Month: August 2011

Big/Baxter Creeks with a view from Mt. Sterling – 8/28/11

On Sunday, a friend and I went to the Big Creek area of the Smokies, a place where we’d never been before.  Big Creek is absolutely stunning and truly seems unspoiled when it comes to places in the Smokies.  We both were instantly in love and have decided to go back to this area again very soon!

We began our hike from the Big Creek picnic area and it was a little chilly here Sunday morning.  Lots of shade and early morning meant for cooler temps, so it was great we were hiking to warm up a little!  We began our slow and gentle climb of Big Creek Trail, which is 5.1 miles.  The trail follows a former logging railroad, which was turned into a Jeep road by the CCC.  Walking went quickly up the gentle grade.  At 1.5 miles, we saw Midnight Hole, which is a deep and dark swimming pool used by hikers.  Even though the creek was running pretty low due to lack of rain, it was still pretty deep in some places.  At 2.3 miles we came to a very large, seemingly new bridge running high over the creek. There were tall walls of solid rock on the other side of the creek, which were actually blasted out at the time the railroad was put in.  We continued the gentle climb and passed Brakeshoe Spring at mile 2.8, which appeared to be dry.  Just shy of the 2-hour mark, we made it to our first trailhead at 5.1 miles.  We decided to go ahead up to the Low Gap Trail, 0.2 miles away, just for the sake of going.  Campsite 37 (hikers only!) lies between the two trailheads.  It was a gorgeous site right on Big Creek.  Plenty of water and easy terrain.  I think I know where I’d like to do an easy backpack!  

We made our way back down to the Swallow Fork Trail and got ready for our big climb of the day.  The first 1.5 miles or so were gentle like Big Creek Trail.  We walked along quickly and the trail was just gorgeous.  Lots of greenery and the sounds of the creek made for an awesome walk in the woods.  Add to that the fact that the weather was mild and the sky was blue, clear, and cloudless.  We made it to the foot bridge at Swallow Fork and the water was just gorgeous.  About 0.5 miles further, we reached our first unbridged crossing at McGinty Creek, which was very low and easy to rock-hop. Now, the true climb was to begin.  Looking to your left, you can see remnants of an old campsite that hasn’t been used legally since the early 1970s.  It was flat, lush, and next to the creek.  Looking across the creek, you could tell that the old railroad used to run over there as well.  The climb was never difficult, but was constant and just enough to keep you moving.  At mile 3.1, the trail takes a sharp right turn to go up the side of the mountain.  They really need a sign here because we continued straight and ran into some backpackers who’d done the same.  They let us know that it just goes straight down and stopped looking like a trail after you got to the bottom.  There were only a few sticks at the junction, looking more like light blow-down than blocker to keep you on the right path.  

From here up to mile 4, the climb was steeper, but again never difficult.  On this last stretch we did end up seeing some wildflowers for the first time that day.  There were pink turtlehead and what I think was whorled wood aster.  After one last push up the hill, we’d made it to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trailhead at Pretty Hollow Gap and stopped for lunch under the blue sky.  

After lunch, it was a short 1.5 mile climb to campsite 38 at the base of the fire tower. The short climb was a bit rocky, but ended on a gentle ridge line on a grassy knoll area. Through some of the trees, we could see a view down into Maggie Valley and the promise of amazing views from Mt. Sterling kept us going.  We met back up with the backpackers, after leapfrogging with them at Pretty Hollow Gap, at the junction of Mt. Sterling Trail and continued up the short 0.4 miles to the tower.  When we got there, the skies were clear and the views were stunning.  We climbed up the 6 flights of narrow and steep stairs to the platform and had 360-degree views of at least 5 ridge lines into NC and all of the Smokies, as well as Max Patch to the east.  We took a lot of photos and then made a careful climb down the stairs to the Baxter Creek Trailhead, a trail where we’d lose 4100 feet of elevation in 6.1 miles.

About 0.3 miles down the trail we came to an illegal campsite with trash in the “fire pit” at the junction of the water source for campsite 38.  People wonder why there were signs up saying aggressive bears are in the area…  We continued the steep climb downhill through forests full of large, dead fir trees and dead hemlocks.  The forest was interesting on this trail, as all the large trees were dead, but the ground was usually covered by thick mosses and ferns, keeping the landscape green.  Two miles down the trail we came to a switchback with a sign pointing us in the right direction of the trail, as Big Branch Manway intersects here.  We also saw lots of galax along this part of the trail.  We continued downward into a rhododendron tunnel that was extensive.  When there were breaks in the rhodo tunnels, there would be chestnut snags to the sides of the trails.  It was encouraging to see sprouts from the root systems, but also sad knowing that the blight would get them too as soon as they grew large enough for the bark to split.  We continued down the mountain in the strangely green dead tree forest.  With about 1.75 miles to do down the trail, it started to level out a bit and the large boulders we’d seen at Big Creek were back, as well as a few very large rock walls that had been blasted in the days of the railroad.  We’d crossed several very dry creek beds in this flatter portion of trail and a few wetter seeps, but nothing that wasn’t easily rock-hopped.  Very suddenly, you can hear the water of Baxter Creek and evidence of CCC trail work is everywhere with rock walls.  

