Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Gregory Bald and AT Loop - NC - July 2002
I did this solo as a 4 day, ~36 mile round trip mid-week prior to Christy's family reunion at Fontana Village on July 4th. Four days is a little deceiving as Day 1 hit the trail at 6PM and only lasted 2.5 miles. I actually started this trip by bagging a couple of highpoints on Sunday. You can drive practically to the summit of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina via the Blue Ridge Parkway. The clouds had already formed by the time I got there but it wasn't raining so I zipped past the wheezing tourists resting on the park benches and bagged it. There is a nice look out tower that I'm sure affords some excellent views had the clouds not covered practically everything in sight. A quick picture and I'm back on the road driving towards the Smokies.The drive to Clingman's Dome is anything but fun. You have no choice but to drive through what seems to be the worst tourist town in America, Cherokee NC. The traffic was absolutely horrendous and the touristy garbage along the side of the road was beyond tacky. Thankfully I was going north whereas the bulk of the traffic was going south. I finally made it to the road to Clingman's Dome and it started to rain on the way up. I pulled into the parking lot as the skies fully opened up and dumped heavy rains. I was on a tight schedule so I couldn't afford to wait out the rain, I put on the rain gear and headed up the half mile trail to the summit. I passed all kinds of people that were getting soaked coming back down the trail. To my great surprise, when I got to the summit the rain suddenly stopped and I was the only one there. The summit of Clingman's Dome has probably the most unusual feature of any highpoint. It has a 'flying saucer'. The saucer allows you to get above the trees and actually see the views. As it had just stopped raining the views were not particularly spectacular, but I did enjoy a solid 20 minutes of solitude on the summit before the next person showed up.
Gregory Bald is known for its blooming Rhododendron's. I was trying to catch their bloom at the peak but apparently I missed it by about two weeks. Almost all of the flowers had fallen off by the time I got there. Day 1 had me pulling into the Twentymile Ranger station about 5:30PM on Sunday evening. The plan was to hike 2 miles into campsite #90, via Twentymile Loop and the Wolf Ridge trail, and spend the night there. I filled out my permit at the ranger station and got on the trail about 6PM. Shortly thereafter a thunderstorm started to roll in. There wasn't any rain yet but the thunder and lightning was all over the place and echoing through the valley I was going up. I figured the rain couldn't hold out forever so I double timed it to the campsite and rolled in just about the time it was starting to rain. I didn't know if it would rain all night so I decided to set up my tent before the rain got too heavy. Unfortunately this was the first time I had set up my new tent in a hurry and it probably took me longer than if I had just taken my time. I covered my pack and hung my food, pulling out some Gorp instead of a hot meal cooked in the cramped vestibule of the tent. The rain continued to just drizzle so I went over and talked to two other guys and their nephew in that were in camp. Turns out I could have eaten a real dinner because the rain never really fell in earnest until late at night.
I got up the next morning, packed up the wet tent and headed up the Wolf Ridge trail towards Gregory Bald. The trail was pretty good and is pretty much uphill the entire way. Even in the morning it was really hot and humid and I kept having to wipe the sweat off of my face. 4.5 miles later I got up to Gregory Bald a little before lunch time. I was a little disappointed that the flowers were all off of the bushes. Considering the bushes are everywhere it must really be spectacular if you hit it when they are all blooming at the same time. The sun was out so I laid out my tent to dry and took a little cat nap near the marker on Gregory Bald. I woke up when I heard this rustling sound near me. I opened my eyes to see this crazy deer just coming right up to me. He didn't seem to care whether I was there or not and just went about his business of eating leaves off of the bushes. Evidently I was not the first person this deer had seen in his life. After about an hour the weather looked like it might be changing for the worse so I headed down the Gregory Bald trail towards the AT. The people in camp the night before had told me that the Mollies Ridge Shelter spring had run dry. So my plan was to keep going to the Russell Field Shelter which they said did have water. They also told me that there was water at the junction of the Gregory Bald trail and the Long Hungry Wolf trail which was a mile from Gregory Bald. I stopped here and checked it out and indeed the spring was running. Another two miles had me link up with the AT. I stopped here for a break and the weather started to roll in again. It thought about raining and then changed its mind. I got up and headed north along the AT towards Mollies Ridge. 3 miles later I got to Mollies Ridge Shelter where the register indeed confirmed that the spring was dry. I made a note in the register that I was moving on to Russell Field Shelter and headed out. As I was leaving I looked at a sign showing the trails and the mileage. Somebody had crossed out the 2 miles to Russell and replaced it with a 3. I thought this was odd as the map clearly shows it as 2, but since I didn't really have a choice either way I just filed it away for reference. Well after 2 miles I am not at Russell Field Shelter nor am I even going in the direction that I should be going in. Normally I would have thought I had made a wrong turn but I was on the AT and following white blazes. It is almost impossible to get lost on the AT and I was still on it. I had seen a place where it looked like they re-routed the trail and what a re-route it turned out to be. I dropped completely down into an adjacent valley and then had to