While many folks decided to go “Black Friday” shopping this Thanksgiving weekend, a few of us decided to #optoutside instead! In the weeks before the hike, I proceeded to go through all the motions of someone getting ready for a much-needed few days out backpacking! However, this time, it wasn’t just me I was going through the motions for… both my kids were coming along too! As well, one of my coworkers whom has never been backpacking before was going too, so we had to piece together a kit for him. And of course my good buddy Benny Braden (Plug it in on the Appalachian Trail) and his son were also coming along, so we had plenty to get arranged before the time arrived.
Eventually though, the day did (finally) come! After filling my belly with turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, pies, and all sorts of other good Thanksgiving food, I tried to get a few hours of sleep before driving the 6+ hours, some 370-ish miles away. At 3 am I drug myself out of my bed, showered, then started loading the car up with our packs. My buddy Ben met me at my home, then we all loaded up and began driving at 3:30 am (CST). After a few stops, and a few hours later, we pulled up into the Five Guys Burgers & Fries parking lot in Pigeon Forge for some pre-hike lunch!
After finishing some yummy burgers we also stopped in at Krispy Kreme and picked up a dozen donuts to carry along on the hike for some sweet treats while on the trail! After that we eked our way through the traffic in Gatlinburg (Ben had never been to this area, so I figured he would like to see what it’s all about), and then finally into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park! After a couple of twist and turns we found ourselves parking on the edge of the road near the Alum Cave Trailhead… then with no cell service, we prayed that we could find Benny and his son!
Thankfully, my son soon spotted Benny slowly driving down the road and flagged him down. He pulled into the parking area and we all loaded in his truck. After using the bathroom there at the parking area we continued east down 441 until our final stop at Newfound Gap. Boy was it busy… and smoky!
Surprisingly, we quickly spotted a parking spot and slipped in quickly. Then we all started pulling our packs on, and got ready to go!
Before we started our hike though, I picked someone out of the crowd and asked her to snap a group photo of us. I carried along the #optoutside poster that was in a recent REI catalog I received in the mail, which my daughter held. She thought it was corny… 🙂
After snapping the group photo, everyone again checked their packs and pockets, and then we began our hike. Being that my daughter was going, not to mention that since my recent back surgery I am still enjoying shorter hikes, we didn’t have a big day ahead of us. We were only heading 3 miles north along the AT and staying at Icewater Springs Shelter that night.
The smell of smoke from the Chimney Top fires burning was in the air, but only faint. However, as we began heading down the trail, the wind shifted, and we were soon in the smoke. As well, the trail was very crowded… We were often pulling aside for others to go by, or walking past others that had pulled over. This was probably one of the most crowded times I had been on the trail, but it was ok with me. It was interesting meeting so many people that decided to also spend at least some of the day outside!
Hiking out of Newfound Gap north along the AT is a bit of uphill for a couple of miles. My daughter didn’t necessarily appreciate this, however, it did mean we climbed out of the smoke that had blown through pretty quickly though!
We eventually came to a pull off on the east side of the trail that took us to our first view, which thankfully wasn’t obstructed from all the smoke, although we could still see some smoke lower down in the valleys. As usual though, the view was beautiful, and really got everyone pumped for the rest of the hike!
While here we talked with another hiker that was heading towards Kephart Shelter, and come to find out, it was his girlfriend (or wife?) that took our group photo. We eventually said our goodbyes and our little group continued pushing uphill. Some time later we came to the sign that marked the Sweat Heifer trail heading east to Kephart Shelter. We took a short break here and the hikers we spoke with earlier soon arrived. After talking a bit more we continued on. We were about half way to Icewater Springs shelter now!
The trail eventually leveled out for a bit and we arrived at the intersection of the Boulevard Trail and the Appalachian Trail. From here we only had about 0.2 miles to go to get to the shelter. My daughter was happy about this…lol!
It was a quick hike from this intersection to the shelter. When we arrived there were a few folks there already. There was a couple who had claimed a spot in the corner on the top bunk, and another hiker who had laid some gear out on the bottom of the opposite side. Most of us decided to take the remaining spots on the top bunk. We were planning to run up to Charlie’s Bunion that evening too, so we got to getting our things unpacked and set out. While we were doing this my son and Benny’s son (hereafter referred to as: “the boys”) took off to scope out the water situation…
After we got our gear all set up we took a moment to talk with others and take in some views. After this we taught Ben how to hang food using the bear lines so we could hike 0.7 miles farther north along the trail for some views from Charlie’s Bunion.
