Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three Generations of Hikers (Part 1 of 2)

Not long ago I visited an unnamed ridge and peaks with Keith Oakes, his son Matt, and Greg Harrell. Our route took us a little over a mile up Alum Cave Trail to Arch Rock, a neat spot where the trail passes through a modest “tunnel” in the rock. At this point, we hopped off the trail and wove our way up the ridge that actually ends at Arch Rock. Within a few minutes we were doing our usual off-trail ridge routine: pushing through and under the shrubs and vines. The shrubs are mostly Rosebay Rhododendron, the large-leaved, white-flowered species that is common in all the creek valleys and low slopes in the Southern Appalachians. The vines are mostly Greenbrier (Smilax), thin green vines that look delicate but are about as strong as steel cable, with the added feature of thorns. It’s a brutal combination that you can’t just fight your way through. You have to dodge and weave, tip-toeing and high-stepping to avoid any unpleasant encounters.

About an hour above Arch Rock the terrain opened up and we emerged from the thick forest, shrubs, and vines into the open daylight of small heath-and-rock patches where the Rhododendron changed from Rosebay to Catawba and Carolina and the ground changed from dirt to exposed rock and Sand Myrtle. We walked along the heathy ridgecrest to the first of two open, round, rocky peaks called Parton Peaks, in honor of Dolly Parton. Those aren’t the official names, but that’s what some people call them. Ironically, they aren’t the biggest peaks in the park, but they are… what’s a good word here…? Prominent.

Nothing overly dramatic happened on this trip, just a nice, autumn day with great views and some scrambling up some steep spots. All in all, it was a typical day on an exposed, trail-less ridge. Officially trail-less, I mean. On these ridges there’s usually a bear trail for us to follow. We’ve never actually encountered a bear on these paths, but we have seen plenty of evidence – large, brown piles, usually cluttered with whatever berry or nut is in season.

Several hours later we reached the Boulevard near the east end of Mount LeConte. As we ambled up the trail to LeConte, we came across an Alabama Crimson Tide hat by the side of the trail. I started to pick it up because a bald guy can always use another hat, but one of us who is a rabid UT fan – I won’t name any names – decided that the hat should be properly desecrated. So he desecrated it in a thoroughly disgusting fashion. (Note: The next Saturday, Alabama beat UT 12 to 10, thanks to two blocked field goals. Payback, I think.)

From the point of defilement we walked to a spot somewhere below Myrtle Point, LeConte’s dramatic, eastern overlook where hundreds of hikers watch the sun rise each year. We hopped off the trail one more time and pushed our way through bushes and up a few more rocks and emerged from the tangle to the exposed rock of Myrtle Point. And our timing was perfect – there were six folks sitting there when we arrived. (It’s good for our egos whenever we emerge from the bushes to the stares of skeptical onlookers. Their first question is always: “Where did you come from?” That’s the only invitation we need to begin the tale of our most recent exploits. I’m sure we tell them more than they want to know, but hey, it’s their own fault for asking.)

Greg was the first of our party to arrive at Myrtle, and he was already describing our route when Keith and his son, Matt, arrived to join the conversation. Several minutes later, I emerged panting and sweating from the bushes. I guess none of the tourists were expecting a fourth guy to show up because when I made my entrance, everyone turned and looked. After a brief pause, the young lady of the tourist group smiled and said, “So, are you three generations of hikers?”

It took exactly two seconds for the meaning of that statement to sink in. [To be continued]

Monday, November 9, 2009

Outsmarting the Master

Tim Landefeld, Keith Oakes, and I stood huddled around the old man, waiting for his latest pronouncement. The old flyshop owner looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping and then whispered, “There are a few Drakes showing up on the East Prong.” He looked around again, leaned even closer, and said in a barely audible voice, “It’s about to get cosmic.” Then he slowly backed away so as not to attract attention, as if he’d just revealed a valuable state secret and would now be hunted down by the CIA. (Dick Cheney is a fly fisherman, so it could happen.)

For many years, if the flyshop owner told us to go to the East, we’d go dutifully to the East Prong of this fine trout river. We knew that the Drake Mayflies typically would hatch first on the West Prong for a few days before their hatch moved to the East Prong, and finally after a week or two to the Main Prong. If the fishing would be cosmic on the East, then that’s where we wanted to be. Standing right in the middle of cosmic is every fisherman’s dream.

The problem was that we’d usually get skunked, or close to it. The main bugs would be mosquitos, not Drakes. We’d have plenty of bites – mosquito, not trout. Definitely not cosmic, unless you are a bat.

Given fly fishing’s legacy of secrecy, I suppose I can’t blame the flyshop owner for misleading us. After all, he has a staff of river guides who take paying customers out to the river to catch big trout. His guides go to the hotspots, the places where the mayflies are hatching prolifically and the fish are feeding recklessly. I can’t really blame him for saving the best water for his guys. On the other hand, my buddies and I have spent a few dollars buying flies and other equipment from him, so he does owe us at least one or two small favors.

All that changed last year when he told us to go to the East, but for some reason we went to the West Prong and saw millions of hatching mayflies and caught some good fish. At that moment we finally understood what he’d been doing all these years. He’d been using us as his unwitting scouts. He’d send us not to the spot where it was cosmic, but to the place where it was about to be cosmic. If we came back with a report of lots of bugs and fish, he’d know where to send his guides and clients the next day. If we came back with tales of failure, he’d know that it still wasn’t cosmic on the East Prong yet, and he’d keep his guides on the West.

Clever, very clever. He’d been playing us like a fiddle – a stupid, na├»ve fiddle. But this past year we discovered a flaw in his plan, a weakness to be exploited. We found a way to outwit the wily master. The secret is his sign by the road.

During the hatch of the Sulfur Mayflies, the sign displayed some poem like: “Fish with Yellow if you’re a wise fellow.” But as soon as the Brown Drake (a larger, higher-status mayfly) hatch began on the West Prong, he’d change his sign to read: “Fish with Drakes for Heaven’s sake.”

The sign! The sign is the answer! It’s the clue that was out in the open, right under our noses, so obvious that we didn’t notice it. So, now we simply ask around to find out when, exactly when, the sign changed from Sulfurs to Drakes. If it’s been within the past 3 or 4 days, then we fish the West Prong because the Drake hatch would still be in its early stages. If the sign changed to Drakes about a week ago, we fish the East, but at the first rumors of Drakes on the Main Prong we’ll move there.

To tell you the truth, we still need to test this strategy a few more years to work out the kinks, but I think we are well on our way to successfully outwitting the flyshop owner. He’ll have to entice other, less-experienced anglers into become his unwitting accomplices. Keith, Tim, and I have unlocked the mystery. We have outsmarted the old master.

But if our new plan doesn’t work, we’ve decided that we’ll just hide in the bushes by the flyshop and follow the guides to the river. Desperate times require desperate measures.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Low Rhody and The High Rhody (Part 2 of 2)

[In August, 2009, a hiker got lost and was eventually found several days later on the crest of Porters Mountain. This story recounts a bushwhacking trip to Porters Mountain in May, 2008. As you’ll see, I won’t write another story about Porters Mountain because I have no intention of ever going there again.]

The Greenbrier section of the Smoky Mountains is a good place for off-trail exploring. So, in a futile attempt to prove our manhood, Greg Harrell and I spent about six hours on Porters Mountain, pushing our way through rhododendron, mountain laurel, saw briers, sand myrtle, cliffs, boulders, and blowdowns.

Once we reached the crest, we’d occasionally encounter a long, narrow heath bald covered in mountain laurel, Catawba rhododendron, and sand myrtle. The month was late May, so the rhody was starting to show its purple blooms, but the real star of the show was the sand myrtle – a low growing, thick shrub covered in clumps of delicate, white flowers. Those heath bald moments were magnificent and made the dirty, sweaty bushwhacking worth the trouble; although a bit less bush whacking and a bit more heath balding would have been fine with me.

I had once read about an off-trail hike where one of the guys was actually hiking on top of the mountain laurel and rhody bushes while his partner was on the ground below him. To be honest, that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t quite visualize it.

Until it happened to us.

The bushes were so thick and tangled that it was impossible to push our way through. We found ourselves crawling and slithering our way under the branches, which ain’t easy. Occasionally there would be a tiny gap in the brush, just enough to let us stand up to stretch our backs, and to enjoy the vertical dimension for a moment, hoping to see a gap in the branches a few feet ahead. It was at one of these points that I tried to step over a branch rather than crawl under it. I just instinctively put my foot on a branch that was two or three feet off the ground. Suddenly I was several feet off the ground, standing on a rhody branch. As I prepared to step back to the ground, I noticed that there was another branch at about the same level a few feet away; so I stepped on it. And then I stepped again, and again, and again. I suddenly found myself walking on the rhody instead of crawling underneath. At several points I was a few feet above Greg, looking down on him as he crawled below me. He was travelling on dirt and leaves. I was travelling on branches. It wasn’t something we consciously attempted; it just happened as we each looked for a path of least resistance.

Walking on rhododendron is not an ideal method of hiking. It’s not necessarily faster or easier than crawling on your belly (rhody branches are slick when dry and slicker when wet). It’s really just a change of pace, a respite from the monotony of crawling underneath and being able to see only a few feet in front of you. Crawling through and under rhody is like walking in the dark – you can’t see the route ahead, you just keep going until you run into a wall. Walking on top of the branches is like walking in the dark, using a cigarette lighter for light. You can see a little more, but it doesn’t change the fact that the wall is still there blocking your path.

About seven hours after we left my truck at the trailhead, we reached the Appalachian Trail near Porters Gap. That’s mostly a good thing, except for the fact that we’d been out over seven hours and were only about halfway finished. As we sat on a log on the AT, I told Greg that this was a great trip, I was glad we were doing it, but I was exhausted and wouldn’t do it again.

I once heard a veteran of World War Two say that the war was hell, he wouldn’t wish it on anyone, he’d never want to do it again – but he wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Yeah, some things are once-in-a-lifetime experiences because you’ll never have the chance to do them again, while others – like Porters Mountain and war – are once-in-a-lifetime because you are glad you did them, but once is enough.

Within 48 hours, Greg was talking about when we should do it again. That was well over a year ago, and I still haven’t given him an answer.

Beaten and Bruised on Porters Mountain (Part 1 of 2)

[In August, 2009, an old, experienced hiker got lost and was eventually found several days later on the crest of Porters Mountain. It wasn’t me, but it could have been.]