The end of the trail definitely snuck up on us with lots of people at the picnic area watching their kids play in the creek.  We crossed the bridge and were at the trailhead at about 4 p.m.  We saw lots of picnicing families and thought about grabbing us a few hotdogs and chips before we left.  Big Creek is definitely a gem in the Smokies and I can’t wait to return!

Jake’s Creek, Panther Creek, and Middle Prong – 8/24/11

There are some days that are just too beautiful to stay inside and do work.  Tuesday was one of those days!  My friend, Elise, was doing Experience Your Smokies that day and finished up at 1:30.  I met her at the Middle Prong Trailhead and we drove together to Elkmont at Jake’s Creek to do a shuttle hike on a gorgeous afternoon. 

We didn’t take into account that tourists would still be driving close to 15 mph through the park, so we didn’t make it onto the trail until 2:45.  Jakes Creek trail is now about 0.5 miles longer due to the fact that they’ve put up a new gate down the road a bit from the old parking area.  No big deal though, as it was a gently sloped gravel road.  We continued up Jakes Creek Trail, passing the trailheads for Cucumber Gap and Meigs Mountain very quickly.  The roadbed continued up the gentle hill for about 1.2 miles, ending at a foot bridge.  After crossing the bridge, the trail began a steeper, but never difficult, ascent to the terminus at Jake’s Gap.  There wasn’t much to see in the way of flowers, other than the occasional magenta droppings from the Frasier Fir Magnolia trees along the trail.  The woods were quiet today, other than hearing the water from Waterdog Branch, which we followed for about half of the trail. 

At about 2.6 miles, we passed campsite 27.  It was a larger site, very quiet and clean.  I didn’t hear any water, but we hadn’t stopped to explore the site, so there could have been a spring or a seep down the hill a bit.  After the campsite, the trail leveled out a bit and gently climbed one more mile to Jakes Gap (Note – your brown book mileage is 3.3, but the official milage of this trail is now 3.7 miles due to the new gate up at the parking area).  

We reached Jakes Gap in a 1:15 and began our rapid descent down Panther Creek Trail. I’d hiked this trail in wet weather before, so I was amazed at how dry it actually was. The rhododendron tunnels on this trail made for a nice walk in the woods, as the day was already relatively cool for August.  At close to 1.3 miles down the trail, it switchbacks into the old railroad bed we’d follow all the way back to our cars.  We did some quick rock hopping before finally coming to the end of Panther Creek Trail, where we’d be getting our feet wet!  Here, we’d cross Lynn Camp Prong, which wasn’t nearly has high as it was in May when I hiked it this year.  Since my feet were already damp from an earlier crossing, I just trudged across and wrung out my socks at the other side.  Elise changed into her Chacos and was able to keep her shoes dry. We were now ready to move the last 2.3 miles down Middle Prong Trail. 

About 0.5 miles down the trail, there’s a spur trail into the woods (on your left if you’re coming down) where you can go see an old Cadillac that was moved off the road and left for dead in the logging era of the park.  Elise took some photos, as she’d never seen it before, and we continued on our way down the trail.  There are some beautiful waterfalls along Lynn Camp Prong, so we got to follow them all the way back down to the trailhead, which made for nice background noise.  

We made it back to the cars at 5:50 p.m. and had a pleasant drive back to Elkmont at a little higher speed than we did the first time.  The sky was bright blue and cloudless all afternoon and the Tuesday afternoon hike was totally worth me having to work until midnight last night.  I wish I could do do that every week. 

Grapeyard Ridge & Baskins Creek – 8-21-11

From time to time we all go on a less than awesome hike… This hike was one of them! Having hiked for several years now, I usually know which trails in the Smokies I’m not going to enjoy and the reasons why.  I, however, remained optimistic and put on my happy hiking face and hiked it anyway. 

Grapeyard Ridge Trail is fairly new in the way of trails in the Smokies, having only appeared on maps in the 1980s, but it was actually built in the 1930s by the CCC.  There were also many settlers that lived in the area, including some of the Parton Family. Anyway, let’s get on to talking about the hike, shall we?

