Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Glorious Three Days in the Backcountry of the Smokies--Day One

I have done a lot of hiking this year, but not a lot of blogging, but this trip just has to be recorded! Our first, but hopefully not our last, backpacking trip of the summer happened this weekend. There were interior trails in the Cataloochee and Big Creek areas of the Smokies to which we had not gotten yet. Those interior trails are difficult to reach! You really need a helicopter and parachute to get to them easily, but alas, those aren't in my hiking gear box. Instead, we began this trip by parking one vehicle at the Big Creek Campground parking lot and were shuttled from there to the Mt. Sterling trailhead by the nice folks at Standing Bear Hostel, located just a few miles from Big Creek. We have done the Mt. Sterling Trail several times on our way to various other trails in the area, but never with a fully loaded three-day backpack on our backs. I must say, I was a bit nervous about that! Over the past few months though, I had been purposefully working on my conditioning by making sure that, no matter what, I got in at least 10,000 steps using my Fitbit to monitor my progress. Many normal days I'd have way more than that, but 10,000 was my minimum. It paid off more than I could have imagined that it would.
Flame Azalea--this one light in color

 The pitch of the Mt. Sterling Trail is steep, but some switchbacks make it bearable. Scattered along the trail were various summertime wildflowers and many of the flowering shrubs famous in the Smokies this time of year.  Flame azaleas, mountain laurel, and rhododendron rewarded our efforts giving us something to ohh and ahh over as we climbed the mountain. In no time, we were at the top.
Mountain Laurel

 After resting for a bit at the top of Mt. Sterling, we made our way down another trail we had already done a stretch of in the past--Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. This is a very nice trail which does what it sounds like it would do; it follows along the ridgeline, offering a few glimpses of the surrounding mountains, although those are usually seen through the branches of many trees and shrubs along the way. It is not a difficult trail though and is well traveled, so isn't overgrown. When we finally came to the intersection of this trail and Pretty Hollow Gap and Swallowfork, we were getting "new miles." We continued on Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail until it intersected with Balsam Mountain Trail. This part of Mt. Sterling Ridge is less traveled and therefore was a little more overgrown, but primarily with grasses, not many briars or brush.

We sat to have lunch at the intersection with Balsam Mountain Trail. Lunch for me that day was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made from a "light" wheat English muffin. I have found that an English muffin makes a great backcountry sandwich because the bread doesn't get mushy even amid the rigors of trail life. Another trick I use with that sandwich is to put peanut butter on each half of the split muffin and then put the jelly in the middle. Again, that helps the bread hold up to the pressures inside a backpack.

After our lunch break, we set out on Balsam Mountain Trail toward our destination for the night. This trail provided us with some nice views and elevation changes were minimal. Really, by the time we had climbed Mt. Sterling, we were done with any huge elevation changes. Balsam Mountain trail also runs along the ridgeline for the most part and was an enjoyable trail with several snippets of vistas.

Balsam Mountain trail runs 5.8 miles from where we had stopped to enjoy our lunch to the Appalachian Trail, but it is such a nice trail, we made that distance in really good time for us, especially considering the amount of weight we were carrying in our packs. We did the almost 6 miles in a little less than 2.5 hours--not bad, all things considered!

My favorite part about this trail, though, was the destination to which it led us--Tricorner Knob Shelter! We had stayed at this shelter on our Appalachian Trail trip two years ago and enjoyed it so much, that I was really looking forward to staying there again. I was not disappointed!

This quaint shelter, three-sided (which is typical in the Smokies), is nestled up again a hillside just a 100 yards or so below the Appalachian Trail. It has a picnic table type area with benches on both sides, a nice water source (drips from a pipe into only a small pool), and a backcountry privy which is always a nice amenity to have at a shelter!

The privy at Tricorner Knob
Bear cables are present for you to hang your packs and food bags since bears are ever-present in these mountains. We had never hung our packs on the bear cables before, but had always hung our food bags. This trip, we hung our packs because bears have been so active in the Smokies in the last few weeks. A quick call to the backcountry office right before our trip resulted in this new technique (new for us anyway) to prevent an unpleasant run-in with a bear who might be becoming to accustomed to the presence of humans and their food.
Tricorner Knob Shelter is in one of the most remote regions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but with a fireplace inside, a fire pit outside, the comforts of being able to sit at a table while preparing and eating your food, and the typical company of a few thru-hikers, this shelter is one of my many "favorite spots" in this park. It was a privilege to be able to spend the evening of our first day at this serene location.
We did have a bit of natural entertainment during our stay at Tricorner Knob, too. If you look closely in the photo above, you can see the comedian sitting on a rock. We were kept on our toes by a personable little squirrel, a "boomer," who had moments of bravado, approaching very close to our table area, but who would then scamper back off as if his wild side finally won out. He was really cute, but we took care not to feed him or even drop scraps, tempting as that might have been. All of us knew that he was better off allowing his wild side to rule and keep his distance from the hikers and their food.

To read about Day 2, CLICK HERE


  1. Tami, this looks like fun - I've never been to Tricorner Knob. Hope you'll eventually get around to posting some more of your hikes. I always enjoy your descriptions. And thanks so much for your kinds words on my blog. It is a very small world isn't it. Bill's students meant just as much to him as he did to them. This is unbelievably hard, but is made better by the kindness of folks like you taking the time to share common bonds with me. I still hope we can meet and hike sometime. I have requested you as a FB friend if you see a request pop up that you don't recognize!

    1. I did see it and accepted. Thanks for looking me up! I have thought about you so many times over the last months, even before I knew what had happened. I will continue to pray for you in this enormously difficult time. Anytime you want to "go for a hike" you know how to find me!