On most occasions, crowds complement the most impressive places in the Smokies/Blue Ridge region, and especially so on Labor Day weekend. Traveling to the southern Appalachians on that holiday weekend, the objective in my mind was simple. I wanted to experience some terrific sights without sharing them alongside oppressive crowds. With that aim, I did some research and forged a plan to do things a bit unconventionally with respect to the masses.
My first destination was the popular Newfound Gap inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and already it seems like a major contradiction to the thesis of this trip. But the gap was still and quiet as I arrived in total darkness, soon to embark on the trail. There was a purpose for starting out so early, and that was to see the sunrise from Charlie’s Bunion four miles to the north. I figured a start just before 5:00 AM would get me there in sufficient time, and that perhaps I could catch a quick nap before my beginning step on the northbound Appalachian Trail. But as circumstance would have it, I got to the trailhead right around 4:40 AM after a night of solid driving. Once I added a few minutes to pack some gear, a hike on the heels of an all-nighter was in the cards.
My outbound views to the Bunion extended merely to the range of my artificial light. Most of the time, the mist in the air reflected back a fair amount of it. There were a few onsets of soft showers from above and a gradual increase of faint sunlight from the east. Within perhaps the last half-mile to my destination, the visibility was enough to put my flashlight away and rely on the skies. From atop Charlie’s Bunion, I was treated to one terrific Smokies vista illuminated by the soft light of dawn. The smoky horizons were surely limited, but I could see enough to capture an appreciation of the rugged Tennessee topography on the west side. The slopes here are atypically steep compared with most of the Smokies, such that the views are focused down into the valleys rather than across them. This small knob is quite a lofty perch.
North from Charlie's Bunion.
Haze soon descending west into Tennessee.
A Jumpoff into the haze on Mount Kephart.
So as it turned out, I was rewarded highly for my nighttime outbound hike. After an hour enjoying the scenes of the Bunion and its immediate area, I made the relatively short trip south and west to the Jumpoff on Mount Kephart. The Jumpoff is virtually a sheer cliff, the most extreme of the slopes west from Charlie’s Bunion. But in the time I spent moving to it, a blanket of foggy haze managed to choke the views from the entire area. Standing on the precipice, I was still able to get a thrilling sense of the void beneath me. Somewhere through that wall of fog, a long way down, was the floor of the valley.
It was during my quick transit to Mount Kephart that I finally encountered some other hikers. Predictably, I crossed paths with several more on my return over the spine of the Smokies to Newfound Gap. In daylight, this felt like an entirely new trail to me. Through the occasional tree gaps on the east side, some fair peeks into the North Carolina valleys may be had on clearer days. However, they were available this morning only to those who started out from Newfound Gap in the night.
Since it was still morning and I was in the area, I thought I would take the detour to the park’s highest mountain, Clingmans Dome. I had been here in the past, but never on a day when the prevailing haze was absent. The paved walkway is not as effortless as one may expect. A solid half-mile of steep grade was enough to make my legs burn and clutter the benches with tourists catching their collective breaths. That familiar haze from the tower itself was as impenetrable today as it could be; I did not even bother with the camera. I returned from the tower to a parking lot growing fuller with each passing minute. The holiday rush had arrived to the national park; it was time for me to move along. Where the Newfound Gap Road reaches the end of the national park, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins. Before it twists northeast to Virginia, the parkway turns several miles to the southeast, a direction conveniently in line with my next desired stop. It seemed as if the task of getting to the South Carolina Blue Ridge would be a pleasurable treat in itself.
A sampling of things you miss without venturing into the wilderness.
Oconaluftee River Overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Everything was fine while I was out and about on the Smokies’ trail network, but as I settled lifelessly into the driver’s seat, my energy hit a wall in quick time. The all-nighter had caught up with me. At the first parkway overlook I visited, I felt compelled to jog around in an effort to boost my energy level. This helped for a mile or two, and soon I developed a pattern of stopping for a similar bit of exercise at each overlook I reached. It was not easy, but I made it to the homestretch near the “Blue Wall” of South Carolina. For a moment, the toughest work seemed to be behind me, but then things got tougher.
Upstate South Carolina had been under siege late this particular summer by excessive rainstorms and flooding. The state parks at Caesars Head and Jones Gap were juggling partial trail closures, and in the weeks ahead, I had been in contact with the parks to assure entry to the Mountain Bridge Wilderness. Earlier in the week, I received confirmation that most of the areas were accessible at that time. But in the present, just a few miles from the wilderness, the road was closed. I was sent off on an interminable detour through the rural Carolinas. The detour exceeded twenty, thirty, perhaps forty miles on tedious, narrow two-lane roads. Isolated patches of random heavy rain slowed me a little further. As the time mounted, I increasingly worried that I had missed a detour sign. At some point, I entered South Carolina, but I had no idea when or where. The act of staying awake took much of my focus. When I eventually re-connected with Highway 276, on the other side of the highway closure around the park areas, my awareness was in rough shape. Once I almost pulled out in front of someone, my continuation went from being silly to flat-out irresponsible. I had to find a place to rest.
