Sunday, July 5, 2015

Backpack Through a Temperate Rainforest

During the recent heat wave, we made a three-day backpacking trip across the mid-elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, something, in hindsight, I would recommend doing during spring or fall instead of high summer! Our East Tennessee summer had begun early and had come on with a vengeance, but this trip had been scheduled for months and family vacations scheduled around it, so there was no way we were going to back out just because of a little heat and humidity. Wait, did I say little? Wow, was that an understatement! Luckily, we had had enough foresight to schedule some relatively short days (8-10 miles each day) instead of trying to do our normal 13+ each day. In planning this trip we had worked it out to where the two most difficult climbs would be early morning each of the second and third days of our trip instead of tagged on toward the end of a day.  Good planning is what made this trip enjoyable in spite of the heat.

We began our hike at the Deep Creek Trailhead on Newfound Gap Road. This first stretch of trail was repeat miles for us, down to the intersection with Fork Ridge Trail, but it was on this first section that we had the most trouble with blowdowns. In several places, we had to scramble over and around downed trees which blocked our path. One particular tree was so large and slanted so steeply that we decided we'd be better off to remove our backpacks before even trying to straddle our way across it.

It was also in this section of the Deep Creek trail that we encountered a doe who was totally nonplussed at our presence in HER woods. She walked out onto the trail, saw us, and continued walking right up the path toward us. Of course, we froze in our tracks so we would not spook her, pulling out our cameras for photos.

She nibbled on nearby tree leaves, sauntered on up the trail a bit, then eased off trail and up an incline just to the side of the trail. She watched us a little, as we watched her, but she never seemed the least bit nervous about us being there. Eventually, she made her way off to wherever she was going. Only then did we begin our walking again, realizing just what a special moment that had been.

We stopped for lunch that day beside Deep Creek at the intersection with Fork Ridge Trail, a cool spot to take a break. There was another group of backpackers who had arrived on the other side of the creek about the time we got there. They were going to need to cross since they had reservations at Backcountry Campsite #54 on Deep Creek Trail that night. The group was made up of three young men and a young woman. One of the young men waded across, dropped his pack, then returned across the creek to his friends. He then took the pack of the young woman and carried it across the creek for her! Ladies and gentlemen, chivalry is NOT dead!!!

The rest of that day was spent on the only section of Deep Creek Trail that we had not previously hiked, and I will readily say that it is my least favorite section of that trail. Footing was often precarious as rock formations formed from some meeting of fault lines jutted up almost vertically under our feet in many locations along the path. Thankfully, we arrived at our campsite fairly early in the day and were able to drop our packs and set up camp at Backcountry Campsite #55.

This was a first for us. We had never had to carry and set up tents in the backcountry at a site where no one was going to be staying except us. We had our campsites all to ourselves on this whole trip, something I wasn't sure I would enjoy, but it turned out great! We had no unwanted visitors this time, not even rodents who had plagued us at Walnut Bottoms on our previous trip. #55 is a nice, relatively flat site with an old picnic table (a real luxury in the backcountry sites). It is located just across the trail from Deep Creek, so fresh water is plentiful, and the creek is a great place to cool off after a long, hot hike. If you stay at #55, you need to know that there is a great little "beach" down just a tad at the intersection with Pole Road Creek Trail. We didn't find it until after we had eaten dinner and gathered all of our water for the evening. It would have been much easier access for us just a tenth of a mile on down the trail. We did decide that we would take our breakfasts down to the "beach" the next morning though.

It did rain during the night, which meant that our tents were heavier on day 2 of our trek, no matter how hard we tried to shake the water off of the rainfly and footprint. Thankfully, though, the rain stopped about the time we were coming out of our tents, so we didn't have to pack up in the rain. We did get our breakfast ready to take down to the beach and had a peaceful start to our morning sitting by Deep Creek, listening to the ripples and cascades, enjoying the beauty of this spot. It's moments like this that I backpack and hike for--soaking in the glory of God's creation in the presence of great friends, near solitude, and exquisite peace.

We had planned this next stretch of trail, up the steep Pole Road Creek Trail, purposefully so that we would be fresh when we started. This trail is a steady climb up about 1500 feet over just a bit over 3 miles, not too bad really unless you're carrying over 30 lbs on your back. There are numerous water crossings, some of which are rock hops, but some of which you need water shoes for, which simply means dropping that pack, changing shoes, then having to shoulder that monster again. The highlight of this trail for me happened in the top quarter mile where we were cheered on by the "drink your t-e-e-a" call of an Eastern Towhee. I am confident he was not happy with our presence, but instead it sounded to our weary ears that he was cheering us on. I recorded his call on my phone and asked a birding friend of mine to identify him for me when I got home. I just had to know what bird was so encouraging for us on that last leg of Pole Road Creek trail. Thank you, John, for identifying him for me!

