Monday, August 24, 2009

Summary of Smokies Trip

My wife and I went into this trip not knowing what to expect of the Smoky Mountains. I had never been to the Smokies, nor any other mountains east of Arkansas and Missouri. I was assuming it would be somewhat like the Ozarks and Ouachitas, only bigger. If I'm in the mountains, I want to see the mountains. In the Smokies, you get the feeling of being in the mountains due to the steep ups and downs, but you don't get the great mountain views like in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, which was extremely disappointing.

Compared to the trails I've done out west, the trail conditions in the Smokies was poor. I don't believe there's anything that the fine Great Smoky Mountains NP staff and volunteers could do about, it is simply the environment. Being very similar to a rainforest, everything is moss covered and slick, making it difficult to walk on. There was an over-abundance of tree roots and rocks covering the trail, which forces you to continually look down and not out at the scenery. Even when you would stop to look around, the amount of undergrowth was so thick, you couldn't see beyond 10 feet off the trail.

We had hoped to see a bear and after hearing the stories of the bear population in the Smokies, we felt our chances were pretty good. We didn't see a single bear and saw signs of only one bear after 17 miles of hiking.

I saw an article a few months back that asked "are we loving our National Parks to death?" I think the Smokies is a prime example of that. 9 million visitors a year is A LOT of people. If you want solitude, the Smokies is definitely not the place for you. My prior backcountry experiences had been in the Escalante region of Northern Arizona/Southern Utah, the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains. On those trips, we could probably count on 2 hands the number of people we saw in 4 or 5 days. In the Smokies, we saw probably twice that number each day in camp. I go into the backcountry to get away and enjoy the time with the environment. Not that I dislike my fellow backpackers, but it's nice to have your own plot of land for a few days and feel like you are seeing a place that very few people will see in their lifetime.

I don't want to discourage people from visiting the Smokies, but for me, it was a big disappointment. The scenery is gorgeous, but after a few hours of hiking, I felt like it all was the same... a long walk in the woods. The Big Creek Trail was great, but beyond that, I could have dayhiked and been happy. I know it is a big park and there is more to see, but I might look at it as a good place to bring the family and enjoy the front country experience. I want to try out the Cade's Cove side of the park and see what it's like, maybe even Mt. Le Conte, but for my money, I'll spend my backcountry time out west.

Finally, I can't tell you how much fun I had backpacking with my wife. I was really glad she went and despite some of the issues we had with the experience and environment, she still came out of it saying "when we do this again" not "if we do this again...". I think we may look to do a trip to Yosemite, Sequoia/King's Canyon and / or Redwoods in California. If you've never backpacked with your spouse, I would highly recommend it. One recommendation would be to reward yourselves at the end of the trip with a stay in a nice hotel / spa.

My next posts will be about my backcountry experience in Rocky Mountain National Park with my eldest son.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Smoky Mountains Trip - Day 3 - Walnut Bottoms to Mt. Sterling

On Day 2, we hiked from the Big Creek Campground to Campsite 37, Walnut Bottoms. It was a great, 5.2 mile hike along Big Creek via the Big Creek Trail.

Today's adventure was going to take us from Walnut Bottoms 5.4 miles and up 3,000 vertical feet to Mt. Sterling. The day started with a great oatmeal breakfast at around 7:30am. We broke camp around 9:00am and were on the trail again by 9:30am.

We were to backtrack about 1/10th of a mile to the Swallow Fork Trail and head up to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail where we would turn and head 1.4 miles up to the top of Mt. Sterling at 5,842 feet above sea level. We would camp at Campsite 38, Fire Tower. It is aptly named, because there is a 60 foot steel fire watch tower atop Mt. Sterling.

Departing from Walnut Bottoms, the trail immediately starts to climb a fairly steep incline. The trail is considerably narrower than the Big Creek Trail we did on Day 2. As on the previous day's hike, there is a creek running parallel to the trail, from which we drew water from about 3 times on the way up.

Whoever invented the water pump filter was a genious. I carry the Katadyn Hiker Pro. Sure, it adds a little extra weight (11 ounces), but it is far more practical than having to boil water or more appealing than having to taste iodine treated water. Plus, the water always comes out pure with no sediment. I've even pumped the brown water out of the Paria River in the Escalante area of Northern Arizona / Southern Utah and had it come out crystal clear.

However, after several stream crossings and about halfway up, you get above the headwaters of the creek and there are no water sources until about 750 feet below Mt. Sterling on the opposite side, which translates into about 1200 vertical feet up, 750 vertical feet down and around 3.5 miles. This was something that was unknown to me until we were told so leaving the Walnut Bottoms campsite. Fortunately, we were told then and we could fill up at the last water access and conserve. Even with that knowledge, we still ran out of water prior to arriving at Mt. Sterling.

