Thursday, after I got off of work and my son got out of school, we loaded our gear into my car and headed to my buddy Benny’s (Plug it In) house. We stayed the night with him at his home, and the next morning we woke up early and drove the short distance into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park!
Benny is currently hiking his way into the GSMNP 900 Miler Club, so we decided to arrange a hike with him so that he could continue to tick off miles towards his goal (plus, the Smokies are just beautiful!) As many of our hikes go though, it didn’t exactly start off as we had planned.
We drove the famed Tail of the Dragon twice already on Friday morning before realizing that we would be driving it a third time that same morning. After dropping off one vehicle at the Twenty Mile Ranger Station, we made it to less than a mile to our starting point at Abrams Falls Campground. As we made our last turn, we found a large tree blocking the road, with no way for my little car to get around it. And while the campgrounds was only a mile or less from this point, there was no safe (or legal) place for me to leave my car either… So, we turned around, and adapted!
Another 30 minutes later, we found ourselves entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park again, at the Twenty Mile Ranger Station.
While we were initially expecting rain pretty much the entire time we were out, we were happy to be able to gear up in the dry. The patchy blue skies above were filled with puffy clouds, but at the moment, and according to the most recent weather update, the day was shaping up to look pretty good!
After hauling on our packs and checking that our car doors were locked and keys were in hand (not in the car), we began heading up the trail! The first half mile took us along a nice wide road walk that followed alongside a bubbling and rushing creek. After crossing a foot bridge the trail split, Twenty Mile continuing east, and Wolf Ridge Trail heading north. Since plans had changed, we were now heading up the Wolf Ridge Trail to campsite #13…
Immediately after turning up the Wolf Ridge Trail, we were in awe of the creek that continued to follow along side the trail. We stopped a number of times, just taking in the sound of the flowing water, and simply watching the way it flowed over, and around all the stones in its path. And yeah, we took some pictures and video too!
But, we knew we had to collect ourselves and continue to push onward! So, I gathered my gear up, and kept following the trail. It wasn’t long before we came to a section with several log foot bridges crossing back and forth, over the creek. We felt like kids in a candy store!
Soon after, we passed the intersection of the Twenty Mile Loop Trail, and then made our way to campsite #95 where we stopped for some lunch, and to top off our water bottles.
After finishing our lunch we got our packs back together, then headed in the wrong direction for a bit… The trail that we followed quickly petered out rather quickly, and we realized that we were on a path at the actual campsite, not the Wolf Ridge Trail! (Even though I had camped at this exact spot about 6 years before, I didn’t even realize it at first!) We got back on course pretty quickly though.
What I remembered about the Wolf Ridge Trail from the last time I hiked it was that it was pretty rough, however, that time it was covered in snow, so there was a disadvantage there. What I found out this time was that yes, it was still a pretty impressive climb, even in the dry! But, a couple of hours later, and we were standing on top of Parson’s Bald!
We were relieved to be at the top of Parson’s Bald. The climb for the day was now finished, and it was only a couple hundred feet below Gregory’s Bald, the highest elevation we would ultimately reach on this hike. Essentially, the hard part really was behind us at this point! So, after expressing our joy for a moment, we continued to follow the trail down towards Sheep Pen Gap, where camp site #13 is positioned, and where we would set up camp for the night.
After getting our camp made, we sat around for a bit before heading off to collect water. However, we were a bit tired from all the driving the previous day and that morning, so we didn’t waste much time before we began preparing our dinner for the night. This is when I realized what my son’s trail name would be… “Burnt Rice”! (Poor thing…)
After we finished eating and then cleaning our cooking gear, we were finally able to sit back and relax. The day was still relatively nice. The temperature was dropping noticeably, although it still wasn’t uncomfortably cold… just a little cool. Just a little after 6 everyone started making their way into their tents, and snuggling up inside their sleeping bags though! The darkness still comes a bit early… I hung out for a bit, but finally gave in and crawled into my bivy as well…
The night started out mostly clear. Before crawling into my bed I watched the stars slowly begin to punch through the ever darkening skies. As I laid down I left the front of my tarp open so that I could continue to watch the skies light the sky above us.
I don’t typically sleep very good the first couple of nights in the woods (more of a reason to get out more huh?!) I generally lay there and (even with ear plugs) listen to each and every little noise… wondering what it is. Also, this was the first night that my son slept in his own tent, which gave me more (unnecessary) reason to lie there and “worry.” Needless to say, even as tired as I was, I did not sleep much that night…
I drifted in and out of sleep over the next 12-ish hours. Sometimes when I would roll over and look out through the mesh on my bivy, I would see the stars shining bright… other times, the skies would be darker and I would see a looming fog making its way through our camp. By morning time though, the fog had won out, and it was there to stay!
