Best Day Hikes in the Smokies – Ramsey Cascades Trail

When the conversation of “Best Day Hikes in the Smokies” comes up, Ramsey Cascades has to be in the mix. After all it’s one of the most popular day hikes in the Smokies. And this is why…

Ramsey Cascades Trail is located just minutes from downtown Gatlinburg, in the Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) on the Tennessee side. This trail has five major things going for it.

(1.) It’s considered the “quieter” side of the Smokies. With it being off the beaten path, most tourists are unaware of its existence. Therefore making this hidden gem less crowded. You still have the day hikers and tourists, but not as bad as Cade’s Cove or Newfound Gap.

(2.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is only 4 miles in length, but plan to hike 8 miles (in and back out). And with an elevation gain of 2,200′, it’s a slight steady climb. The last 3 miles the trail becomes more rugged, but still considered as a moderately difficult hike.

(3.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is home to some of the largest Tulip Popular Trees in the Park. Measured as the largest Tulip Popular trees on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. These majestic trees tower over the surrounding hardwoods. You will find these trees around 3 miles into your hike.

(4.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a couple unique footlog bridges that make for a beautiful and natural way to cross the stream without looking out of place. These footlog bridges are designed and hand built by park employees. The logs used to make these bridges are recovered from naturally downed trees due to storms or high winds.

(5.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a destination like no other. Once you get to the end of the 4 mile long trail, you’ll get to one of the most beautiful waterfalls/cascades in the park, Ramsey Cascades. At around 100′ high, Ramsey Cascades is also the tallest waterfall in the park.

Things you should know

When planning your trip, give yourself plenty of time to hike in and hike back out. It takes the typical hiker 5 to 7 hours to hike in and back out to your car. Obviously weather and trail conditions can effect this timing.

Expect to see other hikers. Even though Ramsey Cascades Trail is “off the beaten path”. You will more than likely see day hikers and some tourists. During Spring and Autumn expect to see more people due to the wildflowers and fall colors.

Be sure to wear sturdy footwear and dress appropriately. Weather conditions can change on a moments notice in the Smokies. You can check for weather conditions on the GSMNP Weather website. Current weather forecasts for the park are available by phone at (865) 436-1200 extension 630.

Also check with the GSMNP Temporary Road Closures website during wintery weather since the park does close both main and secondary roads in the park if snow is forecasted. You you can also call (865) 436-1200 to receive updated road conditions and temporary closures.

Prohibited

Do not attempt to climb to the top of the falls. Several people have been killed trying to do so.

Pets and bicycles are prohibited on the trail.

Pets are not allowed on this trail. The only two trails in the park that allow pets are the Gatlinburg Trail near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Oconaluftee River Trailnear the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Learn more about pet restrictions in the park.

The Video

Here is the video “Best Day Hikes in the Smokies – Ramsey Cascades Trail”. This will give you a great visual of what to expect when you’re hiking this trail.

https://youtu.be/t50DKAP_YHc

Heartache, Perseverance and Healing (Ashley’s PTS Story)

 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

‭‭John‬ ‭14:27‬

A truth I will learn through heartache, perseverance, and healing.

Written By: Ashley Braden

Ashely and Benny at their wedding Nov. 24, 2013

     I’m standing in front of him, blocking the door, trying to keep him from leaving…again. He’s yelling at me to move. Cursing me for standing in his way. All I want is a hug, a kiss, and a simple “I love you” before he leaves. I beg. I’m crying harder than ever. He looks at me and it appears that he feels zero sympathy. It feels as though he doesn’t love me or our kids, even though I know he really and truly does. A scenario that we’d played out before and would continue to play out off and on for months to come. 

Phot Courtesy of : Outmersive Films


I’d never had to “deal” with anyone suffering from PTS before. We didn’t even realize that’s what was going on. All I knew was that my new husband acted like he hated me every single time we would disagree over anything, even the small stuff or when the kids would get too loud or argue or make a mistake. “That’s it, GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” were words I heard too many times… my response? “No. We are married, this is my house now too and we have 3 kids. I’m not leaving.” So he left. Every. Single. Time. I would text and call over and over. Each and every time he left, I would go to the safe and count our handguns to make sure they were all there. I prayed he would not be found somewhere in his truck with a self inflicted gunshot. I worried myself sick sometimes and cried myself to sleep most times. He would leave and stay gone until the next day and when he would come home it would be as if nothing had ever happened. I would try to talk to him but he would not discuss anything. It was during this time that I really learned to pray.. when I learned how to spill my heart to God, trust him, and wait… wait very patiently. 

My Beardedself and my Beautiful Bride Ashley


One time when we were arguing, most likely over something small and unimportant, he decided to throw a bunch of my belongings outside… this included the wedding dress that I married him in. I picked my things up as he once again told me to get out and that he wanted a divorce. I left this time. I drove approximately 10 minutes away to my aunt and uncles. I pulled up and after my uncle made sure that the children or I had not been physically hurt, I asked him to please go check on Benny. I knew something was not right. He was dealing with a demon much bigger than I had ever had to face. I had some trouble with depression a couple of times as a younger adult and I knew this was not depression. I had also dealt with anxiety and this was like an anxiety attack on the largest dose of steroids you could imagine. After my uncle left I contacted a couple of our friends, Mike and Jonathan. They also headed towards our house. Benny was still there, in the back yard, digging. Digging. Digging. We were in the middle of a major addition project on our house. More stress for him. They talked to him, calmed him down. But it did not end the fits he had. 

Benny Braden


The fits continued…like a toddler version of the Hulk who hadn’t slept in days and all they wanted was for you to buy them a new toy…having a major meltdown with every toy you passed in the toy aisle at Walmart. And every time he left, I got stronger. I started praying like never before. I started loving Benny harder and loving God more. Each time he’d leave, I’d write a note and leave it on his pillow. Or I’d write down my prayers and leave them out for him to read. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. And when I thought I couldn’t pray anymore, I prayed again. I KNEW God would fix him. I praised God for answering my prayers before he ever answered them. 

Ashley Braden in Frozen Head State Park

He kept saying he was broken. And I kept reminding him that God mends all things. I knew this because God had mended me. Many many times. He healed me of depression and anxiety when I was 18 and had lost my great-grandmother. He healed me of depression, anxiety, and self harm when I was going through separation and divorce with my ex-husband. I KNEW God could heal him. And that’s when he started backpacking. 

My Beardedself on top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park


With every backpacking trip, he had fewer meltdowns. With every backpacking trip, we grew closer. With every backpacking trip, I saw sparkle come back into his eyes. He would share with me the beauty of Gods creation that he saw. He would explain how close he felt to God while he was hiking.

My husband was being mended. God was answering my prayers just as I knew he would. We both grew closer to God and as we grew closer to God, we grew closer to each other. Our family was happier. Less stressed. Over time it got better and better and we all no longer felt like we had to walk on eggshells around him. There came a point where I could no longer remember the last time he left in anger. I could no longer remember when we’d had our last argument. We could disagree and it not turn into an atomic bomb exploding in our house. Our kids could argue like siblings do or be loud like kids are and it would not send him into hysterics. He finally figured out what was causing the anxiety attacks and the outbursts.. Post Traumatic Stress. 

My Beardedself as 1st Lieutenant, Head Rescue Diver, EMT, Water Rescue Team Leader, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor and Vehicle Extrications Instructor at Roane Co Rescue Squad.


Before we met, Benny had been an EMT worker, a rescue diver, a rescue squad member, etc. He’d seen too many things in this life that stuck with him long after the job was over. It took a toll on him and led to PTS. Finally we could put a name to what had caused his explosions. It made perfect sense now. My husband had suffered from Post Traumatic Stress. He still gets anxious occasionally but that’s when I say, “Honey..it’s time for a hike.” And even if he just takes a few hours on the trail…he doesn’t explode. He has left home since the hard times in moments of anxiety and frustration.. But I understand now that sometimes he just needs space. I don’t stop him if he needs to go and he has not stayed gone all night in years. He comes home and climbs in bed beside me and wakes up feeling refreshed again. He wakes up to face another day. To hike another hike. To live another moment. To be free. 

Always thinking of my beautiful bride while I’m out on the trail.

——-Highline ——-

My Beardedself standing on the summit of Kings Peak. Tallest point in Utah. Photo by: Will Wood

This past summer (2018) I had the incredible opportunity to join my buddies over at Zpacks (an ultralight outdoor gear company) and my good friend Chris Smead of Outmersive Films on a backpacking trip out in Utah. The plan was to not only hike the Uinta Highline Trail in the Uinta Mountains, but to also film it for a documentary.

