Monday, June 09, 2008

Missing hiking trail sign in Deep Creek NC Section of the GSMNP could spell disaster.

I hike on average 10 - 15 miles a day in the Great Smoky Mountains national park so I am pretty well equipped for anything when I go out into the woods. Luckily with plenty of daylight, a watch and a map I was to change my hiking plans and not get lost even though an important trail sign was missing in the Deep Creek Section of the Great Smoky Mountains national park.

Hiking as much as I do, I know depending on how rugged the terrain is and how many pictures I am taking I know that I average from 1.2 miles to 3.1 miles and hour uphill and 1.8 miles to 3.9 miles and hour downhill. My watch and an accurate map in the Great Smoky Mountains are my most valuable navigation aids. I also always have a compass packed just in case.

Because of the potential for heavy cloud or tree cover you can not count on being able to get getting a reading from your GPS. This can go on for minutes, hours or sometimes days. Batteries can die unexpectedly and we all know that even new electronic equipment can fail without warning or fall and break or even get lost so never hike in the Great Smoky Mountains only counting on a GPS to lead the way!

I planned on hiking Kephart Prong yesterday and go along the ridgeline and end up at the campgrounds on the cabin flats trail. Weather predictions called for a probability of rain and thunderstorms and there was limited visibility due to haze so I changed my plans while on the road to a lower elevation hike in Deep Creek.

The heat index was already at 98 degrees when I arrived at the Deep Creek Trailhead so I loaded up with 3 liters of water for myself and set out on my hike with my day pack and cameras.

There were a lot of families with kids riding tubes and splashing around in the water having a grand old time. This was a great place to bring the kids to cool off during this record breaking heat wave and the price was right: only $3 a day for a tub rental!

Missing hiking trail sign in Deep Creek NC Section of the GSMNP could spell disaster.

Working my way uphill in the heat, the trails were virtually deserted and I found myself consuming water at a rapid rate. Knowing this stretch of my trip was only 2.1 miles to the next trailhead I knew that it should take me from 40 minutes to about an hour to get there.

Since it was very hot and I was consuming water rather quickly I tried to keep my place slower than normal in oder to keep cool.

Along my hike I noticed and unmarked trail about 35 minutes along the Thomas Ridge Trail and since it was not marked I decided to take a short detour and check it out. A trail that is not marked can be a bypass which would bring me back onto the trial I was hiking.

The trail seemed more worn than most manways in the Great Smoky Mountains national park and I could see old signs of maintenance - cut logs along the side of the trial that appeared to have been cut at least 5 years ago or longer. The trail gained in elevation and veered further and further away from the trail I was on so after a half hour of hiking on this unknown trail I turned around to get back on the original trail I was on.

location of missing hiking trail sign in the Deep Creek section of the Great Smoky Mountains national park

Back on the original trail I was hiking on, I went for another 25 minutes mostly downhill now I realized that I must have passed the junction. Trying to check my position on the new 2008 Hiking Trail Map I purchased from the national park service, I could not find myself on the trial given that the new maps have removed all topographical references as well as not showing accurately details such as individual switchbacks.

With water running low (less than a liter now) I realized that I must work on finding my way out of the park and back to my car. My choice would be walk back the way I came or work on find a trail back on a more efficient loop. Without topographical information on my map I had no idea if this shortcut back would be uphill downhill or a combination of both.

I stopped, made an evaluation of where I was, listened and heard way in the distance the sound of rushing water. It can be hard to tell the difference unless very experienced between the sound of water or wind blowing through leaves. Consulting the map which does show large water features I determined I was already on the shortcut I needed to take to get back to the car.

20 minutes later I was at a marked trailhead confirming I was exactly where I needed to be. A few yards away I ran into 2 other hikers who confirmed to me when they were hiking the day before the sign was in fact missing and they also were lost as a result of the missing sign.

As soon as I returned to my car I went to the campground check in and checked the message board - no notes about the missing sign. I then went to the ranger's station and reported the missing sign.

In the winter with limited daylight and using just the new map and a compass I would have been in for a real problem as I could never have taken a chance for a shortcut - I would have had to return the way I came - a far longer trip but the only sure way I know I could have returned.

The new Great Smoky Mountains national park hiking map is terrible and I would suggest only using the National Geographic Topo map of the area. In the winter or when taking a very long hike I always depend on this map and this reaffirms this is the only map I will use out here in the backcountry when hiking in a less familiar area.

Would a GPS have worked yesterday? Maybe. There was a very heavy canopy and I may not have had the ability to get a fix. If it was winter when solo hiking is more dangerous I would have had one with me. In the winter, late fall and early spring the lack of leaves may have helped me get a fix as long as there was not heavy cloud cover and I had a clear shot of the sky.

I don't expect that this sign will be replaced with a day but I do hope that they will put a not on the bulletin board and should put notes at the trail heads around the missing sign that the sign is in fact missing.

No comments: