My son and I, along with a few others, were invited on a day hike with my buddy Benny Braden (aka: Plug-It In) last weekend (March 18th, 2017). Now as some may have seen in many of my previous trip reports, Benny and I have been hiking together for a little while now, but this hike wasn’t one of our ordinary hikes… this was the finish to Benny’s “#fastestgsmnp900miler” hike! See, on a hike last Thanksgiving in the Great Smoky Mountain’s National Park, while sitting atop Cliff Tops watching the sun set one night, he talked about wanting to hike all 900 miles of the park. Little did I know that in less than a mere 4 months, I would be hiking with him on his last 20 mile stretch of that conversation!
Last Friday, my son and I drove to Pigeon Forge and met up with Benny, which was in his parked truck in a Kroger parking lot. He had already completed 2 smaller hikes that day and had went by the grocery store to pick up a few items, and it was also a convenient place for us to meet up. After I arrived, we then headed to Laurie Trower’s home, another hiker that Benny had actually met on a previous hike. She is a trail angel who routinely does trail magic in the park, and she extended that same magic to us by letting us all meet up and “camp out” in her yard overnight. She even brought a stack of pizza’s and Little Debbie snacks for us to munch on too! She was a very kind lady, and we enjoyed talking with her, and very much appreciated her hospitality!
As the day turned to night, the others trickled in. First it was Tim and his wife Lori, then shortly after Jeff pulled up right behind them. They got their vehicles parked and greeted our host for the night, then we all caught up with one another. Despite the storm that was blowing in that night, Tim went ahead and slung his hammock and tarp up in some of the trees while the rest of us made our beds inside our vehicles… we needed to be up by 4 am the next morning, and the rest of us didn’t really feel like tearing down wet tents in the rain! Soon after, we had retreated to our “beds” and tried to settle in for a short night of rest…
As expected, both my son and I tossed and turned most of the night… sleeping in a car is rough! Despite the long night, before we knew it, the alarm on my son’s phone went off and we turned the overhead light on and began getting ready for the hike. I noticed a light next to us, which was Jeremy. He had gotten in later in the night and was parked right next to us. Thankfully we all had cell service and was able to communicate via messenger rather than getting out in the rain. Once we had all gotten ready, we headed our… but not before I realized that my car was stuck and had to get it pushed out! Lol…
We had planned to stop and grab some breakfast from somewhere that morning… after all, we had to drive right down the strip that runs through both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. And wouldn’t you know it, at 4:30 am on a Saturday, just about everything was closed! We ended up stopping in at a Pilot gas station and made do. After that, we headed to the Sugarland Visitor Center!
It was here that we would finish our hike, so we left a few cars in the parking area, met up with our last member Dewey, then loaded into Jeff and Tim’s trucks and headed to the Trillium Gap trail head. We arrived at the trailhead a few minutes after 6 am, just as planned. We climbed out of the vehicles and slung our rain gear and our packs on. Thankfully, while it was still raining, and would be for another hour and a half or so, it wasn’t that bad. As well, the temperature was just barely cool, around 50F. And thanks to the recent time change, it was dark, so we donned our headlamps. This was about the time that I realized I had left my Gatorade bottle in my car, back at Sugarland’s… Thankfully, Tim had a Dasani water bottle rolling around in the back of his truck… I took it!
And then we were off…
The plan was simple. We would begin by hiking up the Trillium Gap trail to the Mt LeConte Lodge. Once there, we would take a lunch break inside the dining hall, and then follow the Rainbow Falls Trail back down to the Old Sugarland Trail. We expected to be there around 1:30 or so, and would be meeting up with a new’s reporter that was interviewing Benny there. Once this was done we would then hike down the Old Sugarland’s Trail, finishing up back at the Sugarland’s Visitor Center. And this is pretty much how it went…
I was excited about this hike for a number of reasons… that I was able to join my friend on the finale of such a huge experience, as well as the rest of the group, many who I haven’t seen in a while. And of course that I was simply able to get out and hike again, even if only for the day! I was actually excited about the rainy, yucky weather we would have that morning, as well as the fact that as many times as I have been to Mt LeConte (this was my 6th trip), I had never been up either Trillium Gap or Rainbow Falls. With this hike under our belt, both my son and I have now taken every possible route to the top of Mt LeConte (this was my son’s 4th visit). I was also super excited that we were getting to see some waterfalls on this hike! I hadn’t been to Grotto Falls since around 2010, so it was good getting to relive that memory, and of course I had never seen Rainbow Falls. So, as we followed along the wet trail from the parking area, by the light of 8 bouncing headlights, I had a smile on my face… and I think everyone else did too!
