Saturday, October 21, 2017

Twentymile - Long Hungry Ridge - Gregory Bald - Wolf Ridge - Twentymile Loop - Lost Cove Backpacking Loop

New Miles Completed: 21.4 (and 5 new trails completed!)
Total Miles Hiked: 30.7
3-day / 2 night Backpack, 17-19 Oct. 2017

There is no bad time to visit the Smokies... But October may well be the BEST time to visit. Warm days, cool nights, not much rain, lots of sun. And, of course, when the leaves start to change color the views are incredible.

I took advantage of a free week to do a short backpacking trip in the western end of the park on the North Carolina side. I did this odd clover-leaf configuration to get as many trails in as possible with as little backtracking as possible. Overall I think it worked out well. Many of the trails in this section are steep, so there was lots of up and down, but that's the Smokies.

Day 1:  Twentymile Ranger Station to Gregory Bald via Twentymile, Long Hungry Ridge, and Gregory Bald trails.

Day 1 route
 I arrived at Twentymile Ranger Station around 10:30 am, and there were several cars in the parking area. October is a busy time in the park. If you are coming from Knoxville to get here, you invariably have to come over The Dragon - U.S. 129.  318 curves in 11 miles. Zillions of motorcyclists & sports car enthusiasts. Luckily on a Tuesday morning it was not too crowded.

Beginning of the trip selfie.

The weather forecast was perfect. Highs in the 60s/lower 70s, lows in the lower 40s, and all sunny days.

Bridge over Twentymile Creek @ junction with Wolf Ridge trail
Twentymile trail is an old railroad bed, built by the logging company that extracted timber from this area of the park in the 1920s-30s. Because it's an old rail bed the trail is wide and smooth and the grade is pretty gradual along the lower parts.

Twentymile trail - Wolf Ridge trail junction
 After just 0.5 miles you reach the first trail junction. Wolf Ridge trail goes left (due north) up to Gregory Bald, while Twentymile trail turns east and then northeast. I followed Twentymile trail from here up toward Proctor Field Gap.

Twentmile Cascade
Twentymile trail follows Twentymile Creek, and along the way there are LOTS of beautiful cascades along its length. There is a short side trail to this one, which is just after the trail junction. The trail crosses the creek several times in this 2.6 mile section, always on large & sturdy bridges that must be leftovers from the rail line days.

Along the way Twentymile trail passes backcountry campsite #93 (Twentymile Creek Campsite). There was an aggressive bear warning for this campsite when I came through, although it was still open. It is near the creek, but seemed small, and was directly off of the trail - not a terrible site, but not one I would be super enthusiastic about staying in.

Trail junction at Proctor Field Gap

Twentymile trail continues this way - a nice wide trail with a gentle grade - up to Proctor Field Gap where the Twentymile trail, Twentymile Loop trail, and Long Hungry Ridge trail all come together. Sadly, somebody had obviously recently used this spot as an illegal campsite. There was a big fire scar and chunks of half-burned wood, along with a few piles of used toilet paper... Grrrrr.

After a short break for a snack and a drink I turned north here on the Long Hungry Ridge trail on toward Gregory Bald. I've been both excited and nervous to do this loop for a while. Long Hungry Ridge trail gains 2200' in elevation over 4.5 miles, and most of that elevation gain is concentrated in the middle 2.5 miles. In the first 1.5 miles or so the trail retains the gentle grade and creek crossings of Twentymile Creek. 

Backcountry Campsite #92 - Upper Flats

Backcountry Campsite #92 - Upper Flats

A little over a mile from Proctor Field Gap the trail runs into Backcountry Campsite #92 (Upper Flats Campsite). This is a big, open, and beautiful campsite that sits right on the creek. The trail runs essentially straight through the campsite - and be sure not to miss the sharp left turn of the trail as it goes through the campsite. This campsite was closed because of aggressive bears when I went through. Directly after the campsite the trail makes a couple of unbridged creek crossings that apparently can be difficult if the water is high. This is where the name "Long Hungry Ridge" comes from - a group of bear hunters got trapped up on the ridge because they could not find a place to safely cross the creek to get back down. Luckily in October the water is pretty low and I easily rock-hopped across.