Finally, we reached Upper Sassafras Gap at the intersection with Noland Creek Trail, stopped for a much deserved break, and attempted to replenish electrolytes with a little Gatorade. I hear all the time in the summer about hikers who get in trouble because they drink only water on the trail. It's a good idea to pack some Gatorade or Propel powder to supplement water intake to help keep those important electrolytes in balance. Another thing you can do to help with that is take along some of the Clif Shot Bloks. They help with electrolyte replacement as well.  During this stop, Kirsten pulled out her wet rainfly and hung it over the trail sign to dry a bit in an attempt to reduce pack weight even by just a little. Every little bit helps you know! When backpacking, it's really all about ounces, not pounds!

The next stretch of trail was down Noland Creek Trail to Backcountry Campsite #64 where it intersects with Springhouse Branch. This section was supposed to be only about 5.3 miles, but it sure walked much longer than that! It seemed like it took us forever to make it down to the campsite. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were hiking in a sauna, or the fact that we had to drop our packs and change shoes so many times, but maybe it had more to do with inaccurate measurements; I just don't know. I just know it felt way longer than 5.3 miles. Whatever the reason, this section of our hike also had the most unusual and the largest mushroom I have ever encountered on it. This rose-shaped mushroom was at least 18" in diameter!

We did have another awesome deer encounter though along the way. While walking by BC #63, we noticed a buck with antlers still in velvet, contentedly munching on the bark of tree stumps right there IN the campsite. Again, we stood and watched him from the trail for some time until he got leery of us and moved deeper into the woods. That experience gave us the energy to keep on moving toward our destination.

Finally, we came to our campsite (#64), tired, hot, and very ready to drop our packs. There wasn't a dry stitch of clothing on us, but not because of rains. We were drenched with sweat! We began looking for a place to set up our tents, but noticed a swarm of bees hugging the ground in much of the site. We also noticed small holes in the ground. We thought at first those were ant hills but began to put two and two together. Our "four" was that those bees were probably nesting in the ground and those holes were made by them. We kept searching until we found an area where there were no holes, and no bees, where we felt we could safely pitch our tents. This was a great little spot too, because it was situated along a secluded stretch of Springhouse Branch which made a great bathtub. We each took turns bathing in that little spot while the others kept watch for more campers, none of which ever arrived. Our chosen area also had large rocks which we used to help us dry out some of the clothing we had worn, which worked pretty well until it rained during the night!

On the morning of the third day, we left everything set up and slackpacked up Springhouse Branch Trail to the point where it comes together with Forney Ridge Trail and then back down. Not carrying the entire pack felt absolutely fantastic, and we made it up in no time! There was a smattering of wildflowers on this trail, but this area is also blanketed in one of our favorite non-flowering plants. I have no idea what its real name is, but we call it "fireworks fern," because it reminds us of the explosions high up in the air on the 4th of July.

After returning down Springhouse Branch to our campsite, we made quick work of breaking camp, strapped on those now full backpacks once again and made a speedy trip down the final 4.1 miles to Lakeview Drive. We did that 4.1 miles in an hour and a half even though we knew we would arrive before my husband who had so graciously agreed to drive over from Knoxville and pick us up. He was supposed to be there at 4:00 p.m., but we arrived at 2:00. We were just ready to be done!

Taking off those packs for the final time was a huge motivational force for us, apparently! But his arrival was worth the wait! Not only did he drive for a total of about 7 hours to provide our ride home, but he brought us some much appreciated crackers, cheeses, and Land Sharks! What a wonderful treat!

One thing I want to be sure to say is this: hiking all the trails in the Smokies is not something one can do by themselves. It takes a lot of support and sacrifice on the part of families and others who may agree to provide shuttles for the hikers. Our husbands have provided those shuttles on several occasions and given us the freedom and time away from family to be able to get very close to our goal. If and when we get there, it will be an accomplishment in which all of us have taken part. I just want to say thank you for all the support our husbands have given to us!


  1. Jpenske2@yahoo.comJuly 5, 2015 at 6:29 AM

    Did you take in the old homesites and cemeteries going on down Noland Creek?

    1. We certainly did that back in the winter when we did the lower section of Noland Creek! Fascinating old homeplaces, that's for sure. My favorite is the one with the boxwood shrubs on either side of the entryway. Those old boxwoods are now probably 15 feet tall! Had no idea that's what they'd do if left untended. Great sites to explore in cold weather, but they're a little overgrown for me during the summer months. I HATE snakes! :-) Oh, I also love the old power plant remains just below campsite #64. Such a cool relic to explore!

  2. Can you tell me who makes the tent (silver/grey tarp, single person?) It looks like the perfect size for a motorcycle trip.

    1. Looks like a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1. They also make a UL2 which offers more room inside and weighs just ounces more than the one man

    2. That tent is the Fly Creek by Big Agnes. Really a neat little tent! A bit strange when setting it up, but it goes up fast and easy. 1 lb 10 ounces on trail weight! Here's a link for it from REI.

  3. that plant is lycopodium, or tree ground pine. it is a clubmoss. tombone