Fire in a Downpour: A Two Day Backpacking Trip in the Smoky Mountains

Recently, I was able to go on a personal backpacking trip into the Smoky Mountains, something that I don’t usually get to do. Most of my trips out these days center around business concerns in regards to achieving specific objectives for The American Wild Trekking Company.  I was able to return to the wilderness with my twin brother Nick, who I haven’t backpacked with in 6 years. The last time I went on an overnight trip into the backcountry with him was into the Pyrenees Range in France in 2012.

This 2 day backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains took us to the Big Creek Valley in a little known area of the National Park. I love this area of Smoky Mountain National Park. Hiking 6 miles into the valley brings you to a peaceful clearing where the Crestmont Lumber company used to have a camp. The path is broad and well cared for. As you hike you can tell that it used to be a service road for the lumber company that owned this particular part of the park at one point.  There are cascading creeks and beds of wildflowers that carpet the forest floor. Combine those two things with the interplay of light through the trees and the sounds of Big Creek and it becomes a magical place. With a little creativity you can imagine fairies and gnomes running and flying through the undergrowth.

As we hiked to camp my brother and I recounted stories of past mishaps and adventures. Its funny how small details can escape you over a span of years. Shared experience differs between people who recall different memories of specific events.

He told me about his life as an actor in Budapest, Hungary. In fact, he is going to be in the new Rambo movie scheduled to be released in late 2019 to early 2020. We talked some of what it was like to work with Sylvester Stallone, the book “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink, and about how our life experience has differed over the last decade we have been apart.

It truly is a remarkable thing to enter into the wilderness with family or friends that you haven’t seen in a long time and to rediscover who they are. Backpacking is the perfect way to connect on a deeper level.

We passed Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls on the way to our camp for the night,  (Walnut Bottom), and challenged each other to take a swim in the 30 degree weather. Neither of us actually hopped in…  By the time we reached our camp for the night the weather had turned and it was cold and rainy. A perfect ending to a perfect day.  After setting up camp we began collecting firewood and returning it to the firepit at the campsite.

After shaving every piece of kindling and making fire sticks out of the larger branches we began the process of creating fire. It took about 30 minutes of finagling but we finally got a fire going. In our defense, it had rained over 10 inches in the preceding week. As the sun was setting, Nick looked at the fire in the rain and declared, “ I am the FIREMASTER!”.

I asked him if he had the bourbon flask to which he replied, “ I thought you had the flask?”

“No bourbon for us tonight...” I replied.

The next morning we woke up to the pitter patter of rain on the tent. One of us was going to have to take down the hang bag for breakfast and coffee. We looked at each other for a few seconds and a look came upon my brothers face, almost of victory.

“ I left my rain jacket outside” he stated with a slight smirk. “ Looks like it’s going to be you, Jake.”

We cooked breakfast and packed up camp as quickly as we could. Its best to move in the rain. Standing around while getting wet doesn’t do much for morale. Our way back to our pickup that afternoon was over Mount Cammerer and down the Chestnut Branch trail to the parking lot.

One of the aspects of backpacking in the Smokies that I appreciate most is how the weather can change so fast. One minute you are in a downpour and the next (after ascending) you stand gazing upon a sea of clouds and mountain top islands in bluebird skies. Once we took the Appalachian ridgeline there was no more rain. The views cleared for our hike all the way to Mount Cammerer.  

We arrived at the spur trail to the summit of Mount Cammerer around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The short hike up was beautiful. I would claim that the views were quite possibly the best in Smoky Mountain National Park. After a muddy slog we saw the summit of Mount Cammerer with the Mount Cammerer lookout tower perched upon a rocky precipice.

Apparently, it is called a lookout tower rather than a fire tower because it is 8 sided and is built directly upon the rock face. A firetower is 4 sided and raised up on top of a steel structure. Little known fact.

After having lunch inside the lookout and taking some pictures we headed down the mountain to the Chestnut Branch trail. As we were hiking out memories of our childhood flooded back to me. We grew up in Southern Indiana surrounded by a sea of trees and small areas of woodland. Every step over the creek on the way down reminded me of running through the woods barefoot with my brother, climbing pine trees all the way to the top. We would stand on the thin branches at the peak of the tree and feel the sway of the pine as the wind hit it below us. Before heading out to galavant our mother would always tell us not to climb trees.

There was many a time where black sap would get stuck to our hands and try as we might, there was no way to get it off. The ritual of showing our hands to our mother became a regular occurence. Many whippins were had but that never dissuaded us from adventuring out and repeating what we had done the day before. Oh, fond memories…

We arrived back at the parking lot around 4 in the afternoon. The adventure complete, we drove back to Knoxville recalling childhood memories.

It was a blessing to be able to adventure in The Great Smoky Mountains National park with my twin brother. We rekindled the closeness that we had in our youth and reunited in common purpose. I believe that the best way to connect to those you are close to is to venture into the wilderness from time to time. Big Creek and the mountains that surround it are the perfect place to do that. Maybe it’s time to come on a family trip into the Smokies.

I can promise that you will leave better for the experience.