Hike and Camp to Gregory Bald-Great Smoky Mountains

My friend Brenda and I decided to do our first ever camp out in the Smoky Mountains to be at campsite #12. Well, actually, the original plan was campsite #13 but in true ‘Lori’ fashion we, or I, was running somewhat late the morning we left (only by two hours). I just figured we would figure it all out when we got there ( I would like to insert here that if you are at all a type A person you will hate me). I had already reserved 13 but figured it would be no big deal to change it.

The plan was to camp and then go up to Gregory Bald the next morning. We stopped at the ranger station at Cades Cove and went in to see if we could change our reservations. The ranger had only been on the job two weeks and really could not tell us anything. We were looking for a less worse hike. Meaning, one that would not kill us like the one we had originally planned. He was zero help. But he did direct us to the phone on the porch where we could call the number that handles the reservations and they would be able to help us out. The ranger on the phone was very helpful and said that Campsite 12 would be a little over two miles in and then about 3 1/2 up to the bald. So, on his recommendation, we switched to that campsite.

To get to the trailhead you will need to go half way thru Cades Cove. The road to the trailhead is next to the visitors center. Stop there to do one last restroom stop and well, look around. Cades Cove is a gorgeous drive, but it is a one way road and once you are in it you are in it. If traffic comes to a standstill it is likely because a bear has been spotted and everyone is jumping out of their cars to get a picture.

IMG_0061

IMG_0059

IMG_0055

8cabin

The hike in was very nice. They had recently gone through and cut back the rhododendrons and the clippings were laying all over the trail. I bet it would have been nice to walk through the tunnel I am sure they made before being cut. We were on the lookout for bears. The Smokies are filled with them. We saw none but every.single.hiker we met had seen one on trail. Figures. I would like to see one…from a distance and preferably with about 15 other people where I could be securely stuck in the middle of said 15 people.

77C81227-90B5-42DF-9726-CB17B28E3733

94

A996DCBA-94F8-4893-9948-2FE5451B10815550A6E9-A418-4DA4-9617-E4E93C238BC9

Anyways, the trail had three little bridge crossings. The bridges are the ones where a huge log has been cut in half and then a railing added on one side. I don’t know why, but I LOVE these bridges.

GB1

6B2522B0-188B-4C3F-AE94-78E62A9AF04FC90009BE-D011-4415-ACE9-672323BB62AD

10

bridge2

While the hike in was not all that difficult, my hip flexor issue was raring its ugly head and I was even slower than usual. That meant I was hiking just slightly faster than a dead person would have been.  Brenda is a good sport and usually doesn’t get too far ahead. Hence the reason I always get backside shots of her. On occasion I will try to get in front, but most of the time it’s not worth the effort.

D2B1D9B4-8F73-47F8-A2E7-307E7BFA9756

We get to camp and start setting up. I set up in one place and then changed my mind and moved. The trees were a little bit too close together on the first site I chose, which had been closer to Brenda’s tent. Instead, I moved way across from her to some better spaced trees. Now, those who are ground dwellers might be saying ‘see, hammocks are a pain. You have to find the perfect trees to hang from.’ While it is true that the spacing does matter, I will still choose it over tent camping any day. With tents you have to find a smooth, level spot. With hammocks, even if there are no trees I can always go to ground if needed. It is quite easy to sit up my tarp with my trekking poles and sleep that way.

15

I store my stuff in the bottom of the bug net. I put my shoes, camera bag and sit pad in there when not needed. My backpack got hung on bear cables.

11bb

This was the first time I had ever hung my entire back pack. I normally do the old fashioned throw a rope over a branch using a rock method and I would ONLY hang my food bag. We decided not to chance anything tearing up our packs and just hung the whole thing using the cable system the park provide. It was so easy to use. We also left our packs here the next morning when we hiked up to the bald using just our day packs.

12

Brenda was using her new Big Agnes tent. I don’t know which one this is. It looked very small to me though. I even loaned her a string of lights. I love lights on tents and hammocks. I just think it makes for a really pretty camping scene.

For breakfast I had brought oatmeal. I am sure it would have been delicious had I not kicked it over.

