This 30-mile rugged loop begins from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont on Middle Prong Road near Townsend, TN. Plan your arrival carefully as you'll have to come through some pretty tourist-choked areas surrounding Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge and traffic can be nuts. Equally grueling for us was convincing an overzealous ranger at the trailhead that I wasn't carrying any contraband. As we were getting packed at the car a ranger vehicle squealed into the parking area and out jumped a hyper-active and hyper-suspicious ranger. "What'd you just put in your pocket sir?" He challenged as he swooped down on me from his Explorer. "Umm, AA batteries for my GPS." was my response. After showing him I was not, in fact, carrying any grenades or cocaine he moved on to permits which we had covered, but still got a, "We'll see about that," and a call to headquarters to verify my reservations. Hopefully you can avoid this unpleasantry, but regardless, once you're permitted to get started, you'll head up West Prong Trail and continue onto Bote Mountain Trail, climbing 3000'+ over 9+ miles. Along the way you'll pass camping along West Prong and enjoy periodic views on the climb up the ridge.
On this Saturday in January it had been 10 degrees Fahrenheit the night before and even with periods of full sun it was cold. We hits snow about 2/3 of the way up, and it was several inches deep by the time we crested the ridge.
At the top of the climb we turned right onto the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT) and then an immediate left to arrive at Spence Field Shelter (keep a clean camp and be sure to hang your food on the provided cables - this shelter is frequented by some of the Park's 1500+ Black Bears).
It was nearing dusk when we arrived and the temperature was dropping quicky. We did our best to gather dry downed limbs for a fire in the shelter's stone fireplace, but nearly all surfaces were glazed with ice and snow. To this point only my brother and I had made in to the shelter. We had passed several parties on our climb who were descending having thought better of spending a night over 5000' in 10-15 degree temperatures. Just as dark fell though we were joined by a foursome of lawyer/outdoorsmen from Tennessee. They watched with skepticism as we attempted to get a fire started (they had gone without the night before), but rewarded us with grilled steaks, teriyaki vegetables and sips of scotch when we succeed. We all survived the night with the unfortunate exception of my self-inflating sleeping pad which was the victim of a burning Tupperware mishap at the hand of one of the Attorneys. He was gracious enough to trade out his identical, excepting the nickel-sized burn hole, pad for mine in the morning (yeah, after I slept flat on the wood floor).
Leaving the shelter the first thing to strike us was the sharp crunch that each step made as a thick crust of ice had glazed the ground. The shelter and ridge were engulfed in icy clouds.
Backtrack to the AT and follow the ridgeline up and over some of the better known (and better named) peaks in the park: RockyTop and ThunderHead.
The ridge through this section of the AT is spectacular. Even socked in by clouds the views were breathtaking as breaks in the clouds revealed dark and frosted ridgelines. In better weather views into North Carolina and Tennessee drift off into seemingly endless National Forest lands. The terrain varies between balds, rocky ridges and hardwood forests. The bitter cold and strong winds continued as did intermittent snow showers, although the temperatures eventually soared into the mid-20's and the sun made punctuated appearances.
For this trip's complete photo album click here.
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