Leafy-green mountain majesty

I remember my sixth-grade teacher telling a story about a college roommate from one of the plains states. When they got to our rolling hills of southwestern Ohio, they were incredulous.

“Are those mountains?” they wondered. Obviously, I have no way of verifying this. But my teacher swore they thought our hills and ridges were mountains because the geography they were used to was flat as a pancake. I wonder what they would have thought the first time they saw actual mountains – like the Great Smoky Mountains. I grew up bouncing up and down hills – carsick half the time – and I was incredulous the first time I saw a real, live mountain.

My first trip to the Smokies was in 1998. My family – aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather – rented a chalet in the mountains for Labor Day weekend. It was the first time we experienced the stop-and-go traffic of the Parkway and the fervor of Tennessee Volunteer fans. I was 13, and when the adults went to bed, my cousins and I had the run of the place. It was fan-freaking-tastic.

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But the mountains – they were the show stopper. The first night there, we got in after dark and had to feel our way through the switchbacks to get to our chalet. We got turned around a couple of times, but we managed to get there without going over the side of the mountain. By the time we arrived, if our ears weren’t popping, we wished they would.  We couldn’t really see anything until dawn broke the next morning. Once everyone started getting up and looking out the windows, they were amazed.

My family visited the Smokies several times before we decided to go West to see the Rocky Mountains. Let me tell you, once we saw those towering, rugged, behemoths, well, the Smokies just didn’t seem all that grand anymore. Poor Smokies. I suppose older mountains are like older people: All the things that make them seem super cool gets worn away until we forget just how spectacular they really are.

It wasn’t until we went down in March, after the fires ravaged the Gatlinburg area, that I got a reminder of just how majestic those smaller, rounder mountains really are. You see, when the fires coursed over the mountains, much of the underbrush burned away exposing the bare rock underneath.

Here on the eastern side of the country, where water is much more plentiful and the elevation is lower, we have dense foliage that grows up between trees. It creates a lush, green curtain shrouding the true majesty of the Smokies. But in the Rockies, the higher elevations and drier climate makes it more difficult for that kind of growth to gain a foothold.

So, while the Rockies display a sort of “in your face!” kind of strength – daring you to try to tame them – the Smokies kept their strength and ruggedness hidden, inviting you in for an adventure. That is, until a fire burned away its shroud and reminded me that just because these mountains do not tower over 14,000 feet, they are no less majestic.

 

Check out my YouTube channel for additional video content of driving through the mountains!

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Gus Scale: Greeter Falls

Greeter

Greeter Falls is beautiful, but be mindful of the fork in the road. Choosing wrong way could land you on a trail ranked seven out of seven on the Gus Scale.

GusScaleLvl7When we were visiting Foster Falls, we saw a sign for Greeter Falls and decided to check it out. But first, we checked a map. That’s right folks, we learned our lesson not to get into a trail we knew nothing about. Now, if we could just learn to follow the map.

I found Greeter Falls on All Trails, and it was described as a “moderate 1.8 mile hike.” I said that’s doable for the cripple in the group (me – I’m the cripple) so we decided to hit the trail.

It starts out as a fairly level, wide trail. When you come to a fork, you have the option of taking an upper falls trail, or a lower falls trail. Choose carefully, for you may choose your doom.

The upper falls trail is what All Trails calls “moderate.” I can’t dispute this because this isn’t the trail we took. Instead, we took the lower falls trail and proceeded down the precipice toward our second swimming hole of the day. This trail is rugged – very rugged. I ranked this one a seven out of seven on the Gus Scale. Overall, it is comparable to the Foster Falls level of difficulty, but there are some differences to take into consideration.

After taking the fork for Lower Falls, the trail is similar to Foster Falls. You still climb around rocks and pick your way to the bottom of the ravine. When you’re hiking down, I can’t stress enough making sure you have on proper footwear. Even with it on you could roll an ankle – like Karli.

I was several yards back, held up by taking photos and being slow, when Brandon came rushing up asking if I had water. I thought someone had a heat stroke or something. Actually, Karli sprained her ankle, falling and flaying one of her shins on the rocks in the process.

