Solo Hiking and the Art of Hitchhiking

Hitchiker Pic900 Milers generally prefer loops.  It makes traveling in one vehicle simple.  But some hikes simply do not lend themselves to convenient loops.  Key swaps are a good strategy for avoiding the double mileage of Yo-Yo’s and lets’ face it, a few trails are long and do not fit well into loops.  Old Settlers Trail, at nearly 16 miles, is a case in point as it traverses between Cosby and Greenbriar.  Even shorter saunters like Roundtop Trail and Cove Mountain Trail come with logistical challenges for the solo hiker.  In remote areas like Parson Branch Road, sometimes you just have to hoof a road walk to get it done (like when I planned my road walk against the one-way traffic like an idiot…).  I find two options worth consideration.

First, hitchhiking.  One should always consider their own comfort and personal safety in choosing this option but even then, there are ways to hedge your bets and leverage in favor of safety.  In my case, I am about 80% successful hitching rides along the main thoroughfares like Little River Road, Laurel Creek Road and Newfound Gap Road.  It’s usually the fishermen who are most sympathetic.  Maybe it’s because they drive pickups and they have been standing knee deep in cold water all morning.  Despite the relative high numbers, I have never been offered a ride on a motorcycle.  No judgement, just sayin’.

Here are a few tips I find helpful:

  • Position yourself near pull-overs and overlooks.  Slower traffic increases your odds and it also gives would-be angels a place to pull over for you.  Your chances of getting a ride in curvy stretches with no pull outs are about as good as finding a parking spot at Ramsey Cascade Trailhead after10:00 on a Saturday.
  • Be visible.  It sometimes takes Karma a few seconds to work on some drivers.  Find a good straight section of road.
  • Smile and wave at those who pass you by.  You’re an ambassador for your kind and while they may not stop for you, they may the next time if they find hikers to be friendly.
  • Be patient.  It often takes about 20 minutes for a connection to make.
  • You may have to ride in the back of a pickup.  Make sure you have gloves in February!
  • It behooves oneself to present in a manner as to not appear like one who refers to oneself as, “one”.  Look friendly and safe.  Smile.  No one stops for smug 900 Milers with a strong air of entitlement or for that matter, someone who looks like they have a strong air.  Try to look like you smell good!  Save the condescension for your Facebook post.

Best Advice: If you meet up with other hikers, especially near the trailhead, mention you need a ride.  Birds of a feather.  This has worked twice for me in the last month.  I completed a backpacking trip at the Gregory Ridge Trailhead at the turnaround on Forge Creek Road.  It’s about 2.5 miles back to Cades Cove but that weekend, there were plenty of hikers on the trail.  I passed a couple near the trailhead, exchanged some trail intel in a polite and gentile manor.  They were happy to give me a lift back to the Cove.  The second instance came with a hiking partner who finished up on a side trail while I negotiated the arduous climb and subsequent descent of Smokemont Loop trail.  The car was several miles up at the trailhead at Kephart Prong Trail.  She met up with a hiking group, made quick friends and not only scored a ride but a cold soda to boot.  When I got to Smokemont, the car was there at the end of the trail.  Uber of the Smokies!

Recycle that ‘cycle. Another option I piloted successfully this past Memorial Day.  I needed Chestnut Top Trail and the prospects for hitching a ride from the trailhead at Schoolhouse Gap Trail back to the “Y” were pretty good given the trail’s popularity with day hikers and tourists.  But I had been itching to try a bicycle solution.  So I got a heavy cable and a good lock and stashed my mountain bike a little ways up the bank at the parking area.  Then I drove back to the “Y”, lashed my bike helmet to my daypack and had a glorious morning of hiking.  When I arrived at the trailhead, the bike was there safely cabled to a tree.  In less than 5 minutes, I was headed down Laurel Creek Road and 20 minutes later, i was on the way to the Burgermaster in Townsend.  It really helps to plan for a downhill ride.  Climbing up to Laurel Falls is a killer, even for seasoned lycra-clad cyclists on expensive road bikes.

And one more thing…

Bank your Mojo.  Karma counts! I give a ride to a fellow hiker every chance I get.  Sometimes, even when they are not hitchhiking.  Chances are, if you see someone hoofing it on the side of the road with a daypack, they are headed for their car.  If you help them out, he or she may see you the next time, or the next hiker.  Even the fishermen appreciate being asked if they need a lift.  Just remember not to blame Karma when the ride never comes.  Mojo doesn’t work that way.

