Ok, so we got to Gatlinburg around 1:30 am Friday morning. We drove to the hotel we were staying at and it was so late the card was taped to the front of the door. So, we went in and unloaded in the room and called it a night very quickly.
We woke up about 7ish the next morning and took showers and got ready. We drove to Pancake Pantry and have some yummy Blueberry Pancakes and coffee! It was marvelous (IMO). We then drove to the Sugarland Visitor Center so that we could “register” and then to The Happy Hiker so that one of my buds could grab a rain cover for his new lightweight pack. After this we headed up 441 to the Alum Cave TH. About 2 miles into the park, my gas light came on, but I figured at least if my Xterra gets stolen, they won’t get far!!
When we arrived at the Alum Cave Trail Head we all got out and got geared up. There was a man and a woman there with very fancy cameras and took our picture (we were able to check back at imagesbybeck.com to see the pictures they took, and I bought both that they took). So, we finally got going!
There were a few patches of ice as we started and I was pleased with this. I was afraid that all the ice and the snow would be gone by the time we got there and we would be left with just mud, but I was wrong right off the bat. It was very slippery (as ice tends to be) so I had to be very careful, however, there was not enough ice for me to pull out my Yaktrax just yet. We crossed over a few log bridges that can be seen in my photos above. I can’t say what the temps were because I don’t have a very good thermometer. I would guess it was probably mid to high 30’s. It was beautiful through there though. It’s amazing at how much green there still is considering its the middle of winter.
We crossed the little log bridge that was at Arch rock, and it was awesome. I had seen some pictures of it on the internet, but to be there was so much better (as it usually is).
So we kept on-a-hiking….There was lots of fog, or clouds, or whatever, but it created an atmosphere that comes to mind when you think of (the literal) Smoky Mtns. We came to Alum Cave Bluffs and had us a quick lunch break. The photographers showed up and we talked with them for a while longer, however they didn’t get alot of photo ops this day with all the fog. When we left the bluffs, one of the guys from our pack took off. Eventually I went off on my own as well. It was kinda peaceful being up there on the edge of the mountain with all that ice and by myself, it was nice. So about 3 miles up we started hitting some more snow. By the time I got to the top there were places that I stepped down expecting a solid step and ended up with snow up to my knees. It was great. One thing I learned is that it is a little harder hiking in the snow. I walked around the LeConte Lodge looking around, talked with some day hikers that were taking a break and about to head back down, then headed to the Mt LeConte shelter to claim a spot.
When I got to the shelter I found out that there were going to be 10 of us there that night. Also, the shelter was nasty. There was standing water in the shelter, and it made for a black nasty mud that got on everything. This was my first night ever in a shelter, ever, and it was kind of a bad experience. So, I made my nest, as cleanly as I could and then went on to cook my dinner (Ramen). I then went to refill my water at the lodge and was pleased to meed the caretaker, Doug Mcfalls (Reflections of the Smokies). Doug invited me in and I had a cup of coffee with him and got to talk with him for a while. He was a very nice guy, and has a cool job at that!
So, after this I went back to the shelter, gathered up my smellable’s and hung them in my Outsak, then talked with the guys some and hit the sack.
The next morning was very nice. The fog had lifted and the temps weren’t all that bad. I went out and made my breakfast, then tried to pack up all my stuff up without getting it all muddy. During breakfast we watched some very brave little squirrels running around, and even jumping on the benches next to us. They were hungry! One even succeeded in snatching an energy bar from off the bench top (makes me think of Hammy from the movie Over The Hedge).
So, we bid everyone farewell, and headed off down the Boulevard. We got some good pics with the clear skies. We hiked through a fair amount of snow (my buddy called it “post-holing”) and the wind was pretty gusty at times. On some of the open places we had some pretty strong winds (I can’t gauge winds but I would say that they were probably around 30 mph or so). Eventually I pulled ahead of everyone and I made it to where the the trail going to the Jump Off was. I figured I would head to it thinking it was just off the trail, and that everyone else was coming to (I even drew an arrow in the snow for them when they came upon it). The trail going to the Jump Off was kind of rugged. Big step ups where the trail was washed away from under roots, and then towards the top there was some steep ups and downs, at least with all the snow and ice. I hiked for a little bit, and wasn’t ever coming to the end. I started wondering how far it was. Finally I decided I had went far enough and I wasn’t sure if the rest of my gang was coming up behind me so I turned around. Good thing I did because they weren’t behind me. When I made it back out to the Boulevard trail I kept heading towards the AT and to Icewater Springs Shelter. It didn’t take me long to get there, but the whole time I was hoping that they were there. I didn’t want to get separated on the trail. Luckily, they were there, and by the looks of it, had just got there, so I pulled out my lunch and ate happily.
After this I stopped at the spring to refill my bladder and the group went on ahead of me. I met them at Charlies Bunion. Once I got there it was awesome. Words can’t describe views like this, so if you’ve been there you know what I mean. It’s beautiful.
We left and headed to Dry Sluice Gap trail and followed it down to Grassy Branch Trail. Grassy Branch trail was completely downhill for 2.5 miles to the shelter. We followed the little stream all the way to the shelter and by the time we got to the shelter it was a large stream. It sounded huge listening to it flowing over the large rocks and tiny waterfalls. It was great because I was thinking of how soothing it would be when I laid down that night to listen to the sound of flowing, gurgling water.
When we got to the Kephart shelter there were 2 guys there already. The Kephart Shelter was very nice as compared to the LeConte shelter, and the Ice Water Springs shelter, and even the few that I came across while on the AT back in September. We got unpacked and made our dinners for the night.
A little later a man and his son showed up. So now there was 8 in the shelter. But that was ok because the Kephart shelter was bigger and nice. We all welcomed each other and enjoyed each others company. I was able to talk with the 2 guys that were there when we showed up and have made 2 new friends. It was very cool because they are participants in a study group at their church called Celebrate Recovery, and I am familiar with the same one because we have the same class at our church. It’s amazing how God puts people in places.
So we called it a night. The next morning we had decided to take Kephart Prong to 441 since the weather was supposed to be bad and so that we could make it home at a decent time. We had called the day before and discussed a time with Cgaphiker (a member from the Backpacker.com forums) to meet us. It was 2 miles from the shelter to 441. We made it in 42 minutes (ok, so it was pretty much all downhill, its an easy hike.)
As soon as we stepped off the trail and onto the road to shake hands with Cgaphiker, it began to rain. So I guess we got out right in time.