Day Four: Big Creek Campground (9.3 mi)
Once more, we’re on the trail a bit earlier than the day before but not nearly as early as we should. We have a few more miles to cover and we plan on taking a long break at Mt Cammerer observation tower. It’s supposed to be another beautiful day and this would be Loonie’s first time to visit Cammerer, so I want to give her plenty of time there without having to finish the day’s hike by the aid of headlamps. As I’ve said so many times before, we like to mosey our way down the trail and that doesn’t always work in our favor.
Things start out easy enough as we lose approximately 600 ft in 0.8 mi to Low Gap. We make quick work of that. Low Gap Trail bisects the AT at this point. The NoBo AT hiker could take a left here to get down to Cosby Campground. Taking a right will get you down to Walnut Bottom on Big Creek, near Backcountry Campsite 37. We proceed NoBo on the AT, intent on reaching the tower in time for a long lunch break.
We regain all of the elevation that we just lost, as well as a bit more over the course of the next mile to Sunup Knob. Loonie hasn’t been sleeping well the entire trip and now her tank is running low. Had she been well rested, I think she would have done just fine. It takes us some time to knock off that mile but then things level out for a short distance before one last push to the side trail to the tower.
We make our way to the tower, crossing paths with Lisa again. She had hit the trail earlier than us, made a stop here and was now returning to the AT to finish her time in the park. We were told to keep an eye out for a large rattlesnake basking in the sun nearby but he’s gone by the time we get there. Bummer. Several day hikers are already at the tower but they depart and Loonie and I have it to ourselves just long enough to have a good look and take some pics before more arrive. The sky is a bit hazy but otherwise we couldn’t have been here on a better day.
Our long break complete, we make our way back to the AT and begin the descent to the junction with the Chestnut Branch Trail. I had done this section in each direction previously and, given the choice, would prefer going up rather than down. Either way, you have to contend with a seemingly endless number of steps. Considering the amount of traffic it gets and the steepness of the grade, this stretch would erode away quickly were it not for the efforts to terrace it out. Our knees were not so understanding though. Over the course of less than three miles, we lose 2,300 ft in elevation.
There’s a nice view from a large sandstone boulder just before the trail makes a sweeping turn along a cliff face. Along this stretch, you’ll get a good look at the extensive work the CCC did decades ago to bring the trail up to the Smokies’ crest. We pass the junction with the Lower Mt Cammerer Trail and continue our downward trek. The trail eventually levels out less than 0.5 mi from the junction with Chestnut Branch.
We reach the junction and check the time. It’s 5 PM, the light is slowly fading and we have 2.1 miles to get down to the road leading into Big Creek Campground. Once there, we’ll have a 0.5 mi road walk to get to our campsite. If we don’t fart around, we’ll be fine. Of course, you know we can’t help ourselves and we wind up taking a bit too long to get down to the road. It’s a nice walk along Chestnut Branch and we were both wishing we could spend more time here. But our bellies are running on empty, the packs are feeling particularly heavy and we have little light to appreciate all that this trail has to offer. I had done this trail on dead legs in the opposite direction years ago and couldn’t appreciate it then either. Just have to do it again sometime.
We eventually make it to the road with some daylight to spare. However, we’re unsure where to check in. We eventually find the camp host’s site but no one is there. Loonie spots a bathroom and the call of a toilet that actually flushes and a sink with running water is too much to ignore. By the time we reach our campsite, the sun has set. Headlamps are required to pitch the tent and fix dinner. Despite our late arrival and the rush to get settled in, we felt good about how the day turned out. Loonie struggled a bit getting up Cammerer but otherwise did fine. The weather couldn’t have been much better and we had a nice site along Big Creek to spend the night. Some rain was predicted for the next day but the only thing we were concerned about now was getting a good night’s rest.
Day Five: Backcountry Campsite 37 (5.4 mi)
An on again, off again sprinkle of rain expedited the process of breaking camp and preparing to set off for the day. We made one more stop at the restroom and were about to hit the trail when Loonie struck up a conversation with a photographer heading back to his car. We stood under the eve of the restroom, chatting with him as the drops began to subside. Then some patches of blue appeared. This was too good to be true!
We set off on the Big Creek Trail mid-morning. Our destination, Backcountry Campsite 37, was just under 5.5 miles ahead and this trail makes for some easy walking. The path is actually a former CCC road so it’s wide and the grade gentle. The fact that it parallels Big Creek throughout it’s length makes for one of the most enjoyable walks in GSMNP. Big Creek is strewn with large boulders, creating beautiful cascades and pools. I’ve walked this trail numerous times now and never get tired of it. Hopefully the easy walking would give us a chance to recover before the next day’s hike over Sterling Ridge and down to site 39.
Our pace is slower than a snail. There are many opportunities to make your way down to the creek and sit a spell and that’s exactly what we do. Just under 1.5 miles in, we arrive at Midnight Hole and take a long break there. Considering it’s proximity to Big Creek Campground, I was expecting to see a large crowd out. Fortunately, we see few and that was just fine with us.
