Kleio’s Trip Report
For our second day hike in the Smokies, the choice was not that difficult: take the Appalachian Trail to Charlie’s Bunion.
Trailhead location: Newfound Gap Parking Lot
Trip mileage : 8 miles RT (give or take).
Date: July 2015
Barbie and Ranger 2 joined me on this trip to one of the most scenic outlooks in the Smokies. Ranger 2 had enjoyed the trip to Mount LeConte in April, but this was Barbie’s first trip to the Smokies as well as her first hike in the mountains. The plan was to follow the Appalachian Trail to Charlie’s Bunion, enjoy the view for a bit and return with a quick side trip to the Jump Off if we had time.
Any trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires overnight camping for this crew. On this occasion, we arrived at our designated campsite at Elkmont Campground well after dark. This led to my wonderful adventure of setting up two tents in the dark. That was accomplished much better than I expected given that I had not previously had the pleasure of setting up in the dark until now. It happens to everyone eventually I suppose.
Next came supper. Our campsite was on the back B loop nearest the tree line and some road that is sparsely used unless it is 6:00 am.. It was quite dark. Suddenly, as we were eating our Mountain House dinners, Ranger 2 said Look! A coyote was walking parallel to our campsite not twenty yards away! We all actually stopped eating with our mouths wide open to gawk at our visitor. He disappeared into the darkness without making eye contact but he did not go far. We looked up a moment later and there he was sitting on the edge of the campsite area just where the trees begin. Whenever he disappeared, we would soon find him again when we scanned the tree line with our headlamps. His eyes glowed in our lights. It made for an unnerving bed time especially since we had not had time to build a fire. Our coyote was likely hoping we would drop some food or leave a treat for him just like our dogs at home. The rangers told us the next day that the coyotes in the area knew campers’ routines and were pretty skilled at making off with unattended food items -and small pets. Be coyote aware if you camp at Elkmont!
The morning of our hike was overcast and cool. Weather in the Smokies is always unpredictable. This trip was no exception. It was mid July, and it was cool and wet. It had not rained on us yet, but it was cloudy and threatening. The prior weeks had seen record rainfall in the park, so we really could only hope for enough dry weather to avoid total misery.
Barbie had actually laughed when I strongly suggested that she bring a warm fleece pullover and a rain jacket for our upcoming hike to Charlie’s Bunion along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was 95 degrees at home with 98% humidity so I could easily understand her laughter. You WOULD think that July would be a rather warm time to be hiking in the Southeast. In most places, that would be true. In the Smokies, it may be hot and humid or it may be cool and wet – even in July. It is always a good idea to plan for both.
On this day, however, as we got our daypacks out of the car in the Newfound Gap parking lot, I put my fleece pullover on over my hiking shirt and wondered if it would be enough. The temperature was in the low 60s and the wind was brisk on the top of the mountain ridge so extra warmth was a definite must. With no sun yet, the chill seem chillier!
From the beginning, this trail proved to be special.
Everything was so green and magical. Even in the clouds, it looked like a fairy land. There were lichens and mushrooms of all colors everywhere. Deep green moss created beautiful thick carpets along both sides of the relatively smooth and well maintained path. A few spring flowers were still blooming here and there.
I had read that the Smokies had an abundance of salamanders. This is the only one we saw.
He was hanging out right on the trail so he was hard to miss!
We came upon our next fellow traveler right on the edge of the trail.
Her eyes were filmed making us suspect that she was on the verge of shedding her skin. She also bobbed her head as we were taking photos from a safe distance. I have read that could mean the snake feels threatened or it could mean its looking for a mate. Regardless, we took it as a sign to move on. A family of hikers came up almost simultaneously. Now, I have a rule about pointing out snakes to people I don’t know: I don’t do it. Inevitably, the person screams or grabs a stick or worse and wants to kill it – no matter what kind of snake it is. Given that the group had kids, we casually mentioned that they needed to arc around a certain area of the trail because there was a snake present. Thankfully, they did just that without any drama. Safe people – safe snake.
