Sunday, December 26, 2010

birthday present :-)

what do you get for a hiker who has most of the gear he needs?  just ask my wife - she found the perfect birthday present.

I got five of the coupons pictured below for my birthday today.  now all I need is some free time and I'll be off to the mountains!

yes - she IS the best wife ever.  thanks darlin!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

1 Year Anniversary

It was almost a year ago that I made the decision to try to hike all 800 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I've always been an avid hiker and backpacker, and have long dreamed of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but living just 20 minutes from the Smokies it made sense to set my sights on something a little more local and doable within my current time constraints...

Since last December I have:
  • spent 19 days on the trails in the Smokies
  • taken 3 overnight backpacking trips in the Smokies
  • completed 80.8 miles of new trails
  • hiked a total of 137.6 miles of trails
Making the decision to do this has changed the way I think about hiking, mostly for the good I think.

For example, I'm less likely to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon slugging on the couch or mindlessly playing games on Facebook, and I'm much more likely to get my butt out of the house and out on to the trails.  I'm also much more likely to go someplace new.  In the past I've often gone back to the same trails over and over again because they're easy to get to, or have a neat waterfall or view.  But now I'll look at my map and try to find someplace I've never been and it's made me explore parts of the park that I probably wouldn't have gone otherwise.

The downside is that I'm starting to exhaust the trails that are relatively close to my house.  With the exception of a few trails in the Cades Cove area I've done most of the trails in the northwestern part of the park.  This means I'm going to have to be more deliberate about planning and will have to range further from home to complete new areas.

My goal for the upcoming year is to complete at least 100 miles of trails.  The biggest change I'll have to make to accomplish this is to do at least a couple of long-distance backpacking trips.  The majority of my hikes over the last year have been day hikes that checked off less than 10 miles of trails.  I can get a lot more bang for the buck by doing some multi-day backpacking trips that cover 20 or 30 miles of trail.  This makes sense anyway because I'll be doing more trails that are farther away from my home.  If I'm going to take the time to drive over to the eastern or southern part of the park I might as well stay for a couple of days and do some major mileage.

Til next time, happy hiking and happy winter solstice!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Porter's Creek Trail

Trail Miles Completed: 3.7
Total Miles Hiked: 7.4
10-11 Dec. 2010

Our Boy Scout troop has a tradition of taking an early December winter backpacking trip.  This year we chose the Porter's Creek trail up to campsite #31.  This hike is in the Greenbrier section of the Smokies.  I haven't spent much time in this section of the park, but it strikes me as not nearly as developed or visited as the Cades Cove and Elkmont areas that I'm more familiar with.  Porter's Creek trail is famous for its spring wildflower display, but it was really gorgeous in the snow too!

We got to the trailhead around 3 pm and set off.  The first part of the trail winds through an area that was heavily settled before the park.  You can still see evidence of human habitation like rock walls and stairs, and there's the Ownby cemetary that's still maintained by the family.

The trail crosses the creek several places, but the last log bridge across the creek presented us with an obstacle. The narrow log was still in place, but part of the rails had gotten pushed over (high water?  falling tree?), and the bridge was a good 10 feet or so above a deep and quick part of the creek with no obvious places to ford in sight.

So we carefully inched our way across the bridge on our butts - it took a while, but we all made it safely across!

From here the trail winds its way up the valley until it dead-ends at Campsite #31.  Since we were going up hill and it was starting to get dark it SEEMED like we'd hiked more than 3.7 miles, and some of the boys were starting to worry that we'd hiked too far and that maybe we'd missed the campsite in the dark.  But we finally arrived, and set up tents and cooked dinner by head lamp.  Most of the available wood was crusted with snow, so our campfire was small and pretty pathetic, but at least it added a little light and warmth to the evening.  It was pretty chilly out so we were all cozy in our sleeping bags by about 9 pm.

The morning was clear and sunny and we all finally climbed out of our warm bags and set about making breakfast.  Oatmeal, fried spam and Starbucks instant coffee for me :-)  (in the picture below that's our scoutmaster, Shane on the ground cooking, and one of our scouts enjoying his oatmeal)

The morning was spent eating breakfast, filtering water from the creek to refill our water bottles, and packing up camp.  There is a water source that's close to the campsite entrance, but it's a shallow muddy little spring, so we opted to hike down a steep bank to Porter's Creek.  It was absolutely gorgeous in the snow!

Before we got completely packed up a snow-ball fight broke out, so there was much running to and fro and dodging of icy projectiles.  Eventually we got the tents taken down and packed up and ready to head back down to the trail head.

