The Art Loeb Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina has been on my list since last October when I attended a “Mens Gospel Campout” that my good friend Jeremy Puskas aka “Brother Bones” of Bonefire Gear hosts every fall. I had planned on doing the Art Loeb back during the winter. But once my #gsmnp900miler turned into my #fastestgsmnp900miler then that all changed.
The following weekend after I finished my record setting #fastestgsmnp900miler hike, I had an opportunity to thru hike the Art Loeb Trail with my good friend Tim McCall aka “Titanium Pyro” and his wife Lori. The trail is 30.1 miles long with 17,000 feet of elevation change and crosses 4- 6000 footers.
We decided to hike it SOBO, so we began at the northern terminus located at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp. The first 6.2 miles is an absolute butt kicker. Yes, I just said it “butt kicker”. This trail is no joke. The rugged and poorly marked trail demands your absolute attention or you’ll hurt yourself or get lost.
We were less than 2 miles in, while attempting to get some water from a stream, I slipped and fell square on my butt getting partially wet. No worries, I didnt get any brain damage. But some how I did manage to hurt my right shoulder, which bothered me for the rest of the day.
Around 1:pm we made it to Shining Rock. A huge out crop of white quartz that glistens like snow in the sunshine. Shining Rock is about 3 stories tall and about 50 yards long piece of white quartz. We climbed to the top of it where we took lunch and had an amazing view. It’s moments like that is what makes hiking all the tough miles worth it.
After lunch we topped off our bottles at the spring near Shining Rock Gap. The spring is located on the left side if the trail. Then we made our way towards the balds.
Now if you like the Roan Highlands or Mount Rogers and the Grayson Highlands then you will absolutely love the Art Loeb Trail. It crosses Tennent Mt and Black Balsam Knob. Two Rocky balds that provide 360° views. The highest point on the trail is at the summit of Black Balsam Knob which sits at 6295′. One of the most magnificent sunrises I’ve ever seen was from right there last October during the Mens Gospel Campout. Tim and I had climbed up Black Balsam early the one morning and caught the sun rising above the fog which was still sitting on the valley floor. (I’ll add a picture of it).
After a few pictures, Tim, Lori and #mybeardedself headed down the mountain, crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and began making our way towards Pilot mountain.
We got to Deep Gap Shelter where we took a break, topped off our water bottles and got out our head lamps. It was night hiking from that point on. We had to make it to and across Pilot Mt and get down to Gloucester Gap where we were planning to camp. After crossing Pilot Mt and getting to the gap there wasn’t anywhere to set up, but next to the trail within 20 feet of the road. Definitely not my ideal camping location, but beggers can’t be choosy.
After getting a great nights sleep I woke up to the sound of rain hitting the cuben fiber of my camo Zpacks Duplex tent. We got everything packed up and I mentally prepared #mybeardedself to be wet and cold for the rest of our hike. We got started that morning around 8:am in a very steady rain. It didn’t stop till we were roughly 3 miles down the trail. The trail took us by Cedar Rock which is a large granite rock face and one very cool location. Other than Cedar Rock there wasn’t much to look at in this section of trail. Its pretty much a green tunnel. But as I was finishing the last 2 miles of the trail the sun came out. It definitely picked up my spirit and my step. I was ready to wrap this hike up and put this trail in the record books.
The Art Loeb Trail is one of the toughest trails I’ve ever done, but it was one of the most majestic. It is listed as a “Most Difficult” trail and they mean it (for at least the northern half).
Now something to keep in mind if you plan to hike this trail, is you’re required to use a bear canister from where the trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway – north. That’s why we started at the northern terminus and headed south to get across the Blue Ridge Parkway before we made camp which was almost the halfway point. Beside your trail map, another great reference to check out as you plan your hike is the website hikinginthesmokies.com . It’s pretty detailed and has a little history lesson on the Art Loeb as well.
I’d like to thank Tim and Lori McCall for guiding me through the maze of trails and for helping me make this hike happen. They are truly amazing friends and I thank God for putting them in my life.
