Friday, December 23, 2016

Deep Creek to Clingman's Dome

Deep Creek Trailhead
12/18 - 12/20/16
2016 bag nights: 28

One last trip for 2016 and one last moment of peace and quiet before the holiday madness begins. This was sort of a spur of the moment trip. I had been looking at the calendar and realized that I could probably squeeze in a couple nights backpacking, so I looked at the Smokies map and thought of all the places I wanted to check out when there were less people around. Mt Leconte sounded good except for the shelter part, but I figured that if the weather was nasty, a shelter might be more comfortable than a hammock and tarp. I decided that I would do a loop past Rainbow falls to Leconte and then continue towards the AT for a second night and then back to Leconte for a third night. And then the Chimney Tops fire spread and all the lower trails got closed off. I was still going to do the trip but a little differently, but as it got closer, the weather forecast improved and I could see the shelters filling up with reservations. The night before I was going to leave, there were 8 reservations for the Leconte shelter, no way I am sleeping with that many people, so I had to find somewhere else.

I had a vague idea of starting at Deep Creek and hiking up to the AT. My impression is the Deep Creek area is swimming with people in the summer time, so winter seemed like a good time to check out the area. None of the campsites in the area had any reservations, so I could stay basically where I wanted. I got reservations for 3 nights and figured that I would see how I felt each day and let that determine where I camped.

I got to the trailhead around 3 on Sunday and there were a couple cars in the lot. I passed a couple dayhikers within the first 10 minutes and then no one else on actual trails for the rest of the trip.

My first stop was a short detour to Juney Whank Falls and then down the Deep Creek Trail.

Across Deep Creek is Tom Branch Falls.

The first 1.5 miles are an old road bed, very easy walking

And then it transitions to a more "normal" trail. It is easy to see the weather in the next two pictures. The rain had stopped about 2 o'clock, but the clouds were very low and dark and everything was soaked.

I think this is a coyote print.

I got to site 59 about 5 and decided that would be a good place for the night, it was already getting dark with the sun behind the thick clouds and below the ridgeline. It was cold and damp, so I quickly set up camp and had dinner and was reading in the hammock by 7.

Woke up the next day and it was foggy and damp, like being in a cloud. The forecast for Leconte was sunny and 40's so I hoped the clouds would break with enough time in the sun. Since I was heading up to the ridge and the AT, I spent some time looking at the map and trying to figure out where I would be able to get water. I ended up filling up with about 5 liters (enough to get me through breakfast the next day since I was planning on a dry campsite). It turns out the Pole Road Creek trail has a lot of water crossings so I could have saved myself a little bit of work by filling up later.

More hiking in the clouds.

This tree had more burls than I had ever seen on one tree.

A "Cherokee" tree?

Not long after turning onto the Noland Divide trail, I broke out above the clouds. It was nice seeing sunshine and the temperature rose from mid-30s to mid-40s. A great day to be hiking.

I hit the road to Clingman's Dome after a couple hours of hiking and headed up hill towards the mountain peak. The road is supposed to close on December 1st, but I had seen mention that the park was keeping it open a little longer. I assumed it was closed by now, but I saw a total of 4 cars coming down the road. I was feeling a little annoyed since the whole reason for a trip like this was to avoid tourists in cars. I was having a vision of a full parking lot, but once I got to the top, no one was there.

It is easy to see all the clouds I hiked through.

The view from the parking lot is pretty amazing.

But the view from the UFO/observation tower on top of Clingman's Dome is even better. You can just make out the shadow from the tower in the middle of the photo. At this point, I had climbed about 4000 feet and covered about 9 miles with about 10 pounds of water. I was feeling a little tired at this point. I ended up running into two groups of guys that had hiked up the AT and were going to hike back down the road. Never saw anyone else for the rest of the trip.

I then headed towards Andrews Bald to check out the sunset. It turns out that the Forney Ridge Trail has plenty of water and I could have carried 2 liters and been fine. I'm not sure how much of the water was because of the recent rains.

You can just make out Venus in the upper left of this photo, not bad for a cell phone.

The sunrise was pretty cool as well.

One last view and then down the trail.

I have always liked the ice crystals that grow out of the ground, but I can never get a good photo.

I headed back down the road to the Fork Ridge Trail enjoying the occasional view through the trees.

No photos of the Fork Ridge Trail, but I really liked hiking it. It would probably suck going up hill though. After about 5 miles, the Fork Ridge Trail intersects with the Deep Creek Trail. The Nat Geo map shows a bridge there. Unfortunately, there was no bridge. It is far enough up hill that Deep Creek is fordable, but the water was deep enough to come up to mid-thigh. I did not get a picture of that crossing, but there are a couple more smaller creeks that kept my feet/shoes cold and wet. It was about this point that I started thinking of doing a really long day and getting off the trail vs one more night. I knew I would never get my shoes dry and they would be frozen solid in the morning. My knee was bothering me and so was the other ankle. I was pretty sure I would not be doing the extra hiking like I had planned for the last day. So, I decided to head to the car. It was 2 o'clock and I had about 10 more miles to go.

