I’ve FINALLY gotten around to documenting this last trip. The week-long hike was absolutely fantastic. A bit harder for Loonie than I anticipated but with respect to the weather, we couldn’t have asked for anything more. The scenery was spectacular as well. The brilliant Fall colors didn’t really kick in until later in the trip (see the next post). The first half of the hike was all about the views and some time to ourselves in the Smokies high country. Things took a bizarre turn after the backpacking trip but I’ll come back to that later. Suffice to say, all things worked out fine in the end.
We made the long drive to the park in a gentle, steady rain but no sooner than we arrived, the skies cleared and we wouldn’t see any precip of significance until we hit the road again for home. How is that even possible? All I know is we couldn’t have been more grateful because it got pretty cold the first couple of nights. Having to deal with wet or frozen clothing and gear always sucks.
We started things off by spending the night before the hike at Mile High Campground. What it lacks in amenities, Mile High makes up for with incredible views and generously spaced sites. In contrast to the front country campgrounds in the park or other commercial campgrounds outside, you actually have some elbow room and some privacy. An added benefit of staying here was that it’s location, right off of Balsam Mountain road just outside the park, meant that we could get to our starting location much quicker and there were no crowds to fight. It’s a great location to begin a trip in the Balsam Mountain region.
We arrived at Mile High the day before they were due to close for the season. Our reserved site was a bit more secluded and was one of a number sites without a view. Upon our arrival, they informed us that they had received several cancellations (probably due to the fact that it was predicted to get down near freezing). So, they moved us to a site with one of the most incredible views in the campground. Tent pitched and dinner out of the way, we watched the sun set, enjoyed a nice fire, then tried to catch some shuteye before starting the hike.
We woke the next morning to find a water bottle left out on the picnic table was now nearly frozen solid. We made quick work of packing things up and hit Balsam Mountain Road, entering the park shortly thereafter. It’s roughly 8 miles of two-lane pavement from Mile High Campground to Balsam Mountain Campground and picnic area, with some nice overlooks along the way. Naturally, we had to stop for some pics. We also made a stop at a Masonic monument along the way. Deep Woods is a Mason and I figured he would be interested in seeing that.
The pavement ends at the picnic area. From that point, all the way to Round Bottom, approximately 12 miles, its one-way gravel. It was slow going in the minivan but we had no issues getting to the Palmer Creek trailhead. So here goes…
Day One: Palmer Creek Trailhead on Balsam Mtn Road to Laurel Gap Shelter (4.6 mi)
It’s closing in on noon before we start walking but we don’t have far to go, so no worries. In order to avoid a half-mile road walk up Balsam Mountain Road to finish up the trip, we leave the car at the Palmer Creek trailhead and put the gravel to Pin Oak Gap behind us at the start. The Balsam Mountain Trail begins at the gap, rising sharply at first before tapering off for a bit. It’s approximately 1,100 ft over 2.3 miles to Beech Gap. Nothing extreme but we’re feeling jet-lagged from the long drive to the park. The weather is perfect though and the trail is in good shape thus far. Pin Oak Gap sits at just over 4,400 ft and Spruce and Fir soon become the dominant forest species on our walk up to Beech Gap. A beautiful way to start off our week on the trail.
Roughly one mile before reaching the gap, the grade stiffens once more. We make our way up slowly, reach the gap and stop to catch our breath. At this point, the Beech Gap Trail departs to the left, making a southerly course for Round Bottom. The Balsam Mtn Trail continues on a N-NE track two miles to Balsam Corner, at which point it turns NW to terminate up at the AT, near Tricorner Knob. We have no intention of walking all of that this day. Instead, we’ll pull up short of Balsam Corner to spend the evening at Laurel Gap Shelter, 1.7 miles and less than 700 ft up from Beech Gap.
Eventually we get moving again and the excellent trail continues. Up to this point, we’ve seen just one other person, a woman chipping away at becoming a 900 Miler (hiking every mile of trail within the Smokies) and we see no one else until we reach Laurel Gap Shelter. We arrive to find eight students from Moody Bible College setup in the shelter and two Catholic priests camping nearby. Loonie and I find a spot to pitch the tent, knock off the typical camp chores, and spend some time at the fire talking with the guys.
Day Two: Tricorner Knob Shelter (6.0 mi)
Everyone is gone by the time we shoulder our packs and hit the trail. Skies are picture-perfect blue once more. Much of our elevation gain for the day will occur over the first 3 miles. By and large, it’s a gentle, rolling walk. Balsam corner is reached just 0.2 mi from the shelter. The Sterling Ridge Trail, which Deep Woods and I walked back in 2013, departs to the right. Loonie and I proceed on up Balsam Mountain, reaching the junction with the Gunter Fork Trail a little over one mile in for the day.
