The Gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains

100_5431Our first trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was as a couple. The kids were spending time with their grandparents and we decided to take a few days camping on our way home. We had the necessary items: a tent, sleeping bags and some basic cooking gear (we planSCAN0137ned to eat out for the most part). On the way, our van got a flat tire, so we had to stop to replace it. We stopped at a warehouse store and while we waited, we of course shopped. One of our purchases was a screened tent with a set of four chairs and a table that all conveniently folded into about a 4x2x1 case. This tent quickly proved its worth and has served us well over the years, both in our yard and in multiple campsites.

We arrived at Great Smoky Mountain National Park and checked in at the ranger station. We knew nothing about the campsites, but there was plenty of space at the first-come sites, so we could just go pick one out. We generally pick the more natural sites, and ended up at Balsam Mountain Campground, which at a mile high, is the tallest campground in the park.

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Balsam Mountain Campground has a looping road where you can enjoy the foliage. (It is not marked “one way.”)

This was a good choice, except for the fact that it was a 45 minute drive down the mountain on twisty roads, so eating out would prove to be difficult. (A side note: If you are prone to motion sickness, the ride up to Balsam may cause you some discomfort.) Luckily we had picked up snacks while waiting for the tire, so we managed to put together a dinner of cheese, gourmet jarred vegetables and fruit. The next morning we had coffee and headed out to explore and get more supplies.

The drive through Pigeon Forge, TN was interesting. The road out to Dollywood is colorful and busy. Though I am sure that it has its appeal, touristy kitsch was not what we were looking for. We later headed out to Cherokee, NC and got groceries and later stopped at a couple Native American shops to pick up gifts for the kids and the dogsitter.

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The observation tower at Clingman’s Dome

When we returned, we were very happy to have purchased the screened

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Clingman’s Dome, from the observation tower

tent as it had obviously rained while we were gone. (During the summer months, it rains somewhere in the park pretty much every day.) In the park, we did some hiking and visited Clingman’s Dome, the tallest point in the park, where you can get a 360 degree view of the Smokies. After our climb up the observation tower, we took a short walk on the Appalachian Trail.

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Elk are one of many species that call the park home

Several years later, we made a return trip, this time with the children and the dog. My husband was traveling for work and had arranged to fly into Knoxville, where we picked him up after setting up camp. We again stayed at Balsam Mountain, and on the second day (when the other residents moved out) we moved our tents to the same campsite we had used years before. (Our hiking was somewhat limited as the park has limitations on where dogs are

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This is what happens to potato chip bags at high altitude

welcome (only two trails are dog-friendly). This time we spent a little time at Cades Cove, where Europeans settled sometime around 1820 and walking along the Oconaluftee River Trail from the grounds of the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill. Our neighbors at the campground told us about a great spot to watch the sunset, just a short hike down the road, so we grabbed flashlights and were not disappointed.

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The park has several campgrounds as well as LeConte Lodge, which at 6,593 feet is the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. The lodge is at the top of the park’s third largest peak, Mount LeConte, and is accessible via a 5-8 mile hike (there are five trails). Advance reservations are necessary to stay at the lodge; those wanting to just spend a day need to watch the sun and conditions to ensure they have time for the return trip before dark. With an elevation from 875 feet to 6,643 feet, SCAN0143the weather varies throughout the park with temperatures varying up to 10-20 degrees. The rainfall is from 55 to 85 inches per year. For those wanting hotel accommodations, there are many options outside of the park. There is no fee to enter the park, as the state of Tennessee prohibited such fees when transferring ownership to the federal government.

There are 150 official trails in the park and a number of waterfalls. As conditions often change, it is a good idea to check the website for closures before you go.  Bicycles are permitted on all paved roads in the park and the 11-mile Cades Cove loop is closed two mornings a week until 10 for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrian traffic. Horseback riding and hayrides are available through concessions in the park. The Smokies Trip Planner (which can be downloaded from the NPS website) has more useful information.

Hiking and Camping Elk Neck

100_8599My husband learned about Elk Neck State Park in central Maryland from a co-worker shortly after we starting taking camping trips with our family. We have since been back and it is one of my favorite camping spots.