Ramsey Creek Falls in Oconee County, South Carolina.
Rapids of the Chauga River in Chau Ram Park.
As heavy rain was drifting through the mountains, I went west toward the Sumter National Forest along the Georgia border. I even considered a hotel at this point - I was that tired - but I would not have found an open one anyway. In the small town of Clemson, traffic was at a standstill. What was going on here? It was a college football game between Clemson and Georgia, set to begin in a couple of hours. ESPN College Gameday was there to hail it as the nation’s marquee game of the week, as were nearly 100,000 other fans. That is about seven times the city’s summer population, so law officers were everywhere directing traffic. I was petrified about drifting off or doing something erratic behind the wheel. There was nowhere to hide here. I escaped the traffic westward and eventually reached a sign pointing to Oconee County’s Chau Ram Park, on the Chauga River. In short order, I entered the park and gleefully paid the park fees to set up my tent in their busy developed campground, something I would otherwise avoid at all costs.
Setting up my tent gave me another second wind (or a fifth wind by now) to hike around. The park had a couple of neat sights along the river, particularly some rocky cascades and rapids. I snapped some pictures and grabbed a souvenir rock from the west bank along one of the rapids, but I barely hiked more than a mile. My sleep deprivation was somewhere past thirty-five hours now, and I was not going to wait for thirty-six. It was early evening, time for dinner at the other campers’ picnic tables, time for me to finally lie down.
Bartram Trail, North Carolina
With this being a developed county park, there was no shortage of rambunctious children running around, but nothing could keep me from sleeping for the next half-day. Sometime after 7:00 the next morning, I stopped hibernating, packed my things, and continued west. Today, I was looking for access to the Bartram Trail.
William Bartram was a familiar name in his day, the late eighteenth century. Bartram traveled throughout today’s southeast United States before they were fully organized political entities, and he wrote a book about it. During one stretch of his travels, Bartram navigated Cherokee trading paths along the general route followed by the present-day trail. By all accounts I could find, this trail was an overshadowed gem of the South, and I was excited to spend a day exploring it.
South of Big Scaly Mountain on the Bartram Trail.
Summit rock exposures on Big Scaly.
In the wealthy Georgia village of Sky Valley, I searched for access to a stretch of trail by Rabun Bald. Sky Valley’s roads twist and turn pretty dramatically, and the morning’s dense fog obscured the periphery around them. I drove for a while and did not see any turn to Rabun Bald, but after a while I did see a sign for Hale Ridge Road, which intersected the trail somewhere. Hale Ridge Road took me past a vague “state line” sign with the dim sun to my right, and in that manner I stumbled upon North Carolina and shortly thereafter the main highway I initially came from. How did I get here? I deliberated a bit in an abandoned lot before I simply gave up and headed for another trailhead just a mile east. The trail intersected this road just as it was beginning to climb Big Scaly Mountain standing high to the north. It seemed like a nice place to wander the woods.
Now if I had any developing questions about my navigational capacity, I was about to affirm them in the most embarrassing way. I took my walking sticks, marched into the forest, and immediately followed the wrong trail. Of course, at the time, I was unaware of it. For a good fifteen minutes, I slipped and clawed my way directly up the mountainside, which was pragmatically too steep to tackle in such a manner. It was a very well-worn trail to start with, but it seemed to vanish after a while. I even met a nice couple higher up the trail that was trying to navigate the same route. Our collective confidence was mutually assuaged by finding company in the same mistake. We slid back down to find the correct Bartram Trail, and I promptly left my new friends in my wake. At the top of Big Scaly, there were some pleasant sights toward Sky Valley. They were best enjoyed from one of the several south-facing rock exposures that peppered the summit area. The horizons from here were "a world of mountains piled upon mountains," as Bartram wrote. Big Scaly was a nice and quick hike, just under an hour going up and another going down.
From Jones Knob in the Fishhawk Mountains.
First view of Whiterock Mountain, north of Jones Knob.
The main attraction to the Bartram Trail, at least in my expectations, lied a few miles farther north in the Fishhawk Mountains. I was prepared for the little bit of extra work needed to get to the Jones Gap trailhead, and the travel consisted of pretty standard forest roads - with one notable exception. Specifically, it was the steepest section of road I have ever driven upon. It caught me fully by surprise - a sharp slope of slippery gravel with a ninety-degree turn that quashed my momentum to a halt. Here I lost traction and began to glide back down the hill, all while feathering the throttle in a state of subdued panic. Once I steered my back end into one of the side walls to stop, I was able to regroup and launch an ultimately successful run to the top of the hill. Two additional miles of forested road brought me to Jones Gap.
This section of the Bartram Trail skirts the ridge of the Fishhawks, where I expected to catch the best vistas of the weekend. Going north from the trailhead, I explored the first spur trail to Jones Knob. Just below the summit, I encountered my first grand views of the west side valley, but most striking to me were the bare slopes of Whiterock Mountain lying farther to the north. Whiterock lied just another mile or so ahead, and I hiked that next mile with great intrigue until I reached the scoured mountainside in person. The slopes extending south and west were giant slides of smooth, barren rock - an impressive novelty in this heavily-forested stretch of mountains. Boulders randomly clustered above the slide provided a nice set of perches for horizon panoramas. I took my fair share of snapshots before resuming my northward hike, fully anticipating a return here at dusk.
