Father-Son Trip, 2007, Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The weather may have played a role in route selection this year, but it sure ended up being great for the hike itself. This was the third year in a row we had attempted to do the stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Clingman's Dome to Davenport Gap, but the drought conditions forced us to lower elevations. After several email communications evaluating various route options, we settled on a multiple trail trek plotted by Dad that would allow us to camp at sites certain to have water. Our other concern was the health of Craig's left ankle; he had injured it and developed tendonitis only a couple months earlier. Fortunately, his ankle held up well, with some support from a brace.
Three hikers begin their trek
Mom and Granny met me at the airport the day before the trip; Dad was warming up by leading an 11 mile hike up Mt. Cammerer. Craig was waiting at the McBride resort when we got there. Mom had a couple errands to run in Pigeon Forge, so Craig and I accompanied her. Mom was getting a little parched, so we stopped for soft drinks. Craig, however, spotted an adjacent ice cream store, so we started there. After our refreshments, we met Dad at the Elkmont trailhead, where we left the van. Granny had dinner ready when we arrived home. We finished out the evening by organizing our hiking food and packs, then enjoying some cards.
Dad savors the views
The skies were clear and the temperature warm as Mom dropped us off at the Townsend "Y", the trailhead for Chestnut Top Trail. We enjoyed views of the Fall foliage across the valley from the ridge the trail followed. The sun was so bright, it made photography difficult. After 4.3 miles, we reached the junction with Schoolhouse Gap Trail. After about a mile on this trail, Dad led us down a small side trail to Whiteoak Sink, a sunken valley once home to up to ten families and some caves. We located one gated-off cave where a sign indicated it was home to a large bat colony. A little further along, we arrived at a high waterfall that had been reduced to a trickle by the drought. This picturesque site served us well as a lunch stop.
What's left of the waterfall provided a great lunch site
Retracing our steps, we joined back up with Schoolhouse Gap Trail and followed it to Laurel Creek Road (2.0 miles from Chestnut Top Trail, but probably 4 miles including our detour). Across the road, we picked up Bote Mountain Trail and followed it 1.2 miles to West Prong Trail. Descending a little over a half mile down this trail, we arrived at campsite 18, where we would spend the first night. Having gotten a fairly early start to the day, we were off the trail by 4:30 in the afternoon, after a total of 10.1 miles for the day. We worked our way back to a more secluded part of the site and set up camp fairly close to the river. Due to the drought, a fire ban was in place, so we set our hammocks up in a triangle and took advantage of the great seating thereby created to enjoy a little Scotch and conversation.
The cloud-free sky allowed the temperature to drop considerably, and it got a little chilly overnight. An almost full moon kept the site fairly light, and no artificial source of lighting was needed for trips to visit the trees. Coming out of one particularly bizarre dream (no doubt induced by the exercise and Scotch), I found myself sitting bolt upright. Apparently Craig was up and adjusting his hammock lines, and somewhere deep in my awakening consciousness, I thought a critter was messing with my hat, hanging off my hammock line. A very startled Craig, seeing me blast up in full attack mode, assured me it was only him, and we shared a good laugh.
Setting up our first campsite
Oatmeal and hot drinks helped to warm our bodies the next morning. We discovered Dad had forgotten to add brown sugar to our oatmeal and Grape-Nuts mix, but it was good anyway. We would miss those extra calories later that day, climbing to our lunch spot on Lumbar Ridge.
Breaking camp, we continued 2.1 miles along West Prong Trail, climbing the flank of Fodderstack Mountain, then descending to Tremont Road. Finding the restroom there out-of-order, Dad directed me to a dormitory where another one could be found. That one worked great, but the janitor there wasn't pleased and accused us of trespassing. Thanks Ranger Dad, for getting me in trouble!
Lumbar Ridge Trail climbed steeply out of Tremont, finally giving us a break at the "saddle", a low point on Lumbar Ridge. Our legs were burning and we were definitely running out of juice by the time we arrived there. Lunch was a welcome respite. The weather was great, and we were happy the direct sun would be found on the latter half of the trail, while we were headed downhill, not on that uphill struggle. It was during the uphill struggle that we discovered "Bug". Bug was a plastic bug Connie had hidden in Craig's pack, buried in a bandana. Apparently he got off easy this time: she hid a rock in his pack the last trip he took! From that point on, Bug would star in many of our photographs.
Beautiful Fall colors grace the trail
Meigs Mountain Trail, which we reached 4.1 miles from Tremont, was described in the books as featuring multiple water crossings--not this year! Most were dry, and a couple contained some mud. It was really unusual to see the Smoky Mountain trails this dry and dusty. It reminded me of the trails out West.
We reached campsite 20 at mile 4.2 (10.4 miles for the day). Craig was looking forward to a good splash in the river, but the Kiver Branch of Blanket Creek was just deep enough to permit collecting water for a bath in my collapsible sink. The site was tagged with a warning sign that bear had been an issue, but we saw no evidence of them during our stay. We had a very quiet evening, with no other hikers and no critters to disrupt our little party. It was warmer and windier, and leaves "rained" all night. The moon shone so brightly, that we initially thought the light shining down the trail was a large flashlight coming our way.
Craig discovers he has once again misjudged his hammock line tension
After a breakfast of granola and blueberries, we hiked the remaining 1.9 miles to Jakes Creek Trail. A short 0.1 miles later we turned onto Cucumber Gap Trail. The privacy of the trails we had enjoyed earlier began to vanish. Jakes Creek, Cucumber Gap and Little River Trails form a popular loop out of Elkmont, and each is popular in its own right. We ran across a womens' group that had apparently hiked together part of the way down Cucumber Gap and were now breaking up to get a little solo hiking under their belts to their lunch site at a water crossing and falls. In reality, there was no solo hiking to be found the rest of the way along that trail!
When we reached the junction with Little River Trail, we stopped for our final lunch. Clouds were beginning to gather, but the rain held off until we reached the van. Given their drought conditions, we were all glad to see some rain in the forecast. Our mileage total for the day was 6.8, bringing us to 27.3 for the trip.
Dad stopped in Townsend for the obligatory ice cream treat, then headed home. Aunt Linda and Rick joined us for pizza and beer. We related the tale of our hike and had a picture show. This year's trip turned out to be free of any mishaps or wildlife encounters. It was a very enjoyable walk with beautiful weather, good color and great camaraderie.
Never the ones to pass up an opportunity for a hike, we took off on a post-backpacking leg stretcher the next day, walking the Little Bottoms Trail to its junction with Abrams Creek. The temperature and humidity combined to ensure we worked up a good sweat. Fortunately the previous three days had been more comfortable. We enjoyed a lunch break at the river, then Dad and Craig grabbed a brief nap on the rocks while I took advantage of the low water to rock hop across the creek then upstream, enjoying the scenery and water life. I was contemplating a quick swim in a pool I discovered when a few raindrops started to fall. The rain didn't last, but we headed back to the car, adding another 7 miles to our total.