Great Smoky Mountain National Park – October 2008
October 12, 2008: After 2.5 days at the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association “Gathering” in Pipestem, WV, where we gave a seminar on “The Joys of Hiking as a Couple,” displayed our DVD, CD and books, and met up with old friends, “Sleepy the Arab,” “Stumpknocker,” “Yolanda Vega,” “Mad Hatter,” “Ma Budda,” “Mountain Laurel,” and made some new friends and had the opportunity to meet Gene Espy, the second person to thru-hike the AT in 1951, and take our picture with him, we had to leave. Before leaving though, I played one of my Native American flutes and a gentleman came up to me and told me a story of a Cherokee Indian he had once met by the name of “Pheasant Driver.” It seems that this Indian had given him a flute that he, “Pheasant Driver,” had hand-made. My new friend suggested that I look up “Pheasant Driver” when I got into Cherokee, NC.
Now we were off to spend a few days hiking in the Smoky Mountains. As we drove, or should I say, crawled, through Pigeon Forge, TN, ahead we could see the Smokies—what a visual contrast. Here we were driving through a mini-version of Las Vegas, sans the casinos, and right in front of us, in the distance was the peace and quiet and solitude of the Smokies. We found the whole scene very discouraging, that in this place of so much natural beauty, man had scourged the surrounding area with neon-covered buildings, gaudy arcades, outlet malls, fast food joints, and garish architecture.We could not wait to hike away from it all. When we finally reached Gatlinburg, one of the first points along the AT where thru-hikers take a “zero day,” it was like we were driving down the main street of Ocean City, MD—gift shops, souvenir shops, wax museums, miniature golf courses, and mile after mile of restaurants and motels. The whole sight turned our stomachs. We arrived at the Park Vista Hotel and checked into our room—a room that faced the mountains and awarded us a magnificent view of Mt. LeConte, our destination for tomorrow. We got to our room, prepped our daypacks for the next day’s hike, and called it a day.
October 13, 2008: Rainbow Falls Trailhead to LeConte Lodge (on the summit of Mt. LeConte – 6,593’ – Total miles 6.6)
After having a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we drove a few miles to the trailhead for the Rainbow Falls Trail, along the way spotting a bear alongside the road. A bear sighting already—this was going to be a good day. We had been advised that the bears were very active at many locations in the park and several campsites and shelters were closed because of their activity. As we were preparing to leave the trailhead and start up the first rocky section of trail, we met a family who were also headed to the LeConte Lodge for the evening. We ended up calling them the “J Crew” because their names were Joe, Josh, and Jason. When “Mom” commented on the fact that their names all began with “J,” one of the guys informed us that his wife’s name also started with a “J” and he had a son named Jake. How Molly, the lone female in this family hiking group managed to elude being given a name that started with “J,” we were never told. We wished them a safe hike and expected to see them again somewhere along the way.
Not long after starting up the trail, we passed a couple hiking with their mother and, based on her age and her comments about how much she was struggling, we doubted they would make it to Rainbow Falls, their destination. We had only been on the trail for 20 minutes, when I looked up and saw a bear making its way across the ridge ahead of us. As we watched, he disappeared over the ridge, right where we were heading. As we made our way up a long switchback and turned the corner at the ridge, there it was, the bear, walking down the trail straight at us. It was so cool! “Mom” got out her camera and took several shots as he came closer to us, but when he got within 25 yards of us, we clicked our sticks and away he went, lumbering through the woods.
The weather was perfect for hiking and it was obvious that we had “lucked out” in our timing for coming to the Smokies. The leaves were nearing peak color for the fall. The higher we traveled the more brilliant and astonishing the colors were. What a sight. This area had been suffering from drought conditions for some time, so when we arrived at Rainbow Falls, there was not much of a waterfall to see. It was nothing more than a mere trickle. We proceeded on, gaining elevation with every step until we reached the Rocky Spur Lookout side trail. Generally, we do not wander off the main trail to vista points, but this trip was different. We had no set timetable, were not in a rush, and Gene Espy, not two days earlier, had repeatedly told us to always take the side trails to take in the views—they were the best part of any hike. Therefore, we left the trail and were glad we did. In every direction, we could see mountains blanketed in the glowing colors of fall set against a backdrop of a clear blue sky. We could even see our hotel from where we were. Oh, how we had missed the feeling that comes with this type of experience! With the LeConte Lodge not far away, we left the overlook, rejoined the trail, and were immediately rousted from our feelings of wonder by the flapping wings of a grouse in the brush alongside the trail. The sound of a grouse’s wings, when flapping them to ward off intruders, sounds much like a jet taking off and it can scare you out of your wits.
