Despite the heavy rains from the previous night, the morning saw breaks in the clouds with a ceiling above the mountains.  The forecast called for more rain to develop throughout the day, but there was a window of opportunity to get in a good hike early.  Regardless of the weather, I was going to start out at Newfound Gap and complete the loop that takes one down Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, up Grassy Branch and Dry Sluice Gap Trails to Charlies Bunion, and across the AT back to where I began.  Usually this is the kind of hike you want to do on a clear day with so many view points along the way.  I realized that I might not catch any of them if the clouds stuck around, but also felt that the prospect of completing new trails and seeing different wildflowers would make for a great hike anyways.
          When I arrived at Newfound Gap, the cloud base had dropped just below 5,000 feet, so I would begin in the coolness of the clouds.  I started out wearing my rain gear but quickly shed it when it was making me hot.  It's not like I needed it anyways since the only precipitation was the occasional mist which actually felt nice as I made the ascent.  When I reached the junction with the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, I was still in the clouds, although there was jubilation.  I had passed by this trail sign countless times, but now I would finally be turning to the right to explore a new path.  Since I was doing a loop hike, I could have chosen to take the AT to the bunion first and reverse the ups and downs.  At this stage, I figured it was best to get the downhill out of the way while it wasn't raining, and who knew, maybe the clouds would break by the time I reached the bunion.  It was a gamble, but it was also my original plan, so I stuck with it.
          Shortly after leaving the AT one comes to a clearing in the trees where a small bench is situated to soak in the views south into North Carolina.  There would be none of the valleys below, just the white wall of the clouds.  The trail then made a switchback and quickly dropped.  There wasn't a whole lot for wildflowers along the way except for some white erect trillium, toothwort, and foamflower.  I received a surprise when I came across a lone pink lady's slipper, the only one for the day.  Neat to see one all the way up here and far from the Cades Cove vicinity where they seem to prosper.
          Further down I came to a point where a chunk of the mountain was missing.  Apparently this is where an old roadbed belonging to the Champion Fibre Company cut through the ridge to form a turn.  Shortly there after the trail comes to a level area where old rusty parts are scattered around the forest floor.
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          Still continuing the descent, I began to make several stream crossings, one being the Sweat Heifer Creek.  The creek was wide and had several cascades as it plummeted down the ravine.  This was also the area where I saw the first of the yellow bead lilies and brook lettuce in bloom.  On several previous hikes I had only been seeing the leaves and a few buds.
          Eventually I reached the Kephart Prong Shelter, nestled in a valley next to the creek.  It was a good time to have a bite to eat and reenergize before making the ascent to the bunion.  When I was here two years prior it was on a rainy day, and this time came under similar circumstances.  With several miles ahead of me, I was ready to press on.  Now the average hiker might be discouraged by the start of the Grassy Branch Trail.  It goes up immediately, and I mean up.  Plus one has to traverse two landslides that obviously need some work.  No worries, since after that point the trail becomes very pleasant and the ascent passes with ease, despite how it might look on paper.  For much of the way, the trail is lined with blackberry brambles and tall grasses; hence, the name.
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        About halfway up, I noticed a few breaks in the clouds where sunlight was penetrating through to the valleys.  The upper elevations remained socked in and patches of fog were present down below.  Foamflower was still blooming much of the way up, and you could see random sections where tall Norway spruces stood out in the forest, planted by the Champion Fibre Company and never harvested.  They are similar to the native red spruce, but possess branches that hang like a weeping willow.  The higher I got in elevation, the taller the grasses got that covered the trail, dampening my rain pants above my knees.  I can only imagine what this trail would be like in the summer, blackberries included.
          Once I reached the junction with the Dry Sluice Gap Trail, I was back in the clouds again.  Shortly after I made the turn toward the AT it began to mist...and then shower...and then rain heavily.  I have only but a few pictures from this portion of the hike since I needed to protect my camera from getting drenched.  I was hoping I could have had clear skies at this point because there were several stretches where the trees were open enough for views to the west and probably the backside of the bunion.  It was not to be.  As soon as I reached the AT at Dry Sluice Gap, I ran into the first person of the day, an older, bearded gentleman thru-hiking his way through the rain.  Again, views I should have had to the north were blocked by the white wall.  I knew this was the likely scenario, but it would have been nice to have the views.  The last time I was out this far was five years ago on a backpacking excursion, in which the weather was the same.  Eventually I'll hit it on a clear day.
          Less than a quarter mile before the bunion, I came to a clearing on the ridge's southern slope.  It was surreal because as soon as I stepped out of the woods and into the open the rain ceased, the clouds above formed a hole, and I was offered a view into the valley from which I just ascended.  At the same time, three more thru-hikers stopped for a break, also intrigued by the momentary break in the weather.  Oddly enough, I reentered the woods on the opposite side and the rain and clouds returned.  On my way up to the bunion I had no idea of what to expect other than a white out and wet rocks.  What was about to happen I'm not sure can ever be duplicated.
          As I took the trail that loops around the face of the bunion, I could see but a few feet in front of me.  I noticed that sand myrtle trail side were in bloom, so that was a bonus.  The clouds were becoming less dense as I went along and I could see further out to the bunion.  More of the blooming sand myrtle that clung to the rocky slopes could be seen up and down in colors of white and pink.  I was almost to the popular rocky outcrop when the rain ceased and I stopped to remove my rain coat.  I stuffed into my backpack, and looked up to an amazing sight.  The clouds were beginning to break up and disappear all around.  Suddenly I had views into Porters Valley, of green ridges in the distance, various cloud formations, and blue skies above.
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          The trend continued and my heart began to race with excitement.  I wasted no time in climbing the bunion to observe what was unfolding right in front of me.  The sun was shining brightly, enhancing the fresh spring greenery of the surrounding mountain sides, the cottonlike clouds, and the blue background of the sky.  Easily one of the most awe inspiring moments I've ever had in these majestic mountains.  The only way to serve the moment justice would be simply to describe it as perfection.  It begins with the timing.  Imagine if I decided to come out here first and reverse the loop.  I would have missed it all.  Stepping out of the rain to have the skies clear at this exact location, the sand myrtle all in bloom, and having the entire bunion to myself...I couldn't have even dreamed that one up.  Mother Nature sure knows how to work her magic!
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          Shortly after leaving the bunion, the clouds began to thicken and recover the ridges.  On my way up Mount Kephart, I passed several hikers who looked dejected from the weather conditions, and here I was all giddy and shaking from what I just witnessed.  I tried to explain to them what had happened without rubbing it in their faces, recommending that they have patience when they get there in that the clouds might break again.  I would assume they didn't since it began to rain by the time I reached Icewater Spring.  These conditions persisted most of the way back to Newfound Gap with occasional rays of sunshine and views into North Carolina.  It just amazes me how one moment with such timing made an okay hike into an incredible one.  I think I'll be talking about this one for a while to come!
Pat N. (Mom)
5/17/2010 09:51:11 pm

I could feel the thrills and excitement Mother Nature provided you...and I'm only sitting at a computer. Can't imagine the adrenaline rush you must have experienced. Simply amazing! God Bless Mother Nature!

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Tom
5/18/2010 12:34:33 am

You are one lucky guy. Must be good living. Reading your journal & seeing the photos are not the same as being there but it's as close as one could get! I continue to mention/share your sight with others and they are finally understanding why we love The Smokies so much and keep going back!

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