Shortly after CS #92 the trail starts to get steeper and narrower. It travels through beautiful forest, and I was happy to see lots of chestnut stump sprouts along the way. American Chestnuts (Castanea dentata) were wiped out by an invasive pathogenic fungus back in the early 20th century. The stumps continue to send up sprouts that can get fairly large (10-15 feet tall and 2-3 inches in diameter) before they too succumb to the fungus. But seeing them always gives me hope that Chestnuts may someday become a part of our forest again.

American Chestnut stump sprout

Steep & narrow upper section of Long Hungry Ridge trail

The closer I got to the top, the narrower and more closed in the trail seemed to become. Finally, about 3.5 miles up the trail you reach the Rye Patch - this is the flat-ish top of the Long Hungry Ridge that was once planted in rye grass. I was expecting a grassy bald, but it was basically just a nice flat section of dry ridge top. Very welcome hiking after coming up the ridge.

Long Hungry Ridge - Gregory Bald trail junction

Gregory Bald - Gregory Ridge trail junction

The Long Hungry Ridge trail ends at the Gregory Bald trail. I turned left (west) here on the Gregory Bald trail toward Gregory Bald. In just a minute or two you reach Rich Gap - the junction of Gregory Bald trail with Gregory Ridge trail which comes up the north side of Gregory Bald from Cades Cove.

Old trail to Moore Spring
At Rich Gap there is another faint trail that seems to lead directly south with just a cryptic sign that says "No Horses." I had read elsewhere that this was the trail that led to Moore Spring - a famous spring that always seems to have a strong flow, even in dry weather. Also, there was once a shelter near the spring, and I hoped to find both the spring and the remains of the shelter. So I followed the faint trail behind the sign.
Moore Spring
Eventually (maybe a quarter mile?) the old trail does indeed lead to Moore Spring which is in a beautiful little clearing. I stopped here to refill my water bottles and to have some lunch. The spring has a metal pipe inserted to direct the water, and it was flowing great! I looked around a little, but did not find the remains of the shelter. From the spring there is a continuation of the trail that leads up the hill toward Gregory Bald. This comes out on the Gregory Bald trail partway up the hill toward the bald.

At the top of Gregory Bald I dropped my pack and enjoyed taking in the views, sitting and reading in the sunshine, and just relaxing. At this point it was only 3:30 pm, and the campsite was just on the other side of the bald so I took my time to enjoy being on top of the world.

View looking north from Gregory Bald

Gregory Bald USGS marker: 4949 feet above sea level 
View looking south from Gregory Bald
After relaxing on top I headed downhill to Backcountry campsite #13 (Sheep Pen Gap) just on the west side of Gregory Bald. Got set up and met some great folks. A group of 5 guys who have been hiking and camping together in the Smokies every October for 30 years! Enjoyed hanging out around the fire with them in the evening. Watched the sunset from Gregory Bald, ate dinner & went to bed!

Campsite #13 - Sheep Pen Gap

Day 2:  Gregory Bald to Lost Cove via Wolf Ridge, Twentymile Loop, Twentymile, and Lost Cove trails.

Day 2 route 
Rolled out of bed at 8 am, had breakfast, broke camp, and was on the trail by 9 am. Wolf Ridge trail begins right at campsite #13 at its intersection with Gregory Bald trail. The first mile coming down is pretty flat, rolling along the top of Wolf Ridge and out to Parson Bald (which isn't very bald anymore). There were a few patches of frost on the grass, but I was comfortable hiking in shorts & a t-shirt.
Wolf Ridge - Gregory Bald trail junction @ campsite #13

Wolf Ridge trail along the top of the ridge

A little bit of frost in the morning!

Parsons Bald - not very bald anymore.
Past Parson Bald the Wolf Ridge trail takes a sharp turn and starts down. It loses about 3000' of elevation from Parson Bald down to the junction with Twentymile Loop trail and descends pretty relentlessly. The forest that it travels through is very pleasant, and is mostly ridge-side walking through open woods.

