2012 Father-Son backpacking trip, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, October 17-19, 2012
The 2012 Father-Son team
It was pouring rain when Kathy and I pulled out of the garage to head for Tennessee this year. Fortunately that weather stayed pretty much behind us as we traveled south, first to Rensselaer to pick up Betty, then on to the McBride ponderosa, arriving in time for cocktail hour. The women started their shopping adventures the next morning, while Dad and I went to work spreading mulch along the shrubbery at the top of his impossibly steep hill. We finished the project the following morning, just before Craig arrived to the party.
Craig and Dad plotted a loop hike out of Mt. Sterling Gap for this year's backpacking trip. The weather forecast initially looked perfect, but as the time for the hike approached, a bit of rain crept into the predictions for the second day. I was reading the trail descriptions for our planned last day to Dad, and the theme seemed to be mud, so Dad came up with the idea of reversing the route. That would allow us to traverse the muddier section before any rain worsened the trail conditions. Of course, that also meant spending more time hiking uphill, with a final steep decent, compared to the original plan. We got the reservations for Laural Gap shelter changed from Wednesday night to Thursday, and the plan was set.
Getting to the trail head proved to be a bit of an adventure in itself. We intended to take Mt. Sterling road, but nobody could remember the exit off I-40, and we ended up in North Carolina and had to turn around. The poorly marked exit 451 almost eluded us again, but Craig spotted it at the last moment, and Dad performed a hair-raising escape from the passing lane, between two semi's, to end up on the shoulder just past the exit. Well, we did get off the exit, just not without much grace. The dirt road to the trail head was a narrow winding route with a lot of pick-up trucks carrying hunters and dogs parked stragically just around the sharp corners. It was a beautiful drive though.
We followed Mt. Sterling trail for a short distance before picking up Long Bunk Trail then Little Cataloochee Trail. True to the guide book's description, there were plenty of muddy sections, where horse hooves had really chewed up the trail, and I was glad we chose to do this prior to the rain. The Fall colors were really popping, and the sun was out in full force. We shed clothes rapidly as the morning chill abated. There were a lot of people that settled in this region, so there were historical sites to visit as we hiked, especially along Little Cataloochee. Finally we came to Pretty Hollow Gap trail, which provided a nice walk along Palmer Creek then up to campsite #39.
A creek crossing (left) and Dad approaching the Hannah Cabin (right)
The site provided plenty of trees for hanging hammocks, and we selected a nice spot next to a large fire ring to satisfy Craig's pyromania. We had spotted one tent as we approached the site, and "Sunshine" introduced herself shortly. She was an AT through-hiker in 2005, and quite personable. Craig had invited her to join us for the evening campfire, and she responded by gathering a large amount of firewood for us. We enjoyed a pleasant evening by the fire, with a brilliant star-filled sky and no sign of rain.
The persistent slapping of my tarp against my hammock awoke me early in the morning. The wind had obviously picked up, and I figured rain was soon to follow. I got up and dropped the tarp lower, tensioning the sides out for a storm. By the time the gentle rain arrived, the wind had subsided, and the rain obliged us by stopping before it was time to get up.
Hikers in the fog
Day two was spent under, and sometimes in, the clouds. We took Palmer Creek trail to a short road walk along Balsam Mountain Road to Balsam Mountain Trail. The trails stayed wet without any sun to dry them, the sky finally clearing after we arrived at Laurel Gap shelter. Only "Sunshine" and her boyfriend, who had joined her at Laurel Gap, were present when we arrived. It wasn't long, though, before hikers started pouring in. By the time evening was closing in, we had over a dozen inhabitants, including a trio of young Chicagoans quite new (and unprepared) to backpacking, two retired Atlanta cops and one of their son-in-laws, and a few guys from Indiana. The retired policemen also turned out to be ex-paratroopers, and once they found out Dad flew C-130's we had instant friends. It was a fun group around the fire, but soon after dark, Dad, Craig and I found ourselves the only ones left around the fire ring.
A crowded Laurel Gap Shelter
Craig told me it rained a little overnight; I never heard it. It must have occurred during one of the short periods of sleep that characterize shelter sleeping. I was stiff when I woke up for breakfast. It had gotten down to around freezing during the night, but being in a crowded shelter had kept the interior temperature a few degrees warmer. The sun was warming things, but the winds were increasing and kept us bundled up for a while.
Our third day of hiking was really nice. The sky was clear, and the views were beautiful. The Mount Sterling Ridge Trail was mostly level. We took a one mile detour to climb the tower on Mount Sterling. It was a worthy diversion, offering great views of the Fall colors in the mountains. We enjoyed lunch in the sun at the base of the tower before heading downhill to the van on the Mount Sterling Trail.
A view from Mt. Sterling tower
We enjoyed our traditional ice cream in Wears Valley on the way home, arriving in time to clean up and have dinner before Marco arrived with his new wife, Natalie. The women had arranged to have a cake ready for a celebration, and we all got a chance to know Natalie better--what a great gal for Marco!
Our crew of day hikers at Metcalf Bottoms
Saturday the whole group piled into Dad's van, me riding tail-gunner in the back with the luggage, and headed to Metcalf Bottoms for a picnic and walk to the Little Greenbrier School and the picturesque Walker Sisters' homesite. The colors were great, as was the weather, and we all had a good time. Craig, Lora, Marco and Natalie all had to head home that afternoon. The rest of us relaxed at the ponderosa and watched Notre Dame squeak past BYU, and Tennessee succumb to Alabama.
The Walker Sisters' Cabin in Metcalf Bottoms
Link to Craig's story