Last March I had the opportunity to thru hike the 76.2 mile Foothills Trail with my good friend Jeremy Puskas of Bonefine Gear. Its northern terminus is in Oconee State Park, SC and the southern terminus is located in Table Rock State Park, SC. It was well worth the 3.75 hour drive from East Tennessee for this hike. I had heard so much about this trail for quite some time now and it proved to live up to the hype.
We began our journey at the trailhead in Oconee State Park. I was so glad my friend Jeremy guided me on this hike. Even though the trail was easy to navigate. It was nice going with some one who knew the trail well. Matter of fact, Jeremy collected the data for the Pocket Profiles that AntiGravity Gear makes and sells. Jeremy has thru hiked the Foothills Trail 4 times and has section hiked it many more. Also just being able to spend some trail time with Jeremy was awesome. One of Jeremy’s friends named Andy hiked with us the first day. It was his first big hiking trip. We did 24 miles that day which was really good for his first backpacking trip, but he ended up needing to go home that night. So Jeremy and I camped near Sloan Bridge. It was the location that Andy was picked up from.
The next day we got a good early start. We were out to cover as much ground as we could. When we got to the Toxaway River Bridge, we had a chance to jump in the river and get clean. I have to admit that it was the first time I ever skinny dipped. And just for the record, it didn’t live up to the hype. I didn’t see as any different than swimming with trunks on. But at least I was clean and I didn’t stink anymore.
We met our friend Craig Smith at mile marker 48.7 which is the trailhead to the Frozen Creek Access. After taking a dinner break we loaded up and hiked to mile marker 50.9 in the dark. We made camp near the logging road and had a couple of beers that Craig had hiked in for us. They were so good after a long day of hiking.
The next morning we loaded up and head out to finish our journey. It was a very very long day. It seamed that I couldn’t get enough calories that day. Even though I brought around 2400 calories of food per day on this trip. I usually just carry 2000 calories per day. But Jeremy and Craig had extra food that fed my beast like hunger.
As we hiked that last day, we split up a little and having each other a little room to hike their own speed. But after yet another long day. I came put of the woods at Table Rock State Park along with Jeremy. Craig was still a few miles behind us so we went and got his truck and came back to pick him up. Craig was able to finish the last piece he was missing. Which gave him a total of 3.5 days on the Foothills Trail. Jeremy and #mybeardedself finished it in 3 days.
We had warm and sunny weather for most of our hike. And in my own opinion it was too warm. I much prefer to hike in cooler weather. That’s why I do most of my hiking in winter. But the sun on this trip seemed to just zap the energy right out of me. I had no problem staying hydrated. I was drinking plenty of water and was watching to how much I was sweating. It also seemed that I couldn’t get enough calories. I ate all of my food (which was 2400 calories per day) and some of Jeremy’s and Craig’s food as well. That’s the first time I had ever encountered not being able to get enough calories. So that’s something I’ve got to look at and learn why and how to deal with that in the future. I believe it had something to do with the heat, because in the Smokies I ate less than 2000 per day and didn’t have any issues.
But all in all it was an incredible hike. I absolutely love this trail and I will definitely thru hike it again, but next time I’ll bring my tenkara rod and do it in 4 days instead of 3.
So you’re planning to hike the Foothills Trail, I would recommend doing it in 4 To 5 days. That really allows you to check out the cool waterfalls along the trail and all of the cliff tops. I give the Foothills Trail ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.
I never in my life imagined I would ever attempt something so bold and so challenging that I’d be pushing #mybeardedself to the edge, both physically and mentally. And to attempt to do this record breaking feat during the hashest months of the year was even more insain. But to most people’s surprise, it didn’t start out as a record breaking hike. I just simply wanted to hike all the trails. How I came to this decision though was a whole nother story.
Thankgiving weekend of 2016, (the same weekend of the Chimney Top II fire) me and a close friend of mine Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog did a short backpacking trip with our kids in tow from Newfound Gap to Mt LeConte. I remember sitting at the Cliff Tops watching the sunset and watching Chimney Top burn below us. It was the first time in my life that I had been to Mt LeConte and I was in total awe! But while I sat there the thought came to me to take a break from section hiking the AT and focus on hiking all the trails in the Smokies instead. I initially figured it would take me a year. I had no idea how many miles of trails there was or how hard they would be. It was a decision though that felt right. Like it was exactly where I was supposed to be and I couldn’t have been more right. I went home and immediately discussed it with my beautiful bride Ashley, who was completely on board and supportive of the idea. I then began doing my research and planning logistics. I picked up the book “Day Hikers Guide To All The Trails In The Smoky Mountains” by Elizabeth L. Etnier. It became the main reference book of my whole hike. It had the trails already marked and planned out with mileages listed and elevation gains. It was mainly geared towards day hikers, but I simply combined several hikes and made some tweaks to fit my backpacking style. I also used the “Hiking Trails of the Smokies”, but only as a general reference.
