(Article originally published in the Fall Issue of Hike Magazine. Order here)
Kephart Prong trail isn’t one you’ll commonly hear about when hiking in the Smokies. It doesn’t have ridgeline views or waterfalls to speak of, but it’s not lacking in beauty and historical features. It’s a shorter hike that’s easy to moderate which allows for a nice add on hike after you’ve done something challenging such as Chimney Tops or Mt. LeConte.
The hike starts by crossing a bridge over the Oconaluftee River. Take a moment to listen to the water as it rushes over the rocks strewn in the riverbed. The trail follows the Kephart Prong from where it meets with the Oconaluftee River to the Appalachian Trail. If the Kephart names sounds familiar, its because it was named after writer and park advocate Horace Kephart.
At .2 miles, the trail takes you through the remains of a Civilian Conservation Corp camp so you’ll see relics and artifacts such as a water fountain, fireplace and old rock frame for the camp signage. The camp was one of a few in the Smokies which held conscientious objectors during World War II.
A favorite part about hiking this trail is all the water crossings over the footlogs and bridges.
You’ll cross four as you make your ascent up to the termination point of the trail which is Kephart Shelter. One of them bears the mossy stonework from the CCC construction from over 80 years ago.
What I noticed about this particular hike is how green and lush everything was during the summertime. Also it’s one of the quieter hikes in the park, and you won’t find it as crowded as other trails. Some hikers use this trail as the start of an alternative route to Charlie’s Bunion so it avoids the throngs who take the more popular route from Newfound Gap.
The trail follows an old railway and the grade is moderate. Be on the lookout for some old railway irons during the final .2 miles of the hike. These are remnants from the logging that was done in the 1920s.
At 2.1 miles you will the reach the Kephart Shelter where the trail ends and intersects with the Sweat Heifer Creek Trail and the Grassy Branch Trail. Take some time to explore the shelter before retracing your steps back to the Kephart Prong trailhead, making for a nice 4.2 mile hike.
This hike combines historic features, streams and a gentle grade which makes it a nice introductory hike for someone new to being on the trail or who might not be up for a more strenuous hiking experience. So if you’re up for some exploring a bit of Smokies history, consider taking this lesser known trail next time you head to the park.
To learn more about the CCC’s time in the park, listen to my Hike podcast.
As I think back upon 2018, the one thing that stands out is the need to hike your own hike (HYOH). There is no one size fits all to hiking. Just as no two trails are the same.
At the root of it all, HYOH is meant to signify that you don’t need to conform to what everyone else might be doing but simply to focus on your own hiking experience without comparing yourself to others. Of course this doesn’t mean that one should be disrespectful, ignore leave no trace principles or do something dangerous on the trail.
So this is what HYOH means to me.
The miles I put in on a hike are enough for me.
I know how much my body can handle. When other hikers or people push me to go further, I know what’s in my limits. Stretch goals are fun and great….and necessary. However, I’m not less of a hiker or my accomplishment not worthy because I didn’t match someone else’s time or distance. So instead of comparing ourselves to others, it’s important to understand our own bodies and work hard to improve what we can.
The gear I needed wasn’t always the gear I wanted or that everyone had.
I returned a backpack twice because I was too impatient to wait to get fitted. Lessons learned. I spent forty five minutes working with an outfitter who fit me for shoes. He even showed me the best way to tie them so they weren’t coming undone every other mile on the trail. I could read all the reviews, watch videos, and scroll through influencer feeds. But in the end, I realized being comfortable and familiar with my gear was essential to the hike.
It’s okay to go it alone and it’s okay to not go it alone.
Hiking is such a personal activity. Being one with nature, observing surroundings, gaining mental and physical strength each time on the trail. There is a lot of fulfillment I’ve found personally in solo hiking. At the same time, I learned that there is also something beautiful in a shared experience of the hike. Camaraderie of having another person to stumble over roots and rocks with. Someone to share a summit beer with or simply inspire you to keep on going when your legs ache. For me, I’ll continue to have both solo hikes and partner hikes, and it feels like it gives me the ability to have the best of both worlds.
I still have a responsibility to hike ethically.
Hike your own hike doesn’t mean I can blaze new trails, throw trash and my worries to the winds or put myself knowingly in danger in the name of individuality. I need to always have the 10 essentials, know the trail I am embarking on and the weather conditions, and also practice leave no trace. And I also have a responsibility as a member of the hiking community to share that knowledge. Whether I volunteer time, money or other resources – it’s important as give back as a way to help maintain our trail systems for generations to come.
