Bartram Trail: Cheoah Bald to Franklin, TN

Bartram Trail

Day 1: 19 miles

We woke up to our alarm, and got out of our warm comfy bed for the last time in a while.

At 8:30AM, Jen came to our house to pick us up. Her kids are used to being strapped into the back seat of her car. An hour and a half later, we were at the NOC, and our trail friend Rob (trail name Donner) met us there with another thru-hiker (AT class of 2018),Russell (trail name Savage). The two of them are doing a ~60 mile loop with the Bartram and the Appalachian Trail, and they had just done a 20 mile day the day before to reach us.

We started the long ascent on the Appalachian Trail up to Cheoah Bald, a 3000ft ascent. Having only gotten going at 10:45AM, and knowing that we had almost a 20 mile day to do, I tried to set a decent pace. The climb, however, was relentless.

The Bartram Trail officially starts at the top of Cheoah Bald, so you have the choice of either an out-and-back on the Bartram, or starting on the Appalachian Trail (a slightly more gradual ascent). John felt hot spots on his ankles and stopped to tape them up. We took brand new shoes for this trip – something we never recommend that anyone does.

At the top of Cheoah Bald we had a terrific view, and stopped to eat a late lunch. Given that it was already 2pm and we had done less than 5 miles, I started to question our goal. But, since daylight savings was a week ago, we knew we had quite a bit of sunlight.

The Bartram diverged unceremoniously from the AT a few steps later.

It was like exiting a highway onto a dirt road. The trail was soft and covered in leaves whereas the AT was bare and hard, having seen thousands more hikers in recent months. We descended from the top of Cheoah Bald along a beautiful stream with many impressive waterfalls.

We reached a stream crossing, and Donner painstakingly took off his shoes and socks in order to do the crossing barefoot. John and I simply plowed through with our quick drying Astrals (basically water shoes). Before long there was another stream crossing… and then another. Donner and Savage tried over and over to keep their feet dry while performing impressive rock jumps and log balances.

We reached a road, and after a nice flat section on a paved bike trail, we got to a parking lot and quickly got disoriented trying to follow the blazes. Finally, a fisherman showed us the way, and we headed up our second large climb of the day. My shoulder and right hip started bothering me. Same old problems, different trail. I kept my head down and kept plowing forward.

As we reached the golden hour (the hour before sunset), we started descending amongst rhododendron thickets. Soon darkness started to fall, but as we got to a landmark, we figured out we had only a mile left to complete our 19 mile day. I was impressed.

I soon pulled out my headlamp. I’m always the first to put out a light because my night vision is not good. The four of us completed the last part of the last mile with the help of my headlamp. We got to a nice camping spot along a stream and set up camp and ate dinner. It got cold fast, and my fingers were numb despite my hands being in gloves. I didn’t take long to jump in the tent and crawl into my two (yes, we each brought two) sleeping bags.

John took off his shoes, and to his horror his socks were covered in blood. He had massive blisters on the back of his ankles and they had popped. This is the first time John has ever gotten blisters, and we guess it is because they redesigned the heel cup on the shoes he’s wearing. He put some Neosporin on his ankles and put them in some dry socks for the night. Hopefully we’ll stay warm.

Day 2: roughly 20 miles

I think I must have snored last night because I vaguely remember waking myself up snoring. That’s a first. I must be getting old. John tended to his feet and we packed up and got going.

We walked along the Nantahala River for miles. The trail was easy, but sometimes hard to follow, and the river was high, so when the trial got close to the river, it was sometimes washed out.

We eventually got to a paved road, and after crossing it, we started walking on a gravel road, diligently following the blazes. We walked fast, hoping to get to a promised gas station and restaurant before they closed for the day. Eventually, however, the trail dead ended at a concrete road completely submerged by the Nantahala River. It looked pretty daunting, but upon further inspection, we saw blazes on the other side of the river. We stood there dumbfounded for a while, checking our maps and wondering why on earth there wasn’t any warning about this.

We decided the best option was to attempt to ford the river. We prepared and linked arms. We got maybe 10 or 15 ft into the river before my feet started slipping under me. I was the lightest so I figured it was up to me to make the call to turn back. We got back to the bank and spent some more time staring at the map trying to figure out what to do, It turns out tat the Bartram Trail on the Nat Geo map is incorrect compared to the way it is blazed and also compared to the trail notes we were following. But we could walk 2 miles back to the road crossing and walk on pavement around this section. So, that’s what we did.

