Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another Smokies Hit!

Can you do an over-nighter in a back-country shelter in the Smokies in October? Sort of. As a part of David's pre-departure checklist (he and Holly are getting ready to move out to the West Coast), we were going to tackle Mt. LeConte via Alum Cave Trail. The plan was to go up, stay the night in the shelter on top of the mountain, then hike down the next day via the Boulevard Trail and the AT. I knew it was going to be hectic. Alum Cave and Mt. LeConte are two of the Smokies' biggest attractions. October, outside of the summer rush, is the busiest time of the year for the park. All of the "leafers" come rushing in to see the changing colors, and of course, LeConte is usually high on their list of sites to see.

We gave the reservations office a call, and sure enough, they had handed out the last permit for Mt. LeConte a few weeks ago. We made a decision to go anyway, and see if we couldn't get away with squeezing into the shelter anyway, on the hopes that someone with a reservation wouldn't show up. After we arrived at the trailhead, that idea quickly went out the window. The parking at the trailhead was comparable to Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve. It was packed. We knew there was no way we would squeeze into the shelter. On top of that, the hike up the mountain would probably be like standing in a line at an amusement park.

With that in mind, and after some deliberation we.... well, we couldn't really come up with anything. Our options looked pretty bleak. With a quick stop at R.E.I. on the way up, we were already running about an hour and a half late. We considered just doing a day hike, and maybe staying at a hotel, but even a day hike would have us competing with the setting sun. We decided to head down to the visitors center and talk with a ranger.

Traffic was pretty much bumper to bumper, but that didn't put too much or a damper on the scenery around us. When we got to the visitors center, it was insanely busy. We made our way to the reservations office, and I asked if there was anywhere in the entire park where we could get a permit. Luckily, there was ONE shelter left that had exactly four spots left. We snatched 'em up, and hit the road.

The hike started at Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park. This is the KING of tourist traps in the park. The "trail" that leads to the top is an asphalt-paved walkway about the width of a one-lane road. You walk right past a gift shop before reaching a huge, hideous, spaceship-looking observation tower. The Appalachian Trail, which is where we were headed, passes right by the tower. The crowds were obnoxious. I get emotionally torn in situations like these. In one sense, I'm always happy to see people getting out and enjoying the fresh air in some way. Walking up a paved trail to a concrete observation tower certainly beats setting at home all weekend watching TV. The sad part is that, most of those folks think that this is the ultimate outdoor experience. At this particular location, the sad irony of that is highlighted even more because the pinnacle of American outdoor experiences, the Appalachian Trail, passes right through here. If any one of those tourist would walk in either direction on the AT, they would be rewarded with the same amazing views they got from the observation tower, only without bumping elbows with hordes of people.

It was slightly entertaining walking up the paved "trail" on the way to the AT. Some people were pointing saying, "Look! professional hikers!". A couple of guys were asking all about our trip and where we were going and what we were going to eat, and what we were going to do if we saw a bear. It was almost a celebrity moment. We were adding to their tourist experience, allowing them a chance to see "real hikers".

We got to the AT junction and made a left (south). Our destination was the Siler's Bald shelter. It didn't take long before we were smacked in the grill with awesome panorama. David was really looking forward to get out on the Boulevard Trail, mainly because of what I told him about my hike there in April 2009 (See blog post). I told him about the ridge hike and its awesome views. We thought we were going to miss out on that, but the AT lived up to the accolades.

It was a 4.6 mile hike down a ridge that runs from Fontana Dam, up to Clingman's Dome. With the exception of about a one mile stint through a stand of evergreens, the entire hike had exposed views of either the Tennessee, or North Carolina side of the park, and in some places, both. The North Carolina side was filled with ridge after ridge of Smokey Mountain glory. You can also see slivers of Fontana Leak snaking around the base of some of the ridges. The Tennessee side, while still quite breath-taking, is still pretty epic. The mountains flatten out into the flat plains of the mid-west, and you can see the sprawl of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge below. Being so high up, you can even see the curviture of the Earth.

At 2.2 miles we came to Double Spring Shelter. This shelter had obviously recently been renovated. it looked extremely cozy. Even at 5:00, it was already filling up. We would find out on our hike out, that Double Spring Shelter hosted 14 guests that night, two more than its capacity allows. A couple of guys had hiked in a hand saw, and were cutting up some hearty firewood and getting a nice fire going in the built in fireplace. We had a quick snack and kept on trucking. Aside from breath-taking views, the hike in was pretty un-eventful. We ran into a big fresh pile of bear evidence about a mile from the shelter, but no actual sightings. Best of all, when we got to the shelter, we found out we were sharing with a father and son, and that was it. No big crowds.

We got settled in. Matt, the youngster we were sharing the shelter with, had already gather up some firewood, so I got to work on that immediately. We prepped some food and spent the rest of the night literally laying on the ground staring up at the stars. Night time was extremely windy, but we stayed north of freezing temperatures. The shelter's trail log was filled with horror stories about the mice (as is the case with almost all AT shelters), but we didn't have any issues.

The next morning we lounged around, taking our time getting packed up. We waved off Ron and Matt. About an hour later we departed, too. Usually the return hike, when doing an out-and-back route, is kinda lame. This time, the views were still just as grand. We caught up to Matt and Ron at the Double Spring Shelter, and had lunch. Shortly after that, the crowds started picking up again, and before you knew it we were back at the paved trail. We went up and had a peek from on top of the observation tower. The wind and the crowds made it a less than desirable experience. We loaded up and headed home, stopping at Texas Roadhouse in Asheville to top it all off. ...NEXT!