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