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?

Smokies Wildfires - What It's Like to be Here Now

This post was really rough for me to write - not because of the content, but because I'm honestly just so tired.  It's been over a week since the wildfires struck the town of Gatlinburg.  With all the misinformation and jumbled messages out there, I wanted to put it all in one place.  I've had so many people - former clients, friends, old thru hiking buddies, and even total strangers - emailing me and asking how to help.  Here is my experience in the Gatlinburg area in the past week with some links to legitimate ways to help out.  

A photo of the former Driftwood Apartments in front of the Park Vista Hotel (taken by NoKey)

A photo of the former Driftwood Apartments in front of the Park Vista Hotel (taken by NoKey)

A lot of people assume these fires all started on Monday last week, but that's actually not true.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you might recall my last backpacking trip of the season had to end a day early due to wildfire.  In early November I was actually walking directly into a fire outside of Franklin, NC.  The following weekend NoKey and I took a hiking trip and we were very close to another fire outside of Robbinsville, NC.  Basically, from the end of October until this very moment wildfires have been ravaging the drought-stricken Southeastern US.  In the Smokies, we are officially down more than 13 inches of rain for the year.  This doesn't sound like a lot, but when you take into consideration that we in the Smokies are actually considered a temperate rainforest and our springs were running dry in the high elevations, it was the perfect set of conditions for a fire.  

I took this picture the first week of November after physically walking up on the fire.

I took this picture the first week of November after physically walking up on the fire.

While the fires were spreading throughout the region the air quality became very poor here.  Some days when I would go out to lead a hike you could smell the smoke in the air and you'd get massive headaches just from being outside.  Some days it looked as thick as fog.  We had nothing to worry about then - the fires were upwards of 50 miles away and across a giant lake.  Then, November 23rd, 2016, a fire broke out on the Chimney Tops here in the Smokies.  It has been proven at this point this fire was deliberately set.  In fact, 79% of the fires in the southeast that have been burning have been proven to be arson.  With the severe drought in place, the southeast has become an actual tinderbox.  On Monday, November 28th, many of us in the area knew something was very, VERY wrong.  The smoke in the air was incredibly thick.  There was an eerie yellow glow.  Many downtown Gatlinburg businesses locked up early due to the shops and restaurants filling with smoke.  By 2 p.m., the press conference told people there was another fire behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center - less than 2 miles from town.  We were told not to worry.  However, there were strong storms coming into the area that night.  Strong storms bring with them strong winds.  By 5 p.m. the winds had begun to gust and we were seeing gusts up to 91 mph.  By 7 p.m. chaos began to erupt.  It was being reported that the dry ground and winds were causing the fires to spread at 30 feet per minute and evacuations were  starting.  Traffic was snarled.  The videos started pouring in on our Facebook feeds of people driving through flames on Ski Mountain.  

Downtown on Monday before the fires spread.

Downtown on Monday before the fires spread.

The eerie yellow glow. 

The eerie yellow glow. 

From our house, which was also starting to fill with smoke and was not near any fires, we were watching Gatlinburg catch fire.  We were glued to social media trying to figure out how to help and what we could do.  We helplessly watched as friends were fleeing their homes and learning what was supposedly on fire.  We would learn a week later that more than 1700 buildings were destroyed and 14 people would be left dead.  My friend and coworker, Sam, who was 8 months pregnant, lost her home and went into labor a few days later.  Many people living in the neighborhoods destroyed were immigrants who speak no English and are left with absolutely nothing.  So many people lost everything and we had to help. 

Appalachian Folks have a way of helping their own in need.  Now, a week after the fires, they're begging people to stop donating physical items like clothing and bottled water.  We ran out of places to store the items and we can't get them delivered to the people who need them most.  Dolly Parton set up the My People Fund, a foundation that gives 100% of the money raised to victims of the fire to get them back on their feet.  Local charities, like Crib Connection, have been getting in touch with people via social media to help them get the items they need.  The Volunteer Spirit is alive and well in East Tennessee.  We are far from in the clear, however.  Over the next week we need approximately 2000 volunteers to help us sort and deliver supplies to families in need.  We are desperately in need of translators who can speak Spanish to help those who can't communicate with local hospitals and clinics.  We need diapers and formula for those living in the shelters.  We need toys for the kids.  

Below you'll find a few links.  If you're in the area we would love to see you out volunteering.  If you're not in the area and want to help, please see the first link below to the Mountain Tough website.

Finally, this is the Go Fund Me for my friends Sam, Junior, and new baby Abbie.  These are the most generous, sweetest people I know and they definitely need a hand.

Thank you, THANK YOU to each and every one of you who reached out during this terrible time.  Seeing all the emails from you guys just warmed my heart.  

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!

Sunday Runday - Week 5 of Marathon Training

I don't know how the weather looks where you're at right now, but here in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains the weather has been looking better each day this week!  While earlier in the week running felt like it was a bust, later the temperatures rose and the sun made an appearance to round out an active week in training.  Here's how it went: 

Monday - Active rest day.  I took the day off after my long 12-miler the day before, mostly because it seems like I've been reading a LOT lately about the importance of truly resting your muscles leading into a race week.  I did a Yin Yoga class by Leslie Fightmaster and made sure to foam roll twice today. 

Tuesday - Total Adrenaline (NTC - 30 min.) It was spitting rain all day long today and wasn't much more than freezing.  I chose to skip my run and stay indoors for cross-training instead.  I followed it with a slow vinyasa yoga video. 

Wednesday - 7 miles.  I took a new running route today and made a loop on what our city calls a Greenway.  It is what most other places would call a sidewalk on the side of a busy 6-lane road.  The smells of the car exhaust for 7 miles was kind of obnoxious, but I ended up running strong and pulled off negative splits, so I'm very happy!

A good and easy run! 

A good and easy run! 

Thursday - 7 miles.  After running with the traffic the day before, I went back to my old faithful running path.  It was chilly, but my legs felt incredibly strong despite running just the day before.  

Friday - hiking 9.5 miles.  I took my friend Shannon hiking for the very first time on this gorgeous sunny day!  She had the day off and had never been hiking, so we did not one, but TWO hikes!  We hiked up to Courthouse Rock and Qulliams Falls before deciding we hadn't had quite enough trail and did a second off-trail hike to the stone house in the Sugarlands.  I'm so incredibly proud of my friend for being a bad ass and pulling off so many miles!

Saturday - hiking 4 miles.  Today I had hiking guide training in the Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The hiking today was what we describe at our company as "hideously slow." And I mean it.  It took us nearly 6 hours to complete an incredibly easy 2 mile hike during the morning.  We did a lot of interpretation and had a short lunch break before tackling a second trail - this one went much quicker as we didn't want to lose any daylight!

