Dark, ominous clouds snaked across the sky over 187,000 acres of old growth forest as the threat of a thunderstorm loomed. Ahead of the dense, hardwood forest was 18 miles of backcountry trail to be covered over three days. Yet all I could think of as a first-time backpacker was the sign warning, “You are entering bear country.” Indeed, I was entering the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was fairly certain a black bear was about to have its way with me.
BACKPACKING GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
My buddy Rob and I beat the sunrise and left Cleveland at five in the morning on a Monday, only stopping for gas and food in Charleston, West Virginia. Our nine-hour drive blazed by, arriving at the Cosby Campground around 3:30 pm. This gave us about four hours to hike the initial six miles along the Gabes Mountain Trial before we lost daylight. Luckily the thunderstorm I had been tracking relentlessly on my phone during the drive was mercifully holding off, allowing us to begin our trek relatively dry.
Clichés are plentiful when entering the Smoky Mountains for the first time. The beauty of the forest overwhelms you within the first mile. For me, it was hard to believe I had waited this long to listen to old advice and “get lost.”
The forest was so dense, it seemed impossible for a drop of rain to land on the ground without first being snatched by a thirsty tree. The humidity was a comfortable blessing, allowing us to hike in shorts and a tee shirt for the entirety of the hike. However, the unrealistic threat of a black bear ninja-chopping me in the jugular stayed active in the back of my mind.
Shortly after the second mile, a sign offered a brief detour to Henwallow Falls — a worthy diversion from our route. The large pile of boulders provided the perfect opportunity to take five and admire the quiet stream of water falling from above.
We continued along the Gabes Mountain Trail, winding our way around the mountain. The trail, covered in falling yellow and orange leaves and thick roots, was mostly steep with a few moments of relief whenever the trail flattened out, usually for no longer than a fifth of a mile at a time.
It didn’t seem long before we reached our first campsite, best described as an exact replica of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. Ample camp space surrounded by the park’s ubiquitous towering trees alongside an easily accessible stream of water — it’s the perfect place to raise an army of merry men to topple a tyrant.
Looking skyward, it was clear the aforementioned dubious clouds were closing in. We were in for a wet evening. And since it had already rained throughout the day, a roaring fire was out of the question.
Thankfully we were able to muster enough of a flame to heat a couple of pre-cooked hot dogs, throw ’em on a bun and down our gullets before the sun completely set. Soon, thunder began to strike. And not the cool, AC/DC kind that features prominently in the Thunderstruck drinking game. I’m talking about the kind that predicates a storm is coming to kick your ass.
With the sun all but gone, Rob and I attempted to figure out the bear-pulley system used to keep bags out of reach from overnight visitors. Armed with a weak headlamp, I stumbled around rocks and roots, preparing to have my bag soaked as we thrust it into the sky like Benjamin Franklin’s kite. The storm had arrived just as we jumped into our tent, shoulder-to-shoulder as our new home filled with the unpleasant mustiness of two men backpacking in the rain for several hours after a nine-hour drive.
Although I was kept reasonably comfortable in my sleeping bag, I awoke several times thanks to the incessant sound of pouring rain hitting our tent throughout the night. Worst of all was the wind, pounding us on the side of our tent. The feeling of the tent brushing against me every so often felt too much like how I’d imagine the snout of 300-pound animal would feel. I shot upright several times throughout the night.
Finally, I opened my eyes and saw daylight accompanied with the sound of rainwater bouncing off our tent from the surrounding trees. Despite the rather raucous introduction to the trip, the steady hum of the nearby rapids proved relaxing enough to get enough sleep in.
Slowly, I peeked my head out of our tent to see our bags were still intact and no bear was waiting outside with a plate and silverware. Relieved, we each threw down a pizza bagel before washing off a bit and continuing our trek.
“This Has To Be The Last One”
The second day was far more physically trying than the first. But at least we had a blue sky and not a storm cloud in sight.
Steep climbs up the mountain forced our tired legs into overdrive. Frequent stream encounters were a welcomed excuse to take a break, fill our water bottles and snap a few photos. Toward the end of the day’s six-mile hike, we began encountering stream after stream, forcing us to get our feet a little wet.
At times, the water rose to our knees. The rapids were picking up speed as we continued to hike, determined to dunk one of us underwater. With some patience, we were able to make each crossing with relative ease, but I don’t care to know what would have happened if I slipped. In all, it was without a doubt the most enjoyable portion of the entire hike. Even if I was constantly reciting a mantra of, “This has to be the last one.”
Relief set in when we finally saw camp across a far-less threatening stream. We arrived around the same time we began our hike the previous day. With time to kill, we relaxed on our sleeping pads, enjoyed a PB&J lunch, and stared out into the clouds, which were racing across the blue sky like race-cars on a track.
Somehow we found enough energy to set up camp and collect firewood. Our hope was to stay awake a little past sunset with help from a warm fire. Although we succeeded in producing an impressive pile of firewood, everything was too soaked from the previous night’s storm to burn. Even Rob’s bacon grease couldn’t ignite the wood, which apparently is a thing.
So we took our loss and headed into our tent around 8:30 pm to avoid the cold and tripping over the surrounding rocks, roots, and worthless pile of firewood.
We awoke the next morning with the rising sun, pledging to get an early start on the day by hiking the final mile to the bald before having breakfast. Indeed, the second campsite proved to be aptly located as there’s no doubt our lower-body would have wanted to commit seppuku if we continued on during the second day.
Whereas we thought the second day was a rigorous, unending uphill hike, the final mile somehow proved to be even steeper. Rob and I were silent, instead focusing on keeping our breath and moving our legs forward. Without my morning drug (coffee), I felt my body slowly shutting down, and a withdrawal headache looming.
Then, it appeared just over the suddenly short brush. The bald.
The Smoky Mountains were, indeed, smoky mountains. Large tufts of clouds had seeped into the valleys of the mountains during the early morning hour. Blue skies accompanied a brightly shining sun for the second day in a row. A scenic award, perhaps, for not freaking out in the middle of the first night’s thunderstorm.
After a short breakfast, which of course included some badly needed caffeine stimulant, we practically ran down the mountain’s Snake Den Ridge Trail for the remaining few miles. Although nearly the same distance as the prior day’s trek, the sharp decline made the finale comparatively easy. No animals or unexpected visitors. Just a couple of hikers and muddy rocks all the way down.
As we were clearly arriving at the trailhead, I began hoping we’d see a bear. Whereas I had entered into this new adventure both an amateur and a relative coward, I began to emerge a little more alive. I even managed to finish the hike unscathed, even though I did wipe-out at the very end during the easiest portion of the trek on the flattest trail.
By noon, Cosby and its surrounding mountains were in our rear-view mirror, and we were back on the road.
All photos by Rob Andrukat