We met up at Rainbow Falls Trailhead at 7:40 a.m. so we could all pile in one car and drive to Greenbrier for a shuttle hike.  We got to Greenbrier quickly and were ready to hit the trail  by 8:15.  Early start on a 10.3-mile hike means early finish!  Grapeyard Ridge Trail is an easy climb at the very beginning.  There wasn’t a whole lot to see on this overcast morning, as most wildflowers are now out of season.  The gentle climb did produce two very lonely cardinal flowers at the 4th stream crossing, however.  The trail is very easy-going until this point and then more steeply (but never difficulty) climbs up through a long rhododendron tunnel to James Gap.  When you near the top you can hear the stream and when you come slightly downhill to cross Injun Creek, you’ll see remnants of a steam train wreck.  Here, in the creek, is the resting place of engine 4246, which crashed on it’s very first voyage to get timber in the 1920s.  We took some quick photos on continued on our way to campsite 32.  

We reached 32 quickly and stopped to take a quick look around the homesite as we were in no hurry today.  We had 1.7 miles until we reached a horse concession trail. This point also marked the beginning of where horses were allowed to use Grapeyard Ridge, so we knew mud and rocks would be in store for the next few miles.  The trail began to gently climb and would continue to do so until we reached the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  On the short stretch between 32 and the horse concession, we saw many artifacts, including stone walls and foundations, as well as an old stove door, reminding us of the people who lived in these mountains 80 years ago.  The trail continued to make the muddy, rutted climb.  At the top, you could hear the traffic on the Motor Trail and we knew we were close to a lunch break.  Grapeyard then descends down about 0.3 miles to a small clearing with a homesite containing a barn, cabin, and corn crib.  This cabin, like most in the Smokies, was not originally at this location and was brought it.  It was also, like all cabins in the Smokies, vandalized with people carving their names and dates of visits.  If you’re one of these morons, FYI: No one cares you were ever here.  Vandalism of a 100-year-old home is really uncool and you’re an asshole.  

We stopped here and had lunch at the creek before continuing on to Baskins Creek Trail, which runs 2.7 miles end-to-end and terminates at Trillium Gap Trail.  Baskins Creek is what is known to many hikers as a PUD – pointless up and down.  There is, however, a small waterfall in the middle of the trail only a short distance off, so I guess if you want to see that it’s not pointless.  If you hiked it, you might consider it pointless 🙂  We begin Baskins Creek Trail on a gravel drive up to a family cemetery that was fenced in and closed for renovation.  One look at the grounds and you can see why.  It appeared the cemetery was built up onto a hillside and was badly eroded.  There was no grass covering anything, only a thin layer of moss.  It was very eerie and looked like no other cemetery I’d seen in the park.  After the cemetery, it was a short climb and then rapid descent into a valley down to Baskins Creek Falls.  We reached the spur trail and followed it down to see the falls, bonus miles as we like to call it!  There was an old homesite and the trail was well-maintained as far as side trails go.  As it started to steeply descend to the falls, I walked into a tree limb so hard it knocked off my hat. That didn’t feel pleasant and the trail got steep, so I grabbed a place with a view of the falls and waited for my friends to rejoin me for the final climb.  

The final phase of Baskins Creek Trail is an 800-foot climb in 0.75 miles.  We passed a spur and a sign for Baskins Creek Cemetery and the hill began immediately.  After what seemed like FOREVER, the hill ended with a great view of LeConte, Sugarland Mountain, Cove Mountain, and Blanket Mountain.  This was the only view of the day.  The hike ended with us walking back on the road against traffic.  We were stopped by a minivan full of people with New York tags asking us “DID YOU SEE A BEAR!?!?!” very excitedly. We all just looked confused and they repeated the question.  I told them no, we hadn’t.  If they wanted to see one I suggested they get out of their cars and go into the woods.  At the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, where we’d parked, a man in a large truck asked us “How far to them waterfalls? Cause my wife just had a hip replacement.”  I told him it was 3 miles uphill to Rainbow Falls.  They seemed very confused by this.

All in all, I’m glad I got out to hike.  I can safely say, however, these trails weren’t much to see and were a little too close to the part of the Smokies I hate, the tourist side where people don’t bother to get out of their cars, even to take photos.    

Day 3 of 3 – Bote Mountain

Day 3 began a bit earlier than the other two… at 7:15 a.m. the last of the torrential downpours began and we were already awake, so we decided to have some tea and coffee along with a snack and get off the mountain, especially since we didn’t know what the weather had in store for us!

Elise and I set out from Russell Field at 7:50 a.m. and began making the trek in some light rain.  After about 20 minutes the rain finally let up.  The views from the AT were nonexistent on Sunday.  At about 5300 feet, we had nothing around us except for the mist the Smokies are famous for.  The stretch from Russell to Spence Field was easier after resting all night and definitely made for an enjoyable walk.  We made it the 3 miles to Bote Mountain Trail in 55 minutes and it was truly the ego boost we needed after the hard second day we’d had.  After a small celebration of our awesomeness, we set off down Bote Mountain Trail.  