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Gregory Bald Trail

Date:    April 29, 2016

Miles:  7.4 miles           Elevation Gain:  2,516 ft.↑   Elev./Mi:  340    Grade:     6%          

Difficulty:  Class 5      Hiking Time: 2:54       Pace:  2.7  mph       Avg. Temp.:   72

Gregory Ridge Trail Gregory Bald Trail Elevation

Gregory Bald Trail is a signature hike of the Smokies and although it is quite popular with hikers, it does not see the traffic of Alum Cave Trail.  What makes it special is its access to Gregory Bald.  Like Mt LeConte, there are several ways to get to Gregory Bald and Gregory Bald Trail is perhaps the most direct and least strenuous overall but that is relative.  There is not a non-strenuous approach to Gregory Bald.  The main downside is that the trailhead is in Sams Gap on Parson Branch Road, a maintained gravel road that leads oneway out of the southwest corner of Cades Cove.  Parson Branch Road is closed in the winter so accessing the trailhead requires a bit of planning.  At the time of this writing, the road was still closed well into June as the result of multiple blowdowns.  Once you reach Sheep Pen Gap and Campsite #13, the trail follows the Tennessee/North Carolina state line to its terminus with the Appalachian Trail  at Doe Knob.  One guidebook mentioned that Gregory Bald Trail was the original route of the AT as it exited the Park but later was changed to drop down into Fontana in 1948.

IMG_2717Sams Gap is a large open space with plenty of parking but remember, you cannot return to Cades Cove.  You must exit the park at US 129 Twentymile.  Gregory Bald leaves the gap on a fairly level walk for the first half mile.  A small stream crossing at 0.6 miles initiates a steady uphill climb through pines and other evergreens as it ascends the south side of Hannah Mountain.  Along this section you may see a beautiful flowering tree known as the Mountain Magnolia, which flowers in IMG_2718April/May.  At about 2.3 miles, the climb levels for a short bit, long enough to catch some breath left behind on the climb.  But catch it well as the ascent continues fairly steeply in this section, gaining 635 feet per mile (12%) until you reach Sheep Pen Gap.  At 3.2 miles, you reach Panther Gap and by now the pines have given way to mixed hardwood forest.  Leaving Panther Gap, a rhododendron tunnel ushers you into the last mile of steep climbing.  At 3.9 miles is the spring on the left and water source for Campsite #13.  Be prepared for a muddy, wallow as hikers, horses and feral pigs use this spot.  You may have to climb up the side of the hill a bit to find a suitable place to fill water containers.

Sheep Pen Gap Campsite 13At 4.1 miles, your climbing is done as you enter Sheep Pen Gap and Campsite #13.  During warmer seasons, it is rare to find the site empty.  It’s wide grassy spaces and level tent sites make it one of the more beautiful and popular sites in the park.  Wolf Ridge Trail meets Gregory Bald Trail at Sheep Den Gap and is a pathway less than a mile to Parson Bald.  If you choose to camp at CS #13, you choose well as you then have the opportunity to hike 10 minutes up to Gregory Bald to catch sunsets and sunrises.

IMG_1580At 4.5 miles is a Sacred Place.  Gregory Bald is still very much a bald covered with grasses, azaleas, which bloom in June-July and wild blueberries which are ripe in late August, but the bears and deer typically beat the humans to that feast.  There is a very special Pine tree at the summit near the USGS Benchmark.  This tree provides a wind break on blustery days and shade for napping.  Its branches are low and spread out widely, more reminiscent of a Water Oak and the needles carpet the IMG_1583ground for the weary saunterer.  This tree person is quite worthy of a name although none comes to mind that are worthy of its stately majesty.  Gregory Bald looks out over the western end of Cades Cove and further to the west is the city of Maryville whose lights glow warmly in the nighttime horizon.  The Bald is large enough to explore for a couple hours but its real attribute is its stillness and its welcome for contemplation.

 

 

 

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A Gregory Bald Sunrise

Sunrise from Gregory Bald

Sunrise from Gregory Bald

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At some point you realize this moment of eternity must pass and you move along.  As you hike east, the Bald quickly disappears at about 4.8 miles and descends rather steeply to Rich Gap and the intersection with Gregory Ridge Trail at 5.3 miles.  There is side trail or manway that leads 600 yd. to the right to Moore Spring.  The trail sign mentions that Long Hungry Ridge Trail is a mile further up the trail but after a couple minutes, you realize it’s a misprint as the same trail exits to the right at 5.4 miles  There is a short but steep climb before you descend for 2 miles along the Tennessee State Line to Doe Knob and the Appalachian Trail.