Now, as a backpacker I wanted to backpack as much of the Smokies as I could. This would help me trim more “Total Miles” out of my hike. Liz’s book had the overall “Total Miles” listed at 1050 if you followed her book to the T. But I thought if I backpacked as much of it as I could, then I could possibly trim around 100 miles off that number.
My adventure started at the Alum Cave trailhead at 3:am on Dec 31, 2016. I hiked up the mountain with a group of hikers to see the last sunrise of 2016. When we got to the lodge the wind was blowing pretty hard and the temp was hovering around 9° degrees. A handfull of hikers turned back due to the conditions being so extreme. But a smaller number of us pushed forward towards Myrtle Point (the best spot to see a sunrise on LeConte). My plan was to start with a hike to LeConte and to finish my 900 Miler with a hike to LeConte as well, since that was where I made my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. And as far as I’m concerned I couldn’t have planned that out any better if I had tried. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the history and the trails and there was no better way to do that than to involve some of my “Hike The Smokies” friends that I had met on Facebook. After all it was their posts and pictures that influenced my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. Plus most of them I had never met face to face before, so this was a perfect opportunity to do so. And as time went on not only did I get to hike with some of them, but several helped me out with shuttles and lodging.
The first month (January) I worked 3 days a week at the business I’ve owned since 2002 (Plug-it In Electrical Service, Inc) and hiked the other 4 days. This worked well for what I was doing at the time. I was pushing out about 50 miles per week. I wasn’t getting in any kind of hurry at that time. I did all of the Cades Cove area and part of the Twentymile, Cosby and Elkmont areas during that time. It was during this month too that I experienced the coldest temp of 6° degrees. I was camped out at CS#17 on Little Bottoms Trail in about 4″ of snow. This is why I absolutely love winter backpacking. Everything was frozen and laced in white. It’s the perfect setting for beautiful pictures. I’m glad I had my Black Rock down beanie with me. It is incredibly effective at keeping my head warm in these extreme temps. Plus it’s perfect weather for a good #icebeard. I absolutely love have my beard completely covered and full of ice and snow. There’s just something about it that feels good to me. It also reminds me to not get complacent and how extreme the conditions are that I’m in. Things can go very wrong very fast in these conditions. A life and death struggle is just one bad decision away.
Around the 3rd week of January I decided instead of taking a year to do all the trails. I thought I could get them done by the end of May. This would free up my summer to do family stuff. But a week later I got curious as to what was the fastest time the 900 Miler had ever been done so I contacted the GSMNP 900-Miler Club to find out. They told me the current fastest time was 4 months and 12 days and the record was held by Sharon Spezia. I immediately thought to my bearded self that this was in my time frame. Maybe this would be a good challenge for me and I might be able to break it….. So that’s exactly what I did. That’s when #fastestgsmnp900miler was born. This was the hashtag that I would identify my hike with.
In early February I began hiking with a determination to break a record in big fashion. I began doing bigger miles and started making preparations to start hiking full time. I still had a job or two to wrap up then I was good to go. My focus was strong and I wasn’t going to be distracted easily. On the 4th of February I turned 44 years old. You guessed it. I was out hiking that day. I did hike #17 and stayed at Derrick Knob Shelter that night. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything else on my birthday this year. It simply seemed perfect. And even though I was getting older I wasn’t feeling it in the least bit. In my eyes I was just getting started.
As February got rolling, so did I. The weather was unseasonably warm and I was going to take full advantage of it. Because I knew we would probably get a good snow in March. I was just hoping to get done before it hit. I was starting to push out some much bigger mileage. Doing 20+ miles was becoming easier by the day. And with the Tennessee side about wrapped up, my focus was about to be set on the North Carolina side.
