Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's All Downhill From Here

This past Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were hiking days filled with surprises and a major milestone - I passed the halfway mileage mark toward my goal of hiking all the trails in the Park. Check back very soon for my trip reports and new mileage totals! And while you're checking, look at the sidebar on the right side of my blog for the donor list. If you have made a donation to Girl Scouts on behalf of my hiking project, your name should be listed and your generosity is much appreciated. If you have about making a donation today?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Smashed Pumpkin

Kephart Prong Trail/Grassy Branch Trail/Dry Sluice Gap Trail/Cabin Flats Trail/Bradley Fork Trail/Smokemont Loop Trail – 15.1 Miles

Judy and I met early in the morning at the entrance to Smokemont Camp-
ground, left one car, and drove to the Kephart Prong trailhead five miles up on Newfound Gap Road. Today’s goal was Hike #2 in the Balsam Mountain section of “Day Hiker’s Guide.” Kephart Prong is a very popular Smokies trail, just two miles long on a gentle railroad grade. There is much evidence of the CCC camp that was based here from 1933 to 1942. During World War II the camp also was home to conscientious objectors. Within the first quarter-mile there are low stone walls, boxwood shrubs that indicate home sites, a large sign plaque made of rounded river stones, a huge rock hearth and chimney, and many other things if you want to explore.

For those not familiar with the name Kephart, more information on this trail is best quoted directly from “Hiking Trails of the Smokies”: The prong (river), trail and mountain above them are named in honor of Horace Kephart, author of “Our Southern Highlanders”, a classic portrait of mountain culture during the first decade of the 20th century. An author, scholar and librarian from St. Louis, Kephart came to the Smokies in 1904 after a nervous collapse, which seems mostly to have been a mid-life crisis and shift in values. Leaving his wife and family, he lived alone in the mountains and wrote lovingly and honestly about the Appalachian settlers and land. He was also a leading park advocate in the 1920s.” Sadly, he did not live to see the birth of the National Park.

Temperatures were in the 30s and we were layered warmly, knowing that we would shed clothing as the trail got steeper and the day grew warmer. However, we were surprised to see a hiker coming towards us with a sleeveless tee shirt and a big smile! Soon we arrived at the Kephart Shelter (one of only three shelters in the Park that are not on the Appalachian Trail and thus another reason for the popularity of this trail) and met the chilly man’s brother, who was packing up to head down the trail too. After a short chat (but, hey, that guy could have talked all day, right, Judy?) and a photo op, we turned toward Grassy Branch Trail and began a serious climb. Now, someone needs to call Ms. Etnier, author of “Day Hiker’s Guide”, and tell her she is pretty much wrong in her description of this trail as “easy.” There wasn’t much talking going on as Judy and I made that 2.5-mile climb!

At the top we paused to re-layer and breathe.
This is me having hot flashes on a cold day on the trail.

At the intersection with Dry Sluice Gap, a left turn takes you 1.3 miles up to the AT, but we turned right and headed down the mountain to the intersection with Cabin Flats Trail. The map is a little fuzzy here and we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss this spur trail that ends at Campsite 49. We did find the campsite, a very peaceful large site near a stream, and we had a short rest and goodies. We could not see bear cables, though, so we walked further back into the camping area, where we finally found the cables (although one set was knocked down) and this jack-o-lantern that someone had left behind. How cute! Now, knowing that pumpkins are food, we were amazed that it had stayed here for any length of time. I took this photo just before we smashed it into bits, stuffed it in a ziplock bag and put it in Judy’s pack to carry out.

Backtracking out to the main trail and turning left, Cabin Flats Trail continues for a little bit (somewhat confusing until you see it firsthand) and then we hit a traffic turnaround, which was Bradley Fork Trail. From here we had a 2.3-mile flat stroll beside the creek. We passed two backpackers on their way to Campsite 49 (happy to see someone was going to enjoy that place tonight.) We also passed a couple of benches and followed Judy’s tradition of sitting on them for a moment. Finally we arrived at our last challenge of the day – Smokemont Loop Trail.

First of all, can we take a vote to change this name to just plain Smokemont Trail? That name is misleading. It is not a loop! It is half a loop. Combining it with Bradley Fork Trail beginning from the Smokemont Campground makes it a loop. I refuse to call this a loop. I’m just saying…

Smokemont Trail is 3.9 miles long with a mountain in the middle. There is no “good” way to hike it. I did this trail last year during my research to see if I liked hiking alone and had the stamina for it. I’m happy to report that it was not half as bad as I had anticipated. But by the time we hit the final downhill my feet were complaining and mentally it was time to stick a fork in me – I was done.

