Posted by: pjbarr | April 9, 2010

On Top of Old Smoky

Start: Spence Field Shelter
Finish: Mt. Collins Shelter
Distance: 19.8 mi.
Trip Distance: 200.2 mi.
Side Trips: Tricounty Peak, Clingmans Dome, Mt. Collins Shelter
Side Trip Miles: 1.1 mi.
State: NC/TN
Highlights: Rocky Top, Silers Bald, Clingmans Dome, Mt Buckley

Rocky Top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee

It was freezing cold this morning. Literally. Someone had installed a large circular thermometer outside the shelter overhang, and it read in the high 20s. Putting on a freezing cold shirt that was still wet from yesterday was a most unpleasant way to start the day. It sure woke me up, though.


My decision to lay up yesterday proved to be a wise one. I escaped the remainder of the storm, albeit that it never materialized to a more intense degree than it had already done upon me when I was out in it, but I awoke to crystal clear skies today. This excited me greatly. Today I was to go over some of the Smokies most scenic places, including nearby Rocky Top. I was fortunate not only to live through yesterday’s storm, but to have such perfect weather to enjoy my favorite mountains today. In fact, I decided to take advantage of the great weather today and also make up for me short day yesterday by attempting my longest day yet – in the rugged Smokies nonetheless. But these mountains are my home court; my familiarity with them makes them less intimidating, despite their high elevation climbs and remote slopes. I decided to attempt nearly 20 miles today by going up and over Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Trail.


Because of the cold, it was difficult to get an early start in spite of my lengthy ambitions. When I did leave, I hiked through Spence Field, a high Smokies ridgeline grassy bald. In 1830, James Spence of Cades Cove on the Tennessee side of the crest built a log cabin here and is supposedly responsible for clearing much of the land that led to the bald that persists today. He used it as a farm house and summer home, and a larger log cabin was erected in the Field later on. This cabin became used as a hunting outpost for decades, and I seem to recall that it was even inhabited when Harvey Broome and company hiked through here on their Smokies crest traverse in the early 1930s. Since the 1800s, Spence Field was used for a summer grazing site to take advantage of its grassy pasture. Cattle and even sheep were led here up the slopes from both the North Carolina and Tennessee valleys for decades.


Today, Spence Field has nearly grown back into forest – with only small grassy areas on the very crest of the broad ridgeline remaining, and many of these filled with blackberry thickets. The bald is strikingly more grown over than just six years ago when I first hiked through here with Brad. The difference is alarming in that short time. I speculate that Spence Field will no longer be a field by the time I have children that can hike here with me years from now. The Park maintains the balds on Andrews Bald and Gregory Bald by mowing and other techniques – this practice undertaken to preserve their historical landscape. They have chosen to not do this with Spence Field, which is most unfortunate. There is a lot more history here into which I will not diverge. Tales of murder, a Cherokee built auto toll road, and an unsolved mystery of a missing boy – this place has many stories, and it was difficult not to linger.

The sun was bright but the wind was strong and blew the cold right through my body. I resisted layering up, knowing that the steep climb up Thunderhead would warm me soon enough. This battle against the cold wind versus the overheating of my body on the ascents proved to endure throughout the entire day. Most of the time it achieved equilibrium, but often times the cold would bite at me during periods where I was stopped for lunch or a snack or even to briefly reference my data book.


I climbed to the top of Rocky Top, passing a spot Allison and I once saw three gigantic Thanksgiving-esque turkeys. During my ascent, I pulled out my mp3 player and dialed up the song Rocky Top. This was a moment I had envisioned for months in anticipation of reaching this hallowed spot in the Smokies while singing aloud to this song. The views were stunning – the best I had ever enjoyed from my three visits to the peak over the years. Most spectacular was the thick, white rime ice covering the tree tops on the Tennessee side of the crest. This made for a dazzling contrast against the deep blue sky. I knew I was in for a spectacular day. I took time to observe the carvings from the 19th century sheep herders in the rocks on this peak. It was clear that people had been reveling in the scenery of this location for centuries. On my first visit here six years prior, an elderly couple asked where I was from and they were disappointed when I told them I was not from Tennessee. “That is special for folks from Tennessee,” they told me in reference to Rocky Top. Well, it’s special to me nonetheless – probably even more so than them.