When we got to the road, I was worried about the amount of extra time and miles we were adding to Donner and Savage’s hike. They already had planed a 20 mile day followed by a 4 hour drive back home before work the next day. A 24 mile day sounded painful. As we walked the road, I stuck out my thumb.

Time passed, but eventually a pick up truck pulled over and drove us to the gas station. That probably saved us a mile or two, and a bunch of crappy uphill road walking. We were happy. Sadly, however, the gas station was closed. It was a good thing we weren’t counting on it, but it would have been nice to stop in for some more snacks.

We carried on, and followed the trail back into the woods straight uphill towards Wayah Bald. The trail was steep and we were all a bit tired at this point. My neck/shoulder problem was bothering me, as usual, and I tried to focus on one foot in front of the other, but I eventually stopped and took some Advil.

Before we got to the top of Wayah bald, we intersected with the Appalachian Trail, and this is the spot at which we had to bid Donner and Savage farewell. They would hike another 2 miles downhill to their car, and we would continue on. It was so nice to have other hikers join us for a stretch of trail, it was sad to see them go. But, as a parting gift, Donner gave us a few of his extra snacks. I downed two to three granola bars on the spot.

After they left, we continued uphill to Wayah Bald. There is an observation tower on top, and the views were phenomenal.

The cold wind drove us off quickly though, and we scurried down to start looking for a campsite. The Bartram soon diverged from the Appalachian Trail, and we carried on. Soon we found some flat ground to call home for the night. We’re above 5000 ft here, and I know it’s supposed to drop below freezing down in Asheville and Franklin so we’re in for another cold night. I’m so glad I have two sleeping bags!! I have no shame.

Day 3: 14-ish miles

We were warm last night, perhaps even warmer than the night before. It’s all about campsite selection. We picked the perfect spot – not in a valley, not near a stream, and somewhat protected by bushes.

We started what I had imagined to be a 10 mile mostly downhill section towards Franklin. I guess mostly downhill isn’t completely inaccurate as we did wind up at a lower elevation than when we started. For those of you veteran AT hikers reading this blog… do you remember the section of the AT they called “the roller coaster” in Virginia where the trail went up and down about 13 times? Well, that’s what this was like. We went up and down so many “PUD’s” (pointless up and downs), that I actually started to get annoyed.

I mean, I’m a hiker, I don’t generally mind going up and down a bunch, but I think what got to me was that trail was often times slightly steeper than was actually comfortable (like you had to climb on your toes, and descend slowly and carefully). Admittedly, my mind was also fixated on the all-you-can-eat Asian buffet that I knew awaited us in Franklin. My mouth watered.

At least I still had some Doritos left in my pack to polish off. I sat down and rummaged through my pack.

“Where are the Doritos?” I asked John

“What Doritos?” He replied

“MY Doritos!!” I barked

“I thought we were sharing” He said sheepishly.

“There were TWO bags!”

“They’re all gone…”

John looked at me with big puppy eyes.

“What do you mean they’re all gone?! You unceremoniously polished off two bags of Doritos without offering me any!?!”

I sighed. The Asian Buffet lingered in my mind for a minute as I swallowed a few spoonfuls of peanut butter can carried on.

As we descended, the first wildflowers started to appear: blood root, a beautiful while flower. And another strange green plant we didn’t know (if you know it, please tell us!)

We reached a road, and started the long road walk through Franklin. Road walks are boring, but I don’t mind them as much as I used to. I guess New Zealand changed me. As long as I don’t have to walk down a busy highway with no shoulder, I’m happy. Not that I want to be walking on a road. I’d happily skip it. But I understand that sometimes in order to connect two bits of trail, a road is sometimes the only way.

Before we knew it we were at Walmart resupplying. We bought five days worth of food and then dragged our heavy backpacks into the Asian Buffet and gorged ourselves.

