Trip Report: Roundtop Ridge Trail/AT Loop

April 16, 2007

Misty morning on the ATI led a small group of Boy Scouts and two leaders on a backpacking trip this past weekend. I hadn’t planned it this way, but the location and time were perfect for meeting north-bound thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

There was a steady stream of them coming out of Hot Springs, N.C. They all seemed to be happy, well-fed and clean, but that’s not surprising.

By the time a thru-hiker reaches Hot Springs, he or she has been on the trail for nearly a month. The Smokies are done and now the body has turned into a hiking machine.

And Hot Springs is a great place to take a zero day. For some hikers, make that two. It has a popular hostel and, despite its small size, a few of excellent restaurants.

The eight boys, two leaders and I started our hike just across the French Broad River from Hot Springs. We headed up the Roundtop Ridge Trail. At one time that was the AT, and today you can still see in a few places the familiar white blaze that’s used to identify the AT. The trail is a continuous climb for the first three miles, but it never seemed too steep and the smaller boys handled it well. The trail then follows a ridgeline for much of the remaining distance until it connects to the AT.

It was here that we met our first thru-hiker. I’m sorry I wasn’t able talk with him long enough to get his trail name, but at that point the boys were anxious to reach the campsite, so the conversation was cut short.

Our destination was a campsite about 100 yards past a side trail that leads to a fire tower on Rich Mountain. Next to the campsite is a spring.

We were also in a hurry to set up camp because we knew the weather forecast and it didn’t look good. For the last couple days, forecasters had predicted heavy rain and high winds, so we wanted to get in and prepared before it arrived.

By dinner time the rain did come, but it wasn’t heavy, so it didn’t bother us. And by that time what breeze there had been had calmed down.

It was also about this time that two thru-hikers arrived in camp. As they looked around, I told them there was plenty of room just below where we were, and promised we’d try not to bother them.

Later while refilling my water bottle at the spring I had a chance to talk to one of the hikers, NOBO Hobo. For those of you not familiar with AT hiking terms, NOBO is a hiker acronym for North Bound. He was hiking with Matterhorn.

Overnight, we did get some heavy rain, but by 6:00 a.m. it ended. That was just enough excuse for one of your younger scouts, who has — shall we say, an over-abundance of energy — to get up and try to get everyone else up. To waken us, he shouted repeatedly that he had seen a bear.

So much for my promise to NOBO Hobo and Matterhorn.

Getting the boys organized and going in the morning is often a laborious challenge and this time was no exception. But we managed to get on the trail by 9:15 and still without too much rain.

For the return trip we stayed on the AT. Though it’s nearly two miles longer returning this way, the route is primarily downhill and the views near the French Broad River are beautiful.

Well, in clear weather they are. This day, there were no views. In fact, for most of the return trip the rain and the temperatures came down steadily.

But the stream of thru-hikers didn’t stop either, and I had a chance to speak to a few.

The first I talked to was Little Red, who’s hiking partner was, not surprisingly, Wolf, as in Big Bad. From their description of their zero day in Hot Springs, it seems they took good advantage of the restaurants.

I also talked to Castanets, an older gentleman with an unlikely trail name. He explained that his name was chosen because it was the only instrument he could play. After we joked about that he added that he was hiking with Clem, who was, and I’m not kidding about this, carrying an 8 lb. French horn.

Later when I returned home I found Castanets’ trail journal and learned his real name is Jim Schiwal. He’s hiking to raise funds in support of the Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (CdLS) Foundation.

In his journal, Castanets explains a little about Clem and his French horn:

I should tell you that Clem is a UGA music major who is on an academic and music scholarship. He was given a 5-6 month sabbatical from his major professor to hike the AT if he would continue practicing his french horn as he progressed north on the trail. As days passed, he would serenade us each evening (when his valves and mouth piece weren’t freezing) helping alleviate much of the daily stress for all thru-hikers. Clem’s instrument and case weighed 8 pounds – a significant additional burden on top of his normal hiking gear.

When Castanets first told me about Clem, I pictured someone just a notch less obnoxious than an accordion player. But that is apparently not so, as Castanets described this part of his journey last month:

Let me tell you, this was the most difficult, tiresome, and demoralizing last stage of any of my hiking days thus far. I felt I had no energy, was completely out of breath, and constantly stopping as I tried to make this last stage of my day’s trek to reach Brown Fork Gap by nightfall. I finally reached my destination and knew I was getting close as I heard the sounds of Clem’s french horn echoing through the hills and gap as I approached the shelter. Never before had music sounded so uplifting and spirit-raising – a real experience for me.

