Trip Recap: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (March 2014)
“To the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.” –John Muir
About the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This is the most visited National Park in the United States. On the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Appalachian Mountains, and the huge diversity of wildlife in them, have been protected within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Prehistoric Paleo Indians lived here for thousands of years until the first Europeans first settled the area in the 1800’s. Among the more recent history of the area is the Appalachian mountain culture, including the countless moonshine stills like the one captured in this photograph.
Credit: NPS Archives.
Historic structures, landscapes, and artifacts can still be found in the park. Wildlife in the park includes 65 species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 67 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians. The American Black Bear is probably the most recognized of the park’s wildlife, and perhaps the most intrusive (other than mosquitos, of course) to backpackers on the trail – more on that later.
The park contains a section of the world-famous Appalachian Trail (AT), over which we had the opportunity to hike a ways.
Distance: 60 miles
Duration: 6 days
We chose a 60-mile, 6-day trek through the Smoky Mountains in order to experience as much of the landscape, wildlife, and culture we could in the one week we had to travel. The trek included mountain summits, ice-covered ridges, misty valleys, and beautiful mountain streams.
We arrived at the Alum Cave Trailhead in the early morning of March 18, 2014. While the weather was pleasant at the trailhead elevation, we knew that the temperature and wind would be drastically different the higher we travelled in elevation.
For a trip like this, you must be prepared for any type of weather and as we would soon find out, the weather changes by the minute in these mountains. The trail was green and crossed by several running streams, which were lined by a diverse set of foliage that gave the impression we were in a tropical jungle rather than the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee.
At this point, we were using the GoPro Hero 3 (we didn’t yet have the DSLR we use today) to capture both video and stills. We soon ran into a group of Purdue University wildlife students, sparking the inevitable “what a small world” conversation. Mark had actually studied wildlife at Purdue for three years before switching to pre-med. Funnier still, these weren’t the only Boilermakers (Purdue students/alumni) we would meet on the trail. We ascended the steep trail to Alum Cave, which is an incredible sight.
Water runoff from the towering mountains dripped some 80 feet from the ledges above us like someone had forgotten to repair a thousand leaky faucets on the ridge. We soon realized that Alum Cave wasn’t really a cave at all – it’s a bluff, or a cliff with a broad face. It also isn’t a natural feature of the park. It was created by salt miners in the 1800’s, who used the mineral to dye clothes the same reddish-brown color that appears on the rocks themselves. Later, it was used during the Civil War as a Confederate Army site for storing gunpowder. We stopped here to rest and to have our first of many Cliff Bars (new backpackers – you will become very familiar with the Cliff Bar throughout your backpacking life).
While we rested, we saw several peregrine falcons diving from the top of the bluff to the tree canopy below. The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird in the world – reaching speeds of over 200mph on dives. They performed an acrobatic show for us before we packed up and headed up the trail.
We arrived at the Le Conte Lodge, which is a cluster of cabins at 6,360ft, accessible only by hiking.
We proceeded to the summit of Mt. LeConte (6,593ft), which is the third highest peak in the Smoky Mountains.
There we met several day hikers, volunteers, lodge staff, and a church group singing worship songs while taking in the incredible view.
We had lunch at the summit and proceeded to the nearby LeConte shelter for our first night. The shelters here are set up for backpackers in lieu of tent camping. They are primitive, three-walled huts with dirt floors and two wooden planks on the back wall. Each plank fits 6 sleeping bags, which would be full by the time night fell.
Unlike some parks, the Smoky Mountains is heavily visited and you will only find solitude on the trail, whereas at camp, you will meet people from all over the world going one way or another on the mix of trails through the Appalachians.
Signs informed us that black bears were out of their dens, after their winter hibernation, and would be looking for food. Unfortunately the bears have been fed by tourists over the years, who either didn’t know their danger or didn’t care, and now some of them are “problem bears” that associate people with free food. Therein lies the problem: while they can seem timid and even “cute”, bears are large, often dangerous creatures and when they cross paths with people, attacks can occur. As with any camping in bear country, we hung our food and our packs high in the trees on the park-provided bear rigs.
We made another trip up to the summit of Mt. LeConte for the sunset. There were several other hikers in the audience. This sunset was one none of us would ever forget. If you ever have the chance to watch the sun rise or set from the top of a mountain, don’t pass it up.
The night was cold, as a winter storm blew over the mountains. Even with the relative protection of the shelter walls, the frigid wind found its way through every crack and gap in the wood and made for a restless and shivering night with very little sleep.
If you’ve ever gotten out of a sleeping bag on a freezing morning, you know what we mean when we say it’s the worst part of your day – it’s absolutely agonizing for a few minutes. The morning was filled with conversations with our shelter bunkmates, who were strangers the night before but friends the following day. We warmed up, cooked a quick breakfast and headed up the Boulevard Trail.
One section of the trail was completely covered in ice, and we considered the risk of proceeding. There was no way around – a steep wall on one side and a 100+ft drop on the other. We decided to proceed…carefully. So carefully in fact, that I don’t think a person can walk any slower than we did. Our hiking poles were the only things keeping us from sliding right off the edge. In retrospect, we should have brought some ice gear.
The Boulevard intersected the Appalachian Trail (AT), on which we hiked for a long distance.
We veered off the trail to see Charlies Bunion, a beautiful overlook that made for a great picture.