Oh, I want to mention my little stove. I got it at Academy Sports for under $20 and I love it. It’s the Magellan Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking Stove. The propane is sold separately.

IMG_0106

There is a really good water source at campsite 12. However, it is the LAST water source when going up to Gregory Bald. I highly recommend taking at least two large water bottles or at least a 3 liter bladder with you on the hike up. Granted, it was very hot and humid on the day we went. I took two liters and ran out. The hike up is extremely strenuous.

The hike from the campsite to the top of the bald is 3.6 miles. That is 3.6 HARD miles with the last .6 being the most difficult. I believe the ranger said the elevation gain is about 750 feet per mile or something like that. When we started out the next morning my hip flexor was really hurting. About ten minutes in I told Brenda I didn’t think I could do it. I was in more pain than I had ever been in while hiking. I was almost in tears. She looked so disappointed. So, I took 3 extra strength ibuprofen and told her I would try for another thirty minutes, but if that did not help the pain I was going to have to turn back. Remember, the hike out from the campsite is two miles. I was sensing that if I tried to continue on in that much pain I was going to do some serious damage to that muscle. She agreed and on we went. It was a much slower go than I normally move. Hills and I have a hate hate relationship. There is nothing about a hill I like. However, the meds kicked in and the pain went away so on we went.  I started doing the ‘rest step’ on the way up and it really did seem to make it easier. Well, actually less worse.

Here is a good video demonstrating the Rest Step.

E7224D0D-68C3-4E9F-AE19-01CD771FE5F354EA2FFE-6690-44BE-93D5-FE3F63E94C6C0D17E703-88DB-4BD5-A2AF-9C4577C4871B

13

It really is impossible to show the steepness in a photo.

6A001516-C5C3-40F4-A3A6-D8650563478432076624-9E1F-4EE6-A224-4F13C5FD9477E7678606-FEA6-4EB7-AECC-97BDE19ED159D829CA1E-BCEA-487C-B1DA-F8A0B381444F84D2CA87-21AB-4D35-A5D9-31304819CAA9

On the way up we got a couple of views thru the trees.

190034B7-614B-4D63-A056-0A8D329B094C54EA2FFE-6690-44BE-93D5-FE3F63E94C6C

Once we made it to the top the trail forks. You can go left or right. We went right. I have to say that, while it is beautiful, I was not wow’d by it. It could be that my pain was back and I was also concerned with the time. I had an almost 4 hour drive home and work the next morning. We walked up and chatted with a couple of hikers who were resting. They had come up from campsite 13 and said it was a really hard hike. The ranger had told me that it was more difficult than coming from campsite 12 so I was glad that I switched sites. The blueberries were all just about gone and there zero flowers. We hiked over to where the marker was and sat down to rest and eat a bite.

16m

Where we rested was a small grove of trees. I hoped up after a few and went in to look around. It was pretty neat. There was bear scat and holes where they had been digging.  I have never seen branches like this.

D6865153-19B6-45B7-AF76-7ADEB67D6178IMG_0137IMG_0136

The views were as expected. We did not explore as much as we would have wanted to. We were both pretty tired and it was one of the hottest days of the year.

gb3GB272FB7068-1536-4E82-B15A-163110B74753

I popped three more ibuprofen and we headed back down after about 30 minutes on the bald. The hike down went considerably faster than going up.

Day one consisted of a 2.3 mile hike. My Alltrails recording is here.

Day two was 9.9. It was from the campsite to the bald and then back to the car. My Alltrails recording is here.

Other than the limitations of my own body, it was a very nice trip. I can’t say enough good about the Smokies and the rangers there. They are very helpful and the area is just beautiful.  Brenda and I enjoyed it so much that we are going to attempt to be part of the 900 miler club. It will take me eons to accomplish this since I live 4 hours away, but it’s still good to have goals and well, why not just try it?

And that’s it.

Happy Hiking!

Lori

My First Solo Camping Trip

I had planned this forever. And every time the day would come a bad storm would be in the forecast. I have just about decided it’s better to just go on the fly rather than ‘plan’ a camping trip. And, as in every other time, I planned and then a storm changed my plans.

