Day Hike Notes, Catskills – Panther Mountain

The Catskill Mountains from the northern approach to Panther Mountain

The Catskill Mountains from the northern approach to Panther Mountain

Height-of-summer hikes have their issues; sweat, of course, and bugs, and water that turns tepid in your reservoir. But the only summer special that really gives me the heebie jeebies is thunderstorms. I had planned this hike for five days earlier, but then the forecast turned to torrential, gusty, hail-and-lightning-laden storms, and I thought it wiser not to be 3,730 feet up. So I stayed at home, and even down here the storms were bad enough, and lasted long enough, to delay the Fourth of July fireworks. Then Saturday and Sunday brought magnificent hiking weather, but that was family time (and two soccer World Cup quarter-finals as well). By the time I was driving to the Catskills on Monday, thunder and lightning was in the forecast again – a reduced possibility which, to the great relief of my heebie jeebies, came to nothing on Panther Mountain.

DATE: Monday, July 7th.
START & FINISH: Fox Hollow trailhead, Shandaken NY.
ROUTE: Giant Ledge-Panther-Fox Hollow Trail to Panther Mtn and back.
DISTANCE: 8.8 miles total.
TIME: 6.5 unhurried hours (11:40-6:10).
TERRAIN: 2,400-foot elevation gain on trail often made up of rocks and roots, and encroached upon by brush and pricklers. A few minor scrambles.
MAPS: AMC Catskill Mountains.

WEATHER: Mostly sunny and hot; breezy in places; two short showers.
WILDLIFE: Of the bug variety.

PHOTOS: Album here.
LUNCH: Blue cheese baguette and nuts on the summit.
– Smelling pines on reaching 3,000 feet.
– A siesta laid out on a slab of rock.
DOWNS: Bashing my knee on a misplaced boulder.
KIT: Poles used to whack pricklers as much as for balance.
COMPANY: None, except a Swedish hiker named Orjan who had climbed to the summit on the alternative (southern) route.

Taking a Hike – Coming out of Hibernation

Bird talk from Milan Bull, Newman-Poses Preserve, Westport

Bird talk from Milan Bull, Newman-Poses Preserve, Westport

It seems crazy when it’s 82 degrees outside and we are a week away from the Fourth to have just published a column which talks about hikers emerging from hibernation. In part, that is just the cycle of the column, publication trailing writing which trails the actual hiking. But it also reminds me how quickly we move from cold to hot around here. I grew up in a place where it seemed you could have a cool July day in January and a mild January day in July. The sudden transition here from fires to ceiling fans still impresses me. It was frosty at night until two months ago, and snowed on April 16th. Now yard work bathes me in sweat.

So, now that I have excused myself for even hinting at winter in my column, I can say that this month’s “Taking a Hike” is available from The Hour here, and on the Hersam Acorn Art & Leisure website here. It is about the hiking, learning and trail laboring opportunities that are suddenly plentiful when the leaves come out. As usual, I have made a three-month-old column available in full on this site. It is from March, about (oh dear) a very cold walk on the Aspetuck Valley Trail (see the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Mar – Aspetuck Valley” – or click here) .

Day Hike Notes, Smokies – Mount Le Conte

Mount Le Conte; LeConte Lodge; Alum Cave Trail

On the Alum Cave Trail to Mount Le Conte

The day was an object lesson in treating weather information with skepticism. We camped on the North Carolina side of the mountains. It rained overnight. When I poked my head out of my tent in the morning, it looked like it would rain some more. A campground host said, with noticeable glee, that the forecast was for rain, period. Katie and I wondered over breakfast if we wanted to climb Mount Le Conte in rain.

When I read the Cherokee forecast for myself, it looked less bleak. There might be breaks in the rain; it might even not arrive. Then, as we drove towards the Tennessee side, the clouds seemed to rise and brighten. By the time we reached the trailhead, it didn’t look like rain at all; and, as far as I remember, not a drop fell all day.

What a pity it would have been if we had believed that schadenfreude-ish campground host and skipped Mount Le Conte. At 6,593 feet, it is the third highest peak in the national park, and just 100 feet short of the highest point east of the Mississippi. Its summit turned out to be misted in today, but atmospheric even so; and the views on the way up were stunning.

