to mark it off his map and Shannon and I took an extended lunch break and took a slower pace up over to the next trailhead.  While we were still headed uphill, it was much more gentle than the first part of our hike had been.  I stopped to tape blisters (really! I somehow managed to get some by wearing the wrong socks!) and we headed up to Cerulean Knob.  After reaching this high point of our trail, at 3685 feet, we started our descent of Scott Mountain.  We took in beautiful views of the Cove through the still bare trees and started seeing more flowers - spring beauties, bloodroot, cut-leaved toothwort, pussytoes, star chickweed, and rue anemone.  We were just about to reach our next trailhead and sit down to take a break and wait for NoKey when he came charging down the mountain to meet us!

 Rue Anemone

Rue Anemone

We took a stretch break and an electrolytes break before we headed downhill on the steepest part of the hike.  Thankfully Crooked Arm Ridge Trail has a lot of switchbacks!  We carefully worked our way downhill crossing over a stream and seeing the long, beautiful Crooked Arm Cascades before meeting back up with the Rich Mountain Loop Trail and heading back to the car.  Shannon thanked us for hiking with her by giving us a CASE of Thin Mint cookies.  To this day, it might be the best thank you gift I've ever received! Usually I hike this trail in the winter and I'm used to being out there without there being many people.  I expected today to be packed on trail, but we only saw five other hikers on the entire loop.  It was a great way to escape the crowds and noise of the Cades Cove area. 

 Crooked Arm Cascades

Crooked Arm Cascades

 The Trail loop and elevation profile for Rich Mountain Loop. 

The Trail loop and elevation profile for Rich Mountain Loop. 

If you want to attempt this hike on your own follow the signs into Cades Cove.  Follow the road like you're going to drive the loop, however, make sure you stop at the large parking lot at the entrance for parking!  The trailhead is on the right side of the road just as the road narrows to a one-way drive.  You can head up either Crooked Arm Ridge Trail half a mile in or you can continue on Rich Mountain Trail.  I would say most hikers go up Rich Mountain and come down Crooked Arm Ridge.  Crooked Arm Ridge Trail is a little bit more eroded and strenuous on the way up.  

Have you ever done this classic Smokies hike?  I'd love to hear about your experience or your favorite trail in the park!  Leave me a comment below or find me over on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!

Hiking with Kids in the Smokies

Recently I was asked on social media for some recommendations for hikes in the Smokies with children - on trails that weren't terribly busy.  This is a really great question and, as a National Parks Ambassador, it's something I've learned a little bit about.  If you live near, or are planning a visit to, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park soon, here are a few recommendations for some shorter hikes that the kids can really enjoy! 

Stroller-friendly Trails

If you've got littles who aren't quite up to walking trails on their own yet and you will need a stroller, we have a few options for you here in the park.  

-The nature trail behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  This 0.7 mile round trip hike on a groomed gravel path will have a few bumps and tree roots, but won't be too difficult to tackle with a substantial stroller.  The path will take you out to Cataract Falls and you can follow it back to the visitor center. 

-The Gatlinburg Trail.  Another well-groomed gravel path, you will follow a stream with plenty of opportunity to jump in and cool off on a hot day.  While the advertised mileage of this trail is 2 miles, making for 4 miles out and back, you can take your time and walk slowly from the parking area (located at River Road in Gatlinburg at the last stoplight in town) up to an old homesite just past the bridge over the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. This makes a great turn around spot for families. This is also one of only two trails in the park where you can take a dog with you as well.

-The Oconoluftee River Trail.  This accessible trail is located on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, at the visitor center near Cherokee.  This 3-mile round trip trail walks along the Oconoluftee River through some area that used to be an old farmstead and offers a few opportunities to hop into the river to cool off on a hot day.  This trail is also dog-friendly. 

-Laurel Falls Trail (to the waterfall). About 2.5 miles round trip, this paved trail is wildly popular among tourists.  On weekends, arrive early to ensure a parking spot!  The trail gently goes uphill to the waterfall and offers wildflowers in the late spring and summer.  

-Quiet Walkways.  We have a number of paved and unpaved quiet walkways in the Smokies that are relatively short.  These self-guided nature trails often have interpretive signs, old homesites, flowers, and big trees.  The quiet walkways are often less than 1 mile round trip. 

Hiking with toddlers/Young Children

If you've got kids that can walk on their own without needing much assistance (other than maybe the occasional candy bribe to get them back to the car) I have a few other suggestions for trails, especially if you've got a little one who has energy to burn off!  While any of the above trails would also be great options if you're testing the waters, here are a few other longer walks that might be more challenging. 

- Porter's Creek Trail to the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Cabin.  This 2-mile round trip hike takes place on an old roadbed, so the walking is mostly level, albeit uphill for the first mile.  You'll pass by a giant rock shortly on your left hand side that I've had kids tell me looks like a big shark tooth.  About half a mile in, it will be evident you are on an old farmstead site - rock walls and building foundations can be seen on the hillside.  About 0.75 miles in you'll get to cross a stream on a footbridge before coming upon a set of stairs leading up to the Owenby Cemetery. Finally, about 1.1 miles in you will follow the signs over to an old cantilever barn known as the John Messer Barn.  You can walk around in the livestock pens and underneath the barn to play before heading back to the old springhouse and Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Cabin.  You will return to your car the way you came up the trail.  This trail is especially popular in the springtime for wildflower sightings!