climb back out again before I finally got to Russell Field. I'm thinking 3 miles was short changing the re-route, it was closer to 3.5 or 4 miles. I set my pack down and greeted 3 other guys that were already there. I asked them how the water was and they just looked at each other and laughed. They told me it was down the hill and that it was more of a mud puddle than it was a spring. Fortunately I was filtering my water and managed to fill up without any real difficulty. The other guys were using pills which would have been really gross due to all the funk in the water. I ate, set up in the shelter and hung out. Later on a couple showed up and asked about the water. We told them about it and they made a beeline for it. Apparently they were hiking ultra-lite and were only carrying a liter of water each when they set out from Fontana Dam that morning. The plan was for them to fill up at each AT shelter. Well the first water they hit was Russell Field at the end of the day. They said they attempted to fill up at the Mollies Ridge spring but it was an effort in futility. Apparently they got enough to keep going though. So no sooner do they get down the hill when the skies open up and it started pouring, rather ironic. Fortunately for me I was high and dry in the Shelter with the 3 other guys and our Shelter mate, the mouse.
My original plan was to go over to the Jenkins Ridge trail and then come across the Lakeshore trail back towards Fontana lake and then stay at campsite #88. I was debating going down the Eagle Creek trail instead or even possibly back tracking down the AT the way I came. The reason was that with all the rain I was concerned that the Lakeshore trail might be rough going and I had a scouting report that told me the Eagle Creek trail was more creek than trail. Finally I said the heck with it and decided to go the Jenkins Ridge route but go to campsite #90 to maintain the same mileage for that day. A little ways down the AT I stopped on Mount Squires and snapped a couple of pictures of scenery. So far I had pretty much been in the trees the entire time and this was my first real viewpoint. After 3 miles I came to the junction of the Jenkins Ridge trail, which was totally overgrown. I could just about see where the trail was suppose to go. After a few minutes of thinking I decided to go a little ways down the overgrown Jenkins Ridge trail and see if it got better. It turns out that the trail did get somewhat better and easier to follow but it was obvious that this was definitely the pass less traveled. I passed by a good stream and not knowing if I was going to have water later on, I stopped and filled up all of my water. 6.5 solitary miles later and a punishing downhill I got to the junction of Jenkins Ridge and the Lakeshore trail. As I was approaching the trail sign I noticed that it looked very new and that there was a laminated piece of paper underneath it. That is never a good omen. I got up to the sign and it said the west bound section of the Lakeshore trail was permanently closed and unmaintained from this year forward. The reason for the Jenkins Ridge trail being overgrown suddenly became clear, no one was on it because you couldn't hardly get anywhere via it. Again I stopped and thought for a few minutes. Either I braved the closed trail or I back tracked to the AT with an 18 mile day the next day to get back to my car. Again I said the heck with it and headed down the closed unmaintained section of the Lakeshore trail. I figured it had only been closed for less than a year, it couldn't be completely impassable. Well it wasn't impassable but I certainly see why they didn't want to maintain it anymore. This thing was nothing but stream crossing after stream crossing. In order to keep from getting my boots wet I boulder hopped across the streams, sometimes having to bushwack along the river bed to get back to the trail. It was kinda fun at first but then it really became a grind as it was late and I was getting tired. It took me 2.5 hours to cover 3.6 miles with 15 stream crossings. Finally I made it to the end and stopped at a log bridge for a bath and a break. I talked to a couple who was going up the Eagle Creek trail and told them good luck. I finally made it to camp site #90 which is along the tip of Fontana Lake. I selected a campsite out in the open kinda near the water. After setting up camp, talking to the other people and eating dinner. The weather starts to roll in again. The thunder and lightning was coming in at a good clip so I made my way over to my tent. About the time I got into my tent the skies opened up again except this time the wind really blew hard in addition to the rain / thunder / lightning. As the storm is working up to a fevered pitch I hear what sounds like all kinds of equipment blowing around, then a snap and a crash. I didn't know what the heck was going on out there but I wasn't about to leave my tent and find out. I peered out underneath the vestibule and didn't see the world coming to an end so I stayed put. The wind howled, the lightning struck and the rain pounded my new tiny little solo tent. The rain was falling so hard that it started to pool and then run like a river all around my tent. The rain was splashing in the water and then bouncing up inside of the tent underneath the rain fly. I just hunkered down and waited out the storm. When the rain finally slowed to a trickle I got out of my tent to see if the other people in camp were alright. All of their tents were still up but a large tree in the middle of camp was not. Apparently all of the sounds and then the snap / crash was this tree falling and taking out one of the steel bear cables used for hanging food. The picture I took tells it all. The tree fell right through a part of the campsite that had a fire ring and tent sites. If somebody had set their tent up there that night they might have been killed, or at least seriously injured. They always tell you to not set up your tent anywhere near dead or dying trees and this is apparently why. We put all of our packs and food on the one remaining bear cable and called it a night.
