Backpacking... Smoky Mountain National Park 10.2007

Saturday, October 20

Danny and I are on our way to another ADVENTURE...this time we'll be backpacking for four days and three nights in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

we left Kansas around 8:30 this morning driving straight east....through a whole lot of traffic, all the way to St. Louis.

there are many different routes you can take to get to Smoky Mountain National Park and one of those is through Nashville, Tennessee.

we decided to see what a Saturday night in Nashville was like.....neither of us had been there before and we thought it would be a little like "Vegas meets Branson".

unsure which part of town to "land" in, we headed towards their downtown, which from the highway is really neat looking, all lit up with two cool bridges leading you there.

it was a beautiful night for walking around with a clear sky and warm temperatures.



there were many bars (each with it's own live band), restaurants, places to buy cowboy boots and hats, and record shops. 

this store looked really neat selling all kinds of beautiful guitars.

the people-watching was great too...

the general mass were wearing cowboy boots and hats; several street musicians "twanging" out songs;  and an unusual amount of  people walking around holding guitar cases, but no sightings of country music stars (and Danny and I would be hard-pressed to know who they were anyway, unless it was Waylon, Willie or Dolly...are they still alive?)


we spotted this brewery and couldn't pass it up (Danny had their special "Octoberfest" beer and I had a "sweet magnolia brown ale") for a beer and dinner; the photo on the right is the Country Music Hall of Fame.


it was fun to take a break from driving and hang out in a new city so full of nightlife.

we left Nashville late and kept driving east.  finally needing to rest my eyes, I pulled over in a rest stop for a quick bit of sleep.

Sunday, October 21

I left the rest stop about 4am...I LOVE driving this time of morning when it's so quiet and highways are empty (Danny was still snoozing).

I'm currently sitting in a Starbucks  parking lot waiting for them to open, near Knoxville (Danny has yet to wake up....he's a very sound sleeper!)

we'll grab some coffee as soon as they open and then drive the 20-30 miles to our trailhead in the park, check-in and start the usually hour-long-process of loading up our backpacks. 

unlike most places we backpack, back-country camping in Smoky Mountain National Park, requires reservations at each campground and shelter.

this means your hike is set so each day you know exactly how far you'll hike and exactly where you'll be camping (usually you kind of plan how far you'll go; but you have the opportunity to change your plans depending on what's going on with the weather, how tired you are, or sometimes you stop because you come to a spot that just takes your breath away and you feel so fortunate, you want to spend as much time as you can in that place; this is called "camping at large").

 we'll be on the trail starting today and won't be back out until late afternoon Wednesday, celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary while on the trail.

(guess what?  as Starbucks is just opening, they've just turned the music on and I can hear it from where I'm sitting outside.  Willie Nelson is singing

"Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys" least it's a country song I've heard before!)

we arrived in "Pigeon Forge" mid-morning and wow, what a sight to behold. 

It's like Orlando's I-drive, on super tacky steroids!  miles of storefronts selling all kinds of souvenirs, rides, shows, etc.  it's mind boggling!

we passed through as quickly as possible in drove through Gatlinburg. 

some friends had told us "not to miss it" and others had advised to drive "around it and don't go near it".  the town reminded me of a larger Estes Park (without the Rockies in the background).  compared to Pigeon Forge, it was really nice.  the store-fronts were a mixture of stone and wood, and nestled in amongst each other.  they still looked like they sold a bunch of souvenirs, had a lot of restaurants, etc., but mainly a lot of tourists.  we kept driving without stopping and went into the park and checked in with the backcountry ranger for our backpacking permit.

the ranger informed us they have been in drought conditions and it hasn't rained in two months.  our third campsite was without water; otherwise, everything was good to go.

we got our permit, drove out of the park and onto our trailhead.

all along our drive south, we didn't see very many colorful trees, but they had plenty in the park; lots of reds and orange leaves.


we started our hike about 2:00 pm and had about 6 miles to our campsite.  the weather was beautiful, and the skies were filled with sun. 

on our way up the trail we found this really cool "rock house" was huge!

the next thing we strolled off the path to look at was this water called "midnight hole".  the water was so clear and such a beautiful turquoise color.


Danny was rock-hopping across the stream to get a better photo (I was waiting with my camera in case he fell in!)


we found this little waterfall...I say little because it's supposed to be HUGE, but due to the current drought conditions, the water was minimal. 

this made our ten (or so) stream crossings really easy.

this is Danny on the trail

we made it to our "permitted" campsite, looked around and decided to move on.  up the trail a little ways was the really nice campsite for groups...and since there were no groups camping, we just put up our tent there.  the creek ran right below our site, so  it was easy to filter our water AND listening to water made it impossible to hear if any "wildlife" was in the area (I guess I'd rather be surprised; denial is my friend!) 


this is me, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate before dinner

we're in BEAR country.

this is the system in place for hanging all of our food and other "smellables".  it's a really nice cable system so you hang your "bear bags" in just a couple of minutes.