After we got all of our stuff situated we took off to Charlie’s Bunion. The water source is just north of the shelter right on the AT, which we found to be pretty much dried up. Just a little ways farther we came to another source, which is where the boys filled up later that night, although they had to go up the mountain a bit to find a better spot to collect the water from.
As we got closer and closer to Charlie’s Bunion the boys got farther and farther away. They ended up getting there before the rest of us… Along the way we stopped at random spots to take in the views, watching the smoke come and go, and the clouds roll by. Just before getting to the bunion we came across the sign indicating that it was a dangerous area and that children needed to be controlled…
The views from the Bunion were outstanding! The clouds continued to roll in, creating some really awesome backgrounds for our pictures. After crawling all over the actual bunion, the boys decided they would head up to the top of the rock just above Charlie’s Bunion. We all took turns posing for pictures, and then just take in as much of God’s beautiful glory that we possibly could…
As the first signs of darkness started to settle in, we decided to head back to the shelter. And it was perfect timing… we had the place all to ourselves the entire time we were there, but as we were leaving we met others hiking in. We said hi and continued on. By the time we got back to the shelter a few of us had turned on our headlamps. The sun had gone down and darkness was almost entirely upon us!
Walking back up to the shelter I noticed that I could see the silhouette of it against the orange sky behind it. The fires weren’t all that bad this night, but it still gave off an orange glow above it.
When we had gotten back to the shelter we retrieved our food bags and began preparing our dinners. The hiker below us had already fell asleep, and the couple on the opposite side of the top bunk were putting away their items, getting ready to lie down. It was still early, but we tried to be somewhat quiet as we went about our chores.
After finishing our meals, Ben the boys headed off to collect some more water and I began cleaning up and getting my daughter ready to crawl in her bed and warm up. By the time I got her situated and most of the kitchen gear cleaned and put away the water boys showed back up with a successful haul! The boys decided to go ahead and crawl into their beds as Ben and I finished getting our food put away and hung. As we were finally crawling into our own beds 3 other hikers showed up…
They still had to eat and get their gear sorted, and I must admit, they weren’t exactly quiet either, although I was fine with that… I was lying down to get warm and (finally) relax, not because I was tired. After some time they finally got into their own beds, however, by that time most of us were still up and talking… other’s were snoring!
I was really hoping I would sleep that night, but I didn’t get much at all. It is usually tough for me to get much sleep on the first night out, and the snoring and shuffling from everyone in the shelter didn’t help… tis shelter life though! Come 4 am I awoke from a light sleep to go pee… When coming back in the shelter I noticed some of the late hikers from the night before was also up, and soon after began getting up and packing up… loudly.
There was no going back to sleep for me. I laid there awake while they got their stuff back together. After they left the other hiker below us was also up, so around 6-ish I decided to get up. I had to cook breakfast for me and the kids, then pack all our stuff up so I needed to get things going anyway.
For breakfast I decided to carry in a half-dozen eggs (my first time ever!) and some (pre-cooked) sausage patties. I broke the sausage up into pieces and then scrambled the eggs with them. Then I scooped some into tortilla shells and sprinkled some shredded cheese over the tops… It was the best breakfast I have ever had on the trail! 🙂
After we ate I began cleaning the cooking kit and then began getting our things together so I could begin packing our things up. But first, I enjoyed the last half of my coffee while taking in the morning views! I missed the sunrise, but it was still beautiful, and I was happy to be there… especially with my family and some good friends! God is good!!
Very surprisingly, by 8:30 am I had gotten everything packed back up and we were actually on the trail!
The night before the temperatures had dropped to 31 F according to my Suunto Core watch. On top of that, the wind was really ripping it! Thankfully there was a tarp hanging over the front of the shelter though, which did a great job at keeping the wind out. However, the next morning while walking down the trail, the wind was in our face and against out body. It was cold, and my daughter wasn’t too happy about it.
We hiked south along the AT back to the Boulevard Trail. We were only hiking to the other end of it that day, which terminated on Mt LeConte, where we were staying that night (at the shelter, not the lodge… it officially closed the day before Thanksgiving). However, we planned to take the spur trail (off the Boulevard Trail) to The Jump Off first. As many times as I had been in this area, I never made it all the way to the Jumpoff, but this time was going to be different!
Midway up the spur trail to the Jumpoff though, my daughter had a break down. Her fingers and toes were “frozen”, despite the hand warmers, gloves and mittens she was wearing. It was cold, and the wind wasn’t helping. My heart broke when she hung her head and I could hear the tears in her voice… I tried to be encouraging, caring and stern at the same time. I tried to explain to her that she had to keep going to get the blood pumping, which would make her warm again… She didn’t want to, but she knew she had no other choice.
