Day 1: May 22
After about 6 months of planning, Memorial Day weekend was here and it was time to head off to the most visited National Park in America: The Great Smoky Mountains! The plan was to meet at the North Vienna Kiss and ride early Friday morning so that there was ample time to make the long drive down and so that we could set up camp at a descent hour. Amazingly everyone was prompt and ready to go by 6:45! Kudos to all! We all quickly piled into Joe and Sharon’s cars and were on the road by 7.
Several hours into hour drive, we were scheming ideas and locations for where we would have lunch. As we were near Marion, VA, Kylie had mentioned this Italian place called “Tuscans Grill” from where she had stopped for lunch thru hiking the AT 2 years ago. Raving about their food and their amazing cannoli, there seemed to be no choice but to stop there. Once we arrived, to our (especially Kylie’s) dismay, we found that it was no longer the same restaurant as new ownership took over. Despite this, we stuck to it and sat down for lunch here at this new place. The food was “edible”.
Several hours later after getting back on the road, we arrived in Pigeon Forge, VA. We stopped to regroup, got some much needed Starbucks and then headed back on the road with our next destination at the large parking area just below Clingman’s Dome. Through out this drive, we began to notice the increasing number of billboards with Dolly Parton’s face on them. It then clicked, that yep, we were in Dollywood. Those not familiar with Dollywood, its a huge vacation resort filled with rides, massive hotels, concert venues, restaurants, etc with the theme of country music and Dolly Parton. It gave off a weird touristy vibe and were just amazed as to how crowded the area was. What do these people do here? Anyways, after finally passing through all the tourism, we were making our way into the Smokies!
Wow, what a place. I remember my initial thoughts thinking that it was very grand with tall steep mountains all over the place. Just like entering the Adirondack High Peaks area, except with massive, tall evergreens all over! Continuing our drive into the park, we climbed several thousand feet making it in the parking area just below Clingman’s Dome. The elevation at the parking lot was about 6,500 feet! From here, there was just a short half a mile walk to the top. We all caught our quick views from the top but didn’t linger to long as there were a ton of people there visiting. After all, you can drive here. Despite not staying here too long due to the big crowds, it was nice to say that we were on the highest point along the AT, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest point just east of the Mississippi! Cool!
When got back to the cars at around 5:30 and we had about another hour before making it down to the trailhead where we would start our hike. After parking our cars at the trail head, we began our backpacking trip with just about 1.1 miles in to our first backcountry site 50. It was definitely a long day with the drive but we were all so happy to be able to sit around the campfire, with our shelters pitched and our dinners cooked, all while the sun was still out! Shortly after the sun went down, we all climbed into our bags and called it in for the night.
During the middle of the night, I woke suddenly trying to search for my water bottle (which I left near the fire pit). At this point (3:30am), I heard Megan call for help. I thought I was hearing things but then I saw her light on inside her tent and saw here in need of help. Worried a bit, I immediately asked what was wrong. She had told me that a bug went inside her ear and she could feel it moving around. Needless to say, she was feeling some discomfort. After trying a couple things that didn’t work, I came up with the idea of pouring drops of water into her ear to hopefully “drown” it out or something. Well, after several minutes, it seemed to have worked. Relieved and ready to go back to bed, I had told her not to hesitate to get me if things got worse. I crawled back into my shelter to try and salvage some sleep. I finally started to nodd off but just when I did, I noticed lights turning on from where Peter was. Turned out that he wasn’t quite comfortable with the temps dipping into the low 40s so he made a quick camp fire at 4am.
In the morning, a couple hours later, I learned that he was trying out a new hammock system that wasn’t really working out as far as the insulation goes.
Day 2: May 23
With the fire made a couple hours before everyone got up, made it quite nice actually to eat breakfast and break camp with a warm fire. Something I don’t get to experience quite often. The only other time this happens is when Wawa is on the trail with me.
After breaking camp and going over the plans, we hit the trail promptly at 7:30am. We started our ascent, heading north on the Chasteen Creek Trail. Walking along this trail, I got the feeling of walking through an old growth forrest as the trees around you were in dense clusters, massive and very tall. It was definitely unique look to all the parks I’ve hiked in the east coast. Continuing the climb, I noticed that the trail seemed overgrown in many parts and all over were lots of Stinging Nettles. Just like much of the trails in West Virginia. It didn’t seem that this trail was used very much. Despite all this, the trail was still easy to follow.
It was also nice to see all the wild flowers that were on the trail.
4.4 miles later, we had completed our first (out of three) major climb of the day, gaining almost 2 thousand feet of elevation. At this point, we turned onto the Enloe Creek Trail, making our descent down to the Raven Fork. Once at the creek, we were offered beautiful views of cascading waterfalls. After taking a quick break and snapping some photos, we were back onto our second ascent.