This wasn’t going to be your normal everyday type of hiking documentary. We were going to take you on a journey. A journey of five friends as they take a 10 day human journey, sharing the stories of each hiker as they explore a historic path with a history that none of them ever really realize. Some of their stories are tragic and some are triumphant. You’ll hear stories that are not only shocking, but also stories of redemption.

My Beardedself “Plug-it In”, Matt “Details” Favero, Joe “Samurai” Valesko, Will “Redbeard” Wood & Steve “Cannonball” Kaiser. Photo by: Outmersive Films

Not only did we learn about each other, but also the unique history of the Uinta Mountains and the Uinta Highline Trail. You’ll watch as the ancient history of this fabulously beautiful trail is woven together with the personal stories of each of us hikers as we get back in touch with the world around us and each other.

Tons of planning and preparation went in to making this hike happen. Outmersive shot film over 18 days in later July and early August 2018. Each of us hikers helped carry extra batteries, cameras, lens and other gear. This extra gear added up to about 2 to 3 extra lbs each hiker would have to carry. I guess it’s a good thing we were all carrying ultralight gear……

Steve “Cannonball” Kaiser taking in the view of the Uinta Mountains. Photo by Chris Smead of Outmersive Films

TRAILER

Highline is scheduled to release in Summer of 2019

With great anticipation the trailer is finally completed and ready to be viewed. Here it is, the official trailer for the documentary Highline. Give it a watch and tell us what you think.

https://youtu.be/dbkE6UbIiAU

CURRENT PHASE

It’s now in post production and is targeted to release Summer of 2019. But we need your help. Professional coloring, audio finishing in 5.1 surround sound, and mastering including a digital cinema package for theaters is not cheap. Not to mention distribution fees for online platforms like iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. Join us, and help bring this film to life.

YOU CAN HELP

You can help us bring this film to life by joining a Kickstarter campaign to help with funding. This funding is needed in order to bring this film to market. If you enjoyed the trailer, we ask that you consider joining. You can do so HERE.

STAY UPDATED:

You can stay up to date on this Films progress by following Outmersive Films. Here is a link to all of their social media platforms including their website and the website for Highline.

Outmersive website: https://www.outmersivefilms.com/

Highline website: https://highlinefilm.com

Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/outmersivefilms/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/outmersivefilms/

Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/outmersive

YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/channel/UC0kG0TatR77VrpWnllo6zHQ

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/outmersivefilms

Synopsis

Photo by: Outmersive Films

Five friends embark on a ten day journey on the incredible Uinta Highline Trail in northern Utah. Together they discover adventure, and explore the history of the area. Along the way you learn more about these hikers, and how they succeeded in life even when the odds were stacked against them.

STAFF & CAST

Produced & directed by outdoor film maker Chris Smead of Outmersive Films and co-directed by experienced cinematographer Gordon Gurley. Armed with cameras and backpacks, they followed 5 experienced long distance hikers to tell their stories:

Joe Valesko (aka Samurai Joe)- Inventor and founder of a well known outdoor gear company.

Matt Favero (aka Details) – Brand manager of a well known outdoor gear company.

Will Wood (aka Redbeard) – Well known Youtuber and blogger

Benny Braden (aka Plug-it-in) – Outdoor blogger that holds the record for hiking all 924 miles in the Smokies in only 43 days.

Steve Kaiser (aka Cannonball)- Larger than life experienced thru hiker.

To help tell the stories behind this amazing place we teamed up with local experts:

Tom Flanigan – Archeologist

Ryan Buerkle – Of the Ashley National Forest

Gordon Hirschi – Of the Uinta Basin Backcountry Horsemen

THE TRAIL

Photo by: Benny Braden for Outmersive Films

Experienced hikers have called the Uinta Highline Trail superior to the John Muir Trail. Yet few people know about it. The John Muir Trail started with a single vision and was well marketed. It was also located near heavily populated areas in California. Utah’s Uinta Highline Trail has a very different history. It snuck on to the map piece by piece. Even local experts could not pinpoint the exact year the trail was completed. Furthermore, the trail is distanced from heavily populated areas. The result is a beautiful and pristine 104 mile trail with no crowds.

THE MISSION

In America, we’re great at concentrating ourselves into well known national parks. Overcrowding is a problem. We hope this film encourages responsible hikers to venture off the beaten path and to experience the Uinta Highline Trail and feel a connection to it. That connection can create a sense of stewardship that is vital to preserving our wild lands.

Day Hikes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ( Alum Cave Trail to LeConte Lodge)

Alum Cave Bluff

I was recently inspired to start a NEW VIDEO SERIES on Day Hikes of the Smokies by my good friend Will “Redbeard” Wood. I wanted to highlight what I thought were the BEST day hikes and I wanted them to vary in length and difficulty.

As you all know already, Mount LeConte is near and dear to my heart. There is just so much that I love about that mountain. The trails, the views and the altitude simply “do it” for me. And it’s not even a seasonal thing for me. LeConte feels like home no matter what the weather is or time of season. I also know I’m not the only one that feels this way. Many of you, my friends and followers have expressed the same sentiments.

LeConte Lodge in the GSMNP

But my favorite route to this magnificent mountain is hands down Alum Cave Trail. I began both #fastestgsmnp900miler and #fastestgsmnp900miler2 with this trail to the LeConte Lodge. To say this trail is as special as the mountain itself would be correct. I personally feel like I’m not hiking alone when I’m on that trail. And I’m not talking about the other tourist or day hikers either.

My buddy Dewey Slusher and my Beardedself at the lodge

So the other day my buddy Dewey Slusher asked if I wanted to get a hike in together. Of course I said yes. It had been a while since we had logged some trail miles together. I consider Dewey as one of my closest friends. We share the same passion for the Smokies and hike about the same pace. Important qualities in a hiking partner. Plus there’s no one that knows LeConte better than Dewey. He has logged over 300 trips to the LeConte Lodge. Now that’s impressive!!

On your trip to LeConte there are some locations that you need to know about. On Alum Cave Trail you will pass Arch Rock, Alum Cave Bluff and the Slide. These locations are worthy of a photo opp. Once you’re up on the mountain the LeConte Lodge, Myrtle Point and Cliff Tops are definitely MUST SEE locations. Myrtle Point is the best spot to view a sunrise and Cliff Tops is the best location to view a sunset.

If you plan to camp on the mountain, you will need a backcountry permit to stay at the LeConte Shelter. It’s a very popular shelter so make sure you reserve your permits early, but not more than 30 days out. Also keep in mine the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may temporarily close US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road if winter weather is forecasted. Also the Lodge itself is usually closed from November through Mid March or April.

THE TRAIL:

There’s a parking area on US 441 aka Newfound Gap Road that is used for hikers and lodge guest. This parking area can get very congested so I would get there early. There’s also a restroom there, but it is closed November through March. You can find the Trailhead is located behind the parking area near the stream.

At Alum Cave Trailhead you’ll start out at an elevation of 3,800′ and begin a slight ascent through a mix of eastern hemlocks and hardwoods. Coupled with rhododendrons, this area is very thick and dense. This section of trail also follows along side of Alum Cave Creek which offers the soothing sounds from the stream.

Roughly about 1.4 miles up trail you reach Styx Branch and Arch Rock which is one of the most unique locations on this trail. You will cross two footlog bridges then follow the trail as it passes through Arch Rock like a tunnel. This can get very congested here as there is not a lot of room on the trail as it passes through Arch Rock.

At mile 2.0, the forest opens up to a rocky spur. This location is called Inspiration Point. From this spot you can see down the valley and see other points of interest such as Chimney Tops, Little Duck Hawk Ridge and Alum Cave Bluffs. When hiking up during early morning hours before sunrise. This is a great place to star gaze.

Not far past Inspiration Point you’ll come to a set of wooden steps. This is just a small taste of what you are about to encounter. Just .2 miles up you hit the mother of all stairs on this trail, Stairway to Heaven. For the next .1 of a mile it is nothing but steps. It slows things down here and the congestion of day hikers and tourists can get a little overwhelming at times.

Once you are at Alum Cave Bluff, you’ve made it 2.3 miles from the parking lot. This is a great place to take a break and take in the view. The Cave will be very dusty, almost like a “moon dust”. The climate here at the Cave is very arid and creates the perfect environment for dusty soil that contains an abundant amount of Epsom salts.

When your at Alum Cave Bluff you are roughly at the halfway point. Congratulations! But you still have the other half to climb. As you continue up the trail you will come to a few view spots where you can see Little Duck Hawk ridge and a view of Inspiration Point. But after a short climb, the trail turns the corner and begins a short descent for the next .4 miles. This is a nice break for the legs and lungs before you begin your unrelenting ascent to Mt LeConte.