I had decided I would do a two night/three day hiking trip back up to the Grayson Highlands. I would camp two nights in the Mt. Rogers area (remember, no camping in Grayson Highlands State Park).  When I first decided on this I told no one; not even my husband. About a week prior I finally told him and my nephew. I anxiously watched the weather every day and, sure enough, the rain chances increased daily. I decided that if it got up to a better than 50% chance of rain I would try to do something different. While I have hiked/camped in the rain several times with friends, I had no desire to hike alone in what would probably end up being a pretty foggy, dreary hike.

So, now what? I decided on a camping spot I had been to on two previous camp-outs with friends.  Savage Gulf it was and on to the Alum Gap campsites I went.  The rain was still in the forecast. Actually, really bad storms were in the forecast. However, I was so familiar and at ease with the area I just figured to heck with it and just decided I HAD to do this.

map

B9F41064-2706-4194-B71C-FA98F9E81277

It is a relatively easy 2.9 mile hike in on the Laurel Trail and had rained some just prior to getting on trail so it was pretty muddy in spots. If it had not been around 300% humidity it would have been a pleasant hike. As it was, it was quite buggy and, by the time I got to camp, I was completely drenched. I looked like I had been hiking in the rain for hours.

The camping spots are huge and spaced out nicely. This makes for an excellent beginner camping trip. There are plenty of trees for hammocks..which is what I use and the tent spots are mostly level. Why would you want to tent? I still don’t understand it.

I arrived at campsite #7. Everything was soaking wet so I knew there would be no campfire. I was a little bummed about that, but on the upside I didn’t have to mess with cutting up any wood. I had left my stool at home and I really don’t care to sit on the ground if I can help it. I decided to just go ahead and start setting up my rig so I would have a place to sit and eat dinner.

Up She went. I have a Grand Trunk double hammock that I absolutely love. I recently bought an Eno Junglenest single hammock with built in bug net. It was too tight for me. I am so used to all the extra space in the double that I gave the Eno to my husband.

hammock1

The bug net is a Live Infinitely that I got on Amazon for $25 bucks! I LOVE it! It is so easy to set up. It’s easy to get in and out of. The zipper had two pulls that go all the way up and down. I store my hiking shoes in the bottom of it, along with other odds and ends.

Next up is the tarp. I have the ENO Housefly tarp with doors. I cannot say enough good things about this tarp. If you choose to put it in storm mode it really cinches down nicely and gives you, not only protection, but also privacy. For this trip I kept it in porch mode the whole time for maximum airflow. I did angle one corner down when the rain started so it would run off. There was no wind whatsoever, so no need to go full storm mode.

hammock2

Excuse the mess. My poor backpack. She’s filthy. The two blue things are a cheap Wal-Mart sleep pad that I cut in half to make sit pads. They work wonderfully and come in handy for other things. The one rolled up in the bottom of the bug net has my hiking shoes in the middle. I thought if a big rain came it would keep them dry. I could hang them from the ridge line, but that would be too much trouble. Before turning in, it would all be tidied up.

hammock3

The rest of my system consists of a Nature Hike down sleeping bag. It is around a 40 degree bag. Overkill for the night, but it was a lighter option than my Nemo 22 degree. I also do not have an underquilt yet. It’s next on my list. I use a Big Agnes Air Core Inflatable Sleeping Pad. It is very comfortable and keeps my backside nice and warm so I do not suffer from frozen butt syndrome. There is also a pillow that I HATE. I have yet to find a good camping pillow. I have used inflatable and the ones that are filled with some squishy something. ALL are too small and just irritating.

Dinner was the run of the mill Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings. It was pretty good. I honestly wasn’t all that hungry. I had been while setting up, but the hunger passed the longer I waited. I didn’t even eat half of it.

I would have slept if it had not been so blasted hot and muggy. The air, literally, just sat  there, even with some pretty wild thunder and lightening. I finally dozed off around 3 am just out of shear exhaustion.

I woke up around 6. Heated up some oatmeal that was some fancy steel-cut oats with seeds. I hated it. It tasted like I was eating birdseed. I opted for a breakfast bar while I was tearing down. By 7 I was packed up and ready to go. on the way out I decided to just go ahead and finish up the loop, rather than go back the way I came. I did the 4 mile trek back to the parking lot. I had hoped to have a reprieve from the humidity by leaving early. No such luck. It was just as bad at 7 am as it was at 7 pm.

