My Favorite Views in the Smokies

As a hiking guide in the most visited national park in the country I am often asked about my favorite places to go for a hike.  While I do a lot of the same trails guiding people, since my hobby and my job coincide I often find myself looking for other less busy trails to hike when I'm out for myself.  One of the things the Smokies is known for would be the stunning views, many of which have mountain ridge lines for days.  Here are a few of my favorite views in the park. 

1) Mt. Cammmerer

Mt. Cammerer's Fire Tower is a unique shape and built right into the rocks with a cistern built in below.  I've never been in another tower like this one!

Mt. Cammerer's Fire Tower is a unique shape and built right into the rocks with a cistern built in below.  I've never been in another tower like this one!

Mt. Cammerer can be a long day hike and can be hiked in a few directions. You can make this a strenuous 10 mile out and back hike or you can make it a less difficult, but still long, 15.5 mile loop hike.  Regardless of how you decide to hike to this amazing mountaintop you'll be rewarded with views into the Cherokee National Forest, back into the Smokies and North Carolina, and views of the Appalachian Trail.  You'll also be seeing them from a really unique and gorgeous fire tower.  The views up here in the fall and winter cannot be beat!  If you're out doing a thru hike or section hike of the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies, the 1.2-mile round trip to the Mt. Cammerer fire tower is definitely worth it.  

2) Bradley View

The Bradley View is one I would highly recommend you see on a backpacking trip.  While you can see it on a day hike, to make it out and back in one day would be challenging and would require a nearly 17.5-mile out and back from Newfound Gap Road to visit.  I often get to see Bradley View on backpacking trips when I'm staying at the Peck's Corner Shelter or if I'm hiking down a side trail off of the Appalachian Trail.  Regardless of where you're camping, the Bradley View is one of my favorite in the park.  Usually when we get a view from a mountain top we are seeing other mountain ranges and some signs of towns in the valley below.  At Bradley View you're looking out onto a sea of mountains without a cell tower or road in sight.  With up to as many as nine different ridge lines present this view will definitely take your breath away.  This point is located approximately 1.5 miles Appalachian Trail "South" of the Peck's Corner shelter.  

3) Spence Field

Spence Field is another hike that can be done either in the daytime or you can camp up at the shelter nearby overnight.  You can hike this in a loop or as an out and back.  My favorite way to see Spence Field though is to camp at the Spence Field Shelter.  Less than a half a mile from the shelter round-trip you will head up to the field just before sunset for some stunning views with Fontana Lake below you.  If you head back to the shelter just before the sun drops in the sky you'll have enough daylight to make it back to the shelter without a headlamp.  To make this hike, you can hike up from Cades Cove picnic area via the Anthony Creek Trail, Bote Mountain Trail, and follow the AT to the field.  Return by the same route or you can continue "south" on the AT to the Russell Field Trail back down to the Anthony Creek Trail.  

4) Shuckstack 

The view looking toward Nantahala National Forest from Shuckstack in the fall.  It's easy to see why the mountains around us are called the Blue Ridge Mountains!

The view looking toward Nantahala National Forest from Shuckstack in the fall.  It's easy to see why the mountains around us are called the Blue Ridge Mountains!

Shuckstack Fire Tower is located only 0.1 miles off the Appalachian Trail at the "southern" end of the trail in the park.  This fire tower is notoriously rickety, but the climb is definitely worth heading up for!  Climbing up the flights of stairs on the tower you'll feel and hear the wind catching and then you'll come into the top of the tower - views of the Nantahala National Forest, Fontana Lake, the Smokies, and the largest undeveloped tract of wilderness left in the eastern United States will be your reward.  This hike can be done many different ways, but an out-and-back from Fontana Dam is the most popular route.  This 7-mile round trip hike also gives you the opportunity to see the largest hydroelectric dam east of the Mississippi River before your hike. 

5) Mt. Sterling

Looking at the AT from Mt. Sterling on a winter day - the highest point is Mt. Guyot and the AT follows the ridge line down and out of the park. 

Looking at the AT from Mt. Sterling on a winter day - the highest point is Mt. Guyot and the AT follows the ridge line down and out of the park. 

Of course I would save my favorite view for last!  Mt. Sterling boasts the highest backcountry campsite in the park as well as the highest point on the entire Benton MacKaye Trail.  Looking north from the top of the tower you'll have an epic view of the ridge line the Appalachian Trail follows.  You'll have views of Snowbird Mountain and Max Patch Mountain.  You can see the Blue Ridge Parkway cutting across the mountains in North Carolina.  Best of all, this hike rarely has others to share the view with.  You can make this hike as short as 4 miles round trip view the old NC 284 gravel road and the Mt. Sterling Trail.  You can also hike it as a 12.2 mile up and back on Baxter Creek Trail or you can make a 17.1 mile loop hike by taking Big Creek Trail to Swallow Fork Trail to the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail and finally hiking down the Baxter Creek Trail.  

These are just a few of the many, many places I like to hike to avoid the crowds.  Where are some of your favorite places in the Smokies?  Do you like to hike to a view?  

