Month: December 2011

Mingus Creek Loop 12-26-11

The day after Christmas four of us set out for a 17.7-mile loop hike in Oconoluftee including Mingus Creek Trail, Newton Bald Trail, Thomas Divide Trail, Deep Low Gap Trail, and Cooper Creek Trail.  The sun was only out for a little while, but the skies were clear and the views were fantastic.  There was even a bonus waterfall!

We started our hike around 8:40 in the morning and immediately began a slow ascent up Mingus Creek Trail.  Due to recent rains, the water was running high and the trail was wet and rocky, causing for icy conditions in the 28-degree weather.  After about 2 miles, the trail began a steeper ascent for about one mile running via several switchbacks up to Deep Low Gap.  JD and I reached the gap in about an hour and took cheesy photos while waiting on our other companions.  From here, we’d have another three miles to the top at Newton Bald, but the ascent wasn’t as steep as our last mile. There were several switchbacks up the trail, but the climb was never difficult.  The trail was now dry and soft with laurel and rhododendron.  On this trail, we’d see live chestnut trees, some still with fruit on them.  These trees were all but extinct due to a blight in the early 20th century, so seeing a live one was exciting.  We reached Newton Bald at 11 a.m. and took a short snack break before pushing on.  

From Newton Bald, we’d be losing quite a bit of elevation with only a few short uphill pushes.  Thomas Divide nearly stays on a ridgeline for pleasant walking.  Shortly after getting on this trail, we had views of the tower at Clingman’s Dome.  JD and I began doing a little trail jogging down to Deep Low Gap and it was truly leisurely and pleasant. The woods were so quiet that the only noise heard was the leaves underfoot as we jogged.  We stopped for lunch at Deep Low Gap before descending down even further on Deep Low Gap Trail.  About 0.6 miles down the trail, we started following a loud creek and suddenly came upon Little Creek Falls, which looked like stair steps down the mountain.  We took lots of photos and continued downward to the Cooper Creek Trail junction.  

Being that one of us had hiked the trail before, we were warned that Cooper Creek was mostly creek rather than trail.  Due to not wanting wet shoes, I decided to just go barefoot for the 0.3 miles of wet trail.  Mary had brought water shoes and Elise and JD were in good boots, so we made great time out and back on the trail.  It definitely made for great photo opportunities by being barefoot in a creek in December.  After coming back up to Deep Low Gap Trail, we’d now have an ascent back up to the Mingus Creek Trailhead.  We passed an old homesite with two chimneys and walked across Cooper Creek multiple times before finally coming to a switchback that moved away from the creek at a cascade.  As we turned from the creek and climbed the hill, the mountains ahead of us appeared blue and smoky, giving the reason for the Cherokee word Shaconage – the place of the blue smoke.  We made our way up to the gap and were there by 3 p.m.

From the gap, it was an hour back to the cars via a steep descent and a side trip to a cemetery.  When we crossed down the hill and decided to visit the cemetery, we were greeted by a freshly killed buck laying nearly directly under the foot log.  After going a short way up the road, we decided the cemetery was too far away (turns out it was 0.8 miles one way, so we were glad to turn back!) and we decided just to leave a note for Mary and Elise that we’d gone back to the cars.  

We reached the car shortly before 4 p.m. and took a pizza break before our long 2-hour drive back home.  The skies were clear, but overcast, all day.  The company was fantastic and the trail was challenging.  Today had all the makings of a wonderful hike. 

Rich Mountain and Ace Gap – 12-23

Since the rain finally stopped this week, I decided to hit the trails yet again to try and get in as many miles as I could before my foot surgery next month.  We decided to hike up and down the 2.4-mile section of Rich Mountain Trail and then hike from Ace Gap to Beard Cane and back, close to 16 miles for the day.  