Even with temps in the high 50s for a few days, the ice from Jonas is still sticking around! 

Even with temps in the high 50s for a few days, the ice from Jonas is still sticking around! 

Sunday - hiking 4.5-5 miles.  Another day of hiking guide training means I didn't have time to get in my 9-mile taper long run this weekend.  I was hoping to have the time after training, but it has been running long, unfortunately.  I did get to see some new parts of the trail and a really cool cave, and of course I got to spend the day outside when the temperature was in the high 50's and the sun was shining all day.  

Well, even though I didn't get in the running miles I'd hoped, I was active all week.  How is your training going?  Do you have any events coming up soon? 

Women's Running Community

Our Last REI Adventure - NoBo on the Appalachian Trail

Our final REI Adventure of the season was finally happening!  November 1-4 I spent out on the Appalachian Trail with six clients and another guide, Blue.  Throwing a wrench into our hike was not only the fact that is is now November and the weather is much more unpredictable, but also the time change occurred the night before this trip.  This means that now instead of getting dark at 6:30 or so, the darkness would set in the woods around 5 p.m.  Thankfully, we had a great group of clients who trusted in our instincts and let us run a little wild with our trip planning. 

After doing our general pack shakedowns and picking out our meals for the trip, we shuttled up and into another part of the Smokies.  Our hike for the day originally had us hiking 5.5 miles from the insanely busy Newfound Gap Parking lot, hiking mostly downhill to Kephart Prong Shelter.  Since it was already 1:30, Blue and I took the decision to park down the hill at the Kephart Prong trailhead and hike in the two relatively easy miles to the shelter, only gaining approximately 850 feet along the way.  This decision turned out to be better for a variety of reasons - Blue had never seen this part of the trail before and there were tons of wild eatables, including Toothwort (tastes like horseradish), black birch, partridge berry, and stinging nettle to name a few.  We got to take our time to get to know each other and taste a variety of wild plants on our hike.  This also got us to the shelter earlier, meaning we still had some daylight hours to let people look around and take time to learn the bear line system in the park before dark.  Blue built us all a fire and we got a chance to get to know each other a little better as darkness, and eventually the rain predicted, fell throughout the night. 

The next morning, day 2, we awoke to rain, but we knew there was a 90% chance of it all day long.  This turned out to be absolutely true.  We left the shelter for our hike up the Grassy Branch Trail and the steady drizzle turned into a heavier sprinkle before turning into a full on downpour.  We steadily climbed throughout the morning before coming to the Dry Slucie Gap trail.  Dry Slucie is not how I'd describe our morning at all!  The trail had turned into a stream and we were all thoroughly soaked before we made the 1.3-mile trek to the AT at Porters Gap.  When we got onto the AT the temperature had seemed to drop by about 15 degrees.  Thanks to being on the ridgeline the winds were whipping up the North Carolina side of the hill and blowing right through us.  Now wet and cold, we kept moving as much as we possibly could before stopping for lunch on the warm side of the hill.  We climbed through the Sawteeth, down into False Gap, and up to Bradley view with few moments for stopping and interpretation due to all of us being soaked and cold.  From Bradley View, which we saw none of in the thick cloud cover and fog, we had a quick push up and over Laurel Top before heading down to Peck's Corner.  Blue and I were so grateful for having a strong crew of hikers who kept smiling despite the terrible weather. 

Rhododendron tunnel hiking on a rainy morning. 

Rhododendron tunnel hiking on a rainy morning. 

After getting to Pecks, the rain continued and I made three trips down the hill in the slippery mud for water.  The third trip was unplanned, but necessary due to me spilling our entire 9 liter water bucket on my shoes.  Good thing it was already raining!  Thankfully, while I was getting water and heating water for everyone to have some warm drinks, our awesome guide Blue was out fetching firewood.  Thanks to some Wetfire (an awesome firestarter!), Blue was able to get a crazy warm and huge fire started in the indoor fireplace.  After all the clients went to bed, I stayed up and dried my clothes, rain gear, and socks in front of the fireplace before calling it a night. 

Fog rolling up the mountain. 

Fog rolling up the mountain. 

Day 3 saw the end of the rain and Blue and I kept hoping we could wish the clouds away.  We tried hanging around in the shelter until 10 a.m. to get everyone a view and some blue skies, but it just never happened.  We started our hike up and out of Peck's Corner and back to the AT in the same damp and dreary weather we had seen the day before.  The wind, however, was thankfully absent from our trip today!  We climbed up to Eagle Rocks, where again we had not too much in the way of views, and began the highlight of any trip - our solo hike.  I hiked all the way to Copper Gap before stopping because I had seen a glimpse of blue skies and sunshine.  It unfortunately didn't last, but we all had gotten a moment of sunshine and a little bit of blue sky.  After we all ate our lunch and hiked on, I mentally prepared everyone for our last push of the day up Mt. Chapman.  Imagine my surprise when, after all the psyching up, we actually ended up being at the shelter, having already climbed the mountain and not noticing!

A rare minute of sunshine on day 3! 

A rare minute of sunshine on day 3! 

We spent the night at Tricorner Knob and slowly, the shelter began to fill.  Nick and his wife, who actually read this blog, had come in from Icewater Springs and slowly five SoBo thru hikers came in for the night.  The SoBo's got some trail magic from our group in the form of food none of us ever cared to finish eating and in return taught some of our clients a card game.  We again had a fire and during the course of the evening, the sky had cleared and we had amazing views of the stars with a little bit of Milky Way action!

A foggy start. 

A foggy start. 

Our last morning, day 4, brought clearing skies and the views we had hoped for the entire trip.  We stopped to take a ton of photos and by the time we reached the Deer Creek Gap helipad we had some beautiful scenery.  Blue and I decided to take our crew down the Snakeden Ridge Trail to give our clients more miles on this warm and sunny day.  We had a brutal 4080-foot descent, but we reached the campground at 3:30 p.m.  We were so lucky to have a strong and amazing group of clients to lead on our last trip of the season.  

Day 20 - Benton MacKaye Trail

Our last day is finally here!!  Everyone was up and moving around at 7:30 and we were in a hurry to get moving.  Even though the forecast predicted rain, we woke up to sunshine and we were in a race with the weather.  Mt. Sterling, the highest point on the BMT at more than 5800 feet, was waiting for us and I wanted NoKey to get the view I think is the best in the Smokies.  We did a quick 5.8 miles in less than 2.5 hours to get to the top by 10:45 am.  We were definitely rewarded! 

