Ep. 55 – Take a Break, Listener Poll Results, and Hemphill Bald

SHOW #55  March 8, 2015


This week on Episode 55 Smoky Mountains Radio, Take a break during hiking, a review of our 1st listener poll, and the triumphant return of the Spotlight Hike of the Week.   Let’s Go!


It is Sunday, March 8, 2015 and this is Episode 55 of Smoky Mountains Radio.  Welcome back to the show.  As, always, I am your host Mike, and I am here to bring my nearly forty years of experience in and around the Smoky Mountains help you have the best possible time on your next trip to the Smokies.   Whether you are staying in or around the Smokies, whether you plan to hike a nature trail or the Appalachian Trail, and whether you want to ride a go cart or a roller coaster, we have all the information you need right here to make your next trip a success.

I invite you to check out our website, SMR.com.  There you will find a wealth of information including hikes from all over the Great Smoky Mountains including length, difficulty, and a short description of what you will see and and can expect as you hit the trails.  If you are planning on staying in one of the surrounding towns, you can find information about those as well.  You can contact me directly by emailing me at mike@smokymountansradio.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/smokymountainsradio or on twitter @smokies_radio.  You can also call the listener line at 865-325 9784.  Finally, of course, every one of our shows can be found on the website for you to stream or download. Of course, you can make sure you get episodes the moment they are released by subscribing to the show via iTunes or stitcher.  Leave me a review while you are there.  Those links can also be found on SMR.com.  If you have anything you would like me to cover on the show, please feel free to contact me at any time.  Again, all the ways to reach me are right on the website at SmokyMountainsRadio.com

And now, let’s get on with the show.

Taking a Break During Hiking

It s something that we almost always think of when we are moving uphill on a hike.  “I NEED A BREAK!”  It is also, in my opinion, one of the biggest determining factors on whether or not you will make it to the end of your hike or have to turn around.  Or at the very least, whether or not you will finish the hike in pain agony.  Breaks should be a part of every hike.  Let me say that again….EVERY hike.  Unless you are doing one of the .25 mile nature trails, you should stop at some point in your journey.  The interesting thing about this is that most of us just stop when we get tired or something hurts.  Other than that, we tend to push on to our goal.  The funny thing is, there is a better way that will help you and your body over the long haul of a hike whether it is only two miles or a multi day trip of more than forty miles.

Years and years ago, I was what I called a commando hiker.  I didn’t stop until I reached my destination.  I didn’t care what my body said, what I saw along the way, or what obstacles might be in my path.  I am very goal oriented, and nothing was going to stand in the way of that.  Of course, I was about twenty years younger and didn’t have the knee surgeries that have plagued hiking for me to this day.  It was no problem to do LeConte and the Chimney Tops in the same day back then.  But times have changed, and the break strategies would have been good for me even back then.  So what do we do?

There is no magic bullet to complete a hike in comfort.  We are all different. Different ages, different sizes, different health issues, etc.  You name it, there are a lot of factors at play here.  But taking appropriate breaks is one thing that can help us all regardless of the factors I named a second ago.  So here are some tried and true methods that I have picked up over the years that simply work.

First, take a break before you get tired.  We’ve all been outside on summer days when the heat index is bursting at 100 degrees.  And we’ve all been told a hundred times to drink plenty of fluids.  If you wait until you are thirsty, dehydration has already started and your body could quickly start overheating.  Breaks work the same way.  If you wait to take that break until you just have to have it, you have waited too long.  The damage to your body and the energy level has taken it’s toll.  You will be slower for the rest of your trip.  And when we are too tired, we make mistakes.  Our minds are not as sharp, and that could lead to an injury.  No good.  As most of you know, my nemesis in the Smokies is the Low Gap Trail. It is also the only trail I have ever turned around on before I reached my goal for any reason except weather related conditions.  The problem that plagued me through that trip is I kept bargaining with myself.  After the next switchback, i’ll take a break.  Wait….there’s another switchback!  Okay, after that one i’ll take my break.  I did this countless times before finally stopping.  The damage was done.  I had beaten myself less than a mile in on this trail, and it led to exhaustion and some very sore joints.