We retrieved cars, changed shoes, and Judy and I waved goodbye and I drove home to Charlotte. I am so fortunate to have Judy as a hiking buddy, as she will say, “just give me the date and I’ll go where you go.” Thanks, Judy, for being so flexible and reliable! Looking forward to more great days in the Smokies!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Alone Time

Beech Gap I Trail and Newton Bald Trail In-and-Outs – 14.4 Miles

Today was a solo hiking day, and since I had no one to be responsible to except myself, I overslept and woke up about the time I’d planned to be on the trail. Oh well…The forecast was for rain, but that sky looked pretty darn blue to me as I drove along Newfound Gap Road, and the yellow trees near Sugarlands Visitor Center were stunning.

My goal for today was Beech Gap I Trail (yes, there is a Beech Gap II) off of Round Bottom Road near Cherokee, 2.5 miles in and 2.5 miles back out. This was a big ole dotted line that I wanted to fill in on my Smokies trail map. (The road was scheduled to close in two days, reopening again in March.) This seems to be a remote area of the park, so I was very surprised to see another car at the trailhead…but I never saw the owners, so perhaps they were staying overnight at one of the backcountry sites or Laurel Gap Shelter.

Beech Gap I is a horse trail with big rocks covered up by fallen leaves and it is ridiculously steep as it starts out. I quickly revised my “I’ll be out of here in two hours” scheme and began creating new curse words for trail builders. After about half a mile, though, apparently someone got out the “how to build a switchback” manual and the trail became more manageable. Loads of beautiful leaf color on the lower portion of this trail. Wonder what causes some leaves to be mottled with color and some to be solid?

I came across a tremendous blowdown that has been there for a while. The tree fell down at an L-shaped bend in the trail and I could duck under the trunk, but the branches obliterate the trail and hikers (and horse people?) have rerouted around it. I’m guessing hikers because the new trail goes up and then back down a steep side hill, and I think trail maintainers will eventually make the reroute more obvious and more manageable with steps and water bars. I don’t think they will try to remove the tree because it is just huge and its branches are all over the place. It’s not just a matter of cutting sections out of the trunk.

Beech Gap I Trail intersects with Balsam Mountain Trail at Beech Gap. I paused here and thought once again how much I love crossing where I have been before from a different trail. I was at this junction with Carol on a rainy day in July and I remember her adjusting her boots while sitting on the same stump where I now had a snack. Hey, Carol, if you are reading this, when are we hiking together again?

Miles to go before I sleep, so I walked back down Beech Gap I Trail and actually did finish the entire out-and-back in about 2.25 hours. What a GREAT feeling to get this part of the map done!

Then it was on to Newton Bald Trail beginning at Newfound Gap Road. I parked on the other side of the concrete bridge at the Smokemont Campground entrance, crossed the road and walked along the short distance to where the trail used to begin. I don’t know how recently, but it looks like not too long ago the trail was extended so that now it begins just opposite the Smokemont turnoff rather than a couple hundred yards up the road. Does anybody know why?

In any event, I had another steep climb ahead of me, but the weather was still glorious and I was excited to be starting a new trail section. Newton Bald is another horse trail, but I’m happy to say it’s one of the best horse trails I’ve experienced in the Smokies…no erosion, no ruts, great switchbacks. Walking along, I felt as though I was tied to a string and someone at the top of the mountain was pulling me up. I had the place to myself, not meeting any other hikers, and the trail spiraled round and round, through some rhododendron tunnels, but mostly through hardwoods that were flaming with colors. I tried to think of different words to describe the shades of yellow: butter yellow, sunshine yellow, lemon yellow, orange yellow, neon yellow, smiley face yellow, yellow-brick-road yellow…

Gradually the sky changed from blue to white to steel gray and the wind picked up, swirling the leaves. I sat down once to listen and the falling leaves sounded just like rain. Then a gust of wind blew through high in the treetops and it “rained” leaves and acorns (which hurt, by the way!) But what a magnificent moment there all by myself.