Looking at the scratches and bruises on my arms and head, the lady asked, “Tell me again why you think that’s fun.” I couldn’t really explain why I enjoyed our hike up Porters Mountain in the Greenbrier section of the Smoky Mountains. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I really enjoyed it until a day or two after it was over, so that made it even harder to explain. I guess I should have told her that I never said it was fun. I had said it was great. Yeah, something can be great without being fun, and bushwhacking in the mountains is high on that list.

Maybe I enjoy off-trail hiking in the mountains because I’m having a mid-life crisis, and I feel the need to prove something. But I really don’t think that’s it because I had my mid-life crisis several years ago and have pretty much gotten over it; although I suppose an occasional relapse isn’t out of the question. Either way, there are worse ways to spend a mid-life crisis than hiking.

Or, maybe it’s because I’m a map guy. I’ve always enjoyed looking at maps, planning trips, considering options. I get the same satisfaction out of planning a road trip or hike that some people get out of crossword puzzles or Sudoku. The main difference is that my puzzles have topographic lines, rivers, and ridges instead of numbers and letters.

Whatever the reason, Greg Harrell is afflicted by the same map-related disease, so we set out on the Porters Creek Trail early on a Saturday morning. After an hour and a half we reached the Porters Flats campsite, where the trail officially ends. At the campsite’s wooden marker, the trail splits. To the right is the campsite. To the left are the remnants of Porters Creek Trail, Part 2. This is the part of the trail that was described in old guidebooks, but is no longer officially maintained by the NPS and has disappeared from the trail guides. One of those remnants [the one the lost hiker probably wandered off on] leads toward the western slope of Porters Mountain. Our plan was to follow this path to the crest of Porters Mountain and to follow this ridgecrest southeast to its junction with the AT at Porters Gap.

Within about 10 minutes that plan fell apart as this Porters Mountain trail fizzled out. It didn’t end; it just disappeared. “Ending” and “disappearing” may seem like the same thing, but they’re not. Ending implies that you’ve reached a destination, a site at the end of the trail; such as, the Appalachian Trail ends at Mt. Katahdin in Maine or the Ramsey Cascade Trail ends at Ramsey Cascade. These trails end when they reach the place where they go. That’s not what this Porters Mountain trail does; it just disappears among the leaves, logs, and bushes long before it reaches Porters Mountain, like a “lost creek” that just vanishes into the ground. In other words, there’s not a Porters Mountain Trail. There’s just a brief footpath that points you uphill, then disappears beneath your feet and before your eyes, leaving you on your own.

It was like a father teaching his young son to ride a bike. He runs alongside his young, wobbling bike rider and gives him a push… and his son is on his own, trying his hardest but unsure how this adventure will turn out. That’s how this disappearing path felt. Oh, and let’s not forget that the bike ride often ends with some bumps and bruises, plus a few drops of blood and tears.

So for the next six hours Greg and I walked, crawled, slithered, pushed, and slipped through, under, over, and around rhododendron, mountain laurel, saw briers, sand myrtle, cliffs, boulders, and blowdowns. Hence, the bruises and scratches. It was slow and hard. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was great; although I must confess that several times I had to ask Greg, “Remind me again. Why are we doing this?” He didn’t have any convincing answers; just something about being stupid or being manly, which are often the same thing.

"Why are we doing this?"

An open, rocky heath bald, lined with Sand Myrtle.
(The reason why we do this.)

This kind of hiking can give you a screamin’ case of claustrophobia. It’s relentless, even disheartening. You force your way through 50 feet of mountain laurel, walk about 10 feet in relative peace and freedom, and run into another cliff or another wall of rhododendron or another laurel thicket or another blown-down tree or another patch of briers. The astonishing thing is that in the early days of the park, hikers did this sort of thing on a regular basis. I’m tempted to say that the peer pressure from this past generation of hikers kept us pushing and shoving our way through the tangle, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to call them my peers. They were tougher than I am. I’m not their peer; I’m just a wanna-be. [To be continued.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

Anakeesta Conniption (Part 3 of 3)

On our off-trail hike along the crest of Anakeesta Ridge, I had hidden my daypack by the side the trail so I could slither through the obstructions on the ridgecrest. I would retrieve it as we backtracked our way out a few hours later. Unfortunately, after about an hour of slithering, Greg Harrell and I had somehow managed to wander off the main ridge and onto a small, obscure side ridge. We had stayed on what seemed to be not merely the main ridge, but the only ridge. There was just no other route to take. And yet, there we were, on that small, unnamed side ridge wondering how we got there.

In the distance below us an occasional car would pass along the base of Anakeesta, to the south, at the end of this side ridge. Greg pulled out his map, and we discovered that we were only about a half mile away from Newfound Gap Road. Greg later told me that at that moment he saw the gears start turning in my head as I began considering our options and doing the math: we could push our way for an hour back to the Boulevard then hike two miles up the Boulevard and another three miles on the AT, or we could hike about a half mile down hill and catch a ride back up to the truck. In my mind, the choice was obvious – hike down, then hitchhike.

I explained my thinking and my preference to Greg, who just stood there, listening patiently. He listened as I went on and on about daylight, gravity, old age, and travelling new paths. I went on for so long that I probably even covered some politics, history, and theology. PhD dissertations have been shorter and simpler than my impassioned monologue.

When I finally paused to take a breath, thinking that I had an airtight case and that we would be going down, not up, Greg looked down in the direction of the road and said, “Sounds good to me.”

I was a bit surprised at how easily he agreed with my analysis of the situation, but I assumed that even he, when faced with the overwhelming weight of unadulterated logic, had no alternative but to yield to the inevitable. Then he paused for effect and said, “Hey, pal…” – another pause, for even greater dramatic impact – “… where’s your pack?”

What followed can only be described as a conniption for the ages. I jumped and screamed and spun and kicked. Greg laughed. I wailed and moaned and ranted and spit. Greg laughed. Like Job, I recounted the unfairness in life, the capriciousness of fate. Greg laughed. Coyotes howled in the distance. Mothers in Gatlinburg covered their children’s ears. Rabbits and bears fled in terror. My disappointment was deep, reaching to the marrow of my bones and the core of my being. Greg laughed. He showed no pity, no sympathy. He seemed happy with our fate. Backtracking up through the tangle and rocks of Anakeesta Ridge was a small price to pay to witness my tantrum.

Then I paused and began a mental inventory of the contents of my daypack. Could I just leave my pack where it was? It was old and ratty. It held a water bottle and a fleece jacket, so I’d be losing a few dollars, but it might be worth it. It was hidden well, so I could even come back in a few weeks and retrieve it if the mood struck. Yes, there was a ray of hope, a chance for redemption --- which Greg saw written on my face.

At that moment Greg became a mind-reader and a sadist. He seemed to know what I was thinking because he looked at me as I pondered, paused for effect, and said rhetorically, “Hey… (another pause to heighten the drama)… where are your keys?”

In my pack. My keys were in my stinkin’ pack.

I swooned as the sun was blotted out and the moon turned to blood….

Our hike back to my truck was long and somber.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

South Happens (Part 2 of 3)

Our hike along the narrow ridgecrest of Anakeesta Ridge was difficult to manage but easy to see. Greg and I would simply follow the ridge as far as daylight would allow, looking for interesting sights, and then backtrack to the Boulevard and the Appalachian Trail before it got dark. So simple even a caveman could do it.

After a particularly difficult section which kept us descending faster and farther than we had expected, we stopped to rest and wonder. I looked at my watch and commented, “It’s three o’clock. We’re gonna run out of daylight.”

Greg muttered, “Yeah, I know.”

“Just out of curiosity… how long have you known?”

“Since we stepped out of the truck,” Greg responded. I giggled under my breath and braced myself for yet another comment about my age or pace or propensity for frequent rest stops – all of which are favorite topics of Greg’s commentary during our hikes. Instead, Greg added, “And that’s not our only problem.”

“What’s the other problem?”

“We’ve been heading south for the last 10 minutes.”

I understood the significance immediately: “No way! Are you sure?”

“Yep. At least 10 minutes.”

Greg and I both like compasses, and we use them often on these hikes. I don’t recall where Greg carries his. Probably in one of his pockets. I hang mine around my neck, tucked under my shirt so it won’t get caught on branches. So Greg held out his compass to show me. I looked back north up the ridge we’d been descending and looked south down the ridgecrest in front of us. Yes, south.

Anakeesta is an east-west ridge with an occasional north-south wiggle, but not a tenth of a mile, and not where we were standing. South just wasn’t supposed to happen. So I did something that I hate to do on these hikes because it feels like I’m cheating – I pulled out my GPS and poked around on it until the electronic bread crumb trail popped up on its topo map. And there it was, a straight blue line about a tenth of a mile long showing us travelling straight down toward the bottom of the screen – south, straight south.

The next five minutes involved a lot of staring down the foggy ridge, staring back up the foggy ridge, staring at each other, shaking the compass, poking more GPS buttons, and general bafflement. It’s like those moments when my car dies, and I open the hood and stand there staring at the tangle of wires and metal wondering what it all means. Because I know nothing about the mysteries of internal combustion engines, I have no business looking under the hood, but I do it anyway in hopes that there will be a flashing, neon sign with an arrow pointing to the problem saying, “Replace this.” There’s never a flashing arrow under the hood, and there was no flashing sign for us on that side ridge.

Without going into the details of our conversation, I’ll just say that we had no idea how we wandered off Anakeesta’s main ridge and onto an obscure, southern side ridge. No idea whatsoever. We had stayed on what seemed to be not merely the main ridge, but the only ridge. There was just no other route to take. I’ve sometimes seen the trail under our feet just disappear into the dirt, rocks, and leaves, but this was the first time an entire ridge simply dissolved into clouds and thin air. I wondered if we had wandered into the Anakeesta Triangle where planes, ships, hikers, and ridges disappear. I don’t know. I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t get it.

But there we were, on that small, unnamed ridge. As we stood there dazed and confused, the only reasonable option was to backtrack up to the main ridge. We’d try to find the split in the ridge where we had made our mistake, but because it was getting late – we still had about five miles of hiking to get back to the truck – we’d have to hustle back to the Boulevard and the AT. The point where we were standing would have to suffice as our “destination” for the day. But then we heard cars below us… [To be continued]

Anakeesta Ridge (Part 1 of 3)

On one of our very first off-trail hikes, Greg Harrell and I looked up the creek valley which we were to follow and commented, “Just follow the creek. Easy. Only an idiot could get lost.” Of course, we both knew what that meant for our impending hike: we could get lost.

