5 nights in the Smokies


May 16, 2016
Great Smoky Mountains NP
Trailhead: Newfound Gap
5/13 - 5/18/20 (5 nights)

The road to Cataloochee is closed for construction, so the only way to get there is long hikes. I liked the idea of having the whole valley to myself :) I originally was thinking of hiking in from Polls Gap off Balsam Mountain Road, but the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed so I could not get there. Then while poking around on the park website I noticed a message that said you could pitch a tent near the AT shelters. Normally you have to sleep in the shelters unless you are an AT thru-hiker, so I usually avoid the shelters since I don't like people and I'm not a fan of the shelter mice. But if I could pitch a tent (actually hang a hammock) then maybe it would be ok. So, I decided to do a longer trip and see a new part of the park.

Overview of trip
Newfound Gap => Pecks Corner Shelter => Laurel Gap Shelter => Pretty Hollow (#39) => Enloe Creek (#47) => Icewater Spring Shelter => Newfound Gap

The weather forecast looked good for the ridge part of the trip

I got to Newfound Gap around 1 pm, it was grey and a little drizzly, but nice hiking weather.

There were a ton of dayhikers going to Charlies Bunion or The Jumpoff. One of the dayhikers was a solo young woman with a dog. I like to politely call out dogs on the trails, so I mentioned that if a ranger saw her she was going to get a large ticket. She stuttered a bit and said it was a service dog. I decided not to mention that it was off leash and did not have a vest or anything :)

When I got to the Icewater Spring Shelter, there was this message, so the tent thing made sense.

Nice view from the Icewater Spring Shelter

I continued on to Charlie's Bunion looking down into Tennessee

There were a couple people there, but thankfully it was not crowded. I suspect this bird was hanging out looking for dropped snacks.

A little farther down the trail is a nice view into North Carolina


I got to the Pecks Corner Shelter around 6 pm. The Shelter is down the hill a little bit and felt very closed in, basically a flat spot was carved out of the side of the mountain, so there isn't much space. There was a nice piped spring a little farther down the mountain. I would not stay here again.

There were two guys staying in the shelter when I got there, they had some crappy music playing, so I talked to them for a little bit, but turned in early to read a bit.
Sunset view through the trees at Pecks Corner Shelter.

I woke up in the clouds, it was a little frustrating since it was obvious that there were potentially nice views, but I just could not see anything.

The AT though the trees

As I dropped off the ridge, the views began to improve

I got to the Laurel Gap shelter around 3 pm and two guys were already there. I talked to them a bit while I tried to decided if I wanted to keep walking to Mt Sterling (about 5.5 more miles). I decided that I did not feel like hiking that much, so I set up camp down the hill from the shelter and then chatted with the guys for a bit. They were both professors from Auburn, so we talked about online teaching and if there would be in-person classes in the fall.

The Laurel Gap Shelter was a much more pleasant place than the Pecks Corner shelter. It felt like there was some elbow room, the only drawback was the water was way down the hill and was a creek so I had to look a bit to find a nice pour off to fill my water bottles.

Woke up to another beautiful day. Higher up there had been a recent snow storm so most of the flowers were beaten down. A couple thousand feet lower and it was wildflower heaven.

I had hiked the Mt Sterling Ridge trail about five years ago, but did not really remember it. It turned out to be an awesome stretch, gently rolling with a lot of open forest, no "views", but very pretty.

There were bluets everywhere, so tiny, so pretty

Red Trillium


Painted Trillium

I dropped off Mt Sterling Ridge on the Pretty Hollow Trail. As you get lower, the creeks begin to get bigger.


I was cruising along when there was a crashing noise off to the side. I looked up to see one bear running down hill (away from me) and another bear standing up to see what the fuss was. I tried to get my camera up, but he quickly figured out I was human and moved down the hill. As many bears as I have seen in the park, this is the best photo I have got. I wish he had paused for 3 more seconds :)

Smaller wildlife

I got setup up and Site #39 and headed down to Cataloochee. This is the Palmer Chapel.

I was hoping to see some elk in the fields (or more bears), but it was very warm in the sun.