Looking at the AT from Mt Sterling on a nearly perfectly clear morning! 

Looking at the AT from Mt Sterling on a nearly perfectly clear morning! 

From here, we got a few texts out to my family to let them know we would be done by 1:30 and shot off down Baxter Creek Trail for a 4000-foot elevation loss down to Big Creek Campground. 

Finally! We won't be walking in horse poo!! 

Finally! We won't be walking in horse poo!! 

We made it down the hill in 2 hours and finished the trail at 1:20 pm.  There were tons of people picnicking in the day use area, so we were able to get a photo of the two of us together at the terminus of the BMT with my homemade sign.  It was a great feeling to have sunny skies to finish this tough trail. 

We did it! 

We did it! 

I will be writing a recap of the BMT in a few days and sharing it with you all.  This trail had three very distinct sections, broken up every 100 miles or so.  It feels great to be back home in a temperature controlled environment with comfy beds, but two more trails await us this summer! 

Day 19 - Benton MacKaye Trail

It rained all night and finally tapered off just around sunrise.  We got out of the tent at about 7:50 and wiped everything down as best we could before setting out for, on paper, looked to be a tough day.  We began by climbing to the top of Hughes Ridge and meeting the Enloe Creek trail for a few miles before finally heading back downhill.  The trails were slick, but in great shape considering the weather.  We forded Enloe Creek and NoKey actually managed to rock hop the whole thing!  We passed a few pretty cascades before coming to campsite 47 and beginning our next climb. 

A beautiful waterfall in the remote Smokies Backcountry. 

A beautiful waterfall in the remote Smokies Backcountry. 

The next climb to Beech Gap Trail started steep, but leveled out near the top giving us a much needed break. Towards the top of this 5000-foot peak we were once again walking in the clouds, but didn't mind because it kept us nice and cool.  From here we had a steep downhill of nearly 2000 feet of descending down to Straight Fork Branch, where the sun came out for a few minutes and we had a quick lunch before beginning our last big climb!  

Walking a verdant path through the high clouds in the Smokies

Walking a verdant path through the high clouds in the Smokies

After lunch the clouds rolled back in and we had to climb nearly 3000 feet yet again!  We took our time and took lots of breaks at some beautiful springs, filling our water as we went.  This has been such a nice way to end our trip, not carrying so much water!  Near the top of our climb at the junction of Beech Gap and Balsam Mountain, the trail levels out as we walked through a spruce forest at nearly 5600 feet of elevation before heading downhill into Laurel Gap shelter. 

A surprisingly full house for a Tuesday after a holiday! 

A surprisingly full house for a Tuesday after a holiday! 

We camped with 12 people at Laurel Gap and met lots of interesting people!  It was so nice to stay under a roof and be social for the night.  Just around 7 pm the rain started to fall for a few hours - a nice way to fall asleep knowing our tent had been dried out and we were dry, listening to the rain fall on the tin roof.  A great way to spend our last night on trail! 

Day 18 - Benton MacKaye Trail

Another 9:30 am start this morning!  We woke up alone in camp as Eagle and Fat Camp were long gone! We had an easy warm up walk to campsite 57, the last home of Horace Kephart, before beginning our uphill for the day.  It wasn't ever too tough and we passed some very sweet horses about a mile from the top. When we reached the first of three summits near the top of Newton Bald, we met a Mountains to Sea Trail hiker.  This trail runs from Clingmans Dome all the way to the Outer Banks, running 900 miles across North Carolina.  We quickly made our way up as over the other two summits before finally heading downhill for the day.

Lots of names for just one footpath! 

Lots of names for just one footpath! 


While we were cold on top of Newton Bald, our first 5000' peak of the trail, down the hill it got warmer and more humid as the sun finally came out.  By the time we reached Newfound Gap Road it was close to 80 degrees.  We had to wait for a few minutes for traffic to clear since it's Memorial Day today.  We crossed and then had to walk up Towstring Trail, which is a nasty, disgusting horse trail and I can't believe the BMT doesn't just walk the road.  We walked under power lines uphill in the sun in fresh horse shit for a mile before reaching the back end of the Smokemont Campground.  We took a detour into the campground to use the running water.  We both washed up and charged up our phones a little before heading up to Chasteen Creek. 

Beautiful flowers on our walk today

Beautiful flowers on our walk today

We reached campsite 50, our destination, at 4:30 and decided to just go on the extra 2.2 miles to the next site up, campsite 48, to get a jumpstart on tomorrow.  We followed Chasteen Creek up an old roadbed very similar to yesterday on Noland Creek. We reached this site at 5:30 and settled in for the night, alone again now that the holiday is over.  Tomorrow is our last full day on trail and is by far the toughest on paper.  We're hoping the weather holds out as it is a 50% chance of scattered showers overnight and most of the day!

Chasteen Creek Trail is pretty too! 

Chasteen Creek Trail is pretty too! 

Day 17 - Benton MacKaye Trail

We slept in a little later this morning and didn't leave until 9:30.  We passed campsite 74 and it was still packed with kids running around.  We were glad we stayed down by the lake instead!  We had about 3 miles to do of ups and downs like the end of yesterday before coming to the tunnel at the Road to Nowhere.  We walked through in a cool breeze and managed to avoid the piles of horse poop.  That has been the most annoying thing about the Smokies' BMT is that it's most horse trail.  When we came out at the other side the parking lot was completely packed and there were people everywhere!  I guess that's what happens when you end up in a national park on Memorial Day weekend! 

A rare photo of us together! 

A rare photo of us together! 


We did a little road walking here to our next trailhead and ended up following an old road bed uphill for the next 8 miles.  The walking went pretty fast and we followed Noland Creek the whole way, fording it a few times along the way.  People thought we were nuts for just walking through the creek with our shoes on, but it felt great to get cold feet for a bit. We took a break at campsite 61 and met a dad who had been hiking all day with three young kids.  That's a brave man! They had a tough uphill day and the kids were overjoyed to be at the campsite.  From here, it was just one more mile uphill before we finally began walking downhill for the first time all day.  

Noland Creek Trail has so much water! 

Noland Creek Trail has so much water! 

Since we already had wet feet, Pole Road Creek Trail didn't bother us.  It was tough on our feet because the trail was so eroded and rocky, but we made it down the 3.4 miles pretty quickly.  We crossed a really cool log footbridge and had only a quarter mile to our campsite for the night.  We reached campsite 56 and met Eagle and Fat Camp.  We had an awesome night hanging out with these two guys who kept giving us food and whiskey they wanted to get out of their packs as it was their last night on trail!  We ate lots of chocolate and drank whiskey around a campfire until nearly 11 pm with these two guys.  It was the first time we actually got to hang out with anyone in a campsite and we had a blast meeting them.  We have another long uphill tomorrow morning and those two are getting up crazy early because they have to drive 8.5 hours home after the 13-mile hike out!

