Monday, February 1, 2010

Backpacking the Great Smoky Mountains

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“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
-- Ed Viesturs (No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks)Smoky Mountains Map








The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.  The park is massive at about 500,000 acres, 95% of which is forest.  The park has over 800 miles of maintained trails with elevations ranging from 800 feet to 6,643 feet, including the Appalachian Trail (AT) running right through the park.  This park attracts more visitors annually then any other national park, because it is within a days drive of about 60% of the population of the United States.  This puts about nine million visitors a year in the park.  You would think this would make the park crowded and perhaps parts of the park at certain times of the year are crowded.  But when I was lucky enough to visit last October for a backpacking trip, we saw few people.  I’m guessing that, as with most parks, the majority of people go only at the peak of the season and even then they don’t venture far from the main roads.  

These ancient southern Appalachian mountains are some of the most beautiful in the world.  The park holds a wide diversity of animal and plant life as well as the remains of the mountain culture that was in these lands prior to the park being established.  The plant life creates a blue misty haze accounting for the name “Smoky” mountains.

For my first Smoky Mountain backpacking trip, my brother and I chose a two night hike near Fontana Dam up to Gregory Bald. Since I was flying in and my brother was driving we decided to meet at the airport and spend Friday night at a Bed & Breakfast close to the trail head.  I’m not crazy about the idea of going right from an airplane to the trail head.  This time it turned out to be a smart move staying at an Inn then hiking in the morning – mainly because when I arrived at the airport in North Carolina, my backpack didn’t. It didn’t make it onto the plane with me (probably because I checked-in 5 minutes before the plane was schedule to take off).  Continental Airlines was very good about it and offered to have the backpack delivered to me at my hotel – which they did.  The plane my pack was on was delayed by bad weather, and our B&B was way off the beaten path, but about 4:30 AM – it was delivered.  The B&B we stayed at was The Appalachian Inn in Robbinsville, NC (their web site).  I highly recommend this place! Run by Lance & Elizabeth Butler it was a very pleasant stay and the breakfast was a wonderful start to our hike.Gregory Bald map









We started our hike at Twentymile ranger station, a small outpost (no ranger there) off Lake Cheoah.  From there we walked up “Twentymile Trail” until it intersected with the “Long Hungry Ridge Trail”.  The walk through this part of the park is close to many steams and rivers, there were several crossings, some by log bridges others were small fords. We stopped at campsite #92 along that trail and had a nice relaxing evening.  Campsite #92 has no shelters, just a few spots to pitch tents and a rock fire pit.  I put my tent up not to far from a small stream that runs through that site and was able to sleep to the very nice sound of the running stream.  The campsites in the GSM park all have bear poles – tall steal flag pole type things with metal cables you can use to hoist up you food bags.  Much more convenient that having to throw up you own cord over a tree.

The next day we woke up to perfect weather and hiked up to Gregory Bald (elevation 4,949 feet).  Unfortunately on this trip I didn’t bring my camera so I’m including this video Trent put out on youtube (Trents youtube site) as well as a couple public domain photos. 

Gregory Bald

Gregory Bald Summit-east1We planned on spending the night at campsite #13 which is just past the bald off the “Gregory Bald Trail” but as we got there in mid-afternoon we discovered the site was closed due to excessive bear activity. So we found ourselves hiking down the “Wolf Ridge Trail” to campsite #95.  This was an extremely nice walk and did include a few close encounters with bears (including a few bear cubs up in trees). 

The next day we walked out of the woods and went over to Fantana Dam (a site worth seeing all on it’s own) and made use of the public showers there.  The AT goes right over Fontana Dam and there are shower facilities there for the thru-hikers. I’m sure the person sitting next to me on the plane back home appreciated this as much as me!

Fontana Dam Powerhouse

Link to purchase map… gsm map










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