Altitude and the Appalachian Trail

We had a great time on the Ramsey Cascade Trail, and wanted to hike more. We were planning to hike Porters Creek, but our guide let us know that what we’d see would be pretty much the same as what we already experienced. We had several people suggest we hike out to Charlie’s Bunion from Newfound Gap. We had wanted to take photos with the AT sign anyway, so this sounded like a terrific plan.

We drove up the next morning and parked at Newfound Gap. It was windy and super cold. I was glad I had my puffer and soft shell jacket. It was awesome watching all the backpackers coming through the area. I’m certain a healthy percentage of them were thru hikers and we enjoyed seeing what packs and accessories they were carrying.

We got our coveted sign pics! We hope to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2020, so have been reading and learning everything we can about the journey. Most of what we know about backpacking has come from the research about the AT. We had planned to hike it sooner, but we have been scheduling too many other exciting excursions, and we had to push it out. Ultimately, we would love to be triple crown hikers. (AT, PCT, CDT)

Hiking on this venerable trail was exciting, and incredibly beautiful. It was a perfect day, with the sun out and the view on either side of us. I was super excited about reaching the incredible photo op at our destination.

Unfortunately, I started feeling off. I was getting slightly dizzy, short of breath and my vision turned into a ‘fish eye lens’ perspective. I pushed on for a while, but started to feel insecure. With the steep drop offs and uneven trail, I began reconsidering the day’s hike.

Thom convinced me to try a little longer, and I’m glad that I did, because the surroundings were amazing. Ultimately, I decided that it was entirely unsafe for me to continue. We had hiked about a mile out, and I was feeling pretty stupid. I had just killed the 2,000 elevation gain the day before and couldn’t even manage an easy 4 mile trail. The tears welled up, and I compounded my embarrassment by crying.

We headed back, and all I could think about was our upcoming trip to Idaho with Hell Hike & Raft. Newfound Gap has an elevation at 5,049 feet and our time in the Seven Devils Mountains would take us to 8,300 feet! If I was having issues here, I was worried that I was going to fail at the big trip of the year.

After talking with others, we learned that dehydration may have been an issue as well. We were super glad we had decided to hike here, instead of Porter’s Creek, if only so we could learn about potential pitfalls for future trips. We try to take every experience as a learning exercise, and all of them are valuable. We knew from this hike that we were going to have to study up on elevation prevention in order to succeed in Idaho. That alone was worth the price of admission.


The Magnificent Ramsey Cascade Trail

After the robust education we got from the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, it was time to go out and see the splendor for ourselves. What better way to do this than to hike?

Our friend suggested we take a guided hike with A Walk in the Woods. She had been on a couple of their trips, and had loved them beyond measure. She found their knowledge of the area, the history and natural surroundings enriched an already incredible experience.

This would be our first time hiking with any elevation outside of the Midwest, and I wanted to see how my abilities stacked up. We chose the Ramsey Cascade trail, an 8 hour round trip hike over some challenging terrain. We would gain nearly 2200 feet in elevation to the tallest waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I was looking forward to every inch of it.

We met up with our guide Michael and our fellow travelers Ben & Meghan at the trailhead parking lot. The day threatened rain, but so far was beautiful and sunny.

Our surroundings were lush and green, and the first portion of the trail was pretty level, making a very pleasant walk. This gave us a chance to get to know one another better, and ask a bajillion questions about the incredible things we were seeing on the trail.

We were just a touch late for the wildflower boom, but there were still many gems to be found. It is so much fun to travel outside of your normal region and be surrounded by flora and fauna that are vastly different from what you are used to seeing.

About 2 miles in, we came across a footbridge that was looong and narrow – and about 20 feet over the roaring river below. Standing on the bridge, it felt 100 feet up, and a mile long. It took every ounce of convincing in my own head to make me put one foot in front of the other. My legs were jelly when I finally reached the other side, but I felt amazed that I was able to do it. My list of accomplishments were getting longer by the day.

Among the many highlights of the day was getting to hike through old growth forest. Some of these venerable trees include white oak, red maple, tulip poplar & hemlock among others. With the increasing loss of native species due to invasives and climate change, it is gratifying to see these old trees holding on.

