Archive for 900 Mile Challenge

Bull Head Trail to Mt. Le Conte & Rainbow Falls Trail to Roaring Fork

Posted in 900 Mile Challenge with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2014 by J.K.o

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New Miles: 13

Actual Miles Hiked: 13

Overall Progress: 100.9 out of 900 miles

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Today I sought out to conquer the Bull Head Trail, but all I got was the horns. This trail kinda sucked! Okay, it really sucked! In all fairness, it wasn’t just the trail that sucked–today was just one of those 0ff-days that everybody has while hiking. It was the kind of day when your mind and your feet don’t quite sync up and you find yourself slipping and stumbling all over the trail. I found myself thinking  feet! what is wrong with you? Why aren’t you working? Nonetheless, we, myself and my clumsy feet, made it the entirety of journey…. it just took a little longer than I had hoped.

Bull Head Trail can be accessed off the Roaring Fork motor trail near Gatlinburg, TN. I parked at the Rainbow Falls trail head with the intention of completing the 13 mile loop and getting all “new miles” for today (there aren’t many natural loops within the park, so much of the 900 Mile Challenge is spent backtracking over previous trails). I decided it would be best to hike up Bull Head trail as most folks would be hiking the other way to see the falls. It was a good decision; I only encountered 2 hikers on the way up to Le Conte. The trail starts on the side of the mountain–there’s no switchbacks, just straight up the side of the mountain. The trail was abnormally wide, so I figured it must have been an old logging road or wagon trail. Off to the side, an old stone fence stands guard–keeping in the ghosts of old cattle. It reminds me of the old Robert Frost poem, The Mending Wall.

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Onward and upward it went; did I mention straight up? This trail gained 4,000 ft of elevation over 6 miles; it was a constant uphill battle with no reprieves! To top it all off, the weather was hot and humid. I was drenched in sweat just 15 minutes into the hike. Eventually the trail started carving switchbacks into the edge of the mountain, tracing it’s circumference. About 4 miles of the trail follow under these huge rock bluffs, boasting boulders the size of bulldozers and houses.

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Views of Gatlinburg peaked through the trees on occasion. At one break in the foliage, I realized that I was hiking above the clouds–how is that for perspective?

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Eventually the trail wraps around the side of the mountain, leading to inward cove that reveals the true height of Mt. Le Conte; seeing the summit of the mountain looming before me was quite intimidating–my legs groaned in pain! It felt like I was getting nowhere. It didn’t help that this trail didn’t offer much on the side of natural features, like overlooks and caves. There were just a few gaps in between some trees offering a glimpse of the scenery. The trail leveled off for a whole 5 minutes…flat land! And then, just as quickly as the trail crossed over this level spine on the mountain, it started marching upward again…through a dark tunnel of Rhododendron trees.

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The farther up the mountain I climbed, the more apparent it became that this trail was the original route, by which, guests of the historic Le Conte Lodge must has first traveled. At many places, neatly placed stones lined the trail, looking as if they were placed there by the hands of a skilled mason. The trail maintained it width and wagon ruts could be seen from time-to-time.

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By this time, I was getting really tired and really hungry! The heat was oppressive and was I consuming water like crazy. I kept waiting for the trees to change, but they didn’t. When I hike, I pay careful attention to the trees and plants that line the trail. Seeing Balsams and Christmas trees lets me know that I am making upward progress–I’m getting really close to the top. As the Christmas tress get shorter, I know I am about to cross into the Alpine Zone. These are always helpful indicators as to my progress. Still, no Christmas trees–just big rhododendrons and Mountain Laurels. They mocked me!  It felt like I was hiking at a snail’s pace. Then I saw this little guy; what perfect timing!

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Finally, the trail made its way up in elevation. I could smell the sweet scent of Christmas Trees in the air. Not much longer after that, I had reached the top of Mt. Le Conte and the junction of the Rainbow Falls trail. By this time, the weather was beginning to change and a thick shroud of fog blanketed the trail. I hiked downward for several miles and started to see more tourists…big surprise. They were all hiking up to Le Conte Lodge and all were ill prepared. It never ceases to amaze me what people will wear on a rainy, muggy day in the woods. Blue jeans and cotton shirts were the mainstay of today’s trail fashion. I bet they didn’t even pack rain jackets with them! Nonetheless, I just kept hiking downward through the drizzling rain.

The trail finally made it to the famous Rainbow Falls. It was a beautiful site, but there was no rainbow today–no sunshine to refract off the waterfall. I sat down and took in the scenery. It was a welcome reprieve for my sore feet and burning legs. My body just wasn’t enjoying this hike! 20140903_140809

One more stop on-the-way down…Lesser Falls. I lingered for a while here, as there were no tourists. It was quite wonderful and I basked in the moment.  20140903_141622

All-in-all, I was disappointed with today’s hike. I guess I was so impressed by all the features and scenic overlooks that Alum Trail had to offer that this trail just didn’t compare. At least there were far less tourists! However, straight up the side of the mountain with no switchbacks or changes in grade is not my idea of a fun hike. Regardless, I must keep hiking…I only have 800 more miles left! Stay tuned!