NoKey crossing Deep Creek on a foot bridge

NoKey crossing Deep Creek on a foot bridge

Fat Camp and Eagle at campsite 56. 

Fat Camp and Eagle at campsite 56. 

Day 16 - Benton MacKaye Trail

We had a pretty sleepless night at campsite 81 due to it being pretty chilly.  For late May, the temperatures were easily in the 40s!  We packed up and headed out of camp at about 9:30 for a long, but easier day in the Smokies.  About 3 miles in we saw our first hikers of the day headed the other direction and reached campsite 77 soon after.  After a quick break for a snack, we began walking old roadbed for the next few hours.  It is easy to daydream about how this area must have looked before everyone got kicked out for the building of Fontana Dam back in the early 1940s.  We passed several unlabeled side trails and that usually indicates a cemetery on this side of the lake.  Walking through this area now it is hard to imagine that 70 years ago thousands of people lived here.

One of many cascades along the trail today

One of many cascades along the trail today


We took a long lunch at campsite 76 right near a boat launch.  We then followed the lake for a bit before climbing up and away since the road we had been walking now disappeared straight into the lake!  We reached our next camp in less than an hour and met the roadbed yet again for a few easy graded miles.  An hour after leaving Chambers Creek we ran into a group of about 10 young guys anxious to get to campsite 98.  When I told them we left it an hour ago they all looked like I had punched them in the stomach!  We told them we had walked about 14 miles already today and they looked shocked. 

A canoe on Fontana Lake

A canoe on Fontana Lake

We had a series of PUD's for the next 4 miles- pointless ups and downs.  We basically walked along a ridge, swung around one side of the hill, and crossed to another.  We finally came down into  Forney Creek at about 5:30 to our campsite at camp 74.  We set up a bit away from everyone else since they were cooking food and smores on a grill. Bears tend to like that sort of thing!  We have a big day tomorrow also, and a wet one!  We are walking three trails tomorrow, all of them with the name "Creek" in the title!  We are hoping for a warmer night and better sleep tonight.

More cascades leading down into the lake

More cascades leading down into the lake


NoKey and I headed out to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before hitting up the BMT.  We took our full packs for a hike to see how the weight felt.  Happy to report the packs felt great and are ready to thru hike! Here are some photos from that trip:  

NoKey at a cascade on Little River Trail. 

NoKey at a cascade on Little River Trail. 

Crossing a steam. 

Crossing a steam. 

An old vacation home in Elkmont, now being reclaimed by the woods. 

An old vacation home in Elkmont, now being reclaimed by the woods. 

After nearly a month of not getting to do any hiking, I decided to head up to the AT today to go up to Rocky Top.  Since I was going to be doing a loop hike, I had decided to take the longer, less steep route up to the AT, but at the very last second I decided to change my route and take the steeper, yet shorter, option to the top.   
 I did my first hike ever on the Anthony Creek Trail, passing a troop of boy scouts carrying entirely too much gear for only hiking 3 miles in.  The trail was wet, muddy, and eroded much like all the horse trails in this area of the park, but I was pleasantly surprised when I turned to climb up Bote Mountain Trail and found ice and snow on the ground.  Some of the drifts in the shade were more than a foot deep still, despite the warm temperatures in the valley!   
 When I got to the AT in the sunshine I felt great.  I quickly began to see beautiful views and got to take my lunch break with the view above.  From where I was sitting, you can see Fontana Lake and even the Shuckstack fire tower off in the distance.  The sunshine was warm and there was a very minimal breeze making it a beautiful place to sit.  The silence was near-deafening and it was definitely what I needed to recharge my batteries.   
 I continued my hike along the AT going south to the Russell Field Shelter.  I wrote a log book entry about my reflections on being a thru hiker and wished all the 2013ers reading a good trip.  I was really sad I didn’t run into any thru hikers because, even though it is still quite early, NoBo’s are already coming through.  I only passed one other hiker on the way down, which was quick and very scenic with the snow melt making for pretty cascades the entire way down.   
 It’s amazing to me how a quick 15-mile day can make all the difference you need.  Being outside and being unplugged for the day sure helped clear my head.  As many of you know, I’ve been in quite the rut lately and pretty down so being out in the sunshine on the trail that changed my life in so many ways was all the therapy I needed.

After nearly a month of not getting to do any hiking, I decided to head up to the AT today to go up to Rocky Top. Since I was going to be doing a loop hike, I had decided to take the longer, less steep route up to the AT, but at the very last second I decided to change my route and take the steeper, yet shorter, option to the top.

I did my first hike ever on the Anthony Creek Trail, passing a troop of boy scouts carrying entirely too much gear for only hiking 3 miles in. The trail was wet, muddy, and eroded much like all the horse trails in this area of the park, but I was pleasantly surprised when I turned to climb up Bote Mountain Trail and found ice and snow on the ground. Some of the drifts in the shade were more than a foot deep still, despite the warm temperatures in the valley!

When I got to the AT in the sunshine I felt great. I quickly began to see beautiful views and got to take my lunch break with the view above. From where I was sitting, you can see Fontana Lake and even the Shuckstack fire tower off in the distance. The sunshine was warm and there was a very minimal breeze making it a beautiful place to sit. The silence was near-deafening and it was definitely what I needed to recharge my batteries.

I continued my hike along the AT going south to the Russell Field Shelter. I wrote a log book entry about my reflections on being a thru hiker and wished all the 2013ers reading a good trip. I was really sad I didn’t run into any thru hikers because, even though it is still quite early, NoBo’s are already coming through. I only passed one other hiker on the way down, which was quick and very scenic with the snow melt making for pretty cascades the entire way down.

It’s amazing to me how a quick 15-mile day can make all the difference you need. Being outside and being unplugged for the day sure helped clear my head. As many of you know, I’ve been in quite the rut lately and pretty down so being out in the sunshine on the trail that changed my life in so many ways was all the therapy I needed.

Rich Mountain with Bonus Miles - 12-18-11

Despite having hiked 20.6 miles the day before, I woke up Sunday morning dying to go hiking again, especially since the weather was going to be about as perfect as you can get for winter in the Smokies.  We decided to hike Rich Mountain Loop, hit all of Indian Grave Gap Trail, and also did some bonus miles in Tremont, the off-map Spruce Flats Falls.  We ended up hiking a total of 33.5 miles this weekend and the clear skies and sunshine were more than worth it. 