After descending the steep cliff with several switchbacks (where the non-existent view swere) down to the river, we met Tom-B near the parking lot.

From his trail journal I learned his real name is Tom Busse. He started his thru-hike as “Too Many Birthdays,” but has since shortened his trail name:

The Trail had modified my trailname. “Too Many Birthdays” was too long, so I used the initials, “TMB”, but the number of accents on the Trail range from British, Southern, New England, Swedish, and Canadian, so “TMB” never was heard the same way twice, so I inserted an “O”, which resulted in “TOMB” which seemed rather dark, so I inserted a dash, and became “Tom-B” which works on a lot of levels. Also easier for me to answer to! Nice to be “Tom-B” instead of Tom do!

Finally we reached our cars, soaked and cold but none too worse for wear. The boys did well.

It’s all fun and games until someone falls off a cliff, and because that didn’t happen I’m glad to say it was a successful outing.


Trip Report: Circle the Bald and Tour de Georgia, Stage 5

May 1, 2006

Location

Tour de Georgia

For the last three years, one of the highlights of the Tour de Georgia professional bicycling race has been the penultimate stage, a grueling ride of well over 100 miles through the hills of northern Georgia and ending in a steep climb to the top of Brasstown Bald.

In association with this event, the Southern Appalachian Bicycle Association has sponsored a 12- and 36-mile charity ride around Brasstown Bald called Circle the Bald.

Three years ago, the Tour de Georgia established itself as one of the top pro cycling races in the world when Lance Armstrong used it to train for a record-breaking sixth Tour de France victory.

Also three years ago, my two sons and I were just beginning to appreciate the fun and training benefits of road cycling. That year, Landon, my younger son, and I took part in the first Circle the Bald event. We then hiked to the top of Brasstown Bald to see Armstrong come in second while defending the yellow jersey as overall race leader.

We enjoyed that trip so much we returned last year to see Armstrong in his final U.S. race. This trip report is about our repeat ride and hike this year.

Trip Summary: Circle the Bald

Date April 22, 2006
Distance 36.49 miles (11.23 mi uphill, 12.83 mi downhill, 12.42 flat)
Elevation 3499 ft total ascent (3501 ft descent) – 5.4% uphill grade, 14.0% downhill grade
Time 3:20:58 total time (3:07:12 moving, 0:13:46 stopped)

Trip Summary: Hike to Brasstown Bald (one way)

Date April 22, 2006
Distance 4.23 mi (2.92 mi uphill, 0.64 mi downhill, 0.65 mi flat)
Elevation 2750 ft total ascent (263 ft descent) – 14.4% uphill grade, 17.9% downhill grade
Time 2:13:25 total time (1:58:19 moving, 0:15:06 stopped)

Route

Circle the Bald route

The Circle the Bald route begins and ends at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Hiawassee, Ga. The ride goes in a clockwise direction around Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia, and at one point coming to within three miles of the summit.

The hilly and sometimes challenging route travels through the small North Georgia towns of Hiawassee and Young Harris. Part of the route is on a four-lane highway, U.S. 76, but traffic has never been too heavy to make a rider feel in danger. The remainder of the route is on country backroads.

In the three years we have ridden this route we have never been threatened by a dog, a feature always appreciated by bicyclists. In our first ride, just a month after we had bought our first road bikes, we rode the 12-mile route. But as soon as we finished we realized we were up for more, so last year and this year we rode the more challenging 36-mile route.

Our hike to the summit of Brasstown Bald was not on a hiking trail, and if it wasn't for the fact that this was the Tour de Georgia race day we wouldn't have taken that route. But on this day, the road to the summit is closed to everyone but official vehicles, shuttle vans, and of course, the competitors. Those of use who didn't want to stand in long lines for a shuttle ride hiked to the top on a spur road from State Highway 180.

The road contains several sharp switchbacks and some occasional steep grades as it climbs to the top at 4,784 feet above sea level.

On a side note: older topo maps show the Appalachian Trail going over Brasstown Bald, but that section of trail is now called the Jacks Knob Trail. The trail now links the top of the mountain to the current route of the AT.

