Tag Archives: smoky mountains

Night Hiking, The Tower of Death and the Eternal Trail

DSC_0185We pack quietly and quickly in the darkness. Using our headlamps to piece together our possessions, we carefully load our packs, hoist them on our backs and off we go. It is very very dark…


BAD JUJUBE SIDEBAR:  The crew who came into camp after midnight are sprawled around the site on the ground in only their sleeping bags. This same crew used bad camper etiquette and while they hung all of their packs and food on the ample bear cables and then TOOK OURS DOWN AND LAID IT ON THE GROUND….. Who does that?!!!! Bad campers do that. Very bad and while it was tempting to take their food and dump it in the creek, we did not. We hoisted our packs and hiked our happy butts up the trail not looking back . . . These things have a way of working themselves out.


Back to the hike. The trail lit only by headlamps,  we make the turn up Swallow Fork Trail and immediately start the climb. It will be 5.5 miles to the Prize~ Mount Sterling. Trees blown down from the night before slow our pace as we climb on, over and through. (did I mention it was DARK) The creek roaring beside us, I made a conscious effort not to fall in.

Our first creek crossing is over a narrow wooden bridge with one slanted rail. Rickety but did the job. Our second creek crossing makes us both stop as there is no bridge, just underwater rocks above a rushing portion of the creek. Envisioning myself swooshing down the creek, I grind my poles in between the rocks and step by step follow Harriett as she leads the way. So much for dry boots and we continue to climb. At some point we realize that it is snowing and have to stop to put on our rain jackets and keep climbing. I discover that night hiking is a lot like day hiking…..

Another wet creek crossing, another painfully slow mile up the traiMaking Coffee...l, night turns to dawn and the snow stops. Finding a spot out of the wind we take a break and have breakfast. Harriett has broccoli and meat and beef jerky and I have beans and rice with half a pro bar. Remnants of last nights meal ,cold but necessary to hoist us the remainder of the climb.

Funny thing about hiking elevation. You simply lose all ability to judge the distance. Surely we are halfway there. The sign must be around the corner or maybe we passed it… Lungs are burning, legs are burning, the trail continues and you just keep moving. Back in the snow again we eventually make Sterling Ridge. BUT there is still 1.5 miles to go. Deep snow, frozen slush, ice covered rocks and steep climbs. The reward, glimpses of the mountain ridge and the sun is out.

Your reward after climbing 6.1 miles....6 storiesFINALLY! After an attempt on Day One and after five hours of climbing on Day Three we reach the top of Mt. Sterling all 5,842 feet of her……. Scanning the small area on top of this mountain where the view is limited , it is obvious that the fire tower is the main feature. This tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. Mt. Sterling lookout has the highest elevation of any true fire tower left in the eastern U.S. 

This is what we came for….the panoramic view of The Great Smoky Mountains. So we started our climb on a structure that has been pounded by wind and weather built in 1935… I climb CLINGING to the metal railing taking one step at a time. Stopping only to control my hyperventilation and trying not to look down, one step at a time, hand over hand, I finally reach the trap door and pull myself up into the tower. (Note to the Park: The floor needs some work)

DSC_0192DSC_0193DSC_0194Inside the Fire Tower of Death....DSC_0196DSC_0198DSC_020010154036_437074776438023_1649213869_n

The view was amazing and we take pictures in all directions all the while never releasing my death grip on the tower . . According to a good post from Hiking in the Smokys Blog, “On a clear day you’ll be able to make out Balsam Mountain and Luftee Knob towards the west, Mount Guyot to the northwest, Max Patch to the east, and the Cataloochee Valley towards the south. If you have a very good eye you may even spot the Mount Cammerer fire tower, which lies due NNW from the mountain”  It was a good day, but after a few pictures the wind picked up and we started DOWN.
Can you spot the campers... we are VERY high up!!!

