2021 – Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina & Tennessee

In late March of 2021, my Dad and I decided to take on a trek through the Great Smoky Mountains. We spent 5 days and 4 nights hiking through the park and hiked about 50 miles in total. This is the most distance we have ever covered in a single trip!

Leading Up to the Trip

This trip took place during the week long break in between the winter term and spring term of the Master’s program I was taking at the time. It was the first term of this program, so I was taking it very seriously and was focused on final projects in the lead up to this trip. Months earlier I had sat down with my Dad and mapped out the route with him, but it wasn’t until a few days before the trip that I had some time to sit down and review all the other logistics and details.

When I looked at the forecast, I saw that the temperatures were going to dip to a low of 40 degrees on our 2nd and 3rd day in the park. 40 degrees isn’t a big deal when you are inside a tent and in your sleeping bag, but there was one issue with this. The forecast I looked up was for a town (Gatlinburg, TN) near where we were hiking, but our campsite was about 4,000 feet higher just below Mount Collins. Where the Grand Canyon got hotter as we descended this trip would be colder as we climbed. With the temperature decreasing by about 5 degrees for every thousand feet of elevation gained, that means we were looking at temperatures dipping to around 20 degrees. This would be the coldest trip we had ever taken. With this in mind I immediately called my Dad and made sure that both of us packed plenty of winter gear to keep us warm on the trail.

In addition to cold temperatures, there were flood warning for the trail we planned to hike. We called up a Park Ranger and found that our originally planned route was blocked by an impassible swollen river, but there was another route we could take to bypass this river. The plan was originally to drive all the way to the Smokies from Illinois and then do a short 3 mile hike to our first camp. Because of this new route, we would have to backtrack those 3 miles on the 2nd day. To save ourselves from 6 pointless miles of hiking we just decided to book a motel near the trailhead and start fresh a day later. Plus I generally prefer starting a trip in the morning after a goodnight of sleep rather than in the evening after a long drive.

Day 1

Finally, we launched the expedition from the Deep Creek Trailhead. It was a beautiful day with temperatures mostly in the 60s and maxing out at 70 degrees. The trail immediately kicked up and we quickly started gaining elevation. It was tough work hiking uphill, but the trail was well groomed and easy to follow. After about 2 hours of hiking we had gained over 2,000 ft of elevation and we reached Lonesome Pine Overlook which gave us our first great view of the Smoky Mountains! If you look at the pictures below, you’ll quickly see why they are called the Smoky mountains. In all our pictures of the landscape, you can see how there is a Smoky haze about all the distant mountains. We stopped here to take in the views and eat a quick lunch.

After Lonesome Pine Overlook, the trail leveled off and it went through dense brush. I remember my Dad commenting about us hiking through a green tunnel because it literally seems as if the trail has been cut through a wall of green. Eventually the trail kicked down as we descended into a valley. Eventually we made it to our campsite which was right next to a pleasantly bubbling stream. We made a quick dinner of tacos and set up our camp. I found a nice bare area of dirt to put the tent right next to the stream. One funny moment happened when my Dad made a comment about the state of his hiking pants, “Man these are really worn out.” About 15 minutes later he bent over to pick something up off the ground and his pants ripped right at the seem in his crotch. There was nothing we could do as this was the only pair of pants he brought. The hole got progressively worse as the trip wore on. The first day had been very pleasant, but I went to sleep that night thinking about the extreme weather we were about to face in the next few days.

Day 2

I woke up at the crack of dawn on day 2 to the pitter patter of rain hitting the tent. The inside of the tent was dry which was a huge relief, but I quickly realized that water had pooled underneath the tent. It was now obvious why that patch of dirt was so smooth and bare! My Dad and I put on sweaters and waterproof rain jackets before exiting the tent to break camp. It sucked having to pack the soaking wet tent into my backpack, but by the end of the day pretty much everything would be drenched. We kept our sleeping bags, pillows, and extra clothes in garbage bags to stay dry.

The hike on this day would take us all the way to Clingman’s Dome which is the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi. This meant that as soon as we left camp the trail kicked up and started climbing. It rained on us all day long and the temperature hovered around 50 degrees. Despite the conditions, I was never cold. Mostly due to proper clothing and my heart pounding as I carried 40 lbs on my back up a never ending hill. We were constantly hiking up muddy trails that had small little streams of water flowing down them. Eventually we reached Clingman’s Dome Rd. This road would normally have tons of tourist traffic on it, but they close the road down for the winter and open it on April 1st. We were hiking on the road on the last day it was closed! The road went uphill for another mile before we reached the parking lot area.