Bote Mountain Trail is an old road built in the 1800s and is truly in wonderful shape for about 75% of the trail.  It’s definitely worn in with the ridges around you at least waist high from years of people herding cattle to the balds in the days before the park.  The run off system for the top part of the trail is also in really excellent condition, making the rocks and mud almost bearable in the nasty weather.  We reached 1.7 miles at the Anthony Creek Trail very quickly and kept on moving on down.  From there, it was 1.2 miles to the Lead Cove Trail and what is normally a pretty amazing view of Defeat Ridge and Rocky Top.  Today, however, there were no views to be had.  The sun was starting to peek through a little bit and it was about 10:05 a.m.  I’d hiked the section of Bote Mountain from here to Finely Cane Trail before and I knew the real fun was about to begin.  This stretch of Bote Mountain is nice, fairly level for about 1 mile.  In the 2.5 miles to Finely Cane, however, the trail begins a good downhill section with rocks as far as the eye can see (and usually further ahead than you can see is a safe bet as well!) This section of the trail started to take it’s toll on our feet and our balance.  We did lots of tripping and stumbling with a bit of cursing as well 🙂  I had remembered that this section of trail plays tricks on the mind as well.  Every time you come around a curve you think “oh I bet the trailhead is right up there.”  A safe bet for me was to give it 2-3 more curves.  

After reaching the Finely Cane Trail at 11:15 Elise and I did some celebrating.  We’d made it down from Russell Field so quickly that we knew we’d be out by 12 p.m.  Well, noon couldn’t come fast enough for us after those rocks!  Luckily, from here on out we’d have smooth trail and it’d go quickly.  We reached the West Prong Trailhead in 0.3 miles and booked it on down the trail.  The remaining part of Bote Mountain from this point is a short and easy 1.2 miles on a very gentle, very smooth roadbed.  Honestly, it was nice to not have the rocks, but the smoothness of the trail was really beginning to make my feet ache.  I guess I was so used to the unsteadiness of the rocks that it was bizarre not having to watch the ground.  

About 0.75 miles from the terminus of the trail, I saw a close to 40-pound bear cub leap across the trail.  After calling out to it a few times and making sure we didn’t hear or see a momma bear around, we continued quickly down to the end of the trail.  We heard the road at nearly the same moment it became visible.  All of a sudden you see cars whizzing by and a trail sign.  I yelled out “I SEE THE ROAD!!” and we were yelling and skipping!  It was a short 200 feet or so back to the parking lot at School House Gap where we’d left Elise’s car on Friday morning.  When we reached the car at exactly 11:42 a.m., the sun came out and the sky turned blue.  

After we’d reached the parking lot, people were pulling in wearing church clothes and carrying bags and bags of fast food.  We cleaned ourselves up and headed on home after a wonderful and ass-kicking weekend of hiking in the Smokies.  We’d hiked 10.9 miles on that last day, bringing our total to close to 43 miles for the weekend.  

Day 2 of 3 – Jenkins Ridge

Day 2 of our backpacking trip is a little short (aka – more readable!) at 13 miles.  While it was short to read, it was definitely long and tough to hike, but it was a beautiful day and we were outside, so I consider it worth it!

We slept in a bit Saturday morning and took our time eating breakfast and getting ready for the tough day ahead.  We’d been prepping for Jenkins Ridge all summer, which was going to be TOUGH.  It climbs 3,000 feet in about 9 miles, which doesn’t sound like a lot. When you look at your brown book or your topo map, you’ll see that the large climbs come in bursts of 600-800 feet in less than a mile, which makes for tough climbing with a 24-pound backpack!

We left out of campsite 83 and quickly made our way the 0.8 miles to the Jenkins Ridge Trailhead.  We saw someone was camping at 84, but didn’t see any people.  We quickly made our way up Jenkins, knowing the first 2.4 miles would be easy as this was an old road.  This trail used to be called Sugar Fork and was separate from Jenkins until about 20 years ago.  I don’t know why they joined them because the trails are definitely distinct.  About 1.5 miles in we could hear, but not see, some guys fishing on the creek and these would be the only other voices we’d hear until 7 p.m. that night.  After reaching the end of Sugar Fork we came to an illegal campsite with a jacket, fleece blanket, and a tarp left behind.  We could also see down the old Pinnacle Creek Manway, which was still marked with an “unmaintained trail” sign.  It looked to be in decent shape up by this sign though.  At 10:15, we started our ascent of Jenkins Ridge.  Until this point, the climb had been easy.  When turning and looking at the sign that said “Appalachian Trail 6.5” and seeing the trail in front of us, it got very real.  The trail at this point went STRAIGHT UP the side of the hill without any switchbacks.  