-Spruce Flats Falls (Tremont).  This 2-mile round trip hike might be a little more challenging for kids, but can definitely be fun!  You'll follow the signs for the Lumber Ridge Trail leaving out of the parking lot for the Tremont Institute.  Shortly thereafter, follow the signs for the falls trail.  You'll climb a steep hill and get pretty views of Thunderhead Mountain on the Appalachian Trail before coming to a unique set of foot log stairs.  You'll head downhill on a steep trail that can be rocky and root-filled before coming up to the falls.  This is also a great place to cool off in the summertime.  Return back to your car the way you came. 

-The Walker Sister Homesite. A 3 mile hike starting at the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse in Metcalf Bottoms, follow the Little Brier Gap Trail approximately 1.4 miles from the gated access road.  You'll follow the gentle old road bed to the site of the Walker Sister home.  These five women lived here in the park until 1964, when the final sister passed away.  The five women lived here when the park service established the park in the 1930s, but at the time the women, all without husbands, were allowed to stay on their land as part of a lifetime lease.  They lived a simple and primitive life in the cabin as it stands today.  The only buildings left as part of the farm are the cabin, springhouse, and corn crib, but it will serve as a neat teaching opportunity to show kids how people lived in these mountains in the early 20th century. 

Kids from around 8 years to young teens

Lots of waterfalls will be listed in this section!  Kids love waterfalls (and hey, adults do too!)  

-Grotto Falls (Trillium Gap Trail).  From the Roaring Creek Motor Nature Trail (which has plenty to see and several opportunities to stop and explore restored homesteads!), you'll find the Grotto Falls Parking area.  From the parking area to the falls and back is approximately 2.25 miles, but this trail is a little more difficult than others I've listed previously.  This waterfall is really neat for photos because you can walk back behind the falls on the trail!  Also, this is the trail the llama train takes up to Mt. LeConte with the clean laundry and food supplies, so you might have a chance to see llamas!

-Abrams Falls.  Approximately 5 miles round trip, this is arguably the most popular family day hike in the park.  Like Laurel Falls, this parking lot fills to the brim on weekends, so make sure you arrive early (On Saturday mornings, the road doesn't open until 10 a.m. as to allow runners, walkers, and  cyclists the chance to enjoy the road without fears of being run over!). This all-day hike follows the wide and challenging Abrams Falls Trail over several small hills before coming up to a sandstone ridge line.  Follow the trail downhill to the falls and take warning - there are signs telling you how dangerous it is to swim near the falls!

-Rainbow Falls. This nearly 6-mile round trip hike is the most difficult of this list and climbs nearly 1500 feet over the course of 3 miles.  Popular nearly every day of the week in summer time, this challenging day hike follows LeConte Creek up the mountain, switching back through rhododendron thickets and climbing uphill the entire way to the waterfall.  When you get to the falls at mile 2.7, be prepared for crowds.  On the positive side, it's downhill all the way back to the car!

These are my trail recommendations for families visiting the Smokies.  I didn't include teenagers on this list as I find many teenagers vary in interests and physical fitness levels.  If you're looking to hike with a teen, you may find some of the hikes listed for older children helpful, especially if you're not used to doing much hiking.  Do you hike with children?  Did I miss any of your favorite family hikes?  Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!

Frozen Head State Park - A Tuesday Adventure

NoKey and I had a rare day off together - something that hasn't happened much lately with my marathon training schedule.  We decided that since the weather was nice and since we had a whole day we would pack up our dog and head over to Frozen Head State Park in Morgan County for a day of hiking.  Since Frozen Head is a state park, we could take our dog - which is always an issue for us when we want to hike in the Smokies.  Dogs are not allowed on trails in National Parks.  We decided to do a loop hike with the North and South Old Mac Trails, visiting a fire tower in the middle, and then afterward hiking a short out and back to a beautiful waterfall.  

When we reached the parking lot around 11:15 a.m. it was already packed. The sunny skies and nearly 70-degree temperatures brought out everyone for a day hike!  We started on the flat old road bed of the South Old Mac Trail, hiking less than a mile before running into the old CCC Dynamite Shack left from the days of this being a CCC camp.  Now our trail began the steady climb to the top!  We crossed several streams and met lots of hikers coming up and down the trail, many of them with dogs as well!  After crossing several streams and taking a few switchbacks, we came up to the old road bed at the Tub Springs Campsite.  We took a short break here for lunch, looking around the large campsite and checking out the cool spring house before taking the 0.5-mile walk up the old road to the fire tower at the top of the hill.  I stayed down with the dog while NoKey went up and took in the views!

 Gracie tangling me up with her leash during our lunch break! 

Gracie tangling me up with her leash during our lunch break! 

On the way back down the trail we now took the Panther Gap Trail to the North Old Mac Trail to head back down to the car.  When we got to this shady side of the hills, we noticed there was still a beautiful dusting of snow on the hillside.  Despite several days of warmer temperatures, the shade kept it cool enough to keep it from melting!  We passed a ton of hikers and lots of kids and dogs heading up the hill on this section of the hike.  Since the hill was also in the shade, it was a bit muddier than the trail we took to the top.  I thought our dog would start to get tired or slow down on this section, but she was so full of energy her leash actually gave me a bruise as she drug me down the mountain side!  When we reached the bottom of the loop it was still relatively early so we decided to head back a little further into the park and head to the Emory Falls Trail.  

 The spring house and a grill for cooking.  

The spring house and a grill for cooking.  

We were lucky enough to snag the last parking spot in the lot so we knew this trail would be even busier than the last.  The gentle grade and short distance make this hike popular!  We walked only half a mile before getting the view of our first waterfall - Debord Falls.  From here, it was supposed to only be half a mile up to Emory Falls, but we found it was closer to one mile.  The trail left the old road bed and went up on a rockier, eroded climb.  When we got to the top there were probably 50 or so people playing in the stream and photographing the waterfall.  It was nice to see so many people out and enjoying the day!  We had a quick and easy hike back out to the car. 