We arrived at Grotto Falls around 7:30 that morning. We first heard the sound of the water bursting out over the edge of the falls, then crashing down the creek that the trail followed! The creeks were quite swollen from all the rain and snow that the park had recently gotten, which made for an impressive display, even in the low light of the morning. As we walked up closer to the falls, I could feel the wind coming from all of the water gushing over the falls pushing against my body, and I could feel the earth rumbling below my feet as the water smashed into the shallow pool below the falls. This is the only waterfall in the park that one can walk behind, but due to the abundance of water and the recent cold snap, the normally dry walkway was covered by about a foot of water and thick slabs of melting ice. It was a beautiful experience, and I feel Grotto Falls really amped up our excitement!
After taking some time (and photo’s/video) at the falls, we pushed on. After all, we did have an itinerary to keep…
The next few miles were typical. We continued hiking up the slow, gradual climb, which ultimately would reach Mt LeConte. It seemed that with every step though, more and more water was flooding the trails. Even though the rain had reached its end, it soon turned into one of the wettest trails I have ever hiked along. It was literally a small stream, worthy of easily collecting water from anytime I needed any, and on top of that, the water was getting colder and colder as we were getting higher and higher up the mountain!
There were several, normally small, stream crossing along the trail, however, with all the excess water, several of these streams almost demanded us to dunk our foot, or feet, into the water in order to cross. Sure, many are still somewhat easy to cross without completely submerging our feet, but what the heck… my feet were already wet from the streams flooding the trail, and besides, even if it was 20+ miles that day, this was still only a day hike, which meant I had dry clothes and shoes in my car at the finish! So, why not… I plowed right through the streams, purposely dunking my feet, each step that I could! 🙂
The air around us was generally foggy from all the moisture in the air, and even though the rain had stopped, there was still plenty of water falling from the trees and the leaves from above us. Despite all of this though… I felt so excited it was like I was dancing down the trail!
After several miles we came to a fork in the trail, but kept going up, towards Mt LeConte. At this point, our feet was pretty much soaked and starting to get pretty cold. The snow and ice along the sides of the trail was increasing in frequency, which was also making the water flowing down the trail colder. We were expecting to meet up with “Pnut” (one of the lodges caretakers) that was waiting on Benny to come by, and we would be able to actually go into the dining hall to get out of the weather for a minute and have a lunch break. Knowing this, and the fact that we were on somewhat of a time schedule, we pushed up the last few miles to LeConte a bit more hurriedly… but still happily!
As we got closer to the top, Benny and I fell back behind the group a bit, talking about his last few months on the trail, and life in general. It was great being able to hang out with Benny again, and especially on this, his last and final hike. I could tell he was tired, and as he said, ready to sleep in his own bed again, but I could see it in him, he was loving this to the bone…
As we rounded a bend on the trail, we came across a huge frozen wall. We both stopped and stared in awe. It was amazing… As we eked closer and started snapping some photo’s and video, we heard Jeff yelling from around the corner that he was going to snap some photos of us as we came around.
Tim, Lori, Dewey and Jeremy arrived at the shelter shortly before the rest of us. As we hiked up to the lodge, Pnut was walking out of one of the doors and came and greeted Benny with a huge congratulations hug! After a brief moment we made our way into the warm lodge, greeted a few of the other caretakers as well as some other hikers. Then we found the rest of our group, nestled around a large heater… shoes off, socks laid out on top of the heater, and biscuits in their mouths and hands! It was glorious!
We sat here for a good while, but knew we couldn’t stay. We still needed to hike down the Rainbow Falls trail to the Old Sugarland’s Trail to meet some new reporters by around 1:30. So, we finished our lunches, and then we retrieved our sizzling socks from the top of the heater and slid them back on our feet… of course they were still mostly wet, but they were warm! After we got everything packed back up, a few of us stepped out onto the back porch/balcony of the dining hall, and much to our surprise found that the skies were clearing, the sun was shining, and we could see clearly right into Gatlinburg, and even Pigeon Forge!
We left out the front door of the dining hall, and followed the steps all the way to the top. We turned and looked back at the lodge one more time, and then pressed on…
We soon came to another fork in the trail, this time one trail was the Alum Cave Trail and the other Rainbow Falls. Here, I have made a left every time, except this time! I was excited… not only was I hiking down the last trail that leads to Mt LeConte that I hadn’t hiked before, but it was also all downhill!