Description

Landon and I pulled into the campground at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds around 11 p.m. This time we knew exactly where to go because I had reserved the same site we had camped in last year.

But when we arrived, we found another tent already there. The sites aren't particularly well marked, but we didn't sweat it because the next site over was vacant.

As we set up our tent and prepared for bed, I checked the sky. It seemed like some stars were trying to peak through the clouds, so I hoped the forecast for thunderstorms was wrong.

It wasn't.

About an hour later the wind picked up, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled. And then the rain started coming down in waves. The tent shook and I wondered if we would have to deal with the rainfly blowing off.

That didn't happen, though it might as well have. The rainfly did a surprisingly bad job of stopping the rain. Soon we were looking for ways to divert the water and keep our sleeping bags dry. Most certainly, this idea would not have worked.

Fortunately, the storm passed through in an hour or so, and except for an occasional shower the rest of the night was uneventful.

We awoke to only a drizzle, which wasn't enough to change our routine in preparation of the bike ride. After eating breakfast and striking our wet tent, we drove across the road to the staging area of the bike tour.

Two years ago, which was the first year of the event, the day was bright, sunny and warm. Last year it was dreary and bitterly cold. This year was a mix of dampness and partial sun; not the kind of day you would pick, but certainly not the kind that gave you trouble.

The weather must have affected the size of the crowd some because it seemed a little smaller than last year.

After some brief instructions by one of the organizers we were off in a mass start. Usually on one of these rides there will be someone who embarrassingly gets his foot stuck in a clip and falls over at the start, but that didn't happen this time. We left smoothly out of the fairgrounds parking lot and onto U.S. 72, a four-lane highway that leads to the center of Hiawassee.

As we neared a stoplight I saw some members of the local Lions Club stopping cars to collect money for blind children some other such charitable cause. I was tempted to stop and drop a dollar in the bucket. It would have been good for a chuckle. But the pack was moving and the light was green, so we pushed on.

Just outside of town the group split, with some riders taking the 12-mile route around a portion of Chatuge Lake and back to the fairgrounds. We were headed to Unicoi Turnpike, which is a hilly but pleasant ride.

After a few miles we reached a turn off to Owl Creek Road, and I began to slow down a bit. My reaction wasn't because of the terrain at this point; it was because I knew what lay ahead.

Oh, did I.

Circle the Bald ride profile
Circle the Bald route profile

This is one of those nasty hill climbs, the kind that sucks the life out of you but makes you believe you can make it, only to dash your hopes at the end with a false summit.

Or at least that's what is seemed like to me last year. For Landon, it was a different story. He just plowed up that hill like there was nothing to it.

I don't think I much care for 15-year-olds.

And now that he's 16, he's gotten worse. At the bottom of the hill he said to me, "I thinki I'll time myself," and then took off.

You're not supposed to loathe your own flesh and blood, but I was not feeling particularly fatherly at this point.

After eating an orange slice at the rest stop set up at the bottom of the hill, I set off on the climb. I expected my experience might be worse than last year. For one thing, I was now 50 years old. It seemed like a good excuse, anyway. I'd also been busy lately and had not been on a bike much.

But still, I was determined to make it to the top without stopping. And too my surprise, I made it there without feeling like my heart was about to explode.

Hey, maybe I'm in better shape than I was last year, not worse!

Later I decided I was glad I had not been there to watch when the professional cylcists climbed that same hill during the race. Putting my ride in that kind of perspective would have been a severe blow to my self esteem.

There were yet a few more hills to cliimb and about two-thirds of the route still to ride, so my self-congratulating had to end. We headed down the other side of Owl Creek Road where it met up with State Road 180.

Highway 180 is a popular staging area for cyclist to ride up and down the hills on this road and the spur road to the top of Brasstown Bald. Because of the race a few hours from now, there were many cars, bikes and pedestrians along this route.

At the spur road to the bald, Highway 180 heads downhill. But the heavy traffic made it difficult to travel full speed.

At one point, I was going a little faster than the traffic warranted. Then a car in front of me slowed down and I had to hit the brakes. Apparently, though, I hit the front brake a little stronger than the back because I began to fishtail on the road still damp from the morning's rain.