At mile 3.8 you reach the 180 Stairs. You have roughly 1.2 miles to the trail intersection with Rainbow Falls and Boulevard Trail. This last mile honestly is my favorite part of the trail. You have carved out sections of trail in the rock with cable assists, natural springs that flow nearly year round and open views of the Chimney Tops and Clingmans Dome. As you near the end of your climb you can look above you and see the rock face of Cliff Tops.

Once you finish ascending, the trail make a sharp right hand turn and levels out in to a Fraser Fir forest. This is the area that feels extra special to me. When I make it here, I know my climb is basically over and I’m only .2 miles from the Rainbow Falls/Boulevard/Alum Cave junction and another .1 to the lodge. You can almost call it my happy place.. And here is where I congratulate you. You just ascended 2,600′ while hiking up Alum Cave Trail. You are roughly at 6,400′ above sea level. This is reason to celebrate!!! If the lodge is open, you NEED a cookie!!

Now after getting to the trail junction, make a right onto the Boulevard Trail and go .1 mile. You will come to the Cliff Tops Trail which is not an official trail of the park. It will take you .2 miles up to Cliff Tops. But just a few more yards past the Cliff Tops sign is the steps down to the LeConte Lodge. Now if the lodge is open, go sign your John Hancock in the guest registers in the lodge office….. and go grab that cookie from the dining hall!

Now if you choose to go to Myrtle Point then you will continue to hike straight on the Boulevard Trail another .4 miles up trail to the intersection with the Myrtle Point Trail. It too is not an official trail of the park. But while in route to there you will pass both the LeConte Shelter and High Point, the tallest point on Mount LeConte.

THE VIDEO:

https://youtu.be/piTbs37qzco

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Plug-it In Circuit

Appalachian Trail near Mount Guyot in the GSMNP

When my buddy Will “Red Beard” Wood asked me to come up with a route in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)(also known as the Smokies) that would have epic views and be challenging. I knew just the route I wanted to make. Having hiked over 2,500 miles and all the trails at least twice in the past year and a half, some of which I’ve hiked too many to count. I guess you can say I’m very familiar with all the trails in the Smokies.

Benny “Plug-it In Hikes” Braden at his 1st FKT GSMNP900-Miler. Photo by: Dana Parish

So I sat down with my notes and my maps and created a route that would be a great representation of what our Smokies are all about. The route takes you to some historical sights that predate the parks establishment along with some of the parks most popular waterfalls and views. The route also has some built in flexibility allowing the hiker to make it longer or shorter and a few bailout points if needed.

Once the route was set I talked it over with Will. He felt like the route was truly gonna be an epic hike that others would want to do as well. He suggested we name the route the “Plug-it In Circuit “. Naming the route after my trail name “Plug-it In” and calling it a “Circuit” as they call routes in other countries. Plus it’s kind of a play on words. But in the end I sincerely appreciate Will’s suggestion. It’s pretty cool having a Circuit named after me.

We began planning how we would document this circuit. Will has an incredible YouTube channel and planned to video the hole trip. This would give the potential hiked a visual of what the circuit will look like. He does an outstanding job capturing the trail and the emotions that a hiker feels when you are seeing everything for the first time. I decided to document the circuit in a detailed written account of the hike along with a few photos.

So, how tough is this route? Will and I attempted to do this hike a few weeks prier, but due to the high mileage (20 Miles) and the extreme elevation change (over 10,000’), we had to leave the trail due to Will injuring his leg. Weather was extremely bad then with heavy rain and remnants of a hurricane predicted to come through the area. If that wasn’t crazy enough, when we attempted it a second time. We had 2 other people attempt it with us. Both of those individuals had to quit on the first day due to various reasons. The combination of high miles paired with a large elevation change and unpredictable weather makes this hike a strong challenge to even the most seasoned of hiker.

Thing to know before you start….

GSMNP visitors sign Gatlinburg, TN

PERMITS:

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park is the United States. It does not require a entry fee to enter the park, but it does require you to purchase a backcountry permit if you plan to camp in the backcountry. You will want to reserve your backcountry permits early, but the system does not allow you to make your reservations no more than 30 days out. You can go to the Smokies Permit website to see all RULES AND REGULATIONS regarding purchase your BACKCOUNTRY PERMITS. You call also call the Backcountry Office at 865-436-1297. If you have to reschedule your campsites then you will need to call the Backcountry Office to do so.

If you plan to stay at Cosby Campground then you’ll need to go to the Parks Frontcountry website HERE to reserve a campsite. Be aware that Cosby Campground as well as all the front country campgrounds are seasonal and most are closed during late fall to early spring.

WEATHER:

The elevations in the park can range from 875’ to 6,643’ and the topography does affect the local weather. The temperatures can vary from 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit from the base of the mountains to the summits, and weather conditions equally vary at higher and lower elevations. Rainfall averages will also vary between the base and high elevations. Average rain totals range from 55” to 85”. So plan appropriately and prepare for the worse conditions. More info on the season weather information can be found HERE. You can check current weather forecasts for the park by phone at (865) 436-1200 extension 630.

CELLPHONE SERVICE

GSMNP does not have any cellular towers located inside the park boundaries, but depending on your provider and location, you may receive some level of service in some areas.

As for the Plug-it In Circuit, I use AT&T and I did have service in a few locations. These are the particular locations that I know I had service;

•Top of Brush Mt

•Campsite 33

•Portions of Old Settlers Trail (between CS 33 and Maddron Bald Trail)

•Campsite 29

•Snake Den Ridge at Maddron Bald Trail intersection

•Appalachian Trail (between Low Gap and Mt Cammerer Trail)

•Mount Cammerer Tower

•Appalachian Trail near Mt Guyot

LeConte Lodge

SEASONAL & WEATHER ROAD CLOSURES

GSMNP posts all temporary, seasonal and weather related closures HERE. These closures also include trails, roads and facilities. Bear warnings and trail cautions are also posted on this site.

MAPS

GSMNP does offer a PDF file of their official TRAIL MAP for the park. This will be very useful to have in the backcountry or when planning your trip. You can also pick up a paper map at any of the parks Visitor Centers.

THE VIDEO

Here is the video that Will “Redbeard” Wood shot the Plug-it In Circuit. He did an outstanding job capturing the essence of this circuit. He also has an incredible YouTube channel that you should also checkout.

https://youtu.be/LB-IqnnrIfM

THE GPX FILE

Here is the GPX FILE for this circuit. This can be a handy assets to have to ensure to stay on the route. Special thanks to Scott K. aka @x_hiker (on Instagram) for collecting this data and sharing it with us.

https://caltopo.com/m/TG0P

THE CIRCUIT

DAY 1: (Trillium Gap Trail to Campsite 33 on the OST)

The official start and finish location of the Plug-it In Circuit is at the Trillium Gap / Rainbow Falls Trailhead. This is located on Cherokee Orchard Rd inside GSMNP just outside of Gatlinburg,TN. This road is open all year long, but is subject to temporary closure due to winter weather. There is a parking lot near the trailheads where you can leave your vehicle. This is typically a safe location as the Park Rangers patrol it regularly.

When you leave the parking lot, you’ll take a short 40 yard approach trail to your official starting location. Trillium Gap Trail will start out with very little elevation change for the first mile or so. Keep your eyes open and on the lookout for black bears, eastern wild turkeys and whitetail deer. You will typically see bears either on the ground foraging for berries and grubs or hanging out in the tops of the many oak and popular trees in the area. Black Bears are typically nonaggressive, but you should never approach them and give them plenty of space. You will also probably see a few Eastern Wild Turkey in this area too. They usually will travel in flocks from 3 up to 30 or more, depending on the season. Whitetail Deer are also very common in this area. They love to feed on the low vegetation along the trails edge. You can see more of the parks wildlife rules and regulations HERE.

As you continue along Trillium Gap Trail, you’ll notice that a road travels along in the same direction just to your left. This is Roaring Fork Road. It is a seasonal road and is usually closed between November and March. This is a very touristy traveled road and section of trail. During Spring through Fall, this trail can get very congested so be patient. This congestion will end just after Grotto Falls.

Grotto Falls on Trillium Gap Trail in the GSMNP

Around mile 3.5 miles into your hike. You’ll come to your first major point of interest, Grotto Falls. It’s the only waterfalls in the park the the trail actually goes underneath and behind the 25’ waterfalls. This area will more than likely be full of tourist and day hikers. Grotto Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. But once you pass this location you will see less people.

Once you’re past Grotto Falls, you’ll notice the trail gets more narrow and more steep. The trail will continue to climb another 1.75 miles up to the junction with Brushy Mt Trail. This is Trillium Gap, 5.25 miles into your hike. Here Trillium Gap Trail turns right and travels own up the the LeConte Lodge on Mt LeConte, Brushy Mt will turn left to an overlook and the official end to the trail and also goes straight ahead rom the junction and down the other side of the mountain.