This is a shot of Campsite 38 from 60 feet up in the top of the tower. Can you spot the campers? eek

Standing in the snow….at the top of Mount Sterling, next to the Fire Tower of Death , next to the marker and the sign we adjust our packs for the long steep trek down. The snow is still deep and it takes  concentration to keep from falling or twisting a knee. Ahead of us is 6.5 miles of steep downhill laced with roots and rocks. After rising at 4:00 am and climbing to the top of the tower we are women on a mission. GET TO THE PARKING LOT. (preferably without a serious injury)

So much like our trip down on Sunday, (remember the whole STRATEGY was to avoid hiking DOWN THIS MOUNTAIN and we did it twice)  I’m not going to lie. This trail seemed ETERNAL. Like FOREVER ETERNAL. It seemed that it would never end. We went DOWN, DOWN and more DOWN. Climbing over fallen trees, snow turned to slush, slush turned to mud and mud turned to dirt, winter turned to spring and miraculously 13 hours and 12 miles after we started our day, we spot the bridge that would take us across Baxter Creek to our car.

Harriet and I take turns changing our clothes behind a big rock in the campground.  (where I am pretty sure I traumatized a couple who happened to walk up on me. ) We toss our packs in the trunk and ease our aching bodies in the car. Recapping the trip we laugh at all of the events from the last three days.

Funny thing about hiking…it is a lot like labor. While you are in the middle of it all you can think of is the pain and that you are never ever going through that again. But then as soon as it is over and you have on a clean t-shirt and dry shoes you start to think about where you will go next…DSC_0233

 

For the rest of the story start here:

Day One: Girls Gone Wild SB2014

Day Two: Redemption, Big Creek Trail and GSMNP Fitness

Up the Hill, Bears and Tomatoes……..Oh MY!

Awake before my 4:30 alarm, I slip out of bed, take what will be my last shower for three days, get dressed and make my way downstairs. Last minute additions (and deletions) to my backpack, a quick bite to eat and off I go to meet Salt.

In less than an hour we are speeding toward the Smoky Mountains and another Trail Dames adventure. (For the record, the Ellijay Starbucks doesn’t open until 6:00am) A cup of coffee,  and a beautiful sunrise later we arrive at Fontana Dam Visitor Center to wait for the rest of our party.
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S.H.O.E., Hemlock, Still Waters, Ratchet and Monica soon arrive, gear is consolidated and we pile into cars and head to the Twenty Mile Trailhead to begin our journey. It is warm and sunny when we start but the trail is wide and climbs gently as we all work out the kinks, shifting our packs, tightening straps and stretching our legs.
We soon come to the Wolf Ridge Trail and begin our “have you lost your mind” 3000 foot climb to Gregory Bald. It isn’t long before the heat of the day climbs into the 90’s and the repetitive movement of nothing but up starts to have an effect on all of us. Activity ranging from discarding clothing, laying in the middle of the trail, yoga on our magic silver carpets, cursing, heavy breathing and sheer grit propel us forward.
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As we press on, we are warned that there is a Mama Bear and two cubs on the trail about a mile from Gregory Bald and sure enough as that point is neared we begin to see evidence. Logs rolled over, dirt pushed around and ginormous piles of bear poo. (this makes me want to poo…)  I check carefully for signs of seeds, berries or …hikers and see none…..
The answer to the question...Does a Bear Poop in the Woods?Still Waters leads with myself, Monica, Hemlock and Salt close behind.. and suddenly we hear, “GET YOUR CAMERA!!”  AND there it is, a real…….live…….BEAR sitting up to the right of the trail…..and she is watching us…. We all stop in a bunch and watch. highres_53615652 As we holler and bang our hiking poles, (in accordance with instruction from the official park service video) she is not impressed and lays back down. Not spotting her cubs, we are unsure whether to take the high road or the low road and stand in the trail waiting for the rest of our group. Thunder begins to rumble in the distance and  alternating between mild panic and the urge to take more pictures and video, we back up as a group,  when she stands up and crosses the trail to scratch her back on another tree. As we look up, the two cubs are spotted high in the foliage!

