Sunday, June 10, 2012

Appalachian Trail Hiking - Charlie's Bunion

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Newfound Gap to Charlie’s Bunion and the Jump Off

I cancelled my plans to paddle whitewater Saturday, June 9, 2012 in favor of a long day hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My interest in the sport of paddling has waned somewhat in recent years and some switch flipped inside my head that has sent me back into the high mountains for some altitude. I think it is a consequence of my life-changing experiences mountain biking and hiking in the Rockies in 2010 and 2011. The best mountains we have in the Southeastern United States are definitely the Great Smoky Mountains and they are thoroughly protected by a National Park and thoroughly threaded through with over 800 miles of trail. I’ve done a good bit of hiking in the Smokies already but have had the urge to explore some new trails and see some new sights. I selected from the countless options to hike along the Appalachian Trail to access some wonderful overlooks named Charlie’s Bunion (Fodderstack) and the Jump Off. The mountains in this region of the range are my favorite because they are somewhat rockier in character and feature very steep slopes and cliffs much like what you find in the Western United States.

Figure 1  The approach trail to Charlie's Bunion. The colors of the wildflowers did not come out well but it's a beautiful little segment of trail considering the view and vegetation.

Figure 2  The view off one side of the Bunion, showing the rocky character and steep slopes of the surrounding mountains. Looks like the Rockies more than the Smokies.

Figure 3 Wind flagging of the trees along the crest of a ridge near the Bunion.

Figure 4  Some dude out on one of the riskier parts of the promontory. I didn't have the guts to climb out that far and unfortunately it was never unoccupied while I was there so I couldn't get a wide open photo.

Figure 5  The trail to the Jump Off looks like a stream bed dumping out onto the Appalachian Trail. This is foreshadowing of the character of the trail. It's pretty rugged but not too long so it's worth the hike.

Figure 6  The view from the Jump Off towards Charlie's Bunion. You can't see it in this photo but there were people still climbing around out there. The inset helps to clarify the ledge the approach trail passes over (refer back to Figure 1).

Figure 7  Elk browsing by the Oconoluftee Visitor Center. The last time I saw Elk was at a vistor center at Rocky Mountain National Park. It's good to see Elk returned to the Southeast after a long absence.

The total distance I hiked was around 9 miles, all of it above 5000 ft of altitude. I was tired but pleased. This was definitely one of the best hikes I have done anywhere. The main problem with it was the teaming crowds. This is one of the most heavily hiked trails in the park and so is a good candidate for a weekday visit rather than a weekend visit. Still, it was an awesome experience.

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