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Trip Recap: Great Smoky Mountains National Park - October 2015

We just couldn’t stay away from the Smokies for long. As we were planning a trip with two of our good friends, Jenny and Jake for October 2015, we decided to return to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After our amazing trip last year from Alum Cave to Greenbrier Cove (check out the Trip Recap here) by way of the famous Appalachian Trail (or AT as it’s called up there), we knew it would be a great experience, and it was.

One of the best parts of this trip was the fact that one of our hiking partners, Jenny, was a beginner! Jenny had been camping many times before with her family, and has spent time in the Rockies, so she’s no stranger to the great outdoors. But backpacking through the wilderness was a completely new idea for her, and she did an amazing job. Jenny is a dental hygienist in the Indianapolis region, and a good friend of Katie and Mark’s. She’s a perfect person to have on the trail - she always brings a smile to your face, even on long hikes up a mountain in the heat, and has a pretty good singing voice too.

Our other participant, Jake, is a law student at Valparaiso University. Jake has a lot of backpacking experience. He’s been camping in a wide variety of areas and conditions, and has among other accomplishments, hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with his father. Jake is always a great guy to have in the group - he’s a strong hiker, a reliable partner on the trail, and makes the best French press coffee east of the Mississippi.

It was a great group of people, and as we’ve said before - much more important than what you bring backpacking is who you bring backpacking.

This was a 4-day, 26-mile loop from Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains Park, south along the Noland Divide and Noland Creek, west over Forney Ridge, and north along Forney Creek back to the mountain.

Day 1

Southeast from Noland Divide Trailhead along Noland Divide Trail to Noland Creek Trail, 5 miles.

We began about 1.5 miles southeast of the Noland Divide trailhead, parking our car at Clingmans Dome Visitor Center. It was very cloudy this first day, and we hiked up to the Clingmans Dome observation platform only to find ourselves completely surrounded by dense clouds.

We walked along the Clingmans Dome Access Road to the trailhead, where we started southeast down Noland’s Divide. While backpacking uphill certainly can be tiring, starting a long hike downhill at a fairly steep incline has it’s own hardships.

Our feet and ankles, as well as our knees and hips were sore after this first day. Downhill is tough before you get your trail legs.

We started seeing signs of bears almost immediately (we would see four bears this trip!),

and our relatively short hike ended when we got to Backcountry Campsite #61, Bald Creek.

Jenny and Katie were pretty tired, Jake and I were all right, but everyone would sleep well tonight.

We set up tarps as rain was expected, and while exploring the area around camp, we saw some bear scat and prints. Neither the scat nor the tracks looked fresh, and there were no apparent food scraps or garbage around, so we decided it wasn’t a bad place to camp regardless of the bear signs nearby. Bears are everywhere in the Smokies and they normally don’t bother people; more on that later.

Day 2

South on Noland Creek Trail, 4.5 miles.

It rained all night and didn’t stop in the morning. We woke up to a steady light rain and used the InReach satellite communicator to contact Mark’s mother and determine the weather report. Our thinking was this: If the rain was going to stop at all during the day, we would wait until then to pack up camp. That way we could keep our things as dry as possible and avoid packing an extra 10lbs each of water weight. If it was not going to stop raining all day, however, we would pack up and get to the next camp as soon as possible. The rain was projected to stop around 5:30PM, which was too late to leave camp, but we figured if we arrived at our next camp at 5:30PM, at least we would unpack while it was not raining.

Our luck turned out to be better than that. Around 2:45PM, the rain finally started clearing up. We were already packing up and were able to keep most of our things dry using tarps.

We saw the sun for the first time around 4:30PM, and it was a welcome sight. We crossed Noland Creek several times on our way to our next camp, getting our feet wet. This wasn’t a big deal to Katie and I, but to Jenny, who had never done this type of hiking before, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

We explained that as long as you have a good pair of wool or synthetic socks, the wetness really wont bother you too much. Of course, everyone was looking forward to drying off next to a fire nevertheless.

The skies were blue above us on this hike, and we all hoped we might see some of the famous National Park stars this night. We wouldn’t be disappointed.

When we arrived at camp, we spotted an odd wire box with a trap door that read “National Park Property, Do Not Disturb”. We quickly realized this was a black bear trap, and we hoped it wasn’t there because there was a problem bear in the area. We had checked the reports right before we left, and there had been one attack not too far from our camp, but the rangers believed they killed the bear responsible. There was another problem bear on Mt. LeConte, but that was a fair distance from our campsite. Bears can be a nuisance, and they can be dangerous if they loose their fear of people. Fortunately, the National Park Service, through the capable hands of the Rangers, keep the bears in the Smokies at bay from most campsites and most campers. It’s usually people who cause human-bear conflicts.