2 miles later, and after about completing our second climb of the day (1400 ft of climbing) we decided to take lunch at the intersection between Hyatt Ridge trail and the Beech Gap Trail. Originally, we were supposed to have lunch at Hyatt Bald, but come to look at it (thanks to Karan), there was no bald. No views, no clearing, just dense forrest full of tall trees. Anyways, our lunch spot was nice, but we were beginning to wonder why they called it Hyatt Bald. We were becoming skeptical of the other “balds” that we were planning to visit that day.
With food energy back in us, we started our descent along the Beech Gap Trail down towards Round Bottom. At Round Bottom, we came to a road and crossed a bridge where it would lead back to the trail. Once at the trail, it would start us on our third and final ascent for the day. While some hiked on, Peter, Megan, Sharon, and I decided to fill our water bottles and cool off a bit in the creek just below the bridge. Peter took this opportunity to jump in a nice pool of water. It was pretty refreshing to say the least!
Back on the trail, we were on the climb again. 2.5 miles and 2 thousand feet of climbing took a lot out of many of us. Especially after doing the 2 climbs before. Soon enough, we were at the intersection of Balsam Mountain Trail. It was nice to regather ourselves and regroup. I think Peter took a 5 minute power nap! With just under 2 miles left to get to Laurel Gap Shelter, our home for the night, we quickly started hiking again and got to camp at around 4:30.
Knowing that we were sharing the shelter with at least 5 other folks, plus the fact that they had already set up inside the shelter, we chose to set up camp on a flat grassy areas just south of the shelter. After doing some camp chores, like getting our water for the night, we all headed to the shelter area to introduce ourselves to the other hikers. They turned out to be really nice folks! Most of them were from various places in the south and learned that all of them met each other through different hiking trips. One of which was a trip they did last year on the John Muir Trail! It was fun sharing my experience of hiking the JMT 2 years ago with them! One of them also shared his experience backing in New Zealand! This perked Iru’s interest and she want to plan a trip there sometime in 2017! I think we learned some cool ideas from talking with the guy.
After dinner, we all sat by the fire talking together about various things. At this time, Peter conducted video interviews one by one, with Megan, Kylie, and Iru.
Note: To catch everyone up, Peter, who works as a free lance videographer/editor, is playing with an idea to do a “DC UL Backpacking” documentary to basically show what the group is about, who the members are, and all the good things we do. I think its a pretty cool concept!
Also at this time, many of us came to find out that Joe had brought some maple whiskey, about 24 ounces worth in three flasks!! I’m still trying to come up with a trail name for him… I guess he was Karan’s version of bringing the 18 beers into camp during the Massanutten Death March last year.
As the night progressed, many of us were starting to fade fast and we all called it in for the night at around 8:45. Not sure how we even lasted that long! Also, knowing that the temps were to drop again to the low 40s, we donated our sit pads to Peter so that he could sleep somewhat comfortably. He was grateful to say the least!
Day 3: May 24th
We woke early and were back on the trail by 7:30. It was motivating to know that there wouldn’t be the brutal climbs as the day before and that at some point we would be offered our first set of views from the ridge. Heading west on the relatively flat Balsam Mountain Trail, we met up with the AT in just under 6 miles. It was nice to be up high as the environment surrounding the trail was much different from the day before. It sort of reminded me of being in the thick evergreen forests that are found in the Sierras in California. It was beautiful and gave off a really great vibe.
We regrouped at the Tricorner Knob Shelter where some with cached up on water. After a quick break, we headed south along the AT and after 4 miles into our hike we were finally rewarded with our first views of the surrounding mountains at Eagle Rocks. What an amazing place. Another mile later, we were at the next AT shelter, Pecks Corner. To be exact, the shelter is .8 miles down the Hughes Ridge Trail down a steep hill. While some of us stood guard of our packs at the trail intersection, others went down to the Shelter to collect water for the group. Thanks Kylie, Joe, Karan, and Iru!
After having lunch at the trail junction, we continued our hike southbound along the AT. It would be another 6.5 miles before reaching our next destination, Charlie’s Bunion. Now, this section of the AT I would have to say would be one of my favorites along the entire AT. The trail rides on top of a ridge that divides North Carolina and Tennessee offering multiple vistas along the way. Certain parts of it reminded me of being in the Olympic mountain range in the state of Washington. The views here were very dramatic and the edges of the trail were the tops thousand foot cliffs!
