Well, after yesterday's hike, I have to admit, I was feeling really good.  I thought I might be exhausted but I figure I was in better shape than I gave myself credit for.  I had an itch to get in another long hike today, if not over twenty miles again, I was feeling that good.  My heart wasn't set on anything yet so I looked over my map for gaping holes.  Immediately, my eyes became fixated on Deep Creek.  I continued to ignore that area of the park for some reason, possibly because of the drive.  Anytime I had hikes planned for there earlier in the year, I'd find a way to back out of it and end hiking elsewhere.  Well, enough was enough, so I decided to buckle down and do a long loop hike.  There was a chance of rain in the forecast, so I knew things could get messy along the way, but I was willing to give it a shot.
          There were a number of ways I could have gone about this one.  There are several trails that parallel and intersect each other as they cut of the river valleys or ridge lines, all running north and south.  I figured I would keep my elevation change down for the day by making a loop out of the Deep Creek and Indian Creek trails.  At the trailhead, one can follow the short path up to Juney Whank Falls, but I wanted to get going on the big hike, electing to hit that waterfall at the end.  Of course, I had a number of waterfalls to see this day because there are several all within short hiking distance of the campground.  I made my way up Deep Creek and soon enough saw myself standing cross river from the amazing Tom Branch Falls.  It is certainly one of the more picturesque water scenese in the entire park in my opinion.  I also like the fact that it was located on the opposite side of the river so there weren't people climbing all over it.  The park has made this spot very accomodating to visitors by clearing out any obstructions and securing several benches in which to sit, relax, and enjoy the falls.
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          I was thankful that the rain hadn't come yet and I was able to take some great shots of the serene falls.  Just a little ways up the trail I crossed a footbridge over Deep Creek and eventually came to a junction.  I took the Indian Creek Trail to the right with hopes of seeing the next waterfall in good weather.  Indian Creek Falls shows up but a tenth of mile past the junction and down to the left.  It too is a fascinating water scene, much flatter than the previous Tom Branch Falls.  The surface on which the water flows is an expanse of rock that could serve as a slide, though it might be a tad bumpy.  I enjoyed it for a moment before finally making my way up trail again.
          I was sensing a theme because I hadn't gone far when I reached yet another point of interest.  Not sure how I would want to incorporate the one mile Stone Pile Gap Trail between here and the Thomas Divide, I figured I would do the up and back now and just get it over with.  So I took the right at this junction, crossed the creek, and made the steep climb.  Where this trail meets up with the Thomas Divide is at the park boundary next to mountain road for people's homes.  The Thomas Divide Trail itself resembles an old road bed from what I could see in either direction.  I didn't stay long, just enough to put the surroundings to visual memory and then make my way back down the mountain.  When I reached Indian Creek I made a right.  A person jogging had just crossed in front of me when I made the turn.  I bet a lot of people enjoy staying at the campground and getting in a good run on these trails that are well graded, wide, and beautiful.  I kept the runner in sight because of my own brisk hiking pace until I quickly reached the Loop Trail that would lead me up and over Sunkota Ridge.
          The Loop Trail is decent climb over a short distance.  The path is also in good condition.  I bypassed the Sunkota Ridge Trail, which I could have easily taken north as part of my loop, but I'll save it for a later date.  I quickly went down the other side of the ridge to be reunited with Deep Creek.  I was going to take a right here and continue upstream which meant I was going to leave out the one mile stretch between here and the start of Indian Creek Trail.  Depending on how I felt later in the day would determine if I made my way back here to finish it off.  At this point I began to hear the pattering of rain on the forest canopy and felt sprinkles falling.  I didn't have to go far before the trail that followed an old road bed narrowed into foot path.
