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.

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.

Turning Toward the Smokies

The trail to Gregory Bald, Great Smokies, April 2003.

The trail to Gregory Bald, Great Smokies, April 2003.

UConn may have been in a basketball final on Tuesday night, and fine spring weather may have reigned outside, but a very respectable number of Appalachian Mountain Club members gathered in Bethel for Quebec – Off the Beaten Track. I surprised myself by actually enjoying giving a presentation, and the slides and chat seemed to go down well enough with the audience too. Phew! My thanks to everyone who chose Quebec over the NCAA or the chance to hit a trail.

Now that the presentation is out of the way, I need to turn to the Smokies, now bear-ly a month away. I mentioned in The Great Smoky Mountains that we plan to backpack a loop that starts and ends at Cades Cove; a 32.6-mile loop by my calculations. I’ve been putting together other bits and pieces of important information.

DAY LENGTH: We should have 14 hours of good daylight, from sunrise at 6:30 to sunset around 8:30. More than enough for the longest day (maybe 15 miles).

WEATHER: At low elevations, May in the Smokies is warm, with highs in the upper 70s and lows around 50. There are on average 9 days with rain. But of course we won’t always be at low elevations. We will top out at nearly 5,000 feet (on Gregory Bald), and spend one night – I hope – at 4,600 feet. Up there the highs may be closer to 60 and the lows to 40. It rains more at those elevations too. Clothing will be planned accordingly.

BEARS: It is no secret that the Smokies are full of Ursus americanus, so I wondered if the National Park Service might require bear-resistant canisters for food storage (they are required, for example, in the Adirondack Eastern High Peaks). Apparently not. The NPS website advice is to use “the bear cable system at each campsite or shelter”. We will.

WATER – I need to buy a new filter. The last one broke in the White Mountains (and left me thirsty on Franconia Ridge).

The Great Smoky Mountains

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains NP

Gregg-Cable house in Cades Cove – courtesy National Park Service.

In two months, touch wood, we will be setting out on the long drive to the Great Smoky Mountains. “We” because my eldest daughter (“D1”) bravely supported the idea of an adventure together a year ago, and has not backed out as it turns into reality. I have – see Hike List – been to the Smokies once before, and have mixed memories.

On the one hand, I remember lush forest, “balds” with beautiful views, and solitude. On the other, there were the busy roads around Newfound Gap and Cades Cove, some crowded trails and the diseased Fraser firs on top of Mount Le Conte. At times it felt as if Gatlinburg (yes!, Bill Bryson’s Gatlinburg, the place that is “packed from end to end with the most dazzling profusion of tourist clutter”) was just waiting for the Park Service to doze so that it could spread into the park. Let’s see how the park feels 11 years on.

Abrams Falls, Gregory Bald and A.T. routeThe plan is to spend five full days in the park, with three given over to a backcountry hike – a big loop starting and ending at Cades Cove, taking in Abrams Falls, Gregory Bald and the Appalachian Trail (see map – route in red dashes; start, green star; finish, blue star). My main worry is not the Smokies black bears (two per square mile!) but human competition for backcountry campsites. It seems to work like this:

A permit and reservation are needed to camp in the backcountry, and you can only camp at official campsites and shelters. The place to get the permit and reservation is here. You can’t get them more than 30 days ahead of your trip. On the A.T., there appear to be shelters but no campsites. In the spring, a proportion of shelter spaces are set aside for A.T. thru-hikers. They are also allowed to camp next to shelters. The rest of us are not. Bottom line, I will make reservations ASAP in mid-April. I called the Backcountry Information Office today, and they thought I’d find spaces at the site and shelter where D1 and I propose to stay, but I’m not going to leave it late.