Smokies

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?

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!

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!

Merry Christmas!

The past year has flown by at what seems to be record speed.  While 2015 was full of adventure and surprises, I am so excited to see what is in store for us in 2016.  I somehow got incredibly lucky and not only got to complete two of my three attempted thru hikes over the summer, I also ended up moving into a beautiful home in the Smoky Mountains.  I'm living my dream - getting paid to hike - while spending time in the place where I learned to love the trail. This year has taught me so much about gratitude and what it means to accept help when you need it most.  

I have so much to be grateful and thankful for and look forward to sharing all our adventures with you in 2016!  Happy Holidays!

An Off-Trail Adventure - Courthouse Rock

Despite having nearly 900 miles of maintained trails in the Smokies, sometimes the coolest hikes aren't on the official trails.  Because the national park used to be many private properties, it's not uncommon to hear of old buildings or long forgotten waterfalls being off the beaten path.  One of the more popular off-trail hikes in the park is only a few miles away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center - Courthouse Rock. 

The trail to Courthouse Rock begins on a nondescript vehicle pull-off on the side of the road.  Since this isn't an official maintained trail, it's not marked with any signs like most other trails in the park.  We began by hiking up a faint path to an old road bed.  We followed the old road bed for about a quarter of a mile, stepping over and around numerous downed trees, before coming to a stream crossing that despite the heavy rainfall a week ago was an easy rock hop.  The trail began a steeper uphill now, going past an old homesite before heading into a rhododendron tunnel.  Near the top of the tunnel, we stopped to take in a view of the Bullhead portion of Mt. LeConte. 

After getting back on the main trail and walking a little further up a very well-defined trail we saw the trail ahead of us marked with a large "X" made from sticks.  We turned to our right to see a more narrow and less-defined path leading uphill into the woods.  A short time later we came out right at Courthouse Rock.  While the Smokies is home to many great large boulders, this one is definitely impressive!  The rock was too large to get a decent photograph, but we walked around to the back of the rock to see some ancient graffiti dated 1827.  There was also an old penny stuck in between layers of the rock.  

We headed back down the trail to the old homesite and observed some Eastern Hemlock trees actively being attacked by the wooly adelgid before heading down to the waterfall on a side trail.  We stopped at this waterfall to sit in the sun and have a snack before heading back down to the parking area.  On the way back down we found a large patch of toothwort growing and got to taste a few small samples.  We also found a crawdad claw in a tree, which was really interesting.  Our theory is a bird snatched it up and was having a snack, dropping it into the crack of the tree.  

While we were out on trail this time we didn't make it up to the Quilliams Cave, which I've been told is only about a mile up from the rock.  Have any of you been up to the cave?  I'd love to know which way to head from Courthouse Rock to find it.  Leave me a comment here or catch me over on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!

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

Day 15 - Benton MacKaye Trail

 

Today we ate a huge breakfast thanks to Tapoco Lodge and left the hotel with lighter than anticipated packs thanks to them holding a box full of stuff for us.  NoKey hasn't been eating as much as we planned so sending some food back has been nice.  We walked outside the lodge and caught a ride to Fontana Dam thanks to Ed from Missouri, who was out driving on the Dragon and killing time.  For those who don't know, U.S. 129 is called The Dragon, 300 curves in 11 miles, and attracts people from all over the country who want to say they drove it.

FINALLY! 

FINALLY! 

We hit the Dam at 11 am and thanked Ed for the ride.  I gave him a bit of a history lesson about the area during the trip too.  Thanks again, Ed!  We began walking across the dam and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!  The BMT follows Lakeshore Trail the first 35 miles and I enjoyed seeing familiar trail again.  I also gave NoKey some history about the area while we took photos of everything from abandoned cars to old homesites and chimneys.  When we made it 5 miles in we were at campsite 90 and it is absolutely packed - to be expected since its Memorial Day weekend.  We headed on down the trail to campsite 86, which is on the site of the now abandoned town of Proctor.  We had late lunch here and headed up and over Welch Ridge to campsite 81.

