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.
Due to heavy rains and delayed planes (hey - that rhymes!) on Friday, we decided to start out Saturday morning rather than camping at the trailhead (Cosby Campground is closed for renovation anyway). The rain, forecasted to taper off early Saturday stayed with us as we left Cosby and headed up the Low Gap Trail towards the Appalachian Trail.
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.
After the falls the grade of the climb became more pronounced. In fact, over the next 2.5 miles we would gain nearly 3000' in elevation. With that elevation gain came colder temperatures and more snow. Breaks in the trees along the way provided dramatic views of clouds and snow blanketing steep ridges and valleys dappled with reds, yellows, and greens. Footing was slick, trees blocked the trail due to heavy snow and ice, the trail was steep and going was slow.
By the time we reached the ridge and the intersection with the Balsam Mountain Trail the snow was 4" deep and it was late in the afternoon - decision time. Option A was to boogie on as planned on the Balsam Mountain Trail, covering the same amount of ground we'd done so far (in 6.5 hours) with only 3 hours of daylight remaining on a 6000' ridgeline in 4"+ snow to reach Tricorner Knob Shelter. We'd then be left with about 9 miles out on Monday followed by a 5 hour drive back home. Option B would be to turn around and backtrack - a blow to my pride, but all downhill with only 2.5 out the next morning. The only barriers in the way being several stream crossings including that frigid barefoot wader and camping sans permit at the same site we'd stayed at the night before. I definitely felt the "Summit Fever" pull to soldier on and finish the loop, but I knew it was the wrong decision. We turned around and I was immediately relieved that we did - the pressure was off, concerns for safety were gone, and we could get back to just hanging out and enjoying the wilderness.
We chose a drier spot for our second night at Lower Walnut Bottoms - complete with our own private waterfall. This time we were able to get a campfire going and warm and dry ourselves and our gear.
The next morning the sun was out early as we headed back out on the Low Gap Trail. I came upon a Black Bear cub sitting in the trail, scratching himself. He noticed me and ran off before I could snap a photo. He looked like he had been born in the most recent spring and was getting ready to experience his first winter.
As we climbed back above the snow-line the sun was melting the snow and hoar frost off of the trees above and it was raining down on us in big, soggy snowballs. That, combined with steam rising off of the streams along the trail, created a surreal scene.Once we reached the AT, the descent went very quickly and we reached the trailhead in good time, driven by the promise of a series of impending fast food binges on the way home.
All in all the trip was a success. While we didn't complete what would've been a pretty stellar loop, we got to spend 3 days and 2 nights in the Smokies which is always a treat. Above all we got to catch up and share laughs which was the main goal anyway. I also learned a little about myself as a trip planner and a backcountry guide, my expectations of myself, and of others. I really need to make a clear distinction between camping trips with friends where the goal is to hang out in the woods and my thru-hiker "death marches" where the goal is to tackle major miles on a backcountry expedition. Trying to mix the two rarely works.
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.
Thanks for reading and Happy Hiking!