Monday, May 23, 2011

That time of the year...

Ah, the charms of North Carolina. Beach two hours away, mountains five hours away. Blue water calls loudly this time of the year, but, I am planning one more trip to the mountains in either June or July, then I have a Boundary Waters trip in Minnesota in the end of August.

In the meantime, enjoy the water everyone.

Happy Hiking


Monday, May 9, 2011

April Smoky Mountain Trip

Well, its been a week overdue, but I had nearly 600 pictures to go through, 20 videos and tons of laundry. Apparently, a weeks worth of hiking clothes = two weeks of laundry??? What???

Anyways, we had a great time, if not tiring.

On Day one, we went on Laurel Falls Trail

Day two saw us at Chimney Tops.

Day three held rain and cold for us on Clingman's Dome and Arch Rock.

Day Four we relaxed a bit in Gatlinburg.

Day Five we hiked up to Grotto Falls.

We camped in Greenbrier Island Campground, a wonderful campground for tents and RVs. It was the first serious trip with out pop-up, and we discovered a leak in the plumbing, but otherwise absolutely enjoyed sleeping next to some rapids.

I also reviewed two items I had purchased earlier and used quite a bit on this trip.

Tech 4 O Trailhead 1 Watch

Zamberlan 760 Steep Hiking Boots.

We enjoyed cooking out and I am already looking forward to getting back up to the Smokies.

Happy Hiking


Grotto Falls

After a day to recoup from the Clingman’s Dome disappointment and the migraine headache, a day spent walking slowly in Gatlinburg on a weekday, a wonderfully empty and quiet weekday, we had our last hike planned. Those same clouds were pouring over the mountain, after a night I had spent with my eyes on the radar as the Tornadoes that had womped on Alabama came into our area. The closest tore into Newport, TN, about 21 miles north. We just got a bunch of wind. Shook our Pop-up quite a bit.

So on that day, we joined our neighbour who was taking his kid as well and we went up to go see Grotto Falls. This would turn out to be our most enjoyable hike of the trip. First of all, the hike is short, only about 1.1 miles up to the falls, with only about 500 feet of elevation gained. So while it was uphill, it was a gentle uphill.

The trail can be reached by taking the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, a one way road into the mountains that link up with a bunch of trails and also offer a view into the homes and farms of the people that used to live in the mountains.

The hike itself up was windy and it threatened to rain multiple times. This time, we were prepared, good gear, warm clothes, our rain gear all ready on. The kids loved it. The boots were muddied and wet on this trail and we laughed it off as this was the last time wed be hiking. There were some people on the trail and we did notice evidence of the Llamas that are used to haul up supplies to Mt Leconte.

We reached Grotto Falls and immediately fell in love. The falls are very small, compared to other falls in the park, but they are delightful. The trail continues under the waterfalls as they fall into a nice small pool. The trail then continues up on its way up to Mt Leconte. In the meantime, the sky opened up and rained a bit, and then the sun came out. And with the sun came the life. The salamanders popped out from their rocks and laid wonderfully still for me to take their pictures. All sorts of bugs, pictured here, came out for their cameo on the Flunker Cam.

There is something magical about being able to walk behind a waterfall. I have added a video to see it, its really just a small little fall, but still, the magic is there.

Our trip down was pleasant, the sun full out and the bugs and birds all out enjoying the warmth.
On the way out of the motor trail, we stopped at a few of the farm houses. My first thought was, I could have built a better home than this. My second thought was, no, no I couldn’t.

Happy Hiking


Arch Rock

The third day of hiking greeted us with dark clouds pouring over the Greenbrier ridge just a few miles from our campsite. My first hope was that we would enjoy a cooler hike this day than the last couple of hikes we had enjoyed. The second thought though, was that we would be rained on. We had planned to go up to Clingman’s Dome so that the kids could check it out and then hike the AT a few miles in and then out. But we were about to witness just what the Smokies could do with weather.