We began to make our first ascent up to Woodward Knob, which was about 1000 feet in about 0.75 miles.  It was amazing how quickly everything started to change.  The climb was hard, but never TOO hard.  I was hoping we’d have some good views, but there were none to be had.  We could, however, look down the hill and see how high and how fast we’d climbed and I think that was a great motivator.  The best thing, in my opinion of this trail, was the fact that there were no switchbacks.  The trail was laid out in front of us and you could see pretty much at all times what you were facing.  It really helped when it came down to the “how much higher can this possibly go” moments.  After reaching the top of Woodward Knob, we took a short break and then a very quick descent followed by a steep ascent up to Cherry Knob.  This climb was about 800 feet in about 0.75 miles.  After we reached the top, we knew we had one more really big climb before we’d get a good break.  We collected our thoughts and made the big climb to Haw Gap.  This climb was close to 900 feet in about 1 mile, but still relentless.  When we reached the top, we were at DeArnold Bald.  We stopped here for a break at about 1:15.  

Not only were were tired and thirsty, but the bald was so overgrown we’d lost the trail. We sat down for 15 minutes or so, looked at the map and determined where we thought the trail went.  At 1:30 we set out and we had found the trail almost immediately. Following it, however, was another story.  The blackberries and serviceberry were thorny and pulled at us and cut us up.  It didn’t take long to get through, but when blackberry thorns pull at your cuticles, you can believe it makes it seem a lot longer!  We went across two pretty dried up seeps and the trail here was pretty level for about 1 mile.  We reached Gunna Creek and decided to stock up on water for the night, as we’d heard the AT was pretty dry right now.  We took a short snack break, restocked, and headed on our way.  We only had about 400 feet more to climb to the AT in about 1.8 miles, so it was a cake walk.  This entire portion of the trail from Haw Gap to the AT was overgrown with blackberries and had some small blowdown.  About 0.2 miles from the top of Jenkins, the trail turns into a bald area and the grasses take over.  When we reached the top and I saw the trailhead, I felt so accomplished.  I also knew we still had about 3 miles to go until we could rest.  

We had reservations for Spence Field that night, but we had to be moved to Russell Field due to an agressive bear.  It was only about 0.5 mile to Spence Field and I wished we would have been able to stay there, as it was about 3:00 and my energy was nearly spent.  The sun was shining and the views on the AT were amazing once again.  We made it to the Eagle Creek junction with Spence Field and knew we needed to get our reserved energy going to make it the 2.9 miles to Russell Field.  Until this point, I’d been feeling pretty good and confident about my hiking skills.  We’d hiked Jenkins slowly, but I was still happy to have done it.  These last 2.9 miles had a short uphill bit and I had a blister that was slowly making my day miserable.  We took a short break after passing some day hikers, who didn’t greet us after we’d said hello, at about 4 p.m. We knew at this point we’d be to the shelter about 4:30 if we’d just get a move on.  

The last 30 minutes of the hike I spent motivating myself.  It had started to get darker in the sky and some dark clouds were looming.  I kept telling myself it could rain all it wanted as long as I made it to the shelter first.  At 4:35, I saw the double blaze on the tree and I knew I was there.  The shelter was AWESOME!  Sky lights, new trail signs, nice bear cables, a horse area far away from the shelter… AMAZING!  Elise came rolling in about 5 minutes later and we were the only people there.  We took our time settling down and had to shoo away a bear that was a little too close for comfort.  Sure enough, there was no water.  Well, no water you’d want to drink anyway.  It was pretty stagnant and muddy.  At about 6:45 an older man came in and was almost completely out of water.  He decided to stay here for the night as well. 

The night at the shelter was uneventful other than torrential downpours all night, every 2 hours.  Starting at 11:15 p.m., I ran out and put my poncho on my pack and then, like clockwork, it would torrentially downpour for about half an hour.  It continued to do it all night, but it kept the critters away.  I had worried the rain would create an issue with the mice in the shelter, but I only saw one all night and that was before we’d gone to bed.  We’d done 13 miles, but it was a tough day.  

Day 1 of 3 – Hazel Creek

Starting on Friday, August 12th, my friend Elise and I did a three-day backpack in the Smokies covering some major ground making a 42-mile weekend.  

We had my husband drop us off at Clingman’s Dome.  It was actually clear Friday morning, so we all went up to the dome for some photos.  It’s the first time any of us had been able to really see anything from up there.  You could even see pockets of Fontana Lake with the fog over them.  It was truly beautiful.  We walked back down to the AT and started off at close to 10 a.m.  The first 4.25 miles or so of this hike were on the AT and the views in every direction were spectacular.  The sky was so clear and bright, everything was green and the trail was in amazing shape.  We saw several trail maintainers from the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club up there as well.  We also ate some blackberries from the trail along the way to Welch Ridge.  We passed some boy scouts around mile 2.5 and they had stayed at Silers Bald the night before.  We cruised along the AT quickly, close to 3 miles per hour, and reached Welch Ridge Trail pretty quickly.  Here is where we ran into the last people we’d see for the day.  Three guys had hiked down Forney Creek and up Welch Ridge.  