You don’t have to time your breaks.  No one wants an experience that rigid in the mountains.  Instead, find reasons to stop.  Perhaps it is an overlook, maybe a stream, house remnants, you name it.  Find those reasons to stop for a few moments.  And nothing says “break time” like finding a log on the side of the trail at the perfect height for sitting down.  I would suggest at least some kind of break at least every mile you walk.

Next, when you do take a break, drink water.  This is often overlooked, but just like in summer, if you wait until you are thirsty, you are likely already in trouble.  Thirsty or not, take a couple swigs of water before you get going again.  If you hiked in the mountains from daybreak to sunset, you would burn more calories than a runner in a marathon.  Your body needs the water to replenish what it is losing in sweat and work.  Kind of going along with that point, eat.  I like to have some sort of food at the destination, whether it is the Bunion, LeConte, or Grotto Falls.  But you shouldn’t wait until the end to eat something.  Again, you are burning a ton of calories.  If you are going all day, you are burning upward of 5,000 calories.  That is a lot lost from the body.  You have to replenish the calories, fats, proteins, and everything else that is being lost.  If you look at a hiker that thru hikes the AT, they lose an average of 25 pounds.  Even though they eat at as many buffets as they can and pig out on pizza, hamburgers, and beer all the way to Maine, they still lose weight.  They simply can’t take in enough food to match what is lost.  Overnight and day hikes in the Smokies work the same way, just on a smaller scale.  You gotta keep giving your body energy.  Personally, I usually toss a few granola bars in my pack.  Maybe some M&M’s or trail mix.  Whatever you choose, have something to graze on as you go.

Next I would say is to take a real break.  Here’s what I mean by that.  Just stopping for a second off the side of the trail is not a break.  That is just catching your breath.  Get the backpack off and get off your feet.  The stress on the legs and back does not stop just because you stop forward motion.  But stopping and sitting lets the blood circulate and gives your joints and bones time to catch their breath.  It is a must.  Yes, getting the pack off and on can be a pain.  Doesn’t matter, the benefits far out way the cost.  Just do it.  The quads just above the knee and the hips take some of the biggest beating in any hiking.  Don’t wait until both atrophy and the pain really sets in.  Give them a minute to recover.

That brings me to my next point which is probably the most contentious of all, and that is timing your breaks.  How long should you break?  Some say at least five minutes, some say ten, some say no more than two.  This greatly depends on you.  After all, always hike your own hike, but there is a general school of thought that says regardless of how long you break, don’t break too long.  How long is too long?  Well, that is going to depend greatly on you.  But here is the basic argument.  The longer you wait to get moving, the more stiffness sets in on your joints.  Everything gets more and more stiff, or as I have heard it put numerous times, rigor mortis sets in.  After that point, it hurts to hike, but there is a bigger problem than that.  As joints and muscles tighten and swell, the risk for injury gets higher.  So yes, you should definitely rest, but in my opinion, no more than five minutes at a time.  I generally give myself about two minutes for each stop.  After that, my knees start really giving me issues.  Even when I stop at the end of my hike, say at the top of Shuckstack, I don’t sit still very long.  The pack comes off, I make lunch, and relax, but I still move around.  I may be there 30 minutes, but I don’t sit still.  After all, the top of the mountain is only halfway.  I still gotta get down and need my joints and bones to be in good shape for the decent.

And decent brings me to the final point.  Most people don’t think twice about getting down when they reach their goal.  But this is the time the biggest problems occur.  Take one of my other passions, Mount Everest, as an example.  Eighty-percent of the fatalities on Mount Everest occur on the way down.  Why is that the case?  Well, generally we are going downhill so we think of it as easier hiking.  That’s problem one.  We used up all of our focus and energy getting to the top and we have nothing left to get back down.  That’s problem two.  Obviously the Smokies don’t have the difficulty of Everest or the fatalities that go with it.  That’s a good thing.  But the biggest mistakes still happen in the Smokies going down, and this brings me back around to talking about taking breaks.