Cool fungi growing on the side of a standing dead tree along Wolf Ridge trail.
The middle section of Wolf Ridge is nice, but fairly unremarkable. It took me a little over 2 hours to descend to the side trail to CS #95 (Dalton Branch Campsite) about 4.5 miles below Gregory Bald. I took the side trail (maybe a quarter mile?) out to CS #95 for a break. It's a really nice campsite - it sits directly on the creek Dalton Branch, and has lots of good tent spots.  It's pretty big and has a nice campfire area. Seems like a nice place to spend the night. I spent 45 minutes having a snack break and reading.
Side trail to CS #95

Campsite #95 - Dalton Branch Campsite

Campsite #95 - Dalton Branch Campsite

Dalton Branch - water source for CS #95

Wolf Ridge - Twentymile Loop trail junction
Leaving CS #95 the Wolf Ridge trail follows Dalton Branch for almost another mile down to its junction with Twentymile Loop trail. At this junction I turned east onto the Twentymile Loop trail heading 2.9 miles over toward Proctor Field Gap.

From this side the Twentymile Loop trail crosses Moore Spring Branch and then climbs up a ridge over it's first 1.5 miles. It then meanders up and down along a ridge side before crossing into the Proctor Branch watershed, crossing the creek over several log bridges. I passed SO MANY piles of bear scat on Twentymile Loop trail that I was tempted to start keeping track (but I didn't...). Clearly this is a bear thoroughfare and I was hopeful that I might spot one too (but not TOO close...).

I reached Proctor Field Gap and the junction with Twentymile trail and stopped to take a break. RIGHT after I put my pack back on and started up the Twentymile trail I heard a noise behind me and there was a bear, snuffling around right where I had put my pack when I was resting... 

He was a big guy, but other than being slightly curious, didn't seem to have any interest in me. He wandered around a bit and then went up the Twentymile trail - the same direction I was supposed to be going! I let him get a good head-start on me before following him up the trail several minutes later. I passed him further up the trail - he had gone up the side of the ridge, and paid me no mind as I passed on.

Twentymile trail sign @ Proctor Field Gap
 The section of the Twentymile trail above Proctor Field Gap gets much steeper than the lower section. It gains about 1200' in 2 miles on its way up to the Appalachian Trail at Sassafras Gap. The trail here still has the hallmarks of an old road or rail bed - but it sure is steep! As you ascend you get views to the right (southeast) of the main ridge of the Smokies rising from Fontana Dam, including the ridge of the Appalachian Trail. I got a brief glimpse through the trees of the Shuckstack Firetower, which I would visit the next morning.

View of Shuckstack Fire Tower from the upper part of Twentymile trail.

Junction of Twentymile trail, Lost Cove trail, and Appalachian Trail @ Sassafras Gap
After huffing and puffing my way up to Sassafras Gap, and taking a few minutes to rest, I saddled up and got ready to head down the Lost Cove trail toward campsite #91 (Upper Lost Cove Campsite). Just as I was about to start down, another backpacker came up Lost Cove and said "Hallelujah! I made it to the top. This must the steepest damn trail in the whole park!" Knowing that I had to go down it today, and then back up the next day, his comments didn't make me feel very excited...  But I headed down anyway. And he was right - the top mile and a half or so are about the steepest I've encountered in the Smokies. There were places I was using my trekking poles just to keep from sliding down the trail. When the trail hooks up with Lost Cove Creek (which it criss-crosses several times) at about 1.5 miles the gradient flattens out a little bit, but it's still fairly steep.

Backcountry campsite #91 - Upper Lost Cove Campsite

Backcountry campsite #91 - Upper Lost Cove Campsite
I finally rolled into CS #91 about 4:30 pm after a 12 mile day with lots of ups and downs. There were tents, hammocks, etc. all set up in the campsite, but no other campers. The guy who told me how steep Lost Cove trail was had also told me that the guys staying in the campsite were out fly-fishing, AND that there were so many unbridged creek crossings below CS #91 that I should just put on my water shoes and hike in them... Turns out he was right on all counts!

So I set up my tent, hung my pack on the bear cables, put on my water shoes and hiked the 0.7 miles down to the end of Lost Cove trail. There were at least 7 creek crossings, and none of them had bridges. I just waded across in my water shoes and enjoyed the feeling of the icy cold water on my sore feet.
Unbridged crossing of Lost Cove Creek

Lost Cove - Lakeshore trail junction
CS #91 was really nice. It has a stated capacity of 4 on the backcountry permit system. Not sure why because it seems like it could easily accommodate twice that many campers. The trail runs right through the middle of the campsite, but it has several reasonable tent sites and a very nice fire ring area. It sits just above Lost Cove Creek for water.

