Something that I've always wanted to do is a lot of hiking. I learned yesterday that I'm not quite in the shape I need to be to do as much hiking as I'd like! Even though we got home after dark, soaked, exhausted and sore, it was worth it for a day I will never forget. I got some amazing photos and some amazing memories!!
My husband and I started the day off early, when we were both awake before sunrise. I wanted to go shoot the sunrise, and the best place I could think of was the Gatlinburg overlook. This is a scenic outlook on the bypass around downtown Gatlinburg, which overlooks both the city and the sprawling mountains, up to the height of Mt. LeConte. The vertical contrast is the largest in the Smokies at a difference of over 1600 feet. I got some great shots of the sun peeking up behind the mountains, casting beautiful colors and sun rays across the clouds.
After the sun was up, we stopped for gas in downtown Gatlinburg, had a fun chat with the nicest gas station cashier ever, and headed into the park. I've been wanting to visit Cades Cove for awhile now, and I'd always heard it was beautiful in the early morning, with lots of wildlife activity and Nick was completely game for it since he's been wanting to explore as well. Since it's February, I was hoping that it wouldn't be too crowded. I got my wishes on all three accounts - we saw tons of deer happily roaming the fields, few cars, and some absolutely beautiful scenery.
We hiked the 1.1 mile round-trip mostly flat trail to the Elijah Oliver homestead, exploring the barn, farmhouse, spring house and other out-buildings that have been preserved for visitors to see what life in Cades Cove in the 1800s was like.
We also stopped in the visitor's center and explored the restored Cable homestead, which includes a cantilever barn, sawmill and former boardinghouse turned farm house.
After leaving Cades Cove and returning to Gatlinburg, where we intended to eat lunch, my phone started blowing up! I hadn't had signal on it in several hours, and my friend John, who I take a lot of photography classes with, was trying to meet up with us to go hiking. We finally met him for lunch, which was completely not in my diet (pizza and cheese sticks from a local eatery in Sevierville) but I figured with as much activity as we were planning for the day, they'd balance each other out. Once we finished lunch, we loaded up into John's Cadillac and drove about 20 miles to Cosby, TN (near I-40 and the North Carolina state line) to start on the Gabes Mountain Trail. Our intended destination was Hen Wallow Falls, a 90 foot waterfall 2.2 miles from Cosby.
This seems a promising start to our trail!!
The trail we were planning is rated as "moderate" by both the National Park Service and HikeMySmokies.com. The hardest trail I'd attempted before was Laurel Falls trail, which is an easy trail rated at a 2.93 difficulty by HMS. Gabes Mountain Trail is rated as a 6.20, with a vertical climb of 900 feet at a rate of 400 feet per mile.
The trail started off rocky and uphill, but nothing too treacherous. This was the average steepness for most of the trail, though we went through intermittent areas of rocks and tree roots so thick you could use them as stair steps. About a half mile into the trail, we started hearing the sounds of a waterfall. John explored a side trail and discovered he could easily get to a nice vantage point for photos, so Nick and I followed down the steep and rocky terrain. The view was worth it. This unnamed waterfall on Crying Creek is not listed anywhere on any maps, so it was a very nice bonus.
After returning to Gabes Mountain Trail, we continued on our journey, passing many returning hikers coming back from the falls, all of whom said the trail was a bit strenuous but certainly worth it. A little over a mile into the trek, it started raining. As we continued climbing in elevation, the raindrops turned to sleet, quickly soaking through our clothes. I got out my windbreaker I'd packed in my camera bag to try and keep moderately dry and warm, but it was pretty much a hopeless cause.
The trail took us across many incredible sights, which I didn't take any photos of because it was raining and I was trying to keep my camera dry until we reached our destination. We crossed three log bridges across creeks, passed several small waterfalls, even walked across rocks at the base of one of them, went under and around many very neat rock formations and kept going up and up and up!
Finally, when I thought I could make it no further, we got to the split off Gabes Mountain Trail that would take us to Hen Wallow Falls. The last tenth of a mile was the most treacherous, with a steep downhill grade that was now muddy from rain and very little in the way of tree roots or rocks to balance on. Finally, we arrived at Hen Wallow Falls, and it was beautiful!
The rain was coming down very hard now, and unfortunately it didn't take long before my camera lens, even with a hood covering it, was covered in raindrops which started obscuring my photos. I took a handful more and then called to Nick and John and asked if they were ready to go. They both were, as we were hoping to get most, if not all the way, back to the car before darkness fell. At this point we had about an hour and a half before sunset, the rain was getting harder and the temperature was dropping.
We made the return trek in hard rain and sleet, stopping whenever the canopy was thick enough to create a dry spot for a water break. Most of the trip back was downhill, but it was more challenging as puddles formed and the mud and rocks got slick. I relied heavily on my hiking stick to find safe stepping places on some of the downhill sections, and we all went much more carefully across the bridges.
At about a mile from the end of the trail, twilight was quickly approaching. I was worn out but ready to get back into the dry car. By this time, all three of us were completely soaked through and the rain was starting to get snow mixed in. We stopped for one last water break at a trail split with a mile marker, and increased our pace for the final stretch.
About a half mile before the end, full darkness fell. Since it had crept into the woods slowly, all of us decided to forgo flashlights and depend on our night vision, which had plenty of time to adjust and be pretty clear. The last third of a mile was very rocky, and took the longest to get through, as I used my walking stick much in the way a blind person would use a cane, checking for rocks that would stick up and trip me or twist my ankle, or large steps down that I might miss and come down to hard on.
Finally, when I thought I was about to collapse, we made it to the end of the trail!! We all clambered into the dry interior of the Cadillac, blasted the heat and turned the heated seats on high, stripping off our wet jackets and sweatshirts. On the ride back to Sevierville, we laughed about our crazy adventure, deciding that the next time when the Weather Channel said 30% chance of rain we'd plan on it being a downpour!
As soon as John dropped us off at home, we both changed into warm comfy PJs and curled up in bed, exhausted from our amazing day. As insane as it was, and as crappy as I felt afterwards, and as sore as I am today, it's not something I'd ever trade the experience of. I'm proud of myself for completing a hike that I thought beyond my ability, I'm proud of the amazing photos I was able to capture, and I'm proud of making it through the dark, wet and cold, keeping pace with the rest of the trio that is in much better shape, pushing through til the end.
Now I'm planning for our next adventure. Let's see where it will take us!