| Adventure in the Smokies Days 3-4: Cades Cove, Mt. Le Conte
Cades Cove, Gregory Ridge, and Mount Le Conte Trip Report
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Trailhead 1 (Gregory Ridge): Forge Creek. Start elevation: approx 1900 feet. End elevation: approx 3000 feet. Distance: about 2.5 miles each way (we only completed about half the distance on this trail).
Trailhead 2 (Mount Le Conte): Alum Cave. Start elevation: approx 3800 ft. End elevation: 6593 ft. Distance: About 5.5 miles each way.
Who: Me, Jason
July 21-22, 2010
DAY 3: July 21
On Wednesdays, the park service closes the Cades Cove loop to cars from 7am until 10am. Our park literature suggested renting a bike and biking the loop while it is closed to cars for a more enjoyable tour of Cades Cove. I heard from friends that Cades Cove is the must-see destination in the Smokies, and I hate slow driving tours, so I thought how pleasant it would be to see such a nice place by bicycle instead. We made plans to leave our cabin at 6:30am to head into the park and rent a bike. We would also try a hike in the area after our bike tour.
We left right on time and drove into the park. The road to Cades Cove is long and windy and climbs steadily uphill to Incline Gap (or is it Crib Gap?) before dropping down into the cove. A "cove" in Applachian-speak is a broad valley surrounded by mountains. Right before we reached Incline Gap, we saw a couple of cars stopped on the road. Must be wildlife! We looked up on the hillside and saw a black bear in the trees! I was very excited and searched around for my camera only to realize it was in the trunk of the car! Jason's camera was out of batteries. I really wanted a picture of that bear, so I talked Jason into driving ahead to the next pullout, letting me fetch my camera, and backtracking. The bear, of course, was no longer there. The little detour may have cost us a chance to rent a bike.
We arrived at the bike rental shop at about 8am and were absolutely astounded at the number of parked cars we saw already. There wasn't much traffic on the road, so we had no clue there were this many people here! The line at the bike shop stretched to the end of the lot. This was not good.
Nothing in my experience so far had told me that people in the Smokies are early-risers. Now I know!
We waited in line for an hour, and at 9am they told us the bikes were all gone. By 9:40, we had moved up to #5 on the waiting list and we gave up. I didn't want to rent a bike only to ride it in thick traffic. I was beyond bummed. This felt like a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I screwed up the timing so we couldn't really enjoy Cades Cove. Now we would have to navigate it by car. Yuck, and double yuck. The key learning here is that next time, if there is a next time, show up when the bike shop opens at 7am... not an hour after it opens.
We got in our car and jockeyed for a place in line when the road opened. We headed out in the line of cars to see Cades Cove. We didn't stop at any of the cabins or churches along the road - it was a brutally hot day and by now we just wanted to get to the Forge Creek trailhead. We saw some wild turkeys in the fields and the mountains really did look pretty across the valley. It took us an hour to go 6 miles around the loop to Forge Creek.
Gobble! Turkeys in Cades Cove
At Forge Creek, we turned and went a short distance along the gravel road to a parking lot for Gregory Ridge. Here we got out and decided to go for a short hike. We didn't have any expectations of going all the way up today. I did want to see a grassy bald like Gregory Bald at some point, but we also knew we'd have a long, hard day of hiking tomorrow, and today was an incredibly hot and humid day. This trail is at relatively low altitute, which makes it even hotter. If we could have made this trip one day longer, we would have made the time to go all the way to Gregory Bald, and done it earlier in the day.
We picked the Gregory Ridge trail to see more old-growth forest. Our guidebook says it is fantastic through here. We left the trailhead around 11:15. It was unbearably hot and steamy. The trail goes uphill steeply just a short distance, and then it is a little more gradual as it parallels Forge Creek. We wondered if we have ever been this sweaty. I don't think I have. We were dripping and very uncomfortable. This trail was host to a lot of creepy-crawlies. We saw a huge spider in a dramatic spiral web, and lots of BIG millipedes.
The forest here was much different than the forest along the Ramsey Cascade trail. A lot of the really big trees were standing skeletons, as if they were all killed by something right about the same time. I wondered what killed them.
Big dead trees. What killed them?
I do know this area was heavily affected by the Chestnut Blight from 1925-1940. Our guidebooks and rangers told us how prior to that time, many of the trees in this area, up to 30%, were American Chestnut trees. The trees were some of the biggest in the park and they produced a bounty of chestnuts. The bears grew fat on them and this likely made the bears larger than they are today. The settlers would camp in the hills above Cades Cove in the fall and harvest hundreds of bushels of chestnuts to sell in the cities. The Chestnut Blight is a fungus that was unwittingly imported from Asia. It killed every American Chestnut tree in existence within a couple of decades. They all succumbed to it. Our "Trees of the Smokies" book says that you can occasionally find a dead Chestnut stump sending out suckers that will grow to 20 feet or so until they are also killed by the fungus. The book goes on to say that if you discover a Chestnut tree with a certain diameter that bears nuts, you should alert rangers. They continue to hope for a blight-resistant breed of Chestnut tree.