The part of the trail that I took out is called Big Creek Rim trail (BCR). It skirts along the rim and in and out of the woods. It was a beautiful hike out.

overlook

And, of course, my phone battery went dead not long after this picture was taken.

I survived my first solo camping trip. No bears or bigfoot were seen and there were no serial killers in the vicinity. Now I feel like I can do more. The fear of going solo has been the thing that has kept me from many camping trips. No more. I will always push myself to do what is uncomfortable or even downright scary, for as long as I can at least.

What I Learned On My First Multi-Night Camping Trip While Hiking Grayson Highland State Park and Carver’s Gap to 19E on The Appalachian Trail.

mountaingraphic

The plan was simple. Just get a few girlfriends together and camp out two nights around Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. Really. That’s all it was. It was THAT simple. Camping and hiking with the wild ponies of Grayson. It wasn’t a crazy idea. Lots of folks do it. I have watched the videos for years. So, what could possibly go wrong?

 

Lesson 1.

     Count on the unexpected

bear

After countless hours planning out the camping and the route we would take during the hike, I decided that I should call the rangers office at Grayson just to be sure that everything was good to go for back country camping. There is NO CAMPING inside the boundaries of Grayson Highland State Park. You have to hike over towards the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Center or the George Washington or Jefferson National Forest areas to do the camping.

When I called on a Monday and asked about the overnight parking lot and back country camping she said, ‘Oh, they have closed off that entire area to back country camping because of bear activity. You can camp in the actual campground, but not in the back country.”

Wha?

She said they had just closed it off on Friday.

Now what? So, I began trying to figure out how we could do this. I did not want to stay in an actual campground. I really wanted to get out away from tons of people and just really be able to take in nature. The alternative plan I came up with  sounded like that would be the case. It turned out to be anything but that.

Lesson 2.

    Keep the itinerary small

After going over things in my head and knowing the area a ‘little’ from the previous years day hiking I had done out there, I came up with an alternate plan. While it was doable, in retrospect, it really was too much for a 4 day trip.

I desperately wanted to keep Grayson in the mix if at all possible. I also had come with the a doozy of a second hike. I thought, what if we did Grayson one day and then drove down to Roan Mountain, back in Tennessee, to hike the section of the Appalachian Trail from Carver’s Gap to 19E. This is the section that a lot of thru-hikers consider to be one of the prettiest of the AT.  Yes! That’s it! WE CAN DO IT!

So, after many, many revisions the following plan came together.

Day 1. Thursday. Leave late, after work, grab a drive thru dinner, go to a campsite two hours away called Rhea Springs Campground in Spring City, Tn. The reason was the drive to Grayson was 5 hours and it would be too much for me after having worked all day.

Day 2. Friday. Get up in Spring City and drive the 3 hours to Grayson. Arrive early and hike to Mt. Rogers and then back to the car. Mileage would be around 9-10 miles depending on trails. Leave Grayson and drive to Mtn. Harbor Hostel in Roan Mountain, TN  to tent camp and then ride their shuttle to Carver’s Gap at 10 am on Saturday morning.

Day 3. Saturday. Get up, eat, take shuttle to Carver’s Gap and begin the hike to Overmountain Shelter. 5.9 miles and camp there for the night.

Day 4. Sunday. Leave Overmountain Shelter and hike ten miles back to Mtn. Harbor and my car. Go grab a burger and head home..four hour drive.

Simple, huh? Yeah. Simple.

Lesson 3.

     Not everything on the internet is as perfect as it sounds

I am cheap. Really cheap. Like I pretty much look for free whenever possible. So, I thought there has to be free campsites available. I found a website called FreeCampsites.net .  It’s a neat little website. Who knew that most Walmarts allow free camping in their parking lots for RV’s and cars? I did not want to stay in a Walmart parking lot in my car. You can plan out an entire trip using this site. If I had an RV this would definitely come in handy. I was looking for a site somewhere near I40 east two hours from Lebanon, TN. I found one and the reviews made it sound like I had hit pay dirt on a great site. So, down on paper went the Rhea Springs Campground campsite for our very late arrival on Thursday night.

