Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Hiking the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains--Things you will WANT to know! Part Two: Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap

This is the second post of a two-part series offering personal insights into hiking on the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies. It is my intention to make planning your thru hike or long section hike through this part of the AT a little easier by letting you know what to expect from the shelters and the trail, focusing on what you will see and what you do NOT want to miss while you are here. Part One: Fontana to Newfound Gap can be found here. This northern section of the AT through the Smokies is my favorite area of the entire Park, so hopefully you will find some things here to enjoy as you make your way through this jewel of the South.

The Trail, its Sights, and Shelters (South to North) 

Newfound Gap to Peck's Corner
The first mile of your hike north on the AT from Newfound Gap will likely be pretty crowded. Most everyone who drives up to the Gap for views from the parking lot will want to take a few steps on the famous Appalachian Trail, so just be prepared for the typical "are you a thru-hiker" questions! The crowds will thin considerably by the end of the first mile or so, but will become almost non-existent by the time you pass Charlie's Bunion at the 4-mile point. More about that in a moment!

The climb up from the parking lot is a breeze compared to the climb up from Fontana Dam, so you will definitely enjoy this day! This section of trail follows the ridgeline and offers spectacular vistas repeatedly on either side, first with North Carolina to the right and later with Tennessee to your left. If you did not take a night or two in Gatlinburg and instead hiked up from Silers Bald or Double Spring Gap shelters, you might be aiming for Icewater Shelter as your destination for this night. Just a heads will likely be full, especially on weekends, but often during the week as well. This shelter is so close to the road and so easily accessible, it is a favorite for, shall we say, less-than-experienced hikers. With that said, you might find yourself surrounded by partiers and folks who don't understand what hiker midnight means because they've never put in a long hard day on ANY trail. However, in addition to having a very nice privy (even handicap-accessible if I remember correctly), the best part about Icewater Spring shelter is that it offers some of the best sunrises in the entire Park, so that trade-off might be worth having to put up with a bit of partying. The water source at Icewater Spring tastes just like you would expect. It's a pipe spring coming out of the ground literally crossing the AT just a few yards north of the shelter. It is cold and delicious! But, as always, treat any water you drink while in the backcountry.

Whether you stop for the night at Icewater Spring or not, hiking on beyond it, you will soon come to the side trail for one of my very favorite locations in the entire Park. A very short trail leads off to your left and bears the sign marking Charlie's Bunion. Please do NOT miss this spot! It is SO worth it, and you will want the picture from the rocks reaching out over a massive overlook with Mt. LeConte on your left and the Greenbrier region of the Smokies in front and beyond. On a clear day, from Charlie's Bunion, you can almost literally see forever, or so it seems. The views, in my opinion, are better than those from McAfee Knob because you are 2400' higher here. Standing, or sitting if the winds are fierce, out there on the rock outcropping, you will feel small and unimportant which is, in my opinion, good for the soul on occasion.

You might wish to know that these rocks were laid bare by a 1925 wildfire so hot it killed everything living there and rendered the soil incapable of regrowing vegetation. Four years later, a thunderstorm dumped a significant amount of water in a short period of time, washing the remaining soil down the cliffs, exposing what we now call the Bunion. Those of us who love the Smokies do wonder if a similar fate awaits the Chimney Tops and Bullhead regions so ravaged by wildfires back in November 2016. But you will probably not notice the devastation of that area unless you hitch or shuttle to and from Gatlinburg from Newfound Gap. The AT does not pass through the scorched area itself.

Once you have soaked up the vistas from Charlie's Bunion, you return to the trail and will soon cross the Sawteeth. There are spots along the trail between Charlie's Bunion and the next shelter at Peck's Corner that are very narrow strips of trail on a ridgeline seemingly no wider than the width of one hiker and his/her hiking poles. It does NOT feel scary though, so don't worry about that. There are brush and myrtle bushes along both sides of the trail, so it doesn't feel like you're going to fall off the ridge. One other notable feature you will pass is Bradley's View, a flat Anakeesta rock outcropping that provides both a resting spot and phenomenal views down into the North Carolina Smokies and foothills.