          After scaling a small rise I arrived at Campsite #60.  The rain wasn't about to let up and I had lost the enjoyment of feeling refreshed by its coolness.  Time to throw on the raincoat.  This would also mean the picture taking would be limited unless things cleared up.  I still had another 3.5 miles to go until I reached the Martins Gap Trail.  This is where things turned sour.  Despite what the guide book showed in regards to the slight elevation gain up Deep Creek, the numerous ups and downs were torture.  I was reminded of my first encounter with Deep Creek, that being the upper portion from Newfound Gap Road to Martins Gap Trail.  The trail conditions were horrible to put it modestly.  Having to fight through thorny blackberries, blowdowns, untamed rhododendron, other saplings, and spiderwebs while walking over mud, unbridged stream crossings, and rocks was the norm for that hike.  The case wasn't much different in regards to today's section of Deep Creek.  Rocks littered the trail and they were slick.  Boards had been layed down in a few places but in a disorganized fashion.  They were hazardous to walk on as well because of the wet surface.  Here I was expecting a relatively flat walk until I reacehd Martins Gap, but the unrelenting ups and downs of the trail as it maneuvered between the rocky mountainside and the river were draining on mind and body.  What made matters worse was that the rain got heavier the further I went.  At several places I considered turning around, but I managed to talk myself out of it because why cover all the distance just to double back and not get new miles.  So I pressed on in hopes that my turnoff was close.  It just wasn't happening.  Of all the hikes I had done up to that point, this single 3.5 mile stretch was taking the longest.  If I were a movie critic and the name of the film was Deep Creek Trail, I wouldn't hesitate to give it a review of 0 out of 5 stars.  I had enough of it and I still had a lot more ground to cover that afternoon.
          Eventually...and I mean eventually, I made it to Campsite #57 at Bryson Place.  I had connected the dots and completed the Deep Creek Trail, except for that one mile bit near the campground.  I did what I could to find a comfortable spot to sit and eat some lunch at one of the picnice tables.  Trying to hold my coat over my food and eat while fending off spiders was quite a chore.  After the break, it was time for some uphill.  I had to once again scale Sunkota Ridge, but since I was further north, I had a greater climb to reach Martins Gap.
          Anything that took place after this point is forgettable.  There wasn't anything that great to see, nothing interesting was happening.  Just rain.  So I made my way up, then made my way down the other side toward Indian Creek.  The intersection where these two trails meet isn't your typical one.  Usually the come to a T or an X, but these two just oddly collide in the middle of the woods and a sign was put off to the side.  Very peculiar.  I was drenched, but the rain had begun to let up a little.  I took off my pack and rain coat and hung them on the sign.  Who knows, maybe they'd dry up and air out for me. HA!!!
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          When I went to collect my things and begin the process of heading south, my camera was starting to have issues.  It wouldn't turn on, then it wouldn't turn off, then it wouldn't access the memory card to show me the pictures I took.  I was forced to pop the batteries in and out several times to try and get it start up.  Eventually the entire thing just locked up and became useless.  I'm sure you can just imagine the frustration I would have felt at this point.  I'll spare you the unpleasantries.  I had a feeling that all the rain and moisture may have had its way with my camera anytime I took it out of my pack to snap a quick photo of a sign.  All I could do was put it in my pack and attempt to dry it out once I returned to the motel.  Either way, it was not looking good at this point, and my day was pretty much ruined.
          I wasn't even going to try and put on twenty miles today.  I had decided that the small segment of Deep Creek I bypassed would have to wait for another day.  I came to the junction with the Deeplow Gap Trail and took it a few tenths up to where it met the Indian Creek Motor Trail.  This would help in terms of mapping out future loop hikes, the same reason I had done the Stone Pile Gap Trail earlier in the day.  Future attempts to use my camera came up empty.  I just made haste down Indian Creek back to the campground.  Again, because of my state of mind, the rest of this hike was a blur.  The rain had reduced itself to passing mists, so I could at least put my hood down without getting anymore soaked than I already was.
          Before the end, I saw the loop trail that would take me up to Juney Whank Falls.  I knew I wouldn't be able to take any pictures, but I wanted to finish the hike on a good note.  It's a pretty steep climb up that particular way.  I took a moment to appreciate the falls, then headed down to the parking lot to call it a day.  I was able to accumulate a good deal of new miles, but I was left wondering if the cost at which I did it was too great.  I was drenched and my beloved camera was ruined.  I don't think I'll be looking to hike in the rain the rest of the year.