As SHOE and Ratchet approach, we share the news of the bear and make the easy decision to take the low road , giving wide berth to our bear friends and pick up the trail further down.
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Adrenaline propels us to Parsons Bald, an unmaintained bald taken over by blueberry bushes and bramble and finally we are on flat ground. The unmaintained trail grabs at our legs with thorny bushes and we fly trying to outrun them as well as the thunderstorm on the horizon. Another mile and we make it to Campsite #13.
Exhausted from climbing for over 7 miles in 95 degree heat,highres_53615822  (those little words just do not give it justice!) we empty our packs and set up camp. Our site is visited by a doe and her fawn who are oblivious to our activity and the group camping next to us announce the entrance and unfortunate demise of a large rattlesnake. (I make a mental note, to potty early while I can still see what might be lurking beneath me!) Water is retrieved from a thin trickle a quarter mile away and dinners are picked over as we have little appetite from the days climb and heat.

IMG_3204I barely make it to “hikers midnight” before climbing in my hammock for the night. The wind is brisk and wakes me after midnight as the tree I am attached to is swaying, but my tarp doesn’t budge and my new Incubator under quilt keeps me warm and toasty and soon am drifting back to sleep.
Morning breaks, a bit cloudy and cool and we all go through our routines, some breaking camp, some eating before we all load our packs to begin day two of our three day trip. We start again by going UP heading to Gregory Bald and are rewarded by the sky clearing and views of the mountains and valleys below. IMG_3246There is the usual singing and dancing and a wonderful discovery of magical trees which we all climb. (How sweet to be able to enjoy childhood activities and not be judged. ) We spend a good bit of time on the bald but finally head down the trail. AND just as yesterday was all UP today is ALL DOWN the Long (itchy, scratchy, brambly, briar filled) Hungry Ridge Trail. We pass several backpackers heading up and say silent prayers for the pull that we know is ahead of them!
IMG_3299IMG_3309IMG_3333 Five miles down the trail Campsite 93 is reached. Our swollen blistered feet are dipped in the cool stream,  we watch the blue butterflies dip and twirl, observe a strange little band of campers who thought it was a good idea to set their tents up directly UNDERNEATH the bear bag cables…….and decide to go a little further(3 more miles….) and spend our last night at Campsite 92. Thankfully the trail spreads out and the grade is not so steep. We soon pick up the creek and crisscross  as it switches sides with the trail. 
Campsite 92 sits right on the Creek making for easy water access and soon three hammocks and two Hubbas had made it home. Ratchet and S.H.O.E. soon catch up with us to complete our family. Kellye, a victim of the heat exhaustion from the day before (the one who tore her clothes off) and the weather predicted to become severe was a factor in their decision to continue to the car. We remain….5 crazy women…….
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As the sky darkened and several more hikers passed us due to weather concerns, we tightened our tarps and discussed an action plan in the event of a storm. The safest place for protection was deemed to be the bridge underpinning and a drill to make sure we all knew where to go was practiced. Still Waters was our “emergency management leader” and at some point went to filter water and started yelling “Tomato, Tomato!!” (actually it was tornado tornado but we all missed that!) A slow drizzle began that would alternate between  showers, annoying mist and downpour for most of the evening. In spite of the rain, Still Waters manages a small fire and we gather round enjoying its warmth.
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Around dark we are joined by a lone hiker, exhausted from his 1.5 mile trek from the parking lot, carrying a huge pack. He is beyond thrilled to see us and after setting up his tent joins us at what is left of the fire. We share with him the “emergency “Tomato” plan” and he seems relieved. As the rain picks up we all drift off to our sleeping quarters where I spend a fitful night tossing and turning, checking to make sure water is staying on the outside and contemplating lowering the foot of my hammock…..
IMG_3363As soon as the first light of day is apparent, I see that I am not alone as everyone is crouched beneath their tarps, packing up gear and it is not very long before we are all ready to head back to the car. It is raining but the trail is again, wide and easy and we enjoy the green of the forest accentuated against the dark wetness. We walk along water most of the way back and are grateful for the rain, our trip, the challenge and the experiences shared. I read this quote on the Section Hiker blog this week and thought it very appropriate.