We’re now spending the night at the Microtel. The lady here made us sign a piece of paper specially for hikers noting that if we got anything dirty, they’d charge us for it. They also handed us some non-perfect towels so that we wouldn’t get their perfectly white towels dirty. I wish all hotels gave towels like that to hikers. I was happy that they knew how to treat hikers, so I went back to the front desk and asked if they also had non-perfect sheets because John has bloody blisters on his heels and we didn’t want to get blood on their sheets. They told us no, but if we got blood on their sheets, they would charge us for it. I went back to my room with a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. I kind of wish they just put on their website that they don’t really want hikers staying at their hotel. I would have gone somewhere else.

Yosemite: Half Dome, Clouds Rest and Echo Valley

Another post from our June 2018 trip in Yosemite!

After many attempts, we finally secured a permit to climb half-dome and camp nearby.

We climbed out of the valley after work up the popular and ever overcrowded Mist Trail, which offers views of Vernal Falls and further up, Nevada Falls.

We set up camp right past Half Dome (the permit we got was called the walk through permit), so we would need to backtrack in the morning, but I was fine with that, as it was only an extra mile or so. I was just happy we weren’t camping at Little Yosemite Valley, which is a complete zoo, and definitely the most popular backcountry camping site in Yosemite.

I was still surprised by how many people were camping near where we were set up, and even more surprised by how many people were leaving their bear canisters just a few feet from their tent (I believe the rule is you’re supposed to store them 100ft away).

I imagined that in the morning all these people would get up early to climb Half Dome, and we would be in a line of people waiting to climb the cables.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when we woke up and everyone else was still soundly asleep as we broke down camp and headed for the famous peak.

The climb to the base of the cables wasn’t bad, but did take some energy out of us. At the cables, there was only one or two people on their way down, and nobody going up.

We found some discarded gloves and made our way. This is the second time I’ve climbed the cables, and somehow I completely forgot how scary it is. No wonder people die here. It’s very steep, and the wooden boards for stepping on are placed several steps apart, so you really have to trust the cables you’re hanging onto as you pull yourself up to the next step.

I was surprised by how uncomfortable John was feeling. Usually he’s the one to boldly scramble over things that make me quite uncomfortable, but this time, as I looked down at him, he grimaced and repeated “this is so stupid” over and over.

After 400ft of adrenaline filled climbing up the final ascent, we reached the summit and were surprised to see only two other couples. We snapped some quick pictures but decided not to linger so as to be able to follow the other people back down the cables.

There’s something reassuring about looking down and seeing another human being rather than a sheer drop. We encouraged each other down, and one of the couples took a celebratory picture as we congratulated each other on making it safely back down. They took our phone number and promised to share the picture with us when they got signal.

We then pushed onwards towards Clouds Rest. What I failed to take into consideration when planning this loop was how much climbing we would have to do to get to the top of Clouds Rest after having done Half Dome. We dragged ourselves slowly to the top.

The climb was well worth it— more worth it than half dome, we both agreed. We had a great view of where we had just come from and beyond. Many day hikers were milling around, having hiked from Tioga Pass. A marmot was also milling around looking for opportunities to share a meal.

We continued on to find a place to camp near Sunrise lake. We found a spot a mile or two before the official camping area along the John Muir Trail.

When I went off to go find a place to go to the bathroom, I found a mylar balloon wedged next to a tree. Sigh. Balloons wind up in really remote places when people let them go in civilization!

The next morning we got going and quickly hit Sunrise Lake. As we got closer, we got completely attacked by mosquitos. I don’t mean that there were a few buzzing around our head – I mean that there were clouds of them so thick you had to close your mouth and squint to try to run through them. I tried in the quickest manor to rip my headnet out from my backpack, but in the 5 seconds it took me to put my pack down and open it, I could see about 10 mosquitos sucking blood out of one of my arms.

We literally ran through the meadow to higher ground, and the mosquitos persisted for quite some time, but we finally managed to escape them. Somehow their bites were not bad- they weren’t even itchy.

We were trying to do a loop but at the same time, avoid the JMT as much as possible because we had plans of hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to the Valley on the JMT as a day-hike on another day off.

So we followed some trails to Merced Canyon, which was beautiful and desolate of people. Compared to how crowded Half Dome, Clouds Rest and the JMT were, these trails offered a ton of solitude.

