Tag Archive: Greate Smokey Mountains


 

LINVILLE GORGE HIKE

 20150307_101040

By Trent Tibbitts

The toughest, roughest, most demanding, most rewarding hike per mile I have ever been on. Located in the Pisgah National Forest north of Ashville, North Carolina. The Linville River cuts between two mountain ranges. Creating a 2000 foot deep gorge with step hillsides topped with a cliff face.  It doesn’t look very intimidating when looking at a map.  In fact we blow it off as child’s play a the beginning of the hike. By the end we had full respect for the wilderness we  had endured.

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It was February 2015, Brandon and I were just20150116_115746 off a Hike we had done in late January 2015 in the Smokies when he started planning another adventure.  We had hiked from Twenty mile ranger station to Gregory Bald where we had camped the first night.  Then to the AT and camp site 113 for the second night before hiking to Shuckshack fire tower and back down Twenty mile creek. It was a 22 mile loop. The first day was all up hill after the first mile. 20150117_113048This is the Smokies and its a steep climb. This was one of those trail that you keep thinking you’re at the top but it just keeps going. I was out of shape and my pack was over weight . I had met Brandon that morning at a local Wal-Mart where I bought my food for the weekend.  That was not the best idea. But I didn’t prep and I need food.  I was grabbing what I thought I needed. Like; a 20150117_113002potato,  ribeye steak, rice, trail mix, pack of flour tortillas,  thin cut steak, can of tuna,  crackers and other things that were heavy.  The one pound of trail mix was the first thing I left on the trail. We arrived at the trail head around noon. By the time I made it to camp it was dark and Brandon and Mike had been there about 2 hours.  I’m glad I saw them first because I was camping with whoever I saw first. There were two or three other groups near by. I set up my hammock and not expecting any rain, I just had my rain fly tied lousy.  I grilled my steak over the open fire and cook the potato in the hot coals.  I could not eat it all and shared the rest with Brandon and Mike.  My pack is now 3 pounds lighter.  But it’s not that much help. It was cold but we were dressed for it. We all climbed in bed for a well deserved and need sleep. Around 2 AM the wind started blowing and didn’t stop. We were camped in what’s called a saddle.  The low point between two high points. So this meant we were where the wind had the easiest place to cross. The valley funneled the wind straight through our camp. My rain fly was going crazy.  I had to tie it down and wrapped it around my hammock for more protection.  I then put my parka over my head and chest and got into my bag as much as I could.  I slept good. The noise was the worst part. 20150117_114903The next day after packing up it was a short up hill hike to the bald. The wind was still going strong.  We were late getting out of camp and people were stating to arrive from hiking up for Cades Cove.  The views to the South were great 20150117_114847from the Joyce Kilmer over to Clingmans Dome. You had a good view of Fontana lake. It was mountains after mountains.  To the north was Cades Cove with a great view of the layout.  After 40 year of visiting the cove it was nice to see it from this position. Past the Cove was the foothills Parkway and the Tennessee Valley.  Maryville  was very clear and you could make out Knoxville. We could see all the way across the Tennessee Valley to the Cumberland Mountains. That is when I noticed 20150116_122820two little gaps in those mountains.  It couldn’t be what I thought.  I pulled out maps and sure enough,  it was.  Cumberland Gap.  I could see Cumberland Gap 90 miles away.  Wendy and I had been there two or three years ago.  To pick out a landmark 90 miles away with my necked eye was wild to me. I’m sure you couldn’t do it in the summer.  The bald is covered with grass and blueberry bushes.  We hung out as long as we could stand the wind and then headed on. Mike was still at camp. I keep up with Brandon until we got to the AT. I stopped to rest and he pushed on. Mike caught up to me just as Brandon got out of sight. He pushed on and I brought up the rear. The wind seamed to die down some. We made it to camp with daylight left. It was off the trail down in a small valley.  A lot of protection from the wind.  There was a nice place for their tents and a good water supply but I had to venture up a way to find a good spot for my 20150117_171145hammock.  We had a great night by the fire cooking the steak strips and making steak tortilla. We went to bed looking forward to a good night of sleep.  Well, it started snowing around 4 AM. Then turned to light rain. I put my boots in the hammock with me and covered my pack as best as I could.  20150117_202437It never got heavy but I was not sure what was coming  so  I packed up my wet camp and hit the trail around 7 AM. Fog had set in and there was no view. The trail to the tower was a mile down trail and when I got there knowing there was no view and it would add two miles to my trip, I turned onto the Twenty Mile Trail and headed down to the truck.  The weather improved fast. I lost a lot of elevation on the steep descent.  I could now see the old fire tower but I wasn’t going back. I made good time going down hill and a somewhat lighter pack. Brandon had driven,  so once at the truck I couldn’t get in. I napped in the bed. I then unpacked and dried all my gear. I explored the ranger station then packed things up as they dried. It was about 3 hours before Brandon showed up. Mike was not to far behind.  They got some great shot of the tower.  We drove to the base of Fontana Dam before heading home.

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Brandon was wanting to hike the AT north from newfound gap to Charlie’s Bunion.  Stay at the Ice Water Spring Shelter.  Hike the Boulevard to Mount LeConte for the second night and down the Alum Cave Bluffs trail to Newfound Gap road. This would have been great.  You start at a very high point with out a lot of climbing.  Day three is all down hill.  Great views. Stay in the shelter,  so no hammock to carry.  The Boulevard is a tricky hike so there is a challenge.  Mount LeConte is the second highest peak in the Smokies.  Alum Cave Bluffs trail is the best trail in the park.  It would have been a great trip. The only problem.  Everyone else thinks that way too. The shelter was booked when we tried to make a reservation.