“What if there are two idiots? Does that make it half as likely or twice as likely?”

A couple of years later on Anakeesta Ridge we discovered the answer: twice as likely….

Greg and I stepped out of my truck at Newfound Gap on a Saturday morning in the middle of February. We were on the tail end of an unseasonably warm stretch, so the weather was bearable, although a bit on the moist side. Our plan was simple: hike about three miles northeast on the Appalachian Trail to the Boulevard trail and then about two miles on the Boulevard to its intersection with Anakeesta Ridge. That would be the point where the real fun began because we’d step off a popular, maintained trail and onto a ridge that had no official trail, so it would probably be littered with blown-down trees, mountain laurel, and briers. It would also be rocky and narrow, with a smattering of sand myrtle and rhododendron.

If you’ll look at Anakeesta from the road just below Newfound Gap, you’ll see huge, rocky scars where landslides of the past 60 years have scraped and scoured the ridgecrest. Greg and I thought it might be interesting to see those scars from above.

This stretch of the AT and the Boulevard is often fairly crowded, being a good route to Mount LeConte. The fact that there is a backpacking shelter near their junction means that many a hiker has made this route into a two night trip, the first night being spent at Icewater Spring shelter and the second on top of LeConte. The fact that the Jumpoff, Charlies Bunion, and the Sawteeth are nearby adds to the appeal of this route.

So at about 1:30 pm, Greg and I stepped off the Boulevard and into the tangle of Anakeesta Ridge. Because we’d be gone maybe two or three hours at most, I decided to fill my pockets with granola bars and my GPS and stash my daypack by the side of the trail. I’d be waterless for a few hours, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t die of dehydration, and it would be nice to squeeze my way through laurel thickets without being encumbered by my pack.

Our first order of business was to crawl and push our way over logs and through mountain laurel and briers to the top of Anakeesta Knob. We then began a steady descent down the narrow, rocky ridegcrest toward a deep swag in the ridge about a half mile away. As with many of our off-trail jaunts, there was a remnant of an old trail along the crest, occasionally visible and clear, more often overgrown and tangled. It was dirty, wet work as the wind and lingering clouds kept us and the underbrush dripping wet. Forty degrees and wet is not one of my favorite combinations, but the exertion of pushing and weaving our way down this steep ridge kept hypothermia at bay.

The route was difficult to manage but easy to see. It was a nice change of pace from those off-trail excursions where you aren’t really sure which ridge to climb or which creek to follow. This route was obvious – stay on this narrow ridge. We didn’t have any particular destination in mind. We would simply follow the ridge as far as daylight would allow, looking for interesting sights, and then backtrack to the Boulevard and the AT before it got dark. So simple even a caveman could do it.

So for the next hour and a half we enjoyed the challenge of a steep, rocky, tangled, ridge hike. On a clear day, the views toward LeConte to the north and the main crest to the south would have been fabulous, but today the clouds and mist meant that visibility was 25, maybe 50, yards. I would have preferred warm sunshine, singing birds, blooming flowers, panoramic views, and a tailwind, but clouds and mist are useful for reinforcing our delusion that we are a couple of manly guys who aren’t afraid of some scratches, bruises, blood, and mud. [To be continued]

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hiking Like a Girl (Part 2 of 2)

On our two hour hike to Sharp Top, Greg and Keith would sometimes stop to wait for Pam and me to catch up. So all four of us were occasionally within talking distance of each other; other times, Pam and I were bringing up the rear. In all honesty, I hoped Pam would do well on this rough hike, that she would finish by reaching the firetower on Sharp Top. However, around the midpoint of the hike I began to wonder if I would make it. Greg had assured me that if Pam got “whatever” she could wait while we boys finished the hike, but now I was beginning to wonder if I might be the one to get “whatever.” Would I be the one sitting on Woodchuck Ridge for a couple of hours, waiting for the other three to come down from the top, laughing and congratulating each other on a trip well done? The pressure was on… me! I had hoped that Pam would do well, but now I began to hope that I would do well. “You hike like a girl” kept running though my mind.

The trail got even steeper as we worked our way up Woodchuck Ridge, and once on the ridge, the trail became narrow and rocky. It was fabulous, a mixture of heavy forest and open heath thickets consisting mostly of mountain laurel and catawba rhododendron. The heath thickets were fairly low-growing, providing magnificent views in all directions – both Tennessee and North Carolina, Cherokee National Forest, and the main crest of the Smokies. The best thing about winter hiking is the low humidity, creating clear, crisp skies and long, expansive views. January is a great time to go high and experience the views. And I do mean “experience” the views, not just “see” or “enjoy” the views – experience the views, bask in them.

The second hour of our hike, along the uppermost section of the ridge, showed me that much of the pain in hiking – and maybe life in general – is mental, not physical. This second hour was steeper and slower than the first hour, but I hardly noticed. The views, the steep, rocky trail, the spruce trees, the heath thickets – the surroundings kept us interested and entertained. The second half was actually fun. Yes, fun. Sure, a lot of difficult hikes are fun a day or two later, once you’ve had time to recover and reflect, but the second part of this hike was fun while we were doing it.

It was so entertaining that something new happened on this hike; something that has never happened to me before. As Pam and I worked our way up the ridge, we heard Greg and Keith shouting to us. I assumed that there was another good view from another rocky, heath thicket, so when Pam and I turned the corner on the ridge and saw the guys standing on the rocks, I was shocked! This was something unknown and unprecedented. We were at the top! This was the first time I had ever, ever reached a high, mountain destination before I expected to. My typical MO is to hope and wonder if we are there yet. I’ll sense that we are coming to our destination, only to arrive and realize that this peak is just a preliminary before the real destination. This can happen two or three times on a single hike.

So the shock-and-awe of this quick arrival at the top made me giddy. What a great trip! Pam and I had both made it. Yes, I hiked with a girl, but that was okay because the girl had made it with flying colors. Neither she nor I had gotten “whatever” halfway through; although there had been a few close calls.

And then Pam snookered us all.

While we boys were high-fiving and fist-pumping, Pam quietly snuck around the rocks and into the firetower. She had beaten us to the holy ground that would mark the culmination of the trip. Only seconds after we realized she was gone, she reappeared on the deck of the tower. She didn’t verbally taunt us. She didn’t have to. She just stood there enjoying the views, smiling with just a hint of smugness, knowing that we boys had been outsmarted… by a girl.

So, yes, I guess I hiked like a girl that day. But it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. In fact, it was fine, just fine.

[The names of the creek, ridge, and mountain have been changed slightly – but only slightly – at the request of some of those who made this hike.]

Website Only:
A few clues… Yes, there is a firetower on Sharp Top. Sharp Top is an old, 1920s name of the mountain which today goes by a different name. And “Woodchuck Ridge”… well, you’ll have to figure that synonym out for yourself.

Friday, July 24, 2009

No Girls Allowed (Part 1 of 2)

A movie that mirrors my childhood is Sandlot. It recalls a time when boys spent their days riding bikes and playing baseball with the other kids in the neighborhood. Well, not “other kids” exactly. Other boys. Girls weren’t invited.

Maybe you remember the scene where the main kid (a boy, of course) is frustrated because “it was like salt in an open wound; even my own mom, a grown-up girl, knew who Babe Ruth was.” Or the scene in which the ultimate insult was hurled by one of the boys: “You throw like a girl.” This was followed by a moment of stunned silence; a line had been drawn in the sand, a gauntlet thrown down.

When Greg Harrell told me about his hike on Woodchuck Ridge, I told him that we ought to hike it tomorrow, and he agreed. He’s a firm believer that if a hike is worth doing once, it’s worth doing again – even two days in a row. An hour later when I called to confirm the details, he broke the news to me: Keith and his wife, Pam, would be going, too. There was a moment of silence, just like in Sandlot. “Pam? A girl?” This was unprecedented. We had never considered bringing a grown-up girl along with us on one of these rough, off-trail trips. It was the notorious good ol’ boy network writ small. We didn’t intentionally leave our women out of the equation; we just never thought of it as a realistic possibility.

Knowing what I was thinking, Greg broke the silence by saying, “It’ll be okay. If Pam gets…whatever… she can wait for us at the heath bald while we go on ahead to Sharp Top.” In this case, we both knew that “whatever” could include injury or illness, but “getting whatever” really meant “if she can’t handle it because she’s a girl.” Of course, we didn’t say that out loud. We didn’t have to. That’s how the good ol’ boy network works. It’s mostly unspoken.

So a little after noon we four – three boys and a girl – piled in Pam and Keith’s car and drove to the Smoky Mountains. Greg directed us to the obscure parking spot where the old trail began. This is a trail that appears as a small, dotted line on an old map of the Smokies, and it shows up on the ground today as an overgrown, half-visible trail. It’s yet another example of an old, abandoned trail that is maintained not by national park work crews, but by the feet of the few people who know about it.

How do people learn about old paths like this? It must be either by word of mouth or by studying the old maps, as Greg had done. Since Greg first mentioned this path several months ago, we had heard of several people who had, in their own words, “gone to Sharp Top the hard way.” We weren’t sure if this was the route they had taken, but it seemed highly likely. There are no other obvious routes to the top except the popular, well-maintained trails.

It was a cold day in January with patches of snow and ice on the ground as we hopped out of the car and shouldered our daypacks, so we wore hats and jackets. I watched in horror as Pam donned a pink bandana. Yes, pink. She seemed to sense that she had broken through the glass ceiling and was rubbing our noses in it.

This route to Sharp Top would be a mere two miles, but it would climb about 2,500 feet in those two miles. It would travel steadily along tiny Woodchuck Creek for less than a mile, then would ascend to the crest of Woodchuck Ridge for the second mile. So this hike was serious work from the very first step. Greg and Keith maintained a quick pace and pulled away from Pam and me. We hiked more or less together, talking occasionally about the trail, the views, the sweat and dirt, families. It was all fine. Although there was a moment when Pam mentioned something she had bought at TJ Maxx. I had to stop her at that point to tell her that shopping trips were unacceptable topics of conversation. In her defense, I think she was going to tell me about a fleece jacket or gloves that could keep you warm while hiking in January. Nevertheless, I couldn’t take the chance that Greg and Keith might hear us talking about a shopping trip. Pam was treading on thin ice, and I couldn’t let her pull me down with her. [To be continued.]

