Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I took a week off from work to go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with another female hiker (herein to be referred to as LS). I was beyond excited about my adventure. Adventure it certainly turned out to be. You see, this would be my third ever backpacking trip. Yep, only my third and the first two were lead by a guide and with a group. But, I was feeling more alive than I had in…well…forever…so I was full of enthusiasm. The plan was a multi-day hike to Clingman’s Dome, a one day hike, and some “tourist time” in Cherokee. That was the plan.

The Plan to conquer The Dome:

  • Drop car off on Sunday morning at the Deep Creek Ranger station, file itinerary with the Ranger station, have shuttle take us to the end of the Road to Nowhere and hike to campsite #71.
  • Hike to campsite #69
  • Hike to campsite #68
  • Summit Clingman's Dome and meet shuttle driver at 4:30 for ride back to the car (Note to first-timers: shuttles are very pricy)

This is actually much more time that is required. LS was a weaker hiker and desired to “take it easy”. This should have been my first clue that she was not prepared for this hike. I will learn some important lessons on this trip. Hopefully, these lessons will help you when you plan your trip this spring.

We arrived at Deep Creek Campground by mid-afternoon. Don’t spend extra…get a cheap primitive site within the park. That said, the site was nice, quiet, and creek-side. I got a great night's sleep in my camping hammock under the trees within a few feet of the creek! LS began to get quiet and all attempts at conversation failed...seems she had talked herself out on the drive. No problem. We both reviewed our packs and got everything ready for the next day. I had been responsible for preparing the meals for both of us and had taken great pains to be sure to put together meals with foods she said she liked and that would provide her good carbs, fats, and protein while being lightweight and easy to pack.

Day one pretty much went as planned. The hike from the tunnel at the end of the Road to Nowhere to campsite #71 was an easy five miles. #71 is a reservation required site at the intersection of Forney Creek Trail and Springhouse Branch. Very large with a number of fire rings, bear cables, a standing chimney from an old homestead, and we discovered, the concrete foundation and plumbing for another house. We arrived here very early in the afternoon and I had energy to burn. LS was exhausted and quiet. She had told me she had hiked a section of the AT and never suggested that climbing would be a problem--a challenge perhaps but not an insurmountable one. Now she tells me that she is tired, her pack is too heavy, and she intends to lighten her load by leaving some food behind. Interesting. Alarming.

NOTES: I realized that I left my emergency whistle in my car. This concerned me. It would concern me even more in the days to come. Also, strong winds blew rain up under my rain fly and I had to move to LS' tent which resulted in a very uncomfortable night's sleep. There are larger rain flies available for use with camping hammocks. If you decide to go this route, and I do recommend it, be sure to get a large rain fly!

Day two. We were to hike up Forney Creek Trail to campsite #69. This passes the intersection with Jonas Creek Trail. We pass Jonas Creek and are walking on a nice, wide path running along beside the creek. The day's hike would be short...just a few miles...and easy. We got a late start because LS wanted to let her tent dry out a bit. With a short hike, that wasn't a problem. The problem was that we came to a dead end. At least, it seemed like a dead end as we faced high creek water on one side, high embankment on the other, and rock rubble in front. No sign of the trail anywhere. I try to climb the embankment to see if I can detect a trailhead at the top...nope. Don't see a trail across the creek. We decide to walk back to see if we missed a trail turn. We get back to the Jonas Creek sign with still no sign of a trail turn for Forney Creek. I want to walk back again to try again. LS does not. Finally, we decide to change plans and take Jonas Creek (4.1 miles) to Welch Ridge Trail (2.4 miles) to the Silers Gap shelter on the AT (0.4 miles). Much longer than we had planned and we've lost valuable daylight. It's also going to be a climb. But, for awhile, things seem to go pretty well. Jonas Creek Trail has 5 creek crossings, 4 of which are without aid of bridge. I will take the time to take off my hiking shoes and socks and put on my crocs to wade each creek and then put back on my hiking shoes. LS will opt not to do one point telling me that the Australians laugh at Americans for taking off their shoes. I point out that cold wet boots and socks can spell blisters and hypothermia. Let the Australians laugh, I’m keeping my feet dry!

NOTE: I make a huge mistake by not checking my water supply at the last creek crossing. Always, always, always keep an eye on your water supply!

LS' pack load is still heavy despite leaving food behind at #71. She struggled a bit over some rock scrambles and I had to assist her a few times. She is slowing down and by the last creek crossing, she is taking a minute break after every 10 steps. I try to encourage her but that doesn't work. I go around to the front and climb about 50 feet and wait. Finally, she says to go ahead to the trail crossing and wait there. Long before I get there, she is calling for me saying she can't go any further. We can't pitch a tent on a two foot ledge which is what we are walking on so I tell her she has to keep coming until we find a place we can pitch the tent. The first opportunity is about a quarter mile below Welch Ridge Trail. She literally collapses in the path. We get the tent up and decide I'll sleep in with her to help provide body heat—she is hypothermic and I’m not surprised. Neither of us eat after not stopping for lunch because she was pressing to keep going. I was hungry but had limited water for rehydrating food. I pour water in my cup, add protein powder and a pack of ionic fizz and drink it down. I also eat two pineapple rings.