Gunter Fork Trail eventually terminates at Walnut Bottom down on Big Creek but our walk on Balsam Mountain continues on, eventually topping out around 6,000 ft. We start to get some partial views of the surrounding mountain ridges and valleys. I think the Little Brown Book accurately describes this as some of the best high country trail in the Smokies and I was grateful to finally have the opportunity to walk it. The beautiful weather and the fact that again this day we see only one other human being until we reach the shelter just made this walk that much sweeter.
We continue past Luftee Knob and Thermo Knob, riding a gentle roller coaster to the terminus at the AT. We’ve been farting around, taking our time and enjoying the walk so much that its now late afternoon. Just to go six miles! That’s alright though. It’s too nice out and the scenery too beautiful to rush. Flying down the trail just to say we did the trail is NOT what we came here to do!
We hang a left on the AT and make the short walk to Tricorner Knob Shelter, our home for the night. Just a handful of people are here and only three will be staying the night in the shelter. There’s not much in the way of good ground nearby to pitch the tent so we elect to do the shelter-thing as well. We’re joined by section hiker Lisa, thru hiker Dr Evil (the girl we passed earlier in the day) and one other female section hiker. The latter is part of a group of folks out in support of Dr Evil. Dr Evil had done all of the AT but the Smokies. Since GSMNP doesn’t allow dogs on most trails, Dr Evil bypassed the park earlier and was now back to finish her trek, sans the Chihuahua. When she wasn’t knocking off miles of the AT in the park, she was doing side excursions. Thus our crossing paths earlier in the day.
Day Three: Cosby Knob Shelter (7.7 mi)
Once again, we’re the last to head out for the day. We’re out a bit earlier than the previous but not by much. Since I enjoy hiking in the early hours of the day so much, our late starts are really getting frustrating. Regardless, I’m not letting it sour my mood. Yet again, it’s absolutely gorgeous out and we have some equally gorgeous trail on tap.
This day’s hike will be along one of my favorite stretches of the AT thru the park. The first 1.3 mi is a bit stiff, rising nearly 1,000 ft to top out below the summit of Mt Guyot. The Little Brown Book states that Mt Guyot, at 6,621 ft, is the fourth highest peak east of the Mississippi and second highest in GSMNP. Clingmans Dome gets the honor of highest in the park, rising to 6,643 ft. Despite the futile efforts of those who dream of making LeConte the tallest by the ongoing construction of a massive rock cairn, they’ll have to get past Guyot first. Guyot also has the distinction of being the highest with no road or official trail access. It would be quite the bushwhack to reach the tree-covered summit and I imagine few people ever pay a visit. The AT makes its course just below, on the west slope.
Initially, we get some partially obscured views. As we move on though, they’re becoming outstanding.
We dart in and out of the conifers and mosses to be served picture perfect vistas. Meanwhile, we’re slowly losing elevation past Guyot, dropping roughly 600 ft over the next 2.5 miles to the junction with the Snake Den Ridge Trail. Only a bump up to get past Old Black and another near Inadu Knob. Enroute, more fantastic trail and views. We run into Lisa at the helipad (really nothing more than a small clearing) and take a long lunch break there.
Moving on, we have more outstanding trail and vistas before we reach the Snake Den Ridge Trail junction at Yellow Creek Gap. Our course will be to continue northbound on the AT to Cosby Knob. The hiker choosing Snake Den Ridge will eventually drop down to Cosby Campground. Or they can hang a left on the Maddron Bald Trail and head down to Albright Grove which Loonie and I visited back in the Spring.
The trail now drops sharply for more than two miles on the way to Camel Gap. There’s Just one minor bump near Camel Hump Knob as we pass through long stretches of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel. An F-4 jet crashed in this area back in 1984. I saw bits of scrap from the crash when I passed through here back in 2012 but for whatever reason Loonie and I see nothing. Once past Camel Gap, we make a very short but stiff climb past Ross Knob and Cosby Knob and begin the descent to the side trail to the shelter.
We arrive at the shelter to find Samsquatch, a long section hiker who passed us earlier, already there. He’s tenting nearby. A trio of young gentlemen are also tenting but are a good distance downhill from the shelter. Lisa comes walking in shortly thereafter. The three of us elect to stay in the shelter in order to get an earlier start the next day. We would later be joined by a young SoBo thru hiking couple.
I was anticipating more people to be on the trail this day and that turned out to be true. But I was NOT expecting that we would run into so few. Throughout the day, we probably saw no more than a dozen. And that’s being generous. The fact that it was a Tuesday worked in our favor but considering the beautiful weather we were experiencing and that this is, after all, the busiest national park at one of the busiest times of year, I was certain we would see more. The long periods of solitude thus far had been awesome!
I’ll bring things to a close in the next post.
More to come…