Thursday, October 7, 2021

Smokies 900 Round 2: Forney Ridge & Forney Creek Loop Backpack

Smokies 900 Round 2: Forney Ridge & Forney Creek Loop Day 1 – Forney Ridge Trail/Forney Creek Trail/Jonas Creek Trail to Campsite 70 – 8/26/20 – 8.5 Miles

During COVID summer 2020, when we canceled our John Muir Trail trip, Carol and I got back to backpacking without bear canisters, minimizing weight and maximizing miles. Back to the Smokies we go for another weekend knocking out Carol’s Smokies 900, a little backpacking and strategic base camping to get at some of the interior trails. I wasn’t nervous about this trip, very optimistic that it would be fun and manageable. Ah well…

As our trip date approached, rain was predicted for our last day on the trail. We know, though, that it can and does rain at any given place in the Smokies at any given time and I carried a big blue tarp that we could rig up in camp if needed. I wore my Salomon trail shoes instead of my usual heavy hiking boots to see what difference they might make with a full pack.

Our hike started from the Clingmans Dome parking lot, jam packed with cars and people, a little unnerving. Aren’t these our Smokies? (No!) Nationwide, the great outdoors was considered (relatively) safe during the pandemic and the country’s public lands were overwhelmed with the masses seeking relief. Can’t blame them – after all, we’re here too! We parked Carol’s car on the shoulder of the road and hoped it would be there in 3 days. Forney Ridge Trail, take us away!

Forney Ridge Trail stone step work

Amazing late summer flower show in the first few steps signified great things to come:

Pink turtleheads

Skunk goldenrod

White wood aster

Dodder aka love vine

We stopped about a half-mile in to get ourselves together, eat, and look at the map

Leaving busy Forney Ridge Trail behind, we turned right onto Forney Creek Trail and settled in for a 7.4-mile stretch without intersections, a little unusual for the Smokies. We gauged our progress by campsites and creek crossings on our map and the trail description in the “brown book” Hiking Trails of the Smokies, a resource that I always carry along (copies of pertinent pages). 

Along with late summer flowers, the forest was thick with vegetation and fallen limbs and downed trees across the trail. Trails deep within the park have less foot traffic and are harder to reach, so they receive less frequent maintenance than more popular trails closer to parking areas. Occasionally there were wooden signposts to indicate that we’re still on Forney Creek Trail. 

First of many creek crossings – this one was a rock hop but that wouldn’t last

Joe Pye weed


Rock Slab Falls is a beautiful slide on Forney Creek that is loud even in low flow. There was a tent set up here at Campsite 68. There are actually two sites (A and B), so if you’re going, be sure you reserve the one you want.

As we continued downstream, the creek got wider and the crossings became more challenging. We donned our Crocs and kept them on. The water was refreshing but still to be taken seriously, sometimes so deep we couldn’t see our footing and had to feel our way over slippery rocks. Carol reminded me to “boob up” meaning to get my phone out of my pants pocket and stick it inside my shirt and sports bra (no photo). This became the rally cry at each crossing.

Remnants of human impact during the logging era

The next wet crossing

And another one

In the coral fungi family

Our last creek crossing just before the junction with Jonas Creek Trail was swift and thigh deep and got the better of me. I was pushed by the swift current and “sat down” in the creek to keep from falling down. As I tried to get up, I was pushed again and “laid down” on my back. The bottom half of my pack was drenched, as well the clothes I was wearing and my shoes that were tied onto my pack. But, hey, at least my phone was dry! 

A hundred yards further, we turned onto Jonas Creek Trail and crossed Forney Creek for the last time on a very nice footbridge at Campsite 70, our home for the night. (Ironic, yes?)

It was 5:30 pm, not bad for driving 4 hours and hiking 8.5 miles. Campsite 70 is a horse camp, an area spread out with 3 fire rings and 2 bear cable systems for hanging food bags. One couple had already pitched their tent and were preparing food under a small tarp beneath the bear cables. The rest of the camp was empty, yet I had trouble choosing a spot for my tent. I worry unreasonably that others will arrive later in the day or at night and be loud and obnoxious and put their tents near mine. Carol pitched hers in an open area and I tucked in beside some trees, so close to the noisy creek that I couldn’t have heard a hurricane – and nobody else came into camp that night. 

