Hiking the Smokey Mountains: The Cataloochee Divide Loop

Cataloochee Divide Trail Loop

We went on quite the last minute adventure this weekend. It’s one I’ll never forget. Thanks to Hurricane Matthew our original plans for the holiday weekend came to a quick halt. But we weren’t going to let that stop us from having fun. In an abrupt turn of events, Michael and I made a split decision to drive up to the Smokey Mountains for the weekend and complete a sixteen mile overnight hike. Our spontaneous decision created a memory I’ll cherish forever.

The Drive:

Our trip began with an eight hour drive to our trailhead. We left at approximately 2 a.m. on Sunday from Jacksonville with a 10 a.m. arrival time in mind. Unfortunately due to Hurricane Matthew, I-95 was closed, so we were forced to go through Atlanta, which set us back an hour. Our road trip was an adventure in itself. As we neared the last thirty miles to our trailhead, our GPS took us a route that was less than ideal driving in our Honda Civic. Apparently the ‘backroads’ route was meant to spare us some time traveling up the mountain to the Parkway, but all it really did was scare the crap out of me. We drove eight winding miles up the side of a steep mountain on a road barely large enough for our car- much less two.  But much to my surprise, we made it to the Parkway alive. We decided that we would not be taking the shortcut back, regardless if it meant adding more time onto our trip home.

Hemphill Bald to Caldwell Fork, Rough Fork Trail Loop

The Hike:

We made the decision to do the larger portion of our hike on day one, because after our completion of the hike the following day we’d be driving back home. Our starting point was at Polls Gap and we took the Hemphill Bald Trail through Double Gap. We spent an especially long time on this trail. I was continuously stopping to take pictures, which thrilled Michael of course (sarcasm). This habit ceased near the end of our trip. The first several miles through Hemphill Bald were relatively flat. We got brief peeks of the landscape through the trees, which kept us excited for what was ahead.

Hemphill Bald

Hemphill Bald

Hemphill Bald

However, the remaining miles were predominantly uphill making for a long slow climb. They were the most rewarding though, as this is where we reached the peak of the mountain. Hemphill Bald was without a doubt the most beautiful portion of our sixteen mile hike.

Hemphill Bald

Hemphill Bald Smokey Mountains

If a trip to the Smokey Mountains is something you’d like to do, I definitely recommend coming during the fall. The mountains are never so beautiful as when the leaves are changing.

Hemphill Bald: The Smokey Mountains

Hemphill Bald: The Smokey Mountains

At the end Hemphill Bald we hit our halfway point to our backcountry site. Here we began our loop around to Caldwell Fork Trail. This portion involved really strenuous and rocky downhill hiking. They are also clearly a series of trails that aren’t utilized often. The paths were extremely narrow and very overgrown in places. There were many areas with heavy surface run off, which meant a lot of mud and slippery rocks. It’s not a series of trails I’d recommend to any beginner hiker, and looking back I’d rather have been able to avoid them myself.  I’d say throughout two days of hiking, the last three miles to our backcountry site were the most difficult for me. Downhill treks are extremely rough on your ankles and knees, and especially so after you’ve already hiked over seven miles.

I was tired, hungry, and just all around ready to set up camp and rest, so I couldn’t have been happier once we reached the sites. Ironically enough, although I love hiking and being in the mountains, I can be pretty afraid of heights. So parts of hiking can be a bit unnerving for me. Such as this tiny bridge stretched across a stream we had to pass to get to our site:

Cataloochee Divide Trail Loop

Adorable and frightening all in one!

If you plan on camping out at a backcountry site in the Smokies, it’s required that you have a permit. It’s just a way for the park to help keep track of who’s coming in and going out, and also a way for them to make sure that you know proper protocol for staying. Bears are active in the Smokies, so it’s important that you follow guidelines for your own safety and also the safety of others around you. After setting up camp and getting some food in our bellies, we made sure to pack all food and toiletries up into one pack and hung the bag on the bear cable system.

There’s a large shift in temperature with elevation in the mountains. On average, it was about 15 degrees cooler on the mountain than the projected city temperature. It was near twenty degrees at night while we slept. Instead of a tent, I chose to pitch a tarp. Doing so keeps your pack lighter and makes setup and take down significantly easier. It also means sacrificing some insulation! So it was a bit chillier than it would have been if we’d pitched a tent. Also being from Florida, we don’t have the largest supply of warm clothes laying around, which meant we were a bit cold. We got through the night though, and got back on the trail first thing in the morning!

Literally four miles of our six mile hike back to the trailhead were uphill. We didn’t really reach any flat ground until we got two miles outside of Polls Gap. It was exhausting and took us nearly three and a half hours to complete, but looking back I’d still take the uphill trails any day if it came down to the choice of uphill vs. downhill. Towards the end of Rough Fork we could see the landscape again through the trees. Poor Michael probably hated me near the end when we determined that my miscalculation in adding the trail mileage put us a mile farther from the trailhead than we’d originally thought. Oops. We nearly ran the last mile.

The drive home was hard on me. Not literally, you know, because Michael was driving. But mentally. It’s really difficult for me every time I leave. It’s hard leaving the place you love to go home to a city you don’t necessarily enjoy living in. But I’m hopeful that soon enough my home will be in the mountains.

Today I lie in bed because my body is aching. My shoulders are sore from the weight of my pack and my calves are so tight it hurts to wiggle a toe. But I wouldn’t take any of it back for anything. Overall this hike was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. Michael and I both pushed ourselves past our limits and challenged ourselves in ways we didn’t know were possible.

Hemphill Bald: The Smokey Mountains

It was the most strange combination of miserableness and joy. It was completely awful, yet so much fun. And I can’t thank Michael enough for all he did to make it happen. Not many people would be up to driving eight hours to the mountains and back, just to beat and batter your body for sixteen miles for a few pretty views. But he did it for me. He does everything for me and I can’t say enough how lucky I am to have him in my life. Loving him is just so much fun.

Hemphill Bald: The Smokey Mountains

It’s a good feeling to be able to say you did something like this. Not many people can say they have. I can’t wait to see how much farther I can push myself. 16.37 more miles down… so many more to go.

 

 

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