We were only on Welch Ridge for a short amount of time and didn’t loose to much elevation from there.  The trail was in wonderful shape and gave us great views down into the valley, a glimpse of what was to come later in our day.  The trail leveled out a bit again and we reached the Hazel Creek trailhead about 12:15.  The sign post looked like it had been chewed on a bit, the sign resting on the ground.  After double checking our map and Elise’s memory, we made sure it was pointing the correct way, ha ha!

We took a short lunch break and started down the Hazel Creek Trail about 12:30.  The descent began immediately with a few switchbacks thrown in for good measure.  The trail was steep, but never tough.  Close to 2 miles down the trail we had a fairly large blowdown to navigate, which actually meant us taking off our packs and climbing under and then over a tree, handing each other our gear and really slowing us down.  After navigating the blowdown, we came to a switch back with an illegal campsite right on Hazel Creek.  This also marked our first creek crossing on Hazel Creek, the first of 16. The crossing was a good, quick rockhop and I made it through with dry feet.  Elise, however, wasn’t so lucky.  She tossed her boots across after putting on her Chacos for the wet part of the trail.  Unfortunately, her boots didn’t make it across the creek and landed IN the creek.  It was funny and we both laughed pretty hard, but sometimes stuff like that happens in the woods.  You just pick up your stuff and head out 🙂  After our first crossing, we had a short stretch of trail that was pretty dry.  We also saw our first wildlife – an adult male black bear.  Elise was a bit in front of me at this point and he was walking right towards us.  By the time I saw him, he had completely stopped with his ears up.  He was about 400 feet from us and I’d estimate close to 170 pounds.  He saw us standing there and decided he wanted nothing to do with us, so he left rather quickly in the opposite direction.  We continued on for about 3.5 uneventful miles.  The stream crossings were numerous, but never hard. 

Finally, we get to where Walker Creek and Hazel Creek meet.  The trail at this point had become a road and had visible and fresh tire tracks from a park service vehicle.  When you get to this point, if going down hill, you’ll see a foot trail off to the right of the trail. We didn’t take this, but I wish we would have.  These two creek crossings are pretty deep, knee deep in lower water.  I finally got my feet wet and I was pretty bummed.  I had made it so far with dry feet too!  From these last two crossings it was close to 1 mile to campsite #82.  We were beginning to see artifact and homesite remains at this point.  We made the quick walk down to 82 and it was close to 3 p.m. at this point. Campsite #82 was a bear’s heaven.  Up by the bear lines was the horse camp and the backpackers camp is down by the river.  The horse camp area was strewn with so much litter it was unreal.  I’d estimate at least 5 pounds of trash EVERYWHERE up here.  So much and so large we couldn’t pick it up and carry it for three days.  Pop bottles, so many torn up Mountain House bags I couldn’t even count them all.  Everyone wonders why I hate horse campers and the reason was right in front of me.  Elise and I took a break and cleaned up our feet and dried them off.  We still had quite a few more miles down to camp for the night.  The good news was that we were staying at 83 and had a short distance to go!

We passed Cold Spring Gap and the ranger bunkhouse soon after hitting the trail again. We had another short creek crossing here, but nothing too major.  We end up seeing the junction for Bone Valley Trail at close to 4:30, which meant two things, we were at camp and there was a bridge over the creek – NO MORE WET FEET!  We took a short break at camp, changed into some good creek shoes, and went ahead and headed up Bone Valley Trail, leaving our backpacks and gear other than some water at the campsite.  

Bone Valley Trail is one I’ve always wanted to do.  It’s fairly short, only 1.8 long to the terminus, but there’s a beautifully preserved cabin at the end.  I’ve loved looking at the photos and always wanted to see it.  The creek crossings on this trail are pretty wet, close to knee deep for 4 of the 5, so I seriously recommend a good pair of shoes you don’t mind getting wet if you come out this far.  The trail was flat and walking went quickly.  We reached the Hall/Kress cabin at 6:15.  I was truly amazed at the beauty of something so simple.  There were still glass panes in the windows, none of them broken.  There was also a lock on the front door with a hole for a skeleton key.  I found this a bit amusing because I never really thought of people in the mountains to ever lock their doors. We also decided to head up to the family cemetery about 0.5 miles up from the house.  This trail actually went uphill and we were pretty spent.  

We made it back to camp that night about 7:30 and settled in quickly. By dark about an hour later, we were both ready for a good night’s sleep and the beauty of a full moon. If you’re planning a trip to Hazel Creek, I highly recommend campsite 83.  It was very large and spread out.  We were the only ones there Friday night, but it’s right on the creek and very serene!  With the extra mile to the cemetery we’d done, we hit right at 20 miles for our first day. 

