Sunday, June 26, 2016

Smoky Mountains: Alum Cave Bluffs to Mt. LeConte

The whole time I was living in Seattle, I wanted to plan a trip to Tennessee to visit the Smoky Mountains. The biggest hurdle was paying $400-$500 for a plane ticket just to get there, in addition to paying for a hotel and possibly a rental car. Sometimes I wished I were closer so it'd be easier to make the trip.

I didn't know at the time that I'd get my wish.

Since I've spent this spring and part of summer in Georgia, I can drive up to Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains in just 3.5 hours. I booked a room at Zoder's Inn (I discovered it online when I was in Seattle and have been wanting to stay there ever since) and my parents and I drove up to spend a weekend hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Zoder's Inn was awesome. I loved having a balcony over the stream (it's why I chose this hotel), the bed was very comfortable and the room was reasonably priced. It was a short drive from the park and close enough to the restaurants and attractions in Gatlinburg without being right in the middle of the busy part of town.

I had been frustrated lately about the lack of difficult hikes in the south, and I set out to find the most difficult hike. According to, the only hike they rated as difficult was Alum Cave Bluffs to Mt. LeConte.

Round trip distance: 10.5 miles
Highest point: 6,594 feet
Elevation gain: 2,900 feet
Pass: None. No fee for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Route from the trailhead to Mt. LeConte Lodge

The trail begins off the Alum Bluffs trailhead on Newfound Gap Road. For a while, it follows the stream and crosses a few bridges until it reaches Arch Rock.

On the way back down going under Arch Rock

One thing that I did not expect was how pretty this trail would be and how varied the terrain was. As we began to gain elevation, we saw a ton of flowers along the trail.

At 2.4 miles, we reached Alum Cave Bluffs. This was impressive, as the rock face is huge and also makes for a shady shelter from the sun.

As we continued along the trail, we encountered more types of terrain. There were a few areas with steep, slippery rock, and holding onto the guide wire is recommended during these sections. We saw several different types of trees, flowers, and plants (lots of ferns!) on this trail. Some sections were flat, some were rocky and steep, and some required stepping over roots and rocks or going up rock steps or notches in a log. 

Guide wire

We finally reached Mt. LeConte Lodge. I would love to stay overnight in one of their cute cabins someday. We walked around the lodge property for a few minutes and then sat in the office and ate some Clif bars before continuing onto the Cliff Tops trail - about 0.2 miles from the lodge.

The views from the Cliff Tops trail were definitely worth it! It was a beautiful day and we could see the Smoky Mountains stretched out before us. 

Clouds were rolling in while we sat up there, and the top of one of the neighboring mountains was eventually covered. The cloud over the trees looked like fog and reminded me of Washington.

There was a small ledge to sit on that made for a great photo - and it is safer than it appears, because there was another small ledge below that one.

Although this was rated as the most difficult day hike in the south, it still was not challenging enough for me. While some sections were steep, there was not a lot of steady elevation gain. My parents had no trouble at all with the hike, even though neither of them had ever hiked this far. This was my longest hike as well. That said, I loved this hike. It was gorgeous and had a lot of variety in the scenery and trail terrain, so there was always something new to look at. I loved the lodge and the views from the top are amazing. If there is one hike you should do when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it's this hike.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Race Recap: Summer Steamer 10k

The Summer Steamer 5k/10k was my second 10k in Georgia and my fourth 10k overall. The day of the race was predicted to have a high of 93 - summer steamer indeed! Luckily, the race started at 7:30am before it got too hot. I think it was around 70 degrees during the race with some humidity.

Since I haven't raced many 10ks, have no idea how to race 10ks or what my strategy should be, and since I was going to be running in the Georgia heat and humidity, my biggest goal for this race was to not die. I didn't think I should worry too much about my time since I haven't been running a lot of long distances lately, however it was in the back of my mind that my 10k goal for the year was to break 57 minutes. It wasn't too difficult of a goal since my best 10k was 59 minutes. Due to all of the changes I've gone through this year (a breakup and moving cross country) I tried to keep my goals very reasonable since my training schedule and running in general were interrupted for a while. I decided to see how I was doing a mile or two in and then figure out if it was doable for me to try to break 57 minutes.

The course was on a few Kennesaw roads and part of the Noonday Creek trail. Several of the other races I've done in Georgia have been on these same roads, so it was somewhat familiar, but I had never been on that particular section of the Noonday Creek Trail. The part of the trail the race was on was pretty and shaded. The course had more elevation change than I would have liked, but overall it was a good course. I liked that part of it was a loop so that we were able to see something new instead of doing out and back the whole way.

I figured I was starting out too fast for the first mile since the 10k runners started with the 5k runners. The pace for my first mile was 9:05. I knew I probably couldn't keep that up but figured if I could hover a little above that pace for the remaining miles, then I had a shot at breaking 57 minutes. The second mile had a bit of an incline, and my pace was slower at 9:17. The third mile had more of an incline and my pace was 9:21. Miles 4 and 5 were 9:30 and 9:28. I knew that if I wanted to break 57, I would have to speed up for the sixth mile and the last 0.2 miles.