Peck's Corner shelter lies about .4 miles down the Hughes Ridge trail that intersects with the AT. This shelter does have a privy and a good water source, and if you climb up the little knoll just past the turn off to the shelter from Hughes Ridge trail and past the privy, you can find decent cell reception (which truly is a bit unusual in the Smokies). That is also a nice spot to go to for sunrise if you are inclined to chase them as I am.

Peck's Corner to Tricorner Knob
Just so you know, you are now in the most remote region of the Smoky Mountains, perhaps as remote as any part of the trail you will encounter until you arrive at the 100-mile wilderness in Maine. No roads and only a few seldom-traveled trails connect with the AT from here until the Cosby area. THIS is my favorite part of the entire Park!

The view from Eagle Rocks
From Newfound Gap to Peck's Corner shelter is only about a 10-mile day, short for a thru-hiker. If you have the energy and time, consider hiking on to Tricorner Knob, my very favorite shelter anywhere in the Smokies, as it's only another 5 miles.

About a mile after you leave the Peck's Corner and Hughes Ridge intersection, you will come to another open rock outcropping which affords more excellent views. This spot is Eagle Rocks, and you will find a geological marker there telling you the elevation at which you stand. It makes for a nice photo as do those phenomenal vistas you will be enjoying. The walk between Peck's Corner and Tricorner Knob skirts around the two summits of Mt. Sequoyah and Mt. Chapman and traverses through virgin forests, never logged, which cannot be said of the part of the Smokies you have already come through. These old-growth forests are simply magical! Stop along the way and take it all in--the sights, the smells, the mist, the connection with ancient time.

After climbing and then descending from the shoulders of Mt. Chapman, there is one short, final ascent to Tricorner Knob shelter. This shelter has a pipe-spring coming from the hillside just in front of the shelter and a privy large enough to make a nice changing room just a short distance down a flat (which is much appreciated after Peck's Corner), well-beaten path.

The bear cables are down the same wide path to the privy, making them easy to access as well. The nights I have stayed in this shelter, we've had roaring fires in the fireplace, another welcome accommodation considering it is usually colder here than anywhere else along the AT in the Smokies.

From Tricorner Knob to Cosby Knob

The trail you take when you leave Tricorner Knob and head toward the Cosby area will offer respite from the typical Smokies climbs. While experiencing an overall loss of elevation, you will cross two interesting areas you might not otherwise notice or understand. About 2.7 miles from Tricorner Knob shelter, you will come to a flat area across which some concrete rectangular slabs have been laid. The trail crosses right in the middle of them. This is an old helipad created after the wreck of a military jet in 1984, the remnants of which you will see in a few minutes if you know where to look for it. The helipad is another wonderful place to take off the packs and take a snack or breakfast break. On a sunny day, it would be a nice place to dry out your gear if you've had rain on previous days.

Once you leave the helipad, you will hike a short distance and come to some well-built stone stairs.
After going down those stairs, begin to look off the trail to your right, down slope from the trail. You should see some jagged, misshapen pieces of the plane that hit directly into the face of this mountain while traveling at over 400 mph. Both the pilot and the passenger were killed instantly. Please show this site the respect that it deserves due to the loss of life of two servicemen training during the Cold War to do reconnaissance to keep us safe from any global threat (credit goes to my friend Steve Oliphant for this information). Do not disturb the wreckage and by all means, do not remove any of it.

Walking on, you will pass into now less mature forests, an area that once again, had been logged heavily in the years before the National Park. After you pass the intersection with Camel Gap Trail, you will climb for a little bit before reaching the next shelter, Cosby Knob, at a distance of 7.7 miles from Tricorner Knob shelter. This shelter is used regularly by local Park visitors and is known for its not-shy mice and, in the summer, frequent visits by bears. I once woke to the scampering of tiny feet across my sleeping bag, raised my hand inside my bag to knock him off, and sent him flying with a thud into the shelter wall beside me. I have not stayed there since. This shelter closes almost every summer due to aggressive bear activity, so be sure to check the status if you are planning to stay here or be prepared to keep walking.