Unless you have the knees i’ve got, chances are you take half the time to get down as you do going up.  The downhill momentum just pulls your body down.  Coupled with the fact that you are now more anxious to get back to your car, we tend to move much faster on the decent.  We also take less breaks.  We shouldn’t do that.  Since we are not out of breaths generally when hiking downhill, we think about breaks less.  But remember though, your body is still losing water and energy, the stress on your joints is still there (and increased by a factor of 8 on the knees), and so we still need to take breaks.  I would recommend taking the same number of breaks whether you are going up or going down.  Instead of getting back to the trailhead in pain or waking up the next day barely able to walk, take breaks and save your body.  Downhill is also the time those lovely shin splints tend to take hold.  Those don’t go away overnight and theres not a lot to do to treat them.  Take breaks instead.  You’ll be glad you did.

The only exception I would tack on to this is if you are in a good hiking rhythm.  Sometimes the steps just click, you move at a steady pace, and you feel great.  I will sometimes stretch out my breaks a little longer when this happens because as many of you probably know, when you stop in the middle of a good rhythm, it is hard to get it back.  My runner friends tell me the same thing when they do their marathons.  Still, don’t just put them off for too long.  If you end up bargaining with yourself, you will likely be in bad shape.  Diligent breaks will help you not only finish the hike, but finish it in comfort.  Hope that helps some of you out!

I’ll put more info about this in our show notes and on Smoky Mountains radio.com

We will have a new poll this week that should be up shortly after this show airs.  This week’s topic:  Where do you stay?  When you come to the Smokies, where do you like to stay?  Gatlinburg? Pigeon Forge?  Townsend?  Inside the park?  Whatever your answer, vote on that this week and i’ll go over the results in next week’s show.  I’ll put in a place that you can write in your favorite for this week’s poll so we can get everybody covered.  The poll will be open until Saturday, March 14.  Thanks for participating.

This week’s poll was our first about what you look for most in a hike in the Smokies.  Overwhelmingly, you chose views and overlooks to the tune of 68 percent.  Waterfalls cam in second with 20 percent, third was trees and flowers with 12 percent.  And coming in last, poor history got a whopping 0 percent of the vote.  Ouch!  It was really cool to get everybody’s feedback on that one.  I will stick up for poor history though.  Honestly, when I know the history of a place I visit, I really enjoy the experience even more.  My example is Gettysburg.  I am a huge Civil War buff and got the chance to go to Gettysburg a few years ago.  The town and battlefields are spread all over the place and the drive around them all takes hours.  However, knowing the major players involved, how the fighting occurred, all the terrible loss of life, and the landmarks, strategies, and positions of troops made me like a kid at a candy store.  The scenery is beautiful, the monuments haunting, but knowing all the details of the place made me appreciate it even more.  I encourage you to take the same approach with the SMokies.  And maybe i’ll throw in a little history on the show.  I’ll try to not be boring with it though!  That said, views are my favorite as well.  They are really tough to beat.  That picture can truly speak a thousand words.  Thanks again for voting everybody!  If you forgot, don’t forget we will have a new poll on the site this week.  Just go to the homepage on SmokyMountainsRadio.com or check Facebook and Twitter for the link.


Spotlight Hike of the Week (Hemphill Bald)

It’s back!  The triumphant return of the Spotlight Hike of the Week with a trip out to the southeast corner of the park between Balsam Mountain and Cataloochee to tackle the Hemphill Bald Loop.  This hike is a 13.2 mile strenuous hike through some of the very best rolling forest lands that the Smoky Mountains has to offer.  I do classify this hike as strenuous, mostly due to the large elevation changes throughout the hike, but I have seen others list it as a moderate.  So that should give you some idea that it is on the easier side of the strenuous hikes.

