My wife and just got back last night from a much-needed “vacation.” Over the course of this vacation, we visited the small towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Chimney Rock and (most favorably) Hot Springs, NC. We did a day hike to Chimney Tops, a 4 day loop through the northern section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (which this post will be about) and an overnight camping experience on the windy bald known as Max Patch (I will post about this later). So, to start with, here are the pics:
Day 1: We drove from the hotel we stayed at the night before in Gatlinburg to the Cosby Campgrounds. Once we turned onto the road leading to the campgrounds we passed the old Gunter graveyard on the right hand side of the road. We stopped and I got out and took some pictures. Brandy decided to sit in the truck. After this we drove on further down the road and we stopped at the bathroom to use the last real bathroom for the next few days. I must say that these bathrooms were very clean, much more so than I expected. After we filled these needs we dropped off a copy of our permit at the ranger station and parked the truck. We got our packs out and pulled them on. Then we took off.
We began our hike by following a creek along Low Gap Trail. This trail is 2.9 miles long from the campgrounds to the top, which is Low Gap, where it meets and actually crosses over the AT. The trail begins at 2200 feet and constantly climbs the 2.9 miles to the top, which is 4250 feet. Basically, it was a lot of uphill, but that’s ok because we were fresh and excited!
We quickly crossed over 2 log bridges after leaving out. Then the trail weaved back and forth coming closer to the creek and then going farther away. After about 3/4 of a mile the trail turned away from the creek for the last time. We soon started going back and forth on the switch backs, however these didn’t last long. After a few of the switchbacks the trail began circling around the mountains and then jumping from this mountain to that one. It did not take us long until we decided to break out the Subway sandwich we carried in with us for our first lunch. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed Subway so much…
After our lunch we started back up the mountain again, and soon realized that we were nearly to the top anyway. At the top we talked with a nice couple for a while and were thankful that we got to rest again. From here we just had to climb the AT 0.8 miles to reach our first shelter!
We came to the side trail leading to Cosby Knob Shelter, thankfully. As we walked up to the shelter I expected to be greeted by others since when I made the reservations we filled the last open spots in the shelter. However, the shelter was empty. Fine with us. We quickly claimed the best looking spots and began the process of making our spots comfy. I was excited, I finally got to use my new Marmot Helium Sleeping Bag and with my new NeoAir! After we made our beds we refilled and treated our water in our Camelbaks. Then I collected the water I would need to cook with. Thankfully the water source was about 20 feet off the side of the shelter. Even came out of a PVC pipe sticking out of the ground! Sweet.
After this we collected firewood and got everything else settled in. Around 5:00 I decided to go ahead and cook, which was actually just boiling water and adding it to the Mountain House bag. Still no one showed up. We finished eating and cleaned up and then hung the bear bag. Then I went ahead and got a little fire going so that m wife could warm up.
As night came no one else ever showed up and we realized that the shelter was all ours for the night. This was fine, except that it made me a little restless since this shelter was currently be routinely visited by the “Red Tag Bear.” According to the log book left in the shelters, about a month and a half ago, the rangers had tranquilized a bear that had been hanging in and around the shelter. Once tranquilized, the rangers tagged the bears ear with a red marker. Then they watched the bear as it woke back up and ran back off into the forest. This was written by a hiker staying at the shelter as it happened. Since then the bear has obviously gotten back into the habit of frequenting the shelter. So, as we laid there I grabbed one of the (many) shovels and laid it next to me. Banging it against the stone wall of the shelter should make a lot of noise, you know, just in case…
Day 2: Morning came, and as far as we could tell, no bear came around. Our only visitor the night before was that of a mouse that freaked my wife out as it was crawling up the wall beside her! Later in the night I did feel him crawling up my arm which I quickly shook him off. He was not heard from again that night…
So, we got up, brushed our teeth and made breakfast. Once we got woke up we got our packs packed back up and bid farewell to the shelter.We headed back up to the AT via the side trail to the shelter and then began our trek for the day. Today we had 7.6 miles to go in order to reach our next destination, Tricorner Knob.
As we began our hike away from the shelter on the AT, we quickly came to a campsite that some volunteers had set up. It was interesting to me because I had never seen anything like it. Their set-up was completely surrounded by 2 well spaced strands of electrical fence. As I approached the camp site my wife told me that maybe I shouldn’t go near it. However, I was curious, there were various tarps and tents set-up and I just wanted to check them out. Of course I never went over the fence. So, we continued our hike up the AT…
This day was a very pretty day and the temperatures felt pretty good as well. We came across some very nice views and was rewarded with some pretty colors. A lot of the trees were still green, however, looking out at the “big picture” we say some yellows, oranges, and some reds as well as the greens. Very nice indeed. Considering that today, 2/3 of the trail for us was uphill, it turned out to be a really easy day. The elevation was nowhere near as much as the day before, and we actually had views! Plus we felt pretty refreshed.