DATE: Sunday, May 18th.
START & FINISH: Alum Cave trailhead on Newfound Gap Road.
ROUTE: Alum Cave Trail, up and down; plus some summit wandering.
DISTANCE: Something more than 10 miles.
TIME: 6.5 hrs, including lingering at LeConte Lodge.
TERRAIN: 2,750-foot elevation gain on mostly good trail.
MAPS: Not essential, but Trails Illustrated #229.
WEATHER: Mostly overcast; misty above 6,400 ft.
WILDLIFE: Nothing charismatic.
PHOTOS: Album here.
BREAKFAST: Leftover beans & rice at Smokemont campground; oatmeal at trailhead.
LUNCH: Trail food on a table at LeConte Lodge.
– Stunning views down to cloud and mountain.
– Lunch with the LeConte Lodge llamas nearby.
DOWNS: None.
KIT: Layers essential again; wooly hat and gloves at 6,593 feet!
COMPANY: Plenty, without being too much.

Day Hike Notes, Smokies – Gregory Bald

Gregory Bald, Great Smoky Mountains, TN / NC

Katie on Gregory Bald

This, on reflection, was my favorite hike of the trip. Katie had tended to her feet, and declared herself game to tackle Gregory Bald. We shortened the climb a little by driving to Hannah Mountain on Parson Branch Road, and of course were now free of full packs.

We covered the 4.1 miles (and 1,900 feet) to Sheep Pen Gap pretty easily. There is a popular backcountry campsite at the gap. It was one of the places we had thought about falling back on yesterday, but felt there was a good chance it would be booked up on a Friday night. Well, it was deserted at lunchtime on Saturday, and there was no sign of backpackers on the trails about. We almost certainly could have overnighted there. I expect the Smokies’ backcountry reservation system is necessary, but it does reduce your ability to be flexible, to improvise and, well, to have an adventure.

Sheep Pen Gap to Gregory Bald summit is just half a mile, but today it felt – for a while — like leaving the American woods for a Scottish hilltop.

DATE: Saturday May 17th.
START & FINISH: Gregory Bald trailhead on Parson Branch Rd at Hannah Mountain.
ROUTE: Gregory Bald Trail, up and down.
DISTANCE: A little over 9 miles.
TIME: Roughly 5 hrs, with plenty of time on the summit.
TERRAIN: A steady climb of 2,200 ft on good trail, reaching just under 5,000 ft above sea level on the bald.
MAPS: Not essential, but Trails Illustrated #229 

WEATHER: Cloudy, cool, dry. Misty and cold on the summit.
WILDLIFE: Nothing of note.

PHOTOS: Album here.
BREAKFAST: Hash and beans at Cades Cove campground.
LUNCH: Trail food under a stunted, contorted pine on the summit.
UPS: The mist clearing from the summit to reveal Cades Cove far below. Cowering, eating under that stunted, contorted pine.
DOWNS: None whatsoever.
KIT: We packed 5 layers for the Smokies, not expecting to need them. We needed every one at 5,000 feet, right down to the fleece and rain jacket.
COMPANY: Katie, of course; then a party of friendly Tennessee Good Old Boys, one of whom had the cheek to mock my accent. There was a lone Yankee with them, a Red Sox fan from Massachusetts.

Taking a Hike – Three Faces of the NRVT

Norwalk River Valley Trail

Bailey bridge over the Norwalk River at Wolfpit Rd, Wilton CT

May’s “Taking a Hike” column was published when Katie and I were away in the Smokies. It is available in The Hour as NRVT is taking shape nicely and on Hersam Acorn A&L as Three faces of the emerging Norwalk River Valley Trail.

The Norwalk River valley in southwest Connecticut is a densely-populated place; not Hong Kong-dense, but those of us who live here are more tightly packed in, I suspect, than even the CT average. We don’t usually think of the area as a river valley at all, talking instead of the “Route 7 Corridor” or similar. So it was nice to take a few outings recently with the river as the main reference point; from Long Island Sound to the young, swamp-fed stream by way of a tidal estuary. This is what May’s column is about.

February’s column – a winter hike up Mount Everett – is now available in full from the Taking a Hike tab (2014: “Feb – Mount Everett”) or by clicking here.