In Echo Valley, there had been a fire somewhat recently, and the sun beat down on us through a lack of canopy. The wildflowers were thick and beautiful and the river was beautiful too.

We decided to make a push to get back to the Yosemite Valley rather than trying to stay in Little Yosemite Valley campsite.

When we reached Little Yosemite Valley, I was glad we made that choice because of how crowded it was. It was a tent city – with people acting like they could be as loud and obnoxious as they wanted while their neighbors were only a few feet away.

We hurried past and took the JMT for the last little leg back into the Valley (the other option besides the Mist Trail). This was significantly less crowded than the Mist Trail, yet had some great views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls.

We got back to the Valley go find that our bikes, which we had left chained to a bike rack, were missing! We speculated that they were returned to the bike rental company because typically people are only allowed to rent bikes for a day (we were renting them for a month).

We took the bus back to our campground and were thankful that we came back early so as to sort out the bike problem before our work shift the next day.

All in all this was a great trip with lots of rewarding views and challenging climbs!

Yosemite Valley North Rim East Bound Backpacking Trip

This trip took place when we were working in Yosemite Valley (June 2018).

As a part of our goal to hike every trail immediately surrounding Yosemite Valley during our month residency, we decided that the North Rim of the Valley was best attacked as one backpacking trip rather than having to hike in and out of the valley multiple times.

We told our friend Meredith, the Volunteer Ranger Camp Host about our plan of hitchhiking over to Old Big Oak Flats Trailhead after taking a 45 minute shuttle bus ride – all this after our morning shift at work, and she kindly volunteered to drive us all the way to the trailhead.  We are still eternally grateful for the ride.

Along the way we saw amazing views that we had been missing out on because of our lack of motorized transportation during our stay in the famous valley, including Bridle-veil Falls and the Great Central Valley.

Once we got to the trail we found ourselves in a recent burn area. The trail was lined with beautiful purple lupine flowers (which are nitrogen fixers) as a result.  Despite the lack of living trees, the area had plenty of streams for us to fill our bottles in.

We spent a number of hours trying to hike as far as possible into the evening and got to Ribbon Meadows where we were treated to a display of shooting star and white buttercup flowers and surprisingly few mosquitos.

After passing through the meadow we set up camp a few hundred feet off the trail up on a hill after passing a pretty large pile of bear scat/poop.  We went to sleep wearily.  John didn’t wear his earplugs so that he could hear the bear if it entered the area.

After waking up a to a loud cracking noise, John wandered around to see if a bear was nearby.  Finding no animal in sight, he went to check on the bear canister (for food storage) and found it undisturbed. Trying to find the tent in the dark, he spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around looking for it.

We woke up in the morning with no further incidents. When we got to the first water source of the day, we met Kenny and Andy who were from Maryland and on the same trip as us.

We went our separate ways and headed up to our first viewpoint of the Yosemite Valley, KP Peak which is actually on top of the famous rock face El Capitan.

On the top John couldn’t help but notice a sleeping bag barely hiding under a couple rocks.  He decided that because of the short length of the trip, his pack was empty enough to carry this cheap Coleman Brand sleeping bag for the rest of the trip.  After stuffing it in his Mariposa backpack, his pack was still not completely full.

On the way back to the trail from the view point we saw the guys from Maryland again.  They weren’t kidding when they said they were going on the same exact same trip as us.

Moving on we walked a little further to the next viewpoint: Eagle Peak.  Eagle peak had the best view we saw in the whole park! Again we saw Kenny and Andy and we decided that we would walk with them and chat along the way.

Further up the trail we went to the top of Yosemite Falls.  For those of you wishing to peer directly off a 2,500 foot cliff, there is a railing so you can do exactly that!  It certainly is an interesting way to look at the tallest waterfall in North America.

We continued down the trail towards Indian Canyon and soon found ourselves well off the trail. We were able to figure out where we were pretty easily using map and compass  because of the open landscape and traveled cross country to the trail further along.

Next we went to North Dome where we had an amazing view of Half Dome.

Afterwards we went up to the natural arch above the Dome which was also an incredible sight to see.  One of very few natural arches I’ve seen in my life.

