Great Smoky Mountains National Park, October 2014

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Twentymile Creek, Gregory Bald, Wolf Ridge Trails Loop
October 24-27, 2014

Winding along a mountain road in southern Appalachia on an autumn day with the windows down, Allman Brothers Band on the stereo, and a friend in the passenger seat is a great place to find yourself on a Friday afternoon. When there are backpacks with gear and food for four days in the trunk and your destination is one of the more off-the-beaten-path trailheads in America’s most visited national park, it’s an even better place to be. However, the three-night backpacking trip my friend Justin and I were about to embark on would be a bittersweet one, as it would be the last trip in the Southeast we would be taking for the foreseeable future.

I had recently accepted a job in Montana and would be moving within a month. With that kind of distance between myself and Kentucky, we decided that we would make this a trip to celebrate our friendship, mutual interests, and the beauty of the southern Appalachian Mountains where, along with the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky and Tennessee, we had been making backpacking pilgrimages several times per year since 2007. Justin and I met in the twilight of our high school days while working as bus boys at a locally-owned restaurant in Louisville known for its rolled oysters, which closed within a couple years of our employment after almost 120 years in business — a victim of the Great Recession.

We kept in touch after both of us left for other jobs and for college and found backpacking to be an excellent way to spend time together and catch up every few months, as well as an ideal setting for sharing our other interests of literature, music, good food, and the responsible consumption of quality Kentucky bourbon. This trip was planned with a total mileage so low (about 16 miles over three nights, all on trail, with only about 3,000 feet of total elevation gain) as to be almost offensive to the “mileage means everything” mantra touted by some backpackers, but the route had been on my to-hike list for years, had several highlights, and would give us plenty of time to engage in idle as well as intellectual campsite conversation.

After a four-hour drive, with the last few dozen miles on US Hwy. 129 headed through Deal’s Gap, North Carolina — featuring the Tail of the Dragon, an 11-mile section of road with 318 curves — we parked at the Twentymile Ranger Station, stretched, shouldered our packs, and headed down the trail.

We had barely hiked long enough to get warmed up when we arrived at Twentymile Cascade, “a series of short, uneven ledges that preface a deep pool at the base of the lowest falls”. The remaining 2.6 miles to the campsite went by quickly and without any stretches of noticeable difficulty. The trail was of such a comfortable width and gradient that even with relatively heavy packs we were able to maintain our focus on the beauty of the landscape and the charm of the sunlight filtering through the multi-colored foliage onto the forest floor. The trail crossed Twentymile Creek (“in several places . . . a maelstrom of crashing water, roaring against solid boulders as it plunges down steep gorges”, as aptly described in “Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains” by Kenneth Wise) several times on quaint bridges, leading us to refer to it as The Seven Bridges Trail, and after about four miles of total hiking we arrived at the Upper Flats (Campsite #92) backcountry campsite. A small and polite group were also camping there and we set up at the far end of the campsite.

We had arrived earlier than we had anticipated, but wasted no time in setting up camp and gathering wood for our campfire — as testament to our industriousness the hammocks we brought specifically for lounging around camp remained stowed in our packs. Campfires are infrequent events on most of our backpacking trips, but were a requirement that evening due to our choices of appetizer and main course.

As previously mentioned, we enjoy a well-prepared meal and both of us agree that there is hardly a finer place to appreciate such a thing than in the woods. We had packed in Brussells sprouts with butter and garlic salt wrapped in foil, with a goat cheese and mayonnaise and herb dip, for the appetizer and pulled no punches in regard to the main course: a half-pound of bison (marinated in soy sauce, Worcestshire sauce and a dash of bourbon), potatoes, carrots, green and red peppers, onions, and mushrooms, sprinkled with seasonings and wrapped in foil, for each of us.

While letting the campfire create the coals that would cook our meal, and subsequently while waiting for our food to be done, we supplemented the sounds of Twentymile Creek with music we believed to be as choice as the food. From the classics (Van Morrison, Velvet Underground, Allman Brothers Band) to the more obscure (Wooden Wand, Lambchop, Built to Spill), our soundtrack for the evening was a perfect complement to the campfire, the meal, and the start of our trip. At least in our ears it was . . . I’ll note here that the volume we played the music at was respectfully low and the creek drowned out the music once you moved a few feet away from the tiny speaker — we weren’t The Obnoxious Dudes who had Led Zeppelin cranked up to 11 at 1 a.m. that I think every camper eventually encounters.