Cosby Knob to Davenport Gap
Pink Lady Slippers can be seen here in early June
Leaving Cosby Knob, you will have about a mile of descent to Low Gap before making your final long climb within the Smokies. However, these woods are lovely, dark, and deep, and we have been fortunate to experience them in rain and light fog. Those conditions turn any part of the Smokies into an otherworldly experience, as you can glimpse in the photo above. The climb up Mt. Cammerer, locally known as White Rock for the large white rocks that burst forth from its summit at precarious angles, is about 700 feet over 2 miles, so that's pretty doable. But Mt. Cammerer is definitely the STAR of this show! You will see a sign for a .6 mile side trail out to by far my favorite structure in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Mt. Cammerer Lookout Tower, crafted from stones blasted and shaped by workers of the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1937, was used as a fire lookout until 1960, but is no longer used for that now. You can climb up those white rocks to the lookout, walk around the structure on the railed decking, and even go into the building. Sadly, you cannot camp here to protect the structure from overuse and abuse. As you can see when you enter, it has already been defaced by visitors who hold no respect for the hard labor that built this fine and unique structure. This building is definitely worth the 1.2 mile easy round trip if you have the time. You can keep in mind as you decide, that it is an entirely downhill trek from this point to the northern boundary of the Park. Go out to Mt. Cammerer Lookout! You will not be disappointed!

The remainder of your time in the Smokies will be, literally, a walk in the Park. This pleasant section of trail descends comfortably until you come to the final shelter, Davenport Gap shelter. This is the only shelter remaining in the Smokies that still has the chainlink fence surrounding it. Most, if not all, shelters on the AT at one time sported these chainlink surrounds which were designed to keep bears and humans carefully separated from one another. The flaw in the thinking here, though, turned out to be that designers had no idea people safely ensconced within the fences would FEED bears through the fence. However, that is by most accounts what became the undoing of the design. As you can imagine, what ended up happening was that the people became virtual prisoners within the fencing because the bears became conditioned to being fed. The Park Service has long since removed all such fences, except, for some unknown reason, this one, and instead have placed the bear cables for all hikers to use to hang food and anything bears might THINK are food. Please do abide by the restrictions regarding no food in the shelters. I would hate to see the Smokies become one of the places where you have to hike through carrying a bulky bear canister.

From Davenport Gap shelter it is approximately one mile to the end of the AT in the Smokies and the spot where you can drop off your no-longer-needed copy of your permit. If you continue hiking on from here, it is an easy 2.7 miles to Standing Bear Hostel where you can get a little resupply or enjoy a night in that very unique setting. I have used them several times for shuttles and they are really nice folks. If you are there, look for Lulu, the Boston Terrier, and throw her a rock or stick for me!

I sincerely hope this series has helped you with your planning of your thru or section hike of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. May you be blessed with bluebird skies and moderate temperatures! If you have further questions, feel free to comment below. Happy trails!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hiking the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains--Things you will WANT to know! Part One: Fontana to Newfound Gap

The Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sends shivers of dread through the minds of some thru-hikers as they sit at the Fontana Hilton and map out the days ahead. But it doesn't have to! By this time in your thru hike, you are stronger, mentally and physically. You are NOT one of the 45-50% who have already dropped off the trail, and you can SO do this! This stretch of the AT offers exquisite views, opportunities to commune a bit differently with your fellow hikers, the potential sightings of various wildlife you may not have yet encountered, and depending on the time of year, some of the most delicate and beautiful trail companions you will happen upon anywhere along your journey as you lower your gaze to the trail itself to make it up that next climb. Just don't forget to look a little to either side of the trail for the wildflowers that often grace its boundaries.

This post will not address things such as permits and regulations of the Smokies. Those can be found here. Instead, let's go through what to expect from the trail itself, what NOT to miss, and a bit about the specific shelters along the way. My hope is to help you plan this part of your trek with a little more insight than can be gathered from the AT Guide, to help you enjoy and experience the Smokies in all their grandeur, not to simply make it through them and get them behind you. You may never be back to this astonishingly beautiful place, and my hope is that you will savor your time here.

