Monday, June 10, 2013

Appalachian Trail: Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap

New Miles Completed: 31.4
Total Miles Hiked:  ~ 35
7-9 June 2013

Thirteen years ago I hiked the western portion of the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies, from Newfound Gap down to Fontana Dam.  It was the first big backpacking trip I did after we moved to Tennessee and I did it solo.  I was relatively ill-prepared and inexperienced then, and I'm sure I carried WAY too much in my pack, but it was a great trip nonetheless.  This past weekend I finally got to finish off the AT in the Smokies by doing the eastern section: from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap.  This time I went with my hiking buddy Shane, and I was a lot better prepared and more experienced.  It was a fantastic trip!

trailhead at Newfound Gap

Shane's wife Sarah was kind enough to get up early and shuttle us up to Newfound Gap Friday morning.  It was drizzly, and the top of the mountains were socked in with fog.  I love the trail sign at Newfound Gap: "Katahdin Maine 1972.0"  I can imagine that's a little overwhelming to the AT thru-hikers who make it to this point.

In general the AT through the GSMNP follows the TN/NC border and the spine of the tallest mountains in the park.  Our starting point at Newfound Gap is over 5,000 ft in elevation and the bulk of the trail meanders up and down between 5,000 - 6,400 feet.

Day 1:  Newfound Gap to Pecks Corner shelter.  10.8 miles

The first day out we went nearly 11 miles.  Along the way we went up and over three peaks and passed both the Icewater Spring shelter and Charlies Bunion.

Icewater Spring shelter
 Icewater Spring shelter is only a couple of miles from Newfound Gap and sits on a fairly exposed ridge with outstanding views, so it's a very popular destination.  Sadly, when we arrived the mountain was still completely fogged in, so there were no views.  We did meet several hikers here, including a couple of long-distance hikers that we would see often over the next couple of days.  "Mush Mouth" and "Void" were friends from Kansas who are hiking from Springer Mountain, GA (the southern terminus of the AT) to Harpers Ferry, WV (sort of the midpoint of the AT).  We stopped in for a snack and to say hello.

Sand Myrtle in flower at Charlies Bunion
Charlies Bunion
The next major stop was Charlies Bunion, less than a mile down the trail from Icewater Spring.  This is a huge bare outcrop of slate with sheer drops on three sides, and (on clear days) amazing views down the valley.  It's a fun (but scary) place to visit and there are signs that warn parents to "closely control children."  The rock faces here were covered with Sand Myrtle in flower - this is a member of the Heath family that only grows on particular rock formations at high elevation in the Smokies.

I should point out that there are MANY trails that intersect the AT along its length in the GSMNP.  For the sake of brevity I will not mention or post pictures of all of the trail junctions like I usually do, but there are lots of ways to get up to the AT from the lower regions of the park.

Early in the afternoon I mentioned that I was getting hungry and that we should look for a place to stop for lunch.  Shane agreed, and not 2 minutes later we came around a corner of the trail to find a long block of rock at the edge of the trail with amazing views down into North Carolina.  The sun had come out and we basked as we ate and drank in the views.

view from the AT down into North Carolina
Our destination for the first night was Pecks Corner shelter which sits about 0.4 miles down the Hughes Ridge trail from the AT.

Pecks Corner shelter
Pecks Corner shelter is of the same general construction as all of the trail shelters in the park.  They are 3-sided stone structures with a two-level wooden bunk system, bench & table sets along the front for cooking, a fireplace, and cables to hang food bags away from the bears.  This particular shelter sits pretty far down a narrow valley.  There was an excellent spring and a composting privy on site.  In addition to Mush Mouth and Void we met up here with several other folks.  A mom and her two kids from San Diego, CA who are working on a thru-hike of sorts; Cobweb, a southbound thru-hiker who is finishing up his interrupted thru-hike from last year; and a section hiker from west Tennessee who teaches school in southern Illinois.  All in all it was a diverse and interesting group and we had lots of good conversation.  As is usual on the trail though, bed time comes early and we were all in our sleeping bags by about 8 pm.

Day 2: Pecks Corner shelter to Cosby Knob shelter. 13.3 miles

up and ready to hit the trail the morning of day 2 at Pecks Corner shelter
Our second day out the trail went up over (or around) the summit of some very high mountains: Mt. Sequoyah, Mt. Chapman, and Mt. Guyot, all over 6,000 feet in elevation.  From there the trail drops down toward Cosby Knob and Low Gap.  This section of the trail is one of the most remote in the park - you are many miles away from any road here.  It's also amazingly beautiful as you traverse the narrow spine of the mountains.  In many places the trail is not more than a few feet wide with sheer drops of hundreds or thousands of feet down on either side.  It's both eerie and exhilarating at the same time.  And the views...  Pictures simply can't do justice to the beauty.

early morning mist rising from a mountain valley
Along the way we stopped at the Tricorner Knob shelter for lunch.  This shelter is very close to the AT and sits in a nice open and sunny area.  The spring that is the shelter's water source is right next to the shelter and spreads out to form a very wet and muddy area directly in front of the shelter. 

