Mount Cammerer: It’s Time to Climb

Ascending Mount Cammerer is one of my very favorite hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s also one of the hardest.

2010: With Jack and Bill

My first ascent was in 2010 with Bill and my brother, Jack, along. I’ve gone back at least four more times prior to this year.

In 2012, Bill, Jack and I were part of a group outing that included Carrie, who has since become Jack’s wife; Candace White, a former UT professor of mine; Nick Simson, a former UT co-worker of mine; and Hank Dye, the man who first hired me at UT.

I wouldn’t really have known about Mount Cammerer if it weren’t for Hank, who shares my love of the mountains and enjoyment of hiking. The 2012 hike came about three months after he retired from UT and as my boss.

 

2012: Before Jack and Carrie decided to marry
With Pat, Hank, Sarah and Dave

In 2013, Hank and I were back, along with another recent UT retiree, Sarah Weeks; longtime friend of Hank’s–and fellow UT retiree–Dave Roberts; and Hank’s brother-in-law, Pat Morrison.

2014: Hank and Steve

In 2014, it was Hank, me and Hank’s neighbor and hiking enthusiast, Steve Cook. The next year, Steve’s wife, Vicky, came along with Steve, Hank and me for the 2015 assault.

2015: Steve and Vicky

Every one of those involved a challenging climb, spectacular scenery, fun, fellowship and 12-plus miles roundtrip on foot. In 2016 and 2017, Bill and I went out west to visit some breathtaking, bucket-list, Rocky Mountain hiking destinations over four U.S. national parks and one in Canada. Our wow meters were well-worn, then came busy fall calendars that kept us from returning to Mount Cammerer in either of those years.

Why does the fall calendar matter?

Because that’s been our traditional Mount Cammerer hiking season, drawing us for the possibility of the patchwork of red, yellow and orange painted as far as our eyes can see from that high perch. Not to mention, the hike is tough enough without the heat and humidity of summer; nor the treachery of winter cold and icy conditions. Spring might be the lone good alternative to fall, but I haven’t tried it.

In the fall of 2018, we were just a few months into our move to Chattanooga–another super-busy time, not to mention the extra travel distance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But I missed making a fall hike up Mount Cammerer, and I resolved to get back there in 2019.

And, by golly, Bill and I just did that a week or so ago.

What is the draw to Mount Cammerer and its brutal climb, you may ask?

Some background: Mount Cammerer is a massive rock outcropping at 4,928 feet elevation near the Tennessee-North Carolina border that runs through the national park. You know you’ve reached its peak when you reach its fire tower, both named for Arno Cammerer, director of the U.S. National Park Service from 1933 to 1940.

The fire tower is one of those great products of the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1937 and 1939. It is one of 10 built by the CCC throughout the park in the 1930s. For the 30 years or so they were in use, a watchman lived in the tower for about three weeks at a time, until he was relieved by another watchman.

The towers had no electricity and no running water. A battery-powered, two-way radio was the only means of communication. Mirrors were used for signaling in the daytime and flashlights at night when the radio battery was dead. Fire towers on Mount Cammerer and Mount Sterling–about four miles away in North Carolina–are among the four that remain today of the original 10.

In addition to being a signature climb in the Smokies, Mount Cammerer has been called by multiple hiking experts “one of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachian mountains.”

Far be it from me to differ with the experts.

Same as every other time I’ve gone, Bill and I took the popular Low Gap Trail from the Cosby Campground in the park, near Cosby, Tennessee. The trail is a little more than 11 miles roundtrip and includes a 3,000-foot elevation gain over prolonged stretches of rocky surface. It’s strenuous and not for beginners. This year made almost 10 since Bill’s last–and only–climb up Mount Cammerer. He told me he might have to sit out part of it, or not go all the way to the top.

Spoiler alert: he made it.

The fire tower has a lookout deck about one story higher than the trail surface, and you can clamber onto it via a rock scramble. It wraps around the structure, offering the possibility of a 360-degree view of the mountains and ridges spreading out below.

I made our October hiking plans back in February of this year. When the possibility of fall color during the traditional third week of October peak in East Tennessee seemed a safe bet. Then came triple-digit high temps in the summer that were still hanging around into the first week of October. Leaf color is set in motion by clear days and cool nights. Not enough of those had happened to bring fall foliage into technicolor focus by the time of our trip to the mountains, but what were we going to do? Not go was not an option.

