Spring Break in the Smoky Mountains
April 24, 2022
Ilana McNamara ’24
My first year at Oberlin, spring break was a “you have two weeks of spring break…wait no don’t come back there’s actually a global pandemic!” type of situation, and last year, due to the aforementioned global pandemic and associated scheduling, we didn’t get to have a spring break. That means that this year was the first time I was able to experience a real college spring break, and it was an incredible experience for me.
I went backpacking with some other Obies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (between North Carolina and Tennessee). I had never been to the Smokies, and while I had gone on day hikes and had gone camping before, I had never actually been backpacking prior to this. We went through the Oberlin College Outings Club, which is an awesome student organization that runs trips to various nature areas in and around Oberlin. The Outings Club also provided all the food, transport, and gear (packs, tents, camping stoves, headlamps, etc.) for the whole week, which was incredible. All I had to do was buy some new hiking boots and I was ready to go!
Our trip leader, Pearl, was super helpful and made sure that everyone was ready beforehand. They dehydrated all the food for six people for a week, and they met up with all of us to make sure we knew what and how to pack (no cotton! and pack as light as possible!). At 7am on the first Sunday of spring break, we set out in our silly little minivan for the eight hour drive to the park.
We made a playlist for the drive, and we took turns driving and dj-ing. Some highlights of the drive down include all of the billboards we saw on the way (“HELL IS REAL,” “HOLY MATRIMONY is ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN,” etc.), an extended Chipotle stop, and the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which I really don’t think any words can fully describe the awful yet extremely intriguing tourist trap that it is.
We spent the first night at a campsite at the base of the trail we were taking. We learned how to purify our water, how to set up the tents, and how to cook with the equipment. Then, when we woke up the next day, it was time to embark on the real hike! The first day, we only hiked five miles, which was a good introduction to hiking with 30 pounds of gear on your back and essentially uphill the whole time. The first day was definitely hard for me, because I especially wasn’t used to the elevation, but I felt like I learned and improved quite a bit that day.
We got to our campsite pretty early, which meant we could hang out for a bit. We leisurely put up our tents, made dinner, and hung everything that bears might want (essentially things that are or smell like food) up on a pulley system. For dinner that night we had ramen, and on most nights we had some sort of soup or lentil dish. If you’ve ever eaten in an OSCA (Oberlin Student Co-operative Association) co-op, you know what’s up ;) We got to see a gorgeous sunset that night, and because we were at the top of a mountain with a relatively unobscured view of both West and East, we got to see a gorgeous sunrise the next morning.
We set out the next day on a beautiful morning hike. That might have been one of my favorite hiking moments, because we were traveling through a very wooded area, and we were able to spread out and enjoy the views by ourselves, catching up to each other every half mile or so. We stopped for lunch, which was always tortillas and assorted toppings - I usually went for hummus and cheese or peanut butter and trail mix.
Then, it started to rain. We were prepared with raincoats, rain paints, waterproof shoes, rain covers for our packs, and rain flys for our tents, but an important thing that I learned on this trip is that nothing is truly waterproof when it gets wet enough. We had to do some pretty treacherous river crossings that day, as the rain intensified the water flow. We hiked about eleven miles, mostly soaking wet, and we were all super relieved when we made it to our campsite that night.
We set up camp, and built a fire that night to try and dry off. Even though that day was definitely hard, I think it really brought us all closer together. That was also the first day that I pooped in the woods, which was definitely an experience :)
The next morning we woke up before the sun, because we had to hike another eleven miles, but this time completely uphill. We sang for the bears (they are most active at dawn and dusk, so we wanted to make sure they knew exactly where we were and stayed away), and we started the day by crossing the river one more time at 7am and getting our shoes completely wet again, even though they hadn’t really dried from the day before.
We walked closer together that day, and it was fun to sing songs and tell stories with everyone while we hiked. We walked through a meadow that could only be described as a “Disney Princess forest,” and saw some epic mushrooms. We also encountered the largest tree that I’ve ever seen across the path, and this trip definitely taught us some problem-solving skills in terms of getting around these unexpected obstacles.
Around noon, we made it to the Appalachian Trail, which we stayed on for most of the rest of the trip. The Appalachian Trail runs through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and is also the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. I didn’t know much about backpacking, but I had definitely heard of the Appalachian Trail before coming on the trip, and I was super excited to actually get to travel a portion. Once we got on to the AT, there were a lot more hikers, and it was fun to get to talk to people on the trail, especially “through hikers” that were planning to go all the way from Georgia to Maine, which takes almost a year.
That day was very strenuous, because we hiked an insane amount of elevation, from the river all the way to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and on the Appalachian Trail. It was really cool to look out from the viewing tower and see all of the gorgeous mountains. We went a few more miles after that, through a forest that was described to us by another hiker as “straight out of Lord of the Rings” to our shelter for the night.
On the AT, there are shelters every few miles, so you don’t need to camp in a tent and you get to interact with other people on the trail. We had spaghetti with lentil and tomato sauce that night, and another hiker gave us some chocolate, which was super nice. We were also able to dry out a bit more, which was lovely.
The next morning, we slept in for a little bit, because we were only supposed to hike five miles that day - back up to Clingman’s Dome, and then essentially retracing our steps back to a shelter about three miles out. We got to hike back through the Lord of the Rings forest that morning, and I kept thinking that I was so glad that this was the part that we got to hike twice, because it was actually gorgeous, with light streaming through the trees in the most beautiful way.
As we were nearing Clingman’s Dome, we passed a park ranger who let us know that it was supposed to snow that night and be much colder than we had originally anticipated. Our weather predictions at that point were four days old, since none of us had service on the trail (I was only using my phone to take pictures). We had to make the hard decision to cut the trip short, because even though we were supposed to stay for three more days, we definitely hadn’t prepared for the weather, and we didn’t want to get stuck.
Once we got to Clingman’s Dome, we had to actually make it out of the park. There was a road that connected Clingman’s Dome to the main road that traveled through the park, but the Clingman’s Dome road was closed, so we ended up hiking seven miles down to meet the main road, where we were able to take a shuttle to where we had parked. It actually started snowing while we were coming down the mountain, which confirmed to us that we had made the right choice to get out when we did.
We drove back into Gatlinburg, where we had pizza for dinner, and we rented an Airbnb in Knoxville, Tennessee for the night. As we were driving to the Airbnb, probably the most exciting part of the trip happened - WE SAW A BEAR! It was on the side of the road just chilling, and the best part was that we were in the safety of our own car. We got to the Airbnb, and it was so nice to change out of the clothes I had been wearing for four days and actually take a shower, as well as have a bed (and not a sleeping bag) to myself.
We drove the next day back to Oberlin, and some highlights of that drive were getting boba, this adorable little rest stop / artisan market in rural Kentucky, and stopping at Grandpa’s Cheese Barn outside of Oberlin (a must-see!). Although we got back to Oberlin on Friday night instead of the intended Sunday night, it was actually really nice to have some time to unwind and rest from the trip.
Overall, I’m so glad that I was able to have this experience. I learned a lot about problem solving and making difficult decisions, and I made new friends and deepened other friendships. I never thought I would be able to hike 40 miles with a 30-pound pack on my back over ten thousand feet of elevation in four days, but somehow I did that. This trip made me really reflect on gratitude, and I’m so grateful for the Oberlin College Outings Club; Pearl, our trip leader, who set everything up for us; everyone else on the trip; and especially for nature. This may have been my first backpacking trip, but I have a feeling it won’t be my last!
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