A rainforest in the middle of North Carolina.
That’s how one park ranger described the Smokies, at least parts of it.
“Up top [on the mountain], it rains 80 more days out of the year, compared to down here.”
We’re at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The center is technically in North Carolina, but if you jog up the road, you’ll be in Tennessee.
The northern edge of the park is oddly situated between the Vegas-like tourist town of Gatlinburg and the misty hills of the Smoky Mountains. It’s both a blessing and a curse: if you’re ever in need of gear, or a hot shower, it’s less than a 10 minute drive to town. But if you’re seeking solitude, expect the trails (especially the parking lots near the front of the park) to be crowded with dayhikers and tourists.
On a Wednesday in early March, I didn’t expect to feel like a tourist – especially in the offseason. But, as you’ll find in any new place, both experienced travelers and tourists share the same curiosities.
Both have the power to ruin morale, transform a 14-mile hike into a sloggy marathon, and fill boots and dampen socks.
“You must get this question a lot,” I said, “but where in the park will I find the best views?” Immediately I knew I wasn’t going to get a specific answer.
“I’ve hiked every trail in the park three times,” the park ranger replied. “and let me tell you, all of it is beautiful.”
There’s some satisfaction in that – the reassurance that we’re surrounded in Kodak-moment-type scenery. Anxious to hit the trail (and possibly catch some morning views), my friend Jarrell and I sped off to the trailhead.
The two things I remember most about my brief time in the smokies, are: 1. The water and 2. The wet. They’re similar: one is the cause and the latter is the result. But they’re both seemingly harmless, yet, as I’ve learned, both have the power to ruin morale, transform a 14-mile hike into a sloggy marathon, and fill boots and dampen socks. The wet (and everything that comes with it) is a simple test of mother nature; a test to see just how far you’re willing to go.
Three miles into the hike of Mt. Leconte, we had our first test. The rain fell straight down on us, unswayed by wind. After fifteen minutes, our gear was soaked through. The trail at Grotto Falls follows behind the waterfall, and It had rained so hard that the trail had flooded (we would have to swim in ice water up to our chests). The decision was easy: no swimming today. We found another way across – via a perfectly placed log that led right into (what it seemed like) some undiscovered brush, or, as Jarrell put it, “Some Bear Grylls shit.”
We crossed the log, and you could feel the cold air that seems to rush on top of the water, like an invisible air current, all of it carrying forward, spraying you in the face.
It was hard to stay cheery in these conditions. After a few hours, our moods changed for the worse. Now and then, I tried to give an enthusiastic “woo!” to lighten our spirits, but we both knew I wasn’t that excited about my wet clothes and the mud that coated our boots. We trudged on to the top of Mt. LeConte.
After a cold night and some morale boosters (warm food), we were rewarded with some awesome views on our descent.
“It’s like a Backpacker Magazine ad,” we’d say when we came across the pristine looking trail. Everything was dry and sunny – the total opposite of the grey and wet of the day before.
I remember cursing the rain, cursing at the wet and the situation we were in. But if it weren’t for these two – the backpacker’s enemies – would the second day have been as sweet? Would we appreciate the sun and the dryness (we jumped around the trail like idiotic schoolgirls, excited over sunbeams) as much as we did?