So wearing long pants may not be a bad idea, either.

Did that ankle stop her? No, ma’am, The Beatkeeper also plays roller derby, so she just added the cuts and bruises to her collection and kept on trucking down that hill.

We kept going, all the while knowing that every inch we went down we would have to come back up again. Every so often someone would yell back to me to make sure I wanted to keep going. It’s beautiful and there’s a waterfall at the end of the trail, so I said keep going.

Then we reached the edge of a cliff.

Even though the area is a well-known rock-climbing area, we didn’t have to scale a cliff face to get to the falls. No, we just had to take an aluminum spiral staircase. It’s kind of cool, if you’re not afraid of heights, falling, or open-backed steps.

Well, the waterfall was in sight, so I said, “We’ve come this far. Might as well keep going!”

Then someone shouted back, “Uh, Cassie … there’s more steps?”

Why not? I’m already farther in than I should be. What’s two more flights of steps and a ramp of doom?

We made it down, but the last flight of steps stops at a ramp that is about a 45 degree angle. I didn’t even fool with that, I just clomped down on the rocks and took my chances climbing/crawling over them. And when I say rocks, I mean large rocks, not those little ones you skip stones with.

We got about 10 feet from the ramp of doom, plopped down, and watched some guy jump from about halfway up the falls. I’m definitely not recommending this to anyone – so don’t try so sue me if you break your neck and die trying.

The climb back out was hard on all of us, and my friends are all in reasonable shape. But for me, I felt like I was stopping to catch my breath every 10 feet. Still, it was a great trail and I’d recommend it. Just be prepared, or take the Upper Falls Loop.

Gus Scale: Foster Falls

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

“Super easy hike to the falls which are pretty awesome!” – Sharon Lester, All Trails Reviewer of Foster Falls/Climbers Loop

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

Well, Sharon and I agree on one thing: The waterfall is awesome. This trail is not easy.

Foster Falls is in South Cumberland State Park. To get there, you can either drive to the Fiery Gizzard trailhead or hike the 12.5 mild Fiery Gizzard Trail from Grundy Forest. You can take the two-mile loop or just hike to the falls and back out, the way we did.

I hit up this trail Memorial Day weekend on the Annual Camping Trip of Horrors. At the time, this was the most strenuous trail I had done post lung-damage. Even at full lung capacity, this trail would have been difficult. Still, I’d totally do it again.

To get to the falls, we hiked down a steep gorge. The trail snakes its way over large rocks and around trees. It’s not difficult to find or follow, but it can be difficult to navigate. You need to be coordinated. Clutzes like me need not apply.

Once you get to the bottom, there’s a swinging bridge that spans a creek. Just getting down the trail created some muscle burn for me, so I knew getting back up would be difficult.

We stopped at the falls and played around the water for a while, enjoying watching a black lab play the best fetch game of his life.

And then we began the ascent.

Picking my way down piles of rocks wasn’t too bad. Climbing back up over them was rather difficult. Along the way another hiker was complaining about handicapped parking at the trailhead. I guess she didn’t think people with handicapped placards liked to hike? She looked at me and stopped talking. But hey, I get it. You don’t see someone on oxygen on a hiking trail everyday.

Camping tips from the Trips of Horrors

Every year I go on a camping trip with some friends from college. And every year, disaster strikes.

Every year I go on a camping trip with some friends from college. And every year, disaster strikes.

If any of you reading this ever worked in college media, then you understand when I say if you come out of working the newsroom with friends, they’re keepers. There are few things that can bond people the way newspapering can, except maybe a combat zone. No disrespect to our soldiers, but that is exactly what I felt like I was in most days. It was a game of intrigue, never knowing who was really telling it true and who was using us to meet an agenda. And it wasn’t that every step was treacherous because I never knew what was going to set off a land mine – I knew every step was a land mine. It was just a matter of managing the explosions. The only people I knew I could count on were my brothers and sisters in arms, but at times even that was a small group.

So when I say that my friends and I have been through a lot together, former college journalists understand. Still, the newsroom did not prepare us for The Annual Camping Trip of Horrors. These camping trips have become the stuff of nightmares, with treacherous raccoons, deadly waterfalls, and hikes of doom.