One of many abandoned cars along the trail

One of many abandoned cars along the trail

 

We got to 81 and met a large group there. We said our hellos and set up our tent to dry out from the wet night we had before heading down Slickrock.  Tomorrow we are expecting busy trails since its the swing of Memorial Day.

The chimney of an old home is all that remains standing. 

The chimney of an old home is all that remains standing. 

Shakedown!

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.

Proposal for back country fees at GSMNP - my take

For those of you who don’t know, there’s a proposal for some new back country fees in our free national park.  Below is the release from the park service.  My opinion will be after that.  

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
News Release

Immediate Release                                    Contact:  Bob Miller
Date: July 29, 2011                                        865/436-1207

        National Park Managers Consider Backcountry Camping Changes

      Managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are considering some
changes in the process by which backpackers make reservations for overnight
camping at the Park’s nearly 100 backcountry sites and shelters.  The
proposed changes, which would update the reservation procedure as well as
increasing Ranger presence on the Park’s 800 miles of trails, would be
covered by a minimal user fee.  No fees are being contemplated for day
hiking.

      The Park currently requires that all those planning to stay overnight
in the backcountry obtain a permit and those wishing to stay in the Park’s
15 shelters and most popular campsites make a reservation either by phone
or in person at the Park’s Backcountry Information Center located in the
Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. The reservations ensure that the
number of campers on a given night do not exceed the carrying capacity of
the site.  Many other less sought-after sites do not require that a
reservation be filed, but users are still required to self-register at one
of 15 permit stations when they arrive in the Park.

      Due to limited staffing, the Backcountry Information Center is open
only three hours a day and the phone line is often busy or is unstaffed,
which makes the process excessively time-consuming and often frustrating.
Once backpackers do obtain their reservations and arrive at their
campsites, they often find the area filled by individuals without permits.
In addition site capacities are frequently exceeded, which results in food
storage violations, increased wildlife encounters and the need to close
campsites to protect visitors and wildlife. Lack of staff in the
backcountry severely limits the Park’s ability to resolve these issues.



                                  (over)

Smokies backcountry Camping Proposal – Page 2



      In response to these concerns, managers are evaluating the
implementation of a
computerized reservation system which would take reservations both online
and via a call center for all its backcountry sites 24 hours a day 7 days a
week.  The reservations would be made by a contractor at:
www.recreation.gov which is the site currently used to book frontcountry
campsites.  The Park would also expand the operations of the Backcountry
Information Center to provide quality trip planning advice to help users
develop a customized itinerary that best fits their available time and
ability.

      In addition, the Park would hire additional Rangers who would
exclusively patrol the backcountry to improve compliance with Park
regulations as well as helping to curb plant and wildlife poaching and
respond more quickly to visitor emergencies.

      Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson said, “We feel that the proposed
changes offer better customer service to backpackers, as well as reducing
impacts to Park resources  In order to implement these changes we are
considering several fee structures that would cover both the reservation
contractor’s fee and the cost of field Rangers and staff at the Backcountry
Information Center.”

      The Park plans to solicit public input on the new plan both on-line
and through two public meetings.  Details of the proposal may be found at
the Park’s website: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/parkmgmt/index.htm.  Comments
may be sent electronically at: GrsmComments@nps.gov. or by mail to:
Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters
Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Informational open houses are scheduled for
Tuesday, August 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Old Oconaluftee Visitor
Center at 1194 Newfound Gap Road in Cherokee, and Thursday, August 18 from
5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Park Headquarters Lobby at 107 Headquarters Road in
Gatlinburg.  Comments should be submitted by August 26.  