Fortunately, we ran into some horse riders on the trail. I had found their riding crop and returned it to them. In exchange, they shared some of their ICE COLD water with us. As one of the riders said, it pays to "Pay it Forward". Shows you that there's definitely good Karma as well.

As I mentioned earlier, this Swallow Fork Trail was not only steeper and narrower than the Big Creek Trail, the trail was covered in either slick tree roots or slick, baseball sized rocks... And a ton of them. This made the trip up extremely difficult and much slower than I'd expected. Not something I would have wanted to take Linda up on her first backpacking trip. Additionally, as we approached the top of the trail, the brush grew thicker and covered most of the trail, forcing us to bushwhack about the last 1 mile. I am still surprised that neither of us came out of it with poison ivy or some such misery.

Once we topped out on the Swallow Fork Trail, we joined the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail which continued more of the same and in places worse. This also threw in the added twist of mud holes due to a soft soil, standing water and horse traffic. We slugged our way up the final 1.4 miles and 800 vertical feet to the top of Mt. Sterling. We were told that it would be worth it. I wouldn't go that far, but some of the views were pretty spectacular. The problem still remains, though, it is extremely difficult to see anything from anywhere in the Smokies due to the unbelievably thick brush.

To add insult to injury, the entire campsite was infested with flies. No matter where you were, you would be covered with 5 flies at all times. Fortunately, they were not biting flies, but they were a nuisance. And there's more, the tent pads were exposed, meaning out in the open. It was nice to finally see the sun, but there were thunderstorms brewing, and nothing worse than being totally exposed during a thunderstorm. Finally, to make matters worse, we would have to make the 750 vertical foot drop to the water source and make the 750 vertical foot gain back to the campsite with the water. After a few minutes of deliberation, we both decided this was not what we were expecting and chose to play it safe and head down.

One nice thing about the Fire Tower Campsite is that there are plenty of blackberries to eat. I'm sure the bears think so as well, but still no bears on this day either. Here I am with a handful of the juicy treats. Mmmm, good!

We set out at around 3:30pm and would take the Baxter Creek Trail down to the Big Creek Campground... a 4,000 vertical feet drop in 6.2 miles. This was our original plan for Day 4, we just chose to do it a day early. This trail was a tad bit wider than the Swallow Fork Trail and the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, but not by much. However, it was covered in more tree roots and rocks, was extremely steep and slick. We would not find a water source until around mile 3, halfway down at a crossing of Baxter Creek.

I was impressed with Linda's resillience on this long hike, totalling 12 miles, a 3,000 foot vertical gain and 4,000 foot vertical loss. I had trouble keeping up with her at times on the way down. We arrived at the Big Creek Campground around 7:00pm, 10.5 hours after our hike began and we were exhausted and hungry. Not having any place to stay and this being a weekend we decided to not even try going to Gatlinburg, a typical Tourist Trap. I chose instead to head to Asheville, NC where we checked into the Crowne Plaza and splurged on a juicy Prime Steak Burger and a shower.

My next post will summarize this entire trip.

Smoky Mountains Trip - Day 2 - Big Creek Trail to Walnut Bottoms

On Day 1, we had arrived into Knoxville, driven to Gatlinburg, went to the top of Clingman's Dome, then camped at Big Creek Campground near Mt. Sterling, NC. On this day, we planned to hike the Big Creek Trail to our campsite.

We got up around 7am and made breakfast, consisting of some Maple and Brown Sugar oatmeal for Linda and Cinnamon oatmeal for me, with some instant hot Chai latte. You gotta love instant oatmeal and Chai, boil water and stir. We broke camp around 9am and we were on the trail by 9:30am.

This was to be Linda's first backpacking / backcountry experience. I was a bit anxious, hoping she would enjoy it fully and become as hooked on it as I have. She definitely has the love of the outdoors, but had never shouldered a 25-pound pack and carried all of the items you need to spend 2-3 days away from the frontcountry. Additionally, we were a bit anxious about the massive bear population. While we were hoping to see a bear in the wild, we wanted to see it on our terms, across the creek or 100 yards away in the trees.

The Big Creek Trail departs from the Big Creek Campground and follows Big Creek for 5.2 miles to Campsite 37, Walnut Bottoms, gaining 1,000 vertical feet. The trail is nice and wide, wide enough to drive an ATV up. There are numerous places to get into the water, most notably is Midnight Hole, about 1.5 miles up. This is a gorgeous spot to stop for a snack and, if you feel up to it, go for a dip. They said that at times when the creek is up, Midnight Hole can be 30 feet deep. This was one of the few places we saw fish in the water. There were tons of trout swimming around the deep, cool water.

