Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Unexpected Peril on Gunter Fork

That final crossing on Gunter Fork Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park--the crossing of Big Creek itself--loomed ahead of us, hopefully the only thing standing between us getting out of the park this day.  As we rounded the bend at the crossing, the water levels were high and getting higher. We knew none of our choices were great ones: turn around and go back up the treacherous 4-mile stretch of trail we had just barely been able to descend before it began to rain, stay put on the side of the stream probably for the entire night, or attempt to cross.  Those were our choices. None held much appeal at that particular moment and the window of opportunity for crossing was closing rapidly. The storm we were caught in had dumped torrential rainfall on the Cosby and Greenbrier area. Unbeknownst to us, a 6-ft wall of water was headed down Ramsey Cascades, just two ridgelines over from where we stood trying to make our decision.

Our day had begun with an early meet in Maryville and a relatively quick trip up and over Newfound Gap to the trailhead of Beech Gap I Trail just outside of Cherokee, NC.  We had planned to be on trail by 10:00, but surprisingly, we began our ascent of Beech Gap Trail at 9:35. We had no idea at that moment just how critical our early start would be. Our shuttle driver, Steve, husband of one of our little group wished us well and told us he'd see us in Big Creek! Now that, my friends, is a dedicated hiker's husband! We made good time, hiking strongly up the 2000 ft elevation gain of Beech Gap Trail to the intersection with Balsam Mountain. This trail had kicked my butt about a month earlier, and I had dreaded having to do it again; but this time, unencumbered by the stomach issues I had experienced the two days prior to the first trip, I made it up with no problem at all.  We took a few minutes to snack and drink a little Gatorade then took off up and over Balsam High Top. This trail required a bit more elevation gain, but the surrounding forest makes for a delightful trip across what would be our highest point on the trail this day--approximately 5700 ft.  Although there are no views from the summit, you know you've reached the top because you begin a quick descent to Laurel Gap, home of one of only a couple shelters that are not along the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies.

The Laurel Gap shelter appears relatively new when compared to the other shelters we've seen in these mountains with newer construction, non-leaking skylighted roofing, and even a thermometer! It would be a nice place to stay, and we knew that if anything happened on Gunter Fork, if we decided to turn back, we could take shelter at Laurel Gap after climbing back up the mountain. We had a contingency plan, but we were not carrying overnight equipment like sleeping bags. And with no way to communicate what we had done, our husbands would be very worried, not a good scenario if we wanted to continue hiking.

After a short rest and snack break at Laurel Gap, we made the short climb up to the intersection of Balsam Mountain Trail and Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, a place where we had enjoyed lunch only 24 days earlier on our 3-day backpacking trip across these ridges.  On this trip, we only stayed on the Balsam Mountain Trail another .9 mile where Gunter Fork turned off to descend steeply into Walnut Bottoms.  We knew there was danger on this trail when waters were high, but there had been a drought in East Tennessee in recent weeks and water levels everywhere were low. The forecast for this day was of only minimal chance of showers and those were predicted to begin well after we should have been able to get down the mountain.

As we stood at the trailhead of Gunter Fork, the skies were a beautiful blue with no sign of impending weather in any direction we could see. The air felt cool compared to the heat and humidity of previous days, and as such, gave no warning of the thunderstorm that was brewing somewhere beyond our view. We felt confident that all would be well as we made our way down the trail.  I knew this trail would be overgrown, and it was! I still have scratches on my arms from the briars that snagged me as I pushed them aside with my poles. What I wasn't prepared for was how narrow and eroded this trail would be in places. There were numerous spots where the mountain seemed to want to pitch us off the side, down the steep slopes to the valley below.  There were a couple places where I had to proceed down rock scrambles on my derriere because my short legs (I'm only 5' 5" tall) simply wouldn't reach the trail below with any surety of not slipping off the slope entirely. Our progress was slow--painstakingly slow, something for which we had not allotted sufficient time.

Almost 2 hours into our attack on Gunter Fork Trail, we were still not to the first stream crossing. It was about that time that we heard the first rumblings from the violent storm that was quickly approaching the area. We had passed the slide area which had closed this trail a couple years ago. It was an impressive area to say the least. Much work had been done to make it passable, but honestly, much work remains that is still undone on this trail in order to make it safe, in my humble opinion.

