Day 3 - Our First Hike

Trip Start Jun 10, 2012
Trip End Jun 16, 2012

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Where I stayed
Smokemont Campground

Flag of United States  , North Carolina
Tuesday, June 12, 2012

After getting a fantastic 9.5 hours of sleep in the tent (which kept us completely dry despite the rainy night!), I boiled up some water and readied some freeze-dried scrambled eggs. They were quite tasty, as all freeze-dried foods that I've had seem to be. On this day, the goal was to tackle Clingmans Dome and Andrews Bald. Clingmans Dome is on the NC/TN state line and is the highest peak in Tennessee. In fact, it's only a few feet short from being the highest peak east of the Mississippi (that honor belongs to Mount Mitchell in NC, off of the Blue Ridge Parkway). We drove around Cherokee for a few minutes to charge our phones and send a few texts, then we were on our way up the mountain.

Introduction to the Smokies
US-441 is the road to the Clingmans Dome parking lot, and boy was it steep. I kept a steady 40 MPH on the windy, somewhat steeply rising road. What it gains in elevation along the way, it also gains in scenery as you rise. We stopped at only one of the scenic pull-offs near the end of our journey, and it provided a very nice introduction to the Smokies. The panorama view from the small pull-off zone contained a scene of various peaks and separate mountains, all heavily wooded and showing multiple shades of green. At this time, the clouds were pretty heavy so we didn't quite get to see the Smokies in all their majesty. That would come later.

A couple minutes after our introductory panorama, we turned off of 441 onto Clingmans Dome road, which was a surefire cousin of 441 in that it twisted and inclined considerably over it's 7 miles. ~23 miles and 45 minutes later, we were sitting in the Clingmans Dome parking lot.

The Bald and The Dome (Must have been a folically challenged man who named these sights)
Hooray! 2 days of travel and finally it was time to hike! Tory and I loaded up my backpack nice and heavy so as to somewhat simulate the backpack I'll be wearing for a month come July in Wyoming. It's wasn't nearly as heavy as the 50 pounds I'll be carrying then, but the 20-25 pounds I had on that day was a start! 

The parking lot was full of families and tourists, more than I anticipated for a Tuesday morning. As such, we decided to go to Andrews Bald first, which was a 3.6 mile round-trip hike, in the hopes that it wouldn't be as crowded. Sure enough, we saw perhaps 25 people on our entire 2 hour round trip. I suppose most people fancy a 1 mile, paved, round-trip "hike" to the top of Clingmans Dome as opposed to 3.6 miles of hills and trails. Fine by me :).

Almost the entire way out on the trail to the Bald was downhill, which led Tory to quickly lament the inevitable uphill hike back. I'm such an evil big brother :). I kid though, she was a great companion on this trip and a real trooper. What other 17 year old would go hiking for 3+ days with her big brother, see some really cool sights, and be without her phone and internet for the majority of the day? I venture to say, not too many.

Seeing Andrews Bald in the distance as a speck of light at the end of the trail was a welcome sight. The view from the Bald was quite spectacular, both in the fact that it is a grassy, relatively flat area on top of a mountain, and for the scenic panorama it provided. By the time we got there, the clouds were finally starting to break and we could see about half the mountainscape around the Bald. This particular sight was even better than the view from the car pull-off we visited earlier, probably because it was at a higher elevation. After abusing the "Capture" button on our cameras and chilling out for a bit while munching on some peanut butter sandwiches, we made our way back up to the Clingmans Dome parking lot. And sure enough to Tory's dismay, the way back certainly was mostly uphill :).

Tory waited for me at the base of the hill to Clingmans Dome while I put away my heavy backpack, and we began the ascent. It was quite a steep hill for the general public. Many people were breathing quite heavily and lumbering slowly as I walked by. I found it a nice change of pace in really having to put effort into walking up a paved road. At the top of the 0.5 mile mountain path, there is an observatory to which you have to walk up another 100-200 feet, which led to this jocular conversation between me and the Little Sis.

Little Sis: "Oh no! I'm not going up that!"
Evil Big Brother: "Oh yes you are. As if we came all this way not to."
Little Sis: "I hate you!" (in jest of course, though every joke has a shred of truth)
Evil Big Brother: ::Heartily laughing as he begins to walk to the observatory with Tory in tow::
Unfortunately, the clouds had rolled back in by the time we got to the top of the observatory, so we couldn't really do any more sightseeing. However, being at 6,644 feet, we were at the elevation of some clouds, and as such were able to see them pass right around us (and in some cases, right through us!). Quite a neat experience. After Tory politely took a picture of me at the top of the observatory, we chilled out in the parking lot for a little bit to read and relax, then made our way into Gatlinburg, TN to look around.

A Quick Stop in Gatlinburg
As we were not quite ready to head back to the campsite for the rest of the day (it being around 3:30PM), we made our way to the town at the other side of US-441, Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The road was as steep going down to Gatlinburg as it was going up to Clingmans Dome. In fact, we had to stop the car at a pull-off as I saw smoke coming from one of my tires. Just what we needed, I thought, to be stuck on a two-lane road at the top of a mountain. AAA would have so much fun coming to get us, and all the people we'd inconvenience by being stuck in the road would no doubt bring candy as a sign of their understanding for our situation instead of showing us what a flipped bird looks like after it's been turned right-side up. Luckily, at the pull-off, A nice man came over and verified my suspicions, that the brakes had overheated, and recommended that we put the car into 2nd for the rest of the way down. Aha! So that's what the little "2" next to the "D" is :).

What made the drive more interesting was that road crews were working on a project which caused the already windy and slow two-lane road to become a one-lane road which had to be led by a pilot car. We waited about 30 minutes before the pilot car finished leading through the people at the other side of the road. But what better place to be stopped in that fashion than with a mountain vista directly to your left!

Once we made it to Gatlinburg, we noticed that we were quite famished, and made our way to the first place that wasn't a fast food establishment or an obvious, expensive tourist trap: The New Orleans Sandwich Co. It was still kind of expensive, but my Creole Ham sandwich was tasty and totally worth it. Tory got a breaded chicken sandwich and couldn't finish it, and naturally I was happy to help.

We didn't want to hack around Gatlinburg too much because we wanted to come back and spend the good part of a day there on Thursday. Therefore, after our yummy dinner, we drove back on 441 to the campground and got there around 8PM. After a couple hours of light reading and 2 games of War (in which we tied), it was time for bed. It's quite amazing how much earlier we went to sleep on this trip (on this night, bedtime was at 10:30, for example) since we didn't have phones or internet. The darkness dictated bedtime. In any case, we'd need the rest since on Wednesday, we planned to double our hike: An 8 mile round-trip to Charlies Bunion!
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