Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Clingman's Dome & Siler Bald Hike

Today was mostly magnificent! There was a lot of adventure, but mostly today was a spectacular day!

It was a chilly frosty morning, it was actually 10 degrees warmer in my RV than it was outside! When I opened the door I could see my breath, but I couldn't inside! My attempts to read while I drank my coffee failed, it was so cold my fingers were frozen and with gloves on I couldn't turn the pages!

I'd wanted to catch a Ranger before I left for the day, last night when I'd self registered I didn't have cash (or my checkbook, not sure why my checkbook wasn't in my purse...) and so rather than totally fail to pay for my site I put my credit card number and explained that I'd bring cash when I returned tonight. I wanted to talk to a Ranger about this, but no one was around. I decided to just head out for the day and hope for the best.

My first stop, after a mildly terrifying trip down Little River Road where a NPS fire brigade trailer almost hit me and I almost ran into the rocks trying to avoid him, was Sugarlands Visitor Center. I was looking for an ATM, but they didn't have one so I got my stickers and headed into Gatlinburg in search of an ATM. I ended up in Pigeon Forge, but I had cash and headed back to the park - this time by way of the bypass, which was nice! Gatlinburg isn't so bad, it's more old school tacky and has some character!

I headed up Newfound Gap road to Clingman's Dome! Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the AT and there's an observation tower at the top. I don't think I'd ever been there when it wasn't ensconced in fog! Today it was bright and sunny with not a cloud in the sky!

I was a bit worried about parking, I was sure there would be a lot of people up there, so I was thrilled when I arrived at 11:15 to find a quarter of the parking lot empty! I pulled right into a parallel parking spot and it was oversize so Roxy fit no problem! In the 30 minutes it took me to eat some lunch and pack up the place turned into a zoo! All the parking was filled and people were circling! Great timing! Since I had the RV I had a bathroom so I was able to bypass the long lines at the outhouses too!

I first walked up to the observation tower - it's 1/2 a mile straight up, on a paved trail. The trail is in better shape than some of the roads. Except for one spot, where there was a large sheet of black ice. Which I didn't see because I was checking email on my phone (yes, I had a signal right there!). I totally wiped out! Somehow my ring finger took the impact for my phone and it didn't shatter, and my finger is ok! I have a little road rash on on my knee and it ripped my pants. The sad thing is that I had yak tracks hooked on my backpack! Oh well! The ramp up to the tower was quite icy too, but I held on to the railing for dear life and made it up and down just fine. The view was nice, but I ended up enjoying the views from the trail more.


After the observation tower I headed down the AT towards Siler Bald. The observation tower area was teeming with people but as soon as I turned onto the trail all the people were gone! No one else was venturing down the AT! :-) It stayed that way all day, for the rest of the day the only folks I saw were backpackers! The AT was covered in ice in many places so I was constantly putting my yak traks on and taking them off, but no spot was as treacherous as that spot on the paved trail!

This section of AT is amazing! It's a ridge walk and has spectacular views, sometimes on both sides, the whole way! It was a bright sunny day, warm but not hot, and as I realized later, it was gently going downhill the whole way!


A little while into the hike a guy caught up with me, he was out for a few days helping thru hikers - doing trail magic. He and I got to chatting, turns out he's from Cincinnati too! Lives in Loveland!

Almost to Siler Bald there is a spot called The Narrows - the ridge is almost a knife edge, but it's not really exposed, there's no rocks, it's all dirt, but it's narrow and there are amazing views on all sides! The last 1/2 mile to the bald is straight up, steeper and longer than anything else so far! I made it to the top and saw a rock with a USGS benchmark on it that matched the elevation my map had for the bald so I called it good and didn't go down the to shelter. I'd thought this was an 8 mile round trip hike, but the sign, just before the bald, informed me that it was really closer to 9.5!


It was 2:30 when I turned around and headed back to Clingman's Dome. Out at the bald it was sunny and warm, but the wind was kicking up, as I got closer to Clingman's the clouds were building and the wind was cold! After I passed Double Springs Shelter I started going up, and up, and up, and up. It wasn't very steep, but it was long - 2 miles of up! And, most of the snow had melted during the day and it was now mud! I was getting very tired!


Soon though I came to the by-pass trail that would take me right back yo the parking lot in 0.6 of a mile. That was the longest 1/2 mile ever! And the trail was covered with ice! I managed without putting my yak tracks back on, but I thought the trail was never going to end!

It was 5:00 when I got back to the parking lot so I decided to fire up the generator and have dinner! I so love having everything I own with me all the time! I sat on the floor with the door open and ate dinner with a view and was the envy of everyone else who had at least an hours drive before their dinner! :-)

At 5:30 I started the almost 2 hour drive back to Cades Cove. I had to settle up paying for my site! I was hopeful that my site was still mine! Getting down from Newfound Gap was easy, I put the van in low gear and coasted right on down! Just after I turned onto Little River road however, things got interesting.

Last summer, when I was in PA, the van lost power going up a hill and I ended up at the Mercedes dealer near Philly and they couldn't figure out exactly what was wrong. It hadn't happened again, until today. I was heading up the hill near the visitor center and she just lots power. I put on the hazard lights and managed to get into an overlook where I turned the van off and back on again, that took care of it temporarily last time and seemed to work today.

I wasn't sure what I should do, going back to Cades Cove meant being way out away from cell service and having to drive back in again, but I really wanted to make good on my promise to pay for the site. I decided that if it happened again on the hill into Cades Cove I'd turn around, but if it didn't I was going to stay there tonight and re-group tomorrow.