We began our hike on a much colder morning that Saturday, about 28 degrees, in Cades Cove.  It was nearly 8:45 and there were already plenty of people to talk to and meet out on the trails.  The first part of our hike would take us up Rich Mountain Loop Trail, which passes by the old Oliver Cabin before turning and going steeply uphill.  We met several hikers here, including an older gentleman from Boston, and we would see them all later in the day as well.  We began our climb up Rich Mountain, following the creek bed at times, and the climb not relenting.  It was always steady, but never hard.  We reached Indian Grave Gap quickly and immediately began our descent down the well-graded old road bed to Rich Mountain Road.  

Indian Grave Gap is only 1.1 miles, but it seemed like a long 1.1.  We took several photos on the way down, as the views in to the Cove were phenomenal.  We remarked at all the cars driving around the loop and knew that must be where the real action was, what a shame to be up here all alone looking down to it (sarcasm).  We reached Rich Mountain Road in less than half an hour and then turned around to make the climb back up to the trailhead.  The 1.1 miles seemed just as long on the way up.  From the trailhead, it was a short 0.9 to campsite 5 and our lunch break. 

After our lunch break, it’s still a little further uphill to Cerulean Knob at the site of the old Rich Mountain fire tower.  It is here that two young deer nearly make me jump out of my skin on the side of the trail.  It was a great wildlife sighting to be sure.  From here, the trail is all downhill.  We passed a great view into Tuckaleechee Cove and a benchmark at the park boundary marker.  When we reached the Scott Mountain/Crooked Arm Ridge junction, we decided to take a side trip down to campsite 6 for a short break and to check out the water situation as the recent rains have made levels rise.  

After the break, it was a quick and muddy downhill jaunt to the car via Crooked Arm Ridge.  We make it back to our car at 1:15.  When we reach the car, Boston hiker and a man in a very strange hat we’d met this morning are both just getting back as well.  At this point, we decided to leave the trail shoes on and do some more hiking.  We decided to go to Tremont and hike Spruce Flat Falls, as DD had never seen it before.  We make the short and steep ascent to a ridge with spectacular views of Rocky Top and Thunderhead before descending nearly as steeply down to the falls, which were raging due to the heavy recent rains.  

All day the skies were blue and cloudless and the views in every direction were spectacular.  At points on Crooked Arm Ridge, we could see all the way to the back of Cades Cove.  Earlier in the day, we could see all the individual ridges of the mountains and follow the AT in our sightline.  It was an amazing day to be in the Smokies. 

West Prong "Loop" - 12/10/11

Dapper Dan and I both had busy weekends, but it’s so hard to just stay off the trail, especially when one has good weather on a winter weekend.  We decided to do a short dayhike and start early.  Our hike would take us on five trails in the Smokies, West Prong, Bote Mountain, Finely Cane, Turkey Pen Ridge, and Schoolhouse Gap, making a loop so we would only need to take one car.  We hiked a total of 14.3 miles in five hours and felt like a million bucks, all before 12:30 on a sunny and chilly afternoon.  

We started off just after daybreak on a cold morning in Tremont in the Smokies.  Our trail immediately began a gentle, but continuous, climb up the side of Fodderstack Mountain. In our first 1.1 miles, we’d see three side connecting trails meeting ours, two of them forming a rough loop to a maintained cemetery and one of them a horse concession.  The ground was frozen beneath our feet and the leaves covered in a layer of frost.  In the first mile we began to break a sweat, which I always find amusing on a cold day, and continued up to our top point.  From here we walked down into campsite 18, a huge campsite directly on West Prong, and then up a short and easy hill to the Bote Mountain Trailhead.  We have awesome views here up to the AT and there was a lot of snow visible up there.  It appeared to still be snowing up there as well, but it could have just been mist.  We get to Finely Cane Trail in less than 10 minutes. 

Finely Cane is normally not my favorite trail.  It’s fairly easy to hike and very easy to follow, but it’s usually a nasty and muddy mess after it has been raining like it had this week.  Thankfully, the ground was still pretty frozen and we had easy and uneventful walking on this trail as well.  The “dark” sides of the hills still had a dusting of snow on them and the stream crossings were low and cold.  We reached the end of Finely Cane quickly and crossed over Laurel Creek Road to Turkey Pen Ridge.  

When reaching Turkey Pen, we were met immediately by two deeper creek crossings, thanks in part to the recent rains and the high water on Laurel Creek.  Thankfully, it was Dapper Dan to the rescue who wanted to keep my feet dry so I wouldn’t get cold.  He piggy-backed me over the two crossings and we started our way uphill.  While going up the hill, you could see back into the “holler” and it was evidently an old homesite with farm land, rock piles and flat land around a creek.  The trail is relatively uneventful until we get to Pinkroot Branch, when I cross and jump directly in to a pile of mud and leaves and cold, stagnant water halfway to my knees.  It was good for a laugh considering the lengths we went to so my feet would stay dry.  With soggy feet and a good laugh, we continue onward to the top of the ridge, then around to the back side of the hill we’re on.  The temperature dropped at least 10 degrees on the other side of the hill and we pressed on, knowing we were close to the trailhead.  

At the Schoolhouse Gap Trailhead, we see the first people we’ve seen all day at close to 11 a.m., heading up for a backpack on Scott Mountain.  We wished them a happy trip and walked down the old wide, muddy gravel road to where Laurel Creek Road meets up at the parking lot.  Close to the parking area, we see two day hikers and we get excited, bringing our people count to four, a stark contrast to the nearly 30 we saw last weekend by this time.  We stopped for a light snack at about 11 at the trailhead and continued onward.  

We crossed Laurel Creek Road for the second time and started up Bote Mountain, another old road that is wide, gently graded, and easy to hike.  By now, the sun is really shining and the skies are bright blue.  We saw our first wildlife of the day as well, a squirrel, about halfway up.  We noticed fresh horse tracks in front of us, but never caught up to the horses.  This 1.2-mile segment ended quickly and brought us back to West Prong Trail for the second time, which we would take out to the car.  At 2.7 miles, we were out in less than 1 hour.  About 0.25 miles from the trailhead, we saw our last set of people, bringing the total headcount for the day to six.  

There wasn’t much scenery or wildlife on any of the trails today, which is common in winter hiking.  The views we did get were from West Prong Trail and Bote Mountain. The skies were clear and the company was fantastic.  The fact we got all of our hiking done that fast and early was a pleasant surprise.  