 
Journal discussing 23.2 mile ridge walk from Clingmans Dome to High Rocks and back coming soon!
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Early fall morning with views from the Clingmans Dome parking lot.
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Some of the first reds of the season sported by the witch hobble.
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Heart leaved asters and erect goldenrod frequently lining the trail along Welch Ridge.
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Well crafted stair case leading up to the summit of High Rocks.
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Brief view down into Fontana Lake from bluffs of High Rocks.
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The park service cabin for the former High Rocks firetower withering away.
 
          The first time I did the Grapeyard Ridge Trail was several years ago during the early spring season.  My uncle and I had begun on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail where the Jim Bales barns and cabins are and headed east.  The trek is full of little ups and downs, but nothing terribly difficult.  At various points one may become disoriented by the occasional unmarked side trail.  I remember guessing at a few, luckily they had all worked out.  When we arrived at Campsite #32 about 4.5 miles in, we stopped for a lunch break.  Without bothering to look at my map to see that we needed to retrace our steps back to a junction and uphill,  we elected to follow an obvious, wide, and well trodden path from below the campsite and downhill.  It followed the creek and as I said, came across as your typical Smokies trail.  There were spots where we even crossed Injun Creek on footlogs.  I had remembered reading about a wrecked boiler in the creek, but we never saw one, so then we started to second guess our direction of travel.  Rather than turn around, we kept following the obvious path, eventually coming out beside the ranger station in Greenbrier.  It was then determined that we went in the opposite direction we needed to from Campsite #32; thus, reaching our hikes end a few miles north of where we originally planned to be.  Luckily, the distance covered was shorter and we were able to reach the road before our shuttle had arrived and wave them down.  When I got back to Michigan, I did some research and discovered that the path we ended up taking was in fact the Injun Creek manway, popular among locals.  So no harm done, just a part of the Grapeyard Ridge Trail left unfinished.
          With that said, the portion I still needed to complete was the eastern 3.2 miles coming out of Greenbrier.  I had numerous opportunities to do it throughout the year, but I figured I would save it for a morning hike on a day I had to go back up Mt. LeConte.  This mid-September day was warm and sunny, and surprisingly there were a lot of cars parked at the trailhead.  I wondered if I might see anyone, but apparently they were there for the other trails in the area or playing in the river.  Right away the trail moves uphill, passing faint side paths along the way, representative of the western half of this trail.  I had to step over a few small blowdowns, but nothing major.  There were several small creek crossings.  Fortunately water levels were down, but I can see them being pesky after a rain.  And there wasn't much happening in terms of wildflowers, but there were patches of goldenrods, asters, daisies, sweet-joe pye-weed, and some unidentified fruit.  The ascending wasn't all too bad until I began to approach James Gap.  At this point I was beginning to feel the sun's warmth and the climb steepened.  I was relieved to reach the gap because I knew it meant that I was nearing the wrecked boiler, and just beyond that, the campsite.  So down I went, evntually picking up the creek.  Sure enough as I rounded the bend along the creek, there to my right was the scattered wreckage of an old, rusted logging boiler.  Most of the pieces were left intact, just strewn along the creek bed.  The wheels were being overgrown with wildflowers like pink and white turtlheads.
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          I took some various pictures of the wreckage, then moved in closer for inspection.  To my amazement, I read on the side of the boiler the manufacturer "Nichols & Shepard Co." based out of Battle Creek, MI.  Now there's a shout-out back to the Mitt!  It was so surreal to see something like that in the park, not to mention that I had been putting this hike off for a few years since that spring debacle.  Continuing downhill, I soon reached the infamous junction, which now had a sign.  If only it was there a few years ago.  Moving on, I paid a quick visit to the campsite, which was being occupied by some overnighters.  I didn't linger and chose to head on back, for I still had an entire afternoon of climbing left to do.
