So the October Smokies Loop did NOT go as planned (yes there was more than a little foreshadowing there). Instead of a 30 mile loop in 50 degree weather it was a 20 mile out and back in 30 degree weather with rain, snain, sleet, and snow. Its no big deal really as the goal was just to spend a few days hanging out and backpacking with an old friend and mission accomplished there. But it just goes to show that my last post about the unpredictability factor in backpacking trip planning was right on.
On the 2.5 mile climb up to the ridge we followed well-graded switchbacks up through large stands of hardwoods and rhododendron alongside tranquil and picturesque streams as a constant drip and heavy mist kept us company. After about 1.5 miles we began to see small patches of icy snow which gradually spread, as we climbed, to fully cover the ground. By the time we reached the intersection with the Appalachian Trail the snow was two 2" deep. At this intersection we had a choice: head south on the AT before descending into Walnut Bottoms via a 7.5 mile scenic route or cross the AT and descend 2.5 miles to the campsite. As the constant sogginess began to settle into our gear and bodies we decided on the easy road and headed for camp passing a set of fresh bear tracks and several old homsestead sites along the way. The precipitation continued as we descended, but changed from snow back to rain.
Lower Walnut Bottoms Campsite is situated along the bank of the picturesque Deep Creek and is 1/4 of a mile downstream from Upper Walnut Bottoms Campsite - a horsecamp. There were 6 other parties sharing the sprawling site with us on Saturday night, but most stayed tucked away inside tents hoping for the end of the rain to come soon. We made a valiant attempt at getting a fire started, but it was slim pickings on firewood and 2 days of constant precip had rendered all deadwood soggy. The temperatures never made their way above 35 degrees.
The next morning we awoke to a welcomed lack of rain and with cautious optimism watched as patches of blue sky began to appear overhead. We packed up, geared up and headed west up the Deep Creek and Camel Gap Trails to the Gunter Fork Trail. The hike was along Deep Creek for the first mile and a half and pleasantly flat with streams and their cascades as our constant companions.
When we arrived at the Gunter Fork Trail we were greeted with a warning: "During Times of High Stream Flow Gunter Fork Trail Impassable." Only 50 yards into the trail we found out why - the first of several fords required wading the icy cold stream. This day the depth fell at mid-thigh for Zack and I (both a little over 6 footers), but in higher water it would have been REALLY sketchy. The first wade went off without a hitch and we were able to navigate the remaining crossings by employing extreme rockhopping techniques - saving us from having to brave the icy water barefoot again. Despite the frequent stream crossings, the trail was enjoyable as the scenery painted with autumn color was beautiful. As the trail gradually climbed we saw the return of the snow, lingering on the trees and ground from the previous days' precipitation.
We were blown away when we stumbled upon a breathtaking waterfall, unexpected and unindicated on the maps. The falls which we estimated at just over 100' overall consisted of a 15' falls at the top followed by 85-90' of smooth, sliding-rock cascade over red-hued quartzite. Framed by deep green Rhododendrons and the red, orange and yellow fallen leaves, it was quite the hidden gem.
My next trip I'm gonna untether my thru-hiker legs and cover some serious ground. I'm thinking about maybe a 50+ mile loop in a long weekend on the AT/Iron Mtn Trail in the Mount rogers NRA in VA. I'll keep you posted. Speaking of "posted" - I promise to be better with the posting frequency. I've been slack, but I've got another Smokies Loop report in the works that I'll try to get out ASAP.