Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Gatlinburg Trail

New Trail Miles Completed: 2.0
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 4.0
19 December 2012

The Gatlinburg Trail is one of those trails that I thought to myself - "well...  I'll just have to suck it up and do it so I can complete all of the trails in the park."  It's a short trail that runs from the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Park Headquarters to the edge of Gatlinburg, paralleling the road.  I had no expectations of anything pleasant about it, BUT I was pleasantly surprised.  I was in Gatlinburg doing some Christmas shopping at William Britten's Gallery and decided to knock out this trail while I was in the neighborhood (and I can now actually post this blog since the gift-giving is done ;-).

The first part of the trail follows the road from the park headquarters to the park maintenance area...  NOT an especially picturesque portion of the park.

BUT from here the trail meanders through the woods following the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River as it flows toward Gatlinburg.  There are lots of twists and turns to the river and rocky sections  that make it both look and sound very nice.

This area was obviously settled prior to the inception of the park.  There are chimneys and stone stairs still evident along the trail.

So while this trail will never rank on my Top 10 list of Smokies trails, it was much nicer than I expected, and made for a pleasant afternoon stroll.

Looking forward to some more hikes soon. Til next time, happy hiking!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Trillium Gap Trail

New Trail Miles Completed: 3.6
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 14.6
Elevation Gain: ~3,400 feet
11 October 2012

Ahhhh....  Fall in the mountains.  It really doesn't get any better than this.  It's Fall Break at UT so I took the opportunity to head out for a day hike.  I wanted to do something up high so I could get some good views of the fall foliage.  I've done the lower section of Trillium Gap trail before (once just up to Grotto Falls, and once up to Trillium Gap), but needed to finish the upper section to the top of Mt. LeConte.

Trillium Gap trailhead

Out of the house by 7 am and at the trailhead by 8:30 am, the parking lot was surprisingly empty - only one other car!  In fact, on my whole 6.7 mile hike up the trail I saw only one person which is crazy for a fall day on such a popular trail.  Of course it was a different story on the way back down later that afternoon...  [I did get stuck in a bear jam on Cherokee Orchard Road on my way in - cars stopped in the middle of the road in both lanes and people sticking their heads and cameras out of their cars]

Trillium Gap trail is VERY popular because it leads to a unique waterfall in just over a mile of hiking.  The trail shows the wear and tear of being loved to death - the skeletons of trees roots that used to be well underground are now exposed by foot travel (and llama travel) and erosion.  There's going to have to be some serious trail maintenance done here one of these days.

exposed tree roots due to erosion on Trillium Gap trail

The trail to Grotto Falls is easy.  It climbs fairly steadily, but not at all steeply and the trail is wide.  It's often muddy and laced with tree roots (which just makes it wider as people try to go around the tree roots).  There are a couple of short creek crossings that you can easily rock-hop.  Realistically, the hardest part about this section of the trail is usually finding a parking spot!

The pay-off for most folks is Grotto Falls - the only waterfall in the Smokies where the trail actually goes behind a waterfall.  Usually the falls are packed with people, but I actually had it to myself this morning.  It was quite pretty in the early morning dimness.

Grotto Falls

From Grotto Falls up to Trillium Gap is a little less than 2 miles as it winds its way around the northern flanks of the lower parts of Mt. LeConte.  There are big trees and nice views along here.  I was hiking in cool, dim light for most of this section as the sun hadn't made it over the ridge top yet, but you could see it shining on the mountaintops further north which made for nice contrasts.

Trillium Gap itself was formerly known as Grassy Gap - while not quite as poetic it is probably a much more appropriate name.  This gap is a saddle between Brushy Mountain to the east and the much taller Mt. LeConte to the west.

trail sign at Trillium Gap

From here I headed UP, and into new territory for me - the 3.6 mile section to the summit.  The total elevation gain from the parking lot (~ 3,200 feet) to the top of LeConte (~ 6,600 feet) is about 3,400 feet and the steepest part of the trail is between Trillium Gap and the top.  That said, it was a well-graded and well-maintained trail for the most part and I never felt like I was about to die from the steepness.

In several spots the trail has been maintained by building "boxes" that are filled with gravel - presumably these are in places where the trail was eroding badly.  They make for challenging hiking at times, but they're definitely better than deeply rutted trail.

trail improvements on the upper reaches of the trail

It was odd though to come across the remnants from the trail work just laying along the side of the trail: pallets, broken bags of gravel and discarded gloves...  I was trying to imagine how that all got up there in the first place!