The campsite. We roll in very, very late to a packed campground. There are lots of RV’s and tents and zero spots to park. I ended up parking right next to the bathrooms. Kristie had driven her own car and opted to just sleep in hers and another, that rode with me, decided to sleep in my car. Another set up her tent and another and myself opted to find some place to throw up our hammocks.

We all settle in and then it starts. First, the nuts falling from the trees hitting the top of the bathrooms; then the train that went by at least twice an hour. There was talking of other campers that I could hear from my hammock. And so it went all.night.long. I turned on my white noise on my phone on full blast and stuck it up by my ear. I fell asleep and woke up suddenly at 6:46. The plan had been to leave by 6.

We got out of there around 8:30 or so.

Lesson 4

     Be Flexible

I knew from our oversleeping that the full hike to Mt. Rogers was not going to happen. In all reality I knew it had to be changed. I had looked at the map for hours and hours over the course of the previous weeks so I loosely had an idea of what we could change to make the hike still doable and not kill us all in miles. We ended up doing just over 7 miles. We hit the trail at 11:44 and ended around 5:15.

Lesson 5

     Enjoy the Journey

Remember the whole reason you are there and just go with the flow. So much goes into planning one of these trips and you are at the mercy of not only nature, but of parks, traffic, and weather. If your trip changes on the fly just remember that you will still see amazing things and you can still have a great time.

Grayson Highland State Park, Mouth of Wilson, VA

Our Route:

  • Parked at Massie Gap
  • Followed the Appalachian Trail until it intersected with the Crest Trail
  • Crest Trail as it turned into a horse trail and then followed signs to  back to Massie Gap
  • Click here for my Alltrails Map

The trail was very hard in certain spots. You have to climb up on huge boulders as you follow the Appalachian Trail. Give yourself plenty of time, not just for resting, but for picture-taking. It is breathtaking.

I believe we saw about 4 or 5 different ‘herds’ of ponies throughout the park. They are very laid back and I am pretty sure they are used to being the main attraction. They seemed to stop and pose for photos.

3512345689101112131516192025282930313233343536373839404142434445474648495051525354

Next Stop Mountain Harbor Hostel, Roan Mountain, TN

Click here for my Alltrails map of Carver’s Gap to the OverMountain Shelter

Click here for my Alltrails map of OverMountain Shelter to 19E

IMG_2280

IMG_1889IMG_7663IMG_0971IMG_5455IMG_4707IMG_4969IMG_4096

We drove a couple of hours south and arrived around 8:30 at Mtn .Harbor. It is located just off of 19E and if you are like me you will probably drive right past it and have to turn around. The gravel driveway brings you to the parking area and the bed and breakfast sits on the top of the hill while the Hostel sits to the right of the parking lot. The tent camping area is behind the hostel. It’s a short walk back to the woods from the hostel. The parking fee for you car is $10 and the tent camping fee is $10. You get the use of the hostel with that $10 and one free shower ( I believe to sleep inside it there is an additional fee.) There is also a laundry room with three washers and dryers that you can use.

The camping area was cramped. There were several campers already set up and it was hard for three of us to find good trees to hang hammocks from. We did find some, but it was a little difficult at night. 19E runs RIGHT next to the camping area and it was very loud all night. I can’t remember ever hearing about this in any of the reviews or videos I have watched on YouTube. Had I known just how loud I am not sure we would have stayed in the camping area. We probably would have opted for the hostel or maybe even a hotel.

 

IMG_2286

You need to be sure to make reservations for the shuttle a week or so in advance. They fill up quickly. That’s why our time was 10:00. It was ok to start at that time because we did get to the Overmountain Shelter way before dark, but I don’t think I would have wanted to start much later than that.

IMG_1532

The drive was 20 or so minutes to get from Mtn. Harbor to Carver’s Gap. As usual, the area was packed.  We unloaded and we were off.