Our Happy Hovel

We did do one thing we had never, ever done before: We left for the trail at 10:30 a.m.

After I had sat down to and eaten a full breakfast–something else I’ve never done before hiking Cammerer, or most any other hike. That’s because: 1) I was on much-needed time off with an alarm clock ban, and 2) our cabin was only 30 minutes from the trail head. Much closer than the 90-minute drive we used to make from our house in West Knoxville, to say nothing of the idea of driving there from Chattanooga.

The forecast called for spotty showers–not the weather I would have chosen, but not a reason not to go. We took rain gear but didn’t really need it until we were almost off the trail after 12 miles and change. Temps were pleasant and hints of color were beginning to appear. There was the one constant: 3,000 feet of elevation gain during five and a half miles of climb.

For all his self-doubt, Bill did remarkably well. We both plugged away for the first three miles or so–unrelenting up–until the Low Gap Trail ran into a section of the Appalachian Trail that continues on toward the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. Reaching the Appalachian Trail there means you have reached the end of the most difficult part of the hike. Woo-hoo! We planted ourselves on some sitting rocks and had a snack.

The rest of the way is shorter than the way you’ve already come, but you’d swear otherwise as you hit yet another little rise, another little meander through some woods, another step up some built-up steps. It must seem shorter in my mind than it is because it’s so much less steep than the three-mile ascent it follows.

When we finally reached the fire tower, we clambered up the rock pile to reach the observation deck, and I was surprised to find the door locked to the interior room surrounded by the deck.

I jiggled the handle a little, and a young man inside opened the door. He said he is a UT Knoxville student (the campus was on fall break at the time) and forestry major who enjoys visiting the fire tower.

He had a straw broom in his hands and he said he was just sweeping up the mess he’d made. FYI, neither the fire tower nor that publicly accessible room are for “camping.” I can’t tell you the student was camping or contemplating doing so, but I can tell you I’ve never encountered a person dancing with a straw broom up there before. Nor have I ever seen a broom anywhere at the fire tower before.

Oh, well. He was a bright, charming kid, clearly and he asked lots of good questions about hiking in the Smokies and about UT Knoxville. It would be good for forests if he ends up in forestry.

After about an hour to eat the sandwiches and snacks we’d brought for lunch, and hearing the start of a shower, Bill and I bid our future forester friend adieu and hit the trail.

We made great time and almost the entire descent without a mishap. But it did get a little dark toward the end–we were back to our car about 7:30 p.m.–and the increasingly heavy rain created some slippery spots. One of those caused Bill to take a spill. Mostly just a loss of balance, no severe crash. We were both ready to be off our feet, though.

It did us both a lot of good to get back up there. Bill surprised himself at being able to do more than he expected he could. And I love going up Mount Cammerer because it is part of one of my favorite good news stories, ever.

The fire tower was restored in 1995 with funds donated by the non-profit Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The group organized in 1993, and the fire tower restoration is the first project it funded.

Sadly, vandals—who I don’t even understand being among hikers—have in more recent years damaged the structure again. The North Carolina chapter of the national “Forest Fire Lookout Association” has come through with a $500 grant to Friends of the Smokies to repair the damage.

Because Mount Cammerer has a lot of friends throughout the Smokies. Including us.

First fall color beginning to show from top of Mount Cammerer
Early fall glory from another direction

 

Actual view from coffee on the back porch of our cabin

The Cable Trail: A Humbling Tale

I grew up about 45 minutes away from the most-visited of Tennessee’s 56 state parks, but I never got to experience it until a couple of days ago. We didn’t go to state parks except for the occasional family reunion when I was growing up.

On Saturday, I went to Fall Creek Falls State Park–only about an hour and 15 minutes from where I live now–and saw for myself why it’s so popular.

The park is well-maintained and has exceptional facilities. The Betty Dunn Nature Center, named for the incomparably sweet wife of former Gov. Winfield Dunn, is top-notch, with well-done exhibits on native plants and animals. There are picnic sites, campgrounds, hiking trails, a lake, a golf course, and an on-site inn and restaurant–though the latter two are currently closed for renovation.

Then there is the spectacular topography: massive gorges, streams, cascades, waterfalls and large swaths of hardwood forest.

