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Post by Kristian on Sat Jun 06, 2009 3:12 pm

Here's a trip report I wrote back in '07:


We've all heard the Boy Scout motto: "Be prepared". At first glance it seems like very good advice like many of the knot-tier's saying and maxims, but I've discovered a glitch: what's the fun in it? Some of my best memories of early visits to the Smokies were how we improvised to make up for an item we forgot. I'll never forget how my dad used a sock and two umbrellas for a coffee maker...

In our (my father and I) case last weekend, I forgot the camera. No getting around that; no pictures for you guys. But I did bring back plenty of memories, and a few impressions that have reawakened my love of the Smokies. Here's a collection of my recollections of our camping trip. It would be unfair to call it a trip report, as it includes random thoughts and prose poetry as well. It's long, so if you don't have time now set it aside for later. And enjoy.

Day One

Overlooking miles of rolling forest land, I wondered why I had not heard about the Cherohala Skyway sooner. The one hundred million dollar project from the generous state of North Carolina looked on the map to be the perfect jumping off point for our vacation. We had some trouble getting there, taking windy rural roads from Athens instead of a faster route from Madisonville, but it was so worth it. Getting back in the car, my father and I spotted a few deer along the side of the road, their white tails quickly disappearing through the underbrush. Motorcycle after motorcycle passed by—this was obviously their Mecca—but they were reasonably polite, much more so than many drivers on Newfound Gap road we would meet later on.

Reaching the 5,500 foot max out of elevation with the sparkling road rushing underneath us was very freeing, as close as our ground-bound bodies could get to flying. The foliage was almost at its peak, sweeping downwards from our lofty vantage point. I thought in my mind how very solidly the experience of this road trumped 441, not most importantly in views but in the greater solitude of the place. The grade steeply dropping, we coasted back down to valley levels with the impressions of the experience still vivid in my mind.

The tent erected and campsite registered for two nights, my dad and I walked to the trailhead. Crossing a bridge over Deep Creek, we wondered how it got its name. The idea of three waterfalls did not seem too promising, but it was only a short hike. As guessed all three were short on water but were still very much worth the short stroll. Unique in particular was Tom Branch, the only waterfall in the Smokies I’ve seen to fall directly into a creek.

Along the bank a fellow hiker spotted a river otter heading upstream. This was my first time seeing one in the wild, but I could tell from my innumerable visits to the Tennessee Aquarium that this one was a bit small, maybe a juvenile. I followed it, easily jumping from rock to rock in the famished stream. A family with two small boys passed by on the trail nearby, and I waved them over to see the otter. The boys were enthralled for a few seconds, but were quickly distracted by my Haitian walking stick. Their attention was redirected to the otter as it jumped into the water and disappeared. Later I would account the story for another hiker walking back from the Jumpoff, but at the moment my dad and I walked back to camp and fixed dinner.

Sitting in front of smoldering excuses for flames attempting to ignite the gathered, wet wood, I pointed up and identified the tree above me. “That’s a sugar maple. No, a sweetgum—“ My father, the great tree identifier, piped in the correct taxonomy: “Red maple.” As the colors had not yet turned in the valleys, it wasn’t as easy as you might think. Our attention now directed upwards as the fire made its last attempt at existence, we noticed a hemlock above the picnic table. We noticed no signs of infestation…

After a quick game of gin (which I am happy to say I won) we retired, ready for the long hike the next day.

Day Two

It was 9:15, and Kristian and Edward had arrived at Newfound Gap. The backpack was stocked with nine miles worth of food and water, and I stood with my Haitian hiking stick surveying the views. They were certainly spectacular. And so was every other overlook we had passed on the way up—one pull-off in particular even more breathtaking. Even still, fellow tourists poured into the parking lot. Those that woke up early were treated with a relatively crowd-free gap, but by the time my sixteen fellow hikers from the Chattanooga Hiking Club had assembled by the trailhead at 10:15 the place was mobbed. Traveling just a few meteres down the trail to Charlie’s Bunion, the people disappeared and we had the views to ourselves.

In retrospect, the trail itself is rather dull other than the occasional peek at a view. Charlie’s Bunion and the Jumpoff themselves were the best views I had ever experienced in the park. Period. The treacherous shale of Charlie gave me the awareness of the distance between me and the ground. Even higher, the Jumpoff gave panoramic views from Mt. LeConte above Horseshoe Mountain around to Charlie. I want my ashes to be spread somewhere in the Smokies after I die, and this place is on the short list.