At the end of the day, the number of “likes” don’t count.
My hikes are just as meaningful when I don’t share them on social media. There were many times that my hikes didn’t end up with photos shared or tagged. But those were some of my most intimate and favorite hikes. I still bagged those peaks and took in those vistas, even if it was simply myself or just my hiking partner who knew. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of comparison when looking at some of the perfectly curated Instagram feeds out there, and start to feel this inner pressure to somehow get as many likes, followers, etc. When I start feeling that way, I take a step backward to remember why I’m hiking in the first place and the unique message I can share as part of it.
I didn’t tally up the number of miles I hiked in 2018, but I may end up doing that in the next few days. It would be great to say that I accomplished a certain goal (a mile a day, a hike a week, or some number of miles in my favorite national park), but right now I think I’m just going to let myself focus on my New Years Day hike.
Thank you for following my adventures on the trail. I wish all of you the happiest of New Years.
I was the youngest. Rag tag kid, following around my older brother and sister and their friends. It was a quick transition from them thinking I was “cute” to an “annoyance”.
My father being in his forties when I was born, allowed for a different type of relationship with him that my siblings had. I didn’t get the camping trips, boating trips or any of the outdoors life that my parents may have had prior to my birth.
In an effect, I changed everything. Or so it felt like as I was growing up. Money became tighter. My father worked double shifts and I barely saw him. On the weekends when he was home, he was either working on his cars or in the yard.
So when I was around 10, and my father decided to do a trip to visit his relatives in West Virginia, I excitedly wanted to tag along. Michigan is a relatively flat state and this trip was one of my first times in the mountains. Those beautiful, rolling Appalachians with old country roads full of hair pin curves. It was also my first time getting car sick because of those rolling hills. Thankfully, this problem has never reoccured.
We visited relatives in the farmlands of West Virginia where there were still smoke houses on property and farm to table wasn’t some overpriced dinner option for tourists passing through.
We visited the old family cemetery, where as a young girl I marveled at the steep incline to reach it and how it was only accessible using our 4 wheel drive. I got to wander among the weathered headstones of family members that I had not yet heard about.
However the memory of that trip that stays with me, are the walks I took with my father. We walked up dirt mountain roads and along the family property. I picked up rocks and my father told me all about the quartz granite and limestone that these hills held. He told me about what it was like to live and work on a farm. As a city girl, who only understood how food came prepackaged to my table, it all started to make sense. The connection to how this land not only sustains the body but feeds the soul.
I think that’s when I fell in love with the Appalachian Mountains. The mountains of my father. As he gets up in years, I wonder if I’ll ever get to go back with him. There’s dialysis appointments and he can’t walk very far distances these days. But the little girl in me wants to have a few more walks in those mountains with my Dad, listening intently to his stories about a time and place that always feel like home.
There are some hikers who put up their boots in the winter, and dream wistfully about springtime when the ground thaws (and the mud dries) enough to hike again. But if you’re like me, you want to be on the trail all four seasons. I came up with 5 tips to keep us on the trail.
#1 Invest in micro-spikes/crampons
While in lower elevations you might be just fine in your boots, you could end up in icy conditions where it’s critical to have traction. I’ve personally been in situations where I would have felt safer with ice skates on and therefore I’m picking up a pair of micro-spikes this year.
#2 Wear layers
I’ve found even in winter time, I start out cold, but quickly warm up on the trail. I like a pair of liners under my gloves so I can take off the bulkier gloves when it gets too hot. Also base layers are essential and I wear both top and bottoms. Another key must have is to throw on my pair of rain pants. They are great protection when for a moderate hike in the snow and come off really easy. They are my go to for winter hikes, especially when temps hover around freezing. If you are in sub-zero conditions, you’ll want and need some temperature appropriate wear.
Here’s a great article on preparing for winter hikes from REI.
#3 Realistic expectations and lots of planning
Depending on where you are hiking, roads might be closed leading to the trail. I’ve found that it’s critical to have a Plan B and C ready, so if my first hike doesn’t pan out I have some alternatives. Also, don’t expect that you’ll put in the same amount of miles as you might during the warmer weather. Changing weather conditions can derail even the best laid plans.
#4 Hydration is still important (The 10 essentials!)
You may not feel as parched as you do on a hot summer day, but staying hydrated is key to regulating your body temperature and avoiding hypothermia as well. Also while you’re making sure that you have enough water for your hike, also look to make sure you have the 10 Essentials.
