A couple weeks ago, Joe and I undertook one of the more challenging hikes I’ve ever done – 38 miles over three days and two nights of backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Before I get to the particulars, the trek was just one part of a two-week roadtrip through some of the South. Previously, the only other two-week trips I’d taken were to Thailand and South America. The difference was that when you travel overseas you tend to pack your days full trying to make the most of your time and the time spent just getting there. But spending two weeks leisurely driving, seeing family and friends, hiking, swimming and disconnecting – it really felt like a vacation for the soul. I highly recommend it if you can swing it.
Our vacation began with a long drive to Georgia, to visit Joe’s aunt and uncle, who live just outside of Atlanta. We split up the drive over two days, enjoying staples like Waffle House, North Carolina BBQ and lots of iced coffees.
Once in Georgia, we spent two days enjoying some incredible dinners and breakfasts, and relaxing with Gary and Maria and their dog Max.
We spent Saturday checking out Atlanta, including eating at Vortex and taking in a soccer match. While we would have loved to spend more time in the city, we decided to finish off the weekend concentrating on relaxing and preparing our packs for the upcoming hike.
Thanks so much to Gary and Maria for being amazing hosts!
Day 1: Appalachian Trail & Campsite #82
After a relaxing weekend in Georgia, we woke on Monday morning before the sun came up and got ourselves on the road to Clingmans Dome. It was a beautiful, peaceful drive through the north Georgia mountains, back into North Carolina and into Great Smoky Mountain Nation Park.
We arrived shortly after 8 a.m., alongside a handful of early risers ready for a morning hike. We did one last check of all our gear, laced up our hiking boots, adjusted our packs and set off along the Appalachian Trail, which made up the first three miles of the nearly 13 we were planning to complete that day.
We saw plenty of fellow hikers along the AT, but after we turned onto the Welch Ridge Trail, and then onto Hazel Creek, we were completely on our own. The Hazel Creek trail was beautiful, and mostly level or downhill, but it also included lots of wading through creeks. After the first few creek crossings it became harder and harder to make our way over the slippery rocks, and we started straight up fording through the water. At least it kept us cool!
We made it to our first campsite, backcountry site #82, with plenty of time to have dinner, set up camp and relax by the water.
So far so good, except for the full hiking pack we noticed already strung up on the bear wire. We expected we’d have company but since we fell asleep pretty early that night we didn’t noticed whether or not anyone showed up.
Day 2: Highs & Lows
The next morning we woke up to find the pack from our would-be neighbor still hanging there. Joe pulled it down and took a photo of the the person’s permit. We noticed that the pack was full of water, hiking boots, food – everything one would need for a few nights in the woods – but looked like it had been abandoned since the night marked on the permit, nearly a week earlier.
Unnerved, we made ourselves some coffee and packed up the site. Before setting off we walked around and shouted to see if there was anyone around who might need help. We were worried that something had spooked the backpack owner. After a few minutes of searching, however, we were satisfied that nothing was obviously amiss and we set off for the day.
The beginning of our second day was the most difficult of the whole hike. We quickly got off of Hazel Creek onto Cold Spring Gap. This trail also took us through lots of water, and many sections where the trail ran through the spring. The water wasn’t deep, but it was very rocky and hard to maneuver and balance on with a 12-pound pack. Not to mention, the entire trail was uphill, and many sections were steep. I would just get to the point where I didn’t think I could continue walking any farther, and then it would level off for a minute, just enough for me to catch my breath before angling up again.
The best part of Cold Spring Gap was the High Rocks spur trail, a slightly uphill half-mile that led to a sweeping vista overlooking the park. We dropped our packs at the intersection and strung up our food before taking the short detour. And it was worth it. Most of our trails were through mountain forests, which are serene and beautiful, but offer few lookouts from which to ascertain our place in the mass of green.
The short stint without our packs and a little lunch gave us some energy with which to continue. Shortly after we turned off of Cold Spring Gap (phew!) and onto the ominously named Bear Creek, which actually was a wide, grassy trail with little elevation, and onto Forney Creek, which was easily the most pleasant trail we encountered on our excursion. Not only was it wide and relatively level, it had bridges! No more damp socks and boots.
As we pulled into our second night at campsite #71 we observed a few rare creatures – humans! A trio of guys had set up a tent and were getting a fire started. We joined them in setting up camp, refilling our water and recounting our experiences thus far.
The campsite we were in was an old Civilian Conservation Corps site, and remnants from those days were still visible, including a large brick chimney, pipes and even an old bathtub unceremoniously dumped into a large waste pit.
While the day started off rough we went to bed to bed that night at ease and got a much better night’s sleep.
Day 3: It’s A Bear!
Our third and last day was also to be our shortest mileage – just around nine miles – and with all the downhill on the first day we knew we’d be in for more elevation climbs.
