June 27, 2017
Steve Winchester was the hike leader for the June Classic Hike of the Smokies. Steve and his wife, Judy, both avid hikers, have been members of Friends of the Smokies for five years. Judy volunteers each week in the FOTS office in North Carolina. Steve grew up in western North Carolina and has been hiking trails in the GSMNP since the late sixties. The first time he went to the top of Mt. Le Conte was in 1971 as a Boy Scout.
by Steve Winchester
We set out toward Charlie’s Bunion from the Newfound parking lot around 9:30 on what started as a cloud free day.
With approximately 30 in our party, we knew everyone would not stay together, so I encouraged those faster walkers to stop and wait at the first crossroads, which was at the Sweat Heifer Trail.
The first two miles of the trip are primarily up but not real steep. Because the trail is part of the Appalachian Trail and so near the Newfound Gap parking lot, it’s obvious this section is well used. In fact, that is pretty much true of the trail for the entire trip as Charlie’s Bunion is a popular destination hike. Tuesday was no exception, as we passed many day-hikers along the way on both legs of our journey.
As we assembled at Sweat Heifer Trail intersection, we talked briefly about the trail history in that it is actually named after a creek that runs parallel and was a popular route for early settlers to bring their cattle up to the ridge for summer grazing. The area was grassy at the time although completely wooded now. It’s a fairly steep route so all users — including heifers — could work up a sweat climbing to the top on a hot summer’s day – hence the name.
After a short break, we set out again and, for most, didn’t stop until the next trail intersection at Boulevard (to Mt. Le Conte). Again a brief climb but once we got to this point, most of the climb was over. We spoke briefly about the lodges at Mt. Le Conte and determined most of our crew had either visited or stayed up there before. Many had taken that Boulevard trail to get there as well.
After leaving that trail intersection, we began a pretty consistent decent that took us almost all the way to ‘the Bunion’. We passed by the Icewater AT Shelter, and some took the slight detour to check it out. For many of us there was an added treat in that we passed a relatively tame deer grazing around that shelter.
Marielle and I had scouted this trail a few weeks before and saw the same deer in the roughly the same place, so I guess she spends quite a bit of time there.
The decent continues for about a mile, which brought us close to the Bunion but within the last couple of tenths, there is some slight up and down. The Charlie’s Bunion rock face itself is not actually on the AT. There is a short loop from the AT that takes you to the rock. That is where we stopped and enjoy our final break and, for many, a snack or two.
Because the weather was relatively clear, we could see well beyond the hills into the flatter part of Tennessee and a few landmark mountains, such as Mts. Guyot, Kephart (which we climbed over) and Le Conte. Many took advantage of the photo opps to document their visit. Many had never been there before and were very impressed with the views. I took the opportunity to give the group a little history on how/when the rock face got such an odd name.
After thirty minutes or so, everyone began the return hike, with Wally Houston as sweep. For many, including me and Judy, we got caught up in a shower as we approached the parking lot. It rained hard enough for most to put on a rain jacket but being so close to the parking lot, we didn’t get too wet. From the comments I received, all had a great time, in spite of the rain.
Each guided Classic Hike is $20 for FOTS members, with funds going to toward the Trails Forever program for major trail restoration projects. New or renewing annual members pay $35, which includes a one-year FOTS membership and the hike.
The July Classic Hike is a 10-mile roundtrip to Mt. Le Conte via the Alum Cave Trail, which was a Trails Forever restoration project. The hike is on July 11. Last year, the Mt. Le Conte Classic Hike was an overnight event but is a day hike this year.
The special overnight event this year is the August Classic Hike – the Overnight Fontana Lake Experience, Aug. 28-29. On Aug. 28, Danny Bernstein will lead a 6.6-mile hike on the Twenty Mile Trail. The hike will be followed by a cocktail hour and meet and greet with National Park Staff, followed by a cook-out dinner. The evening presentation wil be: “Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community” by Dr. Dan Pierce, Professor History at the University of North Carolina/Asheville. Overnight lodging at Fontana Resort. On Aug. 29, participants have two hike options. JP Smith will lead a 5-mile hike of Lakeshore Trail to historic cars. Danny Bernstein will lead a 15-5-mile hike to Hall Cabin. The cost is $350 single or $500 for a couple/partner.