Hiking Forney Creek to the Appalachian Trail: A Complete Guide

Parking: There is plenty of parking near the visitor’s center, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be parking right next to the trailhead. Clingman’s Dome is a popular destination, even for those who don’t plan on hiking. It can get pretty crowded, particularly on summer weekends. My advice is to arrive early.

Distance: This loop begins and ends at Clingman’s Dome and is a total of just under 23 miles. There is an elevation gain of nearly 4000 feet, and the trail is rated as strenuous. Before embarking on this trek make sure you’re physically fit enough to manage the climb.

img_8160-1Terrain: When we hiked this route there were a lot of obstacles on the trail. From rocks and roots that tripped us up, to overturned trees we had to climb over, to the multitude of river crossings, this trail will test your physical limits as well as the integrity of your gear.

River Crossings: This trail crosses the river more than a dozen times. You are going to be very wet by the time you’re through. Be sure to pack a good pair of water shoes and your trekking poles. The rivers swell in heavy rains, so be sure you pay close attention to the weather leading up to your hike, and adjust your dates or your expectations accordingly.

Water: As long as you have a water filter, you’re not going to have a hard time finding water on this trip. The trail follows Forney Creek, and all the campsites have sources of fresh water. Just don’t drink it until it’s been filtered or treated!

img_7960Campsites: There are several campsites along this route, all of which require a reservation, which you can obtain online through their backcountry permit system. Permits are $4 per person, per night, with a maximum charge of $20 per person. Some of the campsites are actually shelters, so make sure you have some kind of mosquito netting if you plan on sleeping in one!

Wildlife: As with a great many wilderness locations, there’s a lot of wildlife in the area. This includes, but is not limited to, bears, snakes, and a whole lotta bugs. Bring a lot of bug spray, and always be mindful of your surroundings. Click the link here to learn how to stay safe in bear country.

Bathrooms: Aside from the shelter on the Appalachian Trail, there are not pit toilets on this trail. You will need to pack your trowel for when nature calls, and be sure to adhere to the rules of Leave No Trace: keep your bathroom visits 200 feet from all trails, campsites, and water sources.

Climate: The temperature will vary depending on when you make this trip. Always check the weather before your hike, and be sure you pack layers in case the temperature drops. And regardless of what the weather report says, pack your rain gear! The Great Smoky Mountains are not known for their dry climate, so even if the weatherman is calling for sunshine, a shower can come seemingly out of nowhere. Be prepared.

All Uphill to the Appalachian Trail: The Hike That Made Me Say “F*ck” A Lot

We woke up early in the morning with our girl-power mentality in full effect, totally ready to conquer our day of serious hiking. The first two days were the warmup. I thought it would be sufficient to get my body prepared for our all uphill, hot, 8 mile trek up to the Appalachian Trail. I was wrong. Unlike the previous hike that crisscrossed the river over a dozen times, this hike only crossed the river once, and then was just. . . up. So much up.

It had only been about 7 months since I’d hiked out of Supai at the Grand Canyon. A trail that had defeated me a decade earlier, I conquered it with ease in October. I assumed, and very stupidly so, that because I’d done that hike without an issue, this hike would be no different. There were two super obvious things I hadn’t considered:img_8160

First of all, I didn’t take into account how out of shape I was compared to my fitness when I’d hiked the Grand Canyon. I’d gone from running 30 miles or more a week, and hiking on a regular basis, to running zero miles a week, and watching a shit-ton of Netflix. I’d gained 30 pounds, I didn’t even feel good, yet I somehow thought, yeah, sure, no big deal, I got this.img_8161

Secondly, I didn’t take into consideration the drastic differences between these two hikes. Yes, the hike out of Supai had been ten miles, while the hike in The Smokies was only eight. But, Supai only had about a mile and a half of switchbacks, gaining a total of 1500 feet in elevation. The rest of the trail was relatively flat. Jonas Creek and Welch Ridge Trails, on the other hand, gained over 4000 feet in elevation, and went uphill virtually the entire eight miles. It was on a whole different level than my Canyon hike.

I was doing alright for the first couple miles. In my head, I thought, we have to be almost done with the switchbacks by now. Every time we came to another bend, I’d hope against hope that the trail would level out as we went around the corner. And every single time my hopes crumbled as I looked up at another hill. My legs grew heavier and more clumsy with each step, and by mile four I was done. Fuck. This.img_8163

The sun was blazing down from a nearly cloudless sky, and the temperature was well over 80, but it felt like it was 100 degrees with the humidity. I was sweating so ferociously that each time I took a step another drop of perspiration would literally drip off my face, and into the dirt. I had the thought, if I go down, and they use rescue dogs to locate my body, it’ll be the easiest job those hounds have ever had. Add the astronomical number of gnat swarms that covered the trail, and I felt like a giant piece of exhausted, sore, easy-to-locate fly paper. Fuck this sweat. Fuck these bugs.img_8159

My clothes were drenched, my eyes were burning from the sweat pouring into them, my back was killing me, and I smelled like the inside of an NFL locker room. Extreme physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation, compounded by absolute disappointment in myself for how far I’d clearly let myself go during the winter months, had turned me into a bitter, bitchy, angry whiner. I tried to talk myself out of it, to remember that each step behind me was one less in front of me (something Lindsey tried to remind me of as well), but it wasn’t working. I just kept seeing the trail go up and up and up, and it felt like I was going to die on that mountain. Fuck this. I’m over it. This isn’t fun anymore.

