Christmas Eve Hike in a Snow Covered Rain Forest
Back in November of 2013, I took my first trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. I was only there for one day, and even it was cut short by my company’s ease with distractions. However, what little time I did spend on its mountain trails was enough to leave me in awe. It represented what hiking was supposed to be, its “luxury form” compared to the trails I had experienced previously. A new standard was set, and so many hikes that I had completed previously were now sub par. I longed to return, but my busy schedule did not leave many openings. In fact, the next chance would not come until my Christmas Eve hike. Though only 6 weeks away, it seemed like forever to wait to revisit this incredibly unique place.
Planning my Trip
In the meantime, I discovered via nps.gov that the area I had visited was actually a designated rain forest. Being an aficionado of the outdoors, my enthusiasm soared even higher for a return visit. Within a week, I was already checking the weather forecasts. I knew that the park’s climate could be sporadic, so I wanted to ensure that storms would not ruin my trip. Quiet the opposite, in fact: it was to be clear and in the 50s every time I checked.
Christmas Eve Arrives
When Christmas Eve finally arrives, the weather matches its forecast. The sky is clear, and temperatures are already in the 50s. However, there was one caveat that I was missing. As it turns out, the forecasts I had been reviewing were actually for the LOWER elevations. I remain completely unaware of what actually awaits as my excitement brims while driving through the native American town of Cherokee, NC.
Shortly after passing the visitor’s center on 441, the climb begins. And it doesn’t take long for the weather change to change drastically. Much to my surprise and disappointment (initially), it begins to snow. On top of that, the wind picks up. I come from a warm region of the country and am not really accustomed to driving in snow and ice. The thought of doing so is already stressful, and adding steep, winding mountain roads to the mix seems a little terrifying. It even manages to take away from the incredible waterfalls and mountain views as I ascend. Yet, I have already driven a long distance, so I decide to persist. And thank God I did.
As I drive higher, the snowfall becomes thicker and appears more prominent along the mountainside. However, the roads actually aren’t bad. Perhaps I had the wind to thank for that, which blows snow across the street in swirling patterns that seem surreal. As I reach Newfound Gap, it becomes exceedingly clear that I have not made a mistake.
Arriving at Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap is bit more crowded than usual, and for obvious reasons. As I walk across the parking lot towards its memorial, children brave the potentially slick steps to play and take pictures on top. Of course, parents are nearby to help them.
The spruce and Fraser Fir trees found throughout the coniferous rain forest have been whipped by the wind, frozen in place, and then covered in a thick shell of snow and ice. It’s like that memorable scene from A Christmas Story compounded exponentially. The wind continues to billow across the mountains, with plenty of snow carrying along in 18 degree temperatures. Needless it say, it was a literal occurrence of Richard Smith’s “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”. And the perfect setting for my Christmas Eve hike.
Setting Out on the Appalachian Trail
I head to the Appalachian Trail for my Christmas Eve hike, and the wind seems to cease immediately in the cover of the trees. At Newfound Gap, the AT quickly leads into an evergreen rain forest (though it certainly isn’t very green right now). Other visitors jokingly ask if I am delivering a pizza on the trail in light of the old coat from my college job. However, the crowds thin considerably only a short distance into the woods.
Deeper into the Forest
The path leads up some long wooden steps, and at the top, there are almost no other hikers. I’m not complaining, given the conditions. Normally, this segment of the AT turns into a creek with virtually any precipitation. Today, that “creek” is frozen over and has become quite slippery as a result. It’s actually not too bad, I just need to carefully place my steps (which would be much more difficult with a crowd).
Snow covers each side of the trail, offering more traction when necessary. Its radiance, contrast against the ice and frozen mud of the path, is almost surreal in light of the scene that surrounds me. Even in this thick forest, snow covers the plants and rocks below. Icicles are abundant. Snow still creeps in through the tree tops. And it’s all topped off with the edgy Christmas tunes of Trans Siberian Orchestra.
Eventually, the trail turns and begins to lead up. I occasionally pass some other hikers, all of whom extend a brief but friendly greeting. Our collective awe fosters an unspoken sense of solidarity. Over here, there are more broken trees and jagged rocks. They provide the ideal conditions for even more icicles, most of which are several inches long. In fact, at one end of a fallen tree, I actually find one composed of tree sap!
As the hill leads to the mountain’s summit, the trees become a little smaller. There are more spruces than Fraser Furs along the mountain top. It’s liking hiking through a forest of Christmas trees. More snow makes its way through, though I’m pretty sure it’s not as heavy as it was over night. Clouds occasionally pass, sometimes close enough to briefly fog the area. Occasionally, a break in the trees reveals mountain views stretching for miles. Some of them are also capped in show, but strangely, many are not. I suppose this correlates with the sporadic weather of the region.
Cutting my Christmas Eve Hike Short
As is tradition on Christmas Eve, I would be meeting with my family that evening several hours away. Arriving in time for the festivities means a shorter than desired Christmas Eve hike here, and I would only get a little over 2 miles out of it round trip. Of course, the hike back is just as incredible. I run into a few more hikers along the way. One, a man with his family, asks me how much further until the trail’s end. I assure him that he certainly wouldn’t make it by the end of the day. Even so, they were still excited to enjoy all that the trail itself has to offer. Because today, the real treasure is here. As I hike closer to the parking lot, the weather begins to clear. And the site that awaits was, in itself, worth the trip.
So, was all of that time spent driving even worth such a short Christmas Eve hike? Absolutely! Because to me, it’s not about the time spent getting there, but the experience. And there’s no guarantee that this one will repeat itself.
P.S. Here’s to hoping it happens again this year.