I know the dead trees we saw were not Chestnuts, as those would have fallen quite a long time ago, but I still wondered if they suffered from an infection that affected them all at the same time. Our book is silent on why the Gregory Ridge trail has so many standing dead trees. We were still impressed with what we saw. The big trees along Ramsey Cascade were mostly tulipwood and some linden, but here we saw a mix of maples, oaks, and buckeyes. The maples spread out nicely and have a huge canopy.
Old maples have a nice shape
After 2 miles, we came upon Campsite #12 which is shown as a non-reservation site. This was the only semi-cool place we came to on our hike, and we sat down on some stumps and enjoyed the almost-breeze. We cooled off a little and ate some snacks. There were 2 tents already at the campsite and some backpacks hung on the cables, but the campers were nowhere to be seen. This was a fantastic campsite, with the creek close by, a nice airy location, and plenty of level ground for the tents. If/when we come back, we bookmarked this campsite as an excellent one for backpacking. We heard a sound off in the trees and our ears perked up. It was a deer, a beautiful young buck with antlers. He sniffed among the tents a little bit and we took pictures of him. He was not one bit afraid of us and kept creeping closer! When we realized he was approaching so closely, we quickly stuffed our food into our backpacks and shouldered them. He was very curious! When he got within 20 feet, he slowly turned around as if he were never that interested in us anyway, and left the camp.
This deer was a little too friendly
We decided to go a short way up the ridge and see how we felt. We started up a much steeper part of the trail, leaving the creek and going up to the ridge crest. The ground was dry and dusty and there were a lot of oak trees. Up the trail a short distance, there was the deer walking on the trail ahead of us. Just like a dog! He bounded up the trail and we didn't see him anymore.
Our book says there is a sandstone outcrop about a quarter mile up the trail with a partial view. We were trying for this outcrop. The trail is a little more airy here and we passed through an area that seemed to be an old burn. This made the sunshine filter through and my heavens, it was hot. We started dripping sweat again. In this exposed part of the trail, it was just darn unpleasant to hike in this midday heat and humidity. We made it about a half mile up, didn't see a sandstone outcrop of any size, and decided to go back down. This trail is better done in early morning. We knew we had a big day tomorrow and elected to save our energy. I had seen my forest.
We made it back down to the trailhead about 2:45pm, about 3 1/2 hours after we started. That's slow for 5 miles, but we did take a LONG break at the campsite. It took us another hour to drive the 5 miles back to the Cades Cove visitor center. We were very grumpy about this. One consolation was that as we were within sight of the visitor center, the cars were stopped for a wildlife-jam - and this time it was a mama bear with cubs. And I had my camera. And the pictures I took are horrible but I saw 4 bears in the Smokies and I was happy about this. Mama and babies were resting under a tree in this midday heat. The crowds were mostly respectful - they did get out of their cars, but they gathered across a drainage from the bears and the bears did not seem upset by this.
My family calls this my "bigfoot" picture...no, really! Bears!
We tooled around Gatlinburg in the evening and watched people before going back to our cabin and packing up for the next day's adventure.
DAY 4: Alum Cave trail to Mount Le Conte
This trail is a must-do in the Smokies. There are many exciting things to see along the trail, the trail is well-engineered and exciting, and there are wonderful views when you get up high.
We drove up the Newfound Gap road today to the Alum Cave trail. We arrived by 9:30am and were ready to hike. There were quite a lot of cars in the lot, some likely from guests at the lodge and backpackers. You could easily do a loop from here to the lodge and then back down the Boulevard and AT to Newfound Gap, and then hitchhike down. We just elected to do an out-and-back.
The trail along Alum Cave Creek is pretty level and easy, and it surprised me by entering another old-growth area with some big trees. We saw a buckeye specimen that really impressed us. The creek was running nicely and was very photogenic, with mist rising from it. It was fairly cool here today and we were glad to not have the heat from yesterday.
Mist rising off Alum Cave Creek
The trail bears along the Styx branch (which empties a drainage called Huggins Hell), and after 1 mile, it crosses one of those footlogs to Arch Rock. Arch Rock is spooky! It is a rock band that has eroded from the underside - jagged and shallow and dripping wet and dark. It felt low and I ducked my head so I wouldn't bump it on the rock. There are rock stair-steps that climb right under Arch Rock, and we saw a trail crew doing some repairs above the rock.
Nice shot of my butt as I climb through Arch Rock
The trail gets a bit more interesting here as it leaves the creek drainage and hugs the side of the mountain the rest of the way up. Very soon after Arch Rock, we reached Inspiration Point. There are no big trees here, only laurels, so the views opened up. We met two backpackers here, one of whom grew up hiking in the Smokies and couldn't count the number of times she's done this hike. She told us the ridge we were looking at was Little Duck Hawk Ridge, named for the peregrine falcons that nest there. At one point, it was open to explore, but it has been closed since re-introducing the peregrine falcons to the park. It is very pretty and dramatic. The views were misty, so we couldn't see much beyond the ridge.
