Virgin Falls-Know Before You Go

Tennessee Hikes

*All the photos in this post were taken at different times/seasons over several years by me.*

Virgin Falls.

Wow! So much that can be said.

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First: The TRUTH

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Virgin was my first really hard hike. So hard in fact, that after I survived it, I swore that I would never go back. That was about twenty hikes ago. Just goes to show never say never.

My young nephew who had just done several months working for a gold mining company in Alaska talked me into it. He was around 24. I, well, was not.

‘It’s easy’ he said.

‘You’ll be fine’ he said.

TWELVE hours after starting the hike we made it back to my car, in the dark, just in time for the bottom to fall out of the sky and a monsoon poured down on us.

How was I going to drive home? I couldn’t lift my foot to push the gas let alone the clutch. My body was completely spent. I had never felt such pain in my entire life.

Thanks to an amazing boss I was actually able to take a week of vacation to recover. Read that again. A WEEK to recover. The morning after that hike I had to basically crawl to the bathroom. I literally could not walk. Now, I don’t say any of this to scare people from the hike. Quite the contrary,  you should go. I am just giving you a side that many will not tell you. It’s a blasted HARD hike. One site, a few years ago, had it listed as a black diamond like they do with ski slopes. I don’t know if that is the ‘technical’ rating for it, but I do know you can count on one mile an hour mostly due to the trek uphill on the way out.

Oh yeah, and the hike is only about 4.3 miles one way. In total between the 8.6 and 10 ,or more, if you decide to go up to Martha’s Pretty Point or explore around the area near the falls.

Prior to my first hike there I had been walking upwards of 8 miles on my nice little paved green-way near my house. I walked that much almost daily. The hikes I had done up to that point were easy, so easy they really shouldn’t even be counted as hikes.

And I thought I was so tough before hitting the trail.

I was certain that all my non-strenuous green-way walking had prepared me for a so-called hard hike.

Humble pie tastes like crap.

As you are starting down the trail you will see a guard shack that usually has somebody there. They are there for one reason; to let you know what you are getting in to. The first time I hiked there that shack was not there. All the warnings I had were a couple of signs that I totally ignored because young gun nephew said I wouldn’t have any problems.

If there is a sign STOP AND READ IT!!

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This was the sign about ten years ago. It has been updated to the one below. This was taken just a few months ago. READ IT!

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Did I read it?

Yes.

Did it sink in?

No.

The nephew just kept saying ‘You’ll be fine. Trust me.’

Second: The Illusion of Ease

The trail starts off level and deceivingly easy. After a short walk, I believe around .2 mile in, you will see a fork where you can go off to the right and take the Upland Trail to Martha’s Pretty Point. The hike has some small hills and is ok and is nothing too strenuous or spectacular. You do a pretty long walk on a gravel covered access road. It is the easier way to get to the overlook and campsites up there. You can also continue on the Upland trail and it will loop back down where it meets back up with the main trail to Virgin. If you decide to take this trail you will bypass the cable crossing that is just prior to the cable crossing campsites.

Continuing on the main trail you will continue on the narrow trail with relative ease. When you start to get into, what I believe is a grove of rhododendrons, the trail can be muddy and you will start to see more roots and rocks. Still, nothing difficult at this point.

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The first named waterfall you come to is Big Branch Falls. If you ever get to this falls and it is not flowing you will know that, more than likely, Big Laurel will be not much but a trickle. But, if it IS flowing you will be in for a good day. The descent down to the Big Branch is also the first inkling of what the terrain is going to be like.

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I knew on this day that Virgin was going to be rockin’ and rollin’.

Now you will start to go down some switchbacks and you will hear more water. You will end up at the cable crossing.

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Just past the cable crossing on the creek there are three campsites. If you are wanting to get into camping this makes a great beginner camping area. It’s not too far in and there is usually a water source (except in the hotter months of summer). I have seen it bone dry before. So, if hiking in July or August make certain you have plenty of water going in.

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Cable Crossing Campsites

Not very far past the campsites is the trail that leads up to Martha’s Pretty Point Overlook. It’s about a half mile up to the overlook. It’s a hard half mile and the trail can be a bit confusing. Once up there you can opt to continue on the Upland Trail that I mentioned above. It will take you back to the beginning of the trail.