I continued my climb to the summit of Thunderhead Mountain. I was certainly glad that I was not here yesterday in the storm. I felt certain that I would have been struck by lightning. I paused for a picture with the wooden summit sign and the benchmark in the summit rock. I attempted to get a view from the highest rocks that I had achieved six years ago, but found the heath bald to have grown enough since then to the point where I could not see out on this occasion. I did make a new discovery, however, finding several rock carvings in the back of the summit rocks that were dated from decades ago. How long ago escapes my memory at the moment, but they definitely have my curiosity peaked.


While I had been here at least twice before, I appreciated being on the top of the highest peak in the western Smokies, a P1k peak and the county high point of Blount County, TN. I hadn’t been to a peak a few miles to the east, however – a nameless summit I had long deemed Tricounty Peak. Its summit was the location of the intersection of Blount and Sevier counties in Tennessee and Swain County in North Carolina. It was long a candidate as a location to the true Meigs Post – a significant westward settlement boundary marker that played a large role in the history of the Smokies – until Dwight McCarter proved the true location to be at the top of Mt. Collins, another destination of my far later in the day. After descending steeply from the upper slopes of Brier Knob, a peak I was glad I had summited long ago and needed not to make the short but miserable bushwhack to its top this time around, I reach Starkey Gap and began climbing toward Tricorner Peak. I luckily found its summit to be both open woods and only about 100 yards from the Trail and I was able to tag the peak easily. I half expected to find a pile of rocks remaining from atop this peak – history holds that people moved piles of rocks, weighing tons, to other mountain peaks in an effort to change the boundary established by Meigs Post. However, I found no rocks but was pleased to obtain a “near fiver” peak, its elevation being slightly over 4,800 peak and probably the highest qualifying summit in the entire park I had yet to climb.


I reached Derrick Knob Shelter around lunchtime. This was the former location of a herders cabin, Halls Cabin, once visited by Horace Kephart during his Smokies explorations. The shelter stands generally in place of the long gone cabin, but it straddles the state line too. I decided that if I were to still make it some 13 more miles today, I better fuel up. I obtained water from the spring on the Tennessee slopes and found the piped water source to have so much furor that it appeared like a faucet filling up a bathtub. I took nearly an hour break and I ate a Hamburger Helper for lunch. Then I ate another. Then I ate chicken salad in tortillas. Then I cook up a helping of Ramen noodles. I didn’t want to stop again to eat and knew I would need all the energy I could get to finish today’s difficult route.


Ultimately this strategy worked, as I didn’t need to stop again to eat the rest of the day excepting a few small snacks while walking. But over the next four hours, I paid dearly for the overeating. Within a few hundred yards after resuming my hike, I began suffering from stomach cramps. Eventually I had to unbuckle my hip belt and hike with the pack only supported by my shoulders and bearing all of its weight on my upper body. Several times I needed to stop and bend over, grimacing in discomfort. I didn’t overcome the agony until reaching Silers Bald.


In spite of my internal misery, I was reveling in the beauty of the Smokies. The western crest is delightful albeit challenging. Its constant undulations were strenuous but beautiful. The crest is composed of mostly open woods with a carpet of green grass that was beginning to emerge for spring. On many occasions I could see out into either side of the high divide and recognize the remote wildness of my location. While I have rehiked most of the Appalachian Trail through the park since my first traverse six years ago in years past, I hadn’t ever revisted the center section of the western Smokies. I was glad to be back.


