Downed Bridges and Trail Names

At the end of 2018, my father and I made plans to hike the GA portion of the Appalachian Trail to celebrate my 30th Birthday (March 2019). Since I now live in central Tennessee, I thought I’d use one of the closer rugged trails as a training opportunity before the epic birthday hike.

I picked a clear, cool Friday evening in the beginning of March to try my hand at the Lower Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls in Spencer, TN. I’d been on the Upper Loop within the last year, but had been told that the Lower Loop had much more difficult terrain. I left work and noon and got on the road, in a few short hours I was on the trail and heading for my camp site that was just past the half way point.

The trail was rugged in places. with a descent just over 500 feet over the course of about a quarter mile. But the weather was mild and the sky was blue, so I enjoyed taking it all in. But, to my disappointment as I was nearing the midway point around dusk (about 7 miles into the trail), I found the bridge washed out. Usually this wouldn’t have been a problem, since the bridge only crosses a creek. But we’d had several inches of rain fall during the week and the water was now between 3 and 5 feet deep and fast moving in the center. After spending the next 40 minutes walking up and down the bank looking for a safe spot to cross, I turned back and headed back towards the nearest campsite. Even though it was still early spring and the weather was cool enough to keep most people off the trail overnight, this still bothered me for a few reasons. The first and biggest was that no where at the start of the trail, or anywhere along the 7 miles leading to the bridge, was there anything posted to let people know that the bridge was out, when it had very clearly been down for some time. The second feeds off of the first, the campsites in the backwoods area are reservation only, and I was now 7 miles into a trail at dusk only to find out that my campsite was now 14 trail miles away. To add insult to injury, all of the beautiful views that the Lower Loop is known for, and they are some spectacular waterfall vistas, are located on the western rim while I was now confined to the eastern rim.

The silver lining to this unfortunate trip was twofold. Once I got back to the nearest campsite, there were 3 open spots and the only other occupants were a father/son duo who were out testing their hammocks before an upcoming scouting trip. The second which was unbeknownst to me at this point, was that I was about to be handed my trail name. As I approached my chosen camp site, I started a polite conversation with the Father and Son to let them know that the bridge was washed out, and that they’d have to head back out the way they came in the morning. After a short conversation about the recent weather the father politely asked my favorite question “where are you from?”. Earlier this year I recounted with my wife that we’ve moved 8 times in the last 9 years, and moved between states on 4 of those occasions; Indiana to Alaska, back to Indiana, to Texas, and now to Tennessee. So I usually just answer with “all over the place”, but this time I explained our transient tendencies, the kid laughed and the father said something along the lines of “well, you’re quite the traveler”. The last word struck a chord and stuck. I’d been thinking for the last year about what possible trail names I might end up with, but nothing ever sounded as good to me as “Traveler”. So after a few more minutes of conversation I retired to my hammock with a smile, and a new name.

Upper Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls

A few weekends ago I got the opportunity for an overnight adventure, and I decided to check out the Upper Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls. The Upper Loop is about 15.5 miles with the current detour, it’s lightly trafficked and rated as moderate on Alltrails.

As far as Tennessee trails go, this is less than extraordinary during the summer. There really aren’t any noteworthy views, it is very overgrown, spiders and webs are a constant battle along the whole trail, the bugs are much worse than other similar trails I’ve been on in the state and there are a TON of downed trees that require you to squeeze under or make wide detours off the trail. With that being said, the back country camping area was the one redeeming quality from my short weekend trip. The established fire rings and ample space close to filterable water made camping alone, since all the other camp sites were vacant on a Friday night, very enjoyable. I would recommend this trail in Spring, Fall or Winter when there is more to look at. But if you’re looking for a quick 15 miles or a manageable overnight trip. The trail camp sites here make it worth the trip, just make sure to pack a lot of extra bug spray if you go during the summer months. The chiggers are out in force.

You can find directions and more information on the Upper Loop Trail by following the following link. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/tennessee/fall-creek-falls-upper-loop

As always, I’ve posted attached some of my favorite pictures from this hike below.

 

Paw Paw Trail at Fall Creek Falls

The Paw Paw Trail is a 3 mile moderately trafficked loop trail at Fall Creek Falls State Park near Pikeville, TN that features an incredible waterfall view and a scenic overlook that is breathtaking in its own respect. This is a great day hike, but access to the falls is via a very strenuous cable trail that is a mix between hand over fist rock climbing and rappelling (not really that intense but it seems like it) in some areas.

However, if you’re looking for a great weekend trip that can be completed in an afternoon, this is the trail for you.

As always, I’ve added some of my favorite pictures from the trip (and a couple videos) below.

Cane Creek Overlook

Cane creek Falls

Happy Trails!

