Last week I met up with my friend Paul and his brothers, Dan and Greg for a couple nights of camping and hiking in the Smoky Mountains just outside Robbinsville, NC. Since I was the one with the maps I suggested a couple spots that looked interesting and we settled on Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness.

Initially our plan was to backpack and spend one or both nights on the trail but late arrivals Monday meant we’d set up a base camp at Horse Cove campground at the edge of the wilderness area and head out the next day. As we approached the campground on the twisty road along the shores of Lake Santeetlah we noticed three or four campsites on the lake that looked amazing. Turns out they were part of the Horse Cove camping area, separated by about a mile of asphalt from the campground kiosk and restrooms. We jetted back to one of the empty sites, jotted down the number, and paid our $10 registration fee for the night.

To say that this campsite was nice is a bit of an understatement. Granted, it didn’t have running water (at least in the traditional sense), easy access to showers, or even a restroom nearby – but none of that really mattered. Site J-9 jutted slightly out onto Lake Santeetlah and had two flat, clean tent pads, each with room for a large family tent. There was an upright grill, a ground-level “fire circle” grill, and a built-up rock fire pit, along with a nice picnic table. Two lantern hooks rounded out the amenities.

On one side of the campground there was a rushing stream that emptied out into the lake. Firewood was plentiful thanks to recent storms that appeared to have washed tons of logs and sticks onto the shores. The campsite offered easy access for swimming in the lake, though I’m not sure if it was completely kosher for us to take a dip.

A little fun with the camera at night. Nice work on the flashlight lettering Greg!

With such a nice site I was hesitant to give it up to go rough it for a night out on the trail. Instead we decided to do a day hike loop in the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness area that we estimated would be about 10 miles.

Sometimes maps can be confusing. 🙂

At around 11:30am we started up trail 53A toward Jenkins Meadow. Now apparently I can’t read a topo map very well because I was surprised by the climb up to the meadow – at least 1,500 feet in just a couple miles. We ran into a group of three hikers (the only ones we’d see all day) who told us Jenkins Meadow wasn’t really a meadow at all (perhaps it was decades ago). They recommended hiking out to the Hangover overlook for true 360-degree views which was a great tip.

The trail continued to climb after Jenkins Meadow, eventually topping out over a mile high (5,280 feet). Since we started at just over 2,000 feet that was a serious climb and it was interesting to see that the trees were just starting to show their leaves at the top of the mountain. We hiked down to the overlook and were treated to spectacular (and rare) unobstructed views of the Smokies.

Greg takes in the views.

On the way back down we took trail 55 which basically parallels Little Santeetlah Creek and had a much different feel to it than the trail we hiked up. Toward the bottom we were treated to lush greenery, streams flowing in every direction, and enormous old growth trees towering above. Greg and Dan decided to go for a swim in the creek near the end of the trail but Paul and I pressed back to the lake for a (warmer) dip.

The next day we packed up camp and drove to the Deep Creek area just inside Smoky Mountains National Park. From the parking lot we took the short hike to Juney Whank Falls and Indian Creek Falls. We saw plenty of people on the trails and in the water, unlike our previous two days at Horse Cove. From Deep Creek we hit the Filling Station deli for Cuban sandwiches and Frosted Orange milkshakes next door before I had to head back to Atlanta.

Paul, Dan, and Greg ended up spending one more night out, this time at a backcountry campsite inside Smoky Mountains National Park. I’m told they saw a couple of bear cubs up a tree near Clingman’s Dome – seems like I always miss seeing the bears!

It’s hard to believe there’s still another month until summer officially hits – plenty of time to get in more camping and hiking adventures! Where are you heading this month?

# Comments

  • Gatlinburg

    We love backpacking and camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of my favorite trails is the Grotto Falls trail, it is moderate in steepness so anyone can climb it. The Grotto Falls are unique in that you can walk behind it and view out through the cascading waterfall.

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