The rumblings continued, and we quickened our pace although that was difficult due to the condition of the trail. A stumble in the wrong place on this trail could be bad. When we finally arrived at the first cascade, falling 150 ft from the precipice at the top, over diagonal sandstone formation at the bottom, I was, honestly, a little disappointed. Very little water fell from the cascade, but a part of me took solace in that, hoping that the drought would keep any rainfall that might begin with this approaching storm from keeping us from being able to make all of the water crossings that still lay ahead of us. We paused only briefly for pictures.  Our sense of urgency was increasing.

Within minutes the storm became more intense as we approached that first water crossing.  It hadn't yet begun to rain, but it was imminent, and we knew it. We stood for a half a minute trying to decide whether to take the time to change into water shoes. Boots would give us better traction on this slippery, sketchy trail and changing would take precious time--we pressed on in our boots, able to just rock hop this first crossing. By the time we reached the second crossing, the water levels were still fine, and we were able to rock hop again. The thunder and lightning were intensifying and raindrops were beginning to fall, albeit sporadically still. When we approached the second falls area, where you have to leave the trail to really get the full view, I hesitated. I probably wouldn't have gone down if it hadn't been for my hiking partners, but we decided we had come this far, and we needed to see it, so we descended the side trail to see this:

It was beautiful, but I was seriously distracted by the storm and the rains that were beginning to fall in earnest now. We took time to don our rain gear, then quickly climbed back up the side trail to continue making our way out. Thunder and lightning raged around us, one lightning strike coming so close, I'll admit it, I screamed! Thankfully, the condition of the trail improved in this lower section except that it was now a stream bed itself with spots standing or running with water shin deep. We were able to increase our pace though, pushing on through I'm not sure how many more water crossings. Each one was passable, but also each one was a little deeper than the one before it. Finally, we rounded the bend and faced a much more difficult crossing, this one of Big Creek although I didn't know it at the time.  I had seen this crossing from the other side on our last hike in this area. We had gone the quick tenth of a mile or so up Gunter Fork to see what that crossing looked like. On that day, it had appeared a wide, amiable wade across the creek--no big deal. Not this time! I didn't even recognize it as the same stretch of water. What I saw ahead at this moment was deep, fast-moving water, not raging yet, but moving quickly for sure. Directly in front of the trail, I had my doubts we could make it over. However, about 8 feet or so upstream I thought it looked a little wider, a little more shallow, and a little less swift. I've waded lots of rivers as a fly-fisherwoman, so I'm used to surveying a river for a passable spot. I headed up that way and my hiking buddies followed. I was just going to test it out--wade out a bit and make a decision, but when I looked back to my left, they were following me. Kirsten reminded Jennifer and me to face upstream, bend our knees, and lean into the current, all of which we did. It wasn't too bad yet, but the water was swift and the current got stronger as we moved further into the river. About half way across, at Jennifer's suggestion, we decided to use the only other tactic we knew about to make this easier and that was to lock arms. The three of us locked arms while still using our hiking poles to steady us and feel for the bottom of the stream which we could no longer see because of the ever-increasing current. At this point, we were hip deep in the water, deeper than I have ever been in any water crossing and deeper than I ever want to be again especially in swift current. I slid my right foot tentatively across the bottom, looking for places where there were small stones instead of large boulders to stand on and steady myself. We all took increased balance from each other as we inched across the stream. I noticed a cairn that someone had built on a rock within 4 feet or so of the bank. I hoped that marked the clearest passage. We had all been praying for help and guidance; we felt this was a good sign. The torrential rains continued, unrelenting. Determinedly, we made for the cairn, slowly edging closer to the bank. I felt we would be okay now, but I kept looking upstream, hoping against hope that no wall of water would come barreling down toward us. I had seen video footage of a flash flood like that on social media, and I could not get that image out of my head. If it had, there would have been nothing we could have done about it, and you would not be reading this account. Prayers and progress continued. Finally, we reached the cairn, but just beyond it my pole sank very deeply into the water. The bottom here was the deepest yet, but this close to the edge, the current was significantly diminished. We waded through it with no trouble. Once on the other side, we all embraced--relieved, shaken, but fine. We had made it across. Thinking that this still wasn't the last crossing because it bore no resemblance to what we had seen in that spot weeks earlier, we quickly continued down the trail. I cannot possibly relate to you the wave of relief that washed across me when I saw that trail sign at Camel Gap! No words can communicate that feeling. I approached it and laid my hand on it just to confirm the reality of its presence. We were finished with Gunter Fork; we had survived the crossings, and we would make it out at last, at least, that's what we hoped. 