About .5 miles up the trail from there is Mouse Creek Falls. You can't get over to the falls, but it's a great place to stop and take a pic, like this one.

Shortly beyond Mouse Creek Fallse, you will cross a bridge over the creek. Just beyond the bridge, we found a nice area with access to the creek and stopped for lunch, consisting of Tyson chicken in a pouch with Chick-Fil-A Jalapeno salsa in a tortilla. We kicked the shoes off and waded around in the water a bit to cool off. This was about 3.5 miles in and it was at this point that Linda was getting pretty tired and homesick. After a good lunch, the food kicked in, she was much better and was ready to get to the campsite.

We didn't see one bear the entire 5.2 miles coming up to our campsite. We arrived at our campsite around 3:00pm where we found the sign below attached to a tree. We began to think, surely we'll see a bear here.

Again, having never been in the backcountry in the Smokies, I was unsure of what to expect. In the Grand Tetons backcountry, we saw maybe 10-12 people in 5 days. In the Smokies, it's a whole different story. Our campsite was shared with 10-15 people. There were roughly 5-6 different areas within Campsite 37, Walnut Bottoms. Each with their own fire ring and shared bear bag cable systems. I guess with nearly 9 million visitors a year, they have to accomodate everyone as best they can and minimize the impact to the environment. It turned out to be alright. We had a nice family with their two children, a pair of seasoned hikers, and a fun group of Germans all camping near us. We grabbed a nice spot near the creek and set up camp, including hanging the hammock right next to the water.

Learning from our previous night in the frontcountry, starting a fire in the Smokies is darn near impossible and you must start early. The moisture in the air is so heavy that even getting paper to burn is an arduous task. We gathered some small pine straw, twigs and whatever else we could find that looked like it might burn, but it is all wet. We tried my magnesium fire starter. While it would spark, nothing would catch. We tried lighting the Smoky Mountain newspaper we had picked up from the visitor center earlier with a lighter, but the paper wouldn't ignite. I had failed to bring some good fire starting material. What we did find was that Purell hand sanitizer is like 60% alcohol. Linda came up with the idea of soaking a square of toilet paper with the hand sanitizer and lighting it under the tinder. It worked like a charm. The tinder lit up hot. The problem from then on became finding anything larger than the small tinder that would burn. We tried to get small sticks about the size of my little finger to burn, but no luck. It was only after about 1 hour of feeding the fire with tinder and allowing the small sticks to sit next to the fire to dry out that they would burn. It became a game to keep the fire burning while drying out additional firewood.

At the same time we were playing the fire game, we cooked dinner. Our dinner tonight consisted of a Mountain House Beef Stew. It was terrific. When we had tried it at home, Linda was a bit skeptical about eating it, and wouldn't eat the rehydrated beef chunks. I told her, it will taste much better in the backcountry. Well, there was nothing left in her bowl this time. She told me, "you're right, everything tastes much better here!"

We walked around after dinner hoping to get a glimpse of the elusive Smoky Mountain black bear. No such luck tonight, but we've got 5.4 miles tomorrow, surely we'll see one along the trail tomorrow.

We turned in around 9:30pm. I think we both got a much better nights rest this night. It's amazing how a nice little hike with a heavy pack will make you sleep better at night.

For Day 3, we planned to hike 5.4 miles and 3,000 vertical feet up from Walnut Bottoms to the top of Mt. Sterling via the Swallow Fork trail and camp at Campsite 38 near the fire tower atop Mt. Sterling.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Smoky Mountains Trip - Day 1 - Clingman's Dome and Big Creek Campground

Well, my wife and I just got back from our Smoky Mountains trip. It was a great trip and we had a fantastic time. This was our first experience with the famed Smokies, and neither of us knew what to expect. We were blown away with the amount of flora in the park. Every where you looked, everything was green. How the Smokies got their name was evident on this day as the smoky haze encompassed all of the surrounding hills on our drive in from Knoxville.

Our plan was to arrive Wednesday around noon and drive to the Gatlinburg entrance. My first observation was that there was no fee to enter the park. I have been to a few other parks, including Zion and RMNP which charge a fee for driving into the park. We entered through the Gatlinburg entrance and stopped into the Sugarland's visitor center to grab a topo map and some directions and recommendations. After a brief look around the visitor center, we headed over to Newfound Gap and Clingman's Dome road to head to the summit of Clingman's Dome.