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Martha’s Pretty Point

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Martha’s Pretty Point in the winter.

In the video below we went up to the overlook from the cable crossing section and came out on the Upland Trail. And yes, I did walk through their campsite. At the 1:40 mark I point up and say ‘Do not go up’. There is a section that looks like the trail but isn’t. If you go up it’s very steep and you will be directly under the cliff. That is not the part where the ladder is, so don’t waste your time going up. Nothing to see.

Not long after you pass the sign directing you towards Martha’s Pretty Point the terrain changes. You will begin descending ever so slightly and you will see some absolutely beautiful landscapes with waterfall after waterfall (provided it isn’t the middle of summer in a drought). You will have to watch your footing more from now on out. There will be the occasional reprieve from rocks and roots, but those won’t last that long. You may not notice that you are continuing to go down. You will be too busy just taking the beauty in that you won’t notice. That is until you get to the top of Big Laurel Falls.

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Virgin falls in the fall

After awhile you will soon be standing just above Big Laurel Falls. At this point you will go down to the base of Big Laurel on a very steep slope that has a wire cable to help you down.

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Rock Climbing Big Laurel Falls

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As you can see, there is ample camping for both tents and hammocks.

You can go inside the cave behind the falls. However, know that the ceiling does fall from time to time. Also, there is NO CAMPING and NO FIRES inside the cave. This is common sense, but I have been on two occasions where I have seen tents and a fire going. The fire could potentially cause the ceiling to cave in and who would want to set up a tent inside where this is a possibility?

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Looking out from inside the cave

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Big Laurel Falls is about the half way point. I always stop here for a snack and to rest up. The cave is fun to explore. It’s very sandy inside and the rocks are extremely slick.

When you finish up with your break at Big Laurel you will continue on down the trail. It’s pretty uneventful and it’s a nice hike. The trail is easy to follow. You will, however, feel like you have gone more than a couple of miles.  After awhile you will come to a junction. You can go left which is the shorter way down to the falls or go to the right towards Sheep Cave. It’s a little bit longer going towards the right, but much less steep. To the left it is extremely steep. I recommend going right to go to Virgin and coming up the other way, shorter way. Just my preference though.

Eventually, either way you go, you will come up to some of the campsites. I have camped here before. It’s probably the best sleep I have ever had while camping due to the sound of the falls. It’s very loud and soothing.

When you get to the falls drop your pack. Sit down and have a good lunch. After you rest up you can go up the trail directly up from the VF sign and go to the left. The trail will take you up and around to a cave and to where the campsites used to be on top of the falls. They no longer allow camping up there, but it’s still neat to get to the top of the falls and the area is very pretty.

Now for the fun. The way out. All I can say is take your time and rest in knowing that you will have completed one heck of a hard hike (if you make it out) lol.  Oh, wanted to also mention that on the way in you may think to yourself  ‘I’ll do the overlook up to Martha’s Pretty Point on the way out’. Ummmm, probably not. I mean you ‘might’, but I can almost guarantee by the time you get to the sign to go up there you will not even have the urge to go. SO, if you are bound and determined to go to the overlook AND VF in the same day, I strongly recommend you do it on the way in. When you first start the hike take the Upland Trail to the overlook and then continue the trail down to the main trail. It can be very confusing trying to find it though. You will go down a ladder and then the trail winds down and back and forth a bit. Like I said, can be sorta confusing.

If you want to camp you will need reservations. The area is managed by Fall Creek Falls. On the link below, be sure to scroll down the page to choose the sites there.

https://reserve.tnstateparks.com/fall-creek-falls/campsites

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So, the takeaways.

  1. Plan on ONE mile an hour. Not kidding. Give yourself time to do this. If you go after the time change make sure to plan for that and have a headlamp.
  2. Take plenty of water ( I don’t care if you NEVER DRINK WATER) take it and/or water filter.
  3. Snacks. YES, you WILL get hungry.
  4. Shoes. Please wear appropriate shoes. You will be cussing some flip flops if you choose to go that route. And yes, I have seen that and the people were not happy.
  5. Don’t drag your small children on this. If they hate hiking this will make sure they will keep hating it. Wait until they are old enough to enjoy it.
  6. Take breaks…lots of them. No shame in it. Remember, my first trip there took 12 hours. Yours probably won’t.