By 12:40, we arrived at the LeConte Lodge and sat outside eating our lunch, breathing in the fresh air and marveling at the views all around us. We signed in with our host, Henry, who escorted us to our cabin for the night. The cabin was a small rustic affair with an unobstructed view of the valley. It had no electricity but did have a propane heater to take off the evening chill. We were given a galvanized bucket in which to get water to fill our wash basin when we were ready to clean up for the day. We thanked him and proceeded to empty our packs onto the upped deck of our bunk beds and settle in. The remainder of the afternoon was spent taking photographs of our surroundings and a short 0.4-mile round trip hike to the hiker shelter further up the trail. Back at our cabin, we kicked off our boots, relaxed in the rocking chairs on our front porch, and chatted with a couple from Houston, Texas who told us about some great hiking trails out west, where they spent most of their time. It was 60 °F, with a slight breeze and we simply relaxed and reveled in the solitude and warmth of the sun. As the day progressed, more and more day hikers arrived, most of them up the Alum Cave Trail, so by dinnertime every cabin was full. We had been very fortunate in even getting a cabin because you have to make reservations at least a year in advance. Fortunately, for us, there had been a cancellation just a few days before we left on our adventure and we snatched it up.
Dinner was a “family-style” affair with soup, beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn bread, cookies and wine. Everyone at our table was interested in our 2006 thru-hike so we spent most of the meal reliving our adventure for them. With dinner complete, it was time to make the 0.4-mile trip up to Cliff Top to view the sunset. This spot is one of the best places in the Smokies to view the setting sun and we were not disappointed. We sat there for a good half-hour as “Mom” clicked photo after photo of the sun as it disappeared over the misty mountains and valleys in the distance. On the way back to camp, we were also presented with a spectacular sight, the full moon rising over Myrtle Point which was still bathed in the orange and pick hues of the setting un. This was heaven on earth. When we arrived back at camp, I sat on the porch and serenaded the camp with flute music as darkness settled over us. By 8:00 p.m., we were snug in our bed and looked forward to another memorable day tomorrow.
October 14, 2008: LeConte Lodge to Rainbow Falls Trailhead via Bullhead Trail (6.8 miles), then Huskey Gap Trailhead to Campsite #21 (3 miles)
It had been rather cold last night, but the wool blankets provided to us kept us nice and warm. So warm, in fact, that it was hard getting out of bed into the crisp morning air. We slept until 8:00 a.m., packed our packs and then headed to the lodge for a huge breakfast of pancakes, eggs, ham, coffee and biscuits. We had a full day planned, so we made sure we were on the trail by 9:15. We decided to go down a slightly different way, so we took the Boulevard Trail to the intersection of the Bullhead Trail where later we would meet the Sugarlands Trail back to the parking lot. It was a beautiful walk down, with varied terrain, grassy spots, and lots of spectacular views, all tempered by warm temperatures. “Mom’s” knee and heel were still hurting but she toughed it out. We were virtually alone all morning and saw only three other hikers on their way up as we were going down. It was like heaven! By 12:15 we were already at the parking lot so we loaded our gear in the car and headed to Sugarlands Visitor Center where we would purchase our backcountry permit for the night. We inquired of the ranger about water at our evening’s campsite and we were told there was none. As for bear activity—there was some. For some time I had been trying to get the Great Smoky Mountains Association to carry our DVD in their gift shops so, since their offices were right near by, we stopped so I could check on the status of their decision to do so.
The visitor center was crawling with busloads of tourists, all there to see the fall foliage that was painting the mountainsides in every conceivable hue of red, yellow and orange. We ate lunch under a big oak tree and amused ourselves with “people watching.” With lunch over, we loaded up our big packs for our overnight jaunt to Campsite #21. We decided to not carry our stove and fuel, and instead packed a cold dinner and a cold breakfast for the next morning. Since there was no water at or near the site, we loaded up with as much as we could carry and left our filter behind. Then it was off to the Huskey Gap trailhead, which we missed the first time past. It was not until 3:45 that we stepped foot on the trail—a late start for us, but we only three miles to go before nightfall.