Comment below with your winter hiking plans!
Goals. goals. goals. As soon as I have one thing checked off my list, there’s three more to add on. December has me thinking a lot about what I’d like to do in 2019, and where I want to take Hike Magazine and podcast.
First of all, it’s been quite a whirlwind. At the start of 2018, neither the magazine or having a podcast was anywhere in my mind. The only hiking goals I had were to see more mountains and spend more time on the trail.
Circumstances through the year though led me to want to put something out there that I could share with others. And that’s where the magazine came about. I love to photograph while in nature and document time on the trail. I enjoy being able to share that experience. And that’s where the magazine seed started germinating. While there’s a lot of outdoors and backpacking magazines out there, there isn’t really anything that just simply speaks and focuses on experiencing a certain area via hiking. For me, it was essential to start in the Smokies and the communities around that area.
The podcast was another way to venture into the hiking community and collaborating and learning from others who hike and support hikers. I have loved it. I’ve been inspired, enlightened and humbled. And am thankful that I listened to my friend who asked the question of why I hadn’t yet done a podcast. (Challenge accepted!)
In many ways, I feel like the new kid on the block. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. I’m learning as I go and love being exposed to such an amazing group of fellow bloggers, podcasters and hikers. As they say, hike your own hike. And in this case it definitely applies!
I’m pretty excited about what 2019 is going to bring. More content – from the basics to life experiences on the trail. I’m working on building partnerships with like minded people who can share gear reviews, trail tips and some old fashioned conversation. All of that I plan to bring to my listeners.
In 2019, I am also planning on setting some hike experience goals – such as getting out to some new summits and breaking out of my comfort zones which means hiking new places and conditions. However, I still got lots of love for North Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee – so expect to see lots of me in those Southern Appalachians mountains.
Today, I recorded a podcast with Kathy Dalton of Go Adventure Mom podcast and we shared some thoughts about how to incorporate getting out with our busy lives and setting goals in 2019, including the 365 Mile Challenge. That episode will be coming to my podcast on December 29th. Stay tuned for more info here on the blog and my social media.
Readers, now it’s your turn. Tell me what hiking goals you have set for 2019.
See you on the trail!
~ Lori the Explorer
I sit here in my windowless office, staring at the photos that I’ve placed on my desk of happy moments. Hikes at Mount St. Helens. Ones with majestic views of Mt. Jefferson. Feeling that pull to be somewhere so far away from where I am. Sometimes it feels so impossible, yet I know that shouldn’t be the case. But there is a sadness in knowing my heart is somewhere else my body is not.
There is an overused quote that is slapped on everything from books to t-shirts – “The mountains are calling and I must go.” For me though it isn’t the mountains. It’s my heart. It’s my heart calling me back to places that feel like home. Roots gnarled and rocks that are sure to trip me. The feeling I get when I walk along a ridge line. The layered vista of mountains rolling like gentle waves in the distance.
Many hikes have been alone with my soul finding refuge in the spaces between the blazes. Somehow it’s on those mountain walks where I feel strongest and most alive. It’s in those moments that I forget about the insecurities that are threaded through me – attaching themselves into every fiber within my body. I stop comparing myself to the ones who came before me and seemed to have what I cannot hold. In the mountains, I find my worth.
Yet, it’s in the shared hikes where love shines. In the mountains, it’s goofy smiles at the summit. Eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sipping water from our Nalgene bottles. Heads resting on shoulders and hands pulling each other up when our bodies need help.
I hike for those moments. I set my boots to the trail for the strength it gives my body and the clarity it provides my mind. I hike because my heart needs to write these love letters when my mouth has no words.
And it’s in these afternoons when my mind drifts to dreams of the crisp mountain air, I realize I hike to remember the love that surrounds me on the trail.
Starting the Hike: Explore | Wander | Live podcast really wasn’t something that I ever thought about doing. In fact, I have been struggling to finish up my Hike Magazine issue after everything seemed to go on creative hold when my focus shifted to my father’s ailing health. I didn’t even have a podcast app on my phone. But all of that changed when someone very special to me talked about the podcasts that he was listening to. And when he casually added that he was surprised I hadn’t started a podcast. In hindsight that may have been because I tend to start a lot of projects.
However, that’s when it clicked. I wanted to lend my voice to this space in an effort to share both my hiking stories and those with much more interesting ones to tell. Creating isn’t entirely new to me. I had spent some time crafting two minute videos about my hiking adventures which I called the Hiking Bedtime Stories series. They were meant to be fun and to not be taken ultra seriously. I was just sharing my thoughts and scenes I took in on the trail. I realized I enjoyed the creation of content – blogging, vlogging, photo layouts – and bringing it all together.