I ran out of water shortly after we’d gone half way, which made me even more angry. I drank more than two full liters in less than 3 hours, and I still felt like I was getting dehydrated. Lindsey was kind enough to split what she had left, and though I am certain I didn’t appropriately express my gratitude in my foul mood, I was so thankful.img_8162

Just when the trail mercifully leveled out for all of 50 yards, and we were able to catch our breath, it narrowed and became so overgrown it was hard to tell if we were even still on the trail at all. Mostly it was just tall grass and ferns, but then the prickly branches started crisscrossing our path. Sharp, razor-like, evil, thistle branches that tore my arms and legs to shreds. Let’s just say that didn’t improve my mood.

By the time we finally reached the Appalachian Trail I was too tired and pissy to even get excited. I’d always wanted to hike on the AT, and instead of really appreciating that I was finally doing it, I just wanted it to be over. However, I still held out the slightest bit of hope that once we went over the next hill, and then the next, or maybe the next, that we would finally find flat ground, that the ridge walk would provide a respite from the uphill trek. That did not, in fact, happen.img_8184-1

When I read “ridge walk,” I thought of trekking across the narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range; breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains in every direction, the wind whipping through my hair. . .  That’s what I was expecting when we reached the AT. What it actually was was a forest that went slightly downhill on either side of the trail, and any views were completely obstructed by the trees. And we were still going uphill. On an ordinary day I would’ve been slightly bummed for about two seconds. On this hike, however, I was irate. I at least wanted all that work to yield the reward of a panoramic view of the Smokies.img_8190-2

When we finally reached the shelter I almost started to cry. Had there not been so many other people around, I probably would have. Instead of our usual solitary campsites, the Double Gap Shelter was booked solid, and there were already a half dozen people set up and milling around. They all seemed like perfectly nice people, and when our water filter broke (just like the last trip–I just can’t win with those things) they were nice enough to let us use theirs. But, I was not in a mental place that was conducive to socialization.

The bugs at the shelter were absolutely out of control. We couldn’t stand still for 15 seconds without being swarmed and eaten alive. Since we didn’t have any netting to put around our sleeping bags at night, and we really didn’t want to be around the super nice, but super chatty people (when they started singing I wanted to throat-punch them), we decided to just set our tent up in the woods behind the shelter.img_8175-1

We left the rain guard off the tent so we could feel the breeze and watch the sunset through the trees. Once we’d set up, we climbed in and did some serious stretching. Our bodies were wrecked. My back and my legs were so sore I could barely get in and out of the tent. I could practically feel the toxins leaving my muscles as I stretched as deeply as my body would allow.

With the physical relief came mental relief. Out of the bugs; dry, and in comfortable clothes, my aching muscles felt more relaxed, and I was finally able to appreciate where I was and what I’d just accomplished. I may not have been in top physical shape, but I just hiked eight miles up a goddamn mountain anyway. And I didn’t die!img_8202-2

We ate some dinner and smoked in our tent, while the sky turned various shades of orange and pink between the trees, as the sun sank below the mountain. We used what little daylight we had left to do some journaling, both of us in our own form of silent meditation, as we processed the adventure we’d just completed, and the one still yet to come. Before the last of the sunlight had been drained from the sky we were both passed out.img_8196-1

The next morning we awoke ready to be out of the mountains. We stretched some more before begrudgingly strapping our packs back on, and hitting the trail for the last leg. Though it was only two miles to where our car was parked at Clingman’s Dome, I was dreading every step.

We began walking through a forest that, with the morning light peeking through the old, moss covered trees, looked enchanted. Beautiful though it was, my fascination soon ended when the trail began going upwards. Not again, I thought. Still weak from the day before, my legs were not having it. Fuck. This.

We hiked slowly and quietly, too tired (and for me, too bitchy) for conversation, as we trudged up the trail. At one point I saw a building on top of a mountain peak, towering above everything else. I knew it was Clingman’s Dome, but I refused to believe that we could possibly have that far up still to go. Once I accepted that we did, in fact, have to climb all the way up that mountain, I strongly considered just building a log cabin right there next to the trail, and living like the Unibomber (minus the terrorism, of course) for the rest of my life.

By the time we reached the parking area I was half running, half falling to my car. I just wanted my pack off and to be sitting. My car has never looked so inviting. We got a lot of sideways glances as we emerged from the trail. Sweaty, filthy, exhausted, and loaded with gear, we didn’t blend in with the throngs of tourists who were just there for the view and the gift shop.img_8228

Once we took off our gear and chugged some water, we picked up a couple of souvenirs (bumper sticker for my car, keychains for the kids), and recruited a Park Ranger who was gracious enough to take our “after” picture. Then we climbed into Mary Jane and drove out of the mountains, bound for Asheville, where we had fried food, beer, and a hot tub waiting to reward us for all our hard work.

I was an odd mixture of emotions. I remembered the anger I’d felt during the hike, the desperation when I wasn’t sure I’d make it. But I also had this, “Holy fuck, I can’t believe I just did that,” sense of accomplishment. I had pushed myself, both physically and mentally, harder than I had in a long time. It really is true that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It was like in addition to exerting every bit of energy I had, I’d also purged my mind of all the negative clutter. I’d gotten exactly what I’d needed from this trip.