Now I only camped in the backcountry a total of 19 nights (15 in my Zpacks Duplex tent and 4 in shelters). Which left me with day hiking the rest of it. Instead of driving home which was 1 to 3 hours away (depending on where I was in the park). I would drive to a store nearby and sleep in my truck. This allowed me to save gas and to resupply if I needed to or simply get some fresh foods for the night like milk, fruits and veggies. I always made a point to purchase my dinner and breakfast from the store where I was staying at. I felt like it was the least I could do for them not kicking me out of their parking lot. Haha
Once March got here I was steaming along and not looking back.
Everything was going good and I was on schedule to finish on the 19th of March. But I was on my way home to visit for a night when the motor in my truck blew up. This wasn’t what I needed then. I was in Pigeon Forge and I was 1 hour from my house. I was able to drive it home, but the next day I had to pick up a rental car for my beautiful bride to use while I used her vehicle. I got my truck scheduled for a new motor while I was back in the woods. That was a close call. It could’ve ended this hike. I’m glad we had the money set aside for such emergencies. Having an emergency fund saved our butts that time for sure.
As most of you know I am a follower of Christ. I’ve not been shy or affraid to share that with people. And as I hike I talk to God a lot. It’s great one on one time with the one who made you and everything around you. But it was on Hike-38 that I truly realized He was still listening to me. I was hiking Balsam Mt trail and Palmer Creek trail but I had to go down Balsam Mt road to catch Spruce Mt trial. On the map it looked like it was 2 to 3 miles down the road. I met a park employee on a tractor at the Palmer Cr trailhead and asked him how far it was to Spruce Mt. He told me 5 to 6 miles. I immediately felt a sense of panic. That was mileage I didnt plan for. So I immediately began to run up the graveled road. After what seemed like forever I come around one last turn and I asked God “Please let the trailhead be here”. And as i came around the turn there it was. I immediately began crying tears of joy and thanking God. The trailhead was roughly about 2.5 to 3 miles from the Palmer Cr trailhead. Right where I initially thought it was.
In the final 8 days I pulled my biggest mileage day at 35 miles. Honestly I wasn’t sure if I could do it but I did. It was Hike-40 and I was trying to beat the snow that was forecasted. Remember me saying earlier about the big snow I expected in March? This was it……. or at least I thought it was. The next morning at the shelter I was surprised to see on 4″ of snow. That was good news for me. That meant I could still get some big miles in that day. I was only expecting to get 10 to 15 due to the high snow fall forecasted. That’s why I pushed for the 35 miles the day before. But this also meant I would be pushing my finish date up 1 day to the 18th instead of the 19th. As the days were winding down and the amount of noise my hike was making in the HTS hiking community, I realized I needed someone who could let the park service know what was about to happen so they could prepare for the extra traffic. Plus they needed to organize the celebration at the finish. That’s when I thought of my good friend Teri Samples. She told me not to worry and that she would take care of it. And she did and then some. Not only did she notify the park service but also all of our local tv channels and new papers. The celebration at the finish was bigger than I had ever heard of or could’ve imagined. But more on that a little later.
On March 18th 2017 I woke up ready to finish my 900-Miler. It was hike (Hike-47). Nearly all of my closest friends joined me. I could not have imagined finishing this #fastestgsmnp900miler hike any other way. The trail was the wettest I had ever hiked in, but we were not complaining. It was good to be able to have my friends with me. We started out at Trillium Gap trailhead that morning at 6:30. It had been raining all night and was still raining. Grotto Falls was absolutely incredible. The water flow was more than it was the first time I’d seen it. As we made our way up to the top of Trillium the water and snow on the trail was unbelievable. So with completely wet feet we were welcomed into the lodge by my friend Phillip Clarkson to dry off and to have a cup of hot chocolate.
After warming up for about 30 to 40 minutes we all loaded up and started down the mountain on Rainbow Falls trail. At the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain a reporter from WBIR met me and interviewed me really quickly. We were already 30ish minutes behind schedule. There were also a couple there that greeted me and wished me well. But we quickly got back to hiking and headed down the Old Sugarlands trail. The last trail of this hike. I was almost done…….. and I was ready. My right quad was cramping real bad, which made it very painful to walk on yet alone to hike. It had given me some problems earlier that week too.