USGS Benchmark on Brushy Mt in the GSMNP

At the Junction, make a left on Brushy Mt and go .4 miles up to the end of the trail. On your way up, you’ll go through one of the best Rhododendron tunnels in the park and It will open up to expose a unique view of LeConte along with the western facing ridge of the Smokies. There is also a USGS Benchmark here. During the summer this area has a lot of wild blueberries growing along this trail.

Once your return back to the Trillium/Brushy junction, you’ll take a left onto Brushy and go down the mountain. There is a spring or two to get fresh water right on the trail about 100 yards from the junction. After this location you won’t have water available till you’re near the bottom of Brushy Mt Trail. Brushy Mt Trail is 4.9 miles long and connects to Porters Creek Trail.

When you’re at the Brushy / Porters Creek junction, you’ll notice a trail that goes back up on the left. This will lead you to the old Messer Cabin and barn. The park service restored these structures and maintains them. Once again you’ll notice more people. This area can get a little congested with day hikers and tourists. But if you turn left onto Porters Creek from Brushy Mt it will take you out to the Porters Creek Trailhead about 1 mile. There will be a gate across the trail that also serves as a service road for the park. This will be your first opportunity at a “bailout point”. You can get a hitch into town or arrange for someone to pick you up.

Old stone wall on the OST in the GSMNP

Here is where you start your first short road walk. Follow the gravel road roughly .8 miles to a bridge. This is Greenbrier Cove. It’s another “bailout point” if you choose to use it. If not, turn right and cross the first bridge. About .1 miles you will cross a second bridge, the Old Settlers Trailhead (OST) is to your left in the parking after the bridge. Take this trail. You will cross several small streams and the trail will seem more like a roller coaster than anything. You will also start to see a few stone walls and stone chimneys that were built by some of the first settlers in this area. These walls predate the GSMNP. From the Trailhead you will travel roughly 6 miles to your first campsite on this Circuit. Campsite 33 will be on both sides of the trail. The sight on the left has 3 spots for tents, the sight on the right is up the trail a few yards with many tent spots nestled in a hemlock forest. This campsite also has bear cables. You can hang your food from these cables at night. There is a dependable stream here for drinking water. Campsite 33 is definitely one of my favorite campsites in the whole Park.

•Day 1 Total Mileage: 18.4

•Circuit Total Mileage: 18.4

•Bailout Points: Porters Creek Trailhead or Greenbrier Cove.

Artifacts near old settlement on the OST in the GSMNP

Day 2: (Campsite 33 to Campsite 29)

From campsite 33 you’ll continue northeast on Old Settlers. You will cross many small streams and do a steady 1000’ climb. After the climb it will be more like a roller coaster with many small ups and downs. But in this section of the OST, you see more stone walls and chimneys along with a few cemeteries. This area was one of the more populated areas of the OST.

Roughly 9 miles from campsite 33, you’ll come to the Maddron Bald / Gabe’s Mt / OST trail junction. You will have a few options here. If you need a bailout point, then you can turn left at the junction on the Maddron Bald Trail and walk roughly 1 mile to the Trailhead. There will be a gate across the trail that also serves as the service road. There are several residents in the area as well as you are just a short walk from the main highway.

Will “Redbeard” Wood crossing a FootLog on the Old Settlers Trail in the GSMNP

If you want to shorten your hike just a bit, then you can continue straight at the trail junction onto Gabe’s Mountain Trail. This will bring you out in Cosby Campground. You can also use this location at a bailout point or continue on to Low Gap Trail to proceed with your hike.

If you want to proceed with the original circuit, then make a right at the trail junction onto Maddron Bald Trail. The trail will start out wide with not much elevation change. This section of trail also serves as a service road for the park service. After about a mile or so the trail narrows and you begin to see large tulip poplars and hemlocks. This area is known for these large trees. You may see more day hikers in this area because of that. You’ll also come across the only log footbridge on this trail. It’s very large, but blends in with the environment quite well.

Giant hemlock on Maddron Bald Trail in the GSMNP

Once you cross this footbridge, you will hike roughly 50 yards and come to the Albright Grove Loop junction. I would highly recommend taking the loop. It only adds .4 miles to your hike and takes you through some of the largest tulip populars in the park. Albright Loop Trail will bring you back on to Maddron Bald Trail .3 miles up the trail. Once your back on Maddron Bald Trail, you will have a few small stream crossings before you get to campsite 29. It is located roughly 4 miles from the OST/ Maddron Bald trail junction. This will be your second campsite on this circuit. I did have cellular service at this campsite. I use AT&T for my provider.

Campsite 29 has 5 good tent spots, 2 sets of bear cables for hanging your food at night and a good flowing stream for drinking water. I would highly recommend treating your water here. There was evidence of people using the bathroom within 50 feet of the stream above the campsite.

•Day 2 Total Mileage: 13

•Circuit Total Mileage: 31.4

•Bailout Points: Maddron Bald Trailhead

View of the Tennessee Valley from Maddron Bald Trail in the GSMNP

Day 3: (Campsite 29 to Cosby Knob Shelter)

Today will be the day of many options. You’ll have the option to make the circuit longer or shorter as well as the option to bailout if you so desire. You’ll start your morning out with a 1.5 mile climb. During this climb you’ll go through a very impressive rhododendron tunnel as well as a very nice ridge walk. There will even be a clearing to give you a view of the main ridge line of Mount Guyot.

Once you’ve made it to the Snake Den Ridge / Maddron Bald junction, you have an option to shorten the circuit. By turning right onto Snake Den Ridge, you’ll hike .7 miles up the mountain to connect with the Appalachian Trail (AT). Doing this will cut 17.4 miles off your circuit. This will also eliminate Mount Cammerer and Cosby Knob Shelter from your itinerary. Otherwise turn left at the Snake Den Ridge / Maddron Bald junction and head down the mountain 4.6 miles to Cosby Campground.

Maddron Bald Trail in the GSMNP

On your way down the mountain, about half way, you’ll come to a stream. This is a great location to get drinking water. The next spot for water will be about .5 miles from the campground. There will be a very large log footbridge at this stream. Shortly after crossing the footbridge, you will come to Cosby Horse Trail/Snake Den Ridge junction. You can take the Cosby Horse Trail if you choose to bypass the campground. Or you can continue on to the campground via Snake Den Ridge.

Once you’re at the campground you will make a right onto the road. If you have any trash, there should be dumpsters here to do so. Also there will be a restroom to your left (behind the dumpster) if you need to us it.

FootLog on Snake Den Ridge Trail near Cosby Campground in the GSMNP

Important for I know about Cosby Campground. This is a seasonal campground. It is usually closed from Oct 31 Thru April 1st. But there is a “Hiker Parking Lot” on the other side of the campground. It is open year round unless the park service closes the roads due to winter weather.

Another set of options are available to you here in the campground. You have a bailout point here if you need it and if you choose you want to make the circuit longer, you can take Lower Mount Cammerer Trail which will take you to the AT just north of Mount Cammerer. Once on the AT head south 2.3 miles to Mount Cammerer Trail and you will rejoin the original circuit. This will add 10 miles to your circuit. Otherwise take Low Gap Trail from the campground 2.5 miles to the junction with the AT.

Low Gap is very steep, but is the most direct route to the AT from the campground. Expect to see day hikes on this trail as they make their way to and from Mount Cammerer. There is a stream to get drinking water near the bottom and 3/4 of the way up trail. Once you’ve made it to the Low Gap/AT junction you have another set of options .

Mount Cammerer Lookout Tower in the GSMNP

You can turn left onto the AT and go 2.1 miles to Mount Cammerer Trail. There you will find a USGS Benchmark. Continue onto Mount Cammerer Trail .6 miles to the tower. This location is one of the most popular spots in the park. With its unique history and its incredible 360 views, it’s no wonder everyone wants to hike to this place. It is the only stone lookout tower in the park. Built in the mid 1930s it once served as a fire tower. From here you can see I-40, Max Patch, Mount Sterling Fire Tower, Foothills Parkway, Newport, Dandridge and Cosby Tennessee. There is also a USGS Benchmark here as well.

Once done at Mount Cammerer, you will back track south on the AT till you get to Low Gap once again. From here you will continue .8 miles to Cosby Shelter, your 3rd campsite of the circuit. If you chose to bypass Cammerer, then you could simply take a right onto the AT from Low Gap and go .8 miles to the Cosby Knob Shelter. On your way to the shelter is a great spring to get fresh drinking water. It’s roughly .5 miles south of Low Gap Trail on the AT.

