Great Smoky Mountains National Park
by Brad
“I hate you guys.” That’s the PG version of what came out of Shane’s mouth when he broke loose from the briars and stumbled onto the Appalachian Trail. Breathing heavily and struggling to walk, he dropped his pack on the ground and collapsed to his knees. The 24-year old Michigan native had never climbed 2000 feet. “Don’t you want to go to the top, it’s just another couple hundred feet this way?” said Michael. Another expletive came from Shane’s mouth. We helped Shane put his pack back on and humped the extra distance to the top of Thunderhead Mountain. It had been five miserable hours since we began, and the day was only half over.

The idea for this year’s trip to the Smoky Mountains began when I received my September issue of Backpacker Magazine. The headline on the cover read, “Lost Trails”. The hike detailed in the article was called the Ekaneetlee Creek Manway, a former Native American trail that was converted to a hiking trail by the National Park Service, but has been unmaintained for several years. I brought this to the attention of Michael, and suggested we try it out for our yearly hike in the Smokies. It just so happened that Michael knew of another manway trail, the Thunderhead Prong Manway..

After much deliberation, we decided that we would do a big loop. Starting at the end of the road past Tremont, we would hike up the Thunderhead Prong/Defeat Ridge Manway to Thunderhead Mountain. We would have to illegally camp somewhere along the manway on Friday night. We would then follow the Appalachian Trail across Rocky Top to Ekaneetlee Gap, one of the lowest passes in the Smokies. From there we would follow the Ekaneetlee Creek Manway down to where it joins the Gregory Ridge Trail, at Campsite 12. We would camp at Campsite 12 and hike out the last few miles on Sunday morning to end of the Forge Creek Road..

We shared our master plan with others at work, trying to round up a few more hikers for the trip. The only person interested was Shane Bennett, a relatively new employee at AMEC. Michael also convinced his friend Dan from Knoxville to join us. We set the date for the weekend of November 9th, and waited. In the meantime, I did the things the normal people do: studied for the PE Exam, put the cat to sleep, took the PE Exam, sat through Illinois’ largest nighttime parade, and watched Michigan beat Illinois. It was during this time that Michael’s friend Dan found out that he was going to be relocating to New Mexico, and decided that the last thing he wanted to do was go hiking in the Smokies. That left us with a party of three, the only inconvenience being that we would have to drive two cars from Nashville to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

At 7 am on Friday, November 9th, Shane’s red GMC pulled into my driveway. We loaded our gear into my Blazer and left La Vergne. About 11:30 am we arrived at our rendezvous point, the Back Porch Restaurant in Townsend, TN. Michael arrived about a half-hour later, and we enjoyed our last civilized meals. Clean-shaven and good-smelling, we drove into the park and slowly made our way around the Cades Cove Loop Road to the Cades Cove Visitor’s Center to pick up our permits. Cades Cove is full of tourists. I don’t know where they come from, but it must be some place where it is permissible to stop in the middle of the road to take a picture of a horse, deer, or deer shaped log. Maybe I am spoiled from years of walking in the woods, but I see no reason to stop traffic to look at a deer. Anyway, after much pain and agony we made it through the Cades Cove Visitor’s Center and up to the end of Forge Creek Road. Michael parked his Subaru and loaded his gear into my Blazer. I headed back down Forge Creek Road, and back onto the Loop Road, right behind a vanload of people who thought it prudent to drive 2 mph the rest of the way (I am not kidding). By this time we were realizing that if we didn’t get by these people, we would not make it very far on the trail before it got dark, so Michael walked (yes walked) up to the van and asked them to pull over. They were shocked at this suggestion, but did it anyway, just for us, and not the 50 other cars stacked up behind us. In the end we got to the trailhead at about 2 pm.

The Thunderhead Prong Manway shares a trailhead with the Middle Prong Trail, one of the more popular trails in the park. We started up the manway, at this point it was very obvious where to go. The path follows an old road grade, and still has a single-track trail worn into it. Pretty soon the trail crosses Thunderhead Prong via a bridge made from a big I-beam. We continued to follow the path through some newer growth trees until we reached the site of another bridge. This one was originally built from wood, and has been completed demolished by the elements over the years. About another half-mile past this stream crossing, we started to lose the trail. At one point, I thought we should have made a hard left turn and followed what I thought was the correct way to go. Unfortunately I was out-voted and pretty soon we were lost. Actually, we weren’t lost, we knew where we were and where we were headed, we just could not find the trail. We decided that our best option would be to hike up the creek until we reached another washed out bridge in a wide, flat area called New World. After another hour of stumbling up the creek bed, with soaked feet and sore knees we finally reached the washed out bridge. New World was in fact a wide, flat area, but to our surprise it was completely covered in Rhododendron.