 
          Well, after yet another road closure debacle, I was going to make sure my hike started in an area not under construction.  I also wanted to get in at least one hike this week that afforded views because the weather this month continued to be stellar.  I had just the hike picked out.  The park's east side was still very foreign to me, so it was time to change that by going to one of the more famous locations in Mount Sterling.  The lookout tower there was still intact and offered a 360 degree panorama of the Smokies' eastern half and into the Pisgah National Forest.  I had been putting this hike off for a long time and the moment had finally come.  I was incredibly anxious to hit the trail and get the day rolling.
          I had never driven past Cosby before either, so I was excited about getting to check out the views from the Foothills Parkway along the way too.  I just missed seeing sunrise when I drove up to the first vista.  The valley floor was a thick green and the main ridge in the distance possessed shades of blue.  For the most part, the skies were completely clear and the visibility was astounding.  My anticipation for what was to come that day now shot through the roof.
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          The way I had selected to ascend Mount Sterling was not going to be the easiest.  The shortest and quickest way would be to drive along the narrow, windy, unpaved road that spans the eastern side of the park to the Mount Sterling Trail.  I was going to save that way for a fall hike that would include the entire Mount Sterling Ridge Trail.  So the next sensible option was to create a loop hike out of the Baxter Creek, Mount Sterling Ridge, Swallow Fork, and Big Creek trails.  I liked this idea because I was about to rake in a ton of new miles.  The big question remained...which way was I going to take up to the summit?  Either way, this was going to be a long day, covering more than seventeen miles over 4,000 feet of elevation change.  If I went counterclockwise via Big Creek the climb would be much more gradual and drawn out.  If I went clockwise and immediately up via Baxter Creek, I would cover the entire climb in about six miles then be able to coast downhill the rest of the way.  That particular climb is known to many as one of the more difficult and unrelenting climbs in the park.  Well, I'm not one to shy away from a challenge, so I would take this bull by the horns and dominate the Baxter Creek Trail.
          The trailhead crosses Baxter Creek on an elaborate footbridge similar to that along the Gatlinburg Trail.  The scenery here at the creek and around the Big Creek campground is very pretty this time of year.  Soon after crossing the creek, the trail swings right and parallels it for a bit then wastes no time in beginning the long and arduous climb to the top.  It also passes an old chimney littered with rusty parts not far from the start.  Early on the trail makes its way around several rocky cliffs rising out of the the broad mountainside.  The landscape the majority of the time is that of open woods with a history tied to the logging days.  Much of the forest floor is covered in ferns, pale jewelweed, and black cohosh.
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          Every so often I would pass a tree with a massive trunk standing next to the path only to look up and see a gaping hole in the canopy.  One by one, I would count dead hemlock after hemlock, a very grave reality facing the entire population of that species in the park.  So many grand giants now left behind as ghostly matchsticks covering mountainsides everywhere.
          The trail sees a number of switchbacks as it ascends the long arm of Mount Sterling before finally getting high enough to follow the ridgeline.  As it does, the scenery changes from open woods to a spruce and fir forest littered with boulders and mosses.  I was enthralled by the entire atmosphere during this part of the hike.  The early morning light was just coming up over the ridge line, golden rays shimmering through the trees.  The moss that adorned the forest floor was such a rich green and it sort of reminded me of Fangorn Forest in "Lord of the Rings."  Of course if I ran into Gandalf coming down the trail then I might actually believe I had crossed into Middle Earth at some point.  Continuing on...the countless number of exposed boulders that weren't covered by the mosses gave off a shiny white appearance as opposed to a typical, dull gray.  The trail's surroundings were like this much of the way in the last mile and a half before reaching the tower.  It was more prominent on the mountain's northern side.
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          Eventually the trail finds its way directly onto the ridge and remains there until the top.  A few tenths before the summit one passes the side trail to the spring.  Shortly after, I came out of the woods and found myself standing below a transformer box, power lines, and the lookout tower.  There was a group of men in hardhats in and around the tower.  At the base was a gator with supplies, several large cables, and a member of the park service most likely there to supervise.  I walked up to the tower, looked up, and started taking pictures, but then one of the men up in the tower started getting antsy about what I was doing.  He asked why I was there and what I was taking pictures of, like I was some spy or safety inspector or who knows what.  I quickly assurred him I was just a harmless hiker there to enjoy the sights like any other normal person would on a mountain in a national park.  He then backed off and continued on with his work.  They were in the midst of repairing the antenna that had been critically damaged by weather.  It was sticking out from the side of the tower and one man was dangling beside it with newer cables to be fed up to the dish.