I'm happy to say that we made it up the long, steep hill into Cades Cove without further trouble! This hill was much longer and the van was working hard the whole time, but the RPMs stayed where they should be, she shifted just fine and never lost power. Last time I had this problem, the next big hill we tried she lost power again, so maybe this is a one time thing? Maybe I can get home without trouble?

When I arrived back at the campground I discovered that they'd given my site away! And the campground was full! So I had to go with my downside plan which was to park in the parking lot of the campground - there's a huge lot here - likely for the horse stables & bike rentals, I figure it's close enough to the campground - 50 feet, maybe from the nearest site (I could hear music & conversation from the site!), I wasn't going in search of a campground at 7:00! I payed my fee from last night - attached a note explaining it and, it's $20 instead of $17, so they get $3 extra. I also tossed in $20 for tonight and explained that since the campground was full I just parked in the lot. I'll be gone tomorrow morning before anyone is here!

Not sure what I'm going to do about the van, right now I'm thinking I'm going to drive back in to Gatlinburg tomorrow, maybe hike to Rainbow Falls , and see how the van behaves. If all is well I may start the drive home tomorrow afternoon - stay in Marion or something tomorrow night, then get home Thurs and see if I can get the van into Mercedes at home. If she is still acting up, I at least want to be where I have cell phone signal!



Monday, March 30, 2015

Spring Break in the Smokies

I knew I had to get away this Spring break and go camping, I've had several reminders lately that life is too short and you have to get out and live and enjoy as much as you can! This was my goal, do something that would make me insanely happy and let me really enjoy my break! I had trouble figuring out where I could go. The weather was looking ok, a little chilly, but not cold, but most campgrounds were closed until late in the week. I remembered that Cades Cove campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was open year round and I checked the forecast for the park, it was going to be 70 and sunny all week! It was going to be a long drive and I was going to have to take the whole week to go, rather than a quick 2 nighter, but it sounded like a good plan. And, it seemed just crazy enough to fit with my "life is too short" theme!

I spent Sunday getting the RV ready and gathering my gear and then got up early this morning and headed out. I left at 7:15 and arrived in Seiverville at 3:30! Excllent! No issues at all on 81! Almost as soon as I hit the Tennessee border the clouds were breaking up and the sun was coming out, soon it was clear and 75*! I knew the long drive was worth it!

The one problem with The Smokies is Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville - over about 20 miles you can trace the evolution of tacky tourist traps. And where there are tourist traps, there are tourists. And traffic. Lots of traffic. About 4 years ago we came here at Christmas and stayed in a cabin in Wears Valley and learned some ways around the worst of it, so I was able to avoid the worst of the traffic.

I knew there was a cut through that would bring me from Wears Valley Rd right to Metcalf Bottoms picnic area, I remembered it was a bit twisty and turny but it put me closer to my first choice of campground, Elkmont. When I turned on the road there was a sign : "vehicles over 22ft prohibited at park boundary." Hmmmm...I'm 24 ft....it's only 2ft, should be ok. I kept driving. It was very twisty & turny & narrow & tight and there was no guardrail, but I made it! I was almost to the picnic area when a Ranger passed me going the other way! He looked like he was in hot pursuit of something else and didn't stop me. Then I came to the bridge. The narrow, wooden bridge. The bridge had a sign: no motorhomes. Well, that's ok, I'm not driving a motorhome, I'm driving a van. Over I went. I kept glancing in the mirror for that Ranger, but he never showed up!

I headed down Little River Road toward Elkmont campground. Little River Road is a beautiful drive. It's also nerve wracking. The road is a narrow 2 lanes, no shoulder, rushing creek/River on one side, sheer rock cliffs on the other. And lots of turns. And twists. It was kinda fun!

When I got to Elkmont I discovered that they were full. My only other option was to go out to Cades Cove. 19 more miles of Little River Road, back the way I'd already come. And, what if they were full too? Then what? I was 25 miles from Gatlinburg, and it was getting late. My plan was to "stealth" camp in a trailhead parking lot if I had to. If I was questioned I would explain the situation to the Ranger and offer to pay a campground fee.

I was getting quite cranky and frustrated when I encountered a "bear jam" just a few miles from the campground. There were prob 30 cars, everyone out in the road, no one letting anyone by. Finally a ranger came up and was sorting things out. I never saw the bear, but I good picture of the traffic! LOL!

Finally I made it to Cades Cove! There weren't many sites left but I scored c39, which I liked because that's how old I am! And it's even mostly level. After a quick dinner I decided to ride my bike around the campground. That turned into me riding my bike around the Cades Cove loop road!

The loop road is an 11 mile scenic drive. It's one way and bikes are allowed. It was already almost 7 but the sun looked high in the sky and I decided I probably had enough time. It was a lovely ride! The loop road goes through the valley and past old settlements from before the park was established. There are mountains all around and the setting sun made it even nicer! There weren't a ton of cars, and I was the only biker. I did the whole loop and was back well before dark! There were a lot of hills, most of which kicked my out of shape, haven't ridden my bike since August butt! I am proud to say that I didn't get off and walk! The one thing that annoyed me is that the road is very narrow and the cars wouldn't pass me unless I pulled over and stopped. This was especially annoying on the hills when I was huffing it up with a car breathing down my back. In many cases though the passenger in the car had encouraging words for me when they passed me so that was nice! :-)

When I got back to the campground I met my neighbors, they are from Cincinnati and she teaches 4th grade! Very nice people! We chatted for awhile until it was good and dark then retreated to our campers!