Month: September 2011

AT Adventure Weekend! – Day 3

Day 3 started out earlier than day 2. The nicer of the two thru hikers was up at sunrise and out of the shelter at 7:15 a.m. The second left shortly after. We set out at 8:15 and had plenty of uphill hiking awaiting, including the first 0.4 miles back uphill to the AT.

The first two miles after reaching the AT that morning were rough for me. I think it was rough due to the fact that the wind was blowing pretty hard and the fog hadn’t lifted yet. I usually have a tough time breathing when you can see the humidity in the air like that. Add that to the 5500’ elevation and the fact the wind was blowing and you’ve got a tough time breathing! We had some ups and down those first two miles, but by the time we’d reached Laurel Top and Bradley’s View at 5907’ the fog began to lift and it was time for more photos. Sadly, my camera died so I got none. From here, we got a break from the uphill for a little bit and descended and undulated until we got down into False Gap, which technically is a sag on the back of Porters Mountain.

Climbing up onto Porters Mountain, it is very clear the trail here was hand dug due to the fact that you’re on a very narrow ledge, a knife-edge, with 70-80% grades off to each side of you. The views were phenomenal, including LeConte and Charlies Bunion. We descended down the hill to Porters Gap and up another to Dry Sluice Gap Trailhead. Dry Slucie Gap runs down to Smokemont, while the other way is a manway down a 70% grade to Greenbrier at the Porters Creek Trail, often called the hardest trail in the park. The trail is so steep, the last mile gains nearly 2000’ in elevation.

From Dry Slucie Gap, we had 4.4 miles back to the car and we kicked it into high gear. We busted up the 0.5 mile hill to Charlies Bunion and the guys went out to get some photos while Lydia and I took a break and took in the views. After leaving the Bunion at 11:30, we began to see the huge number of day hikers coming out to see the sights. From Charlies Bunion, we had 0.8 miles of uphill left to Icewater Springs Shelter and we all knew the hill was brutal. We powered through, passed lots of hikers, some of whom cheered for us carrying our heavy packs, and made it up to the ridge line of Mt. Ambler. We were all very happy for level and downhill grades! Unfortunately for us, it was rocky going back down the hill, but we powered on down, passing more and more hikers as we went.

We reached the 0.25 miles to go mark where the trail widens out to what we liked to call the 4-lane highway. Stairs were built into the trail and the rocks had gone, giving way to soft dirt. This is also considered to be the most widely used part of the entire Appalachian Trail due to all the tourist traffic coming in from Newfound Gap. When they reach the rocks, however, the tourists seem to turn around!

We all walked down to the trailhead together and back into reality with hundreds of people around taking photos of the signs and gawking at hikers. Some asked if we were thru hikers, to which JD replied “Well, we’re through today!” and others asked if we could recommend a good hike for their family of 20 in flip flops and seemed upset when we told them the maps were a whole dollar to buy.

All in all, this trip was tough. Our total mileage with the off-trail was 29.2 and we gained a total of 9200+ feet in elevation for the entire weekend. It was a challenge, but it was amazing and it truly made me feel alive!

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AT Adventure Weekend! – Day 2

Day 2 begins with us saying goodbye to campsite 29 and praying for better views. We left camp at 9:15 and the fog had begun to lift, but the sun hadn’t quite shown through.  Since yesterday we went downhill to camp, we began with a 1000’ in 1.5 miles hike up to the Snake Den Ridge Trail.  The sun started to shine and by the time we reached Maddron Bald the views were absolutely stunning.  JD arrived first and was up on the bald when I got there.  I headed up and took some photos of Old Black and the clouds blowing up the mountains.  Greg and Lydia soon arrived and we headed up to the trailhead together.  

After reaching Snake Den once again, we only had 0.7 miles up to the AT and the site of the 1984 F4 plane crash.  JD has been to this area before and was telling us about all the debris we could see, but since everything was so grown up and green, it was missed on our hike.  We reached the crash site and ran into three guys hiking down to Davenport Gap and wished them well.  We continued uphill to Deer Creek Gap where there is a helipad on the trail and skirted around Old Black. Our plan for the day was to find the cairn that lead up the manway to the summit of Old Black and follow this manway to the summit of Mt. Guyot (6370’ and 6621’, respectively).  After swinging around the side of Old Black and not seeing the manway, we continued on to Mt. Guyot and looked for the cairn.  Again, we didn’t see it and decided to bushwhack our way to the top as one of us in the group was doing the South Beyond 6K.  

Bushwhacking up Guyot was tough considering we all had full packs on.  Given the bear situation this year, the fact they have nothing to eat, and the fact that we’d never find our packs again if we set them down, we hauled them all the way up to the summit.  We climbed up nearly 0.5 miles and finally made it to the top. We could see a stand of dead fir trees and by using GPS we knew the benchmark for the summit was right in the middle.  The only thing between us and the summit was substantial blowdown.  We tried to navigate it and came within 20 feet or so of the summit before deciding we couldn’t do any more than we had already done. We took a few photos of Old Black through the trees and headed back down.  

