It was a Friday morning in late July when we headed West on Interstate 40 and made our way up and over into the gorgeous state of Tennessee, and into the mountains of the Great Smoky.
It was the Ginger, his younger brother Christopher and I. Being Christopher’s first backpacking trip we were pretty stoked to show him the ropes.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park borders the states of Tennessee and North Carolina and even includes a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Fun fact: it’s the most visited National Park. That has a lot to do with the Blue Ridge Parkway running right through it, so a lot of people can actually visit while still in their vehicles. With many waterfalls, streams, rivers, and roughly 522,000 acres of land, we were excited for our first time heading into the backcountry of this park.
We entered via Exit 451 to Waterville Road off Interstate 40-Westbound. When you get off the exit, take a left onto Green Corner Road, then left onto Tobes Creek Road, and another left at the Appalachian Trail. You’ll pass a water power station, and eventually come to a stop sign, then continue straight and you’ll see the park entrance sign. It’s a gravel road from here on out.
If you take a left at the stop sign, there’s a cute little country store with various snacks/gifts and a nice bathroom and shower for hikers — just an FYI since the Appalachian Trail is nearby.
We made our way down the gravel road for just a bit before parking in the Big Creek Quarters and Ranger Station. What an interesting ranger station, as it’s just a parking lot and a pit toilet. To reserve a backcountry campsite, you have to call the Ranger Station using the provided phone and speak with them directly. The fee is $4 per person, per night. The ranger was real nice and gave us a great itinerary.
We grabbed our packs and headed off.
We were to do a total of 21 miles over the span of the next 3-days. Not too bad. We were required to hang our food on the provided bear cables each night, and on night #2, we got lucky and had a shelter. There was a lot of rain in the forecast and we were expecting to get wet during this trip, so the shelter was great.
Here’s the route…
Day #1: Take Big Creek Trailhead to Swallow Fork Trail and to Campsite #36. Total for the day 6.1 miles.
Day #2: Take Low Gap Trail to Camel Gap Trail, and follow until reaching the Appalachian Trail and taking a right onto it. Look for the signs leading to the Cosby Knob Shelter. Total for the day 7.5 miles.
Day #3: Hike out on the Appalachian Trail until reaching the Chestnut Branch Trail and ending back at the dirt road. Total for the day 7.5 miles.
From the parking lot, you do have to hike up the dirt road a bit until you reach the Big Creek Trailhead. It’s not far, however, and is very helpful on the way out, as the Chestnut Branch Trailhead, is right by the parking area.
After about a mile or so of hiking, we found ourselves right beside the Big Creek. We would pass a lot of people here, in the first 2-miles or so, as this is a big spot for swimming in the deep “Midnight Hole” area. We watched as kids jumped off rock ledges and into the freezing cold water below. Looked like a ton of fun.
The day was cloudy and overcast and it had begun to drizzle. Luckily, it didn’t do much more than a drizzle, but the humidity was insane making for a really hot day.
We then came to the Mouse Creek Falls. This is a 45-foot waterfall and is a nice spot to rest while checking out the river.
The river is gorgeous and very picturesque. Smaller waterfalls and huge rocks give you the opportunity to be adventurous and play around a bit.
You will then make your way over two trail bridges, before getting into the area of backcountry campsites.
The trail is moderate in intensity, and can be easily hiked by an active person. There are a lot of big rocks, bricks, and tree roots along the trail so be sure to watch your step. At some point, the trail becomes covered in undergrowth, but is still easily defined and easy to find. I would just suggest wearing pants to avoid getting stuck with prickers. 😉
In the late afternoon, we made it to Campsite #36. Backcountry Campsite #37 is very popular and is a common place for hikers to camp. It was full this night, so we had the spot nearby, which is also for horses. Yep, this trail is also used for hiking horses, so be sure to watch out for poop and be aware that you may be camping next/near/with them. We didn’t see a single horse the entire time, however, so besides seeing the horse rails we didn’t really think about it too much.