Thanks for checking out Ladycations! I hope you’ll come back for LadycationSunday next week to read the last chapter in our Great Smoky Mountains Adventure! Don’t forget to look us up on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Great Smoky Mountains: Forging Rivers and (not) Charming Snakes

So far, I’d been having a fantastic time in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our first wilderness Ladycation in almost a year was proving to be just what the doctor ordered. Fresh air, sunshine, and none of the distractions of normal life; I already felt more clear and relaxed than I had in months.img_8095

Lindsey was sleeping soundly when I got out of the tent to a warm, sunny morning in the wilderness. We only had about 4 miles of hiking to do that day, so I was in no hurry to wake my bestie and get moving. I used the couple hours of morning alone-time to journal and sort through some of the thoughts swirling through my mind, while I listened to the sounds of the waterfall, and the song of the birds.img_8108

Morning also brought a new backpacking experience for me. I had yet to dig a hole to poop in, but the bliss of that ignorance had come to an end. So here’s my assessment of pooping in a hole in the woods: it’s really not that bad, but it’s a pain in the ass (no pun intended). The actual act itself isn’t wholly unpleasant, it’s the digging that sucks. Just finding a spot to dig your hole can be a challenge. Leave No Trace requires you to dig 200 feet from any campsite, water source, or trail, so depending on the terrain this can be nearly impossible. Once you find a spot, the next hurdles are the roots and rocks you’re probably digging through. Suffice to say, don’t wait until you really have to go to start looking for a spot, or things could get a bit uncomfortable.

Once Lindsey woke up we ate some breakfast and began packing up camp. We didn’t anticipate the short distance would take that long. However, we hadn’t taken the many river crossings into consideration.img_7917

The first crossing came shortly after leaving the campsite. We switched from our hiking boots to our water shoes, waded through the cool water, then dried our feet, and put our boots back on. It was less than a quarter of a mile later that we came upon the next river crossing. Clearly, switching our shoes out that often wasn’t optimal. We changed into our water shoes one more time and decided to keep them on for the remainder of the hike.

The downside to hiking in water shoes was our lack of ankle support or traction. The trail and riverbeds were uneven, and riddled with rocks, dips and tree roots. Throughout the course of the day I rolled my ankle three times. The final time I rolled it, it made the most horrific, bubble-wrap-popping sound I’ve ever heard. Lindsey thought I’d stepped on and crushed a stick. I had to keep going. No one was going to come rescue me (although, I would’ve given anything for Ranger Blondie Buns to come walking out of the forest at that moment), so I womaned up, and we kept on moving.

I had been hiking in front of Lindsey for a while, totally in my own world, when I heard her behind me, “Oh hell no, what the fuck, Steph?! Did you see this thing? How did you not step on it?!” I turned around to see what she was freaking out about, and was alarmed to see a rather large, unmoving, but definitely scary looking snake right in the middle of the trail. Judging from the diamond-like pattern down his back, there’s a good chance it was a rattlesnake, but I didn’t get a closer look for fear of finding out the hard way that I was right. The fact that I somehow didn’t step on him is an absolute miracle. Lindsey gave him a wide berth as she passed, and we spent the rest of the hike hyper-conscious of the path before us.

img_8046Our next obstacle was a downed tree that was blocking the trail at one of the river crossings. We’d climbed over and around several trees that day already, but this was an old, tall, thick-trunked tree that was perched in such a way that we weren’t immediately sure how we were going to get past it. In hindsight, a simple solution would’ve been to just take off our packs and climb under, but that thought somehow never occurred to me (or maybe I was just too lazy to take my pack off). Instead, we decided to climb over. Both of us, balancing precariously, nearly face-planted into the ground from the weight of our packs pulling us down, but were grateful we didn’t since we landed right in the middle of a deep mud puddle. Covered in sweat, mud, scrapes and bruises, we were really starting to look like mountain-dwellers.

The final major river crossing of the day was a straight-up river forging. The swiftly moving water was waist deep, and very intimidating as we surveyed it from the bank. Before we set out to cross, we took a break for a snack and a smoke, and honestly to gather our courage.

Regardless of the low mileage in this hike, it was strenuous. So many ups and downs, and wading through rivers tends to use up more energy than hiking on more even, dry land. Add to that the fact that it was hot as balls out, and we were definitely running out of fuel quicker than we thought we would, on a hike that was taking significantly longer than we’d anticipated.

We stepped carefully into the river when it was time to cross. The current was powerful as we waded into deeper water and we were grateful (once again) for the extra stability our trekking poles provided. I have a feeling things would’ve gotten ugly if we hadn’t had them. I lost track of how many falls they prevented by the time the trip was over.

When the water reached our waists I was practically giggling with glee. It was so much fun! It felt incredible on our hot, sweat-sticky bodies, and the force of the waterfall trying to take us down gave us the adrenaline rush we love; just enough risk to be know we had to be careful, but not so much that we were paralyzed with fear.

This trail, though beautiful, didn’t have some of the advantages of the other trails we’ve traversed. There weren’t any sweeping views after leaving Clingman’s Dome, no massive volcano peaks, giant trees, rock formations, or ocean shores. But forging the river, and the plethora of waterfalls, gave this trek the unique characteristics that set it apart from your average hiking trail.

