Sunday, July 17, 2016

Appalachian Trail - Sweat Heifer - Grassy Branch - Dry Sluice Gap - Appalachian Trail loop hike

New miles completed: 7.5
Total miles hiked: 14.6
13 July 2016

A few weeks ago we did the Kephart Prong trail as an out-and-back.  So this week I decided to go ahead and knock out the other trails around this area.  I had previously done the hike along the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Newfound Gap north a few times, but on this trip I made a loop out of it.  Started out on the AT from Newfound Gap, then down the Sweat Heifer trail to Kephart Shelter, then up the Grassy Branch trail to Dry Sluice Gap trail, then back to the AT for the return to Newfound Gap.  Along the way I stopped by Charlie's Bunion, Icewater Springs Shelter, and for the first time took the hike out to the Jumpoff.

Got to Newfound Gap and the trailhead around 8:30 am, and there were already lots of folks there.  Upon arrival I discovered that I had left my boots back in my dining room, which left me doing a 14+ mile hike in my trail runners.  That was an experiment I had intended to try, but not on this particular day.  Oh well!

AT trailhead at Newfound Gap

Left my boots at home...
The 1.7 mile section of the AT from Newfound Gap to the junction with Sweat Heifer trail was already fairly busy with day hikers headed out towards Charlie's Bunion.  The trail here is on or skirts the central ridge of the Smokies and you can tell - it's like you're walking on the bones of the mountains.  The trail is pretty rocky, with big chunks of exposed boulders, and it rises pretty steadily, gaining about 800 feet in elevation.  There are occasional views off to the side.

I reached the junction of the AT and Sweat Heifer trail, and turned downhill.  Here I met Tom - a fellow hiker and 900-miler club aspirant who was doing the same loop as me.  We chatted briefly and then met each other off and on through the rest of the day which was pretty cool.

AT - Sweat Heifer trail junction

Beginning of the Sweat Heifer trail - very overgrown!
Sweat Heifer trail loses about 2200 feet of elevation over 3.7 miles from the AT down to its end at the Kephart Shelter.  The top half is a pretty steady descent, there's a very pleasant section in the middle that levels out a bit, and then it drops off again heading down and into the the shelter.  It doesn't seem to be a terribly well-traveled trail. The top bit coming down from the AT was VERY overgrown, with grass up to my knees growing over the trail - at times it was tough to see where the trail was!  The walk was through very pleasant forest, there are constructed steps in many of the steep places, and there were lots of wildflowers to look at including crimson bee-balm, white bergamot, and monkshood.

Sweat Heifer cascades

Sweat Heifer creek

Once I reached the Kephart Shelter I met up with Tom again.  We both stopped here to eat and rest a bit.  We chatted about trails, and gear, boy scouts, and our experiences in the Smokies.  It was really very nice!  We also both knew that the next part of the hike was going to be the most grueling part of the day.  The ascent up Grassy Branch trail.

Kephart Shelter

Sweat Heifer - Grassy Branch trail junction @ Kephart Shelter
Grassy Branch trail gains about 1800 feet over 2.5 miles from Kephart Shelter to its junction with Dry Sluice Gap trail.  And it is relentless...  There are lots of switchbacks and it just goes up and up and up.  The day was pretty warm and very humid - I was soaked with sweat pretty much right away.  The surrounding woods here are pleasant, but nothing exceptional.  No waterfalls, or great views.  Towards the top the trail becomes deeply rutted and eroded.  I can tell you I was happy to reach the junction with Dry Sluice Gap trail!

Grassy Branch - Dry Sluice Gap trail junction
The section of Dry Sluice Gap trail between Grassy Branch and the AT is quite nice.  It rises a bit, then levels out, before descending gently to the AT, but is never steep.  To whoever does trail maintenance on this trail - thank you!  The grass at the trail edge was so neatly cut it looked as if someone had recently been through with a weedeater!  This little 1.3 mile chunk passed quickly and pleasantly, and brought me back to the Appalachian Trail.

The very well-kept Dry Sluice Gap trail

Dry Sluice Gap - Appalachian Trail junction
From here I turned back southwest on the AT toward Newfound Gap.  Along the way are outstanding views to either side of the trail.

View from the AT
Just a little bit down the trail brought me to the side trail to Charlie's Bunion - a really great destination on the AT.  A big rock outcrop sticks out of the side of the mountain and affords really outstanding views of the surrounding mountain ranges, as well as impressive views of the steepness of the mountains in the immediate vicinity.

Selfie at Charlie's Bunion

View of the steep mountainsides adjacent to Charlie's Bunion
From Charlie's Bunion the trail climbs steadily as you head southwest, passing Icewater Spring, and the nearby shelter.  A quarter of a mile or so past Icewater Spring Shelter you reach the junction with the Boulevard trail which leads to Mt. LeConte.  It also shortly leads to a side trail to the Jump Off - a spot at the top of a very sheer cliff that provides really amazing views.  I'd never been out to the Jump Off, so I decided to give it a go.  

Appalachian Trail - Boulevard Trail junction

Side trail to the Jump Off

View from the Jump Off
While a rough trail with some tall steps and steep ups and downs, it was well-worth the trip.  The Jump Off is just a small open spot at the top of a tall and sheer cliff.  For people like me with a healthy respect for heights it can be a bit unnerving - the only thing between you and a several hundred feet sheer drop is a couple of bushes...  But the views are outstanding, and I'm really glad I took the time to visit.

From here the AT heads mostly downhill back to Newfound Gap in about 2.7 miles.  Even though it was nearly 4 pm by this time I still ran into a lot of folks who were heading out from Newfound Gap!  Summer time in the GSMNP.

I happily made it back to Newfound Gap and my car after my 14+ miles day, including a lot of up and down.  My feet felt surprisingly good after the day in my trail runners.  They certainly were not as tired as they normally are in my big boots, but I also felt the rocks more and was more careful about where I stepped to avoid turning my ankles.  Undoubtedly there are pros and cons to both approaches, but I think I might try a real pair of trail shoes next.

All in all, another great day on the trails in the Smokies!  Amazing views from the AT, and some very nice hiking through beautiful high-elevation forest.  Looking forward to knocking off a few more trails this summer.

Til next time, happy hiking!

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