Thankfully a little farther up the spur trail we came to a spot that blocked the wind, and the sun was shining on. We stood there for a few minutes and she slowly began recollecting herself. By the time we made it to the actual Jump Off she was still trying to finish pulling herself together, but the views, and the happiness on everyone else’s faces helped her to push through I think… She smiled again, and my heart melted. We took in the views together. God is so good!!
After we all had our fill (not really… we just knew we had to get going) we headed back to the Boulevard Trail. Once again, my daughter and I stopped in the warm spot for a bit and she soaked in the warmth a little more. After we were all back on the Boulevard Trail we continued heading west, about 5 more miles towards Mt LeConte.
Throughout the day we met several other hikers, but not near as many as we did the day before on the AT. As the morning turned to afternoon, Benny and his son pulled away from us as we were hiking a little slower to accommodate my daughter. As noon drew nearer we decided to stop in a sunny spot and have some lunch.
We spent about 25 minutes just taking it easy and enjoying some turkey jerky and string cheese wraps! (It really was good and will likely become a staple in my backpacking meal plans.) After we finished we got back up, slung our packs back on, and continued on…
Not much farther along we could see and exposed part of the trail coming up. As well, at this point, the trail really began to climb again. It was tough on my daughter, but she pulled through like a champ! Then, just before we came to the exposed part of the trail, the trail took a turn behind a mountain where it was a bit cooler. There was plenty of moss with some icicles on the side of the trail that was interesting… I stopped to take pictures as the rest of the group continued on.
I caught back up with them just before they came to the exposed part of the trail. At this point I rushed ahead of them to take some video of them coming out. While playing with my camera they all took a seat to rest from the long climb up to this point. I snapped a few photos of them… And then I took in the views, and a few more pictures!
After a bit we all got going again, and it wasn’t long until we came to the top of Mt LeConte! As we were coming off the Boulevard Trail we met up with Benny and his son coming down the spur trail from Myrtle Point. From here the boys took off, and the rest of us hiked as a group again for a short distance. As we came to the cairn at the summit of Mt LeConte I noticed my belly was rumbling… I took a few photo’s and then decided I had better keep going.
Just a short ways down the trail from the summit the trail opens up to a really nice view. At this point I realized that I didn’t have time to stop and take in the views. I had somewhere else I needed to be, so while Benny, Ben and my daughter stopped for a bit, I pushed on…
When I arrived at the shelter the boys were sitting on the bench at the front of the shelter, and the hiker from the night before was there too. I immediately threw my pack off and hit the privy! Shew… it was a great site for my ole eyes!
After I finished my business I headed back to the sheltered began unpacking our packs. I decided to take a bottom bunk to make packing up the next morning a bit easier. When my daughter and the boys got back from getting water I asked them where they wanted to sleep… of course they said top, so I got everything else unpacked and set up. At this point I decided to go ahead and cook some muffins. I figured it would be a good midday snack, and it was still early enough to do so before we headed to Cliff Tops to watch the sun set. Plus, I wouldn’t have to do it after the sun set! So, I got to baking!
I baked a Triple Berry muffin for the kids first. They dug into it rather quick like!
After that, I baked a Banana Nut Muffin for the adults. By this time a few others had shown up at the shelter, so I decided to split it up 6 ways to share.
All in all, the muffins turned out great, and all those that had some enjoyed them!
After I finished baking I started cleaning everything up so I could hang it while we were gone. The rest of the group went ahead and headed to Cliff Tops and I met them there a little later. As I headed out for Cliff Tops I realized that in my rush to get there I still hadn’t taken any video or photo’s of the shelter, so I went ahead and did so then.
The view from Cliff Tops was outstanding, as usual. The smoke from the Chimney Tops fire was low in the valley, and there were few clouds in the sky to obstruct a good sunset. As the sun continued to get closer and closer to setting we all just enjoyed our time hanging out at Cliff Tops. After we watched the sun set we sat around a little longer, then headed back… I still had to prepare our dinner, clean, and get everyone ready for bed!
After we ate, and got everything put away and hung, we began getting ready to crawl into bed. We were expecting a much colder night than the night before, however, the wind had died almost all the way down. There was very little wind to speak of, which was great!
The next morning, breakfast was going to be simple: pop-tarts with coffee/hot cocoa. So, to make sure all our water didn’t freeze up and not be able to use it, I poured some in my cook pot and let it sit overnight. This way, at least if it did freeze, I could still heat it over my stove.
As I was getting ready to climb into my bed one of the other hikers showed back up. He stayed at Cliff Tops after we left and watched the fire burning on Chimney Tops before coming back to the shelter. He suggested that we go look at it too, so Benny, Ben and I donned our headlamps and hiked back up to Cliff Tops.