 Emory Falls with a teeny rainbow! 

Emory Falls with a teeny rainbow! 

Frozen Head State Park is definitely my favorite place in East Tennessee to hike with my dog.  The trails are challenging, and there are close to 50 miles of trails, and you don't usually have to deal with the traffic and crowds of heading up to the Smokies.  There are also backpacking campsites and primitive front country campsites and they're all really cheap!  If you're looking to spend some time in the mountains with your dog or if you just want to get away from the traffic and noise in the Smokies, I definitely recommend Frozen Head State Park.  

Hiking with South Pole - A Tuesday Adventure

On Monday afternoon I got a message over on my Facebook page from a friend I met on my Long Trail thru hike back in the summer of 2015.  South Pole thru hiked the AT in 2015 and then, after finishing, had decided she wanted more trail.  She came back down to Vermont to finish hiking the Long Trail.  We met her near the end of our hike, in Johnson, Vermont.  She and her friend Susan were working on "marking off their maps" - a term we use here in the Smokies for people who are trying to hike all the trails in the park.  She asked if I'd like to meet them for an easy hike on Tuesday and I jumped at the chance.  Often, my job as a hiking guide has me hiking very slowly and the opportunity to hike with other endurance hikers and runners makes me happy!

We met up at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and drove off for the Twin Creeks Trail trailhead.  We got the only parking spot at the trailhead due to being out so early.  It had been raining all morning until this point, so we were happy for a break in the rain!  I brought my favorite new piece of gear, my Gossamer Gear Liteflex Umbrella, and I credit the umbrella for keeping away the rain!  We hiked up a gentle grade on the Twin Creeks Trail, only getting our feet a little wet until crossing a stream before getting to the Ogle Cabin.  This beautiful old cabin has been maintained by the park service and is easy to access from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail!  We did a little bit of road walking before coming to our junction with the Old Sugarlands Trail.  

 A foggy and beautiful LeConte Creek in the early morning.  The water rushing past us only moments ago came down Rainbow Falls!

A foggy and beautiful LeConte Creek in the early morning.  The water rushing past us only moments ago came down Rainbow Falls!

I've been hiking on this trail recently, so I knew to expect some muddy spots.  This old road bed comes down from the Rainbow Falls hiker parking into a valley where settlers farmed and tapped sugar maples before a CCC camp came in during the Great Depression.  We passed a few gentlemen hiking the other way who were surprised to see people out hiking in the same dreary weather they were!  We hiked downhill on the gentle grade before coming to the split in the trail where you can head up to the old cemetery and site of the famous "stone house".   We walked past and explored the old site of the CCC camp clock tower before heading back down to the trailhead.  

 Susan and Sprinkles at the old CCC clock tower. 

Susan and Sprinkles at the old CCC clock tower. 

When we got back to the trailhead it was still relatively early, so we decided to hike the Gatlinburg Trail to mark it off the maps as well.  This out and back hike was very quick and lead to an 11.5 mile day completed in less than 4 hours.  

 South Pole, Susan, and Me - obligatory selfie!

South Pole, Susan, and Me - obligatory selfie!

While we were out on this hike we were able to see a few wild eatables - we tasted toothwort (a horseradish-like flavor), partridge berry (a small red berry that we didn't eat due to it being close to the side of a very busy trail), and little brown jug (a heart-shaped leaf that smells and tastes like ginger or sassafras root).  We also saw a small patch of witch butter and some very vibrant turkey tail mushrooms.  We even got lucky with a big patch of blue sky making an appearance for the end of our hike!

I have hiked these three trails many times before and it's often said this is the easiest "loop" hike in the park.  If you are hiking by yourself and looking for something more than 10 miles that won't take you all day, this is a great option.  You can park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center at the park headquarters.  Walk over to Old Sugarlands Trail and hike up to the Rainbow Falls Parking area.  Follow the road down to the Bud Ogle Cabin and get on the Twin Creeks Trail.  Hike this to the road and road walk down to stoplight #8 in Gatlinburg.  Stop at a restaurant for lunch on the way if you want!  Turn left at the light and walk down to the end of Gatlinburg, where you'll hop on the Gatlinburg Trail.  Follow the Gatlinburg Trail all the way back to the visitor center parking lot.  I've included a map below for making this a loop hike, along with the elevation profile. 

Have you ever hiked these trails in the Smokies? I'd love to chat with you about your favorite hiking trails.  Please leave me a comment below or find me over on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!

Snake Den Ridge Trail

Like most of the country, we got unexpectedly and unseasonably warm weather for most of the month of December.  Despite it being a few days after Christmas, we found ourselves itching to go hiking in the 75-degree weather - wearing shorts and t-shirts no less.  Since NoKey got a new camera for Christmas, we decided to take it for a spin on a trail with a few different and interesting things to see.  We chose the Snake Den Ridge Trail in Cosby and hiked up to the Appalachian Trail to see a plane wreckage site and an incredible view of Mt. Sterling to see the new camera in action. Snake Den Ridge Trail is not generally thought of for nice views or waterfalls or, well, really anything.  It's more of a connector trail in the park, leading you to the places you want to go. Since it was a nice weekend and right after Christmas, we chose it thinking it wouldn't be crowded with tourists and we chose right - we only saw four people the entire 12 miles we hiked.

 The foot bridge near the trailhead. 

The foot bridge near the trailhead. 

