Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Grand Finale: Boulevard Trail

New Miles: 5.4
Total Miles: 14.3
9-10 October, 2023

Finally... I've been thinking about this trip, and planning for this trip for a LONG time, wondering if it would ever get here. But it finally did. I wanted to save the Boulevard trail for my last hike to complete the trails of the Smokies. I love high elevation trails, I love Mt. LeConte, and it felt like the best way to wrap up this grand adventure. Plus, autumn in the Smokies...

Day 1: blue, Day 2: green, overnight at Icewater Spring Shelter

Parking and traffic in the Smokies in October is always a little nuts. Lots of tourists flocking to the park to see the fall leaves and hike in the woods. With the recent crackdown on parking, it's getting more and more difficult to find a parking spot at the popular trailheads. SO I decided to try the shuttle services offered by Smoky Rides (part of Smoky Mountain Guides). I parked in Gatlinburg ($15) and got a ride up to Newfound Gap ($20), and then got picked up the next day at Alum Cave Bluff trailhead ($20). They were super friendly and helpful. The only difficult part was that I got back to the trailhead early and had no way to contact them to let them know since there's no cell service in most of the park. So I sat and waited for about an hour. Not their fault, just an unfortunate side effect.

Trailhead selfie at Newfound Gap

Day 1: Newfound Gap to Icewater Spring shelter (2.9 mi) and a side hike to the Jumpoff
I've hiked this section of the Appalachian Trail a bunch of times. This is a popular section with lots of dayhikers heading out to Charlies Bunion. I love the vibe of the AT through the park - literally walking on the ridge at the top of the primary mountain chain of the Smokies. Nice views to either side, and the spruce-fir forest all around.

The Appalachian Trail northeast of Newfound Gap

The trail winds up and down a bit on its way north and east, passing by the Sweat Heifer trail junction to the right (south), and the the Boulevard trail junction to the left (north) before reaching the Icewater Spring shelter at about mile 2.9, and which was my destination for the night.

I got to the shelter around 3 pm, and there were already a few folks there for the night. I set up my sleeping gear in one corner, said hello to the other folks who were there, and then took off back down the trail for the short hike out to the Jumpoff.

The trail to the Jumpoff is not one of the official maintained trails in the park, but there is a trail sign nonetheless. Just a little ways up the Boulevard trail the side trail to the Jumpoff turns east and heads out to the edge of the ridge. It climbs steeply for a bit, then levels out, then drops steeply for a bit. The trail ends at a small clearing situated on the immediate edge of a very tall and steep dropoff. The views to the east are absolutely amazing - well worth the short hike.

I stopped here, had a snack and read for a while (oh - and I actually had enough cell service to send Sarah a picture!). It was a really nice relaxing way to spend an hour or so.

Side trail to the Jumpoff

View from the Jumpoff

About 4:30 pm I packed back up and hiked back to Icewater Shelter. Cooked dinner (Mtn House Chicken Pad Thai - very yummy), had a cup of hot chocolate, and gathered up some wood for a fire in the shelter fireplace. It was a chilly night - predicted temps in the 20s. I was prepared with my 0-degree sleeping bag and stayed very warm. Wood was in short supply in the area, but a few of us managed to gather enough for a good fire. Most folks were in bed by 7:30 when it got dark. I finally climbed in my bag about 8:30 and listened to the cacophony of snoring (to which I too surely contributed when I finally fell asleep...).

Day 2: Boulevard trail to Mt. LeConte, then down Alum Cave Bluff trail to the road.
Folks started stirring around 6 am. Knowing I had all day to go just about 11 miles I lazed in bed til about 7 am (plus it was cold out there!). When I finally crawled out of my bag and made it out of the shelter I was greeted by a beautiful crescent moon and the planet Venus shining down on me. The sky was clear and they were brilliant!

Tuesday morning early - the moon & Venus in view

Not too long til the sun started to come up with a tinge of orange painting the sky followed by the burning orange ball of the rising sun. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I remember! I had always heard that Icewater Spring shelter was a good sunrise spot, and now I know that's true!

Tuesday morning sunrise from Icewater Spring shelter

Icewater Spring shelter

Got packed up and ready to hit the trail. 0.2 miles back down the AT to the Boulevard trail. There was a lot of emotion, excitement, reminiscing, gratitude, and amazement running around in my head as I started this last trail. I was excited for the day - this is one of my favorite kinds of high elevation trails, and the weather and views were fantastic. I was thinking of all of the different people who had hiked with me in the Smokies over the years... family, friends, scouts and scouters, botanical colleagues and wildflower pilgrims. Such wonderful community and support I've had in this long quest.

Here we go! Junction of the Boulevard trail with the AT

Boulevard trail - heading north from the AT

Fabulous views from the Boulevard trail

Boulevard trail drops about 500' in elevation over the first mile. The walking is easy, the trail can be rocky & rooty but is generally in good shape. You are walking through Northern Hardwood Forest with lots of maples, beech, and birch, and Spruce-Fir forest, so you get the nice contrast of the dark green of the evergreens and the yellows of the hardwoods. Fall is definitely going on here at 5000-6000' elevation!

