Sunday, June 9, 2013
Last week, my hiking group, Chix with Stix, set off from Newfound Gap to backpack to the northern boundary of the Smoky Mountains, ending at Davenport Gap. I will be blogging about the experience, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a short video of the highlights. You can check it out here:
Sunday, June 2, 2013
This trail covers approximately 16 miles between the Greenbrier and Cosby sections of the park, meandering in and out of gaps and beside creeks along what once were probably wildlife trails and eventually became trails used by the folks who lived here. Much of the trail was created along paths that once connected the various settlements in this region to each other.
Since folks primarily built their homes in the lower areas of these mountains, along creeks that would sustain them and in areas where some flat lands could be found to raise crops and livestock, there's not a tremendous amount of elevation change on this hike. The topography is not difficult; only the length of the hike, if you do the entire trail, makes it challenging. You could, however, do a part of the trail in and out, or you could backpack it and spend the night at Backcountry Campsite #33 and still see plenty of historical relics to give you a feel for the lifestyle of these hearty people. The most impressive structures, in my mind anyway, are the massive stone walls, and those lie on the Cosby side of the trail.
|The Mountain Laurel were especially beautiful!|
One word of caution though if you decide to do this trail--about half way in there is a considerable amount of storm damage and at one point the debris is so thick we became concerned that we had lost the trail. Just make your way through the debris though and you will find the trail on the other side of the small creek. Once you see the small waterfall that is mentioned in the "brown book" hiker's Bible, you will feel better, or at least we did, because you will know that yes, you are indeed, still on Old Settler's Trail.
I really did enjoy this hike, but in closing I just want to say that a part of me was sad--sad for the settlers who had worked so hard to build such structures in such a remote region only to have been asked (or forced) to leave these homes behind. It's hard to think about the fact that if those folks had remained sole owners of their property, then I would not have had the ability to enjoy these mountains as much as I do. It's a difficult realization to come to. I truly want to thank them for their sacrifice.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
As the weekend approached, however, a damp forecast for the weekend turned into a torrential rains prediction. Either way we had planned to go to and from Derrick Knob (up from Elkmont and down to Tremont) required a substantial water crossing that the "Brown Book" warned about doing during periods of high water. We weren't worried about getting up there on Saturday, but we were very worried about getting DOWN on Sunday when the forecast was for as much as 4 inches of rain overnight. Those water crossings were intimidating, to say the least. Standing in the driveway of a group member Saturday morning, we made a decision. We wanted to hike and test out our water filters, JetBoils, and other such equipment, but we wanted to be safe about it. I quickly went back home, grabbed a couple of tents and a tarp, and instead of hiking up to Derrick Knob, we drove to Smokemont Campground--ahead of the rain.
|Setting up camp before the rains|
Since we beat the rain to the campground, we took the time to set up camp before heading out on the hike we had picked during our change of plans--Mingus Creek Trail. My son's old Boy Scout tent and my newer MSR Hubba Hubba went up quickly, and the tarp we hung over the picnic table (with my Leki hiking poles as center supports) proved to be the item that saved this trip from being a washout. Then we headed out to Mingus Mill, piddled around the mill taking pictures and looking at wildflowers before beginning the hike.
With water, my Deuter 60+10 pack weighed about 35 pounds. I had carried it similarly packed on a previous hike on the AT in Virginia a couple years ago, but it's hard to remember from one trip to the next just how heavy that really is. Heavy as it was, though, this pack that I purchased at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports in Knoxville, TN and that they fitted to me perfectly, rides very nicely on my hips and back. It really is pretty comfortable except for the fact that it's so freaking heavy! I plan to change that before we leave in June!