Data Book:

Gregory Bald Data Book

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Campsite #15 – Rabbit Creek

IMG_2696Campsite #15 – Rabbit Creek

Rabbit Creek Trail – 3.7 miles from the Trailhead at Abrams Creek Campground and , 4.1 miles from the trailhead at Abrams Falls Trail.

Capacity: 12

Rating: 1

Water: Rabbit Creek very near the site

Rabbit Creek Campsite at 1,550 ft. is an inviting place to spend the night, although the first impression is deceiving.  The site is split with the upper and most obvious site being rather small with room for perhaps one tent.  But on the lower side is a bit of an annex near Rabbit Creek.  The site is visited with Eastern Hemlocks providing nice ground cover.  Rabbit Creek is a little nicer alternative to CS#16 at Scott Gap and it is a certain improvement over CS #14 at Flint Gap.

Rabbit Creek at CS # 15

Rabbit Creek at CS # 15 with a visit from a friend

Rating Summary:

  • Level tent sites
  • Well drained sites
  • Low Impact
  • Good water source
  • Bear Cables

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Campsite #14 – Flint Gap

IMG_2709Campsite #14 – Flint Gap

Hannah Mountain Trail – 5.1 miles from the Trailhead at Hatcher Mountain/Abrams Falls Trails, 4.4 miles from the trailhead at Sams Gap.

Capacity: 8

Rating: 1

Water: About 0.3 miles south of the site at a stream crossing in the trail.

Flint Gap at 2,050 ft. is the inspiration for this very feature of this blog.  The site is so underwhelming as to warrant special attention.  For starters, the site is situated right in the trail itself with the fire ring and bear cables mere feet off the trail.  The gap is small and narrow with few level places for tents although up ridge a few yards, one may find a good spot or two.  There are plenty of good trees for hammocks but be aware that other hikers will pass in very close proximity to your camp.  The guide books speak of a spring down the ridge but it has yet to reveal itself.  The better water source is the stream crossing about 0.3 miles south.  About the only highlighted feature of the site is the bear cables.

When planning a trip, you may consider Campsite #16 in Scott Gap 3.0 miles north.

Rating Summary:

  • Bear Cables

 

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Campsite #13 – Sheep Pen Gap

Sheep Pen Gap Campsite 13Campsite #13 – Sheep Pen Gap

Gregory Bald Trail – 4.1 miles from the Trailhead at Sams Gap on Parson Branch Road, 0.5 miles from Gregory Bald Summit.

Capacity: 15

Rating: 7

Water: About 300 yds short of the campsite to the left of the trail.

Sheep Pen Gap at 4,640 ft. is a marvelous place for a campsite.  It is large, grassy, flat and shaded by Yellow Birch trees.  It’s half mile proximity to both Gregory Bald and Parson Bald makes it possible to enjoy sunrises and sunsets without much rigorous night hiking.  Gregory Bald is only a 10 minute walk up a fairly gradual ascent although headlamps will help negotiate the large rocks that are featured along the trail.  The site is quite popular and that is a bit of its disadvantage.  During warmer months, it is usually quite well used if not overused.

Sunrise from Gregory Bald

Sunrise from Gregory Bald

The water source is a completely different matter.  It is a spring 300 yards or so down the trail, which is the headwater for Panther Creek, but due perhaps to wild hogs and also to horse traffic, it is typically a muddy mess and care must be taken to find an upstream place to gather your water needs and one should certainly treat all water.

One other note about Campsite #13.  It is popular with the bears.  Bears are plentiful in the region and the sheer traffic and density of great food smells from crowds of camper attract the hungry bruins, especially in the spring and early summer when their natural food supplies are still in the making.  Campsite #13 is frequently closed due to bear activity so check with the park service for bulletins on campsite closures.

