Yesterday afternoon and evening we received some rainfall down in the valley.  With the overnight low gettin below freezing, that would likely mean the upper elevations saw snow.  Sure enough, when I woke up that morning and made my way up through the park, Newfound Gap and above had a coating of snow on the ground and trees.  I was looking to pick up where I had yesterday in terms of checking the various nature trails and quiet walkways.  I had completed the Tennessee side of Newfound Gap Road, so my plan today was to do those that remained on the North Carolina side.  The subsequent new miles would also be enough to get me to my 600 mile goal for the year.
          Despite the snow on the roads, the way up to Clingmans Dome was still open.  I only needed to go as far as the Spruce Fir Nature Trail, though, and the dome itself was sitting in a cloud that hadn't yet burned off.  I parked at the trailhead and made my way around the short loop.  Compared to the trails yesterday, this one was immaculate.  Nothing was overgrown, the path was obvious, and a number of boardwalks had been installed to bypass muddy patches.  Very thoughtful on behalf of the park service.  Everything in the woods was blanketed in white and the boardwalks were somewhat slick.  A number of the branches were hanging low, so when I didn't lean enough to get under them, I ended up getting snow down the back of my shirt.
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          Before I left this nature trail for those next on the list, I took a few pictures of the dome road while the snow was still there.  It was obvious that as soon as the sun would hit it, the snow would quickly disappear.  I was planning on coming back to the mountains after Thanksgiving, but I wasn't sure if I would see snow again until next year.  I made sure to look around and enjoy it before hopping back into my vehicle.
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          There are two quiet walkways in the vicinity of the vistas overlooking Deep Creek.  One heads downhill abruptly to unite with the actual Deep Creek Trail.  It may have been a second access point at one time.  Either way, this path was atrocious.  It should either be tackled by the maintenance crews or flat out condemned.  Blowdowns were everywhere, the overgrowth was annoying, and deciphering where the trail was had become problematic.  Thankfully it was short and I was able to reach Deep Creek Trail, but I don't think I'll ever take that way again.  The other nature trail that starts just a little ways down the road was much more enjoyable.  It was one of those that didn't have an end point, so it was up to the hiker to measure distance and decided when to turn around.  It follows the crest of Shot Beech Ridge and the openings between trees are wide.  When I chose to make my way back, I think I had gone farther than the distance provided on the map.  I easily could have continued downhill because the grade was so gradual and the way through the trees so open.  I wonder if it's possible to take the entire ridge down to Deep Creek without ever having to fight through the brush.  I guess I'd save that answer for another day.
          Next up was the quiet walkway that simply follows the old Newfound Gap Road.  This would be the line cutting across the Thomas Divide one would see from the overlook at Newfound Gap in the fall or winter.  You could probably hike the old road from Newfound Gap down to where it comes out at the current one.  Depending on what direction your coming from, you'll see a grassy opening and a gate off into the woods.  This would be where the old road came out.
          After that it was down to the parking lot for the Kanati Fork Trail.  The quiet walkway that leads away from the main trail on the opposite side of the road is very short and merely takes you down to the river.  I literally blinked and had this trail done.  I was then planning to do the first part of the manway that leads up from Collins Creek campground, but I made a mistake and didn't realize that the campground was now closed.  So all that I had to do now was the section of horse trail from the Smokemont entrance to the Bradley Fork trailhead.  If you're someone who is crossing the Smokies by way of the Benton MacKaye Trail, you likely either take this connector trail or just follow the road through the campground.  I would recommend the road because this was a horse trail...and muddy.  Either way, it's behind me now.
          I had seen enough hiking for the day, if not for the year.  I had finally surpassed the 600 mile mark out of all the trails in the park.  I had also brought my total number of miles hiked for the year to 1,300.  Whew!  That's a lot of hiking in less than nine months.  I certainly had a blast doing it all, and I can't wait to pick up where I left off next season.  Hopefully I'll be in good health and find a way to complete all of the remaining trails in the park.  Until then, it's time to head up the mountain one more time then take some time off for the holidays.  Thanks for joining me on this incredible journey, and I'll look to keep it going next year!
