Today is the last day of this Smokies visit, and Mary, Clarence and I select a day hike up Beech Gap Trail I from Straight Fork Road to Balsam Mountain Trail paired with the easy walk down Balsam we had so enjoyed yesterday. Since rain has been in the forecast every day of the trip, we carry enough provisions and gear to help us through any unexpected delays, what Clarence terms a “heavy day pack.” We drop one car at Balsam and drive the other to Beech Gap.
The morning is a mix of sun and clouds, and the August humidity is brutal. Beech Gap Trail heads straight up nearly 2,000’ in 2.5 miles. Ordinarily, these conditions would kick our butts; however, we are all in better shape thanks to our previous outing and a good night’s sleep in air conditioning! Lighter packs help too. We do sweat a lot, yet we still make good time climbing to the junction in less than two hours. It is just as steep as Hyatt Ridge and 0.6 mile longer, but it sure doesn’t feel anywhere near as demanding as that first trail Aug 13.
Beech Gap is lush and rich. I note about 70 different species of plants, just a small part of what is there. It would be gorgeous in spring. At the junction, we eat lunch and began our second descent of lower Balsam Mountain in two days. A wet and muddy hog wallow shows fresh signs of visitation. A pair of juncos fuss as we pass by. A light shower threatens, and we outfit ourselves for rain, but nothing comes of it. We reach the trailhead having logged 4.8 very pleasant miles (plus lunch) in 3 hrs., 23 mins.
This trip is a major milestone for me. Any questions as to whether I am interested enough, fit enough, or determined enough to hike all the trails in the park have now been answered with a resounding yes! Clarence and Mary declare me an official backpacker. As my main mentor, Clarence has a bit of fun and “knights” me with his trekking pole! There is now no section of the park’s trails I cannot successfully access given reasonable weather and a good hiking buddy or two.