Monday, July 20, 2009

Going Nocturnal

If I were going to make an evening hike for a mountain-top sunset and then hike back soon after dark, I’d plan my trip on a night of a waxing half-moon.

A waxing half-moon?

If you are like most of us, you might need a little help here because you studied this stuff in your seventh grade science class, but haven’t had to think about it since that final exam. It’s ironic that we have been able to conquer the darkness with fossil fuels and electricity, but we have become alienated from the things that happen at night – the animals, the stars, and the phases of the moon. We just aren’t outside much after sundown, and when we are, we are usually surrounded by the blinding glare of halogen and neon. So, we’ve lost touch not only with the night sky but with thousands of years of human knowledge. I can’t say that I frequently feel the urge to get in touch with the thousands of generations of humans that have preceded us, but it is nice to know that whenever I look up in the sky and think about the stars or moon, I’m doing exactly that.

Back to our seventh grade science lesson…the moon takes four weeks to go through its entire cycle. It takes one week to go from the tiny sliver of the new moon to a half-moon and another week to go from this “first” half-moon to a full moon. This is its waxing (growing) phase. The third week is spent shrinking (waning) from full to half (the “second” half-moon). The final week sees the moon wane further from half to gone, followed immediately by new again. You probably knew all that.

But here’s the part that is probably a bit fuzzy to you. The various phases of the moon will light up different segments of the night. A full moon will rise in the east at the same time that the sun sets in the west. This full moon will spend the entire night moving across the night sky and will set in the west just as the sun once again rises in the east at the beginning of the following morning. The full moon has enlightened the full night.

You might think that a night hike should take place under a full moon rather than a half moon. Not necessarily. While a full moon will be bright, it will also be low in the sky for the first few hours (and the last few hours) of the night. Depending on when you intend to hike, it may be better to night hike under a three-quarter or half-moon because it will be higher in the sky. Here’s how that works.

The moon rises about an hour later each night as it goes through its month-long cycle. This means that some weeks the moon lights up the first part of the night and other weeks the latter part of the night. A quick and easy way to remember this is to remember that the “early” (waxing) moon lights up the early part of the night, the full moon lights up the full night, and the “late” (waning) moon lights up the late part of the night. So, at the end of the moon’s first week, the moon is half full and is going to light up half the night. Because this half-moon is its first or early half, it lights up the first half of the night – from sunset to midnight. One week later the full moon will light the entire night. Yet another week brings another half-moon – the second or late half-moon. This half-moon will light up the second or late half of the night – from midnight to sunrise.

So, if I will be night hiking in the early part of the night, maybe the first hour or two after sunset, I prefer an early (waxing) half-moon. The fact that it is an “early” moon means that it will light the early part of the night, starting at sunset and disappearing over the western horizon around midnight. The fact that it is half rather than full means that it will be high in the sky when the sun sets.

On the other hand, if I will start hiking at 4 or 5 am, I’ll be hiking at the very end of the night, so I want to hike under the moon in the late weeks of its cycle. I’ll time my hike for a waning half-moon, ensuring that this bright moon will be high in the sky during those couple of hours preceding sunrise.

Or, just write this down in your trail guide: for a pre-dawn hike, it’s best to go 4 to 7 days after the full moon; for a hike soon after sunset, go 4 to 7 days before the full moon. Of course, take a flashlight, just in case.

Good night (hiking).

Snorts and Hoots

I have a few CDs that are a mixture of nature’s sounds and instrumental music. They’re called things like “Loon Summer” or “Yellowstone Nights” and have the usual sounds: rivers, rain, thunder, wind, bird songs, plus a few snorts, cackles, and howls thrown in. I don’t listen to them a lot, but I do go through phases when that’s my background noise of choice. I get some strange looks when someone walks into my office just as an elk is bellowing out his mating call. I used to try to explain to my visitor what the CD was all about. Now I just say, “What? Never heard an elk mating call before?” I’ve found that bluffing my way through life works pretty well, and this situation is no different. I just act like elk snorts are normal office music and anyone who doesn’t recognize that fact is obviously an environmentally-insensitive barbarian. It’s a strategy that works only occasionally, but it’s quicker than giving the full explanation. And if people walk away with the impression that I’m a bit eccentric, I consider that one of the privileges of aging.

Of course, we get many of those sounds for free during those mild days of spring and fall when we can sleep with our windows open at night. That’s one of the many joys of living in a rural area. The owls, coyotes, and whip-poor-wills let us know that they are out there, doing whatever it is they do until the sun rises again.

I’ve heard stories about people from the city who visit their country relatives and can’t sleep at night because it’s either too quiet or the night-time noises are unfamiliar. Their primary contact with nature during a typical week is scurrying across the parking lot from their car to the office, so their idea of “the sounds of nature” is a bit different from us small town folks. I wonder if there’s a market for CDs featuring loud music overlaid with the sounds of traffic, police sirens, domestic disturbances, public drunkenness, and gunshots. We could keep a copy on hand for when our friends from Atlanta or Nashville come to visit; you know, just to make them feel at home and to help them get a good night’s sleep.

Every summer my buddies and I do a little night fishing, so we have to fish by sound. We spend a lot of time standing quietly, listening for a trout to make a noise as he feeds on insects floating on the surface of the river. We are usually listening so intently that we don’t hear much else. All our energy is focused on distinguishing the river turbulence from a fish’s splash, but at times when there’s no fish activity, the other night sounds become noticeable.

For the most part, the outdoors is quiet at night, but during these moments of stillness we begin to notice a few background noises: the croaks of frogs (big ones at the water’s edge, small ones in the trees), the splashes of beavers and muskrats, the whir of mayflies fluttering by, the conversations of owls. To me, there’s something about the calls of the owls that is haunting. Of course, lots of things seem haunting at night, but the owls are like disembodied woodland spirits, forest dwellers who are comfortable in the dark, unlike me who never quite gets his bearings in the black of night.

One very common owl in the eastern US, from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, is the Barred Owl. This owl gives a classic owl hoot but with a very distinctive, non-hooting, closing note of “awl.” Peterson describes it as, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” The words “who cooks for you” are the hoots. The “you all” at the end is a non-hooting moan. But this is one that Peterson doesn’t get quite right, and it’s something that is obvious to a Southerner. The Barred Owl doesn’t end his call with “you all.” He ends it, very distinctly, with “ya’ll.” He says, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for ya’ll?” The ya’ll at the end is very clearly (at least to my ears) a one syllable ya’ll, not a two syllable you all. I’m sorry, but as a Southerner I just had to set the record straight.

I once asked a girl from Massachusetts to listen to a recording of the Barred Owl. She thought the call was “you all,” not “ya’ll.” Personally, I think she was just being stubborn; that, or maybe them Yankees just don’t hear too good.

Ya’ll have a good night, full of snorts and hoots.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Grief Observed: The Year the Hemlocks Died (Part 2 of 2)

Our walk to see the largest Eastern Hemlock on the planet had been a pleasant experience – a fairly easy jaunt with an occasional hard, messy stretch to keep things interesting. As we moved toward the gap between Laurel Branch and the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River, we reached the big hemlock, the Laurel Branch Leviathan. Tall, wide, and dead. Yes, dead.

We had been warned that this might happen, and we weren’t surprised. An Asian bug – the hemlock adelgid – has been ravaging hemlock forests across the eastern US and has, in fact, infested nearly all the hemlocks in the Smokies.

My friends and I had noticed a significant difference over the past year. In years to come, people will probably speak of 2008-9 as the year when the hemlocks died. Walking in a hemlock forest such as Porters Creek was still a shady, green experience in 2008. Taking the same walk a year later was noticeably different. The sun was now shining where shade had dominated. Looking up through the leafy branches in 2008, one could tell that something was amiss. The branches were beginning to look a bit sparse, but they were still mostly green. By the spring and summer of 2009, those same Hemlock branches were naked and dead, like corpses in a morgue.

The Leviathan had been well-hidden, being discovered only a few years ago by researchers whose passion is searching the Southern Appalachian forests for big trees. But being well-hidden was its death sentence. If the National Park Service had known about this tree sooner, they could perhaps have saved it by dousing it with the chemical spray that kills the adelgids who lodge themselves on the tree’s branches, but the NPS spraying program was too late.

As we walked around the tree, admiring its fading glory, I saw the tell-tale blue and white paint blazes on the tree. I’ve seen these on healthy hemlocks, so I’m pretty sure these marks indicate that these trees had been sprayed, and I’m also pretty sure that the spray usually works… but only if the spraying is started soon enough.
Laurel Branch Leviathan: Going, going, gone...

The NPS has also been experimenting with predator beetles, the sworn enemies of the hemlock adelgid. I’ve read that it costs $2 or $3 to raise a single predator beetle, so this natural, non-chemical approach is slow and expensive. I’m not an entomologist, so I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’ll say it anyway: the idea of having to spend money to “raise” bugs doesn’t make sense to me. I would have thought that you could throw a male and a female on an infested hemlock, and they’d do what predator beetles do – eat hemlock adelgids and reproduce. Seems free and easy to me. But, like I said, apparently I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the predators get eaten by woodpeckers or killed by heat or drought. Whatever the reasons, it isn’t free and easy, which shouldn’t come as a big surprise, since nothing ever is.

Luckily, the hemlocks probably won’t become extinct because the adelgids seem to prefer older trees. So young hemlocks will continue to sprout, but they’ll die after a few years, only to be replaced by a new generation which will also die young. This may be good news for Yellow Poplars which compete with the Eastern Hemlocks for dominance at elevations below 4,500’. For the overall ecosystem there will undoubtedly be negative consequences, but of course, nature will do what nature does – adjust, adapt, and move on.

It’s ironic that just a few yards away from the Leviathan Hemlock stands a large poplar. In fact, because poplars grow larger than hemlocks, that less-than-record-sized poplar is actually larger than the record-sized hemlock. Talk about stealing a guy’s thunder and kicking him while he’s down…!

My hope is that the predator beetles will eventually become self-supporting and will feed on those nasty, little adelgids with zest and will reproduce with gusto. If that happens, then all those young hemlocks might survive childhood and grow into handsome adults. So there is hope, but probably not in our lifetime.

And so, after a leisurely lunch by those two big trees – one representing the past and the other the future – we continued our walk through the gap and on to the Middle Prong. The forest along the Middle Prong is deep, green, and open. Another sylvan cathedral. The ground was covered with mosses, ferns, and spring wildflowers, and most of the trees were hardwoods, not hemlocks. This untarnished piece of creation will probably survive and flourish, unaware that a plague is sweeping through the hemlocks nearby.

