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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.