Summit rocks of Big Fishhawk Mountain.
At Wolf Rock Overlook on the Bartram Trail.
As I continued ahead, I was entering environments of further seclusion with each step; the chance encounters with other hikers were long gone. My trail morphed into a noticeably more rustic pathway through alternating sections of tall hardwood forest and spooky mountain laurel thickets. The vegetation in these thickets blocked the sounds of the breeze and also shielded a surprising amount of light; only nightfall itself could do better. On the steep spur trail ascent of Big Fishhawk Mountain, the highest point of the ridge, I toiled through a number of them. The high summit block was surrounded by trees, but there was a neat Bartram plaque affixed to the rock, so the detour was worthwhile. Beyond the Big Fishhawk was a southerly view from Wolf Rock. With the trail getting less navigable each successive mile, I chose to turn back at Wolf Rock. Whiterock Mountain was my clear choice for an overnight camp, and I found a fair spot just above the slide.
Mountain ridges west of Whiterock.
Looking south in the Fishhawks.
The evening sights from my perch on Whiterock were wonderful, with the classic Blue Ridge colors in the distance. Bartram himself described them as "the nearest ground to me a perfect full green, next more glaucous, and lastly almost blue as the ether with which the most distant curve of the horizon seems to be blended." As pleasing as they were, these evening sights paled in comparison to what I was about to see the next morning.
Waking up above an inversion in the Fishhawk Mountains.
Newborn rays of sunlight softly illuminated the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Fishhawk Ridge, and in the valleys underneath, a dense sheet of fog shrouded all the deep forests from view. It was an inversion of great magnitude that stretched to the horizon, creating a visual sea of mist randomly interrupted by islands of wooded mountain peaks. My first live view of such a sight stopped me in my tracks. At the expense of some tentative plans for the upcoming day, I lingered for a while, taking pictures with machine and mind. This was one of the most memorable sights I have had the privilege of seeing in my travels, and it came at a nondescript point on the map inside the Nantahala National Forest. Whiterock Mountain is truly a hidden gem.
Morning panoramas west of Whiterock Mountain.
Additional late morning views from Whiterock.
Chattahoochee National Forest, Georgia
Chattahoochee's Coosa Bald.
As the morning sun slowly went about brushing away some areas of valley fog, I eventually succeeded in peeling myself away from the scene to visit my next area of interest. Across Georgia’s state boundary in the Chattahoochee National Forest, there were an abundance of options for my third day. I selected a foray on the Duncan Ridge Trail, via the Coosa Backcountry Loop in rural Vogel State Park. Getting there was quite pleasing along the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, and even more so along a few miles of a hopelessly twisting section of state route 180 en route to the trailhead.
The Duncan Ridge Trail was billed as the most punishing trail in the state, at least according to what I had read beforehand. I did not have time for a backcountry sojourn, but I was committed to giving it a morning and a few miles. The approach on the Coosa Backcountry Loop was a very consistent uphill march over stony ground and under peaceful canopies. Just beside the summit to Coosa Bald, I joined the Duncan Ridge Trail itself to reach a bit of a buzzkill on the overgrown summit. No views were available from Coosa Bald in the height of growing season. There was a pair of exposed boulders to keep me occupied for a while, but little more. Going west from Coosa along the solitary Duncan Ridge, I descended steadily for nearly a mile without seeing much of interest. Given my time constraints on my last day, I chose to turn around here despite not experiencing the full flavor of the rugged ridge.
Amicalola Creek just downstream of the falls.
Peeking through the void above the edge of the falls.
After a return hike down the congested forest of Coosa Bald, I meandered my way west toward Amicalola Falls State Park as I initiated an unhurried departure from the Appalachians. There was nothing empty or less-traveled about this park - it was packed with visitors. I grabbed little more than my camera and a drink for a quick march to the falls on the Appalachian Approach Trail. As the paved walkway met a dense set of staircases, foreboding signs warned of six hundred steps to the top. This excited me because I thought the stairs might be devoid of the typical family tourists… but they were not. The stairways, or particularly the rest benches, were clustered with others who chose not to take the easy way out. I admire their spirit. Amicalola Falls was worth the trouble to reach up close. It is a terrific waterfall to behold, a wide curtain of whitewater draped over a tall monolith of stone. Even if it failed to fall within the scope of my trip, I was content with making it my finale. After finishing the last staircase on empty-minded muscle memory alone, I hiked back down the empty East Ridge Trail to the park entrance.
The cascading waters of Amicalola Falls in northern Georgia.
I had expended a lot of physical effort throughout this southern Appalachian holiday, so I felt entitled to gorge on large portions of pizza and ice cream on the drive back. It may not be how most people do it, but there is no right or wrong way, just your own.