My mom is one of my favorite people in the world. She’s a full-time teacher, works part-time with my aunt, paints people’s houses when she has a free week here or there, and in her free time, trains for marathons, basically never taking any relaxation time for herself, which is why my brother and I like to do special things for her and with her. In 2016, almost every break she had during the school year was spent working on one job/project or another, so I told her that I would take vacation time while she was on her fall break from school in October and we could go anywhere and do anything that she wanted, as long as it was something purely for fun. She chose hiking in Gatlinburg, and after scouring pictures online, settled on the Mt. Cammerer trail.
Despite having hiked in Gatlinburg every year growing up with the family and many trips since as an adult, I had never even heard of Mt. Cammerer, let alone knew what to expect. Apparently it’s named after Arno Cammerer, the third director of the National Park Service (for more information on Mr. Cammerer, click here). After some research on the trail itself, I found that it’s considered a very strenuous hike, between 11-13 miles, depending on from which direction you approach it. There’s also an elevation gain of approximately 3,045ft. I was a little anxious because, despite my love of hiking, I wasn’t sure if physically I was up to the task or not.
We arrived in Gatlinburg on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October. My dad, the self-described hotel booking guru, had found us a hotel close to the main drag and our room was 1970s chic in terms of decor. We spent a little time waking around downtown Gatlinburg and finding dinner (Mellow Mushroom!), before packing up our gear for the hike and hitting the hay super early.
The day of the hike we were up before 7am. Mom and I had talked about our plan in advance and were trying to strike a delicate balance between starting early enough so we could be back in time for dinner and not starting so early that we would be tripping over our own feet while the sun slowly strained to rise above the horizon. Arriving at the Cosby Creek trailhead a little after 8am, there were already a few cars in the parking lot, their occupants who knows how far ahead of us. After a quick trip to the latrine, we hit the trail. It was a cool morning, but was expected to warm up quickly, so we layered appropriately. I was carrying my daypack with hydration bladder, complete with 2L of water for the both of us. We were also loaded up with plenty of snacks to power us through the day – beef jerky, apples, fruit gummies, peanut butter crackers, etc.
The first mile or so was more-or-less flat and unremarkable. After passing the second trailhead located at the campground, which is apparently where most maps and guides for this trail start, we turned on to Low Gap Trail – this is where the real challenge began. For the next three miles we climbed approximately 3,000ft via long, steep switchbacks (which I still say are my enemigos mortales). Mom and I had been sick a few weeks before the hike. She was recovering nicely, but I was still coughing up a storm, so breathing while climbing quickly became a challenge. Thankfully, I had my inhaler with me and I was able to give that its own little workout. Part of me felt bad that I was slowing us down with my sickness and asthma induced wheezing, but the other part of me knew that this was the type of climb where we were never going to break any kind of speed record on anyway. Plus, my semi-frequent pausing to keep my lungs from bursting into flames allowed my mom time to take some pretty gorgeous pictures of the scenery:
After 3 miles of panting and cursing under my breath (with my mom laughing at me the entire time), we left the Low Gap Trail and turned onto the Appalachian Trail. It’s been a not-so-secret dream of mine for the past couple of years to through or section hike the AT some day. Sadly I’m not quite in the physical or financial shape to do so yet, but I’m working on it, and in the meantime I’ll take whatever I can get 🙂 This particular section of the AT wasn’t flat by any means, but after the strenuous nature of the Low Gap Trail section, the smaller climbs and descents were a relief for our legs and lungs. I was surprised with how skinny the AT was in this particular section. At one point we met two other hikers going the opposite direction, and Mom and I had to physically leave the path in order to let them pass so their hefty backpacks wouldn’t knock us off the mountain completely.
We followed the AT for just a little more than two miles before we finally broke off on the .5-mi spur to the summit of Mt. Cammerer. The difficulty level was similar to the AT section; however, the terrain almost instantly became much rockier and we had to watch our footing carefully – me especially since I’m infamous among friends and family to have a tendency to roll and/or sprain my ankles on flat ground with no obstacles whatsoever. Finally, we scrambled over a few large boulders and there it was: the old fire tower with its 360 degree view, perched at the top of the Mt. Cammerer summit. Getting up to the fire tower itself required a slightly larger boulder scramble, but thankfully there were two middle-aged male hikers already at the top with whom we had been playing leap-frog with most of the day who talked us through which route was the easiest in order to reach the top.
The view from the summit was stunning. Simply and utterly stunning. Tourists don’t always think about the name The Great Smoky Mountains, but those of us who hike there regularly throughout the years know that there’s no guarantee that after reaching a supposedly beautiful vista that you’ll have any view at all (see my previous posts on Clingman’s Dome and Newfoundland Gap for specific examples and pictures). When we reached the top of Mt. Cammerer, however, most of the trademark blue mist which was still lingering earlier that morning when we got our start had since lifted and we could see for miles. Mom and I literally collapsed on the far side of the fire tower, taking in the sight before us while scarfing down some lunch and letting our lower bodies rest.
After a decent rest and requisite picture-taking at all points around the fire tower, we began our descent, heading back from whence we came. The trek back down the mountain was much easier, but also strangely harder in some ways, than our ascent. Easier because a decrease in elevation was much less painful for my asthmatic lungs and I stopped making sickly Darth Vader wheezing noises. Difficult because the terrain was still challenging to navigate with our already spent legs. At one point heading down the Low Gap Trail, we stopped moving briefly and neither of our legs could stop shaking and trembling. The shaking was so intense that we knew we needed to keep the stops to a minimum just so we wouldn’t accidentally fall over. *Aside: I’m not in the best of shape, but my Mom is a marathoner. You know something is strenuous when even she’s struggling towards the end.
Eventually, we could sense the end was near and we started moving even faster than before in order to reach the promise that was an air-conditioned truck with a cooler of icy drinks waiting for us in the trailhead parking lot. At the base of the Low Gap Trail before we turned back onto Cosby Creek Trail (aka the finish line), we met a father and his two adult sons heading the opposite way. They explained they were planning on going up Low Gap Trail, crossing over the AT, and going down the other side of the mountain to camp for the night, and wanted to know how steep the hike ahead of them was. “Very steep,” we replied in unison. As they passed us, still bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and clean, Mom and I looked at the sun that was beginning to set over the mountain, looked at our watches, and then looked back at each other. “I hope they have headlamps in those packs,” she said. “Yeah, and easily accessible headlamps at that,” I replied. We, obviously, never saw them again, but I’ve wondered many times since how far they got before being plunged into complete darkness and if they had ever set up a tent at night before then.