Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ice Skating on the AT--I don't THINK so!

Our original plan for this Saturday's hike was to go to Ramsey Cascade in the Greenbrier area of the Smokies. We were all excited about doing a destination hike and having lunch by the falls on a day in which the high in Gatlinburg was supposed to be in the upper 50s. Thankfully, though, one of our group members noticed on Friday afternoon that Greenbrier Road was closed due to damage to roadway and bridges during the recent heavy rains and storms, meaning that even if we had driven to Greenbrier, we would have been a long way from the Ramsey trailhead when we would be forced to abandon our vehicles. We quickly came up with a plan B.

Plan B was another destination hike that I've been wanting to do for many months--Charlie's Bunion. Charlie's Bunion is a rock outcropping which received its name after a hike in which Charlie Connor and Horace Kephart made it to this spot. While there, Charlie took off his boots to reveal a bunion on his foot which was shaped much like the rock outcropping they were visiting. According to Hiking in the Smokies, Mr. Kephart told Charlie that he was going to get his name put on a national map in honor of their hike together and the uncanny resemblance of Charlie's Bunion to the now-famous rock outcropping. That was in the days before the founding of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and Mr. Kephart proved true to his word.

I've been to the nearby Jump Off which offers similar views, but never to Charlie's Bunion. It presents the opportunity for some of those photo ops where it appears that you are standing literally on top of the world, and I was ready for a new one. All was well in the morning as we headed up to the mountains from Knoxville, the skies crystal clear, promising superb views along the AT as we made our way toward the Bunion. This would have been in direct contrast to the weather conditions the last time we had made our way up the AT from Newfound Gap Road during our hike to Mt. LeConte via the Boulevard Trail. On that day, we were literally hiking in the clouds and the views were obscured throughout the entire trip. We were excited that the views would be spectacular with skies this clear and bright.

The first sign of trouble came as we neared the top of Newfound Gap Road. I had seen, a few minutes before, a few clouds roll over the mountain, but they quickly made their way out of the area, and the sky had cleared again. However, as we rounded a curve in the road, glistening treetops surprised us. Was that ice or snow or what? We decided that the clouds that had just rolled through had left enough moisture on the trees to freeze them in what must be pretty cold air above us. We stopped to take a few pictures and noticed that we needed our coats, but the temps were not unbearably cold.

However, when we got out of our cars at Newfound Gap, the weather was decidedly different even than it had been maybe a mile lower down the road. Up here the wind was whipping and there were snow banks left from plowing the parking lot. Anywhere water had crossed the parking lot as snow had melted yesterday, it was now a solid sheet of ice. Shocked, we donned extra layers that we had packed "just in case," and made our way out to the Appalachian Trail. Once on the trail, we began to warm up pretty quickly. The trees that flanked both sides of the trail protected us from the wind and made the hike much more comfortable than standing in the parking lot getting ready had been.

For the first quarter of a mile, the trail was "normal" including the stairs and rock scrambles typical on the AT. However, soon the path became covered with snow and ice making us have to carefully determine where each step would be placed to keep us from slipping on the ice. Disconcerted, I began to wonder if this was a wise move since none of us had any type of footwear made for these conditions. We kept going, lured by the prospect of those spectacular views that we knew would await us if we could just get to Charlie's Bunion. All of us were hoping that trail conditions would improve. But, they didn't. Two of the four of us hiking on this trip were close to or over 50. We kept envisioning a fall on the ice resulting in a broken hip or other bone. At one point I literally skated over one particularly iced over section of the trail. At that point, the two elders in the group called out to the youngsters up front and expressed out concerns and our perceived need for caution. One slip and bad fall on this ice could mean many lost weeks of hiking opportunities for those of us with more brittle bones. Reluctantly, we turned and made our way slowly and carefully back to the parking area. The trip back down was much more treacherous than the mile we had hiked going up, easing our disappointment a little at least.

