Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN/NC
Access: One of several access points is the Twentymile Ranger Station. From Chilhowee, TN, head southeast on US 129 for 14.7 miles, then turn left on NC-28, and head east 2.8 miles, then turn left into the Twentymile Ranger Station and head about 500 ft past the station to park.
Trailhead: Twentymile Ranger station: UTM NAD83 z 17 239100e 3928798n
Trail: The trails are very defined and well-signed. My route of heading to Camp 95, heading up Wolf Ridge to Gregory Bald, back to Camp 95 via Long Hungry Ridge and then back out from Camp 95 to Twentymile involved a 23.3-mile hike with 3,654í net elevation gain.
Maps: USGS Calderwood, Cades Cove, Fontana Dam and Tapoco quads; Earthwalk Press' Great Smoky Mountain Hiking map and Guide is useful for smaller-scale planning
Fees: None, but a free overnight permit is required
Dogs: Not allowed
Weather: NWS local forecast
October 19, 2010
Itís a very comfortable 67 degrees as I hit the trail and head north from the Twentymile Ranger Station and follow the bubbling, foaming Twentymile Creek upstream. The water course is lined with giant rhododendrons and magnolias with giant leaves. Tuliptrees and birches stand further back from the stream, shading it from the lower-angled October sun, which is faint and diffused by a layer of high clouds. The path is wide, easy to follow, and seems to be an old road, presumably used for logging. The trail is not busy, though there are almost 10 cars in the parking lot below. There are so many trails in the backcountry, however, that the owners of those cars could very well be far away. Iím a bit concerned about finding a suitable campsite at Camp 95, but I figure that, at worst, I can trek off into the woods and make my own tent spot if all are taken in the official camp.
I hike along briskly, enjoying the yellow and orange leaves dropping here and there from the trees. The water is too much of a magnet to resist, and I find myself repeatedly stopping to set up a tripod for a photograph of the glossy water snaking over smooth rocks or dropping over short limestone ledges with a film of translucent-white. The hike to camp is short, and I reach it with plenty of energy in reserve.
As it turns out, only one tent is up in the camp, which sits well off the trail on its own spur trail, just along the edge of a nice creek. Very large trees insulate the camp, with a few stray chestnuts in the woods not far from the upper reaches of the camp. I pass by the three folks camping in the middle spot, and head up the slope to the furthest campsite. It has a large flattish space for a tent, and a well-used fire ring of stone with sitting logs on 3 sides. I set up my tent, hang my food, and sit down to enjoy Robert Penn Warrenís Wilderness, which I brought along for this trip, even though it is a rather heavy hardback.
The two men sharing the camp next door come and say hello, and we talk about where we are from, what we get paid for, where weíve hiked. That sort of thing. I hadnít intended to really camp near other folks on this trip, much less converse at length with them, but I find the fellows pleasant and the company enjoyable, in spite of my expectations. After they leave, they build a large fire in their fire ring, and I enjoy the sight of the flickering flames from afar.
Getting restless. Too much reading and the sun is still pretty high. Time to take a walk. I carry my camera and tripod down the camp spur trail towards the Wolf Ridge Trail, and step off to the south to check out the creek, which can be heard long before it is seen. I reach the dense tangle of low-growing rhododendons, and pick my way through the stiff branches to the creek. A few photographs of the creek look fantastic, so a little more exploration is in order. I choose to head upstream, and delicately step over slippery logs and slipper rocks, fearing a wet bottom or worse. At length, the stream becomes so choked up with logs and rhododendrons that further progress is practically impossible. I retrace my steps and return to camp.
In order to save time at meals, Iíve elected to not cook anything. Instead, I enjoy crackers, cheddar and jerky, with a few M&Mís for the old sweet tooth. Itís pretty dark out by 6:30, and Iím in my tent reading by 7:00 by the light of my headlamp. In the dark, I can hear a couple of backpackers come in late and move into the woods uphill, into a clearing that seems to be an unofficial campsite. They are extremely quiet. The fellows down the way are noisier, but not obnoxiously so. Furthest down, near the trail outlet, a lone hiker who came in near dusk, is apparently reading in his tent also, judging from the steady white glow of a flashlight from within.
At some point I put my book down and doze off, and sleep very well in the cool night air.
The trail winds up well-trod switchbacks through an unbroken canopy of chestnut oak, red oak and sourwood. The oaks are so numerous, nearly every step crunches acorns on the trail, many of them sprouted and sending down their radicle into the soil of the trail. The air is cool, but the vigorous uphill slope has me shucking off layers in quick succession. The sun rises cleanly to the east, over multiple valleys of silvery fog that lie inert under the clear blue sky above. As I ascend, Gregory Bald starts to come into view through the partially-denuded trees. Golden light streams through the forest, and I imagine where the inspiration for stained glass came from. I stop at a large fallen log to eat breakfast. Itís odd that this log is nearly 3 feet in diameter, while all other trees around are barely a foot. Where did this one come from? I study the map, and check out the ridgeline hike to Gregory Bald through the trees. Itís a quiet, beautiful morning. When I get up and go, I catch a fleeting glimpse of a silver-grey coyote skating silently through the trees up the slope.