My back wheel swerved all over the place. I thought for sure I was going to crash. Landon did too. But somehow I managed to pull the bike out of a collision course with the road or the backend of the car.

That was more excitement than necessary.

The remainder of the ride down the hill was open, so it was easy to coast down at speeds of more than 40 mph. 

At the bottom of the hill the route turns off the highway and back onto backroads. At this point we're only half-way done, but the ride is easier from here on out.

Eventually we get back on U.S. 76. As before, it's a four-lane highway without too much traffic. But it's not as scenic as the rest of the route. We pass several tourist stops, gas stations and the like on our way back to the fairgrounds.

A quick shower back at the campground and lunch in Hiawassee, then we drove back along our bike route to Brasstown Bald. We ended up having to park about a mile from the spur road, though, because the crowd was quickly building in anticipation of the race finish.

We walked up to the spur road, where Landon asked if we were going to take the shuttle to the top. I guessed he was tired from the bike ride and wanted an easy way to the top. But the line for the shuttle was already long, so I talked him out of it.

Funny thing was, after only hiking a short ways up the road, Landon said to me, "Can I run for a while?"

Hmmm. Maybe he wasn't so tired.

"Sure, whatever you want," I replied. There was no way I was going to run up that mountain with him. So off he ran, despite the fact that he was wearing hiking boots.

About a mile and a half up the road I saw him waiting for me. He was just standing there. Not passed out. Not gasping for breath. Just standing and waiting for his old man.

It's hard to hate your son, but I think I do.

Well, okay. I don't really. But why must he make me feel so old?

Anyway, we continued up the road, watching the many cycling fans who had already picked a spot along the way as their vantage point for viewing the race. Several were ringing cowbells, a traditional cycling fan noisemaker.

Bear in mind that the racers were still more than two hour away, but that didn't stop the cowbell ringers. They used the cowbells to encourage amatuer bicyclists trying to test their strength against the mountain.

The cowbells got to be a little obnoxious after a while, so I turned to Landon and said, "We need more cowbell." (If you don't get that reference, click here.)

There are really two levels to the summit of Brasstown Bald. The first has a large parking lot, which is used during the race as a sort of festival area for sponsors to pass out schwag and promote themselves. The vendors included a few cycling-product companies like Specialized and Maxxis. There were also banks and hospitals represented there.

The most out-of-place sponsor, though, was cable channel TLC. They were there to promote a new Monday night program lineup, which had nothing to do with cycling, fitness, the outdoors, or even Lance Armstrong. I'm not sure what that was all about, except that TLC is owned by The Discovery Channel, a bike team sponsor.

After looking around we continued our hike to the second level, the true summit. There's a large stone tower at the top, which is where the finish line was set up.

About the time we arrived and started looking for a vantage point to watch the finish of the race, two announcers started describing the action along the course.

They were hilarious. Unintentially hilarious, I should say.

Imagine two announcers hyping a pro wrestling match, then crank up the exaggeration another notch. That was these two guys.

When one of them said, "This has got to be the greatest day of cycling ever!" I said to Landon using their overarching manner of speaking, "These guys are the world's greatest masters of hyperbole ever!"

Admittedly, it was a very exciting day of racing. As the racers hit the bottom of Brasstown Bald the peloton remained intact. But as steep mountain climbs tend to do, the pack of riders soon splintered. Before long, only three riders held together at the front — Floyd Landis of the Phonak team, and two Discovery Channel riders, Tom Danielson and Yaroslav Popovych.

All three are among pro cycling's brightest stars. Landis was wearing the yellow jersey as this year's race leader. Danielson was trying to defend his Tour de Georgia title from last year. Popovych is fast becoming one of riders to watch.

As the cyclists climbed the mountain, it became a three-way chess match; as much a battle of strategy as strength.

Popovych fell back, then mustered enough strength to pull himself back even with the other two, only to fall back again. Landis never tried to take an advantage, but he didn't have to. He held a four-second lead over Danielson and just needed to stay on his rival's wheel to keep it.

Tom DanielsonLandon and I couldn't see any of this, of course, from our spot 40 meters from the finish line. We could only hear about the race as it described by the two shouting announcers.

Then just moments before the finish, the announcer booth power died and they were silent.

Nice timing.

We were spared the hysterics as Danielson and Landis made the final dash to the finish line. We missed hearing the announcers split a spleen over the finish. 