Eventually, we start moving again but only go a half mile or so before we pull off again at Mouse Creek Falls. Our pace has been so slow that we’re ready for lunch and the falls make for the perfect excuse to shed the packs and sit down again.
We pry ourselves away from the falls and set off again, going just 0.3 mi to the first of three bridges. The packs stay on but we fart around here, snapping more pics before moving on. Across the creek, the trail now follows an old logging rail grade. The easy walking continues as we pass more huge boulders.
We eventually come to the conclusion that, at our current pace, it will be next month before we arrive at site 37. We step it up a bit but not by much. The weather turned out to be beautiful and the colors of Fall are really beginning to kick in. It’s tough to keep from parking our butts on a log and go nowhere. Move on we do though, crossing two more bridges and arriving at 37 to find only three other people there. We see one gentlemen looking for the cables but he must be camped a good distance off to himself. A young couple are setup across the trail away from the creek. We find a nice spot not far from the creek and settle in.
We head back to the last bridge over the creek, find a nice spot to sit, filter water and take some pics. On our return, the couple camping nearby invite us over to join them at their fire. Turns out they are siblings from Canada doing an extended road trip. We enjoy talking with them before heading off to bed.
Day Six: Backcountry Campsite 39 (7.7 mi)
There was a chance of a strong storm moving through during the night but that never materialized. Neither did some decent sleep for Loonie and we had a pretty good climb ahead of us to get over Sterling Ridge. We got our stuff packed up and hit the trail, reversing course on the Big Creek Trail for 0.2 mi to the junction with the Swallow Fork Trail.
Swallow Fork Trail is another beautiful hike, rising almost 2,400 ft over four miles to Pretty Hollow Gap. The grade gradually increases as you approach the gap but, generally speaking, it’s never that bad. Its unfortunate that Loonie had to do this stretch when she had so little in the tank to draw from. The first two miles go well. The grade is gentle and we cross Swallow Fork via foot log one mile in.
Shortly thereafter we cross the tributaries McGinty Creek and John Mack Creek in rapid succession. Both are wet crossings but on this day they are simple rock hops and our feet remain dry. They were raging when Deep Woods and I came through in the Spring of 2013. On that day I would end up on my butt not once but twice in the middle of one of the two and watched as one of my trekking poles was swept away, never to be seen again. Not so this day, thankfully!
The grade begins to steepen and the trail moves away from Swallow Fork. Poor Loonie is dragging at this point but we eventually reach Pretty Hollow Gap, marking the end of our climbing for the day. We drop the packs and take a much needed lunch break. The Sterling Ridge, Swallow Fork and Pretty Hollow Gap trails all converge at this point. Hanging a left on the Sterling Ridge Trail takes you up to the summit of Mt Sterling. Go right on the Sterling Ridge Trail and you eventually end up at Balsam Corner, near Laurel Gap Shelter (where we stayed on the first night of this trip). Going straight ahead, on the Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, will take you down into Cataloochee Valley. That’s our course but we’ll stop short of the valley proper and stay at site 39 this night. The rest of our day’s walking will have to wait a bit though because we’re content to spend some time on our butts, enjoying the beautiful day.
Resuming our walk, we now have just under four miles to site 39 and we’ll lose nearly 2,400 ft of elevation on the way. Having never walked this stretch before, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. It’s supposed to get a lot of horse traffic and we anticipated less than ideal tread. Our fears were unfounded and it turned out to be a very beautiful hike.
Nearing 1.5 miles into our descent, we come to our first wet crossing over a tributary of Pretty Hollow Creek. It turns out to be not much more than a puddle hop. Moving on, there’s more nice trail to a second wet crossing. Loonie chooses to change shoes before making her way across but I’m certain she would have been successful keeping them dry without bothering to do so.
Three foot logs spanning the creek come in rapid succession. As this will be our last night on the trail, our pace slows to a crawl. Despite the fading light, thoughts of a shower and “normal food”, we want to savor every remaining step to 39. We stop often to take it all in. Past the last foot log, the trail begins to flatten out and remains on the left side of Pretty Hollow Creek. Regular trail eventually gives way to an old road.
We arrive at 39 to find only one other person there and he’s camped up above on a nice patch of level ground that Loonie and I had stayed at years ago. We have no choice but to stumble around on the hillside in the fading light, looking for an acceptable spot to pitch. We eventually find one, plant the tent and head off to filter water. By now headlamps are required to accomplish the task but we’re soon back at camp and knocking back dinner. Two other hikers show up at bit later and must perform the same “pitch by headlamp” ritual. By this point, we’re more than ready to call it a day, so its off to the tent, praying for a good night’s rest.
Since leaving Big Creek that morning, we crossed paths with five people coming down Swallow Fork and no one on our way down from Pretty Hollow Gap to site 39. Considering it was a Friday, the fact that we ran into just five other people throughout the day until we reached 39 was surprising to say the least. Especially considering the fantastic weather. Excellent!!!
Well, it’s taking me a bit longer than expected to pull this whole thing together. One more should do it.
More to come…