The sun was out by this time, and at times, it was even warm, although, the trails were still very wet. It wasn’t long before our just kinda wet socks were sopping wet again. There were a couple of small streams that we crossed again, but nothing major (and to be fair, I could have hopped across these without completely submerging my feet, but where’s the fun in that?!)
As we continued to descend Mt LeConte, we passed through a large area that had been hit by the fire pretty bad. It was a bit eerie walking though this area. All the trees that were still standing were black, even some of the rocks were black!
As we got closer to the bottom of the trail we found that the streams were getting larger, and eventually we were actually standing at the base of Rainbow Falls. It was amazing… and we also started meeting more and more people from this point on!
Once we got near the bottom of the mountain, the trail started following along-side a large creek. The woods surrounding this area were also devastated by the recent fires. Again, it was unlike any other area I had hiked in. Everything was so open, and while there was still green in some places, the majority of the landscape was black.
We ended up arriving at the junction of the Rainbow Falls Trail and the Old Sugarland’s Trail about 15 minutes later than we expected, however, as soon as we arrived we found a reporter with a large camera set up. He began taking some shots of Benny, and then fitted him with a mike. Once this was done he began following us along the trail and asking Benny questions about his adventure.
The reporter followed us for a short period of time, and then set his camera back up and finished the first part of his interview with Benny. Once he was finished up, he removed the mike from Benny, and then we continued down the Old Sugarland Trail.
I have got to say, I always noticed the Old Sugarland’s Trail head on 441 near the visitor center, but for some reason, I just expected it to be a worn down, maybe even somewhat unmaintained trail. Boy was I wrong! For much of the trail, it was actually a wide, gravel road (as seen in the photo above). Once it did turn into a smaller trail, it was still quite wide, and well maintained. As well, there are still several old stone walls (from the CCC) scattered throughout the woods along the trail. I enjoyed seeing these remnants, like a 3D piece of history, frozen in time! As well, I even got to see the old CCC clock tower! It was very interesting!
The crowd waiting at the end of the trail was told that we would be arriving around 3, however, as it turned out, it looked like we would arrive closer to 3:30 instead. So, at this point, Jeremy volunteered to run ahead the remaining 2.5 miles and inform those waiting that we were still on our way, but would be just a little behind. We continued on at a hikers pace. Along the way, a few other hikers heading the opposite direction stopped to congratulate Benny on his accomplishments, and take their photo with him.
With only just over half a mile left, Jeremy made it back to us. He told us that everyone was there, and that we were almost there too. We decided that once we got closer the group would part ways with Benny and come out first so that Benny could walk out on his own. As we got closer, Sharon Spezia (the prior record holder of 4 months and 12 days) met Benny hiking the trail. This was a special moment for Benny (and it was exciting for us to get to meet her too… she is currently working on her 7th park map!) They talked for a bit, took some photo’s, and then we continued on… the crowd was waiting!
Benny stopped us as a group one last time and thanked us for being there with him. After that, we hiked out leaving Benny behind. After we hiked towards the back of the crowd, Benny soon followed. Everyone there raised their poles, creating a tunnel for Benny to walk through. As he walked through folks gave him hugs, shook his hand’s, gave him high-fives, patted him on the back, and said congratulations. Once he got to the end of the tunnel, he embraced his wife with a hug and a kiss, and at this point, Benny is now the fastest GSMNP 900 miler hiker!
Huge congratulations to my buddy Benny. He thought about this adventure several months ago. We spoke about it, and he did it. He began hiking at 3 am on December 31’st, and finished about 3:45 pm on March 18th. He hiked 930+ miles in 2 months and 19 days… and in the winter months at that! He is a beast! And I am glad to call him friend!
So, this marked the end of our hike. While Benny was speaking with more new reporters, friends, family and fan’s, we headed back to our cars, got changed into some clean, dry clothes, then headed back to pick up the trucks that we shuttled to the trail head that morning in. After that, we all headed to the Smoky Mountain Brewery in Gatlinburg for a celebratory burger and beer!
So marks the end of another adventure out on the trail! This was a different kind of hike in so many ways, and I am so glad that I was able to make it out. It was good for me to be able to get out again, and it was good for both my son and I to hike another big mile day (20+ miles in 9.5 hours). It was good getting to see some friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and make some new ones. It was so good, and I thank God for the opportunity, and all the blessings that have come from this hike. I am sitting here trying to sum this up, and I just can’t… all I can say is that it was good, and I am thankful!
Thanks for reading!