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          It was getting late in the year and the 2010 season on Mt. LeConte was about to come to a close in another week.  I would be chasing a lie that I wasn't ready to take a break from hiking as well.  I was nearing my goal of eclipsing the 600 mile benchmark out of all the trails in the Smokies.  The thing was that I didn't want to do anymore long hikes, long drives, or any more climbing than what was needed to get me up and down Mt. LeConte one more time.  Now I recently gone to a hiking store and picked up the National Geographic maps of the park that split it in two halves and thus offer a more detailed topographic interpretation.  It also provided the locations and distances of a few more trails, specifically the numerous nature trails and quiet walkways.  Anywhere you drive through the park you are bound to see one beside the road.  They  are meant for people who are looking to get into the woods for a short time but not stray too far from the vehicle or get bogged down in some strenuous hike.  Well, I did some calculations and determined that if you combine the distances of all these trails, you get about 15.5 miles worth.  That's a good portion of trails in the grand scheme of things.  I've decided to include them in my quest for completing the park because they fit the main criteria...they are marked on an official park map and the trailhead have signs.  Good enough for me!
          Since they are each short individually, I would need to knock out several of them in one day to get the miles I desired.  This would require a lot of driving and getting in and out of the car.  Nevertheless, I was up to the task.  Now a number of them I had already done in years past, such as Elkmont, Cosby, Sugarlands, and Smokemont, so I had a good start.  My plan this day was to hit the three paths between the visitor center and Elkmont first.  So one by one I parked at each of the respective pulloffs, wandered into the woods til I found trails end or completed a loop, then came back.  With all the leaves down, some of the paths were confusing.  I ended up climbing a hill to find a cemetery on one of them.  And the trails that weren't loops sort of just fizzled out and I was left to assume that I had reached the end.  Here I am an experienced hiker and the description for these trails talk about people being able to relax and enjoy an easy walk in the woods.  I was beginning to wonder.
          Next up, I was going to complete the stretch of trails that connect at various points along Newfound Gap from a pulloff before the Huskey Gap Trail to another just past Campbell Overlook.  There are four possible entryways leading down to a main path that parallels the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.  Some of the paths follow old road beds, pass between the locations of old settlements, and cross small footbridges.  But don't let any of that fool you, because the majority of these trails are a joke.  The conditions were awful because finding the actual trail was next to impossible.  A trail meant for any tourist to enjoy a casual stroll was quickly becoming a chore and a dilemma.  The freshly fallen leaves probably hid the path in places, but there were numerous blowdowns and creek crossings.  On various occasions I thought I was following a path when in reality I was just wondering through the woods.  I did my best to stick with the river and keep an out for the vehicle pulloffs up above.  I did take some time to move closer to the river and admire the rushing waters brought on by the previous night's rain.  The boulders, falls, and pools were large in this one particular area.
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          I'm not sure how I managed to come out to the road at each of the four correct points, because I truly guessed on two of them.  When I reached the southern terminus of the trail, I just decided to take the road back to my vehicle and not even screw with going back that way.  Quiet walkway and nature trail...yeah right.  I still had the northernmost quarter to do because where I parked was at a fork in the trail.  I took the right to start which brought me south, so now I had complete the other direction.  Somewhere along the way I astonished by what I saw.  Sticking out from the leaves were a number of blue violets.  Here it was in the middle of November.  I'm guessing that a recent warm spell confused the wildflowers into thinking it was spring again.  Talk about a rare and pleasant surprise.
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          When I finished that particular nature trail, I had seen enough.  I was closer to the 600 mile mark and that was just fine.  Tomorrow's forecast looks to be better, so maybe I'll give the nature trails on the North Carolina side a shot.  Here's to hoping that they're in better shape.
 
          My last days off the mountain were here.  The fall season was fizzling out and my nine month hiking blitz was winding down.  I still had some work to do in order to reach my 600 mile benchmark regarding all the park's trails.  The forecast today called for rain in the afternoon, so I didn't want to drive very far or hike a great distance as not to get caught out in it.  I still saw some viable options in the Cosby area.  I had been putting off the Gabes Mountain Trail on a number of occasions, so now seemed like a great opportunity.  Depending on how I felt and what the weather did would determine the rest of my route after completing the entire stretch across Gabes Mountain.  If my body was feeling energized when I reached Maddron Bald Trail, I would head uphill sharply and form a loop hike with Snake Den Ridge.  That would be a lot of work, so I wasn't committed to it.  The other option would be much shorter and easier, taking Maddron Bald downhill to its trailhead and back.
