This past week (April 14-17), I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time since I ended my internship. It was a great visit, and I indeed came across some of that ‘Smoky Mountain Magic’ that’s so famous, and that I remember so fondly.
I arrived on Monday to pouring rain. I had planned to bike the Cades Cove loop road to Abrams Falls, hike Abrams Falls, maybe do some post hike fly-fishing in Abrams Creek, and then bike to the end of the loop. I decided that biking 11 miles in rain wouldn’t be all that fun. So instead, I drove out to Abrams, and did the short walk up to Elijah Oliver cabin where Ranger Mike (my former supervisor), and his two new interns were leading a program for a group of local second graders (the same program I used to do). I watched their program and waited patiently until it was over to greet them. This is where the magic began. It was great to see the new interns doing such a great job with the interpretation, and doing it so enthusiastically in the pouring rain. We all proceeded to have lunch together at the Cable Mill area, it was great to catch up with Ranger Mike, some of the Great Smoky Mountains Association employees, and get to know the new interns. After lunch, the rain cleared a bit and I swung back around to Abrams Creek and try my hand at fishing. Didn’t catch a fish, but it was nice to hang in the river for a while. That evening, I made a return appearance to the Monday night old time jam at Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop, where I got to see some old friends and jam with them on some old time Appalachian mountain music.
Tuesday is when that Smoky Mountain Magic really picked up. It was the first day of hiking for me. It didn’t seem like it would be too magical, as I woke up in Cades Cove campground to more pouring rain. After taking it slow early and visiting with some other Cades Cove employees and volunteers, I decided it was time to hit the trails. After all, it is what I came to the Smokies to do…hike. The Smokies would be full of surprises.
I have hiked in the rain plenty of times, but on this day, I was just not in the mood. I had my rain jacket, rain pants and leather boots that would have kept me plenty covered, but even those waterproof layers being soaked was an unattractive idea to me. That’s when I realized I had an umbrella in my car, and I had read many times about people hiking with an umbrella. On this day, I chose to hike with an umbrella. As the rain turned into a cold sleet and snow, I was grateful that I had it with me, and that’s the magic of it all. What seemed like it was going to be a cold, really wet day, became a dry and enjoyable day of hiking. (More on umbrella hiking in an upcoming post).
I came across an additional surprise on Tuesday. During my entire internship, for whatever reason, I had never been to or hiked out of Elkmont. I chose to start my hike on the Little River Trail and end it on the Jakes Creek Trail. Since I had never been there, I was completely unaware of the existing remains of an old vacation community called the “Appalachian Club.” Both the beginning and end of my hike featured cool old buildings that were a window into times past at Elkmont. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it earlier. Something that was sitting right in front of me when I worked in the Smokies turned out to be a nice surprise on this trip.
After a great Tuesday evening enjoying pizza, beer, and a few laughs with great friends at
Great Smoky Mountain Brewery in Pigeon Forge, TN, I woke up to crisp and clear blue skies. A chilly morning, but I knew I had to take advantage of this day after the previous two. To Mt. LeConte I went. I took Alum Cave Trail up LeConte. I know it is one of the most popular trails, but I had been yet to hike it. I had heard that it is spectacular, so I had to see what all the hype was about. The Alum Cave trail boasts many fascinating features, including Arch Rock, Alum Cave, and multiple views (especially towards the top). I found Arch Rock, literally an arch that the trail goes right through, to be one of the coolest features I have seen on a trail. These interesting features, coupled with remaining snow from the previous day’s precipitation, made for a very picturesque morning in the Smokies. As I hiked, the forest was melting around me. I’m glad I took along my microspikes, as they became very helpful on some cliff sided yet ice covered sections of trail. By afternoon on my descent, icicles and ice chunks were falling from the edge of Alum Cave, definitely adding to the level of danger as I hiked beneath it.
However, the true magic of this hike, for me, came at the summit of the mountain. Upon reaching the summit, I headed immediately to Cliff Tops to eat lunch and take in a view. I had been here before. On my last visit, however, I failed to explore the summit much. This time, I found if you walk past the bushes a few hundred feet, it opens up to a much larger rock formation and wider view. This was a good reminder of how much you can accomplish if you take the time and effort to go the proverbial ‘extra mile.’ A lesson not to be forgotten. Additionally, while on the summit of LeConte on such a beautiful day, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to leave very quickly. I spent close to an hour and a half at the summit. I can’t even remember the last time I spent an hour on the summit of a mountain. Upon summitting mountains, my mind typically shifts to the descent…how to do it safely, efficiently, etc (especially when with and/or guiding a group). To just sit, relax, and soak in the summit and sun, that was some pure Smoky Mountain magic.