We set up camp at Backcountry Campsite #64, Mill Creek.

We started a fire, dried off our gear, and played some charades with Jake’s phone. We usually bring a light-up Frisbee with us on these types of group trips - it’s a good way to get up from sitting around the campfire at night, stretch, and have some fun. We realized this trip it was also a great tool to fan the campfire.

Day 3

North then southwest on Springhouse Branch Trail to Forney Creek Trail north, 10 miles.

After a fun night around the campfire, we packed up and got ready for our longest day of the trip.

We had a pretty good uphill section on this day, but the second half of our 10-mile trek was considerably downhill. As we had our French pressed coffee courtesy of Jake, we were approached by a National Park Service employee who politely notified us that there would be a cemetery visitation today adjacent to our campsite. We had no idea there was even a cemetery there. It makes sense though, since the Park was previously inhabited by American settlers, and inhabited by Native Americans long before that. A lot of people have lived and died in those mountains, and some of their relatives were going to be there to pay their respects. We thought it was pretty cool.

We hit the trail at about 10:00AM and had a great hike. We saw a total of 4 black bears this day. The first noisily ran down a tree about 75 yards from us. We were talking loudly on the trail and must have spooked the bear. It had a healthy fear of us humans and ran away quickly. This was the first time Jake and Jenny had seen a bear in the wild. Jake was shocked and commented, “That thing ran down that tree like a squirrel!” It was true - black bears are master climbers and they have no trouble running up and down trees, even if there are no branches to hold.

We would see three more bears, two in a tree (see the image above - can you spot them?) and one which came out of a tree a little too close to us, prompting Mark to ask the group to back up. This was a larger bear, a sow, and she certainly was aware of our presence. She wasn’t fearful, but did casually walk down the tree and take a route away from us. She was heading back towards the other two bears we saw - the ones in the tree - which were probably her cubs.

It was only 3:15PM and we already saw 4 bears. What a great day. It was sunny and warm, and we were having a great time.

There was no rain expected for the rest of our trip - all sun and good weather. We decided to take a break next to a “babbling brook” as Jenny liked to call them. It was a shady area and we were all sweating from the uphill climb and the general humidity of the forest.

Jake offered the group some beef jerky - Firehouse brand - which was some of the best jerky we had ever had. Jake washed his face in the creek inlet, which had a small waterfall, and Mark wrote in his journal. Jenny and Katie talked and laughed, and we all had that “lucky to be alive and well” feeling that is too often lost in our society. We got back on the trail and headed for camp #69 for our final night in the mountains.

After exploring some old settler’s home sites at Backcountry Campsite #68,

we had several stream crossings, some of which were a little more complicated than the earlier crossings. We ran into two women - one younger and one older - who were heading towards camp #68, where we had passed earlier. They told us there were three more stream crossings between us and our camp, so we decided to hike the last 1-2 miles in our camp sandals.

We arrived at Backcountry Campsite #69, Huggins, which is situated at the base of two huge ridgelines and sits next to a noisy part of Forney Creek.

There was a massive hill on one side of the camp, and the creek on the other. Really a great campsite for our last night. Whoever stayed there the night before left the fire ready to go - a common and wonderful practice in the wilderness - and we took advantage, building one of the best bonfires we had ever had out in the woods.

It is customary for us to build a large fire our last night on the trail, and this night was no exception. We passed around a bit of moonshine to toast the trip, and had a great night under the stars and next to the warm fire.

Day 4

Northeast on Forney Creek Trail to Forney Ridge Trail back to Clingmans Dome, 8 miles.

We woke up early in the morning and Mark rekindled the fire so everyone could get warm and get ready quickly.

We had to hike out and drive back to Indiana all in one day. Our fourth and final day on the trail would be all uphill - from camp at the base of the ridgeline to the tallest peak in the Park - Clingmans Dome. It was a strenuous hike, and Jenny amazed us all with her ability to conquer the uphill trails with ease.

She’s definitely a natural at this sport. Jake was a little more tired, probably because he was carrying the heaviest pack by far.

Mark and Katie took their normal “uphill pace” and the group made it up the mountain by early afternoon by following Forney Creek and the adjacent ridgelines. We took in the wonderful views from Clingmans Dome, which was fortunately not foggy this time around as it was when we started, and we were in consensus that no one had spent their weekend better than we had. What a great trip.

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