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.
|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)|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
|REI zip-neck long underwear top||6.5|
|The North Face nylon pants||15|
|SmartWool liner socks||1|
|Mountain Hardware soft shell pullover||11.5|
|Patagonia baseball-style cap||2|
|Nylon wallet, cash, identification, etc.||3.5|
|Salomon Expert Mid boots||37|
|Suunto X6HR watch||2|
|Total – wearing||4.58 lbs.|
|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|
|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.