Though I'm sure cycling historians can find a race or two that were more exciting than this, the announcers notwithstanding, it was an exciting day for Landon and me.  

Reflection

What I’d do differently

  • Try to train a little more before the ride.
  • Remember to brake using mostly my rear brake.
  • Hike to Brasstown Bald by way of Jacks Knob Trail, not the road.

What I’d do the same

  • Pace myself so I can get to the top of the hill on Owl Creek Road without stopping.
  • Hike my own hike, ride my own ride.
  • Enjoy the day with my son!

Trip Report: Mt. Kephart

January 17, 2006

Location

Summit of Mt. Kephart

Mt. Kephart is easily overlooked among the high peaks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

At an elevation of 6217 feet, it is only the ninth highest peak in the park. Many maps don’t identify it, or only show it by its more popular name, The Jump Off.

But what Mt. Kephart lacks in prestige it holds in views. Unlike many peaks of the Smokies and Blue Ridge Ranges that are capped by foliage, Mt. Kephart affords clear views in several directions.

What’s more, the peak is easy to reach on a heavily-traveled route.

Trip Summary

Date December 23, 2005
Distance 6.78 miles (3.18 mi uphill, 3.15 mi downhill, 0.69 mi flat)
Elevation 2100 ft total ascent (2100 ft descent) – 15.2% uphill grade, 16.8% downhill grade
Time 4:45:07 total time (3:37:06 moving, 1:08:01 stopped)

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Route

Summit of Mt. Kephart

The Appalachian Trail intersects U.S. 441 at Newfound Gap. Here there is a large parking lot, making a convenient starting point at 5,048 feet elevation to begin this hike.

From the trailhead, it’s just 2.7 miles to reach the Boulevard Trail. A sign at this junction directs you .3 mile to a short spur, then another .3 mile to The Jump Off. Although it’s not identified as such, Mt. Kephart’s peak is located at the end of that spur trail.

On my trip, after I reached the summit, I went back to the AT and continued northbound a short distance (.2 mile) to Icewater Springs Shelter.

I spent just a short time there before returning on the AT to Newfound Gap.

See my route on a Topofusion GPS track with photos

Description

View from the AT

Although I left home before the sun had risen, it was easy to see the day was going to be perfect for a hike.

To make matters better, I didn’t have to drive through Sodom and Gomorrah Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to get to the trailhead.

Until that morning, I thought I was going to have a hiking partner for the day. A friend and co-worker, Bill, had planned to hike with me. But that was before he hiked up to Mt. LeConte, taking the same Bullhead-Rainbow Falls route I took on my last hike.

He made that trip the day before, and that night when I called to finalize arrangements, he said he was too worn out to take on another hike.

But his call gave me a scouting report for what I might expect on my trip. Bill said he had to trudge through 12-14 inches of snow as he neared the junction of Bullhead and Rainbow Falls. He ended up not making it to the top.

Though I now knew there would be more snow up there than on my last hike, I figured the Appalachian Trail would be reasonably clear because it would have had more traffic than the Bullhead Trail.

When I arrived the next day, I found I was right.

What I didn’t expect to find was almost no one on the trail that morning. That was surprising, considering the beautiful sunshine and warm temperature.

There were several sightseers in the parking lot and lookout areas, but no one on the trail. In fact, from the trailhead, I only saw one hiker all the way to the junction with The Boulevard Trail. He was a older gentleman, and from the looks of his hand-made hiking stick emblazoned with “Great Smokies National Park” and an American flag, he was obviously a veteran hiker of that territory.

We exchanged brief pleasantries before I turned and headed up The Boulevard Trail. From here, there weren’t as many tracks in the snow, but the way was still clear enough that it continued to be easy hiking.

A sign at the trail junction said the spur trail to The Jump Off was .3 mile away, but it seemed like it was just a walk around the next bend when I reached it.

Here’s where things became more interesting.

No one had gone up this section of trail since the last snowfall, so what had been an easy walk suddenly became a struggle through knee-high snow.

Critter tracks on the trail to The Jump Off

Well, actually I did see the footprints of a small, unidentified critter running up the trail. Unfortunately, the footprints weren’t exactly enought to carve out a path for me.

The snow was deep and the trail was a steep climb, but thankfully it was a short trip to the summit.

