Day 1, Lost in the Smokies

A couple weeks ago my brother and I took a four day trip to the Smoky Mountains. We had not set out on an adventure together in many years and were both looking forward to some quality time spent together in nature. We spent weeks planning our stay, what gear to bring, and what to leave behind. A google doc and many texts back and forth were our form of communication and organization leading up to the day we left.

After a nearly twelve hour drive we arrived just before sunset on a Friday evening. Abram’s Creek campground would be our home for the next few days and nights. The campground is relatively small, with only sixteen tent sites available and nestled along the banks of Abram’s creek and under the cover of towering pines. We setup camp as daylight began to fade and warmed up some chili on the Coleman camp stove.

Our site in Abram’s Creek Campground

Prior to leaving for the trip we had discussed a loose plan for each day’s hike while in the Smokies. We agreed we would keep the hikes to around 6-8 miles a day so we had time to enjoy the scenery along the trail and also enjoy some leisure time at camp. We also hoped to do some fishing in Abram’s creek and hopefully land a trout as neither of us have ever had the pleasure of catching one.

After some coffee and breakfast burritos the next morning we tackled our plans for the day. We would start the trip with a hike to Abram’s Falls and back. It would be closer to ten miles there and back and beyond our agreed upon limit of 6-8 miles a day, but the falls would be beautiful and the terrain mostly flat as we followed the creek. Unfortunately, neither of us brought smaller day packs. We each had 40 and 45 quart packs filled with all our clothes for the trip. So, we had to unpack everything and leave our clothes in the car and take what we thought would be essential for the day’s hike; water, sunscreen, snacks, and our lightweight fishing gear. The packs were pretty light but more bulky than necessary.

We set out on the Little Bottoms Trail which began at the end of our campground. We would follow this and eventually connect to the Abrams Falls Trail. The weather was perfect, clear blue skies and morning temperatures in the low sixties. The first two miles of the trail was pretty wide and smooth terrain, very little change in elevation. Then we started to gradually gain elevation and as we did the sound of the babbling creek began to fade. The scenery was beautiful and we discussed the wide variety of trees and plants along the trail as we marched on.

Cell service is non-existent in most areas of the national park, but my brother had a Garmin tracker and we had a map. As the Garmin tracker chimed a notification that we had hiked three miles there was still no creek in site, no waterfall to be heard, and only more elevation to be gained. I’m not a hydrology expert, but I know water doesn’t run up hill. We both kept saying, ‘I thought this trail followed the creek?’ Either way, we were enjoying the day, the weather, and the experience. Around the next bend we came to a crossroads with several trail markers. We decided to stop for a snack and to regroup.

Upon checking the trail markers and reviewing the map we discovered we had missed the turn off to the Little Bottoms Trail several miles back. We thought we were on the Little bottoms trail from the moment we left the campground but turns out we were wrong. We had been hiking up the Cooper Road Trail instead. We were now about four miles in and really nowhere near where we had intended to be.

The evidence was there all along…. we just didn’t read the sign well enough

After a few handfuls of trail mix and some swearing at our situation, we turned southwest on to the Hatcher Mountain Trail. According to the map we had about 2.5 miles to connect back up with the Little Bottoms trail. The scenery along Hatcher Mountain began to change. This was the south side of the mountain and large areas of trees had been damaged during a wind storm. Huge old pines and oaks lay flat facing up the mountain side and new understory growth had already taken advantage. This new growth was only about fifteen feet tall, so the mid-day sun was now starting to beat down on us.

Regrouping and learning from our mistake

The trail wound around ridge lines, down into valleys, and back up the other side. The plant life changing as we gained or lost elevation. Rhododendron thickets in the valleys, and tall pine, oak, and maple trees lining the ridge tops.

We were now about seven miles into the first day hike and my legs and feet were feeling it. My last blog post was about trying to train for this trip. I can safely say my body was not fully prepared. My ankles hurt and I my legs felt very weak. (the bright side is that by day three of hiking I was already feeling stronger and more up to the task).

As we rounded a final ridge we could again hear the rush of water in Abram’s Creek. Finally, we were back on track. However, this stretch of the trail was still high above the creek and followed a narrow path on the side of a crumbling rock face. We teetered along the trail for another half mile or so until it lead us down along side the creek bottom. We sat for a few minutes to gather ourselves. We had not packed enough water, each of us with only one 12oz bottle. We should have had about triple that amount.

Finally along the creek bank we decided to fish. We assembled our rods and reels and tied on some lures. The creek is not very wide, maybe 30-40 feet across, so you can stand on the bank and cast across the whole expanse. We fished for awhile, thankful to have a break from the trail. We spent the next half hour or so moving along the bank from one open spot to the next, casting and retrieving to no avail. No fish landed. But that was ok, the simple act of casting off that beautiful bank was enough.

A well earned break. Time to fish.

It was late afternoon and according to the map we had about three miles left to get back to camp. We set off for the last leg of the day’s hike. Once again we were in for a surprise. As the trail began to lead away from the creek bottom, we were faced with another 1700 foot climb up and over another ridge top. Needless to say, we were not in the mood for the final challenge. We trudged up the trail, low on water, and low on enthusiasm. As we finally crested the ridge and worked our way back down into the valley below we realized our original mistake. The Little Bottoms Trail head was a very narrow footpath at a right angle to the feeder trail out of the campground. There was a small sign post marking the trail, but facing the opposite direction that we missed on the way out that morning.

Finally back at camp, we changed our shoes, built a fire and began making dinner. We were certainly tired and our egos bruised, but we had a great day. We sat and laughed at ourselves, shared some bourbon and had a fantastic steak dinner made in our cast iron skillet. We accidentally hiked twelve miles but this would be a day we remember for years to come.

The following day we met two other groups of hikers who made the same mistake. They all missed the trail marker and wandered miles out of their way as well. Made us feel a little better about our own mishap.

Abram’s Creek