Day 3: Sugarland Trail More catch up! Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the United States. And the number of visitors peaks in the month of October when everyone makes the trip to the changing leaves and the beautiful colors. We were no exception. But, unlike most other visitors we followed the advice of the internet and other locals and avoided the most popular drives and hikes within the park. We didn't even go anywhere near Cades Cove or the more accessible water falls. Instead, we decided we'd spend three of our five days in the park, backpacking. Planning a backpacking trip in the Smokies is unlike any other place we've packed in the west. even with a backpacking permit one can only stay at designated campsites or shelters. Consequently, the distance you travel in a day is significantly impacted. It seemed that your options were either a shorter day or a really long day. For us, our three day trip started with a relatively short day and just kept getting longer ending at 12 or so miles on the third day....
Goshen Prong Our hike began in the Elkmont area at the Jake's Creek Trailhead where we then backtracked slightly (just over a half a mile) past old Appalachian Clubhouses until we reached the Cucumber Gap trail where we hiked for a fairly flat 2.3 miles before joining up with Little River Tail. We were only on Little River trail for 1.4 miles but enjoyed walking along the fresh water. Our last stretch was 3.2 miles and along Goshen Prong. This stretch was probably our favorite stretch of the three days. The entire trail was under a canopy of green and yellow trees with sun filtering in. The temperature was in the mid-60's and incredibly pleasant. Our last 3.2 miles was along he water and with the levels being so low, the rivers and streams were full of little cascades. It was absolutely beautiful! All told we gained about 1,500 feet that day and arrived early afternoon ~ 3pm. We found a great little place to put up our tent and then just enjoyed being the only ones there until we made dinner and got situated for the night.
Bear Cables Lee and I are used to camping in bear country and often hike with bear bins to keep all food and smelly items contained and away from our sleeping area. But hiking in the Smokies was different! Unlike the west, we never got above tree line. That meant that there were ALWAYS trees from which we could hang our food and our packs. In fact, each designated campsite and shelter had this cool pulley systems where you hoist your bags/food up in between two trees, out of bears' reach over night. They were pretty slick and we loved that our packs were made lighter without those irritatingly shaped bear bins!
Clingmans Dome Day Two was a bit longer than day one - probably close to 10.5 miles The first 4.4 miles of which were along Goshen Prong and they climbed, mostly gradually until we joined the Appalachian Trail (AT). As we approached the AT and the elevation climbed, the fall colors were more obvious. Yellow leaves dominated with a little bit of orange on some very cool bushes. We didn't need a sign to know when we reached the AT. The number of other hikers we encountered grew exponentially. The first 2.2 miles along the AT were the prettiest miles of the day. There was an occasional clearing in the trees and you could see out across the endless rolling, smoky hills. Our first iconic views of the Smokies! Layers and layers of blue, silhouetted mountains. The ones nearest were yellow and slightly orange and absolutely beautiful. Our route that day took us past Clingman's Dome - the highest point in Tennessee and third highest point in the east. It's also nearly reachable by car - so you can imagine the crowds on a mid-October day. We could hear them a mile away. We did stop to climb up to the observation deck to check out the views and to say we were there. But then we bolted and found a quiet lunch spot just down the trail and beyond the lazier hikers reach. From our lunch spot we had 4.0 miles before our destination - the Mt. Collin's shelter. Most of that stretch was a steep downhill with a short climb towards the end before we turned off the AT and hiked the last 1/2 mile to the shelter.
Mt. Collins Shelter The shelter was an interesting experience. Unless you are a through-hiker, you are obligated to stay in the shelters and not camp. This particular shelter housed 12 and we were fortunate that by the time we went to bed there were only 7 or 8 of us. The camaraderie of the shelter was fun. We met a nice couple and some interesting folks who were southbound and close to the finish line. But for light sleepers like me, having folks arrive late in the evening, make dinner in the dark and visit, it's not the ideal sleeping conditions. As I climbed into my sleeping bag that night I just hoped I would sleep and stay warm. Those open shelters are colder than a tent!
Sugarland Trail Fortunately for me, we slept better than expected. The following morning we got up and hit the road as soon as we could. We had a LONG day ahead of us. It was probably 12.6 miles from Mt. Collin's Shelter to our rental car and that was 1.5 miles too many for my legs. I was worn out. The first five miles of the trail were along Sugarland Mountain Trail. This trail ran the ridge between two valleys and was absolutely beautiful. We debated about elongating our day (that's when our legs were feeling fresh) to spend more time on the ridge. It was really beautiful. Here the colors had changed the most and the leaves were stunning. We loved it. But, we opted for the conservative route (ended up being a smart move) and came down Rough Creek Trail (it was rough, very steep and not very well maintained) that joined with Little River for the last 5 miles to the car.
Boy, were we happy to have reached the end! We went back to the VRBO, enjoyed a soak in the hot tub, did laundry, went out for a steak dinner and watched a movie. It was a perfect ending to three pretty great days on the trail. We had been prepared for rain - but we were really fortunate and didn't have any. We arrived just after the hurricane/tropical storm had passed through and then had a nice stretch of weather. We really did luck out. And we're so glad we chose to backpack and see a different (and less crowded) section of the park.
Pictures from those three days are here.