I had planned a 4 day solo hike to the Smokies to climb a few mountains. I had climbed many of the higher mountains (Blacks, Roans, Balsams) in NC many times but do not hike deep into the Smokies often. I began my 4 day hike out of Cataloochee and overnighted at Laurel Gap. The second day I climbed Yonaguska, Chapman, and Guyot; a 13 mile day with significant off trail. That night at Tri-Corner my Whisperlite generator died and I had to borrow an AT throughhikers to cook dinner. My final peak of the trip was Marks Knob.
I planned to summit Marks, then head down Roses Ridge down to McGee Springs, about 5 miles. I was hoping the ridge wouldn't be too overgrown and I'd be able to follow the old trail somewhat but in these mountains one never knows the vegetation thickness around the corner. The woods can be unbelievably thick, they can be an easy stroll. The old Hyatt Ridge trail to saddle with Mt Hardison is reasonably distinct and I easily summited. Marks Knob is a broad summit, has no view, littered with small blowdowns, but easily scampered about. Returning NE of the Marks summit I glanced down the ridge (SSE) at huge Rhododendron and gigantic evergreen blowdowns and started down.My destination point on the USGS Quad was spot elevation 5612. The blowdowns were big and the Rhododendron tall and thick. It was bad, it was bloody whicked. (What complicated this hike was the ridge was not a straight heading, it contoured SSE, then S, then SSE, and finally S to McGee Springs.)
South of the first swale(5508) and north of Roses Gap I luckily picked up the old trail that I followed to the beginning of the second drop (5485). (Calling it a trail is misleading, it was very overgrown but I could reasonably discern the treadway) At this swale, the headwaters of Thicket Branch, I was able to thankfully refill my Nalgenes. I began to descend east off the ridge toward Straight Fork before realizing my error. This drop, like the first, was just unreal thick. At times I thought if something happened I would never be found.I was crawling on my hands and knees or climbing over blowdowns and Rhodos. At times my feet never touched the ground. I then picked up the trail along the lower ridge toward McGee Springs. The last 1/4 mile was through open pine trees. Nine hours after leaving the Balsam Mt trail, I walked into McGee Springs. It was a very long day.
That night I was awakened by a thunderstorm at 4:30. After being unable to return to sleep, I packed and started off with my headlamp down to Round Bottom. Upon arriving at the Balsam Mt road, the day was lighting up and I took a break. I walked up the road, down Palmer Creek trail, and back to Cataloochee; 12.4 miles before noon. One very tough hike, 42 miles with 9 miles off trail. I wish I had pictures of the bushwhack but I doubt they would have done it justice. Bushwhacking in the east is a whole different ballgame than out west. Hikers from the western US have never seen woods as thick as they will see in spots in the Southeast.
(The topozone link is centered in the first swale on Roses Ridge.)
water, food, extensive bushwhacking experience, route finding ablility, excellent fitness, perserverance. The USGS 7.5 Quad for this bushwhack is Luftee Knob. You may want Mt Guyot also. The Trails Illustrated Great Smokies map is inadequate for this hike. I am not sure a GPS will work in woods this thick. The woods were so thick I had difficulty picking out the contours.
Anybody attempting this route should be aware of the difficulty of a rescue; even if you could be located. There is no cell service. This area is one of the most remote areas in the Smokies. In the SE I have been off trail throughout the mountains of NC, Tenn, Ky, WVa, and Va. This is the most difficult hike I have ever done.
When I finished this hike I thought over some things that I think should be added to this report when I wrote this web page. (I didn't think to add it until reading the Oct 2006 issue of Backpacker magazine.) I made campsite reservations and filled out my permit at Cataloochee. I wrote on the permit I would be going crosscountry from the Balsam Mountain trail to McGee Springs. I assumed this copy would be picked up. I did not leave a detailed intinerary with my wife. In retrospect I should have left her a little more information about my hike. I should have left a detailed note on the dashboard in my car. I should have called and left information with the backcountry office as this was a difficult hike. I did not do these things as I feel pretty confident of my crosscountry skills; however, I cannot control accidents, only my response to accidents. Happy hiking and be safe.
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