After the footbridge, the trail became more challenging, and I was glad for all the training we had done on stairs. I was killing it though, and felt great. Perhaps it was the inspiring surroundings, but I was absolutely in my element.

With how lush everything was, its not surprising that we found an incredible number of new fungi. I want to know what every single one of them are, but with 50,000 different species of visible fungi, I have my work cut out for me.

The closer we drew to the falls, the more steep and slick the trail became. I admit to falling on my butt once – but was so graceful in getting back up that no one else noticed. 😉

Just before our destination, we spied this sign. Apparently, there have been deaths as a result of people climbing around and to the top of the falls. The area is incredibly slippery with all the algae, moss and mist. With as cautious as I generally am, and as badass as I felt after the footbridge, I was feeling pretty secure.

The Cascades were impressive and incredibly cool. In spite of coming across a handful of people on the trail, we were the only ones at the falls themselves. The mist was powerful and I pulled out my jacket to keep dry and warm.

We sat on the large boulders below the falls and ate the lunch we brought along with us. It was a fun way to celebrate and to linger in this incredibly beautiful place.

It began to rain on the way back. It was a light rain, and cooled everything off. It also brought out all the fascinating wildlife. I had never seen a salamander before, and I saw 4 that day!

It was an incredible hike, a magnificent day, and I fell in love with the Smokies.

Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the GSMNP

We were invited to visit the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for several days this spring with some good friends.

We’d never been before, and didn’t have high expectations in spite of all the glowing reports we’d heard from friends. Wow, were we blown away. Just driving into the park is magical, with towering trees, rivers & wild turkey in all their glory right on the side of the road. It’s like the rangers staged the scene just before we showed up, in order to make the best possible first impression.

We were extra fortunate that our time in the park allowed us to attend one day of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is 5 days of classes, hikes, seminars and more – all in the the park and surrounding area. I wish we could have been there for the whole event, but we packed in a lot on the one day that we had. (you can see last year’s brochure here)

Our first class was “Forest Foods and Pharmacy” taught by the venerable Ila Hatter, who has been teaching about wildcrafting for more than 25 years. Some of our other classmates have been coming to her sessions year after year, because they always learn something new.

We were led on a 3 mile walk in the Metcalf Bottoms area to rustle up whatever useful plant life could be found. We learned about mullein which can be good for wounds, partridge berry that you can eat for its vitamin c content (tastes bland, but kindof nice), sweet birch branches that taste like wintergreen and can be made into a vitamin rich tea, and many more.

It was all so fascinating, and I wish I could absorb everything she said. She was passionate and wrapped her lessons in wonderful stories of past experiences. Fortunately she was selling her books afterward, and we picked up a copy of her cookbook Roadside Rambles .

We were having the time of our lives. There is not much better than learning while being outside and hiking – sincerely three of our favorite things. The trails here are not to be beat. Everything is so lush, varied and well maintained.

Our next class was “Fungal Roles in Forest Ecology” taught by Ed Lickey and >Gary Walker. Right off the bat we learned about the basic classifications of mushrooms and got to see some great examples. It’s no secret that Thom and I love to take fungi photos, but we really didn’t know much about them before this class.

For instance, we had no idea that the mushrooms we usually see are just the fruiting body of the organism – like an apple to the tree. The actual fungus is the mycelium, a complicated thread-like structure that branches its way through the host. That’s why, in certain areas, it’s ok to harvest found mushrooms – because you aren’t harming the actual fungus.

Our teachers were full of energy and got up close and personal with the specimens they found. Here, Ed uses a hand lens to see the structure of the fungus. These lenses are incredibly powerful, and reveal an entire new world. If you are interested at all in mycology or plant-life, I encourage you to pick one up. You can learn so much more by getting a closer look.

We have so much more to learn about mycology, and this book came highly recommended. It’s still on our to-buy list, but we did purchase Musrooms of the Midwest just to narrow the field a bit. We were so inspired by this class – we can hardly wait to learn more.

To top off our wonderful day, as we were departing, the line of cars began to pile up. My instinct was *bear* and I was absolutely right. This gorgeous black bear was hanging out on the other side of the river, just taking a gander at the line of people standing around taking photos. It was our first day in the Smokies!

The 2016 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will take place April 19 – 23 and we think that it is an amazing opportunity for anyone who loves nature and wants to learn more. We will certainly be going back!