Friday, August 19, 2016

Smokies 900 Round 2: Mount Cammerer Fire Tower Loop

Smokies 900 Round 2:  Mt Cammerer Loop Hike: Low Gap II/AT/Mt Cammerer/AT/Lower Mt Cammerer – 5/14/1616 – 16.7 miles

Testing, testing… how difficult will the Low Gap Trail be?  Named for the gap between Cosby Knob and Mount Cammerer, this trail feels anything but “low” as it climbs more than 2,000 feet in less than 3 miles.  During my first Smokies 900 experience of hiking all the trails in the GSMNP, there was necessarily some overlap but I planned my routes for minimal repetition of trail miles.  Low Gap’s function as a connector from Cosby Campground to many other trails, though, made it the most repeated trail of the project.  Steady and steep, Low Gap was always a tough start or a rough finish to a day.

The weather was fine early in the morning, promising clear long range views from the Mount Cammerer fire tower up at 5,000 feet.  Cathy and I packed up camp and moved our car to the hiker parking area.  Our route was a loop hike with an out-and-back spur to the lookout tower.  Which way to go around the loop?  We chose to take our punishment up front and then stroll to the finish line, so here we go counterclockwise starting up Low Gap.

An early shock:  In the first ten minutes we faced a missing bridge crossing of Cosby Creek.  Water was churning fast over and around large rocks with no flat, slow-moving place to see the creekbed.  After scouting up and down and finding no good options, I decided to risk it on a slightly underwater log while Cathy removed boots and socks and waded across barefoot. 

Back to the business of ascending to Low Gap.  Cathy motored ahead out of sight, and I was pleased to find that the ascent felt quick and moderate and not terrible, a definitive measure of my increased conditioning.  I passed two other women on the way to the gap and met their jackrabbit friend chatting with Cathy, waiting at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail.

We turned left onto the AT to continue northbound 2.1 miles to the Mount Cammerer spur trail.  The ascent continued, although less steeply.  Up here on the ridge, a blustery wind got our attention with clouds moving in and a noticeable drop in temperature, and we stopped to put on long sleeves and light gloves. Trilliums appeared in profusion along the AT.
Sweet white trillium

Painted trillium

This section of the AT undulates along the ridge line, walking the high wire of the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina.  So high up, still I felt grounded in an awareness of my “location” on the planet, walking on a topo map, as I looked down into the valleys on either side of the ridge.  As many miles as I have hiked on the AT, for me this feeling is unique to the Smokies. 

Surprise!  We met a black bear snacking on the trail.  Fortunately we saw it on a straight stretch, far enough away not to scare it (or us). We watched the bear’s nonchalant behavior for a few minutes; it looked at us a couple of times; then it melted into the trees.  Even though it clearly registered our presence, there was no aggressive behavior, no cubs.  I can’t guess whether it was male or female.  As we passed by the spot a minute later there was no evidence of the bear’s presence, no sight, no sound.  How many have we passed without knowing? [A lesson to always pay attention, look up from your feet, listen even if you’re hiking/talking with someone else.]

Mount Cammerer Trail is a .6-mile spur off of the AT passing through mountain laurel and rosebay rhododendron (not yet blooming). A tall hiker might be able to see above the scrub, but not us.  The fire tower itself sits on top of a sandstone rock outcropping jutting up toward the sky.  A tower was first constructed of native lumber and stone at this location in the late 1930’s and the current structure was built in 1995. 

Mount Cammerer Lookout Tower

Looking at Mount Cammerer Trail from the lookout tower catwalk

Half a dozen people were exploring the tower, which is fully enclosed (can’t really see out the windows), and its catwalk all the way around (unobstructed views galore). The sky was now overcast, the wind had gained strength, and it was too chilly to hang out on the catwalk.  Cathy and I ate lunch inside the tower and chatted with other hikers, some who had never been there before and some who had climbed to the tower many times over many years.

Hoping to stay ahead of the changing weather, Cathy left a tad ahead of me and we met up again back at the AT junction, where we turned left to continue northbound on our loop.  Although we had climbed all morning, the descent on this section of the AT got old fast.  In 2.3 miles we lost 2,000 feet we had gained, going down rutted steps on an otherwise rocky and rooty path.  There is one good viewpoint from atop a boulder at a hard left turn, teasing the northbounder that the end of the Smokies traverse is near. 

For us, the steep descent ended when we turned left onto Lower Mount Cammerer Trail – what a welcome change!  I may have to promote this to my favorite trail in the Great Smokies, at least at this time of year.  The brown book description lends a great visual:  “Imagine a giant cupcake plopped upside down.”  The trail wound in and out of ridges on a gentle downhill grade, lush green, smothered in trilliums. Many of the interior turns crossed little creek draws of trickling water.

We passed a lengthy stretch of flowering doghobble, the most I’ve ever seen at one time. 

We paused at Phillips Cemetery, which I remembered from my previous hike.  It is a high and lonely place with no signage, just eight gravestones, the only legible one marking the life of two-year-old G. Estes Phillips.   Read a detailed description at the blog post here. 

At one outward curve I noticed an unmarked but obvious trail bisecting Lower Mount Cammerer Trail.  Researching later, I read about the Ground Hog Ridge manway which goes steeply up to the lookout tower.  That’s two intriguing unofficial trails in two days piquing my interest.

As pleasant as the trail was, it was also 7.5 miles long.  A brief sit-down at Campsite 35 gave new life to my weary legs and tenderized feet – 3.3 miles to go.  We skipped the short-but-steep spur up to a view on Sutton Ridge but a little ways further down we were treated to a look at Gabes Mountain.  I believe I sighed out loud.  So many emotions stirred up by a green mountain and a blooming mountain laurel!
Like most Smokies trails as they approach the valleys, the last mile of Lower Mount Cammerer Trail is a near-level walk on a wide old road bed, crossing creeks on footbridges, even passing through two old traffic circles.  Stone walls trigger the imagination of former house sites with vegetable gardens, patches of crops and small pens for the family’s cow and pigs. 

When Cathy and I reached the intersection with Low Gap Trail, the memory of the morning wade across Cosby Creek made us ignore the right turn to repeat it.  Instead we kept straight, aiming towards the back end of Cosby Campground, which we could then walk through to reach the hiker parking area.  We still had to cross Cosby Creek, but lo and behold, a nice big bridge carried us over. 

We washed up, changed clothes, and began our long journey home at 4:30 p.m., relishing the feeling of a beautiful day, a varied and interesting hike, a challenge well met – and a bear!  

Read about my previous hike on the same loop to Mount Cammerer fire tower, clockwise, in 2009.

"When I saw the mountains, my weight lifted and my restless spirit calmed. I knew this is where I belong."  ~John Muir

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