Along the trail we came across plenty of fresh bear scat, but at this point never seen an actual bear. We passed a point in which it is said that years ago a plane crashed into the mountain and saw pieces of shrapnel lying around. Pretty cool. Then we came to the point where Snake Den Ridge trail veered off of the AT which headed back down to Cosby Campgrounds and decided that this was a nice place to take a lunch break. We also found that just a few steps sown the Snake Den Ridge trail was yet another fresh pile of scat. Oh well, we ate and was merry.
After we ate we headed up the AT, anticipating reaching Mt Guyot, the Smokies second highest mountain, as well as the only mountain east of the Mississippi that could not be accessed by a vehicle. This mountain stands 6,621 feet above sea level, however the trail only skirted around the top of the mountain at 6,300 feet, never truly reaching Mt Guyot’s summit.
Just as we were getting close to Mt Guyot, the trail opened up beautifully at the Deer Gap Creek Helipad. Talk about a panoramic view, it was beautiful. No picture could ever capture this, and it was one of my favorite views from the whole trip. Standing here in this opening Mt Guyot was clearly visible, and we could easily imagine the trail as it went up and around, spitting us out nearly at our destiny.
Once we started going down hill, we knew that we were close to Tricorner knob, and we were. We showed up to the shelter within about 15 or 20 minutes after standing nearly at the top of Mt Guyot. And yet again, we arrived to an empty shelter. So, in routine, we made our beds, collected water and then waited around to see if anyone would show up. And surprisingly enough, about 30 minutes after settling down 4 guys hike in. Three brothers, and a friend. Then about an hour and a half later a single hiker hiked in.
The brothers were pretty cool. We listened to them argue about cleaning a dirty water filter, and then were astonished at all the Jet Boils that broke out. They made my White Box Stove and my GSI Kettle look tiny, but they got their water boiled! The last hiker had eaten a cold meal and then climbed into his sleeping bag for a little relaxation.
Night came, and I watched as the brothers (and friend) maintained the fire. The wood was wet and took continuous maintenance. The man beneath us began to snore and my wife stole my ear plugs. The temperatures dropped a little lower this night than it did the night before. However, I had read that Tricorner Knob was on average, the coldest of all shelters in the Smokies. (Another interesting fact is that Tricorner Knob Shelter is the most remote shelter of all the shelters in the Smokies.)
Day 3: Yet again, we had no known visitors this night. We awoke to the sound of the brothers rummaging around getting stuff together and breakfast made. They had a long hike out that day and wanted to get a fairly early start. The man below us also began to get his stuff together shortly after. He however did not eat a breakfast, but rather packed up and took off. I believe that he had an even longer day.
After watching them a while I decided to get up and brush my teeth. Then I started to boil my water and then began getting all my gear back together and in its appropriate stuff sack so that it would be ready to pack up shortly after breakfast. Our hike today was a rather modest hike. Today would not really be much elevation gain, or even drop for that matter. We were hiking out of Tricorner Knob via the Balsam Mountain Trail which follows a ridge all the way to Laurel Gap Shelter.
We were the last ones to leave the shelter, about 15 minutes behind the brothers. We hiked the short 0.1 mile back up the AT to get to the Balsam Mountain Trail, then we began our hike for the day. I immediately noticed 2 things about this trail. 1. It was not as well-traveled as the AT, and was a little more grown up, and 2. There were cob webs weaving back and forth everywhere, and I mean everywhere. About every 50 – 100 feet I would stop to try to get all the cob webs off of my face and arms. After about 2 miles I was kind of getting sick of it…
We didn’t really have many good views from the trail, however, the trees were not too thick to completely block out views. We just never got any good open views. Of course all the cob webs in my face probably kept me from really seeing much anyway… About half way down the trail I met the only group of hikers I met on the trail this day. It was a group of four, and the guy at the end promptly as me if I was Stick, to which I replied “I am. Are you Hiker01?” and he replied “yes.” (A member of the Backpacker.com forums.) We talked for a little bit, then went on our own separate ways. It is very cool meeting people who you know from the forums on the trail. Of all the places to recognize someone you don’t really know to begin with… Neat.
Anyway, my wife and I stopped here and had a quick snack. We were anticipating arriving at the shelter early today, since we were already half way there and the rest of the way was pretty much down hill. After our hike we hiked on. We came to the junction where Gunther Fork Trail turned off, which would be our trail the next day. From here we hiked 0.9 miles farther to the Mt Sterling Trail. From here we hiked 0.3 miles farther to reach the Laurel Gap Shelter. The bad thing about the last part of this hike was that every step we took, we knew we would have to take again the next day, but hey, we were here to hike!
We quickly arrived at the shelter. The shelter was in an opening with a grassy field to one side, and a huge blackberry patch behind it. The trail continued right down the middle of this trail. Of course when we arrived, we were the only ones yet again. So, again with the process of unpacking and getting beds made.