Rating Summary:

  • Water (questionable)
  • Level tent sites
  • Well drained sites
  • Bear Cables
  • Low impact
  • Inspiring Location
  • X Factor

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Hannah Mountain Trail

Date:    April 29, 2016

Miles:  9.5 miles           Elevation Gain:  2,149 ft.↑   Elev./Mi:  226.2    Grade:     4%          

Difficulty:  Class 3      Hiking Time: 3:21       Pace:  2.8  mph         Avg. Temp.:   81

Hannah Montain Trail

Hannah Mountain - Abrams Creek to Rabbit Creek Trail

Hannah Mountain – Abrams Creek to Rabbit Creek Trail

Hannah Mountain Elevation #2

Hannah Mountain – Rabbit Creek Trail to Sams Gap

IMG_2556 IMG_2555Hannah Mountain Trail is one that does not fit easily into a day hike loop.  Its trailheads are remote with one crossing Abrams Creek at the end of Abrams Falls Trail, and the other is in Sams Gap on the one way Parson Branch Road leading out of Cades Cove.  Plan to carry plenty of water as there is little of it once you leave the trailhead at Abrams Creek.  There are two campsites along this path, CS#16 at Scott Gap and CS #14 at Flint Gap.

The trail opens in exciting fashion with a ford of Abrams Creek.  In the early spring, this crossing can be deep and treacherous due to cold high water.  Even in low water, it is swift and waste deep but with reasonable care, it can be forded safely.  There is a short, steep climb away from the creek that quickly settles into a steady climb for the first couple miles.  At 1.7 miles the trail crosses Scott Gap Branch before arriving in Scott Gap and the intersection with Rabbit Creek Trail.  There is a side trail from the intersection leading to Campsite #16, which is the former site of a shelter.  All that remains of the shelter is its concrete foundations but the site is a reasonable choice for camping.

IMG_2546From there, the trail ascends steadily for a mile and a quarter, cresting at Polecat Ridge at 3.2 miles, then rolling along until you reach the small Flint Gap and Campsite #14 at 5.1 miles. CS#14 is rather disappointing as a campsite as there are few level places for tents and the site is quite literally on the trail.  There is a small stream crossing on Hannah Branch at 5.4 miles, which is the likely water source for CS #14.  The trail climbs again for a mile or so until it levels off around 6.4 miles.  All along this section the flora alternates between mixed hardwoods, some pines and then spots of laurel and rhododendron.  The trail is fairly level as to the end as it rolls along the ridge of Hannah Mountain.  The trial ends at Sams Gap where Parson Branch Road crosses on its way to US 129.

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Parson Branch Road at Sams Gap

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Hannah Mountain Trailhead at Sams Gap

Data Book:

Hannah Mountain Data Book

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Rabbit Creek Trail

Date:    April 29, 2016

Miles:  7.8 miles           Elevation Gain:  1,582 ft.↑   Elev./Mi:  202.7    Grade:     4%          

Difficulty:  Class 3      Hiking Time: 2:42       Pace:  2.9  mph         Avg. Temp.:   75

Rabbit Creek Trail

Trailhead to Scott Gap

Trailhead to Scott Gap

Scott Gap to Abrams Creek

Scott Gap to Abrams Creek

 

 

 

 

 

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Rabbit Creek is an overall delightful hiking experience with several highlights and options.  It makes for a fine loop hike that includes Abrams Fall Trail.  There is ample water on the route and there are two campsites, CS #15 and CS #16.  It is a challenge to hike the entire length of its 7.8 miles in one trip unless you opt for a 15 mile Yo-yo.  This is due to the trailheads being prohibitively far apart; one in Cades Cove and the other many driving miles away in Abrams Creek Campground.

IMG_2691The trail begins at the Abrams Falls Trail intersection at the parking area off Cades Cove Loop Road.  Within 100 yards, you must ford Mill Creek near it’s confluence with Abrams Creek.  It is a shallow ford about 35 yards wide.  The trail is an old mountain road and ascends steadily over 2.5 miles up Boring Ridge through a pine forest.  At 1.0 miles you cross More Licker Branch and continue climbing steadily until the trail apexes on Andy McCully Ridge at 2.0 miles.  After a brief

Campsite #15

Campsite #15

level walk the trial begins a steady descent until you reach Campsite #15 – Rabbit Creek at 4.1 miles.  Rabbit Creek, the trails namesake is just beyond the site at 4.2 miles.  The Rabbit Creek crossing is wet and can be difficult in high water.  At 5.1 miles, you reach Scott Gap where the trail intersects with the Hannah Mountain Trail which leads 1.9 miles to the right and intersects with Abrams Falls Trail.  Campsite #16 – Scott Gap is down a side trail at this intersection.  It is the site of a former shelter.  From Scott Gap, the trail climbs slightly for a mile to crest Pine Mountain and then descends steadily to Abrams Creek at 7.6 miles.  Ordinarily there is a footlog across Abrams Creek but in times of high water, the bridge becomes disconnected from it’s mornings as was the case in this hike.  Consequently, the hiker must ford the creek before reaching the trailhead at 7.8 miles, making Rabbit Creek one of the few trails with a wet crossing at either end.