The other thing that was obvious was the llama presence.  The Trillium Gap trail is the route the llamas take to resupply the LeConte Lodge each week.  Originally this was done with horses, but they switched to llamas because they are better adapted to these sorts of trails and their hooves don't do nearly as much damage to the trail as horse shoes.  The evidence of the llamas passage was clear however - you could make out hoof marks in the mud, and massive piles of llama poop all along the trail.

llama poop

Along the upper reaches of the trail I succumbed to the "I must be almost there" mantra a few times.  The trail twists and turns over the ridges and a couple of times I thought I was at the top only to find I still had quite a ways to go.  There are beautiful views from the trail here, and some of my favorites were looking back down on the top of Brushy Mountain where you could clearly see the trail to the top and the fact that it's a heath bald - no trees, but covered with low-growing rhododendrons, laurels and myrtles.

view of Brushy Mountain summit from Trillium Gap trail

The trail tops out at the junction of the Trillium Gap, Boulevard and Rainbow Falls trails near the LeConte Lodge.

dining hall at LeConte Lodge

I stopped at the Lodge briefly to refill my water bottle and then headed out to Cliff Tops.  This is an outcropping of rock about 0.2 miles north of (and up from) the LeConte Lodge that provides amazing panoramic views to the north and west of LeConte.  I stopped here for about an hour to soak in the views, eat some lunch and to just be grateful for living in such an astoundingly beautiful place...

These pictures don't even come close to doing justice to the beauty of the Smokies.  The fall colors were gorgeous - reds and oranges and yellows.  The rows upon rows of mountain ranges.  The crisp, clear sunlight and the cool breezes.  It was simply beautiful.

But alas, I couldn't stay forever.  I packed up and turned back down the way I had come.  Soon enough I found myself back at Trillium Gap and decided that since I was so close I'd go ahead and go the extra 0.4 miles up to the top of Brushy Mountain to see what the views were like from there this time of year.  I had been to the summit of Brushy in June of 2011 and remember thinking at the time that it would be a good spot to see the fall foliage.  Brushy Mountain is a heath bald - no trees, but covered with a variety of shrubs in the heath family: rhododendrons, laurels and myrtles.  The lack of trees means there are good unobstructed views.

From here back down to the parking lot I took my time and ambled along.  Unlike the solitude of the rest of the day the trail was packed - especially at Grotto Falls and below.  I took pictures for families at the falls and chatted with other hikers on the way down.  It was an awesome fall day and there were lots of folks out taking advantage of it.

I've now completed four of the five trails that lead to the top of Mt. LeConte:  Alum Cave, Bullhead, Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap.  I'm leaving the Boulevard trail for last - and I mean really last.  My plan is to finish my quest to hike all of the trails in the Smokies on the Boulevard trail and then spend a night or two at the LeConte Lodge to celebrate.  Who knows how many years down the line that will be, but I keep it in the back of my head anyway.  Mt. LeConte has become symbolic for me - and every time I visit fall more and more in love with the place.  Seems like a fitting place to finish the quest.

I hope you are all getting out and taking advantage of the wonderful fall weather!  Til next time - happy hiking!

p.s. - our family went to Cataloochee last weekend and stayed in the campground.  we got up early on Saturday morning and headed into Little Cataloochee Valley in search of the elk.  we didn't have to go to far to find the herd - one LARGE bull and several does and we got to hear the bull bugle.  if you haven't had an opportunity to visit Catloochee and see the elk during the rut season I highly recommend it!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Huskey Gap - Little River Trails

New Trail Miles Completed: 7.6
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 15.2
2 Sept. 2012

Phew...  I finally got a chance to get out and add some new trail miles to my quest!  This has been a great summer for outdoor activities!  I've gone hiking in the Smokies, camping & hiking in the Big South Fork, paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Boy Scout Camp at Camp Buck Toms...  But it hasn't been a great summer for adding new trails to my Smokies list - there's just been too much else going on.

This trip was a spur of the moment decision - I was faced with an unexpectedly free afternoon so I grabbed my map and decided to tackle the Huskey Gap trail and the upper end of the Little River trail up to campsite #30.  

Huskey Gap trailhead on Newfound Gap Road

The Huskey Gap trailhead is on Newfound Gap road just about 1.5 miles south of Sugarlands Visitor Center.  The Little Brown Book says that this area was part of the Sugarlands community back in the days before the park, although I didn't see any signs of the previous occupants.  Huskey Gap trail gains about 1300 feet in elevation over the first 2 miles up to Huskey Gap where it junctions with the Sugarland Mountain trail.

