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.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Duncan's first backpacking trip.

Ok, so this post has nothing to do with me completing all the trails in the Smokies, but it is a milestone nonetheless.  Duncan and I just got back from his first ever backpacking trip!  He's 9 years old and we have done a LOT of car camping and hiking in the Smokies as a family, but he's never gone backpacking before.

I recently purchased a used backpack at a garage sale that fits him well, and Sarah and Laurel are out of town this week, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take to the trails.  To break him in gently we picked a hike from Abram's Creek campground to Campsite #1 along the Cooper Road trail.  The total distance is about 1.5 miles, and the trail is relatively flat, so it's perfect for a first backpack.

Campsite #1 is a nice big open site, with 3 different fire rings / tent areas, but we were the only ones there last night. Kingfisher Creek runs at the back of the site, and we set up our tent on the other side of the creek.

We explored, played in the creek, ate dinner, made Jiffy-Pop popcorn, and had a campfire.  We enjoyed just sitting around and chatting for most of the evening until heading to bed around 10 pm.

This morning we got up and cooked breakfast - pancakes with powdered sugar.

After breakfast we packed up camp and got ready to head back.

On the way back we stopped at a spot on Abram's Creek for some swimming and exploring.  The water was cold, but refreshing, and the creek is deep enough to enjoy swimming, but also shallow enough to climb on the rocks and relax.

While exploring we came to a rock and Duncan said "What's that?"  I turned around and saw what I thought was a dead snake - then I moved toward it and it moved too!  Turned out to be a young copperhead sunning himself on a rock.  Glad I didn't sit on him!

We decided to make lunch there by the creek, so Duncan played while I cooked.  Mac & cheese for him and tuna & crackers for me.  Nothing like cooking lunch sitting on the bank of a creek in the Smokies!

After lunch we lazed around for a little while before packing up and heading the last little bit down the trail.

It was a great trip with my little buddy, and I have a feeling it will just be the first of MANY backpacking trips we'll take together.  I think he had a good time and I know I did.

Til next time, happy hiking!