As seen from the video, this shelter is one of the older shelters in the park which still have the chain link fence up across the front. This fence has recently been removed from the front of the shelters which are found on the AT because (from what I have heard / read) people would stand inside the shelters and feed the animals (bears) through the fence. The park decided that it would be safer to just remove the fence so people would stop being stupid…
Anyway, about 30 minutes after we settled in and I hiked down the mountain to fetch some water, I heard a noise approaching the shelter from behind. My first thoughts was that it was a bear! I felt a nerve twitch, and I wondered what I would do if a bear came rolling around the corner… and then I saw a horse… Shew, haha…
Four horseman (ok, 2 men and 2 women) rode up to the hitching post to tie their horses off. After speaking with them, they were riding in for a quick lunch and then heading back down the trail. So, we sat there and watched the horses eating grass, and my wife talked about how cool it would be to go horseback riding…
As soon as the horses were out of sight, a young man and a woman hiked around the corner. We were not going to have the shelter to ourselves after all, which was fine. The couple were very nice and friendly. We talked about gear for a while and he showed me his homemade alky stove a Heiny pot. However, as he was about to start heating some water for a hot drink, well the rain came.
Five minutes after the rain started another couple hiked in, not quite soaked, but definitely wet. So, the 6 of us sat there the rest of the night talking of trips from Alaska to Turkey, Glacier National Park to Yosemite NP to Yellowstone NP. My wife and I listened in awe as they told there storied of hiking in all of these great places we have only dreamed about so far.
Then out of no where we had a visitor. A bat was flying around our heads. We all shined our headlamps towards it and it landed on the rocky wall and then quickly climbed through the shallow opening between the top of the rocks and the underside of the roof. The bat made one other appearance that we are aware of later that night. Finally, everyone climbed into their sleeping bags and talk died down and we drifted off to the sound of the rain hitting the top of the shelter…
Day 4: When we woke up the rain had stopped, and the flooded area on the ground had drained of the standing water, however, it was still somewhat muddy. This with the fact that the bottom bunk was so short made packing difficult, however after breakfast it was done. We took pics of the other couples and had them take our pics and then we all headed out again.
We rehiked the 1.2 miles back to the Gunther Fork trail to begin our hiking for the day. This was going to be another fairly easy day, The 4.1 mile Gunther Fork trail was all downhill, as well as passed a nice waterfall and had multiple creek crossings, the last one in which would require wading across! After this we would hike 1 more mile to Campsite # 37 for the night. This was my most anticipated hiking day!
The beginning of the Gunther Fork Trail was the same as the Balsam Mountain Trail, somewhat overgrown and full of cobwebs. This trail began descending rather quickly though. Also at points the trail was difficult to pass because of washouts. The cascades weren’t til the middle of the trail and by the time I reached them, my anticipation of this trail had quickly dissolved. However, once we reached the Cascades, that all changed.
The cascades was beautiful. The waterfall was way up the mountain and the forest grew around this waterfall to make a large tunnel that only enhanced the beauty of the waterfall. After the water ran off the falls, it then cascaded down a large smooth rocky slide. If I was a kid, I would have wanted to climb to the top and slide down, but my age told me that it probably wouldn’t end as well as I would like to think…
After this the forest seemed to open up. Huge, tall hardwood trees surrounded us. The leaves were a golden-yellow, and it truly seemed magical. The ground was pretty much clear rather than tangled with brush, except for the fallen yellow leaves. It was beautiful. The last 2 miles of the Gunter Fork trail has probably been the nicest trail that I have hiked in so far. We did in fact cross the creek about 8 times, however, the boulders allowed us to boulder hop across. (And the times that I did get my feet in was great too because I was able to test the GoreTex lining in my boots.)
We came to the end of the trail, and to the large creek that needed wading across. However, I thought that I would be able to boulder hop this one as well. And I did, at one point I almost fell in, but hey, I made it. Once across I looked back and told my wife that she had better wade across rather than be foolish like I was… Once she crossed we hiked the remaining 200 yards or so to the end of the trail and headed down Camel Gap trail towards campsite # 37.
As we came to campsite # 36 which is about a half mile from # 37 we came across lots of fresh bear scat. Then upon arriving at # 36 we found signs that stated that this campsite was now closed due to an aggressive bear. This site was not closed a few days ago when I had checked the site, so it had to be closed in the last day or so. This made me a little worried. We hiked the short distance to # 37 and saw no one. I had already decided that I did not want to stay the night. I had a bad feeling, and I was going with my urges, so we had a lunch, and then decided to add-on another 5.4 miles to our already 6.5 mile hike.
So, we headed up the other side of the Low Gap Trail. This side as not as aggressive as the other side, but still it was not easy. We climbed from 2900 feet to 4250 feet in the 2.5 miles of trail. The trail on this side was rather rocky though, and made our feet hurt.And to make things worse, the sky suddenly grew dark, and looked as if the bottom of the clouds were about to fall out
We climbed the trail, and an hour and a half later arrived at the top on the AT. We stopped for a quick snack, and then headed back down the other side of the 2.9 mile Low Gap Trail to the Cosby Campgrounds. We gained a new sense of respect after hiking down the trail that we initially hiked up. Something about holding yourself back as you are going down, really makes you appreciate the steepness of the mountain you climbed… at least it did for me.
So, we finally made it back to the Campgrounds and loaded up our packs in the back of our truck. We drove back to the bathrooms at the campgrounds and went in and got a little cleaned up before heading into Hot Springs for the night.