Once we emerged from the river we didn’t hike that far before coming to a bridge crossing that leads to campsite 70. The site was considerably larger than campsite 68, but far less aesthetically pleasing, and with a far more prominent critter population.img_8132

There were several separate areas for tents, all with their own fire pits. We chose a spot near the bear wire, where a makeshift table had been crafted from a downed tree. We set up our packs at the table, and put the tent in the shade of the trees near the riverbank.img_8126

The bugs were vicious. Mountains of mosquitoes, flocks of flies, boatloads of bees, and gnats galore were swarming everywhere. No amount of bug spray seemed to help, so it was time to get the fire going. This project was temporarily put on hold when we went to set up our tarp near the fire pit, and were greeted by a small, harmless, but totally snakey snake. He was only about a foot long, and was minding his own business, but he had to go. “Gray Worm,” as we chose to name him due to his color (and our affinity for Game of Thrones), had no desire to leave. We’d nudge him gently with sticks and he’d slither a few feet away, then coil right back up like, “Bitch, I live here. You leave.” If snakes had fingers, his middle one would’ve been extended for sure. It took some coaxing, but we were finally able to successfully evict him back to the forest, and were then able to get our fire roaring, and settle in for the night.img_8115

The lightening bugs didn’t have as much of a presence at the new campsite (basically the only bug that wasn’t there), but the fire was absolutely bitchin’. We stared at the stars as the light drained from the sky, and talked about how badly we’d needed this Ladycation. It felt so good to get a break from reality, a few days away from the chaos.img_8143

Lindsey went to bed early that night. As usual, I was not ready to hit the hay, so I stayed up and kept the fire blazing while I smoked, and admired the stars.

I kept hearing a scurrying sound behind me, and upon shining my light over the campsite, I saw a big, fat mouse darting around under the makeshift table. He took off once he saw my light, but he kept coming back, hoping he could find some dinner, and escape unseen.

I turned my light back on when I heard more movement near the table, this time it was an enormous frog. Or toad. I don’t really know the difference, honestly. But whichever he was, I wasn’t looking to hang out with him. He hopped away from the flashlight, but I saw at least a half dozen more before we left the site in the morning.img_8127

I started to get paranoid about all the creatures that could be lurking in the dark. I swore I heard something much larger rummaging around in the bushes in the adjacent campsite, but I never saw anything. I was a bit concerned it was a bear (or that Gray Worm had returned with his entire family, seeking revenge for our acquisition of their land). After a few minutes of trying to ignore the potential company, I decided to go just go to bed. My imagination was running wild, and whatever was going bump in the night wasn’t anything I wanted to come face to face with in the dark. Besides, the next day we’d embark on an eight mile trek up the mountain; I needed my rest.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll check out my other posts, and be sure to come back for Ladycation Sunday, with a new blog post every week! Follow Ladycations on WordPress, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

 

5 Keys to Successful Backpacking

A lot of people ask me how I can trek into the wilderness for days at a time. They can’t fathom a vacation that involves that much work, and so few amenities. Some of them surely think I’m crazy. And while there’s certainly more work involved than a luxury vacation with pools and room service, the reward more than matches the effort. Here are 5 key things you can do to help ensure a successful backcountry backpacking trip.

IMG_3369Drink a Shit Ton of Water: If there’s one thing that can ruin a backpacking trip faster than you can say, “I’m thirsty,” it’s dehydration. Headaches, dizziness, lack of energy, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, even confusion, fevers, or fainting; these can all be caused by dehydration, and prevented by drinking plenty of fluids. Remember that you need to drink considerably more water than you normally would, your body needs it. Take breaks, remind each other if you’re hiking with friends.

And make sure you’re replenishing your electrolytes, too. Fruits high in potassium like bananas and avocados, or coconut milk are great, but to save on weight and space, you can always take packets of Gatorade powder to put in your water bottle. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, people!

img_7992Stretch Like Crazy: In addition to dehydration, not stretching can cause muscle aches, along with stiffness, and potential injury. You’re working the hell out of your body, trekking all over the backcountry, carrying all your gear. Getting a good warmup before your hike can help prepare your muscles, and help prevent injury. But make sure you stretch afterwards as well, to help lengthen your muscles and relieve the tension that builds up throughout the day. Few things feel better after a day of hiking than a nice, deep stretch.

img_8132Learn About, and Be Prepared for the Terrain and Wildlife: Every area is different. Whether you’re hiking in the mountains, the desert, the ocean, or the forest, do some research. Never hike in a new area blindly. Do you need to bring a tide chart? Special gear? What kind of predatory animals are in the area, should you bring bear spray? What about poisonous snakes and spiders? How much elevation change is there? Will you need rain gear? I could go on and on, but the best thing to do is just research the hell out of wherever you’re going, and prepare accordingly.

When Lindsey and I hiked in Washington we knew we’d be in bear and cougar country. In Arizona, Mary and I were watchful for rattlesnakes and scorpions. Washington required warm layers, and rain gear. Arizona required a shitload of sunscreen, shorts, and a bathing suit. That’s the fun of backpacking! You get a whole new adventure every single time!

IMG_3853Get Really Good Hiking Boots and Socks: Don’t skimp on this. Your feet are invaluable. Do yourself a favor, treat yo’self. I’m not a name-brand girl. You’ll never see me carrying a Coach purse, or wearing Jimmy Choos. I choose to spend my money on experiences as opposed to stuff. But those experiences can go to hell really quick when a hot spot on your foot turns into a gnarly, painful, oozing ulcer.

Lindsey didn’t break her boots in before our trip to Washington. After one day of hiking she had small blisters on her heels, and sore spots on the balls of her feet. By our last night her heels were giant, open wounds, and the blisters on the balls of her feet went between her toes, and were filled with goo. It was horrific, and it kept her from climbing the final couple miles to the fire lookout tower at Mt. Rainier. Trust me. Buy the best damn boots you can find, and quality socks with plenty of padding, and moisture wicking, and BREAK THEM IN! You’ll regret it if you don’t!

img_5727Embrace the Simplicity, Let Go of Your Pride: You’re in Mother Nature’s house, now. Respect it. Admire it. Enjoy it. Don’t get wrapped up in things like how bad you smell, how dirty you are, what your hair looks like, not having internet access, the fact that you may have to bury your poop. . . The biggest benefit of backpacking is that you can let go of your ego and just embrace being surrounded by the beauty and majesty of nature. It’s humbling, to be sure. But we could all use a little humbling every now and then.