The surrounding forest is open and green.

With a little luck we’ll not destroy this forest by some act of greed or stupidity; although, the list of victims – chestnut, elm, fir, hemlock – continues to grow. Thankfully, Nature doesn’t grieve as we do. It simply notices that the fir or hemlocks are gone and goes about its business of filling in the gaps. Adjust, adapt, and move on. And, thankfully again, given an adequate amount of soil and water, it does its job with power and extravagance. Yes, I’ll grieve for the loss of the Eastern Hemlocks, and yet I’m confident that whatever Nature decides to do in the Smokies, it will be beautiful.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Laurel Branch Leviathan (Part 1 of 2)

The promise of seeing the largest Eastern Hemlock in the eastern US had drawn about twenty folks to the Ramsey Cascade trailhead on a fine spring morning. Our leader, a long-time local hiker who had somehow learned the exact location of this tree, would take us a mile or two into the old-growth forest between Laurel Branch and the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River. There, in a gap at about 3,200’, stood a 156’ giant with an 18’ circumference – the Laurel Branch Leviathan. The fact that Eastern Hemlocks grow only in the eastern US means that it’s also the largest in America, the World, and the Universe, which is enough to get you out of bed on a Saturday morning to spend the day walking with people you don’t know.

Today’s hike would be a bit unusual for me because there would be about twenty of us. That’s about ten or twenty times as many hiking partners as I’m accustomed to. Nevertheless, I’d try to be on my best behavior and to hold up my end of any unprovoked conversations that I was subjected to. Of course, the fact that all the hikers were Smokies lovers (several had patches showing that they were part of the 900 Mile Club) meant that we could bypass the chatter about the weather and go straight to the interesting stuff – hikes we’d made, rivers we’d fished, and camping disasters we’d survived. It all worked out rather nicely, and by the end of the day I had made a few new acquaintances, some of whom could provide me with valuable information about the park. Big business isn’t the only place where networking is essential to success. Knowing the right people is also important in hiking, and three or four of these folks were definitely “the right people.”

We started on a small path that led up Little Laurel Branch and soon crossed a low ridge to Laurel Branch and followed this creek for about a half mile. Our line of hikers stretched out over 100 yards as some of our older members kept the pace slow, very slow. At first it felt excruciatingly slow, but after a while I shifted into a leisurely frame of mind and was able to appreciate the slow pace. Frustration over waiting for some of our older hikers (several were well into their 70s) quickly evolved into admiration. I wanted to tell them, “I hope I’m still doing this when I’m your age” but I know from experience that this is a left-handed compliment at best, and such remarks are not always received with gratitude. When someone says something like that to me, all I hear is, “Blah, blah, blah… you are really old and I’m amazed you can still do this… blah, blah.” (Remember the Charlie Brown TV specials? Remember the sound of the teacher? Yeah, it’s a lot like that.) So, I had to admire their determination to hike until the bitter end, to die with their boots on, but hopefully not literally and not today.

At an obscure fork in the creek we made a sharp turn to the northeast and made our way toward a broad gap in the ridge between Laurel Branch and Middle Prong. Somewhere in this stretch of the woods the path disappeared and we found ourselves walking in a sometimes-dry, sometimes-wet creekbed with rhododendron bushes choking the edges. This was probably the reason why the hike leader had called this a “moderate” rather than an “easy” hike.

One good thing about searching for a big tree in a forest is that the big tree is probably there for a reason – the reason being that much of this forest was not molested by the logging companies 80 years ago. It is either an “old growth” forest or was “selectively harvested.” That means there will be many mature trees, which holds the possibility of a deep, open forest with a minimum of underbrush. This open, cathedral feeling is not universal among old-forests, and I’m not sure of all the reasons why; however, this part of the forest near the Leviathan was definitely the cathedral type of forest. Although there were segments of rhododendron near the creekbed, there were many acres of open forest with a floor of green – moss, ferns, and wildflowers. It was like a Gothic cathedral with a soft, green carpet and a vaulted ceiling held aloft by living, wooden beams, exactly the kind of forest you’d hope to see on a trip that’s all about trees.

At about 3200’, as we neared the gap in the ridge, we found the Leviathan, standing tall and proud… and dead. [To be continued]

Friday, May 8, 2009

Blue Haze (Part 3 of 3)

Sunset and dusk from Andrews Bald were enchanting; although, really no more nor less than the view from dozens of other locations in the park, but that made it no less beautiful. The best part was the shaconage – the Cherokee word for “blue haze – that spread across the mountains. It’s the kind of gradual change that could be easily overlooked, especially if you focus on the sunset in the west. Yes, sunsets are great, but sometimes it’s good to look every direction except west. In the east you’ll see the ridges go from green, to yellow, to orange, to pink, to blue. It’s hard to detect while you are watching because it’s so smooth a transition. Only afterwards, as you think about the scene (and try to describe it), do you realize that there’s a range of colors between light and dark.

I can’t remember now if the south went through the same color sequence. What I remember best about the south was the innumerable ridges of the Nantahalas and the blue tint that seemed to seep out of the landscape and into the air. As the shaconage infused the valleys, the perspective, the distance, seemed to get sucked right out of the air. In the bright light of the sun, I could clearly see the distance between the ridges, but as darkness grew all those ridges just seemed to squeeze together. There was height and width, but no depth.

So I sat in the thick grass, letting the night take over. The moon was already high in the sky as the sun sank and darkness deepened. Walking around the top of Andrews Bald, I saw only a few, scattered, distant lights, plus the glow of Bryson City to the south. To be consistent, I should whine for a few sentences about the lights of Bryson City the way I whine about Pigeon Forge, but I can’t. I like Bryson City. It’s a small, simple, working-class town with only a small bit of tourist trade. It’s still small enough that its subtle radiance seems to emphasize the darkness that surrounds it rather than detracting from it.

Happily, there was one thing that was completely invisible at that moment: Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Their glow was completely blocked by Clingmans Dome and the main ridge crest to the north. Having a 180 degree view rather than 360 is a small price to pay for eliminating the glow of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. It was as if they had been wiped off the face of the earth. A bit drastic perhaps, but an idea worth considering.

An hour after sunset the full weight of the night had settled in, and the bank of clouds had moved in and blotted out the moon. My walk back would be by the light of a flashlight, not the moon. I suppose that’s the chance you take when you hike in the spring. There’s less humidity now than in the summer, so the views will be more expansive, but the weather is the wild card. I suppose I should have known – spring weather being what it is – that a clear blue sky during the day was no guarantee of a clear sky in the evening. But that’s okay. It’s good to see the mountains in all their moods. Wind, clouds, and rain are part of the package.

My next visit to Andrews Bald will probably be in late June or early July, when the catawba rhododendron and flame azaleas are blooming. Probably another evening hike because that will be the only way to escape June’s teeming masses that will fill every nook and cranny from exit #407 on I-40 to Clingmans Dome parking lot.

Every nook and cranny, that is, except Andrews Bald and those top two miles of Forney Ridge Trail about an hour before sunset.

[Visit for more information on making a memorable Andrews Bald trip.]

Website information:

This trip has the potential to be one of your most memorable Smokies experiences.

This story gave you most of the information you’ll need to do this hike. But let me give you one other tidbit. If I’m going to watch a sunset and then hike back soon after dark, I prefer to go 4 to 8 days before a full moon. That way, the half moon will be high in the sky when the sun sets, and I can walk back under a bright moon soon after the sun sets. (If the moon is full, it will be very bright but low in the sky for several hours.)

An interesting twist on this hike is to do it during peak rhododendron and flame azalea time, usually mid to late June, rarely early July. Don’t be surprised if you are not alone on this occasion. Quite a few people make these moonlit trips during the blooming season; although, many of them wait for a full moon, which is fine if you are willing to wait a couple of hours after sunset to let it get higher in the sky for your walk back, or if you intend to pull an all-nighter by starting your hike soon after sunset and walk back before dawn. (There’s a long-standing Smokies tradition of hiking to the top of Gregory Bald during a full moon of rhododendron and flame azalea season. This is a good strategy to avoid the day time traffic – arrive soon after dark and make your entire trip a night trip.)

I just checked the calendar and the full moons for 2009 are approximately June 7 and July 6. That means 4 to 8 days prior to that is about June 1 and July 1. On this schedule, I’d try the first few days of July for a moonlight and flowering shrubs walk. Walk to Andrews (or Gregory) in the late afternoon, let the sun set, then walk back under a half or three-quarters moon. I might bring a blanket and a star chart and make an evening of it. Watch the sun set and the stars come out. (I suspect many flower and moon hikers will hike on the weekend of July 4/5 – not because it’s the 4th but because it’s the weekend closest to a full moon, which many night hikers prefer.)

An alternative would be to go a few days after the full moon, which would put this hike in the middle of June or the middle of July. You could get up early and walk to Andrews before sunrise, under the light of the waning moon. The moon will be high in the sky not at sunset, but at sunrise. Then watch the sunrise in the east, hang around as the day awakens, then hike back in the morning sunlight.

This trail is heavily wooded in some spots, so be sure to bring a flashlight because even a full moon on a cloudless night won’t be able to shine though all those spruce and fir branches. There will probably be some dark sections, so the flashlight will come in handy.

Of course, always bring a rain jacket, a light jacket, water, snacks, and a modest sense of adventure.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Still Bald, After All These Years (Part 2 of 3)

I walked alone, with a strong, evening wind whisping through the trees. This top two miles of Forney Ridge Trail is mostly spruce and fir trees. Normally, you can tell the spruce by their pointed, stiff needles and the fir by their rounded, flexible needles. Unfortunately, there’s an easier way to distinguish between the two: the big trees are spruce and the small ones are fir. The fir trees don’t get big because they are all killed by the balsam adelgid once they get 10 or 15 feet tall. So anything taller than about 20 feet is almost certainly a spruce.

As I hiked to Andrews Bald and encountered the hikers heading in the opposite direction, we’d swap “howdies” and keep walking, occasionally stopping to ask, “Are we there yet?” As we’d pass on the trail about an hour before sunset, I could see the unspoken question in their eyes and expressions: “Hey, man. Are you sure you know what you are doing? It’s getting late, and you’re heading in the wrong direction, aren’t you? You’re going to be out there in the dark, all alone.” I can guarantee you that every single person I encountered thought exactly that, not knowing that being out there in the dark, all alone, was the whole point.