Wildflowers abounded on this hike, including wake robin which was a new sighting for me, and water crossings that weren't in the Brown Book at all suddenly appeared because of all the previous rain we've had and the rains that were now beginning and that must have been happening for an hour or two higher up. All of the seeps were full of water and some of them became difficult rock hops before we returned to camp. I can't imagine what the "real" water crossings must have looked like by sundown on Saturday or sunrise on Sunday morning. We knew without a doubt that we had done the right thing! The forest takes on a different shade of lush green in the rain in the spring. The heavy rains wash the pollen and dirt from the leaves exposing the almost effervescent glow of new spring foliage. It was a lovely hike!
|Elk near Oconaluftee Visitor Center|
Returning to Smokemont Campground from the Mingus Mill area proved to be an exciting adventure in itself. Driving along, deep in conversation and laughter, we were surprised as a herd of elk emerged from the woods and crossed the road right in front of us! These majestic creatures paid no attention to the people who stopped their cars, got out in the rain, and started taking photos of them. They were seemingly oblivious to our presence and were enjoying the wet, young grasses that populated the field into which they had made their way. Again, I realized how blessed I am to have this park in my own backyard!
We passed the evening by going down to the Bradley Fork River and pumping/filtering water even though there is running water available at the campground. I used my MSR Miniworks EX Filter and someone else used a gravity-based filter system she had just bought. We boiled our water in our JetBoil stoves and tried out freeze-dried meals we had brought with us. The rains came down in torrents and we had to lift the tarp over the table periodically to allow the water to run off the sides, but I haven't had that much fun in a long time! Camaraderie like that is hard to come by and I am lucky to have such a great group of women to hike with. I am truly blessed!
The next morning we broke camp in the rain, and drove over to the Visitor's Center to do one more quick hike. The Oconaluftee River Trail leaves from the Visitor's Center and goes over to the Cherokee Boundary. People looked at us like we were crazy as we got out and prepared to hike that trail. The trail is only 1.5 miles each way, so we left our packs in the car, but there was no way our rain gear was going to protect us from the downpour in which we were going to hike. We all knew we'd be wet and so did everyone else at the Visitor's Center who saw us depart. I guess that's part of why hiking the 900 is such a feat--you have to do some crazy things to actually get it done!
All in all, our "dry run" couldn't have been said to be "dry," but it was an amazing weekend spent in my mountains. I wouldn't have missed it for anything!
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
The weather along the ridge on Saturday was windy and cold. Icicles still clung to rocks where runoff made it's way down the trail or dripped off of rocks that lined the path. As we stood at the intersection with the Boulevard Trail, a popular trail used by hikers to ascend Mt. LeConte, talking with some folks who were indeed headed to the Lodge at the top, we noticed what we thought was snow. "Snow flurries" fell around us, but looking up, there was literally not a cloud in the sky. Instead of snow it was actually frost being blown from the tops of the trees above us, falling to the ground in snowlike fashion. Just past Icewater Spring Shelter, the frost coated the pine needles and flower stalks from last years shrubs.
To say I wasn't a little bit nervous climbing up and over the cracks and crevices that form the face of the rock would be a lie. The wind was whipping up and over our position with enough force that the thought did occur to me that it might be able to sweep us right off the ledge and propel us to our deaths. So instead of standing for that victory shot with the expanse of ridge after ridge behind me, I decided to simply remain seated. It did not reduce the significance of the vista surrounding us on three sides. I could have stayed there much longer than we did, but we still had about 10 more miles to hike. As we were taking pictures of the next hiking group that came to experience Charlie's Bunion, a large bird approached us from the direction we had come. At first I thought it was a hawk, but as it approached, I realized just how large it was. Once it was close enough, I saw it's white head and quickly understood that it was one of the bald eagles that call this park home. What a tremendous treat that was, especially fitting on the day after the Boston Marathon bombers had been killed and captured. Cold chills went all over me and it wasn't from the wind. My only regret was that I wasn't quick enough to pull my camera out in time to get his picture.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Trails or sites I can personally recommend are:
- Chestnut Top Trail
- White Oak Sinks (off of Schoolhouse Gap Trail)
- Cove Hardwood Nature Trail (at the Chimneys Picnic Area)
- Porters Creek Trail
- Baskin's Creek Trail
|Sweet White Trillium|
I had hiked in this part of the park last spring with my husband, and earlier this year when I did Hatcher Mountain trail (I swear we had been told it was open again by someone who had hiked it with a well-known hiking group). I had also already done the Cooper Road Trail earlier this year. The scenery is scarred and reminded me of a war zone with all the broken and downed trees. On a Sunday in February when we had been unable to hike on our usual Saturday, Jennifer and I decided on a whim to just go and do Goldmine Trail and Cane Creek Trail.