The Trail, Its Sights, and Its Shelters (from South to North)

Fontana Dam to Mollie's Ridge
The AT through the Smokies is impossible to get to from anywhere in the Park without a significant climb, and that certainly holds true for those who will enter the Smokies along the AT from Fontana Dam. The first three and a half miles is a slog up a 2000' elevation gain, but a relic-from-the-past metal fire tower rewards you for your efforts. Shuckstack Fire Tower, up a path to your right a scant 1/10 of a mile off the AT, provides the brave-at-heart with incredible views of the Nantahala range from which you have just come, looking down onto Fontana Lake with breathtaking fervor. Warning: Shuckstack "shimmies" in the winds that are prevalent on this ridge, but, take heart, it does not fall! It was designed to give a little in the winds that are seemingly always blowing here. The bottom section of the switchback stairs you will use to scale this tower is missing one handrail, but once you come to the first landing, both handrails are intact the rest of the way up.

If you are unable to make yourself climb the entire 80-ft height of the tower, you will benefit from just going up to the second landing. Even at this landing the vistas will take your breath away, and you may find yourself pressed to continue climbing. Another warning about Shuckstack: do NOT leave your packs unattended at the bottom of the tower. Either leave someone at the bottom, or take packs with you to the first landing. Do not tempt any wandering bears with the goodies you have stowed in your pack to get you through to the first resupply opportunity in Gatlinburg. Our bears are smart! I've never encountered a bear there, but I have heard about packs left at the bottom being raided. Once you return to the AT from the tower, you will find large boulders on which I've seen many thru-hikers resting and taking a snack or lunch break before continuing on up the ridgeline.

The next section of trail takes out and up past the only tent-friendly campsite along the AT in the Smokies, Backcountry Campsite #113, or the Birch Spring Gap campsite. As is true of other sites close to a road, this site is used frequently by not-so-serious hikers and is often misused, trashed, and therefore, often closed due to bear activity. If you are hiking through the Smokies in the summer, this site is almost always closed.

The first shelter you will come to from the South is Mollie's Ridge, which sits at approximately 4600' and 10.1 miles from the Park boundary. This picture of the Mollie's Ridge shelter shows the tarps that are put up by the Park Service in the winter to protect hikers from the elements which can become severe. Inside, there are two levels of wood flooring on which hikers can lay out sleeping pads and bags. As you can see, there is a covered cooking/eating area outside the sleeping quarters. Please do NOT take food into the sleeping area so that bears are not tempted to enter because of the residual scent of the goodies they smell. Do all your food prep and eating outside under the cover if weather dictates it, or sitting on the logs by the fire if weather is good. This shelter has a nice, flat area where tents can be pitched if, and only if, the shelter is full. Ridgerunners do monitor the trail through the Smokies to make sure rules are followed and hikers are safe, and I have met a ridgerunner at Mollie's before. Ridgerunners are very nice folks full of insights and information about the area and good to have around in the event of a problem or emergency. You will also find bear cables at each of the shelters in the Smokies which make hanging your food and other items which give off scent easily at a high perch away from bears, raccoons, etc. One hint though: hang your WHOLE pack, leaving it open so mice don't chew through it to get to whatever goodies you might have inside. If possible, put your food into an Ursack or similar non-porous bag which eliminates odors so that mice are not attracted to your food. Also, every shelter is situated along a water source, and Mollie's is no exception with a good water source just a bit down a side trail from the shelter. There is, however, no privy at Mollie's.

Thru-hikers often complain about having to sleep in the shelters in the Smokies, but I can attest that some of the most fun I've had hiking has been meeting and socializing with other hikers in the shelters along the AT. Keep an open mind, have earplugs available, try to enjoy it, and pat yourself on the back for doing what it takes to keep the most visited National Park from being trampled to death under the overuse of tenting in undesignated areas. Short-term hikers are never allowed to camp outside of a shelter, so many do not carry tents at all. That is why thru-hikers are asked to make room for overnight hikers if the shelter fills up late in the day.