View of Little Duck Hawk Ridge from Inspiration Point
Very soon after reaching Inspiration Point, we came to Alum Cave Bluffs. This is a really neat place. The cliffs over our head were overhung by quite a lot. The moisture from the cliffs above us dripped down over the edge, making it very wet along a line and then completely dry under the overhanging bluffs. It is really bizarre to see such a dry, dusty place where everything else is dripping wet and humid. Sulfur colors the walls yellow and the cave smells of sulfur. There are other colors along the wall as well, purples and silvery-grays and greens, either from living things or minerals. The dust is not like a sand, but powdery silt with some slivers that are long and flat. We enjoyed resting here in the cool dust.
Bring your beach towel to Alum Cave Bluffs!
Past the bluffs, the trail has been cut right into the steep mountainside. It follows a ledge of rock, with cabled handrails, most of the rest of the way up. The ledge is almost always wet. It is usually not terribly exposed, so the hand cables are more to protect from slipping on wet or icy rock.
Yet another shot of my rear end as I ascend wet ledges past the bluffs
Gravity is fighting this mountain hard. There are many, many landslide scars that this trail crosses. Where a slide has swept away the vegetation, the trail is cut into the bare rock and you get an amazing, exciting view (although our view was hazy, with low clouds).
Jason poses by a landslide scar
We marched up a log that had been cut like steps, shimmied along the cliff once more, rounded a corner, and here the trail flattened out for the rest of the way to Le Conte Lodge.
The Lodge is quite a piece of work! There is an office and a dining hall up here, in this wild place. There are a dozen or so cabins for guests and workers. Huge propane tanks sit in a fenced-in area below the lodge, and a water tank above supplies water. (does it catch rainwater?) We went into the dining hall and saw you can buy a sack lunch or baked goods. We bought a chocolate-chip cookie and a no-bake brownie. The brownie was perfect - moist and hearty but not too rich, a great energy food. We sat on the balcony and ate our treats and enjoyed the breezy air. We had no view from here - everything beyond the lodge was in the mist.
The lodge was really neat. We ate on this balcony.
We wanted to climb Mt. Le Conte fully, so we took the short side trip to the High Top. We followed signs to the Boulevard Trail and Myrtle Point, and this trail crested the ridge and eventually came to an enormous cairn. We were totally in the trees, so there was no view, but this was definitely the top! We placed a small rock on the cairn and took a couple of pictures before going back down to the lodge. We heard a really strange, high, almost electronic buzzing noise. We both wondered if our phones were making that noise, but it didn't seem to be coming from our packs. It was a ringing in our ears. An insect swarm? When we left High Top, we didn't hear it anymore. What was it?
The High Top is a must-do, but there is no view.
Back at the lodge, we bought T-shirts, looked at the picture displays in the office, and talked to some fellow hikers there. This was a social place!
While we were in the office, I looked out the window and noticed something I hadn't seen before. "Jason! Come look! The clouds lifted! We can see Gatlinburg!" We walked outside to see something amazing - a VIEW! The distant view of Gatlinburg was too hazy to make out any details, but we were really much closer to town than I realized! But there are really no foothills of any size between Gatlinburg and Mt. Le Conte, so it seems to rise right out of town. The amount of effort to get to the peak makes it seem farther away.
Since we now had a view, we decided to march up to Cliff Top to see what we could see of the park. This is a pretty steep, hard hike, but it's short. You get a big panorama off to the west and it was well worth the hike up there. The guests at the lodge come up here to see the sun set. That must be gorgeous. A ranger appeared while we were looking at our map to see what we could see, and he pointed features out to us - West Point was very close, Clingmans Dome was on the horizon in the clouds, and Cades Cove was in the distance but too hazy to make out clearly. Chimney Tops were visible and looked different from here than I expected. It was breathtaking, the best thing about our Smokies vacation. We could have stayed up there all day. We were on the Cliff Top quite a long time, relaxing on the rocks and talking with lodge guests and hikers. We had arrived at the lodge at 1:15pm (3:45 from the trailhead), and visited the lodge, High Top, and Cliff Top from 1:15 to 2:45. At last we decided to head on down.
Cliff Top was my favorite thing about the Smokies so far. At last a view!
We descended the same way we came up, taking care on the sloping, wet rocks. It was really no trouble in hiking boots as long as we were careful. We got rained on while we were on the cabled ledges above Alum Cave Bluffs. It rained pretty hard for a little bit and thundered once or twice. We put on our rain jackets, which made the rain stop, of course, and then we got sweaty. We ended up not needing the rain jackets again - it was just a quick cloudburst.
I turned on the RunKeeper app on the iPhone for the trip to Cliff Top and then back down.
The rest of the trip down went smoothly. The gentle part of the trail along the river seemed much longer now that we were so close to the car. We arrived back at the car around 5pm, 2 hrs 15 mins for the trip down. We were fully ready for dinner by then after such a big day. The next day, we'd be leaving this wonderful place. I could have stayed for another week as my list of things to-do had only grown longer.
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