The climb up Cold Spring Knob was more difficult than anticipated, especially with stomach cramps. It was surprisingly steep despite the rolling nature of the western Smokies. I topped out on the peak and then descended to Buckeye Gap, the location where another Smokies transmountain highway was proposed to pass through the crest. Thanks to the efforts spearheaded by Harvey Broome, the plan for the road was scrapped and the wildness and beauty of this part of the Smokies was preserved. Most people have no knowledge that this spot was so close to being destroyed and the entirety of the western part of the park decimated, but this sad vision nearly became reality in the 1960s. I will never lose gratitude for those who prevented it. Thanks Harvey.


I reached Silers Bald shortly thereafter. The view east to Mt. Buckley and Clingmans Dome was impressive. It sure was big. I’ve climbed these peaks several times, but perhaps never on a route as distant as today’s. But how lucky was I to reach it on a day with such clarity in the skies. The vistas on each side of The Narrows, a thin section of the divide connecting Silers Bald and Double Springs Gap, were tremendous. I really enjoy that section of the Trail. Upon arriving at Double Springs Gap, I found two springs as indicated in its namesake. Not surprisingly, the North Carolina spring was far superior to the one in Tennessee. Of course, I found this somewhat symbolic…


By this point of my hike, I no longer need to stop to catch my breath on long climbs up mountains. But Clingmans Dome proved to be an exception. I remember my friend Rowboat boasting that he needed not to stop on his ascent six years ago while climbing this massive peak. I wished to follow his feat, but I simply could not. I found it necessary to rest my muscles rather than my lungs. The upper portion of the climbs of both Mt. Buckley and Clingmans possess dozens of high steps which zapped my muscles. I ended up stopping with frequency, but the dramatic views from vantage point after vantage point made these welcome respites.


Atop Mt. Buckley, I could see the tower atop Clingmans Dome. You can usually see the tourists milling around at its top even from this distance. Today I saw no activity. Would I for the first time be able to enjoy the over-visited summit without people? As it turns out, yes! But not before I encountered dozens of snowpacks still remaining at this high elevation, many completely covering the Trail. I was lucky today was a cold day with temperatures hovering not too far above freezing, which kept the snow hard and gave me the ability to walk on it. Previous hikers were not nearly as lucky – as many posthole footprints extended all the way through the snow to the ground – surely sinking the hikers’ legs up to their knees and thighs. A few days from now, I’m sure the snow would be soft again and future hikers will encounter this same problem. The amount of remaining snow was a testament to the harsh, snowy winter that was suffered by the southern Appalachians – and reaffirmed my decision that to delay my AAT departure by a month as to avoid the aftermath like this. I encountered a handful of balsam blowdowns on my climb up Clingmans, too.


I reached the tower atop the Dome after taking the second side trail leading to the summit and not the first. I’ll always remain bitter that the summit and tower are not on the AT itself. They once were, and were always meant to be. The Trail was rerouted around them in 1959 during the construction of the tower, and it was simply an oversight that it was not rerouted back. What a shame. What idiocy. Decades went by and now the mistake is so long standing that it would probably take an act of Congress to fix it, especially dealing with the NPS. Oh well. I’m sure no one else cares, it is just that I’m an AT traditionalist and value the historic significance of the original route. Not to mention, why not have the Appalachian’s National Scenic Trail not go over their highest reaches, especially this being the very highest reach of the Trail itself.


A lot of folks do not like this tower because of its bizarre design, and without doubt its strange architecture does not fit in very well with its high elevation balsam forest environment. It was a product of the NPS’s “Mission 66” program to revitalize America’s national parks and built structures with modern architecture and those capable of supporting a high number of visitors. It did that I suppose – Clingmans Dome is almost surely the most frequently visited peak in the Smokies and probably in the entire Appalachians. In my research, many objected to its construction and design. One man wrote his state senator with the scenario that a bear might walk up the curved ramp of the tower and trap visitors at the top. I could only be so lucky to ever see that sight, though I don’t think it will ever happen. The concrete tower replaced a woodened CCC built observation tower that stood from the 1930s but became vandalized and deteriorated. A crude wooden surveyor tower once stood atop this peak in the 1920s. It is unfortunate that I will never be able to experience the wild and remote feeling on this peak that existed at that time. Harvey Broome reached this peak in 1917 on one of his earliest Smokies outings. The setting so had a dramatic impact upon him he wrote “the memory of that dark and closely growing timber had remained with me all my life.”


