This past weekend, I went on a backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains. I was joined by Michael Crouch, another engineer at AMEC. Having went to college in Knoxville, Michael has several years of experience backpacking in the Smokies. I told him to choose the route, but my only stipulation was that we get up high at some point, so that I could survey the area. With that requirement, Michael chose a route that would begin at the Twentymile Range Station, take us up the Wolf Ridge Trail to Parsons Bald, along the ridge to Gregory Bald, and down the Long Hungry Trail back to the Ranger Station. We left Nashville at 3pm, and after stopping for food in Lenoir City, we made it to the trailhead at about 8pm. Twentymile Ranger Station is located near the town of Fairfax, NC up a section of US HWY 129 called the Tail of the Dragon. The Tail of the Dragon is 8 miles of constant curve, so popular with motorcycle riders that they have a resort at the end specifically for them. To backpack in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you have to fill out a permit with your itinerary. When we pulled up to the permit station, a couple of college kids were also filling out their permit. They said that they were planning on doing a 67 mile loop in three days. When we asked if they hiked much, the guy said that he did, but his girlfriend stated that she didn't hike very much. It makes me wonder if they are still a couple today. Once the permit was filled out, we parked the Chevy Blazer, strapped on our packs and headlamps, and started up the 1/2 mile trail that would connect us with the Wolf Ridge Trail. The temperature was still about 60 degrees, so I was just wearing a t-shirt, long pants, and short socks. The 1/2 mile connector trail was the old bed of a former railroad track. The railroad was used to run logs down the mountain, and existed long ago in the days when the Smokies were open to logging. We proceeded up the Wolf Ridge Trail to campsite 95, approximately 2.1 miles, bringing our total to 2.6 miles. We easily found campsite 95 using our Petzl headlamps, but were unable to find the bear wire.

All campsites in the National Park have a system of wires strung between two trees to keep your food out of the reach of bears. I said that I had enough paracord in my pack that we could rig our own system, so we chose a camp spot with a good fire ring, and started looking for firewood. I walked about five feet from the fire ring, and ran smack into the official bear wire. We felt like idiots for not seeing it with our headlamps, but were relieved that we didn't have to rig up our own system. We gathered up enough wood for a modest fire, and sat around it for the rest of the evening.

At about 11pm we decided that we should probably hit the hay, so we climbed into our respective bivy sacks.

Saturday morning I woke up shortly before dawn, about 5:45am. It was a little chilly, so I immediately fired up the jetboil for a cup of coffee. A little while later, Michael emerged from his slumber and we had coffee and oatmeal for breakfast.

By 7am we were back on the trail, headed up Wolf Ridge. The Wolf Ridge Trail is a pretty steep grade, in a dense, new-growth forest.

It was still a little chilly, but the combination of the steepness of the mountain and the loads on our backs was making us sweat quite a bit. I think I finished a quart of gatorade in the first couple miles. As we were climbing, we could see our high point for the day, Gregory Bald, becoming less and less visible. The fog that gives the Smoky Mountains their name was moving in quickly. By 9am we were on Parsons Bald.

Though the forest is less dense than below, Parsons Bald has been overgrown over the years, so there is nothing much to see. We couldn't have seen anything anyway because the mountain was completely socked in. We stopped at the top of the bald for food, and to put on our jackets. We continued on the Wolf Ridge Trail to Sheep Pen Gap, a low spot between the two balds. At Sheep Pen Gap, the trail intersected with the Gregory Bald Trail. We pushed on, and in less that 1/2 mile we were atop Gregory Bald. I was straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, but could see neither. Michael commented that we should have been looking at Cades Cove on one side and Fontana Lake on the other. I made the comment that since we drove up in the dark, and it had been foggy all day, I had not actually "seen" a mountain yet. We only spent enough time atop Gregory Bald to take photos and agree that it was all down hill from here.
Me Michael
We began to descend the Gregory Bald trail, in the opposite direction that we came up. After about a mile, we hung a right on the Long Hungry Ridge Trail. At a former bald area on the trail called Rye Patch, we ran into a group of hikers who had an itinerary opposite of ours. They would be spending that night at our camp, and we would be spending that night at their camp. They were only wearing shorts, and looked a little unprepared for what was to come. As we continued down the Long Hungry Ridge Trail, we could feel that it was starting to rain, and cool down quite a bit. The trail was very rocky and covered in leaves, which combined with the rain became very dangerous. On several occasions I slipped and came close to falling. I was thankful that I was hiking with my two Leki Trekking poles as they helped me maintain my balance. Michael was not so lucky as one of his slips turned into a head-first roll. After two minor stream crossings, one of which I crossed in sandals, we made it to campsite 92 by noon. Our 10 miles of hiking for the day was over. As we were looking around for a campsite, we were shocked to find that someone had left a rather large pile of wood. We immediately claimed that campsite, but since it was still raining, we marked the site as ours with some gear, and retreated into a grove of mountain laurels for shelter.

With all our clothes and gear completely soaked through, and the temperature dropping, we debated hiking out to the car and going home. The weather forecast for the day had called for the rain to stop in the afternoon.

With that in mind, and knowing that we would definitely have a good fire, we decided to stay. After a couple hot beverages and some snacks, we rounded up all the available firewood we could find, including some big logs we found at other campsites.

The rain stopped about 3pm, and Michael got the fire going strong. I built a drying apparatus using my trekking poles and some long sticks.

I first dried out my sandals, then changed into them and dried out my shoes and socks. I took off my rain jacket and rain pants, and dried out my undershirts and hiking pants. I found that though it was 40 degrees outside, I was much more comfortable with no shirt and shoes than I was with a wet shirt and shoes. Once everything was dry, I put it all back on in the proper layers, and added my fleece pants and pullover. I had a freeze dried meal of noodles and chicken for dinner. Michael's dinner was more elaborate. He boiled tortellini while some red peppers roasted on the fire. Then he stirred them together with some olive oil and pesto. It smelled pretty good, but I was happy with my freeze dried meal. We sat about as close to the fire as possible as the temperature kept dropping. It started snowing, so we hastily laid out our bivy sacks so when it was time for bed we were prepared to dive in. At about 8pm the snow turned to rain, and we made the decision that it was time to give in. We hung our food up on the bear wire and went to bed. Even though it was extremely cold, my REI Sub Kilo Sleeping Bag held up well. I would also like to thank Outdoor Research for making a great bivy sack. I woke at first light on Sunday morning. It was incredibly cold, I am guessing 30 degrees. I was about to kick Michael awake in his bag, when I noticed that there were still some embers glowing in the fire from one of the big logs we found. It took almost an hour, but I got the fire going again.

I made coffee and packed up all my stuff in my backpack. Finally, Michael woke up. I boiled him some water while he packed up his stuff. He drank his coffee, and we started down the trail by 9am. Once we got on the trail, I got good and warm. After less than a mile, the Long Hungry Ridge Trail meets up with the Twentymile Trail. That trail is a wide, flat roadbed, that I am sure is maintained by the park service as a service road. We hiking swiftly down the trail, stopping only for a little side trip to Twentymile Creek Cascades.

By 10am we reached the blazer, 4 miles in an hour. Our total hiking distance for this trip was 16 1/2 miles. We changed back into our street clothes and took off back up the Tail of the Dragon, and on to Nashville. I stopped along the way to snap some photos of the mountains and the lake, and noted that I had been here for three days and this was the first time I had seen them.

The End