(I have so many memories of us and the boys hanging bear bags where there is no system; you bring your own rope and just figure out how to hang it so the bear can't get it; this has sometimes been hysterical to watch; sometimes frightening; but always interesting!)

Monday, October 22

we both slept well (no bears came to visit) and didn't get up too was totally dark until almost 8 am. 

after breakfast, we left the campsite around 10 am and started hiking the six miles to our next campsite. 

we spotted this waterfall just off the trail (photo on the left).  the photo on the right doesn't do this 200' rock's called the "waterslide".  it really was amazing, and I'm sure (if there hadn't been a drought) seeing water rushing down this gigantic rock would have been spectacular.  as it was however, there was about a cup of water running off the very bottom of the rock next to the trail.



then the trail began to climb...and climb...and climb.  we were both dripping wet with sweat, but were perplexed at being unable to see any views of the smoky mountains.   the trees were so thick, only a couple of times could you see any views...and here they are!



the climb grew monotonous with so few views to distract us from the task of climbing higher and higher.  right before our last mile, IT BEGAN TO RAIN (did someone say there was a drought?)

so, added to our sweat-soaked clothes and hair, we got even more wet. 

we hiked down hill the last mile, so it went pretty fast.  tonight we're supposed to stay in a shelter and to say the least, I was a little skeptical (I have read so many books about hiking the Appalachian Trail and read about how all the shelters are filled with stinky strange people and MICE...lots of MICE...that run over your sleeping bags as you sleep.  even the guy we met in the parking lot before we began this backpack trip, said he would NEVER stay in a shelter because of the mice).  as we arrived, we were the only people there and at first glance it looked like a prison cell (the fence on the front is to keep the bears out).  

about 20 minutes after we arrived (no mice spotted yet) a young couple from Asheville asked us if it would be okay if they stayed there too...they didn't have a reservation, but we didn't care.

I casually asked her if she'd ever stayed in a shelter before...she said "yes"...and I casually asked if she'd encountered problems with herds of mice....or just one mouse?...she said "no"

there names are Anna and Erin and they are students in Asheville (an no, they didn't stink; they were really nice and good "shelter-mates")

it really was nice to be inside while it DOWN-POURED (did someone say there was a drought?) and knowing we wouldn't have to pack up wet gear the next morning.


today Danny and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary...we had red wine, minestrone soup, spinach and ricotta tortellini with sun dried tomatoes.  the rain had dwindled to a mist when we started eating, but by our second course was raining pretty good again (did someone say there was a drought?)


we cleaned up and tucked ourselves in our nice, dry, mouse-less shelter for the night.  we both read a little and then closed our eyes for a good nights sleep

(one of us slept, the other was waiting for the mice to come...but they never did!)

the rain came down in torrents and the wind howled all night long.

Tuesday, October 23

since we had hiked up high and above any creeks, the water source at this shelter was a spring that was about 1/8 mile hike down from the shelter....and it was just a trickle.  this is when you don't take water for granted.

the photo below shows a few trickles of water going into the pan, then we filter it into a bottle.

since we had a 5.4 miles to hike today, and our third campsite would have no water, we had to filter more than the 4 liters we usually carry...Danny was going to carry an additional 3 liters (about 6 pounds extra)

nothing dried overnight, but it wouldn't matter...there was a steady drizzle and heavy mist that followed us out of camp.  the trees were still so thick, that even when it wasn't raining, when the wind blew (which it did a lot) the trees above your head, showered you with water. the first 4 miles of our hike today was all downhill.  the trail was so slick.....slick rocks, slick tree roots and tons of slick leaves.  we both "almost" fell dozens of times and it was really hard on the knees and feet sliding off all these obstacles.  even with that, we made good time going down...then we had to climb up. 

we still had 1.4 miles to go...and all up hill...with all the same obstacles (slick things are not any easier to hike going up than they are going down!)

we were hiking to the top of Mt. Sterling...the highest point in the park...surely there would be a view.  however, we were not being optimistic because of the had started to rain on us again (did someone say there was a drought?)  we had heard there was a fire tower on the top, but no one we talked to had ever seen a clear view from it.  as we huffed and puffed and reached the top of the mountain, a man was standing there looking up (rather sadly) at the tower.  it seems he had been there before and never seen a view.  today he was back there again, had already climbed the tower, and still no view.  he said good-bye and hiked back down the hill.  this is the tower...and the "white" sky behind it.


