11 January 2014

Flyin' by the seat of our pants...

Have I mentioned that I am not good at details sometimes? It's a little funny - in my "normal" life I am the usual somewhat anal, always OCD Engineer type. But the weekends? Well, sometimes it's kinda fun to not plan anything & see what happens. Sometimes you just end up chasing your tail trying to find a trail to hike, but other times it all falls together, in some sort of fashion. This weekend was one of those times.

It was forecast to rain all weekend, so I was not overly enthused to be planning a backpack trip, but I brought my backpack as well as my day pack with me as I went to Cleveland, TN for a friend's retirement lunch. After all, you never know. And surprisingly enough, the forecast was revised Friday nite showing clear & sunny by 3 PM! So....where to go? In my quest to be a 900 miler (i.e. hike all 900 miles of trails in the Smokies) I am always looking for new trails. After a quick check of the GSMNP backcountry reservation site, we decided to get another piece of the trail up to Gregory Bald. More specifically, the Gregory Bald Trail to campsite #13.

Looking across Cades Cove towards our destination!
Knowing Parsons Branch Rd would be closed for winter, we figured we would have a few miles of a road walk to get to the trailhead, but, as usual, we did not count on the deer jams in the Cove. At the late hour of 2:30 PM we finally arrived at the Ranger Station at the far end of Cades Cove, only to find the road gate closed! I guess I should not have been surprised - the Little River was as high as I had ever seen it - but I didn't realize the road to Gregory Ridge Trail would be closed due to rain. 

Brian walks alongside a raging Parsons Branch
After a quick check at the Ranger Station, we find this will only add another 2.2 miles to our 3.5 mile road walk. It's 2:30 PM & sunset is at 5:30 PM (as our helpful Ranger reminds us!)...so....why does the scene from Blues Brothers pop into my mind? 

It's 5.7 miles to the trailhead, we got a full MSR Dromedary of water, half a pack of ShotBloks, it's almost dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.  Hit it.

This part of the road walk was not bad - we actually made good time. It was a bit of a boost when we made it to the 2nd gate in under 40 minutes with full packs. Now on to the road walk we were expecting...

This part of the road was a little bit harder for me. It was disheartening to hike up a huge hill only to lose all the elevation gain by hiking downhill again.  But I did have a little fun when we came across a grader parked alongside the road. 

I call it "Taming the wild grader". 

Eventually we came to a low water crossing that required changing to water shoes. Even though it was quite warm at this point, no way could I imagine crossing water over a foot deep. I love my Keen boots, but had no desire to hike another 4 miles uphill with them being wet.   Soon after we came to the trailhead & I started on new miles!

Again, I was surprised at the amount of water on the trails. Even small crossings were running pretty well. But the trail itself was very nice - long gradual grades & very well drained for the majority of the way. We had to watch the sunset while hiking, but did make it to #13 with enough light to gather firewood & set up the tent. 

It got a little colder than I expected overnite. Remember my lack of planning problem? I left my down jacket & mittens at home, but it wasn't too bad. Only trouble was the excessive rain made it very hard to get a fire going. We were able to get a small one, but it mostly smoldered & did not kick off too much heat. Funny thing was we had a group come in even after us - a father, mother, daughter team that showed up around 9 PM. They were all also engineers - 2 electrical & 1 chemical. Poor Brian - surrounded by Engineers!

Next morning it was even colder as it had snowed some during the night. But the hoarfrost was awesome. 

At this point it was only a half mile up to Gregory Bald.....And when I say up, it was all up. But the clear views at the top....well, I only wish my camera could capture them:

From this point it was all downhill again, which tends to hurt my knees more than going up. We were treated to some great views of Cades Cove going down & it gradually warmed up enough to shed many layers. The water was still rather high for the crossing at campsite #12. High enough that I did not want to chance crossing on the downed trees with my backpack. Not sure when this bridge washed out but it appears there are no immediate plans to replace it. The water at the next trail bridge was still within a few inches of the log stringer - I am guessing it was overtopped the day before.

At this point we arrived back at Gregory Ridge trailhead. Another couple of miles of road walk & we were back at my trusty Element. 

I love it when a last minute trip comes together!

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