As we took the road up the mountains, we watched the temperature gauge. At Gatlinburg, it was 81 degrees at 9 am. As we drove up the 15 miles up to the top, we kept watching it drop. By Chimney Tops trailhead, it was 72. By the Alum Caves trailhead, it was 67. At Newfound Gap, it was 52. We were dressed in shorts and had some long sleeve shirts and our rain gear. When we reached Clingman’s Dome, the gauge read 48. That was quite a drastic change. We got out, but we quickly realized there was no way that the kids were going to enjoy this. Not only was it chilly, but it was drizzling and you could see maybe 100 feet ahead of you. There were going to be no views this time. I told my wife and kids to stay in the truck and I would haul up to the Dome to see if I could get a lucky shot. I didn’t. On the way back down, it started to sleet. Yes, ice was falling on me. Our trip on the AT just got changed.

So we had to re think this. We took out the map and looked at the trails near us, and we remembered that it was a nice warm 68 at the Alum Bluff Caves trail, a popular trail, but long enough we hoped it wouldn’t be swamped with people. We drove down, warming up to a wonderful 68 degrees, but cloudy. This was going to be an interesting day. It was at that point that I began to feel the tinges of a migraine.

I suffer from migraines. It’s my thorn in the flesh. It’s a huge thorn too. But, there are a few things that can help relieve them. Oddly enough, those same things that can relieve them, sex and vigorous exercise, can also make them explode in pain. So here I was, munching on a PBJ by the creek next to the trail and wondering what to do. As always, I picked the wrong choice, and decided to hike.

Despite the ever growing pain in my temples and neck, the trail is absolutely gorgeous. Huge trees make the trail into a wooded tunnel, with a creek crashing by right next to it. But as we went, I knew there was no way we could go too far before Id need to get back. So we decided to make it to Arch Rock. Im glad we did. It was a truly unique mark on the trail and the trail crosses a bridge and then cuts into the rock and up into the mountain. We also got lucky. Having drizzle hitting us all the way up to the Arch, as soon as we got in it,

the heavens opened and it started pouring very heavily. Thankfully, we remained dry under the mountain. We had a snack and as soon as they weather cleared, I packed the kid into the pack and hauled tail. I covered 1.3 miles in about 18 minutes. It was about as fast as I could go without running and slipping on all the roots and rocks.

We made it back to camp, somewhat wet, sore, in pain. But, we got a glimpse at this trail and I am certainly going to hike it up all the way to the top.

Happy Hiking


Chimney Tops

Our hikes this week would always involve little ones. My daughter is 8 and can hike nearly anything I can, just not for as long, and my two year old son will certainly try and can hike quite a bit, just at a far slower pace than I would by myself. Therefore, we would have to be limiting our hikes to 5 miles at the most. We also wanted challenging hikes. These two criteria would be found in the hike up to Chimney Tops.

Chimney Tops is a dual set of rock peaks that are opposite of Mt Leconte. It’s one of the few rocky peaks in the Smoky Mountains. Because of its location, it offers really good views into Tennessee, Mt Leconte and beyond. The last part of the hike involves actually scaling the rocky peaks and that aspect is quite attractive to so many different people. For us, we just wanted the rough challenge while keeping it within what my kids could do. It is located on highway 441, the main road that goes up and over the top of the mountains. There is a small parking area for the trail, but there’s plenty of space around it to park.

The trail is actually two sections. The first .9 miles are a smooth uphill that crosses the same stream three times over nice wooden bridges. At about half a mile up, you open up into this meadow that at the time we hiked through it, was absolutely covered in white flowers (waiting for someone to identify for me).

It was like walking into a white carpeted room. The pictures I have simply do not do it justice. You only gain about 360 feet in this first mile, so its quite a leisurely hike. My two year old did this section no problem.