Our morning began by driving up OId Cades Cove road, a windy and narrow paved road that switches back up and over the mountain to the one-way Rich Mountain Road and the trailhead.  It was foggy and overcast this morning, so it added a bit of ambience to the hike.  Starting by going up Rich Mountain first, we had a nearly 1500-foot climb ahead of us.  The climb was never hard, however, and we reached the top in less than an hour which really surprised us.  The water was raging just before campsite 5, which looked like a beautiful place with lots of mountain mist.  On the way back down we met two older women who were hiking up the trail and wished them well for their hike.  As it was a foggy morning, there were no views to be had.  We got back down to the parking lot at 10:15 and took a lunch break.  

Our hike on Ace Gap began shortly after our break, where we added our extra weight back to our packs and started up the trail.  Ace Gap skirts the park boundary line, so encroachment is everywhere.  In several places, the trail has been rerouted down down down the hill and back up up up the hill to avoid coming to close to the private property and the vacation homes that line the boundary.  Most of the homes have cut down trees as well to get better “Smoky Mountain Views,” which really sucks.  We nicknamed the trail the Sundquist Bypass, as former Governor Sundquist has built an incredibly large home nearly on top of the trail.  There are two former campsites on this trail, 4 and 7, which have both been closed due to “water issues.”  However, today the water was abundant and we had many stream crossings.  We also had a view at one point to the tornado damage over on Pine Mountain on Rabbit Creek Trail.  It was a clear-cut path of destruction.  

We finally get down to Beard Cane Trail and tag out on the sign about 11:15 a.m.  Then we begin to go back up the hill and over to former campsite 7 for lunch.  It was a nice place to stop with lots of log benches for sitting.  The trail undulates, so we had a nice up and down, up and down, up and down ahead of us.  The trail seemed longer after lunch, but we pressed on to make it back to the car by 2:30.  About one mile from the trailhead, we ran in to a group of four people carrying no packs and wearing clean and expensive designer outdoor clothes.  We guessed they might have been property owners scouting how they could move the trail even further.  When we reached the parking lot we were right.  They had Townsend property and gated community stickers all over the front windshield of the car. 

This hike didn’t afford many views and the weather wasn’t great.  All in all, a day in the woods is better than a day at work and good company in the woods can make all the difference in a great hike and a mediocre one.  This hike was fun regardless 🙂

Rich Mountain with Bonus Miles – 12-18-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

20.6 Miles in Happy Valley – 12-17-11

Three of us got up early on Saturday morning for a 20.6-mile out-and-back of Rabbit Creek and Hannah Mountain Trails.  The views and company were spectacular and the return of an old friend, Buddy, made this hike memorable for sure. 

When Dapper Dan and I arrived at the trailhead and waited for Mary, our companion for the day, I quickly saw a familiar face.  Buddy, the dog I’d met on my first solo hike back in September, was nosing around in the fields at the ranger station.  I was so excited to 1) See him and hike with him again and 2) That he had a new tag on and his name was actually Buddy!  This fact made my whole day, but let’s talk about the hike now!

Mary, DD, and I set out from the Rabbit Creek Trailhead and immediately crossed Abrams Creek.  The water is the highest and swiftest I’ve ever seen.  We quickly pass the old Boring Farm and head uphill to tornado-damaged summit of our trail.  The climb goes quickly and we arrive at Scott Gap in less than an hour, 2.7 miles in to our trek. From here, we get on Hannah Mountain Trail and we’ll follow it for about 7.5 miles to Parsons Branch Road.  

The sky is still cloudy and there is a heavy layer of fog still in the air when we reach campsite 14 at Flint Gap.  We have a 1000-foot climb ahead, but we’re hoping to catch a glimpse of Cades Cove in the distance to our west.  We’d have no such luck this morning.  After making the climb, however, we do see freezing rain clinging to the trees in a delicate layer of ice on top of Hannah Mountain.  The site was absolutely stunning. After a few miles of level ridgeline walking, we descend down to Parsons Branch Road and stop for lunch.  We’re halfway finished with our day and it’s only 11:15 a.m.

After stopping for half an hour, the sky begins to turn blue and the fog is lifting.  On our way back over Hannah Mountain the frozen trees have begun to thaw and are now dripping on our heads, every once in a while dropping little ice pellets down the back of our necks.  We finally start to have some beautiful views and get a glimpse of Cades Cove far off to our west.  The hike goes fast and we end our hike at 3:30 in the afternoon, celebrating with Cokes and a tube of Pringles I forgot I had packed.  We hiked with Buddy the entire time and he headed home for a well-deserved rest when we left.  

