Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Clingman's Dome, Smoky Mountain National Park, TN

When I was about 12 years old, I went on a trip with my best friend, Andrew, from Florida to Tennessee and back. Along the way we had camped at a bunch of forgotten sites, hiked up a few mountains I'll never remember the names of, and swam in who knows how many rivers. Aside from that, and a couple camping trips with friends, I hadn't really spent too much time in the mountains before Andrea and I left on our journey.

Last year, a group of friends and I camped at Ft. Mountain State Park (which was incredible, and I have yet to find its equal in terms of beauty and mystery on our trip so far). Some of us had totally improper gear, some of us brought extraneous items, and although we have all done long hiking trips together in Florida, I'm pretty sure not a single one of us had been backcountry camping in that type of terrain.

The result: I think we had a three mile hike out to our site and it basically beat us all senseless. Granted, if we had the proper gear and brought only the essentials we probably would have made light work of the trip. Regardless, it was probably one of the best experiences of my life but the bottom line is that, in my experience, Floridians suck at mountain hikes.

When Andrea and I decided to hike Clingman's Dome (tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail, the Smoky's, and all of Tennessee), we chose a difficult hike, about 22 miles round trip over three days. We started at the top of Clingman's Dome (elevation 6,684 feet) and hiked down to the bottom, about a 5,000 ft descent, then made our way back up to the summit. Andrea had only hiked one mountain before, Grandfather Mountain in NC, and I had only a handful under my belt. The hike was beyond our experience level, which was a concern of mine from the get-go, but we thought if we took it slow and made sure to eat and drink enough we would be OK.

The first day was an 11 mile hike, all downhill, and we were lucky enough to have crisp, cool, dry weather. As far as physcial exertion goes, it was not too bad, but I ended up getting a trail blisters the size of quarters from my big toe down to my heel on both feet. The last mile-and-a-half or so were excrutiatingly painful for me... worse yet, we had left a little later than planned and wound up hiking for about an hour in total darkness. I had a flashlight and a backup head-lomp, but Andrea had left her backup behind and her primary broke... Things started getting a little scary after dark... The head lamp was nearly useless for hiking, and toward the bottom of the mountain we had to cross several streams in the pitch black night, which was quite tricky at times.
Yayy for dead trees!

The second day was a breeze, we had only a four mile hike to the next site. While hiking, the weather was great again. We got to the site at about 5pm, gathered wood, started a nice warm fire, and ate dinner before bed. We had decided to share the one person tent to cut out some weight from our backs (my 2 person tent is pretty heavy and bulky). HUGE MISTAKE! About a half hour after getting into the tent the temperature dropped to about 40 degrees and it started raining. I woke up at about 3am and found myself lying in about 3 inches of cold water... the water had come through where our bodies were touching the sides of the tent!  I was wearing all the warm clothes I had brought, which were all made of cotton... Cotton clothes hold about a gazillion times their weight in water and take forever to dry. Luckily, Andrea was wearing a fleece and leggings that wicked repelled and dried quickly.

This is about the driest I was all day.
The next day I had to hike 7 miles back up the mountain, blistered, tired, and sore, with about 30 extra pounds on my back and no dry clothes to keep me warm. The entire way back up was cold and rainy, and all the rain since the night before had cause the streams to swell to near rivers and the boulder hopping to become pretty much impossible. We had to wade across the streams, which were often belly-button deep, cold as all hell, and moving swiftly. It was difficult to keep a footing, and we had a few tumbles and spills - luckily nothing serious. Miles away from any help, we had no choice but to forge on.

We made it to the car!
There were some pretty frightening moments that third and final day on the trail. I think I was experiencing early signs of hypothermia, and Andrea was concerned about her calorie intake because she kept getting getting light headed... meanwhile we were tip toe-ing across a narrow trail that often had 20, 30, 60 foot drops directly adjacent. The last hour or so of the hike left me exhausted. I had been weighed down by my pack, my wet clothes, my waterlogged boots. That, coupled with the bleeding blisters on my feet left me able to only make about 8 inch steps. The last leg of the hike seemed to drag on forever, but eventually we were safely back in car with the heat blasting full throttle. WE DID IT! Clingman's Dome beat the crap out of us, but what an experience! If nothing else, it was a great learning experience! Cotton is NOT your friend while hiking...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Leaving Bloomington and heading to St Louis!

