Friday, December 29, 2017

Old Settlers - Gabes Mountain Backpack

New Miles Completed: 20.3
Total Miles Hiked: 22.4
2-day / 1-night Backpack, 27-28 December 2017

I love winter in the Smokies. No bugs, fewer people, great views because the leaves are off the trees... It's a great time to get in some good trail mileage. I had intended to this chunk of trails earlier in the fall as a 3-day / 2-night trip with overnight stays at backcountry campsites #33 and #34. But #34 was closed for much of the fall because of aggressive bear activity, so that plan never came to fruition. SO - I decided to make a 2-day winter trip out of it. My sweet wife helped me drop my car off at Cosby campground, and then shuttled me over to Greenbrier to drop me off at the Old Settlers trailhead.

At the Old Settlers trailhead

The Old Settlers trail winds in and out, and up and down through ridges and valleys that were heavily settled prior to the establishment of the Park. A few things stand out to me about this trail:

1. If you just look at the trail profile, it really doesn't look difficult. I found it to be harder than I expected, with lots of ups and downs, some of them fairly steep. (I also had a pretty full backpack with my winter gear, which I'm sure contributed to the difficulty level)

2. There are SO MANY cool old homesites with rock walls and chimneys all over the place - this is especially true of the middle of the trail - between campsite #33 toward Gabes Mountain trail.

3. There are also SO MANY creek crossings. There is one crossing near the Gabes Mountain end that has a bridge, but all others are not bridged. But all of them were also easily rock-hopped at least at the water level this time of year.

4. There are also SO MANY blow-downs across the trail, and many sections where the trail is very narrow, and plants crowd the edges of the trail. The blow-downs made for slow-going, and it was difficult to effectively use trekking poles in the crowded sections.

Day 1: 6.7 miles - Greenbrier to Backcountry Campsite #33 (Settlers Camp)

I left the trailhead at Greenbrier at about 12:30, and made it to the campsite around 3:30. This included lots of stops for pictures of rock walls and chimneys, and numerous creek crossings. There are also several old cemeteries in this section of the park. One of them is just off of the Old Settlers trail and you can't miss it - the Green Cemetery. There is a sign nailed to a tree pointing out the side trail to the cemetery, and spray-painted arrows on the trees pointing the way.

Sign to the side trail to the Green Cemetery

Spray-painted arrows point the way

Minerva Green - 1845 to 1910

Juxtaposition of an old slate-rock headstone with plastic flowers

There are also lots of places where other (unmaintained and unofficial) trails come in to meet the Old Settlers trail. There must have been a big system of trails between homes & communities in this area. Luckily, at nearly all of the dubious junctions where one might get lost there are signs that point you in the direction of the "real" trail.

Directional sign to keep you on the Old Settlers trail instead of veering off on to an old manway

Backcountry campsite #33 is just awesome. There are sites on either side of the trail. One is literally just off of the side of the trail on the north side, and the other is further back in the trees away on the south side of the trail. The campsite has its own old chimney and rock wall in keeping with the nature of this trail. I opted to stay in the north-side site because it has a great fire ring area, and sits right above the creek.

Backcountry Campsite #33 - Settlers Camp

Old chimney in campsite #33

Fire ring at campsite #33, complete with rock chairs

I got in to camp, got my tent set up and commenced to gathering firewood. I knew it was going to be a pretty cold night, so I wanted to be sure to have a good fire going so I didn't have to go to bed at 6 pm!

I got a good stack of firewood ready, and got my fire going. Had dinner (Mountain House Rice & Chicken - it was pretty good!), and then Oreos for dessert.

Nothing like a nice fire and some Oreos for dessert to make a good night in camp
I managed to make it to about 8 pm before I got cold enough, and tired enough to hit the sack. Climbed into my 0 degree sleeping bag and quickly fell asleep.

Day 2: 15.8 miles - Backcountry Campsite #33 to Cosby Campground

Brrrrrrrrr....  15 degrees at 8 am when I finally got the courage to get out of my sleeping bag.

