Day hike to remote parts of the Smokies

5:20 p.m. on April 3, 2011 (EDT)
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April 2, 2011

Total miles: 24.2

Total time: 8:30am to 8:05 pm (11 hours 35 minutes)

Trails: Snake's Den to AT, AT to Tricorner Knob, Balsam Mountain, Gunter Fork, Low Gap

 

First off, I know I'm crazy for doing 24 miles in a single day. I love being crazy ;)

 

I had been to Mt Leconte back at the start of March. That was a windy and wet day, but most of the snow had melted, with a few bouts of ice here and there. I pulled into the Cosby Campground with a light dusting of snow. I saw on the morning news that a thunderstorm swept through the area early in the morning and apparently it laid a fresh layer of snow on the mountains, as I soon found out.

 

It took me several minutes to find the trail head to Snake's Den, but I eventually did and began my journey at 8:30. I as soon greeted by Little Rock Creek. Continuing up, I came across a couple of fantastic clear views. I could see clearly across the mountains and see other snow capped mountains. The ground soon went from a light coating to muddy pits. But this was soon replaced by ice that cracked under my weight, which luckily never broke through. After crossing the Inabu creek, I hit mostly fresh snow with very little mud spots.

I reached the AT by 11:10 am and met a couple of other hikers on a over night hike from Lower Mt Cammerer, which doing Lower Mt Cammer up to Mt Cammerer is a beast of a hike. From here I headed towards Tricorner Knob. Hear I noticed on the AT that the East side of the mountain had very little snow and the West side had fresh coating. I guess this makes since with storms moving from West to East. Because of this, the West side was muddy and water while the East side was freshly covered and easier to deal with.

 

On the way to Tricorner  I met a couple of AT thru hikers in high spirits. Just before and at Tricorner Knob I saw a couple of other hikers who weren't in such high spirits. One hiker commented that he could see the steam coming from me as I was having lunch. At 1:05pm I was ready to continue my hike.

And then I hit Balsam Mountain. This mountain looks as if it had been beaten by downbursts from a storm. Nearly everything  plant and tree was pointing down in the same direction. It didn't look like this trail had been touched in a while. There were fresh turkey and small animal tracks along the trail, but I never came across any of the animals. I wasn't going as fast as I had hoped on this portion of the trail, but I was feeling pretty good up to this point.

 

Then I start Gunter Fork trail. I didn't read up too much on this trail, other than it required some creek crossings that a blogger had rock hopped, but the sign with big red letters stating "DURING TIMES OF HIGH FLOW - Gunter Fork Trail is impassable. Use Swallow Fork". What?! Well, I looked at that possibility and it added another 5 miles on top of a 24 mile hike and I was already short for time. So I just breathed in deep and said ok, lets do this.

 

Gunter Fork Trail before the cascades is treacherous in the snow and mud. On many occasions I was sitting on my hind end and sliding slowing to the next part of what little trail was here. At more than one spot, it looked as if the trail had received a mudslide and disappeared, so holding on to roots, I slowly scampered across in hopes I wouldn't slide down. This part of the trailed slowed me way down. The fact that there was hardly any trail, it was muddy, wet, AND there was thorny plants along the trail, it made for a bit of annoyance starting to settle in.

Then about an hour later I reached Gunter Fork Cascades. It was ok to see, but the "water slide" immediately after it was the coolest I've ever seen in the  Smokeys. It looked like something out of a water park. But let me back up. Before crossing the cascades, I tested to see if I could go across in my Gortex New Balance boots. These guys served me well on my previous hike and they were a dream in the snow and mud and smaller creek crossings. Then I learned that all too valuable lesson of "water proof doesn't work when the water goes inside the shoe". So I backed up, took my shoes and socks off, tied them together, threw them around my neck, pulled my pants up and waded across the water... Well the next water crossing at the cool water slide like feature, I was able to just walk through no problem. but that was the last of my ease. Wading across the water happened 7 more times after this (+/- 1, I lost count). It became repetitious and very annoying to hike 10 minutes, wade across the water, hike 10 more minutes, wade across more water. At least the trail became more defined at this point. In hindsight, I can see where this trail used to be seen as "unmaintained". It obviously had not seen a lot of foot traffic over the years. This was by far the hardest hike I've done going down hill. This 4.1 section should have taken me about an hour and 15 minutes. Instead it took me 2.5 hours. 

Well, a nice mile of relief came as I made my way to Low Gap. This side of Low Gap is a horse trail and 3 horses came down this trail as I was at the trail head and they had some healthy droppings... At this point, I pretty much pushed myself to go as fast and hard as I could, hoping my steam would push me up the 2.5 miles. Unfortunately, that steam didn't last and I was in a lot of pain by the time I had reached Low Gap. Then I realized that planning to do 2.5  miles at a 1200 foot gain after I had been hiking 20 miles already wasn't the best of ideas.

By this point, I had about an hour of daylight left and 2.5 miles back down to the campground. I found my 5th wind (my 2nd through 4th happened about 2 hours earlier) and scamped down the steepness and got back to the car before the sun had completely set. Fun times!

7:32 a.m. on April 8, 2011 (EDT)
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I've done that same hike several times but never in one day. That is pretty crazy. Gunter Fork is a mess isn't it? I totally understand the frustration of crossing those rivers, it really zaps your energy.

5:48 p.m. on April 9, 2011 (EDT)
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Yeah it was really tough to get down. I almost felt as if I was just treading the side of a mountain as the trail itself is a small "notch" into the side. My friend who's hiked many more miles than I was actually intimidated to do the hike himself. I did thoroughly enjoy Balsam Mountain and that part of the AT though. :)

2:11 a.m. on April 11, 2011 (EDT)
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Sounds like a great adventure!  Sometimes it's fun to knowingly, almost bite off more than you can chew.  As long as you're prepared for the worst.  I feel you on that last climb.....I know the feeling! Just curious, how much water did you consume?  Thanks for sharing your experience.

September 16, 2014
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