Parsons Bald is near. The trees lose height with elevation gain, ironically, and are replaced in large swathes by raspberry. I imagine the late-summer fruit harvest is well attended by black bears. The summit of Parsons Bald is open, but not quite bald: views in nearly all directions are still cloaked by trees. The trail is narrow and lined with grass, and I follow it back into the woods and descend a little down the slope towards Camp 13. Just after Camp 13, the trail begins to rise, and soon the large, grassy south slope of Gregory Baldís summit comes into view through the trees. The summit, when I reach it, is very open. A group of large rocks sits just off the trail, and beckons. I slide my pack off and lean it against the largest rock. A couple is seated across the field, taking pictures. The girl pronounces that I stayed in Camp 95 last night, and then explains that she recognized my pack: they stayed in the site next to me. I take a couple of pictures for them, and they for me, and theyíre off, vanishing into the tall grass in seconds. I sit back down on my rock and gaze out over the valleys to the north, devour a granola bar, guzzle some water and take advantage of the surprisingly robust cell signal to call Andra at home and see how things are at home. As I hang up, two men arrive at the summit, and I talk over with them their route up from Forge Creek Rd out of Cades Cove. There are three routes to Gregory Bald summit: Wolf Ridge, Forge Creek Road, and Long Hungry Ridge. Itís 7.4 miles to Gregory Bald via Wolf Ridge, 4.7 miles via Forge Creek Rd and 8.3 miles via Long Hungry Ridge. I decide to head back via Long Hungry Ridge to see new terrain. Though it will take longer, what do I have to gain by getting back to camp by noon?
Down the trail, through the tall grass and into a grove of fiery orange beech trees. Blue shadows sprawl on the ground even as mid-day arrives. I get into a rhythm, and the miles slide by effortlessly. While Wolf Ridge is dominated by oaks, almost to the exclusion of all other trees, Long Hungry Ridge shows much greater arboreal variety, and thus more color variety. Chestnut and red oaks still seem the most numerous, but a much greater portion of the canopy is claimed by beech, hickory, tuliptree and blackgum. I even pass by a half dozen remnant chestnut trees, some 15 feet tall. As the trail descends through the afternoon towards water, hemlocks appear, and some of them by the flowing water are massive, though many are dead.
I reach Greer Creek, and Camp 92, which is located right on the trail. In fact, the trail runs right between the firepits, so that as I pass through camp, I pass by tents on both sides only 5 or 6 feet off the trail. Camp 95 is much more secluded, and in my opinion, a better place to stay a night. From Camp 92, the trail follows the grade of an old logging railroad, tracks long-gone. Twentymile Creek bustles along the west side of the trail, occasionally falling off a 3-foot ledge to create a splendid sheen of white water. Upon reaching the cutoff trail, I turn off the wide trail and take the narrow footpath west towards Wolf Ridge. The trail crosses Twentymile Creek with a nice bridge, and I sit by the bridge and enjoy a few bites of tuna and crackers. A few small brook trout hover in the current of the clear water, watching the yellow sugar maples leaves float past them, seeking the errant fly. What patience. As I pass over the single-log bridge, they dart into the shadows.
Reaching camp after a nice dayís hike is often a letdown. Itís the goal Iíve been walking towards for hours, yet the fun doesnít lie in the destination, and no sooner am I at camp then Iím thinking of where I can walk to next. Is this a metaphor of life, or what? All former campers have moved out, and a new camper is set up nearby, a single older gentleman whom I talk with briefly on my way past. I grab my feed bag from the hanging cable and tear into various goodies: cheese, beef jerky, chocolate. Especially chocolate. I spend a little more time chatting with the neighbor camped 100 feet away. Itís odd that in a wilderness of 800 square miles, they require campers to congregate in restricted areas. You lose any sense of wilderness in such a setting. Nevertheless, the neighbor is friendly, and I enjoy our chat by the downed white oak which, counting the rings at the chainsaw cut made to move the trunk off the trail, we assess is somewhere around 200 years old (many rings are a bit ambiguous). As the afternoon wanes, I gather an armful of wood to burn in the fire pit once darkness descends, and read more of my book. I eat the last of my drawn-out dinner, and hang my food. The sun sets. The woods grow dark. A silvery moon pokes out from the horizon of trees. I light the stack of twigs and sit back to enjoy the flicker. Fire ever mesmerizes. Iíve built lots of fires in lots of woods and the principle thing Iíve learned is to build and maintain the fire with small branches. A lot of yahoos in the woods will get a fire going the right way by using small twigs and branches about thumb-size, but then completely ruin it by tossing on some silly 12-inch log thatíll do nothing but smoke for two hours once the outer skin is scorched and black. Theyíll end up squelching the thing with water at bed time, and then every camper for the next month gets to work around a giant chunk of charcoal in the firepit that slowly grinds down to nothing with each passing fire. Build a fire small, feed it with small branches, and the only thing left is ashes. Also, itís easier to put out a fire like that when it is time for bed. So it goes: I watch the fire until it wanes to glowing coals, then throw on a handful of sticks. I read my book by the red light of the fire until it weakens, then fire it up some more. At some point my stick pile is gone, so I mark the page and watch the glowing red coals dance with a red, molten spiderweb of shifting heat. In the relative darkness, the moonlight becomes the principle light source, bathing the woods in a colorless, silver glow. Not completely colorless, actually, but with a bluish tint. I kill the fire with water, and it belches out a hiss of steam. Into the tent, and back to my book, which I finish before nodding off to a pleasant nightís sleep. Hours later, in the dark, I hear raindrops, and throughout what seems most of the night it rains.