Monday, May 11, 2015

After a long night chatting with our new friends, James and Cat, we prepared a much needed, hearty breakfast which included steak, eggs, Greek yogurt, and fresh strawberries.  After surviving on dehydrated meals for so long, the sweet, juicy taste of strawberries with cold yogurt was just divine.  The steak wasn’t too shabby either.

If you’ve never visited the Great Smoky Mountain National park before, you should be prepared to smell a bit funky after your visit.  To our surprise, none of the campgrounds within the park had showers to clean up after a long hike.  However, after a tip from Cat, we enjoyed a long, hot, $3 shower at a nearby motel just outside the park.

After getting cleaned up, we headed toward the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to visit the adjacent Mountain Farm Museum, which contains a fascinating collection of log structures from the early European settlement time periods.

We spent almost two hours exploring the exhibition until the skies quickly turned black and thick rain clouds covered the sun.  Heavy rain and thunder chased us down Newfound Gap Road as we headed towards Gatlinburg, where we found shelter for the following two nights, once again enjoying the local moonshine and hot tubs!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Energized from our two zero days in Gatlinburg, James and I could not wait until we finally set a foot onto the trail again. We parked our car at the Rainbow Falls trail head, and reorganized our packs for our next backpacking adventure. To our amusement our backpacks were incredibly light, probably as light as they would ever be on our road trip. This was because we did not need to pack our tent, since we would be spending the night in a shelter for the very first time. Our packs only contained the necessities like food, first aid kit, rain gear, sleeping pad, and sleeping bags.

James and I followed the Rainbow Falls Trail for almost the entire length of our hike. Due to the popularity of that trail, we split up after about a half of a mile and I continued my hike ahead of James to his dismay. The split up occurred unintentionally, but I felt like I was participating in a pilgrimage until I finally changed my pace and left the crowd behind me. I kept passing groups of people, sometimes three to four at a time, almost racing up the trail.

The fast pace definitely paid off. By the time I reached the 80-foot high waterfall, a couple had left their hidden lunch spot at the top of the waterfall, which was slightly tucked under the edge of the cliff. This spot offered a cool and shady retreat for James and myself. Feeling a little guilty of ruining other people’s pictures with our feet, we climbed down the fortress and soaked our feet in the cold creek water, while enjoying our sandwiches.

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Rainbow Falls

We continued our hike by crossing the wooden footbridge just below the waterfall and climbed an additional 1,700 feet for the next 3.2 miles to the Bull Head Trail junction. Knowing that we only had 0.5 miles left until we reach the Mount LeConte Lodge, we felt the excitement in our toes.

As we spotted the roofs of the cozy cabins, we could not believe our eyes. We found ourselves in a hidden paradise in the middle of the Smoky Mountains. We were surrounded by the noise of wild birds and the wind rustling through the treetops, while enjoying a spectacular view from a swinging bench of one of the cabins. Unfortunately, we were not able to reserve a room for the season, but our shelter was just as perfect as the lodge, if not even better. However, staying in one of the cabins has definitely made it onto our bucket list.

Since we had never stayed in a shelter before, I was a little concerned about our level of comfort, especially at night. However, as soon as I laid eyes onto the shelter of Mount Le Conte, all my concerns vanished within an instant. Hands down, the shelter was the nicest and cleanest accommodation I have seen on our hikes so far.

It may have been the proper Feng Shui of the shelter harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment, but we were lucky to be spending the night with other hikers, who had interesting stories to share and colorful personalities. After dinner, around 7:30 pm, our group of seven hiked up to the Cliff Tops overlook to watch a spectacular sunset over the mountains, enjoying shots of  homemade Apple Pie Moonshine and Fireball with our companions.

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The sunset from Cliff Tops overlook on Mount Le Conte

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Before the crack of dawn we woke and hiked up to the Myrtle Point overlook and patiently waited for the main character to appear on the stage. We all stood there in silence, looking up in the sky, contemplating how amazing life was while the sun illuminated the valley in front of us.

