Appalachian Trail Run : Newfound Gap to the Jump Off and Beyond

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Elk spotting in the park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The name sounds as grand and imposing as the mountains it encompasses. Surprisingly close to the glaring lights and endless man-made entertainments of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, sits this pristine beacon of natural beauty and real adventure. The first time I visited, my husband and I were on a couple’s retreat with friends from church in the Pigeon Forge area. We were banking on getting some running in and knew the park was not far away, so we decided to check it out.  Little did I know how truly spectacular this place is, how intense the trails can be, and how common it is for spring snows to linger at those elevations. We got a couple runs in on that trip, one of which was extremely icy, and another that has become a particular favorite. The Appalachian trail section from Newfound Gap to the Jump Off is a moderate but steady climb that challenges and awes us every time we go. I still vividly remember the woodsy perfume of the pines that surrounded us as we passed into the higher elevations that first day. This, combined with plummeting views on both sides as we reached the apex of the Jump Off, created a stunning impression; even so, nearly four years passed before we managed to make it back to the Smoky Mountains and more specifically that trail.

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Ironically, we were returning from another couple’s retreat with church friends when we came within range of the park again. On a whim, we decided to detour in and re-attempt the Newfound Gap run. As we climbed the section of Appalachian trail leading to the Jump Off we quickly began to encounter a good bit of snow and ice. It was magical, but slow going and we ended up turning back before reaching the summit we had hoped for.

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Nevertheless, the bug to run in the Smokies had taken hold and a couple weekends ago we managed to return.  With cool, sunny weather we plowed through the 3+ miles to the Jump Off much more quickly and enjoyed absolutely spectacular views. Though the drifts of several weeks earlier were melted away at the base of the trail, this ridge line still boasted fantastic snow-capped trees that looked as if they were perfectly coated with thick glistening icing.

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The wind was whipping through them ferociously creating a refrigerator effect that was kind of incredible, but also intensely cold. It was an exhilarating experience that reiterated the way in which each visit to an area can feel unique. So much can change the landscape and allow for different beauty, sights, and sensations.

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We returned from the spur trail that led to the Jump Off and kept plunging forward on the main trail to get in a bit of extra mileage. Signs pointed to Mount LeConte and we discussed the possibility of returning for a long run up and back to that famous peak, but for that day we just added a couple of extra miles before returning to the Newfound Gap parking lot.

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This run is so much fun. You are rewarded with great views along the way, the intoxicating smell of firs as you gain elevation, and a panoramic view on the Jump Off that is quite an epic finale (or intermission).

Getting Here:  This place is relatively easy to find. Just follow directions to Newfound Gap parking lot and take the Appalachian trail heading east toward Boulevard Trail and Mount Leconte. There is a sign for the Jump Off shortly past the Boulevard Trail. The trail climbs pretty steadily over the first half of the run, but you can enjoy a nice downhill on your return since this is an out-and-back route.

What to Eat: You have several options depending on your preferred route home and where you call home. If you’re heading back to the Upstate area, you can come through Asheville and hit any number of wonderful spots or if you get detoured off the Blue Ridge Parkway and end up in Rosman, NC (like we did) you can take your starving self over to La Casita. This was a delicious hidden jewel of a place in our book. We got the “special” guacamole, delightful endless chips and salsa, and split a trio of different enchiladas (chicken mole and verde) and a steak taco with a stuffed poblano instead of rice and beans. Everything was so good!

Good to Know: Cell service (at least for Verizon) is very spotty in this area. Make sure you have your directions pulled up and figured out before you enter the park. There are bathrooms here which is always a nice perk. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on this trail. It seems like that is pretty common knowledge, but we didn’t know until this trip that it is actually illegal and carries a hefty fine if you’re caught. Yikes!

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh! Even when your smile is frozen 😉

Nature’s Stair Master and a Cabin in the Woods

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This past weekend, we celebrated my husband’s birthday by making our way up to Bakersville, NC.  A friend mentioned Roan Mountain as a beautiful place we should explore, and since Bakersville is the “gateway to Roan Mountain”, it was the perfect jumping off point.  We discovered a lovely little cabin on VRBO called Birdtown Guesthouse which was situated about 25 minutes from the mountain and nestled amidst plenty of smaller peaks in its own right. The property is comprised of 60 acres including nearly 4 miles of trails. These trails were crazy–beautiful and fun, but crazy!

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The “easier” trail behind the cabin

As soon as we got there Saturday, we decided to strike out for a quick jog. The property owner warned us that one trail was somewhat steep and the other was VERY steep. We started on the “easier” trail and quickly decided that we might have gotten mixed up and landed on the steeper one. The trail climbed almost immediately crossing frozen streams and weaving through snow-specked leaf piles. It was intense and straight up for the most part until we reached an amazing ridge line with stellar views.

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View from the cabin

We retraced our steps and headed up the opposite trail only to realize it actually was the harder trail. It felt like a stair-stepper exercise machine that would not end. Our calves were burning, our glutes and thighs were on fire, and if something in our legs didn’t hurt on the way up, it got jostled and shaken until it did on the way down. We were kind of cracking up, between heaving gasps for air, about how we thought the other one was tough. Thankfully, the payoff in views was well worth the push up those hills. The second trail opened up into a meadow on top of the ridge and again we got to soak in waves of mountains basking in the chilly setting sun.We could not get over how cool it was that this cabin had such incredible trails right out the back door. Though the mileage was not particularly extensive, the workout was more than enough.

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Jane Bald in the distance

The next day we headed up toward Roan Mountain and the Appalachian Trail at Carver’s Gap. This area is right on the Tennessee/North Carolina line. After all the hype we had built up in our minds about Roan, we actually  ended up running North on the Appalchian trail (the opposite direction) towards some other balds.

