Smokys and the Eclipse
A little about this trip.
The solar eclipse occurs every 70 years, and this year on August 21, it would cross over the Smoky Moutains. Two things: My birthday is on Aug 21, and I haven’t been to the Smokys. I had this trip planned for over a year. The time came around, and I took a week off to go do it. My buddy, Chris, and I grew up together and he joined me on this venture.
Tent, Sleeping bag, Sleeping pad, Head lights, Stove, Hiking Boots, Wool Socks, Quick dry clothing, Raincoat, Rain cover for bag, Camera w/extra lens, Freeze dried food, Trail Mix w/peanut M&Ms, Granola Bars, Toiletries, Toilet Paper, Small spade for pooping, Pot (cooking), Kettle, French Press, Coffee, Whiskey, Chemical water purifier tablets, AND Solar Eclipse Glasses.
Things I didn’t need to bring:
I should put whiskey here, but I’m not. We enjoyed our few slugs down the hatch before we went to bed at 8PM (we were sooo tired after hiking ALL day!).
Alright so packing list complete. Now time for the navigational aspect of trekking. Booking shelters and campsites, and getting the most out of our time.
They were closing Clingman’s road for the three days while we would be hiking in the park. Not a huge deal, but it limited parking spots, and made our last hike back to the car pretty strenuous. Total of fourteen hours of trekking back to the car, followed by a nine hour road trip back to Chicago.
I made the routes, and made the reservations. We were packed. We hit the road.
I drove down to Chicago to pick Chris up. We loaded up the car, and the 9 hour journey down to the Smokys was on. It was Thursday morning, and the eclipse wasn’t until Monday at 2:30PM.
The road trip down was fun. We stopped in a Target somewhere in southern Indiana to buy the spade for pooping and duct tape, because, it’s duct tape.
Grabbed a couple coffees and back on the road.
We were making good time. Listening to music, and bantering back and forth over who the best team in baseball was. Making predictions for the future playoffs. I played division III baseball, and he played club baseball in college. I still don’t know who’s team would have beat who, but it’s always fun to think about.
Chris is a very competitive person, which would help on the hike, and sometimes hurt. Honestly, if you go trekking with someone while climbing 3000’ in altitude for 8 miles, with 65 lb packs on your back, you start to wonder who you really are.
Getting into the town of Jacksonville, we could feel the Smokys beginning to surround us. Entering Knoxville through the hills, and the long winding turns led us into the Appalacians. It was gorgeous. We were starting to get excited.
Neither of us had ever done something like this before.
One of the fun quirks about Jacksonville heading into town are all of the billboards. It’s as touristy as they can squeeze into one small space. Including Dolly Parton’s Doll House. Place was packed when we saw it during the day. When we drove into town, it was getting on 9PM.
So many of the billboards described seeing bears, and to watch out. We joked about it, and never thought there’d be a chance we see one.
Welp, we were wrong. There was one waiting for us at our hotel. We stayed at a place with the rooms on the outside, and heading to them, a black bear named Beast was getting into the trash. Bad habits, and the owner needs to be more careful to bear proof those dumpsters. Bad habits aren’t healthy for those guys.
We planned on waking up around 6AM to ensure we’d get a parking spot. Once we got settled, we headed out into the touristy part of town to one of their breweries. Fun seeing other hikers out and about. We had two beers each, and got some restless sleep before we ventured out into the park.
We both woke up pretty spry, and ready to get after it. It was drizzling on us as we walked to the car. Other fellow hikers were preparing their cars as well. Chris and I did a good job of having things ready to go, ven with that giant bear thirty feet from the car from the previous night.
With each swipe of the wiper, seeing out a clear window for a brief moment, gave us hope that we could do the same.
It was barely light out. Visibility was fairly low. We entered the Smoky Mountain Nat’l Park, and it was like a sensation of excitement covered over us. Mountains sprang up on each side of us. Cliffs opened up over the sides, and spectacular views of North Carolina and Tennessee sprang before us.
We slowed to each sign, to ensure we didn’t miss our parking spot. We ended up choosing a spot that was pretty central.
The first day was to hike from Newfound Gap Trailhead, all the way up to Mt. LeConte shelter. The next day, would be back down the mountain through Alum Cave, hitch hike back to the car, reload, and head out to our next shelter. The next shelter was once again from Newfound Gap trailhead to Mt. Collins Shelter. Then onwards to backcountry campsite #67 for two nights. Watch the eclipse without having to think of a hike that day. Mt Collins reserved again in case we need it, but try to hike back to the cars on a 14 hour trek. That was the plan. It didn’t work out : p
We found a spot! There were lots of spots. DIdn’t have to freak out on getting their early. They were expecting record numbers that weekend for the eclipse, but maybe Friday morning was a good day to begin.
The rain had stopped, we threw on our packs, and we headed out of the parking lot to the trailhead. There’s no better feeling that the feeling of hitting the dirt of the trail you’re embarking upon. It’s awesome.
We were in good spirits, and mostly just laughed about what we were doing. We thought it was pretty wild we actually went on the trip. I was planning to go regardless. For Chris to go, was an added bonus.
What’s trekking the Smokys like?
You tromp along, and every so often remind yourself to look around. So much of it is taking step by step, and looking down to make sure you don’t loose your footing or trip over the root of a tree.
The trail maintenance of the Smokys is superb. Clearly marked, and even some railings and wooden steps to help you along.