”It’s moments like these that I savor on backpacking trips. When my wonder of the world around me becomes more absorbing than my other thoughts about the past or future, I know I’ve reached my destination……”

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Smoky Mountain Backpacking Trip

This three day trip started with a bang, literally, as I was making the trip to Clarkesville to pickup Kellye to head to the Great Smoky Mountains for a three day backpacking trip with SHOE and Turtle. I had to make an emergency pit stop in the dark, under an interstate bridge pylon and  sacrificed my favorite pink bandana…
When I get to Kellye’s I realize my camera is missing and we have to backtrack to the scene of “The Incident” where I find it laying next to my pink banadana…

Hopeful that this was not going to be a theme for this trip, we headed to the hills.
We met our hiking buddies, SHOE, (slowest hiker on Turtle, Sassafras, SHOE and the newly named Ratchet.....earth), and Turtle at the Smokemont campground dropped my car at the Mingus Creek Trailhead and headed to the Thomas Divide Trailhead. Thomas Divide is named for William Holland Thomas (1805-1893,) who gained so much favor with the Cherokees that he became the only white man ever appointed Chief. This self-educated lawyer lived with the Indians, learned their language and ways, and defended their rights in Washington. He helped purchase much of the land known as the Qualla Boundary. He was a Confederate Colonel and the bravery of his Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders is legendary. (Sorry for the history lesson, but I found this interesting)