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Footlog on the side of Abrams Creek

Data Book:

Rabbit Creek Data Book

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Wet Bottom Trail

Date:    April 29, 2016

Miles:  1.0 miles           Elevation Gain:  20 ft.↑        Elev./Mi:  20        Grade:     0%          

Difficulty:  Class 1      Hiking Time: 0:20       Pace:  2.9  mph         Avg. Temp.:   75

Wet Bottom Trail Wet Bottom Elevation

Wet Bottom Trail is aptly named as it passes across the Abrams Creek flood plain.  It is a connector between Cooper Road Trail and the intersections with Rabbit Creek and Abrams Falls trails.  Due to prevalent horse traffic in the summer months, the trail can be rather muddy in rainy times.  But if you catch it on a dry day, it is a pleasant alternative to hiking the Cades Cove Loop road.  For 900 milers, it is best to integrate this trail with several loop options, principally the Cooper Road to Hatcher Mountain to Abrams Falls loop; enabling you to park either at the Abrams Falls Parking area or at the small parking area at the trailhead for Cooper Road Trail

IMG_2685Wet Bottom starts at the intersection on Cooper Road Trail.  It descends ever so slightly through a recent controlled burn area and meets up with Abrams Creek.  At. 0.2 miles, you pass a red barn built by John Oliver in the early 1900’s.  At 0.5 miles the trail intersects with a side trail to the John Oliver Cabin.  Finally, at 0.9 miles you reach Abrams Creek.  You can ford the creek or you can choose to take the parallel trail to the connector from Abrams Falls trailhead to Oliver’s Cabin.  Keeping your feet dry may be a wise goal but if you continue on to Rabbit Creek Trail, your efforts are in vain.  Wet Bottom ends at the Abrams Falls Trail parking area, which also serves as the trailhead for Rabbit Creek Trail.

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Data Book:

Wet Bottom Data Book copy

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Cooper Creek Trail

Date:    April 27, 2016

Miles:  0.5 miles           Elevation Gain:  75 ft.↑        Elev./Mi:  150        Grade:     3%          

Difficulty:  Class 1      Hiking Time: 0:10       Pace:  3.0  mph         Avg. Temp.:   78        

Section:  Oconaluftee

Cooper Creek TrailThe trailhead for Cooper Creek Trail is on Cooper Creek Road, 3 miles from US Hwy. 19 between Cherokee and Bryson City, NC.  The trail is a connector from Cooper Creek Road to Deeplow Gap Trail.  There is no public parking.  The guidebooks suggest getting permission to park on private property.  For the 900 Miler, you are best to hike this small section when you cover Deeplow Gap Trail.  Access is not straightforward and it’s a long way to go for a half mile of hiking.  Plus, it only take about 10 minutes total.

Cooper Creek Trail is one of a handful of trails in the park that leads one to wonder why it is an official trail at all.  It’s purpose is to provide access much like the way many trailheads lead from campgrounds or picnic areas.  But because it’s an easy hike and convenient if captured along with Deploy Gap, the level of annoyance is minimal.  The trail is a gravel road bed.  At about 300 yds, you will see a clearing on private property across the creek. At 0.2 miles the creek and the trail literally merge for 100 yards or so.  It is possible to bypass wet feet on the left bank but bear in mind, the creek is the park boundary so you are on private property at that point.  At 0.5 miles you cross the Cooper Creek on a footlog and the Deeplow Gap trail is just beyond.

Data Book:

Cooper Creek Data Book

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Campsite #52 – Newton Bald

IMG_2671Campsite #52 – Newton Bald

Newton Bald Trail – 0.3 miles past the intersection with Mingus Creek Trail at Newton Bald, 5.4 miles from Newfound Gap Road and 0.1 miles from the intersection with Thomas Divide Trail

Capacity: 8

Rating: 4

Water: About 100 yds off the ridge to a stream

Campsite #52 has a couple sections.  The first is right off the trail near the bear cables and the second is up on a small nob, which has more level tent sites.  The site is neither remarkable nor is it a bad spot.  It could be more secluded but the upper site is sufficiently off the trail.  The water source is down a steep descent off the ridge, which could be slippery and muddy in wet weather.

Rating Summary:

  • Water
  • Level tent sites
  • Bear Cables
  • Low impact