Through all these shenanigans, we’ve gathered some great stories and learned some hard lessons.

The Glade Creek Grist mill was rebuilt in 1976 in Babcock State Park.

The Glade Creek Grist mill was rebuilt in 1976 in Babcock State Park.

This camping tradition started in 2009, with Lacey, who you’ve met before, and Jesse, a friend beget in the newsroom. He and I used to have all sorts of fun writing news stories that made the administration sweat, and then we’d go tramp through parks and attend concerts in our spare time. I can’t remember which of our trio thought it would be fun to go camping, but we decided to hit up West Virginia for the inaugural trip. Since then, we’ve camped at Red River Gorge, Big South Fork, J. Percy Priest and Cedars of Lebanon State Parks.   Continue reading

Ghost Town in the Smokies

As we’re rustling though wet leaves, its hard to imagine that this tranquil plot of land has been the subject of so much controversy. In fact, its pretty easy to overlook the community entirely. The only sound is some laughing teenagers somewhere around a bend in the road ahead, and, if you’re close enough, streaming water from the Little River.  If not for the leafless trees granting glimpses the near century-old vacation homes, you wouldn’t even know they’re there.

DSC_3875Elkmont started as a logging base in 1908. Within a couple of years the logging company had a bunch of cleared out land and no way to make more money from it, so they started selling plots to hunters and fisherman, drawing outdoor enthusiasts out to the wilderness of the Smokies. Cottages and hotels started popping up on the mountain and an elite social club – the Appalachian Club – was established. But not everyone carried enough snobbery to get into this club, and the Appalachian Club rejects wanted their own fraternity as well. So, made their own group – the Wonderland Club – and Elkmont continued its transformation to an elite vacation spot for wealthy Tennesseans.

To keep shuttling people into Elkmont, the logging company let people travel in on its railroad, even creating a nonstop shuttle from Knoxville. But once the loggers had finished with the mountain, they left like a thief in the night and took their railroad tracks with them.  Of course, the Appalachian Clubbers – including the then-Tennessee governor – and their lower-class counterparts the Wonderland Clubbers were not to happy about this. But never fear – the path left by the railroad was perfect for roads, so transportation was soon restored and everyone went back to their hunting, fishing and socializing.

DSC_3952When my parents visited Elkmont last summer, they walked past several of the decaying dwellings before they realized there was anything around the path. Some of the old homes from Elkmont — those that were determined to have some kind of historical significance — have been moved to a display of sorts called “Daisy Town” that’s maintained by the National Park Service. But the ones that remain are in various states of disrepair. The decision to let these cabins be claimed by the mountains was about 50 years in the making.

With controversy one – the railroad debacle – out of the way, Elkmonters moved on to what would become controversies two through 575, and all because someone went to Yellowstone.

Willis P. and Anne Davis suggested creating a National Park in the Smokies, but didn’t follow up on it. However, David C. Chapman took the idea and shared it with some influential Tennessean legislators. (Remember the Appalachian Club? Friends in high places.) Once the National Park designation started rolling, opposition sprang up. A group consisting of logging companies and mountaineers wanted to have the spot designated a national forest instead of a national park – because that would give them more freedom to use and develop the land instead of it being returned to and maintained in its natural state.

DSC_3962They ultimately lost that battle, but their fight did result in Elkmonters being excluded from eminent domain. Instead, they were able to sell their land for half its value and get lifetime leases in return. These leases let the owners keep the land until the last person on the deed died, and then the property would go to the park. People in other parts of the park weren’t so fortunate; many of them were forced to sell their land to the Park Service and relocate.

These lifetime leases were renewed in 1952 and 1972, but not in 1992. By that time, the area was again wrapped in controversy.

The park’s management plan at the time called for all of the Elkmont buildings to be removed so the area could be returned to its original, wild state. But all that changed – again – in 1994 when several buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A 15-year debate ensued. On one side were the conservationists – those who wanted everything removed and no trace of humans left. On the other – those who wanted to preserve the area, or at least the parts that represented the history of it. Finally, a compromise of sorts was reached. The Park Service decided to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 other cottages and outbuildings. But while the argument raged, the Wonderland Hotel, among other buildings, had already decayed to the point of collapse and the even the buildings they decided to keep had fallen into greater disrepair.