A great thing about Andrews Bald is that it’s still a bald, one of only two remaining in the park. Years ago you could enjoy Spence Field, Russell Field, or other grassy areas on the high ridges of the western half of the park. They had been maintained as mountaintop pastureland by cows grazing in the pre-park 1920s and 30s, and even as late as the 1980s they were still impressively open and grassy. However, the NPS is letting all the balds revert to their original, natural, wooded state – except Andrews and Gregory. They may not be pure, unadulterated wilderness, but they are still beautiful, unique reminders of the park’s previous incarnation as a home to farm families with cattle to feed. It’s the same policy that keeps Cades Cove open, grassy, and attractive or that keeps a few cabins and barns standing as a testament to the human side of the Smokies. Whatever the philosophical debates about wilderness preservation, the Smokies’ two remaining grassy balds are worth a visit, and Andrews is by far the easier of the two.

I emerged from the dark woods and into the open field around 7:30, leaving plenty of time to explore. The top of Andrews Bald is a serene, grassy field with scattered clumps of spruce and fir trees, flame azaleas, and catawba rhododendron. There are numerous, faint, meandering trails leading to various rocks, high spots, or shady spots – good places to sit, eat, sleep, or all three. As I walked I paid careful attention to a few landmarks and my general direction of travel. Over the years I’ve learned that I have a pretty poor sense of direction, so I have to make a deliberate effort to pay attention at times like this. On past family vacations I could get us from Tennessee to Montana or Maine on interstates, two-lanes, and dirt roads, but if we pulled into a McDonalds, I couldn’t figure out whether to turn left or right as we pulled out of the drive-thru and back onto the road. My wife or kids would have to point the way back to the interstate. So finding my way back across a grassy bald was not a foregone conclusion, especially at night. As it turned out, this was easy – Forney Ridge Trail across Andrews Bald is the deepest trail, having been worn down 6, maybe 12, inches below the grassy surface.

I explored the faint trails to enjoy the changing view into this southwestern part of the park. There are good views of Fontana Lake and the Nantahala Mountains to the south and High Rocks and Gregory Bald to the west. It was the perfect stage for a sunset; however, my moonlit, return hike wasn’t shaping up very well. Those clouds I had seen in the west a couple of hours earlier were now much bigger, broader, and closer. This could make for a pretty sunset, but I could see that my window of opportunity for a moonlight hike was closing fast. The moon would soon be covered with clouds. [To be continued.]

The Path Less Traveled to Andrews Bald (Part 1 of 3)

April, I am shocked at your behavior! I’ve come to expect this sort of thing from March, but not from you. On Thursday it was a muggy 75 degrees. Friday brought severe thunderstorms. Saturday was 70 degrees, clear, and windy. By Sunday there would be increasing clouds and a chance of snow. What has gotten in to you?

Saturday – clear but windy – would be my only chance to hike to Andrews Bald. I would walk there in the evening, watch the sunset, sit while darkness settled in, then walk back to my truck under a waxing half moon, meaning that as the sun set, the moon would be directly overhead. If the clouds cooperated, then I’d have a moonlit walk back to my truck.

A night-time hike is not as foolish or unnerving as it sounds. It’s not easy, mind you, but it can be safe and memorable, even magical. But the moon and weather (not to mention your job) have to align because in hiking, as in comedy and fishing, timing is everything. There is a window of opportunity that is only a few days or hours long. So when the window opens, you’d better jump through.

After doing chores around the house for most of the day – with an eye on the sky – I drove through Pigeon Forge with only a moderate amount of traffic. There would be, I was told, a hot rod show the following Saturday; US 441 would be shut down and crowded for hours. I was glad to have dodged that bullet, but I knew that I had just used up several pounds of good luck. My account was severely overdrawn already, so I knew I’d have to pay some dues in the near future. The clouds on the far western horizon suggested that maybe I’d be struck by lightning tonight – a small price to pay for avoiding a crowded hot rod show in Pigeon Forge.

A sunny Saturday in mid-April should be fairly crowded in the Smoky Mountains, but since it was getting late in the day, most folks were either at the picnic areas, or in restaurants, or driving through Cades Cove looking for wildlife. I pulled into a half-full parking lot at Clingmans Dome around 6:30pm. A few people were starting their half mile walk to the concrete observation tower at the top of Clingmans Dome. They were, I presume, planning to enjoy the 360 degree view, followed by a sunset, all from the highest point in the park. It’s a pretty good plan for this time of year.

Of course, none of that matters to me tonight because, like Robert Frost, I’m going to take the path less travelled, hoping it will make all the difference. So, at the start of the paved trail to the top of Clingmans, I’ll veer off to the left onto Forney Ridge Trail which will take me a quick and easy 1.8 miles to Andrews Bald. I hesitate to even call it a hike. It’s more of a walk, almost a stroll. Yet, two miles is more than enough to deter virtually everyone who visits the park. This is enhanced even further by the fact that Clingmans Dome – the highest point in the park – acts as a magnet which draws most visitors to it and away from Forney Ridge Trail. Ask the typical Smokies visitor, or even experienced locals, about Forney Ridge, and they’ll have no idea where it is nor why anyone would care.

When I arrived, there were maybe 50 cars in the parking lot, but on my walk to Andrews I saw only five small clumps of people who had just ended their afternoon on the bald and were hiking back to the parking lot. That’s five cars belonging to Andrews Bald hikers. The other 45 cars belonged to the Clingmans visitors. Yes, taking the path less travelled does make a difference. [To be continued.]

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Second Day in the Smokies

For the past month we’ve been talking about how to spend just one day – presumably your first time – in the Smokies. We’ve hit the most popular spots that every Smokies visitor is obligated to see: Cades Cove, Newfound Gap, etc. But what about your second visit? Let’s consider some popular places that are easily accessible by the main roads but will get you out of your car and onto the ground.

One of the easiest and most convenient hikes in the park is Laurel Falls. It is, therefore, crowded and for that reason you’ll need to start this hike either before 9am or after 3pm. Otherwise, you won’t find a parking spot. The trailhead is a modest parking area about 4 miles west (toward Cades Cove) of Sugarlands Visitor Center. The hike is 1.3 miles (one way) to the falls, then backtrack out. The falls are about 70 feet long, so be sure to walk a bit past the falls to get a good, full view from a distance.

The walk to the Walker Sisters’ cabin is a quick and easy history hike, with plenty of parking. This hike starts at the bridge in the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area which is about 9 miles west of Sugarlands. You’ll walk less than a mile on Metcalf Bottoms Trail to an old school building and then a mile on Little Brier Gap Trail to the Walker Sisters’ cabin. These five sisters were celebrities in the park during the 1940s and 50s, so be sure to read a little bit about them before you go, so you’ll know what you are seeing.

There’s a “secret” entrance into the park that leads directly to Metcalf Bottoms. Between Pigeon Forge and Townsend, in the community of Wears Cove, on US 321, turn onto Lyon Springs Road (some maps call it Line Springs) which will take you quickly to Metcalf Bottoms. You’ll recognize this intersection by the nice, log building and a small sign for Wears Valley Ranch.

The hike to Andrews Bald gives you a lot of bang for your buck. It’s fairly easy and accessible, with an impressive payoff at the end, but not many people visit it. Park at the Clingmans Dome parking lot (before 10am or after 4pm during the peak season), and while almost everyone else takes the paved trail to Clingmans Dome, you will turn off to the left onto Forney Ridge Trail. Walk about 2 miles to Andrews Bald and enjoy the open views of the southern half of the park from a high, grassy field.

Abrams Falls is a good addition to a drive through Cades Cove. Look for the short road to Abrams Falls Trail at the western tip of the 11 mile loop road. The 2.5 mile hike to the falls is a pleasant river walk ending in a picturesque, 20 foot falls with a large pool at its base. It’s a great spot for a summer swim.

One of the most popular hikes in the park is Chimney Tops, about 7 miles south of Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road. To find a parking space you must arrive before 9am or after 3pm. The first mile of this classic Smokies hike is moderate while the second mile is tough, but the payoff at the end is fabulous and even a little scary. The last few hundred feet are not for the extremely young nor the faint of heart. On the other hand, thousands of soft, urban-dwellers do this hike every year, so you can, too. Just use good judgment at the top.

Alum Cave Trail (about 9 miles south of Sugarlands) to the top of Mount LeConte is one of the best hikes in the park. It’s hard and long, but the reward at the end is worth every drop of sweat. Because parking spaces fill quickly and because this is an all-day affair, arrive by 8am. The hike up will take about 4 hours but will take you to the crown jewel of the Smokies – Mt. LeConte. Once on top, you should take at least an hour to visit Myrtle Point and Cliff Top. Bring a map and compass so you can figure out what you are seeing. Almost every step of this trail has something dazzling to offer, so take your time and enjoy the journey. This trip has literally changed people’s lives. Yes, it’s that good.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’ve called these hikes Second Day hikes, but of course you can’t do all of them in a single day. So take your time. Spread them out over several months. Try them during different seasons (April through June, also November, are magnificent). They might just change your life.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Summer Visitor's Guide: Clingmans Dome (Pt. 4 of 4)

Our peak season trip has taken us to most of the well-known sites in the Smoky Mountains in a single day: Cades Cove, Little River, the Sugarlands area, Newfound Gap Road, and Cherokee. This has been a 99% road trip with very little walking. (Some other time you might try some easy “self-guided nature trails” with $1 brochures available at the visitor centers; for example, Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail at the Chimneys Picnic Area.) The one ingredient still missing from our one-day road trip is Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies.

By now it’s getting to be late afternoon, so we’ll head to Clingmans Dome. Traffic will start to dwindle around 4 or 5 pm as folks head to restaurants and picnic areas or to Cades Cove for an evening drive around the loop, so Clingmans Dome parking lot will have some empty spots for us. In fact, this is exactly why we’ve saved this for the end of our day, to do exactly the opposite of what the teeming masses do.

The drive from Cherokee back up to Newfound Gap is a beautiful drive, of course. Clingmans Dome is visible ahead and to your left at a couple of points along the way. It’s not extremely obvious, but if you are a map-and-compass type of person, you can locate it fairly easily. Specifically, when you see the asphalt walkways along the left (west) side of the road near mile markers 17 and 18, stop and take a look. If you have a pair of binoculars, you may be able to see the observation tower and an antenna on Clingmans’ peak.