Luxury vacations may be relaxing, but backpacking, when done right, can free you of all the mental clutter that accumulates in the everyday grind, and give a sense of both mental and physical strength that simply cannot be matched by laying around a pool for a week. Best of all, a night or two in a luxurious establishment is the perfect way to recover from your badass, wilderness adventure. And you appreciate it even more, cause you know you earnedthat shit.

If you follow these 5 simple steps you’re well on your way to a successful and amazing journey! Be sure to check out my other posts for more tips and stories of our Ladycation adventures. Thanks for stopping by!

~Steph

Back to Backpacking: Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains

It had been over 6 months since I’d strapped on my backpack and headed into the wilderness. The winter had left me yearning for green trees and wide open spaces. Seasonal depression is no joke. Add to that the loss of endorphins due to stress fractures bringing my running to a halt, and I was one giant snowfall away from a full-on meltdown.

I always go west when I travel. I just feel drawn to it. But there’s some pretty spectacular country east of Ohio, and most of it is only a day’s drive from home. With time and available funds being an issue, Lindsey and I decided we’d explore some of what the Eastern US has to offer.img_7776

I ultimately settled on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d always heard Asheville, North Carolina was my kind of place: good food, near the mountains, full of hippies, lots of art, and a drum circle on Fridays. Yes, please. It’s less than an hour from the National Park, and seemed like the perfect place to recover from some mountain hiking. Before long I had our entire trip planned and booked.

Speaking of recovery, it had been a rough winter. . . My year of activity had taken its toll, and a series of athletic injuries had left me laid up for months. I was most definitely not in the same shape I’d been in the last time we’d trekked into the forest. I had gained some weight, and lost all the muscle I’d worked so hard to build. So though I was determined to hike in the mountains, I should’ve realized how much more of a challenge it would be this time around.Screenshot_2018-08-19 Backcountry Permit System - Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U S National Park Service)

The first two days of hiking I’d planned only totaled roughly eight miles, and were all downhill. We’d start at Clingman’s Dome and take the Forney Creek Trail to campsite 68 for the first night. Day two we’d hike to campsite 70. The third day was going to be the challenge: eight miles and almost 4000 feet of elevation gain, we’d trek all the way up Jonas Creek Trail, to the Welch Ridge Trail, until finally meeting up with the Appalachian Trail, and spending the night at Double Spring Gap Shelter. We’d take the AT back to Clingman’s Dome to complete the loop on day four, then drive to Asheville for a night before heading back home. I definitely overestimated my athletic prowess and backpacking readiness when planning this trip.img_7736

Unlike our previous Ladycations, we were road trippin’ it this time! We met at my house on a Wednesday after work, loaded our packs into Mary Jane, my trusty VW wagon, and hit the road.

Since we didn’t get on the road until after 5:30, we had reservations at a cheap motel just outside Lexington, Kentucky for the night. Finding cheap motels in Kentucky is like finding corn in Nebraska. They’re everywhere, and for $56 a night, I was impressed. The Quality Inn in Berea, Kentucky was clean, quiet, with comfortable beds, and a limited, but decent continental breakfast. I will, however, say that the guy working night shift behind the desk was creepy as hell. He was most definitely on drugs and potentially a serial killer, with a stare that, when directed at me, I can only describe as feeling like I’d been visually licked. I dead-bolted the door that night.

We set out the next morning and drove to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The forecast had been predicting rain, but the sun was shining down through puffy, white clouds on an absolutely perfect day. We walked around the observation area, admiring the brilliant green of the forest covered mountains, and I could feel my spirit start to lift.img_7787

We headed towards our destination for night one: Campsite 68. It was only a few miles, and all downhill, but once we’d gotten past the first half mile of well maintained, gradual, man-made steps, things got a little trickier.

The trail winds back and forth across Forney Creek and was riddled with rocks and tree roots. We hiked more slowly than usual, using extra care so as not to roll an ankle or face-plant into the dirt when a root caught one of our feet. Every so often the creek would cross the trail, making the uneven path wet and slippery. Despite my best efforts my clumsiness kicked in, and I bit it while crossing a particularly slick spot. I went down on my side, my pack slowing the crash. Apart from the bruise to my ego, I was unharmed, and we were able to laugh at my mud-covered self and keep going.img_8239-1

I’d read that we would encounter over a dozen river crossings throughout this trip, and as we’d crossed over slippery, but not particularly “rivery,” points I wondered if that’s all we’d come across. Shortly thereafter we came upon a legit river crossing, where the trail ended at the riverbank and picked back up on the other side. We took a break and had a snack as we assessed the situation and plotted our course. Once we were ready, we changed into our water shoes and stepped into the river.img_8043

The water was cool and refressing, moving fast and ferociously as it cascaded down a series of waterfalls that didn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. I could feel the knee-deep water pushing against me, and we were cautious about maintaining our footing. Had we slipped it would’ve been nearly impossible not to get injured in the fall. Knowing that one misstep would mean certain disaster, and feeling the might of Mother Nature as we fought against the current was such a rush. We’d been nervous when we began, now we’d realized that what had given us apprehension turned out to be the most fun part of the hike. Just another example of why ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

 

We reached Campsite 68 by early evening and were absolutely blown away when we arrived. Though the name is a bit lacking in pizzazz, the site itself was incredible. It’s a beautifully shaded site nestled in the trees, and right on the riverbank. There are several spots for tents, a central fire pit, and a waterfall that rolls effortlessly down polished stone like Mother Nature’s water slide. The sound of the water flowing down the smooth, flat rock, and crashing into the boulders below was indescribably soothing. As an added bonus, the entire fire pit was filled with firewood. Home sweet home!