We began first by walking through the closed-for-the-season Cosby Campground back to the trailhead. The beginning of this trail is an old roadbed with a gentle grade for the first 1.5 miles or so. Just before leaving the road, you'll see an old cemetery off to the right. Now that we were nice and warmed up, we were able to shed some layers before heading up to the only creek crossings on the trail - the first on a beautiful new log bridge and the second a usually easy rock hop.  The high levels of rain we got in December made this one a little tricky, but we got across relatively dry.  Snake Den Ridge Trail climbs a little more steeply for the next mile before coming to a switchback where you can take in a beautiful view of Mt. Cammerer and the Cosby valley below us. We also started to see evidence of other hikers around this point - hard boiled egg shells littered the trail for approximately the next mile or so.  Now we were at about 4000 feet in elevation and the scenery began to change - the hemlock trees gave way to spruce and the trail began to level out.  We also saw three backpackers coming down from the AT.  After climbing a huge and recent blowdown, we reached our junction with the Appalachian Trail. 

 Crossing the stream. 

Crossing the stream. 

Once on the AT, we headed southbound for less than 1/10 of a mile before coming to the site of a 1984 F-4 plane crash.  The pilot slammed into the mountain and it's said that the explosion was heard as far away as Newport. After checking out the site, we headed up to the old Deer Creek Gap Helipad to soak in the views before needing to turn around.  We didn't get started hiking until 11 a.m. and it was now 2:30, so if we wanted to beat sunset, it was time to go!  When we got back down to the AT junction with Snake Den Ridge we met another dayhiker headed down the same direction we were headed.  He started all the way at Newfound Gap that morning and was headed down into the campground.  He had covered some serious mileage!  Our hike down was pretty uneventful other than the fact that during our unbridged stream crossing we both misstepped and ended up wet on one foot!

 The beautiful view from the top.  The ridge line is the Benton MacKaye Trail, our first summer thru hike in 2015.

The beautiful view from the top.  The ridge line is the Benton MacKaye Trail, our first summer thru hike in 2015.

We made it back to the parking lot by 4:45 p.m. and prepped for our drive home when it began to sprinkle.  Talk about great timing!  We followed up our hike with nachos and chicken wings.  Even though we didn't have time to get in major miles for the day, we called it a victory getting in a quick 12-mile, 4400-feet elevation gain hike. 

 NoKey at the top! 

NoKey at the top! 

An REI Adventure - Hiking the AT SoBo

My very first backpacking trip with my new job came as kind of a surprise.  I was in our office filling out my new hire paperwork and prepping to go out over the coming weekend when the office manager let us know that I couldn't get into the trip.  However, if I was flexible, I could leave the very next day on a trip with two other guides.  Wanting to jump in and start working right away, I decided to take the trip.  I headed directly from our office to the store to pick up my snacks and hardly slept with my mind anxious and excited. 

This easy and beautiful trip began after meeting our five wonderful clients and doing a shakedown of their packs before shuttling up to the highest point on the Appalachian Trail - Clingman's Dome.  It was in the 40s and windy when we arrived, not a view to be seen as the Dome was high in the clouds.  It was a short and easy three miles to our first campsite for the night at Double Spring Gap shelter.  I hadn't been here since my thru hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2012 and I hadn't actually ever slept in this shelter before.  We were the only people there for the night, but we had lots of other hikers pass through on their way south to Siler's Bald Shelter.  We had a great evening of getting to know our clients and stargazing before heading to bed.  

 Skies clearing near Clingman's Dome

Skies clearing near Clingman's Dome

Day two of our trip consisted of hiking up and over Silers Bald, now viewless, and southbound on the Appalachian Trail toward Derrick Knob Shelter.  While there weren't many views to be had on this section, the leaves had started to change and I got some great lessons in the history of the park as well as learned more about the plants growing on these hillsides in the Smoky Mountain high peaks.  The fall colors were starting to become more vibrant and the skies cleared to a beautiful blue for most of our walk today.  When we reached Derrick Knob Shelter, we shared it with a woman and her autistic son.  She is local to the area and began hiking as a way to help her son lose weight.  They were out on a three day hike to finish the AT in the park and have hiked nearly every trail in the Smokies.  We had a small campfire that night and spent time talking around the fire before heading to bed. 

 Witch Hobble changing to fall colors on the AT. 

Witch Hobble changing to fall colors on the AT. 

On the morning of day 3 we had an amazingly beautiful sunrise.  The AT was high in the clouds again, but the sky above was a beautiful shade of blue and made for some epic photos.  On this day we were able to take a solo hike, which gave us all time to reflect on our trip and spend some quality time walking the trail while lost in our own minds.  I love doing a solo hike on backpacking trips with a group.  The peace and quiet that come along with the feeling of being so small in the world can really help you walk off your worries.  We all came back together before making the climb up to Thunderhead and Rocky Top.  Both summits were in the clouds this day, but we spent some time at Rocky Top anyway where we were rewarded with some breaktaking views any time the clouds broke for a moment.  We walked on to our destination for the evening at Spence Field Shelter.  For dinner tonight, we hiked our food up to Spence Field (the place) to watch the sun set over the horizon with fabulous views of Fontana Lake.  The skies had cleared to allow for some wonderful vistas. 

 Clouds breaking on Rocky Top

Clouds breaking on Rocky Top

The fourth day of the trip came quickly and we had a short hike down to our cars at the Cades Cove pavilion.  While we only had 5 miles to walk, we took our time and walked slowly.  This morning we got to see different plant life from what we had been walking through on the AT - we even tasted some yellow birch bark and sourwood tree leaves.  We ended our morning by learning about ring-necked snakes and seeing two small doe near a creek at the campground. We were very lucky to have nice weather the entire time without any rain and said our goodbyes at the pavilion. 