Just before you arrive at Newfound Gap, you’ll see the signs for Clingmans Dome pointing to the left. Take this road which winds along the main crest for seven miles. Actually, the road is in North Carolina; the state line and the Appalachian Trail are both on the top of the slope to your right. Notice that many of the trees are the high elevation types. The ones that look like huge Christmas trees are Red Spruce. There are also a few Frasier Firs, but they are small because they die once they get ten or fifteen feet tall. The easiest way to tell them apart is to examine the needles. Firs have soft, rounded ends; spruce have stiffer needles with pointed ends.

Once you arrive at the parking lot at the end of the road, you’ll see the wide, paved trail heading up hill. It’s a fairly steep, but pleasant and brief, climb to the top. It will take you about 30 minutes to get to the concrete observation tower, which will probably be full of people. If you’ve arrived around supper time, but well before sunset, then the crowd is probably starting to dissipate, but there will be a surge of people around sunset, so be prepared if you decide to stay that long. (The road is open 24/7.) Now would be a good time to walk around in the spruce (and fir) forest at this high elevation.

One other detail that you ought to be aware of, and you ought to warn your visitors about – the view isn’t very good during the summer. The mixture of humidity and pollution creates a bowl of haze that significantly reduces the view from May through September. Just another sad fact of modern life. Maybe tell your visitors to come back in April or, better yet, November when the views are fabulous. And, yes, it will have to be those two months because the Clingmans Dome Road is closed from December 1 to March 31.

Finally, I have good news and bad news about your trip home. The good news: there’s a bypass around Gatlinburg. Look for the signs soon after Sugarlands Visitor Center. The bad news: there’s no bypass around Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. (There are a few back roads that are helpful, but they can’t work miracles. See for more info.) The next hour or two of summer evening traffic in those two towns are the price you must pay for visiting the park in the peak season. The only alternative I can think of is to find a Waffle House and hang out until midnight. Maybe by then the traffic will have died down. Maybe.

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Back roads to get you to Sugarlands and US 441 in the Smokies

If you are seeking noise, excitement, and attractions, then it is this main Hwy. 66 & US 441 corridor through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge that you must visit. If you are seeking quiet and solitude, you must avoid it at all costs. I understand the appeal of the US 441 corridor. There’s a lot of stuff to do and places to eat. It’s the kind of thing that today’s kids (and many adults) enjoy. Let me re-phrase that: I don’t really understand the appeal because it doesn’t appeal to me. I’ll just say that I recognize the appeal of the corridor. It appeals to a lot of people.

I really, really, really avoid the entire main tourist corridor (Exit 407, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Newfound Gap, Cherokee) during the main season (weekends in April and May, everyday from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the last three weeks of October, and the Christmas-New Year week). The only exception is if I’ll be on the road early in the morning or late at night. Otherwise, during these peak visitation times, I go to less-popular sites such as Big Creek, Greenbrier, Raven Fork, Forney Creek, Cataloochee, and Cosby.

Just so you’ll know driving times. From Exit #407 to Sugarlands Visitor Center, the best you can realistically expect when traffic is light or non-existent is 45 minutes. During the heavy traffic of peak season you can add anywhere from 30 minutes to hours to this travel time.

Nevertheless, here are a few back roads that will help a little.

Bypass Gatlinburg
If you intend to visit the park, not Gatlinburg, always use the Gatlinburg Bypass that takes you directly to Sugarlands without going through Gatlinburg at all. You’ll see the sign for it near the Gatlinburg Welcome Center (about a mile north of town) if you drive from Pigeon Forge into Gatlinburg. If you are driving out of the park toward Gatlinburg, you’ll see the sign soon after you pass the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Back roads in Pigeon Forge & Sevierville
If you are driving from Sevierville into Pigeon Forge (toward the park), one of the first traffic lights in Pigeon Forge is Teaster Lane. To miss a lot of Pigeon Forge’s traffic, turn left on Teaster Lane and follow it for 2.3 miles until it runs into Veterans Blvd. Turn right on Veterans and stay on it for about half a mile until its name changes to Dollywood Lane and runs back into US 441 near the lower end of Pigeon Forge at traffic light #8. (At this point, if you’ll look around you’ll see that you could turn left before traffic light #8 on441 and travel down small side roads to traffic light #10 which is even closer to the park.) You’ll have missed most of US 441 in Pigeon Forge.

These same directions, headed in the reverse direction (heading out of the park) are: If you are driving out of the park and north toward Sevierville and I-40, soon after you enter Pigeon Forge, turn right at traffic light #8 (Dollywood Lane). In less than a quarter mile Dollywood Lane bears to the right but you should go straight on Veterans Blvd. After less than half a mile on Veterans Blvd. you’ll turn left on Teaster Lane. After about 2 miles on Teaster you’ll come to US 441. Turn right and you are headed into Sevierville.

A good variation of this route that may help even more: Don’t use Teaster. Just stay on Veterans Blvd. It comes out on US 411 in the outskirts of Sevierville, just two or three miles from Hwy 66.

US 321 to Gatlinburg & Sugarlands
There’s a completely different route into the Gatlinburg/Sugarlands area from the Jefferson/Hamblen area. You might want to acquaint yourself with it to see if it might work for you. I’ve used it on heavy traffic days and it seems to help; although, this route is a little longer distance than the Exit #407 (Sevierville-Pigeon Forge-US 441) route.

Take I-40 east to exit #440 (Wilton Springs/Gatlinburg/To US 321) or the Foothills Parkway exit #443 (a very scenic drive). Either of these takes you to US 321. Stay on US 321 South all the way into Gatlinburg. In Gatlinburg you’ll turn left onto US 441 at traffic light #3. At this point you can stay on US 441 through the middle of Gatlinburg or you can try to avoid some of this traffic by bearing to the right at traffic light #5 (River Road). This road parallels US 441 for almost a mile. It’s a narrow road, but if traffic is bad in downtown Gatlinburg, this road may save you a few minutes. Continue straight on this road and it will lead you out of Gatlinburg and into the park.

It’s also possible to turn RIGHT onto 441 at traffic light #3 and drive north out of Gatlinburg. Then at the Welcome Center just outside of town, make a U turn and head back toward Gatlinburg, but you’ll soon bear to the right onto the Gatlinburg Bypass, which will take you directly to the park. I do this if traffic in Gatlinburg is very heavy.

One last back road in Gatlinburg is a bit narrow and winding, but it might help if traffic is horrendous. As you approach Gatlinburg on US 321 from Cosby and I-40 find traffic light #2A (on US 321, before you reach US 441) and turn right onto Dudley Creek Bypass Road. This short road will take you to US 441 on the north end of town, allowing you to get out of Gatlinburg to the north. (There’s one sudden, hidden stop sign on Dudley, so be careful.) Once you are north of Gatlinburg (like you are going to Pigeon Forge), make the U turn at the Gatlinburg Visitor Center and head back toward Gatlinburg, but take the Gatlinburg Bypass to go directly into the park at Sugarlands.

I have timed some of these alternate routes, and here’s what I’ve found. From Exit #417 in Jefferson County where I live, I can make it to Sugarlands Visitor Center via Sevierville and Pigeon Forge in 55 minutes (if traffic is very, very light – which it rarely is). I can make it to Sugarlands via this alternate route (I-40 East and US 321 through Cosby) in about 65 minutes (again, if traffic is very light). So this alternate route is 10 minutes longer if traffic is light and if you are starting at Exit #417. So if you think there’s 10 minutes worth of traffic in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, this alternate route may be worth a try – although don’t forget that if traffic is heavy in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, it might be a bit heavy on US 321 and in Gatlinburg, too.

On these heavy-traffic, peak season days, I avoid the crowded parts of the park. But if I must travel to the Sugarlands area of the park, I travel that crowded corridor early in the morning and/or late at night, or I use the US 321 alternate route.

I would add that getting to Cades Cove during the peak season is equally horrible because the main road to Cades Cove is Wears Valley Road in Pigeon Forge. If you try this route, you must travel through the thickest part of the traffic of Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. The alternate to this is to enter from the Maryville/Knoxville area on US 321 and Hwy 73. There’s also a very winding route from Jefferson County via John Sevier Hwy, US 441, US 411, back roads near Walland, and US 321. I can’t even begin to describe it, but if you’ll study a local map, you might be able to figure it out. This is the route I’d take from Jefferson County to Cades Cove during the peak season.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Summer Visitor's Guide: Newfound Gap Road (Part 3 of 4)

Our early morning was spent in Cades Cove, avoiding the worst crowds that will soon arrive, peaking in the evening, and we are now driving east along the Little River. We’ll soon be at Sugarlands Visitor Center, just south of Gatlinburg.

Because we are trying to see the most popular spots in the park during the peak season, while avoiding the worst of the crowds, here’s a useful piece of advice: don’t eat at the same time everyone else does. We’ll stop at a picnic area (maybe Metcalf Bottoms between Tremont and Elkmont) or a roadside pullout and eat lunch around 10 or 11 am. This will help us to avoid the noon lunch rush when most good parking spots are taken by picnickers. We’ll eat while they are driving and drive while they are eating.

For a general introduction to the park, a stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center would be helpful, but not absolutely necessary. One good way to decide whether you’ll stop or not is to let fate decide. Drive through the parking lot. If you can find an open spot, park and go inside the visitor center. If there’s no parking available, then skip it and continue a minute or two to the point where the Little River Road joins the Newfound Gap Road. Turn right and you’ll begin your 13 mile ascent up to Newfound Gap. Traffic is getting heavy now, so keep repeating to yourself: “I’m not in a hurry, I’m not in a hurry.”

On this segment of the road there are numerous scenic pullouts. Stop at whichever ones are appealing and available. Keep in mind that you are driving on one of the prettiest roads in America, so enjoy the ride.

One of the most interesting views is the Chimney Tops. A few minutes after you pass the Chimneys Picnic area, you’ll see the Chimney Tops in the distance on your right. There are several parking pullouts on the right. They are usually crowded, but if you can find a spot, stop and take some pictures of your relatives with the Chimney Tops in the background. Remember, they are here to do what most visitors do, and most visitors get this picture as proof that they’ve done exactly what’s expected of them.

You’ll soon see even more cars parked on the right at the trailhead of the Chimney Tops Trail – a strenuous, two mile trail to the top of the Chimney Tops. It’s a great hike that your relatives should do some time – but there won’t be time (or parking spaces) today.

