Hiking The Great Smoky Mountains
Back in October 2013, a few outdoor buddies of mine; Ed Mckeown, Gregg Ferguson, Robert Drinkwater and me were doing a 21 mile kayaking trip on the James River. We were all trying to come with an idea for our next adventure, when Ed suggested hiking the Smokey’s. Within two weeks a Facebook page was created, a few more good friends were invited and before you knew a plan was already in set. The date was set for May 21 – 27. A few couldn’t do it because of work or personnel reasons. So it ended up being me, Ed, Gregg and Robert for trip. Here is a brief summary of our trip.
Ed was good enough to volunteer to drive us. After making rounds around the city to pick everybody up, we were head South on I-81 to the Big Creek ranger station in Davenport to meet our shuttle service; A Walk Through The Woods to take us to Fontana Dam, where we would camp for the night.
Our driver was named Mike. He was real knowledgeable and quick thinking. No sooner that we were about to hit I-40, there was a major traffic jam. So he whipped the van around and headed through the Smoky Mountain National Park. After a few delays for road work, we finally arrived at Fontana Dam. When we got to Fontana, things at first didn’t go to smooth. First, Mike thought we were staying at the Fontana Hilton, a big shelter on the Appalachian Trail (AT), but we were staying at the campground at the Fontana Village. Mike was real cool for driving us to the check in lodge. When checking in we asked about a map and a trail that lead up to the dam. We were told that there was no trail going up to the dam and that we would have to use a shuttle service to get us up to the AT. After setting a shuttle to pick us up at 8:30 am and goodbyes to Mike, we decided to a quick dinner at one of the restaurants.
After eating we had to hike about 3 miles down to the campground on a curvy busy road. After setting up our tents, I notice a blue blaze on a tree at the end of a fire road that lead into the woods. A blaze is a colored mark that has been placed on a tree or object for hikers to follow so they won’t go off. I showed the blaze to Robert and we decided to follow them to see where they lead to. Well after hiking about 1 mile or so, guess where we came out at? At the top of the dam. What a bunch of dumbasses back at that the check in. We returned to camp to tell Ed and Gregg what we found. After a rock toss game, in which Ed won, we decided to hit the sack for a good nights sleep.
Woke up at sunrise, had a quick breakfast and packed up the tents, decided to not to wait for the shuttle service and then the trail at about 7:30 am. We headed up the trail that lead up to the dam. Got up there, took some pictures of the dam and then walked across it to the trailhead of the AT. Our adventure was just beginning. Our first 4 miles was a 2000’ elevation climb to the Shuckstack Tower. I swear the last 1000’ had to be in the last quarter mile. There we climbed up the tower, took some pictures of the dam that we just left and had lunch. We headed back to the trail to come up on our first opening to see down into the one of many valley’s that we would encounter. There we also ran into our first thru hiker, a young man who just finished college and was trying to cram the hike in before he had to grow up and get a job. The rest of the day’s hike was full of steep climbs, more than what we were expecting. To explain how slow some of the miles were, when we came upon a sign saying we only 3.3 miles to the shelter that were staying in, we thought we will be there in a hour, try an hour and a half. Arrived at the Russell Field Shelter beat and hungry. Had a nice dinner of Mountain House chicken breast and mashed potatoes. Laid down about 8:00 pm to be waked up at 9:00 pm to a light and sound show from Mother Nature. That night the sleeping was a little rough, getting use to the shelters was a little difficult to get used to. Quote of the day, Gregg saying when he arrived at the shelter “That was the longest @#$!@ 5k I ever hiked”
Again we woke up with the sun, had breakfast, topped off our water and headed into a very foggy trail. Surprisingly my body felt great and the soreness was gone. Hiking in the fog was real cool and took your mind off some of the climbs. When we finally reach Rocky Top (elev, 5440’) you could see why it was called the Smoky’s. You couldn’t see a thing. What was wild, is we hike another .6 mile up Thunderhead Mountain (elev. 5527’) the sky finally opened up and you see the still see the fog lifting out of the valleys. Again the climbs were steep and long. About at this point I started notice that when we were descending that my shoulders were beginning to ache. The last 4 miles were rough with a 700’ steep climb, where at one point I was ready to throw my backpack off and sleep on the trail because of the pain. We finally made it Double Spring Gap Shelter. There we met a couple from West Virginia, who already had a fire going in the fireplace. This was the longest (18 miles) and hardest day, but we knew that at the beginning of the day. Then I finally realize that I was hiking with about 35 lbs. on my back, that’s carrying a toddler around on your back all day. That night I slept real good.