And that’s it. Please feel free to reach out to me for any questions. Also, when in doubt just call the ranger’s office and talk to them about it. Just go prepared and you will be in awe of the beauty of this place and know why it is one of my favorite hikes in Tennessee.

Happy Hiking!

Lori

Hike and Camp to Gregory Bald-Great Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountains, Tennessee Hikes

My friend Brenda and I decided to do our first ever camp out in the Smoky Mountains to be at campsite #12. Well, actually, the original plan was campsite #13 but in true ‘Lori’ fashion we, or I, was running somewhat late the morning we left (only by two hours). I just figured we would figure it all out when we got there ( I would like to insert here that if you are at all a type A person you will hate me). I had already reserved 13 but figured it would be no big deal to change it.

The plan was to camp and then go up to Gregory Bald the next morning. We stopped at the ranger station at Cades Cove and went in to see if we could change our reservations. The ranger had only been on the job two weeks and really could not tell us anything. We were looking for a less worse hike. Meaning, one that would not kill us like the one we had originally planned. He was zero help. But he did direct us to the phone on the porch where we could call the number that handles the reservations and they would be able to help us out. The ranger on the phone was very helpful and said that Campsite 12 would be a little over two miles in and then about 3 1/2 up to the bald. So, on his recommendation, we switched to that campsite.

To get to the trailhead you will need to go half way thru Cades Cove. The road to the trailhead is next to the visitors center. Stop there to do one last restroom stop and well, look around. Cades Cove is a gorgeous drive, but it is a one way road and once you are in it you are in it. If traffic comes to a standstill it is likely because a bear has been spotted and everyone is jumping out of their cars to get a picture.

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The hike in was very nice. They had recently gone through and cut back the rhododendrons and the clippings were laying all over the trail. I bet it would have been nice to walk through the tunnel I am sure they made before being cut. We were on the lookout for bears. The Smokies are filled with them. We saw none but every.single.hiker we met had seen one on trail. Figures. I would like to see one…from a distance and preferably with about 15 other people where I could be securely stuck in the middle of said 15 people.

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Anyways, the trail had three little bridge crossings. The bridges are the ones where a huge log has been cut in half and then a railing added on one side. I don’t know why, but I LOVE these bridges.

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While the hike in was not all that difficult, my hip flexor issue was raring its ugly head and I was even slower than usual. That meant I was hiking just slightly faster than a dead person would have been.  Brenda is a good sport and usually doesn’t get too far ahead. Hence the reason I always get backside shots of her. On occasion I will try to get in front, but most of the time it’s not worth the effort.

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We get to camp and start setting up. I set up in one place and then changed my mind and moved. The trees were a little bit too close together on the first site I chose, which had been closer to Brenda’s tent. Instead, I moved way across from her to some better spaced trees. Now, those who are ground dwellers might be saying ‘see, hammocks are a pain. You have to find the perfect trees to hang from.’ While it is true that the spacing does matter, I will still choose it over tent camping any day. With tents you have to find a smooth, level spot. With hammocks, even if there are no trees I can always go to ground if needed. It is quite easy to sit up my tarp with my trekking poles and sleep that way.

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I store my stuff in the bottom of the bug net. I put my shoes, camera bag and sit pad in there when not needed. My backpack got hung on bear cables.

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This was the first time I had ever hung my entire back pack. I normally do the old fashioned throw a rope over a branch using a rock method and I would ONLY hang my food bag. We decided not to chance anything tearing up our packs and just hung the whole thing using the cable system the park provide. It was so easy to use. We also left our packs here the next morning when we hiked up to the bald using just our day packs.

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Brenda was using her new Big Agnes tent. I don’t know which one this is. It looked very small to me though. I even loaned her a string of lights. I love lights on tents and hammocks. I just think it makes for a really pretty camping scene.

For breakfast I had brought oatmeal. I am sure it would have been delicious had I not kicked it over.

Oh, I want to mention my little stove. I got it at Academy Sports for under $20 and I love it. It’s the Magellan Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking Stove. The propane is sold separately.

