Hiking isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. But even a less-than-ideal day on the trail is better than a great day in the office.
Though we are primarily day hikers, we aspire to doing longer overnight hikes, which around here means bringing your necessities on your back. Every now and then, we have a go at an overnight backpacking trip. Back in June, after the luxury of staying at Charit Creek Lodge in the backcountry, we went for a contrasting experience for the second day of our adventure. We woke up, had warm showers and a great breakfast, and made the short walk back to the car, then drove east to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We need little prompting to take a trip to the Smokies. We both grew up near there and made many trips to the mountains as kids for picnics, camping, wading and floating in creeks, hikes, and just driving around and looking at stuff. It’s a compelling place, where the masses spill out of RVs into Mother Nature’s unending embrace. It’s old, so old, mountains that were once like the Rockies but now worn down and wiser somehow. It’s a place of slow but constant change, of beauty and melancholy. And water everywhere, flowing in creeks, dripping off leaves, hanging in the air — and most reliably, pouring down on backpackers. But more about that later….
After stopping in Maryville to load up on some provisions and a little equipment, we drove through Townsend to the Wye and headed east to the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area. Our destination was the Curry Mountain trail, a 3.3 mile hike mostly uphill to the Meigs Mountain trail, where we had reserved a place at backcountry campsite 19. Though there is usually parking at the trailhead, we knew there was construction in the area so we found a parking place at Metcalf Bottoms and loaded up our packs.
Backpacking for us is still a trial and error process, with the ratio of errors to successes slowly getting better. Our last overnight backpacking trip was in the Sipsey Wilderness, where a steady rain washed out our notion of a cheery campfire and instead led to a restless night of tossing and turning, serenaded by coyotes. We were a little bit better prepared this time, with more garbage bags packed to serve as impromptu pack covers, and our rain jackets were packed at the top of the backpacks. The weather forecast was a little troubling, with about a 70% chance of rain. You should always double that when you go into the Smokies backcountry, so we were resigned to doing some hiking in the rain. But the summer storms usually pass quickly.
Our hike started in bright sunshine, with a 200-yard trek along Little River Road to the trailhead. We hit the trail at 3 pm Eastern, pretty much right on schedule. The pack weight didn’t seem bad, and though the first part of the trail was uphill, we were making good time. We rose quickly above Little River Road, paralleled it for a while, then the traffic noise faded. Also, the sunlight faded, and distant rumbles of thunder were well on the way to becoming less distant.
OK, some people love walking in the rain. Ruth seems oblivious to it, especially when she’s in the mountains. I regret to say that I’m not like that. I’m miserable when I hike in the rain, and I probably wear an expression like a cat tied to a water sprinkler. As the sky grew darker, it became obvious that this storm wasn’t going to miss us, so we broke out the garbage bags and covered up the packs, after first making sure our sleeping bags were safely in the dry. I can tolerate camping in the rain, but if I have a wet sleeping bag it’s game over, at least if the car is within hiking distance. I threw on the rain jacket and stowed the camera as the drops began to fall,
Onward we slogged, through a rhododendron tunnel and hemlock groves. We never saw stone walls or piles of stone that marked former homesteads. We did see some squaw root on the side of the trail, and crested dwarf iris (not in bloom). After about half an hour, the rain stopped, and I rounded a corner to find Ruth waiting about 50 yards ahead with a triumphant air. She had found a sizable area of flame azaleas, one of our favorite mountain sights! After briefly admiring them, we sloshed along and the trail leveled out for a bit at Curry Gap.
I think the etymology of Curry Mountain is interesting. The name supposedly comes from the Cherokee word for the mountain, which is gura-hi. This means a particular salad green, gura, grows here. This was transliterated into “Curry-He,” which was attached to one mountain, and the next mountain over was logically named “Curry-She.” Curry Gap is a passage between He and She.
The trail had another sharp climb after the gap, then leveled out again and widened out. This trail was originally a mountain road to the Jakes Creek community. Though we weren’t being rained on, there were still more rumbles of thunder and it seemed likely that we were in for another deluge. The last part of the trail was a short rise, and finally around a bend I found Ruth waiting at the junction with the Meigs Mountain trail. From this point we turned right and headed west about 0.4 miles to campsite 19, our destination for the evening. We passed a turnoff to a cemetery on the way, but the thunder was getting closer and we were focused on getting our tent up before the rain started.