Parts of the Deep Creek Trail are right next to the water. The trail is basically a narrow ledge above the creek. It was a neat trail to hike, but I'll bet it is a muddy wet mess in the spring.

One last look up the creek before I made my decision to definitely hike to my car.

I ended up getting to my car a little before 6 as it was getting dark. Ended up doing about 21 miles and about 5000 feet down. I changed and then got a burger in Bryson City and then the 4.5 hour drive home. By the time I got to Knoxville (about 9) I was already regretting my decision to hike out. In retrospect, I was not thinking clearly and the creek crossings mentally tired me out and led to bad decision making. The weather was perfect and I should have stayed one more night even if I had just hiked straight out the next morning. Ultimately, I need to do a better job sitting still and relaxing, but that is something I wrestle with on every solo backpacking trip.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Auxier Ridge

Martin's Fork Trailhead - Red River Gorge

My in-laws were in town to play with the kids and the weather looked perfect, so I headed to the gorge for the day. The Tunnel Ridge Road is still closed after a couple wildfires, but only up to the Nada Tunnel.

I saw a post on kywilderness ( about the "back door" from Martin's Fork. I had looked at the map on occasion and every time I looked across the valley from the other side, I thought that it looked like a bushwack along the ridge that parallels the Nada Tunnel Road would be possible. This trip report confirmed it.

I got to the Martin's Fork Trailhead around 10:30 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. My car thermometer said 40 degrees. The sun was shining and the only potential issue was I was fighting a head cold which is arguably better than fighting a hangover

I followed the obvious user trail out of the parking lot and up towards the ridge. After one false start, I reached the top of the ridge after a bit of scrambling. Once at the top of the ridge, there was a somewhat obvious trail that had been flagged. This made the trail mostly easy to follow, there were probably 5 or 6 different color tapes, most very faded, but still noticeable/followable. 

I hit TRR around 12:30 and headed towards Auxier Trailhead. It was very weird coming around the corner and not seeing any cars at all. It turns out that I really like the gorge without any people in it. I still ended up carrying garbage (I think mylar balloons should be illegal).

I headed out towards Courthouse Rock with the idea that I would loop back on Courthouse Rock trail. I ended up enjoying the views for so long that when I got to Courthouse Rock, I turned around and headed back. I had an easy trip back until after I had climbed down from the ridge and lost the trail, a little bit of bushwacking and I was back at the trailhead around 4, the thermometer said 48 degrees.

I liked this old burned tree on the ridge

Double Arch from across the valley

An amazing day, it felt like I had the whole gorge to my self.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee (Great Smoky Mountains)
11/10 - 11/13-16
2016 bag nights: 26

This post back in September got me thinking about Cataloochee and the elk. I wasn't able to make it happen until the middle of November. The weather forecast for the Smokies was looking great, three days of sunshine and no rain, highs in 50s/60s and lows right around freezing. The only problem was there was a campfire ban since everything was so dry.

I met JC at Cove Creek Gap at the entrance to Cataloochee valley where we left my car. This gave us the option of hiking out on the Cataloochee Divide trail if our legs were up to it. We then drove to the end of the road. We saw about 6-7 elk as we drove, but there weren't any when we parked. The weather was perfect for hiking, sunny and about 60 degrees.

We hiked in on the Rough Fork Trail which passes an old homesite (Steve Woody place).

Most of the leaves had already dropped, but there were still a few with color.

We checked out Campsite 40 and decided we were glad we were not staying there. It felt a little closed in and there were not many good hammock spots. After a couple of hours, we got to Site 41. This is a much better site, lots of places for tents or hammocks and easy to spread out. This was going to be home for the next three nights, not a bad place to hang.

We had the campsite to ourselves, which was nice. Woke up the next morning to a little bit of ice in the bottom of our cups and pots. After a leisurely breakfast we hit the trail. Our goal today was the Cataloochee Divide trail. We decided that the Hemphill Bald Trail towards Double Gap was the best way to climb the 2200 feet. If we were feeling good, we would head towards Polls Gap and make it a 13ish mile day. Otherwise we could head towards Purchase Gap and make it an 9ish mile day. 

It was another perfect hiking day made even better by the fact that we only had water and lunch in our packs.

Lower down, it was hard to see much through the trees, one of the drawbacks of hiking in the southeast. Still the occasional view was appreciated.

Occasionally, we would come to a place where downed trees opened up the view a bit.

The park boundary runs right along the fence line of Cataloochee Ranch. We took a break here and enjoyed the view. While we were there four women who were staying at The Swag (a fancy lodge on the boundary of the park) came by. They showed us the map they had that showed a couple of trails that were not on park property, but that hikers could use.