It was here that we took shelter in a large privy. With the road still closed to the public, the bathroom was perfectly clean and it did not smell at all. It was also spacious enough for us to hangout away from the toilet. The privy gave us our first respite from the rain since breaking camp hours earlier. It was here that fatigue really started to set in for me. I usually make an effort to get myself in proper shape for these expeditions, but it had been about 3 months since I’d done any sort of exercise due to just starting grad school. Additionally, after having done a few strenuous trips, I may have become a bit complacent and overconfident in my abilities. On this trip I learned that even with all the marathons I’ve run and mountains I’ve hiked over, I can’t just show up to a backpacking trip without any physical preparation and expect to coast through it. Sitting in that privy, I felt totally drained. I started shoveling handfuls of trail mix into my piehole in an attempt to refuel and find some sort of energy.

The final stretch from the parking lot was a nice paved path, but it kicked up to an even steeper degree. We frequently stopped to catch our breath at benches that lined the pathway. After trudging on like this for awhile we reached the intersection where the Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses the Clingman’s dome trail. The AT would take us to our next campsite. We were just a few short minutes from the Clingman’s Dome overlook. We could’ve hiked up to the overlook and then returned to the AT to continue with our route, but this never happened! Instead we turned onto the AT and continued to our next campsite. My Dad cited the heavy fog that would’ve ruined the view from the overlook. For me, it was because I was so dead tired, I didn’t want to take a single extra step! There is a certain point where you just stop caring about the views and I had reached it.

The trail became noticeably more rugged as we turned onto the AT. There were all sorts of roots and rocks to navigate and these obstacles were only compounded by the incessant rain that turned everything slick. It didn’t help that we were now descending from Clingman’s Dome. Hiking downhill is often just as challenging as hiking uphill, sometimes more so. About halfway down the hill, an old man with a wild white beard and 2 trek poles zoomed past us. That was humbling!

At this time, I thought we were done climbing for the day and would descend to our Mount Collins campsite. Wrong! We had one last climb and I was so mentally and physically ready to be done hiking for the day! After pushing through this final stretch we finally made it to our shelter at around 3:30pm. The Mount Collins shelter had three walls and a roof. Inside there were 2 levels where hikers put their sleeping pads and sleeping bags. The open face of the shelter had a bench area where you could sit and cook food. I had to walk a quarter mile further down the trail to find the water source. I followed the signs and found a PVC pipe that stuck out of the ground. This pipe accessed an underground spring and water continuously trickled out of it.

There were 2 other people at the shelter when we arrived. It was a father and daughter duo. The daughter was a ranger whose job it was to hike to different shelters and conduct basic shelter maintenance. Her Dad had tagged along to keep her company. They had thru hiked the entire AT together just a few years prior. The Dad’s trail name was “Grits” and I can’t quite remember the girls trail name, but I vaguely remember it having to do with trees or the tree line. They were super friendly and we traded stories with them all night long.

That night we hung up our wet clothes in hopes that they would dry out over night. This was the night when it got extremely cold. After taking care of all the necessary camp chores, we all got into our sleeping bags early. It was time to rest after a long hard day of hiking and try to stay as warm as possible. That night the rain intensified into swirling storms of freezing rain and sleet. Gusts of wind periodically blasted into the open face of our shelter. I had to completely mummify myself in my sleeping bag only coming up for fresh air when I felt I was about to suffocate. The air inside of the sleeping bag formed a warm protective bubble around me, but anywhere my body touched my sleeping bag seemed to allow cold air to seep in. I could point my toes in a way where the sleeping bag was completely taught between the top of my head all the way to my toes. This way I was only touching the bag on those 2 points. It was a fitful night of sleep as the wind continued to howl.

Day 3

When it was finally time to get up the next morning, we found that everything outside of the shelter was encased in a layer of ice. The clothes we had hung to dry froze like icicles. The food bags that we had hung from the bear pole were difficult to untie because the knots we made were frozen in place. One thru hiker who shared the campsite with us insisted on sleeping in his hammock covered by a tarp. That morning he was unable to break camp as his hammock was glued to the trees by ice. The worst part was putting my boots back on and finding that the were frozen like ice cubes. It was painful fitting my sore feet back in and freezing cold. My Dad busted out our propane burner just so he could warm his hands up. We needed to pack up and get moving right away just to get our blood flowing so we didn’t totally freeze.

It took a while for my shoes to defrost a bit and loosen up. Also, I think it was this day that I adjusted my backpack to put more weight on my hips because one of my legs was starting to give out due to how the weight was being distributed. The hike was mostly level for the first part and we made good time. The first noticeable landmark we reached was called the Newfound Gap. This is a place where the AT crosses Newfound Gap Road. There is a parking lot here so people can park there cars and then go on day hikes. It was very busy.

