05 November 2010

Clingman's Dome, Smoky Mountain National Park, TN

We arrived in Gatlingburg, TN late at night – Gus had visited as an adolescent and was excited to relive some of those memories.  Gatlinburg is “the gateway to the Smokies,” but unfortunately, it reminded me of International Drive in Orlando … complete with a Ripley’s Believe-or-Not, $10 parking, and ridiculously expensive food.

We made the most of it and wandered the area, people watching and grabbing a cheap dinner.  Even the seediest motel cost way more than we would consider paying, and we had arrived in town too late to arrange for camping, so we ended up sleeping in the car! 

The next day, we went to the Sugarland Visitor Center and planned out our first real hiking trip.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the only Park that does not charge an entry fee!  Most of the rangers and staff at the Visitor Center were highly knowledgeable volunteers.  Should you want to plan a trip in the Smokies, they will be able to help you with any questions you may have:

Backcountry camping is free in the Smokies.  The backcountry volunteer ranger helped out pick out a 28 mile hike over 3 days and 2 nights, on Clingmans Dome.  We planned to start out hiking the next day, so we forked over twenty bucks to camp at Elkmont Campground – one of those campsites with a concrete tent pad, picnic table, etc.  Way too expensive for a really silly “camping” experience, in my humble opinion. J  But … we needed a place to regroup, ready ourselves, and pack for the real deal.   

To begin our wild story, Clingmans Dome is the highest mountain in the Smokies, as well as on the Appalachian Trail.  It’s also the highest point in Tennessee.  Gus had done some hiking/backpacking trips in Florida and Georgia; I had only done our seven mile day hike in North Carolina on Profile Trail/Grandfather Mountain.  Here’s part of the Wikipedia article about Clingmans Dome:

Clingmans Dome  is a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, in the southeastern United States. At an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 m), it is the highest mountain in the Smokies, the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and the highest point along the 2,174-mile (3,499 km) Appalachian Trail. East of the Mississippi River, only Mount Mitchell (6,684 ft) and Mount Craig (6,647 ft) are higher …”

In terms of wildlife, there is a bear for every 2 square miles in the Smokies!  Honestly (I’m an idiot for animals), I was hoping to see one, from afar at least, but that hope did not come to fruition … much to my chagrin and Gus’s relief.  As for our gear, Gus had an appropriate Kelty external frame backpack; I was carrying a Jansport school backpack that I’ve had since middle school – we also decided to bring Gus’s one person backpacking tent, since it weighed about 1/4th of the weight our regular tent.  We both had new hiking boots.  However, both of us wore almost completely cotton clothing, save for my Patagonia pullover fleece shirt …

The first day was long.  When we arrived to the top of the mountain, where we would start (our trip would take us down the mountain and then back up), we ran into a ranger that went over our route with us.  We had been anticipating a 10 mile hike that first day; the ranger showed us the map and told to expect around a 14 mile hike.  We planned improperly and started out around 1 o’clock in the afternoon.  It was fairly easy hiking, downhill, shaded, and because we were still at the top of the mountain, there were some really fabulous views. This is my favorite that I took:

Gus got silly:

And there was beautiful fungi.


When we hit early evening, we realized we still had a six mile hike and night was approaching.  We took a look at the map and rerouted to a different campsite that knocked four miles off the day’s hike.  We hiked and hiked and hiked. And hiked.  And hiked.  AND HIKED…. I really felt like maybe we wouldn’t ever arrive.  It grew dark, we got really tired, Gus got blisters, I got a little dehydrated.  As we hiked farther down, we started encountering creek crossings … so, for the first time in my life, I found myself crossing moving water via boulder hopping, in the dark.  It was both scary (I have crappy vision and worse balance) and incredibly thrilling – I felt so empowered and excited.  I mean, there was no way to avoid it – no easier way to go – and we had to get to our campsite. 

We finally found our campsite around 9 or 9:30 PM (after thinking we saw it several times, sort of like a mirage in the desert, I’d imagine), hoisted our bags on the bear hang, and set up the tent.  We built a small fire and went to sleep….

One person tent … bad idea!!  As much as I love being close to my favorite man in the world, neither of us got nearly solid enough sleep because we were smashed up so closely together in that tent.  I woke up first and explored our camp site, we were situated right on the creek and it was bee-yooooo-tiful.  We made mac ‘n cheese for breakfast and headed to our second campsite – only a four mile hike!  Woo-hoo!  We ended up bathing in the creek by a waterfall -- we think it was in the lower 50 degrees!

We arrived there and built a fire – I ate my first fried Spam sandwich.  I resisted it until I was ravenous for calories, and it was pretty damn good when I was that hungry.  We honestly were awake only until about 7:30 and then went to bed … it started to rain around 8 PM … and it didn’t stop.  Until 8 PM the next day.  Because we were so cramped in our stupid little tent, we were touching the sides and drew in tons of water.  Additionally, the tent was leaking.  We essentially woke up in 2 inch puddle of water, inside the tent, at around 4 AM.  Our sleeping bags, clothing, bodies, everything, was soaked.  We waited for morning light to hit so we could get going up that mountain!  It stayed gray … and raining … and raining ..

Us - unhappy in the rained in tent :)

Finally, around 8 AM, we forced ourselves out of the tent into the steady drizzle gifting the Smokies that morning.  There was zero possibility of starting a fire, all our clothing was wet, our bags were wet on the bear hang… we started hiking, hoping not to hit the creek right away.  Well, five minutes in the hike we came to the creek.  It had risen exponentially over the course of the evening’s rain … we ended up taking off our socks and shoes and wading through it.

We weren't pretty, but we were kickin ass and taking names.

This sums up our hike back up Clingmans Dome:  we hiked from 9 AM to 4 PM (around 8 miles, only?), we crossed the creek several times by hopping from boulder to slippery boulder, or by hanging onto logs crossing the creek, and once I crawled on my hands and knees on a log across the water.  We were soaking wet, dressed in almost entirely cotton, and could not get warm.  We were on paths at times that were a foot wide and open to a 20 foot drop on the side, we were experiencing some early signs of hypothermia, and we encountered several older, more experienced hikers on the paths that gave us extra food and snacks with knowing looks at our complete lack of appropriate gear and clothing.  We cheerleaded and pushed each other along, took frequent breaks, lost our breath, Gus lost his ability to move his fingers well, and all we could think of was our car at the top.  

And we made it … I mean, plodding along, our shoes soaked, our clothes soaked, skin white and puffy from water … but we climbed the biggest mountain in the Smokies.  And it was amazing.  At the top, Gus had been carrying a way heavier load than me and had clothing that retained tons more water.  I ran and grabbed the car, pulled up to the curb, untied his shoes and pulled his wet clothes off of him, we got in the car ... we blasted the heat .. in our skivvies and shivering, white, and stunned by the whole adventure...

The rainbow after our hike.

However … I will never, ever, ever climb another mountain again that I am not physically and materially prepared for. J  We were blessed with gifts from fellow hikers, but there were moments that I quite literally feared for our physical safety… Clingmans Dome is nothing to mess with. 

1 comment:

  1. Just found your blog! What a wonderful idea! I'm currently living in Costa Rica but thinking about doing something like this next year. If you're looking for other free national parks, Hot Springs NP in Arkansas is free, and so are Mammoth Cave NP in KY and Congaree NP in SC. And it's only like $3 to camp at Congaree!! There may be others, but those are the only others I know of.