Once we set up our tents, we made our way back over to the other campsites where there is a bridge (the second one you cross), and played in the water and swam for a bit. The water was a perfect relief after a sweaty day of hiking.
We then made some macaroni and cheese for dinner, and I observed some of the wild-berries and mushrooms around camp.
This area of the Great Smoky Mountains has a lot of bear activity. I’ve just learned that our campsite is actually closed at the moment due to a recent bear sighting in the area. The bear cables are very sturdy, and a wonderful pleasure to have to hang your stuff. I’ve attached a video below that shows how they can be used.
After getting all of our things hung on the cables, we would fall asleep, and find ourselves a few hours later, waking up to an extremely intense thunderstorm. All around us we heard loud thunder echoing off the river bank. Lightening would strike and light up the tent so well that when I looked over to my left, all I saw was Ginger’s eyes big and bright staring back at me. You could hear trees crashing down onto the ground around us, so much that, we didn’t get much sleep this night.
The next morning we observed the damages and fortunately, didn’t get wet at all (thanks Marmot). Christopher had survived his first thunderstorm in the backcountry, and I had survived my first night in bear country. It was a win win.
We began the hike towards our next destination and today was going to be a rough one. It was only 7.5 miles, but the incline is pretty intense.
Once making it to the Appalachian Trail, it’s up and down from there. In between the trees you can catch some pretty good views here. Be prepared to sweat a lot…
Besides being a relatively difficult trail, we saw some really cool things. Snails, slugs, flowers, mushrooms, woolly worms, frogs, and everything else in between. This place is really magical and I’m honored to be able to live in close proximity to it. With so much to explore and see, I can already tell you that we will be back to visit.
When we arrived at the Cosby Knob Shelter around the early afternoon we were the only ones there. I guess never having really stayed in a shelter, and not knowing what to expect, we thought the place was going to be all to ourselves for the night. So we hung out for a while, ate some snacks, I chased a butterfly around, enjoyed the private pit toilet, and reading the journal entries from the previous tenants.
A few hours had passed before a group of guys came up to the shelter, out of breath, and sat all of their gear down. We acknowledged them, began a friendly conversation, and it was when I heard one guy say “Yeah, this shelter is booked full tonight, there’s supposed to be 12 of us.” when I realized… shit, we SHARE the shelter. Duh.
Sure enough, the groups kept coming. Everyone was super friendly and from other states relatively far away. We enjoyed building a fire, eating dinner, and getting to know everyone before the next storm started rolling in and we all said “Goodnight”.
It was interesting sleeping out of a tent, and inside a shelter I must say. Although I was relieved to be out of the storm this night, it was weird sleeping in a bunk type situation with people we didn’t know. Awakening in the middle of the night again, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face it was so dark. I mean absolutely PITCH BLACK. Totally scary, but an experience nonetheless. Everyone packed out early the next morning around 5am, as we slept in and were the last ones to leave.
We eventually began Day #3, and the brutal hike out.
This day was pretty foggy and wet. We didn’t get rained on, and the weather was a bit cooler than the previous days, but still sweating.
The trail is on the Appalachian Trail most of the day and is a series of ups and downs like the prior day. Once we finally made it to the Chestnut Branch Trail, there was much excitement in being close to the end.
When we started seeing the river beside us again, just like that, it was over.
The little bro did great on his first backpacking trip, and honestly, he kept up with us the whole entire time. Being extremely proud of him, I am even more excited that he’s already asking when he can come again.
As for the Smoky’s, I’m very much looking forward to exploring more in this region. My favorite part is the Appalachian Trail running through the park. The views are just absolutely incredible up there, and the surrounding nature is so abundantly diverse.
Until next time, happy hiking friends. <3
***Some prints are available for purchase from this blog post and are listed below. If there’s one you’re interested in that isn’t listed and/or would like different sizing options, please contact me! I’m happy to sell any prints you find appealing 🙂
Ghost Pipe 8×10 Print
Snail 8×10 Print