My hopes for a dry Wednesday morning are dashed sometime in the middle of the night. Raindrops patter the tent throughout the wee hours and well past dawn. I resign myself to striking camp in the rain. That isn’t my only problem. Again I sleep fully dressed yet still get cold. I finally admit that I should have brought a heavier sleeping bag. The 55 degree sleep sack is not suited to this unseasonably cool summer in the mountains.
To make matters worse, during the night I get cold underneath, feel the hard ground, and realize my REI insulated air sleeping pad has a slow leak. I struggle to blow it up in a one man tent. By morning, it’s bottomed out again. Things had been going so well and are now all going to hell at once.
I eat breakfast, put on full rain gear, and load everything but the tent in my pack before emerging from that little cell, then work quickly to wipe off water and splashed debris, take it down, and roll it up. At 8:05, I head up Big Creek and Camel Gap to the Gunter Fork Trail junction.
Signs are posted warning hikers to avoid Gunter Fork in high water. One tenth of a mile from the junction, the trail fords Big Creek. Park Service personnel warned me of this with a caution to watch the weather when I made my reservations. Given the rainy year it has been, I carefully eyed Big Creek yesterday and was relieved to see easily navigable water levels. The rain overnight has been light and has not made any appreciable difference to Big Creek. I remove shoes and socks, roll pants to my knees, and walk across with no difficulty.
There are several more unbridged stream crossings within the first two miles of Gunter Fork. I put my boots on without socks just in case this becomes routine. However, if Big Creek is this uneventful, the others should be even easier. Well, surprise, surprise, they are not.
These crossings of Gunter Fork (the creek) are full of rushing white water, awkward jumbles of rocks, and areas too deep for shoes. I try to plot a dry way across, but there are none. Boots definitely have to come off each time. Tugging on a recalcitrant boot at one crossing, it pops loose, squirts out of my hand, and lands in the water. Fortunately, the water isn’t moving quite as fast at this spot, and I grab it before it washes away. I’m not so lucky with my camera bag cover. It slips off and disappears downstream.
My progress is very slow, and stream crossings aren’t the only impediments. Vegetation crowds the trail. Broken branches of Rosebay Rhododendron obscure and block the way repeatedly. I must bend double to get past them.
Gunter Fork has a very remote feel to it, more like an old manway than an established park trail — like a backcountry bushwhacking wilderness experience in the middle of nowhere. I have not yet had that sensation on a Smokies trail. It is exhilarating and a little scary.
This wild sensation increases as the trail climbs higher toward Balsam Mountain. The path is very narrow in places, barely clinging to the steep mountainside. A couple of short sections are rough and tricky, held together with a hodgepodge of plant roots, a well placed rock or two, and a few murmured prayers. One misstep and I’d be in a world of hurt. Gunter Fork Trail was closed for a couple of years due to landslides. These scars are not large, but they reinforce the vulnerable and potentially hazardous nature of this trail. It is one of the few trails on this end of the park where horses are not allowed…for obvious reasons.
Having said all this, I will also say that Gunter Fork is beautiful. The raw wildness and sense of isolation are very much a part of that beauty. The trail is 4.1 miles long and climbs the side of Balsam Mountain 2,300 feet to Balsam Mountain Trail.
There are two gorgeous cascades on Gunter Fork, both worth the effort to visit. A lovely cascading waterfall and plunge pool is just off the trail on the right about 1.5 miles from Big Creek. The pool is visible from the trail, but it is best to step down the embankment to the water’s edge for a good view of the cascade. It would be a great spot for a summer picnic and swim!
About 0.3 mile further is an unusual and impressive cascade. Water from falls visible far in the background slides in a thin sheet down 150 feet of smooth rock. It forms a shallow ditch at the base and funnels in a narrow stream across the trail. One easy (and dry) step gets me to the other side. The cascade rock clearly shows two different rock types, smooth brown sandstone under rough gray conglomerate, joining at a distinct line. The Little Brown Book includes a vivid description of this cascade cloaked in ice.
There aren’t as many mushrooms on Gunter Fork as would be expected. Some lovely green mushrooms, one a rich turquoise color, could be a Russula or maybe Lacterius species. Appalachian Chanterelle (Cantherellus appalachiensis) is growing in an eye-stopping yellow cluster.
I find more Ramp plants. These are setting seed and have no more than 16 “flowers” per stem. They may be the narrowleaf variety, Allium tricoccum var. burdickii.
An occasional view of ridges to the east opens through the forest. One view shows the smooth look of a heath bald or laurel slick on adjacent ridge tops and slopes. Nearing the top, Red Spruce appear and the ground becomes thick with deep carpets of moss. A large grouping of Indian Pipes sparkles like crystal against the hushed green.
After a long time, much longer than I had anticipated, I reach the Balsam Mountain junction, turn left, and head for Laurel Gap Shelter. I hiked Balsam Mountain just a few days shy of three years ago. I remember it being a much smoother trail than the rutted mess facing me today. Chafing with impatience, the 1.1 mile walk seems to take forever. I pass the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail junction and finally reach the shelter after 1:00. No one else is there.
The shelter looks starkly different from my last visit. The dingy, dirty rock structure with an opening covered in chain link fencing was gutted to the walls. Sleeping platforms were replaced and benches added. The new enlarged roof covers a roomy food prep area and features a big skylight. It is very similar in design to Russell Field.
I start to unpack and consider a water run before taking off my boots. The water source is a long, muddy walk downhill. It is lightly raining, misty, foggy, windy, and cold. In short, it is miserable. I’m hesitant to commit and eat lunch instead, giving me time to think things through.
My sleeping pad is compromised. I’ll have to blow it up two or three times during the night. My sleeping bag did not keep me warm at 3,000 feet. Imagine how much worse it will be at 5,500. I don’t know what the weather will be this afternoon or tonight. Nine point seven miles, all downhill, stand between me and my car, and that hike will likely take at least five hours or more. I’m tired and wet. It would be wonderful to relax in this dry shelter and write in my journal. If I had warmer gear and a working sleep pad I would stay, but my best move is to get moving.
At 2:20 I set out for Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. It’s soupy and misty most of the way to Pretty Hollow Gap. The sky lightens, and the afternoon warms as the miles tick by. I reach my car at 6:45 — 9.7 miles in 4.5 hours, a total of 16.2 miles for the day. I now face a five hour drive home, but at least I’m sitting down.