But at about 200 yards from the finish was the moment I’ll never forget. As I was climbing up a short hill I looked up to see no one other than Sharon Spezia. She had hiked in to have this moment with me. With smiles on our faces, we immediately gave each other a hug as she congratulated me. It was such an incredible moment. I had been wanting to talk to her ever since I decided to break her record. But never was able to get in touch with her. The crazy side to this story was we actually met on trail. It was Hike-19 on the Little Greenbier trail. We crossed pathes that day, but I didn’t realize it until I was about a 1/4 mile down the mountain (she was going up). So ever since then I was hoping to see her before I finished. And I finally did.
My hike was just a few minutes from being complete. Sharon and my closest friends went ahead to become a part of the “hiker tunnel” as I hung back to have the last couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and to prepare mentally for what was about to happen. I was just moments from being a 900 miler.
I could feel the anticipation inside me as I started walking towards the hiker tunnel. I had never seen that many people at a 900 Miler celebration before.
The tunnel looked like it was about 60′ long or more. As I got closer I could see Sharon at the entrance. She greeted me once again and told me to “go finish this”. I could hear everyone clapping and cheering as I entered the tunnel. I immediately thanked God for this opportunity, getting me to here and gave Him the glory. As i continued to walk through the tunnel, I seen so many faces. Some I knew and some I didn’t. People reached in to give me “high five”. And some just patted me on the back and shoulder. When I got towards the end of the tunnel. I knew I was getting closer to the one I wanted to see most, my beautiful bride. She had told me by phone that she would be waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. So that was all I was thinking about. And as I exited the tunnel I looked up and there she was. It was eveything I could do to keep from crying. I was so happy to see her beautiful face. She met me with a big kiss and warm embrace. It felt so good to have her in my arms again. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed her till then. I had been keeping my bearded self occupied with details of the trail so I wouldn’t think about it.
After I was done catching up with my family. I did a couple of interviews with WBIR and the Knoxville News Sentinel. I also go to spend some more time with Sharon Spezia who also introduced me to Jennie Whited. Jennie was the first female to do 5 maps (900 milers). I had so many people that came up to me to congratulate and talk to me. Some I knew and some I didn’t. But either way I appreciate all of them taking the time out of their busy day just to come be there for me. I believe that’s the part that overwhelms me the most. It’s very humbling when I think about that.
But as I sat there it slowly started sinking in. I just finished my 900 Miler. And I did it in the fastest time EVER… Wow! Maybe what I did was a big thing after all. Before I was having a hard time understanding why everyone was making a big deal out of my hike. But now I was starting to understand it. God just helped this ordinary man do something extraordinary. I couldn’t have possibly done this without His help and strength. I leaned on Him for His guidance, understanding and strength each day. I give Him all the glory for this hike. For God was my ultimate trail guide.
Afterwards, you guessed it. We all went to Smoky Mountain Brewery for an Ol’ Smoky burger and a beer. It is my absolute favorite place to go after a hike. It was great being able to sit down and have a big meal and a beer with my closest friends. These guys just came from Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi just to hike with me. What amazing friends I have. I’m such a blessed man to have friends like them. I thank God for each and every one of them.
If you would like to see what it was like on that last hike, then go check out the video and write up at Stick’s Blog. Chad captured that moment perfectly and I am forever grateful for it.
A lot of people have asked me what’s my next adventure. Well I’ve decided that in the Fall (2017) I’m going to do it again, BUT EVEN FASTER. I’m shooting to do it in just 45 days total. Which would break my own record of 78 days. I believe I can do it and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. If I’m able to complete it then that will also make me a 2 time 900 Miler in 1 year. Which would tie me with 7 time 900 Miler Sharon Spezia who also has done 2 maps in 1 year. It would be an honor to share that record with her.
In the last hike I used the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900miler and #gsmnp900miler to identify with that hike. This way people could search anything they need to find out about that hike using that hashtag. This time I’ll be using the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900milerx2 and #fastestgsmnp900miler . It should be an extraordinary journey. And I’m looking forward to what God will show me on this hike. After all He is my “Ultimate Trail Guide”.