 

We set up camp and did some yoga stretches before Lindsey decided to meditate for a while, and I started to get our campfire going. Though we’d had a perfect, sunshiny day, it had definitely rained recently (which also accounted for the river being so high). All the wood was wet which made getting it burning a challenge, but eventually I had that bad boy roaring. There’s something about starting a fire that feels good on a primal level. It’s like the caveman instinct that tells us, “fire good, fire life,” is still hiding in a corner of my psyche.

 

We ate our dinner around the fire as the sun went down and the shadows crept in. When darkness descended, the light show began. With the stars shining brightly through the treetops, the forest itself lit up with hundreds of lightening bugs. I mean, they were everywhere. It was so spectacular that we just sat there for hours watching the whole world sparkle all around us.img_7997

Unlike when we hiked in Washington and had to pile on layer after layer at night to stay warm, the temperature never dipped below 65 degrees that night. Though we didn’t need the fire for warmth, the bugs were eating us alive when we weren’t near it. Next to the fire there were no bugs, but I felt like I was melting. One of the benefits of the seclusion that comes with camping in the backcountry is the lack of dress code. As I discussed in a previous post, I love being naked in nature. There aren’t too many feelings as liberating or humbling as standing stark naked before the stars, surrounded by the trees and all of Mother Nature’s other creations; unified in a state of natural, bare vulnerability. So, since I knew Lindsey wouldn’t care about seeing my boobs, I ditched my shirt and sports bra, and let the cool night breeze and the warmth of the fire kiss my naked flesh. It was the perfect combination of sensations.

Eventually I put my shirt back on and we settled in next to the fire. We stayed up late, or rather Lindsey stayed up later than usual, talking and alternating between watching the lightening bug show, the blanket of twinkling stars, and just being mesmerized by the flames dancing in the fire. We were consumed with our surroundings, acutely aware of every sound, every movement in the forest, every crackle and pop of the fire. I felt so present, so grounded and serene. It was everything I’d been craving throughout the long, Cleveland winter.img_8223

Lindsey ultimately called it a night around 1am, and I followed not long after. We’d had as perfect a day as we could’ve imagined, and went to bed with the sense of tranquility, clarity, and strength that we’ve come to expect from our outdoor adventures. It’s like immersing yourself in the loving embrace of Mother Nature’s arms. And who doesn’t feel great after a hug from Mom?

I was also pleased to discover that I don’t have to fly to far away places to get my nature on. I could hit the road in the morning and be in the mountains by dinner time. Knowing such a beautiful place for my forest therapy is always within reach provided a sense of relief. Like, Well, if I approach a nervous breakdown, I can flee to the woods on one tank of gas and be sleeping on a mountain within hours.  Ohio may not have much by way of serious backpacking opportunities, but it isn’t as out of reach as one might think. That’s good information to have.

 

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to take this journey with me. I’d love to hear your comments! And don’t forget to come back for LadycationSunday to read all about the next chapter in Lindsey and I’s Great Smoky Mountain Ladycation Adventure!

Check me out on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and make sure you follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking my friends!

~Steph

 

5 Lessons Backpacking Taught Me

I discovered my love for camping about ten years ago. I camped for a week on Madeline Island (where I grew up) with some friends and was immediately hooked. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been doing it all my life. But that was car camping, party camping. Sure, we were in the woods, but when you’ve got a car and all the gear it will hold with you, you’re not really roughing it.

When Lindsey and I decided to try our hand at backpacking, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Neither of us had done much long distance hiking, much less with 50+ pounds of gear on our backs. As we set out for our first trip, we had no idea how transforming an experience it would be!

I Don’t Need That Much Stuff. When I go car camping I take the whole damn house with me. Multiple outfits (just in case), all the food and booze I could possibly want, extra blankets and pillows, chairs; half the time I’m in an area with cell service, or at least I don’t have to drive far to reach it. Backpacking is a completely different ball game.

The first things I threw out were beauty and fashion. When you’ve got to carry everything in with you, how cute you’ll look in the pictures doesn’t seem to matter. I brought the essentials and nothing more, and I can’t tell you how liberating it is to be out in the wilderness, not giving a damn what you look like. My hair was a mess, my skin hadn’t seen its anti-aging regimen or a speck of makeup in days, I’d been wearing the same two outfits for 4 days, and I’d never felt better about myself.

The next thing I chose to live without was the booze. I originally thought, I’ll fill a camelpak with vodka. No, so unnecessary, and not very smart. The last thing you want to be in the back-country is without your wits. And finally I accepted that I wasn’t going to eat the most delicious meals for a couple days, but eat primarily for nutrients and energy. As it turns out, I don’t need booze or a large variety of foods to enjoy my camping experience. And it makes me appreciate a good, hot (fried cheese) meal and a (more like 3 or 4) glass of wine even more when I reemerge into civilization.

Backpacking truly teaches you what’s essential and what’s extraneous. The words, “I can’t live without my cell phone,” ring hollow and untrue. Instead you learn what you really can’t live without. Spoiler alert: it’s a short list.

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Solitude Isn’t Scary, It’s Soul-Cleansing. There’s so much noise in the world that we forget just how loud it is until we get away from it. We learn to tune out the passing cars, the distant sirens, the hum of the electrical lines, the barking dog, the lawnmower, the kids playing. It’s a part of the soundtrack of modern human existence, and it subconsciously reminds us we’re not alone, even when we’re by ourselves.