Near where the pavement ends was a sign to the Palmer Cemetery. After a short, but steep hike I was there. I would guess there were about 100 graves, some relatively new and a lot that were old enough you could not make out any of the writing.

Elijah Messer lived from 1844 - 1936. His wife Christine Messer lived 1847 - 1883. Their daughter Chanie lived from 1873 - 1880. Once again I am struck by how young people were when they died.

I had never seen something like this before, a sundial on top of Chanie's gravestone

Mollie (Oct 1877 - Jul 1878), daughter of W.H. and S.A. Caldwell. There is a Caldwell Fork on the other side of the valley that is likely named after this family.

Looking down the hill towards Cataloochee Valley

Hiram Caldwell Barn

Caldwell House

I headed back to the campsite where I met three guys from Lexington. I've ran into lots of people hiking, but this was the first time I met someone from home. They were really nice guys, I got back to the campsite and was really hot, I made an off-hand comment about buying a beer from them, but since it was their 2nd night I was joking. One of them said he had two beers cooling in the creek and he would give me one. I offered to actually pay, but he refused. The beer (West Sixth IPA) was great :)

Another great morning, I said farewell to the 3 guys as they left to head back to Mt Sterling for their last night. I headed up the Palmer Creek Trail towards the Balsam Mountain Road.

After a long road walk, I came to this bridge and the Beech Gap Trail. I soaked my feet as I ate lunch.

Big trees

I got to Enloe Creek (Site #47) around 6 pm and had a bit of a panic. It is a very tiny campsite squeezed in between the side of the mountain and the gorge of the creek. It is the only campsite I have seen in the Smokies that is bad for hammocks. I actually pulled out the map and started thinking about hiking another 5ish miles and 1500' up and down to the next site before I decided I could make it work. It was a stretch, but I managed.

Another nice day, but going to be warm.

No idea what this is, but I thought the leaves were very striking.

I also figured they would look good in B&W.

Backside of a trillium

About this point, I passed through a plateau that was covered with trilliums. I took some photos and as I started to move down the trail, I caught motion out of the corner of my eye. I turned and saw a coyote and then I heard yipping/whimpering farther down the hill. The coyote looked at me and started to go past towards the noise and then panicked and ran up the hill away from my and what I assume was her litter. I left the area and her alone. I have heard coyotes at night in the park, but never seen one. I wish she had paused a moment so I could get a photo.

The Hughes Ridge trail was great.

Back on the AT and looking down on NC.

Yellow Trout Lily

I paused at this great view and talked to a couple dayhikers for a bit. They like to do big miles, so today they were doing a 25ish mile loop.

Back to Charlies Bunion with better skies

Mt LeConte in the distance

There were a couple people there, but again not crowded. This guy offered to move when he saw my camera, I thanked him but said there was no need. He provided a little bit of perspective.

Icewater Spring Shelter was crowded. There were a couple thru-hikers and a young couple from Michigan sleeping in the shelter and a bunch of people scattered around the broader area. I talked to some people and enjoyed the view with my dinner.

While I was eating, this deer came out of the woods. He was showing no fear as he wandered the area picking at leaves. I wish the beers and the coyote had stayed this still :)

It poured overnight and was still dripping in the morning. Given the weather, I was surprised how many dayhikers were out, it was obvious they weren't going to see anything. I thought it would have been a perfect day to go find a waterfall down low vs. a nonexistent view.

I got back to my car in a little more than an hour and changed in the parking lot ...

... and then had an easy drive home.
That was special. I haven't been there in almost 50 years but when I saw your pic of the Appalachian Trail sign I could actually smell it. Such a special place.
Glad you all liked it. I love the smokies, but I am used to a little more solitude since I usually do something like this in December or January. It was nice to see all the flowers though :)

I also realized that the AT thru-hikers miss a lot of the best part of the park, if you never get off the ridge, you miss the creeks and waterfalls that make the area so beautiful.
Holy Moly! So many things to see there! Looks like a very fulfilling trip. I liked too many photos to list them all.

Thanks for sharing! Kinda sounds like there was more people than you would have liked, but at least you got that beer haha