Clingmans Dome Hikes – 10/13/08 – Day Four – Sugarland Mountain Trail/Rough Creek Trail/Little River Trail to Campsite 30 and Back/Little River Trail/Cucumber Gap Trail – 16.3 Miles
Danny and I were up before the sun and driving to Clingmans Dome Road. Today we were meeting up with Judy to hike 16 miles downhill (well, mostly downhill.) We were a little bit early so we pulled over at Newfound Gap for a quick look. Note: Don’t ever become complacent about the views – stop every chance you get because next time you may not be able to see your hand in front of your face.
We joined a handful of people, some setting up tripods and toting large, professional looking cameras, and the early morning view was both humbling and peaceful. I took a few pictures and we started back towards my car. Suddenly we heard gasping, and turned back around to see the sun popping up over the mountain to the left. What a sight! How naïve we were to think that we had seen it all. This was my first bonafide sunrise experience from such a vantage point in the Smokies.
Judy was right on time and we set off on the AT for .2 miles to the Sugarland Mountain trailhead. This was the first time Judy and Danny had met and there was lots of getting-
to-know-you conversation. The sun was out for the fourth day in a row, the leaves were still a-changin’ and we had a great walk as Danny taught me lessons on how to use her GPS to track our route. We followed Sugarland Mountain for 4.8 miles that included narrow ridges with sheer drops and many glimpses of the mountains to the right side, including Chimney Tops (where Judy and I were planning to hike the next day). The yellow leaves made a carpet on the trail.
We turned left onto Rough Creek Trail, the section of today’s hike that Danny needed to complete. This trail, like so many in the Smokies, was built by the CCC over a former railroad bed. While the trail is steep at times, several places we passed seemed like obvious sites for homes or logging camps. We saw these fruits of the hearts-a-burstin’ shrub along this trail.
Very soon we arrived at the intersection of Rough Creek Trail and Little River Trail, and I needed to turn left and follow Little River Trail up (yes, up, even though I said it was all downhill) to its terminus at Campsite 30. Actually, there is not very much uphill but there is a lot of creek walking, including three big crossings. We met a couple hiking up from Elkmont that had tried this route in the past and turned back because of the high water at the last crossing before the campsite. Danny had also seen this water very high and was curious about what it would look like today. Answer: we didn’t get wet, but we could see how you probably would in even a little bit of rain. See Judy being careful?
Did you know that every backcountry campsite has a name as well as a number? Campsite 30 is called Three Forks, and we could see the three rivers that come together here. My little brown book says that creeks around have names like Spud Town, Rattler, Devil and Snake Tongue. No names like Rosebud or Butterfly…Here is Danny photographing a little cascade along one of the creeks.
We backtracked to the intersection and continued on down Little River Trail and turned left on Cucumber Gap. Now, here was some “up” for the day, about 500 feet up and then 500 feet back down in 2.4 miles. Cucumber Gap Trail makes a nice loop from Elkmont when combined with Little River Trail. At the last intersection of the day we turned right for a short bit on Jakes Creek Trail and cruised down the hill to Danny’s car, right where we had left it the afternoon before.
We stopped at the Elkmont Campground, where Judy and I reserved a site for that night, and then rode with Danny back to my car on Clingmans Dome Road. From there Danny headed on home. The sightseeing traffic was getting busy again (guess I didn’t tell you how insane it was the day before) so Judy and I opted to cook something at the campground rather than look for a restaurant. We got set up, bought ice and firewood, and we walking away from our site to find the bathrooms when the couple from the next site strolled by and said hello. They said they had seen our tents and thought we must be serious campers and/or thru-hikers. I said, “Well, not me, but Judy here has done quite a bit of the AT.” The guy said, “We thru-hiked it in 2006.” Well, don’t you know, Judy gave her trail name (Heartfire) and it turns out they all met in 2006 walking in the woods! What a small/big/wonderful/beautiful/fascinating world it is!