What do you know, it’s raining again, and we have retired to our room for the night. I don’t think I could walk another step. We started out this morning right after breakfast. We drove through Cherokee to 441 North and stopped at the visitor’s center – good chance of rain through mid afternoon with thunderstorms in the late afternoon. Not a good forecast for a day-hike. I got April to take my picture at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and then drove up to Newfound Gap.
The weather was very misty and cool. It was like it could start raining at any second. We found the trail head for the AT and started walking. There seemed to be tourists everywhere until we got down the trail about 100 yards. We may have come across 20 people during our whole 8.8 miles of hiking. The trail started with a steep ascent, much like the Juney Whank Falls trail. It would climb for a ways, turn, and then climb some more. As we got higher, you could tell that there was an open expanse through the trees on the east side, but all we could see was the white clouds.
The trail followed the ridge of the mountains that divide Tennessee and North Carolina. You could stand with one foot in each state! At ties, the trail followed a line with a sharp drop on each side. One false step, and you would go tumbling down the slope, bouncing off of trees along the way. I was hoping along the way that the sun would come out and burn off the clouds that we were covered with.
After what seemed like forever (actually only 1.7 miles) – 1 1/2 hours, we reached the Sweet Heifer Creek Trail. The Appalachian Trail to this point had been very rocky and slippery at times. We stopped for a break after we reached the first mile by my calculations (wild guess). We had some trail mix consisting of dried pineapple, raisins, and all kinds of nuts – with a little Chex mix thrown in. We also carried 2 bottles of water and a big bottle of PowerAde.
After we reached the Sweet Heighfer Creek Trail, I figured that we were traveling at ~1.3 miles per hour. This made it easier to gauge how far we had traveled and how long we had until our next landmark. We continued on down the Appalachian Trail and reached the junction of the Boulevard trail (to Mount LeConte). We had covered another mile, mostly uphill, in under an hour. I took a picture of the trail sign, as I had been doing all day, and we continued toward Ice Water Spring Shelter.
We kept on the AT for another 0.3 miles. The trail seemed to split and we didn’t know which way was the AT, so we walked around a bit. We were on a hill covered with small spruce and heath. It was very dark for noon time with the thick trees and clouds. We found that the trail to the right led downhill about 20 yards to the shelter. I later found out that this was Mount Kephart.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from an AT shelter. It was an open faced cabin with a stone fireplace. There were two shelves or platforms against the far wall on which to sleep. Next to the shelter, there was rigging for four or five bear bags. In front of the shelter was an open area with a fire ring for cooking and eating. Signs posted said not to eat in the shelter because it would attract bears.
We continued on toward Charlie’s Bunion and ran across Ice Water Spring. Yes, it is freezing! It comes up right in the middle of the trail. We passed the spring and started descending along the ridge. After a while, we gout our first view of the mountains from the trail. It was a moment I’ll never forget – at least now that I’m writing it down!
The ridge had narrowed to a point where a step to either side meant disaster. I was walking with my had down to be sure of each step when I glanced up. The view took my breath away, and I stopped short. The magnitude of God’s power and imagination was more evident to me than ever before. The mist and clouds were still hanging around some of the higher mountains, but the valleys were filled with sunlight. It’s amazing that so many shades of green can look that beautiful.
After a while of walking the mostly easy terrain, we caught a glimpse of Charlie’s Bunion. It’s apltly named – just a massive jagged rock wall stuck in the side of the mountain. The AT goes right beside it (bypassed in winter). We finally made it to Charlie’s Bunion after 4.4 miles and about 3 hours. The trail follows a ledge around the point to an area about 10 feet wide. It feels like you are on top of the world. At greater than 6000 feet elevation, I can’t argue. It is impossible for me to describe the experience of being there. Even pictures do not do it justice without the smell and the sounds, as well as having a several thousand foot drop on all sides.
We ate our lunch on top of Charlie’s Bunion. The Fryemont had prepared turkey sandwiches – fresh, hand-carved turkey on fresh baked rolls. We definitely had a table with a view – thanks to the Almighty Himself. We could see rain clouds rolling over the ridge from the North Carolina side, so we started back right after lunch. From Charlie’s Bunion, you could look back at Mount Kephart. It was hard to believe that we had climbed that mountain and were about to do it again.
It started sprinkling before we got to the spring. We went to the “privy” at the shelter just in time for a downpour. We sat on a bench in the shelter and ate the rest of our trail mix to wait out the rain. After it let up, we were on our way agin. We made it back to Newfound Gap without incident except for a family of tourists.
It was between Sweet Heighfer Creek Trail and Newfound Gap. We had already passed several groups of hikers with lots of gear. Then we came across this family of tourists outfitted by their local JC Penney. They were on their way to Charlie’s Bunion! We convinced them that they had not hiked a mile yet – they thought they had gone several – and that they would probbly succeed only in breaking an ankle. They were wearing sandals, flip-flops, and a nice parif of white pumps.
After we got back to Newfound Gap, we drove up Clingman’s Dome Road. It was too foggy to see anything, so we called it a day. We drove back to 441, only to find a traffic jam here in the mountains. There had been a wreck on 441 and we could only go east. Good thing we were staying in Bryson City instead of Gatlinburg! We stopped in Chreokee for snacks and helped a family find an alternate route to Gatlinburg. The clerk at the store would not let them unfold a map without paying for it, so we let them look at our atlas. It was going to take them 2 1/2 hours to get back to Gatlinburg (normally a 45 minute drive).