At the intersection with Mingus Creek Trail I once again had the tingle of déjà vu, as I was here in September with Jeff, Carolyn and Tarah. As I started back down the mountain it began to sprinkle, and for the next two hours I constantly put on and then removed my rain jacket – wearing it was too hot, but getting wet would be too cold. It wasn’t until 15 minutes from my car that the rain became persistent enough to keep my jacket on.

I stopped at the Smokemont ranger’s office to make sure I could park my car in a certain spot for tomorrow’s hike. The ranger there asked me if I had been at Beech Gap I trailhead earlier in the day – he recognized my car. (Boy, these guys are good!) Helpful hint: Get to know the rangers and thank them for all they do – they are good folks.

    I was a happy hiker as I cranked up the heat in my car and drove back along Newfound Gap Road. I stopped for a few photos again, found cheap gas in Gatlinburg, and then holed up in my little hotel with my leftover pizza and my comfy bed. Yes, I was cuddled up by 7:00 p.m.! What a rare treat, to be cozy and warm with no dishes to do (well, my husband usually does the dishes, but anyway…) and a couple of hiking books and magazines and the remote control all to myself. And tomorrow I get to go hiking – again!

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” ~Steven Wright

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Trail Less Traveled

Big Creek Area - 11/6/08 - Mt. Sterling Trail/Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail/Gunter Fork Trail/Camel Gap Trail/Big Creek Trail – 19 Miles

Many plans were formulated and dissolved before settling on a hike with Judy to include the Gunter Fork Trail. You have to hike a few miles to get to Gunter Fork and the USGS map shows five major stream crossings along the way. With the days getting shorter and the water getting colder, I wanted to get this hike done. In the spring some of the crossings are too dangerous to attempt. (The route we took is #7A in the Balsam Mountain section of “Day Hiker’s Guide.”)

We left Judy’s home in Asheville at 6:00 a.m. to put one car at the Big Creek picnic area and travel to the Mt. Sterling trailhead on Big Cove Road. Big Cove is a gravel one-and-a-half-lane public road that first passes modest homes with killer mountain views and then continues down the eastern side of the park to the Cataloochee area. We met a couple of pickup trucks with hunting dogs salivating in the truck beds (wonder what season it was anyway?) and were glad to cross over the park boundary…until the ride got even bumpier and we had to slow down even more. It took about 20 minutes to go the 6.5 miles, but we finally got on the trail at about 8:00 a.m.

Judy was fortified with her breakfast of champions. The only serious elevation gain of the day was the first couple of miles on Mt. Sterling Trail. The weather was awesome, mid-40’s, blue skies. (Every time I get mentally prepared for cold, I am blessed with a day like this. I guess it will catch up with me eventually, but I’m loving it right now.) We resisted the temptation to go up to the Mt. Sterling fire tower for fear of losing daylight – we had 19 miles to go today.

We turned left onto Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail and began a delightful ridge walk with big views toward Cataloochee in the east and cottony clouds down in the valley. The dry leaves were ankle deep as we passed through beech, oak and yellow birch trees. There were also Fraser magnolia trees, whose brown leaves on the ground look like tobacco leaves. We passed one huge red spruce tree (I think) that looked like it had been twisted apart about 20 feet off the ground and other trees caught it in mid-air above the trail. What could have caused that? The tree wasn’t dead, had plenty of green needles. Maybe it was rotting from the inside out?

We also passed many places where wild pigs had been rooting around and mud wrestling. I’ve seen this in every area of the park that I’ve been through.

At the intersection with Balsam Mountain Trail we took a short break, ate a snack and marveled at the intense blue sky against the bare tree branches. As I was using the “facilities” a yellow jacket popped up through the leaves about two feet from me. I was not in a position to leave, but I don’t think it saw me (ha!) Who knew those things were still active??

We quickly walked the .9 miles on Balsam Mountain Trail to the intersection with Gunter Fork, where the trail changed considerably. This was obviously not a horse trail and the level of maintenance was uneven, meaning some places were okay and in some places the trail was sliding off the mountain. The deep leaf cover made it even harder to discern the trail at times. Judy aptly named it “the trail less traveled.” The good news was that with the leaves off the trees we could continually see the ridge line of the Appalachian Trail and of Mt. Sterling Ridge as we made our way down. The 150-foot cascade of Gunter Fork was a disappointment, though, barely a trickle across the right side of the leaf-covered rock. I guess if you wish for low water for creek crossings, you also get no waterfalls…In fact, all the crossings were simple rock hops except for the last one across Big Creek where we did wade in our Crocs (can you scream “refreshing”?) I’m not good at estimating distances, but I’m guessing the creek bed there was 25 yards across, so I can imagine how dangerous it is after rain.