The only flat area that was clear enough to camp was a 50 square foot area at the top of the bridge embankment. It was getting dark, so that would have to do. We dumped our packs off at the campsite, and went to work. We filtered water from the creek for our evening meals and drinks. Michael & Shane carried rocks up from the creek to build a fire ring while I started collecting fire wood. Collecting firewood in the dark is very difficult. Luckily, we found a big branch from a blown-down tree in a washed out gully only a couple hundred feet away from camp. I cut manageable pieces with my fold-up saw and the guys drug them back to camp. I got the fire started with some of those compressed fire starter sticks, and we were ready to relax for the night.

I enjoyed a Chili Mac meal that I prepared the weekend before from dehydrated vegetables, noodles and fake meat in a freezer bag. Shane had a freeze-dried Hawaiian Chicken meal, and Michael enjoyed a freezer bag meal of some kind. At about 7 pm it started to rain a little, but that really didn’t bother us. We kept the fire going, had some hot drinks, and talked about people from work. About 9 pm we decided we should hit the hay. Since we were not camping at a designated site, we didn’t have the standard bear wire to hang our food, so we had to improvise. After several attempts to throw some rope over a tree limb, Shane was finally able to do it using a coffee mug as weight. We hung our food precariously over the creek, and worried that if a bear did try to get it, the tree would most likely crash to the ground, upsetting the bear and submerging all our food in water. We were tired though, so that concern drifted away as we went to sleep in our respective bivy sacks.

Saturday morning I woke up before the sun, but waited for light to get out of my bivy. I tiptoed around the guys and retrieved the food from its hanging position, unbothered through the night. I boiled water for coffee, and was loud enough to wake up my hiking partners. I made some oatmeal for breakfast, and also ate some beef jerky. Shane had leftover Hawaiian Chicken. Michael used the stove he built from an old beer can to boil his own water for coffee. I went to the creek and filtered two quarts of water for myself and one for Shane. Then I packed up all my stuff and waited while Michael slowly drank his coffee, filtered water, and packed up his stuff. This is where our personalities have always clashed on hiking trips, whereas I prefer to get up early, get ready fast and hit the trail, Michael prefers to take his time and waste perfectly good daylight.

By 8 am we were back on the Thunderhead Manway, climbing up the hillside, heading for Chimney Rocks (not Chimney Tops). This part of the manway was still well worn. We could see bear scat in several locations. The path was still very visible, and we only had to squat in places to go under tree limbs or through Rhododendron tunnels. We reached the Chimney Rocks without incident. From that point on things got very hairy. The manway climbs from Chimney Rocks, along the side of Defeat Ridge. This portion was completely overgrown with Rhododendron and briars, obstructed by blown-down trees and washed out in places. A single person with a small pack could get through just fine, but with a large multi-day pack, we were constantly getting hung up on briars and branches. There were points where the Rhododendron was so thick that Michael would go through, I would turn around to look for Shane, turn back around and be unable to see Michael only a few feet in front of me. There were places where you had to get on your hands and knees, and even crawl on your belly to get through the brush. You would think that you were through an obstacle, then as you would stand up you would hit your head on other branch, or get pulled back by a jagged, thorny vine. Shane was having a particularly hard time because he was carrying an external frame backpack that would get caught on everything. His legs were cramping up, so I offered him my quart of Gatorade. After about two miles of this strenuous bushwhacking, Defeat Ridge had almost defeated us. I had noticed that there had not been any bear scat in quite a while, proving that black bears are much smarter than humans.

The manway eventually cleared out into a newer growth area along Deerhobble Ridge. Michael and I started in hike a little bit harder through this area, to make up some time, but soon I noticed that Shane was lagging farther behind. We slowly made our way up the remainder of the manway, and let out a cheer when we finally reached the Appalachian Trail. We slogged our way up to Thunderhead Mountain, stopping only for pictures at the summit. We turned around and followed the trail to Rocky Top, a rocky outcropping that has been immortalized in song. We ate lunch on old Rocky Top and made a strategy for the afternoon. Although we had planned to make it to Campsite 12, the delays encountered on the manway had limited the amount of daylight left. It was 1:30 pm and we only had four more hours of daylight to hike at least eight more miles, the last three being on another unmaintained trail.

