What better time to go for a backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains than on a random weekend in late February while the seasons are busy being confused about what time of year it is.
We left mid Friday to get in day’s worth of hiking on our first day out. For me, a day’s worth of hiking is currently about 6-8 miles, given that I had hip surgery 4 months ago. I’m constantly getting stronger and increasing my mileage, and this trip was no exception.
Somehow when Dirt Stew planned this trip, he failed to mention to me what the elevation gain would be on the first day. I usually don’t care, but it turns out that from the parking lot at Big Creek Trail head to the top of Mt Sterling where we were going to camp that night is a 4000ft climb over 6 miles. That must be one of the biggest climbs on the East Coast!
We got out of the car and I immediately had to take off my jacket. It must have been almost 70 degrees out. I was struck by how green the moss was next to the parking lot. We snapped some pictures, checked our altimeters, and started climbing the Baxter Creek Trail.
We stripped down to shorts and t-shirts, and gawked at the many wildflowers that were just as confused about the weather as we were. At low elevations, the Spring Beauties were out as well as Toadshade and Sharp Lobed Hepatica. We hiked at a reasonably slow pace and took lots of pictures.
We saw two ladies maybe a mile from the trail head, and then not a single other person all day. We climbed through entire ecosystems, from the wet stream valley covered in wild flowers to the drier rhododendron filled mountainsides all the way up to the magical land of spruces and huge rocks covered in moss.
We took water at the last stream crossing, since we didn’t know about any other water sources. It turned out though, that 0.4 miles from the top of Mt. Sterling, there was a sign pointing to a water source. We didn’t bother checking to see if it was running.
My hip started to really ache once we got to about 5,000ft, and I started limping just a tad, and walking a bit slower, taking a break every so often to stretch out my hip flexors and adductor muscles. The moss and fern covered rocks provided me with plenty of inspiration for photography.
By the time we hit the top at 5,842ft, the temperature had dropped maybe 10 or 15 degrees. It was a pleasant temperature, but the wind was starting to pick up, and at the top of Mt Sterling, there is a very tall fire tower luring you to climb to a better view.
We took a few steps up the tower and instantly felt vertigo. The stairs had small pathetic railings, and at the landings between stair cases, there was nothing to stop you from falling over. Dirt Stew started cursing. He was holding on to his camera in one hand, and gripping the railing with the other.
“Nope!” He proclaimed. “Not going any further!”
We got down from the scary-as-all-hell fire tower, and contented ourselves with taking pictures of the fire-tower instead of from it.
We set up camp, and ate dinner. We knew that this night was going to be warm, and the next night was going to be very cold. The forecast for Asheville showed 50’s at night for the first night, and 20’s for our second night. We had decided the direction of our hike based on this information, since it made no sense to be on top of a nearly 6000ft mountain on the colder night.
I went off to water a tree, and when I got back, Dirt Stew was gone. I called out for him, and heard a voice from up ahead. He had climbed most of the way up the fire-tower on his own to get some more pictures.
“It’s not so bad when you can hold both railings,” he said. I wasn’t convinced.
“Please don’t die,” I begged.
He came down, and got ready for bed. We hung our food on the handy bear lines provided, and crawled into our tent around sunset. We dozed off, but were constantly awoken by the wind vigorously swaying the branches above our head and whipping at our tent. Dirt Stew decided to use ear plugs.
I had another problem. I usually bring an empty Gatorade bottle with me which I pee in at night so I don’t have to leave the tent. I use my handy p-style, a magical device which allows women to pee like men. This time I forgot my empty bottle, and I had to leave the tent each time I had to pee. Bummer.
By 3AM I was woken up by flashes of lightning and crashing thunder. It started to rain. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep. I couldn’t. I counted the seconds between lighting flashes and associated claps of thunder. When they got to be 2 seconds or less, I decided to wake up Dirt Stew. We were in a terrible location. Why was the designated campsite on top of the tallest mountain around? We never would have chosen to camp here had we been allowed to camp wherever we wanted. I cursed the National Park and their rules.
We agreed that there was basically nothing that made sense to do but stay put and hope for the best.
Eventually, the storm died down, and we fell back asleep.
The next morning the rain was subsiding as we got up. By the time we ate breakfast and our packs were packed, the last drops of rain were lingering on branches, teasing us with showers when the wind picked up, encouraging us to keep our rain jackets on to start our hike.
The clouds lifted, but it never warmed up. Our day was mostly downhill. We hiked over to the Swallow Fork Trail to Campsite “37”, which was located in a stream valley. We passed two sets of two hikers, and were surprised each time. Water was reliable, and corresponded to where we thought it would be based on the map. By the time we got to the campsite, there were some people milling around. We were about 5 miles away from the trail head from the Big Creek Trail, where we were planning on hiking out and finishing our loop, so it made sense that some day hikers had made it in that far.
We decided to set up camp and continue to explore up the Camel Gap Trail. We wanted to see what the ford looked like to get onto the Gunter Fork Trail, where there was a “high water caution” written on our map.
But first we took our time to select our campsite. Again, this was not the ideal location to be camping tonight. Tonight the prediction was cold, probably into the low 20’s, and all the available campsites were in a cold valley next to a creek. Not ideal, but at least the elevation was nearly 3000 ft lower than the previous night. We hoped that would make a big difference. Given the forecast, we decided to take two sleeping bags each. I guess you can say we’re wimps about the cold, or at least I wasn’t used to cold weather camping since last winter I was also recovering from surgery.
We picked the best spot we could, furthest from the stream, and then left our gear and took our empty packs containing just food and water and ventured up stream. We saw a red salamander hanging out right in the middle of the trail. I picked him up and moved him to the side. The trail was easy despite some downed trees, and we hiked about a mile to the ford. The ford was definitely a ford, not a rock hop. We decided we didn’t want to get our shoes wet, so we just hung around taking pictures, and then wandered back to camp.
The temperatures kept dropping, and we struggled to keep warm. This is the point at which I realized why most people don’t like going backpacking in foul weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.). Most people aren’t willing or able to hike all day, and therefore they’re stuck shivering at camp at the end of their hike, huddled around a camp fire trying to stay warm. Now I was in that boat too. I’m used to hiking all day, and when you’re hiking, you can stay warm. Now I was cold, bored, and uninterested in “hanging around camp.” I had hiked a grand total of maybe 9 miles. An easy 9 miles.
We decided to climb into our tent before sunset. We got out our two sleeping bags and climbed in. It was plenty warm, and we lay there staring at the ceiling of our tent. I see why some people bring books now.
After many hours of sleep, we woke up with the sun. We slept plenty warm, we probably didn’t need the extra sleeping bag each, but we were better safe than sorry.
The next morning we we only had 5 miles left to hike to make it back to the car. These 5 miles were probably the easiest 5 miles I could imagine. Flat; very slightly downhill; wide trail. We stopped at Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole Falls, and there was one more waterfall that wasn’t labeled on the map. They were all beautiful and photogenic.
Once back at the car, I was sad to drive away from the beautiful smoky mountains, but happy to be headed in the direction of a warm shower and a hot cup of tea!