Updating from the car right now... haven't had time to update the last few days, still have to write up posts for the Smoky's, Pulaski, our weekend with Andrea's parents in SC, Boone, Columbus, and Bloomington!!!  I hope to do some today or tomorrow, so check back!!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Looking Glass Falls, NC

After leaving Boone, NC, we headed for the Smoky Mountains to stay a few nights.  Although it was out of the way, I decided to surprise Andrea with a pit stop at Looking Glass Falls, a beautiful waterfall I had visited on a camping trip I took in middle school.  If you're ever in the Asheville area, it's a great site to see and it's very easy to access.  You can park right on the side of the road and it's about a 2 minute walk down.  Once there, you can stand on the bank and enjoy the view, walk along the rocks in the water, or even wade out and swim underneath the falls!  

In retrospect, it would have been nice to stay a night in Asheville and check out some of the other sites like Chimney Rock, Sliding Rock, etc.  So much to see in the area and it would have saved us from having to spend the $25 (!) it took to camp our first night in the uber touristy Smoky's...  BTW I will be posting about the Smoky's soon, but will focus on our backcountry camping, so for now I just wanted to let everyone know that Gatlinburg, TN is a tourist trap (quite comparable to International Drive in Orlando), front country camping in the Smoky's is not at all worth it... However, there is no entrance fee into the park and back country camping is FREE in the Smoky's!!  If you're planning a trip to the Smoky's, I would definitely recommend back country... just try to do a hike within your experience level and bring proper gear... I will go into further detail on the importance of this in the next post.  Lesson learned!!!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Boone, NC Grandfather Mountain

While we were in Boone, we wanted to get at least one good day hike in, and our host, Jen, took us over to Grandfather Mountain.  Grandfather Mountain is about an hour outside of Boone, NC.  It was privately owned until 2006 and from my understanding is being turned into a state park.  All the signs in the area boasted that it was the tallest mountain in the area and that it was North Carolina's numero uno natural tourist attraction.

Visible from the road is a big ol' swinging bridge connecting two of the higher peaks on the mountain.  I've gathered that it's called the 'swinging bridge' because it sways in the high speed winds (sometimes up to 200 mph!) at that altitude.  Although it's accessible by car, we didn't get to see the tourist center or the mile high swinging bridge, which just gives us an excuse to go back and check out Boone again :D

Hiking the trail was Andrea, Jen, and I as well as Jen's dog Djinni, and an extremely lovable (but mildly retarded) beagle named Rosie who somehow hopped aboard the car on our way out of Boone.  We hiked Profile Trail, to Grandfather Mountain Trail, to Calloway Peak, which is the highest peak on the mountain and is more secluded than the touristy side of Grandfather Mountain, so we only encountered a few other hikers along the way.  

So, in the last year or so before this trip I went from being in some form of good shape to an atrophied puddle of once-man.  I had stopped working out, riding my bike, and eating right and replaced all  that with stress over school, junk food, and spending lots of quality time with the circa 1973 floral-patterned yellow grandma-couch that somehow kept finding its way back in the house from the shed (long story).  This played a pretty big toll on me throughout the day.  
It was a 7 mile hike round-trip and about a 2000 foot change in elevation.  The first mile and a half was a breeze.  I was hopping up on rocks, playing with the dogs, screaming for Rosie every time she'd gotten lost, and gleefully skipping over tree roots without so much as breakin' a sweat.  Then I hit a wall.  The rest of the climb up was TOUGH.  More than anything, I was having trouble breathing, which may actually have more to do with my Florida lungs being unable to cope with the altitude change than my ex-couchfriend, but whatever it was, my body was well aware that something was not right.  I was huffing and puffing and sweatin' bullets.  

Once we made it to Calloway peak, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees and the wind was kickin'!  It was well worth every drop of sweat and strained breath and every step of every mile to earn the view we saw from that mountain top.  It was clear, blue skies with near perfect visibility.  The five of us sat on the boulder we'd just climbed up and soaked it in for a while before heading back.  

Dog of the Year

Well... the four of us... Rosie got stuck on the ladder and just kinda stared at the ground for a while til Jen untangled her.  

Monday, October 11, 2010

Linville Falls, NC

During our stay in Boone, we were lucky enough to have our friend Jen as our personal tour guide.  When we weren't out gallivanting and partying at her house, we were checking out the natural attractions to see in the area (which were more than plentiful).

Linville Falls is located on the Blue Ridge Parkway about an half-hour to an hour from Boone.  We hiked around the park and saw the falls from several different points.  The falls were breathtaking from all angles... words cannot describe, so I'll just post a bakers buttload of pictures for all to see.

Our friend Jen and her dog Djinni