After the first mile the trail begins to climb, gently at first, and then more steeply the closer you get to Mt. LeConte. You get glimpses of LeConte from the trail, and it's pretty imposing, towering over the top of you as you approach.

Switchback at Anakeesta Knob

The bright red fruits of the Rowan tree really stand out

The last mile or so as you are coming up the south side of LeConte gets REALLY steep, but there are some impressive views. There are rock-slide scars with cables attached to the rocks to give you something to hold on to as you traverse steep & unprotected areas. Lots of scrambling over rock outcrops. Kind of an intimidating, but exhilarating section of trail!

Boulevard trail - approaching Mt. LeConte

Landslide scar on the Boulevard trail on south side of Mt. LeConte

Maybe half a mile below the summit of Mt. LeConte you reach the side trail to Myrtle Point. This is supposed to be an excellent spot to watch the sunrise and folks often trek from the Lodge or LeConte shelter out to Myrtle Point in the early morning.

The views were fantastic even at 11 o'clock in the morning! There is ridge, upon ridge, upon ridge of mountains flowing away from you. Just utterly beautiful.

Side trail to Myrtle Point

View from Myrtle Point

View from Myrtle Point

View from Myrtle Point

I spent maybe 20 minutes at Myrtle Point getting a snack and a drink, taking pictures, and soaking it all in. It was very windy, so as I started to get chilled I decided it was time to move on. At this point I was only about 1/2 mile from finishing the Boulevard trail, and my quest!

Hiked the rest of the way up to the Mt. LeConte summit, called High Top, with its funny pile of rocks (and yes, I brought one up to add to the top of the pile). Then passed the LeConte shelter, which is currently closed because of aggressive bears.

High Top - the Mt. LeConte summit

LeConte shelter

And then, there it was. The trail sign for the junction of the Boulevard trail and the Rainbow Falls trail. The end of my very last trail.

Done! End of Boulevard trail at its junction with Rainbow Falls trail

Of course, I had to do all of the Mt. LeConte things. I stopped and got my picture at the Dining Hall. Then went out to Cliff Tops - one of my favorite spots, but WOW was it windy that day!
Required picture with the LeConte Lodge sign

Views from Cliff Tops

And then I headed down Alum Cave Bluff trail to wrap up my trip. This will always be one of my favorite trails in the park - so many great things to see: the bluff, inspiration point, arch rock, Styx creek... So much good stuff packed into 5 miles!

Alum Cave Bluff

view from Inspiration Point

Arch Rock as seen from above

Arch Rock as seen from below

I had a little extra time before the shuttle was going to pick me up, so I pulled off on the side of the trail and spent some time just listening to the sound of Styx Creek. There is *nothing* like the sound of a mountain creek. So joyful, so relaxing, so peaceful.

Styx Creek

Alum Cave Creek

End of trail selfie

Finally made it out to the end of Alum Cave trail and sat down to wait on my ride. I couldn't help but think back on all of the hikes, all of the hiking companions, all of the amazing views and wildlife and inspirational moments. This has truly been a quest of a lifetime. I'm so glad I decided to do this. And I look forward to all of the hikes to come, inside the Smokies, and out.

Wherever life takes you, always remember the John Muir quote: "Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt." Or as Edward Abbey said "May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds."

My virtual $1 trail map, with all of the trails marked off!

Til next time, happy hiking!

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Penultimate hike: Hemphill Bald - Caldwell Fork - Rough Fork

New Miles: 12.0
Total Miles: 13.7
16-17 Sept. 2023

Fall is in the air a little bit these days. High temps in the 80s instead of the 90s. Overnight lows in the 60s instead of the 70s. A few leaves starting to turn and drop off the trees. Up in the higher elevations of the park, it feels even more fall-like.

Took this weekend to finish my second-to-last hike to complete my map. Saturday morning I drove over to Polls Gap on the southeast edge of the park so I could complete the Hemphill Bald - Caldwell Fork - Rough Fork loop. After the hike I stayed at Balsam Mountain campground for the night.

My route in red.

Trailhead selfie

Hemphill Bald trail starts at Polls Gap at about 5200' elevation. The trail meanders up and down a bit over the five miles out to Hemphill Bald. It's fairly flat out of the gate and then starts to climb up to the Cataloochee Divide. From there, the trail follows the park border closely with a few ups and downs. For the most part the trail is in good shape - in fact, it looked like it had recently been maintained with the vegetation trimmed back from the trail (thank you Trail Maintainers!!!).

Hemphill Bald trail

Late summer wildflowers: Goldenrods and White Snake Root

Late summer is a fantastic time for wildflowers. Most of what is out now is in the Sunflower family: wood aster, new england aster, goldenrod, ironweed, snakeroot... But what a show they put on!

Hemphill Bald trail

Giant rock outcrop

Ups and downs on the Hemphill Bald trail

Rock outcrop covered with Mountain Spleenwort!