NOTE: LS over packed. I think she had every gadget sold in the catalogs. Don’t do that. Keep your pack light. My mistake--I did not have my own map with me. Always carry your own map. One other point: hike your own hike. Don’t skip meals or get wet feet because your companion does.

Day three: No bears or boars frequented our site to take the food we left on the ground. We pack up. I have 6 ounces of water and an apple for breakfast. She offers me none of her water and I would learn later that she had 3 liters in her pack. Packs up and off we go. For 5 steps! She stops and announces she is unable to continue and wants to go back down. I don't. I have a mountain to climb! Ultimately, we split—she heads downhill and I head uphill.

NOTE: LS leaves with the only water we have between us; the map; the cell phone; the number for the shuttle driver; a lighter for starting a fire. I should have had each of these items with me. Without my whistle, I'd have no way of calling for help if I should stumble—or make a boar angry. I will spend the next 3 miles contemplating these mistakes.

I started out dehydrated and it quickly gets worse. But, I just enjoy the walk as much as I can and know that water isn't that far away. I arrive at Double Springs Gap before 11am. I dump my stuff, grab my water bladder and water filter and head for the spring. As I am filtering water I am drinking it just as quickly. Before the day is out I will consume 4 quarts of water not counting what I drink while filtering. I know from signage that the summit of Clingman's Dome is a mere 2.3 miles uphill from here. I have enough daylight and it is a warm sunny day. I'm content to stay put. I'm rather enjoying myself. By afternoon, thru-hikers and section-hikers begin to arrive and set up for the evening. I find them personable and quite pleasant to spend a day with. A fire is built in the fireplace in the shelter which helps warm us part of the night.

Day four dawns cold, windy and foggy. The fog doesn't last but the cold and wind do. I overdo the layers—and choose the wrong fabric—and end up wet with sweat which chills me. I have two goals this morning: 1) reach Clingman's Dome and 2) find a way back to my car. I would need to climb 1100 feet in 2.3 miles to achieve goal #1. Not much mileage but quite a climb -- for me anyway. The views along the way are AMAZING. At times, one can look one direction into Tennessee over an amazing landscape and then turn 180degrees to look into North Carolina over another amazing landscape. It's hard to describe how beautiful it is. I reach the summit by about noon. I have a picture to prove it.

I'm close to hypothermia. As I come down from the observation tower I begin to realize just how close. My arms and face are numb. My ability to form words is rapidly diminishing. I see two rangers and get their attention. I can't quite say the words but somehow get across that I'm in trouble. Jennifer and the male ranger are very helpful. They get me wrapped in my sleeping bag, into a maintenance room, and next to a space heater. Another ranger, Joseph, is called to come assess my situation. Fortunately, I won't need to receive emergency care. Even more fortunately, they decide to have Joseph escort me down to my car. They are also concerned to know that LS has made it off the mountain -- as am I. Fortunately, she and I both arrive back at the Deep Creek campground within 5 minutes of each other.

She opts to upgrade us from campsite to cabin and we get to enjoy a small cabin for two days. They are very nice. They are dry. Warm. Wonderful. And, since she is paying, I decide to enjoy myself. Is that wicked of me? A few days later, we venture into the GSMNP Visitor Center. I had a nice conversation with the hiker who was manning the bookstore. He advises that the Forney Creek Trail skirted the rock pile and creek. But, he also tells me that had we known that, we still would have found ourselves a bit further up the trail facing an impassable creek as the recent rains would have it chest high.

 NOTE: Always good to check with those in the know about potential problems such as overflowing or unusually high creeks. Sometimes, you just can’t get there from here.

The trail was moderate to strenuous but could have been done in two or three days. There is no need to make it a four day trip. If I had read the trail descriptions for the Forney Creek Trail we originally planned to hike, I would have known that it is even more strenuous. I might have still taken it...but maybe not. Allot would have also depended on knowing the true skill level of my hiking companion. It wasn't until afterward that LS mentioned that the section of the AT she had hiked was a very easy section with minimal elevation climbs. This would have been good to know beforehand. Also, she confides that on that trip, she got separated from her hiking companion and left that person without water. Of course, in her telling, it was the other person's fault. As it was mine for not keeping track of my water supply.

 So, other than making sure I have my emergency whistle, my own map, keep my water topped off at each creek, and select more compatible companions, I also realized that I need to improve my survival skills. It is good to know stuff like how to avoid hypothermia; fire starting; and orienteering (map reading – maps are only helpful if you know how to read them!). But, inspite of it all, I will hike again and very like try ascending Clingman’s Dome from another side just to say I did!

Hammock in the TreesCredit: Tina PaxtonCredit: Tina Paxton
Clingman's Dome Observation TowerCredit: AT HikerCredit: AT Hiker