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

Overnight on LeConte

It’s not for everybody.

Climbing up almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain over 5.5 miles from the Alum Cave Trailhead to the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte on a damp day, only to spend the night in a primitive cabin before hiking back down the next morning.

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The intrepid ten: Jim, Ann, Bill, Gina, Thomas, Danielle, Carol, Joe, Ashley and Jeremy.

Fortunately, everybody doesn’t want to do it. Just the 10 best hiking friends did on this occasion, and we had a great time talking, laughing, catching up and getting to know each other better.

I’ve made the 10-mile round-trip hike to Mount LeConte in the same day maybe 15 times–I can’t remember–but I’ve made the overnight version of the hike three times. Obviously, spending the night gives you a looong rest break in the middle of that hike. More important, it gives you time to see the sun set on the tallest mountaintop in Tennessee.

Getting an overnight cabin isn’t easy. Demand far exceeds nightly capacity of about 35-40. The Park Service basically awards the slots by lottery, which you enter by emailing your preferences for dates and hiking party on a deadline the year before your planned outing. In November, the overnight slots–all of them–for the following year are awarded.

So, I learned in November 2017 that Bill and I were chosen for a 10-person cabin slot in October 2018. I emailed a couple dozen friends who hike and, within about 24 hours, we had our party of 10.

Besides Bill and me, we would be joined by four couples who are friends from church. Of course, since November 2017, I took a new job that took Bill and me to Chattanooga in June. So we don’t go to church with these eight friends, anymore, and that made the opportunity to climb Mount LeConte and spend the night there with them even more special.

We began at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 16 having breakfast with Ann and Jim Wallace–Jim, who found us the realtor who sold our Knoxville house within 24 hours–and Joe and Carol Ottaviano, all of whom we’d been going to church with for years but had never gone with for a hike. The six of us then met up with Thomas and Danielle Walker–Danielle, the incomparable pastor to families at Grace Presbyterian–and Jeremy and Ashley Akers. Jeremy and Ashley are friends of Thomas and Danielle and they stepped in when Ben and Megan Brooks–whose children I used to teach in Sunday school at Grace–found out about a month before the planned outing that they couldn’t go.

B462F413-9ADA-426C-BAC7-FBB3458AECC5We got all the gear and hikers into two vehicles and headed for the trail, which is more popular than usual in October, when Great Smoky Mountains National Park is teeming with tourists looking for fall color. By the time we reached the trailhead at 9 a.m., a parking lot with about 30 spaces already was full, along with a second one of the same size, and we got two of the last roadside spots filling up.

I miss seeing these special people at least once a week at church–and Jeremy and Ashley were the delightful people I knew they would have to be as friends of Thomas and Danielle. We made the requisite before-hike group photo and set off.

Since summer didn’t know when to quit this year and it takes sunny days and cool nights to set the process of autumn color in motion, there hadn’t been sufficient time for the color to bloom. But nobody can know that months or even the year before, when plans are being made for traveling from out of town or out of state to visit the national park.

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First tree at Alum Cave elevation to put on its fall colors.

So, when it’s necessary to commit well in advance, you take what you get when your time comes.

It was an especially good stroke of luck that everyone who joined Bill and me was new to the overnight experience. As much as I love it, it’s a treat to be with people as they discover the fun of sleeping on that mountaintop for the first time.

It was cool and damp and drizzly as we pushed off, and the first leaf color didn’t appear until we reached the halfway point at Alum Cave Bluff. We had gained about 1,500 feet of elevation in 2.2 miles and were sitting at 4,950 at the bluff.

It’s an impressive stone formation more than eight stories high and, thanks to the Park Service completely rehabbing the trail over two years starting in 2015, there are steps to help you navigate a short, steep slope–that I remember going up practically on all fours–as you approach the bluff.

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Alum Cave Bluff

After lunch and the requisite photos, we got back to the hike and the steeper second half of the trail.

We went over the sections that are single-file over slick rock, where you use metal cable to hang on and secure your footing.

We looked out, mostly into the fog that is the clouds you’d have seen from the road below, and tried to make out landmarks on the horizon.

The drizzle turned into a light rain, and ponchos and pack covers were pulled out to keep wet from getting wetter.

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Thomas and Danielle

We arrived at LeConte Lodge about 3 p.m. and got the keys to our cabin, where coffee cups were waiting for us to take to the dining hall and help ourselves to hot drinks. Before that, though, we turned on the propane space heaters in the cabin and everybody made use of the wall-mounted clothes rack to dry the wet stuff.

Dinner was the tried-and-true beef roast, ample vegetables, cornbread wedges and gigantic chocolate chip cookies, served at 6 p.m., right as rain. Outside, rain still fell lightly. Between the cloudy skies and the hour, dark would come shortly after the meal.

44735636674_1044e5f4b0_oThe main lodge building housed a large, propane-powered heater, and it seemed everyone spending the night was gathered around the heater to swap stories, play cards, or both.

In a situation without wifi or electric power, good old-fashioned conversation and good company was the order of the day. I enjoyed my share, then decided to venture the half-mile or so out to a landmark overlook–Cliff Tops–where, ordinarily, the view pays off your climb as it feels like you’re looking down on the world from the top of it.

But it was as expected on this night: raining, blustery and getting dark fast. I wasn’t looking for a great view, or anything, really; though I was reminded strongly of a solo outing I made there more than five years ago, when I carried my troubles up the mountain and was met at Cliff Tops by a raven who it seemed had come there to take some of those troubles off my mind.

The next morning, the weather was much-improved. The rain was gone and the sun was trying to shine. Over a mountain of pancakes and protein, everybody shared how they had passed the night.

Danielle, who doesn’t like a hard bed, said the one she and Thomas slept on caused her to toss or turn every few minutes all night. “Like a rotisserie chicken,” she said, “and I’m like crispy, this morning.”

Carol decided to try climbing down the ladder of her bunk bed facing outward, and when she missed the last step and crashed to the floor, I, apparently, was the only one who didn’t hear it.

In fact, Bill and I slept in twin beds in the “parlor” of the cabin, which was a high-traffic area all night as folks walked outside and the 100 yards away to the only flush toilets on the compound. I apparently also slept through Jim being forced to knock on the cabin door after getting locked out on his nocturnal trip down the path.

Ann, who said she “really missed” a hot shower, said the trip crossed an item off her bucket list. For good.

On our way back down the mountain, we detoured out to Cliff Tops. A layer of clouds rested in the valley below, but the clear skies we stood under promised a good-weather descent. And it was.

Landmarks and scenery obscured the day before were on beautiful display.44545798125_ab5251ab8f_o

We’d looked forward to the outing for almost a year, and everything about it was worth the wait.

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