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20150307_103038That is when Brandon asked for a backup plan.  I had been interested in the Linville Gorge for some time. I  have seen it in the Blue Ridge Outdoor magazine a lot. I told Brandon and he had been interested in the gorge for sometime too. Now we had to find a hike. I had the Linville Gorge Mount Mitchell National Geographic Map.  It has a lot of information but cover a much larger area and does not give detailed information on the trail we are looking at. Next stop is the internet. We don’t find a lot of information. One site gives a loop in the south part of the gorge but the information is loss at best. All the post we read talk about how this is the toughest hike they have ever been on, we got lost, we almost died, maybe not the dying part but they were making a big deal out of it. Brandon and I just said they haven’t hiked with us. I mean come on we just got off 22 miles in the Smokies. We hiked the Art Lobe Trail. We Climbed Pilot Mountain and hiked 16 miles that 20150306_122954day. We had been on the toughest sections of the BMT. We had done the AT in Ga. We had been up and down mountains in the Smokies. We had done all these things and more. We were experienced. We could take care of ourselves. What were these people talking about? We got this. With very little information we planed our trip and started the invitations. Everyone always wants to go hiking but when you start asking they can’t make it. The crew was four of us; Brandon, Jason who is an experienced hiker and has been with us before on the BMT, Russ who is an all around expert, and myself. The trip was set for March 6th 2015. We would drive up Friday morning and come home on Sunday. It was Monday and we still had not gotten much more information. As a last-ditch idea I searched Face Book for a page on the Gorge. That is when I found Linville Gorge Adventures and Phil Phelan. I read his web page and sent him a message telling him about our hike. He sent back a pumped up message about the gorge and got us excited. We exchanged several messages and he told us where we could get his book and a better map of the gorge.

20150306_115920Friday came and we were to meet at Brandon’s office at 5 AM. I was out the door around 4:20. About half way there I couldn’t find my phone.  I thought I had grab it but it wasn’t where I normally put it. It had the address to Brandon’s office, GPS and Brandon’s cell number.  So, I was lost. The only choice was for me to go to my office and look up Brandon’s number from my contacts off my email.  Luckily our office are very close. I get to my office and call Brandon.  He gives me directions and I grab my tablet so I would have something to take photos with.  Once at Brandon’s office,  I unloaded my pack and find my phone. That saved a pound from not having to carry the tablet.  The message I missed from not having my phone handy was everyone was running late.  Russ and Jason were there but I beat Brandon even with my delay.  Once Brandon got there, we loaded his truck with our packs and hit the road. A few hours and stops later we were in Morganton NC. With directions from Phil, we went to the CBS sports store to get his book and a better map,  The Linville Wilderness.  I also got another Map of other trails 20150306_144552close by. Russ got a set of Tracking poles. This would be the first time I ever used tracking poles also. I bought some at REI a few weeks pyro. I filled my water bladder at the store and we stopped at Subway before heading to the trailhead. We had seen this crazy looking mountain on the way into Morganton.  Turns out its Table Rock where we are going. It looks like a monolith sitting on top of a mountain range. Like a small Devil’s Tower.

20150306_112452The trailhead is on Wolf Pit Road and we get there in short order.  We are excited to get on the trail.  We grab our gear and hit the trail.  One thing I like about backpacking is that you have to bring everything you need for survival with you.  Total self-reliance. A few hundred yards up the trail and we find a good spot for a 20150306_11485420150306_121501group photo.  It’s still cold but the heat we produce as already got us losing layers. The trail from Wolf Pit to the Mountains to Sea Trail is all up hill. It’s not a bad climb at all. There are plenty of switch backs and steps cut into the trail. The area was hit by the 2013 Table Top wildlife and is wide open. Young pines are just starting to grow back. These affords us the opportunity to have great 180 degrees views. We can see Lake James very well. As we make our way up we are still wondering what all the fuss is over this trail.  By all measures, this is an easy climb. Where we are climbing is the south end of the gorge on the east side, Shortoff 20150307_105641Mountain. The Wolf Pit trail intersects the Mountains to Sea Trail a little over half way up. We turned right on it. Once we reach the top we start to see the rock face of the gorge.  It has only been an hour’s walk from the parking lot and 1100 foot climb to a different world.  We drop our packs and explore the cliff edge.  We take more and more photos as the views get better and better. Large ice sickles fall from the cliff face in the warm afternoon sun and crash down hundred feet below.  We pack back up and keep exploring each side trail to the gorge edge as we make our way to the top. We then find a nice over look that gives up a clear view up the gorge. We can see the Linville River cutting its way through the gorge.  This area was named for father and son setters who were scalped by Cherokee Indians. The upper gorge is very narrow.  Closer to the end it opens up and there is some room on the side of the river. We take a break here and eat a snack. We could see Table Top in the distance,  our goal for the day.  The map shows water there and 20150306_13064820150306_121642we were told by fokes at the sports store that it was the only water source for this part of the trail.  After the break,  we passed a small pond. The last water source, not a place you would want to get water from. We were all still good with our Water supply and with the promise of water at Table Rock we keep going. The trail pulled away from the rim’s edge and continue up a rise that did not get burned. We emerged from the woods to more fire damaged landscape.  We follow the Ridgeline with the gorge on our left and Lake James on our right.  It makes a large sweeping curve to the left.  It was down hill for the first time then right back up to a point and trail junction where the fire did not touch. The trail turns right and starts an almost straight down hill decent. We loose 500 feet of elevation, close to half what we had gained through out the day. I hated to lose it because I knew we would have to make it back up. Chimmeys gap was the20150306_141134 low point at 2500 feet.  Then came the climb back out of the gap. This side of the gap was pines that were 6 to 8 inch in diameter and 15 to 20 foot tall. The fire had 20150306_144552come through here but the timber was still standing dead and black with soot. In area trees blocked the trail. On the decent, I had been eating trail mix and had fallen behind.  The rest of the crew was now out of sight in the thick dead forest. It was a steep incline and I could hear them often over head. It was a 1000 foot climb to the top. I caught back up with everyone at a nice rocky over look. We had a good view of the Chimmeys and Tablerock. I took off my pack a rested for a minute while taking photos.  Then it was back on the trail and more climbing to the top.  It wasn’t any worse than anything else I have climbed. In fact it was a short climb compared to the climbs in the Smokies,  but it was late in the day, a day that had started at 4 AM. So when we got to the top and found a camping spot I was all for stopping here for the night. We did a quick survey of the area and pick our spots. Next order of business was to go find water.