Finally after 16 miles, we settled in at a campsite well off the trail near Snow Creek an area with a known “problem bear”. After we setup the tent we noticed a pile of bear scat within 15 feet of our tent.  We were really tired so went to sleep around 7pm and within an hour we heard something that sounded like artificial noises. I got up and looked around and noticed (since it was still light out) that there was a bear about 100 feet away from us.  I tried my best to scare it away by making a lot of noise and it wandered away slowly its legs bow legged.  It certainly wasn’t in a hurry to get away and looked like and old tired bear.  It look us a while to fall back asleep.

We woke up the next morning without incident and headed down Snow Creek Trail a long steep downhill.  By the time we got to the bottom we felt the extreme heat of the valley before heading off to work again.

Tetons: Paintbrush Canyon to Cascade Canyon

Before heading out on this 19 mile loop, we were advised that ice axes and maybe even crampons would be necessary for Paintbrush Divide, which is a high elevation pass that allows you to travel from Paintbrush Canyon over to Cascade Canyon.

Since we failed to pack this gear, we asked John’s mother if she could kindly send it to us in the mail, since we left those items behind. I’m sure this isn’t kind of phone calls most mothers are used to getting, but within a few days she had found an appropriate sized box and posted the items in the mail.

The morning of our hike, we got a fairly late start. I was a bit nervous about how long these 19 miles would take, but I was also glad to have been able to sleep in slightly for a change.

We got to the String Lake parking area and got moving up Paintbrush Canyon.

As we climbed, the miles went by faster than I had anticipated. We weren’t the only ones out, we kept leap frogging another girl who was hiking solo up the canyon. As we approached Holly Lake, got chatting and found out that her name was Erin, and she was a traveling nurse with some time off between jobs.

We crossed paths with a backcountry ranger, and asked him what the divide was like, and he told us there were a few “tricky moves” near the top. We wondered what that meant, but he told us we probably wouldn’t need our ice axes. I was glad to have mine anyway just in case.

Erin had no ice axe or crampons, and had also been told beforehand that she probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the pass without that gear, but decided she would just go as far as she could and turn back.

I told her if it made her feel more comfortable, we could walk in front of her, and make sure there were good footsteps in the snow, and she could always turn around when she felt uncomfortable.

As we climbed, there were patches of snow, but nothing like what I had expected. This was obviously a well traveled trail since each time the trail passed through a patch of snow, there were well defined, easy to follow footprints which made it absolutely unnecessary to wear crampons or take out the ice axe.

We had almost made it to the top when Erin said something along the lines of “we made it!” But, she spoke too soon. Right before the top of the divide was a very sketchy spot where there was a patch of snow that was practically vertical and there were rocks all around it, also practically vertical. Most of the rock was loose rock to make things more interesting.

John went first, scrambling across a few small but very sketchy crevasses where a wrong step on a loose rock could send you tumbling many feet down. Based on how nervous he was, I almost figured I wouldn’t be able to make it across, but with a whole lot of courage and knowing that if I were to freeze up at any point, I’d be done for, I made a butt slide followed by a few steps that were way too large for my comfort and way too unstable for my comfort. But I made it. Behind me, Erin took her turn, and I was very surprised by how easy she made it look. She had about 3 inches on me, and she must have been made of pure courage. She admitted that she wouldn’t have done that alone and thanked us for our company. We were thankful for hers as well.

We reached the divide and were on top of the world with stunning snow covered peaks in all directions. A few people were milling around up there, and we traded notes on the sketchiness of the climb we had just done.

From here, the decent into Cascade Canyon was a piece of cake, and absolutely covered in beautiful wildflowers. Our progress was slow since every few feet, one of us felt inclined to take a picture.

Just a short distance down, we hit Lake Solitude, which, ironically was the most crowded spot we had been all day. There were dozens of people sunbathing, picnicking, and even a volunteer ranger talking to folks. I couldn’t believe we saw a second park employee on the same trail.

While we joined the crowds to stop for a snack, John decided to take the opportunity to jump into the lake, letting out a quick yelp at the frigidness of the glacial lake. He plunged in a few more times just to make sure.

We traveled down the canyon with ease. Grand Teton loomed over us majestically and various flowers lined the sides of the trail. We often followed a stream which cascaded down the canyon, presumably giving its name, Cascade Canyon.