To get there, you have a couple of options.  The most direct route is to take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road.  Follow that road all the way to Polls Gap and the small hiker parking area on the right side of the road to begin your journey.  There are a couple trailheads right there.  You want the one on the right which is the Hemphill Bald trail.  I will say this right up front, Heintooga Ridge Road is closed in the winter months, so keep that in mind, but as soon as the road opens for Spring, go!  It is one of the prettiest hikes in the Smokies.  During the winter months, you will have a much harder time making it to the trailhead.  You are literally at the edge of the boundary of the national park in the southeast corner.  There are very few roads out here.  And so if you want to do this hike in the winter, you have to come from Cataloochee which will add a minimum of 10 miles to your hike. Some people compensate for this for riding horses part of the way and hiking the rest.  A lot of this trail is shared by horses, so that is another option for you.  I even had a buddy use a “horse shuttle” on this hike.  He went on horseback to the trailhead, hiked it, and had the guy have his horse waiting for him at the end.  I haven’t gone this route myself, but it seems like a pretty cool option.

The last thing to let you know before we get into the hike itself is that you can do this one as a loop hike or just a there and back hike.  If you only want to go to Hemphill bald and back, you can reduce your roundtrip mileage to 9.4 miles and reduce the difficulty to a moderate.  But if you can handle the mileage and difficulty, I say do the whole loop.  It is worth it.

So as you begin the hike on Hemphill Bald Trail, you will notice dense forests, rolling hills, and great overlooks that seem to change like flipping a picture.  It is truly a terrific and unique place to hike in the Smokies.  You may be between two campgrounds (Cataloochee and Baslam Mountain), but you never feel like there are a bunch of people around you.  In fact, you will hardly ever notice other people on this trail.  It is insanely quiet.  The only sounds you are really likely to hear is the wildlife around you rustling in the woods.  And they seem to be laid out like a welcome mat just for your trip.  You will frequently see a ton of birds, squirrels, deer, and elk.  I have personally seen more elk in this area than anywhere else.  All of this makes for a great hike.

This hike is up and down.  You generally head downhill at the front end of the hike before making the long ascent up to Hemphill Bald.  It is one to do slowly, not only because of the incline, but also because the constant views breaking through the trees will make you slow down.  I found myself in the first five miles of the trail going slower than I have on any trail not named Low Gap.  Not out of necessity, but just because I wanted to.  This hike also gives you a great amount of anticipation as you go.  Views begin to open up more frequently, and with each climb, you know you are getting closer.  It reminds me in many ways of the drive from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Newfound Gap.  With each turn, you get bigger and bigger overlooks until you triumphantly reach Newfound Gap and the amazing views that await you.  This trail is very much the same.  And when you reach Hemphill Bald 4.7 miles in, you will feel the same way.

Most of the balds in the Smokies are not entirely impressive at the top.  Most of them have been overgrown and to get great views, you have to create your own side trail (which we know is no good).  But what is pretty cool is that this bald gives you space.  There are large flat spaces and a ton smaller plants and bushes all around you.  There are tall trees, but they pushed far enough back to still allow for great views all around.  There has certainly been plenty of growth here since the days of constant animal grazing way back when, but it is still kept down pretty well, likely aided from the horses that use the trail.  Honestly, all the horse traffic has kept the trail compacted and fairly clear.  I have seen as many or more horses on this trail as people.  It is a great place to ride, but in my estimation, even a better place to hike.  A lot of folks don’t even know about this hike or where it is.  Find a hiker in the Smokies that has spent a good amount of time out here and I bet it ranks among their favorites.  Anyway, continuing from the bald.