We hit the Appalachian Trail hard, covering the six miles from Rocky Top to the Russell Field Shelter in just over two hours. We stopped for a break, and I could tell that Shane was completely wasted. We made a decision to stop for the night at the next shelter on the trail, Mollies Ridge. The only problem was that due to the drought there was no water coming from the springs at Mollies Ridge. According to some intelligence we had gathered the week before; we knew that even though the common water source at Russell Field was dry as well, there was some water a little farther down the creek. Michael and I left Shane at the shelter to rest and hike down to the water source with our empty water bottles. It took us half and hour, but we finally found a muddy puddle of water about a quarter mile down from the usual water source. Let me tell you that this is not the optimum place to be filtering water, but beggars could not be choosers. Between the two of us, we filtered six quarts of water and kept one quart unfiltered in reserve. After one quart, my filter clogged, so we had to use Michael’s for the rest. When we got back to Shane, he said that three through-hikers had passed, but they did not plan to stay at Mollies Ridge.

We loaded back up and continued down the Appalachian Trail. Shane was lagging father and farther behind. We would stop several times to let him catch up. Dusk came and we still were not at the shelter. Shane told us to go on ahead, and assured us that he would be fine the rest of the way on his own. So Michael and I hiked hard the last mile to the shelter. When we arrived, we found those three through-hikers stopped for the night. We told them that we would be staying there too, dropped our packs and headed back up the trail to help Shane. To our surprise, we saw his headlamp coming down the hill not far behind. At this point I figured out that if we let him hike at his own pace, he did just fine. He was just getting worn out trying to keep up with Michael and I. This would change our strategy for the next day.

We left Shane at the shelter with the through-hikers and we searching for firewood. We found a dead tree still standing a couple hundred yards down the trail. If it had fallen, someone would have used it already. I used my little saw to cut it down and we drug it back to the shelter and cut it into pieces. Michael built a fire in the fireplace, which the through-hikers appreciated greatly. They had begun hiking on June 28th in Maine, and had just logged their 2000th mile on the Appalachian Trail. Most nights they were too tired to build a fire. We went out to the porch and I boiled water for everyone to have dinner. Although they made fun of it in the office, the guys really appreciated the convenience of my Jetboil up high on the ridge. We talked about what to do the next day and decided to skip the Ekaneetlee Creek Manway, walking an extra few miles to reach the Gregory Ridge Trail, and using it to get down to the car. Shane was worried that he wouldn’t be able to walk in the morning, but I assured him that a good nights rest would recharge him and his legs. I instructed him that in the morning he needed to get up when I got up, get his breakfast, and take off hiking at his own pace. That way there was no pressure to keep up with Michael and I. He agreed that this was a good plan, and immediately went to bed. I cleaned up dinner mess, hung up the packs and made myself a hot toddy. The through hikers and Shane were already asleep, so I just sat quietly with Michael in front of the fire until my beverage was gone. I then hung up the food and went to bed.

The night at the Mollies Ridge shelter was one of the most comfortable nights I have spent in the mountains. The fire in the fireplace kept us warm from the 20 degree cold outside. The rock walls kept the wind out. At no point in the night was I cold, a real luxury in the mountains. I was almost sad to have to get up in the morning, but nature called (more like screamed) and I had to listen. All six of us got up at the same time. I filtered the last unfiltered quart of water with Michael’s filter and we distributed it evenly. We had roughly one quart of water apiece to last us 10 miles. I sent Shane on his way and ate some oatmeal. About a half-hour later Michael and I were back on the trail. We pushed it pretty hard down from Mollies Ridge to Ekaneetlee Gap. Michael still wanted to try out the manway there, but I told him to give it up since we had already sent Shane up the Gregory Ridge Trail. At some point, Michael stopped for a break, but I wasn’t ready so I kept going. All the way up and over Powell Knob to the intersection of the Gregory Ridge trail I kept thinking I would come across Shane. I was eating and drinking on the fly, stopping only to talk with the people who were hiking in the other direction. It wasn’t until another three miles, eight miles total, that I caught up with him. He said that he had not stopped for a break; he just kept going at his own pace. We walked the last two miles of easy trail along Forge Creek and made it to the car. We had covered 10 miles in 4 hours. Ten minutes later Michael came strolling down.

Knee aching, mouths dry, stomachs empty, scratched up and stinky we piled into Michael’s car and drove back to my Blazer. Of course that took a long time because of the deer gazers in Cades Cove. We loaded up and headed west, stopping only for gas, Gatorade, and Hardee’s. When I got home, I stripped off the clothes I had been wearing for three days straight to reveal a layer of dirt and leaves that had made it through my jeans and into my underclothes and socks. Despite the difficulties of the Thunderhead Prong Manway, I really had a great time, but I think we’ll stay away from that manway for a long time.

We took lots of photos on this trip, too many to put in here. If you wish to see them, click on this link.
The End