Mollie's Ridge to Spence Field
One of the main problems thru-hikers run into in the Smokies is that the shelters are not placed at
ideal distances from one another. By this time in your hike, you've increased mileage per day to 12 to 15 probably. Within less than 3.5 miles you will come to Russell Field shelter, pictured to the right. Most NOBO thru-hikers do not end up staying here, but if you left Mollie's early it does make for a nice stop for breakfast. Again, there is no privy at this shelter, but usually you will find a shovel and a sign to the bathroom area.

In only a little less than 3 more miles, you will come to the intersection with Eagle Creek trail and only .1 mile down Eagle Creek is a shelter with a privy and a nice water source except in the driest of summer situations. If that source does dry up, you can hike further down Eagle Creek trail approximately .7 miles to the first crossing of Eagle Creek itself which will never go dry. It is a tough climb back up to the shelter if you find yourself in that situation. However, in months of extreme drought, which do happen up here some years, that is an option.

Spence Field shelter is a favorite destination for short-term hikers who will stay here to climb up to Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain on their second day. However, they have had a pretty tough 5-miles of significant elevation gain to get here, so their schedules often closely mimic those of thru-hikers with a bedtime of the typical hiker midnight.

Spence Field itself lies .1 miles north on the AT from the intersection with Eagle Creek Trail, and is what is left of a much larger bald area once used by the early homesteaders of the Cades Cove area to graze cattle. Today, it is characterized by short serviceberry trees and long, luxuriant grasses swaying amiably in the breeze. Views here are wonderful and I suggest you take just a moment to soak them up if you are lucky enough to be here on a clear day.

This is the time for an important decision. The toughest climb in the Smokies lies ahead of you--up and over Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain. This climb, to me, is more difficult than the final ascent of Clingman's Dome. You must now decide whether to hike from here to Derrick's Knob or wait until tomorrow and start fresh. The choice is yours.

Spence Field to Silers Bald

The trail across Thunderhead Mountain is ripe with spectacular vistas to give that adrenaline rush that can help you up that next incline, provided of course that you are blessed to be here on a bluebird sky kind of day. If not, Thunderhead Mountain is not a place to be caught in a storm. They don't call it Thunderhead Mountain for no reason. (In all honesty, I think it gets its name from the Thunderhead sandstone of which the mountain is made.) Weather here is unpredictable and can turn vicious in a short period of time. Just keep that in mind, and if hiking in summer, I recommend you do that section early in the day before thunderstorms have time to build in the heat.

The real "Rocky Top, Tennessee"(made famous by the song played repeatedly on football Saturdays by the Pride of the Southland Marching Band of the University of Tennessee) is an outcropping of rock on Thunderhead Mountain. This particular rock has engravings made by the herders who once grazed their herds they had gathered from as far away as Maryville, Tennessee on these mountain peaks during the summer months of the late 1800s to early 1900s. Stop at that rock and enjoy the view, but also take a moment to ponder the history of this place as you read the etchings.

Once you drop off of Thunderhead Mountain, you enter a forested area which rolls up and down repeatedly while slowly rising back up to Derrick Knob Shelter, another wonderful place to stay the night or just stop and rest. There is a freely flowing water source again, just a short distance down a path from the shelter, but you will find no privy here. If you started at Spence Field shelter, you can probably make the next shelter at Silers Bald, about 5.5 miles north, with little problem. Those miles that separate Derrick Knob from Silers Bald are, as far as the Smokies goes, a rolling, fairly gentle climb with the exception of one short stretch up and then back down Cold Spring Knob.

Silers Bald shelter is pretty typical with one important exception: I do not like its water source even in wet months. The times I've stayed there it seems you are drinking rainwater runoff, as opposed to a springlike source of water found at most of the other shelters. In the hot and dry months of summer, the water source can dry up to little more than a drip. The better water source lies ahead at the next shelter at Double Springs Gap.

Silers Bald to Newfound Gap
Only about 1.5 miles north of Silers Bald you will come to Double Springs Gap Shelter, an absolute delight in summer when the coneflowers and bee balm in the field between the shelter and the privy bloom prolifically. This is a lovely spot to stay or just to take lunch or a snack break. Enjoy your time here because from here to Clingman's Dome, the highest spot on the Appalachian Trail in any state, it is nothing but UP! A tough 2.8 miles separates you from the views which await you at Clingman's Dome, so eat something here that will give you the energy for the final difficult climb.