This was strictly a trail-marking hike! It was a nice day and any day in the woods is better than NO day in the woods, but this pair of trails was very similar to the ones we had already done in that area. There just wasn't a lot of scenery to look at, although I will also say that the storm damage was less here. Just on those short trails (total of less than 6 miles in and back out) we did 26 water crossings, several of which required us to don our water shoes. In fact, there was one 2.5 mile stretch on the way back out where we simply left our Keen sandals on the entire time.
We did see a few wildflowers beginning to come up and even a couple early violets in bloom. The yellow trillium were also beginning to set some buds, promising the arrival of spring in the not too distant future, although the beginning of THIS spring was to be delayed for much longer than any of us had envisioned.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
The first part of the trail was a wide, pleasant uphill grade on an old roadbed running parallel to the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The rise was fairly steep, but not really very difficult. It was an absolutely gorgeous day which was warming fairly quickly, so we stopped and shed layers a time or two along the way. Any snow that had fallen during the week had melted in this area leaving behind a little mud, but our footing was sure on the wide and rocky path.
At about 1.5 miles, we came to a turn-around circle which, I supposed, marked the end of the roadbed as the now more narrow path turned off to the left. Here we began to notice the first indications that there really had been significant snow in the area in the previous days. Snow remained on the banks near the river or in heavy shade under trees, but still the path remained clear.
After about another half mile though, things began to change. Snow became more prevalent and began to cover the trail. Somewhere probably about mile two we came to the first of two split-log footbridges spanning Ramsey Prong. Even from our first view of it, we knew it would not be a fun crossing. The footbridge was covered in snow and ice, making the walk over it a little disconcerting since we still don't have crampons or microspikes for traction. However, with careful foot placement and a little luck, we made our way over that bridge without too much difficulty. At this point, we never even thought of not continuing. The snow that covered the trail was still soft enough to not be too much of an encumbrance and our desire to see the falls in the melting snow runoff was strong. We pressed on.
Once we passed that footbridge though, the snow deepened and became more icy since on this side of the river there was almost no sun making its way onto the trail. I was extremely thankful for my Leki hiking poles because they provided tremendous additional traction. About this time we were met on the trail by a couple of young guys trail running coming down from the falls. They had on trail running shoes and were moving much faster than we were, so we figured we'd be fine. They also said the falls was frozen over and extremely beautiful, which only encouraged us further to press on.
|Massive tulip poplars|
Soon, we came to one of my favorite parts of the trail. At about 2.6 miles there stand some of the largest trees I've seen in the Park. We passed directly between two massive tulip poplars and stopped for a photo op. You can see how large they are compared to my hiking partner standing in between them for scale. They reminded me of the other massive tulip poplar we had seen on an earlier hike on Scott Mountain, an area since devastated by a tornado-like storm that passed through last spring. I still haven't been able to determine if that ancient tree survived that storm since the trail in that area is still closed. These two stately survivors and another even larger tulip poplar just up the trail suggested that perhaps even the loggers who ravaged the park decades before had not traveled this far up the now much steeper path we were traveling. I'm glad that somehow, they were able to avoid the greed and the saws that harvested so many other such beauties that once ruled these woods.
The last half mile or so, we spent holding onto roots or rocks, pulling ourselves up steep, slippery pathways which wound between and over large boulders over which, thankfully, large roots grew which provided necessary handholds to pull yourself up on and keep from sliding backwards on the ice.
Very soon, we were rewarded with a view of Ramsey Cascades unlike anything I've ever seen in my life. Water raged over the falls, but the spray from the cascades had frozen on the surrounding rocks and ground creating a sparkling fantasyland around the waterfalls. Pictures cannot begin to capture the spectacle, one that a fellow hiker who had encouraged us not to turn back had described as "an OMG moment!" As I stood there admiring the grandeur of such a sight, I knew the way home would be more treacherous than the trip up. Descending along that icy footpath would be more tricky than the climb had been, and I was right. However, we returned safely to our waiting cars with no incidents other than a couple minor slips. Would I have done anything differently, other than having some traction devices for my boots? No way! I'm so glad we didn't give up! I may never see anything so extraordinarily beautiful again in my whole life. Occasionally the reward is worth the risk, and this was just such a moment!