Smokies SB6K Backpack – Day One – 6/8/12 – Pretty Hollow Gap Trail/Palmer Creek Trail/Balsam Mountain Trail – 12.8 Miles
The most intimidating part of the SB6K challenge, at least for me, is 7 peaks that rise high in the Great Smoky Mountains. Why so daunting? After all, I’ve hiked all those trails, even summited 5 of the total 12 peaks there (Clingman’s Dome, Mt. Collins, Mt. LeConte, Mt. Kephart, even Mt. Sequoyah) during my Smokies 900 year.
Ah, but the remaining 7 peaks are off-trail, you see, and not reasonably in reach for me as dayhikes. Bagging these peaks requires a multi-day backpack trip, navigational skills, a thick skin and a good attitude. So who you gonna call? Jeff. I proposed a weekend to hit all 7 peaks and still get home on Sunday night. He said okay because he is applying for sainthood.
The plan: DAY 1 - Hike from Cataloochee Valley to Laurel Gap Shelter, summit nearby Big Cataloochee Mountain, stay at Laurel Gap. DAY 2 – Hike via Balsam Mountain Trail to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, summit Luftee Knob, Mark’s Knob and Mt. Yonaguska along the way, stay at Tri-Corner. DAY 3 – Backtrack on the AT a little to summit Mt. Chapman, then go north on the AT to summit Mt. Guyot and Old Black, then hike down Snake Den Ridge to Cosby exit.
Oddly enough, after hearing the trip description (3 days of bushwhacking in June, 2 nights in shelters), no one else wanted to join us.
After much time spent planning routes with expensive shuttle companies, two good friends from the Bergs stepped in to help us out. Daniel and Mike planned a base camping weekend in the Cosby area on the Tennessee side of the Park, allowing Daniel to drop Jeff and me at the beginning of our route in the Cataloochee area on the NC side. Daniel drove my car to Cosby, where he and Mike used it for their own hiking shuttles and then placed it in the Cosby hiker parking lot for our exit on Sunday. Genius plan that worked very well for everyone.
The weather forecast started out to be great, then deteriorated through the week. At the trailhead we were re-editing our packs in preparation for rain. Also, even though I had made reservations for the shelters, we each carried a backpacking tent in case the shelters were too full for comfort or had annoying occupants (hey, it happens.)
We started off with a pleasant stroll on Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, catching up on recent adventures and checking out the wildflowers. Here’s a new one: stinkhorn. Yes, I touched it. It feels just like it appears, a cold, gelatinous, dead finger. BIG YUCK.
After .8 miles we turned left onto Palmer Creek Trail and began a long, steady climb, 1,500 feet in a little over 3 miles. Jeff gave me the details of his newest car purchase and I tried to stay attentive as I huffed and puffed. It takes me a while to get into an uphill rhythm, the most important consideration being not to go too fast. Once I’ve hit the right stride, I can plod along for miles.
Crossing Lost Bottom Creek
Near the confluence of Lost Bottom and Palmer Creeks
Lots of summer blooms up close on Palmer Creek Trail, including galax – I proclaim this the “flower of the weekend”
Many azaleas in intense shades of coral, salmon and deep pink
Clamshell- like fungi on this tree as big as my two hands together
I reached the end of Palmer Creek Trail at Balsam Mountain Road ahead of Jeff (he went off to bag a little peak some- where). I really needed a rest on this extraordinarily comfy rock.
Balsam Mountain road is a one-way gravel road that begins at the end of paved Heintooga Ridge Road, a side road off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is closed in the winter, but check it out sometime for a thrill ride through the backcountry. Several Smokies trails are accessed from this road. We walked about half a mile on the gravel to the beginning of Balsam Mountain Trail. Here we saw a piece of paper on the ground that said something about Laurel Gap Shelter being closed, but it looked old and torn and we shrugged as we passed it. But we made note of a Park Service truck parked there.
Balsam Mountain Trail is lovely, abundant ferns lining the edges and more azaleas overhead. Our steady climb continued, adding another 1,000 feet. Today was the biggest elevation gain of the trip and we would spend the rest of our weekend gallivanting on the highest trails in the Smokies.