8 am Thursday morning - 15 degrees F

I got up & got moving to stay warm. Mountain House biscuits and gravy for breakfast (forgot my coffee though :-/  Not a good way to start the day). Got my gear packed up and was on the trail by 9 am.

This section of the trail is especially rich with rock walls and chimneys from homesteads that were here before the Park. It's quite literally a walk through history. I was imagining the lives of the people who lived here, and how difficult things must have been. Imagine living in a drafty log cabin with nothing but one small fireplace for heat when the temperatures are down in the teens...

Chimney at an old home site 
Rock walls lining the trail

There are LOTS of ups and downs in this part of the trail, and lots of creek crossings. I love trails that follow or cross creeks in the Smokies - there is something really magical about the sound of a mountain stream. And this time of years there is the bonus of really cool ice formations forming at the edges and on overhanging branches.

Directly after one creek crossing you get to a rock wall. A sign directs you to the right (south) to stay on the Old Settlers trail, or left (north) toward the Tyson McCarter place. This is well worth the short side trip to see. There is an old barn that the park service is clearly working to preserve, and then a little further on down the trail is the homesite complete with old chimneys and a still-standing spring house.

"Tyson McCarter Place. Built about 1876"

Tyson McCarter barn

Tyson McCarter spring house

From here I continued on up and the down the roller coaster of the Old Settlers trail, and then finally pulled in to junction of Old Settlers with Gabes Mountain and Maddron Bald trails about 1:00. Stopped here for lunch, and chatted with a few pairs of day hikers who were going up Maddron Bald trail. At this point I had already come about 9.2 miles and had 6.6 left to go.

Gabes Mountain trail sign at jct w/ Old Settlers & Maddron Bald trails

Beginning the climb up Gabes Mountain trail
The first mile and a half of Gabes Mountain climbs about 800 feet reasonably gently to reach the top of the ridge. This part of the trail is on a north-facing slope, so it doesn't receive much sunlight. It was colder and snowier than anything I had yet been on. It was a walk through pleasant forest lined with Rhododendron and Hemlock trees. The only downside is that the trail is REALLY rooty, especially on the eastern side between Cosby and Henwallow Falls. You've got to watch your step or you could take a tumble by catching your toes on the roots.

Interlacing roots on the Gabes Mountain trail
Shortly after cresting the ridge the trail comes to backcountry campsite #34 - Sugar Cove. I didn't stop to explore, but from the trail it looks like a really nice campsite. Lots of open spots, and it sits on a spot just above a stream.

Backcountry campsite #34 - Sugar Cove
From here the trail meanders gently up and down along the ridge. This was very nice walking, although the trail is often narrow and sits directly along the side of the ridge. There are several streams that cross the trail, sometimes with amazing ice formations.

Frozen trailside beauty

Ultimately the trail brings you to the side trail down to Henwallow Falls. I've been to Henwall Falls a few time previously, and debated about whether or not I should take the time to go down and see it again. But man, am I glad I did. Henwallow is really more of a cascade than a falls, with water cascading down a sheer rock face. With the frigid weather the sides of the falls were draped in icicles - absolutely breathtaking!

View down into the valley outside the Park from Henwallow Falls

Side trail to Henwallow Falls

Frozen Henwallow Falls - absolutely breathtaking!
From here it was just 2.1 miles to the Cosby picnic area and my car. Luckily, it's also almost all downhill from here. I saddled up and headed down the trail. This section of the trail is more well-traveled than the western end because a lot of folks day hike from Cosby campground up to Henwallow Falls.

Ultimately, right at 5 pm I ambled in to the Cosby picnic area to my car. What a couple of days! The weather was cold, but enjoyable. The trail was challenging, but beautiful and full of amazing history. I'm so glad that I get to call this area home, and that the Smokies is in our big back yard.

I made it! 22.4 miles in 2 days from Greenbrier to Cosby.

It was a great way to end this year of hiking. Looking forward to more and more in 2018. 

Til next time, happy hiking!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post, really full of adventure. Thanks for sharing.