•Day 3 Total Mileage: 15

•Circuit Total Mileage: 46.4

•Bailout Points: Cosby Campground

Will “Redbeard” Wood on the Appalachian Trail near Mt Guyot

Day 4: (Cosby Knob Shelter to Pecks Corner Shelter)

Today you will be hiking south bound on the AT from Cosby Knob Shelter. This will be mostly an uphill climb nearly all the way to Mount Guyot. But you’ll come to the Snake Den Ridge/AT junction 3.9 miles into your day. This is your last chance to bailout till you get to the Boulevard Trail, roughly 16.7 miles away. Choose to continue 1.9 miles you’ll reach Mount Guyot. There is a spring right on trail that you can get fresh drinking water from. Mount Guyot is the 2nd tallest mountain in the GSMNP standing at 6,621’ above sea level. Continue on the circuit 1.8 miles you’ll get to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. This is a great place to take break. You can get fresh drinking water or use the privy here.

Once your break is over, you will continue south on the AT, here you will go near the summit 6,417’ Mount Chapman and actually go over the summit of 6,003’ Mount Sequoyah. On this section of the AT you will be crossing the Tennessee / North Carolina border back and forth many times. As you head south, views of the Tennessee Valley will be to your right and the North Carolina mountains will be to your left.

Appalachian Trail near Mt Guyot in the GSMNP

I have to say that there’s not a trail with more incredible views in the Smokies than the Appalachian Trail. Especially the section between Newfound Gap and Davenport Gap. This 32 mile stretch of the AT has one epic view after another. And the fact that you’re up around 6,000’ above sea level for a good part of the time makes it even better. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the Smokies.

Around 5.3 miles from Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, to come to Hugh’s Ridge Trail. This is the trail that Pecks Corner Shelter is on. You will hike .4 miles down the trail to the shelter. This shelter has a water source and a privy.

•Day 4 Total Mileage: 13.5

•Circuit Total Mileage: 59.9

•Bailout Points: Snake Den Ridge to Cosby Campground, Low Gap to Cosby Campground

Bradley View in the GSMNP

Day 5: (Pecks Corner Shelter to Rainbow Falls Trailhead)

This was our last day on trail and we got a early start. We planned to push the final 20.1 miles out and get back to our vehicles. But you will have more options for this circuit a little later into the hike.

The only thing bad about Pecks Corner Shelter is you have to hike back up the mountain .4 miles to the AT, but once you’re there your legs should be nice and warmed up. Once back to the AT you’ll turn left and continue south bound. In this section of trail, you will be mostly ridge walking as you continue to follow the main ridge line of the Smokies. As before this is also the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. There will be the typical ups and downs as with most ridge walks, but with this one you’ll have opportunities for some beautiful views.

Your best opportunity for views will be at Laurel Top and Bradly View. Those two locations are hands down some of the best views in the park, giving you a breathtaking view of both North Carolina and Tennessee. You can expect the winds to be pretty fierce as the wind blows against the steep mountain side. Also on the Tennessee side you can start getting a pretty good look at Mount LeConte.

Before you know it you’ve made it to the side trail to Charlie’s Bunion. This is another must see location here in the GSMNP. The trail to Charlie’s Bunion is narrow and drops hundreds of feet to the left as it opens up to an incredible view down into the Tennessee Valley. The rugged rocky exposed ridge reveals an impressive rock face that is known as Charlie’s Bunion. Expect to see lots of day hikers and tourists here. It’s one of the most visited spots in the park. And from here you have a clear view of Mount LeConte, which is where you’ll be going next. You can take the trail on around the edge of the mountain at Charlie’s Bunion. This will bring you back out to the AT.

Continue south on the AT about another mile. You will get to a piped spring just before you get to Ice Water Shelter. This is a great water source. You will want to get fresh drinking water here. There won’t be another water source till you get on the Boulevard Trail.

“Enchanted Forest” Appalachian Trail near the Boulevard Trail in the GSMNP

Once you’ve made it to the Boulevard/ AT junction, take the right onto the Boulevard Trail. Your next point of interest is just 40 yards ahead. You’ll see the Jump Off trail sign to your right. Take this trail which is steep and washed out. This is not an official trail, but it will take you .4 mile to a breathtaking view that gives you a unique perspective of Charlie’s Bunion and the main ridge line through the park. At the Jump Off, the bluff drops hundreds of feet so watch your step..

Back on the Boulevard Trail you will continue on 5.4 miles to Mount LeConte. This will take you along several ridge walks and will eventually skirt you along the northeastern edge of the mountain. When you come to a huge slide area known as the “Scar”, you are less than a mile from the top of Mount LeConte.

Sunrise at Myrtle Point on Mt LeConte in the GSMNP

Once near the top, you come to the junction of Myrtle Point and Boulevard. Myrtle Point is hands down the best location to witness a sunrise on Mount LeConte. It is just a short .2 miles off the Boulevard Trail. Don’t expect to be there alone though. Between Lodge guests, Shelter campers and Day hikers, this spot gets a little crowded at times. Back on the Boulevard, about 40 yards ahead is the summit of Mount LeConte. You’ll know it by the huge pile of rocks that people have piled on top of one another.

Guest registry at LeConte Lodge

Now the rest of your hike is all down hill. You only have 7 miles back to the Trailhead / the official end of the circuit from here.  Just 40 yards down the trail you have another view point called Apolo Point. This will give you a clear view of Newfound Gap and the side of Myrtle Point. As you continue another 50 yards you get to LeConte Shelter. This is gonna be another opportunity for you to stay here for the night. Just make sure you have your backcountry permit for this location if you choose to do so. This shelter does not have a fireplace. Fires are not allowed at this shelter. It does have a privy and bear cables.

Continuing on another .2 miles you come to the LeConte Lodge. You will begin to see more people than you have in a week. This is the most popular destination in the GSMNP. The LeConte Lodge is for guest only, but you can purchase coffee, Hot Chocolate, Cookies, etc.. You can also sign the guest registry in the office and get warm by the stove. Hikers are welcome to hang out there. There is also a water spicket near the office as well as a privy. Something to keep in mind though, the Lodge closes between Nov 1st and April 1st. Also the weather can get well below 0 degrees on Mount LeConte in the winter so plan accordingly.

Sunset on Cliff Tops on Mt LeConte in GSMNP with Jeff Benefield. Photo by: Dewey Slusher

Before you leave LeConte you have one last must see destination. There is a trail directly across from the Lodge. This will take you .1 mile up to the Cliff Tops. This is hands down the best view in the entire park, especially when it comes to a sunset. Cliff Tops is known as the best place to go watch a sunset here in the GSMNP. But you better prepare yourself cause there will be plenty of people there with you.

The Boulevard Trail/Alum Cave/Rainbow Falls trails junction near the Lodge. Take Rainbow Falls Trail. It is 6.5 miles from that junction to the Trailhead, the official finish of the Plug-it In Circuit. On your way down the mountain you will once again run into more people as you get closer to Rainbow Falls. It’s a pretty popular destination with day hikers and tourists. It’s a beautiful cascading waterfall nestled in the side of the mountain. But just a few more miles and you are finished. After traversing a few small stream crossings and seemingly a few hundred steps, you’ve made it to the finish of the Plug-it In Circuit. Congratulations!

•Day 5 Total Mileage: 20.1

•Circuit Total Mileage: 80

•Bailout Points: Appalachian Trail to Newfound Gap

Sunset at Cliff Top on Mt LeConte in GSMNP

SUMMARY

The Plug-it In Circuit is designed as a 5 day/4 night 79.2 mile circuit covering some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s best views and most popular areas. With day 1 and day 5 being 20 mile days, this Circuit will test you physically and mentally. But with built in bailout points and options to lengthen or shorten the circuit. It can be adjusted to fit most backpackers varying skill levels.

If you choose to give this Circuit a try, don’t forget to share your experience on social media by using the hashtag #plugitincircuit and tagging both @redbeardhikes and @plugitinhikes.

See you on the trail!!

From Rescuer To Rescued (PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) in First Responders)

View of Clingman’s Dome from Alum Cave Trail in GSMNP

The subject of PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) in the emergency service field is something I’ve felt like I’ve needed to write about for a while now, but never knew what exactly to say. And to be honest, I’ve actually been running from it like the plague. Why?… Because it hits a little too close to home for me. And well let’s face it. By writing about it requires me to possibly have to revisit some memories that are painful and horrifying.

Benny Braden: 1st Lieutenant, Rescue Diver, EMT, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor, Vehicle Extrication Instructor, Water Rescue Team Leader and more…. 📷: Roane Co. Rescue Squad in Harriman, TN[[[[[[[[[[[[
You see I was in the fire, emergency and rescue fields combined for a little over a decade. I’ve been a first responder, EMT, volunteer firefighter, rescue diver, swiftwater rescue instructor, water rescue team leader, vehicle extrication and EVOC instructor, first lieutenant and more.