Campsite 19 has three obvious tent areas, and as we were the only occupants for the night, we grabbed the one right off the trail. We arrived around 6:15 and worked quickly to get the tent up and the sleeping bags and pads arranged. It still wasn’t raining, so we wandered uphill to the most distant tentsite and set up our backpacking stove and boiled water for a meal of dehydrated red beans and rice, with a dehydrated berry cobbler to follow. To be honest, neither was particularly appealing, but it was warm food, and afterwards we packed away our garbage, covered the packs in garbage bags, and hoisted them on the pulley system that you’ll find in every backcountry campsite in the Smokies. Bears were very active in the park, and unbeknownst to us at the time, a bear had attacked a camper a couple of days earlier at another backcountry campsite. We take the bear precautions very seriously.
After the packs were hoisted, we prepared ourselves for a rainy night, and it started up promptly. I think it started raining around 7:30 and unlike your typical summer shower, it settled in and rained pretty much nonstop until around midnight. We got a little water in the tent, and there were a couple of leaks that promised we’d be in for a damp night. The water soon became a secondary concern, as lightning began popping around us. We had one strike probably within 1,000 yards of us, and during the night we heard a few limbs come down. Neither of us slept well, even after the rain stopped. For me, it was a pillow issue — turns out I just can’t sleep without one. Ruth’s bag was a little damp, and she had to contend with me tossing and turning, so in summary we had our usual lousy night’s sleep when backpacking. Poor long-suffering Ruth. I think I’ll be kicked out into a solo backpacking tent on our next overnight trip.
We were up early the next morning, if we can be said to have slept much at all, but at least it wasn’t raining, and I had the packs down from the pulley system and we were soon munching on apple fritters we had picked up the previous day for breakfast. We made quick work of breaking down and packing up, and hit the trail around 7:30.
Since it wasn’t raining, we were able to make side trips, which we did a few minutes later on the Meigs Mountain trail when we visited the Huskey Cemetery. Like many Smokies cemeteries, it had a mix of old fieldstones and a few more modern carved ones, like this one for Polly Huskey, born in 1866 and laid to rest here in 1909. The Huskeys are an old Smokies family, with several landforms named after them, such as Huskey Gap, Huskey Branch, and Huskey Branch falls. Polly had 10 children, which seems pretty remarkable, but she herself was number 6 in a family of 15. Then her father remarried and had another 9 children!
We didn’t tarry long, and we were at the Curry Mountain trail intersection after about 15 minutes of hiking. We turned onto the Curry Mountain trail and headed downhill, reaching the flame azaleas around forty minutes into the hike. After snapping some quick photos, we pretty much laid our ears back and trucked on down the trail, making good time despite my lopsided packing that caused a few stops to try to straighten it out. We still didn’t see the rock walls we had missed on the way up, but did take a moment to admire a bear’s handiwork on this tree. He was marking his territory, and we were happy to let him/her have it.
On the way up, I had noticed a small patch of Indian pipe on the side of the trail, and was pleased to spot it again on the way down. Indian pipe is a chlorophyll-free plant, sometimes mistaken for a fungus, that is uncommon. Ruth and I once went to a lecture/demonstration on medicinal plants, and the presenter passed around a jar of pickled Indian pipe, commenting it was good for chronic pain, and had a narcotic effect. Someone asked him where he found it, and like most backwoods folks do when you ask about ginseng, he pretended not to hear the question. So that’s a good indication of how uncommon it is!
Seeing as how our trip was mostly level or downhill, we set a good pace and were at the trailhead at 9:38. After crossing the road, we headed back to the car, and like a horse in sight of the barn, we were focused on our destination and I nearly walked right past the tallest specimen of Jack in the pulpit I’ve ever seen. They weren’t in full bloom so there’s not a good photo, but I’ve made a mental note that if I’m there again in late spring/early summer to go seek them out.
So our three-day mini-vacation came to an end, with a four-hour car drive in glorious taunting sunshine on our way back home. We did pass a few dark clouds near Chattanooga, streaming their way northeastward to drench another set of Smokies hikers. Even though a portion of our hike was soggy, and we spent a mostly uncomfortable night, we saw some brilliant wildflowers and enjoyed some misty scenery, particularly on our way down. Mother Nature showed us the back of one hand and caressed us with the other. Seems fair enough.