In anticipation of rain, we spread the big blue tarp over the branches of an ancient rhododendron and strung a clothesline underneath it to hang my wet clothes. The contents of my pack were dry because I’d packed in gallon ziplock bags. I had dry sleeping clothes to put on, but I’d have to put my hiking gear back on tomorrow. The air was so muggy, my clothes sure wouldn’t get dry even if it didn’t rain, but hopefully they would be…less wet…in the morning.

In my distraction, while preparing supper I let the water in my Jetboil pot reach a rolling boil (should have turned it off sooner) and boiling water splashed out of the spout. It was too hot to flip the lid off the top and I couldn’t reach the knob to turn off the heat without getting splattered. Carol tried to hand me something to help, but I didn’t understand. Finally, I wrapped my bandanna around my hand enough to reach the knob and turn off the propane source. I’m sure I was yelling and panicking – not a good look at the end of what was supposed to be a fun day. 

And yet Carol always takes me back.

“Backpacking is the art
of knowing what not to take.”
~Sheridan Anderson 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Tahoe Rim Trail: North Fork Blackwood Creek to Tahoe City and Beyond

Tahoe Rim Trail: Day Four and Beyond – North Fork Blackwood Creek to Tahoe City
 8/16/21 – 14.5 Miles

I woke up at midnight smelling smoke. Looked up at the sky: no stars. Back to sleep. I woke again at 4:00 a.m., checked the sky again: twinkling stars. Back to sleep again.

At 5:30 a.m. I began packing up. Today we’re hiking into Tahoe City for two nights and a day of rest, reflection, showers and food, not necessarily in that order. 

Cold oatmeal again! 

Carol and I stepped onto the trail facing an orange-tinted sky and a red sun on the horizon, the most significant evidence of wildfires to date. Does that mean the fires are closer or does that mean the wind is just blowing smoke our way? No matter what, we’re heading to Tahoe City.

The first 2.5 miles were uphill, testing our lessons of the previous days. We practiced slow steps on long graded switchbacks, crossing rockslide sections. Hmmm…those backpacks don’t feel quite as heavy. The views into Blackwood Canyon were obscured by smoke, but our immediate surroundings were breathtaking in a different way.

Granite cliffs

On a switchback we stopped to talk with a southbound PCT thru-hiker called Abe Lincoln. He retired to part-time work so he can enjoy life hiking. (There’s a lesson for us all!) 2021 has become a bad year for PCT hikers. Like others we’d met, Abe had to skip a few hundred miles of trail because of the fires.

We crossed into the Granite Chief Wilderness and came to the intersection where the Tahoe Rim Trail diverges from the PCT…except we didn’t read the sign closely and marched merrily along until we realized we were on the wrong side of the Twin Peaks. This was the only oops detour of our trip. We backtracked, corrected our mistake and skirted around the base of Twin Peaks on the east side. We didn’t take the side trail to the summit because (a) it’s a bit technical, (b) no views today, and (c) we were discussing how much food we would eat in Tahoe City.


Twin Peaks

A long relaxing break at the junction with Stanford Rock Trail:

From there we began a long and sometimes steep downhill through majestic pines cloaked in that ethereal wolf lichen – lots of downed trees here too – and passed through meadows of fading summer foliage and emerging fall flowers. Carol’s flower ID app kept us engaged through this section as the heat intensified.

McCloud Waterfall – pretty to look at but not accessible as a water source

Mountain coyote mint

Anderson’s thistle

Fading Woolly mule’s ears

Woolly mule’s ears bloom (the only one we saw)

Waxy checkerbloom

At Ward Creek Bridge we stopped for lunch in a little bit of shade.
Down a steep embankment by the bridge, we filled up with water.

I stepped into the woods for a pee break and saw a dark flash. It was a small bear scampering away. How cute! Wait – is there a mama bear nearby?  I swiveled my head 360 degrees, then looked again at the retreating figure, decided it was bigger than a cub, probably a juvenile. Nonetheless, peeing was postponed.

Mountain biking is allowed on many sections of the TRT, but not on the miles that overlap with the PCT, which we parted from at Twin Peaks. We had been warned that they often come upon hikers without warning. As we sat enjoying our lunch by the bridge, our first mountain biker came around a curve suddenly, startling us, but he stopped to say hello as he waited for his friends to catch up.