From Gunter Fork Trail we turned right onto Camel Gap Trail and then quickly right again onto Big Creek Trail. (The maps and mileages are a little fuzzy here.) Then we began our five-mile stroll through the lower elevation to the Big Creek picnic area. The trail was covered with a frequently changing leaf carpet: a section of yellow, a section of red, then a multicolored stretch of orange-red-gold-yellow-brown. There were still many leaves in the trees in many beautiful shades. This was one of the most stunning leaf days I had seen (and that’s saying something!)

I had read about but promptly forgotten Mouse Creek Falls along this trail until Judy spotted it, a lovely cascade that is an easy walk from the picnic area. I read about every trail before I walk it and then forget almost everything. Then I read it again after I hike and it is all crystal clear…guess that means I am a visual person?

We picked up the first car at the picnic area, retrieved the second car from the Mt. Sterling trailhead, and began winding our way back down the mountain trying to beat the daylight. We had a few nail-biting moments when we met a full sized yellow school bus on a curve on the one-and-a-half-lane gravel road, which we finally got past after we all did a cooperative little dance of I’ll-back-up-three-inches-if-you’ll-move-forward-three-inches again and again and again. Yikes!

Judy headed home and I drove to Gatlinburg, stopping at a little pizza place on the way for a meal and a to-go box. Then I locked myself inside my cozy little hotel room at Smoky Pines Resort and watched Survivor, said a prayer of thanks for another perfect day outside, and slept like a baby until the next morning when I will be hiking solo.

(Couldn't resist adding this one: leaves floating on the water)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Halloween Hike With Smokies Hiker

Halloween Hike with Smokies Hiker – 10/31/08 – Noland Divide Trail/Noland Creek Trail/Springhouse Branch Trail/Noland Creek Trail – 18.5 Miles

On the night before this hike I stayed in a sketchy little motel in Bryson City, NC – was supposed to stay a second night but decided against it. New management, ladybug infestation, questionable guests, whatever, but you won’t get me back in that place again. And I like Bryson City very much, so I can’t let one bad apple spoil the whole town…

At 7:00 a.m. I met Chris from YourSmokies on the dark and lonely Lakeview Drive to leave my car at the Noland Creek trailhead. We had planned an 18.5-mile hike down from the Noland Divide trailhead on Clingmans Dome Road. I was extremely excited because this was the last of my hikes from Clingmans Dome Road before it is closed for winter on Dec 1. It was forecast to be a beautiful day.

Chris was doing me an enormous favor by accompanying me on this shuttle hike. And why was he doing it? The only thing I can figure is he is a crazy nice person, because he and I had never hiked before and he had recently finished his own project of hiking every trail and road in the Park in each season, backwards and forwards, without benefit of shuttles or key swaps or overnights. He left his home in Tennessee at 5:00 a.m. to meet me and would not get back home until after 9:00 p.m. The list of people who would do this for me is VERY short! Not only that, Chris is a wealth of information and experience and we had about 12 hours’ worth of notes to compare, so it was time well spent (for me) in many ways.

On the drive up to the trailhead we had to stop a couple of times to catch the sunrise from Newfound Gap Road. The snow from earlier in the week was still hanging around on the sides of the road, and huge icicles had formed on the rock face along Clingmans Dome Road. I was using my little Nikon, while Chris had the big guns with many lenses. Hopefully someday he will publish some of his voluminous catalog of photos.

The hike itself seemed to fly by. Noland Divide Trail began with snow and wandered gradually down the ridge until we turned right onto Noland Creek Trail. The day warmed up and we went from hats and gloves to shirt sleeves. Chris is a great talker and I strained to hear over the loud crunch of the dry leaves under our feet. Several times we rock hopped across Noland Creek, and once I stopped to put on my water shoes before wading across. (Chris is from the just-suck-it-up-and-wade-through school.) We passed through five backcountry campsites on Noland Creek Trail, cleaned a little trash out of one campfire ring. At the intersection with Springhouse Branch Trail there is a campsite, and here Chris hung his backpack on the bear cables for our out-and-back hike up Springhouse Branch. (Remember, I had hiked the other half of Springhouse Branch in September.)

