39 Miles In The Smoky Mountains
By Steven Gillman
The Smoky Mountains can be hard on the ankles, and it rains a lot. I learned this on the first day of my hike, both through experience and from the stories of the other hikers. This was good, though, because hiking this stretch of the Appalachian Trail would be a good test for my new lightweight backpacking gear.
I was hiking in light running shoes, with a frameless fourteen-ounce backpack. My down sleeping bag weighed just seventeen ounces, and I would be sleeping under a lightweight tarp. My pack weight was eleven pounds total at the start, including all food and water.
A friend from Asheville, North Carolina drove me up to Newfound Gap, in the middle of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We took in the view with a hundred other tourists, and then he hiked with me for the first mile or two, before heading back. I made a dead tree branch into a walking stick, to help my knees when I was hiking the steep downhill stretches. It was getting cloudy and cooler, but I hadn't heard anything about bad weather.
Hiking In Snow
I probably was in Tennessee when it began to snow. The Appalachian Trail here weaves back and forth across the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, but in any case, I was somewhere near Clingman's Dome, above 6000 feet. The flakes were getting larger, and night was coming. I had come south from Michigan looking for warmer weather, and I hadn't expected snow in early May, even in the Smoky Mountains.
Setting up the tarp quickly (and illegally, I was later told) on a hidden hillside, I used my shoe on a stick to hold up the weight of the snow gathering on the nylon roof above. I went to sleep. Throughout the night I woke up to see how far I had slid down the hill and to shake the snow off the tarp.
In the morning, I was surprisingly within a foot or two where I started, and I had somehow managed to stay dry. Seven inches of snow covered everything. I packed up and was soon at the top of Clingman's Dome. There is an incredible tower at the peak, with a spiral ramp going to the top. I was the only one there to enjoy the view, and I could see ten or twelve feet in every direction.
By noon I was fortunately below the snow, in the cold rain. When I reached one of the trail shelters, I couldn't get a fire going in the fireplace - for the first time in my life. I ate soggy cold noodles. Fortunately, my papery rain wear kept me dry. My feet even dried out for a while, until the rain returned that evening.
Hiking Through Seasons
I hiked the Appalachian Trail for half a day, explaining to other hikers I met that I wasn't just on a day hike ("Is that a day-pack?"). Then I headed lower. The trees above a certain elevation in the Smoky Mountains don't yet have their leaves in early May. Lower down the leaves open in April, so as the trail went up and down, I passed from leafy forests to winter landscapes repeatedly. I eventually found a good springtime campsite.
From a conversation with a couple backpackers in the shelter, I learned that I was hiking illegally, or at least camping illegally. The Smoky Mountains National Park is free to enter. A permit is required, however, to camp in it. Too late to go get a permit, I went off the trail far enough to be out of sight when I set up my tarp.
The rain returned, but this was good - another chance to test my new gear. I realized that one of the benefits of a tarp is the space to move around during long stays. Another is the view. Birds and squirrels made regular visits. Fortunately, only a few insects joined them.
Hiking Long Distance
Morning came, and although I was warm and dry, I had enough of the Smoky Mountains. I'm not a fan of rainy woods, and though the surroundings are beautiful, you don't get to see the views in the heavily-wooded Smokies, like you do in the Rockies. Twenty miles later I was hiking alongside a highway. Another 19 miles of hiking and I found a bus to take me back to Asheville.
I never could have hiked 39 miles in a day in hiking boots. For three days I managed to stay warm and dry through snow and rain. My Smoky Mountains hiking experience proved to me the value and safety of lightweight backpacking techniques and equipment. It was also fun to tell the other hikers that, no, I wasn't dayhiking.
In the Smoky Mountains National Park, hiking is free (forever, according to the law). Camping, however, requires a permit. You have to camp in one of the shelters, or next to it, if it is full. Some of trails are particularly beautiful and unusual. For example, the trail head up from Bryson City, where I came out of the mountains, begins as a long highway tunnel that never became part of the highway. You'll need a flashlight (yes, it's that long and dark) to walk from the parking area to where the tunnel opens into the woods.
Steve Gillman hit the road at sixteen, and traveled the U.S. and Mexico alone at 17. Now 42, he travels with his wife Ana, whom he met in Ecuador. For travel stories, tips and a free Travel Secrets e-book, visit:
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