From here to Tricorner, where we stopped for lunch, it was nearly level and then began a gradual downhill descent to the shelter.  We stopped in for lunch and a refill of our water.  We met some college guys hiking down to Cosby and wished them well and began another uphill to the top of Mt. Chapman, the fourth-highest peak in the Smokies at 6417’.  From here, there was some undulation to Mt. Sequoya (5945’) and down nearly 500’ to Copper Gap.  We then climbed back up that 500’ to Eagle Rocks and there were spectacular views into the valley below and we could even see Douglas Lake in the distance.  By now, we were all getting pretty tired and were ready to make it to camp for the night.  The last 1.4 miles were all downhill to Pecks Corner Shelter and we busted it out to get there at 5 p.m.  There were three other hikers there that night, two guys that were thru hikers and coming back to cover some ground again and a third guy who lived in the area and was working on his fifth park map.  For those who don’t know, hikers often keep copies of a trail map and mark off the trails as they go.  This guy had hiked all the trails in the park four times and was working on his fifth pass.  There are close to 800 miles of maintained trail in the park as of today to give you an idea of how many there are “per map.”  Add up all the other trails you do a lot more than four or five times and you’ve got tons of miles!

Day 2 was an amazing day that wore us out.  We were all in our sleeping bags by 9 p.m.

AT Adventure Weekend! – Day 1

On Friday, I headed out with three other hikers for a 3-day hike on the AT.  We’d do 29.2 miles and gain more than 9200 feet in elevation before the weekend was through.  This weekend was tough, but it truly made me feel alive!

We all met up at the Cosby Campground at 1 p.m. to fill out the permit and head up to campsite 29 via the Snake Den Trail.  Snake Den Trail starts out in the B loop of the campground, so we navigated our way back to the site where the trail begins. As soon as we reached the trailhead it began to rain and we all suited up in our rain gear to being the 4.5-mile, 3000’ climb to Maddron Bald Trail.  

Snake Den Ridge Trail begins on the roadbed for an old fire road.  It is very well-graded and has a small incline. At 0.2 miles there is an intersection with Low Gap and Lower Mt. Cammerer Trails, but it is labeled as a horse trail.  We turned a corner and headed up towards a cemetery on the right and the end of the fire road at mile 0.7. The trail began to narrow and became rocky and muddy and we continued onward, crossing Rock Creek on a log and sturdy foot log.  Now we were able to get rid of our rain gear as we were all warmed up and the rain was just a sporadic drizzle.  After some more climbing and a switchback or two, we crossed Inadu Creek, which wasn’t too high and easily rock-hopped.  It was shortly after this and another switchback where we ran into a man from Dandridge who was hiking up to the AT and back for the afternoon. He gave us some information about the F4 plane crash in 1984, the wreckage of which we’d see on Day 2.  

The trail climbed and climbed through the green and foggy forest, sometimes rocky and slick in spots due to moss on the wet rocks.  At mile 4.2, the trail has a big, open clearing that looked like an awesome spot for a break.  JD let me know it was only 0.3 miles to the trailhead though, so we pushed on to Maddron Bald Trail.  

Our companions caught up and we took a short break before heading downhill to campsite 29, a reservation site on Maddron Bald Trail.  After 0.5 miles, we reached the bald but no views would be seen today.  Just before leaving the bald, the fog got thicker and it was hard to see anyone more than 10 yards away.  We continued downhill through a rhododendron tunnel and a few gentle switchbacks, losing 1000’ elevation in 1.5 miles.  We reached campsite 29 to find we were the only group there for the night and that there was no firewood to be had.  We searched high and low up and down the trail, but all we had were small twigs.  The campsite was, however, on a creek, so water was abundant.  It wasn’t too cold that night and the rain held off, so it was a pleasant fall evening in the back country. 

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: http://bit.ly/keIrXp).  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. 

AT, Road Prong, and Chimney Tops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cataloochee Figure-eight Hike

On 9-10-11 I did my first hike in the Cataloochee area of the Smokies.  The weather was perfect with a hint of fall in the air and the trails were in amazing shape.  This blog post will be a bit long, as we covered more than 17 miles on Caldwell Fork, Rough Fork, Big Fork Ridge, and Boogerman Trails.  I will break it up best I can.  TL;DR – this area is amazing and the trails didn’t disappoint!

We started off our walk across a foot bridge, reportedly the longest in the park at 25’, across Cataloochee Creek.  This foot bridge had a date carved in it from September 1964, as well as a footprint in the concrete of the top step on the side closest to the road.  We crossed the bridge and started on a nice wide, fairly flat trail and were on our way.  At the 0.8 mile mark, we passed over a second foot log and found ourselves at the first of two trailheads for the Boogerman Trail, which we would be coming down later in the day.  The trail had many, many creek crossings, all but one had very sturdy foot logs.  Around 2 miles in, one of the foot bridges was out, due to breaking in half right in the middle, but we were able to take off our shoes and cross safely.  We passed the second Boogerman trailhead and then came to many trail junctions quickly.  Just 0.4 miles further was the Big Fork Ridge Trail, where there was a schoolhouse many years ago.  Only 0.1 miles further was the McKee Branch trailhead, where a spur to a small cemetery where union soliders were buried after a battle.  One of the graves even contains two bodies. About 1.5 miles further we reached the Hemphill Bald trailhead and the site of the former Sutton homestead, where campsite #41 now resides.  There was a wide, shallow stream (Caldwell Fork again) here with plenty of room at the campsite.  Close to 1.2 miles from the end of this trail was a spur trail with a sign reading “Big Poplars” where there was a stand of very large tulip poplars.  Little did we know this was just a sign of what was yet to come on our journey, as we saw TONS of very large trees the entire day.  We reached the Caldwell Fork/Rough Fork trailhead around 12 p.m. and stopped for lunch.