As you ascend the Dome, if you want to actually go up on the iconic spiral-shaped tower, you will have to look for a short side trail to the paved path. The overlook is only a short walk on the paved path from there. Go up on the paved path to get to the tower. The AT itself goes along underneath the tower and you might miss it altogether if you aren't careful. If it's a clear day, you will probably hear voices from the throngs who visit here daily and will definitely want to go up onto the overlook. If the weather isn't clear, you might as well walk on because you will be IN the clouds at this elevation. If you wish to get off the trail at Clingman's Dome to hitch a ride into Gatlinburg, look for the signs to the Parking Lot. On a fair weather day between April 1 and November 30, you should be able to catch a ride easily, but the road closes in the winter and you will have to hike on to Newfound Gap in order to hitchhike to Gatlinburg between December 1 and March 31, sometimes even a few days one way or the other of those dates if the weather is bad.

During the 7.9 miles between Clingman's Dome and Newfound Gap, there will be some ups and downs, but overall, you will be losing total elevation of about 1600 feet. This is a stretch of trail that proceeds primarily through forest with very few vistas, especially once you leave the flanks of Clingman's Dome. At one point along the trail, you will pass over a fence, on a switchbacked metal walkway, and into an "exclosure" built to keep wild hogs out of this pristine field of protected wildflowers.  Wild non-native hogs can do irreparable damage to the biodiversity of the Park, and this section has been protected from their furrowing, digging, and devouring of the native wildflower populations found here. If you happen through this area in April or May, you will be blessed by millions of spring beauties, trout lilies, and other minute ephemeral lovelies. Count your blessings if you are here at the perfect time. Near the Newfound Gap end of this section, you will come to a stone wall which can also be lined with wildflowers later in the year, but this time the flower is jewelweed or touch-me-not. When you see that old wall, you will know you are nearing Newfound Gap.

There is one final option for a shelter stay before arriving at Newfound Gap, but it is .5 miles off of the AT. Sugarland Mountain Trail intersects with the AT 3.3 miles north of Clingman's Dome Tower. As of this writing, Sugarland Mountain Trail is open from the AT to the Mt. Collins shelter, but is closed beyond it due to the wildfires that devastated the slopes on and around Chimney Tops. But if you are not planning to get off the trail at Newfound Gap, this is a nice place to stay for the night.

Newfound Gap is another easy place to procure a ride to Gatlinburg as long as there has not been snow (the road closes at the first sign of snow because it becomes treacherous very quickly). Locals who frequent this road are used to seeing thru-hikers in spring and summer and many are happy to provide you a ride just to listen to the stories you have to tell. Many thru-hikers choose to leave the trail here to resupply and eat town food for a day or so. I will say that the hitch to Gatlinburg is easier to come by than the hitch back up to Newfound Gap or Clingman's Dome if you got off there. You may have to arrange a shuttle to get you back to the trail.

If you have found this information helpful, come back soon for Part Two: From Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap and read about my very favorite parts of the trail system within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In my opinion, the BEST of the AT in the Smokies still lies ahead!

***One thing I would be remiss if I failed to discuss would be the highly-variable winter weather that can slam into the Smokies at a moments' notice and later in the spring and earlier in the fall than one might think. Please be aware of the weather before entering the Smokies, but if you find yourself in the Smokies with weather presenting hazards that you cannot overcome, you might benefit from the trail map that you can find here. If things get rough and Newfound Gap Road is closed, this map will allow you to find a way down out of the highest elevations onto trails that can lead to roads where you can get help or at least find respite from the highest winds and coldest temperatures. Another good website to consult while you still have signal before entering the Smokies is here where you will find road and facility closures. Have a plan B if you are coming through this Park at a time of year when weather can take a nasty turn very quickly. This last site will also tell you which shelters are closed due to bear activity if you happen to traverse this Park in summer.