Tuesday, May 5, 2015

As we followed the Blue Ridge Parkway into the Smoky Mountains we knew that we would need some cash for the camping fees at the campground. So instead of making the turnoff for the nearby campground, we continued down the road towards Gatlinburg, TN in search of an ATM. All of a sudden, as we exited the woods, a magical place that can only be described as “Vegas meets Jersey Shore” appeared in the middle of the Smokey Mountains. Mesmerized by the neon lights, the bumping music, and a town that was one big amusement park, we immediately ditched the thought of heading back into the mountains for the night. James found a cheap hotel deal which included a hot breakfast buffet that we could not turn down. After a long hot shower, which left the drain full of dirt and grime, we stopped at the Smoky Mountain Brewery, conveniently next door, for a brew tasting. To our surprise as we left the bar around 11:00 pm we found ourselves in a ghost town, not a single person was to be seen on the streets. Off to bed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Happily stuffed with biscuits and gravy from our complimentary breakfast buffet, we stepped onto the busy streets of Gatlinburg. We spent all day tasting free moonshine, which Gatlinburg has a lot of, and none of the four distilleries let us leave until we tried all of their samples. You can draw your own conclusion about our state of mind. Around 4:00 pm we finally left the craziness of Gatlinburg and headed back towards the mountains.

Eager to test my newly purchased backpack, a Gregory Deva 60, I could not wait to finally explore the Smoky Mountains. My previous backpack was a hand-me-down from James, which was made for a man twice my size and gave me incredible shoulder pain. During our previous hikes there have been many times where I wanted to throw the pack into the ditch. One day I opened my backpack and to my surprise I found only the weather fly, my sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and my rain outfit in it. James had taken the rest of our gear in his own pack to lighten my load. Now, thanks to my new and improved backpack, James and I carry almost the same weight!

Anyway, as I said, enthusiastic to test my backpack, we planned to spend our first night in the mountains at campsite #18, at the ranger dubbed “Honeymoon suite”. The site was a short two and a half miles from the trail head, which was perfect due to our late start. I do not recall the reason for James bad mood, but I became very disturbed by his attitude as we drove to the trail head and upon reaching the parking lot I quickly packed up my gear and rushed off along the trail ahead of him. Furious about James, I only wanted to get ahead of him and have some peace. I was completely in my zone as I approached a turn in the trail only about a tenth of a mile into the hike and “BAH BAM!”, there it was. The huge black behind of a bear. Muddled by my encounter I was only able to phrase an “Oh my!” as I abruptly stopped. James and I retreated, while two cubs quickly ran uphill; however, mama bear only moved a few yards up the hill before turning to look at us. Naturally we backed up more and kept on making noises with our hiking poles, but the bear would only make weird grunting sounds and kept her position. As we got a better view of the situation, we noticed a dead animal along the trail where I had first seen the bears. At first we thought that it might have been a dead cub, but as the Park Rangers back at the rancher office later insured us, it was likely a dead boar. This must be why she did not want to leave. Our only option was to backtrack and find an alternative way around the bear. Luckily we were able to find a connecting trail up the hill and continue our way towards the campsite.

Maybe 20 minutes later, James spotted a tiny cub peeking its head around the trunk of a tree only a couple yards ahead of us off the trail. Within a split second we experienced a cocktail of emotions of “Oh, how cute!” to “Oh great, where is mama bear?” Two more cubs climbed around the tree but luckily the bears eventually climbed down the tree and ran off, probably towards their mother, which we never saw!

We survived the rest of the hike without any further bear encounters, which we highly appreciated. In the meantime, James’ bad mood had naturally disappeared and I completely forgot about being mad at him for being so crumby. We definitely had bigger fish to fry than being mad at each other for no legitimate reason. As we arrived at our Honeymoon suite, we dropped our packs, stripped off our hiking boots, and enjoyed the cold creek water, while hunting around for shinning pebbles.

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Our camp in the Smoky Mountains at campsite #18

**Note: Due to our interest in surviving these bear encounters, no pictures of the bears are available!

Total distance: 4.23 mi
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Thursday, May 7, 2015

We enjoyed a cup of coffee with the first rays of the sun before we packed up our tent and started our hike back to the car. Luckily we were able complete the hike without any additional wildlife encounters, the only unusual spotting was a large, metal barred, boar trap near the spot of our first bear encounter the previous day. After dumping our gear in the car, we headed towards the ranger station to report our encounters and also to pick a fresh permit for another trip into the back country. With help from the rangers, we planned a two night trip in the eastern section beginning the following day. For the night, we drove to Elkmont Campground, where we pinched our tent and enjoyed hot dogs, whiskey, and the sounds of the nearby creek.

Friday, May 8, 2015

We started the day early to first hike to the Alum Cave Bluffs near Mount Le Conte before heading out on our backpacking trip later that day. We followed the moderate trail along the Alum Cave Creek to an arch rock, which required us to climb several steps etched into the stone before exiting at the top. After two miles and 1100 feet in elevation gain, we reached our final destination, the 80 feet high concave bluff, which provided us with an outstanding view. After spending some time at the bluffs we headed back to our car, and continued our drive to our next multi day backpacking adventure.