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There is a really good water source at campsite 12. However, it is the LAST water source when going up to Gregory Bald. I highly recommend taking at least two large water bottles or at least a 3 liter bladder with you on the hike up. Granted, it was very hot and humid on the day we went. I took two liters and ran out. The hike up is extremely strenuous.

The hike from the campsite to the top of the bald is 3.6 miles. That is 3.6 HARD miles with the last .6 being the most difficult. I believe the ranger said the elevation gain is about 750 feet per mile or something like that. When we started out the next morning my hip flexor was really hurting. About ten minutes in I told Brenda I didn’t think I could do it. I was in more pain than I had ever been in while hiking. I was almost in tears. She looked so disappointed. So, I took 3 extra strength ibuprofen and told her I would try for another thirty minutes, but if that did not help the pain I was going to have to turn back. Remember, the hike out from the campsite is two miles. I was sensing that if I tried to continue on in that much pain I was going to do some serious damage to that muscle. She agreed and on we went. It was a much slower go than I normally move. Hills and I have a hate hate relationship. There is nothing about a hill I like. However, the meds kicked in and the pain went away so on we went.  I started doing the ‘rest step’ on the way up and it really did seem to make it easier. Well, actually less worse.

Here is a good video demonstrating the Rest Step.

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It really is impossible to show the steepness in a photo.

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On the way up we got a couple of views thru the trees.

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Once we made it to the top the trail forks. You can go left or right. We went right. I have to say that, while it is beautiful, I was not wow’d by it. It could be that my pain was back and I was also concerned with the time. I had an almost 4 hour drive home and work the next morning. We walked up and chatted with a couple of hikers who were resting. They had come up from campsite 13 and said it was a really hard hike. The ranger had told me that it was more difficult than coming from campsite 12 so I was glad that I switched sites. The blueberries were all just about gone and there zero flowers. We hiked over to where the marker was and sat down to rest and eat a bite.

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Where we rested was a small grove of trees. I hoped up after a few and went in to look around. It was pretty neat. There was bear scat and holes where they had been digging.  I have never seen branches like this.

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The views were as expected. We did not explore as much as we would have wanted to. We were both pretty tired and it was one of the hottest days of the year.

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I popped three more ibuprofen and we headed back down after about 30 minutes on the bald. The hike down went considerably faster than going up.

Day one consisted of a 2.3 mile hike. My Alltrails recording is here.

Day two was 9.9. It was from the campsite to the bald and then back to the car. My Alltrails recording is here.

Other than the limitations of my own body, it was a very nice trip. I can’t say enough good about the Smokies and the rangers there. They are very helpful and the area is just beautiful.  Brenda and I enjoyed it so much that we are going to attempt to be part of the 900 miler club. It will take me eons to accomplish this since I live 4 hours away, but it’s still good to have goals and well, why not just try it?

And that’s it.

Happy Hiking!

Lori

What I Learned On My First Multi-Night Camping Trip While Hiking Grayson Highland State Park and Carver’s Gap to 19E on The Appalachian Trail.

North Caroina HIkes, Tennessee Hikes, The Appalachian Trail, Virginia Hikes

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The plan was simple. Just get a few girlfriends together and camp out two nights around Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. Really. That’s all it was. It was THAT simple. Camping and hiking with the wild ponies of Grayson. It wasn’t a crazy idea. Lots of folks do it. I have watched the videos for years. So, what could possibly go wrong?

 

Lesson 1.

     Count on the unexpected

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After countless hours planning out the camping and the route we would take during the hike, I decided that I should call the rangers office at Grayson just to be sure that everything was good to go for back country camping. There is NO CAMPING inside the boundaries of Grayson Highland State Park. You have to hike over towards the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Center or the George Washington or Jefferson National Forest areas to do the camping.

When I called on a Monday and asked about the overnight parking lot and back country camping she said, ‘Oh, they have closed off that entire area to back country camping because of bear activity. You can camp in the actual campground, but not in the back country.”

Wha?

She said they had just closed it off on Friday.

Now what? So, I began trying to figure out how we could do this. I did not want to stay in an actual campground. I really wanted to get out away from tons of people and just really be able to take in nature. The alternative plan I came up with  sounded like that would be the case. It turned out to be anything but that.

Lesson 2.