Waiting for the race to start. I'm under the white arrow. From TrueSpeedPhoto

I prepared to speed up for mile 6, and then looked ahead and realized we were about to go up a big hill. I was not thrilled. Why was there a HILL for the last mile?! I would rather have had that hill for any of the other miles. I figured there was no way at that point that I'd break 57 minutes, but I tried anyway. I picked up the pace and passed four other runners on my way up the hill. I think I knew that it was probably a terrible idea to speed up a hill, because I'd probably be too worn out for the rest of the race. At the top, I think we still had around a half mile to go.

My eyes are closed in one of these, but I'm highly amused by the tall guy running right near me.

One of the women I passed going up the hill passed me once it flattened out and I stayed behind her during the final stretch. I felt like I was dying and wanted to be done, but I kept my pace as close to a sprint as possible. I think I was motivating the woman in front of me because she looked back a couple of times. I looked at my watch and did not see how I was going to finish before 57 minutes. I didn't think there was enough time for the distance I had left. Once I rounded the corner for the final 0.2 mile stretch, I started sprinting. I didn't really have any energy left for that but I somehow made it happen. As I approached the finish, I could see that somehow (I really don't know how), I was well under 57 minutes. I think the clock was around 56:30. I actually slowed down at the end because I thought "I'm tired, I'm obviously going to break 57, and I don't care how much under 57 I am."

My final time was 56:48. I am happy with that. The woman I had kind of been racing was filling out her time card next to me, and she said "Great race at the end!" I told her I was trying to break 57 and thanked her for motivating me with our mini competition. We chatted for a few minutes after that, about how long we had been running and the other states we had lived in. She asked what age group I was in, and she said that she was in the "dinosaur age group" (which I think was late 40s haha - not that old).

I wanted to go home, and I figured there was no way I would place, because I looked at the results from last year and there were a lot of fast women in my age group. Had I done this race last year, I would have placed closer to 10th or 11th. It also looked like there were a fair amount of serious runners at this race. I still feel like I'm new to running, and I get intimidated when I see other runners who look super serious about it and look super fast. When I turned in my time card, I didn't see many other cards in my age group basket, so I though that just maybe I might have a chance. Also, given my failure to stick around for the awards one time when I did place, I decided I needed to continue to learn from that experience.

They announced the 5k winners first, and then it took another 10 minutes to get the 10k results together. I'm glad that I waited around, because I got 3rd in my age group! I was really happy about that, because I legitimately thought I had no shot at placing and also because I had tried so hard and sped up that final hill. The woman I was racing with in the final stretch got 3rd in her age group as well, and we congratulated each other. Both of us placing made this race experience pretty awesome.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Trail Report: Black Rock Mountain

My second hike during Memorial Day Weekend was at Black Rock Mountain State Park. This quickly became my favorite park/hiking location in Georgia. The entire park was beautiful. I drove up a well paved, steep, winding road into the mountains. At the top was a visitor center, parking, picnic tables, and a viewpoint. 

View from the visitor center

I got a park map and then drove a short distance back down the road to the trailhead parking. This is outside of the area with the visitor center. It's a small lot and costs $5 to park in, or is free with a Georgia ParkPass. There were only a few other cars when I got there after 10am, but when I finished my hikes in the afternoon, it was filled up and people were starting to park on the sides of the road.

There are two hikes that leave from the trailhead - the Edmonds Backcountry Trail and the Tennessee Rock Trail. I chose to do the longer of the two first - the Edmonds Backcountry Trail. According to my GPS watch, this was 7.2 miles long. 

Edmonds Backcountry Trail with detour to Lookoff Mountain

The trail descended into the woods for a while. Eventually, I came across a stream and some fern fields. The trail began to ascend and came to a side trail that led up to Lookoff Mountain. I definitely recommend taking the detour up to Lookoff Mountain, as it has some amazing views of the surrounding mountains and landscape. 

View from Lookoff Mountain

View of the surrounding farmland

After leaving Lookoff Mountain, the trail began to descend, eventually meeting the gravel road that leads to Black Rock Lake. I left the trail to walk down the gravel road to the lake. The lake is visible from the trail, so it's not a long detour. After seeing the lake, I walked back up the road and continued on the trail. I encountered the stream again, along with a small waterfall.

Black Rock Lake

Small waterfall on Edmonds Backcountry Trail

After finishing the Edmonds Backcountry Trail and coming to the sign where the two trails split, I began the Tennessee Rock Trail. This trail was only 2.2 miles long. The highlight of the trail was the overlook, which has some of the best views in the park. This trail is short and easy enough that most visitors can get to the overlook. 