Again up with the sun, oatmeal and coffee for breakfast. Gregg and Robert headed out before me and Ed, to get a jump on the climb up Clingmans Dome. It was a beautiful morning, a lot sunshine and very little clouds. The 2.5 mile hike up to Clingmans Dome was the most beautiful hike I’ve ever taken. Me and Ed was on a ridge that where all you could see was nothing but mountains for miles. The highest peak I ever been on before is Flat Top 4,001’ Clingmans Dome is 6643, the highest point on the AT and the state of Tennessee. The views were breathe taking, this trip was well worth it. But this trip was also beginning to get to Gregg. The miles were long, hard and steep. We all under estimated what it would take to do this trip. He decided to call it off, hitch hike into the closest town, send the night and rent a car back to Roanoke. I hated that Gregg was leaving, but I also understand if you’re not enjoying yourself, why suffer. Gregg is cool and class act of man and I hope to enjoy more adventures with him in the future. After saying good bye to Gregg, we hit the trail .A cool thing happen on this stretch of the trail. We were going to haveto go off the trail to a spring to fill up our water bottles, all of the sudden we hit a real wet section of trail, looked off to the side and there was a spring shooting out of the side of a rock. There we filtered out the water, refilled and continued on.
The next interesting stop was Newfound Gap, the NC – TN border. It’s the only place where the AT crosses a road in the Smokies. This overlook was jammed packed. The climb from the overlook was by far the hardest of the whole trip. It was steep and you had to step up onto and over rocks, sometimes having to pull yourself up. To add to it, we were going to have to an additional 3.7 miles off the trail to a shelter. In the Smokies you have too reserve shelters in advance. We all couldn’t get this one shelter all together so we had to get Kephart Shelter. The extra miles were worth it, we got to see three waterfalls and the shelter was located next to a creek.
After hiking an additional 2.5 miles back to the AT, we were off and rolling. On the trail there was not a lot of interesting things going on at first. The climbs weren’t too bad. The only bad thing at really happen to me, was that one of the straps on my backpack that was holding my tent came off, causing me to rearrange my load. This caused my pack to pull more down on my shoulders. After lunch I was able to rearrange my food and sleeping bag so my pack felt better. Right before we got to the Tri Corner Shelter, we had a downpour that was hard enough to make us use our backpack covers. When it quit raining, the clouds and fog were pretty wild looking coming off the mountains, again another reason why it’s called the Smokies. When we arrived at the Tri Corner Shelter, it was already crowded. There was a family of five, husband, wife , two girls and a boy that were so amazing. They were doing the same hike we were doing, but doing it in four days. A young lady who was thru hiking that had recovered from a brain injury and a father and son team who were just sectional hiking. That evening was the only night we didn’t go straight to sleep after eating, we all stayed up talking to at least 9:00 pm. That night I also saw the most amazing thing that I haven’t seen in a long time. I got at 11:30 pm to use the bathroom, when I looked to the sky, the clouds have lifted and the stars were the brightest I ever seen. You could literally reach out and touch them.
The last day. We knew at the beginning this was going to be a fast hike. There were only a few climbs, with one steep and then a 3100’ descend. The father back at the shelter told us to look for pieces of an airplane that had crashed there years ago. We found it with no problem. The next thing that happens was funniest thing of the whole trip. Robert had been hiking either in his five fingers, sandals or barefooted. This day he was in his five fingers. Ed was leading, Robert following and me in the back. All of the sudden Robert slips and hits the ground. When I get to him, I hit the same rock and bust my butt. Well here we are on the ground, Robert saying he can’t move because he laying with his arm pinned behind him, me laying on top of my backpack, not be able to get up because the weight of it is holding down. Ed has this puzzled look on his face trying to figure who to help up first and me kicking my legs up in the air looking like a turtle on his back. No one was hurt was so we continued on. My last little adventure was a .6 mile side trip to see the Mt. Cammerer fire tower. It is a western style octagonal rock fire tower. I had to scramble over some rocks to make up to it.The views were great but I had to cut short because of the threat of rain. After a real quick descend, the next thing you know we was at the ranger station. Since it was about 4:30 pm and Roanoke was only 4 hours away, we decided to head home and go eat some real food at Cracker Barrel.
Some interesting facts about this trip:
We travel an avg. of about 16 miles a day. With 18 the longest and 13 the shortest.
Avg about 10 hrs. On the trails, including breaks and lunch.
No cell service for 5 days.
Didn’t drive for 6 days.
Didn’t shower for 6 days.
Didn’t hear a TV or radio for 6 days.
Started out with backpack weighting about 30 lbs.
Lost about 2 lbs. Off the backpack a day.
Would like to thank Ed, Robert and Gregg in doing this hike and especially my family for letting me leave for a week. Can’t wait for our next adventure.