Before I left home that morning I decided it would be smart to make sure I was headed to the right spot, so I preloaded a waypoint for Mt. Kephart’s peak in my GPS that I downloaded from the Internet.

Strangely, I found the waypoint and the peak were at least 50 feet apart. I don’t know if that was because of the inaccuracies of consumer GPS units, or because the waypoint was selected from a map and not from a hike to the summit.

Maybe someone reading this will know and let me know.

With the clear winter air, I could see for miles and miles from The Jump Off. I could get a glimpse of Fontana.

Icewater Springs Shelter

When I was ready to move on, it was still early in the day, so I decided to check out Icewater Springs Shelter. Getting there was a short downhill trip back to the AT and then another .2 mile from there.

A large tarp covered the front of the shelter. I don’t know if it was hung there by a trail maintainer, a park service employee, or a very industrious backpacker, but it looked very heavy.

The remnants of a snow fort stood in front of the shelter. Or maybe it had once been an igloo. At any rate, by now it was about half melted.

After writing a short promo for my blog in the shelter register, I headed back down the trail. I decided to eat my lunch back at the trail junction, and as I approached it I heard swift footsteps approach from behind.

I slowed and moved aside to let the hiker pass. He said, “hello,” and “thank you,” in an accent that sounded British to me. Then he hit it in high gear, and flew down the trail.

A couple days later, I learned who that guy was. It was Matt “Squeaky” Hazley.

In a few days, Squeaky would reach Springer Mountain, Ga., completing not just a thru-hike of the AT, but also consecutive thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trails, all in one calendar year.

It’s no wonder he rushed by me in a blur. He was averaging 40 miles a day.

Is that an amazing example of endurance and determination, or a remarkable example of single-minded self-torture? I guess I’ll give him credit and call it the former.

But sheesh, anyways.

Finally, on my way back to Newfound Gap I began to see some “normal” hikers. This section of the AT is one of the most heavily traveled because of its location in the most-visited national park. I knew there was no way I’d go the whole day seeing only a couple of people.

The first dayhikers I came across were a man and his son. We chatted awhile. They mentioned several hikes they had done, particularly in the Rockies. All the while I was thinking, if you’re such experienced hikers, how come you aren’t carrying any food or water with you, and only a lightweight jacket?

Maybe I’m overly cautious. I know the trail is heavily traveled and we were less than three miles from the road. But if it were me, I wouldn’t want to depend on someone else to bail me out if the conditions suddenly turned bad or if I was slowed because of injury.

On my way back I also saw another dad with his son. This boy couldn’t have been more than four years old and he was having a blast tromping through the snow.

I didn’t worry about them though, because they had on warm coats and the dad was carrying a small daypack.

I arrived back at my car at 2:15.

The trip home was uneventful, except for an unfortunate purchase of a cup of coffee at a Townsend convenience store.

Reflection

What I’d do differently

  • Take a longer route, assuming there isn’t as much snow.
  • Check out Charlie’s Bunion.
  • Remember to clear out my GPS before starting out on the trail. (Okay, I thought I did that this time.)
  • Come up with a wisecrack reply when some idiot admits he knows dogs aren’t allowed on the trail but ignores that anyway.
  • Take the opportunity to talk to thru-hikers. You never know when you might run into one trying to set the record for the Triple Crown.
  • Don’t buy coffee from the Citgo gas station in Townsend.

What I’d do the same

  • Not be in a rush when I have plenty of time.
  • Hike my own hike.
  • Enjoy my hike!

Gear list

Wearing Weight (oz.)
REI zip-neck long underwear top 6.5
The North Face nylon pants 15
SmartWool liner socks 1
SmartWool socks 3
Mountain Hardware soft shell pullover 11.5
Patagonia baseball-style cap 2
Cotton bandanna 1
Nylon wallet, cash, identification, etc. 3.5
Salomon Expert Mid boots 37
Suunto X6HR watch 2
Total – wearing 4.58 lbs.
Carrying Weight (oz.)
Golite “Day Pack�? 13.5
Stuff sacks – home made 3.5
Gebel trekking poles 21.5
First aid kit, water treatment 7.5
Plastic safety whistle 0.5
Compass (on watch) -
Petzel Zipka headlamp 2.5
Trails Illustrated map 1.5
Garmin GPSMap 60C GPS 7.5
Canon Powershot S70 camera 10.5
Rite in the Rain note pad 1
Nalgene Lab marker 1
Aloksak storage bag 0.5
Manzilla Windstopper mittens 3.5
Cascade Designs Z-rest seat cushion 2
Integral Designs Primalid hat 1.5
Drop Stoppers Micropore Rainsuit 10
Marmot DriClime wind shirt 9.5
Sierra Designs fleece vest 15.5
Food 24
Water in 1 liter Platypus bottles (2) 76
Total – carrying 11.83 lbs.