When you hike miles away from civilization, all that noise is gone, and you know you’re alone. You can sense it. And knowing you’re truly alone allows you to focus on yourself and your surroundings, to live in the present, to appreciate simplicity, and truly enjoy your own company.

Immersing yourself in nature is like hitting control-alt-delete on your mind. The hard drive; all your memories, remains intact. But it deletes your cookies and search history; all the worries, anxiety, and the negative voice inside your head that makes you doubt yourself, and compare yourself to others. It helps you to sort through all that clutter and get back to basics; remember what matters, let go of what doesn’t, and move forward with focus and clarity.

Victory

Backpacking is Empowering. When you hike into the woods with everything you need on your back, it gives you a sense of badassery. You are relying on yourself for everything. Every mile you hike, every meal you eat, every ounce of water you drink; it’s all you. You did that.

We rely on so many modern conveniences in our everyday lives that we forget just how capable we are of surviving without them. Realizing you can make it out in the wilderness on your own, feeling that connection with nature, and putting all that mileage behind you is a pretty awesome accomplishment, something to be proud of.

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Mother Nature Does It Better. Mankind has come a long way, and we’ve created some amazing things. But “things” are nothing compared to what Mother Nature has been up to since before human being even existed. I have yet to find anything man-made that has had such a powerful effect on me as standing atop the Grand Canyon or staring up at Mount Rainier.

No matter how many ancient wonders or advances in modern architecture I see, they don’t compare to the majesty that’s in the natural world. The mesmerizing sound of ocean waves crashing ashore, the peacefulness of the sun sinking down over the Grand Canyon, the sheer beauty of Mooney Falls . . . Mother Nature beats man 100% of the time.

Reflections

You Get the Privilege of Seeing Things Most People Don’t. I’m not saying places like Niagara Falls, or the Eiffel Tower aren’t amazing. Absolutely they are, but you’ll be one of thousands of people seeing that same thing, that same day. You’ll be taking the same selfie, shopping in the same gift shops, and dealing with even more commotion than usual. And now that it’s 2018, those tourist hot spots are filled with selfie stick wielding tourists who, from my experience, are a surefire way to make any trip less enjoyable (literally had to grab a woman’s selfie stick that she had tucked under her arm because she kept hitting me with it).

When you backpack, you’re seeing things only a dedicated few have ever laid eyes on, areas that are virtually untouched by man and time, and you’ll see it without all the noisy crowds and long lines of the more popular tourist destinations. You won’t pay obscene entrance fees (usually), you won’t spend a bunch of money on mass produced souvenirs, and you can take the time to really explore and absorb your surroundings.

Trying to take a picture of yourself holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa is fine (albeit overdone), but to stand on a fire lookout tower on a mountaintop, staring at the peak of Mount Rainier, with no one around for miles, no sound but the wind, is next level amazing. It’s nothing short of a great privilege.

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday with a new blog post each week! And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

~Steph

Leaving Supai: A Successful, Sweaty Solo Hike

I’d flown over 2000 miles, driven almost 5 hours, and hiked ten miles to see the waterfalls at Supai to celebrate my 40th birthday. Amazing as it was, the real test had come: hiking out. The last time I’d left Supai I’d had to do so on horseback. This time, I was determined to hike out on my own two feet.

When we woke up in the morning and began packing up our gear, I knew immediately that Mary would rather chew on broke glass than embark on the ten mile hike out. Her face was a combination of exhaustion, pain, and dread. She asked if it was too late to ride a horse out and, upon hearing that it was, the last glimmer of hope in her eyes vanished.img_5657

As we hiked to the village (two miles, and all uphill) Mary barely spoke. She was walking slowly, her aching legs struggling with each step. When we reached Havasu Falls, and hiked down to take some pictures, she stayed up top, too sore and tired for the short walk down.

I arrived in the village well before Mary, and ordered some breakfast at the cafe. When she and Mark arrived about 30 minutes later, she told me she was not hiking out with us. She’d decided to stay in the village for a night, and fly out on the helicopter with Heather the following day.img_5639

The selfish part of me was disappointed that my hiking partner was ditching me, but the rest of me completely understood. I remembered all too well how it felt to know I wasn’t physically capable of completing that hike. She wasn’t ditching me, she was taking care of herself, and preventing a second mid-hike rescue from being necessary. I respect that. We said our goodbyes after breakfast and, leaving Mary behind, Mark, Peter and I set out for the Hualapai Hilltop.IMG_5704

The three of us began the hike together, but I soon found myself far ahead of my hiking companions. Peter’s feet weren’t doing so great, and Mark was keeping pace with him. I’d do the obligatory fake-stop to allow them to catch up a little before I kept going, but after we reached the halfway point, Mark could see I was in my groove, so he gave me his car keys and told me to have at it. It was the greatest news I’d heard all day! With Mark’s keys in my pack, I took off to complete the last 4 miles of the hike on my own.

It was hot–and I mean hot–that day. The sun was blazing down and I was wiping sweat off my brow to keep it from getting in my eyes seemingly every few steps. It was a losing battle. About two miles into my solo hike, I found a spot with some shade to take a smoke/pee/cool-down break. I took off my pack and my entire back was soaked with sweat. Gross. Not wanting to continue battling the endless stream of perspiration on my face, I took my shirt off and tied it around my head. I may have looked ridiculous, but hiking isn’t a fashion show.img_5727

I’m a very social person with an anxious mind that never quiets. I’ve always thrived on social interaction, and had never considered that I could find happiness in solitude. Alone time has always been my enemy. When I’m by myself for any length of time I start heading down the rabbit hole of insecurity, over-analyzing every interaction of the day.  Yet here I was, alone in the wilderness, and completely content. Perhaps it’s the confidence that comes with age, but I was loving every second of my solo hike.