Hemphill Bald trail from Polls Gap to where it runs in to the Cataloochee Divide is an up and down sort of things, mostly trending upwards as you climb toward the divide. The forest floor is grassy and ferny. The trees are of the Nothern Hardwood forest - beech and birch and maple. Lots of cool rock outcrops with their own unique flora.

Meeting the Cataloochee Divide / park boundary

A huge field of White Snake Root behind the split rail fence

Hemphill Bald trail

As the trail meets up with the Cataloochee Divide / park boundary you run into the old split rail fence that marks the park boundary and was built by the CCC to keep cows out of the park lands. In some places the fence is still in pretty good shape - in others, all that's left are the posts and twists of wire.

Hemphill Bald trail - some deep erosion going on rutting out the trail

For the most part this is a well-maintained and well built trail. There are some steep sections that have become pretty deeply rutted, and could benefit from some water bars.

Cataloochee Ranch - just on the other side of the park boundary

Cows of the Cataloochee Ranch just on the other side of the park boundary

A ways out you start to run in to new fencing and No Trespassing signs from the Cataloochee Ranch which lies just on the other side of the park boundary. It's a bit odd to be hiking along with forest on your left side and fully grazed pasture & herds of cows on the other... With amazing mountain views in the background!

View from Hemphill Bald

Panoramic view from Hemphill Bald

Hemphill Bald geodetic survey marker

Hemphill Bald selfie

At mile 4.4 from Polls Gap you reach Hemphill Bald itself. Amazing views looking out to the east and southeast from the park boundary. There is a small area set aside inside a split rail fence with benches and a stone picnic table (complete with explanatory viewshed info). I stopped here for a snack and a break and ran into a group who had hiked in from The Swag.

Hemphill Bald - Cataloochee Divide trail junction at Double Gap

From Hemphill Bald the trail continues down hill to Double Gap where it meets Cataloochee Divide trail. From here, Hemphill Bald trail leaves the Cataloochee Divide and heads north-ish down into Cataloochee Valley. So you leave the mountain views behind and drop down, down, down into the forest.

Hemphill Bald trail after leaving Double Gap

Pink Turtleheads

Rock outcrop with Rock-Cap Polypody

Long Green Tunnel under a canopy of Mountain Laurel & Rhododendron

Hemphill Bald - Caldwell Fork trail junction

Three miles later you pop out at the end of Hemphill Bald trail at its junction with the Caldwell Fork trail. I like this trail junction - it reminds me of a roundabout, with a pile of rocks in the middle of the 3-way intersection.

Hemphill Bald - Caldwell Fork trail junction

Bridge over Caldwell Fork

I hiked this section of Caldwell Fork (from the Hemphill Bald junction to the Rough Fork junction) earlier this summer. The trail was in better shape this time - not nearly as mucky and churned up. I guess that's what a couple of months of little rain will do for the trail. Stopped to see the "Big Poplars" again, and then continued on up toward Rough Fork trail.

Caldwell Fork - Rough Fork trail junction

Caldwell Fork - Rough Fork trail junction

Last time I was at this junction I was about to turn right (east) and down toward Cataloochee Valley. I remember thinking that I did not look forward to coming back here and having to turn UP that trail - it looked steep! And it was... But not for nearly as long as I was afraid it would be. From this junction the Rough Fork trail climbs (pretty steeply) for about a mile, mile and a half. And then it levels out and is just a fantastic cruising trail for the rest of the way back to Polls Gap.

Rough Fork trail - up, up, up!

Rough Fork trail - and then it flattens out

Occasional views from Rough Fork trail

Top section of Rough Fork trail - flat and cruisey!

Near the end of a 13+ mile day, I was grateful for a flat couple of miles to finish the trail. Not a lot of great views in this section, but good trail, nice forest to walk through and good weather.

Done! 13.7 miles in 6 hours

Steak and corn on the cob as my dinner reward

Balsam Mountain Campground is lined with Jewelweed!

Drove the rest of the way from Polls Gap up the Balsam Mountain campground for the night. Got camp set up, and cooked dinner: steak cooked over a wood fire, and corn on the cob warmed up. Delicious way to celebrate a good hike! Got a good fire going and sat and stared into the flames for a couple of hours before the rain started in for real and drove me to my tent. In to bed around 8 pm, and slept (off and on) til about 8 am when it was still raining... So I just threw all of the wet stuff in the back of the car and headed out. Made a stop in Maggie Valley at "Pop's Place" for breakfast. Two thumbs up - really good breakfast! Sausage, eggs, grits, and biscuits and gravy, with 3 cups of coffee to wake me up!

Breakfast spot in Maggie Valley. Love the caption: "One Love For All People Humanity!"
Had eggs, sausage, grits, biscuits and gravy, and 3 cups of coffee!

This was my second to last hike to finish my map. Have plans to do the Boulevard trail in October and wrap this long quest up. Can't believe we're finally here, but I'm excited to get this all wrapped up!

Til next time, happy hiking!