IMG_2461The trail was moderate with some decent climbs and rewarded us with the diversity of flora and fauna that makes the Smokey Mountains unique. The rhododendrons were abundant and still in full bloom. Yellowish brown cobs of squawroot poked through the leaves. I couldn’t remember what they were called but found out that this is a favorite food of black bears. (We saw much evidence of bears but figured that four chattering women would be enough to scare any bear off!)
We took our time on this warm, sunny day, catching up and taking turns leading the hike. As elevation changed, so did our surroundings. The ghostly silhouettes of hemlocks ravaged by the woolly adelgid against the sky, numerous coves of hardwoods  and always the forest floor was alive with fungi and wildflowers.
Arriving at Campsite #52, at Newton Bald, we found a solitary camper who had set his five manIMG_2506 tent up in the center of the fire ring area! Kellye scouted the area and found the perfect ridge top spot to spend the night.  While we searched for the perfect hammock trees and Lesly and Melissa looked for a flat spot for their tents and we began the ritual of setting up our temporary home for the night.
Our first “excitement” of the trip occurred when Kellye wandered off to take care of some personal business and interrupted a bear! The bear grunted a warning to let her know he was there and they both took off in opposite directions. She quickly came back to home base, eyes wide and put us all on alert that we were not alone!! Needless to say, I did not wander far to take care of my personal business after that!
IMG_2531Dinner was cooked and we spent an inordinate amount of time coaxing flames out of a stubborn fire, night fell, the temperatures dropped into the upper fifties and we all retired to our sleeping quarters. I listened to a little bit of Pat Conroy’s latest and drifted off to sleep only to be jolted awake by the sound of what I was sure was a BEAR climbing the tree that my hammock was attached to!!! The commotion continued as everyone scrambled out of their tents asking Kellye if she was okay, so I rolled out and found her hammock had “ratcheted” DOWN the tree!! Fortunately, she was fine and we all went back to bed. (We think she might have a trail name, Ratchet!)
Day 2, we took our time with breakfast and breaking camp, enjoying the cool IMG_2497temperatures before beginning our hike. We continued on Thomas Divide heading to Deep Low Gap, again enjoying the diversity of the trail. Excitement came when Lesly and I spotted a small creek off the trail. She needed water and I dropped my pack and went off the trail to capture a photo of some red bee balm.  Immediately what felt like needles on my legs caused me to scream, as the realization that yellow jackets were swarming around us! Needless to say, we both moved quickly but not before  I had at least 12 reminders of why I never want to step in another yellow jacket nest. After retreating a safe distance we took a break where everyone contributed Benadryl cream, anti-itch and Neosporin to ease the sting. (Truth be told I wanted to cry, but satisfied that urge with talking with my trail mate.)
IMG_2585As we began our descent into the lush green forest, crisscrossing small streams, it occurs to me that we have been going down a looooong time and that we will be backtracking up this haul tomorrow morning…….We reach our destination, the very slanted world of campsite #51. Being in the Gap, there is little breeze and the temperature and humidity have increased. Again, we repeat the camp setup ritual spreading out due to an absence of flat areas and spend the rest of the day, chatting, sharing stories, laughing, eating and daydreaming.
As night falls, I gratefully climb into my hammock and quickly fall asleep, only to be awakened around 3:00 am to thunder and rain. After assuring myself that my tarp was secure and all my belongings were underneath and dry, I slipped back to sleep until dawn. Our plan was to leave early, due to the number of miles and difficulty of the trail for the day, so I packed my hammock and gear and sat under the tarp drinking my coffee and eating a builders bar. (a nice perk of having a hammock means you can pack everything up underneath the tarp, leaving it for last)
We all begin the slow tortuous climb in the rain to the intersection that will takeIMG_2610 us to the Mingus Creek Trail and our car. Seriously, even though I have eaten most of my food, my pack feels just as heavy as when I started and it takes me a bit to find my trail rhythm.  Unfortunately a couple more yellow jackets find my rhythm and get between my pack and back delivering more stings!! We space out a bit, each hiking our own hike and meet sweaty and tired at the top of the climb. A downhill stretch follows along the creek and takes us to 90 foot waterfall. It is still IMG_2628raining, so the photo op is cut short as we slip and slide across a narrow bridge crossing and continue down to the trail intersection, where thankfully the rain ends and the sun starts to stream through the trees. After consulting the trail map, we take off on the Mingus Creek Trail. The trail starts innocently enough, absolutely beautiful and follows and crosses the creek for some time. As the temperature and humidity increase, so doesThank the Lord we are at the top! the climb. Kellye and I hike together, stopping periodically to curse the trail and sip some water, even taking a break or two for a gu and bar break. As always, about the time, I think I can’t lift my leg another step, we reach the top and collapse for a well deserved break!  This was a tough trail!  Spotting the trail sign for Newfound Gap Road at 2.9 miles made us very happy!!
However, that happiness was short lived as we began the trek over a jarring, rocky, mossy, slick downhill!! BUT it was sooooo beautiful. If we had more time, I would have loved to linger at the many creek crossings and moss covered logs that called my name! But at that particular moment the lure, of my dry clothes and a burger at the NOC were a motivating factor! As we got closer to our destination the trail widened and we were able to walk side by side, recapping some of the highlights of the trip. The aching shoulders, legs and blistered feet were replaced by the pure joy of spending time outdoors and conquering
YIPPEE!! I MADE IT!any difficulties that came our way.
As we burst into the parking area and into reality, I contemplate offering the nearby picnickers a $10.00 bill for a cold drink.
NOTE: If you ever see dirty, sweaty,  smelly people piling out of the woods with their life on their back, offer them a cold drink, they will never forget you!
The reward for this journey ends at the Nantahalah Outdoor Center or the NOC. I have been hearing about the Flamethrower Burger and the HOMEMADE chips for the entire trip and satisfy this fantasy with my friends. A berry cobbler topped with ice cream is the icing on the cake. Sitting on the river with my feast and friends, I count my many blessings and dream of the next adventure…..
The best burger EVERIMG_2691Berry cobbler....Don't judge we just hauled our life on our backs for three days!!IMG_2698

For more photos from this trip, click HERE