The night was cold but not awful , I’m guessing in the upper 30’s. With my 15-degree Mountain Hardware down sleeping bag (a bright green, so I call it “the Worm”), I was toasty and even shed an outer layer during the night. This morning was my first of getting up and breaking camp in the dark and the verdict is: I don’t like it much. We were prepared to hit the trail at first light, but making hot tea and cheesy grits in the dark is not a habit I want to form. Just a mental thing to overcome, but hopefully we won’t be backpacking much on this venture.
The 1,000-foot gain in 1.5 miles going up Martins Gap Trail was a great wake-up, however, and within the requisite 15 minutes we stopped to lighten up layers. Climbing in the early morning light was quiet and purposeful and my thoughts rolled back to my last trek here in January, a wonderful cold gray-and-blue winter day. Today was more colorful:
Sunkota Ridge terminates at the Thomas Divide Trail, which we then followed for a .4-mile stretch to a larger intersection with Newton Bald Trail. The mileage for this short jaunt is not calculated on the $1 Smokies map; neither is the .7 miles from the Newton Bald/Thomas Divide junction to the Newton Bald/Mingus Creek Trail intersection. Why am I attentive to these details? Because our hike just got 1.1 miles longer.
Even more important, at the Newton Bald/Mingus Creek junction Danny and I made history (we hope). Here the current MST turns to follow Mingus Creek Trail to its terminus at Newfound Gap Road near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where the MST hiker must begin walking on the Blue Ridge Parkway because this section of trail has not yet been created…BUT there is a proposal being considered to continue the MST route further through the Smokies. Danny and I decided to hike the proposed route for several reasons: A, it’s more fun to walk in the woods than on the road; B, it’s safer to walk in the woods than on the road; C, walking on the road requires walking through five tunnels and we do not want to be flattened; D, this route follows much of the already-established Benton MacKaye Trail; and E, hopefully our using and promoting this proposed route will help move the process along to make it official. As with all things bureaucratic, impact studies must be conducted and meetings must be held, but it just makes more sense to have the MST go wherever the road is not.
(BTW, get out your maps - the proposed route from this point is: Newton Bald Trail, cross Newfound Gap Road at Smokemont Campground, Benton MacKaye Trail to Bradley Fork Trail, Chasteen Creek Trail, Enloe Creek Trail, Hyatt Ridge Trail, Beech Gap I and Beech Gap II Trails, Balsam Mountain Trail, Mount Sterling Trail, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, walk through Cataloochee Valley, Rough Fork Trail to Heintooga Ridge Road, then Heintooga Ridge Road to the BRP. Are we having fun yet???)
So off we go on the “road less traveled.” Newton Bald is a wonderful trail on a fall day and a steady downward slope that gently winds around the mountains curves, enticing you to wonder at what is around the next bend. My past walk on this trail was about a year ago and I remembered well the yellow leaves falling and acorns hitting me on the head. A mile or two from the end we passed a large group of college students from Michigan – a dozen or more – hiking up to Campsite 52 for their first night in the Smokies. They looked prepared for the predicted evening rain.
Our yellow wood
We had made great time, lots of daylight left, which we needed to get set up for tomorrow. We retrieved our car from Clingmans Dome, set up camp in a tent site at Smokemont (another great reason to relocate the MST – easy camping facilities), cleaned ourselves up as best we could, and staged our car for the next day at the Beech Gap trailhead at Round Bottom on Straight Fork Road. This part was a bit spooky as darkness closed in while we were driving along that deserted gravel road. The highlight of the evening was the buffet at Big Boy’s in Cherokee – well, it was food that we didn’t have to cook, anyway! Time to sleep and get mentally ready for a rainy day tomorrow.
(Read Danny's summary of today's hike here.) And for a cool YouTube interpretation of "The Road Not Taken," click here.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,