          When I arrived at the Cosby campground, I was the only one there.  The campground itself was closed for the winter, and the tourists had basically disappeared after Halloween.  Combine that with the chance of icky weather, it all made sense that I had the region to myself.  The first part of Gabes Mountain Trail heads uphill most of the way, crossing creeks on footbridges or rock hops.  Many of the crossings were picturesque with fallen leaves stuck to the boulders in the streams.
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          At one point, an unmaintained path cuts in from the right.  This used to be an old road that came up from Cosby and served as the old trail to the popular Henwallow Falls.  The trail detours a few massive, natural rock walls covered in leaves and moss.  It then scales a small ridge before coming to a fork that leads one down to the falls.  Henwallow Falls is situated in a steep drainage along the mountainside.  Since the canopy was completely bare, I could see through the trees and pick out Cosby and other homes in the valley.  It's something that I never really thought about until that moment, but where else in the park can you go to a waterfall and also have view.  Even though the falls is spindly compared to others in the park, perhaps it's this view that makes it so popular.  There are a good number of boulders below the falls appropriately placed for viewing, resting, and snacking.
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          After a brief photo session, I returned to the maing trail continued west.  The trail then goes above the falls, hits a switchback on a ledge, then ascends steeply.  The rest of the way is mostly spent in the woods, so the views are limited.  Gabes Mountain Trail weaves in and out of ravines and ridgelines.  Not long after the falls, it reaches its crest in terms of elevation change and follows a pretty consistent contour.  Just before arriving at Campsite #34, I had to navigate a large blowdown blocking my way.  It was recent fall as I could tell from the fresh smells of broken wood and the bright coloration of the interior.  There was no way over or under this one, so I had to wander through the brush and around the severed trunk to get back on track.
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          The trail then dips down into a broad drainage, crosses a creek, and comes out at the campsite.  There are terraced lots on either side of the creek.  It looked like a very pleasant area to spend some time in the wilderness.  It's a quick up past the campground that is short lived.  The trail then makes its way down the slopes of Gabes Mountain in a gentle serpentine manner.
          After the descent, I came out to a very open intersection with Maddron Bald and Old Settlers trails.  There were a couple of carved out benches for weary hikes and several trail signs directing the confused.  I heard rumbles of thunder not long before then, so I eliminated the longer loop hike option.  I was going to turn right and continue downhill alond the wide, former roadbed of Maddron Bald toward the park boundary.  It comes out near a campground and neighborhood notorious for auto theft and break-ins, so avoid parking your vehicle there when doing this section of trail.  The path down from the junction is very gradual, and in a short time bypasses the Baxter Cabin.  It sits off trail to the left in an open, grassy area all by itself.  It's a very simple square building compared to the other cabins being preserved across the park.
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          Past the cabin, the landscape doesn't change much.  Toward the end you begin to see houses and side streets before finally coming out at a back road.  A sign there warns hiker about locking their vehicles and taking all valuables with them, and for good reason.  I looked around real quick then headed back on up.
          The return hike was just that, a repeat of everything I encountered coming out.  Clouds were dropping lower so the views I had near the falls were gone.  The rumbles of thunder continued.  Now there are two trailhead for Gabes Mountain if you come from Cosby campground.  The way I first took begins at the parking lot, while the other leads south toward the campground.  To be sure and get all the new miles I could, I took the alternative.  I also needed to finish up various portions of the horse trail that follows the circumference of the campground, so I literally took the long way back to my vehicle.  In the process of extending my hike, it finally decided to rain.  It never got heavier than a shower and it fely refreshing.  I managed to rake in a few more tenths, but I was still a good deal shy of the 600 mark.  It would have to wait til tomorrow.  Hopefully the sour weather wouldn't stick around.
 
Journal discussing 20.5 mile lower elevation trek between Noland and Forney Creeks coming soon.
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The dark and daunting Tunnel along the "Road to Nowhere."
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Old chimney from CCC settlement, also located at Campsite #71.
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Noland Creek crashes over rocks as it enters Lake Fontana.
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Some lingering fall color as seen from Lakeview Drive overlook.
 
Entry regarding loop hike with Bonnie west of Cades Cove coming soon!
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A serene morning beside Abrams Falls.
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Some lingering fall color along a dry Hatcher Mountain Trail.
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View across Cades Cove from trailhead of Cooper Road.
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Crossing a fortunately dry flood plain via Wet Bottom Trail.
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A popular Cades Cove overlook as seen from Rich Mountain Road.