    Keep the itinerary small

After going over things in my head and knowing the area a ‘little’ from the previous years day hiking I had done out there, I came up with an alternate plan. While it was doable, in retrospect, it really was too much for a 4 day trip.

I desperately wanted to keep Grayson in the mix if at all possible. I also had come with the a doozy of a second hike. I thought, what if we did Grayson one day and then drove down to Roan Mountain, back in Tennessee, to hike the section of the Appalachian Trail from Carver’s Gap to 19E. This is the section that a lot of thru-hikers consider to be one of the prettiest of the AT.  Yes! That’s it! WE CAN DO IT!

So, after many, many revisions the following plan came together.

Day 1. Thursday. Leave late, after work, grab a drive thru dinner, go to a campsite two hours away called Rhea Springs Campground in Spring City, Tn. The reason was the drive to Grayson was 5 hours and it would be too much for me after having worked all day.

Day 2. Friday. Get up in Spring City and drive the 3 hours to Grayson. Arrive early and hike to Mt. Rogers and then back to the car. Mileage would be around 9-10 miles depending on trails. Leave Grayson and drive to Mtn. Harbor Hostel in Roan Mountain, TN  to tent camp and then ride their shuttle to Carver’s Gap at 10 am on Saturday morning.

Day 3. Saturday. Get up, eat, take shuttle to Carver’s Gap and begin the hike to Overmountain Shelter. 5.9 miles and camp there for the night.

Day 4. Sunday. Leave Overmountain Shelter and hike ten miles back to Mtn. Harbor and my car. Go grab a burger and head home..four hour drive.

Simple, huh? Yeah. Simple.

Lesson 3.

     Not everything on the internet is as perfect as it sounds

I am cheap. Really cheap. Like I pretty much look for free whenever possible. So, I thought there has to be free campsites available. I found a website called FreeCampsites.net .  It’s a neat little website. Who knew that most Walmarts allow free camping in their parking lots for RV’s and cars? I did not want to stay in a Walmart parking lot in my car. You can plan out an entire trip using this site. If I had an RV this would definitely come in handy. I was looking for a site somewhere near I40 east two hours from Lebanon, TN. I found one and the reviews made it sound like I had hit pay dirt on a great site. So, down on paper went the Rhea Springs Campground campsite for our very late arrival on Thursday night.

The campsite. We roll in very, very late to a packed campground. There are lots of RV’s and tents and zero spots to park. I ended up parking right next to the bathrooms. Kristie had driven her own car and opted to just sleep in hers and another, that rode with me, decided to sleep in my car. Another set up her tent and another and myself opted to find some place to throw up our hammocks.

We all settle in and then it starts. First, the nuts falling from the trees hitting the top of the bathrooms; then the train that went by at least twice an hour. There was talking of other campers that I could hear from my hammock. And so it went all.night.long. I turned on my white noise on my phone on full blast and stuck it up by my ear. I fell asleep and woke up suddenly at 6:46. The plan had been to leave by 6.

We got out of there around 8:30 or so.

Lesson 4

     Be Flexible

I knew from our oversleeping that the full hike to Mt. Rogers was not going to happen. In all reality I knew it had to be changed. I had looked at the map for hours and hours over the course of the previous weeks so I loosely had an idea of what we could change to make the hike still doable and not kill us all in miles. We ended up doing just over 7 miles. We hit the trail at 11:44 and ended around 5:15.

Lesson 5

     Enjoy the Journey

Remember the whole reason you are there and just go with the flow. So much goes into planning one of these trips and you are at the mercy of not only nature, but of parks, traffic, and weather. If your trip changes on the fly just remember that you will still see amazing things and you can still have a great time.

Grayson Highland State Park, Mouth of Wilson, VA

Our Route:

  • Parked at Massie Gap
  • Followed the Appalachian Trail until it intersected with the Crest Trail
  • Crest Trail as it turned into a horse trail and then followed signs to  back to Massie Gap
  • Click here for my Alltrails Map

The trail was very hard in certain spots. You have to climb up on huge boulders as you follow the Appalachian Trail. Give yourself plenty of time, not just for resting, but for picture-taking. It is breathtaking.

I believe we saw about 4 or 5 different ‘herds’ of ponies throughout the park. They are very laid back and I am pretty sure they are used to being the main attraction. They seemed to stop and pose for photos.