After 2.3 more miles, at the intersection of Balsam Mountain and Beech Gap Trail we saw a very new looking sign:
Well, this was more than an inconvenience, this could be a problem. I made our reservations weeks ago. It was too late in the day and we were too far away from any kind of vehicle to turn back. No other choice but to continue the remaining 2 miles to the shelter and see what’s what.
And…there was indeed a trail crew settled in with a very elaborate setup. In addition to overtaking the shelter itself, they had a shower tent, a cook tent, several enormous coolers, a gas grill, and an electrified bear fence to keep it all safe. There were also several tents spread around. We never asked, but I’m sure it was all brought in via horses.
I told the young crew chief, Eric, that I had reservations. He questioned me a bit rudely, like where was my paperwork and who had I talked to? I didn’t back down, said again that I had reservations, and obviously there had been a mixup but that we had to stay there. He wanted to know how many nights (one) and where we were headed the next day. When I told him our plans and that we were hiking the SB6K’s, that Jeff had hiked them all and that I was extensively familiar with the Smokies, good old Eric changed his tune considerably. He pointed out the path to the spring for water, then escorted us to an area that he would permit us to camp – which turned out to be the toilet area. No flat spots, and Jeff and I ended up setting our tents up on a faint path, a ditch, really. Jeff was put out by the treatment we got and noted that it was all well and good to be nice if we were experienced backpackers, but if we were inexperienced it would be even more important to be nice and helpful because there were no other options than to stay there. (note: I reported the issue to the Park office when I got back home.)
At the spring we filled up extra containers with water and then left the shelter area to carry out our real purpose of the day – summiting Big Cataloochee. And remember, we had already backpacked nearly 10 miles uphill.
Continuing a short distance on Balsam Mountain Trail to the next intersection, we turned right onto Mount Sterling Trail. Now, Jeff is the man with the GPS track to the summit, and as I followed him I became a little nervous because the woods looked impenetrable on either side of the trail. Oh ye of little faith! Jeff turned left off of the trail and walked into the thick of the forest and I followed, determined to keep him in sight.
Bushwhacking: Slowly stomping through thick underbrush, stepping up over fallen tree trunks and down into holes you can’t see, duck walking under branches, sliding on moss, stooping and twisting sideways to squeeze in between trees. Fallen trees lay every which way. Everything in the forest is rotting every efficiently, crumbling and crunching and squishing underfoot. There is no time to worry about what you might be stepping on or what might be scurrying or slithering away just as your foot comes down (you can’t see it anyway). If that stuff bothers you, you’re in some trouble.
So we bushwhacked a half-mile steeply uphill at a snail’s pace through thigh-high ferns and head-high blackberry briars. This was beyond even my experience on the Richland/Reinhart hike (that was in winter). Now we were in full summer undergrowth. Areas of balsam trees were better because there was very little undergrowth, but watch out for the small, bare lower branches which I called stubs – they can really scratch or poke an eyeball. I got some impressive scrapes on my legs and arms, bloodied up in the first five minutes. (One scar remains – I like to call it my Big Cat scratch.) We left our packs back on the trail and I carried my hiking poles out of habit, but they were a hindrance and I didn’t use them off-trail for the remaining peaks.
People who came before us had left flag tape intermit- tently, but not in any organized manner that I could follow, so I worked hard to stay near Jeff. The summit of Big Cataloochee is designated by a tree with a bunch of flags. My first peak bagged!
You find some awesome stuff when you venture deep into the woods.
We bush- whacked back down trying to go a slightly different way (i.e. longer), but ended up coming out at the same spot. I was never so glad to see a trail in my life. And just how was I going to do this 6 more times?
Back at Laurel Gap Shelter the hour was getting late. The off-trail hike had taken more than two hours. We hustled to treat more water for the next day, cooked and ate supper sitting underneath the bear cable hangers. Afterwards I went to have a little chat with the trail crew. (Eric the leader had retired to his tent.) The other fellows were very nice, said the trail work had been scheduled for months and someone in the backpack reservation office obviously messed up. They described the work they were doing to repair Gunter Fork Trail, which had been closed for nearly a year due to landslides. They said they would be up and out to work the next morning by 7:00 a.m.
Daylight was fading and the air was chilling. I crawled into my tent, too exhausted to move, a good thing because I was nestled in a ditch.
If you pick 'em up, O Lord, I'll put 'em down. ~Author Unknown, "Prayer of the Tired Walker"