Gary (my dad), Josh (bother) and I (L->R above) got in a quick overnight trip in the Great Smokey Mountains last Thur-Fri (1/2/14->1/3/14). We did the Russell/Spence Field Loop and slept at Spence Field Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. On day 2 we did a side trip to Thunderhead Mountain.
Day 1: 8miles, elevation change of 3000' (highpt is ~5000'), 45F-20F during hiking and overnight low of 0F, Starting hiking in a moderate-light drizzle, next sleet, then snow.
Day 2: 11mi including side trips, 5-600' up to thunderhead then 3000' back down to the trailhead. 0F-30F, crystal clear skies by late morning.
We hit the trail at maybe 10am. The Anthony Creek trailhead starts near the eastern edge of the popular Cades Cove Driving Loop. The first few miles of this trail are very easy going with little elevation gain, bridged creek crossings and easy footing. After 1.6mi the valley splits into S & SE segments. Anthony Creek Trail takes the SE and Russell Field Trail branches to the S.
Russell Field Trail is where we gained most of our height - ~2000' over 3.5mi. It accomplishes this with one large and anther smaller switchback. The sky offered up a steady drizzle to go with the cooling 40F air but I happily accepted the crummy weather bc I knew coming behind it (hopefully) would be snow and clear skies. The overcast sky coupled with the rain resulted in me keeping to camera put away for most of the morning...but I was tempted a few times to drag it out.
By 1pm we stopped at Russell Field Shelter for lunch. This is one of the many renovated shelters in GSMNP. It a 3-sided lean roofed lean-to with a tarp covering over the 4th wall (for winter). There is a fireplace and the roof has skylights! This proved to be an excellent stopping point and good timing. The wind and rain picked up significantly but we were high and dry-er-uh damp.
After a hot lunch (thanks Dad) we continued onto Spence field (no on the AT). Within minutes the rain was turning to sleet and the trail to slush. In fact the majority of the next 2.9mi was in mixed conditions, trending toward snow. The hiking was pretty easy with only a few hundred feet of climb. View are still limited on this section but there are a couple of slightly open mountain balds along the way.
Josh greeted me at Spence Field Shelter at ~3:30pm with a small fire, Dad made it shortly after. Spence shelter is also renovated and similar ammenities as the Russell Shelter. At this point the air was in the 20sF and we had swirling dry snow. After a quick chat, me and Josh got water from the piped spring 100yd S of the shelter and then spent 30mins collecting wet wood for the fire. After unpacking I cooked (rehydrated) some chili and baked some cornbread. After dinner Josh and Dad dried much of the gear by the fire. I sat back and tried to dry most of my clothing with body heat (fairly successfully)...though it was comforting to know the fire was there if needed.
After eating and drying what we could we prepared for the long night cold (0F). I slept pretty comfortable in down garments and a 20F down quilt.
Three men had to be rescued (via helicopter) out of the park early in the morning after sending out a distress call overnight. They were about 10mi SW along the AT from our camp...the early report really panicked our families at home "Three male hikers requiring search and rescue near Fontana Lake". It appears they couldn't make the mileage they had hoped and weren't prepared to have to hunker down on the trail (vs in a shelter).
Read about it here
-------------DAY 2, EARLY MORNING---------------
By 7am I was packing up for a morning trip over to Rockytop - hopeful for some morning light/sunrise views and pictures. I stepped out into 3-4" of fresh powder but it looked like the lingering clouds/fog would block any views. I pressed on, hoping the skies would clear in the 1.2mi trek over to Rockytop. I turned back about 1 mile in; it was just too overcast, my thighs were freezing (slightly damp compression short + light nylon pants + wind = cold) and I was supposed to cook breakfast for Dad (eggs/bacon/biscuit/gravy).
-------------DAY 2 LATE MORNING---------------
The brunch ended up being time well spent, as the skies cleared nicely while we ate and packed up. With the views I couldn't resist heading back over towards Rockytop. I quickly talked the other two into coming.
From the eastern end of Spence field we get a good view of Thunderhead mountain (behind us in the picture at the top of the post). From here it is probably 1mi over the 1st of is three subpeaks, Rockytop. And maybe .25mile btw the remaining two subpeaks (Rockytop II and Thundhead (highpoint)). The views were some of the best I have seen in GSMNP.
Josh and Dad headed back after Rockytop, while I continued onto the next two subpeaks alone - I had the mountain to myself for ~1hr! Though I spent a few minutes at each taking the views in, time and core temp were getting the best of me, at 12:30pm it was still ~10F and I had to start getting some miles in. The snow up and down varied from 2" to kneedeep but the trail was easy to follow and footing was mostly stable - the biggest problem was coming down on rocks/roots hidden by the snow. By the time I got to the loop continuation my knee was really bothering me and substantially slowed my progress.
-------------Day 2 AFTERNOON---------------
Bote Mountain Trailhead:
Following the Bote mountain Trail for 1.7mi you lose much of your elevation via quick switchbacks along a descending ridge - almost each switch associated with a small stream crossing. Soon you are at the Anthony Creek Trail junction which drops into the SE valley I described earlier. Here I caught back up with Dad. Together we hiked remaining 3.2mi back to the car where Josh was waiting.
This was a trip we all threw together the week of. A confluence of time off and time away from the woods got our wheels turning. I hadn't been backpacking since we had our second daughter (now age one), Josh hadn't since his last job change and most impressively, Dad hadn't been since he had open heart surgery to replace a failing aortic valve and small section of the adjacent, damaged artery a about 4months ago. This was a bit of a feeling out trip for day for summer plans dad has in the JMT and then in the Yukon - he handled this trip very well and Josh and myself are grateful to have him back to normal and so quickly