Backcountry site #71 was set at the intersection of a couple trails, so we were able to set off on Springhouse Branch directly from our tent. This was also a nice trail, well kept, if a little muddy from previous rains and horse tracks. And fairly easy, not too much climbing, at least nothing to rival Cold Spring Gap.
We lucked into another beautiful day with clear skies, and while we were glad to not be fording through anymore creeks, our water options were limited, so we made sure to fill up as we reached the end of Springhouse Branch.
Our last major trail was Forney Ridge, which we set off on after eating up the last of our Mountain House Meals. Forney Ridge was true to its name, precarious walking along a narrow trail, on your right side a steep ascent to the top of a mountain and on your left a steep descent down it with one false step. It was challenging, with sharp turns and slick rocks.
Nothing startled us more, however, than when a few miles in we heard a large animal crashing through the tree branches. We looked up to see a large 400-pound-ish black bear bounding up the mountain. Joe, crouched, looked back at me and mouthed, “That’s a bear!”
Hearts racing, we walked as fast as could, acutely aware that there was nowhere to run if we happened upon anything else. It was the quickest we completed two miles the whole hike, even considering the rough terrain, with Joe making low deep shouts as we rounded corners hoping to scare anything else off that we might come across.
After a few miles, we finally started closing in on Andrew’s Bald. Our last major marker only a few miles from where we began and a popular site for day hikers.
As we ascended we came across a family relaxing in the grass near the trail, and then more people laying under a blanket of fog. The Smokies were staying true to their name. It was comforting and cooling – both the fog and sight of so many people – no bears here!
From then on the trail got easier and busier. We passed lots of trail intersections as we made our way to where we started off two days before.
Even though it was easy terrain, the last mile felt the longest. While we were in the thick of it miles seemed to pass like finger snaps, even on the toughest elevations. Now that we were so tantalizingly close to the end, that last mile seemed to stretch on for days.
But eventually, we came to the spot where we had initially set off and back onto the Clingmans Dome trail to the parking lot.
It was a shock to exit the trail in the afternoon, when the tourist crowds were at their peak. We had a woman take our photo and dropped our packs and made one last trek – the steep half-mile up to the Clingmans Dome lookout to take in the mountain air one last time.
Before exiting the park, we stopped at the visitors center to report on our missing neighbor* at site #82 and to purchase a chocolate bar to hold us over until we could stop for lunch.
All told, despite the long days, we trekked a relatively small slice of The Great Smoky Mountains, and I would definitely return to see more. The National Park system is easily one of the United States’ greatest ideas and one of it’s most precious treasures. Joe and I take plenty of advantage of hiking areas in our neck of the woods, and we plan to continue exploring the rest of the country via these lands.
Recovering in Tennessee
We left the Smokies feeling tired but accomplished, and most importantly still in one piece. After a quick meal at Wendy’s (where we ate all the calories we lost over the last three days) we made the two-hour drive to Knoxville, where one of my best friends from college and her husband live in the coolest house with the coolest dog and the coolest jobs.
Liz asked us if we wanted to do any outdoorsy trips while we were there, but we were all outdoorsed out, and simply wanted to relax and spend some quality time with friends. So we caught up on sleep, did some laundry, enjoyed coffee on their large back deck, explored some of Knoxville’s many vintage and thrift shops and ate delicious meals at Sweet P’s BBQ and The Plaid Apron.
The best part was that we made it just in time to catch the opening week of Abridged, a new brewery in Knoxville where Josh is the brewmaster (even though it meant Josh was working most of the time, it also meant we got to hang out at a brewery). We got a tour of the building, tasted some of Josh’s creations and some of the items off their menu, all of which were incredibly tasty. If you live in Knoxville you should make a point to check this place out!
From there, we made another two-hour drive as we winded our way through the Tennessee countryside towards Dale Hollow Lake, the place which has become a haven for my family over the last decade. Every summer we haul our speedboats and jetskis down to Tennessee – usually to our favorite spot, East Port Marina – rent a houseboat and spend a whole week on the water – swimming, water skiing, wake skating and jetskiing – enjoying the sun, reading on the roof, making yummy meals and generally disconnecting.
It’s the kind of place where there’s immense beauty all around you – the glasslike water running into the lush hills, shadowed against a blue sky – and there’s nowhere you have to be besides where you already are. You wake up as the sun rises and fall in bed shortly after it goes down. The outside world rarely intrudes.
If I was a poet I would write a great many verses about Dale Hollow Lake.
But I’m not, so I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say it was a wonderful second act to an already rejuvenating trip. And now that we are back from vacation and rested, we’re ready to return to our regularly scheduled programming of house projects! Stay tuned.
*Our second day in Knoxville we were so worried and curious about the missing man that we called up the National Park Service to check on the report we had made. Apparently, the pack owner had developed “an electrolyte problem” (which we took to mean he was dehydrated) before reaching his intended campsite. So he dumped his pack at the nearest site and headed back out of the park for help. He was OK and planning to return the next week for his gear. We’re so glad that story had a happy ending!