When we heard that a solar eclipse would pass directly over the Great Smoky Mountains, the excuse we had always wanted to make the 14-hour drive fell into our laps.
Though the car ride was strenuous and felt never ending, the payoff upon arrival was immediate. Crisp mountain air, lush green far as the eye could see, little to no cell service.
We stayed at the Little River Campground the first couple nights in the Smokies, a front country campground right outside the entrance to the Park. Little did we know how much time we'd spend on the Little River before we left Tennessee, and it turned out that our camp site on the banks of the river came complete with a view of the southern sky. The perfect spot for eclipse viewing.
Anticipation filled the air the morning of the eclipse. "Would it live up to the hype?" we asked ourselves. "Could it really be that spellbinding?" Turns out, the eclipse did not disappoint. When totality hit at 2:34 pm, the insects began sounding their calls, solar powered streetlights came to life, and the sky went dark as night.
Yes. That's actually us. Throwing around the word amazing is not something we casually do. This was amazing, humbling, inspiring, grounding, and so much more.
We woke up early the next morning running on the high of our eclipse experience and drove into the park to pick up our back country passes. After parking in the Elkmont Campground, we did a once over for our packs, filled up our Camelbacks, and we were off. 26 miles over 3 days.
Our first stop was the Cucumber Gap Trail, where we encountered the first of many brooks that would come to define our experience in the park.
Our trail then connected back with the Little River. Yep, the same one we had camped on the night before. We paralleled the river almost all afternoon, freshening up a bit and cris-crossing the brooks over wooden bridges.
In the later afternoon, we hit the Goshen Prong Trail, which turned out to be one of our favorite stretches in all the 3 days. This photo sums it up.
Trails and rocks covered in moss, rushing water as a constant background to our hike, and an ever changing ecosystem as we hike up toward our campsite and through possibly the best afternoon light we'd seen.
We arrived at campsite 23 and set up. The site came equipped with pullies for our packs, helping keep interest from Black Bears to a minimum.
Before we went to bed, we hiked back to the river in the Goshen Prong to filter some water. We didn't just find water, but a bed of moss next to another brook. It was so peaceful, that we couldn't help but soak in the tranquility until all the daylight was extinguished.
At 3 am, the rain came. Thanks to Andy, we'd wrapped our packs that were hanging in the trees with garbage bags, keeping them from getting inundated with water. Our tents were a different story. Even though we were sheltered under some treeline, the storm was heavy and persistent. When we got out of our tents at 7:30 they were flooded & Andy was especially soaked.
Still our spirits were high, and they needed to be. The coming hike would be a trial: 2000ft up over 4.4 miles to the Appalachian Trail, 5+ miles on the AT, and 3+ back down to campsite 26. Complaints were not an option.
We set off on the ascent to the AT to steady showers. The rain may have bogged us down a bit, but it kept us cool as we trekked up the Goshen Prong Trail. We took intermittent breaks to catch our breath but knew that we couldn't stop too long. Completing the 12-mile hike before dusk was already a stretch.
As we labored up the Ridge of the Great Smokies, the terrain began to change, and the air began to cool further. Though the rain began to let up the fog thickened, making it difficult to judge how far we had to go. Conversation halted to conserve our breath, we put our heads down, and focused on the task at hand.
Reaching the AT felt like a victory. We hadn't even completed half our hike but it didn't matter. We had triumphed over the Goshen Prong and the hardest stretch of the trip.
The Goshen Prong was covered in branches, leaves, and likely hadn't had maintenance in years. By comparison, the AT looked like the red carpet. Making it multiple miles to Double Spring Gap felt like a hop and a skip (maybe a couple jumps too).
We noticed there was an area to refill water here and decided to replenish our packs. A stone's throw from the shelter, we found the water source, which was a stream that was coming straight from the mountain. A subtle reminder how the Smokies, like each and every mountain, nourish the world around them.
Then came the Narrows, a section of the AT just a couple feet wide located right on the spine of the Mountain where water to our right would flow into Tennessee and water to our left would flow into North Carolina. This is where we caught a glimpse of some of the trips best views.
Lunch at Siler's Bald was abbreviated to keep us moving, and from that point on it was all downhill. Enchanting switchbacks on the southern facing slopes of the range seemed to fly by. All of a sudden it seemed, we had hiked 6 miles and arrived at campsite 26.
We set out tents up in a grove of old growth trees, took our shoes off, and lay very still. We were both sore as hell, with feet that could have taken a week off. But a solid nights rest was all we needed. We fell asleep at 9, both overcome by exhaustion and slept solidly through the night.
Morning woke us 9 hours after we started to slumber. We had come close to a Circadian sleep schedule.
Continuing on the Mira Ridge Trail, we found the outlook we had been looking for.
We sat in silence for over 30 min, taking everything in. For about 10 minutes, I whistled a bird call and found a partner in the distance. Together we sang back and forth until my partner disappeared into the green. Andy and I made it to the outlook just in time. 30 min in, the smoke began to roll in and we had the opportunity to see the Smokies become enshrouded in the smoke that gave them their name.
The rest of the hike disappeared in an instant. We crossed Jake Creek, and slid down another 1000 ft of elevation before we hit the original branch to the Cucumber Gap, and shortly after that, Andy's Car. We arrived sore as hell, legs cut up by thorns and stray branches, and bitten up and down by Appalachian bugs. But we also arrived with smiles on our faces, full of contentment and humility. Much like the Smokies themselves.