          I wandered around a little bit, trying to stay out of there way.  I went over to the campsite that sits in the tower's shadow and found an unoccupied tent.  The campsite itself was closed and I came to find out that the tent was being used as a decoy.  Attached to a tree right beside the tent was a motion sensored camera that snaps pictures of animals or people as they move by.  We've had to use them on a few occasions on Mt. LeConte in regards to bears, so I knew right away what it was.  Of course I didn't leave without making a few funny faces.
          I went back over to the tower and politely asked if I could climb to the top for some pictures.  After all, I just hiked over six miles and gained about 4,200 feet with hopes of seeing grand views of the park.  I was NOT about to get robbed of that.  Sure enough, they were about to take a lunch break and were nice enough to let me have the tower as long as I desired.  So I started to make my way up.
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          As I made my way up the long series of stairs, the wind started to pick up.  I wasn't able to see the mountain tops in the distance until I got above the firs and spruces that dominate the summit.  I could progressively see more around me as I got higher, kind of like a curtain being drawn for someone on stage.  The last of the workers came down from the observation deck and I was able to step inside and get out of the driving wind.  What I was able to see at that point was truly amazing.
          I was overlooking the entire eastern half of the park.  What's unique about Mount Sterling is that it sits higher than the now accepted main ridge of the park in which the AT follows north.  West of Inadu Knob all the way to Mount Cammerer, the main ridge is lower than the summit of Mount Sterling as well as Big Cataloochee Mountain and the Balsam Mountain range that forks from the AT.  To the south one can see a wall that is the Cataloochee Divide meeting up with the lower end of Balsam Mountain.  Nothing obscures these major peaks and ranges because the are only separated by valleys; Big Creek to the north and Cataloochee to the south.  Looking toward the east beyond I-40 affords one views of the expansive Pisgah National Forest and its famous bald dome, Max Patch.  All impressive to say the least since there aren't that many opportunities to see such views around the park.  Obviously the views were better below the boxed in deck, without having to look through the framed-in glass.  A few individual window panes were missing or cracked so the wind was still finding a way to funnel through.
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          Mount Sterilng also shares similarities with the tower at Cove Mountain in that a column has been stripped of trees down the mountainside for utility lines.  There's also a good number of antennas and a large dish attached to the observation deck that faces west.  It was very difficult to leave, especially since the views were so grand, accompanied by blue and sunny skies.  Nevertheless, I wanted to respect the crew there that was kidn enough to let me have the tower to myself for a while.  I took my time heading down, soaking up every last ounce of views I could before slipping below the tree line.  The major highlight of the day was now behind me, but I had a good chunk of miles left to cover on the way down.
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          Not long after I descended into the cover of the woods, I was passed by another gator that came up the Mount Sterling Trail, wide enough for vehicles that size to come up and perform timely maintenance on the tower.  When I came to a fork in the trail, I went right across the Mount Sterling Ridge for a time.  The trail conditions here are quite rocky, so careful steps are required as not to roll an ankle.  I soon came out at Pretty Hollow Gap and the four way junction there.  I plan on returning here in the fall in which I will continue straight along the Mount Sterling Ridge.  To go left down Pretty Hollow Gap would bring me out at Cataloochee.  But today, my journey was taking me downhill and to the right via Swallow Fork.  At the junction was an unoccupied encampent belong to the crew repairing the lookout tower.  All of their camping gear, food, and fuel were under a tarp and surrounded by an electric fence.  I knew that because there was a large danger sign nailed to a nearby tree.  I figured they were staying here and not the campsite atop Mount Sterling because of the aggressive bear activity there.