UPDATE: I changed the gear list that was originally posted when I realized it wasn’t accurate. I had put it together based on memory, but that memory was faulty. There’s no way I could have carried a Cocoon Pullover and Cocoon Pants by Bozeman Mountain Works on this trip because they weren’t shipped to me until the following week.


Trip Report: Mt. LeConte

December 5, 2005

Location

Mt. LeConte is in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. At an elevation of 6593 feet, it is the third highest peak in the park.

It has been said that Mt. LeConte is the highest mountain above its immediate base east of the Rockies. It rises 5,301 feet from Gatlinburg (1,292 feet above sea level).

Trip Summary

Date November 26, 2005
Distance 14.45 mi (6.01 mi uphill, 7.10 mi downhill, 1.27 mi flat)
Elevation 6459 ft total ascent (4721 ft descent) – 15.2 % uphill grade, 15.2 % downhill grade
Time 8:16:31 total (7:05:25 moving, 1:11:06 stopped)

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Route

From the trailhead on Cherokee Orchard Road, just outside Gatlinburg, I hiked up Mt. LeConte on the Bull Head Trail (5.9 miles long). Near the lodge the trail intersects with the Rainbow Falls Trail and the Alum Cave Bluff Trail.

Mt. LeConte’s summit is on a very short spur from the Boulevard Trail.

I returned to the Cherokee Orchard Road trailhead by way of the Rainbow Falls Trail (6 miles long).

Description

I got a late start Saturday morning and that’s never a good thing when you have to drive through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The traffic around the outlet malls was going to be a nightmare, I feared. It usually is, even when it isn’t the day after the day after Thanksgiving.

Surprisingly, the traffic had not yet picked up, so I wasn’t delayed too much. I arrived at the trailhead parking lot at about 9:45 a.m.

As I was lacing up my hiking boots a pickup truck pulled up along side me. A family climbed out and then came a dog.

“Um, you folks know dogs aren’t allowed in the park, don’t you?” I asked.

Apparently they didn’t. They also didn’t put their dog back in the truck, but they didn’t get belligerent.

There were a couple “no dogs” signs around the trailhead, so I was hopeful after I left they would see them and do the right thing.

My plan was to hike up the Bull Head Trail. I liked the idea of a big climb and some decent mileage, but that wasn’t the only reason for choosing that particular trail.

I wasn’t sure what conditions to expect near the top.

As proof of that, take a look at my gear list. I carried a lot more clothing and gear than I needed.

I carried enough insulating layers to keep me warm in temperatures 30 degrees colder than it actually was. I also brought a stove with dry soup mix and hot chocolate mix. I must have had at least five pounds of stuff I didn’t need.

I’ve carried less for a whole weekend outing.

Oh well, at 16 lbs. the pack wasn’t going slow me down.

Though the trail is a constant climb, I didn’t think the grade was that bad. And though I read one trail description that made it sound like it was boulder-strewn, I also didn’t think the treadway was any worse than most trails in the Smokies.

With brief stops once an hour for a gulp of water and a couple handfuls of trail mix, plus a couple Kodak moments, I reached the lodge at the top at 2:00 p.m.

The weather could not have been nicer for late November. It was sunny and a thermometer on the side of the lodge’s office building read 44 degree.

A porch in the sun with some rocking chairs looked like a good place for lunch so I stopped there. Turns out the local squirrels thought it was a nice place for lunch too.

Squirrels that will stop at nothing for your lunch

My lunch.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen more aggressive squirrels.

Escaping unscathed, I started looking for the summit. Unfortunately, my Trails Illustrated map wasn’t clear about the summit’s location. As I stopped to consult the map, two guys came along.

They had just come up by way of the Alum Cave Bluff Trail and they said they were looking for the summit too.

But when they headed off to a side trail to Cliff Tops, I knew they were headed in the wrong direction. It was pretty obvious the Boulevard Trail headed up to higher ground.