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From the ascent of Jane Bald

Round Bald (5826′), Jane Bald (5807′), and Grassy Ridge Bald (6139′) comprised the majority of our run, and they did not disappoint. The views were absolutely incredible. Summiting these three balds and coming back was a distance of about 5 miles. In spite of gray skies and a very blustery wind, we had a wonderful run and cannot wait to go back.

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Grassy Ridge Bald

Getting There:  To get to Roan Mountain or this section of the Appalachian trail, type Carver’s Gap, Pisgah National Forest, Fork Mountain-Little Rock Creek, NC 28705 into your GPS or google maps. To check out the awesome cabin  and access those trails, look on their website or find it on Airbnb, VRBO, or Homeaway under Bakersville, NC vacation rentals.

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Coffee on the back porch of the cabin

What to Eat: Food is always a consideration, but if you plan on going up here, especially in an off season (like January), you really need to plan well. There are not many places to begin with and in winter many are closed or have limited hours. Bakersville has a Dollar General where I imagine you can get some snack things and basic groceries. Spruce Pine is probably 30-40 minutes away from Carver’s Gap and they have a very good pizza place called The Pizza Shop at Dry County Brewing. Knife and Fork is also very good as well as their bar, Spoon. Both places have excellent farm to table fare. In Bakersville, there were a few restaurants that looked fun, but nothing was open over the time that we were there. Again, I think a lot of this had to do with it being off-season. One other cool stop in Bakersville is Oak Moon Dairy and Cheese shop. This place was so cool! The goat cheese is incredible.

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Good to Know: This may be obvious, but it is colder at those higher elevations than it is in town. Make sure you pack good layers. Also, phone service is VERY spotty. It’s decent in Bakersville, but pretty bad on the trails and at the cabin.

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Look for adventure far and nigh!

Sam’s Gap to Big Bald Trail Run

Big Bald, Appalachian Trail, near Asheville, North Carolina

Big Bald in the distance

This is an awesome trail run or hike. The views from the top are outrageously stunning. Follow the white rectangular blazes to stay on the AT. The hike is 6.5 miles out and 13 miles round trip. There are a couple of springs along the way which are nice for rehydrating your canine friends. We carried hydration packs, but I guess you could also treat the spring water and carry less in. The run took us about 3 hours and 20 minutes. That included a decent number of photo stops along the way, but not our time at the top. More details about the run can be found below.

Getting here: Head north out of Asheville on I-26 N until you get to the Wold Laurel ski lodge exit. Take a right off of the exit. Go over the bridge and take a left on 23. You will pass Little Creek Cafe and continue a couple of miles until you see a parking area on either side of the road right before it passes under an overpass of I-26. We parked in the parking section on the right and jumped on the gravel walking path that led to the AT. Across the road (on the left side), the AT heads south to Hogback shelter. If you end up there, then you have gone the wrong direction.

Where to eat: Treat yourself to Farm Burger or any of the other amazing Asheville restaurants that you will pass on your return journey.

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View from the top

Today, I want to talk about a run from this past weekend that is definitely one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring excursions we have ever done. As previously mentioned, my husband and I absolutely love trail running. It is exhilarating, interesting, challenging, and satisfying in different ways each time we go; however, some runs really reinvigorate your whole perspective on the sport and get you excited about exploring and pushing yourself to new limits. Our run to Big Bald, one of many stunning spots along the famous Appalachian Trail, did exactly that. We first heard about it as a running destination through an awesome blog called iRunfar.com. Here it is listed as a moderate run about 30 minutes outside of Asheville. One picture was enough to make us drool and instantly decide we had to find this place. Once found, it did not disappoint.

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Running off the edge

The trail to Big Bald from Sam’s Gap is around 6.5 miles long one way, 13 miles round trip. It is replete with the characteristic ups and downs that the AT is known for and sprinkled with different terrain and teasers of the big views ahead. A couple sections are particularly steep, one about a mile in and the other about 5.5 miles in, but much of the trail is just rolling or gradual incline.
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Though our goal was to run the entire thing, some power walking had to happen in places. We have learned to embrace that part of mountain running instead of feeling defeated by it. Sometimes walking is more efficient and sometimes it is all you can do to keep moving forward. It’s a killer workout any way you slice it. Power hiking a mountain doesn’t exactly make it a cake walk…unfortunately.

Dogs on Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail

When we hit the last steep section before the bald, we began to wonder if we would ever arrive at our destination and if it could really be worth all this effort. We had gotten a kindly tip from a descending hiker that we were “close”, but obviously that means different things to different people. So when we had continued another quarter mile without evidence of Big Bald, we started to feel our burning legs more keenly and lose some momentum. As so often happens, this low point hit as we were finally nearing the goal. Just a few minutes later we emerged from the forest into bright sunshine, waves of mountains, and a grassy slope that disappeared into the bluest sky dotted with cottony clouds. It took my breath away and made me want to cry it was so beautiful. The fact that we had been running for over 90 minutes, just heaved up one final hill and been on a small emotional roller coaster (thinking it was just around the corner only to find out it was not) might have been playing into my feelings a bit, but even as I sit here remembering that moment, I am moved. The whole scene was magnificent, unbounded and for several minutes, we were the only ones in the world experiencing it.

Near the summit of Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail

Throughout the whole hike we passed only a handful of hikers and one group of people camping about 2 miles in. After reaching the top, we were joined by a solo backpacker and two other day hikers. Since it was Saturday and the weather could not have been more perfect, I’m assuming that was a busy day and it was still very peaceful. If you are in the Upstate or western North Carolina, this is a must run and/or hike. It is so worth the effort.

Keep looking for adventure far and nigh!

Grassy Meadow Summit of Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail near Asheville, NC