The cool breeze that had washed over us at the Visitor Center disappeared and it was now hot and humid, making the long uphill climb a bit more gruesome than we expected. There were very few level spots where we could take a breath and rest our burning calves, so we just kept going. Our perseverance paid off because, by 4:50, we had reached the intersection of the Huskey Gap Trail and the Sugarlands Trail, leaving us only one mile to go. A short distance up the trail, we caught up with a couple who were also going to campsite #21 for the night and then to on to Clingman’s Dome the following day. They had already come a long way and knew they had a lot further to go before they could find water. They told us they were carrying 15 liters of water—that’s 30 lbs of weight just for water, not including their food and other gear. Their ultimate goal was to reach New River Gorge where they were going to repel off the bridge there. We wished them well, told them we would see them at the campsite, and then made our way up the trail.
We reached camp at 5:30 p.m., set up tent amongst huge rocks, ate our cold dinner, dug a cat hole for later, and hung both our packs on the bear cables provided. By now the sun was rapidly setting and the temperatures began to drop precipitously. Just outside the door to our tent was a natural amphitheater composed of a huge boulder that overhung a fire pit. Despite the cold, I did not want to pass up the opportunity to play my flute in such a natural venue. The reverb provided by the boulder, and the echo of the flute through the stillness of the woods, was truly awesome!
October 15, 2008: Campsite #21 to Huskey Gap Trailhead (3 miles)
A full moon lit up our tent like there was a light on all night and, as beautiful as it was, the sullen shadows cast over the ground around our tent, was a bit freakish. More than once we looked out and swore we saw a bear meandering through our campsite. The combination of the angle of the ground under our tent, which had us sliding into each other, and the intense quiet that amplified the sound of every falling nut and branch, did not offer us a very restful night’s sleep. “Mom” woke up all twisted up and cramped from trying to keep from sliding into me all night.
Morning could not come soon enough for us but when it did, we decided to lounge around in our tent and did not get up until 8:00 a.m.—it was well past 9:15 before we stepped foot on the trail for the walk back. What we found curious was how stiff our legs were from all the climbing the day before. By now, with so many “trail miles” under our belts, we never expected to still suffer from “hiker shuffle.” The morning air was crisp and cool and, coupled with the fact that we were heading downhill, made for a very enjoyable trip back to our car for the next leg of our adventure. By 10:30 we were already at the trailhead.
The rest of our day was devoted to taking pictures of the beautiful fall colors all around us. Our first stop was a nostalgic visit to Newfound Gap, where just two years earlier, we had stopped for cold sodas with V&A and had our photo taken by the sign indicating the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Not much had changed. There were cars and tourists everywhere and it was safer to be walking the trail than to be walking around the parking lot and sidewalks there. In a moment of nostalgic reflection, “Mom” took my picture next to Tennessee/North Carolina border sign—a photo very similar to the one taken during our thru-hike. As we reviewed the photo on the camera’s little display, we realized that there, in the background of the photo, was a car of the same make, model and color that “V&A” drove when they met us here in 2006. It was Déjà vu all over again and we wondered if “V&A” had mysteriously snuck into the park without our knowing it. It was very weird. “Mom” shot some great photos from this location.
Then it was on to another highlight of our thru-hike—Clingman’s Dome. Again, not much had changed. It was still crowded with tourists, huffing and puffing their way the 0.5 mile up to the observation tower. Truth be told, we were huffing and puffing too and wished we had our trekking poles, though they would have been of little use on the asphalt walkway to the top. It was a wonderfully clear day, so we could see the 37 miles to Mt. Mitchell and the fire tower on Shuckstack Mountain that “Baldylocks” and I climbed in 2006. We took a moment or two to reflect on our journey through here in ’06 and also how, when we were as old as many of the people walking to the summit, we did not want to be in as bad a physical condition as those who had to continually stop to rest on their way up. Our mission here now accomplished, it was on to our next destination—and lunch.
We drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway and found an overlook where there was a picnic table. “Mom” cooked a hot lunch of KFC bowls—my favorite. Others who stopped to also eat were somewhat amazed by the sight of our backpacking stove blazing away on the table with pots scattered all around; most of them simply reached into a cooler for their meal. After lunch we continued on to the top of Balsam Mountain where we hoped to see some elk, since we were told this was a prime location at which to see them. But alas, no elk were to be found. What we did find, though, was that the asphalt road abruptly ended at the top of the mountain and turned into one-lane gravel road to the exit. Taking that route seemed inviting, and even though we had 4-wheel drive, we were low on gas and decided not to risk it. We parked the car and “Mom” went off on a photo expedition with some spectacular results. The fall colors at this elevation were indescribable. It was no wonder so many people flocked here at this time of the year.