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          The trip down Swallow Fork was somewhat monotonous and uneventful.  As soon as you leave the ridgetop you're in the woods for good, weaving in and out of ravines and crossing small creeks.  The only real excitement came when I approached Big Creek.  The slopes began to flatten out and the roar of the creek grew louder.  Eventually I reached the intersection at Walnut Bottoms.  I was in this area back in May when I did the Low Gap - Camel Gap - AT loop, but all these trails don't meet at a junction.  Instead, the trails are separated by the creek and a campsite, yet joined by bridge and short couple of tenths of trail.  So I did a brief out and back just to connect the dots.
          The remainder of my hike was going to be fairly level back to the campground, but it was still five miles of walking.  Sure, flat ground is nice, but when you've gone a great distance already, it tends to drag on and on.  Walking beside Big Creek was pleasnt and the trail zigzags over it on a few bridges wide enough for small motorized vehicles and horses.  This stretch had started to wear on my mind and I began to wonder if I had completely missed Mouse Creek Falls.  It felt like I had already covered a lot of terrain and even thought about turning back.  That would have been crazy, so I just kept going with fingers crossed.  Finally, I arrived at a clearing on my right and there it was across the creek.  Weather had been dry the last several days, so there wasn't much water coming down the falls, but still nice to see for the first time.  At least the falls was obvious.
          Just a half mile further down the trail I would come upon Midnight Hole, but there was no sign defining its location, nor was there a path.  Luckily, I had seen pictures of it before and knew what to expect, although it took some looking.  I came to a point where trail skirts close to the creek and several large boulders.  I decided to stop and investigate, coming to the conclusion that I had indeed found it.  Again, the water levels were low, so it wasn't necessarily standing out from the normal flow or pools of the average creek.  To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed, so I took a few pictures then headed out.  Maybe I'll think differently when I return in the future.  It also didn't help that I was quite ready to be done for the day.
          The final leg of the hike dragged on.  It was such a relief to finally round the corner and see the campground.  I had thus completed a seventeen mile loop that saw me cover aroudn 4,500 feet of elevation gain and loss.  I guess I had a reason to be tired at that point.  Before I reached my vehicle, I stumbled across a large cluster of black swallowtail butterflies sunning themselves.  I got a chuckle out of it.  I had seen so many of them, along with their yellow cousins, on so many of my summer hikes, sometimes totalling in the hundreds.  I never bothered to get a pictures, though, since I always enjoyed walking real close in order to stir them into a fluttering frenzy.
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          The return trip over the Foothills Parkway was better than the first.  The clarity was even more outstanding and the greens and blues were more vivd than what I saw that morning.  It is certainly one of the park's better overlooks in my opinion.  A great view to cap off an amazing and unforgettable day chalked full of great views.
 
Entry about Mingus Creek - Thomas Divide - Deeplow Gap loop hike coming soon!
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The squirrels have been busy and nutty!
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Standing at base of nearly 100' Little Creek Cascade.
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Ominous boundary marker at end of Cooper Creek Road.
 
          This weekend I decided to surprise everybody and make a return trip back to Michigan with Bonnie to see some friends and family.  But most importantly, we came to attend the first Michigan football game of the year.  It was great to be back in the Mitt and be around the electrifying game day atmosphere once again.  So nice to see my boys in blue win and spend the weekend relaxing around the house.  Although, I can honestly say that I'm ready for this detachment from the mountains to be over.  It's quite a change of scenery here with all this flat land and corn fields.  As much as I have enjoyed my time here in Michigan, I can't wait to see some mountains and streams again and with fewer people around.  Happy Labor Day to all and enjoy the rest of the summer!  Oh, and GO BLUE!!!!!!!!
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Journal about nearly 21 mile escapade across the Balsam Mountain range from Round Bottom to Tricorner Knob coming soon!
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Catching sunrise from Luftee Gap along Newfound Gap Road.
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Morning at the unchanged Laurel Gap Shelter.
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Interesting mountain side of smooth rock, a rare sighting in the Smokies.
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Inside the already refurbished Tricorner Knob Shelter for the first time in 5 years.
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Miles and miles and miles and miles of these trees....hence named Balsam Mountain.