Smokies 900 Round 2 – Shuckstack Lookout Tower Loop – 5/23/15 – 17.2 Miles
Jim was participating in the Mountains of Misery bike ride for Memorial Day Weekend and I felt like I needed some Great Smoky Mountains exposure. Even though I’ve hiked every trail in the park, there is an intangible tether that keeps drawing me back. Lucky for me, my hiking friend Jeff hadn’t been to Twentymile in the Smokies…yet.
Staring at the trail map, hiking routes began to emerge, two big loops, one including Shuckstack lookout tower and another passing over Gregory Bald, with the intriguing option of camping close to parking and not having to haul heavy loaded backpacks. Sitting in my living room with that map, I felt my endurance superpowers flexing – 17 miles one day, 12 miles the next, about 6 for the walk out. Sounds like a plan.
Another first for me: the online backcountry reservation system. This being a holiday weekend, openings were scarce especially for Sunday night. I booked two spaces for two nights at Campsite 93.
After a very early start Saturday morning and a long drive past Bryson City and Fontana Dam, Jeff and I arrived at the Twentymile Ranger Station, the last entrance into the GSMNP before reaching Tennessee. The parking lot was more than half full. Assembling gear for a backcountry weekend is standard for me now, but this time I added a daypack strapped on the outside of my backpack. Our campsite was 1.5 miles from the car. The plan was to hike in, set up camp, fill up with water and put essentials in my daypack before continuing on our loop.
Twentymile Falls on Twentymile Creek
A mere mile-and-a-half in, Campsite 93 was not inviting - looked like wild boars had rooted around the fire ring, plowing up dirt. No level spots for tents…but a more extensive walk-around showed a long, narrow flat area by the creek. Jeff claimed a tight spot beside the water and I chose a space near one end of the larger area. I couldn’t fully erect my Lightheart tent because I needed hiking poles for the day, but I staked it out as a large bright fuschia diamond shape on the ground as a signal that signal someone was planning to park there for the night.
Continuing on Twentymile Trail, I was fascinated with the profusely blooming lyre-leaved sage and yellow star grass. A gentle breeze blew the tiny flowers enough that clear photos were impossible.
What we had hoped to find: flame azalea
And mountain laurel (Jeff's photo)
Meadow parsnip, also hard to get in focus
Focal point of our hike: Shuckstack lookout tower away up there
We turned right onto the AT and continued gradually ascending to the turnoff to Shuckstack. I’ve visited the tower several times and remembered that the steps were precarious, hand rails were missing, and I told Jeff I would wave to him from the safety of the ground if he climbed up. What a pleasant surprise to find that the tower has had some TLC renovations, new treads and complete hand rails! Made it all the way to the cab…which looked untouched, rotting plywood floor…well, I’m here now so might as well enjoy the view.
Looking east and north and down at Fontana Lake
Looking north into the heart of the Smokies
All that remains of the caretaker’s cabin at the base of the lookout tower
Jeff on the tower steps
After lunch with a view, Jeff headed to the bottom. As I swung my daypack onto my shoulders, my camera slipped off of the pack belt and fell to the ground. Look out below! Jeff rescued it, and at first it appeared to just have a dinged corner (it was inside its padded case), but it wouldn’t turn on. Maybe the battery wasn’t connecting? A good thing I had my cell phone with its camera. The hike must go on.
We turned back onto the AT, retraced steps to the intersection with Twentymile, and continued on the AT to the next intersection with Gregory Bald Trail. Along this section we spotted wild geranium, spiderwort, what looked like monkshood (not sure, seemed too early) and lots of Catesby’s trillium and Vasey’s trillium. Jeff left the trail for his usual obscure peakbagging thrills and I kept going, with an agreement to catch up again at the intersection of Gregory Bald Trail and Long Hungry Ridge Trail.
Wild azalea buds
After the wide open boulevard of the AT, Gregory Bald Trail was surprisingly faint and overgrown, making me feel a little isolated. My caution radar turned up. Less than five minutes on the trail, I heard a loud grunt and saw three black shapes. Two of them ran left and one ran across the trail to the right. Oh dear – a mama bear and cubs? I didn’t dare go further for fear of walking between them. I banged my hiking sticks together, yelling, “Hey bear!” and then the critter to the right ran back across the trail. Not a bear – a wild boar! An even rarer sighting and potentially even more dangerous. Boars are mostly nocturnal and this was the middle of the afternoon. Their presence in daylight and remembering the rooting evidence back at camp made me realize that they were quite prevalent in this section of the Smokies.
A quarter-mile later I encountered a man hiking toward me on the trail. I warned him about the wild boars, and he relayed a long story about a female turkey harassing him, running around him in circles, squawking and threatening. I found this a little farfetched, said my goodbyes and good lucks, and continued on. [Jeff met the same guy later, wouldn’t stop talking about that turkey.]
Well…the same turkey harassed me. I kept moving quickly through her ‘hood and she didn’t pursue me. Probably defending her nest.
At the Long Hungry Ridge/Gregory Bald intersection I waited for Jeff, worried about the time and hiking in the dark. From that junction it was six miles back to Campsite 93. No pen to write a note, so I made a stick arrow on the ground and hoped that Jeff would interpret that as me “moving on.” I left at 5:20 p.m.
I sped along the 4.6 miles of downhill, but not too fast to appreciate more mountain laurel, Bowman’s root and false Solomon’s seal.
After passing Campsite 92 the trail leveled out and the mountain laurel formed a glowing white arbor in the waning light. Somewhere along there I lost my bandanna, a favorite from my Hike For Discovery days. I also picked up a red bandanna earlier in the day. Not a fair trade.
For those of you following along my counterclockwise loop, I made a right turn onto Twentymile again and hiked 1.5 miles back to our base camp, making record time and arriving around 7:30 p.m. There was another tent – right beside mine. What up??
Meet Yo and Teddy, University of Tennessee graduates preparing to enter med school, on their first ever backpacking trip. Teddy had some camping experience from Boy Scouts and they followed my example for tent placement. What was supposed to be a site filled with eight campers ended up being just us, and these guys were delightful. We chatted nonstop as we cooked dinner by the fire ring, and I was beyond excited when Teddy lit a small campfire, something my backpacker friends never bother with.
I kept one eye out for Jeff and felt relieved when his headlamp came bobbing down the trail at about 8:15 p.m. As he cooked his supper, he asked me to look at an irritant in his eye. Well, here were two med students who would love to play doctor!
Gains, losses, wild animals, new friends – a very long and rewarding day outdoors. Dirty, tired, well fed and loving life. This is why we do this. And… here comes another headlamp! The weird turkey guy walked up to our campfire and began regaling us again with his harrowing story. After about two minutes of that, I said good night, John Boy, crawled into my pretty pink tent by the creek, fell asleep to the sound of gurgling water.
“It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.” ~Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft, 1917