With nearly 17 miles hiked for the day, we finally found ourselves at Charlie’s Bunion. The views were incredible here. With steep drop offs all around us, views of Mount LeConte and the surrounding ridge lines, this was truly an epic place. Its also a popular place for day hikers as the parking lot at Newfound Gap is only 4.5 miles away. Despite the number of folks that were there, it was a place I’ll never forget and probably one of the best views off of the AT i’ve seen yet.
Wanting to get to camp at a descent hour, we soon headed back towards the Dry Sluice Gap Trail. One final climb of the trip for the first mile, and it was all down hill for the rest of the trip. Just over 4 miles later, the trail intersects with the Cabin Flats Trail which would lead us to our backcountry site 49. I was surprised as to how big the camp area was as there are 4 separate camp site locations. Unfortunately for us, 3 out of the 4 were taken so we had no choice but to claim the last one. It was the smallest out of them all, but it was located right next to the Cabin Branch Creek.
Once at camp, to my surprise, Iru and Peter went right for the creek and jumped right into the water! That water was not warm to say the least. After pitching our shelters, the rest of us went for the creek as well. Not exactly jumping in the water, but dipping our feet in and washing off a bit. It was nice and refreshing, especially after a long day of hiking. After this, we all settled around an empty campfire ring to cook dinner and eat. None of us really had the energy to collect wood and get a fire going. Plus there was still plenty of daylight anyways. I took this time to toast to Iru’s last (at least for now) backpacking trip with DC UL! She will be missed as we all built many memories on the trail with her!
Stomachs were now full and all of us were ready to crash for the night. As some of us were getting ready for bed, some were getting massages. Things got crazy from here as olive oil was introduced as a good form of massage oil. I was about to head to bed myself, but was too intrigued by this massage thing. This was when Iru kindly offered to give me a foot massage. I have no words… Iru, you’re the best! In hind sight, getting massaged with olive oil might not have been the smartest thing to do in “bear country”, but I sure did go to bed nice and relaxed!
Day 4: May 25th
Waking early, we were all on the trail by 7:15. Heading back down the Cabin Flats Trail then onto the Bradley Fork trail, we only had about 5 miles left to get back to the cars. We all had quick paces as a nice sit down breakfast was on everyone’s mind. After a couple of miles, the trail crosses a foot bridge across the Bradley Fork. Here there is a nice little waterfall and nice views of Bradley Fork itself. We took a moment to pause here for a group photo. While the rest of the group took off, Karan and I couldn’t resist taking some long exposure shots of the creek and the waterfall. We honestly could have stayed here taking photos all day!
After about 20 minutes, we left the area and quickened our hiking pace so that the rest of the group weren’t waiting at the cars too long. Soon, by around 9:30, we were back to the cars and completed our 45 mile loop. Now, it was time for breakfast! We hopped into the cars and headed south through Cherokee, NC. An hour or so later, we found ourselves at a Cracker Barrel gorging ourselves in pancakes, bacon, eggs, and biscuits.
All and all, this was a fantastic trip. In total we hike 45 miles and climbed 11 thousand feet. Kudos to everyone for making this trip an absolute pleasure to lead. It was quite memorable and especially to Iru, you will be missed!
I had a moth lodge itself in my ear last Memorial Day on the Foothills trip. It hurt! Will recommended drowning as well which worked, though I was pretty much deaf in that ear the rest of the trip. So sorry you had to deal with that Megan.
Those bugs always manage to get me, even when I am zipped up in my tent! Usually it's biting mosquito though. Whatever bug got in my ear must have been pretty small because I never saw it come out, but it sounded like someone was crumpling a paper bag inside my head and I felt a slight pinch every now and then. Fortunately, once Jimmy drowned it, I was back to normal and didn't have to deal with any pain or hearing loss.
How'd you end up getting that moth out after you drowned it? I am still not entirely sure if this one is still in there or not.
Awesome pics and awesome trip report, Jim! Thanks again to Sharon and Joe for driving - that was a loong drive.
I'll echo Jim's description of Smokies - it is mindblowingly beautiful. It actually did remind of the Adirondacks - not in the sense that they are similar because they are very different terrains. But in the sense that they are two awesome places 8 hours from DC, with so many trails to cover! So much to do...
Flushed out at home with one of those rubber squirty bulbs, warm water, and 30 minutes of frustration and soaked bathroom floor. The (decayed) moth body was as big around as my little finger. Wings the size of dimes. I considered mounting it and displaying in the living room.
On a more cheerful note, the trip looks great! Was the backcountry permit easier than it sounds? (It sounds awkward at best.)
I remember that infamous moth attack. Fiendish buggers...I bring an emergency q-tip now.
Thanks for the trip report Jimmy. This really made me long to get out on a lengthy trail again.