 Sunset from Spence Field. 

Sunset from Spence Field. 

I really enjoyed my first trip as a training guide with REI Adventures.  I can't wait to take another trip on the AT and share my love of the trail with anyone who will listen!

Day 21 - Long Trail

We finally arrived at our last four miles on the Long Trail!  Since we only had 4.4 miles to hike to the Canadian border this morning we slept in and got a late start, 8:30!  We began the day like every other day in Vermont mostly, by walking up a rock slab to a mud pit,  this one being directly behind Shooting Star shelter.  We had half a mile to walk up Burnt Mountain, which wasn't named very recently we had decided since it was lush, green, and VERY muddy and wet!  There was a small view to the west, but we had our eyes on the prize and were ready to get finished with the trail.  We practically ran downhill to North Jay Pass and our final road crossing. 

After stumbling around on the road for a few minutes looking for the trail, which is ALWAYS better marked for SoBo's for whatever reason, we found our trail and began a short climb up our final hill - Carleton Mountain.  The trail was pretty easy at this point, only getting steep in that special Vermont way once or twice.  I let out a huge victory yell at the top and even danced the Carlton, just because.  On our way back downhill, we ran back into Neo and started hiking with him.  It was clear at this point Vermont wasn't going to get us go without a fight - lots of mud pits with only a few branches haphazardly thrown in for our attempts to cross them.  We had been walking with Neo for about half an hour when we came around a bend and Neo just exclaimed "Oh my God, FINALLY!"   We had reached the wooden sign proclaiming the northern terminus of the Long Trail!  We took photos of each other and then headed up the trail a few more feet to the obelisk at the Canadian border.  We took a long time here until a group of SoBo's showed up.  Now is when the real adventure began!

 Another thru hike in the books! 

Another thru hike in the books! 

Before getting back to the main road, we had to first walk a half mile downhill to Journey's End shelter, where the entire valley smelled like a rotting animal corpse - including the water!  Once passing the camp, the trail turned into an old road bed and we walked 3/4 of a mile to the parking area.  There were only three cars here, none of them with people, and we knew we would be road walking.  We walked with Neo for the 1.2 miles of Journey's End Road, passing occasional homes or winter cabins.  When we were getting close to the intersection of Journey's End and North Jay Road I heard a car approaching.  I ran as fast as I could with my thumb up to the intersection and reached it just as the truck was passing.  He stopped and told NoKey and me he could take us to Jay.  Neo was headed the other direction, to North Troy, and would have to continue to walk.  

 I'm here! 

I'm here! 

We rode to Jay and the man took us all the way to Route 100, which is where we decided to go so we could get to our car back in Killington.  We were picked up by another man from Tennessee who was on his way to Maine.  He turned around to pick us up and took us down to Troy.  We got another ride from Troy down to Westfield.  It took about 40 minutes in Westfield to get another ride, this time from Ryan from NYC with his young daughter.  He laughed that his wife had no idea what he was out doing today and that if she knew he was picking up hitchhikers she'd be pretty upset!  He dropped us off at the crossroad for Lowell, which is the road you take to get to Hazen's Notch.  Brittany picked us up next.  She was going to drop us off further down on Route 100, but thought we'd have an easier time getting picked up on Route 7, which is where Rutland is.  She took us all the way to downtown Burlington. 

 The Journey's End! 

The Journey's End! 

From Burlington we had planned on taking the bus to Rutland.  We stopped for tacos and then walked around downtown, as it was Saturday afternoon and there was a lot going on.  We were pretty dirty and carrying backpacks, so we elicited a few stares!  We got to the bus station and were informed there is no bus to Rutland and the woman couldn't even tell us how to get to Route 7, so we googled and walked our way there.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of urban sprawl in Burlington and that's bad news for hitchhiking.  NoKey went into a gas station to make us a sign that said "hikers heading south" and the sign worked like a charm.  We were picked up by a couple who took us to the outskirts of the sprawl and then picked up by a guy who was heading back into New York.  When he dropped us off, we were back on country roads again. 

 The end of a long and rewarding trip. 

The end of a long and rewarding trip. 

From here, we were picked up by Walker, a young guy who recently put the new roof on the Inn at Long Trail and was headed to a music festival in Middlebury.  He took us all the way to the outer edges of Middlebury where we were picked up pretty quick by a guy headed to Rutland.  After talking with him for a few minutes about wild mushrooms, IPA's, and even dogs, he decided to give us a ride all the way to our car in Wallingford.  We reached our car at 6:30 after hitchhiking for 7 hours.  We headed up to the Inn at Long Trail to camp on the lawn for the night.  We were hoping for a shower also, but no such luck.  Thankfully, we had brought a bag from home with clean clothes and even some deodorant!  We headed inside to have celebratory beers and dinner with some other hikers and live music.  We fell asleep to the sounds of traffic on Route 4 at Sherburne Pass.  A fitting end to a hell of a journey!

Day 20- Long Trail

We woke up to heavy rains at around 4 am and the rains stayed heavy most of the morning.  The young guys headed south at about 6:30 while NoKey, Southpaw, and myself stayed in bed until around 7:15.  We got up and cooked hot breakfasts and sat around talking until about 9 am, when the rain had slowed and we finally headed out.  We had several climbs this morning over three small peaks before finally getting to Domey's Dome. It was around 11 and we were both out of energy and decided to stop for an early lunch break.  Afterward we continued downhill steeply, slipping and sliding down wet rocks and roots only to land in mud puddles.  Whatever dried out the past few days definitely was wet again thanks to the downpour last night and this morning.  On our descent down into Jay Pass the sun and blue skies finally made an appearance we we thought we might actually get a view on Jay Peak after all!

