Photo Essay: The Appalachian Trail: Newfound Gap to Big Creek

First posted in July, 1999

As you may have read in the previous photo essay, a group of friends and I were trying to do all of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that runs through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (see Story 4). Pressed for time, we decided to do the trail in a series of long dayhikes. The first hike, completed in May, went from Clingmans Dome to Fontana Dam in a single day, for a distance of around 32 miles. This story details the second major leg of our AT escapade, this time covering the trail from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap (again, about 32 miles).

On the Friday afternoon of July's full moon, two members of our group shuttled a vehicle to the Big Creek Ranger Station. Though the AT actually comes out at Davenport Gap, it was much safer to park the car at the ranger station, where it had little chance of being vandalized. The plan was to follow the AT from Newfound Gap to two miles west of Davenport Gap, where we would drop down into Big Creek via the Chestnut Branch Trail.

At just before six the next morning, our group met at the Newfound Gap parking area. The group had two returning members, Mike R. and Dianne, as well as a new-comer, Chad. We flipped on our headlamps and headed up the trail.

We moved at a comfortable but slightly hurried pace, and reached the first major landmark of our hike, Icewater Spring Shelter, within an hour. Folks at the shelter were, of course, just waking up. We had a pleasant talk with the shelter's caretaker, a gentleman from Illinois, and hit the trail again within a few minutes.

Charlie's Bunion was the next stop on the trail. It was still early in the day, but we found that others had unfortunately arrived before us. The few minutes we spent enjoying the scenic views from the Bunion were filled with the shouting and laughing of a group of teenage boys who were climbing the more dangerous areas of the rock formation. We quickly packed up and moved on down the trail.

Dianne, Jacqueline and Mike stand/sit atop the Bunion

Outstanding views abound at the Bunion

The hiking seemed to progress much more slowly after leaving the Bunion. Our next landmark (and a rather ambiguous landmark at that) was Laurel Top. Again and again we crossed areas of the trail that we thought might be Laurel Top, until it became a bit of a joke. It seemed that Peck's Corner, the next shelter, might not even exist. Eventually, however, we did reach the sign for Peck's Corner shelter. Mike and Chad, anxious to check out new territory, walked the quarter mile off the AT to the shelter, while Dianne and I enjoyed a peaceful break. Thunder could be heard in the distance, and rain had begun to fall before our break was done. We got out our rain gear and proceeded down the trail.

Views were plentiful, even in the rain

We hiked through a gentle rain, crossing near the peaks of Mt. Sequoyah and Mt. Chapman. Our next stop was at Tricorner Knob shelter. It seemed that we'd reached the shelter in the nick of time, as the "gentle rain" turned into a downpour. Realizing that we probably were going to be walking in the dark later that night anyway, we decided to take an extended break to see if the rain would let up. I laid back on one of the wooden bunks, propped my head upon my pack, listened to the rain play on the shelter's tin roof, and drifted in and out of light sleep. The rain seemed to go on forever. Finally, after forty minutes or so, we gave up on our hope of a dry hike and hit the trail again. The worst of the storm had passed while we napped in the shelter.

Moving on down the trail, through the thunder and rain, we crossed Mt. Guyot and proceeded down to Camel Gap. The rain finally gave us a reprieve, and mist began to lift out of the valleys below.

Mist began to lift from the valleys below

After the long climb up to Cosby Knob shelter and the subsequent downhill to Low Gap, I stopped to rest upon a rock. Looking up at the trail sign, I noticed that it was a mere two and half miles to Cosby Campground. I began to think about my options... I had hiked five the six remaining miles of the AT many, many times as part of a round-trip excursion to the Mt. Cammerer fire tower. It was half past eight, night was falling fast, and I wouldn't see any new sights under the cover of darkness. If I broke off down the Low Gap Trail, I would be at Cosby Campground by ten o'clock. I informed Dianne of my plans, and she agreed to pick me up at the Cosby Campground kiosk after they were done with their portion of the hike.

I headed down Low Gap, with a new spring in my step. Only two and a half miles lay before me, miles I had an intimate familiarity with, as I had hiked this section of trail many times. I reached the Cosby Campground kiosk by 9:45. I had a long wait, but Dianne and the rest of the gang picked me up at around 1:30 in the morning to take me back to my car at Newfound Gap.

Though the weather had not been as pleasant as our previous AT hike, the terrain had been noticeably easier and we had made much better time. One slight problem remained: I had only hiked a mere twenty-seven miles (so I'm a wimp... J). I lacked about three miles on the Davenport Gap end of the trail.

The missing mileage was easily rectified a couple of weeks later. Dianne, Mike (and his girlfriend) and I met after supper one evening at Big Creek. The map below may help explain things...

Leaving one car at Big Creek, we drove to Davenport Gap and began the climb up the heretofore unhiked section of the AT. The terrain was fairly steep, but we were fresh and walked at a brisk pace. After a mile and quarter, the trail mercifully leveled out, and the walking became easy. We took a brief rest at the junction with Chestnut Branch Trail, which the rest of my group had taken to Big Creek under a cover of darkness on the "day" of the long hike.

I still lacked the next mile of the trail, and decided to continue on. Rather than wait at the trail junction, the whole group accompanied me, and in under an hour we were back at the Chestnut Branch Trail junction again.

The woods were dimming a bit, but we had enough light to make it back to Big Creek... with six miles of post-supper hike and another half of the AT tucked firmly under our belts.

Only one section of trail remained... a mere eight mile stretch between Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap. That stretch was completed in October, and was rather uneventful aside from the snow and ice that covered most of the trail. I can now say that I've walked all of the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Who knows? Perhaps I'll end-up being a section hiker one of these days.