I struggled to decide on what I wanted to do with this day. I wanted to hike something new, but something specific (like a major summit or point of interest), between 10 and 15 miles round trip, and not too far of a drive from where I was staying. Unfortunately, I had hiked most things fitting those criteria, so I had trouble finding something new. Ultimately, I decided to revisit Rocky Top for a second time, and go the ‘extra mile’ to summit Thunderhead Mountain, which I had not done my last time up. This day would prove to be the, I don’t want to say ‘best’ because it is kind of unfortunate, but most interesting story from my entire trip. But the result of an unfortunate event on the trail was some true Smoky Mountain magic, I thought.
Taking the Lead Cove Trail and Bote Mountain Trail up from Laurel Creek Road, I was at the junction with the Appalachian Trail around 10 am. Just then, coming from the south (hiking north) along the AT came a group of backpackers. I commented to them “beautiful morning.” One of their apparent trip leaders, a middle aged guy, just responded “yes it is,” but I got nothing more out of them for a moment. Not the most chipper group, I thought. As the group passed and the other trip leader came by, carrying not one, but two fully loaded ~70 liter packs. One of the girls in the group wasn’t carrying her own pack. I then got another comment. The other trip leader, a woman, said “don’t go that way” (south on the AT). I assured them that I wasn’t, I was going north. Naturally, I then inquired “why?” At first, all she said was “emergency.” Thinking medical, I was gearing my mind up to go and help. As a Wilderness First Responder, I feel compelled to help. However, after assuring me everyone was okay, she simply told me “some guy went crazy back there, and punched someone.” They told me the situation was under control by some thru-hikers and an ATC ridgerunner. I received no further details, so I went on about my business, hiking to Rocky Top and Thunderhead, enjoying views of Cades Cove below. Last time I was there, it was clouded, so I could not see the valley below. It was nice to see the entire view this time.
Throughout the day, I began receiving updates from other hikers. Apparently, there had been a high school group of backpackers (the group I saw), some thru-hikers, and an ATC ridgerunner at Spence Field Shelter the night before. One of the ‘thru-hikers’ had been looking creepy all night, but remained mostly to himself. The next morning (the same morning of my hike), that hiker went crazy, a nervous breakdown or something, and punched one of the high school girls in the face. He was restrained by the other people at the shelter, and NPS law enforcement was radioed in by the ridgerunner.
So, none of that seems all that magical. This was an extremely unfortunate event. There is no place for that kind of behavior anywhere, including the backcountry. This event struck really close to home for me, because I love the trails, hiking, and backpacking so much. This group was out, minding their own business, and should have been having a good time spending time with each other and enjoying the national park. Instead their trip was ruined by a crazy guy and the associated law enforcement burden required after the events. I felt really bad for the group, and would hate for something like that to happen on one of my trips, whether a personal one or one I’m guiding.
Promptly on my descent, I ran into two of the law enforcement rangers I had worked with in Cades Cove. They were headed up the trail to arrest the crazed hiker, but currently taking witness reports from the backpacking group affected. As they had their hands full, I got in a quick ‘hello,’ but there wasn’t time for us to catch up. All I can say is that in that moment, I was struck by an immense amount of gratitude for them. I want to use this post to thank them (them being all NPS Law Enforcement Rangers) for helping to keep the trails safe for us all to enjoy. Seeing this event unfold made me really proud to say that I got to work alongside them for a few months. That’s magic.
The Smokies are always filled with surprises and magic. I tapped into that magic, and uncovered a few surprises on my last visit. I can’t wait to visit again. The Smokies are famous for its magic, as is the Appalachian Trail. However, trail magic isn’t reserved just for thru-hikers and visitors of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The more time you spend on the trail, the more you will be surprised, and the more magic you will receive. Try seeing something new in someplace you’ve never been or finding something new in a place you’ve already been. Take the time to relax and really appreciate a moment, but always be willing to put in the extra effort to achieve your desired result. Also, if you notice people doing a job well done around you, acknowledge and appreciate it. Not only can you receive magic, you can give it. It doesn’t matter where you are, but I can say the Smokies are a great place to be a part of it.