 So close! 

So close! 

When we got to the pass and then began climbing up Jay we weren't sure what to expect.  We knew it would be a 2000-foot climb up to the top but we also knew this was a pretty popular mountain, so we were hoping for trail maintenance!  The footing on this trail turned out to be pretty good.  The grade wasn't nearly as steep as the shorter peaks we climbed this morning and there was good drainage built in to the trail.  We headed up to a ski slope and hiked parallel to it for about a quarter mile before being deposited out onto a platform to cross the slope.  We could have just taken the slope up, but instead our trail went up and over some steep rocks.  I was motivated by hunger and ran up quickly, making it to the top by 1:30.  We stopped and had lunch and talked to a few people before deciding to look for some water.  It turns out there is a restaurant and bathrooms up there too for the people who ride up on the sky tram, so we went inside and charged our phones, had beer and ice cream, and filled our water.

 NoKey hiking down Jay Peak. 

NoKey hiking down Jay Peak. 

 

We walked down a ski slope for a while before heading back Into the woods and being deposited back out onto the same ski slope.  This time we saw a shirtless, shoeless man pulling a stroller behind him up the ski slope.  With a French accent he asked us how much further to the top.  He had apparently pulled the baby all the way up from the bottom!  It was very strange.  We then went back into the woods and headed to Laura Woodward shelter.  We talked to the people there for a quick minute before heading up and over Doll Peak to Shooting Star shelter. 

 Directional signage on Jay Peak

Directional signage on Jay Peak

The 4.3 miles to this shelter went quickly, although the terrain was pretty nasty.  The mud was so stagnant and thick over here that it was growing mold and moss.  Some mud pits were so thick your trekking pole would sink nearly to the handle. Staying upright was pretty important!  We reached our shelter only to find the water here was a stagnant puddle in a leaf pit.  It was kind of a bummer for our final night on the trail.  It was only NoKey, me, and a guy named Neo at the shelter and we all hit the bed by 8 pm.  A pretty lame last night on trail.  Tomorrow is only 4.4 miles to the border!

Day 19 - Long Trail

We woke up to gray skies this morning, but we had heard the rain was supposed to hold off until much later tonight, so we got an early start to get in our 14.5 miles.  We began by hiking down to Devil's Gulch, which was the inspiration for the Mahoosic Notch on the AT.  Fortunately enough for us, this was only about 500 yards of boulder jumbles  instead of a mile!  We only had a short uphill section before reaching the road at Eden Crossing. Now our day was about to get tougher!

 Hiking through Devil's Gulch! Yes, this is the trail  

Hiking through Devil's Gulch! Yes, this is the trail  

 

From the road we had a 2000-foot climb up to the peak of Belvedere, which began gentle enough on old mining roads - there was an asbestos mine here in the early 20th century.  About 20 minutes in the climb gradually got steeper before coming out on the peak, where there was a fire tower.  We didn't head up the tower as we were still thinking it might rain, so we kept going north toward Lockwood Pond and the Tillotson shelter.  We had lunch before we began climbing and descending a series of small peaks in the afternoon.

 Lockwood Pond

Lockwood Pond

 

After the Tillotson shelter, the trail changed dramatically.  We are now in the dreaded section 12 of the Long Trail, which doesn't really get a lot of love or maintenance.  The trail, even though the rain has been gone for a few days now, was deep with mud and brush.  There was a surprising amount of undergrowth for a forest this far north in the U.S.  Our pace slowed quite a bit and by the time we reached the top of Haystack Mountain, we were thoroughly exhausted.  We had an incredibly steep decent to Hazen's Notch on wet rocks where we actually climbed down backwards to avoid falling.  When we got to the bottom, a very kind person left bottles of water with the sign "Thirsty?? help yourself!" so we happily did!

 
 Trail magic! 

Trail magic! 

We only had a mile and a half left of our day to the Hazen's Notch Camp and we made it before 4:30. There were three other thru hikers here, southbounders.  As the evening wore on, a family of five showed up and another NoBo hiker as well. We hungrily ate two dinners by a campfire until the rain set in.  It is supposed to rain all night and until about noon tomorrow, so we might be calling it a short day.  We are only 17.2 miles from Canada, so we are getting pretty excited!

Day 18- Long Trail

We left town early thanks to Dave from Nye's B&B.  We had an epic breakfast of blueberry pancakes, sausage, eggs, juice, and real coffee! Powered on town food we began our first ascent to Prospect Rock and, just before hitting the top, we saw a blog follower - Ingrid.  We talked trail for a few minutes before heading back up the trail to Roundtop shelter.  Even though it was earlier than 10 am we had already been sweating buckets!  We began our descent to Post Road before beginning our next climb to Laraway Mountain.

 Heaven on earth! 

Heaven on earth! 

 

The footing was good and the trail was in great shape, so getting up and over this mountain went pretty quick.  We got to the Corliss Camp very early in the day and decided we should at least attempt to push on toward Spruce Ledge to get an early start on the rain predicted for tomorrow. 

On our way up Butternut Mountain we ran into a few small groups of college students and chatted with them before finally making it up.  We had three false summits, but the climb was pretty easy:  the fact that the mud is starting to dry up due to the hot temperatures definitely helped also.  We crossed some great snowmobile trails and had more good footing all the way to Bowen Mountain, actually following old roads and nice trails most of the way.  We made it to the Spruce Ledge shelter and camped for the night with another group of college students and two older guys doing a section hike.  