20150306_163341 I took my head lamp just in case it got dark and a pullover if it got cold. Plus I had my water bladder. We had only seen three people on the trail and that was at the start. We came across a man and his daughter making camp. We asked about the water we had seen on the map. The map showed a blue diamond,  bathrooms and a parking lot all right together.  He told us there was no water there. The bathrooms were just privies. No running water. He said he and his wife ran into the same problem last summer and went 24 hours without water. He suggested that we check the tops of the rocks a long the Chimmeys for pools of water or ice sickles.  We split up in search for water. I stayed on the trail and everyone else checked the top of the rocks.  I came around the corner of the trail and had a great view of the gorge.  The trail is narrow here with some rock hopping. I found a rock slide and see ice sickles above. I made my way up and started harvesting ice. Putting it 20150306_171036straight into my water bladder.  I made my way to a large cave like over hang.  Would have been a great place to make camp. Had a wonderful view of the gorge.  I got as much ice as I thought I needed. Then headed back to camp about a quarter-mile away. I stopped to talk to the guy who told us about the water. He said he and his wife had done the same loop we were doing. When they ran out of water. He told us of the next water being about 4 miles away on the trail down to the river.  He said the bridge was out and they waded across. He said the trail was real rough and the climb back out was awful hard. He hadn’t eaten well and it was very hard for him. I asked if it was harder than the hill we just climbed up20150306_115755 out of the gap and he said yes. I wasn’t to concerned about him saying that the bridge was out because Phil had said there was a new bridge at the top of the loop. We knew we would have to wade the river at the down stream crossing.  This trail still hadn’t shown us anything that tough and rugged. What were these people talking about? Back at camp we prepared our dinner.  As the sun set. I used my new alcohol fueled stove to cook Mexican rice and pan fry steak strips for camp fajitas.  The camp fire was over looking the east and we had a clear view as the moon came up over the horizon bright red. It was big and was a grand sight to see. The wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping fast.  Water in my water bladder was already freezing.  Some of the guys boiled water and put it in a water bottle and slept with it. One, it helped to keep them warm and two, it kept the water from freezing over night.  I set up my hammock and made sure to tie the rain fly down good. I didn’t want a repeat of the night in the Smokies a few weeks back.  The wind was strong during the night but the rain fly did the trick in blocking it. Over night temperature was around 15 degrees. Everyone survived.  I was warm all night.

20150307_095637The next morning,  I was up first and got my things packed.  It was cold and I didn’t want to spend too much time in camp. I did get the fire going and made a cup of hot chocolate. I had lost my head lamp the night before while looking for water.  I needed time to look for it so I headed out before everyone else. I searched the trail as I walked but I had an idea it was where I had gathered the ice. Having not found the light on the trail,  I stopped at the landslide area where I was the night before and dropped my pack.  I back tracked my path and found the head lamp at the point where I had turned back.  Once I got back to my pack,  Brandon had caught up to me. The view up the gorge was fantastic from the trail.  We took our time and made a lot of photos as we explored the rock formations along the trail.  Jason and Russ caught up to us.  We passed a group of campers and asked about trail conditions.  They too told us that the bridge was out.  Last summer they had cross with a use of a rope up river and the rope may still be there. We walked on to a rocky over look that gave us a 360 degree view.  The discussion of what to do was intense. 20150307_101730 Was the bridge out or not? Did we want to hike down and see? If it was out,  then what?  Would we swim?  Would we hike back out?  Do we call a shuttle and leave from the parking lot at Table Rock? We text Phil and asked him about the bridge.  Yes that bridge is out, he said.  The new bridge is at the top of the gorge. With the winter flow and the added water from rain earlier in the week,  we would have to swim.  But we still didn’t think we would have to swim.  Surely we could find a way to cross. Maybe we could rock hop or find a down tree. We decided to go take a look.  We scrambled over more rocks before leaving the Chimmeys and entering the camping area next to the parking lot. Unfortunately the restrooms were locked. We stopped to rest and check the map. The Table Rock was right in front of us.  We took more 20150307_103149photos.  Then we climbed up the trail from the parking lot on the North West side of the mountain with great views of the gorge.  We passed two guys collecting water from a wet weather spring on the side of the trail. They gave us more advice on how to cross the river.  On up the trail where we were to leave the Mountains to Sea Trail,  we met a large group of Boy Scouts.  They to had done our loop last year. More advice on how to hike the trail. We started our decent to the river. It was straight down hill, no switch backs.  I was getting a little hungry so I slowed down a little to eat a snack while walking.  We started to hear water and was soon at a small creek and our first fresh water on the trail.  I used my new life straw filter for the first time.  From here it was up and over several ridges till we got to a camping area. We stopped to check the map. There was the trail we walked in on and it looked like it went straight ahead. There was a trail coming in on the right down the crest of the hill and a trail to the left. After looking over the map,  we went straight ahead.  After a few hundred yards of down 20150306_170514hill hiking the trail disappeared.  More map reading and discussion of what to do.  We turned back and bushed wacked our way up the draw to the trail junction. More map studying and up the hill we went. It was a short climb.  We passed a young lady hiking by herself.  I thought how dangerous it  for her to be alone. We soon came to another trail junction.  We turned left and started our decent to the river.