After a happenstance mention by a colleague on Friday of the “Cable Trail” being her family’s favorite hike in their favorite park–Fall Creek Falls, I knew that was something Bill and I needed to try. Well, to be more specific, the colleague said the Cable Trail is “a bit treacherous,” which was like a neon sign blinking “Must try this, Gina.

The drive from Chattanooga came with the standard, jaw-dropping view as we traversed the Sequatchie Valley and ascended the Cumberland Plateau. The park is in Bledsoe and Van Buren counties, which between them both, have about 20,000 residents. As of this year, the park has been bringing money and tourists to this very rural area for 75 years.

Things were hopping when we arrived about 10 a.m. Saturday in a parking area central to multiple picnic pavilions, gorge overlooks and the Nature Center. Parking spaces were scarce and a large group making use of one of the picnic pavilions was organizing into three smaller groups. Adults tied string to themselves and the wrists of multiple children to form single-file lines for walking and not getting separated on the journey.

After a couple of false starts, Bill and I finally found our way to the Cable Trail. It’s barely more than a quarter of a mile–or just over a half-mile, roundtrip–so we didn’t bring backpacks. Foolishly, we did bring hiking poles. It’s the cable, not hiking poles, that you have to use to navigate that dramatic little drop of 90 feet in elevation within 3/10 of a mile.

For those of you who may not know, Bill is actually pretty fearless and agile when it comes to tricky terrain. The one-inch thick cable that hung about shoulder height banished hesitance about his balance, so he started first and fast.

Truth be told, I was in usual, picture-taking mode when a petite, dimunitive woman asked me–in somewhat broken English–what I thought was something about whether I was taking pictures. When I said, “yes,” she suddenly handed me her cell phone, grabbed the cable and began a quick descent. I decided I must have misunderstood and that her question was if I would take a picture of her.

I kept waiting for her to turn and look back for a photo, but as she got nearly out of sight, confused, I began my descent. With her phone and mine in my pocket and my hiking poles dangling from an elbow and clackety-clacking the whole way down.

Heavy cable about an inch diameter is securely attached to a steel-and-concrete anchor at the high point. You hold on as you need it down the angular rock trench. In one or two places, some exposed, well-worn tree roots serve perfectly as grab handles. At the bottom, the cable encircles and is attached to a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Go around the boulder, and you’re staring 256 feet up at Fall Creek Falls from the surface of the water it spills onto.

It’s a real stunner of a sight.

I was jolted from my reverie by the small woman–in her skirt and flats–calling to me from the rocky shoreline to come and take her photo. I picked my way over the rocks and took out her phone as she began to pose and make sure I knew she wanted the waterfall in the background. I kinda figured that was the point.

Then I figured out she also wanted me to record video of her, also with the waterfall in the background. Well, of course. Why not, I thought.

I gave her the signal, and she began a soliloquy in Spanish. I tapped an ear and raised my hand in the air, and she immediately understood I wanted her to talk louder–to overcome the roar of the waterfall. Her speech ended, I ended the video recording, and that seemed to end my service to her. She approached, smiling and head nodding, reaching for her phone and thanking me over and over.

With Miguela, also of Chattanooga
Different choices in hiking footwear

I handed my phone to Bill and asked her name–it’s Miguela, and she had also come from Chattanooga that morning–to pose with me. I asked her to put her foot next to mine so that I could photograph the two kinds of footwear that had gotten both of us safely and securely down the rock scramble.

So much for REI gear, I thought.

She took her phone and her leave, telling us she had to get back to her family. She was gone before I thought to ask if she would carry our hiking poles back up with her.

Bill and I took some selfies, then he took off. I got a couple of video clips, and then started back–90 feet up in about 3/10 of a mile. You use the cable to help hoist yourself until a section in the middle, where the roots-as-grab-handles are critical.

Then there’s a rock wall section much easier slid down than it is climbed up. It’s nothing like actual rock climbing but probably as close as I’ll ever come. Just in that section, one of my hiking poles–attached to a belt loop by a bandanna–got trapped in something and pulled back as I was doing kind of a pull-up. No, I am not kidding. So I wiggled and jiggled and tried not to fall backward as I also tried to dislodge the hiking pole without taking my hands from the rock hold I clenched. Finally–success!