In the light and (relative) warmth of the morning (not to mention going down hill) the 3.7 miles didn't seem nearly as bad as they had coming up, so the boys were all in good spirits.  We passed Fern Branch Falls - a nice tall cascade down a flat rock face just uphill of the trail.  While you can't see it in the picture below, there were rows of icicles hanging from the rock faces that flank the falls.

We stopped for lunch at the broken bridge and then made quick work of getting back over it.

The rest of the trip down passed uneventfully, and we were back home by late afternoon.  It was a great backpack, and I was really proud of our scouts!  Not only did they deal well with the cold and the snow, but also the unexpected challenge of the bridge.  It's a great group of guys and I always enjoy backpacking and hiking with them (and especially with our scoutmaster Shane).  I look forward to going back to this trail again in the spring when the wildflowers are out.  But I'm learning more and more how much I love winter hiking and backpacking!  Since Christmas break is coming up soon I'm looking forward to some more hiking soon.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rich Mountain & Indian Grave Gap Trails

Trail Miles Completed: 3.4
Trail Miles Hiked: 8.4
27 Nov. 2010

Back about 10 years ago when Jesse was 7 years old and a Tiger Cub Scout we hiked the Rich Mountain loop, but that left a chunk of the Indian Grave Gap trail un-hiked, as well as the Rich Mountain Trail.  So on this weekend after Thanksgiving I got out to finish off these two little pieces.

Rich Mountain trail starts at Rich Mtn. gap where Rich Mtn. road comes out of Cades Cove and down into Townsend.  From the gap the trail rises 1500' in 2.3 miles up to meet Indian Grave Gap trail near campsite #5.  From there I took Indian Grave Gap trail southwest to where it meets up with Rich Mtn road - an elevation loss of about 1000'.  And then I turned around and went back...

There were a few cars at the trail-head when I arrived around 9:30 am - some bicyclists who were going down the Rich Mtn road, and some horse folks who were going up the Ace Gap trail, but I had the Rich Mtn. trail all to myself most of the day.  The trail starts rising right off the bat and is pretty relentless all the way up.  The trail skirts the northern border of the park for much of its length and there are some good views down into Dry Valley on the Townsend side.

It was hovering right around 32 degrees when I started out this morning and there were some cool "ice flowers" along much of the trail.  I also saw a cool Earth Star (a puff-ball-like fungus).

The trail crests near campsite #5.  This is a small campsite in a narrow draw - probably not room for more than 2 or 3 small tents, but with a nice campfire area.

Just up the trail from the campsite is the junction of the Rich Mtn. trail with the Indian Grave Gap trail.  I had hiked the 0.8 mile section of the Indian Grave previously, but needed to re-hike it to get to the 1.1 mile section between the Rich Mtn loop and Rich Mtn road.

Indian Grave Gap trail drops 1000' over 1.1 miles, and travels along some nice open ridges with great views down into Cades Cove.

There were lots of grape vines in the trees through here, and the trail was littered with fallen grapes.  I'm surprised the bears didn't get to them.

In one spot you could really see the devastation from the Pine Bark Beetle that has killed off large swathes of pine trees in the park.

The trail dead-ends at the Rich Mountain road.  I stopped here for a snack and a drink and to soak in some sunshine.  The temp was around 45 degrees here at about 12 noon.

From here I turned around and retraced my steps.  The hike back seemed a lot easier, and I was back home by 2 pm.  A great way to spend a Saturday morning, and nice to get back on the trails.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gabes Mountain Trail

Trail Miles Completed: 2.2
Trail Miles Hiked: 4.4
7 Oct. 2010

Fall is definitely in the air around here.  Chilly nights and warm sunny days.  And it's fall break at UT so we decided to go for a one-night camping trip last night since we've got other obligations coming up this weekend.

We've been camping at the Cosby campground in the Smokies a couple of times before, and really enjoyed it.  Compared to our usual haunts (mostly Elkmont, occasionally Cades Cove) the Cosby campground is lightly used, and last night was no exception.  While there were other campers around we didn't see or hear much of them.

We got a nice fire going, fixed our hobo meals, and mostly sat around the fire relaxing and talking.  That was something Sarah & I both really needed after some long, stressful weeks.  The night was chilly, but we were snug in our tent and sleeping bags and after a breakfast of pancakes & sausages we packed up and got ready to hit the trail.

There are several trails in the Cosby area, and I've never been on any of them.  When I saw that the Gabes Mtn. trail led to Henwallow Falls in just 2.2 miles I thought that would be a perfect family hike.