20150307_140240We got to the river at lunch time.  There were a few people hanging out on the rocks.  Two ladies with a dog were finishing up their lunch.  A couple was sitting on a large boulder that was once the landing of the now missing foot bridge.  We dropped our packs and began exploring the area for a way across.  Where the bridge once stood was a gap much to wide to jump.  There was a boulder below that we might could have jumped to but if we didn’t make it we would have been swept 20150307_141053down river in the raging white water.  The river was up due to rain just two days before our trip. There was a row of smaller boulders below a pool that looked like we could have rocked hopped across but again it was to big of a gap. I made my way up the river looking for a way to cross.  The gorge is very narrow and the hillsides are like walls.  I could only crawl and climb over rocks for a short distance before coming to a point that could not be traversed.  I made my way back to the trail and reported my findings.  Jason and Brandon tried a route a little higher up the hillside with the same 20150307_144354results.  I ate my lunch of tuna with crackers.  The talk of swimming the river came up again.  The air temperature was in the 50s. Remember it had been a low of 16 degrees over night. There was a very deep pool of water just above the spot where the bridge once span the narrow slot of swift water that funneled all the river. Not a place you would want to get caught up in.  The plan was evolving.  We looked where to enter and where to exit. What would be the easiest and fastest way across without getting caught the current and be pulled into the rapids.  Russ was the biggest supporter of this plan.  Jason was up for it too.  Brandon and I had not fully committed.  That was going20150307_140311 to be some cold water.  Part of the plan was to ferry our packs across on a rope.  Two of us on one side and two of us on the other to handle the rope and packs.  We stripped down to our underwear and put our clothes in our packs. Brandon and I were still not sure if this was what we wanted to do.  While discussing our options and had almost decided to bail out and head back,  we heard Russ splash in. There was no turning back now.  Jason quickly followed with a dive into the clear frigid waters. They were across in about 15 seconds. That doesn’t sound long. But believe me you couldn’t stand much more than that. After they caught their breath, Russ took a position on the lower bolder.  It had a 30 degree angle into the water and was not that good  a base. I think Russ may have swam with the rope.  We had found a big carabiner on the old bridge foundation. We used it to attach our packs to the rope. The upper end of the rope was looped around rebar that was part of the old bridge and I anchored it.  Russ ran the lower part of the rope behind his back while sitting and Jason anchored the end of the rope. Brandon loaded the packs and send them down to Russ who caught them and passed them to Jason.  Talk about a team building exercises. It was now mine and Brandon’s turn to swim.  We waded in until 20150307_144400the water was waist deep then started our swim.  I made the mistake of keeping my sandals on thinking they would help me walk over the rocks.  They were pulling me down a little and slowing down some too. I was almost to the other side and was at a point where I thought I should be able to stand up but to  surprise I could not touch.  I felt that I was in a fight for my life.  The cold water had taken my breath.  I was trying to take in deep breaths. I was getting encouragement from the guys on the shore. It was the most primeval feeling of survival I have ever had.  One on the back of the river I collapsed with deep gasping for air. After the shock wore off and I regained feeling,  I was the most refreshed I had ever been.  I also had a huge sense of accomplishment.  We got out of our wet short, got dressed and got back on the trail.

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20150308_092534The trail now followed close by the river.  Never losing sight of it. We were still in the narrow upper part of the gorge.  The trail was narrow and climbed up and down the side of the hill.  It really was a goat path. Large trees littered the way. This was becoming the worst part of the trip. More people were on this side of the river. There are a few trails coming in on this side and more camping opportunities. Most  If not all possible camping areas were occupied.  We made our way down to below the chimneys before we made camp.  Almost even across the20150307_171408 river from where we had camped the first night.  The sun was low in the west and its soft light painted the cliff face above on the east rim of the gorge. It was a sight worth the efforts of the day.

20150308_113040Our camp was a spacious area. We had plenty of fire wood and room to spread out.  Brandon pitched his tent and the rest of us hung our hammocks. We cooked dinner,  I had a setak cooked over the open fire.  Then it was a relaxing evening around the fire.  The night was not as cold as the night before.  The next morning I cooked eggs for breakfast.  We had a big day ahead of us. We broke camp and we all hiked together, getting back logged at each down tree we had to cross.  Some 20150308_115634were quite tricky, like a puzzle you had to solve before you could pass. The morning trail was much like the afternoon before.  It was a goat path on the side of the hill.  We took lunch at a campsite that was just passed where the gorge started to open up.  After lunch we hiked in the flat flood plain of the river for about an hour until we could go no further.  The river cut into the steep mountain side blocking our path.  This would be our second river crossing.  The river was very wide here and didn’t look to deep except right next to the bank on our site. We looked for a spot that wouldn’t be too deep. Again we stripped down to our underwear and I put my sandals on.  This time they worked as planned.  The river20150308_134841 turned out not to be too deep.  My shorts didn’t get wet. The water was cold but refreshing.  Jason took the opportunity to soak his knees for a while.  This is where the trail ends and your own your own.  After gearing up we wander and bushwhack our way down river.  We found a road a little inland and took it out of the national forest onto to private land.   About a mile on down the road it crossed the river and there was no way to continue down the river without crossing. We studied the map and decided we had to climb out up the mountain to the east. We were looking to hit the Mountain to Sea Trail on the ridge top. The mountain side was steep. I believe it was a 1100 foot climb.  We did not have a trail to follow.  It was get to the top.  We were soon on the west slop where the fire had burned all the trees. We were without protection from the afternoon sun.  It was slow going.  My tracking poles helped a lot. We had to take several stops.  20150308_135306We found the trail and took a left and continued to climb the mountain along the ridge line. This trail intersects the trail down to the truck almost at the top of the mountain so when we found a side trail that looks like it cuts a  cross the side of the mountain we take it.  It goes up and over several ridges but it was a shorter route.  The guys turned on the over drive and left  behind.  Once a Wolf Pit trail I turned right and it was all down hill to the truck.  It took a little longer to get down than I thought it would.  The small parking lot was packed.  We loaded up and headed to the nearest waffle house.  Great trip.