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Turkey Point Light Station is on the National Register of Historic Places

The park is on a peninsula between the Elk River and the Chesapeake Bay. The park is on over 2188 acres and its landscape includes beaches, wooded areas, marshes and cliffs, and a big draw for me, a lighthouse. Our first visit, we made the easy hike to the Turkey Point Lighthouse where we could walk around the grounds.

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To get to the top, one must climb a ladder and through a narrow opening

On a return visit, the lighthouse had been restored and we were able to go inside and climb to the top.

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The lens is powered by a solar-charged battery and flashes a white light.
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A tight spiral staircase leads to the ladder that goes to the top

Given the location of the lighthouse, atop a 100 foot cliff, it is only 35 feet tall, so this doesn’t take very long. The 3rd tallest on the Chesapeake Bay (it is 129 feet above the water) Turkey Point is known for having had more female lighthouse keepers than any other lighthouse on the Bay.

The park has 7 trails, with distances from one to three miles, with ratings ranging from easy to difficult. 100_8602100_8601100_8598 Bikes are permitted on most of these and most are pet-friendly, as is most of the park. One of these

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This section of the Beaver Marsh Loop is sometimes under water

(and one of our favorites), the Beaver Marsh Loop, has to be timed just right to complete the loop. Part of the trail goes along the shore, which is underwater at high tide. The Elk Neck also has day use areas and a boat launch and offers youth programs, such as the Junior Ranger Program as well as others.

Campsite fees vary and reservations are recommended, especially for holiday weekends. There is a per vehicle day use fee for the park, as well as a boat launch fee, with discounted rates for Maryland residents.

A Walk on The Appalachian Trail

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Bearfence Mountain Viewpoint, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Now the Appalachian Trail (AT) may seem like an unusual travel destination to some, but the trail has a mystique that calls to thousands each year. The 75-year-old trail, a 2189 mile footpath along the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. has been the subject of many books as well as conversations among hikers for generations. It takes careful planning and five to seven months to complete the hike. Since the shelters actually on the trail are limited, one needs to carry both shelter and supplies as well as enough food to get to the next resupply location, which can sometimes be several days. The trail does go near and even through some towns where hikers can resupply, shower and maybe even stay at a hotel or hostel for a night or two, but through-hikers need to expect to spend most nights on the trail.

The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton McKay, a regional planner in October 1921, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was organized in 1925 when work seriously started to create a contiguous walking path from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937. The ATC has grown and changed a bit over time (it is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) but it still plays a primary role in maintaining the trail and the corridor lands that border it. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s stated mission is “to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.”  This responsibility is shared with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of state agencies, and countless volunteer groups.

IMG_7431In 1968 the AT became the first National Scenic Trail; it was added to the National Park system in the 1970s, when the National Trails System Act called for state and federal government to purchase corridors surrounding the AT footpath; the last stretch of land was acquired in 2014.IMG_7434

 

There are a number of ways to hike the AT, which has seen several variations of trail markers over the years; older versions can still be found on the trail. Most people enjoy the beauty of the AT on day hikes and for many, this is enough, but serious hikers may want to tackle all 2189 miles. Few people have the luxury of being able to spend half of a year without obligations (not to mention the cost: approximately $3,000 plus gear, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), so many hike the trail in sections. This can be a number of day hikes, or multi-day backpacking trips. Those who are really serious do decide to hike the entire trail, either from end to end or in a “flip-flop hike.” Most who start do not complete the full hike, it is estimated that only about a third of those who start a through-hike complete it.

Since much of the trail’s geography takes one through states that experience (sometimes harsh) winters, through-hikers have a window during which they need to start in order to complete the full hike. Most travel from Georgia, and today many have already begun their trek. (March 1 through April 15 are the most popular dates to start from Georgia.) There are some who start in Maine but, due to the snow, can’t start until May or June. This section of the trail is also said to be the most difficult, and most experts suggest building up to that level.

Flip-flop through-hiking is also an option. The ATC gives several plans to do this, which involves starting at a location somewhere on the trail, hiking one direction to the end, then returning to your starting point and completing the trail in the other direction. Although this is a bit non-traditional, there are good reasons to do this. Aside from the fact that certain mid points are easier hiking to start with (then progressing to more difficult terrain) there is also the fact that it reduces the crowds found at the traditional starting points.