I got up the next day and broke camp knowing that I had to go straight up the hill in order to cross the AT and get back into the next valley where my car was. A closer inspection of the topo confirmed that I was going to climb about 2,300 feet over 3 miles. Not too terribly bad except that about 1,500 feet of that was in 1 mile. The Lost Cove trail was exactly what you would expect from a side trail that crosses and then continues on past the AT, it was straight up. I was thinking it wasn't so bad until I got to the last mile and then confirmed that it was indeed that bad. After sweating out a couple of pounds of water I made it to the top and lied down on the AT. While I was resting I was pondering the map and thinking about what time I wanted to get back to Fontana Village. I had heard people mention Shuckstack and on the map it said "Lookout" so I decided to head south down the AT a very short distance and see what there was to see. It turns out that Shuckstack is a working fire tower complete with a radio on the top. This thing is more than a little rickety looking but I want to see a view by golly so I climb to the top. Boy was I rewarded for my efforts. The views from this lookout tower were better than any of the views I had gotten so far including Clingman's Dome. I had it totally to myself without another soul in sight. I spent at least 45 minutes just hanging out in the tower and snapping a few pictures. The tower can be accessed fairly easily on a day hike from Fontana Dam and is totally worth the effort. Don't go if you're afraid of heights though because the tower is not user friendly. Finally I had to go and headed back down to where I was. I headed down the Twenymile trail that led back to where my car was. This part of the trip was uneventful and I was pretty much just wanting to get to Fontana Village and woof down a cheeseburger at this point. Overall this trip was about 36 miles and around 7,500 feet of elevation gain and loss. Not too shabby for the east coast. I made it over to Fontana Village and was just sitting down to eat my cheeseburger when the family started rolling in.
|Mark on the summit of Mount Mitchell (6,684 ft) in Mount Mitchell State Park (North Carolina) on 6/30/02. This is the highest point in North Carolina and also the highest point east of the Mississippi river.||This is the look out tower on Mount Mitchell. Had it not been cloudy I'm sure the views would be pretty nice.|
|Mark at the entrance to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park||Mark on the summit of Clingman's Dome (6,644 ft) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee) on 6/30/02. This is the highest point in Tennessee.|
|This is the 'flying saucer' on Clingman's Dome. Good thing they built it otherwise you wouldn't be able to see anything from the summit.||Nothing like a torrential downpour to get the summit to yourself on a Sunday afternoon in the summer.|
|Mark on the summit of Parson's Bald (~4,850 ft) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina) on 7/01/02.||This is at a trail junction between Parson's and Gregory Bald.|
|Walking around on top of the Bald's is more than a little different than the entire rest of the area.||Mark on the summit of Gregory Bald (4,947 ft) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina) on 7/01/02.|
|I was drying out my tent in the sun and taking a little nap when this crazy deer just walks right up to me.||If the weather had cooperated I bet these Rhododendrons would have been spectacular|
|This is on the AT heading east from Russell Field||I have to go thatta-way. Somewhere over there is the Jenkin's Ridge trail.|
|Mark on a bridge after making 15 consecutive stream crossings on the old unmaintained route of the Lakeshore trail.||This is the tree that fell in camp during the storm. Good thing I didn't decide to set my tent up there!|
|View of Fontana Lake from the Shuckstack lookout tower||Mark and the Smokies from the Shuckstack lookout tower|
|Mark and the Smokies from the Shuckstack lookout tower||Don't climb up here if you're afraid of heights!|
Gregory Bald / AT Loop from Twentymile Ranger Station
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