It was getting late and we had quite a few slow, winding, miles to go, so we ended our day’s adventure and drove through Cherokee, NC and onto Bryson City, NC to the Folkstone B&B, where we planned to stay the night. After meeting our hosts, checking in and rifling through the pile of menus from local restaurants, we each languished in a much-needed shower. Now it was off to town where we had dinner at one of the haunts of the locals, Jimmy Mac’s. We then drove to Deep Creek Campgrounds to check things out for an overnight stay there later. We picked up a backcountry permit, in case we needed it. Flexibility had become our new mantra and our plans changed hourly—it is a fun and stress-free way to approach such an adventure. The radio said that the weather was supposed to get bad, with a lot of rain, so we decided that we may change our plans in order to stay dry. We were still feeling the lingering effects of our treks up the Smokey Mountains over the past few days, because the longer we were in the car, the stiffer and sorer our legs became. There was only one event that put a bit of a damper on our enthusiasm and that was that “Mom” received a message saying that her uncle Dave had died the previous day.
October 16, 2008: A Day in Cherokee, NC
We had great night’s sleep in an incredibly comfortable bed, ate a lavish breakfast, and then headed into town to do laundry. “Mom” took care of our laundry while I scouted the nearby streets and visited a Cherokee Museum store. We even have to take zero days during vacation. About a half-hour later, I returned to the laundromat and worked on journals while “Mom” perused all the flyers about local attractions in a quest to find interesting ways in which to fill our day. We weren’t certain how much sightseeing we would be able to do because it looked like rain was on the way, something that was much-needed in this area. Drought conditions had been plaguing this area for quite some time and it had adversely affected a number of the tourist attractions. The rafting companies were severely impacted because there had simply not been enough water in the rivers for them to operate trips. There was a train in town that gives tours of the park, with meals, but we thought that it was rather expensive. We were told that tourism was down and the train, as well a town as a whole, was financially hurting. Business had been so slow that even the museum store was getting ready to close down.
With the threat of rain looming over our heads, we decided not to camp and got a room at the B&B for a second night—no sense pitching a tent and getting wet if we did not have to. We fell in love with Bryson City—a small, quaint, quintessential NC town buffered on one side by GSMNP. With our laundry washed, dried and folded, we drove to Cherokee, NC and spent time at the Cherokee Indian Museum and the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. I made several inquiries about “Driver Pheasant” but had no luck locating him. However, “Mom” did see a flute he had made on display at Qualla and pointed it out to me. Doing my part to help the local economy, and to augment the “performance wardrobe” I use when playing, I bought an authentic Cherokee necklace. Then we were off to a Native American Gallery where I picked up a small drum, a rattle and moccasins. It was here that we saw some beautiful paintings by a local artist named David Vann and “Mom” fell in love with his work—especially his painting of a white buffalo. We were told that he had a gallery in town so we went to visit, though we did not purchase anything. It was getting late and we were starving, so we stopped at Paul’s, who claims to have the “Best Hamburgers in Town.” We don’t know if that is true because we did not have any. We drove around until dinner time but we weren’t very hungry so we decided to pick up some things for later on. We stopped at the local IGA supermarket, purchased some Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, and a bottle of wine, and then stood in the checkout line amongst patrons hungrily puffing on their cigarettes. We could never get used to the fact that smoking is still permitted in so many public places down south. We arrived back at the B&B just before dark and sat on the back porch of our room, ate ice cream with fruit from our food bin in the car, and drank wine. As the last rays of sun sank behind the Smokies, I played my flute.
October 17, 2008: Cades Cove to Abrams Creek Campground (8.6 miles)
Today started out with a light rain, so we were in no rush to get on the trail. As we lingered over a delicious breakfast, the sky began to break, so we jumped in the car to begin our drive from Bryson City to Cades Cove. It was a slow drive, as “Mom” had me repeatedly stop so she could take pictures of elk and wild turkeys. Eventually, at 12:20, we arrived at the Cades Cove parking lot and, as we pulled our gear from the car, we noticed we had a major problem. I had inadvertently left the on/off valve on my hydration balder in the “on” position, and because the mouthpiece had been stuck under the pack during our drive, the back seat of our car was soaking wet. Since there was nothing we could really do at that point, we simply refilled my bladder and decided to deal with the problem when we returned. With my bladder full, we struck out on the Rabbit Creek Trail. It was again misty & rainy, but thankfully, not too cold.