  Until now we were convinced that most of the leaf color was gone with the wind (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and cold temps and snow of the past few days. But then we saw Springhouse Branch…Now, when you drive through the Smokies, you can look down on the mountain slopes to see the colors. When you are driving around your town you can see the individual trees as they change colors. But when you are hiking in the Smokies, you look UP to see the colors. And with the cerulean sky on this day, the colors were spectacular. It was very hard to choose just a few photos to show here.

Now do you see why I love doing this?

The stages of leaf color changed from slope to slope and turn to turn as we walked along the trails. There would be nothing but green leaves with a hint of yellow, and then around a bend there would be a riot of color. Surprisingly, sometimes there was green on a higher slope and color on a lower slope. But eventually we had to pick up the pace if we were going to get off the trail before dark, so we turned around and headed back down Springhouse Branch.

Chris retrieved his pack and we continued on Noland Creek Trail, stopping to investigate this tree arch. Looks like it blew over on a windy day and got caught on the branches of another tree. Now its branches are growing skyward. I will have to check it out in the next ten years to see how it progresses.

We came to the end of our hike at about 4:45 p.m., making it about 8-1/2 hours for an 18.5-mile hike – not too bad. We stopped to capture the setting sun on Lakeview Drive. We had seen the sunrise, so of course we couldn’t miss the sunset, could we?

My photos are not too sharp, but that is Fontana Lake on the right.

We looked to be in good shape to make it to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. for a Halloween event with ghost stories around a fire and sorghum candy and cider BUT we did not know that Bryson City has its own Halloween celebration! The main road was closed for trick-or-treating and everyone in town was part of the fun. By the time we made it through the detour and all the way to Oconaluftee, their event was packing up. We did get some sorghum candy, though, very tasty.

In hindsight, we should have just pulled over and joined the festivities in Bryson City. It did look like fun and we were dressed as scary hikers. (Next year I’ll do that.) Seeing all the kids and families helped rebuild the image tainted by the lousy motel.

By the time I dropped Chris off at his car back up on Clingmans Dome Road it was 7:00 p.m. As I drove away, the plan was to find a “regular” hotel room in Cherokee and hike solo the next day and finish up some bits and pieces. Passing the Visitors Center again in the full dark, I slammed on brakes and narrowly missed an enormous bull elk – yikes! Cars in the opposite lane were braking, so who knows how many elk were crossing the road?

As it turned out, there was an antique car show happening in Cherokee and remaining hotel rooms were too expensive for my taste. I was tired but I decided it was a sign that I should go on home. So I drove the long, long way back to Charlotte and slept in my own bed. It was a very long, productive, fun-filled day. Thanks again, Smokies Hiker!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Top 10 Reasons To Go Backpacking

1 – shelter camaraderie – all those crazy people can’t be wrong
2 – taking off your boots at the end of the day
3 – no bathrooms to clean
4 – standing still in the woods and hearing absolutely nothing
5 – a guaranteed good night’s sleep
6 – backcountry TV (campfire) – when it’s legal, of course
7 – improvising new uses for a bandana
8 – peppermint schnapps
9 – lunch on a mountaintop with a 50-mile view
10 – ice cream at the first convenience store when you get off the trail

How many more can you think of?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Five-Star Hike

Appalachian Backpack Weekend – 10/27/08 – Day Four – AT/Boulevard Trail to Mt LeConte/Alum Cave Trail (and Side Trips to the Jumpoff and Myrtle Point) – 14 Miles 

Early this morning I was inspired to search for a disposable camera for today’s hike and found one at the liquor store in Gatlinburg – not digital, but good enough. I met Danny and Lenny at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and followed them to the Alum Cave trailhead to drop off my car. Then they deposited me at the Newfound Gap parking lot for my longest solo hike so far. My chosen route was a five-star hike in the Smokies - the AT/Boulevard Trail/Alum Cave loop for Mt LeConte. The forecast was for clear and cold weather, only in the 40s in Gatlinburg, so I could expect at least 10 degrees colder up at Mt. LeConte. As I got out of the car the wind whipped me around and got my attention. I hurried into the restroom and layered up, then struck out on the Appalachian Trail. I passed two guys also heading north to the Boulevard Trail to LeConte and then passed three section hikers headed south.