 Crossing the Lamomille River! 

Crossing the Lamomille River! 

The college students played some word games and offered us hot chocolate before bed, which was a very nice gesture.  We all crashed before 8:30, falling asleep to the sounds of loons on the pond below us.

Day 17 - Long Trail

We only had 7.5 miles to town, but we had no idea how long those 7.5 miles would take.  Vermont miles seem to be longer than regular miles sometimes!  We left camp at about 7:30, promising to see Redwood and Slowpoke in Johnson.  We immediately began the 0.4-mile ascent of Whiteface in the hot and humid morning sun.  I actually got spiderwebs all over me, and even a spider in my mouth at one point... So to see the top of the mountain couldn't come soon enough!  Drenched in sweat before 8 am, we reached the top and began an immediate and steep descent back down the other side. 

 This blaze looks like it is falling off the other blaze... Which is how we get down off the mountains. 

This blaze looks like it is falling off the other blaze... Which is how we get down off the mountains. 

When we had gone about 2 miles, the terrain eased up on us a little and became more gentle.  By the time we reached Bear Hollow shelter, we had begun following old roadbeds.  The GMC should take note of how nice these trails were.  Water bars and proper drainage and footing made for fast and easy miles for us this morning.  These trails are obviously snowmobile or cross country ski trails.  There is no way The LT would make a trail this nice!  We crossed some large bridges and an active log staging area before being deposited on an actual roadbed.  From here it was a mere 1.5 miles to town! 

We got to Vermont 15 at only 10:15 and threw our thumbs up to get into Johnson.  Within 10 minutes we had a ride and went to the store for a resupply.  We stocked up on food and grabbed some Chinese food for lunch.  We also had noticed there was an outdoors store just outside town, so I ran in and bought the only two pairs of PhD Smartwool socks they had in stock- in my size and the style I normally hike with!  It was such good luck they had socks for me.  Wearing a pair of NoKey's was going to be tough for the next few days to be sure. 

We got picked up by the kind people at Nye's B&B.  They did our laundry and we took cold showers to escape the humid and hot 90-degree day.  We ate junk food and checked our messages before heading out for dinner.  I had a huge Thanksgiving Dinner plate and NoKey had a London Broil.  We also got to see Redwood and Slowpoke in town! 

 The lovely 215-year-old farm we are staying at tonight. 

The lovely 215-year-old farm we are staying at tonight. 

Our gear and bodies are cleaned up for the final stretch of the trail!  Based on trail conditions I am thinking it will take 3.5 days of hiking to finish the trail.  The shelters are spaced apart just a little too far for a feasible hiking day and there is rain in the forecast soon.  We are hoping for cooler temps soon! 

 A few more of the farm buildings at Nye Valley Farm. 

A few more of the farm buildings at Nye Valley Farm. 

Day 16 - Long Trail

We got to sleep in this morning since we were planning a shorter day, only 9 miles, to help us recover from the last two killer days we hiked.  We packed up and got moving at 8 a.m. instead of our usual 7-7:30 start time.  We could have stayed at Taft Lodge a whole day if it had rocking chairs, but it was time to move on.  

 Taft Lodge with The Chin of Mount Mansfield in the background. Slowpoke and Redwood are in the photo here. 

Taft Lodge with The Chin of Mount Mansfield in the background. Slowpoke and Redwood are in the photo here. 

We began with our descent down to Smuggler's Notch with a surprising number of day hikers heading up Mansfield.  It was already incredibly humid and the air was hot and stagnant.  We hiked/climbed down 1.7 miles and were pouring sweat all the way to the bottom.  After initially getting lost and then finding the trail again, we headed up our biggest climb of the day, Elephant's Head.   

 Climbing up more stairs and ladders this morning!  

Climbing up more stairs and ladders this morning!  

We finally reached what we assumed to be the top because our profile map showed a nice level walk to Sterling Pond.  We still had a lot more climbing to do, however, before being deposited out onto yet another ski run before we reached Sterling Pond.  We had planned on an afternoon siesta at this lovely, secluded alpine pond, but when we arrived at 11 am on a Monday it was packed.  There were easily 40 people on the tiny beach.  We thankfully found a caretaker and asked if there was someplace more secluded we could go and he pointed us in the direction of a more private beach.  We walked to the private area and took a swim and did our laundry.  We had lunch and shortly Redwood and Slowpoke joined us for our private thruhiker party.  

 Ahhh, the peace and serenity of rural northern Vermont! Haha

Ahhh, the peace and serenity of rural northern Vermont! Haha

We decided to head up the trail around 2:15, having thoroughly dried our gear and clothes.  We had a really tough climb up to Madonna Peak, which to our surprise was yet another ski mountain!  We took a break in the shade of the chair lift before doing a steep descent down yet another ski trail (a triple black diamond route... I didn't even know that was a thing!)  this is where NoKey took an incredibly nasty fall.  NoKey falls a few times every day, but this one really made him into a bloody mess.  Our trail here is riddled with wet rocks as switchbacks aren't a thing here.  In the northeast, Putting your trail on rocks is the preferred method to making it "durable" for who knows what reason.  We took a break to clean him up and then headed back up a smaller peak to the WhIteface shelter.

 The view of Madonna Peak and the Nose of Mansfield from the Whiteface shelter. 

The view of Madonna Peak and the Nose of Mansfield from the Whiteface shelter. 

We met a SoBo named Professor Stromboli and Slowpoke and Redwood joined us in the shelter for the night.  We had one of my favorite nights in camp on any trail I've ever hiked.  Good conversation and beautiful views made for a wonderful night.  The stars came out bright and beautiful with a view of the Milky Way becoming the crown jewel of the evening.  

