This is my journal from our trip to Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. I wrote along the way and without too much editing, this is the result. Enjoy!
Day 1: Missouri to Cumberland Gap
We are on our way to the Smoky Mountains! Already a warm morning, still officially spring but it’s already 72 at 8:00 in the morning. I’m feeling guilt over leaving home, but I’m sure that will only last the first few hundred miles. I am also feeling nervous to leave Missouri. It’s home. It’s safe. It’s the known, but alas adventure has called my name and to survive, I must answer the call.
We opt for the slower [but scenic] route. We take 50 highway across the Show Me State, avoiding the chaos of I 70. we pass through small towns that were once tourist stops on their way to somewhere but now are nothing more than remnants of a slower-paced life. A time where a 2-pump gas station was enough. Now it’s useful for only the trash that is dumped there. A more scenic route where billboard signs are still hand painted and somewhat entertaining.
As we travel, I am telling Mike about the book I am currently reading, “AWOL on the Appalachian trail.” I tell him about the adventures I most remember and tell him we need trail names, so we have a discussion about what our names should be. Few interesting names pop up such as bear bait, pork chop for me, T-bone, double T (my initials), the mechanic for Mike, bionic woman for me. We decide on bear bait for Mike and pork chop for me. A few miles down the road, coming to a stop at the town’s only light, I look over at a sign and its Mr. T and Mrs. T’s and being our last name begins with a T, I say that should be our trail names. Mike smiles, but I’m not sure if he wants to let go of bear bait….Tune in to find out what we opt to use.
Our adventure will [hopefully] take us to the Cumberland Gap, the Cherokee National Forest, Clingman’s Dome, and eventually Nashville. We have all our gear with us and plan on camping the whole trip. I’d like to get into the Smokey’s and hike for a day or two. Halfway across Missouri and I’m dying to get out of the car and get my boots on a trail. I definitely have to set foot on the Appalachian trail. Whether it be for a mile or more, definitely.
Twelve hours have now passed. We are doing the same thing as before…driving. But we are almost to our campsite for the night. We are going to try for a KOA on the east side of Daniel Boone. Taking the state highways has cost us some time, but the drive has been much more enjoyable. We made an impromptu stop at Land Between the Lakes and walked about a mile to stretch our legs. The scenery was not impressive. It looked close to what it looks like where we are from in Western Missouri. It certainly wasn’t as pretty as the Ozarks.
Most of Kentucky had been nondescript until we got to the eastern side of Bowling Green, which is where we are now. Not so much farm ground any more. The hills are starting to roll, and the smell is fragrant. I’m not sure what’s in bloom, but it smells like sweet flower perfume [maybe honeysuckle]. The trees are pretty here. Before they were scrubby looking, definitely nicer here.
My guilt at leaving home has been replaced with boredom. I am ready to get out of this car and get to hiking. Soon enough. Tomorrow will bring mountains to my feet.
I did verify with Mike about the trail name, and he said no to Mr. T and Mrs. T and no to the mechanic. He wants bear bait….that leaves me with pork chop? I’ll have to think about that.
Photos from Kentucky:
Day 2: Cumberland Gap to Damascus
Finds me being woken up before dawn by an extremely loud symphony of birds at Grove Creek Campground in Daniel Boone Forest. Turns out the KOA was full as well as hotels in the area. We were so tired that we were contemplating sleeping in the car. A quick map check and we found the nearest campground. The facilities were nice. After a stop at Waffle House for breakfast, back on the road….headed for the Cumberland Gap National Park and then to Tennessee where we plan on spending the next few days backpacking.
The scenery is pretty here…hillier than the Ozarks but so far not enough to make the drive worth it. Can’t wait to get to the mountains. I have been neglecting to take any pictures thus far and will try to do better.
Day 2 is coming to a close. After hiking the trails around the Cumberland Gap, we decided to head for the town of Damascus, Virginia, due to the fact that the Appalachian Trail runs thru there and there were plenty of camping options. Also I read that Damascus was hiker friendly. So we got lunch in Middlesboro, Kentucky and headed down another very slow, winding mountainous road. It took us thru very pretty farms in Virginia, well off the beaten path. Definitely very scenic. In some areas, you could see 4 or 5 mountain ridges in a row.