Alum Cave Trail to LeConte Lodge

Posted in 900 Mile Challenge with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2014 by J.K.o

New Miles: 5.5

Total Miles Hiked: 11

Overall Progress: 87.9 out of 900 miles

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August 27, 2014

What an amazing day! I didn’t realize that so much of the Smokies paralleled that of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Of course, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I was shocked and amazed as this trail rolled on and upward towards the summit of Mt. LeConte. I had no idea that the Smokies held so much beauty, beyond what is seen out of the car window on 441. I didn’t really have any expectations for the day, but what I got was far more than I could have imagined.

It was great that today’s hike went as well as it did because I had to alter my plans drastically. I had intended on completing 2 trails on this trip–the Smokemont Loop and Alum Cave, but it  became quite obvious that this goal just wasn’t going to happen! I came straight from working 4 nights on the ambulance and they were brutal! Needless to say, I was spent before I even began. No worries–a good night’s rest was achieved and I was refreshed the next morning.

I decided to catch the sunrise on Newfound Gap; I sat there on the vista while heating up some water for hot oatmeal and a steamy cup of coffee. It was something of beauty to be atop such a busy place while no one else was there.  Once I had finished breakfast I commenced my trip. The trail starts from a parking lot located off 441. Large rhododendrons and an eerie white mist call the hiker into the dark forest.  The tree branches seemed to weave themselves together forming an endless green tunnel. The trail crosses a wide creek and begins to make a slow, but constant upward march. The first mile or so follows the sounds of the creek; it is loud and constant, but soothing all the same.

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The path zig-zags across the creek over a series of footbridges. Large pine trees skirt the trail as it meanders over large rocks and old downed trees. The air was cooled from the stream and the sun shone through the leaves faintly.

I continued pushing forward at a steady pace; I was trying to walk efficiently to keep time, but slow enough to appreciate the scenery. I arrived at Alum Cave shortly after I began the hike. The cave is a naturally occurring cleft in the rock face. It sits at the base of the mountain located adjacent to the stream. Fog rose up from the creek and mist poured out of the mouth of the tunnel to create a foreboding scene. Outside it looked dark and damp, but the neatly placed stairs invited me inside. Up, up, up I climbed within in the cleft, until I saw the sunlight on the other side.

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I was hit by a wall of heat and humidity. No longer did the trail parallel the creek, but lead up into the hot clouds. It was a steep climb for a while, but suddenly the trail opened up to the sky above. The trail followed a long and gnarled vein of granite through some short shrubbery. It paused at a beautiful vista overlooking the backside of Newfound Gap. I kept thinking how much it reminded me of the Whites in New Hampshire.

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I paused for a moment and talked with another hiker. He too, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. We exchanged trail names and stories for a little while. Then it was time to move up the trail.

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Shorty thereafter, the path arrived at Alum bluffs. It was a spectacular site reminiscent to Mesa Verde National Park. Under the cliff walls of this great mountain was a huge void, hollowed out by wind and time. Although, there weren’t any cliff dwellings like Balcony House or Cliff Palace there, one could imagine all sorts of images of natives or settlers camped underneath the bluff. I stopped to take some photos and watched some tourists come in; it was quite amusing to see them hiking in blue jeans and cotton. One woman decided that being in the woods was no reason to look bad; she drenched herself in perfume and caked her face with makeup.

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Onward and upward I continued. From Alum Bluffs, it’s another 2.7 miles to Boulevard Trail on Mt. LeConte. I have to say that the scenery just kept getting prettier. At times the trail followed more of these long veins of granite. As I ascended, the flora and trees of the forest changed. About hour-and-a-half into the hike, I started to smell the familiar scent of Christmas trees filling the air. The trail sunk into the mountainside like a big rut and the sun speckled through the trees.

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I encountered several tourists along the journey, most of which, had no idea what they were doing. I came upon one burly man; he was wearing all cotton clothing and noise-reduction head phones. He had a tripod with a camcorder affixed and his tripod was set up across the entirety of the trail. There was no room to pass, of course, as he picked a narrow section of trail atop a precipice. I had to laugh at how ridiculous he looked and how disrespectful he was to the other hikers. If I could complain about anything today, which there really isn’t anything to complain about, it would be the tourists. That’s the one thing I miss about the AT–way less tourists and way more thru-hikers with a healthy respect for mother nature.

After several breathtaking views, the trails arrives at the top of Mt. LeConte. I thought I was back on the Appalachian Trail again, hiking over Mt. Washington or Mt. Mousilake in the Whites. The trail was surrounded by medium-sized Christmas trees and the sky above was a deep azure. The air was cold and crisp and the breeze unwavering. It really had all the character of the Whites–being almost above tree line…and of course LeConte Lodge stood amidst the trees like Zealand Falls Hut in NH.

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I lingered for a moment at LeConte Lodge. It amazed me how similar this was to the AMC huts in New Hampshire. I stood at the top of the stairs, taking in the view and reliving memories of my time on the AT. It was an amazing journey to the top and I was grateful to have made it. I didn’t stay long at the lodge before starting my descent. I kept moving downward. After 45 minutes of hiking I caught a glimpse of where I had just been and it was pretty awesome to realize that I had just climbed to that distant point. See the knob in the middle?

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All-in-all, I was greatly impressed by this hike. It was so nice to hike a trail that I had never trodden before. It was so wonderful to hike in place that filled me with so many memories of New Hampshire. And now I must succumb to the desire for much-needed sleep! Good night!