The trail head is near the entrance to the Cosby campground.  The trail winds gently (for the most part) up about 800 ft in elevation gain to the side trail to Henwallow Falls.  It's a beautiful trail - lined with rhododendrons, magnolias, hemlocks, and maples, and has several creek crossings on log bridges.  The weather was perfect - cool, but sunny - great hiking weather!

About half-way to the falls you reach an area that "Hiking Trails of the Smokies" describes as a "traffic loop" - apparently an old road used to come in from Cosby and Henwallow Falls was a popular destination for an afternoon drive.  There's a sign here telling you how far you are from either end of the trail.

The book also mentions that there were some homesites in this area and that chimneys and foundations can still be found.  We looked, but didn't find any old home sites, but I did find something odd.  Not far off the trail was what looked like a grave marker - a small stone marker that just said "Jennifer" - no birth or death date, or anything else.  I'm very curious why this is here and who it's for.

From here the trail gets a bit steeper, but in just over a mile you find yourself at the spur trail that leads down to Henwallow Falls.

The trail down is steep and full of rocks and roots.  At the bottom of this spur trail you come to the falls.

It's a very pretty place, and was a great spot to stop for lunch and a rest.  Good rocks to climb on for a 9-year old, and some good rocks for sitting on for the rest of us.

The trip back was mostly down hill and went quickly.  It was really nice to get away from everything for a couple of days, and a fantastic hike with the family.  I look forward to seeing what the other end of the Gabes Mtn. trail looks like someday soon, and exploring more of the trails around Cosby eventually.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Meigs Creek Trail

Trail Miles Completed: 3.5
Trail Miles Hiked: 7.0
6 Sept. 2010

Happy Labor Day! What better way to start off a holiday than with an invigorating hike?  I hopped out of bed bright and early this morning and got to the Meigs Creek trailhead at the Sinks by about 7:15 am.  Despite the fact this it's a holiday there weren't many folks out and about that early, and I only saw two other pairs of hikers on my hike.

Meigs Creek trail winds up and over a western ridge of Curry He Mountain, and then up a fairly narrow draw following the banks of Meigs Creek which ultimately drains into the Little River.  The Little Brown Book says that this is a good trail to practice your rock-hopping skills, and suggests that the many creek crossings can be difficult or dangerous when the water is high.  It's been hot and dry for a while now, so the 18+ creek crossings were no problem for me today.  Here's an example of one of the lower crossings.

The trail leaves the newly renovated Sinks parking area (which is VERY nice compared to what it used to look like) and rises fairly steeply over the first mile as it skirts a ridge of Curry He Mountain.  It's an interesting contrast of north-facing vs. south-facing slopes.  The first mile as you're going up the ridge is a north-facing slope and is damp, cool and shady with plants like rhododendron, maples, hemlocks and lots of ferns.  As you cross over the ridge and begin to descend down to Meigs Creek you move onto a south-facing slope that is considerably drier and more exposed and has more pines, oaks and mountain laurels.

You can hear Meigs Creek before you actually get to it, and it's a typically gorgeous little mountain creek.  Lots of rocks and little pools, with the banks overhung with rhododendron & hemlock (although sadly many of the hemlocks are dead or dying from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid infestation).  There are no bridges across the creek, and I counted 18 crossings ranging from around 8 feet across to less than 2 feet.  But the water was low today and there was no problem rock hopping.

The trail follows Meigs Creek from here up a fairly narrow draw, so there wasn't much sunlight and it was a gorgeous cool, dim, misty morning.  There's a beautiful little waterfall right off the trail - probably 15 feet high - cascading down a mossy face.

This is quite a ferny hike - lots of New York fern, and one of my favorite ferns - the northern Maidenhair fern.

Meigs Creek trail dead-ends at Buckhorn Gap where it meets the Meigs Mountain and Lumber Ridge trails.  I stopped for a quick break and a snack before turning around to head back to the car.  Sitting there enjoying my snacks I looked up to see the sun filtering through the trees.  It was just plain gorgeous!

The trip back down was uneventful.  It took me a total of 2 1/2 hours to make the 7 mile round trip hike - a pretty good rate.  I was home by 11 am and energized for the rest of the day.   I'd definitely recommend this hike - it's short, not too strenuous and Meigs Creek is beautiful!