I had read about the black bear population in the park and had heard the statistics of 2 bears for every square mile, but I was skeptical that we would see a bear. However, right around the corner from the visitor center, my wife spotted a nice sized bear, probably 100 yards from the main road. We couldn't stop due to traffic behind us, so we unfortunately have no pictures of the bear. But, this is the Smokies, home of 1500 bears, surely we'll see more.

We continued the drive up to Clignman's Dome, a 7 mile drive up the windy Clingman's Dome Road to a fairly large parking lot. If you come to the Smokies, I would recommend the drive up to Clingman's Dome. It's one of the Smokies famed features and if you are a hiking / backpacking fan, you have probably dreamed of doing a section-hike or a thru-hike of the Appalachian Tral (AT) and Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the AT at 6,643 feet above sea level. From the end of the parking lot, there is a .5 mile paved trail leading up to the summit. On the way up, I had to grab a shot of me standing next to the AT trail sign.

There were spectacular views from the parking lot and as we walked up to the top. Though, once we arrived at the top, the Smokies famed smoke and clouds rolled in and we couldn't see beyond 100 feet. We climbed to the top of the observation tower hoping the skies would clear, but no such luck.

We left Clingman's Dome and headed over to the Big Creek Campground near Mt. Sterling, NC where we would camp for the first night. They don't take reservations, it is a first-come / first-served policy only, and we hoped that coming mid-week we would have no problems getting a site for 1 night. We lucked out! We grabbed the last campsite, 15 minutes prior to another couple arriving behind us. It was a great start to the trip.

Big Creek Campground is an extremely nice spot. The facilities are clean and the scenery is gorgeous. It's not much on solitude, but as we found out, solitude is hard to come by in the Smokies. Here, you are within 100 yards of Big Creek (hence the name of the Campground), so you get the peaceful, calming sound of the rolling creek 24/7. It makes for a romantic dinner and pleasant nights sleep, unless you're nervous about bears and you awake from every twig snap, frog belch and cricket chirp as I did.

Dinner for tonight was a Zatarain's Red Beans and Rice with a dash of Tabasco sauce coupled with a nice Shiraz. I also got to break in my new GSI Pinnacle Dualist cookset and my Snow Peak Giga Power stove. Both of these got two big thumbs up from my wife and I on this. The weight, size, price, usability, and performance were fantastic.

After dinner, we spent some time down by the creek and plotting our next days adventure. Here are a few pictures to give you an idea of the ideal surroundings. What a beautiful place.

If you are not ready for the backcountry experience, I would highly recommend spending a few days in Big Creek Campground. There are many day hikes that can be had from here. It also makes a great starting point for many point-to-point or loop hikes like the one we did.

My next post will cover the first day's hike, leaving Big Creek Campground and hiking 5.2 miles up to Campsite 37 - Walnut Bottoms.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Meal Planning

Part of my preparation for two upcoming backcountry trips includes planning the meals. Both are three night trips, so dinner is where my main focus is. This will be the third time I've had to think about backcountry meal planning but the first time I've put this much thought into it.

My first foray into backcountry meal planning was on my trip to the Escalante region of Northern Arizona/Southern Utah. My meal plan consisted of beef jerky, trail mix, tuna and tortillas. While it kept me alive, the food wasn't that much fun. We also had a break half-way through the trip where we could go into town and chow down on some Pizza Hut pizza.

My second trip, we were going to be nowhere near civilization for 5 days in the backcountry of the Grand Tetons. My buddy and I put a little more thought into it, but still kept it pretty simple with a handful of MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) and a lot of tuna and tortillas.

This go around, I'm planning for trips to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. I'm still planning on keeping breakfasts pretty simple, I might expand into Cinnamon Oatmeal and Raisins. I'm finding that the dinners will be mainly things you can make with Chicken and Rice.

Some of the constraints I've got to work with for the Rocky Mountains trip is that 3 1/2 days for two people must fit all inside a Bear Vault BV500 bear container. This is a new requirement in the RMNP backcountry as of this year. We had the same constraint in the Grand Tetons, but my buddy and I were both carrying a canister. This go around, I will be carrying the only canister for my son and me.

For my Smokies trip, I will be splitting the food between my wife and I and won't have to carry a bear canister. That should help a great deal and allow for a bit more flexibility.

So, for now, it looks like breakfast bars and Chai for breakfasts. Tuna and/or chicken packages with some seasonings wrapped in a tortilla or PB&J wrapped in a tortilla for lunches. And Chicken and Rice (mexican style, terriyaki style, veggie style, and cajun style) for dinners. A little red wine with dinner and maybe some apple crisp for dinner.

I'll let you know how it goes.