I climbed on up to the top and got a high-five from Bill, who was already there and waiting. Before we finished congratulating each other and headed off, I reached behind myself to untie the hiking poles from my waist. Except there was just the one hiking pole. No, I am not kidding.

Apparently, I freed myself from the snag by freeing one of my poles from the bandanna. Oh well, hiking poles aren’t cheap, so nothing to do but go back and get it. At least, I thought, it couldn’t be too far back down the descent. No, it wasn’t. Not if you consider two-thirds of the way back down and on the other side of that miniature climbing wall not too far. I left a pole with Bill and scrambled back for the other. I put my elbow through the handle of the wayward pole–gonna have my eyes on you this time–climbed the roots ladder, scaled the miniature climbing wall, grabbed onto the cable and hoisted myself the rest of the way up.

Last Cable Trail AscentAnother high-five from Bill, two hiking poles firmly in hand, off we go.

As we emerge from the wooded thicket, the bright sunshine and trailhead sign I can’t read makes me reach for my sunglasses. My prescription sunglasses. Which weren’t on my head. No, I am not kidding.

They had been on my head. The last time I could remember was when I had pushed them onto my cap while Bill and I took selfies, at the base of the waterfall. So guess what. Go ahead, guess.

Yep, I got to do the Cable Trail–down and back up again–yet one more time. My third descent in about a half hour, I turned backward and practically rappelled down to the miniature climbing wall. I slid off of it, down the grab handle roots and was back at the VW Beetle-sized boulder anchoring the cable at the bottom in no time. But not so fast that I wasn’t looking carefully for a pair of prescription Ray-Bans among the rocks and roots along the way.

No luck. I picked my way back over to the rocky shoreline, went back and forth over it, retraced my steps as best I could remember and I spent a good few minutes staring down where we had taken the selfies. I was scouring the rocks, disgusted that I had been careless enough not to realize my glasses had fallen from my head, when I heard a voice say to me, “Do you see it over there?”

I looked up and a man in swim trunks walking out of the water said, “That snake–did you see it?”

“What snake?” I asked. Then the man pointed toward a couple of rocks inches from his feet, which are in ankle-deep water, and said, “Oh, there it is. If I’d seen that before I went in the water, I might not have gone swimming.”

I looked where he pointed just in time to see a dark and fast-moving couple of S-curves, a tiny splash of water, then–gone.

OK, I thought, here’s where I accept defeat and leave before I add snake bite to the misfortune of lost prescription sunglasses.

You know the drill by now–climb, up, steep. For the record, I did keep my eyes out for the sunglasses the entire way back. But, you know, these are eyes that require vision correction, so perhaps not the best odds of spotting a small dark object in the woods while trying not to fall backward.

Once again, a hiking trail claimed a pair of prescription sunglasses. Cable Trail is in good company with the Alum Cave Trail in the Smokies. That’s the last spot to claim a pair. Heck, these were even four or five years old–pretty good life span for me.

They were getting a little hard to read with–maybe it’s time for an updated prescription, anyway.

And Fall Creek Falls, I’ll be back for you.

Maybe for a kayaking tour of the lake. Or an autumn color hike on your lower or upper loop trails. But definitely not while wearing sunglasses.

 

 

 

 

 

Face to Face with the Fiery Gizzard

The name is colorful, the reputation is intimidating, and the location is way off the beaten path.

And, as of Saturday, I can say I hiked the Fiery Gizzard Trail–and lived to tell the tale.

All Trails app topo trail map.

The Fiery Gizzard is a 12.6-mile gash down the middle of the South Cumberland State Park. The park is made up of 40,000 acres that lie within four different Tennessee counties: Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie. At its southernmost tip, the point-to-point trail ends at the Foster Falls area owned by TVA.

The hike I did is a 9.6-mile loop that begins in Grundy County, at the Grundy Forest State Natural Area picnic shelter. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to Tracy City. Driving from Chattanooga, it took only about an hour to get there.

As for that name, there are a few stories, but one that comes up a lot involves Davy Crockett. He’s like the George Washington of Tennessee, you know. “Davy Crockett slept here, Davy Crockett fought here, Davy Crockett ate here.”

No surprise that one of the most popular stories about the trail name says Davy Crockett had made camp along the creek and was eating turkey being roasted on an open flame. He bit into a gizzard that was so hot it burned his tongue. The story goes that he spit it out and into the gorge saying, “Curse you, fiery gizzard!”