Mt. Cammerer Backpack - 12-3 & 12-4

With the news that campsite 35 was open for the first time in who knows how long, two of us decided to make a backpack trip out of the loop up to Mt. Cammerer fire tower this weekend.  The weather was perfect and the views were spectacular!

We started our hike going up the steeper route, starting in the Cosby Campground and hiking up Low Gap Trail to the AT.  Low Gap Trail was a great challenge first thing in the morning, affording a few views of Snake Den Ridge.  About a mile from the top, there was a little snow on the ground.  We reached the trail junction with the AT in about an hour, which was awesome considering the elevation gain of the trail.  As we started up the AT, the ground was snowy and there was a little ice in places.  At one point, we were in snow about 3 inches deep, which was funny considering the sweat we’d worked up!

We continued the gentle climb of the AT to the Mt. Cammerer trail.  This trail was a little more treacherous as the ice on the rocks was a slippery, but we made it out to the tower at 11:45, about 2:45 after we left the parking lot.  It was a little hazy, but other than that we had blue skies and phenomenal views.  From here, it was downhill all the way to campsite 35.  We talked to a thru-hiker for a bit, T-mellow from Baltimore, who had a crew catching up with him.  We met a total of about 30 people on the AT Saturday.  We reached the trail junction with Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail at about 1:45 and we had 4.1 miles to go to camp.  

Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail was gentle and uneventful, other than a few interesting things we’d spotted.  About 2 miles down the trail, we noticed a clear-cut path off the side of the hill.  We looked at it for a few minutes and it hit us we’d found a cemetery. When we went over to see it, there were only 6-8 graves, all very small.  Only one stone was readable, a child who died in 1912.  About 3/4 of a mile further down the trail was a freshly marked manway, which it turned out was Hog Ridge, a shot up the side of the mountain from Cosby to Mt. Cammerer in a steep ascent.  

We got to camp about 3:30 and had campsite 35 all to ourselves.  Since the site has been closed as long as anyone can remember, the firewood was abundant and the site was fabulous.  Good water and good fire make for a great night.  

Sunday morning we got up about 7 a.m. and took our time packing up.  We left camp about 8:50 this morning and made the gentle walk out to the truck, about 3.4 miles. Other than one easy, long hill from Picnic Branch’s cascade to Sutton Overlook, the trail was gentle and mostly flat, wide, and easy walking.  Even with talking for a few minutes to some people in the parking lot, we were in the car and on the road by 10:15 a.m., making it a short and easy morning leaving me Jonesin’ for some more hiking.  It was a phenomenal hike with wonderful company and I can’t wait for my next backpack.  

Little Greenbrier Trail 11-13-11

The weather wasn’t sunny on Sunday, but it didn’t rain, so David and I decided to do a short day hike to break in his new Leki Antishock poles I got him for his birthday last month.  We decided on Little Greenbrier Trail up to Laurel Falls Trail and back down.  An easy day hike, coming in at 8.6 miles and gaining 2000 feet.

This trailhead is just inside the Metcalf Bottoms area of the park with the parking area just inside the boundary line.  The trail itself skirts the boundary, so you’re in and out of the park several times during this hike.  The first 1.9 miles only gain about 400’ and afford some really nice views down into Wear Cove.  We passed a few boundary markers and weaved in and out of the park for a while before coming up to our first trailhead at Wear Gap.  From here, you can walk an easy 0.6 miles down to the Walker Sister’s Cabin or you can go straight up to the Laurel Falls Trail.  We took a short break and did just that.  Of note, there is also an unmaintained trail here that runs down into an old settlement called Buckeye Springs.  We’ll save that adventure for another day.  

The climb got a little steeper for this next section of trail, but the climb was never difficult.  Almost the entire way to the top we had views down into Wear Cove through the practically leaf-less trees.  We climbed a good switchback and were at the Laurel Falls Trail for a break and a snack.  We saw the only people we’d see all day shortly after arriving to the trailhead, wearing blue jeans and matching red athletic gear jackets and tennis shoes.  We had our snacks and began the downhill portion of our hike.  I got to take a nice trip, slipping and nearly falling down off the side of the trail, but it was good for a laugh.  We made it back down the hill, to the trailhead, and back to our car in less than 4 hours.  

It was definitely nice to do an easier trip with David.  His trekking poles worked great and he’s pretty much in love with them.  I highly recommend antishock poles if you’re in the market for some.  

Mt. Sterling Part 2, 11-5-11

I made my second trip up to the Mt. Sterling Fire Tower this year on another beautiful day. This time the trip would be a little longer, coming in at close to 20 miles.  Since this was the last day of Daylight Savings Time, I was up and on the road at 5:30 in the morning so we could start in time to not be pushing dark.  

The hike began at Pretty Hollow Gap Trail in Cataloochee.  On the way in to the trailhead, there were tons of elk in the fields, including a very large male with an impressive set of antlers.  The sun was just starting to shine in the valley with all the mist and fog, so it was truly an amazing site to see!  We started off up Pretty Hollow Gap Trail at 8:20 a.m. and in the first 0.8 miles didn’t gain much elevation.  We passed the horse camp at 0.2 miles and came to the Little Cataloochee Trail at mile 0.8.  The trail is still very much a wide road and gravel.  Horse poop is everywhere.  The large road continued upward to mile 1.6 where Palmer Creek Trail connects and goes to Balsam Mtn. Road.  Shortly ahead, campsite #39 had only one camper there for the night.  Who can blame people for not camping?  It was 28 degrees in Maggie Valley on Friday night!  Just past the campsite is where our real uphill began and continued on for about 6 more miles.  We crossed a few frozen foot logs, which were nice and slippery, and had a good creek crossing where my feet got a little wet.  The trail had narrowed considerably at this point to the size of a normal foot path and remained muddy and deeply trenched almost the entire way to the top.  Horse poop was everywhere as well.  When I hiked on the other side of Cataloochee in the early fall, we had remarked how we thought there’d be more mud.  I think we found it today!  

At about 10:45, we reached the top of this trail at Pretty Hollow Gap.  There was a lot of frost at the top of the hill and it was substantially cooler.  We took a short break and began the 1.4 miles left until we reached the fire tower.  Having hiked this portion of the trail previously, I knew what we were in for.  The trail wasn’t as steep as I had remembered and the climb up to the top went by quickly.  We were up to the tower in less than an hour and there was a huge group of people up there.  The views were just as stunning as before on this clear morning and it was a great time to take photos and take it all in.  We stayed at the top and had lunch before heading down the trail.  