Day 15 - Long Trail

This morning started out on a bad note, being that I discovered I didn't have any other socks.  Somehow I left my two clean pair back at the motel in Waitsfield a few days back.  NoKey gave me his clean pair and off we went. First though, we had to climb up and out of the Buchanan shelter the 0.3 we climbed down last night.  Our first climb on the trail for the day was up Bolton Mountain and it was tough and muddy.  We had about 4 miles to the Puffer shelter and we made it in about 3 hours.  The climb down the notch into Puffer was the hardest part with many of the rocks being wet and mossy.  The Puffer shelter is perched on the side of a cliff face and must have a stunning view of the valley, but we were mostly in the clouds.  

 Oh, this is Vermont? 

Oh, this is Vermont? 

 

From here we did some more climbing  down before we had to begin going back up and over Mt. Mayo and Mt. Clark, passing a pond and climbing down a ladder before stopping at Taylor Lodge for lunch.  We also met a couple here we stayed with last night and had been trying to catch because we found one of their shirts laying in the mud up on Bolton.  

 

 The weather is starting to clear! 

The weather is starting to clear! 

 

After lunch the trail turned surprisingly nice and easily walkable for a while, about 1.5 miles, until we reached the Twin Brooks campsite.  It was a short 1.3 miles to Butler Lodge from here, but it became much steeper and wet again as we got a little closer.  We finally reached the trail junction and sat down for a long and needed break.  We also met the new caretaker for the lodge who was pretty excited to be there.

 

Now is when the fun starts- going up and over Mt. Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont.  We were already tired, but we were determined to have a good view so we went up!  The first 0.9 miles were extremely tough.  We climbed through the Needle Eye and then began climbing up The Forehead.  We first climbed down ladder, then began bouldering up before crossing a plank across a ravine.  Then, four more ladders and some more bouldering.  There were blueberries growing all along the trail for snacking along the way.  We finally reached the summit of The Forehead and had awesome views of the Nose and The Chin! 

 

 This is how climbing the forehead looked for 0.8 miles

This is how climbing the forehead looked for 0.8 miles

 

We passed the visitor's center near The Nose summit and the caretakers gave us some peppermint patties!  They told us the climb isn't too bad and we headed up the 1.7 miles to the view top at The Chin.  It was a lot like being up on Katahdin above tree line, so the climb wasn't as strenuous.  We reached the top and took off our socks and shoes to dry on the warm rocks in the sun.  We sat up there for nearly 2 hours taking photos and talking to people.  A nice woman even gave us some delicious raw milk cheese to snack on!  After drying out and deciding we were hungry, we climbed down the half mile to the Taft Lodge.

This shelter is legit!  It's entirely indoors with windows.  We are staying with Slowpoke and Redwood, an older man, and a young couple, all of us LT thru hikers.  The caretaker also handed out cheese crackers with dinner.  It's been an amazing night and we are exhausted.  It was the longest 14.4 mile day I've ever hiked!

 The Nose of Mansfield

The Nose of Mansfield

 Climbing down actually means CLIMBING! 

Climbing down actually means CLIMBING! 

 The stunning view from The Chin, the highest peak in Vermont

The stunning view from The Chin, the highest peak in Vermont

Day 14 - Long Trail

 

We woke up to a dry morning with threat of thunderstorms all day long.  We are a quick breakfast and left with Dave, Simba, and Bernard to head up and over Camel's Hump.  It was only 1.9 miles to the summit from our campsite, but it was by no means easy!  The caretaker from the shelter passed us a little way in, making the boulder hop look easy.  We all reached the bad weather bypass about the same time.  NoKey, Simba, and I opted for that trail while Bernard and Dave went for the regular summit.  It was thundering the entire time and we were socked in by fog.  The bad weather bypass, however, was by no means any easier or safer.  We had to butt-slide down moss covered rocks and through mud, and even across exposed rock face.  When we came back around to the regular Long Trail we took a short break with Dave.  This was when we realized NoKey lost his pack cover, which is a pretty important piece of gear in the Vermont rain!

 This trail wasn't any easier! 

This trail wasn't any easier! 

 

We hiked for about another hour across exposed rock and through bogs and mud and swamp.  We thankfully only had to climb down one ladder on this downhill!  We passed the Bamforth shelter and then the trail finally chilled out a little.  We had a view down to the Winooski River and across to Stimpson Mountain.  We made it down to the parking lot and got some of the best trail magic I can imagine.  We met Rich while he was riding his bike.  We threw up our thumbs to hitchhike and asked if he was going to Waterbury, which got a laugh.  He came back by a few minutes later and asked why we were going.  We explained NoKey's pack cover situation and he said he would come back in about half an hour with his car and take us to get a new one.  He took us to CC Outdoors where we get a new cover, to the store for a soda, and back to the Long Trail!  We couldn't have met a better person; he helped us out tremendously!

 Looking back at the Hump

Looking back at the Hump

 

From here, we began walking the new portion of the LT, across the Winooski and up a road before heading up Stimpson Mountain.  The climb was long and we were very tired, but eventually we made it to the junction of the trail and Buchanan Shelter.  Unfortunately for us the shelter was 0.3 miles DOWNHILL from the trail.  It was a steep, eroded, muddy mess but the shelter itself is amazing. We are camping with two other LT thru hikers and a couple from Norwich doing a section hike.  Thankfully the weather is looking good for Mansfield tomorrow, the highest peak in Vermont.

 Hanging at the fancy new trailhead! 

Hanging at the fancy new trailhead!