You will, not surprisingly start making your way downhill after leaving the bald.  Your next milestone on the trail is Double Gap that will give you afford some more wonderful views and a great place to relax and double check your footwear.  Why?  It is time for a little water.  You will have several water crossings in the next couple miles, so make sure your footwear is adequate so you don’t end up with wet feet.  If you aren’t sure, bring a pair of Crocs or similar shoes for water crossings, but I don’t really think it will be necessary for this one.  If the horses can handle it, we can too, right?  But once you are ready to go, take a left from Double Gap to stay on Hemphill Bald Trail.  Do not head off to the right onto the Cataloochee divide trail.

The next two miles gives you more time to think about your footing and less to enjoy the views, but it is so different from the first part that you won’t mind it.  So after 8.4 miles, you make it to the trail junction with the Caldwell Trail.  Take a left here.  And once you do, you will shortly see campsite 41.  This is a great place to camp.  Secluded, hardly ever busy in my experience, and a great place to call it quits if you want to turn this into a two-day hike.  I have hiked this hike both as a day hike and an overnight experience.  Honestly, I enjoyed the overnight more probably simply due to the fact that camping at that site was so cool.  I camped with one other guy there.  Another solo hiker from Elizabethtown Kentucky.  Much like me, he just wanted to get away and hike and clear his head.  And that was cool.  Even though both of us were hiking to get away from everything and everybody, we were both so glad to have each others company that night.  It was pretty cool.  So, moving on to the rest of the hike.

After you leave the campsite, you are 1.5 miles from joining up with the final leg of the hike, the Rough Fork Trail.  You will take a left onto this.  I didn’t mention much of the nearly two miles of trail on the Caldwell Trail.  That’s because this stretch is nice walking, but doesn’t offer much that is truly memorable. So I won’t go in that any further.  However, the last stretch of 3.5 miles on the Rough Fork Trail is memorable.  It is tough, with several switchbacks.  I actually questioned a few times whether I had hiked the right trail the first time I did it.  But fear not, you are right.  The elevation goes up and down and up and down, but like the first part of the hike, you get some terrific views here, there, and everywhere.  You will be tired as you come down, but this hike is so solitary that you won’t care.  I have hiked this hike 3 different times.  On all of those trips, I never ran into another person….or horse….on the last 3.5 miles of trail.  If you wanna go somewhere and think, that’s a great place to do it.

It is a really fun hike.  There are remnants of CCC including fences that really add to the landscape, you make out just a few remnants of work sites and buildings and just wide open spaces without the sound of vehicle anywhere around.  As soon as that road says “OPEN” I say go for it.  It is really a fun hike.  Just remember where it is located, so I would advise staying on the North Carolina side of the park or the drive just to get to the trailhead and back could seem to take as long as the hike.  Check it out on your next hike to the Smokies.

I’ll put more information about this hike in the show notes, and on SmokyMountainsRadio.com


Next week we will have TWO segments inspired by our listeners.   Eddie and John both wrote in over the last week or so and suggested topics on getting a shuttle when hiking in the Smokies and fishing in and around the Smoky Mountains.  Both of those are great ideas, and we will explore both in detail next time on Smoky Mountains Radio. I also got a comment on the website about doing more trip reports.  I think that is a good idea.  Actually, I went back and looked and the episodes i’ve done in the past with trip reports are among the most listened to shows.  So I will be doing more of those in the next few weeks.  If you have a trip report you would like to share, I would love to hear it.  You can send it to me via email or set up a time with me to go over it on air.  I would love to have a few of you on the show with me.  And thanks for that comment.  I do appreciate it.  Thanks to all of you that took the time out of your day to contact the show.  Thanks to Randy, Joel, and everybody else.  I can’t even remember everybody i’ve talked to this week.  Keep it coming guys.  I appreciate it so very much.  Talking with you guys is my favorite part of doing the show.  Don’t forget to follow me on twitter and Facebook, take our poll, and explore the website.  All of that information can be found at SmokyMountainsRadio.com    But until next time, you have a new hike to add to your list to complete, so GO TAKE A HIKE!!!




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