After the first mile and crossing the last bridge, the trail forks. Going east, one can take the Fork Prong trail up to the AT. It’s about 2.3 miles straight up. I most certainly want to do that section sometime in the future. To the south, the Chimney Tops trail goes straight up. From here, we gain over 1400 feet in 1.1 miles. What’s worse is, that after about .3 miles, the trail follows an old stream bed. Rock after rock greet your tired legs with each step up. About halfway up, while my two year old was still doing everything on his own, I picked him up and threw him in my carrier so that we could make it up before nightfall.

On our slow way up, we passed many unprepared people, many who had given up after maybe .2 miles of that trail. It is quite the hike, but made enjoyable by the fact that a stream runs down right alongside the trail. Every .2 miles or so, we would stop, splash some cold water on our necks and shirts, and keep going. At about .8 miles, it flattens out quite a bit and then you follow the ridge out to the actual Chimney Tops.

On this day, it was quite windy, and I simply wasn’t going to attempt to scale the rocks all the way to the top. Instead, my daughter and I scaled them halfway up to a point where the wind wasn’t hitting as hard and where we could sit comfortably. She had her nice binoculars while I pulled out my camera. Jess and Chris sat back at the feet of the rocky peak snacking on some treats.

The view is great and I really wish I could have scaled up to the top. On a future trip, I promised my daughter we would.

We did meet some interesting people though. A couple, whose woman had never really hiked before, decided to go out our youngest child’s pace. She made it up and was happy she did. We met an Indian couple whose wife had hiked up in flip flop type sandals, carrying a small child. On the way down we met a couple from Louisiana, they had 7 children (none on this trip) and they still were planning on going as far up as they could.

The way down actually proved harder on our legs than going up. That section on the old stream bed was quite difficult, and my daughter collected the first two of her many bruises from those rocks. We did stop at the first bridge crossing and took a quick dip into the frigid stream waters. We cooled our legs off there before finishing off the trail back to the truck. Out of those brutal four miles, my two year old (ok, hes almost three actually) did 3.2 of them. We were all quite tired out, but looking forward to some more hikes. Sadly, the next day would prove to be our worst hiking day.

Happy Hiking


Laurel Falls

Having arrived there late in the morning, earlier than we had expected, we set out to find something simple we could do. It was a warm afternoon, in the mid 80s, so something with water would make the experience more enjoyable. We picked the Laurel Falls trail.

This trail is a paved trail, the only paved trail, off of the road between the Sugarlands visitor center and Cades Cove. It does offer a parking lot, but beware, it’s practically always full. This was a Saturday, and it was in the afternoon. Well, we did come for a hike, so we parked about a half mile away and walked up to the trail. It was so busy there they had three park rangers attempting to guide traffic and help people park.

The actual trail is 1.3 miles up along a paved path. They say paved, but I found this “feature” not to my liking at all. It’s full of “potholes” and downright uneven in so many places.

I much would have preferred mud, or gravel, or even an old creek bed. I know why they paved it, but if you’re going to do that, then keep it up. I have no idea how a wheelchair can make it up this thing with any ease.

That being said, the trail is simple enough. There is a rise of about 320 feet through moderately dense forest. The falls themselves are beautiful, with two distinct layers, and a concrete bridge crossing over the highest part. If you like, you can scale down to the second part below and sit and relax, as we did.

My daughter even attempted to follow me out to a rock I was sitting on, slipped and enjoyed a refreshing bath in Smoky Mountain waters.

There are plenty of rocky formations along the trail that offer great picture places. There is also one lesser waterfall about halfway up that allows for the younger ones to crawl all over it without overt danger to their beings.

Overall, this is a nice little trail; just don’t go on it if you want some solitude. It took us about 1.5 hours to go up and down (we did sit in the waterfall for about 25 minutes) and I counted almost 200 people. With this comes the usually trash you encounter on a heavy path like this. I picked up about 10 empty or near empty water bottles that had been tossed to the side. Hit this trail early on a weekday morning, and it’ll be quite enjoyable.