Tricorner Knob shelter
After lunch and a rest we headed on down the trail.  Along the way we passed (and almost missed!) the wreckage of an Air Force F-4 jet plane that crashed here on January 4, 1984.  There's a good description and lots of pictures here.

piece of twisted metal from the plane wreck
We also met up at the Snake Den Ridge trail junction with a group of trail volunteers who were heading up the trail to do maintenance.  They were part of the S.W.E.A.T. Crew program and carried not only all the necessary camping equipment and food, but also all the tools and materials necessary for a week's worth of trail work.  Thanks a lot for everything you do!

rake and axe handles from the S.W.E.A.T. crew leaning against the trail sign

Late afternoon we made it in to the Cosby Knob shelter for the night.  Shane and I had stayed here with some of our Boy Scouts back in February when there was quite a bit of snow and temperatures in the single digits. 

Cosby Knob shelter
We met up again with some folks from the previous night, and also met some new ones, including a couple more thru-hikers.  Fun conversations again, and in bed around 9 pm.  There were a couple of really heavy-duty snorers though, that made sleeping tough.  It was definitely NOT the most restful night I've ever had on the trail, for sure, but I guess that's one of the prices of staying in a shelter.

Day 3:  Cosby Knob shelter to Davenport Gap and I-40.  11.2 miles

Sunday morning we actually covered 0.8 miles of trail that we had hiked back in February, from Cosby Knob shelter down to Low Gap.  And from Low Gap, back up fairly steeply to the ridge of Mt. Cammerer.  One of the things I was really looking forward to on this trip was a visit to the Mt. Cammerer fire lookout.  I'd seen pictures, but never had the chance to visit before.  It was a beautiful structure, on a beautiful site, with beautiful views!  Absolutely amazing!

Mt. Cammerer fire lookout
me at the Mt. Cammerer lookout
view from Mt. Cammerer lookout
The side trail from the AT out to the lookout is 0.6 miles each way, with its own ups and downs and rock scrambles.  But it was well worth the extra 1.2 miles!

From the top of Mt. Cammerer the AT drops rapidly from nearly 5,000 feet elevation down to about 2,000 feet at Davenport Gap over a distance of about 5 miles.  It was like dropping through time as well - plants that were still in bud up top were out in full flower the further down we got, and we started to see species that occur at lower elevations that we hadn't seen up high.  The temperature and humidity also seemed to increase steadily as we descended.

About a mile from Davenport Gap and the park boundary is a short side trail to the Davenport Gap shelter.  

Davenport Gap shelter
It sits in a picturesque little hollow, but was somehow a bit stifling.  It's one of the few (maybe the only?) trail shelters that still has a wire fence across the front to keep out the bears, and does not have bear cables to hang food bags from.  There's also no privy.  Not exactly sure why, but it just didn't strike me as someplace I'd like to spend an evening.  We stopped to eat a bite of lunch and fill our empty water bottles before heading out.  From here it was just a hop, skip and jump down to the park boundary at Davenport Gap.

Shane at the park boundary in Davenport Gap
While this finished up the AT through the GSMNP for us, we still had 1.9 miles of hiking on the AT to get to Interstate 40 and our pickup point.  From Davenport Gap the AT first winds through a dry piney forest, and then drops down into a cool hardwood & rhododendron forest with a lovely creek paralleling the trail.  The creek ultimately spills  into the Pigeon River and the AT crosses a bridge over the river and then under the I-40 overpass.  My son Jesse arrived to pick us up just about 5 minutes after we stepped out of the woods - perfect timing (especially good since my cell phone reception was pretty spotty around there).

AT marker at the trail entrance near I-40
What else can I say?  This was a trip that I've planned and dreamed about occasionally since 2000, and actively for about the last five years.  Shane is the best hiking partner I can imagine - we're well-suited to each other in a lot of ways, and always have a great time hiking and backpacking together.  The trail was tough - in places it is narrow and deeply rutted, it's often very rocky, and this weekend was very wet (my boots didn't fully dry the whole time we were out).  But the beauty of the views, the excitement of walking the narrow ridges, the gorgeous wildflowers, and cool side trips all combined to make this one of the best backpacking trips ever.  I highly, highly recommend this trip to anyone who is prepared for the rigors and interested in the scenery.

I plan for this to NOT be my last backpacking trip this summer.  Definitely want to get a few more trails knocked out, so stay tuned for more.  

Til next time, happy hiking!