Grandfather Mountain Overnight or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Murphy's Law
Lastmod: 2021-04-25

Grandfather Mountain: Watauga View

Premise

Someone once told me “no matter how much you prepare for a backpacking trip something will go wrong.” This is undoubtedly true, and very comforting, however they fail to mention that lack of preparation exponentially increases the likelihood and commonality of something(s) going wrong.

I recently purchased some camping gear, a new “ultralight” tent, a pair of trekking poles, and a Pocket Rocket camping stove. I planned on using the equipment on an upcoming three night trek, but I needed to have a shakedown and use the gear a bit in a relatively safe manner before I was 20 miles from a trailhead and can’t figure out how to boil new water, or something equally improbable.

I decided to do two nights on Grandfather Mountain along the Tanawa and Nuwati trails; somewhere I’ve hiked many times and camped as well. Unfortunately none of my usual crew was available to join me, so it would be a solo hike. That would normally be a full-stop for me, however I felt comfortable enough with the trails that I felt the risk was minimized. The trails up there were strenuous at times but I had been on most of them at some point. I figured I could just meander around and visit some peaks during the second day and pack out to the car on the third.

Day 1:

I left to reach the trail head at from Charlotte with enough time to hit the trail by 6pm, however due to traffic and having to make three stops for supplies which I’d forgotten, I arrived at 7:30. Sunset was at 7:45. The camp I intended to reserve was Story Teller Rock, on the Nuwati trail. I regretfully forgot to “checkout” my cart however, so I booked Daniel Boone camp, a campsite similar distance from the tailhead just slightly more uphill, in a gas station parking lot in Hickory. When signing in at the trail-head drop-box, I loaded my reservation and discovered I had not booked Daniel Boone camp, which was two miles from in, but instead High Balsam, which is about twice as far out and thrice the difficulty to reach. It got dark shortly after I set out. This was the first time I’d been solo-backpacking before, so I already had a healthy terror on my mind. The dark didn’t help. Perhaps maybe if I was more familiar with the stars I would have gotten more from the night.

Flat Rock sunset

After about an hour of hiking in the dark, which I can only attribute my survival to being familiar with that particular trail and the fact that it was a full moon, I reached Daniel Boone campsite. If it wasn’t 9pm, and if High Balsam wasn’t two more miles of uphill in the dark, I might have abode by my reservation. Instead I decided to camp there for the night. I developed a contingency plan in case a ranger checked my reservation the next morning, figuring I could probably ramble enough and cite something about “safety” and it’d all blow over. Of course if the ranger was really concerned about safety they’d ought to have ejected me from the trail immediately.

I made my camp and settled down for the night in my new tent. My favorite feature of the new tent was that, at the expense of being storm-resistant, it had a mesh section along the entire perimeter which one could peer out in the event that some mouse scurried by making the noises of a much larger beast.

Day 2

Sunrise at Flat Rock overlook The next morning was beautiful, as all good-weather trail-mornings are. I brushed me teeth on Flat Rock view, which is the most enjoyable place to brush your teeth I’ve yet to find. This enjoyment was unfortunately cut short when I realize that despite having stopped along the drive up to get some instant coffee, I’d left my mug in Charlotte. No coffee for me. I had even made an additional stop to get toilet paper, anticipating coffee having its naturally effect. It was all very unfortunate. This had the additional impact of having no use for my stove and fuel which combined made up exactly 1/3 of the reason I was there. Once I’d eaten my branded nutrient brick I leisurely took down camp and packed out towards High Balsam along the Daniel Boone Scout Trail.

The trail was windy but not too strenuous, for the most part. There were sections that were extremely washed out and some parts had running water going straight down the trail. It was odd and somewhat liberating to be setting my own pace on the trail. I had no reference point for how fast or slow I may have been going but it was comfortable and I didn’t have much distance I needed to cover anyway.

High Balsam Shelter

After an hour or so I reached High Balsam, which was near the peak of Grandfather. Unlike the other campsites on Grandfather Mountain, which are for the most part platform campsites, High Balsam was a backpacking shelter and going on 80 years old. There was an informational plaque inside the shelter which I found interesting. I regretfully did not copy the text down, but the sentiment was in short:

The High Balsam shelter was built by Clyde Smith, a local Scout Master and seasonal ranger, with his troop in the 1940s after he returned from WWII. He was responsible for many of the original trail clearings around Grandfather Mountain, many of which have since been lost or closed for conservation.

I can’t imagine what the mountain would be like without the efforts of men like Clyde Smith; I’m thankful for his work and the continual efforts of conservation on the mountain. You can read more about the history of Clyde Smith and the Grandfather Mountain trails’ evolution here. I took a short break at High Balsam for a short while before continuing up the mountain.

Ladders leading to Watauga View

It was only a quarter mile or so before I reached Calloway Peak and Watauga View. There were several flights of ladders leading up to the summit of Calloway Peak. They were fashioned out of either treated 4"x4"s or logs. I have the utmost respect for whoever brought 12’ lengths of 4x4s up that mountain.

Me on top of Watauga View

I ate lunch at the top of Grandfather Mountain, at Watauga View. I met a lovely father and daughter on the peak, who offered to take my photograph (though I looked pretty rough). They said they summited Grandfather each year, and commented on cell service becoming available at the peak for the first time. It was at that moment that I realized I had forgotten to book my second night’s campsite; perhaps I could stay in High Balsam like my previous reservation claimed. However before I went to book the shelter I had the foresight (for the first time that trip) to check the weather. There were thunderstorms heading my way and there were not supposed to let up until 1am. I knew some folks in town and took the opportunity to call in a favor.

I still had a good two hours before the storm was supposed to hit so I made my way down the mountain at a reasonable pace. They way down was beautiful as the sun was now over the moutain and shining straight through the trees; the fresh leaves made the ground shine with a Spring green. I made very good time down the mountain and stopped for a quick break at Flat Rock view. While I was there several groups passed by on their way up the mountain, including a nice older couple who had just moved to the area. He was filming a Youtube video for his channel, though I forgot to ask its name. I should have mentioned the inclement weather heading in but at the time the sky was clear so it didn’t cross my mind.

By the time I reached the Nuwati Trail the sky was getting cloudy. I thought I might hike the one mile to Story Teller’s Rock, my original destination which I have been trying to go to for years, but as soon as I thought “I have time. It’s only a mile” a thunderclap told me to head straight the car instead. I passed several more groups on that last three quarters of a mile; I did not forget to tell them about the inbound weather.

Roughly 200 yards from the trailhead it began to hail. At this time I truly began to utilize my new trekking poles: you cannot sprint down a rainy trail with such sure-footing without a good pair.

All-in-all the eight mile trek was quite enjoyable. I look forward to doing more in the future, and I learned quite a bit about what not to do next time.