The views really were amazing. The fire burning at Chimney’s was noticeable, but looked rather small. This was likely due to the lack of much wind. As well, the lights from Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and the other surrounding cities were shining bright! We even saw the space needle in Gatlinburg thing bright purple! We stood there for about 15 or 20 minutes in amazement before we headed back to the shelter for the night.
When we got back we all pulled into our beds for the night. By 8 pm or so the shelter was actually pretty quiet… I stuffed my ear plugs in and actually got some really good sleep that night!
I woke up before sunrise the next morning, but again, instead of watching the sun rise, I headed out and retrieved the food bags, then began heating the water I poured into my cook pot the night before. Next I set out the pop-tarts and poured the coffee and cocoa into our cups. While waiting for the water to boil I woke the kids and got them up and moving. Soon after we were drinking hot coffee/cocoa and eating frozen pop-tarts!
Being that breakfast was a little more simple this morning, it didn’t take me as long to clean everything and get it all packed up. My son slept with the watch on, so when I got it from him to check the temperature it read 85 F! He musta slept warm anyway… lol! By the time the watch sat out for about 30 minutes it read 31 F. Being that the sun had been up for about an hour at this point, I figured it was safe to say the temperature actually dropped down into the high 20’s the night before. After reading the report at High On LeConte for that night though, I realized it actually dropped down to 23 F! However, since the wind was still basically non-existent, it actually felt warmer than the night before.
As we headed out that morning we stopped by the lodge to take some photo’s. We again took this opportunity to take some more group shots of us with the #optoutside poster!
We had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we didn’t spend too long at the shelter. Of course too, everything was locked down since they had closed a few days before, so we got moving again pretty quickly. Once we got on the Alum Cave Trail the boys once again took off (they were actually doing some running). We instructed them to wait on us at the bluffs though.
As it usually goes, I know we have to be somewhere, but walking a beautiful trail is tough to do in a hurry… Benny and my daughter ended up moving along a little faster than Ben and myself, but we pretty much stayed together as a loose knit group. Since this entire trip was Ben’s first time backpacking, and first time in this area, I was trying to fill him in on all the little facts and details I had come across over the years… and of course we stopped to take in each little view, and snap a few photo’s too!
Hiking down the trail we also got several good views of Chimney’s burning. It was sad to see… 😦
We did eventually make it to the bluff’s, and yes, the boys were there waiting on us. They said they had been there about 20 minutes already, and thought it would be another 20 minutes before we made it (oh… to be young!) We took a few minutes to take in the bluffs themselves, as well as some of the new work done to the area, and then we continued on.
Once we left the boys again took off. Emily knew we were getting close so she decided she would go with the boys too… It didn’t take long for us to come around a corner and see them standing there, and my son informed me that she wanted to hike with us since they were going to fast. So at that point my daughter stayed back with us and the boys yet again darted off!
As we dropped in elevation we had come back into the smoke from the fire’s. It wasn’t difficult to breathe in, but we could definitely smell it, and it obstructed some of our views to some degree’s.
As we got even lower in elevation, Ben and I slowed down a bit. We knew time was drawing near for the hike to end, and we wanted to take sin as much as we could before we finished. As well, the scenery changed quite a bit. We soon came to Arch Rock, which is awesome in itself, but then the trail finishes out following the large creeks, with a few log bridges crossing over it. We stopped and took several photo’s along the way…
As we got closer to the end of the trail, we began meeting more and more hikers. Then before we knew it, we heard traffic… then we saw parked cars through the trees, and then we crossed over the last bridge. The sign on the other side of the bridge noted that the trail we just finished was the Alum Cave Trail, and that we were now back at the parking area.
When Ben and I hiked back out into the parking area, we saw the rest of our group huddled around my car on the side of the road. We walked up and then got our things put away inside the car. At that point, me, Benny and my daughter piled into my car and headed back to Newfound Gap to get Benny’s truck. After that we headed back to the Alum Cave parking area and picked up Ben and the boys.
When leaving the park we drove right beside Chimney Tops. It was hard to look at it with the smoke rising from the top. I snapped one final picture from the car as we were leaving the park…
We then all met up at the Smoky Mountain Brewery for some lunch and a beer before heading our separate ways back home…
It is beyond sad to see what became of the GSMNP and the surrounding area’s so fast after we left. It is truly heartbreaking to see the tragedy taking place at this very moment. It is hard to imagine that the “small” fire that we stood on Cliff Tops and watched burning that Saturday night is now so large and deadly. I know both homes and businesses have been lost, and it’s still not over… My prayers go out to all those involved, and for the land itself to recover soon!