Wednesday April 30 (cont’d)
While the roads and overlooks have had middling crowds at most, the Visitor’s center is packed. Julie and I are on a mission for trail maps, but get sidetracked by preserves and jellies being sold in the gift shop. Free samples are being offered and I have the Blackberry. It’s delicious, but there are mountains to climb and I cannot let myself be distracted for long.
We decide on the trail to Grotto Falls, 2.8 miles round trip and moderate difficulty. The trail isn’t very steep, but there are a lot of roots and rocks, which makes for trecherous footing and likely what earns it the rating it has.
A mix of evergreen and deciduous trees line the trail, but it’s the flowers that catch my eye. I see what look to be violets, some tiny white flowers with multiple petals, and then some larger white one ones catach my attention. Three petals stand atop three large green leaves. “Hey, I read about that one at the Visitor’s Center, that’s Trillium!” The plant was mentioned in a display about poaching, apparently sometimes people try to root up Trillium and take it out of the park. I’m not sure if it’s value lies in the plant or the flower, but it sure is pretty. White which is pictured here is the most common flower color, but it comes in three or four other colors as well. Patches of it grace the steeper hills as we continue to the falls.
While we pass people going both ways on the trip, the falls themselves are mercifully not real crowded. It’s easy to get pictures of it without people in them, and we both take a turn posing behind the falls, what a great photo op. The clouds break enough for sun to filter through the leaves over head and play over the falling water. The day has warmed enough to take off my windbreaker. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.
After that Julie and I start the slow trip back to our campsite. Slow, because we keep getting distracted. We pass by an old homestead from the early 1900’s and have to take a peek. Later on it’s an old water wheel run by a chute that collects water farther up a rapids and angles it away from the stream to run it past the wheel which lays horizontally instead of vertically. The wheel is rotten through and no longer turning but the chute carries it still as designed and it’s fascinating to look at. The rapids outside makes a gorgeous sight.
Almost at Gatlinburg, a falls run right next to the road, three large culverts running under it to divert the water. We pull over and start climbing up the slick moss covered rocks until we reach a tangle where those three fallen trees meet (seen in the picture below, upper right). I grab at a branch to steady myself and my hand lands on something living, a snake!
Snakes don’t like being handholds as it turns out, I can’t blame them. I surprise it as much as it surprises me, it doesn’t even attempt to bite. As it recoils I likewise jerk back by reflex and somehow manage to keep my balance on the slippery rocks, the snake is not so lucky on it’s perch. I catch a quick glimpse of light and dark brown as the poor thing falls from the tree into the water, not enough of a look to identify the species but it wasn’t big, two feet at most. I feel bad, the snake had more right to be there than me, I hope it gets out of the falls safely.
After that we stop once twice more. Once at an overlook with mountain views under a sky becoming thick with grey clouds again, and again at a picturesque bridge with a torrential rapids roaring underneath it. The parking lot for that one has signs all over: Warning, strong current! They even go so far as to post a picture of rescuers straining in white water to extract a body, people die every year in the mountain streams of the Smokies thinking they’ll be strong enough to withstand the might of the water. While it’s not illegal to get in the water, all water recreation activities are very strongly discouraged in the park.
Back at the campsite, we purchase wood and are all ready to have a fire when it starts raining. Really? Really?! Hardly a drop last night when rain was called for, and tonight when it should have been dry it rains. That’s mountain weather for you. It’s alright though, I brought my Kindle and read instead to the soft lullaby of rain on the tent, which in a flurry of activity we did manage to get up before the rain started. The fly on the seven year old backpacking tent is in bad shape and water does seep in through the seams that are literally disintigrating, but the rain is light enough that inside the tent proper we get only a drop or two.
Thursday May 1
Appalacian Trail Time! Today’s hike is going to be considerably more challenging than yesterday’s, eight miles round trip along the peaks and ridges of the mountains. We pick up the AT at Newfound Gap, where we’d stopped on the first day. The sky is a mix of blue and white with lower clouds clinging to the peaks. The air is amazingly still, there’s hardly a breeze blowing through the mountain tops today which I can scarce believe – I figured the tops of mountains were always harsh and windy but apparently that’s not the case.
Our goal today is Charlie’s Bunion. It has a good view supposedly. I’m really hoping it does, because it’s not an easy trail to get there. There’s the rocks and roots again, and mud, because the trail has been packed down by so many feet that in some cases it’s lower than the surrounding land and acts like a little streambed. At times we use our hands to clamber over boulders and over hollows where trees have been uprooted. There’s also a lot of up and down. Mostly up on the way there. In some places the dropoffs are amazing severe on the sides of the trail and I’m in awe of the effort it must have taken to build this trail in such a harsh terrain.
There are beautiful vistas to behold on the way there though, no doubt. Up here most of the deciduous trees have no leaves yet, just buds as a herald of things to come. It makes stealing a peek at the surroundings easier, you just better stop when you look up from the trail or you might step off into space or land on a rock wrong and hurt yourself. Still, despite the challenge, even just hiking this small section of the AT is rewarding and yes I’ll say it, fun. I’ve never hiked a trail quite like this where in places you can look both left and right and see mountains stretching into the distance. Two hours and four miles later, we reach the bunion. Ooooh yeah, this was worth it.
Amazing. Small grey birds hop around on the bare rock, I think they’re use to getting handouts from hikers. We’ve met several on our way, some day hikers like ourselves, some doing short backpacking trips, and some AT thru-hikers heading all the way to Maine. They’re interesting folks to talk to one and all. On the bunion we speak to an middle aged lady enjoying an apple and trail mix who came here with her 75 year old mother who’s staying at their motel in Gattlingburg while she goes hiking in the park. She use to go RVing with her family when she was younger and is when she hears of my lifestyle pipes in like so many do that she wishes she could do it too. You could. I think. You could and you should. Look at all of this beauty around us, why wait? While the three of us sit there a thru-hiker arrives, a thin guy we’d seen playing his little guitar in the parking lot. He says He still has six miles to hike to reach the shelter that’s his goal for the night, but like us he’s caught up in the gentle breeze, the warm sun, and the magnificient view. We sit in silence for a while, and soak it up.