Danny decided to climb up the tower a little ways and take a picture of the view....HERE IT IS!


so, now thoroughly drenched (rain on the outside; sweat on the inside), we talked about abandoning our "campsite-in-the-rain-with-no-view", and continuing to hike all the way down the mountain and back to the car.

we knew this would be a long and painful "haul" would be a total for the day of 11.5 miles (with full backpacks) and 10.4 miles of that would be down hill; the last 6.1 being 4000' feet down. and that's what we decided to do.

as the rain briefly let up, Danny is trying to dry out both his rain jacket and his shirt and trying to drink a lot of water (see now that we weren't camping an additional night, we didn't need quite so much water and yet we can't get ourselves to just throw it he's trying to drink it!)

since there were no views looking out, I thought this was a most spectacular-colored tree on the trail (I was trying to make the most of an icky situation)


Danny stopped on the trail to wait for me (I was really struggling and going slow on all the slick obstacles still) and spotted some wildlife (he was trying to make the most of an icky situation)


the next time he was waiting for me, he had found this tree with this bizarre growth on it....but it was kind of neat looking


about 2 miles before the end of our backpacking in the smoky mountains, the sun briefly made an appearance and at about the same time there was a break in the we took this photo.


the last couple of miles were really hard on our feet and knees, as we knew it would be.  we were dirty and wet and most of our gear was damp too.

I took of my boots, zipped off the bottom of my hiking pants, put on my chacos, and headed back over to the creek.  I rinsed out my hair and stuck my aching feet in the cold felt great.

(a short discussion about rumors, fears, and negative anticipation:

  see, I had heard and read so much about the bears, wild feral pigs and ramped mice in the shelters, that I was a bit nervous about this trip.  this is definitely a lesson in not letting any of those things persuade you from not pursing something you really want to do...none of them came to be....and for that, I'm truly grateful!) 

we loaded up our gear, and headed towards Asheville, North Carolina, about 60 miles east.

the drive between our trail head and Asheville was really pretty...just miles of small mountains covered in beautiful fall colored trees. 

we were off to find "Asheville Pizza and Brewpub" which I had read about before our trip and our "shelter-mates" had confirmed they had both great beer and great pizza...and we weren't disappointed.

Danny had their Shiva IPA and I had their Ninja Porter (ummmm good) and the pizza was wonderful with portabella mushrooms, spinach, feta cheese, artichoke hearts all on a parmesan crust.  (they also had a guy who walked around with a t-shirt that said "balloon guy".  for the little girl next to our table, he made this great big green and purple butterfly...very entertaining!)

we popped for a hotel room tonight, and Danny is showered and shaved and all sweet smelling reading his book now.

I'm none of those things......yet.

so now I'm off to hot water, lots of soap and shampoo and good nights sleep.

 tomorrow we tour Asheville.

one last word tonight: as I write this, it's pouring down rain outside....guess the drought is over.

Wednesday, October 24

it took awhile to get going this morning...all those muscles, joints, and bones were still "talking" to us after yesterday's hike.

but once we were up, we jumped in the car (well, more like hobbled to the car) and began our first full day in Asheville.

we'd stayed downtown and so after driving just a few blocks, went by a restaurant I'd read about while researching this we stopped for breakfast.

it's the Tupelo Honey Cafe.

it was wonderful!...we shared a fabulous sweet potato pancake with pecans,

(hey Jill, Mona, Sherri, Susie and Wendy doesn't this bring back great memories?  are you all smiling as you read this?)

and I also had biscuits and gravy (hard to find vegetarian b&g), Danny had eggs and bacon too. and really good coffee from an Asheville roasterie.


our next stop was the visitors center and to find a better place to stay for tonight.  after picking up a gazillion brochures, we chose these little cabins.  we phoned the place, and the woman on the other end was really so nice and offered to show them to us before we booked. we drove out there, and were a bit skeptical when we saw them.  the housekeeper met us and showed us a couple of different cabins...we really liked this's named....don't laugh...."the hillbilly" (and yes, it does have little bitty white christmas lights strung on the porch.

we then met the woman we'd spoken with on the phone, and she was again super nice to visit with.  our little cabin is at the end of the road, next to the woods.  she told us it was special, one couple had been coming here for 25 years staying in "our" cabin.  she also told us of a movie filmed here in these cabins (way back when) with Robert Mitchum titled "Thunder Road".  (it's now on our "to rent" list).  this is the oldest "motor court" in North Carolina.


so we plunked down our mastercard, got the key and unloaded all of our damp gear, spreading it out and about to dry while we left for the day.

one of the places we were headed to was the River Art's District.  they've taken all of these old, ugly warehouse-type buildings and converted them into these wonderful art studios.

quite a few were closed, some are only open to the public on the weekends, but we struck gold....

the ones that were opened had working artists in them who really enjoyed talking about their was super-cool!

two of the artists this building housed were potters; a husband and wife.  