AT gear

On Sunday, I had planned to hike up Rainbow Falls Trail and down Bullhead Trail to Mount LeConte, but I think I really did too much last week and now I’m just exhausted.  Instead, I went shopping and bought some new trail shoes (Montrail is a really great shoe).  I never thought I’d be into a non-waterproof trail shoe.  I was a hardcore Gortex boot girl forever!

I’m also trying to start narrowing down AT gear right now.  I was in the market for new trekking poles, but I think I’m going to stick with my Leki’s and get new tips for them before I head out.  I was really wanting the quick lock ones they have now, but I couldn’t find any Leki’s with antishock and quick lock.  The last thing I’m really needing to get is a one person tent and I think I’ve narrowed it down to the Hubba by MSR.  I think I’m going to stick with my pocket rocket stove by MSR as well.  I really wasn’t a fan of our alcohol stove and I know people who love their alcohol stoves, but it’s just not for me.  

I think I’m going to stick with my backpack, which is a Nimbus Ki from Mountain Hardware.  It’s an amazing and comfortable pack and it doesn’t hold more than I need. I think it’s 3800 cc and that’s enough room.  I’d really love to switch to a Deuter pack, as my husband loves his, but I’m really happy with my pack and I think the AT would be a great trek and last hurrah for it.  I’m pretty sure it will be happily retired when I return and I can switch to the Deuter when I get back.  

The thing I’m having the most problem with now is clothing.  Not just the whole when to buy synthetic vs. down/wool, but the sizes as well.  I’m still losing weight right now and dropping clothing sizes and it’s been difficulty to pin down what clothing brands I’d like to stick with, mostly because my weight has been changing and my clothes for outdoors haven’t really ever fit correctly.  I find that outdoor brands run smaller than other brands.  If it says it’s an 8, I find it to fit like a 6 in Columbia especially.  I think for shirts thus far I’m going to stick with a cheaper wicking shirt and toss them every 400 or so miles and have new ones sent.  I’ve been reading that synthetic wicking shirts hold the smells a lot more, but if you buy the cheaper Champion brand (Target has them on sale for 7.99, but the most I’ve ever seen them for is 10 bucks) you can afford to toss them when they start to hold the smells and not be hurting like you would if you bought the 40-dollar Columbia one (I have two of them and I find the Champion brand seriously works just as well).  I think I’m going to splurge on convertible pants for the entire trail.  That way I can have shorts or pants depending on the temps in the spring.  

As far as undergarments go, I’m seriously a fan of UnderAmour.  It helps that my sister works for them too 🙂  I find their sports bras and underwear are amazing at wicking and I’ll be sticking with them.  For long underwear, I have Columbia synthetic base layers that I really like, but I’m not sure yet if I’ll splurge for Smartwool.  I know that wool doesn’t hold the smells like the synthetic does and that it will breathe better. Breathability is always a plus in the base layer, especially when you know you’ll be sweating some time while you’re wearing it. 

I’ll be taking my iPhone and I suspect I’ll have the newer iPhone on Verizon.  Our AT&T contract runs out in September.  The new iPhone is rumored to be coming out then as well and we’ll be switching to Verizon.  I was really happy with Sprint for years, but I really like iPhones and it seems that whenever we’re out somewhere on the AT our friends with Verizon seem to have the most reliable service, especially in New England. Since the phone can play music and update my blog and emails and make phone calls and has a camera I think it’s wise to bring it along and turn it on every few days to do these things.  I know some people hate the idea of using that stuff in the woods, but I think I’ll like talking to friends and family when my morale runs low.  

So, here’s my gear list so far: 

Tent: MSR Hubba is on the list for purchase

Sleeping pad: Thermarest Women’s prolite 4

Bag: Undecided.  I have a synthetic 20-degree, but I’m not really liking it for the weight or comfort level… 

Poles: Leki SuperMalaki I bought last year on clearance for only 75 bucks!

Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket

Pack: Mountain Hardware Nimbus Ki

Shoes: Montrail.  I just bought the Badrock, but I’m sure I’ll change it up for the AT. For camp shoes I’ll be wearing Tevas or Chacos. I think Crocs are hideous and uncomfortable.

Clothing: Cheap shirts, convertible pants

Underwear: UnderAmour and probably Smartwool base layers.  I wear Smartwool socks at all times in the woods. 

Tech: iPhone with headphones for music on days I’d like to be alone. 

That about sums it up… anything I forgot?

Kayaking the Hiawassee River

I took a break from hiking this weekend to go kayaking with some friends on the Hiawassee River in Reliance, TN. I’ll be the first to admit I’m an amateur kayaker, having only done it about five times or so.  It’s always a lot of fun to do something you’re unfamiliar with and polish your skills, however. 