Shortly thereafter, we had lunch in a clearing with a wonderful view of clouds rolling in.
Those rolling clouds brought enough rain our way that we had to pull out the rain jackets and walk in a nice misty rain for a bit. This added to the fairyland ambiance, and did not diminish our enjoyment of our hike one bit. Barbie was amazed that we had packed so well for our adventure.
This was one of my favorite finds:
I knew it grew in places closer to home, but I had never seen it until now. I had never seen so much greenery in the midst of summer either. It was truly magical.
The rain eased as we reached the turnoff for the Boulevard Trail leading to Mount LeConte (a future adventure I hope). This is also the way to the Jumpoff, but we were saving it for our return trip.
Ice Water Springs shelter was occupied by only one person when we arrived. We had to check out the shelter and the pit toilets nearby just because. The latter was officially closed until further notice due to lack of composting material and – well – it was full! Ice Water Springs shelter sees quite a bit of traffic! The bear cables were a big hit with Ranger 2. He finally got to see how they worked.
I did wear my bear bell on this hike. The trail is very well traveled so I doubted we would actually run into a bear. But the trail does have a few blind corners and hedged in places full of berries (which were not quite ready) so it’s not inconceivable that a bear would find the area attractive. I just really did not want to surprise one or it us. Thus, the bear bell.
We did pass a backpacker wearing a really large bell – like the kind you would see in a bell choir or on a cow – but with a much more pleasant sound.
The flowers and fauna along the trail were glorious.
A short walk through a tunnel of rhododendron and we were there.
The rain had stopped, and the clouds were starting to fade away. We had the place all to ourselves for about 1/2 hour. The views were amazing.
Then something really strange occurred. A young couple in spandex appeared with no packs – just a camera. They started taking the obligatory photos. Then, the guy decides to do a handstand on the rock that juts out over nothing but a long fall to certain death.
Girlfriend is taking photos while boyfriend is standing on his hands asking her “if she got it” and looking at any moment like he was going to make us all witnesses to his death. Girlfriend is begging him to stop and telling him “yes” she got the photo! Won’t he please come down?
And I am thoroughly horrified and disgusted.
At the same time, Barbie was being friendly and complimenting boyfriend on his ” yoga” skills mid handstand, while I am trying to distract Ranger 2 so he won’t be watching in case the boyfriend falls. Apparently, in our new world of narcissism and selfishness, such behavior is rather to be expected and even praised. I guess I am just old fashioned enough to have been praying that a real Park Service ranger would miraculously appear and arrest the guy. But no. He got his “to die for” (literally) profile pic shot and lived to tell about it. After the Chevy Chase visit, they ran back from whence they came. People like that will eventually make our wild places inaccessible for all of us due to their insatiable demand for attention and unbelievable stupidity.
Happy that the future Darwin award winners were gone, we explored around Charlie’s Bunion for a bit longer then headed back toward Newfound Gap. The trip back was just as lush and green as before.
By the time we reached Ice Water Springs Shelter, Ranger 2 and I were in need of water. Barbie was amazed when Ranger 2 and I enjoyed filtered water from this pipe.
She was sure we would die. We didn’t. (But she thinks performing handstands on a rock jutting off the side of a mountain are admirable? Hmmm.)
Ice Water Springs shelter had filled considerably since our first pass. It included a family of three planning to spend the night. The family included a boy about Ranger 2’s age who had backpacked up and explored the area all afternoon. Ranger 2 was very impressed.
Ranger 2 was not, however, interested in walking another mile (RT) to see the Jumpoff so we headed back without seeing that lookout spot.
The sun came out as we made our way down the AT. We were finally treated to some lovely mountain views!
Seeing this sign made me want to start planning my next adventure:
Just as the sun started dipping below the horizon, we arrived back at Newfound Gap with our second iconic Smoky Mountain hike completed!