she was really friendly and told us about other studios "not to miss" including one that housed a famous artist who recently moved to Asheville.


we ended up touring several more of these studios that combined artists that work in many different mediums.


we found the famous artist's studio and his name is Jonas Gerard.  his work is very abstract and full of color. we both thought is was neat, but then near the back of the gallery, we watched a video of him "performing and painting" while listening to fast-paced music in front of a group of people.  he was really into it and it was fascinating to watch.

we were quietly speaking to each other with big smiles on our faces about his performance, and all of a sudden he appeared from around the corner, stuck out his hand and introduced himself.  it was way, way cool!  he took his time to visit with us and we loved talking to him.  the photo on the far left is the front of his studio (you can see one of his paintings on the left wall); the middle photo is one of his metal sculptures and the lamp on the right was one of my favorite pieces.

his friend and studio-partner is also a painter and photographer and he told her "there was a couple in the studio visiting from Kansas" and she came out to find us and introduced herself...she's originally from Kansas too and still has lots of family there.  we discussed some of her photography, particularly photos taken in Arizona & Utah of the slot canyons (Danny and I have been talking about backpacking there someday).


one of the other really cool studios we visited made porcelain ware...they were so beautiful.  the girl there gave us a lesson on porcelain and how this particular gallery's designs all come from lace----all kinds of lace.  and they had the most gorgeous variety from all over the world.  she even demonstrated it for us (they actually lay the lace on top of the porcelain clay and using a rolling pin, transfer the design as well as the texture.  they'll even take lace or doilies from customers wedding gowns, or heirlooms to use to design pieces. it was so much fun to learn all about this craft.  also in the same studio, they had these little fabric pictures...they're not drawn or painted, they're stitched with a sewing really fine detail.  I thought they were really neat.

one of the last studios we visited, sold pottery.  the artist told us her bowls were "singing" bowls and then demonstrated:  she took a thick wooden stick, about 8" long and about 1 1/2" around and started going around and around the top edge of the bowl....and this really beautiful sound came from the was amazing. then she "played" another bowl, and an equally beautiful but different sound came from it...and then another bowl.  it was hard to believe you were "listening" to!

down by the river in one of the parks, they were have a sculpture showing. 

it had stopped raining just as we got there, so we walked all through the park, just the two of us and enjoyed all the different sculptures.



this is the French Broad River that runs around Asheville (no doubt running higher today than a few days ago since there's been almost a constant rain since Monday) 


after leaving the Art's District, we wanted to see a little of the historic downtown.  we visited this very eclectic shop call the "LOFT"...Lost Object Found Treasures....I laughed out loud as I looked down and spotted this:

(this is a mate to Jill's headless whisk....they have "tacky" in NC just as they do in Dallas!...if you don't get this you can read about it in the link to "birthday road trip")    


after leaving the "LOFT" we headed across the street to "Bruisin' Ales...a high-gravity world of brews" and picked out some bottles of beer from the local Highland Brewery to bring back to Kansas.

our next stop was dinner.  "Salsa" had been recommended to us by a couple of locals and was within walking distance, so that's where we went.

the food was really good and really different.  I would highly recommend it, but the portions are too big for one person. 

Danny had the "Veggie Chorizo Paquetez" which is a crisp filled tortilla packet with sour cream, grilled vegetarian "sausage" eggplant, roasted peppers, goat cheese, cilantro and guava bbq sauce; I ordered the "pumpkin empanada" with wild mushrooms, roasted onions and garlic, spinach and curried pineapple sauce.  it was very, very good.

and for entertainment, one of the wait staff did two cool things: 

1.  placed his left arm, out from his shoulder, bent it 90 degrees and placed an empty glass on it.  then he took a

pitcher of water and filled the glass, set the pitcher down, and delivered the filled glass to his customer; and (this one really blew my mind)

2.  he brought out a plate of food on the palm of his hand that a customer had ordered (and this was mounded and stacked high),

turned his palm inward and under his arm, back around to the outside, and back to come full-circle and then set it down on the table.....weird but cool

(it doesn't take a lot to make ME smile)


we left the restaurant, full and happy and had yet another stop before the night was over.  the "French Broad Brewing Co" was down near Biltmore Village.

they don't serve food, but they do have a tasting room with live music every night.  the band playing tonight was a bluegrass band named "brushfire trio" and they were fun to listen to.

the beer was really, really good too.  Danny had the "13 Rebels ESB Ale" and I had the "Rosebud Harvest Porter".


we've had such a wonderful day, in spite of the constant drizzle and continued rain. 

our last stop was for a cup of coffee and then back to our little cabin near the woods.

Danny built this wonderful, warm fire when we got back.  we're all tucked in cozy, reading over all our brochures and planning our next adventure tomorrow.


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