If the alarm went off, I went. No matter where I was or what I was doing. One year I served over 2000 volunteer hours. That was on top of my normal day job. I sacrificed my time, my family’s time and my body. But little did I know then I was sacrificing my mental health too.

Some days we wouldn’t have many calls, but on other days it was nonstop. I will spare you of the details because I don’t want to put images in your head. But I will say I’ve see a person die nearly every way someone can. Those images stay with me day and night, 24 hours a day.

When I did that work I tried to block it out after the call. And initially it worked, but there comes a time that you see too much. So much that attempting to block it out no longer works. And back then we didn’t routinely practice debriefings. When the call was over, we would go home or go do the next call. It was never discussed of talked about.

I didn’t start noticing something was wrong till three years after I left the emergency services. I started battling depression that grew pretty severe. I was put on medication to help with the depression, but it still didn’t hit me that something was wrong. All the warning signs were there, but I wasn’t paying attention.

My Beautiful Bride Ashley’s first hike to LeConte Lodge in the GSMNP

After a couple failed marriages and relationships. Four years later I married my beautiful bride. She and her two beautiful daughters moved in. We began remodeling on our house. Adding more space for everyone. At the same time my brother passed away due to long term use of narcotics. And it wasn’t long then that we adopted my two nieces. Making my family of two (me and my son) into a family of seven.

It wasn’t till then that I became a monster. The high stresses of remodeling a house mixed with getting to know new people that were not only living with me, but also depending on me was overwhelming. It was triggering anxiety attacks. It seemed as if we were fighting all the time and it was getting worse by the day. Put all of that on top of the hidden wounds from the years of emergency service. It was then that I started experiencing the severe anxiety attacks.

After a few years of dealing with depression and anxiety attacks which made life an absolute living hell. I rediscovered hiking again. I use to hike a lot when I was younger, but slowly gravitated away from it. But this time I was backpacking. Loading everything on my back and going into the woods for days.

Sunset from the Cliff Tops on Mt LeConte. 📷 Dewey Slusher

I began to do longer hikes. Instead of being out for days, I was staying out longer. It was then that I began to notice something. I was starting to feel different afterwards. I was less stressed. I could handle the high stress without becoming a monster. The anxiety attacks and depression seemed to lessen. My beautiful bride began see the results which opened up opportunities for us to talk about what was going on.

The best way I can describe it is this way. It’s like I have a huge desk in my head and it’s a complete mess with piles of images of things I’ve seen and done. When I’m out on the trail it’s like I can pull one of the images out of the pile, pray about it, make some sense of it and then file it way where it belongs. This requires lots of pray and sometimes painfully revisiting those moments or events, but the end result is that I’m able to finally have peace from a memory that has haunted me for over a decade.

Sunrise from Max Patch, NC

Honestly, that is why I hike so much. It brings me peace and helps me come to terms with my past. It also gives me that one on one time with my Creator. I give God all the glory for revealing this to me and helping me slowly overcome this. Now my battle with PTS is far from over, but I now have a coping mechanism to help me deal with it. The down side to being gone so much is the loss of time with my beautiful bride and kids. But the time we now have together is quality time. More time is spent laughing, loving and enjoying each other’s company. Instead of everyone having to walk on egg shells, worried about setting me off and sending me into another anxiety attack.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be ran monthly here on Plug-it In Hikes blog. I will have guest bloggers who were once or currently in the EMS, fire, rescue or law enforcement field sharing their story about their battle with PTS and how they are coping with it. My hope is that these posts will help someone who is also dealing with PTS. As you can see I refuse to call it PTSD. Let’s drop the D (disorder). No one wants to be labled with having a disorder. In the meantime keep my beardedself and the other future bloggers in your prayers.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8 NIV

Benton MacKaye Trail – Georgia Section (2/28/2018-3/4/2018)

The planning…….

Here in the southeastern United States we are blessed with so many outstanding trails and trail systems. Some are just a few miles to a couple hundred miles long and others are a little over 1100 miles long. With trails and trail systems like the Art Loeb, Fiery Gizzard, Foothills, Sheltowee Trace, Cumberland, Florida, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Benton McKaye just to name a few. And you can’t forget the grand daddy of them all, the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus is in Georgia.

Me and my good friend Will “Red Beard” Wood from Zpacks had been planning to thru-hike the 286 mile long Benton McKaye Trail (BMT) for a few months now. And in the end, we settled on a late February/early March hike. We felt like that would be a great time of year to do the hike. So we decided to start on 2/28 and go North Bound (NOBO).

Back in December I picked each of us up a BMT guide book from a local outfitter and started planning my daily mileages and food drops.

Our initial plan was to do the 286 miles long hike in 18 days. We had also decided to do just 2 food drops, one in Reliance at Hiawassee Whitewater Co. aka Flip Flop Burgers and then at Fontana Village. We also planned to stay at each place.

But I also chose to drop two days worth of food at the bear bin at Smokemont Campground. I checked with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) Backcountry office if it was ok.. and it was. I also went on ahead and reserved our campsites in GSMNP. They don’t have a thru-hiker permit for the BMT like they do for the Appalachian Trail (AT). So you need to reserve your campsites in advance, but not more than 30 days out. That’s the earliest you can reserve them.

The Gear..

When selecting my gear, I wanted to try some things that I hadn’t tried before since it was just a 286 mile long hike. I also was using this hike as a “shakedown” hike for the 220 mile John Muir Trail (JMT) that I’ll be doing in July with my buddy Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog. I was also using this hike to prep for the 272 mile Long Trail in Vermont in June with my buddies Matt Favero and Will Wood from Zpacks.

I got my Zpacks “black on black” grid stop Arc Haul Backpack out. It’s a one of a kind pack that my buddy Will used for a year or so. It had about 300 to 500 miles on it when I got it. I stitched up a couple of rips in the back mesh pocket. I’ve since put 72 miles on it from our Florida Trail hike back in December. This was going to be a true real test for this pack though. How would it hold up, carry and would it keep my stuff dry.

I decided to NOT bring my umbrella on this trip and instead rely souly on my Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacketand Pants. It was going to be a big risk especially since they were forecasting heavy rain the first two days. I also chose NOT to bring a pack towel… Those decisions would come back to haunt me later..

Here is a run down of the gear I started out with for this hike.

What’s in my Zpacks Arc Haul Backpack?….

·Zpacks carbon fiber trekking poles
·Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket & Pants
·Zpacks Duplex Tent camo (2018)
·Zpacks titanium & CF tent Stakes
·Zpacks Vertice Tall Gaiters
·Zpacks 5°F Sleeping bag (2018)
·Zpacks Challenger Rain Mittens
·Zpacks Dry Bags & Stuff Sacks
·Zpacks DCF Multi-Pack (black)
·Thermarest Neo Air Sleeping Pad
·Sea To Summit Air Pillow
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Socks
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Hood
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Hand Muff
·Goosefeet Gear Down Jacket
·Black Rock Gear Skully Beanie
·Black Rock Gear Down Beanie
·Black Rock Gear Foldback Mittens
·Homemade synthetic mittens
·Patagonia Thermal Bottoms
·Outdoor Research PL 400 Gloves
·Vargo 450 ml titanium mug
·Ultra Pod
·GoPro Hero 5 Session
·Anker 13,000 mAh battery pack
·Darn Tough 1/4 Socks
·Exfficio 9″ Give & Go Boxer Briefs

What I wore hiking…

·Zpacks Trucker Hat
·Zpacks T-Shirt
·Columbia Silver Ridge Pants
·Columbia Silver Ridge Button Shirt
·Exfficio 9″ Give and Go Boxer Breifs
·Injinj Toe Sock Liners
·Darn Tough No Show Socks
·Brooks Caldera Trail Runners
·Patagonia Thermal Hoody

The Hike….

Since Will and I had decided to go NOBO. He met me at the trails northern terminus at Big Creek in GSMNP to drop his vehicle off. We loaded all the gear up in my truck and headed south to Springer Mt. But on our way we made a quick stop at Smokemont to drop my food box off and in Franklin to pick up some stove fuel Will was needing.

We finally made it to Springer around 4 PM where Will’s dad and brother was waiting on us. His dad was going to take my truck to his house instead of leaving it on top of the mountain unattended.

Will and I had talked it over and had decided to stay at the Springer Mt Shelter that night and get a fresh start the next morning. When we got to the shelter there were two AT thru-hikers there. So we spent the evening getting to know them and shared a few beers we packed in.

