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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.