Since the most “strenuous” day of the trip was ahead of us (4.5 miles and about 2,200 feet of elevation gain), we turned in shortly after dinner to our respective tents. I was especially looking forward to retiring for the evening, as it was the first night I would be spending in a new tent, an MSR Carbon Reflex 2 that I had picked up a month prior at significant discount since it was a past year’s model. The increased elbow room at negligible increase in weight when compared to my solo tent was much appreciated. With a filling meal in my stomach, new tent smell in my nose, crisp mountain air in my lungs, and the soothing sounds of Twentymile Creek in my ears I quickly drifted off to a restful night of sleep.

I awoke before Justin and brewed up coffee, delivering his cup to him as a wake-up call. I also wiped bird crap off my tent; it’s gotta get broken in somehow, right? We efficiently, but not hurriedly, made breakfast and packed up, leaving the campsite shortly after 9 a.m., crossed Twentymile Creek, and begin our ascent to Gregory Bald (elevation 4,948 feet). We were in awe of the foliage — reds, yellows, golds, faded oranges, coppers — when we weren’t distracted by the steep grade.

A short break at the ridgecrest turned into a brief nap, allowing us to continue toward Gregory Bald with renewed vigor. The views from the bald were incredible, and the stargazing would’ve been spectacular, but unfortunately dense cloud cover rolled in early in the evening and prevented us from thoroughly enjoying the vista. After setting up camp at Sheep Pen Gap (campsite #13), which would be at maximum capacity of 15 persons that night, we filtered water, put our hammocks to use, and even threw a Frisbee for a while before heading back to Gregory Bald (half-mile uphill hike) to eat dinner in the hopes that the clouds would blow over and allow us to play amateur astrologists. The cloud cover was there to stay, which made for a contemplative atmosphere, and we picked a spot sheltered by trees to lay down our closed-cell foam 3/4 length sleeping pads (we had inflatable pad in our tents, if you haven’t noticed by now, comfort is one of our highest priorities) and stretch out while we cooked out standard fare of pasta with olive oil, herbs and tuna.

Once we’d finished our meal and night had settled across the mountaintop, we packed up and then rose to begin the brief hike back to the campsite. We’d stretched for a few minutes before sitting down to dinner, but as Justin stood up he commented about his knees, shoulders and back feeling just a bit stiff, leading me to remark with a mix of humor and humility about how during our first few years of backpacking such observations were rarely made. Part of growing up, I suppose, and the “older” backpackers we encounter on our trips give us inspiration. Seeing people twice our age hiking uphill with grins on their faces puts it in perspective just how long we can enjoy backpacking and how many trips — and how many potential destinations — we hopefully have left.

We arrived back at camp shortly before 9 p.m. to find a small group around a modest campfire; the majority of the camp was already asleep. We hung out in our hammocks for a bit before hanging our packs and food and were the last ones to head to bed. Wind whipped around our tents and a light, steady rain fell overnight, giving us ample reason to appreciate our shelter from the elements and the comfort of our sleeping bags.

We stepped out of our tents in the morning into a cloud. A dense fog had settled on the mountain overnight and rain had saturated every unsheltered surface. While cooking breakfast the fog began its unhurried process of lifting, burning away, and ultimately vanishing to reveal blue skies and a few wisps of clouds. Descending from Sheep Pen Gap and the “high elevation” part of our hike we passed leisurely through Parson Bald, an overgrown piece of acreage without any of the views available from Gregory Bald, and continued through mesmerizing foliage illuminated by the morning sun. Little effort was required in this section and the trail was steep enough to make us grateful for our trekking poles but was not a bone shaking, ache-inducing stretch of trail by any means.

We took a brief break during our descent, but generally maintained a steady pace all the way to the spur trail to our last campsite, Dalton Branch (campsite #95). Located a few hundred yards off the Wolf Ridge Trail and within earshot of Dalton Branch, we would have this cozy campsite to ourselves. We had arrived early in the afternoon and after setting up camp, filtering water, and rinsing the sweat and dirt from the past few days off, we had an entire afternoon to simply lounge around in the woods. We stretched, laid in our hammocks, threw the Frisbee, and enjoyed green tea with fresh-squeezed lemon — all under a brilliant blue sky and in temperatures so ideal as to be barely noticeable.