Arriving in Damascus, I was flabbergasted! This was way more than I anticipated. A stream running parallel to the highway. Lots of people riding bikes. And even a thru hiker waiting to cross the highway! Very exciting! There are at least two outfitters going thru on the main drag. Plenty of bike rental stores and places to eat. After driving thru Damascus to check out what was available, we opted to stay at Bear Tree Campground, only 8 miles out of Damascus and just across highway 56 from the Appalachian Trail and on the other side of the campground are connector trails to the Iron Mountain Trail with the VA Creeper Trail down the road.
It’s Sunday evening, so we almost have the campground to ourselves. It’s a pretty nice site we are at. Right across from a bathroom with a nice picnic table and firepit. This is a tent site so there’s no power. The fee of $22 seemed a little steep to a Missouri Girl who is used to paying slightly more than that for an electric RV site. But hey, I’m at the Appalachian Trail… what more can there be? I didn’t think I’d be here for many more years to come. Tomorrow we will be hiking on the Appalachian Trail [does it get any better]. We are playing this trip by ear and have had no set timeframes for anything, nor have we had a set destination. Virginia was not on our list but yet here we are. Did I mention that beside our tent is a small babbling brook? I’m not sure if it will be relaxing or if it will make me want to run to the bathroom all night. Well if it does, at least the bathroom isn’t far.
Day 3: Appalachian Trail north out of Damascus
I can officially mark hike on the Appalachian off my bucket list. We started at a parking lot a little ways out of Damascus heading north. For a Missouri Girl, it was one hell of a climb. The first 3-4 miles were all up hill. The total ascent was around 3000 – 40000 feet. I’ll find out for sure when I get my data uploaded at home. My back is aching, my feet are swollen, and I’m hungry. We are headed in to Damascus for a good meal and supplies. I really did enjoy hiking on the Appalachian Trail. It was incredible. We stopped at Saunders shelter and there was a young girl there hiking solo with her black lab. I sat at the picnic table to read the register and he jumped right up on my lap. Mike got a picture of it and I’ll have to get it uploaded.
Photos from everything to this point:
Day 4: Damascus to Great Smoky Mountains
Woke up last night at our campsite by the sounds of breathing, scratching, and gravel snapping. I have no idea what it was but I was scared to death that it was a bear snooping round. There was a time when we were in the backpacker’s camp at Ha Ha Tonka, and I was woke up by an animal poking his head in the sides of our tent, basically poking at my head. I have no idea why I didn’t crap my pants! I felt 10 times more scared than that last night. I was lying as quietly as I could when I could hear this loud, slow, deep sniffing near our tent and what’s running thru my mind is why did I eat peanut butter cups in the tent earlier? Then Mike started snoring real loud, and I about panicked! Anyway, I have no idea [for sure] whether our late night visitor was a bear or not. Today we are headed to the Great Smoky mountains National Park. We’ve got 85 miles to go. I have opted [as navigator] to jump on the interstate to get there. We started out on small highways and went thru some pretty dilapidated areas. The drive was slow, and I’m frankly tired of people riding our ass when are driving the speed limit. I’m not sure what is in store for today. Maybe a short hike or maybe a drive up to Clingman’s Dome? Or we might just focus on finding shelter for the night. My legs aren’t quite as sore today as they threatened to be from yesterday’s 3000-foot ascent [plus] on the Appalachian. I was worried about that, but I feel ready to go again today.
Day 4 is coming to a close as I lie on my back in our tent looking up at the tops of trees at campsite 21 in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I am worn out. We have been hiking 4 days in a row as well as camping. Today by no means was a strenuous hike but coupled with the fact that it’s been a few days and the food; I’m looking forward to a good home cooked meal. Mashed potatoes sound good.
So far I don’t have much to say about the park. We played by the rules and stopped at the visitor center to get our backcountry permit. Talked with the ranger there and told him my skill level and what we were hoping for, so he assigns us campsite 21, which is child’s play. Its about a 3-4 mile hike from the trailhead and it is uphill but very slowly and not by much. The worst part of it is that 3 miles of the hike were gravel. I mean. C’mon. In no way do I call this backcountry. You could get small children to this site easily. So with that being said, we have made the best of it. We went down to the creek and filled up our platypus bottle for later filtering with our Sawyer filter. We found the remnants of some old bridge and did an impromptu hike for a couple miles on a trail near our campsite. Tomorrow if we decide to stay another night here, first we are going to Gatlinburg for food and then up to Clingman’s Dome. Maybe will camp up there somewhere. They do have this bear cable system here that is pretty cool. It allows you to easily get everything up in the trees without bringing any extra equipment. There are supposed to be something special about fireflies tonight and since the sun is going down, I’ll find out soon. [I never did find out about the fireflies. I was too tired to wait and fell asleep]
The upside is so far we are the only ones at this campsite and since it is 8:00, hopefully that won’t change.