Coming down Mount Sterling Trail was a little steeper than the route we’d climbed up on Pretty Hollow Gap.  The trail was rocky and covered with leaves, so you had to have careful footing, as well as keen eyes so not to step in horse poop.  The views all the way down the hill were amazing and elevation was lost rather quickly. There were only two switchbacks on this trail as well, so it was definitely nice to have the views in your line of site.  At 1:20, I reached the junction of Long Bunk Trail and waited on my friends.  Elise and Mary ran out the 0.5 miles and then back to complete this portion of trail for Elise’s map while Lyn and Lorelei continued on down Long Bunk.  

Elise, Mary, and I started down Long Bunk Trail and immediately we ran into deep leaves and horse ruts.  This trail was definitely gorgeous, but technically a nightmare due to the fact that the ruts were deep and not visible underneath the leaves.  It was nice to have a good set of trekking poles on this trail because I stumbled pretty much the whole way!  The mud trenches going up and downhill on this trail were killer and much like quicksand. Your feet would get stuck, you’d stub your toes, and fall over.  Don’t forget horse poop!  You’re well acquainted by now! It was very obvious this trail was a road at one time, widening out close to the trailhead and home sites were definitively obvious near the creek crossings.  With 0.2 miles until the Little Cataloochee Trail, the Hannah Cemetery was on our left with more than 50 graves and a few very elaborate headstones.  

We all met up at the Little Cataloochee Trail and Elise and Mary went out to grab an extra 1 mile for Elise’s map, leaving Lyn, Lorelei, and myself to head on alone. This part of the trail was definitely the most rewarding.  Less than 0.5 miles down the trail, the Hannah Cabin had been moved and restored off the right side of the trail.  Continuing onward to mile 0.6 was the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, which sat at the top of a hill and was beautifully maintained with a large cemetery. Continuing onward and now downhill for a bit, you pass through the former community of Ola.  There were lots of fence remnants and wash tubs out in the woods to see as you passed by.  Finally, at mile 1.6, you come to the Cook Cabin. The old applehouse stone structure is standing on one side of the creek and on the other the cabin, restored in the 1990s after years of vandalism.  From here, we had a big, but short uphill segment.  There was a lot to look at on our way up the hill, including lots of stone walls leading up to Davidson Gap.  After reaching the gap, it was all downhill until we hit the car.  

I ended up breaking away from Lyn and Lorelei after taking a break at the top of Davidson Gap.  The hiking went quickly from here, albeit muddy with the creek running in the trail at some points.  The last bit of Little Cataloochee Trail was a blur.  By the time I reached Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, I was flying downhill and reached the parking lot at 5:20 p.m.  Lyn and Lorelei were close behind at 5:45.  I had lots of time to wait on Mary and Elise, who came at 6:30.  

The sun set soon after we got to the car and the hike was perfect in it’s own way. I wish the mud and the horse poop hadn’t been so bad, but it is a heavily used area and the weeks leading up to our hike had been so beautiful that so many people had been out using the trails.  I truly enjoyed this hike and all the history that came with it. 

A weekend on Forney Creek - 10-1-11

Three friends and myself had reservations to stay at popular campsite #71 in the Lakeshore area of the Smokies this weekend.  We were all looking forward to a fall backpack at a large and beautiful campsite.  We got everything we expected, plus something we didn’t - SNOW!

We started our hike Saturday morning by carpooling from the Road to Nowhere tunnel up to Clingman’s Dome where we’d hike downhill for nearly 10 miles to campsite 71. David and I originally planned to take the AT and Jonas Creek Trail down to the site, but our later meeting time would have us pushing against daylight and we didn’t want to rush to camp.  We all four hiked in together down Forney Creek Trail to camp instead.  

As we drove up from Bryson City, we watched the temperature drop from 49 degrees at the tunnel to 30 degrees at Clingman’s Dome.  Halfway up the 7-mile road to the trailhead, we noticed the trees all were looking very strange… we quickly discovered it was indeed snow!  Our first snow of the year and it was barely fall!  When we got out of the car at Clingman’s our bodies were not happy! We all quickly added layer upon layer of clothing and I put some extra socks on my hands as I hadn’t brought gloves.  It was amusing, however, when we’d see tourists hop out of their cars in shorts, T shirts, and flip flops!  They didn’t stay in the parking lot too long as you can imagine!  We took some photos in the snow and headed off for the Forney Ridge Trailhead and headed down the hill. 

On Forney Ridge Trail, we saw several maintenance workers installing stone stairs on the trail and greeted them. These were the only people we’d see for nearly 9 miles.  We reached the junction of Forney Ridge and Forney Creek fairly quickly, in less than 45 minutes, and began a descent down Forney Creek Trail.  You could tell that most people that travel Forney Ridge Trail were only going to Andrew’s (Anders) Bald, as Forney Creek was in a lot different shape than Forney Ridge to this point.  Until now, the trail was well-graded, wide, and free of debris with stairs and raised portions of trail due to erosion and mud.  Now, the trail was narrow, rocky, and steep with many slick spots.  We continued downward, going around several switchbacks, and on our way down the hill.  There was a lot of evidence of the heavy logging this area experienced in the pre-park days.  There were remnants of rail and spikes everywhere, as well as some erosion into the rocks in the form of straight lines so you could actually see where the railroad was laid out up the hill.  

We continued down to mile 2 on this trail to come to the upper portion of campsite 68, which was currently closed due to aggressive bear activity.  This site was absolutely stunning and had some evidence of a logging camp in the forms of cables laying about.  Also, this site is where you’ll find Rock Slab Falls, which looks like a giant waterslide made of rocks, which goes about 50 feet down the mountain and ends in a somewhat deep pool of water.  Located approximately 0.4 miles down the trail from here is the lower part of campsite 68 which lies on Steeltrap Creek.  From here, we went across the creek and down through a few gullies where there were some stone walls used to keep the trail in place along the hill. We went down several switchbacks and through some rhododendron thickets that were deeply gulched into the hillside before we came to a larger and more difficult creek crossing near mile 6 and just before campsite 69.  This campsite had lots of metal remnants left behind, parts of what used to be a stove and railroad pieces. The site was very large and completely empty.  Shortly after the site was another difficult crossing that required a little planning as we didn’t want wet feet in the near-freezing temperatures. 

After two more difficult crossings, we came to the junction of Jonas Creek and Forney Creek trails and campsite 70.  We were jealous that there was a great-looking foot log going up to Jonas Creek as we didn’t have that on our trail!  Here we ran into not one, but two groups of hikers, totaling 6 people. They all decided to head up to campsite 69 and were very friendly.  From here, we only had 1.2 miles to go to get to our campsite for the night.  About 0.5 miles before the campsite, the trail climbed away from the creek (finally some uphill!) and we were very grateful for our bodies to get a break from the constant downhill.  We came to campsite 71 pretty quickly and settled in for a pretty quiet night with an amazing campfire. 

