John Litton – Grand Gap Loop Backpack
April 22nd, 2019
Hikers: Julie, Patrick and Luna
After a tasty breakfast of biscuits and gravy, we explored our camp area further. I would love to come back here when the rhododendrons are in bloom!
Luna entertained herself with a stick she had found. With the short mileage of this hike, there was no rush to pack up and get moving. We did filter a little water since we weren’t certain how far our next water source would be.
Once we broke camp, we took time to explore the farm. The house and barn were built around 1900 and it was a working farm until the establishment of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in 1974.
Once we left the farm area, we ran into short stretch of flooded trail. Nothing too problematic and Luna liked having a drinking source literally at her feet! It was a pretty section of trail with lots of rock outcroppings and little elevation change. Many of the rock outcroppings had water flowing over the top creating numerous little waterfalls. We soon came to the western point of the Fall Branch Trail, a connecting trail linking the John Litton Farm Loop with Grand Gap Loop. Our plan was to look for a campsite along Fall Branch Trail.
The start of the Fall Branch Trail took us through a beautiful gorge area along a fast moving creek. We passed through a rock shelter and found several small waterfalls.
The ravine area was short lived and we soon climbed to a hot, dry ridge. Shortly after climbing onto the ridge, we spotted a small, established campsite. This camp had no nearby water, would probably not accommodate hammocks and was not nearly as scenic as our last one. Wanting to get closer to Grand Gap Loop, we kept opted to keep moving. This section of trail is part of the Sheltowee Trace Trail, a 323 mile trail running through Tennessee and Kentucky.
As we continued our journey along the ridge top, we were passed by a trail runner and her dog. The trail itself was clear but much of this area was overgrown and brushy with steep slopes on either side of the trail. We were not finding any good places to set up camp. We climbed up a steep hillside to the top of a rock outcropping thinking it might give us a level site with a nice view. Turned out to be really overgrown so we climbed back down and kept moving. We saw a figure moving towards us and realized it was the trail runner who had passed us earlier. She stopped to chat and told us she had taken a wrong turn which added several miles to her run. We mentioned we were looking for a place to camp and were told that there were nice sites just up the trail. Nice sites turned out to be an understatement! We came to two established sites fairly close together, with the second one being right next to a pretty creek. It was shaded with rhododendrons, had a fire ring, level tent site; we couldn’t have asked for better!
There were 3 total campsites in this general location with the third one being across the bridge. This area is approximately 1/2 mile from the intersection of the Fall Branch Trail and Grand Gap Trail. We set our tent and had a leisurely lunch. After lunch, I headed off to hike the Grand Gap Loop while Patrick relaxed at camp. I debated on taking Luna with me but given the heat of the day, I opted to leave her with Patrick. She was not very happy about this choice but it turned out to be a good decision. It was a short, but uphill half mile walk to Grand Gap Loop.
Part of the reason I chose this area was to see waterfalls. Normally I “save the best for last” if possible on hikes but this time I opted to head counter-clockwise and put Angel Falls Overlook in the early part of my hike. This section of Grand Gap Loop is part of the John Muir Trail. No, that is not a typo, there really is a JMT in Tennessee! It is a 20.7 mile section of path taken by John Muir as he traveled from Kentucky to Florida. This adventure is chronically in his book, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.
I was surprised to come across a grave site on the loop trail. The site marks the final resting place of Archie Smith, a baby who died of pneumonia in 1932. I did find one established campsite. A large, level area approximately a mile from the intersection of Fall Branch Trail and Grand Gap Loop as you head towards Angel Falls Overlook. The site was large and level but there was no nearby water. Even if I came back and accessed Grand Gap Loop from the Leatherwood Ford Trailhead, I would take the 1/2 mile detour to the campsites on Fall Branch Trail.
It was turning out to be a very hot, sunny afternoon. Even with all the rain of the past few weeks, there was little water to be found. Had I opted to bring my dog, I’d have likely turned back due to concerns of her overheating. This section of trail did have a few pretty overlooks where you could venture out onto the rocks. These would have made great places to stop for a snack had it not been so hot!
I was excited to hear the waterfall as I neared Angel Falls Overlook. I wandered out onto the 600 foot high cliffs, being careful to avoid the edges and crevices that could easily swallow up an unwary hiker. I could see the Big South Fork and hear the tumbling water but for the life of me, I could not spot the waterfall. I wandered around as much as I dared and then returned to the trail. How disappointing! One of the main reasons for choosing this particular backpack loop was to see the waterfall! As it turns out, I should have done my research better. Depending on which resource you read, the waterfall was dynamited in either the 1950s or 1960s to make the river more navigable. Instead, the demolition created a dangerous rapid that has claimed at least two lives. So even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I actually did see Angel “Falls”!
I enjoyed the sights for a bit before heading back to the trail. I can only imagine how incredible that view must be in the fall! The remainder of the loop was mostly sparsely wooded areas with occasional boulders and rock shelters. We had originally planned this trip for May but changed it to April in the hopes of cooler weather. Instead, it was 15 degrees warmer than normal! The hike was hot, hot, hot but the rock shelters provided nice places to cool off for a bit.
The trail was level and well marked and I made quick progress despite the heat. I enjoyed a variety of wild flowers along the way.
As I was nearing the end of my loop, I came across my second unexpected finding, an electrical box. I never did get an explanation for that. Heading back down off the Grand Gap Loop area, I came to an section of trail that had been worn down to knee deep!
I thoroughly enjoyed my hike but was happy to see the campsite come into view. Patrick had gathered some campfire wood while I was gone and made a tasty dinner of chili mac. Luna was content having her favorite toy and we all spent a peaceful evening around the fire. We fell asleep to the sounds of the creek bubbling just outside our tent.