Savage Gulf Day Loop

The Savage Gulf Day loop is a moderately trafficked loop trail located in the Savage Gulf Natural Area near Palmer, Tennessee. It offers a scenic overlook and 3 to 4 waterfall views depending on how adventurous you want to be. The track that we took was about 5.5 miles when all was said and done, but this trail begs for off the main trail excursions. The trail was well maintained and mostly flat, so even in the August heat starting in the middle of the day it was still tolerable and well worth it for the views. There is a scenic waterfall overlook to the east of the access to the falls, but during the summer it’s so overgrown that it’s really not worth the quarter mile side trail to get to the overlook.

This trail also offers 8 primitive camping locations within walking distance of the falls, but they are first come first serve and must be paid for in advance. All in all this is a very cool day trip that is accessible for anyone that doesn’t have a difficult time walking up small hills and over flat ground. I highly recommend this trail to anyone looking for a little weekend adventure in Southeastern Tennessee.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/tennessee/savage-day-loop

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Bakers Grove Trail at Long Hunter State Park

Bakers Grove is a moderately trafficked 4 mile loop trail in Long Hunter State Park just outside of Nashville, TN. Walking at a leisurely pace and stopping to take in all of the great views of the lake we still finished in under two hours. But if you stay on trail and keep an average walking pace, this could easily be done in around an hour.

The trail is very flat and spends a good amount of time tracing the eastern bank of the J. Percy Priest Lake, but it offers a few hills and rock fields along the dirt path that make for some good pictures. All in all this is a great trail if you’re looking for a quick workout with access to water that is close to Nashville.

Since relocating to Tennessee in April I’ve been extraordinarily busy with travel and getting settled in a new place. But this will be the first of many trails that I’ll be exploring in the coming months, now that things are slowing down again. As always, I’m posting some of my favorite pictures from the trip below.

Directions and further details are provided in the link below. https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/tennessee/bakers-grove-trail

Happy Trails!

 

Appalachian Trail: A Brief Adventure in the Great Smokys

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The Appalachian Trail, a thru hike of the granddaddy trail has been something that my father and I have talked about doing since I was a kid. So when we started hiking seriously at the beginning of the year making a weekend trip to this hiker’s Mecca was at the top of our list. We finally got things planned out and days off that would accommodate our trip this past weekend. So we piled on the car on Saturday and made the 6 and a half hour drive from my home in Central Indiana to the Newfound Gap Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee / North Carolina border.

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When we pulled into the parking lot after an hour of driving through the beautiful scenery of the National Park seeing the trail was like coming down the stairs to find presents under the tree as a kid on Christmas Day. Little did I know at the time that the next 24 hours would show me just how much I underestimated this fabled trail and overestimated where I need to be physically before I attempt a thru-hike. I’ll give a little bit of background for perspective before I go any further with the story of our weekend. When I started hiking at the beginning of the year I was coming off a very hard year, I’d had serious relationship problems that nearly led to a divorce. I was struggling with PTSD from my time in Afghanistan that was exacerbated by frequent 1st to 3rd shift changes at work and to top it all off, I’d gotten to the fattest I’ve ever been in my life at nearly 300 pounds. I’ve always been a big guy, I was in the 180-200 range when I wrestled in high school and even through Basic Training and AIT when I was in the best shape of my life I barely touched 175. But a combination of depression, sleep problems and bad eating habits had landed me at a new personal low (and high).

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When I found my love for hiking at the beginning of the year I saw it as my way to beat my personal demons and get myself back to where I should be physically. I knew it would be frustrating, that I would hurt, and that it was going to be a long arduous road. But like any hiker will tell you, the best way to conquer a mountain is one foot at a time. So with my dad and later my wife by my side I started hitting trails every weekend. Week after week I started feeling better (without prescription meds), losing pounds here and there, and getting myself back into shape, taking out 6-10 mile trails in a handful of hours each and every weekend. So after 4 months of this I felt like I was ready for a weekend of hiking on the trail that inspired me to start this journey.

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So we set off at around 4pm on Satuday, we started walking up the trail talking about how great it was to be out here doing this and how much fun we were going to have over the next few days. We were so happy that we made it half a mile into the trail before we realized that we were headed in the wrong direction. We had set a plan to head south, had reserved shelters and arranged pick up to the south… and we were heading north, oops. So we laughed it off and started back down the trail we had just come up, through the tourist crowded parking lot full of people that had just watched us walk up that same stretch of trail 10 minutes ago, then across the street to the hidden marker that let us know we were heading the right way this time.