Leading up to this trip I read a book (2,000 Miles Together: The Story of the Largest Family to Hike the Appalachian Trail) about the largest family to thru hike the AT. A really dramatic part of the story actually happened at the Newfound Gap. First, the family was caught in a crazy whiteout snowstorm and they had to take shelter in the public restrooms at the Newfound Gap. Then they woke up to a visit from Child Protective Services (CPS) after somebody called on them. The children were separated from their parents and interviewed by CPS agents, but in the end the parents were found to be innocent of wrongdoing and the family finished the thru hike many months later. It was so cool to have finished reading this book on the drive over to the Smokies and to now be looking at the very setting of one of the most intense parts of the book. I even had my Dad snap a picture of me outside the bathroom where the family had camped out.

Past the Newfound Gap, we found ourselves hiking along a ridgeline. The trail was once again covered in tree roots and boulders. The ice left over from the previous nights storms made this section particularly tricky. My Dad and I both hit the deck a few times. Many day hikers were on this ridgeline with us. They were headed to some overlook that was a bit further down the trail. Around this time we exited the AT and started hiking on a trail called “Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.” This trail descended off the ridgeline and into the valley below. Once we left the AT, the trail became much more manageable and we didn’t see anymore day hikers. The first part took us through a grove of trees that were super interesting. Instead of leaves they seemed to be covered in these white cottonlike wisps. Additionally, we came upon a Ptarmigan that was poking around and making his way through the thick brush. Further down the trail we found the Sweet Heifer Creak Waterfall. My Dad snapped some amazing pictures of this waterfall that look like we stole them from google. After the waterfall, it was a smooth descent all the way into the valley to our next shelter.

This time we had the shelter all to ourselves. After adjusting my pack, I hiked much better on this day and didn’t struggle like I had the day prior. As a result, we were much more relaxed at camp this day. It wasn’t at quite as high of an elevation in comparison to the Mount Collins shelter, but that night the temperatures still dipped well below freezing. It was another uncomfortable night of sleep. This time though, I knew that we were going to get through it just fine.

Day 4

After the Day 2 hike up to Clingman’s Dome, it felt like we should be done with any major climbing. Despite these feelings, Day 4 was a serious hike! This day was similar to Clingman’s Dome in that there were a series of long grinding climbs. Also, the weather was very strange on this day. When the sun went under a cloud, the temps instantly dropped and a hoodie became necessary to fight off shivering. Then when the sun would come back out, we would get cooked by the extra layers. My Dad and I had to stop numerous times to change our clothes because of this. We were once again deep in the park on this day of hiking and I don’t recall seeing any other hikers until we got to our camp.

Our camp that night was located in a clearing on top of a ridge between mountains. There was no shelter here so it was the only night that we had to use my tent. We found that the tent actually seemed to trap our body heat and we were much warmer. Also, our water source was a little trickle that seemed to come out of the hillside and pick up a bit of steam as it went further down the ravine next to our camp. I had to hike down this ravine a little ways until I found enough water to use for filtering. Later in the evening a couple of guys joined us at the campsite. There were locals in the area and were friendly enough. As the sun went down, they started a campfire. We hung out by the campfire with them for maybe 15 minutes before retreating to our tent. The little campfire didn’t do much to stop the overwhelming cold that set in as soon as the sun was down. That night I was kept up by little mice running around the outside of our tent. I wasn’t afraid, as my Dad liked to claim, but I was thoroughly annoyed. A mouse scampering mere inches from my head while I’m trying to sleep is discomforting to say the least!

Day 5

The last day of a backpacking trip is usually a race to the car. In the lead up to a trip there is a lot of excitement and anxiety as I wonder whether or not we’ll be able to accomplish our goals. There are so many obstacles that can screw up a trip like this. By the time the last day rolls around, the questions have been answered, the obstacles have been conquered, and the beautiful views have been viewed. The last thing to be done is to get to the car so we can get on with our lives! This hike was essentially all downhill which helped us to hike 9 miles in just over 3 hours. Parts of the trail were flooded and we had to be careful picking our way through these parts, but mostly we power hiked our way out. After arriving at our car, my Dad drove to a nearby gas station. I think he was just going in to pick up a couple snacks and drinks. As he walked into the gas station, I noticed that the rip in his pants had gotten really bad. There was now a giant flap between his legs. After 5 tough days in the Smokies, you really stop giving a damn about something like that though. We left the gas station and spent the night at a nearby hotel before driving back home the next day.