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Labor Day weekend offered an opportunity to take a Hike. So I pulled out maps and books and started looking into where to go. I just bought a guide-book on the Joyce Kilmer / Slick rock Wilderness. That was on my mind. I looked over the map and read a few tail description and got a tentative plan on what trails I would take. I scheduled Friday off so I could maximize the weekend. After work on Thursday, I drove up to Robbinsville, did a little last-minute shopping and ate my last real meal before getting on the trail. From Robbinsville I drove out 129 toward Joyce Kilmer. Just before the trail head parking was a campground called Rattler Ford. So being 9 PM and the first campground I see, I pull in. I may have seen a little sign that said “group camping reservations only”, but it was late and a very small sign that my truck lights hit for only the briefest of time. The place is empty. I poke around, read the information board and knock on the door of the camp host’s R.V. Know one is around to tell me no, so I find a place to hang my ENOs hammock for the night. The hammock sleeps great. I put an air mat in it to help keep it from folding up to tight. It also makes it very comfortable, beats the heck out of sleeping on the ground. The temps dropped down to maybe low 70s. I did not need the sunggie I brought as my blanket. I also add a rain fly not only to keep me dry if it rains but gives me a feeling of being in a tent. Next morning I wake about 7:30 and get out and start to stretch. There he is, the camp “Nazi”. Watching me from across a big field and behind a tree at his R.V. If you ever done a lot of camping at State Parks or National Parks you know these guys. They are the camp host who believes the world will end if any campground rule is broken and they are the ones intrusted to save the planet. The good thing is not all camp host are this way. So what to do, my pack is back at the truck and I need it to break camp. I truly think he thought I could not see him. I start walking to my truck at the edge of the field and keeping my eye on him. I give out the loudest “Good Morning” I could muster. He then comes out from behind the tree and looks like he doesn’t know what to do. I make it to the truck and can see him coming toward me. I got my pack and meet him at the rear of my truck. “You got a reservation?” he ask me. Like I said, Nazi. He may aswell have asked me for my papers in a german accent. “No” I boldly tell him. Then we get into the debate about how the campground is for groups and you need reservations, but there are no groups camping I explained to him. “That’s not the way it works” he protest. “I should have ran you off last night” he tells me. I thought how fun that would have been to have this argument at midnight after waking me up. I have a very strong well and don’t back down to easily. He then said he would not say anything. I’m thinking who is he going to say something to. After the Nazi interrogation and harassment, I packed up my things and headed the mile or so down the road to the Joyce Kilmer parking lot.

I turn of the main road and drive about a half mile up to the parking lot. I had not gotten water at the campground thinking I could get it here, but no. There was not any water fountains. I pumped my first bottle of water from the creek that I would follow-up along Necked Ground Trail. I would only pump one bottle at a time to save weight. I changed out of my work cloths that I had slept in and checked my pack to make sure I had all that I need for a four-day hike. Overnight parking was not allowed at the trail head so I left my pack and drove back down to the end of the road and parked where it was allowed. It would work out okay because the trail I would end on ended there also. Back at my pack and I hit the trail. The elderly park cleaning crew was the last people I saw as I headed into the woods. The walk up Santeetlah creek through the virgin forest was easy most of the way.

Though this forest has never been log, unlike most of the Appalachian forest, it is not the same forest it was 100 years ago when the American Chestnut covered over 40% of the forest and reached 11 feet in diameter. Today the Yellow Tulip Poplars are the giants of the land. All American Chestnuts were wiped out by the importation of the Chestnut Blight during the early 1900’s. By 1920 the blight was in the southern Appalachian forest and by 1940 most of the Chestnuts were dead. On this trail and thought out the national forest fallen Chestnuts can still be seen slowly rotting away. The forest is always changing. From 1900 to 1930s the region was logged heavily. Timber companies cut roads and RR beds next to every river, creek and stream. A lot of them are the base of the roads and trails we use today. In the late 1930s after the government started buying a lot of the mountains for National forest and parks the CCC build parks like those in The Great Smokey Mountains, roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway and trails like those that are part of the Appalachian Trail. In the early 1940s the TVA (Tennessee Vally Authority) started building dams along the Tennessee River and it’s contributories in the Mountains. 1950, 1960 and 1970 saw population growth in the surrounding communities and the forest second-growth reclaim the land. In the 1980 Smog kild trees above 5000 feet, in the 1990 Pine Beatles kild a lot of the Pine trees. For the last ten years the mighty Eastern Hemlock has been attacked by the Wooly Adelgid.

At mile 0.3 I took the alternate trail that was to travel on the other side of the creek and then rejoin the trail a mile up. After 50 yards the trail comes to a camping area and side trails go everywhere. I try a few and could not find where the trail continued on the other side of the creek. I backed track to the main trail. At mile 1.0, I took my first break at a small bridge over Indian Springs Branch. On the Map I had only gone a mile but in reality it had been about 2 miles I had walked sence leaving the truck. My next stop was at this giant Yellow Tulip Poplar. It is the second largest one next to the trail at 16 feet 7 inches in circumference. The opening to the hollow inside is 6 feet high. There are accounts of early settlers taking shelter in trees like this during storm. Some were big enough for families to fit in and there is one account of a man who lived in a hollow tree for sometime. At mile 2.6 is the largest tree next to the trail, a 17 foot 10 inch circumference Yellow Tulip Poplar. I took lunch here. It was hollow too but the one at mile 1.9 was more intriguing. At mile 3.5 I cross my last water supply and stopped to fill my water bottles. I started with four, one full and three empty. I am now down one. I fill all three and leave the stream with only 84 oz of water. I know once on the ridge line I will not find water, the guide-book is clear on that and it’s been dry. The next mile was tough, leaving the gradual incline of the valley, the trail starts to climb to Naked Ground Gap. Once at the gap the trail was over grown and there was a lot of flys. There was also a nice over look back down the valley I just came up. After a little tree pruning to improve my view, I ate dinner. Now on the narrow ridge line, it’s a short mile on the Haoe Lead Trail to the Haoe, the second highest peak in the wilderness at 5249 feet. Some of the trail had been cut back recently but a lot of it was over grown with weeds and briars over your head. There are no views from the top of the Haoe and a few limited views from the trail. At the peak is the Junction of the Haoe Lead trail and the Hangover Lead Trail. From this Intersection it is only 0.2 miles across the saddle tree gap and another 0.2 miles to the Hangover. I almost did not take the side trail to the Hangover, glad I did. The only thing I knew was it had 360 degree views.