So, what are you thinking about the proposed changes?  I’ve already written my email to the address provided in the release.  It remains to be be seen if I’ll be able to make the townhall meeting due to the fact that I’ve got unpredictable work hours, but here’s my take: 

I’m not 100% opposed to a fee for back country camping.  In fact, every other place I’ve back country camped I’ve had to pay a fee.  What makes this hard for me is the fact that they don’t know how expensive the fee is yet.  A flat four-dollar fee is reasonable in my opinion.  There are other price options, however, including a 10-dollar permit fee plus 5 bucks for each person in your party.  This, in my opinion, is grossly expensive for a backpacker.  Let’s say David and I wanted to go for a 2-night backpack.  That would be 20 bucks for the permits (each day, different place) plus 10 bucks for him to be on my permit.  Add that to a 35-dollar per night stay at the kennel for our dog (no dogs in the Smokies!) and you’ve got a 100-dollar weekend!  Am I going to backpack in the Smokies? Hell no I won’t.  I’ll go to Frozen Head or Big South Fork where a weekend would cost me 10 and I could take my dog.  I won’t spend 100 in gas to get there and back, so it’d be cheaper for me to go somewhere else.  

The Smokies was established on the fact that US 441 - a major highway at the time - ran through it.  Therefore, the park service promised there’d never be an entrance fee due to the fact that this road was running through.  An entrance fee to the park couldn’t be implemented.  However, in my opinion, if you’re driving to Cades Cove, you’re going to Cades Cove.  Chances are you aren’t going to drive there to use Parson’s Branch Road to get yourself to 129.  This road isn’t major, is a 1-way dirt road that takes at least an hour to travel.  Same with Rich Mtn. Road.  You just aren’t going to Cades Cove to get somewhere else.  Why not have an entrance fee to the loop road there?  They’d make tons of money with very little damage (well, the damage has been done) as hardly anyone gets out of their cars.  

The entrance fee also applies to the firefly event at Elkmont every year.  Why not start charging people to come in to view the fireflies?  As this is a special event and the road to Elkmont is closed at night, anyone riding the trolley in is going for one thing and one thing only - fireflies.  People still want to go, and they’ll pay I’m pretty sure. 

Lastly, returning to my stance on the back country fee - If you’ve ever taken a horse and hiking trail in the Smokies, what do you remember about it?  Maybe the mud, deep ruts and mud pits, and trash?  If you’ve ever stayed at a horse camp, like on Deep Creek or Noland Creek/Divide, what do you remember about the camp?  Maybe that it was crowded and full of trash and you probably packed out more trash than you packed in?  This last idea I have is simple.  If you’re going to charge a backpacker, how much are you going to charge the horses?  A horse weighs a hell of a lot more than I do and do a WHOLE lot more damage to the trail than I do.  So would it be safe to assume a horse should be charged double?  If there’s a per person fee, I think the horse fee should be double, if not triple just due to the fact that erosion and damage is that much worse.  

The park service claims the fees would go towards rangers on the trail and more implementation of checking permits and kicking out illegal campers.  If you’ve ever run into a ranger in the Smokies, you know they do this anyway.  They also say that more rangers will make people follow the rules better.  I’m just not seeing the logic being drawn here.  I’ve seen people with dogs miles into the park without rangers in site.  It will still happen.  I’ve seen people stealth camping (aka - illegally, not on a maintained and designated campsite) and it will still happen.  I don’t think upping the park “police” presence is going to solve the problems like the park service thinks it is.  Granted, it’s hard to get ahold of the people at the permit office for reservation-only sites, but I don’t think charging people to use a website for permits is going to make anyone happy.  In fact, I think they’ll lose some backpackers, especially local folks. 

If you’re from out of town and you’re coming here to backpack, you’ll pay the fee.  If you live here and you’re in the park more than once a week, this fee is a punishment for all the tourons getting it wrong.  

My last question is about thru-hikers.  Are they going to be charged and forced to get permits like everyone else?  This new rule will certainly affect me next year for my AT thru hike.  How are they going to enforce that?  Thru hiking is defined by the park service as starting a hike 50 miles outside all park boundary lines and ending your hike more than 50 miles outside the boundary lines.  How is this going to be enforced?  

Honestly, they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.  I urge any of you, whether or not you live here in the Smokies or you’re just getting to my blog and live far away, to email the park service at the email provided in the press release: GrsmComments@nps.gov and let them know your thoughts.  You don’t have to agree or disagree with me.  The more people we have making their opinions known, the more we’ll help the park!