Monday, May 20, 2013

trans-smokies birthday adventure

Some characteristics of my favorite adventures:

1) good topography.
running around a lake, or up and over a mountain is way better than a less defined route.

2) good views.
being able to see something far away that you either ran from, or are running to provides alot of satisfaction.

3) good distance.
going far enough that driving the same way would take a while is a plus, crossing county or state lines is superb.

4) serendipitous occurrences.
finding trail magic, or a super side trail, or the clouds parting at just the right time, or anything of that ilk is just plain mood boosting.

5) lucky timing.
crossing paths with someone/thing that you had no idea was even a potentiality is cool.

6) additional modes of transportation. 
a run is great, but mixing in some biking or sledding, or even an amusement park TRAM is even better.

7) making it fit into others' schedule.
getting picked up or dropped off by loving family members is great, but "making it fit" with their previously made plans is more fun.

and of course, if you can fit all of these into one's gonna be a GREAT one!

So, Saturday Kim and Anna dropped me off at an I-40 exit west of Asheville on their way to Tennessee for the weekend. I'd re-unite with them just 10 hours later, after linking up all of the previously mentioned adventure highlights!

James was begging for some time in the woods, so I spied a route that would (almost) traverse the Great Smoky Mountain National Park from east to west, making James' drive convenient from Asheville, and letting me finish in Pigeon Forge, where the family would be all day.

James picked me up at the exit, and we got a quick breakfast, filled our bags with granola bars, and headed to Cherokee, NC. We parked at the Smokemont pull off from HWY 441, and headed through the campground and up the Bradley Fork and Sluice Gap trails for the mighty ridge atop the smokies.

The weather was super humid, and pretty warm. We were in the clouds and misty rain for the entire 4,000' ascent. Bradley Fork is a well groomed bridle path, which came as a pleasant surprise, but the Sluice Gap trail was a sloppy, muddy singletrack through the weeds (more our style). Getting close to our intersection with the AT, James made the call to turn around for the car, he was under a bit of a time crunch, and since the potential views from Charlie's Bunion and the Jumpoff were likely to be hidden in the dense clouds, he opted to return early. I wished him a safe (and slippery and fast) return, and we parted ways. 

10 minutes later I hit the AT and made my way south towards the Bunion. All that could be seen was the rock within about 30 feet me. Everything else was invisible due to the fog. It was less inspiring than the incredible views to be had on a clear day, but special because I was the only one there to enjoy it today. I continued on, looking forward to the side trail to the Jumpoff, which I've never explored.

Well, it was a little bit of a trek over to the Jumpoff, but wow....the name fits. Since everything was fogged in, I didn't get any previews of where I was headed until I took a step, and looked to my right to find....nothing at all! I single step through the bushes here would surely deposit you 100 feet or more (the fog was too dense to tell) lower without touching anything at all. A bit surreal to look over a precipice like that in the fog.

I tramped back to the AT, and boarded the Boulevard trail towards the sixth highest peak in the east, which promised dropping temperatures and still more rain and fog...Mt. Le Conte.

So far I'd only seen 2 people, aside from James, on the entire hike, and the Boulevard trail continued the trend of solitude. The stony path up was wet and alone on this day, which was fine by me. However, when I reached the top of the mountain, I was greeted by a bustling metropolis in the high altitude wilderness...

I had been atop Le Conte once before, in the late fall many years ago. On that day James and I had seen the cabins and lodge poised on the mountaintop, but today there were a number of people present. I tried the door to the dining room and found it  open. Inside, I entered a setting much like the huts in the White Mountains where Kim and I spent our honeymoon. Apparently they serve lunch to day hikers, although I had missed that by an hour...

serendipitous snackage

Luckily, they still had a barrel of chocolate chip cookies for sale, and I indulged in 3 of them. I still had some granola and crackers, but what you don't have sometimes seems much more desirable than what you've been munching on all day....ya know?