The Hangover is short ridge that the last 100 yards is a rocky, Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel bald with out trees. The ridge line points to Maryville at 12 o’clock and Knoxville beyond. At the 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock is The Great Smokey Mountains National park with the little Tennessee River in the foreground. At 3 o’clock is Robbinsvile and the Nantahala forest. At 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock is the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness. At 6 o’clock is the Haoe. At 7, 8 and 9 o’clock is the Slick Rock Wilderness. At 10 o’clock is Tellico Lake. At 11 o’clock is the Tennessee Valley. I was truly blown away with this view. I was only at 5000 feet but it was the best view I have seen from a mountain top and I have seen a whole lot. Better than the view from the fire tower on Mount Cammerer. Better than the view from Black Balsam on the Art Lobe. Better than the fire tower on Sterling mountain. Better than Charlies Bunyan. And so on, and so on. I was seeing God’s view. It was awesome. I got very excited and decided to camp right there for the night. With out any trees I had to figure out something. I rigged up the straps, that normally would go around a tree for the hammock to clip into, around the rock out cropping on either side of the trail. With a little help of some parachute cord, I was able to secure each end. The first time I got to use the saw on my multi tool was then to saw down a few rhododendrons, so the hammock would lay straight. The rain fly went up easy. I was able to tie it off to shrubs. I was getting hungry and needed to eat something. The beef jerky I brought was awful and only keep it in case I was starving to death. I was down to my last ration for the day, Ramon noodles. I break out my pocket rocket stove and my minimalist cup and begin to boil up 16 oz of water. remember I only started with 84 oz and had drunk about half already. This could be a problem. I cooked my noodles and ate them all. I did not want to waste water so I made sure to drink all the water that was left in the cup. One other thing I had done when I filed up my bottles the last time was to make some Cool-Aid. I brought a few packs and some sugar. It was nice to have that boost from a sugar drink when I climbed the last mile of the Nacked Ground Trail but now that was gone too. I was down to less than 24 oz of water. Darkness soon fell and a full moon was shining bright over  Robbinsville. You could see every light down in the Tennessee Valley but in the National forest it was dark, all except little Robbinsville. It was like a little island. Once agin I was amazed at the sight before me. I decided I would spend some time the next day just taking in the view. With the moon so bright I could not see many stars. I was very tired and went to bed around 11 PM. I woke just before sunrise and was able to watch the sun come up over the Smokey mountains. Fog was lying low in the valleys. After the forest woke I wend back to my nest and sleep for a few more hours. Up again and ate breakfast. I took a close look at the map, the landscape in front of me and the trail descriptions of my route. I decided that I was at the best location this Wilderness could offer. I did not want to walk up and down any more mountain and I knew that I did not bring enough food for the four days. On my last 30 mile hike i took too much food and now too little. I wouldn’t starve but I would go a little hungry. The lack of water also weighed my decision.  Now I had to call an audible. How long would I stay here and where to go when I leave. The view was so impressive, I wanted to stay most of the day but I knew my water supply would not allow it. I decided I would stay till lunch. I pull my air mat out and made me a recliner out of a rock outcropping. I spent the rest of the morning watching clouds and fog role in and out and napping here and there. I ate lunch and packed up around noon and was on the trail by one.

I made my way back to the Haoe and took the Haoe lead down the mountain. It was strate down. Again the trail was overgrown. The trail guide is given in the opposite direction and I try to figure my location from land marks in the guide but working backwards is difficult. I keep thing I am at one location then I come to another area and discover the guide is talking about this location. This makes me thing I have missed the Jenkins Meadow Trail. It seems I have walked more than the 1.3 miles to the trail head. If I miss this trail its 3.9 more miles to the road and then 4 or 5 miles down the road to my truck with out  a water source. Do I back track and look for the trail or do I keep going and potentially keep getting further away from it. I give up hope of finding the trail a decide to keep going down the trail and start planing on camping at the trail head. Then I came around a corner and there was the Jenkins Meadow Trail head. I was happy to see the trail but was disappointed that I had only hiked 1.3 miles. I felt I was going slow. Most of the trail was down hill with a few flat areas. You would thing this would be easy walking but it is not. It puts a lot os stress on your knees and the extra weight of your pack pushes you down the hil,l so you are having to catch yourself with every steep. The Jenkins Meadow Trail drops 2,320 feet in 3.3 miles, another steep trail. I am now back in an open hard wood forest and the trail is no longer overgrown. About 2 miles down the trail I find a little water running across the trail. I was down to about 4 oz. I fill one water bottle up as much as I can from the little trickle and pump out of it to fill my other bottle. There is nothing to draw you on this trail and it is a boring, painful walk. Again I think I have hiked more than what I have, but I know I am still to high to be close to the end. With no highlights on the trail, the trail guide’s landmarks are easily mistaken for something else. One small open area looks like the last one you were at 10 minutes ago. So which one is the guide talking about. I made it to the truck by 4:30, so not a bad time. It was just a boring hike.

Once at the truck I drove around Lake Santneetlah looking for a camping spot for the night. All were full, so I made my way back to Robbinsville for a Big Mac. After my dinner, I decided to head to The Great Smokey Mountains. On the way I stopped at Cable Cove Campground on lake Fontana. The campground was primitive, no power, no showers or water at individual camp sites. There was one toilet and one communal water source. It was dark when I drove in and there was a lot of empty sites to choose from. I fount one that had trees that would work for my hammock. I did walk back to the information board and pay the $10.00 user fee. Setup only took a few minutes and was very easy with the truck and table close by to spread all my stuff on. I was hoping to find a campground with a shower because it’s now Saturday night and I have not showed sence Wednesday night. Plus I am waring the same cloths sence Friday morning. I about can’t stand myself. There is not much to do so I craw into bed. I do have my phone, so I play a few games of solitaire before going to sleep.

Next morning I was up early and broke camp. I exploded the lake at Cable Cove boat ramp then drove to the Fontana Marina looking for a shower. I had passes a few small Baptist churches and was trying to figure out a way to shower in time to make meeting. All the churches start at 10:30 and it will be close. I had a clean shirt and my paints from Thursday were not that dirty. But there was not a shower there so I drove over to the dam and stopped at a overlook of the lake. The Appalachian Trail crosses the Dam of the lake and has a shelter close by. Better yet there is a shower house for thru hikers just a few yards from where I parked. I showed and changed into clean cloths but it was too late to make it to church. I will have to plan better on my next trip. I have wanted to visit one of these small mountain churches for some time. I drove on down to the dam and went to the dam museum and the dam gift shop but there was not a dam tour. Fontana is the highest dam this side of the Mississippi at 480 feet. You can drive across the dam but I chose to walk about half way out and back. The dam was a WWII project to supply power for aluminum factory. Ground was broke just 2 and a half months after the Jap attack on Pearl Harbor. Work was around the clock. Patriotic music was played over load speakers. The town on Fontana Village was formed to house the dam workers and their families. The dam was completed in 3 years. After my visit to the dam, I drove to Fontana Village. It is now a resort with cabins, restraints, gas station, and a lot of other amenities. Over priced if you ask me. I then drove on down to the base of the dam. From this view you can see just how big the dam is.

