| Adventure in the Smokies Day 2: AT to Charlies Bunion
Charlies Bunion Trip Report
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Trailhead: Newfound Gap --> Appalachian Trail
Elevations (approx): Start: 5100 feet. High point: 6100 feet. Charlies Bunion: 5500 feet. Gain 1000 feet on trip out, then gain 600 on return trip.
Distance: 4.0 miles one-way (3.8 according to GPS).
Who: Me, Jason
July 20, 2010
Jason had a keen interest in seeing the Appalachian Trail while we were "in the area". Neither one of us has ever set foot on it, and yet we are both fascinated with it... someday, when our kids are grown - a thru-hike? 2200 miles, Georgia to Maine? It's a small start, but we thought today we'd like to hike on the crest of the Smokies from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion. (no apostrophe in Charlies; I don't know why).
We drove through the main Sugarlands entrance to GSMNP today. We held our National Parks pass in hand, ready for the entrance station... and came across no entrance station. Seriously? Eleven million people come to this park every year - and they let them all in for free? I shook my head. I appreciated the lack of lines to get into the park, but wondered how the heck the park even knows how many people visit each year. Who's counting?
We drove right up to Newfound Gap with no trouble at all and were ready to hike at 10am. It was a hazy, cloudy day with a 40% chance of storms. I didn't know how to read the weather here. The heat came and went. The clouds hung low and black but moved briskly across the sky. The mountain tops were in fog most of the time. We may or may not get any views today!
Starting on the AT
We saw more hikers today than yesterday. Many people start up the first mile or so of this trail and then turn around. The trail is wide and well-graded, really pretty easy and pleasant. We were high up today and it was not too hot, and breezy on and off. We enjoyed the walk along the white-blazed trail. After about a mile, the trail got steeper, more rocky, and stayed more or less on the ridge crest. It switched sides of the ridge crest from time to time. We were always in the trees, but in places where a tree had fallen, we could peep through the gap at the misty view. This is why they call them the Smokies! The views are more open now than they were 20 years ago. Some 15 years ago, the Fraser firs in the high country here were attacked by a Woolly Adelgid imported from Europe. They obliterated the fir trees and now the skeletons are still standing. Young fir trees still grow, but when they reach maturity, their bark hardens and they are attacked by the adelgids. The forest is changing.
Occasional views through gaps where the big fir trees used to be
We reached the high point of the trek at Mount Ambler, a spur off of Mount Kephart, with little fanfare. There was no view and it was in the trees. We passed a trail sign to the Jumpoff, but we chose not to go there because we really wanted to reach Charlies Bunion before we got rained on. Soon after, we passed the Icewater Spring AT shelter and stopped to take a look. It's an awesome shelter. I was expecting something spartan, but it's really nicely equipped. There are 2 bunks, each big enough for six people. The shelter has a fireplace inside and benches where you can eat. The back of the shelter is toward the prevailing winds, so you stay dry. Outside of the shelter is a fire pit, a path to the privy, and a cable system where you can hang your backpacks. It would feel pretty luxurious to spend a night there compared to a tent in the woods. Past the shelter, a tube sticks out of the trail that is the original Icewater Spring. The water is quite cold! Our guidebook cautions you to purify any water you take out of Icewater Spring - there are illegal campsites right above the spring and quite a lot of waste and trash. Something to think about!
The Icewater Spring AT Shelter
The trail dips down to a saddle before making the final climb to Charlies Bunion. At the saddle, the views open up - such as they were. The clouds were blowing mist across the saddle, and it was really dramatic to watch. The trees have lost branches on one side - you can tell which way the winds normally blow! We crossed the saddle, walked around a spur that would have been very exposed if not for a stand of laurels clinging to the side of the cliff, and came into view of Charlies Bunion.
The mists blew hard across this saddle.
