For this trip, we wanted to crank up the intensity, so we chose a 17-mile loop that took us up to the Appalachian Trail and to the summit of Mount Cammerer, where an old park service observation tower still stands watch. We were joined by Heather's father, Rick, who was the first to show us the ways of the woods two years ago when we prepared to travel to Alaska. He bring along a great love for the outdoors, and the Smokies in particular.
We set out from the Cosby campground early in the morning. The streams near the campground were swollen with rain from a big storm the night before, and some parts of the trail were still very muddy. Low Gap Trail takes you straight up to the Appalachian Trail with 2000ft of elevation gain over its 2.9 miles. At the top we took a break for snacks, and put on a few more layers as the wind through the mountain pass quickly took away the heat we'd built up. Several AT thru-hikers passed us, over 200 miles into their 2,200-mile journey. They stroke with purpose, and we never caught up to any of them while on the trail.
Mt. Cammerer is named for the Park Service director who helped the Smokies become a National Park. The Civilian Conservation Corps built this observation tower in the late 1930's, and it served as a lookout for monitoring forest fires. It was actively used until the 1960's, and has since been restored.
It makes an excellent destination for hiking. The huge 360-degree vistas make the climb well worth it, and on the rocks nearby you can find day hikers, scout groups, and thru-hikers pausing to eat, rest, and search for cell phone signals.
After a 12-mile day ascending and descending Mt. Cammerer, we were relieved to arrive at our campsite. Gilliland Creek is in an odd spot for a backcountry campground; it's accessible either by a simple 3.5-mile hike from Cosby or by the grueling 12-mile route we had just taken. As a result, it's not heavily used and we had the place to ourselves.
Hiking kept us warm for most of the day, but now that we were stationary we began to feel the chill. Luckily, the area was relatively dry and we were able to get a fire going. The sun kept mercifully shining on us as we brewed up hot tea and a hot dinner of lentils and mac & cheese. We spent the sunset around the fire discussing some exciting developments in Rick's music career. Before long, though, exhaustion set in and we all retired to the tent before dark.
One of the best things about this loop is the easy, 3.5-mile hike back to the Cosby campground where we started. Our chilly morning started slowly as we warmed up with hot tea and broke camp. We skipped breakfast to get on the trail, which warmed us up quickly. The streams we passed weren't as swollen as the day before, most of the mountain rain having washed out by then. Clear skies and the warm sun accompanied us back.
We finished with our tradition on Cosby-area hikes: a big breakfast at Carver's Apple Orchard. Every meal comes with apple fritters and apple butter, glasses of apple cider, and the eggs, bacon, and buttermilk biscuits are just what we needed to recharge.