A mile or so from the bridge is the beginning of the Foothills Parkway. This will take me to Townsend. The road quickly climbs above Happy Valley. I pull over at a overlook and eat lunch looking at the main ridge of the Smokeys. It is Labor Day weekend at the most visited National Park in the United States but so far I have stayed away from crowds. On the trail, I did not see anyone at all from Friday morning to Saturday evening. There was not to many people around Robbinsvile or Lake Fontana. There were was a good many on the Dragon Tail but not bad. On the Foothills Parkway, only a few people here and there. I know once I get to Townsend I will start to see the crowds. After lunch I drove on up to the top of the parkway at Look Rock. I pulled over and took a quick look at the rock overlook. It is the same view I just came from so I take the 0.5 mile trail up to this tower used to monitor air quality. From the tower there is a nice view of the Tennessee Valley and you can barely see the Cumberland Mountains on the horizon. From the other side of the tower the Smokeys stand tall behind Happy Vally and Cades Cove.

On to Townsend at the Western entry of the Park, home of the Little River Rail Road and Lumber Company that was founded in 1901. The Rail Road is responsible for the most of the roads and trails in the Smokeys. They laid more than 300 miles of track and logged over 80,000 acres. On Sundays engines that would pull log cars during the 6 day work week would pull passenger cars along the Little River. Todays Little River Road is on that same Rail Road bed. As early as the 1920’s, resorts were spring up in what would become the National Park. Rail service increased and soon there was a train a day from Knoxville to Elkmont. In the 1930’s logging was on the decline and soon the towns that boomed around logging camps became ghost towns. The Great Smokey Mountain Park was created and all the tracks were removed. I stopped to eat in Townsend and while I was in the gift shop, I saw a photo of the same train from the above photo. It was coming around a curve that has a rock overhang that those that have driven Little River Road would recognize. Next time you are driving in the Smokeys, remember trains have made the same journey.

Now one of my most favorite place on earth, Cades Cove of The Great Smokey Mountains. It is a hidden valley with large pastures in the bottom land, lots of wild life; deers, bears, turkeys, wolves, coyotes just to name a few. The Somkeys are known for Black Bears and the population is on the rise. When I was a kid in the 1980’s deer were everywhere but bear were very hard to see. Now due to bear, coyotes and wolves the deer population is way down. The second largest campground in the National Park system is at Cades Cove. It gets a ton of visitors and it is full for this weekend. From the campground there is a one lane, one way, 11 mile loop road with two roads that cut across the center of the cove. There are two roads that leave the cove from the loop road but are one way and that is out. One goes to the Dragon Tail and the other goes to Townsend. Unless you are going home, there is no reason to take these roads. It take hours to drive back to the campground. It didn’t take long to see my first bear. It crossed the road right in front of me. I parked at an old church and walk down a patch of woods that jute into the large pasture land looking for deer that maybe bedded down. I saw this little water hole on my way down and though it may be a good place to see wildlife, little did I know. I was coming down on the left side of the woods and then I saw this bear coming up the right side. The woods we are in is large hard woods with no understory growth. I can see the bear very well and start to follow him to the water hole. He drinks a little, then gets into the water. It is about 85 degrees. He cools off and I get with in 10 yards of him. He pays no attention to me. Once he is done with his bath, he walks back the way I was original was going. He makes his way to the high grass and I loss him. My attention turns to a little doe deer feeding in the lower area of the woods. I make it to the end of the woods and walk out into the grass. The sky is turning black so I start back to the truck. I come to another doe that is bedded down. It starts to rain a little while I am watching her. By the time I get to the truck the rain is coming down in buckets and I am soaking wet. Once in the truck I hit traffic. It is due to a tree that fell across the road in the storm. After getting through that I hit it again. This time it is a bear jam. I pull off and take a hike to a cabin that I know is close by. The Park kept and restored several cabins, barns and out building to help show how mountain life was in the late 1800’s. There is even a grist mill on site. From the cabin I took a side trail down to Abrams Creek

where I saw several Gobbler Turkeys feeding along the trail. I saw more turkeys on this trip than I have ever seen. One the way back to the truck I meet a young family walking to the cabin. The five year old little boy asked if I live here and I told him Yes I did and welcome to my house. He then asked If I had seen any bears. I said I had and showed him my photos of the bear in the water. He was then off to something else. Back at the truck the bear jam was still going on. Some nice person let me in line. A few minutes later a ranger walks by and I ask her if it’s a bear jam. She said she thought so. She soon passed me and was out of sight. Twenty minutes later the traffic starts moving and I catch back up with her. She has a brace on her leg so I offer her a ride. She climbs in, I know I only have a few minutes to quiz her. She told me how the fields are mowed ever other year. How the bears are on the increase and how the coyotes are impacting the deer population. She told me of a photographer who showed her his photos of a coyote taking down a deer. The traffic stops again and she hopes out and keeps walking. The bear is long gone by the time I get to the turn at the grist mill. Traffic opens up and I can drive about 15 MPH. You really don’t need to go faster than that. I will tell you why later. It is about to get dark and traffic slows again. I pull over and see the first coyote I have ever seen in the Park. You can hear them all the time, but to see one is rare. He is over 100 yards away, along a tree line in a field. He works back and forth tracking a deer. As he nears the bottom of the hill where there is a fence line and over grown brush, I see the white tail of the deer he was tracking. It is now dusk and I can’t make out details so I finish driving the loop road.

