Today’s hike was straight out of “Day Hiker’s Guide” as Hike #2 in the Twentymile/Fontana section, a lollipop hike. I was a little tired from my previous two days of hiking, and Don and Judy had completed a grueling 20-miler in the rain and fog the day before. In fact, they had hiked DOWN Long Hungry Ridge and now they were going to hike back UP it. We were prepared for wading through stream crossings along Wolf Ridge Trail at both the beginning and the end of the day. All in all, we knew a tough hike was coming and the saving grace was hoping that the weather would be clear for us up at Gregory Bald.
We walked just half a mile on Twentymile Trail before turning left onto Wolf Ridge Trail and – surprise – bridges! And these bridges are meant to stay in place, with cables everywhere. This is Moore Springs Branch, whose headwaters begin up near Gregory Bald Trail. (Jim and I checked out the spring back in June on our hike to Gregory Bald.)
After another mile we turned right onto Twentymile Loop Trail and encountered our first blowdown of the day. This trail is pretty mild and lovely with these feathery pine trees. Three miles later we turned left onto Long Hungry Ridge Trail, which starts off innocently enough until Campsite 92, and then starts going up the mountain. “Hiking Trails of the Smokies” says that “the name of this ridge and trail came from an event early in the twentieth century. Rain and high water kept a party of bear hunters marooned for days. They couldn’t cross the creek and nearly starved before getting out.” The creek is Twentymile Creek and it was a challenge for us, too, but we conquered it several times.
The climb up Long Hungry Ridge was relentless and it didn’t take long for Don to warm up enough to display Old Glory. Remember, you don’t want to get hot enough to sweat through your clothes, so it’s common to hike in shorts and short sleeves with temperatures in the 30’s. The day before, Don and Judy hiked this trail in fog, and thankfully today was clear with those blue ridgeline views that I love so much.
After many, many slow steps I heard Judy yelling, “I see Rye Patch,” where the trail levels out at an open, broad expanse where Richard Russell planted rye before the Civil War. From here we walked about a mile to the junction with Gregory Bald Trail. Somehow I did not remember how steep Gregory Bald Trail was going toward the bald, and it seemed we would simply never arrive. But at last -- our reward for our hard work – Gregory Bald! We put our warm jackets and hats back on and had lunch and could easily have had a nap in that special place on top of the world. Don and I had both been here before and it was fun to introduce it to Judy for the first time.
Me at Gregory Bald - Tennessee in the background
The view to the NC side of the bald.
This was taken by a fellow hiker we met at the bald. His name has escaped me, but I remember he was a young guy from Munich, Germany, currently living in Knoxville. He loves our mountains, but seemed to think the Alps are way cooler. Go figure...
Time to get going! We continued to walk west on Gregory Bald Trail to Sheep Pen Gap and the junction with Wolf Ridge Trail at Campsite 13, a huge and popular campsite, a great place to camp so you can see the sunset and sunrise from Gregory Bald. The mile from the junction to Parson Bald is a level walk and quite fascinating in winter, interesting fallen branches and misshapen trees. Doesn’t it remind you of the scene from the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy walked through the forest and the trees threw apples at her? Or maybe this tree is a rapper shrugging his shoulders and saying, "What up?" If you hike up to Gregory Bald from another trail, it’s worth the time to take this mile detour.
What can I say about the descent down Wolf Ridge Trail? Knees and thighs got a workout and we were happy to arrive at Campsite 95, signaling the end of the steep downhill. We had the pleasure of crossing the new bridges again and then retraced our steps on that last half-mile of Twentymile Trail. Just before the parking area Judy spotted this old boot being slowly claimed by moss. How did we miss that early this morning?
An observation made by Judy and Don was the subject of a running conversation during our hike today. Their hike the previous day originated on the Appalachian Trail at the parking area across Fontana Dam, but this parking area is a half-mile up the road after you cross the dam and pass this big sign. So…is that half-mile road walk (which is officially the AT) considered part of the Smokies 900? I didn’t want to get tripped up on this technicality (hey, look what I’m going through for that ridiculous Wet Bottom Trail) so Judy offered to follow me there and drop me off so I could walk down the half-mile of road. Don declined, and we said goodbye to him in the Twentymile parking lot, but at the last minute I noticed he was turning off the road to follow us to the dam. Don and I parked at the bottom, Judy dropped us off at the top of the half-mile stretch, and we had a pleasant walk as the sun went down.
Judy and Don headed for their homes, but I was heading to my favorite cozy hotel in Gatlinburg. Tomorrow’s agenda calls for an awesome, icy, hike with a group of people I’ve never met in my life. I just hope I can keep up.