Just as I passed LeConte Shelter, I ran into two more guys. One said the summit was just ahead.

Summit of Mt. LeConte

The summit wasn’t more than six feet from the trail and clearly marked with a large pile of rocks.

After taking a brief time out at the shelter to finish the lunch I had wrestled from the marauding squirrels, it was getting close to 3:00. I had calculated it would take me 2-and-a-half hours to return to the trailhead, so I had wanted to leave by 3:00 in order to get back to my car before it got too dark.

But as I started out I decided to take a detour to check out Cliff Tops. I was enjoying the views. I had only been to LeConte one previous time and on that trip the weather was so miserable there were no views to enjoy.

Initially, I planned to also return by way of the Bull Head, but near the top on my way up I had met a couple on their way down. They told me they had come up the Rainbow Falls Trail and said it was a good trail coming up and they were going back down that way.

Their response surprised me because I remembered reading about the Rainbow Falls Trail at Summitpost.org. A post there claimed it was not a good route for descending.

The trail was snowier and icier on the way down

For the first thousand feet or so of descent, the trail was not only snow covered, but because of the sinking sun the snow it was becoming crusty. That made the trip down pretty slippery.

I don’t know if it was because of the angle to the sun or because the Rainbow Falls Trail is slightly longer than the Bull Head Trail, but it seemed there was much more snow on the way down than there was on the way up.

Between the sightseeing detour at the top and the longer, icy descent, my trip back down took longer than I had calculated. By the time I neared the bottom it was getting dark enough that I had to concentrate on the trail.

I could have stopped to put on my headlamp, but only the final half-mile or so was getting hard to see.

I arrived back at the car at 6:00, a half-hour later than expected.

Despite a few briefly treacherous moments, the trip was uneventful. That is, until I got back into Gatlinburg.

Now I’ve driven in most of the major cities of the U.S., but I think Gatlinburg’s traffic that night was the worst I’ve seen.

I sat waiting for an intersection to clear through five cycles of traffic light changes before I abandoned any hope of turning right. Instead, I had to go left into the national park and use the bypass to get around Gatlinburg.

And then came Pigeon Forge.

It was not a fun drive home.

Reflection

What I’d do differently

  • Get an earlier start
  • Pay more attention to trail descriptions for the location of the summit
  • Don’t try to drive through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge during the holiday season
  • Don’t wear heavy hiking boots, even if I expect to be in snow
  • Remember to clear out my GPS before starting out on the trail

What I’d do the same

  • Don’t let weather deter me (unless it’s obviously dangerous
  • Remain fearless in confrontations with squirrels
  • Hike my own hike
  • Enjoy my hike!

Gear list

Wearing Weight (oz.)
REI zip-neck long underwear top 6.5
The North Face nylon pants 15
SmartWool liner socks 1
SmartWool socks 3
Mountain Hardware softshell pullover 11.5
Patagonia baseball-style cap 2
Cotton bandanna 1
Nylon wallet, cash, identification, etc. 3.5
Asolo boots 64
Total – wearing 6.72 lbs.
Carrying Weight (oz.)
Golite “Day Pack” 13.5
Stuff sacks – home made (3) 3.5
Gebel trekking poles 21.5
First aid kit – water treatment 7.5
Mountain Hardware soft shell pullover 1.5
Plastic safety whistle 0.5
Bic lighter 1
Markill Hot Rod titanium stove 4.5
Isobutane cannister 6.5
Snow Peak double-wall titanium mug 5
Snow Peak Trek 700 titanium cook pot 5.5
Snow Peak titanium spork 1
Petzel Zipka headlamp 2.5
Trails Illustrated map 1.5
Garmin GPSMap 60C GPS 7.5
Canon Powershot S70 camera 10.5
Rite in the Rain note pad 1
Nalgene Lab marker 1
Aloksak storage bag 0.5
Manzilla Windstopper mittens 3.5
Cascade Designs Z-rest seat cushion 2
Integral Designs Primalid hat 1.5
Drop Stoppers Micropore Rainsuit 10
Marmot DriClime wind shirt 9.5
REI zip fleece pants 21.5
The North Face Nuptse down jacket 21
Food 17
Water in 1 liter Platypus bottles (2) 76
Total – carrying 16.13 lbs.

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