I climbed the tower in isolation, a true treat and one I had never before experienced. To the contrary, I’ve practically had to wait in line to reach the top of this one before. It was delightful to have the tower and especially its views to myself – without all the comments referring to my trekking poles as ski poles, jostling for position to get a photo, or seeing all the airbrushed t-shirts and prevalence of obesity. Most of all, the views were just breathtaking. The sky had remained crystal clear and deep blue. Mt. LeConte looks impressive as usual. I would be upon its high crest in only two days. The rugged high peaks of the eastern Smokies were both foreboding and alluring. In my opinion, nowhere else in the southern Appalachians remains as rugged, remote, and tantalizingly wild. I could easily identify the conical summit of Mt. Guyot – I would also be on its highest point in only a few days. Once again, all of these peaks seemed like old friends welcoming me back, ready to invite me in and reminisce our old times, our struggles and triumphs, our years long journey that has formed our relationship. I was ecstatic to see them again and add yet another chapter in our friendship, this one perhaps more significant than any thus far.


Clingmans Dome, once known as Smoky Dome, has many accolades. It is the highest point in the state of Tennessee, the highest peak in both the Great Smokies range and in the National Park itself. It is the highest point in both Sevier County, TN and Swain County, NC. It is also a P4k peak, and as already discussed, the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail, even if it doesn’t cross the very top. Clingmans Dome has many stories of history, too. Among these include Thomas Clingman, a 19th century figure that has long held my fascination and admiration. The peak was also known as the “Mulberry Place” to the Cherokee, whom considered it a sacred home to bears. They believed bears would return to this summit during fall to hold a great party before retiring to their winter slumbers. Cherokee hunters told stories of seeing bears dancing in groups on this peak, though I was not so fortunate to see such a spectacle. I still have yet to see a bear on my long voyage, and I am still hopeful that my Smokies will end this drought soon enough.


I my departure from Clingmans Dome was spurred by the declining sun and the bitter cold I endured at the tower’s top so that I could enjoy the views. It was getting late and I still had a long way to go. I encountered huge amounts of snow between the Dome and Collins Gap. I was again lucky that the snowpacks were hard and I could walk across them, though not without the ever present risk of slipping and falling. Though I had come a long way and it was late in the day, I was still feeling strong and climbed Mt. Collins with great tenacity. I paused briefly on the summit for a photo, and gave a short look around for Dwight McCarter’s rock carving indicating the true location of Meigs Post. I did not find it but I hope to return with him someday so that he can show me and I can see it for myself. Mt. Collins is the second 6,000 ft. summit crossed by the AT. Many more were to come in the next few days.


I reached Mt. Collins Shelter just before dusk, completing 19.8 miles today. With the brief side trips today that included returning from the shelter to Spence Field, Tricounty Peak, Clingmans Dome, and the half mile to Mt. Collins Shelter, I exceeded 20 miles for the first time on this trip, over the rugged Smokies crest nonetheless. I was proud of the accomplishment and satisfied that my distance today help to make up for yesterday’s layup. I was also pleased to see Lola & SOS at the shelter tonight. I had figured that they had gotten well ahead of me yesterday, but as it turns out they had also stopped short on account of the storm at Derrick Knob Shelter. It’s really cold tonight. I’m sleeping at nearly 6,000 ft., my highest camp of this hike thus far. I’m excited about Gatlinburg tomorrow and seeing many friends in the next few days.


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