What took me so long to come back here??? There is just no place like the Smokies.
My hiking friend Judy accompanied me for many miles during my Smokies 900 year and has continued to fill in her own Smokies 900 map since then. I had promised to return the favor and join her on a few expeditions, the most recent being September 2009. Time to go again! Judy needed two good loops to complete the far western reaches of GSMP. When I hiked these trails it was in the chilly, wet, drab brown month of February, so I was happy to go again in a different season.
No rain in my part of North Carolina for two months, but it was indeed raining as we left Judy’s house at 6:30 a.m. and it continued off and on for the three-hour drive to Abrams Creek Campground. The closer we got to the Smokies, the harder it rained. Time to test that mental fortitude. After all, I encourage other people not to let the rain cancel a hike…
I had complicated the logistics planning when I read online that the Foothills Parkway would be closed for construction, so we headed for Abrams Creek by way of Happy Valley Road (found out later that I was wrong about the road closing). This was my first stay at Abrams Creek Campground. It is quite small, 16 sites, first-come-first-served. If there were no sites available we planned to continue on to the much larger Look Rock Campground. But it was a Monday morning and the campground was only about half full with people stretching out the weekend, so we chose a campsite, signed in and parked the car.
Our hike started on the Cooper Road Trail, historically significant as a lifeline between Cades Cove and Maryville and points beyond for livestock and produce going out and for mail delivery and other goods coming in. Today it is still a wide roadbed accessible to Park Service vehicles. I have to confess, it is not an exciting walk but imagining its history helps jazz it up. After 2.6 miles we reached Gold Mine Gap and paused for a snack. The rain was still spitting and drizzling.
Turning left, we walked up Gold MineTrail, nicer than last time, greener and no blowdowns to crawl over. It’s a quick .8 miles up, but on the way back down, the heavens opened and every drop of moisture since time began poured down. Judy put on her rain packa but I thought I’d tough it out – bad decision. I was absolutely drenched. My boots felt as though I were wading through knee-deep water. The storm passed overhead, with brisk winds and close-by lighting, so we kept moving.
Back at Gold Mine Gap I put on my rain jacket and we began the out-and-back walk down Cane Creek Trail, rather nondescript except for the Buchanan cemetery, recently decorated with new flowers. There were four creek crossings that were challenging and that I did not remember; they probably were not noteworthy when I hiked here before. But today even retracing our steps back up the trail, the water levels were noticeably increasing.
We stopped for lunch near Campsite #2, sitting on a log across the trail from the campsite itself. Judy remarked that the campsite was not very inspiring, and we laughed that we were so contemptuous of it that we wouldn’t even eat lunch there. Having passed by every backcountry site in the Smokies, I guess we have become very discerning in our criteria for camping.
The next left turn took us back onto Cooper Road Trail for our last segment of this rather dull road. At least today’s route was a combination of several short trail sections, which makes the hike feel shorter. Somewhere along this bit we noticed that the rain had abated and we removed rain gear and enjoyed a little sunshine the rest of the day. At the next intersection we turned right onto Hatcher Mountain Trail, no longer wide like Cooper Road.
Hatcher Mountain blew by like a breeze, 2.8 miles of slight downhill. At the junction with Little Bottoms Trail it’s a little confusing – does Abrams Falls Trail come all the way here? Does Hatcher Mountain Trail continue on down to the left? Trail signs and maps do not give mileage, but we walked perhaps a quarter-mile down to where the Abrams Falls Trail meets the creek and becomes Hannah Mountain Trail to check out what the water level looked like – tomorrow we would be crossing here, what I considered the second hardest crossing I did during my Smokies 900 (the first, of course, will always be the infamous Hazel Creek adventure.” (P.S. Consulted the brown book later – looks like it is Hatcher Mountain and it’s .2 miles)
Then we climbed back up to the junction and continued on Little Bottoms Trail, which I consider the most interesting part of this hike. It is a wild little manway, ungraded, careening up and down and quite narrow in places. It passes Campsite 17, which looks huge (although not a horse camp) and is probably quite popular but could accommodate several groups without getting on each other’s nerves. This area is the former site of the Anderson family farm and the namesake for the trail as the only bottomland suitable for farming along this stretch of Abrams Creek. Next the trail goes right down to the creek’s edge and follows it for a while before turning sharply right and upwards, over the shoulder of the mountain and down to meet Cooper Road Trail once again, turning left and retracing the final .9 miles back to the campground.
After 17 miles of sloshing, we removed wet boots and put on Crocs to wade into Abrams Creek at our campsite. The water felt wonderful, could have even been a few degrees colder and made us happy. A small rock dam has been built to create a wide, knee-deep pool. Fellow campers were floating and playing in the water, families with children. I met one woman who said she was brought here regularly as a child and now she brings her own children. That’s what I’m talking about that so many kids are missing out on these days. (This woman also informed us that the Foothills Parkway was not closed, so we drove to check it out and then made alternate plans for tomorrow’s hike.)
Judy is ready for some spa time
At suppertime I screwed my pocket rocket stove into a fuel canister from my camping box and it began to hiss. I tossed it onto the ground and we listened to the hiss for a while and watched frost form on the stove. Fortunately, Judy also had her Jetboil stove so we were still able to heat water. The rain was gone and the air was not exactly cool, but the temperature was dropping. Very relaxing to sit in canvas chairs and watch the evening fade.
At the bathhouse I saw the little girls who had been riding their bikes around camp. They left as I was brushing my teeth and I heard them squealing outside. When I looked out, they had their daddy there with a big stick, exclaiming that they had seen a big snake. With each sentence the snake got larger and scarier, but dad couldn’t find it.
Judy and I carried our chairs down to the river’s edge to watch the water roll on. A heron gracefully swooped down in the dusk and began fishing. I can tell that these eyes are getting old because it was hard to track the heron in the dwindling light. We walked one more time to the bathhouse without using a flashlight, and as I was describing to Judy the girls’ encounter with the snake, a large branch on the paved walkway began to wiggle. I switched on my headlamp and we watched a dignified rattlesnake slither off into the brush. My first snake sighting in the Smokies and it was at the campground bathhouse.
I do love sleeping in a tent, with the creek gurgling and the cicadas making a racket. Unfortunately, the camping neighbors tuned up the old guitar to sing a few tunes. After 11:00 p.m. Judy politely asked them to call it a night. That made it easier to hear the thunderstorm that rolled in around 2:00 a.m. But I was snug and dry.
And I am marking my second Smokies 900 map.
A rainy day is the perfect time for a walk in the woods. ~Rachel Carson