Laying in a hammock, looking up through the ephemeral kaleidoscope of color created by the foliage in the dense deciduous forest, with one of my closest friends nearby, compelled me to reflect on the changes that were happening in my life and career. Intense feelings of opportunity, hope, joy, relief, renewal, and gratitude mixed with fleeting emotions of nostalgia and anxiety. Contemplating them in such a peaceful setting, and discussing them around a campfire with Justin that evening, brought me a certainty and peace of mind that I’ve seldom experienced. Such is the power of nature and the nature of friendship, I suppose.

As twilight settled upon the little corner of the world where we were camped, we prepared and consumed our dinner. Rice noodles with peanuts and jerky thrown in during the last few minutes of cooking made for an excellent dinner, and fresh lime juice added at the end brought out as many flavors as can be contained in a meal that comes in a box from a grocery store shelf. We had planned on adding jalapenos as well, but those were mistakenly left behind on the kitchen table.

Acknowledging this error, we reminisced on The Case of The Missing Potato (circa 2009) in which a potato in Justin’s pack somehow eluded diligent search efforts for a few days during a five-night backpacking trip (the potato was ultimately located and consumed, although the chili it was to be paired with had already been eaten by the time of its discovery).

After dinner we decided that we would put the kindling and limbs previous campers had gathered to use and build a small fire to sit by and wind down during the last night of our last backpacking together in 2014. Watching the flames dance and the coals glow, the smoke rising through the leaves towards the stars that shown through gaps in the canopy, we listened to music, chatted, and at times found ourselves perfectly spellbound and enchanted by the moment.

One particular verse that came through the speaker was especially fitting but profoundly bittersweet:

Friends are just the people you can talk with
Some can talk about that, some can talk about this
But everyone changes and forever is a myth
Friends are just the people that you can talk with
A lot of them will leave but only a few you’re going to miss

“Life” by Jeffrey Lewis

The pleasant warmth of the fire conspired with our tired muscles and full stomachs to weigh down our eyelids and send us toward our sleeping bags. Dalton Branch tumbled along at an un-intrusive volume that was a perfect lullaby and I drifted off to sleep nearly as soon as I had zipped up my bag. Waking up the next morning, we enjoyed coffee while packing up but skipped oatmeal in favor of Clif bars and the notion that the quicker we got back to the trailhead, the closer we would be to stopping in Knoxville for sushi.

We left the campsite mid-morning and began the remaining 2.5 miles of our hike. A few hundred yards down the Wolf Ridge Trail we both remarked at how absolutely perfect it felt — the gradient, the tread, the width, as well as the morning light filtering through the trees onto ferns and fallen leaves, the dull rumble of the stream, and the moss; moss-covered boulders, moss-covered logs, and seemingly moss-covered moss. It was, we agreed, an example of a quintessential mountain path in the Southeast. It seemed to be something out of the literature of Cormac McCarthy’s early novels, or perhaps the travelogues of William Bartram. This path took us over a few stream crossings before it reached the Twentymile Creek Trail and the half-mile of backtracking that would lead us back to the trailhead.

Arriving at the car around noon, we stretched, changed, and took in the last few deep breaths of mountain air before beginning the drive back. As planned, we stopped for sushi in Knoxville. It wasn’t exactly the standard “cheeseburger, fries, and beer” post-backpacking trip meal, but what can I say, I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. Since I’ve already filled this trip report with personal information, it’s worth noting that I was born in Knoxville (TN), although I grew up in Louisville (KY). Passing through the town of my birth before heading West seemed a fitting detour on the trip home.

What should have been a three-hour drive from Knoxville took almost four and a half hours due to traffic, putting us back at my place at 7 p.m., with a two-hour drive back to Louisville on Justin’s itinerary. While I enjoyed the extra time with my friend, I would’ve preferred it in a less industrial setting than the interstate. We quickly sorted gear and said possibly our penultimate goodbyes, as I would be passing through Louisville at least once more before heading to Montana.

As far as backpacking trips go, this one was excellent and I can’t imagine a better way to say “until we meet again” to the southern Appalachian Mountains that have helped shaped me as a backpacker, an environmentalist, and a person. Our route was an outstanding one and I’m glad we took the time to savor it, but it could easily be enjoyed as a two-night loop instead, or even an arduous overnight trip.

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