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. 

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