After lunching and starting the downhill portion of Rough Fork, we finally started seeing other hikers, which was nice.  The trail was nice and gentle downhill and the creek below made for peaceful background noise.  There weren’t any signs of flowers, but the rhododendron was nice and green and made for cool tunnels to give us a break from the constant sunshine we’d had all morning.  We reached the bottom of the gentle hill at another crossing with a good foot bridge at the site of campsite #40, which is tucked up behind a laurel slick.  From here, the trail became very wide and road-like with gravel grading.  The fields here are maintained and mowed by the park service and it very much retains the look of the farmstead that was here in the early 1900s.  About 1 mile from the trailhead is a gorgeous white house on the registry of National Historic Places called the Woody House, as well as a springhouse.  They’re both beautifully preserved and painted with a sign telling vistors that vandalism is permanent.  I wish those signs were everywhere in the park.  This house had no carvings all over it like the others in the park.  After passing the house and going over two more foot logs of Rough Creek, we reached the road and a parking lot at close to 1 p.m. and took a break in the meadow. 

Big Fork Ridge Trail was next on our list and we knew we’d have another uphill portion ahead of us.  Imagine our surprise when only 0.25 miles up the trail we came on a large fenced in area that hadn’t been mentioned in our brown book.  It definitely made you feel like you had stumbled upon some sort of government secret site!  My hunch that this place was an elk holding pen was correct.  When the park service reintroduced elk into the area in 2001, this pen was used to help them thrive before turning them out into the wild.  Before the pen was built, this whole place was 155-acre farm with a huge farmhouse belonging to Jim Caldwell.  The trail began to climb, steeply at times, to the top of the ridge and was rocky and rooty due to horse traffic.  It was, however, never difficult climbing.  We stopped for a short snack break at the top of the ridge (and Advil too!) and continued onward for a gentle downhill.  There weren’t many things to see on this trail – no views of the valley below, no flowers, not much greenery, but the sky was blue and the trail was clear and it made for a pleasant walk.  Close to 0.75 miles from the trailhead we ran in to a couple we’d seen earlier on Rough Fork Trail and said hello once again.  Close to 500 yards from the terminus of Big Fork Ridge Trail, we crossed Caldwell Fork for the close to 100th time (maybe not 100, but close!) on a foot bridge and were back into the lush green, fern-covered forest once again and back to the Caldwell Fork Trail. 

We traveled the 0.4 miles to the Boogerman trailhead and we were on our final trail of the day (if you don’t count the 0.8 on Caldwell Fork back to the road).  Boogerman, for those who don’t know, was another name for a ghost in the Appalachians in the 1800s. There’s actually a Boogertown near Gatlinburg, which was named so due to the fact that soldiers during the Civil War were convinced the area was haunted.  It was called Boogertown as a joke, but the name sort of stuck and is known as Boogertown to this day.  We began this trail with a gentle climb through a farmstead with large stone walls and crossed a few small feeder streams that were easily rock-hopped. The stone walls here were very impressive, some of the better I’ve seen in the park, close to waist-high and higher, very straight, and very well preserved.  After climbing up a short hill we came to a large tulip poplar with a split in the trunk so large you could walk into it without ducking.  The tree was also still alive, which I thought was very cool.  Past the tulip tree was an even more impressive 100-yard-long, two-feet-wide stone wall.  Now there was a more strenuous climb up the hill passing even larger tulip poplars.  The steep climb ended suddenly with an even steeper downhill waiting for us. The trail, from this point on, would be downhill the rest of our trip.  There were two very long rhododendron tunnels and yet another good foot log, followed by a long, gentle downhill hike.  We could hear, but never see, Caldwell Fork roaring below.  At 4 p.m., we came to the end of Boogerman Trail and made a beeline back down Caldwell Fork Trail to the car for Coca-Colas and our sandals so we could wade in the creek before heading home. 

I really enjoyed my first visit to this area of the park.  We were able to see some elk after our hike, as we had seen evidence of them from their droppings all day.  While there wasn’t much to see in the way of wildlife other than a few red chipmunks and small toads, the trails were also surprisingly dry and not at all as muddy as we were expecting due to recent heavy rains and the fact that they were all (except Boogerman) horse trails.  The large trees that were consistent in this area were very impressive and just amazing.  The Smokies were heavily logged in the first part of the 20th century, so old growth forest isn’t seen much.  I’m looking forward to being back here in the fall to see not only the leaves changing, but to see more elk.