For this trip, it was my first time in Hiawassee, which is a dam-released river.  That means the water moves and it’s a little chilly, but given the heat and humidity in the south lately, it was a welcome chill indeed!  We used Hiawassee Outfitters and I’ve got to say it was pretty packed when we got there.  I’ve noticed that as far as rafting outfitters go, they’re usually scatterbrained and unprepared and the same goes for this place.  At least the people were nice and helpful for the most part.  David and I got placed in the wrong group, despite having told them at least three times who we were with.  This also happens a lot with outfitters for me.  I have no idea why.  

Anyway, after being crammed onto a tiny little bus and driving up curvy backcountry roads we finally reached the put in point and were able to get in the water at about 1:15.  For this trip, David and I both got our own sit-on-top kayaks.  Usually we go for the inflatables with a rental company, so this was a new experience for both of us.  I have to say I really like the sit-on-tops the best so far.  I’ve used a regular kayak for a flatwater paddle before and I wasn’t really a fan.  I think I feel more comfortable in the sit on top as they have the foot pedals and you can bail out if you flip instead of trying to roll.  I did end up flipping on this trip, which is the first time I’ve fallen out.  Instead of being nervous, I was oddly calm and serene.  The only thing I had a problem with was getting my feet up.  No matter how hard I tried, they kept going under me.  I’ve also decided I hate rental PFD’s and I think we’ll probably get our own from now on.  I really don’t like all the padding around the neck area.  Not only does it creep up when you’re paddling, it pretty much keeps you from being able to communicate when you flip.  It was hard to get any words out when that thing was up around my ears.  

As far as day trips, we did this paddle in 2 hours and it was pretty enjoyable other than the fact that the river was just so packed.  The tubers were the worst part of it I think.  They were linked together by throw lines most of the time and were hard to avoid for a novice paddler.  Other than that, it was a leisurely day followed by a BBQ with some friends afterwards.  

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!

Thomas Divide and Newton Bald Trail 7-31-11

While Odyssa might have been finishing up her journey that day, Elise and I were having our very own “rockstar hike.”  We finished this 10.3 mile hike in 3:50 and were loving the fact that we’d have a night free on Sunday!

We had originally planned to go up Newton Bald Trail, over to Sunkota Ridge, and come out somewhere in the Deep Creek area.  Unfortunately, a friend of ours couldn’t make the hike and my sting was still itching (and we weren’t sure how it would do on the uphills, as it burned quite a bit Saturday), so we made an executive decision to finish out Thomas Divide and go down Newton Bald for a short day hike.  We were hoping for some extra scenery, but the brown book let us know we weren’t in for anything special really on any of the trails we’d planned on originally hiking anyway.  We slept in Sunday and prepped for a short hike.  After David dropped us off, we set off at exactly 10:30 a.m. and on to the undulation of the Thomas Divide Trail.  The first 1.8 miles went REALLY quickly and from there until Newton Bald it was exactly the same trail we’d hiked the day before.  

We reached the Newton Bald trailhead rather quickly, I think in less than 2 hours and set off for a short uphill climb to the bald.  Shortly after campsite 52, we ran into three backpackers that Elise had met the day before when she returned Mary and Rebekah to the trailhead at Kanati Fork.  They’d stayed at 52 and were following Benton McKaye Trail up to campsite 50 for the next night.  We wished them a happy hike and continued on our way up.  After reaching Newton Bald, we knew the trail would be downhill all the way.  

Shortly after starting our descent, the sky began to get dark.  It was so interesting heading downhill because we were on the darker side of the hill.  We could see blue skies and dark skies on either side of us.  We hoped the rain would hold out, but it didn’t.  Today’s rain was very light and only lasted maybe an hour, which was good for Elise since she’d left her poncho in her trunk!  The only thing we really saw of note on this trail was one measly indian cucumber.  Plenty of green ferns everywhere once we got down to the halfway point, but really not any flowers.  We didn’t see a single hiker until we hit 0.3 miles to the end, where a horse concession trail meets up with Newton Bald Trail.  This last 0.3 miles was terribly eroded and muddy and nearly impassible.  It’s truly a shame that horses are still allowed on the fragile trails in the Smokies, but that’s another discussion for another time (later this week on my blog, actually).  

Anyway, we saw we could finish the hike in less than 4 hours and we were totally stoked!  The sun came out full force for the last 1 mile or so and it was a race to the finish.  We get to the trailhead at the 3 hour and 50 minute mark and I was really excited to make such a good time.  We finished out the hike with some stretching and putting our tired feet into the Oconaluftee River at the end.  

At the end of the weekend, Elise and I banked 26.9 miles.  Not too bad for a couple of day hikers.