Happy Hiking


Tech 4 O Trailhead 1 Watch

Again, this equipment review comes from the fact that my current wristwatch finally went kaput. But as I was researching a new wristwatch, it came to me that perhaps I could get something a bit more than just a watch. At first, I looked at those gps watches to keep track of where I was and how far I had hiked, but, I simply didn’t need to know exactly where I was, and the battery times of those gps watches was usually quite low. What I simply needed was a watch that did all the watch stuff, but that had a way to keep track how far I had gone. I found that, and more, in the Trailhead 1 watch.

This watch is larger than most, so be warned. If you’re a fan of tiny watches, this is not this. Despite this, it fits well on my wrist. The wristband has several notches to help fit any size.
The mile tracker on it works like a charm. It doesn’t rely on gps but on an accelerometer, and on flat land, it works to .002 of a mile precise. Doing uphill and downhill hikes, it’s more like .1 miles off, but this can be adjusted by changing your stride. It’s still more than useful to know where you are at, how far you have gone, your pace and your hiking time. It is EXACTLY what I needed, and the battery lasts for 3-4 years, just any normal watch.

Additionally, you get an altimeter, which was fun to use on our hikes. It also has a barometer and provides temperature readings. The temperature is only accurate while off the wrist, which is something that I don’t think will ever be worked out. It works great at night though. I’d hang it up in the hammock and see just how cold it got at night.

All other watch aspects are available. Timer, chronometer, alarms and multiple times are all there. The special features take some time to setup and calibrate, but once it’s all set, everything works within a few quick and easy button pushes.

I am quite happy with this watch and highly recommend it to fellow hikers that just need a simple way to keep track of mileage.

Happy Hiking

Zamberlan 760 Steep Hiking Boots.

Along with the many trail reviews for this trip, I also review some new equipment that I had to buy. My old Merrell boots had finally bit the dust when on one trail hike in the beginning of spring I felt a few rocks right through the sole. Not good. So it was time to invest in a new pair of boots. Now, the previous pair had lasted me six years of heavy duty. With shoes, it has always been my reasoning that I can afford to pay extra for good shoes/boots because they will last this long. After much review reading, I came up with the Zamberlan 760 Steep.

The boot is quite expensive compared to other pairs, but so far, it has been worth it. The boots have a more traditional footing, with a higher heel than many other hiking boots Ive worn in the past. At first, it was somewhat awkward wearing the boots, but as I started hiking in them, that feeling quickly vanished and I was instantly converted to this kind of boot.

The boots are incredibly comfortable, despite looking horribly rugged and rigid. The soles are Vibram, and I had practically no issues in walking over wet slick stones in the streams up in the Smoky Mountains. The boot is made out of Italian leather, yet my feet remained quite cool. It is of course water proof, and having that higher sole enabled me to splash across shallow creeks without having to worry too much about getting my feet wet.

One of the great features on this boot is the bend around the ankle. Instead of being completely bound in leather, around the ankle there is a short cut in the leather which allows the ankle to bend quite freely while still remaining strongly bound. At no point did I feel completely stiff and rigid within the boots.

Id also like to point out that the boots required absolutely no breaking in. I got absolutely no blisters or sore spots. The large toe box is also a wonderful part of the boots. Going downhill, your feet simple don’t slide forward and crush your toes as some other boots have done to me. This makes going down steep hills a far less painful experience.

The only con comes from its build. If youre not used to having higher ankle boot ties then your ankles are going to feel bound. This is probably only a problem if you wear lower cut boots or ankle free boots (are these really boots?). The price is also going to be quite a put back, you will probably spend at least 250 dollars for this pair of boots. For me, this pair could easily last 1500-1700 miles. Thats a lot of hiking time for me.

Happy Hiking

Monday, May 2, 2011

So Much...

Got alot to process here. Around 400 pictures and a couple of videos. I have 4 trail reviews to write as well as equipment reviews Id like to write about. All of this will be put together with a general review of the trip up to the Smokies. Some pictures turned out great, especially the tiny fauna I saw. Soon...

Happy Hiking,