This first part of the trail is quite nice - LOTS of big Tulip Poplars and more grape vines than I've seen anywhere in the park except for maybe the Grapeyard Ridge trail.  There were buckeyes littering the trail here and there and sun filtering through the trees despite a forecast of rain.

From Huskey Gap the trail descends about 600 feet over 2.1 miles to its junction with the Little River trail.  The lower part of this section of the trail is a little more on the southwest facing slope and so is drier with more pines and mountain laurels.  As you approach the end of the Huskey Gap trail you start to hear and then finally see the Little River below you.  As you reach this section you pass backcountry campsite #21 (the new one - the old campsite #21 is on the Sugarland Mountain trail and is still marked as a campsite despite the fact that it's been out of commission for a while now).  Campsite #21 is currently closed due to "aggressive bear activity."  The rangers have even set up a tent in the site with a wildlife camera attached to a tree to photograph any marauding bears :-)  It looks like a very nice campsite - close to the Little River and very large.  It'll be a good spot to go back to once the bears have gone to sleep.

Campsite #21

Not far down from campsite #21 is the junction with the Little River trail.  I remember visiting here a couple of springs ago when there was still snow on the ground.  I always love coming back to places I have been before.

Little River - Huskey Gap trail junction

The Little River trail parallels the Little River for its entire length.  Down near Elkmont the Little River is quite wide and carries a lot of water.  But the further up the mountain you go the narrower and shallower it gets.  And especially at this time of year the water was fairly low.  The trail itself is an old railroad bed so it's straight and wide and flat and even covered with gravel for most of its length.  It crosses over some of the old railroad bridges that have been converted to trail bridges.

The Little River is more of a creek up the mountain near its source

old railroad bridge

The Little River trail meets the Goshen Prong trail which leads further up (7.7 miles) to the crest of the Smokies and the Appalachian Trail.  The Goshen Prong trail is currently closed though due to downed trees from a big storm that ripped through the park earlier this summer.

Shortly after this junction you reach backcountry campsite #24 - also closed due to aggressive bear activity.  This looks like a nice spacious site - there are at least 3 tent areas / fire rings and it sits pleasantly by the banks of the Little River.  Apparently it's quite popular with both backpackers and bears.

Campsite #24 - Danger!  Aggressive Bear Activity!

The next landmark from here is the junction with the Rough Creek trail.  I briefly considered taking the Rough Creek trail over to the Sugarland Mountain trail and then back down to the Huskey Gap trail on my return trip, but that would have added an extra 3.2 miles to an already long day so I decided to just retrace my steps.  I'll have to come back someday to do the Rough Creek trail.

The upper parts of the Little River trail seemed very deep and dark and undisturbed to me.  Strange considering the fact that the trail is an old logging rail line and campsite #24 is very popular, but it just had the feel of true wilderness.  The trail parallels the river on one side and is often bounded by tall cliffs on the other.  The fall wildflowers were out in profusion as well.

As the Little River trail winds its way to its end at backcountry campsite #30 it gets narrower and narrower, and the bridged creek crossings give way to rock hops.  In particular, there are about 3 creek crossings that require significant rock hopping just before you get to the end of the trail at campsite #30 that were no problem with the low water, but could be quite difficult (if not impossible) when the water is high.

creek crossing near campsite #30

Campsite #30 is pretty nice.  The only folks I saw all day long were here at the campsite.  There was one group who had just arrived and another who had been there for a couple of days and were headed out.  It's a nice site - a few different tent site are available all on a nice high bank that overlooks the confluence of several small creeks that make up the headwaters of the Little River.  I stopped here for a bite of dinner and to rest for a few minutes before heading back to my car.

Overall I'd give this hike a high rating.  Huskey Gap trail has a nice variety of habitat types and some good ups and downs, as well as some really big trees.  The Little River trail is quite nice - I love trails that parallel water and the Little River trail doesn't disappoint.  There are lots of landmarks along this route too that help you keep track of where you are and provide interesting places to stop and take a break.  I'd love to come back to this area and camp in any or all of the campsites (21, 24 & 30).  And last, but not least, it was great to get out in the Smokies again and see some new places!  Hopefully it won't be quite this long again before my next hike.