Aggressive bear activity had closed campsites 36 and 37 which we would walk right past on our way down Big Creek trail, but I don't think any bear in his right mind would have approached us that day. We were absolutely not in the mood for any tomfoolery out of any bear! Wherever he was, I am thankful he decided not to mess with us. We made our way down Big Creek Trail, while the creek began to rage and froth violently. We realized that any ten minute delay for us at any point of this day and we would have been stuck on the other side of Big Creek with only our daypacks, probably for the night. The longer we walked, the more wildly the river raged. I began to honestly worry about whether the bridge just above Mouse Creek Falls could take the abuse that this now raging river was dishing out. We hiked as fast as we could on diminishing energy levels that were waning as our adrenaline rush wore off. Water levels reached within only a few feet of the trail in some spots, much higher than we had ever seen it before. The rain had long since subsided, but the river continued to rise and the trail remained a small stream itself in places. Finally, when we approached the large steel bridge that spanned Big Creek, it still stood solidly providing us safe passage over a river that no one would survive in now.  Too much water and too much force was exerted. We crossed the bridge, looking out over this scene:


Beyond this point, we were able to relax and simply walk the last couple miles of the way out. We did take a quick stop at Mouse Creek Falls which was extraordinary with this much water flow. We looked for Midnight Hole, but to us at least, it was unrecognizable in the raging currents. I must admit that I was pretty thrilled to see the trail sign at the end of Big Creek and the car that our kind shuttler, Steve, had driven around all day to come and pick us up at the end of our hike. It would be a bit of an understatement to say we were glad to see him!
Not only did he pick us up, but he brought us a nice buffet of snacks and treats to bolster our spirits as he listened to our tale of adventure.  

I did make a decision on this hike, though. I have firmly decided that if I am lucky enough to finish hiking all the trails in the Smokies and become a member of the 900-Miler Club, I will only do it once.  I will never, EVER, step foot on Gunter Fork Trail--not ever again in my lifetime. If you see me on Gunter Fork, call a doctor, because you can rest assured that I have lost my freaking mind!  


  1. Fascinating story! Glad to hear you made it safely. I experienced a similar situation a few years ago hiking down the Alum Cave trail from the Leconte summit. Had a few knee deep stream crossings and had a thigh deep crossing where we strung out rope to guide us across. Also experience a landslide off the trail on the hike down as well. Very harrowing!

  2. What a great account of a harrowing, adventurous day!

  3. That creek can be very dangerous. I have crossed Abrams when it was in similar conditions. Gunter Fork is much better hiked in reverse. It allows you to approach the slide area and see it from a different view. The trail is always overgrown. The falls you stopped at makes a very nice spot to stop at when the weather is normal. Never say Never. You may want to see it again under normal conditions.

    1. Dale, a part of me would like to see those falls in more "normal" conditions, so now that I have the upper part finished, I guess a trek in from the bottom would be a better way to see the falls. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Never know what can happen. We did the entire map and are also not doing another one..just hike for exercise now. Good luck in your hiking.

  5. Enjoyed your account of this dangerous hike. Glad you dcided to share it with us.ver well written i almost felt like i was there. Kuddos. Enjoy your hiking and God bless

  6. Well said. Incredible adventure. Prayers of thanksgiving for your safety.

  7. Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments. Glad you enjoyed my ramblings.

  8. I know its been almost a year since you've posted this but just wanted to say thanks for relating this story so well. A group of us are doing a loop hike from Big Creek up to Laurel Gap shelter and back, and we will be taking Gunter Fork trail up towards Balsam Mountain. Hopefully we will have a much better experience than you did! Enjoy the trails!
    Bruce W.

    1. Hope your trip was gloriously uneventful! I'd love to hear how it went!