I don’t know whether the term is used outside the US, but here the term “doubleheader” refers to a day when two professional baseball teams play two games in one day. This past weekend the XYL and I played a SOTA doubleheader (in two days, not one) in Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the southeastern US.
Because it is within driving distance of many major cities in the eastern US, this is one of the most-visited US national parks. This was our first trip since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We booked a room in a small hotel just outside the southwest part of the park, and brought a spray bottle of bleach solution with which I sanitized the entire room when we arrived on Thursday evening. We were later joined by another (non-ham) couple, one of the XYL’s hiking companions and her husband.
On Friday morning we left the hotel for the Cades Cove loop, a scenic drive in the park. Off the southwest corner of the loop, a side road leads to the trailhead for the Gregory Bald Trail, which gently ascends 3,020 feet (920 meters) over 5.6 miles (9 km) of woodland trail. One returns the same way for a total 11.3 hiking miles. Gregory Bald (W4C/WM-038) is famous for the wild azaleas on it summit, and reportedly draws great crowds when the azaleas bloom during the later weeks in June. Over the week before our departure we’d watched the weather forecast for the area go from high to low probability of rain and back again, and by Friday morning the forecast was for 70% chance of rain and thunderstorms. But we carried our rain gear in our packs and decided to chance it.
Driving the loop to get to the trail, at one meadow we saw a mother black bear and her single cub. They watched us from a distance of about a hundred meters as we slowed to gawk at them, but everybody kept their distance and we drove on to the trailhead. We saw no other bears… that day.
We had a fine hike, moving at a comfortable pace to accommodate everyone in the party.
Most of the spring wildflowers had already bloomed and disappeared, but there was lush greenery the entire way and we occasionally saw these white violets on tall stems.
After 3 easy hours we gained the summit. The azaleas were in bloom as described, a gorgeous riot of orange and salmon scattered across the summit.
While the others ate their lunches and wandered about photographing the blooms, I set up the SOTA station, an Elecraft KX1 and an end-fed wire antenna. On these trips the XYL grants me one hour for the entire activation, from the moment I drop my backpack until I am ready to leave the summit. In addition, the weather looked like it might be changing. The skies were absolutely clear and deep blue when we started our hike, but by the time we reached the summit the skies were about 50% overcast. So the setup was a bit frenzied!
I did not find a cell phone signal on the summit (odd, because one of my companions did), but fortunately I had posted an alert the previous day and the RBN system heard my CQ and posted a spot. Conditions were not favorable, and I felt lucky to get 3 QSOs on 20m and four on 40m. But that was more than enough to claim my summit points. I did not hear storm QRN on the bands, so I was not too worried about the weather. Still, by then I was closing in on the end of my allotted hour of SOTA time, so I had to forgo trying 30m and instead packed up the station.
Our descent went much faster, and we hastened in the last 30 minutes as the skies darkened. Despite the absence of QRN, afternoon storm cells were popping up and we began to hear thunder. Miraculously, the rain held off until about a minute before we reached the parking area – and then the deluge began. But we were safe and dry, and I had another 8 points in the quest for Goat.
The rain lasted only about 90 minutes, and the rest of the afternoon and evening were dry. Conditions were mostly clear on Saturday morning, with a predicted 40% chance of late afternoon rain and thunderstorms, when we left the hotel to drive across the park. Our destination was Mount Leconte (W4T/SU-003), the third-highest summit in the park. Mount Leconte has an inn on the summit and a vista point that boasts an almost 360 degree view, so the 11 mile (17.7 km) round-trip hike to the 6593 foot ASL summit (elevation gain 2763 feet, or 842 meters) is one of the most popular in the entire park. As a result, the unusually large parking area was already almost full when we arrived at 0715 local time.
This was a very different hike. Much of the trail is steep, and the heavy usage mandates aggressive trail construction and maintenance. There were some sections of long steps, and many passages in which the trail had been blasted and hewn from the underlying rock.
Because of the popularity of this trail, we met many more people on this hike than on the previous day. In the many narrow sections of the trail, we had to pause to allow descending hikers to pass before we continued our ascent. In some places we could enjoy great views while we waited.
As we climbed, the broadleaf trees gradually gave way to pines and other conifers. We began to find blooming mountain laurel and several types of rhododendron.
We also encountered a bear! Hikers just ahead of us alerted us to a medium-sized black bear less than 10 meters away from the trail, on the downslope side. She – for her cub was safely hiding up in a nearby tree while she browsed for food – clearly was aware of us, and paused once to briefly gaze at us before resuming her hunt. We moved quickly past her on the trail. I didn’t stop to take photos, and in addition to being too far away for the cell phone camera, she was concealed in the bushes. But I snapped a few pictures as we rushed by, and you can see her blurred outline in the enlarged photos.
Along the way we had some great vistas, but overall there were clouds and fog moving in. By the time we reached the summit, there was little to be seen from the vista points so we went directly to the true summit. The true summit is marked by a rock cairn, and is surrounded by trees so there are no views from that point.
The XYL took out her phone to read an e-book and I set up the radio.
Again I had to rely on the RBN system to spot me, again that was successful, and again the band conditions were disappointing. But with 3 QSOs on 20m and 5 on 40m, I was able to claim the 10 points. And VE2DDZ called me for an S2S, my first international S2S.
The descent was unremarkable – no bears, no thunderstorms, just lots of people. This is not a summit for a quiet wilderness hike! We took a quick look at the famous Mount Leconte Inn, where visitors can rent cabins and enjoy meals in the dining hall.
If you are interested, reservations fill up to a year in advance so plan ahead. In our case, we were glad to get back to the car and drive home.
Our conclusion is that travel for mountain hiking is possible during COVID-19, but it takes planning and effort, especially if a hotel stay is part of the trip. If we get another uptick in the pandemic, we may confine ourselves to home again, so it was a pleasure to get out while we could. Thanks to all the chasers!