The Smokies – Friday, May 16th

Cades Cove at sunset, Great Smoky Mountains

Cades Cove at sunset

Day Two was always going to be a long one, even before we camped 3.2 miles short of our target on Day One. That left us with a 19-mile hike to our reserved shelter space at Mollies Ridge, a trek that would include a 2,500-foot climb and many lesser ones. At dawn it was 35 degrees, remarkably cold for mid-May in a place on the latitude of the southern Mediterranean. But the sky was clear! We packed up quickly, and hiked in just over an hour to where we should have spent the night – Flint Gap.

By 11:30 we were at the end of Hannah Mountain Trail on Parson Branch Road. We thought we either had to quit here or commit to making Mollies Ridge, still 11 miles away. The area of the Smokies we were entering is popular, and alternative campgrounds might be fully booked now that the weekend was arriving. Katie’s feet were bothering her; not blisters, but burning soles, aching ankles and sore toes. Still, we dithered. Then thunder and a downpour made up our minds. Who wants to be on a ridge in thunderstorms? So we set off down Parsons Branch Road on the six miles to the car, saving ourselves for day hikes over the weekend.

Start: Scott Gap backcountry campsite, 7:30 a.m.
Finish: Abrams Falls trailhead, Cades Cove, about 3:30 p.m.
Route: Hannah Mountain Trail, then Parson Branch and Forge Creek roads.
Distance: 13.5 miles.
Terrain: Excellent up-and-down trail, then long descent on dirt roads.
Weather: Sunny start, then thundery downpours.
Photos: Click here.

Breakfast: Oatmeal with coffee / tea at Flint Gap, after an hour of hiking.
Lunch: Same as yesterday.
Supper: Back in the frontcountry – Dinty Moore beef stew.

Highlight: Bathing our feet in frigid Forge Creek.
Lowlight: The long trudge down the dirt roads.
Wildlife: Deer in Cades Cove (yawn!).
Worries: (1) Whether we could make it to Mollies Ridge. (2) Katie’s feet.
Best Bit of Kit: Stove for a hot breakfast.

Hannah Mountain Trail, Great Smoky Mountains

Hannah Mountain Trail

Memorable People: Pair of lady day-hikers en route from Hannah Mountain to Cades Cove. They knew their Smokies!
People Best Forgotten: The dry, comfortably-seated drivers of the few cars that came up Parson Branch Road. Somehow they looked very smug.

The Smokies – Thursday, May 15th

Abrams Falls Trail


I wrote last fall, with some surprise, that my hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains “ran almost exactly to plan”. The same cannot be said of backpacking last week in the Great Smokies. The plan was for a 3-day, 33-mile loop in the company of my eldest daughter, starting and ending at Cades Cove. The night before Katie and I set out, rain pinged on our tents relentlessly, and was still coming down when we started along Abrams Creek. Four miles into the hike we were supposed to wade the creek to reach the Hannah Mountain Trail. Well, I tried to scout a way across, but the water was too high and the rocks very slick. So we made plan adjustment number one, a detour that would add 4.5 miles to our loop. Here are notes and photos for our first day out.

Start: Abrams Falls trailhead, Cades Cove, 11 a.m.
Finish: Scott Gap backcountry campsite, sometime after 6 p.m.
Route: Abrams Falls, Little Bottoms, Cooper Road and Rabbit Creek trails.
Distance: 10.5 miles.
Terrain: Excellent trails, with little overall elevation gain but plenty of up and down.
Weather: Cloudy with showers, shorter and less frequent as the day wore on.
Photos: Click here.

Breakfast: Hash and baked beans at Elkmont frontcountry campground.
Lunch: Trail food along the way – tortillas, nuts, dried fruit, granola bars …
Supper: Rehydrated “shepherd’s potato stew with beef” (Katie) and ”pepper steak with rice” (Rob) at Scott Gap.

Highlight: Getting our packs off, eating supper and going to bed.
Lowlight: The 1,000-foot slog over Pine Mountain just as we were losing steam at the end of the day.
Wildlife: Coyotes yipping as we fell asleep.
Worries: That our enforced detour would make tomorrow’s hike too long.
Best Bit of Kit: Everything that kept us and our gear dry – waterproof pants, pack covers etc.

Abrams Falls Trail, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains


Memorable People: Bird researcher at Abrams Creek Ranger Station. Our only company after Abrams Falls, he directed us to the bridge over the creek and warned that Pine Mountain would be a “huff”.
People Best Forgotten: The over-cologned walker returning from Abrams Falls.