After 2.7 miles on the AT I turned left onto the Boulevard Trail, and within a few minutes I came to the spur trail to the Jumpoff. I had never been to this view before so decided to give it a try. It’s an unmaintained (i.e. unofficial) trail but well worn and somewhat rougher than most trails in the Park. At the Jumpoff edge I could see Charlies Bunyon and the ridge that the AT follows along, but as I pulled out my camera a wind gust knocked me off balance and I almost joined the “and she was never seen again” hiker legends. I sat down behind a large rock to eat a quick snack, but my fingers quickly became so cold that I had to put the food away, find an extra pair of gloves and get moving. Once again I was wearing everything I had brought.

The Boulevard is a fantastic trail, many great views to the right and left, and I could see far past the Smokies into the flatlands of Tennessee. (Surpris- ingly, I did not meet any other hikers on the Boulevard.) I walked along protected by spruce and fir trees, then in a gap the wind blew fiercely again. There are several places evident of landslides, one in particular that is quite large and has cables to hold onto as you walk across the bare slope. At the beginning of this area I stopped to shed a couple of layers because I was warmed by the sun and thought I was near the end – not so. Soon I was in the trees again and adding the layers back. Finally I reached the intersection with the spur trail to Myrtle Point and I went to check it out also. Jim and I were here many years ago for an overnight stay at LeConte Lodge and we were totally fogged in. Today there were no clouds, just layers and layers of mountains, and I had it all to myself. (If you are lucky enough to score an overnight stay at LeConte Lodge, Myrtle Point is where you go to greet the sunrise.)

Back out to the Boulevard and traveling onward, I passed High Top, a pile of stones that the little brown book tells me “were left by Mt. LeConte boosters who want to make Mt. LeConte higher than Clingmans Dome.” Well, they are going to need more rocks! Shortly after that, I walked down into the cluster of small buildings that comprises LeConte Lodge. It was 1:00 PM and the thermometer on the office porch read 31 degrees. Inside the office the wood stove was feeling great, so I chose to hang up some layers to dry and eat my lunch inside. People were coming in and out, looking at the photos and news articles covering the walls. Everyone exclaimed over the cold temperatures, the flawless blue sky, the changing leaves and the perfection of the day.

By 1:30 PM I set out on my way down Alum Cave Trail, hoping to get to my car by 4:00 PM for the long drive back to Charlotte. Alum Cave Trail probably is the singularly most scenic trail in the Park, passing sections with intriguing names such as Arch Rock, Peregrine Peak, Alum Cave Bluffs and Gracie’s Pulpit. Now, I had taken most of my photos on the Boulevard Trail because I plan to hike Alum Cave again during the year. Also, there are websites devoted to hiking Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte with wonderful photos, much better than I could do justice to with my little disposable camera. Click here for an overview of the trail's many points of interest with photos and click here for many great accounts of this hike and photos.

Of course, to prove I was here I got my picture taken by a nice fellow who called himself simply “the bald man from Nashville" (but his thumb is the most prominent object in the picture, I'm sorry to say.) My hat was very popular on this hike, with many compliments and references to my Statue of Liberty shadow. Lots of nice people on the Alum Cave Trail, folks dayhiking and folks headed for the Lodge. Do not do this hike if you are looking for solitutude, because you will not be alone. Choose wisely if you need to take a "trail break".

One mishap while I was walking down Alum Cave Trail: In many, many places there are cables attached to the rock by large bolts because the trail is steep and constantly wet, so it’s very slippery. It stays icy for much of the year and can be treacherous. At one point I was bopping along, loosely holding onto the cable with my left hand, and my index finger slid right into one of the round bolt eyes – and as I was still moving I felt and heard a sickening crunch. Ouch! Well, my finger wasn’t broken (and even if it was, all I could do was keep walking) but it did swell up and turn red, and even as I’m writing this a week later it is still swollen and the big knuckle is quite sore. My stomach still flips when I think about it…

Near the bottom of the trail the crowd thickened, much like at the Chimney Tops. Alum Cave Bluffs is only 2.3 miles from the trailhead and most people just hike up to see that (well worth it, too, if that’s all you have time for). I reached my car by 3:45 PM and was a little sad to see the day end. It was my longest solo hike and I had not felt at all lonely or scared of you-know-whats. I had much to think about from the past four days as I made my way home. Postscript: Here is an account of the Boulevard Trail with better photos than mine.