In the picture below, you can see the fence line running up to Hemphill Bald. We had decided that were not going to go the long way which meant we were not going to go over the bald. I decided that it would be foolish not to check out the view, so we decided to hike the park trail to the top of the bald and then loop back on one of the Ranch trails back to Double Gap.

The view from the bald was great. Cataloochee Ranch has set up a couple benches and a sign identifying the all the mountains in the distance. There was a sign that mentioned that ~250 acres were placed in a conservation easement, so the bald/view could never be built on.

In the picture below, that is smoke down around the mountain tops.

I liked the look of this tree. I'll bet the shade is nice in the middle of summer.

We then headed down the Ranch trail back towards Double Gap.

Not much in the way of flowers this time of year.

I really liked this tree.

Same tree, different angle.

Another nice tree.

More amazing views.

This gives an idea of the gradient of the area, not many flat parts or gentle rises.

There were some low shrubs with these "berries". They looked like tiny tomatoes, but smelled more like green peppers.

One last look at Hemphill Bald.

We ate our lunch at The Swag, it was very nice to lean back on a bench and prop our feet up on a table, not to mention the view. We were also able to top up our water for the hike back, very nice people there, but a bit out of my price range.

Then continued down the Cataloochee Divide trail towards Purchase Gap.

The McKee Branch Trail down from Purchase Gap was steep, rocky and covered in leaves. It made for slow going, but it was still a great day for hiking.

Back on the Caldwell Fork Trail heading back to camp. There is a stretch of trail that is very straight and partly lined with an old rock wall. It almost looked like it used to be a road.

Near Site 41 is this sign.

Not far off the trail is a truly enormous tree. The diameter at its base was probably about 10 feet. Don't know why it was "Big Poplars" (plural) since there was only one huge tree that I could see. It was getting dark, so I did not explore too much, maybe there were more further off the trail.

There were a couple tents set up in the distance when we got back to camp. After dinner, we chatted with 3 older guys from SC. It sounded like they had been backpacking together for 30-40 years.

Moon rising over the ridge.

Woke up to another beautiful day.

You can see my hammock/tarp in the distance.

Sunrise over the ridge.

The second dayhike was going to be a 9ish mile loop around the Boogerman Trail and Caldwell Fork Trail. The Boogerman trail passes a site with some rock walls and this odd piece of machinery.

The amount of work that went into building these walls is incredible. There was a stretch that had rocks that easily weighed more than 100 pounds.

Evidently, the Boogerman trail passes through a stretch that was never logged, making for some very big trees. Here is one that is hollow, but still alive. For reference, the "big poplar" was almost twice as big.

A rock wall, clearly built to last.

Maybe an "indian tree", interesting regardless.

For a good part of the day, we could smell smoke. It was very obvious on one side of the ridge, less so on the other. The lower part of the Caldwell Fork trail is very wet. Some of the crossings have bridges, many do not. It would be impossible to keep your feet dry if there had been a normal amount of rain. This trail is likely a muddy mess in the springtime.

It was along this stretch that I ran into the first ranger I have ever seen on the trails.

Along the Caldwell Fork trail (between McKee Branch and Hemphill Bald trails) is a "no horse" sign and a very steep trail going up hill. Based on previous Smokies trips, I guessed that there was a cemetery. About 100 feet up, there was a small level patch and two small grave stones. According to the Brown Book, three Union raiders from the Civil War are buried there (two in one grave).

The stretch of trail that reminded me of a road the day before.

When we got back to camp, there was one tent in the distance, but we never saw the occupants until the next morning.

Sunset over the ridge.

A couple hours after sunset, we heard voices and saw lights in the distance. We were a little worried that a pack of idiots was going to set up next to us, but it ended up being 4 college guys (FSU and Auburn). As they were setting up a tent and 3 hammocks, we wandered over. We figured if they were going to keep us awake, we might as well go meet them. They had hiked in from Polls Gap, but had a couple extra miles, since the road is gated at the park boundary. Nice guys, they turned in early and did not keep us awake.

Moon rise.

The next day, it was time to leave. We decided that my bad ankle and his bad knee along with being out of shape in general meant that we were not going to hike back up to the ridge and my car. Instead, we hiked down the Caldwell Fork Trail again and then headed up the Big Fork Trail towards his car.

The trail on the other side of the ridge is very open and was a nice gentle slope, a very easy way to finish.

After 4.5-5 miles, we got to the car, and enjoyed a celebratory beer and one last view of Cataloochee Valley.

A great trip, with great weather and great hiking.

Driving home, the smoke from all the fires was a bit ridiculous. Driving across I40, the minute I crossed into TN I could smell smoke. As I crossed out of the mountains and into the foothills, the smoke got thicker. It was obvious that there were a lot of fires in the area. I also drove through quite a bit of smoke on I75 near the TN/KY border. It made the campfire ban very obvious. We could really use a couple inches of rain.