The number of people on this trail was astounding. We were right behind a big group and right in front of another group, but if we stopped, it seemed like another group would quickly catch up. There was no solitude to be found here. We swatted at horse flies, which seem to be ever present as the mosquitoes are slowly dying off, and the temperature slowly creeped up as we descended.

We quickened our pace as we got closer to the parking lot, and the miles seemed to drag on a bit as our legs started to fatigue. But, the trail continued in ease, and soon we were crossing the bridge back to the String Lake parking lot before trading information with our new friend and heading our separate ways.

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

Hamilton to Hunua Ranges

From Kaimai Mamaku, we got a ride to Hamilton. After a night in Hamilton, I was feeling quite a bit better and we figured out that our friend Martin was only one day ahead of us on the Te Araroa trail (the trail goes through Hamilton). We made a plan to hitchhike slightly north of Hamilton to hike with Martin on the Te Araroa for a few days before our volunteer stint with the Department of Conservation.

We got to the town of Ngaruawahia by getting picked up by a taxi (no joke) who decided to take us there free of charge. I have no idea why.

There we met Martin and started hiking up into the bush on a huge staircase which was absolutely jam packed with people trying to get a work out. There were almost more people here than on the Tongariro Crossing, but then again, it was a public holiday, so everyone was off work.

The stair case went up about 400 meters or so to the summit where there was s lookout tower with nice views. From here, all of the exercisers headed back down the staircase the way they came while we headed down an overgrown hidden trail along the ridge. We left the crowds behind in a heart beat. The trail was overgrown, muddy and dense, but we pushed through, slipping and falling until we got to a section with a really big Kauri Tree.

Kauri trees are the largest trees in New Zealand, and they are currently being threatened by something called Kauri die-back. They’re not entirely sure what causes Kauri die-back, but they believe that people bring a disease in on their shoes and spread it to the roots of trees. For this reason, some of the biggest trees are surrounded by board walks, and when you enter or exit an area with Kauri trees, you have to go through a station where you throughly clean your shoes.

At the end of the track we cleaned our shoes and met a man and his wife who started talking to us and wound up giving us each a huge bag of fijoas – a fruit which was currently in season, and many people in New Zealand have fijoa trees. They taste slightly similar to kiwis only (in my opinion) slightly more bitter and slightly more disgusting.

From there we walked to Huntly, a town where we had booked a very cheap Airbnb, which was great.

The next morning we decided to hitchhike to get closer to the Hunua ranges, but wound up road-walking quite a way to get there. After 20km or so of walking on various roads, we finally got the the track that we wanted to hike on only to find it was closed. Needless to say, we were quite disappointed. After we looked online, we found it it was probably due to storm damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere, but a car with a lady in it pulled up and gave us a ride back out to Route 1 where we tried to make an alternative plan. We decided that we would walk to the nearest small town where there was a place we could camp for free, and we would make a new plan in the morning.

The next morning we decided we would try to hit the Hunua Ranges from the other direction by hitchhiking around. This took some time, but we got there and were able to hike a short distance in the bush to make it to Hunua Falls.

Here we figured we would camp, but someone from a summer camp right next door told us that the rangers didn’t like people camping there, but we could camp inside the summer camp since nobody would be there over the weekend. In return, we only had to bring the trash cans back behind the gate in the morning. It was a deal.

There was cell phone reception at the camp, and overnight we read the weather forecast and found out that a big storm was headed our way. They predicted 60 to 100 mm of rain with winds up to 120km/hr. There was no way I wanted to be outside for that. John and I decided that we would simply head for Auckland since that is where we needed to be in another day or two anyways for our vonunteer gig, while Martin decided to walk to a farm which had a Czech pig roast party planned for the weekend.

We parted ways and before we knew it a car picked us up, and the gentleman was actually headed to Auckland with his wife that day, and agreed to take us in.

The storm was disappointing. I’m not sure how much it rained, but it couldn’t have been as much as they predicted, and it seemed like the wind really wasn’t that bad. We were kind of bummed to be stuck in Auckland instead of eating pig with Martin at the random Czech party on a farm near Hunua Falls.

Even so, it was good to get ready for our volunteer stint which we are very excited about. We will spend 5 days on a predator free island with rare and endangered birds including kiwis while helping with small projects around the island. Stay tuned!