Day 1 / Feb. 28, 2018
Mile 0 (Georgia Monsoon)

When I woke up and heard the rain hitting the metal roof of the Springer Mountain shelter, I knew then it was going to be a wet day. I just didn’t realize how bad that was actually going to be. We only had 14.8 miles to do that day, but it was going to be done in heavy rain and it didn’t let up. Lunch and breaks were out of the question. There wasn’t a dry place to be found. I had also rolled my left ankle about 4 different times through out the day. By the final 2 hours of hiking that day, I was getting leg cramps bad. I had only drank 60 ozs of water. I hadn’t used any of my Skratch Labs hydration supplements yet….. Which I know would have completely prevented that. I contributed the leg cramps to me being on a new medication for my Type 2 Diabetes that I was diagnosed with just the day before I got on the trail. But after 6 hours of hiking in the heaviest rain imaginable, we finally made to to our campsite which was at the Toccoa Bridge.

We were both soaked to the bone. Our rain suits had wetted out, which I was very surprised. But mine did have a lot of miles on it. It had worked perfectly in the many rains storms in the Smokies I was in during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. But what I didn’t realize is that after a while, you need to reapply the DWR coating on the fabric….. I’ll not make that mistake twice.

We set up our tents as quickly as we could, being mindful not to set up too close to the river. With all the rain we had gotten, we were certain it would be rising out of its banks by morning.

With all cloths and gear piled up in the corner, I crawled into my dry slepping bag and went to sleep without eating. I was both physically and mentally exhausted.

I woke up during the night to the sound of heavy rain hitting the DCF material of my tent. I was thirsty and wanted to get a drink of water, but I realized I had drunk all of my water earlier. So I grabbed my Vargo Outdoors Titanium mug and a couple of YeeHaw Brewing cans that I had brought with me and sat them under the corner on my tent to collect the rain water. I collected enough to fill up 80 ozs of water which I drank half of it. Then went back to sleep.

Day 2 / Mar. 01
Mile 14.8 (The Nero)

That morning we woke to a very saturated forest and a very sore ankle. The river we had camped next to had risen 2′ overnight. And where our tents were set up was now a pond, but the rain had temporarily stopped. The air was very moist. The condensation on the inside of our tents was bad. Everything inside the tent was wet from the day before or very damp from the condensation.

The weather forecast for the next few days was going to be sunny and cold. But we still had more rain to come today. So we decided to hike to the next road crossing and hitch into either Blue Ridge or Blairsville, get a motel room and start drying all of our gear. I was slow getting going due to my ankle, But finally got up to speed…. somewhat..

We packed up and headed out. The road was still 3.7 miles from us so we hiked with a determination to beat the rain, but as we got to road, the rain started up again. We quickly set our tents up to temporarily get out of the rain till it died down enough so we could try to hitch into town.

About 30 minutes later a nice man and woman stopped and picked us up and took us to Blairsville. It felt so good knowing we were about to be able to get all dried off soon. They dropped Will and my beardedself off at the Best Western Hotel where we split the cost of the room. With the thru-hiker discount the room only cost $68. With the cost split, it was only $34 each person. That’s just a hair more than what you would pay at a hostel.

Once there I immediately began to try to line us up a ride back to the trail. So I announced it on my social media. Later that night one of my Instagram followers Kris Stancil responded and said he would be glad to take us back to the trail…… That was an answered prayer.

While in town we went and had us a burger and a couple of beers at Copeland’s. The burger was absolutely delicious. I also had a couple of Yuenglings with my meal. Beer always goes great with a great burger. I also went to the grocery store to pick up a few Zip Lock baggies as extra insurance for some of my gear. I also got online and ordered another umbrella from Zpacks and had them ship it to our first resupply location in Reliance. I chose to just order another one vs having my beautiful bride mail mine to me.

Day 3 / Mar. 02
Mile 18.5 (Back To The Trail)

Will and my beardedself woke up with breakfast on our minds, so we got dressed and headed over to the Country Cafe’ for some home cooked breakfast. It was a cute little mom and pop restaurant. The food was delicious and it was great being able to have a cup of coffee too.

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to get all of our gear packed up. We had it scattered all over the room drying it out. Kris was set to pick us up at 11:30 so we wanted to make sure we would be ready to go when he got there.

Like clock work, Kris showed up and picked us up. He offered to take us out to lunch, but we were still stuffed from the late breakfast we ate. We deeply appreciate Kris’s generosity and his willingness to help a couple of hikers out. It was really great getting to know him a little. Kris saved the day.

Once back on trail, we were glad it was sunny and cooler. It was a long day but we finally made it to Tipton Mt where we set up camp for the night. We had barely missed the sunset, but we could still see some beautiful colors in the clear sky above. But it was just dark enough that we needed our head lamps to set our tents up. It felt good to be back on the trail again…… and dry.

Day 4 / Mar. 03
Mile 31.2 (Toast & Jammz)

We woke up to a very frosty world. The temps had dropped to the mid 20s during the night, but we had miles to do and a restaurant along the way that had some warm food waiting on us. So we got packed up and got on trail pretty quick. A hiker will always be motivated by food…

We made it down to the Shallowford Rd which started our first road walk of this hike. After crossing the Shallowford iron bridge, the Iron Bridge Store & Cafe’ was right across the road. We couldn’t resist the urge to drop our packs at the door and go in and order a good warm meal. I had 2 bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, a salad with grilled chicken and coffee. I’m surprised I didnt order a milk. For whatever reason I always crave milk when I’m on the trail.

As bad as we hated to, we got back on the road and headed north. The power poles had blazes on them so we knew we were headed in the right direction. After about a 3 mile road walk, we were back on the trail.

We were excited to reach camp because our friends Eric and Jessica aka Toast and Jammz were going to meet up and camp with us. So we hiked as fast as we could. I was still banged up from the first day. I rolled my ankle on some wet rocks on the first day and my ankle had been very sore ever since. In fact, it was steadily getting worse. But I simply was trying to go slow and steady so I wouldn’t damage it any worse. My average speed was just over 2 mph.

Later I finally made it to camp where Toast greeted me with a nice cold beer and Jammz had a big hug for me. Jammz is pregnant and the baby aka Jelly Belly is due in around 5 weeks. That night we sat around the fire telling stories, laughing, making future hiking plans and simply enjoying each other’s company. This is what great hiking trips are made of.

Before we knew it, it was time for bed. It had been a long day. After we all made our way to our tents for the night, I laid in mine as I was editing photos and working on this blog post. My eyes would get heavy and I’d close them for a few minutes. As I did so, a bright light was shining in my face. I thought either someone wanted something or a ranger was checking on us. I opened my eyes and seen it was neither. It was a meteor shooting through the sky then breaking into many pieces. The whole forest was lit up. A few seconds later I heard a few loud booms from the meteor as it entered the atmosphere.

Now that was cool!!!!!!

Day 5 / Mar 04
Mile 47 (Trail Magic)

That morning when everyone woke up I asked them if they had seen or heard the meteor, but they all said no. So with excitement, I told them about what I had seen.

What made that so much cooler is when Toast and Jammz came and hiked with me in the Smokies last fall during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. We camped in the front yard of Ben King, one of the owners of Bryson City Outdoors. There was a major meteor shower that night so we all stayed up to watch it. As we were All sitting there watching the meteor shower. All of a sudden we seen a bright flash in the sky. It was like a camera flash. Then it flashed again, then dimmed. It pulsed bright and dimmed once again. Then it began to move in a short circular pattern, all while pulsing bright to dim. Then began to move to the side then angled off and faded out. We all just sat there and looked at each other afterwards not saying a word for a moment, knowing we all just seen something that none of us could explain.

Back to our thru-hike.. We all got packed up and headed out to the car. Toast drove us into Blue Ridge and we grabbed a bite at The Fry Shop. It was delicious! It’s located in the downtown area of Blue Ridge where all the shops and restaurants are. Afterwards we walked around checking out the shops and went to the grocery story to grab a few items we were needing for the trail. Toast and Jammz also treated us to some trail magic. They bought us a few beers and gave us a ride to the trail head so we wouldn’t have to do all of the road walk. (We ended up skipping an 8 mile section, taking us around Cherry Log and Blue Ridge. It wasn’t all road walk as we once believed. I am actually planning to come back in the fall and redo all of the BMT). Toast, Will and my beardedself shared a couple of beers before we got back on trail. We said our goodbyes and entered the woods once again. I’m very thankful for friends like Toast and Jammz. They are good people and I can’t wait till Jelly Belly gets here.