We made it to a couple diversion trails. We thought about taking them, but with the weight on our backs (my fault), we could get to them. It was the Bunion Loop, and Look Out Point. Two great options if you have time.
We were three hours into our hike when we came to our first sign.
4 - Mt Collins.
“Is that kilometers, or miles?”
“I think it’s miles dude,” Chris responded.
Yep, it was four more miles straight up hill.
The rain started again.
We put on our rain coats, and rain covers for our bags, and trekked on. As strange as it was, this was when the hike started to become magical.
The Smoky Mountains are a deciduous rain forest. This means it’s within a temperate climate, and with the mountain ranges placed the way they are, it traps the moisture from the gulf. Rarely do you get a dry day hiking through the Smokys.
The terrain became more green, and more saturated. Moss was growing everywhere. Ferns covered the forest floor. Massive trees seemed to be floating in mid air looking out over the mountains within a cloud. Wild flowers in August were blooming beautiful blues. Mushrooms was a perfect red top were striking against the pure green background.
We trekked through two hours of rain, and started to get to the top. We stopped once we found a nice view, and sat down for a while. Bags were heavy. But the scenery was beautiful.
Another mile, and we made it to the shelter.
First shelter mate met: Tory
Tory is the fucking man. From the east coast, Tory had a story for everything. Seriously. He didn’t stop talking, and always had an amazing hiking story he could share with us. He’s hiked everywhere in the US.
Also helped me with a few pointers. How to hang the Bear Food Sacks. How useful a clothes line is. Know what stove to buy for next time. I learned so much from this guy. I felt pretty dumb looking at all my packing mistakes. It didn’t bother me though. I was in the Smokys and having a blast.
Chris and I ate mashed potatoes, and chicken that night. Just add boiling water, seal, and stir after five minutes. Thanks NASA!
We offered a sip of whiskey to Tory, but he declined. We went to sleep early, and slept a solid 12 hours. That’s one thing we learned. Sleeping is great while hiking.
We woke up, and thought otherwise to make coffee. Just hit the trail, and get to moving. We said our goodbyes to Tory, and headed back down the mountain.
The Alum Cave Trailhead is possibly the most popular day hikes in the park, so we saw a lot of people coming up the hill. People marveled at the size of our packs, and what we were carrying.
“How long you guys been out on the trail?”
Ha! It must have seemed like months with all the gear we had. Jeez…
Coming back down was beautiful.
We got back to the car, used the restroom, and headed back out into the mountains for our next shelter.
This was when we hit a snag.
We realized the packs we had were really heavy. We had to stop once every half hour to rest. Granted this was a straight 3000’ incline, and we already hike 3 hours that day. We had another five in front of us.
I told Chris I’d think about turning back.
He assured me he was good to go either way, and he trusted my decision.
Damnit I thought. How could I have misjudged the weight this badly. I never thought 65 lbs was heavy. Until I’m walking up hill for five hours…
The trail was gorgeous once again.
We got to our next shelter and met some fascinating trekkers apart of a hiking club. They meet once a month, they all have hiking nicknames (Queen B, 7-up, Frisbee). But they were inspirational! They barely had any weight on them, and they tried to get as many miles as they could within a day. It sounded amazing! They finished that day with 20 miles, and one of them carried on for an extra 10!
One of the funnest aspects of the trail was meeting the people along the way. So fascinating.
The nail in the coffin came when we were talking about the weather upcoming for the eclipse. A lot of people were hiking further west for the eclipse than we were heading. The campsite I chose was down in a river gorge. One of the reasons I chose the site, was because of the proximity to the stream for water. They we would hike to Andrew’s Bald to see the eclipse. They told us it was forecasted for clouds.
We woke up the next morning, and I rolled over in my sleeping bag to face Chris.
“Chris, let’s head back to the car today. It’s too much to hike on, get back to the car, and there’s a chance of clouds. THe last forecaset showed all sun for Carbondale. Let’s head up that way. Can stop in Nashville if want.”
Chris was fine with the idea, and reaffirmed he could carry on if I wanted to, but ultimately thought it was a good idea to head back.
The elephants were retiring…
We got back to the car and took off.
All hotels booked in Nashville. Nothing in Carbondale. We called a campsite somewhere in Kentucky.
“Sure. Just drive in and camp anywhere you’d like.”
It was music to our ears. We stopped at a gas station, picked up a twelve pack, grabbed some ice, and set up our giant drive in tent over looking vast canvass of stars in Kentucky. It was perfect.
The next day was ECLIPSE DAY!!!
We packed up, and headed to a spot on the map that would have the sun cross the moon in 100% totality.
We parked on the road next to a farm, and a house being built. We were three hours out, and no sign of anyone yet. The town was passed through was getting ready for the crowds. University of Illinois was hosting an alumni event, and parking lots were taking over local grocery stores and banks.
A neighbor saw us parked on the road. I attached the tarp from the car to the ground to create a small tent to keep us out of the sun. She drove up to us, and invited us to their barbecue going on later that day. We declined but thanked her. Sometimes random strangers can amaze you.
The people that owed the house that was being built also came up to us. He was driving a fourwheeler, and also invited us to watch with them. We declined. We waved to his friends that pulled into the driveway behind us.
It was a perfect spot.
There happened to be a little pond across the street from us as well. As the eclipse began, the amphibians perked up their sounds, and engulfed us with a chorus of chirps and croaks . A blue hue blanketed across the landscape. Chills overcame my body. Screams from the neighbors rose up. Chris and I just kept shooting with our cameras. It was amazing.
A really sweet, birthday weekend.