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Next Stop Mountain Harbor Hostel, Roan Mountain, TN

Click here for my Alltrails map of Carver’s Gap to the OverMountain Shelter

Click here for my Alltrails map of OverMountain Shelter to 19E

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We drove a couple of hours south and arrived around 8:30 at Mtn .Harbor. It is located just off of 19E and if you are like me you will probably drive right past it and have to turn around. The gravel driveway brings you to the parking area and the bed and breakfast sits on the top of the hill while the Hostel sits to the right of the parking lot. The tent camping area is behind the hostel. It’s a short walk back to the woods from the hostel. The parking fee for you car is $10 and the tent camping fee is $10. You get the use of the hostel with that $10 and one free shower ( I believe to sleep inside it there is an additional fee.) There is also a laundry room with three washers and dryers that you can use.

The camping area was cramped. There were several campers already set up and it was hard for three of us to find good trees to hang hammocks from. We did find some, but it was a little difficult at night. 19E runs RIGHT next to the camping area and it was very loud all night. I can’t remember ever hearing about this in any of the reviews or videos I have watched on YouTube. Had I known just how loud I am not sure we would have stayed in the camping area. We probably would have opted for the hostel or maybe even a hotel.

 

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You need to be sure to make reservations for the shuttle a week or so in advance. They fill up quickly. That’s why our time was 10:00. It was ok to start at that time because we did get to the Overmountain Shelter way before dark, but I don’t think I would have wanted to start much later than that.

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The drive was 20 or so minutes to get from Mtn. Harbor to Carver’s Gap. As usual, the area was packed.  We unloaded and we were off.

From the get go, the hike to the Roan Highlands is uphill. We were passed by several groups of kids and teenagers that seemed to not have any problem whatsoever trekking on up the hills. Oh, to be young again. As usual, I was the last in line. My group doesn’t necessarily follow the hiking rule of letting the slowest person set the pace up front (for the very reason as to not leave them behind). I usually tell them to just go ahead because I am so slow. Hills kill me. I hate them. I really, really hate them. If everyone were behind me I would just be as miserable as they would be.  For this reason, I pretty much hike large sections by myself. Which is fine. I tell them to if there is a junction to stop and wait for me so we can all make sure we are going in the right direction.

From this point the photos are not necessarily in order.

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This was the sunset from OverMountain Shelter. It was gorgeous!! Leave it to me to pick a weekend when every scout on the planet would be there. There was a sea of tents and a bazillion kids running around. They were climbing up to the loft in the barn and then climbing out of the windows. They were fun to watch and I just kept thinking what a cool memory this would be for them.

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Mike and Jeff were awesome. Jeff, the younger one, had his yellow hammock in the picture. It ripped in the middle of the night and he hit the ground hard. He was ok though. Although, it did sound like the whole barn was falling down.

My friends opted to stay in the shelter on the opposite platform from Jeff. I set my hammock up outside because I knew the shelter was going to be not such a great place to sleep. WAYYYYY too noisy with people going up and down the loft steps all night.

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Looking back down to Overmountain shelter after the morning climb out. This is a HARD hike. Beware. Coming out of the valley where the shelter is will be one of the hardest sections. There is a good water supply down near the shelter.

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At this point you can start to hear the traffic of 19E and the hike is very easy the half mile or so. Once you get to the road go to your left and road hike for about .3 miles back to Mtn. Harbor. It will be on your right.

 

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This is a trip I will never forget. It was four long days and none of us were able to really sleep well. From the awful campground in Spring City, to the noisy camping at Mtn. Harbor, by the time we finally got on the road to actually do the hike we were already exhausted. However, I can say that we all learned a lot on this trip. We know our gear much better now and most of us have already started making improvements to our systems. I know better how to plan now and what to look for in a camping area. And, I have learned to not over plan the activities. It’s better to just do one trip and do it well then it is to cram too many things into a few days.

Both of these trips are worth doing again. I want to go back and just do the Grayson sections that we didn’t see before. There are waterfalls we didn’t get to see and just more of the area that I would like to explore. I want to take my husband on both of these hikes eventhough I know it will be kicking and screaming.

But next time they will be one at a time.

Happy Hiking!