Kind of a “Davy Crockett spit here” claim to fame.

In the hiking community–and I mean nationally–the trail has achieved its own fame, beyond the memorable moniker.

Raven’s Point

The Fiery Gizzard Trail is ranked by Backpacker magazine, Outside magazine and the outdoor-centric Roots Rated website as one of the top 25 hiking trails in the United States. Right there in Grundy County.

Why? It offers a diverse combination of scenery, waterfalls, massive rock formations, bluff overlooks and steep, technical climbing or descents.

People have told me about the Fiery Gizzard for years, usually in the context of: Be sure to leave word of your planned route so that search-and-rescue can find you. No kidding.

I’m not sure it could have been as hard as I’d been told it was. Anybody I know who’s been always insisted the Fiery Gizzard was the hardest, ever. It chewed hikers up and spit them out. Kinda like Davy and his turkey gizzard.

I went in there prepared to run into the Loch Ness Monster, a Yeti or the Kaiser Sose.

All the dire warnings led me to think about and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

For my solo hike, I had three liters of water, two apples, a banana, a sandwich, a tube of Clif block energy chews, five trail bars and some Chex mix. I packed a headlamp, a handheld LED light, bug spray, a first aid kit, gaiters, a printed map, a compass, a whistle, a rain poncho, two extra pairs of hiking socks and a pair of water shoes. The last hike I did carrying that much stuff was about 18 miles.

My pack weighed about 15 or 20 pounds. I wore my sturdiest high-topped hiking boots, laced up tight.

If you’re one of the three hikers left who still hasn’t downloaded the All Trails hiking app, you’re missing out. The app has topo maps for hiking trails around the world. It rates trails based on “average” hiker ability, and it rates the Fiery Gizzard loop I did as “hard.” I must be average, because I found it, in fact, hard. Not impossible, but definitely a challenge.

Because, who needs a footpath?

Way more than half of the almost 10-mile loop I did is very rocky and has a lot of roots and similar stuff to trip over. And when I say rocky, I mean picking your way over fields of small boulders, from  bowling ball to small car-size. Fortunately, the trail is exceptionally well-marked by blazes on trees. Which is critical for those long stretches with no obvious footpath and you’re depending on looking from one blaze to the next to know where to proceed.

 

The trail descends into the gorge, which has a “Land That Time Forgot” quality. You’re routed along the Fiery Gizzard Creek, past a big swimming hole, giant cantilevered rock formations, a collection of Hemlock trees more than 200 years old and an extra side trip to the pretty Sycamore Falls.

Sycamore Falls

I got my view of that waterfall from above, on the descent.

Then it ascends on the other side of the creek.

That’s where things get really extreme. Total elevation gain on the loop trail is 1,243 feet, but that climb out of the gorge to its rim is the steepest part, gaining 400 feet within four-tenths of a mile. The grade ranges from 25 percent to almost 50 percent. That’s a lot.

My foot and me…taking a break at Raven’s Point.

Up on the rim, I was grateful to be walking on relatively smooth ground–not wobbly boulders or a dry creek bed. I did opt for the half-mile side leg out to an overlook called Raven’s Point. The view is like looking out on a green Grand Canyon. I took a long break there, then I got back on the trail and completed the rest of the loop without any trouble.

Yes, after starting at 9 a.m., I emerged uninjured, still daylight out, about 4 p.m. After recent–let’s call them “setbacks”–unsuccessful attempts to complete a hike up Cold Mountain in North Carolina and my survivalist expedition in the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge, I was on a mission in the Gizzard. I enjoyed the scenery, I shot photos, and I took food and water breaks, but I was single-minded about making good time. I may have muttered to myself more than once, “You are not going to beat me. I am going to finish this trail.”

So, after hiking it once, would I go back? Yep. I’d like to try the full, 12.5-mile, one-way trail coming out at Foster Falls. That’s a 60-foot high waterfall spilling into a one-acre swimming hole that’s 27 feet deep.

I’d like to go back this fall. The leaf color will make it a totally different experience. Don’t tell our friends up the road at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Backpacker also rates South Cumberland State Park as 6th-best in the country for fall color—behind leaders such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Yosemite in California and Glacier in Montana, and three spots ahead of the Smokies.

I’ve gotta go check that for myself this year.