After some dramatic views on the upper portions of this road, you’ll arrive at Newfound Gap, which is really just a big parking lot. But it’s a parking lot with some good views, mostly south into North Carolina. Take a picture of the kids straddling the state line, then continue south toward Cherokee.

In less than a mile past Newfound Gap, you’ll pass the road to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies. Of course, that’s one of the places we’ll have to visit, but not yet. It’s too crowded at this time of day. We’ll come back by this spot later today, when the crowds have thinned out.

Continue down Newfound Gap Road, stopping whenever the views compel you, toward Cherokee, NC, the main town on the Cherokee Reservation, officially known as the Qualla Reservation. Before you get to Cherokee, you’ll pass the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Farm Museum on the left. This spot is old and quaint and worth a stop. You could easily spend an hour or two wandering along the river and through the old buildings – unless you got your fill of old buildings in Cades Cove. After this stop, continue on to the town of Cherokee.

Cherokee will be crowded and a bit frustrating – welcome to the tourist season. If possible, spend a few hours in Cherokee. A lot of Cherokee is too shiny and cheap for my tastes, but it does have a unique kind of charm. Plus, there are a few glimpses of traditional Cherokee life – mainly the Cherokee Museum in the middle of town. A good rule of thumb would be that you spend as much time in the museum as you do in the souvenir shops, just to let your relatives know that you haven’t yet fallen victim to the “shop ‘til you drop” mentality that saturates our popular culture, even on the main thoroughfare of an Indian reservation.

Before you leave Cherokee to head back into the mountains, don’t forget your eating schedule. Find a restaurant or picnic area in the middle of the afternoon, before everyone else stops to eat supper. [To be continued; for a useful back road through Cherokee, see]

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Personally, I wouldn’t visit Cherokee during the peak visitation months of June – August, plus October. However, this article gives a plan for a peak season visit, so here’s a tip that won’t solve all your traffic problems, but it can help.

Within Cherokee traffic can be a problem, especially on the two-lane portion of US 441 in the middle of town. But there is a back road to avoid this congested area: Big Cove and Acquoni Roads. If you are coming into Cherokee from the north (i.e. from the park), about a mile past the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, just before you get into the town of Cherokee, you’ll see a sign for Big Cove Road. Turn left here – it is Saunooke Bridge Road, leading across the river and ending at Big Cove Road. Turn right (south) on Big Cove Road and it will take you into a less congested section of Cherokee, ending at Acquoni Road. Turn left on Acquoni as it parallels and bypasses US 441 through Cherokee. Acquoni Road comes out on US 441 and US 19 at the lower (south) end of town. This section of town will be congested, but at least you avoided about a mile of equally congested asphalt.

A problem with this route is that it also bypasses the Cherokee Museum, which is something you probably ought to visit. (Of course, keep in mind that I’m a nerd who likes history and anthropology.) There’s also a riverside park that this back road will bypass. It’s a nice spot, but it will probably be crowded; plus there are lots of other riverside stops you can make today, so there’s no compelling need to stop at this park in Cherokee.

The official Cherokee website is or call (800) 438-1601. Try to avoid Cherokee on a day when there’s some big bike week or similar event that will clog Cherokee even more than usual.

A Summer Visitor's Guide: Cades Cove (Part 2 of 4)

Visiting the Smoky Mountains during the peak, summer season can be a daunting task. Almost 10 million people visit the park every year, the most of any national park in the US. Almost half of them visit during the summer months from Memorial Day to Labor Day plus the last half of October. Of course, the easiest sites to visit are on the main roads, thus the traffic and the crowds on Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome, and Cades Cove. But there are some strategies that will help you maintain your sanity.

Let’s assume that you want to see Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome, plus the sites along the main roads. To avoid the worst of the crowds I’d start my day with Cades Cove because most people wait until evening. They visit Clingmans Dome and the other trails and roads in the morning and early afternoon. By 4 pm most of these places are starting to empty out as visitors head to picnic areas in the park or the restaurants of the surrounding towns. After supper they’ll go to Cades Cove to look at the deer grazing in the fields. So we’ll visit most of these sites in the opposite order.

Yes, evenings are a nice time in the cove, and if this were the off-season, that’s when I would go, too. But during the peak season the evening traffic is unbelievably heavy, so a better option is the early morning while the animals are out but the people are not. Arrive at the loop road in Cades Cove a few minutes before dawn and park in the parking lot. If there’s a line of cars forming, don’t join it. Just park, get out of your car, and wander around in the field nearby or have an early morning picnic. Don’t sleep in and arrive at 9 am. That’s what too many people do. Make the sacrifice. Get up early. Arrive early. (The quickest route to Cades Cove from Exit 407 is to cut across from Pigeon Forge to Townsend on US 321. It’s traffic light #3, Wears Valley Rd., in Pigeon Forge.)

When the ranger arrives to unlock the gate at dawn, the line of cars will rush into the cove. Be patient. Wait for 10 minutes. There will be a lull in the action after that initial rush. Now is the time to drive slowly into the cove. You won’t be completely alone – this is the peak season, after all – but the traffic will be meager. Take an hour or two to drive this 11 mile loop. Stop at cabins and meadows. Stop at the visitor center at the west end of the cove.

I won’t give you all the details of what to do in the cove. You can figure that out, but it might help to buy an auto tour booklet just after you enter the loop road in the cove. For more help visit the park’s website at There you’ll find maps and other suggestions. A good road guide to the park is Smokies Road Guide by Jerry DeLaughter. It’s sold in all the visitor centers, including the one at the west end of Cades Cove.

Once you finish Cades Cove you’ll head east toward Sugarlands Visitor Center. It will be almost mid-morning, so traffic will be picking up. There are many places to stop and relax as this road winds its way through the Little River gorge from Cades Cove to Sugarlands. This is probably the place to remind you that you are not in a hurry. Creeping along in slow-moving traffic on these main roads is not the end of the world. After all, these are roads on which you want to move slowly, taking in the scenery, so the main adjustment to be made on this road is mental – don’t get in a hurry. Don’t let the slow traffic bother you. On these roads in the park, slow is good, so think of the traffic as your friend – a somewhat annoying friend, but a friend nonetheless. Of course, outside the park traffic is an enemy to be conquered or avoided; in the park, not so much. At least, that’s the way you have to think about it to avoid a panic attack. [To be continued]

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Summer Visitor’s Guide: The Popular Sites (1 of 4)

You’ve probably noticed that a consistent theme in this column about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is this: avoid the crowds; whatever it takes, avoid the crowds. You can do this by visiting the less-famous sites in the park or going during the off-season, but we all have those inevitable moments when we don’t have much choice in the matter. Our relatives from out of town have one day to burn on their summer vacation, and they’d like you to show them around the park. What to do?

Well, dear reader, that depends on you and your relatives. If they refuse to get out of the car and insist on visiting the most popular spots during the middle of the day in the middle of July, then, yes, you will have problems with the crowds. You’d be better off just lying to them. Tell them the park is closed for repairs. Tell them the admission charge is $1,000 per car. Whatever you have to do, do not – I repeat, do not! – drive through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge during the daylight hours on a summer day, unless you enjoy the taste of carbon monoxide. It’s a trafficatastrophe of Biblical proportions.

However, if they are willing to be flexible, then you can avoid the worst of the crowds. During the peak visitation months of June, July, August (plus most of October, the Christmas-New Year week, and weekends in May), you’ll encounter crowds, especially at the most popular sites. However, there are some ways to limit the madness.

If the typical visitor were going to spend just one day in the park, it would make sense that they’d want to visit the well-known sites. That’s understandable. If I went to Yellowstone, I’d be happy to wander around the backcountry, visiting the untouched wilderness, but I’d also want to see Old Faithful, simply to be able to hold up my end of the conversation. “You mean to tell me you went to Yellowstone and didn’t see Old Faithful? Are you sure you were in Yellowstone, in Wyoming? The national park?” I’d have no defense. If you go to Yellowstone, there are certain things you are expected to see. Ditto the Smokies.

So what is the typical visitor to the Smokies expected to see?

First of all, every visitor has to drive the main road (Newfound Gap Road) from Sugarlands Visitor Center (near Gatlinburg) south over the main ridge crest at Newfound Gap and down into the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. The main points worth seeing on this road are Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Chimney Tops (a pair of rocky peaks), Newfound Gap (a large parking lot with good views), Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Farm Museum, Cherokee Indian Reservation, and the numerous roadside views and pullouts. Also, near the midpoint at Newfound Gap, there is a side road that wanders seven miles along the state line to Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain top in the park, with a concrete observation tower at the top.

The other main road in the park also starts at Sugarlands Visitor Center and heads west about twenty miles to Cades Cove. On this road, there are two main sights on the way to Cades Cove: Laurel Falls and Little River. Laurel Falls is a beautiful but crowded spot at the end of a 1.3 mile walk. It’s definitely worth the walk, but it’s almost impossible to find a parking spot on a typical day of the peak season. Like many popular hikes in the Smokies, you have to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm.

Little River, the wonderful stream that parallels this road for much of its length, is popular with picnickers, tubers, and fishermen. Stop and enjoy this beautiful part of the park while you drive on this road. And, of course, this road’s destination is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Seriously. Cades Cove.

Most visitors see Cades Cove by driving the 11 mile, single-lane, one-way road past deer, turkeys, meadows, cabins, and an occasional bear. If I could do just one thing as a first-time visitor, this loop road would be it.

So that’s it – the three main roads and their best sights: Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome Road, and the road to and in Cades Cove. These are the roads you must travel and the sights you must see. But how? When? Let’s come up with a plan. [To be continued; for information on some Smokies websites, visit]

Extra Website Info:

The official, government Smokies website is If you’ll look around here you’ll find a helpful Trip Planner. There are also several digital (pdf) maps you can download, mainly a Park Map and a Trails Map.

The Great Smoky Mountains Association is the educational and publishing arm of the park. It has two websites: or

Another related organization is Friends of the Smokies. Visit their website at

Finally, there is a visitor center outside the park, very close to the #407 exit off I-40. From I-40 travel south on Hwy 66 (the highway leading to Sevierville, etc.) for 1.5 miles. The visitor center is on the right – a new building of red brick, white wood, and a green roof. It is mostly a store, selling books, maps, etc. It also has one “exhibit” – a nice 3 D map of the Smokies. The folks who work there are helpful and reasonably knowledgeable about the park. They can answer most questions that the typical visitors ask.