Til next time, happy hiking!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sugarland Mountain Trail

New Trail Miles Completed: 12.0
Total Trail Miles Hiked: 12.0
23 March 2012

OH. MY. GOSH.  It's been almost 3 months since I added any new trail miles to my quest.  It's been 2 months since I've been out hiking.  I have been doing lots of running and going to the gym, but it's just not the same...

So finally today I got to get out and do a new hike with my buddy Shane.  Out of bed at 5 am, on the road by 6 am (thanks for the shuttle Sarah K!), and at the trailhead by 8 am.  Sugarland Mountain trail runs for 12 miles from Clingman's Dome Road (~ 6000 feet elevation) down to Fighting Creek Gap on the Little River Road (~ 2300 feet elevation).

Shane & me at the start of our hike

This was a cool trail to do today because spring is definitely here and I wanted to get an idea of how far along the wildflowers are.

Here are some of the flowers we saw today:
Spring Beauty, Sweet White Trillium, Yellow Trillium, Trailing Arbutus, Smooth Rock Cress, Blood Root, Squaw Root, Rue Anemone, Meadow Rue, Speckled Wood Lily, Lousewort, Squirrel Corn, Cut-leaved Toothwort, Mayapple, Large-flowered Bellwort, Trout Lily, and Blue Cohosh.

Trailing Arbutus

Yellow Trillium

The weather today was off and on rain.  Up on Clingman's Dome Road it was foggy and misty in the morning which just added to the Spruce-Fir forest mystique that make the high-elevation Smokies so amazing.  We ran into several AT thru-hikes early on - you have to take the AT for a few tenths of a mile to get to the start of the Sugarland Mountain trail.

Appalachian Trail sign-post

They had all stayed at the Mt. Collins shelter last night and seemed in good spirits despite the early morning rain.

Mt. Collins Shelter

The upper parts of Sugarland Mountain trail meander through Spruce-Fir forest with occasional great views across the valley.

4.8 miles down-trail the Sugarland Mountain trail reaches its junction with the Rough Creek trail.  From a clearing near the trail junction you can look back and see the Chimney Tops.  [and by the way - the trail to Chimney Tops will be closed Mon-Thurs for the 2012 season starting at the end of April]

Sugarland Mtn - Rough Creek trail junction

Chimney Tops

From here the trail continues to descend, and we walked through a couple of amazing wildflower spots.  Spring is SOOOOOO early this year - it's amazing to be seeing Trilliums in March!  For the most part the Sugarland Mountain trail is a "typical" Smokies trail: fairly narrow, eroded a few inches below the surrounding round level, and full of rocks and roots.  It's a well-maintained trail in general, although we did have to cross a number of downed trees of various sizes.

Toward the end of the middle section (between Rough Creek trail & Huskey Gap trail) we stopped at Campsite #21 for lunch.

Campsite #21 marker

There's a lot to recommend about Campsite #21.  Right now the wildflower display is amazing!  It has 2 sets of cables for hanging food away from the bears.  There is a nice water supply now that apparently diminishes quite a bit during the drier months of the year.  The site is situated in a very cool boulder field and there is a LARGE boulder with an overhang that provided a nice respite from the rain today.

Overhanging boulder at Campsite #21

The one thing that Campsite #21 does NOT have?  Any decent tent sites...  The campsite sits on the side of a hill, and amidst a boulder field.  The few flat spots available are (a) very small, and (b) pretty wet during the spring.  It's a really cool site, and would be fun to stay at, but not if you had a lot of people or big tents.

After lazing away an hour or so having lunch and looking at wildflowers we saddled up and headed on down the trail.  Not too long after lunch Shane spotted something off in the woods that just didn't look natural, so (of course!) we had to investigate!  As you can see, it turned out to be...

a "FOR SALE" sign???  How in the world does a for sale sign end up deep in the woods of the Smokies...  Shane reckons that it was brought in by tornado back in April.  Works for me.  Regardless, it's now on it's way to the landfill.

Eventually we reached the Sugarland Mountain - Huskey Gap trail junction which put us just about 3 miles from the end of the trail.

Sugarland Mountain - Huskey Gap trail junction

Along this section there were several nice views back up the valley toward the tops of the mountains, and the wildflowers were just amazing.  By now the rain had pretty much gone away, and the temperatures had warmed up.  What a great way to celebrate the beginning of spring and to get a chance to get out on the trails with Shane.

It will hopefully NOT be another 3 months before I get out on the trails again.  I'm enjoying the beginning of spring already and I'm looking forward to a highly productive spring / summer hiking season!

Til next time - happy hiking!