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Once we got on the southbound portion of the trail we started rolling. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and the first couple of miles were relatively flat. We had reservations at the Mt. Collins Shelter for that night, which meant that with our added mile, we’d be going right around 6 miles that day. Which was great until we went a little over 3 miles into the trail, met our first thru-hiker of the trail. A skinny redhead girl named “firecracker” who was slack packing to Newfound Gap. Then the trail started uphill, and kept going uphill, and uphill. This was also the first time I’d carried (in retrospect) a way too heavy pack over rock scrambles.

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After climbing steadily uphill for miles we came to a portion of the trail that dipped downhill before heading back up. My legs were exhausted at this point, my knee started getting this achy feeling on the downhill portions of the trail and I had that all too familiar “copper penny” taste in my mouth from sucking in more air on the uphill that a hoover vacuum at a hybrid pet / furniture store. We were heading down hill at a quick pace as the sun was getting low in the sky and we really wanted to make it to the shelter and secure out spots before sundown. It was when all this was happening and with the days finish line in sight that I took a wrong step, slipped my foot off a loose rock and turned my ankle. I cringed for a second when I felt it happen, it stung but was no where near the worst pain I’ve felt even from similar injuries. So we continued on at our steady pace for the last mile into the shelter just as the sun was setting behind the mountains. 12919614_10153973860690767_3590228466849547661_nWhen we got to the shelter it was pretty crowded. There were a handful of thru-hikers eating dinner, more that were already asleep and another handful of section hikers like ourselves that were getting ready to bed down for the night. So we hung our packs, changed out of our sweaty clothes, and warmed up a quick dinner before raising our food bags up the bear cables. We made smalltalk with a few of the hikers that were still awake, warmed up by the fire that was glowing in the fireplace inside the shelter. Then rolled out our sleeping bags and called it a night. (Picture is from the “top bunk” of the shelter as the fire was dying).

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The night went by quickly, I had underestimated how much colder it would be in the mountains and hadn’t brought quite enough warm weather gear. But my 0 degree sleeping bag kept me warm through the night and the tarp run across the front of the lean-to shelter kept the 40 mile an hour winds that we experienced that night at bay, apart from sounding like it was going to tear the roof off the shelter. Once we got up we had a quick bite to eat, packed up our stuff and said goodbye to the other hikers at the shelter. From here we started the 3 mile climb up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky’s and the second highest peak east of the Mississippi. It was during this (for me) grueling uphill climb that I really started to feel the effects of my misstep the previous day. The achy feeling in my knee and soreness in my ankle exacerbated by the extra weight that I was carrying. Both in my pack and on my still very far from average frame. It was disheartening, but even at the slow pace that we were going we still reached the summit well before noon. We paused at the tourist trap for a little while, admired the scenery, then started back on the trail toward the shelter we were supposed to stay at that night. Still well over 10 miles away.

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Now that we had made it to Clingmans Dome we got to enjoy 2 miles of gradual decline. Killer on the knees but a great break for your lungs, quads and hamstrings. Once we had gotten about a mile into the 2 miles of downhill, we were walking at a steady pace when we came across a very muddy portion of trail near a spring. As we were maneuvering around the deepest part of the mud my foot slipped and I jarred my leg hard enough to turn my slight aches and soreness into screaming protests up and down my entire left leg. From this point our progress was slowed to a crawl. We hadn’t been going much faster on the uphills, but it was definite downgrade in speed. We decided after this that we would very clearly not be making it to the shelter we had reserved for the night and given the circumstances and the fact that you cannot off trail camp outside of reserved shelter in the Smokys unless you are a thru hiker, so we made a plan to get to the next shelter and attempt to call the shuttle service to see if they could adjust the pickup. When we finally made it to the Twin Spring Gap Shelter, dropped our packs and refilled our water. The shuttle service let us know that they could adjust the pick up but the only place they could pick us up was 3.5 miles back up the trail to Clingmans Dome. So once we let them know the situation and that we would be moving rather slow, we started back up the mountain sore, tired and (for me) slightly disheartened.

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On the shuttle ride back to Newfound Gap, exhausted, in pain, and having gone just about 15 miles in all I came to the realization that I have a long way still to go before this dream to thru-hike the AT can become a reality. If just over 24 hours in this terrain could leave me feeling the way I was there was no way that I could survive 5-7 months of this day after day. But sometimes it takes an experience like this to show you how important something really is to you. Yes, this was a low point when I grossly underestimated the trail while at the same time overestimating my own ability. But it gives me a renewed sense of determination, the trail may have beaten me this time. But I’ll be back, skinnier, healthier, and with a vengeance.

If you’re interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, more information is available in the link below.                                                                                      https://www.appalachiantrail.org/

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An AT adventure in the great Smoky Mountains. From Newfound Gap to Twin Springs Shelter.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, April 4, 2016