Today, you can see the cottages that were kept in “Daisy Town” or rent the restored Spence Cabin. If you’re feeling outdoorsy, you can reserve a spot at the busy Elkmont Campground and pick up one of the trailheads in the area.

Overall, the area is very accessible. Daisy Town has convenient parking and is mostly level. The road and paths that took us through the abandoned homes were also mostly level, but there were some inclines.  I’d rate it a three on the Gus Scale.

To get there, take Little River Road past the Sugarland Visitors Center and follow signs to the Elkmont Campground.

Budgeting oxygen in the Smokies

DSC_3746

Check out our obligatory Stone family photo.

Thanks to my busted up lungs, planning a trip now has an additional step: Making sure I have enough oxygen tanks to get me through whatever amount of time I’ll be gone. So when my parents surprised me with a spur-of-the-moment weekend getaway to the Smokies in January my first thought was, “Oh, crap! Do I have enough oxygen?” followed closely by, “Oh thank God, I need to get OUT!”

The trip was a “Congratulations! You took longer to finish college than Tommy Boy!” gift for FINALLY finishing my bachelor’s degree. It only took eight years and four months to finish — more than double the time it should have taken. But stopping to work, or taking an internship (or two) or just cutting back to save money stretches out that time frame just a bit. So with a carefully budgeted oxygen supply, we loaded up and set off for a much-needed three-day weekend.

My oxygen method of choice is using small, portable oxygen cylinders, also known as “E-tanks.” They are about 18 inches long, 5 inches in diameter and weigh a few pounds. I named him Gus.

Don’t judge. When you can’t leave your house without something, it deserves a name. (My iPhone is Helga. She’s a buxom Scandianavian with a ‘tude.)

Gus came with his own plain, black tote bag he straps into and gives him room to breathe – because you don’t want a leaky tank creating an oxygen pocket in an air-tight space. That could mean a BIG explosion. Usually, I’ll take that ugly black bag, strap in a tank and throw in my wallet and wear that crossbody while I’m running around. But for this trip, I decided to upgrade my oxygen transport method. Instead, I got a mint green version of this backpack from Target, big enough to hold my tank, wallet, camera – and even a pocket for my lipstick! — and hauled that around all weekend.

Cascade Falls ...

A short walk from a nearby parking area will get you to this cascade, but it also attaches to trails that continue to Laurel Falls.

Cascade Falls

Fortunately, we didn’t have to plan too many activities around my breathing, most of what we did involved little walking. We did attempt a “hike” — it was less than a mile, but it was long enough for me. A short trail led back to Cascade Falls, where I nearly got in a fight with rude people who kept walking into my pictures. (Seriously, people. If you see someone with a camera up to her face, maybe you shouldn’t walk right in front of her — especially if she’s carrying a metal can on her back. I’d say if that hits your face, you’ll feel it.)  For the short trail back to Cascade Falls, I’d rate it three oxygen tanks because its easy getting back, but tricky getting out back up the hill.

Greenbriar

Until the park service acquired the land in the early 1900s, this land was owned by farmers. Some cabins still stand and are maintained by the Park Service, but many of them were abandoned and removed.

Greenbrier

Hailed as one of the secret spots of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Greenbrier is an area of the park somewhat off the beaten path. It’s proximity to hiking make it a great area if you’re wanting to hit some trails and it also has a river that allows tubing and fishing. Of course, I didn’t try any hikes and getting in a tube in January didn’t seem like a great idea, so I can’t personally vouch for any of these activities. But I can tell you that the drive getting back to the Greenbrier area of the park was exquisite. In spring, you can see a plethora of wildflowers, but in winter the color palate is a little more basic. The only visible leaves were reduced to a dead, brown crunch under our feet and the only color to break it up the bright green moss covering rocks and trees and bits of fern peeking out from the leaves. I imagine the much-touted wildflowers in this part of the park are something to behold; this is definitely a place I want to return to in the spring.