It’s a straight out crying shame that most people who drive into the Smokies don’t experience places like the Jumpoff and the Bunion. For those who do, they gain memories never forgotten.

Day Three

The sudden disappearance of constant overlooks marked the border between Blue Ridge Parkway and the road to Balsam Mountain. Passing Polls Gap and a young American chestnut, we stopped the car at Balsam Mountain Campground. It was closed, but I jumped over the gate and jogged down the cool pavement. Unique in being the only campground located high up on a mountain ridge, views were found from every tent site. Small critters jumped for cover as I neared the end of the road. A sign labeled “campfire circle 30 yards” pointed me to the place I was searching for. I came upon a small amphitheater looking out through the thin forest at the surrounding mountains. The only sounds were my heavy breathing and the birds overhead.

This was my only moment of solitude between me and the mountains during the weekend trip. In that moment my mind focused and I became acutely aware of my surroundings. In that moment of realization of my equality with the mountains as creations, I discovered the truth I had been unknowingly searching for month after month. The moment savored, I soon forgot about it and returned to where my dad was waiting for me. Typing about it now, I realize the importance for all of us to get outside of our artificial worlds and reconnect.

If you are looking for views, stay on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Balsam Mountain Road has views, but only those of the cool forest canopy above sloping downwards to the valleys far below. From its high starting point at Balsam Mountain it slowly descends until reaching Big Cove Road in the Cherokee Reservation. Its twists and turns are a study of the trees and their variation with the elevation change. If you are at all interested in what has made the Smokies a World Heritage Site or just want a pleasant drive, it is worth the extra driving. It is very solitary as well. If there were the same number of people per miles in Cades Cove as on Balsam Mountain, only ten or eleven would be visiting at a time.

Big Cove road was also a learning experience for me, a quick glimpse into the life of the modern Indian, at least in that reservation (as it does vary). This culture which we should have learned so much from (after all, they did live where we are today for thousands of years) has been forgotten in a remote corner of North Carolina or Oklahoma, where the cultural heritage is stepped all over with “Chief Warrior” motels and teepees.

Turning back onto 441 and quickly reentering the park, we stopped at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to enquire about a trail we had heard had relatively large American chestnuts and to look at their amazing bumpy six foot topo map of the Smokies. Learning that we had missed the turn for Mingo Falls, we decided to just head on back home. Not wanting to take the long route again, we started driving up 441.

We (and probably a hundred other people) got caught behind a single trailer who was too inconsiderate to pull over for a second to let faster drivers pass. Luckily, we were able to pass him and continue on without breathing in his sooty exhaust. I noticed on the way down from Newfound Gap occasional signs saying “Quiet Walkway”, and saw many others on Little River Road. Almost no cars were ever pulled out on these. They looked relatively nice; I decided that on our next visit we would have to check out one or two of them. We turned of 441 at Sugarlands onto Little River.

I had not been on that road for years and years. I suddenly realized that the Smokies that friends and family talk about, that you guys talk about on the forums, was quite different than the one I had been experiencing for years at Cosby, Balsam Mountain, and Deep Creek.


Because I have been going to national parks since I was a child, I have a distinct feeling that accompanies going through the entrance or entering a visitor center or talking to a ranger. For one reason or another, I had a different emotion on the other side of the Smokies. But as we passed familiar places, I began to have that original feeling again; it’s very hard to explain. Since I was brought up in national parks, a part of me is ingrained in them. After that drive, I felt like that part of me was reawakened. I remembered what made the Smokies so special to me.

This camping trip was not only a fun getaway to forget schoolwork and life problems, but a reawakening. It has changed my outlook on life as well as my feelings about the park. Along with my recent reading of books by C.S. Lewis and Brother Lawrence, this latest mountain visit has been a changing point in my life.

This is why I’ve found that I like TripAdvisor and write trip reports like this one. I analyze the events that occurred an often get a lot more out of them than I would have. Before I thought that this site is as much about reliving my own experiences as helping others enjoy them, but now I realize that it is also about discovering why I would want to relive those experiences.

Thanks for reading this, anyway. I’ve spent a while writing it, and I suspect you’ve spent a while reading it (especially this incomprehensible hogwash at the end). If you have any thoughts about anything I wrote or a question you’d like to pose please do so. Comments on the writing quality itself would also be appreciated. *Note: The hike leader called us last night to tell us that he could send us photos of the hike, so I will be posting a few eventually.*


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Join date : 2009-06-06

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