Around 7:45 I finally decided to pop the valve on my NeoAir. As I sunk to the ground, I quickly noticed how cold the ground actually was… however, that didn’t matter as I had been cold through half of the night. Around 1:30 or 2 I began to get chilled, and I mostly stayed that way until I finally got up and moving around the next morning. (I blame much of this on the fact that my body simply ran out of fuel to keep me as warm as I needed.)
I decided to pack up everything first, and then sit under my tarp and prepare my breakfast. The tarp provided a bit of a wind break for me to boil water for coffee, and the little spot where my bivy laid was the only dry spot around.
After I finished eating I finished packing up my gear, and shortly after, we began our trek again. We headed east along the Gregory Bald Trail, up to Gregory Bald. We were walking in the fog, so we knew that without a doubt, we wouldn’t have the views… however, it wasn’t raining, and these thick, foggy mornings can make for a pretty awesome experience on top of these bald’s too… We were excited!
After spending about 30 minutes on top of the bald, taking photo’s and just enjoying ourselves, we pushed on. We followed the winding trail through the short bushes on top of the bald until it dumped us back out into the wooded area below the bald. Then we continued on until we reached the Long Hungry Ridge Trail.
Once we arrived at the Long Hungry Ridge Trail, we followed it south, back down into the valley. Everything that we climbed up the day before on the Wolf Ridge Trail, we were now descending back down, into the valley.
As we were about midway down the Long Hungry Ridge Trail the rain began. Slowly. Then we heard the first loud thunder! Once we heard this, we began looking for a good spot to stop and have a bite to eat before the weather got really bad. We tried to push on to campsite #92, but ended up stopping and using a fallen log along the side of the trail as a seat to stop and eat. We had already donned our rain gear, including our umbrella’s, so we ate under the halo of protection provided by the Chrome Domes!
At this point we also decided that we would go ahead and just hike on out to the car. We were booked at campsite #93 that night, but it was only 2 miles (or less) from our cars, so we didn’t feel like sitting at a rainy campsite for half the day, and all night long…. especially with the thunder we heard!
Before we made it to the end of the Long Hungry Ridge Trail, where the Twenty Mile Loop Trail, the Twenty Mile Trail intersected, Benny decided that he wanted to hike the Loop trail back to Wolf Ridge Trail and follow it back to the car. Being that I had already hiked all the trails except the short stretch of Twenty Mile Trail, I choose to hike it instead. So, at this point, he headed on, and me and the kids continued down Twenty Mile Trail.
We met a ranger walking up (from Twenty Mile Ranger Station) at the intersection. This was the first time I have met a ranger in the park that wasn’t at a trail head, or at Mt LeConte (or on the Alum Cave trail, usually coming or going to Mt LeConte). She was very polite. We talked for a bit, and she asked for our permit, which I happily handed over. Being that we were standing in the rain talking, we didn’t stand around long, and we soon continued on. A little farther down the trail we came across the only other hiker we would meet on the entire hike. He was headed north on the Twenty Mile Trail.
I found Twenty Mile Trail to be an absolutely beautiful trail that follows a creek which slowly grows in size as we continue to make our way down the mountain. We eventually crossed another wooden bridge and found campsite #93 to be right on the other side. Fro the quick look around that I took of the camp site, I gotta admit, it didn’t look like there were many good area’s to set up a tent… only 1 spot actually, and it was a mud puddle! (Maybe there were more along a side trail near the creek, but we didn’t explore it further.)
One of my favorite things about this hike though was watching my son and Benny’s son bond in the great outdoors!
It wasn’t long before we came back to the wooden bridge at Wolf Ridge Trail that we crossed over the morning before, which concluded our loop. From this point, we simply hiked the 0.5 mile road walk back to the car, where we changed back into our dry clothes. Benny showed up about 5 minutes after we arrived at the cars. After we all got changed, we headed out for a warm meal, and a dry place to sit and eat it!
However, the excitement didn’t end there… As it turns out, I drove off and left behind the Leki trekking poles my son was using, as well as the Inov-8 trail runners he was wearing. I didn’t realize it until we were about 5 miles down the road, so I turned back… only to find that the shoes were still there, but the poles were gone! After some disappointed searching, we finally left again… We met Benny headed back in our direction and when we stopped he had the poles. A ranger had found them lying on the ground and chased Benny down to return them… so thankfully, we recovered the poles… and a huge shout out to the rangers, not only at Twenty Mile, but in the entire park! Thanks for all that you do!