So a podcast? What would I do when there were no visuals? And so I spent the better part of an afternoon researching how to start a podcast. I downloaded the open source audio software Audacity. I put in an order for an inexpensive microphone. I made a list of all the topics I was interested in as a hiker and someone who wanted to support those who supported the hiking community. I started “cold calling” by sending out emails and direct messages requesting interviews. For the most part, people have been super supportive and willing to share their stories. And if they weren’t interested in going on air, they recommended those who would.
Yes, there were a couple who weren’t interested in taking a chance on someone unestablished. I had to be okay with that. Because after all, this project for me is more about sharing the love of the hike. I’ve been lucky to connect with others with a shared passion for hiking and the outdoors. I’m not really one to spend too much time focused on the closed doors, when there is so much out there ready to explore.
My first two interviews were with hikers who shared some common trails. Both Plug-It In and Danny Bernstein have completed the 900 miler club, which is a challenge within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to complete all of the official trails. Danny’s interview is up now and Plug-It In’s posts on December 1st. I hope you subscribe and take a listen to both as they share their unique and inspirational experiences with me
I’m learning that interviewing is an art and just as challenging as the mountains I love to hike. There are times I stumble, but like the advice Danny gives me when it comes to taking on a challenge such as the 900 miler – it’s about perseverance. How true that is.
Hearing other peoples hiking stories has led to an even deeper discovery that we find ourselves and happiness in the space between the blazes.
I hope you’ll join me on my podcast adventure. This wouldn’t be possible without having the support of someone who loves me and encourages me to be my best. And during this Thanksgiving Day weekend, that is something I am especially grateful for.
Dukes Creek Trail can be found just outside Alpine Helen, Georgia and right off the Russell Scenic Highway. It’s not a strenuous hike and roughly 2 miles in and out. It’s a perfect family hike or a shorter hike for someone like me who was looking to get as many different waterfalls checked off her list in the course of a day. I chose my visit on an early Sunday morning with unseasonably warm weather for mid-January.
North Georgia is a waterfall chaser’s dream. There are dozens of waterfalls in the area and many are easy to access. You can read more about the waterfalls of North Georgia in the great resource guide from Access Atlanta.
The first thing that struck me was the beautiful view of Yonah Mountain from the trailhead lot. The sun still hung low above the horizon as it was not long after sunrise, brushing pink and orange strokes across the sky and around the summit.
The Dukes Creek Falls are only around a mile in, reached by a pretty well worn trail that was wide and easy to navigate for most of the way.
You can hear the rushing water from the creek along the way, enticing you to keep pushing forward with the anticipated reward of catching the beauty of a waterfall.
There is something an indescribable beauty about being on a trail during the early morning hours with the light cascading through the trees.
I stood for just a moment on the trail, listening to the sound of the water crashing over the rocks. The music of the water echoed through the forest, a crescendo rising as I moved closer to the falls and then just as quickly a diminuendo as the next switchback took me further away. But the pull of the waterfall drew me closer and I found my pace quickened as I anticipated the first glimpse of falls along my way to the final set.
And there she was framed between the moss covered tree trunks and foliage, spilling down.
I continued on, following the path until I reached Duke’s Creek Falls, nestled in the valley.
The top viewing deck had suffered some tree damage, and was taped off in bright pink ribbon. It reminded me how little we have control of some things, especially when one considers the force of nature.
There is a innate serenity and peacefulness when you are the only person witnessing the magic and grandeur of any waterfall. In those moments, a person can truly grasp the beauty of what it means to “Be Present”.
The falls drop 150 feet over a cliff, cascading over the rocks and finally pooling into its rocky basin.
After spending a few solitary moments meditating on nature’s beauty, I retraced my steps back to the trailhead parking lot. On my way I ran into a couple hiking down to the falls. I gave them a smile and a hello, warning them that the upper viewing deck was closed due to tree damage.
I had to admit I was secretly grateful that I arrived at the right time of day to afford me just those few moments of alone time on the trail and at the Falls. It also reminded me that the wanderlust of chasing waterfalls and being out on the trail is something I can’t escape. I was already contemplating what would be the next waterfall…and the next.
With no where to be and no one but myself to choose where I landed next, I sat in the driver’s seat and smiled as I decided on Anna Ruby Falls.