One of the places that had always wanted to hike was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had always intended to go from one side to the other in one trip. At the time I completed this hike, I did not feel that I had enough experience and stamina to complete the 70+ miles of trail in one trip, so I decided to do split it in half. My plan was to complete a section from Clingmans Dome – the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail – to I-40 at Davenport Gap / Pigeon River, just outside of the park border.
I planned to complete the 40+ miles of this section over 4 days, stopping each night at the trail shelters as required by the park service. The back-country office takes reservations at the shelters in the park to prevent overcrowding, overuse of the facilities and impact to the environment. Reservations are taken up to 30 days in advance and it is a good idea to plan ahead to make sure that you are not shut out. I reserved a spot at the Icewater Spring Shelter for 8/1, Tricorner Knob Shelter for 8/2, and Cosby Knob Shelter for 8/3. Before you start on your hike, you are required to fill out a back-country permit which lists your planned itinerary. Your have to drop a copy at any ranger station and keep a copy with you during your entire trip.
I left work a bit early on Friday, 7/29 and drove out to the park. I had reserved a spot at the Smokemont Campground online, so that I was confident I had a place to stay when I arrived. This would allow me to get as early a start as possible on my trek. The campground was nice and not too crowded for a Friday night in the height of the summer. I set up my tent and had a passable night’s sleep.
Waking up the next morning, I drove into Cherokee, NC to get some breakfast. On the way into town, I passed by the meadow near the visitor’s center. In the meadow I was excited to see some of the park’s elk herd – some right along the road.
I had never seen a wild elk before. This was really a neat experience. In town, the roads were closed for a trout fishing tournament. I found a diner on the side of town I was on and had a big breakfast to eat. I wanted to fuel up for the adventures ahead.
After breakfast, I drove up the park road to Newfound Gap and turned off onto Clingmans Dome road. I arrived just before 8 am and I found a place to park and got my pack out of the car. The parking lot was clouded in, but by the time I reached the summit and observation tower everything was clear. The tower looks like a UFO landing on top of a mountain. It has a long round ramp leading up to the viewing platform. I climbed up the tower and enjoyed the 360 degree views from above the treetops. You could see forever – a great preview of the trail ahead.
Along the first part of the day’s hike I met Spider – A 70 year old hiker from Baton Rouge, LA. She started hiking when she was 63 years old. She traveled in the RV with her husband and he would drop her off to hike and then pick her up at the end of the day. What a way to go!
The weather was beautiful and I was making good time along the trail. There were a lot of roots but not too many rocks so I made it to the junction of the Sugarland Mountain Trail by 10:30 and to Indian Gap by 12:30. I ate lunch at Indian Gap and met a family who was picking wild berries there. They continued on – heading out toward Clingmans Dome to continue their adventures.
I made it to Newfound Gap at 1:45 and felt like I stepped out of the woods and into the middle of a festival. This was the only road crossing of the entire trip. Lots of people here enjoying the Smokies. It is a shame that most would not make it more than a few hundred feet from the parking lot and see any more of the park than this.
After Newfound Gap it is a long 3 mile ascent to Icewater Spring Shelter. I enjoyed the climb up and up out of the gap and away from the crowds. They thinned out considerably as I got higher and higher. I reached the shelter late in the afternoon. It was about half full when I got there but the volunteer at the shelter told me it was probably going to be full for the night. The shelter was the new design and had 2 sleeping decks and a place to cook an eat under an extended porch. Very nice shelters in the park – especially because you have to stay in them. There was no tenting allowed near the shelter.
Icewater spring was just a pipe sticking up out of the trail around the corner from the shelter. Not fancy but it did the trick – the water was ice cold – even at the height of the summer. I cooked some dinner and enjoyed the sunshine in small clearing in front of the shelter. After dinner I decided to head up the mountain and seek out the Jumpoff Trail. I found it an it was UNBELIEVABLE! The views were amazing from this overlook which dropped of a dramatic 2000 ft to the valley floor below. There was absolutely nothing keeping you from going over the edge. Not the most secure feeling.
I returned to the shelter and there were 8 of us for the evening. 2 couples, the volunteer ranger, a dad and daughter, and myself. Kerry and Thiago from Wilmington, NC were a nice couple and I were heading northbound on the trail the next day. Slept reasonably well on the shelter floor that night, but heard the rain come in about midnight. This was not the best of omens for the next day’s hike.
Hiked a total of 11.4 miles / with 10.9 new AT miles.