Once back on trail, both Will and my beardedself weren’t feeling this whole hiking thing. So we made it 5 miles and set up camp at Hatley Gap which had a excellent campsite. We enjoyed a good campfire (which I was able to start with my new firestarter that my friends Scott and Beth White got me for my birthday) and great conversation till it was time for bed.

Day 6 / Mar. 05
Mile 61 (Easier Day)

We had a few tough climbs that morning, but nothing too difficult. Once on top of the ridge we pretty much just cruised along. There’s nothing better than a good ridge walk. I was still nursing my foot, but it felt like it was slowly getting better as the day went along. My goal was to just be easy with it and make it last through this hike.

We made it to the intersection where the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail connects with the BMT. It’s really very remote and just seemed odd to have a major trailhead there. No thrills, views or epic finish point……. But it was pretty awesome to see the terminus. I plan to thru hike it in the next few years.

I really enjoyed the South Fork Trail. It has the same feel as the Smokies. The Cohutta Wilderness is a pretty rugged and remote section of forest. Definitely a beautiful area. The intersection with Jacks River Trail was a little confusing. It took us a minute or two and a little back tracking, but we finally figured it out. After a long day of hiking, we made it to Spanish Gap and the Hemp Top Trail intersection.

I noticed that I would get a second wind at the end of the day to where I would want to push for more mileage. Which my speed was slow and steady due to my ankle injury from the first day and I took less breaks. By the end of the day I still had enough energy to keep pushing for more. Will was really the opposite of me. He was much faster and took longer breaks (waiting on me), but by the end of the day he was ready to camp.

Tomorrow morning we’ll be back in Tennessee.

GSMNP (New Weather / Road Closure Protocols)

First and foremost I want to thank all of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park employees and volunteers for all of their hard work to keep all of our facilities, trails and roads open.

As someone who absolutely loves our Smokies, and sharing the gander and beauty that these mountains reveal. I spend days and at a time and sometimes weeks in the backcountry of the park. In 2017 I hiked over 2,200 miles in the park and completed 2- GSMNP 900-Milers. If I seen trails in bad shape or something that wasn’t right, I would alert employees and park officials so they could take care of the issues.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had an opportunity to communicate through email with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Management Assistant/Public Affairs Dana Soehn. I wanted to get a better understanding as to why the park was taking such an aggressive stance on road closures during bad weather. So at my request Dana sent me this email explaining why the park is closing roads so much now days. This is the email she sent me.

“Over the last year, our park staff has worked hard to develop protocols for road closures that best protect our visitors, park rangers, and emergency equipment operators. Our goal is to prevent people from traveling on a roadway that, based on forecasts and experience, we expect to become hazardous due to ice, snow, flooding, or falling trees. In order to meet this objective, our park rangers work hard to safely close roads before weather events occur so that we are not not placing visitors or emergency personnel in harm’s way during an active storm event. With our current ranger staffing levels, we are challenged to provide coverage across the parks’ 380 miles of roadways. Rangers perform safety sweeps along the roads to alert visitors to the closures. Depending on how widespread the weather event is expected to be, it can take several hours to safely effect a closure. We are trying to provide more timely notices to visitors by posting messages on our SmokiesRoadsNPS Twitter account about planned closures. Of course, sudden storms still pop up and our rangers respond as efficiently and safely as possible. With well-forecasted storms, we have an opportunity to implement closures in a manner that we feel is safer for all.

We understand that some would prefer that we only close roadways when conditions have left roads impassable. Unfortunately, this practice can unduly put our staff in hazardous situations when they are called to respond to wrecks and stranded motorists. Occasionally, we have implemented closures that became unnecessary when weather events did not materialize. We do work hard to reopen roadways efficiently, but this also takes time with our current staffing levels. We recognize that this is an inconvenience to our visitors and we work hard to balance the risks; however, our position is that we will always place safety first for our visitors and employees. We appreciate this opportunity to share our approach with you.”

I just want to thank Dana for sharing this information with us. It goes a long way to help clear things up and helps give us a little understanding to the parks new protocols. But I’ve also made a couple of suggestions that may help with a couple problems associated with the road closures. I feel there are a couple more things that the park could improve on that would definitely make these road closures less of an inconvenience.

So these 2 issues need to be addressed;

⚫Issue #1: If the park service closes roads or plans to close roads due to weather or a government shut down;
▪ List and post ALL roads and access points that are or will be closed on the website and the Smokies Roads Twitter page. Even the little side roads like Greenbrier, Cataloochie, Cosby Campground and Mt Sterling Road. Any access point to the park that is closed needs to be posted so the public will know.
‎▪ Notify those that have active & current backcountry permits that their access point will be closed via email or by phone. The park has the contact info for the permit holder. This needs to be a standard procedure in bad weather situations. The park service already sends emails to the permit holder advising them of approaching bad weather. Adding road closure information pertaining to the permit holders hike intenary needs to be apart of that system.

______________________

When camping in the backcountry, a backcountry permit is required. It costs $4 per person, per campsite/shelter. Currently the park service does not issue refunds on backcountry permits. They only offer to reschedule the permit, but no more than 30 days out. The average person typically can’t take additional days off from work within 30 days, especially week long trips. It’s like planning your vacation, making the reservations, traveling to there just to find out they are closed. Oh, and you don’t get a refund on top of that. They just offer to let you come back within 30 days…….. Who can take off additional time from work in the same month?…. There’s a better way…..

Here’s the a couple of suggested solutions to that issue:

⚫Issue #2: ◾If the park service closes roads due to a weather situation or government shut down, then the park service should offer;
▪ Option #1: Give a full refund to the backcountry permit holder. (It’s NOT the permit holders fault the roads are being closed. Therefore why should the permit holder pay the price and lose out)
‎▪ Option #2: Offer a credit in the backcountry permit holders name. The credit would be good towards future backcountry permits equal to the amount of the current permit. The credit can be good for the length of 6 months to 2 years.

These suggested solutions are small steps in improving the experience and the interactions the public will have with the park. As someone who loves the Smokies and appreciates the park service employees. To stand by and do or say nothing wouldn’t be good for our park or it’s visitors. There is always room for improvement and we can work together to fix things to improve the experience our park visitors have with our beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The level of concern the park has for the safety of it’s visitors and staff can’t be questioned. When you see a park employee or volunteer out, stop and say THANK YOU for all they do for our beautiful park and it’s visitors.

DiY Insulated Water Bottles (Winter Water Bottle Setup)

As an avid winter backpacker, I’ve delt with frozen water bottles way too many times to count. I’ve tried everything to prevent it. I’ve slept with the bottles in my sleeping bag, carried them in my jacket while hiking. Nothing really worked the way I was hoping it would.

So I started brain storming on ways to prevent my water bottles from freezing or at least put off the inevitable. After quiet a few trial and errors, I believe I’ve come up with the simplest way to keep my water bottles from freezing or at least not freezing as fast.

I typically care 2- 20 oz Gatorade bottles. I prefer these cause of the wide mouth on the bottles. I can pour my Skratch Labs hydration supplements, BCAA’s or Whey Protein in them pretty easy. I use 1 bottle to mix in and the other bottle I keep pure water in for cooking or simply just to have some nice clean water to drink. I’ve used this 2 bottle system for several years now and I don’t see my beardedself changing anytime soon.

So when I started experimenting with how I could keep my water bottles from freezing. I needed an item that could work with and fit around these bottles. I tried a series of different things like collapsible koozies, Neoprene, styrofoam, and so on..

Finally it hit me one day to try the old school, thick foam koozies. After a few hikes to field test it. I finally found what I was looking for. It worked! But I felt like there was still room for improvement. The cap was completely exposed to the elements which made it the weakest link in my new system. When carrying the bottle up right, water would freeze against the inside of the cap. Therefore either preventing me from opening the cap or once opened there would be a thick frozen layer of ice blocking my access to the liquid water inside my bottle.

Then out of the blue it hit me like a slap across the bearded face. The solution was to take a third thick foam koozie, cut it down till about 1-1/2″ (bottom part). Take this piece and place it in the bottom of the side pocket of the backpack. Making sure to place it with the koozie in the upright position naturally creating a foam cup in the bottom of my side pocket.

Once it’s in place, I put the modified bottle in the side pocket, in the upside down position so the cap of the bottle sits in the cut down koozie in the side pocket. By doing this the bottle is now completely enclosed in the foam.

Now I’ve been testing out this latest version and I have to say it’s been working out very well. To be honest, much better than I originally thought.

If you’re wanting to give this method a shot, you’ll need;

·3- Old School Think Foam Koozies (per each water bottle)

·1- 20 oz Gatorade or Powerade Bottle

These can be picked up at almost any store or online. As for putting it all together, just follow the instructions in the video. It only takes a few minutes to get each bottle set up.

So give it a try and tell me how it works for you..

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