Day 5: Clingman’s Dome to Nashville
More about Nashville later. This morning we woke up with the feeling that if we didn’t take matters into our hands, we would not see what we wanted to see. We packed up our ridiculous campsite, hiked the 4 miles to the car and drove the short distance to Gatlinburg,… this being the first time here for me. Very touristy and a lot of things crammed into a small space. Best to park your car and walk around. We paid $8 to park in a garage and walked to the “FlapJack House,” and I ordered a skillet breakfast which came with 2 pancakes. Absolutely the best breakfast I have ever had in a restaurant. Fast and friendly, we were waiting for the outfitters to open at 10, so in the meantime, we walked across the street to the general store where we found suppliers to make a lunch. Forget waiting on the outfitters store, we wanted altitude. Heading back in to the park, we started the 20 mile ride up to Clingman’s dome (the highest point in Tennessee). The temperature dropped nearly 30 degrees from the ground to the top. We grabbed our gear for a day hike and headed up the short but very steep path to get to the observation tower. Once we got there, we decided to do the tower later due to the cloud coverage. Off we went on the portion of the Appalachian trail that leads south from Clingman’s. trail is very narrow at times and rocky, but the views are so worth it! Within a mile, we had expansive northern and southern mountain views! We were standing at the top of Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail! What a life! We were in the clouds. I mean that literally. We are standing on a ridge line, and the clouds are rolling up and smacking you in the face! It was exhilarating! Very addicting! I’m having withdrawals already. We continued down the trail. There were several grassy areas which provided views. A few moments later, the trail turned into a whole other place. Woodsy and very mossy. Creepy in it’s own way. Eventually we turned around and headed back to the top. I was completely worn out. This was already our second hike for the day and my feet were killing me from the earlier hike on gravel. After we finished, we hopped in the car and headed west. So here we sit in a nasty motel room in Nashville. Why you ask. Mike has been kind enough to go with me, and Nashville was his choice. You got to give some times. We spent more money in one night to stay in this crappy hotel room then we did all of the previous nights. I’m having withdrawals from the mountains. Unfortunately, we will be heading home in a day or so, but I can say I stood at the top of Tennessee and had clouds hit me in the face!
Photos from Clingman’s Dome:
Day 6: Nashville to Taum Sauk
After doing a little sightseeing this morning, we’ve decided we’ve seen enough of Nashville, and are headed north. Destination is Taum Sauk mountain, the highest point in Missouri. No where near the elevation we were at yesterday, but a sense of pride at being at the top of your home state. I gaze off to the east and in the very far distance, I get a tiny glimpse of the mountains we’ve left behind. The guilt that I felt when we left home has now been replaced with an ill feeling, a sadness. I’m nearly to tears leaving the Smoky Mountains behind. It signifies the coming to a close of our trip and a marker that we will soon be rejoining the every day life of working your ass off to someday die. I know its depressing sounding, but its reality. Note to self: buy more lottery tickets.
In all the time we have been gone (Kentucky, Virginia, and the Great Smokies), we never [thankfully]had to deal with rain until now. A stop at Taum Sauk would make for too long of a day to make it home tonight, so ill see about camping tonight. A chance of thunderstorms after midnight only makes for a greater story.
As we travel west on I-24, I’ve been reading “AWOL on the Appalachian trail.” I’m nearing the end and dying to find out about the end of his hike. I happen to glance up and realize that the scenery has went from green hills to endless acres of crops. An irrigation system in one of the fields bears a large sign that reads “follow Jesus.” welcome back to the Midwest! 223 miles to go to reach Taum Sauk.