Along the trail, the forests at this elevation resembled those of northern Canada – a sharp distinction to the pseudo-tropical environment at the Alum Cave Trailhead. Tall, old conifers lined the mountainsides, and still bare deciduous trees offered the occasional viewpoint along the trail.
The view from anywhere here was simply incredible. You have to see it to understand. As with many forests in the US, a parasite (the wooly adelgid in this case) had been killing trees for many years. This bug was introduced to the Smoky Mountains in the 1920’s, when it began infesting and killing hemlock trees.
The NPS has its hands full trying to stop the bug’s advance. We eventually arrived at Peck’s Corner shelter – another of the primitive 3-walled huts, for night number two. We met some thru-hikers on the AT and some other backpackers from all around the country. The weather performed it nightly ritual – going from decent when the sun was up to treacherous and unforgiving upon nightfall. We were much warmer than the last night, due to some ingenuity zipping our sleeping bags together.
We decided to sleep in this morning since we had a shorter day on the trail.
After all the other residents of the shelter left, we rose to cook breakfast. We were greeted by several whitetail deer standing no more than 50ft from where we were cooking. They seemed tentative about our presence, but as is the case with many animals in National Parks, they were more-or-less comfortable around people allowing us to enjoy their presence while I reviewed the route for the day.
We didn’t have a long hike this day, but it still took a while due to our constant changing of clothing layers. The weather was never the same for more than 30 minutes. It would be cold and windy, then hot and sunny, then frigid and rainy, then back to hot, then all of a sudden it would start to snow. It was comical how often we would be in full winter gear at the top of the hour then in shorts and a tee-shirt 60 minutes later. We trekked past Eagle Rocks, along Cooper Gap, and over Mt. Sequoyah (5,949ft).
We ascended 400ft to Mt. Chapman (6,417ft) where we had equally impressive views of Tennessee to the north and North Carolina to the south and east. The peaks, one after another, were covered in a blue haze, hence their name “Blue Ridge Mountains”. We were struck at the distance of the rolling peaks. Just when you think you are looking at the farthest visible ridgeline, your eyes focus on 3 more consecutive ridgelines in the distance, which you previously assumed were clouds.
Image Credit: askalodge.net
We spent the night at Tricorner Knob shelter and prepared for our fourth day in the mountains.
After getting off to a late start and forfeiting our usual hot breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we hiked our final 6 miles on the AT until we exited to follow Snake Den Ridge Trail to the north. This quickly turned into Maddron Bald Trail to the west. The environment was changing more and more drastically the farther we went. Where we stood in confiders and high ridgelines the previous day, we were now surrounded by dense deciduous forest and rolling streams.
We hiked into dusk (that’s what you get when you start late) and used our headlamps to navigate through the eerie forest to find the trail to our next camp. After descending a full 600ft, we found our campsite at Otter Creek.
We set up next to the creek and used the last bit of daylight to cook dinner before falling asleep to the sound of the running water next to our camp.
What goes down must come up – at least in backpacking. Descending 600ft to camp was a welcome relief from the undulating trails of the previous day, but it also meant that we had to climb 600ft to get back out to the trail. We did, and we were wide-awake afterwards. If you ever need a quick way to wake up, climb 600ft early in the morning with a full 65L backpack in tow.
Maddron Bald Trail took us west through Albright Grove, where we saw some of the largest and oldest trees in the US.
This is one of the only remaining old growth stands in the Smoky Mountains – the trees that were never logged by settlers before the park was a park. We passed McCarter Barn, which was built in 1876 and still stands in the park.
We followed Old Settlers Trail through some of the weirdest land we had ever seen. It looked like something straight out of a movie – uniform deciduous trees with old piles of rocks and rock wall ruins that had been created by the original European settlers and homesteaders over 100 years before.
We spent the night at Camp 33, which was the home site of Perry Ramsey, one of the last settlers to be kicked out of the park when it became protected Federal land. We found out later than many people reported seeing a light (some say it’s a lantern) descending the hillside over Camp 33 towards Ramsey’s home site. We saw no such thing, but we did enjoy the still-standing fireplace and chimney Mr. Ramsey left, as it allowed us to hang some of our damp gear from the day’s hike through sporadic rain, mist, and fog. We lit a fire to dry everything out and warm up.
Our final day in the Smoky Mountains. The hike out is always bittersweet. This hike, however, was a little more sweet than bitter. We were sad to go of course, but we were both exhausted.
The route we had selected is considered ‘very strenuous’, and we felt ever bit of that description in our legs, backs, shoulders, and feet. We were also testing out some new gear, which made our packs heavier than normal – Mark’s was a full 55lbs at the beginning of the trek.
The hike out was a 7-mile winding trail through foggy forests where we spotted several white tail deer. We saw signs that bears were very active in this part of the park – logs were torn up and scat lined the game trails that intersected our own path. We did not, however, see a single bear track the entire time.
We arrived at our exit point where we had hired a shuttle to pick us up and take us back to the Alum Cave Trailhead to drive our car back to Gatlinburg, where we spent one last night in the Smoky Mountains.
Our room in the Park Vista hotel was perfect – we overlooked Mt. LeConte, where we made our first ascent and watched the sun set. It was fitting that we saw our last sunset of the trip from the ground looking up at the mountain.
For more information, or to plan your trip to the Smoky Mountains, click here.