Freezing rain clinging to trees on Hannah Mountain Trail this a.m.

Trail Names and Assorted Hiker Knowledge

With only about four months left until my thru hike, most of the planning is done.  Other than my definitive start date, I’ve got most of my details worked out.  A few months ago I did a post about my reasons for starting the trail and I got a lot of positive response to it. Today I wanted to do a post about things that will be taking place on the trail that most people either haven’t heard of or don’t understand.  

A trail name is an alias you’ll be called on the trail.  No one is for sure when this trend started, but most believe it was in the early 1990s, as thru hikers before this time don’t recall being called anything other than their first name.  A trail name comes from a number of different places.  Traditionally, you let other people chose your trail name. My official trail name now is “Trophy Wife.”  It has been “Cheeseburger” and “Topo” in the past.  Cheeseburger was my first trail name and was given to me by a friend who thought I looked to skinny after losing quite a bit of weight.  He said that I must be hungry and I should “go eat a cheeseburger or something.”  I found it hilarious and it stuck for a few months.  My second trail name, Topo, was given to me by a friend who found it funny that I constantly could call out the names of ridges, mountain tops, and creeks anywhere in the Smokies.  Whenever we’d get to a vista and we could see 50 miles in all directions, I was the go-to for what we were looking at.  Trophy Wife was given to me two weeks ago.  I was hiking with a friend of mine and we got to talking about things we were doing and I mentioned I felt like a Kelly Ripa commercial, tiling floors and making risotto and hiking the trails all in one weekend.  Trophy Wife is what came from that conversation.  

Trail names, for the most part, are self-explanatory.  I’ve heard some great ones in my times on the trail, like Tax Dollar, named for hiking the AT on his tax return, Mudd Butt, named for the constant falls he took during a rainy season, Mooch, for obvious reasons… the ones with stories behind them are usually the best.  When these names are called out on the trail, you usually know them.  It’s very rare to know someone’s actual name unless they tell you.  It adds a bit of whimsy and mystery to the trail in my opinion.  

There’s a lot of socialization on the trail as well.  Things we don’t talk about back in civilization are usually the most common topics I have found.  Things like where you’re from, what brought you here, your views on politics and religion, they all are common place on the trail.  The discussions are almost always calm and level-headed.  It’s interesting to think of the places you don’t have these conversations, i.e. – “Good morning, what brings you to the mall this time of year?”  It is also fascinating to me the people I meet.  Some of the people I hike with I would never meet back in towns.  I’ve hiked with computer nerds, CPAs, marathon runners, devout Christians, vegans, mechanics, students… the list goes on and on.  Back at home, we wouldn’t have much in common and probably not that much to talk about.  On the trail, we all have the trail in common.  It is our love of nature and the challenge of the hike that brings us together.  That common bond is enough to make friends out of people who normally would never speak.  

I think the most amazing part of the trail, to me, is the camaraderie between hikers for the most part.  Due to the shelter logs, we know each other before we even meet.  We can usually tolerate each other just fine for a few days.  We get to know you more personally than we know most of our friends back home.  It’s very poignant to me that it is so easy for me to open up to total strangers and let them know so much about me when I hardly know them.  Back at home, I tend to avoid people and keep myself shut up tight, careful not to give too many opinions for fear of backlash.  I was telling my friend on Saturday that on the trail my confidence is a 10 and at home it is closer to 5 or 6.  On the trail, I know what I’m doing, where I’m going, and what I am capable of doing in one day.  At home, I second-guess my work, my time usage, my abilities to keep up my house and make ends meet.   

To shorten and end this post, I’m looking forward to regaining my trust in the world again.  I think getting back to simplicity and needing only what I have on my back is going to be an amazing experience.  I may not make it to the summit of Katahdin, but to me it is all about the journey, and I’m so excited to begin. 

West Prong “Loop” – 12/10/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt. Cammerer Backpack – 12-3 & 12-4

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

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

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

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

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

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