After breakfast our paths diverged and our group went separate ways. James and I followed the Trillium Gap Trail, which is used three times a week by llamas to transport supplies to the LeConte Lodge. Unfortunately, we only encountered their tracks and droppings along the way. Towards the end of our route, the trail led us behind the 25-foot Grotto waterfall, which refreshed us with its cooling water mist on our faces.  We enjoyed our break in front the waterfall and nourished our bodies with fruit pouches before we carried on with our hike back to the car.

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James behind Grotto Falls

Total distance: 16.15 mi
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Since James and I are always up for a more adventure, we continued our day by parking our car at the Clingmans Dome parking lot for another overnight hike that evening.  Before heading down the Forney Ridge Trail towards campsite #68, we tackled the short hike to the top of Clingmans Dome. As we hiked up the paved trail for a half mile, we passed many huffing and puffing tourists before we reached the observation tower. The entire way up and especially at the top of the observation tower, James and I wanted to get away from the tourists as soon as possible.  Something about being able to drive to the top of a mountain removes the excitement of the view.  Tired from our busy morning, James and I decided to take a quick nap in the shade of a pine tree before we continued toward our campsite.

Clingmans Dome observation tower

Clingmans Dome observation tower

Well rested and excited about the swimming hole next to our campsite, we started our hike by following the well maintained Forney Ridge Trail for 1.1 miles until we reached an intersection with the Forney Creek Trail. Before heading down the trail towards our campsite, we took a quick side excursion to Andrews Bald for a view and snack.  As we rested our feet from the strains of hiking downhill, my loving husband surprised me with a bag of Lay’s Pickle Chips to my delight.

Back on the Forney Creek Trail the path turned into a rocky, ankle breaking, slippery trail as we worked our way down the ridge to the creek. It took us an unusual amount of time to finish the 2.3 miles. Before we finally reached our campsite we had to jump carefully over rocks in order to cross a hip-deep creek, which separated the trail.

Turkeys by the trail

Turkeys by the trail

As we reached campsite #68, we discovered, to our disappointment, that the rock slide and the swimming hole  that was promised looked more suicidal than refreshing.  The 40 foot nature slide ended a very shallow 2 foot deep pool.  You’d have to be a mad man to attempt that water slide. Furthermore, the campsite was quite narrow, so we decided to check out the adjacent campsite, down the hill.

The not so safe natural slide and swimming hole at campsite #68

The not so safe natural slide and swimming hole at campsite #68

As we reached the bottom of the hill, we noticed we were not the only ones in this secluded part of the park. Two college students, who were on day eight of a nine day thru-hike of the park, were kind enough to share their campfire with us.

Friday, May 15, 2015

I woke up to the delicious smell of strawberry oatmeal and instant coffee, which James had wonderfully prepared. As I stepped out of the tent the sun was still hiding behind the mountains and I had to warm my hands on the steaming coffee mug. Feeling the sugar in our veins, the four of us started our hike back up the steep mountain. One of neighbors had lost his shoe on the previous day during a stream crossing. I felt extremely bad for him, since he had to hike up the rocky trail in his Chaco saddles, which left his bloody toes entirely exposed.  Fortunately for them, their journey and his misery would soon be over. There was a little gleam of happiness waiting for all of us at the trail head where a friendly park ranger waited for us with packs of Oreo cookies.

Total distance: 8.47 mi
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With hiking recommendations from James and Cat, who we meet earlier in our adventures in the Smokies, we planned to leave the Smoky Mountains in the afternoon to head towards Standing Indian Mountain.  But before we left, we squeezed in one more hike to the top of the Chimney Tops where an incredible view awaited us. James, with the camera case around his shoulder, and I, with my hiking poles, we were ready to conquer the peak. Boy, the trail might have been short, but sure was strenuous. The wide, well maintained trailed turned into leg burning switchbacks with hundreds of stairs to climb. However, the view on the top of the mountain was well worth the pain.

Total distance: 4.76 mi
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