Heading back out into the fog, having let the blood flow slow down, I was chilled for a bit, but it wasn't to last. Upon choosing the Bull Head trail to descend towards Gatlinburg, the weather soon shifted. I picked this trail because it looked from the topo map to be the gentlest (and therefore easiest to run) of the routes. I was ready to actually run at this point, since most of the distance thus far had been covered by walking and slow shuffling. A steep rocky trail is fun, but in wet weather prudence forces one to slow down in such terrain. 

Bull Head turned out to be a great decision. After only 20 minutes, the fog showed signs of clearing, and by the time I turned north around Balsam Point, I could see all the way down to the valley. What a great trail! Dense greenery, broken at times by distant views of places yet to come, along with sights back up to the weather system still hanging around the upper reaches of the ridge.

around balsam point the sun came out

views towards the valley

the weather back on the ridge

flower petal trail next to rock walls

I made it down to Cherokee Orchard, and hit pavement for a few brief moments before  grabbing the Twin Creeks trail and making my way past some rustic historical cabins, and out of the park. I encountered a couple of turkeys and a deer on this stretch, all of whom had minimal worry about my presence, and I was able to get within 15 feet of the turkeys and 10 feet of the deer before moving on. So many visitors to this area where they are protected means they've lost much of their fear for humans.

As I left the park, I plunged into the hectic tourist trap of Gatlinburg. I was still surprised at all the odd looks I got, wearing my small pack and being wet and a bit muddy. *I* was the one who belonged here, at the base of the mountains that are riddled with great hiking trails....*they* are the ones out of place, in their flip-flops and make-up.

Oh well, I walked thru town, hoping to snag a trolley car towards Pigeon Forge, yet 7 miles up the highway. As soon as I left town a park ranger pulled over and inquired about my intentions. I told him I was headed to Dollywood to meet my family, and he strongly suggested that I not traverse this road on foot, due to the curves and small shoulders. I told him that if he was headed that way I would gladly ride in his car rather than hoof it! I had only an hour to make my 8pm meeting time with the family, and I was already sure I'd miss it by a little bit.

He declined my request, and then promptly drove off in that direction. I guess maybe they have a "policy" against helping park-goers, such is life....

Anyway, I decided that having the family drive a few extra miles to save me a harrowing trip on that mountain road wasn't the worst thing, so I walked a few hundred yards back to town. Then, after a few minutes, I decided to try for a ride. I accosted a nice family in their super-duty Ford truck at a stop light, asking as pleasantly as possible whether they were headed to Pigeon Forge and might give me a lift.

Turns out they were from Alcoa, TN (right up the road from my in-laws) and had been planning to go to Dollywood that day just like my family, but had decided against it due to the weather....After thinking pretty hard about it for a minute, they let me in the truck and we enjoyed 10 minutes of chatting before they dropped me off on the square in Pigeon Forge.

Happily I was now 20 minutes ahead of schedule instead of 20 minutes behind, and I'd saved myself the moderately dangerous traverse of a tight portion of the highway. I trekked up Dollywood Lane and a mile and half later, as it began to get dark, I found myself at the back entrance to the park. I asked a worker whether I could get to the parking lot this way, and after confirming that I could walk through, I graciously thanked him....."I'm so glad you didn't say, "you can't get there from here!""

I called Kim and they were waiting in line for a tram ride to their parking lot, so I hurried on up the access road, and found myself at the park exit. Calling Kim again, I found they were almost back to the car, so I stuck my butt on that next tram along with a bunch of screaming kids and happy tired adults, and rode my Dollywood ride for the day....the 1 mile Tram ride to the car!

Sure enough, the fam had just loaded up in the car, and I hopped in. A sandwich and a storytelling session ensued. They'd had a great day at the park, with some rain but also good temperatures and plenty of snacks and fun had by everyone.

All was right with the world.

The trans-smokies adventure was about 30 miles with 8,000' of climbing, and plenty of enjoyment for me on this saturday before my thirty second birthday :)