From the get go, the hike to the Roan Highlands is uphill. We were passed by several groups of kids and teenagers that seemed to not have any problem whatsoever trekking on up the hills. Oh, to be young again. As usual, I was the last in line. My group doesn’t necessarily follow the hiking rule of letting the slowest person set the pace up front (for the very reason as to not leave them behind). I usually tell them to just go ahead because I am so slow. Hills kill me. I hate them. I really, really hate them. If everyone were behind me I would just be as miserable as they would be.  For this reason, I pretty much hike large sections by myself. Which is fine. I tell them to if there is a junction to stop and wait for me so we can all make sure we are going in the right direction.

From this point the photos are not necessarily in order.

IMG_4304IMG_2291

555657

58596061626364656667686971727374757677

This was the sunset from OverMountain Shelter. It was gorgeous!! Leave it to me to pick a weekend when every scout on the planet would be there. There was a sea of tents and a bazillion kids running around. They were climbing up to the loft in the barn and then climbing out of the windows. They were fun to watch and I just kept thinking what a cool memory this would be for them.

IMG_6386

B7642357-7F32-4C93-84A2-894C551503A6IMG_7516

IMG_2289

Mike and Jeff were awesome. Jeff, the younger one, had his yellow hammock in the picture. It ripped in the middle of the night and he hit the ground hard. He was ok though. Although, it did sound like the whole barn was falling down.

My friends opted to stay in the shelter on the opposite platform from Jeff. I set my hammock up outside because I knew the shelter was going to be not such a great place to sleep. WAYYYYY too noisy with people going up and down the loft steps all night.

IMG_1659IMG_2292

7879

Looking back down to Overmountain shelter after the morning climb out. This is a HARD hike. Beware. Coming out of the valley where the shelter is will be one of the hardest sections. There is a good water supply down near the shelter.

80

IMG_8958IMG_8681IMG_3438548CBF68-8BE0-4D39-BB40-88FD93DCA48A

IMG_2135IMG_2124IMG_1037IMG_1019IMG_8077IMG_1003EA0A5300-720E-4E65-97C8-E82ADE832C2EIMG_6414

IMG_4235B01641C4-709D-4C64-AB5F-C3EB3F3FD175IMG_6154IMG_4204IMG_3130IMG_2963FF0BD87A-E295-4155-88F6-3AB5DAD8E86177263A94-E64C-4FC9-9335-D1AC05203EA93667C2BE-0D0D-4858-8104-431F747FF64F9ADBBCC4-0487-42D7-BFF3-A5DF76F1B9027DFE003A-6141-4CAF-AF8B-5ADCE9943949

AD55CD64-D53D-4285-BC68-687A452E000AIMG_42356862A9E3-83DC-4C21-88E6-F349DE30444A728CC74F-8A6F-45ED-A047-ED808CC60F04412C280F-0F1E-4AA7-83C2-E9613D852C5328F647BD-7B37-42FF-A9B2-A49F4CE5E633IMG_8281IMG_7818IMG_4193IMG_0155A84068AE-CFCC-4472-896C-335248B7A371AF80A804-1EE8-4D6F-BCC3-3C1FB29E674A5440D495-CE0F-4DB1-966C-59108D9BE62603598CBD-0AA8-4274-A550-B1E03AF1A398364D738D-5D5B-4FA4-BE42-A7AA73681AF35BAA4ACE-35C6-4421-9E90-029C2FAAC114766265

At this point you can start to hear the traffic of 19E and the hike is very easy the half mile or so. Once you get to the road go to your left and road hike for about .3 miles back to Mtn. Harbor. It will be on your right.

 

EE351B0B-0ECA-413B-8B33-24A5DC8285DF

This is a trip I will never forget. It was four long days and none of us were able to really sleep well. From the awful campground in Spring City, to the noisy camping at Mtn. Harbor, by the time we finally got on the road to actually do the hike we were already exhausted. However, I can say that we all learned a lot on this trip. We know our gear much better now and most of us have already started making improvements to our systems. I know better how to plan now and what to look for in a camping area. And, I have learned to not over plan the activities. It’s better to just do one trip and do it well then it is to cram too many things into a few days.

Both of these trips are worth doing again. I want to go back and just do the Grayson sections that we didn’t see before. There are waterfalls we didn’t get to see and just more of the area that I would like to explore. I want to take my husband on both of these hikes eventhough I know it will be kicking and screaming.

But next time they will be one at a time.

Happy Hiking!