With our longest day in the Smokies ahead of us, we got up relatively early to try and beat rain we suspected was coming.
CareFree and I had a 6 am alarm set. We managed to get up about 20 minutes later, and were on the trail by 7:40.
It was still just as humid as it had been the last several days, though we were quite happy our earlier start afforded us cooler temperatures for the day’s initial climb. Where yesterday we had a longer but gradual climb, today’s 7.4-mile climb started to approach being steep. We were hoping we might get some views on the way up, but alas, the trail disappointed us. We stopped for a break after a little more than six miles at the Newton Bald trail junction.
The BMT continued on the Newton Bald trail, and I hoped that meant the trail would summit it, or at least come close, and that there would be views. Although the BMT did pass fairly close to the summit, it appeared that Newton Bald was no longer a bald (and has not been for some time), and that there is no clear trail that runs to it. With the dense forest cover, July seemed a bad time to try and summit, which would have required bushwhacking a few tenths of a mile to the peak. Too hot and humid out for an extra-difficult summit, we passed the “bald” by, and followed the trail down the mountain.
Five miles of somewhat steep downhill brought us to a road and bridge crossing the Oconaluftee River, at the entrance to the Smokemont Campground. We debated walking to the camp store hoping to get sodas and ice cream, but our feet hurt from the long downhill, we weren’t really sure whether it was a store or just vending machines, and so decided not to walk all the way there and back, and sat down on moss-covered logs in the shade a few hundred feet up the trail for a break. From our vantage point a bit back from the entrance, we could see people driving to the parking lot at the entrance from further in the campground (some with half a dozen people in their pickup truck beds) to go swimming in the river. They were quite loud, preventing the break from having the peace and quiet of nature.
The BMT continued along a trail up the hill a bit from the campground. Used for riding excursions from the campground, the trail had so much horse manure it seemed almost to be paved with the stuff. It looked, and smelled, rather bad. (Two groups of horses and riders passed us on that stretch of trail.) After we turned off that trail, and eventually onto the Chasteen Creek Trail which would take us to our campsite tonight, the concentration of horse water decreased, but we passed several groups of butterflies munching away on older horse droppings.
With about 2 to 2.5 miles to go to our campsite, it started raining. CareFree and I put on our pack covers, and CareFree also put on her rain jacket, and we charged up the mountain. Because of the rain, we opted to skip a very short side trail to a waterfall along the way. In our haste, we sped past another couple hiking up the trail. (I guessed they were also heading to our campsite; they arrived about 45 minutes after we did.)
The rain stopped about half a mile before we reached our campsite, giving us a chance to slow down and catch our breath. The rain had been cool and refreshing (making it easier to go faster on the climb), but it did have the unfortunate side effect of making all our clothes even wetter than they were from sweat. It had the positive effect, though, in making the forest look even more green and verdant.
After exploring our campsite and picking a spot to set our tent, we relaxed, sitting on a log for half an hour before really starting to unpack and set up. When a few more raindrops fell and the threat of rain returned, we finished setting up with haste. Despite some further gray skies, though, there was no further rain. We set up a clothesline to try and dry our clothes, to some positive effect. The insects were certainly much appreciative, going after the salts on our clothes. (Later, at night, moths swarmed around CareFree’s socks, still on the line after we took most everything else down.)
We were very happy to not have picked up any ticks today, the first such day in quite awhile. We also didn’t see any bears today.
After sunset, thunder and lightning returned, each flash triggering all the lightning bugs in the area to flash, and we moved most of the clothes from the line to inside the tent so they wouldn’t get wet if it rained overnight. CareFree also dug a large rain trench around our tent to channel water away, since we were partially in the path water would run downhill.
Today was our longest day in the Smokies, and the longest since we got back on trail last week. Tomorrow, our penultimate day on the BMT, will be our hardest day on the trail, with almost 5500 feet of elevation gain (and another 3500 feet of loss). So we have another 6 am alarm set so we’ll be off hiking “early” again!