Feeling somewhat like a wusses, we made our way back down Newfound Gap Road to the lower elevations where there was no sign of snow or ice. We left a car at the Huskey Gap trailhead just above Sugarlands Visitor Center and drove the other vehicle to the trailhead of Jake's Creek. We hiked up Jake's Creek for .7 mile to the intersection with Cucumber Gap and took a left. This pleasant trail was not new to me--I had hiked it with my kids when they were young. It was nice not to have to worry about each step you took. We relaxed and enjoyed the scenery around us and the peaceful sounds of the birds in the trees. At the end of Cucumber Gap we went right for a short time then turned left onto Huskey Gap. It was near here, as we crossed the bridge that traversed the Little River that we had evidence of the force of the floodwaters that had been ravaging the area and had resulted in washed out bridges and roadways. At the bottom of this bridge, on the upriver side, were two huge trees that had been washed down the river. They lay parallel to the bridge, lodged up against the abutments that secured the bridge in place. It's really amazing that these massive trees had not taken out this bridge entirely when they were slammed into its moorings. We had an increased appreciation for both the strength of this bridge and the power of nature that had taken out other such bridges in the park.

The Huskey Gap trail was another pleasant walk through the woods, characterized by big, old trees with little underbrush to obscure the scene. Admittedly, the ascent was steeper than Cucumber Gap had been, but it was still not a difficult climb. After Huskey Gap crossed Sugarland Mountain Trail, it began the descent toward Newfound Gap Road. This part of the trail was characterized by sections which were covered by vines hanging from the trees, making you feel as if you were hiking through some enchanted forest which just might possibly come alive at any moment.
All in all, this day in the woods had turned out just fine. I ended up getting 4.1 new miles (of the almost 9 we hiked) and came away with new appreciation for the unpredictable nature of the weather conditions that can await you in these mountains. I also realize that I need to search for some appropriate form of crampons, spikes, or something to carry with me when doing high elevation hikes in the winter just in case the need for them arises. I'm open to suggestions on what would work well for me, knowing that I never (at least not yet) intentionally set out to hike in the snow and ice.


  1. First of all, let me apologize....In all the frenzy of getting settled back in at home, I completely forgot to acknowledge your kind invitation to join you on the Ramsey Cascade hike. That was rude of me not to respond at all and I am so sorry. Chalk it up to letting the invite get lost in the catching up of blog reading and trying to get a post of my own up. I hope to hike with you soon. My husband and I had already planned to do a short hike on Saturday and after reading your report, I'm certainly glad we chose something simple out of Metcalf Bottoms!! Always a rude awakening when I get back from Florida each year, the loss of stamina when out of the mountains for a short time is difficult. It'll take me a few hikes to get back up to elevation hiking.

    I have YakTrax that I really like, but I never, ever choose to hike where I know I would need them. I'd rather choose another trail or stay home altogether than risk losing the entire spring hiking season with a broken bone from a fall in the snow or ice. Even with YakTrax, it's always tricky. So it's nice to have them, but even better to just be a smart hiker!! (I was in the Bass Outlet in Pigeon Forge yesterday and they had them for half price.)

    What was the creek crossing on Cucumber Gap near the Little River trail intersection like? I'd planned to do that loop solo one day this week, but have seen that crossing when it was dicey and I try to avoid those when hiking solo.

    Huskey Gap is a nice trail in its simplicity and solitude. Kudos to your group for making a smart decision to turn back. Charlie's Bunion will be there for you on a safe day!

  2. The crossings were very doable yesterday. I rock hopped them with no problem at all. What you are talking about doing is something I never do--hike solo. Be careful!

  3. Thanks Tami! I do enjoy hiking solo but with some very strict rules. I only hike solo in the winter months when there are no bears or snakes and I only hike solo hikes of eight miles or less. I also choose trails that DON'T leave off a main road where someone might see me leaving my car alone. I'm pretty cautious about being seen heading out alone from ANY trailhead. Quite honestly, I feel safer alone on the trails in the Smokies than I do on the greenways here in Knoxville!

  4. Oh and I hope it goes without saying that my husband knows EXACTLY where I am, where my car is parked and my expected time to be done. He has a specific time that if he hasn't heard from me, he knows exactly what to do.

  5. I have another friend who does some solo hiking too. I admit the stillness of the woods would be wonderful and I imagine you'd see a lot more wildlife. Your "rules" sound like good ones. Good luck on the trails! I'm so looking forward to watching the mountains wake up to spring!