It was noon and we had 7 miles to go to Tahoe City. We were feeling pumped for the home stretch – but the positive vibes were muted by that inevitable afternoon heat. Unfortunately, this was the most boring stretch of our trip. The first two miles beyond the bridge passed through a logging operation, a flat wide dusty road churned up by heavy equipment. Now, we’d hiked in dust before, but this was thick, throat-irritating, tire-tracks-deep DUST. 

Mike and his dog Sweet Pea at work

After crossing Ward Creek Road, the climb up to Page Meadows slowed us down. At a sitting rock stop, I misjudged and slid off the rock sideways (no way to stop as my pack weight pulled me over) and landed flat on my back. My good hiking buddy Carol busted a gut laughing! At least she didn’t take a picture, which I may or may not have done in the past when she took a spill.

The last miles into town were on steep, rutted mountain bike trail. (Somewhere in there we crossed paths again with the same mountain bikers from the Ward Creek Bridge.) My right knee ached and I felt hot, dirty, thirsty and over it. Like the proverbial cow heading to the barn, I barely glanced at the Truckee River tubers and the pedestrians ambling along the sidewalks of Tahoe City. 

Notice the beautiful blue sky…

Carol and I arrived at our America’s Best Value Inn oasis at 4:30 p.m. and began the transition from trail to town. (I’ll admit it took me an hour to calm down.) We checked in with spousal support, took super long hot showers and put on the only clean items we had – our sleeping clothes. 

Carol’s pedicure

Now, hundreds of people thru-hike the Tahoe Rim Trail every year and many more hike the section that Carol and I just completed. This was my unique experience. As with most big hiking endeavors, time makes the hard parts fuzzy while the good parts are magnified to epic legend. Case in point: my patty melt burger with cheese, caramelized onions and Thousand Island dressing at the Fat Cat Bar & Grill will live in my memory as the best burger of my life.

The next day (Tuesday, August 17) was a zero day to take care of in-town chores, laundry, sorting through our food packages that we had sent to ourselves at the motel, mailing home a box of unnecessary items…and eating and drinking.

At the Lost Sock Laundromat

Brunch at Rosie’s Café

Dinner at Tahoe Tap House

A new wildfire, called the Caldor fire, had ignited southwest of Echo Summit on August 14, the day after our start. This was the main source of the increasing smoke as the fire spread eastward. Between chores we spent most of our time searching for information about the Caldor fire. It was growing so big and so rapidly that already tiny bits of ash were falling in Tahoe City and large snowflake-sized ash blanketed South Lake Tahoe. Conditions changed hourly as we watched the TV news and scrolled the internet, trying to determine whether to continue our hike – and where?

I talked with Ceci Chourre, a shuttle driver familiar with the trail, and asked her advice. “If I was your best friend, what would you tell me to do?” Her reply: “Get the hell off the trail.”

On Wednesday, Ceci shuttled us from Tahoe City to Mellow Mountain Hostel in Stateline on the southeast side of Lake Tahoe. We adopted a wait-and-see attitude, hoping to get in a day hike on the east side of the TRT, but the Caldor fire raged on at an alarming rate. The smoke intensified and subsided with the winds. The hostel filled up with other hikers, some who were one day short of finishing the TRT and some who weren’t even getting to start. We realized that our hike was over.

Scenes from Mellow Mountain Hostel and South Lake Tahoe:

Priyanka Surio, our hostel bunkmate, an author and digital nomad

A stunning mosaic of Lake Tahoe in the stairwell

Hostel shenanigans

Lakeside Beach at Lake Tahoe on an ironically beautiful clear day

Staying hydrated

We flew back to the East Coast on Friday, August 20, 11 days early


Within the next 2 weeks after we returned home, all California national forests and Nevada’s public lands surrounding Lake Tahoe were closed, including the entire Tahoe Rim Trail. The Caldor fire touched Echo Summit, the western shores of Echo Lake and the southeastern portions of the trail. Many small towns and residential areas, including South Lake Tahoe, were evacuated.

As of this writing, the Caldor fire is 76% contained, thanks to the expertise and bravery of thousands of firefighters. While nearly 1,000 structures have burned, including homes, schools and churches, there has been no loss of life. Most folks have returned to their homes.

I don’t know that I will go back to the Tahoe Rim Trail. The window of hiking the trail after snow season and before wildfire season now seems to overlap, making a successful thru-hike unlikely. And yet…unfinished business…