Mike and I don’t do a lot of hiking during then warmer months. We are a rare breed of people that prefer cooler weather. Mainly the summer months we reserve for bike rides. However, after this trip we have decided to look into acquiring backpacking hammocks. Before I make any changes to our choice in gear, I have to do a lot of research. The cons for us on hiking during the summer months is weight. The heat just makes everything seem heavier. I have to bring extra sleeping gear just to be able to sleep on the ground. Without our sleeping gear (including the tent), we could reduce pack weight by as much as 7 pounds. There aren’t always a lot of options on water availability in Missouri. You more often than not have to bring your supply of water with you. That limits most of our trips. I am going to be looking into hammocks as a summer alternative.
We reached Taum Sauk State Park in the late afternoon. We had never been here before and since we had not planned on being here, we had done no research on the park. Sometimes it’s nice to not know what to expect. Turns out that Taum Sauk is basically a small state park with only 12 campsites for tents only. No electricity or water; however, there was a porta-potty style bathroom. The park was nice and clean. We drove around and checked it out. Discovering that there was no one else camped there. Running low on supplies, we opted to drive the short distance down to the town of Acadia and get some food, discovering a Laundromat as well. Not being able to turn away at the opportunity to wash our clothes, we started our wash, went next door and got food. The town of Ironton is literally a stone’s throw away and with a Dollar General, we got some additional supplies there. Once our laundry was done, we headed back up the mountain to Taum Sauk, picked out a campsite and went threw the routine of setting up camp. It was a relief not to have to worry about bears for once!
Later on we took a late evening stroll around the park. It was very foggy and we were already at the top of the mountain. Visibility was low. Apparently quite a bit of rain had fallen the day before. We stopped at the overlook and while we couldn’t see far, there was still a neat eerie view of far-away ridges in the distance and lightening bugs coming up in the foreground. The fog was really rolling in and encompassing us. The air was so fresh that you took deep lung-fulls of it just to ensure that maybe a small part of this moment would stay with you long enough to hold you over until the next time.
Back to the campsite. Shortly afterward, another vehicle entered and set up across from us. We are early risers and they couldn’t have enjoyed our headlights at 5:00 am when we set off.
Taum Sauk is one of many state parks in Missouri that has part of the Ozark Trail running through it. Our plan was to hike to the Mina Sauk trail down to the tallest waterfall in Missouri and back up. A short but steep and very rugged hike. This trail is a definite must for Missouri. It was hands-down one of the more challenging trails I’ve been on in Missouri. It was very rocky which was fun to climb through. The waterfall was so scenic that it was almost unbelievable. From the top of the fall, you overlook a valley where 3 peaks come together. It is an unobstructed view of the St Francois Valley. Gorgeous. There were several places throughout the trail that would come to open glades where you had excellent Ozark views. Baby Smokies is what I called them!
Photos at Taum Sauk:
After it was all said and done, I asked Mike what his favorite part was and he said Virginia. The Appalachian Trail we hiked on had very few views but was a great challenge to make the ascent. It ended up being the highest ascent we made. Yes Clingman’s Dome is much taller, but we didn’t hike it from the bottom up like we did in Virginia. The views from Clingman’s Dome were hard to beat. My favorite part had to be standing at the top of Clingman’s Dome early in the morning on a narrow ridge with the clouds rolling up over top of you and leaving condensation on your face.
I did enjoy the Appalachian more so in Virginia. There was a unique commodore there. The young girl we met at Saunders Shelter who was solo hiking with her very friendly black lab. Reading the entries in the shelter register. I will probably never hike The Appalachian Trail, but for those that do, I can see what the draw of it would be.
Here are some links to the places and books that I’ve mentioned throughout this story:
- Appalachian Trail
- AWOL on the Appalachian Trail
- Bear Tree Campground (Virginia)
- Cherokee National Forest (Tennessee)
- Clingman’s Dome (Tennessee)
- Cumberland Gap National Historic Park (Kentucky)
- Damascus, Virginia
- Daniel Boone National Forest (Kentucky)
- Flapjack’s Pancake House
- Gatlinburg, Tennessee
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee)
- Grove Creek Campground (Kentucky)
- Ha Ha Tonka (Missouri)
- Iron Mountain Trail (Virginia)
- Jefferson National Forest (Virginia)
- Land Between the Lakes (Illinois)
- Taum Sauk (Missouri)
- Virginia Creeper Trail (Virginia)