Great Smoky Mountain National Park

In August after visiting Mammoth Cave, we headed to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  We purposefully didn’t visit this park on our cross country trip since we knew it was a destination we would visit once we lived on the East Coast.  The park is located along the Tennessee and North Carolina border and straddles the Appalachian Mountains.  It is one of the most visited national parks with ~20 million visitors in 2010 – twice that of the Grand Canyon!


We spent 4 days in the park and packed in as many sights as we could.  We drove Cades Cove Loop Road and saw a mother black bear and her cub in a tree, which halted traffic as everyone tried to catch a glimpse.  We also drove to Clingmans Dome twice, but were socked in by the “smoky” fog.  We also did a short 1.3 mile hike on asphalt to Laurel Falls, one of the most accessible and visited falls in the park, but also quite impressive.


But the majority of our time was spent on two back-to-back backpacking trips!

Spence Field Backpack

The first trip started near the the Cades Cove campground.  We backpacked 3.5 miles up Anthony Creek Trail to Bote Mountain Trail.  Then we continued 1.7 miles to the AT (Appalachian Trail) and the Spence Field Shelter.

We noticed the lush and dense east coast forests,

the bright white AT blazes,

and some unusual bugs! Katharine was brave enough to lend her hand as a scale.


Spence Field Shelter

Not sure why it wasn’t more crowded in August, but we shared the shelter with only one other adventurer, Linda and her pack mule.  She was a more seasoned Tennessee resident and had many stories to tell.  For whatever reason it was comforting having another person and a mule to keep us company in the open air shelter.  We weren’t visited by any bears, but could see the mice scurry along the rafters. A ranger called us a couple days later though because someone had to use his bear spray at that shelter the next day, and they were considering closing it.

The next morning we set out in the early morning fog.

We hiked an additional 2.9 miles down the AT to Russell Field junction.

Russell Field Shelter

Then we turned and headed 3.5 miles down Russell Field Trail and back to Anthony Creek Trail returning to our car.  We didn’t see many hikers or wildlife and our view was always blocked by the thick forest.  We didn’t take many photos on the return hike and were while we appreciated the greenery, we miss the above tree line views of the western US.

Wildlife! (Newt)

Dense Forest

So that ended the first 2-day backpack after 13.2 miles with 2,800 feet of elevation gain, which was probably more than enough for two out-of-shape backpackers.  In an ideal world, we would have ended the day and regrouped for the next adventure, but time was short so we drove 2 hours to Big Creek campground in North Carolina (on the far other side of the park).

Mount Sterling Backpack

Already feeling pretty tired from backpacking 8 miles down 2,800 feet that morning we hit the trail again late in the afternoon starting at Big Creek Campground. We hiked to Backcountry Campsite 37, (5.1 miles, 1,000′) along Big Creek Trail.  Postcard waterfalls and babbling creeks crisscrossed the Big Creek Trail.

We arrived with about 10 minutes to setup our tent, hang our packs, and then the summer rain came…

When it rains, it pours! We were instantly drenched while we waited for our Mountain House dinner to cook.  We watched as the ground failed to absorb the down pour and water began pooling under our tent.  After a couple hours of rain we passed out, fingers crossed our tent material would keep the water from soaking our down sleeping bags.

We awoke with dry sleeping bags and began drying out our clothes and rainfly.  We had a short 5.4 miles and 3,000′ to Mount Sterling so we thought we would wait as long as we could before packing the wet rainfly.  To our surprise, the humidity was so high the rainfly wouldn’t dry even after being stretched out and hung in the sun for a couple hours. 

We packed our wet gear and headed up the Swallow Fork Trail to Benton MacKaye Trail and found Backcountry Campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling (5,842′).  Along the way we saw only a couple other young backpacking families and just a few small animals and colorful plants.  

Even though we were hiking along a mountain ridge the tall dense trees blocked our view of the surrounding mountain ridges.  It wasn’t until we climbed the 60 foot tall fire tower atop Mount Sterling that we got a sense for the vast Appalachian Mountain Range.

The next day we hiked out 6 miles and 3,500 feet down Baxter Creek Trail to Big Creek Campground.  Again we were treated to occasional streams and waterfalls in the lush forest, but no sweeping viewpoints.

Backcountry Faucet

This 3-day backpacking trip totaled 16.1 miles with 4,200 feet of elevation gain.  When we finished, the sun was shining, so we celebrated with a much needed dip/bath in the frigid Big Creek before heading to a nearby campground for the night.

We also found these strange hitchhikers on our tires.  Anyone know what they are?


We roasted marshmallows and reminisced about our last 4 days in the Smoky Mountain backcountry covering 29.3 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation.  It turned out to be more challenging than we expected (mostly due to being a little over zealous trying to fit too much in to too little time), but we definitely got a good taste of backpacking on the East Coast – a lot more rain and trees than we are used to!


Check out all of our trip photos:


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