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.

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