Preparing for your hike

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This IS the trail (in Tennessee)
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A section in Shenandoah

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There are a number of websites and excellent books to help you determine what you need. Guide books and trail maps provide even more information. You might want to select a trail name, or wait and see what name feels right after a couple days out. Learn about or review Leave No Trace principles so that you minimize your impact on the outdoors and help keep it enjoyable for everyone.  Start hiking smaller distances to get in better shape, and get used to carrying a full pack. A hike this challenging is not something to just jump into unprepared. Make sure someone knows you are going and leave them a rough itinerary. (This is a good practice anytime you are traveling.) Know the regulations, for example on where you can camp and if cooking fires are permitted. Some sections of the trail go through state and national parks that require permits (you can get some of these in advance through the ATC website).

Planning the hike with a partner is a good idea. Besides having someone to share experiences with and encourage you, it is also safer. While the risks are minimal, the trail does go through wildlife habitat and run-ins with bears or snakes are possible. Much of the terrain is rocky, so there is a chance of injury. And, although the majority of people found on the trail are good people, as with anywhere else, there are some out there with evil intent.

Know that your personal mileage may vary. Trail sections are sometimes rerouted. Note: hiking the trail usually means hiking more than the trail. There are interesting side trails, sometimes leading to incredible overlooks which it would be a shame to miss. Leaving the trail for a trip into town also adds to your total distance.

The ATC now has a voluntary through-hike registration, which is free and includes a membership to the ATC and other perks. The idea behind the registration is to minimize the crowds at the early stretch of the trail. News about closures and other alerts can be found on the National Park Service website.

Enjoy the trail’s beauty

Although I would love to say that I think I could through-hike this trail, I am a realist and am fairly certain that I will never be in good enough shape to do this. So, instead, I have the almost as ambitious hope (not even a goal) to someday be able to say I have section-hiked all or at least most of it. Bill Bryson’s popular memoir A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining story of his journeys on the trail. It is largely his writings that made me realize that through-hiking is likely not for me.

The trail is beautiful and demanding. I have completed short sections of it in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two states essentially at the same time as a portion of the trail straddles the border).  I have not as of yet backpacked on the trail, instead doing day hikes from a campsite.

The Virginia section goes through Shenandoah National Park and this is the state where I personally have logged the greatest number of miles on the trail (about 6). The trail also goes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is where I hiked Tennessee and North Carolina. I had quite a bit of fun with this stretch, near Clingman’s Dome,hopping in NC, then TN and back again.

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We happened upon the trail in Tennessee, near Clingman’s Dome. Of course we couldn’t resist following it for a bit!
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Just off the trail in Tennessee
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The view looking into North Carolina

Most recently, I completed a stretch of about 3-4 miles of the trail (with side hikes, total of 10 miles) while camping at Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah. We set up camp late in the day and the next morning I ventured out and happened to see the white blazes marking the trail that went right behind our tent! As luck would have it, the trail heading north went up to the Bearfence Rock Scramble and to a 360 degree overlook that I had read about just a few months before. The campground map indicated it was only about a mile, so it was an easy decision. It was mostly uphill and had several switchbacks to get to the overlook, but the view was well worth it. We ended up missing the scramble, as we followed a trail marker that led to the overlook instead. Total miles for this trip (there and back, plus the detour) was 3.6.

The next day we headed south on the trail, with our destination the ruins of the Episcopal Pocosin Mission, which dates back to 1902, about a mile off the trail, with total miles 5.7. The trail started downhill, and coming back I remember thinking that there was no end. I kept telling myself I would stop for a breather at the next plateau, but the trail seemed to just keep going up. This hike came in at 5.7 miles (again this is there and back, plus about 2 miles off the trail to the mission).

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The ruins of the Episcopal Mission

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While perusing the ATC website this week, I discovered the 14 State Challenge, where the goal is to hike a section of the AT in each of the 14 states the AT goes through. And, there is no time limit to complete this! This is something I feel I can set as a goal. I also discovered the AT Hike100 Centennial Event, which is being run by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail this year in honor of the National Parks Service celebrating 100 years.  The challenge is to hike 100 miles between Jan 1 and Dec 31 2016, with at least one hike on the AT. This too is something I may be able to complete, since April is just starting. I have only 97 miles left to go!