So til next time, happy hiking!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Alum Cave Trail

Trail Miles Completed: 5.0
Trail Miles Hiked: 11.0
30 July 2010

Alum Cave Trail is just one of several routes to the top of Mt. LeConte.  I had previously hiked a chunk of this trail, but didn't make it all the way up to the top to finish it off.  My friend Tim had informed me earlier this summer that if we didn't get to go hiking together sometime soon then our friendship was over :-)  So I talked to Tim at a pool party Wednesday night, looked at my calendar on Thursday and said "What about tomorrow?"  Tim said "Sure!" so this morning off we went.  We wanted to get an early start, so I set the alarm for 5 am, and was actually up before the alarm went off.  Picked Tim up and we left his house around 6:30 am, and got to the trailhead around 7:30 am. (for those of you who know me well, you will realize that this is an amazing feat all by itself).

Alum Cave trail starts out near Newfound Gap Road about 1/2 way up from Sugarlands to Newfound Gap.  It's a VERY popular trail for several reasons, and the parking lots are nearly always full to overflowing by early morning.  It's the shortest trail to Mt. LeConte, Alum Cave Bluff is an amazing sight in its own right, and there are a lot of great views from this very rocky trail that hugs the side of the mountain.

The weather today was perfect: cool, yet sunny this morning; warming up as the morning wore on, but with great weather and views from the top of LeConte.  One of the first interesting places on the trail is Arch Rock which is exactly what it sounds like.  The trail goes up a stone stairway under the arch.

Today there was water EVERYWHERE!  The trail was wet, the rock faces along the trail were seeping and running with water, and the creeks along the trail were full and loud.  It was absolutely beautiful.  My previous trip on this trail was in the fall - October I think - and it was very dry, so it was a pleasant surprise to see so much water.

The next attraction is Alum Cave Bluff itself.  It's not really a cave - more like a very tall overhanging rock wall.  Below is a view of the bluff - that's Tim taking a picture for some friendly folks at the bluff.

There was a constant rain of water coming down from the edge of the bluff - it was so cool to stand at the bottom and look up at the cascade of droplets raining down.  The picture below doesn't do it justice unfortunately, but if you look closely you can see some of the water droplets.

From Alum Cave Bluff the trail up the rest of LeConte gets rockier and slicker since it was wet, and in many places there are cables attached to the rock face to give hikers a hand-hold so they don't go sliding several hundred feet down the side of the mountain.  There are some AMAZING views down into the valley from here.

Unfortunately, sometime shortly after this last picture my foot slid on a wet rock and I fell down - right on top of the camera that was in my pocket...  The camera is now kaput, but luckily I wasn't hurt.

We arrived safely on top of LeConte and stopped at the LeConte Lodge picnic tables for a snack and a drink, and to enjoy the sunshine.  After a rest we headed a little further up the trail to see the Mt. LeConte shelter and then took the side trail to Cliff Tops to see the view (which was awesome).  From there we headed back down the trail.  It was absolutely packed today with folks going down from the LeConte Lodge or heading up to the LeConte Lodge or just taking a beautiful day for a hike.  It was great to spend a day in the mountains with my buddy Tim, and I look forward to more hikes with him in the near future.

I think that Alum Cave Trail may rate as one of my all-time favorites in the Smokies thus far.  The trail is challenging but beautiful and the many views are well worth the effort.  This is the second time this summer I've been up LeConte, and I'm excited about taking a trip up sometime to stay the night.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

So... really, how many miles of trails are there?

I'm so confused...  When I started this journey I had it in my head that there were approximately 900 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains N.P. (hence the blog name).  I guess that number came primarily from the "900 miler club" - their web site says "Within the boundaries of the GSMNP are about 900 miles of maintained hiking trails..."  On the other hand the GSMNP official website says "Choose from over 800 miles of trails..."  

This past Father's Day I got Liz Etnier's excellent book "Day Hikers Guide to All the Trails in the Smoky Mountains" (which I highly recommend!).  In the appendix of her book she lists a total of 791.4 miles which she compiled from the 3rd edition of the Hiking Trails of the Smokies book and the 2003 version of the trail map.  Because this is just the way I am, I sat down with my 2001 2nd edition copy of Hiking Trails of the Smokies and added up all the miles of trails listed in that book.  I came up with a total of 794.4 miles.

SO - it looks like my 900-mile quest has turned into an 800-mile quest.  I have modified my "odometer" accordingly (it only affects the percentage of the trails I've done).  I don't plan to change my blog name though, since in order to finish all 800 miles of trails in the park I'll easily have to hike well over 900.

