Road Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains
Day 5: Hike to the top of Mount Cammerer
The sun made me do it.
We woke up to pure, brilliant sunshine streaming into the tent. This break in the weather was encouraging, since the forecast called for rain all day. I bounced out of the tent and declared today would be the day we hiked to the historic fire tower located at the top of Mount Cammerer. Brett from the Great Smoky Mountains Public Affairs Office urged me to do this challenging, yet rewarding hike. He said you definitely earn the views, but they are some of the best in the park.
We filled our daypacks with rain gear, food, water and a trail map, then made our way through the campground toward the Low Gap Trail. It started to drizzle the very second we set foot on the trailhead. Yet, we walked on, along a well-defined path through a hardwood forest alongside Cosby Creek. Soon, the sprinkles grew into full-fledged raindrops. We continued to follow the Low Gap Trail up and out of the Cosby Creek Valley, climbing relentlessly over rocks and tree roots. For three miles, each step forward was also a step up. The rain was now coming down in sheets, transforming the trail into a rushing stream that easily found its way into my non-waterproof hiking shoes. Yet, we walked on, despite Luke’s miserable expression that I’m sure I mirrored as well. I offered to turn around and go back to camp. But, to do what? Sit in a tiny tent in wet clothing? Huddle under a tarp at the picnic table? Get into some moonshine and trouble in Cosby?
We agreed to hike until we reached the Appalachian Trail at the three-mile mark, and would then decide what to do next. The rain stopped as we came to a small clearing in the woods. There we found the small wooden trail sign marking the Appalachian Trail. At this point, we had already climbed more than 2,000 feet. We rested for a minute, then decided to continue our climb to the top of Mount Cammerer.
Once we hit the AT, conditions improved quickly: blue skies and sunshine peaked through the thinning forest canopy and the trail began leveling off around mile four. There were wild flowers in bloom and the occasional passing of fellow hikers gave us a sense of camaraderie that helped us shake off the man vs. mountain mindset we were previously in. As we traversed along a ridge, sporadic breaks in the foliage revealed incredible views of the Cosby and Toms Creek valleys below. We got our first sense of how high we were climbing.
Roughly five miles in, we came to a trail marker that informed us the top of Mount Cammerer was only .6 miles away. This last leg of the hike was tricky; we had to scrambled over some large boulders and the path’s twists and turns were a bit disorienting. Finally, we turned a corner and the old, wooden fire tower set on a base of granite came into view. I shouted, “There it is!!!” as we raced over the final set of boulders and climbed onto the wooden platform lining the perimeter of the tower. We sat in awed silence for the first few minutes, simply taking in the beauty of the mountains and forest all around us. Clouds floated silently and swiftly below us. The summit of Mount Cammerer is at 4,928 feet in elevation and we climbed every.single.step of it to get this view.
This is exactly how I wanted to see the Great Smoky Mountains.
While I was busy losing my mind over the view, Luke was exploring the inside the tower. Its door was removed (legally, illegally?) and placed inside the tower’s circular room. Foggy windows lined the perimeter and every inch of wood bore the marks of inconsiderate visitors wielding Sharpies and a superiority complex. “Alex was here. 1993.” Alex, you’re the reason why national parks require so many guardrails.
The fire tower was built by local laborers and the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930’s, according to hikinginthesmokys.com. Each year between February 15th and May 15th, then again from October 15th through December 15th, the structure was manned by lookouts who lived on the premises for two weeks. This system was replaced in the 1960’s by more modern fire detection methods.
We ate our lunch in the tower as the clouds started filling in around us. An approaching thunderstorm encouraged us to move on, lest we finally get to experience the sensation of being struck by lightning. We scrambled down the rocks and made our way back into the forest before the rain started. Along the path hung an ethereal, dense fog. I half jokingly advised Luke to be on the lookout for fairies and leprechauns. We hiked through the beautiful gloom for a while before the sun came back out, making the remainder of our hike back down bright and hot. The trail was dry once again and a tropical humidity took hold of everything around us. It was easy to forget we were still in the United States and not a distant rain forest or jungle.
The hike back down was faster, but not necessarily easier than the way up. It was imperative to pay constant attention to our footing or risk slipping or tripping with each misplaced step. And I cannot emphasize the importance of good, protective footwear for hiking the Smokies.
We stopped at Cosby Creek right outside of the campground to admire its clear water rushing over big, fat, moss-covered rocks. It made us feel both peaceful and incredibly alive, so we lingered for a while. Once again, the clouds closed in overhead and the daylight faded quickly – a sure sign of an impending storm. We had just enough time to get back to camp before a heavy band of rain passed through, soaking my still damp braid.
We passed a couple of friendly campers on our way through the campground and chatted about our respective days. It seemed like most people were held hostage by the rain and were impressed that we trekked to the top of Mount Cammerer in such conditions. Sure, seeing it in ideal conditions would have made the day easier, but we felt lucky that we got to see all the AT has to offer – rain, sun, heat, and fog – in the span of a single day.