The loop road ends at the campground. Now I did pass a sign at the beginning of the road that leads from Townsend the 11 miles to Cades Cove that said the camp ground is full. The government is always lies to us, so I figured this was a lie too. I drove the first loop and took note of what sites were empty and came back to the now closed ranger station to cross check the late arrival sheet. I found several sites that were empty and not listed on the board. While checking the list, I noticed a camper pulling out. What really got my attention was when the camper stopped and dropped off its site registration card in the night deposit box. The box sits off by itself, and all you do is open the top and drop the paper in. I know a ranger is still inside the office because I have seen lights come on and off. I sit in the truck untill the ranger leaves. I then walk over, and pull two registration cards out of the box. Wouldn’t you know it, the end date is for Monday. I am in luck. I go and check out my two camp sits. The first doesn’t look like it has enough tree for me but the next one is a corner lot with more empty lots around, plus trees for my hammock. I get the hammock up with the rain fly because there is lighting all around. I was wanting to take a night hike in the cove to see some stars out here where there is very little light pollution. But with more rain coming in I decide to stick close to camp. I change out of my wet cloths. I have one clean shirt left and back into my dirty paints. Once again I crawl into the hammock. Just in time too, the rain starts to come down heavy.

Monday morning I was up early again. I got packed up and up to the loop road gate before the ranger. About 10 cars are ahead of me, including a photographer right in front of me. I ask him if he is the guy the ranger was talking about that had seen the coyote take down the deer. He wasn’t but he showed me one that he had seen trying to find a bear cub in a fence line. The mom bear came back and ran him off. After 30 minute or so the ranger opened the gate. Slow go at first. A few deer are out, but nothing to get out of the truck for. I really did see anything so I stopped to take a few shots of these turkeys. I was walking back to my truck on the side of the road when I heard a car approaching very fast. I step way off the road and wait on the car to pass. The truck tops the hill and sees me. It hard breaks and comes on by me. A ranger sheepishly gives me a wave. I said “going a little to fast, aren’t you” as he drive past. He stops and turns back and said that he was. Then tells me he is clearing the roads of fallen trees. You know what, he did a wonderful job. I did not see one fallen tree from that point on my whole trip. This is why I was saying you don’t need to go over 15 MPH, all kinds of things could step out in the road here. I see a few more deer and turkeys but no more bears. Off to Pigeon Forge.

This is over half the reason I left Joyce Kilmer, The Old Mill restraint. We love the breakfast they serve, not so much the dinner. I was a little worried about my appearance but I did not let that stop me from enjoying one of the best meals around. I did see a groundhog on the way in, so add that to the wildlife list. The breakfast consists of; pancakes, fried potatoes, sausage, corn fritters, eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy with OJ. I can’t eat it all, so box up a biscuit and sausage patty for latter. Pigeon Forge is packed with people, I got to get out of here. I take back roads to Cosby, then the other end of Foothills Parkway to I-40.

I take I-40 to the Water Town exit. From here I drive the 16 mile to Cataloochee on a winding dirt road. About three miles in, I stopped at the Cataloochee Baptist Church. It was founded in 1903 and sits on a little knoll with a cemetery in the rear. The grounds were keep very neat and clean. The church was well maintained also.  What I really liked was the his and her out-houses that has vinyl siding and fresh paint. I have grown up in churches that use out-houses but have never seen any that were this close. They are always very far apart. One on one side of the church yard and the other on the other side of the yard. Not surprisingly, the church was unlocked. I went in and explored. The church only meets once a year for homecoming. The community that once supported this church no longer exist. A victim of the creation of the Park. I only meet one car on the way to Cataloochee Valley. This is how I like it. I have made the drive to this remote valley for one reason, Elk. The park has reintroduced Rocky Mountain Elk. They started with 80 and are now up to 160. I get into the valley around noon. Not a good time to see Elk, but the turkeys are out. The Valley is a lot smaller than Cades Cove. There is a single, one lane, two-way, 2 mile road down the center with large fields on each side. A large creek hugs the south ridge. The Park has preserved a few cabins, barns, a church and a school-house. The church in the photo (left) faces the creek and the old road bed. The school-house (photo right) has a very innovative design feature. The school is divided into two rooms. The wall that is the divider has four panels that can be razed to form one large room. In the photo you can see that one panel has been razed to demonstrate how this system works. I thought it was a very good way to convert this building in to a multi use facility. It is a school most of the time but can become a dance hall, a town hall, maybe even a courthouse. At some point one of the rooms were “updated” and the panels were nailed shut. It’s only when you look at them from the unfinished room can you tell what they are used for.

I drove up and down the road a few time but didn’t see any Elk. I stopped and checked out the school then I parked at the church and hiked to the Palmer cemetery. That was the steepest hill I have been on all weekend. After that I walked back down to the church and walked down the creek along the old road. I was hoping to see some elk in these woods. No luck. The road is now a horse trail. Between the old road and the creek is a knee-high river rock wall. Round rocks don’t stack well and most of the wall is crumbling. I like to think about what life was like here and what this lane would have looked like 100 years ago with a carriage coming down it on Sunday morning going to church. It’s nice to romantics that time period but the truth is, I like my modern life just fine. It’s around 2PM and I have to leave now to make it home before its to late. I walk the road back to my truck. Very few people are in the valley, may be 100 at the most. So when a black Cadillac passes me with Fl plates I take notice and laugh a little to myself because I know the road he had to take to get here. I can only imagine what he was thinking bringing that Cadillac up the winding dirt road with hair pin turns. This road needs to be on the TV show “Deadliest Roads”.

I am now on my way home. I travel the aforementioned road and only had one close call with a head on collision. My rough takes me to Maggie Valley over the mountain and across the Blue Ridge Parkway, back down into Cherokee Indian Reservation, Bryson City and the Nantahala Gorge to complete my circle of The Great Smokey Mountain Park. While driving through the Nantahala River Gorge, I seen a hitch hiker just past the NOC. I pull over and he jumps in. This is very common here. I used to do the same thing when I kayaked this river. He and his family were here from New Orlans escaping the latest hurricane. They keep a camper near by and use this area as their bug out place. I thought it a very good idea. I drop him off at the “put in” and headed home.

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