The other campers finally came back to camp after dark having been fly-fishing on Eagle Creek all day. They didn't catch any fish, but it sure seemed like they had a great day. Three guys from Michigan who camp together every year in different places around the eastern US. They were using this campsite as their home base and doing day hikes and fishing trips out of here to take in as much of the park as they could. We had a great time sitting around the fire and sharing experiences together.

Day 3:  Back to Twentymile Ranger Station via Lost Cove, Twentymile Loop, and Wolf Ridge trails.  With a short side-trip on the AT to visit the Shuckstack Firetower.

Day 3 route
Getting out of bed on day 3 I was dreading the trip back UP Lost Cove trail. But I was out of bed by 8, and on the trail by 9, and while it was tough it wasn't as bad as I had feared. I took plenty of rest breaks and just plodded along. It was tough, but not awful. Plus, I was excited to get to the top and the AT!

At Sassafras Gap I hopped on to the AT and went south a little ways to the side trail to the Shuckstack Firetower. The last time I had come this way was back in 2000 when I hiked the western section of the AT through the park (Newfound Gap -> Fontana Dam). I remember stopping at the firetower and thinking it was pretty rickety back then, 17 years ago. I was curious to see what kind of shape it was in now. The AT from Sassafras Gap to Shuckstuck rises gently but steadily for about a half-mile to an unmarked side trail that leads to the tower. If you didn't know it was there you could easily walk right by this spot and wonder where the side trail leads. Despite the fact that the tower is directly overhead, you cannot see it through the trees.

I'm happy to say that the tower is still in pretty good shape. One of the side rails on a stair section has fallen off, and the flooring in the top of the tower is pretty sketchy, but the stairs themselves are all in good shape. If you're afraid of heights it can be a scary experience - there is not a lot of metal between you and a fall at some of the stair landings, but the views are amazing and worth it!

View of Fontana Lake from Shuckstack Firetower

Shuckstack Firetower
It was exhilarating to be on top and have a 360 degree view in the bright sunshine! The foundation and chimney of the old fire warden's cabin is still there, and clearly it's used as a stealth campsite. I spent about a half hour here enjoying the views and imagining the lives of the people who lived and worked here. I met one guy here who was just starting his through hike of the AT through the park - he was headed north to Davenport Gap. And a couple who were on their way out of the park having started on the AT at Newfound Gap a few days prior and who were heading out to Fontana Dam.

I packed up and headed back north on the AT, back to Sassafras Gap and the Twentymile trail again. Most of my day was backtracking: up Lost Cove, then down Twentymile, then across Twentymile Loop. In order to finish off all of these trails I had to include this backtracking to get back to Wolf Ridge trail to to the last 1.1 miles of Wolf Ridge going back toward Twentymile Ranger Station.

Wolf Ridge - Twentymile Loop trail junction

One of several footlog bridges on Wolf Ridge trail
This last little section of Wolf Ridge trail parallels and crosses Moore Spring Branch. Much like Twentymile Creek on the other side of the ridge, Moore Spring Branch is a beautiful mountain creek with lots of pretty cascades. There were lots of crossings, all of which had footlog bridges, some of which were obviously very new. I'm always amazed and grateful for the work put in by the park employees and volunteers to make the GSMNP backcountry experience awesome.

At long last I arrived back at the Wolf Ridge - Twentymile trail junction, just 0.5 miles from the Ranger Station, and shortly back to my car.

What an amazing trip. This section of the park is both beautiful and rugged. There was a lot of elevation gain and loss on this trip and I'm so glad I got to experience it all. The camping was a blast, both #13 and #91 are really great campsites. I'd love to go back and stay in #92 and #95 someday too. It felt really good to get this big chunk of trail done on this end of the park. Now I've got to set my sights on some of the other North Carolina sections, again with some multi-day backpacking trips. My only regret is that the fall colors have not yet come into their magnificence. So while the views were amazing, they will only get better with time. Probably going to be late October before the fall colors peak this year.

Til next time, happy hiking!

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