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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!

My first solo backpack - Rabbit Creek & Hannah Mtn. Trails

In preparation for the AT I decided it would be good to try backpacking solo.  Since I was trying to do everything alone, I opted to hike out of the Abrams Creek area of the Smokies since the area was recently devastated by an EF4 tornado (more information:  I also knew some trails in this area were still closed, so I decided to hike up to campsite 14, resupply my water, hike to Parson’s Branch Road and back, and set up camp there for the night.  This backpack was a lesson of “Nothing Ever Goes as Planned” and I did quite a bit of improvising.  I think for my first solo trip, however, it was good as it let me think about ways to improve my situation.  Let’s begin with the trip!

It was quiet at the trailhead yesterday morning. There was a ranger truck parked about 0.15 miles in, so I knew I’d at least see someone.  There was only one other car in the hiker parking area, so I didn’t know if I’d see anyone else at all.  I quickly crossed the foot bridge leading across Abrams Creek and the trail began immediately running uphill to Pine Mountain.  Here, I ran into the only other hiker I’d see all day, a trail runner who wasn’t having fun running up the 1000’ incline.  I slowly climbed upwards, passing the runner, on his way back down and much happier now, and about 0.25 miles from the top of Pine Mountain is where the tornado path is present. I took a lot of photos and could see all the way down into Happy Valley from the top of the ridge. About 0.25 miles from the trailhead I could hear lots of noise and human voices, so I figured I must be close to Scott Gap and campsite 16. 

When I reached the gap, I was surprised to be greeted by not only four rangers, but also a dog!  I’d actually seen this dog before on Cooper Road Trail and I told the rangers they’d think it was crazy that I knew the dog.  They weren’t surprised.  They said his owner lived in Happy Valley and that the dog, who I named Buddy for the day, always follows them out when they work on the trails and stays with them all day.  The rangers told me they’d just finished doing work on Rabbit Creek Trail, which is now clear all the way down to Cades Cove, and they’d built some stone walls on Hannah Mountain Trail running down to Abrams Creek.  They also gave me some information about the tornado path and what I could expect to see on my way to Parsons Branch Road.  I wished them a good day and headed on up Hannah Mountain with a new friend.  Buddy decided to come keep me company.  

The trail immediately began a slow, gentle climb up to Polecat Ridge, where I saw several wild turkey just off the right side of the trail down the ridge.  The trail curved off to Deadrick Ridge, which had a dried up seep of water running across the trail.  I started to get a bad feeling about water at campsite 14 when I saw this. Continuing on about 0.75 miles and navigating a large, fresh blow-down I came to campsite 14 and was immediately not impressed.  The site, located at Flint Gap, was very small with one fire ring and only one flat site for a tent immediately next to the trail.  I stopped here for a snack with Buddy, who was ready for a nap in the shade.  After snacking, I set out to find water.  I went up the trail where my map showed a small stream, but it was dried up.  I went back to the campsite and looked for the water source said to be below the gap and found no evidence of water whatsoever.  Since I was planning on heading up to Parsons Branch and back (8 miles total) and had only 1 liter of water for drinking and cooking my dinner, I made the executive decision to go back down to Scott Gap and camp at 16.  Buddy seemed to be pleased with this decision as well, good thing since he doesn’t speak English!  

I backtracked to campsite 16 and got there in about an hour and 10 minutes. Campsite 16 is the site of a now torn-down shelter, so I figured this would be a better place to stay the night.  I’d also read in the brown book that water here was usually good. Today, however, it was not.  I followed the sign to the water source to find stagnant water in deep mud.  Buddy was happy about it and drank up.  He then decided to head home.  I left campsite 16 and went back to the trailhead at Scott Gap.  I decided that since the rangers told me the trail was clear down to campsite 15 I could go down there and get water and come back, only 2 miles round trip.  This option was better than my alternative, go 2.8 miles there and back to Abrams Creek at the end of Hannah Mountain.  I set off down and back to campsite 15 through a thick rhododendron forest. I will admit, though, that this hill completely wore me out to come back up and I was exhausted, but hydrated. 

I set up camp and took some photos of the area before heading to bed (thanks, Benadryl!)  I woke up at 5:50 a.m. this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep… I guess that is what happens when you go to bed at 9 p.m.! I decided to wait for the sunlight to show up and then pack it up and head on home.  The ascent back up to Pine Mountain wasn’t too hard this morning and the sky was blue and cloudless like yesterday.  I made it out from Scott Gap to my car in less than an hour and 10 minutes. I didn’t see a single person (or Buddy for that matter) this morning. 

I’m glad to have my first solo trip under my belt and know that I’m confident enough to make good decisions about my situation.  I’m very glad I didn’t risk staying in at 14 without adequate water and, although I was exhausted, I’m definitely glad I thought about running down to campsite 15 for water.  As for the things that go “bump” in the night I feel better too.  After looking around and figuring out what was making noises, I did much better and was able to sleep better as well.  I am, however, very glad to be home.