The story of Charlies Bunion, according to our guidebook ("Hiking in the Smokies", by the Great Smoky Mountains Association), is that in 1929, after heavy rains soaked a burned-out area, a team led by Horace Kephart went across the ridge crest to survey the damage. They came upon a rocky spur that had totally lost its topsoil and vegetation to the deluge of rain. It made a dramatic perch and cliff now. The team thought the new rocky viewpoint deserved a name. At that time, Kephart saw one of his teammates, Charlie Conner, tending to a sore foot, and he thought the rock looked like a bunion. The name Charlies Bunion stuck.
We reached Charlies Bunion at 12:30pm but didn't stay long. I was really nervous about the weather. The clouds were clearly building, even though they were still moving strangely. I could feel alternating heat and cold, which to me signals thunderstorm development, although I couldn't read the stiff, cool breeze that came and went and occasionally blew the clouds over the mountain. The views were partially obscured by the clouds but were still quite dramatic. Charlies Bunion has an awesome cliff down one side and is an exciting place to stand.
Me and the love of my life on Charlies Bunion. Note a lot of dead fir trees in the valley below us.
We headed back toward Newfound Gap. As we approached the Icewater Spring area again, we came across two hikers, one with a large backpack on. The conversation went something like this:
Me: It looks like you are not just out for a dayhike.
Hiker 1: Nope. 30 days so far.
Me: Wait. 30 days? Where did you start?
Hiker 1: Springer Mountain.
Hiker 2: Georgia.
Me: Ohhh. Thru-hiking? Are you going all the way to Maine?
Hiker 1: That's the plan.
Me (looking at their feet): In Chacos?
Hiker 2: Oh yes. Would never wear anything else.
Hiker 1: Never had a single blister. They dry off right away.
Me: I never would have imagined. 30 days so far in Chacos. I better get a picture of you. What are your trail names?
Hiker 2: Chaco.
Hiker 1: Wishper.
Me & Jason: Chaco and Wishper. Well, good luck to you! Safe travels!
Wishper and Chaco - AT thru-hikers. Good luck guys! Unfortunately I did a poor job of framing the photo and you can't see the namesake Chacos.
They have a late start, so who knows if Chaco and Wishper will make it all the way to Maine this season. They were very mellow and low-key. Their temperament seems to suit the trail.
When we hit the Icewater Spring shelter this time, we stopped for a longer snack. The views were hazy, but on a clear day, you'd get a stunning view from here. Perhaps even an incredible sunset.
We got back to the car at 3pm. A great hike!
I turned on the iPhone's RunKeeper app for the one-way trip to Charlies Bunion. This is what it told me.
From here, we drove up the Clingmans Dome road so we could see the highest mountain in the Smokies. We parked in the spacious lot and started hiking up the paved trail to the fire tower. It's a half-mile to the top and here is where all the crowds are. It was choked with people. With the Fraser Fir trees dead, it has an eerie feeling - half of the trees are just standing skeletons. It hurt to hike uphill on the pavement after 2 pretty tough days so far. By the time we got to the top, it was thundering. I didn't go into the fire tower, but Jason did, and he got some decent pictures through the storm clouds. We hiked back down, got in the car, and stopped in the gift shop at the Sugarlands visitor center on the way back.
The lookout tower on Clingmans Dome.
Thundering storm clouds to the south. You can see the access to the tower and a lot of dead fir trees.
We asked them at the visitor center about the lack of an entrance fee to the park. Their reply was that they felt strongly that the park should be free and accessible to anyone, so even though they know they're missing out on the revenue, they choose not to charge admission. It's the only park in the national park system that doesn't. Personally, I wonder if part of the motivation is that if they collected park fees, they'd have to share the money throughout the national park system and they might do better financially to collect donations through their nonprofit and then get to keep all of it. My husband and I bought a membership to the Great Smoky Mountains Association and also bought our souvenirs here. We wanted to be sure our money went to the park rather than a cheesy souvenir shop in Gatlinburg.
2 days down, 2 to go!
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