And so it begins!  The 2011 hiking season that will see my journey across the Smokies take me to new and unforgettable places is here!  After a two month hiatus, my first hike in the park couldn't come soon enough.  As much as I would have loved to bust open the gate with a twenty mile hike in uncharted territory, my body that has been growing bigger and lazier since the holidays would not allow it.  Plus this trip was planned with the intention of relaxing and simply getting back in touch with my mountain home.  It also fell in the middle of roadtrip with Bonnie, on our way from Georgia the last week to Michigan the upcoming week.  As for specific hikes, we had no plans other than a possible return to Mt. LeConte.  We were going to play each day by ear in terms of the weather and how we felt after months of hiking inactivity.
          Today saw a pleasant winter afternoon with sunny skies and moderate temperatures.  We wanted to do something exciting that would also take advantage of the weather, but not too long as to sap us of our strength so soon.  We soon found our hearts set on venturing out to see Ramsey Cascades.  It was one she was eager to see for the first time, and it was one I was hoping to revisit after several years.  I originally had it planned as a hike last year but elected to scrap it from my  schedule in order to attain new miles.  So today looked like the perfect day!
          After a stop to the visitor center, we learned that the entire road out to Greenbrier was open.  This time of year one can't be too careful in making preparations for being out in the backcountry.  If roads or trails are in bad shape and you are caught unaware by the elements without the proper gear or mindset, you could be in serious trouble.  My biggest worry at the time was the potential for snow and ice on the unpaved roads.  Yes, I had 4WD, but sometimes these mountain roads get high up with steep dropoffs and no guardrail.  Fortunately, the road out to the trailhead was completely open, though the mud did do quite a number on my vehicle.
          When we parked and got out into the open air, it was a little cool, but hitting the trail and getting the blood flowing would resolve that in no time.  Immediately the trail crosses the river and leads you on your way around Greenbrier Pinnacle.  The water below us was raging from the snowmelt and the numerous pools between the rocks were clearer than diamonds.  Such a quality was one I remembered from my hikes last March when things were still cold and snow covered.  For whatever reason the water becomes darker and dirtier in places during the warmer part of the year.  The first mile and a half, an easy and gradual climb follows an old roadbed to a traffic circle.  At this point the old Greenbrier Pinnacle Trail begins to the left and the way to Ramsey Cascades continues straight ahead.  The pinnacle trail is no longer maintained by the park because of the introduction of peregrine falcons there.  The firetower at the summit has long since been removed as well, but the path is still a favorite for many hikers.  I made the climb one rainy summer day a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the views frmo the rocky outcrops.  Know this: it requires a good deal of bushwacking and hurdling over blowdowns, but the path is still easy to follow.  I failed to complete the last few tenths to the old firetower site, so I'll need to do that hike again someday.
          As for Bonnie and I, our task at hand was to make the climb up to Ramsey Cascades the steepens exponentially the further along one gets.  Just over a mile past the old traffic circle, the trail passes between and under two massive tulip poplars spared from the logging days of the mountains.  A few yards past the first two stands another bohemoth of a tulip, much larger than the others.  All three are impressive and easily dwarf the other trees in the vicinity.  It's always neat to compare yourself in size to one of these grand wonders.
          We had hiking for a while now and had begun to warm up considerably, so we shed a layer before continuing on.  The remaining mile and a half to the cascade is persistent with its ascent as it criss crosses the Ramsey Prong over footbridges and rock hops.  Despite the moderate temps and abundant sunlight, the shaded areas of the trail, particularly those along the northern sides of ridges, still had a lot of snow and ice.  The higher we got, the more snow and ice covering the trail.  We both had our stabilicers but we felt compelled to press on, skipping from exposed rocks and patches of dirt.  Sometimes there was nothing but ice so we needed to take slow and small steps while clinging to nearby rocks or saplings.  The rushing water grew louder and we eventually rounded a corner that brought the cascade into view.  At that point our excitement level and gratification skyrocketed.  The water was launching over the jumbled boulders that compile the cascade.
          The sun was shining in, but the shaded areas beside the falls still housed large columns of ice.  At the base of the falls was a faint and tiny rainbow, hard to pick out with a camera.  When we arrived we were plenty warm, but once we stopped moving to enjoy the cascade, the spray from the gushing water and wind funneling through the valley started to cool us down rapidly.  I took as many shots as I could before my hands started to feel the chill.  As beautiful as it was, and as much as we desired to stay, the unrelenting cold of the falls eventually drove us back into the woods and on our way.  Since the last mile before the cascade was buried in snow and ice, we decided to strap on our stabilicers to sure up our footing and enable us to move quicker through those sections.  Those cleats are thing of wonder! They always hold up on the snow and ice and have come in handy when working up at Mt. LeConte.  I would highly recommend them to anyone interested in winter hiking in the Smokies on trails with hard and slick layers of snowpack.  Obviously if you're looking to hike in deep, fresh snow, then by all means go for the snow shoes.
          The hike back toward Greenbrier was uneventful and enjoyable.  It was such a pleasant experience to be back in the park, out in the peaceful forest, basking in its beauty.  It was also great to finally get off my rear end and get some exercise for the first time in two months!