Total distance: 5.05 mi
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At the parking lot of Cosby campground we reorganized our provision for the two day hike and enjoyed some Mediterranean flavored tuna sandwiches before we tackled the strenuous Snake Den Ridge Trail. Over a stretch of 4.7 miles we climbed more than 3000 feet, which made us definitely feel the burn in our calves and thighs. I usually love hiking uphill, especially on challenging rugged terrain, yet carrying our heavy packs on the trail got the best of me. Three-quarters of a mile before the intersection with the Maddron Bald Trail I desperately needed a break. I dropped my sweat drenched pack, resentfully, and inhaled a whole day’s supply of snacks to re-nourish body. I was annoyed by the monotonous climb that lasted more than 3 hours and seemed to never end. At every turn I was hoping to see the sign to end our misery, but instead it kept on going. Finally after my snack break and another quarter mile, I spied the wooden sign that I had been waiting for so impatiently.

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Nadine crossing one of the bridges before the going got tough on Snake Den Ridge Trail

The rangers had mentioned that if we followed the side trail at this intersection toward the Appalachian Trail we’d be able to spot the wreckage of two old airplanes that had crashed some time ago. I had no energy left, so James dropped his pack, grabbed the camera, and pushed on up the hill to see what he could find by himself. About a half hour later, he returned, disappointed, having travel an extra mile and a half and only spotting a few scraps of one crash and not seeing a traces of the other. It was not worth the extra miles and elevation gain.

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Not so worth it plane wreckage

Immediately after the intersection with the Maddron Bald Trail the conditions and landscape drastically changed on us. Hiking along the ridge was an especially scenic section. The broken shale covered trail with its exposed roots seemed to turn into an English garden on the top of the ridge. By the time we reached campsite #29 the sun was about to set, leaving us with a small window to pitch our tent, cook dinner, and secure our food bag. Luckily we were the only ones who occupied the campsite for the night and we were able to enjoy the sunset over a delicious bowl of dehydrated Pad Thai.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

After an entertaining morning involving mouse droppings in our coffee mugs, which completely disturbed my whole morning ritual, we headed out towards campsite #34 along Gabes Mountain Trail. Compared to the previous day’s uphill battle, we were treated with a consistently downhill hike until we finally reached our adorable campsite. Along the way we took a little detour around the Albright Grove Loop Trail. The massive trees in this ancient section of the forest were incredible. Our alarm system was briefly triggered when we experienced our third bear encounter, which was fairly uneventful due to the clanging of our coffee mugs on our packs, which instantly scared off the lone adult bear.

Nadine inspecting one of the massive trees along the Albright Grove Loop Trail

Nadine inspecting one of the massive trees along the Albright Grove Loop Trail

After setting up our tent, I enjoyed a well-deserved cat nap in the sun next to the creek that passed campsite #34, while James caught up on his book. As I napped, all of the sudden James expelled a loud yell towards the woods. Abruptly I opened my eyes and tried to get a handle of the situation. Apparently an adolescence bear tried to sneak into our camp, from the same spot where we spotted earlier a bear prints, while James had turned his back on him.

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Bear track near campsite #34

 

So far we had been lucky with the weather in the Smoky Mountains and become accustom to hearing thunder in the distance without any resulting weather. However, our exceptions, in this case, were wrong, and as soon as I started to prepare that night’s dinner, it started to rain cats and dogs. To avoid getting soaked to the bone, we finished cooking our dinner in our tent. After the rain, with the enter forest floor soaked, the creatures of the forest began to enjoy the moisture. Salamanders, snails, and mushrooms began to seemingly appear before our eyes. Not all was spared, however. The firewood we had meticulously gathered was now soaked and our hoped for an evening campfire seemed to disappear. Luckily we shared our campsite with a young couple from Asheville, who recently discovered the joy of backpacking and brought along some fire starters to save the day.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Feeling a little melancholic about our departure, we decided to spend a great portion of the morning at Hen Wallow Falls, where James hunted down some water salamanders, who enjoyed their morning bath on the slippery walls of the waterfalls.

Total distance: 20.97 mi
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In the early afternoon we left the Smoky Mountains and headed towards Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Taking Greybeard’s advice we packed some light lunch and hiked up a steep, grass covered bald named Max Patch. The 360-view from the top of the bold was just spectacular. We were able to see Mount Mitchell on the east and the Smoky Mountains in the south. As Greybeard mentioned, Max Patch was indeed the definition of a perfect picnic spot. Kids where flying their kits, while exhausted Appalachian Trail thru-hikers enjoyed some cold beers and fruit provided by many of the day hikers.

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Panorama on Max Patch

We left Max Patch with a heavy heart and continued our drive, circling the Smoky Mountains.  Along the way we stopped at the Cherokee Hotel and Casino for a very brief gambling session and also stopped in Bryson City at Nantahala Brewing Company for some refreshing beers. After a quick tasting session we head up the road to the Deep Creek campground, just inside the park. To our surprise the campground was basically empty and was only shared with another couple from New Orleans. Our neighbors, James and Cat, were great company and we shared a lot of laughs and funny stories while enjoying whiskey and beers over the campfire.