View from Tennessee Rock Trail overlook

I really enjoyed Black Rock Mountain State Park. I thought it had the best views I've seen so far in Georgia, and the trails were pretty and well maintained. The park itself was great - I liked that it was smaller and quieter than other parks I've been to. I definitely recommend this park to anyone in Georgia or the surrounding states, and I'm looking forward to the next time I can come back!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Race Recap: Sweet Tea 5k

On June 4th, I participated in the Sweet Tea 5k Run/Walk at Still Family Farm in Powder Springs. It was a trail race through the woods on the property - only my 3rd trail race ever.

Trail races are fun, more scenic, and have more variation in the terrain than a road race, but they are difficult. Much more difficult. The first time I did a trail race was the Interlaken Icicle Dash in Seattle, WA. It was only a 5k, but it took me 38:20 to complete; around 10 minutes faster than my typical 5k time. Although the Sweet Tea 5k didn't have stairs and steep hills, it had several smaller hills and uneven ground (gravel, dirt, grass). It was also made more difficult by the Georgia heat and humidity. It was a gorgeous morning, but not optimal running conditions.

Looking across one of the fields to the start/finish

This was the first 5k I signed up for when I got to Georgia. Even though I grew up in the south, I'm not a big sweet tea drinker, but I have grown to like it over the past year. I appreciated the bottle of sweet tea after running through the humidity. Along with water, bananas, and granola bars, they also offered barbecue chicken wings. The race was put on by a church, and a prayer was said at the starting line before we all took off running. It was definitely a southern 5k and quite different from the 5ks I've attended in Seattle. That said, I had 3 people come up and talk to me - asking me how I did, telling me how they did, and asking me about where I went to college. I go to most of my races alone, and this is the first time I've been approached by strangers who wanted to introduce themselves and chat. It was a friendly race!

The course started in a grass field, went up a small hill, and then down a gravel road before going around another field and into the woods. Once in the woods, we went around a loop twice before exiting the woods and running back around the second field to the finish. The hills in the woods weren't super steep or long, but I was already tired from the heat, humidity and lack of sleep so they were challenging for me. I ran up all of them though. I have my doubts that the course was actually 3.14 miles, as my GPS watch said it was 2.95. However, it was more of a fun race so I don't know if having a super accurate distance was the most important thing.

The course. We went around the loop twice.

My pace was inconsistent throughout the race. I finished the first mile in 9:13, which was slower than I would have liked. The second mile was even worse at 10:29, but I picked it up for the last mile and had a pace roughly around 9 minutes. My overall time was 28:40. I felt like that was slow, but after thinking about it, it's better than my times for the other trail races I've done, and it was 8 seconds faster than the Georgia Tech Pi Mile, which was a normal road race.

Once again, I thought there was no way I would place. My time was too slow and I didn't try hard enough for this race - I was just trying to get through it. But after leaving before the awards ceremony in my last race and later finding out I did place, I knew I should learn from my past mistake and stick around anyway. When they started announcing the top three in each age group, I realized it wasn't broken down into the usual 25-29 for my age group - it was 20-29, which doubled the amount of people I'd be competing against. At that point I thought I was right, that there was no possible way I'd be in the top three, but then they called my name for second place in my age group! I was surprised and happy about that, and glad that I learned from last time and stuck around!

I placed 52nd out of 284 participants, 13th out of 148 women, and 2nd out of 15 in the 20-29 women's age group.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Trail Report: Cloudland Canyon

On Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, my parents and I went to Cloudland Canyon. I had somehow never heard of it before this year and I was excited to visit another canyon and see some waterfalls!

State park page:
Atlanta Trails page:

There are overlooks right off the parking lot. From there, we followed the signs for the Waterfall Trail to get down to the two waterfalls and our first hike. We did the Sitton's Gulch hike that descends into the canyon and runs along the bottom of it next to Sitton Gulch Creek. The hike is 6 miles long - 3 miles of descending into the canyon and walking through the woods, and 3 miles of walking back through the woods and hiking up to the rim of the canyon (lots of stairs!)

The first waterfall we saw was Hemlock Falls. Usually it's a lot fuller, but there wasn't enough water at this time of year.

Hemlock Falls

The Sitton's Gulch trail was peaceful and pretty. We were surrounded by bright green leaves and occasional wildflowers.

After coming back along the Sitton's Gulch trail, we continued on to Cherokee Falls. It would have been better to have gone here on the way to the Sitton's Gulch trail, since it wasn't too far from Hemlock Falls. Like Hemlock, there wasn't enough water to fill out Cherokee Falls either. However, the cliffs around the falls were impressive on their own.

Cherokee Falls

After stopping at Cherokee Falls, we went back to the trail junction and decided to hike part of the West Rim Loop Trail. We weren't sure we wanted to do another long hike, so we went about a mile onto the West Rim Loop Trail and then turned around.

Cave entrance on West Rim Loop

One of the overlooks on the West Rim Loop

I really enjoyed Cloudland Canyon and would like to do more hikes there in the future. (And come back when there is more water to fill out the falls). The canyon was gorgeous and I highly recommend it to anyone in Georgia!