Regardless of whether it's 800 or 900 miles, the quest to finish all the trails in the Smokies has become a passion (my wife might say obsession).  I've already seen so many new parts of the park and enjoyed many trails I might never have taken that I'd say it's already been a success.  I've got a couple of hikes in the Abrams Falls / Cades Cove area percolating around in my head to finish off that section of the park sometime this summer.  Maybe I'll see you out on the trails.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Laurel Falls and Cove Mountain Trails

Trail Miles Completed: 12.5
Trail Miles Hiked: 12.6
21 July 2010

When I decided to hike all of the trails in the Smokies, I knew that meant I'd have to go back and hike the Laurel Falls trail again, which I did NOT relish. For those of you not familiar with it, the Laurel Falls trail is probably the most hiked trail in the whole park (at least the first 1.3 miles of it).  It's paved, always crowded, and (in my humble opinion) leads to a very mediocre water fall...

But in order to finish the trail and get to the Cove Mountain trail, I had to do it again.  Sarah agreed to help me shuttle my car to Sugarlands Visitor Center and then took me up to the Laurel Falls trailhead.  She and Duncan joined me for the first part of the trail (up to the falls) and it was a nice day for a hike.  There were zillions of people, but almost all of them stopped at the falls and then turned around to go back to the parking lot.

From the falls the trail winds its way up to the crest of Cove Mountain.  There's an elevation gain of about 1500 feet from the parking lot to the top of Cove Mountain over a 4-mile stretch of trail.  It's a fairly steady climb, but rarely steep except for the last 1/2 mile.

Along the way up Laurel Falls trail I passed the junction with the Little Greenbrier trail.  I can vividly remember the January day I hiked that trail, and imaging when I might be back.  That's one of the neat things about doing all the trails in the park - seeing how they all connect with each other.

According to the little brown book, the area above Laurel Falls was never logged or burned, and represents true old-growth Smokies forest.  I can believe it now, having seen the trees.  There are some of the biggest trees I've ever seen in the park in this area - particularly the Tulip Poplars.  The one pictured below was easily 6 or 8 feet in diameter at the base, and it was just one of many really big trees.

The trail winds up the ridge and ultimately terminates at the top of Cove Mountain where the Laurel Falls trail and Cove Mountain trail meet.

My way down was to the right (east), but first there was a short (0.1 mile) up to the old fire tower which has been converted to an air pollution research station.  You can climb about 1/3 of the way up the tower, but that doesn't get you above the trees so there aren't any good views.

From here I headed back down the Cove Mountain trail which ends at the Park Headquarters near the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  It's a different kind of trail from the usual Smokies trail.  It looks more like an old road, complete with tire ruts, than a trail.  It also looks like it's not used very often as it was quite grassy.

Cove Mountain trail winds along the northern boundary of the park, and slowly descends from the summit of Cove Mountain (4000 ft) to Sugarlands (1500 ft) over 8.5 miles.  There's not much along the way to break up the hike - no trail junctions or overlooks - just hiking along.  There were some cool plants though.

Stump sprouts of old chestnut trees

Turk's Cap Lily

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid

Yellow fringed orchid

Blackberries, blueberries, and huckleberries, all almost ripe

And while I didn't actually see any bears, there are clearly a LOT of bears in the area because the whole trail was covered with piles like this:

The trail is so close to the border of the park that in many places there are roads and houses that are very close to the trail.  This amazing house was literally 5 feet from the trail.  There was a sign on the tree that said "Forget the dog, beware of owner!"

As the trail approaches Sugarlands there's a waterfall called Cataract Falls.  I don't know if it's just because there hasn't been much rain lately, or what, but it was pretty pathetic looking. [*see note at bottom  of post]

The trail ends up at the Park Headquarters, just down the road from Sugarlands Visitor Center where my car was parked.  After 12.5 miles it was a nice sight to see, although I could hear the traffic from about a mile up on the trail.  (Note that the trail mileage on this sign differs from the sign on top of Cove Mountain by 0.2 miles - I'm not sure which one is more accurate, although this sign is clearly newer)

All in all it was a good day on the trail.  I'd love to go back to the Laurel Falls trail and spend some more time looking at the big trees, and the wildflowers on the Cove Mountain trail were great.  It was a nice solo hike - lots of solitude and time to think.

Til next time, happy hiking.

*note added 2 March 2011:  apparently Cataract Falls is NOT always pathetic looking...  just saw a recent picture of the falls overflowing with water and it was quite beautiful!  for example check out the picture here.  my photo was from the height of the dry season (mid-summer) while the falls seem to be best observed in spring when the water is really moving.