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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Ol' RockyTop (Hoar Frost Optional)

Sample some of the best the Smokies have to offer on this rugged 30-mile backpacking loop: from the lush forests in the Middle Prong Valley to the summits of RockyTop and ThunderHead Peaks. Whether you go on the coldest weekend of the year or not is up to you.

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.

Continue to follow the AT to Derrick Knob Shelter where a reliable spring offers a refilling point for water bottles. Not long past Derrick Knob Shelter turn left onto the well-graded Green Brier Ridge Trail. After descending Greenbrier Ridge, turn right onto Lynn Camp Prong Trail and continue to second night's camp at Campsite 28.

I thought that there was a chance that our second night might be at an elevation low enough to be below the snow-line, but it was not. The presence of the snow, however, allowed us to see tracks of coyotes, elk, and black bear that had all traveled the Lynn Camp Prong trail that day. We camped at the relatively small site, situated by the modestly sized stream that borders it. We had a good fire and warm tea as it snowed for the last several hours of the day.

On your final morning, backtrack to the last intersection and turn right onto Middle Prong Trail which skirts the Middle Prong of the Little River and showcases several of its cascades along the way. The trail here is flat, wide and leisurely and the river is beautiful and dramatic. Continue 4.1 miles on Middle Prong Trail onto the Tremont Road (gravel) and continue on the road an additional 3 miles back to the trailhead.

For this trip's complete photo album click here.
Permits: Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit for all backcountry camping in the park. Backcountry permits are free and are available at Smokemont or any other Ranger Station or Visitor Center in the park. Campsite 28 does not require reservation and is on a first come, first served basis, while the Spence Field Shelter requires a reservation. If your itinerary includes a reserved site, you must call the Backcountry Reservation Office at (865) 436-1231 to make reservations. The Backcountry Reservation Office is open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily.
Contact: Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297 (open daily from 9:00 a.m. until noon); Backcountry Reservation Office at (865) 436-1231 to make reservations (open from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily); .
To Trailhead: From I-40 west, exit 386B to Alcoa Hwy/US 129 to Townsend entrance of GSMNP. Go to the Y-int and turn right towards Cades Cove, then left over bridge onto Tremont rd for 2 miles (cross 2, 2-lane bridges). Tremont Inst. (permits avail. here) is on left and the trailhead is across on the right.

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