Campsite 71 is a large, beautiful site that used to be home to a post office (Bushnell, NC in the pre-park days), a CCC camp during the depression, and finally a ranger station before being turned into a back country site.  The site boasts a 2-story chimney on the site of the old building, as well as some chestnut stumps and some hemlock trees.  The trail here looks like a road, as it was driven on for many years before the days of the park. 

Day 2 would be a short day of close to 6 miles back to the cars at Lakeview Drive (Fontana Road).  We started by leaving camp at 9:15 a.m. and crossed a few branches and downhill to reach Forney Creek again.  We followed the old roadbed out of Bushnell and up to Whiteoak Branch Trail.  From here, we’d have a little bit more undulation in the trail and it was so nice get in some uphill walking for a change, considering Saturday most mostly downhill.  We quickly traveled the 1.8 miles to Lakeshore Trail and had a bigger climb up to saddle ridge in the trail.  We had hiked this part of the trail a few times and knew it was our last climb and that we’d be back to the cars in no time flat at that point.  We passed an old homesite and the Goldmine Loop Trail (where there never was gold or a goldmine) and passed the Tunnel Bypass Trail and made it to the tunnel at the Road to Nowhere by 11:00 a.m.

For those who don’t know, the “Road to Nowhere” is called so by the locals of this area.  Lakeshore Drive was begun as a way for families displaced by the park service and the war as a way for them to get back to the places of their birth, as well as to visit the cemeteries of their relatives.  The road project was abandoned shortly after it was started in the 1960s due to the road causing so much environmental damage and the fact that there was a perfectly good road (NC 28 and US 129) on the other side of Fontana Lake. The park service does, however, take families back into these towns free of charge once a year by boat and then by jeeps to visit the land their families once owned.  The tunnel at the end of Lakeview Drive still exists and is 365 yards long and wide enough for two lanes of traffic.  It’s very strange to walk through and it is riddled with graffiti.  It’s a good idea to take a headlamp if you’re going to walk through, however.  I’ve stepped in a few piles of horse poo on trips through in the past!

AT, Road Prong, and Chimney Tops

Sunday, 9-11-11, we took a short hike on the AT down to the Chimney’s trailhead. I’ve heard wonderful things about Road Prong Trail and was very excited to hike it for the first time. Today was yet another beautiful, sunny, fall-like day that made for enjoyable hiking for sure!

We began our hike at Clingman’s Dome on yet another clear morning. We’ve been very lucky this year to have so many beautifully clear days. We decided to head up to the observation tower for photos since clear days up there are so rare. There was a small amount of haze, but it was still stunning.

Close to 9:20 a.m. we headed out along the AT and on our way to Road Prong. It’s always weird to be able to hear traffic on a hike. This portion of the trail skirts Clingman’s Dome Road, so at times it was almost like we were walking on the road, especially when the trail is just above the road itself. I didn’t find this part of the trail to be particularly enjoyable for one main reason: STAIRS. I get that stairs are a good thing on the trail, especially on a part of the trail that is muddy and badly eroded for damage control. I can tell you that these awkwardly placed and spaced steps were murder on my knees. Going up them was tough, going down them was tougher, and my knees were spent after the first of many, many sets of them. Scenically, there just wasn’t much to see other than uprooted and dead trees. Most of the trees in this area are Fraiser Fir, which are under severe attack by the Balsam Wooly Adelgid, a non-native species wreaking havoc on these poor trees. The skeletons of Frasier Fir are notable all along the roads, as well as the mountain sides and in nearly every photo you see of this area.

Close to 11 a.m. and many stairs later, we reached the junction of the Mount Collins Shelter on Sugarland Mountain Trail. We were in a nice little cove with some logs laid out as benches and took a short snack break here. The trail had been pretty simple, fairly clear walking up until this point and we’d come a quick 3.2 miles from the Dome. The undulation mixed with the stairs though had left me feeling pretty worn out, which is rare for me so early in a hike. After the rest, the trail had more stairs than before and lots of foot logs and steps over muddy and eroded areas. It was well-maintained to say the least! The trail began a steady, steep descent down countless numbers of stairs that even turned a switchback at one point. After the three of us stopping for some photos of some fungi and a little bit of bitching about sore knees, we came to the junction of Road Prong at 12 p.m. This part of the trail was actually near a parking lot and a large grassy area, so we stopped for lunch here in the grass and sunshine after being under heavy tree cover on the AT.

We decided to skip the 1.7 miles (plus 1.7 miles UPHILL back) of the AT to Newfound Gap since all of us had sore knees and we knew the trail would be steeper. We decided to just head down Road Prong instead. This trail was a true beauty and being on a new trail upped our spirits just a little bit. It immediately began what would be a constant descent on a wide roadbed. Road Prong Trail closely follows the only wagon road over the mountain, which was the Oconaluftee Turnpike. The road, started in 1831 and never finished, was used heavily during the Civil War as a way to haul munitions up and over the mountains. The portion of the road on the North Carolina side of the park is now Newfound Gap Road. The Tennessee side of the park is the foot trail. Now that we’ve had a history lesson, let’s talk about the trail!

After the first portion of downhill, we started coming to fairly regular, never difficult, stream crossings that were hopped with minimal wet feet. We saw a little bit of jewel weed and a few patches of turtlehead, but not much other than that in the way of flowers. As we continued our descent of the trail, the forest began to change from the Fraiser Fir into more lush, green forest with lots of ferns and heavy rhododendron. The rocks began to change as well, into Anakeesta rock, which has an acidic and red sediment. This is the same type of rock you’ll see on the Alum Cave trail to give you an idea. There were several pretty cascades all along this trail, as it skirted Road Prong nearly the entire time. At 0.4 miles until the terminus, there was a large foot bridge over Road Prong, which was very deep with many cascades. From here to Beech Flats, the end of our trail, the walk became a little tougher, mostly due to deep erosion and rocks. It was more of a rock hop than a hike at this point. Just before the trail ended, we came to Beech Flats, which was open, lush, and green. From here, it was a short 0.9-mile walk back to the road on a wide gravel grade with large foot bridges.

We saw lots of people, as hiking to the Chimney Tops is a popular hike in the Smokies. Lots of people in shorts and flip flops, as well as kids playing in the creeks and jumping off rocks. We were back at the car at 2:25 p.m. After a long weekend of hiking and sore knees from the combination of stairs and rock climbing on Road Prong, I was ready to get home and go to bed!