We should not have been surprised, but what immediately struck us was the number of warning signs about bear activity and notices that a few campsites were even closed because of it. For us, this was great news because we consider a hike successful if we see wildlife—seeing a bear or two would be the ultimate. As we moved up the trail, we had to ford, actually rock-hop, two streams. We enjoyed the solitude of the trail and only saw three other people all day—two ladies on horseback, who passed us going the other way, and one hiker headed to Campsite #4. By 4:30, we arrived at Abrams Creek Campground and commented to each other on what a nice trail we had just been on. As we read the campground instructions at the entrance to the camp, a gentleman walked up who was headed to Campsite #16. He asked us about bears, so we filled him in on what we had seen and read along the way and assured him that he would probably be okay, as long as he cooked and hung his food away from his tent.
Thankfully, as we arrived at the campground, which was very nice, by the way, the rain stopped. There is nothing worse than setting up a tent in the rain. We had brought our new tarp tent and were not looking forward to setting it up, for only the second time, in the rain. To our dismay, the campground appeared to be full, and since it is a ‘first come-first served” campground, we were afraid we would not find a site. Luckily, there was one left, so we grabbed it.
It had been an exhilarating but exhausting day, so while I finished setting up the tent and loaded our gear into it, “Mom” began making dinner. We wanted to get all our “daily chores” out of the way because we were looking forward to turning in early at “hiker midnight” and having a long, and restful, night’s sleep. We finished our dinner of spaghetti, garlic toast, cheese & broccoli soup, chocolate pudding and wine, and while “Mom” did the dishes, I played my Native American flute for several kids and their parents who were camped nearby.
As planned, we were in bed by 8:00 pm but at 8:30, as darkness fell over the camp and we were beginning to nod off, all hell broke loose. Two women with three kids started to back their pop-up camper into our site. Had I not jumped out of our tent to let them know the site was already occupied, they would have backed right over us. We were told a story of how they had been driving all day, that they were exhausted and how they desperately needed a place to camp for the night. We relented and offered them the front half of our site for their pop-up tent. Unfortunately, it would be quite some time before we could get back to sleep. The lady was unable to back the trailer up without running into anything, so a group of us had to unhook it and manually roll it into position—uphill. Once in place, our attempt to sleep was relentlessly interrupted by the entire family stacking firewood, arguing over who would sleep where, the making of a fire, and other loud and annoying noise. At 11:00 pm, I had to inform them that quiet time started at 10:00 pm and that everyone around them was trying to get to sleep. They were completely oblivious to the racket they had been making and appeared taken back that anyone would try spoil their late-night fun.
October 18, 2008: Abrams Creek Campground to Cades Cove (8.6 miles)
We arose at first light, breaking camp with headlamps, and ate a quick breakfast, anxious to leave the past evening’s annoyance behind us. Needless to say, we got very little sleep and I made a point of letting our noisy neighbors know, in no uncertain terms, how obnoxious and disrespectful their behavior had been. They had no clue and offered up no explanations or apologies for their behavior. This whole experience reinforced my belief that, even though our National Parks should be available to everyone, not everyone should be allowed in them.
We quickly walked the 0.9 mile to the Little Bottoms Trail and to a steep ascent. This particular trail reminded us a lot of the A.T. The terrain was varied, with numerous ups and downs, like in Maryland, side-hill walking, similar to Georgia and Shenandoah National Park, and steep, root-strewn, narrow ascents like New Hampshire and Maine. We were in heaven and the memories of our thru-hike came rushing back. We passed Campsite #17 and saw a large group of tents and then stopped at the intersection with the Hatcher Mountain Trail for a snack. No hike through this section would be complete without stopping at Abrams Falls, so we were not about to pass it up. As we neared the falls, we saw, perched high up above the ridge, a peregrine falcon. This day was now a success. Since Abrams Falls is a poplar destination for day hikers, the trail, from there to the trailhead, was well-worn and our solitude had come to an end. We passed a steady stream of hikers all the way back to our car.
At 12:15, just in time for lunch, we arrived back at our car. It had now started to get cold, so lunch was a quick event. We dried our tent on the hood of the car and tried to absorb some of the water that had leaked from my water balder. The drive through the rest of Cades Cove road was like being at home in DC. Traffic on the narrow road was bumper-to-bumper but, because the weather had now cleared and was absolutely beautiful, we did not mind it (too much). We stopped along the way and wandered through an old cemetery and took hundreds of photos as we made our way back to Gatlinburg. By 3:00 we were arrived back at our hotel and simply kicked back. No more hiking food – we ordered prime rib through room service and watched a movie.
It had been a remarkable week—a week blessed with wonderful weather and many memories. Our total miles this week—38.4. Nothing even close to a thru-hike, but fantastic just the same.