My trip to Washington had taught me that I could find peace and clarity in the wild. Though I wasn’t alone on that trip, I had learned the value in being far removed from civilization. Being alone on the hike out of Supai seemed like the next step in my journey of learning to enjoy my own company. Like in Washington, my mind was clear and focused, free from the anxiety that usually fills my thoughts with self-doubt and worry.IMG_5711

When I approached the final leg of the trail: the switchbacks, I hesitated for a moment. I looked up at the path before me; I knew it was going to be tough. The negative little voice inside my head began to rear it’s ugly head again, “What were you thinking? You’re not strong enough for this.” I took a deep breath and a long drink of water, told that bitch to shut the hell up, and off I went.

Step by step, foot by foot of elevation gain, I hiked. It was strenuous going uphill for so long, but it wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected it to be. Each turn brought me closer to the top, each switchback behind me was one less in front of me. And every step I took gave me more confidence. I was strong enough.

I was about two thirds of the way up when I heard a familiar, but out of place sound. Is that the Game of Thrones theme song? Confused, I took a drink of water, thinking I was beginning to hallucinate due to dehydration. Somehow, despite hydrating, the music was getting louder. As I rounded another switchback, I was relieved to see I was not slipping into dementia. The nurse and her friend, whom we’d met the previous day during Heather’s rescue, were ahead of me, and they were blasting the GoT soundtrack on their phone.IMG_5719

Both of the women were in their late twenties. They’re what I would refer to as, “The Pretty People.” They were thin, looked fit, and were beautiful; the kind of girls I would’ve hated in high school. But they were struggling. It looked like every step they took physically pained them, and neither appeared to be having much fun.

I smiled as I approached, and complimented them on their stellar taste in television shows. The nurse said, “It’s the only thing getting me up this fucking mountain.” I laughed, said, “Yeah, this is a hell of a trek!” and passed them by. Me. The 40 year old lady who hadn’t been able to hike out at all when I was their age, passed them right up and kept on going. I’m not gonna lie, I took immense pride in leaving The Pretty People in my dust.

Passing the twenty-somethings gave me a renewed sense of determination. My legs were starting to feel weak, I was soaked with sweat everywhere–and I do mean everywhere–and my lungs were reminding me that I need to quit smoking. But instead of slowing down, I picked up my pace. I rounded another switchback, realized it was the last one, and practically sprinted to the top.

I’m not sure how to describe the way I felt when I reached the hilltop. I don’t even think I fully understood it myself. It was a high no drug can duplicate. I took off my pack and guzzled what was left of my water, and once I’d caught my breath, I just started laughing. I must’ve looked like a complete nut-case. I looked back at the trail I’d just climbed with total elation. I did it! I actually effing did it!

The Pretty People emerged from the trail about 10 minutes after I did, and I congratulated them on their accomplishment. They were so exhausted they barely grunted back in response before heading to their car. That made me laugh again, only this time it was the boastful, nah-nah-na-boo-boo laugh of a Disney villain who’s about to meet her demise. Karma would strike a couple hours later when I realized I’d left my trekking poles at the top of the trail, never to be seen again. Humility is clearly something I need to work on.

I dug Mark’s keys out of my pack and was doing some stretches by the car, when I noticed an absurdly sexy, beefcake of a man approaching. In any other situation I would’ve been mortified to talk to a man like that in my condition: makeupless, hair a hot mess, no shirt on, stinking to high heaven. But I felt so good after kicking that trail’s ass that I wasn’t the least bit self-conscious.

We chatted for a few minutes while we both waited for the rest of our people, and I quickly learned that he was 100% not my type (though fun to look at, the beefcakes never are). He was the stereotypical “hot guy.” You know: full of himself, and way too flirty in an overtly sexual, objectifying, and rather misogynistic way. I was actually relieved to see Mark and Peter approaching, and bid farewell to the beefcake. Saved by the . . . uncle.

After the three of us congratulated each other on the completion of our adventure, we piled into Mark’s car and began driving back to civilization. As I sat in the backseat I realized just how exhausted I was. The adrenaline had worn off and I began to feel my age. Everything hurt. But it was a “good hurt.” The kind of soreness that says, “Yeah, that’s right, bitches. I did that.” I was so happy I could’ve cried, but so tired I just fell asleep.img_5734

We had dinner at the Route 66 Diner in Williams we’d eaten at just 3 days earlier, and I felt zero guilt at devouring my entire burger, fries, and mozzarella sticks. Then, in a “treat yo’self” moment, I ordered a chocolate shake to-go for dessert. I earned that shit.

After dinner, we dropped Peter off at his car, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. Uncle Mark and I had several hours to talk on the drive home, and it’s a memory that will always be close to my heart. We reminisced about our trip, discussed planning our next hiking adventure (rim to rim hike at the Grand Canyon, perhaps?), and talked about how, despite being polar opposites with regards to religion and politics, we were united by our love of nature and family. Turns out, what makes us similar is so much more powerful than what sets us apart.

I don’t know that I’ve ever slept better than I did that night. The physical exhaustion was so great that even my mind was too tired to keep me awake. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, had reconnected with family I love, and had lived to tell the tale.

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’ll come back next week for the completion of my 40th birthday Arizona Ladycation. And be sure to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph