Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Smoky Mountains to close 2009

After burning an unspeakable hole in our pockets all year through various unjustifiable indulgences, travel and others, Arun and I were victim to a rather unfamiliar bout of financial prudence as we neared the end of 2009. Let's just call it our last ditch attempt to earn some Karma points with the money Gods. I don't have to tell you about the astronomical cost of flying during Christmas. Add to that the tiny detail that we didn't decide where we were going until a week before our trip. But we are not ones to pass up on a vacation! Naturally we picked a quick 10 hour drive to the Smoky Mountains, despite numerous warnings and scares about the terrible cold weather from well meaning friends. To add to the fun, we roped in Swetha, an unsuspecting, cold weather-averse friend of mine from high school who I've not met in 10 years.

Come Christmas eve, we printed up a few trail maps, donned our hiking shoes, gassed up Arun's car and set off to Tennessee. We sped down the freeways for 10 straight hours, heeding nothing but hunger and the urge to pee. Swetha and I productively used the time to catch up on old friends and swapped important life stories. I suspect I heard Arun snore a couple of times even when he was at the wheel. Yappity Yappity girls!

Cut to Pigeon Forge, a town at the foothills of the Smokies. We were instantly surrounded by festive green and red lights. The roads were lined with blue lights made to look like falling snowflakes. Sale banners and dinner specials and party announcements hung from every lamp post and building front. Christmas it was indeed! But of course, the lights were all that were on. Pretty much everything was closed and we had to eat breakfast food at iHOP for dinner. So what's new, eh?

An indoor amusement park standing on its head we found in Pigeon Forge, TN

The next morning we drove to a place called Cades Cove at the West end of the Smokies to hike the Abrams Falls Trail. The temperature was a balmy 45 deg F and the sun was out too. It was an easy 2.5 miles each way with the trail constantly going up and down with no steep climbs. We reached the falls in an hour and were surprised to find we had it all to ourselves. So we used a rock as a makeshift picnic table and ate sandwiches and candy bars. Arun jumped around from rock to rock taking pictures. But even his wizardry with the camera could not make Abrams Falls look any more interesting than the muddy cascade it was.

Swetha, Kavitha and Arun at the Abrams Falls trail head

Abrams Falls

On our way back we met hordes of hikers on their way to the falls. Boy! Were we glad to escape all those kids. Pepped up by our snack, we did the hike back in 40 minutes. We even caught some deer and turkey along the road in Cades Cove.

An hour and a half later we got into Gatlinburg, another Tennessee town bordering the Smokies. By then the world had woken up and descended upon the streets with a vengeance. It was like a carnival, people walking around with food and soda in their hands, music playing from every store and dazzling signs inviting us to partake in the festivities.

Swetha and Kavitha at Gatlinburg,TN

We dumped the car and walked on the packed streets to find a quaint old fashioned restaurant, replete with stone walls and fire places. After lunch we inched our way out of Gatlinburg and drove up the mountains hoping that the road to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Smokies will be open. It was snowed down and closed. So much for our optimism. Instead we discovered Newfound Gap, which offered brilliant views and resolved to come back for sunrise the next morning. We did. And here are some of the pictures. All the shivering and looking like shriveled up Turkeys at 5000 ft paid off I guess.

Waiting for sunrise

First rays of the day, we were actually standing above the cloud cover

We thawed with an indulgent breakfast and coffee at Gatlinburg before we drove to the trail head to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail. We'd read that this hike was more challenging with a 2.8 mile steep uphill climb of 1500 feet to reach the falls. The trail was beautiful, the creek flowing along the trail almost the entire distance, with numerous creek crossings on narrow wooden footbridges with handrails. An hour or so into the hike, we were looking down proudly at all the elevation we had gained and guessing that we should reach in 30 more minutes. This is when we met a middle aged couple on their way back. They popped our bubble saying we were only half way there and it was going to get slower because the rest of the trail had a lot of ice. The real adventure started when we hit the ice. It was slippery as hell and my being extra paranoid about such surfaces, didn't help one bit. We labored on gingerly, slipping and sliding over the ice until we reached these falls.

A minor letdown before the actual Rainbow Falls

We felt rather shortchanged when we saw this trickle of water. "Did we hike all the distance for this measly thing?", we contemplated silently to ourselves. We saw that the trail which continued for 4 more miles to reach the peak of Mt. LeConte was completely covered in ice and wondered if the Rainbow Falls actually lay further ahead. Our suspicion was indeed confirmed by a couple of hikers returning from the actual falls. One of them even slipped and fell on his butt to give us a preview of the rest of the trail. So we moved on, holding hands this time to keep each other from falling, for as the elevation increased there were even longer stretches of ice. 20 more minutes of skating freestyle brought us to these waterfalls which made even the idea of the hike back seem worth it.

Rainbow Falls

Last stretch of the trail before Rainbow Falls

The creek narrows suddenly below the falls, causing a heavy spray which yields a rainbow effect. We could not see it however, because the day was very cloudy. Instead we got squirrels that were not scared of humans and pranced around a foot away from us, demanding food.

Squirrel relishing a midday snack

It was 2.45pm by the time we hiked back to our car. We had promised to meet a bunch of Arun's friends from college at a place called Cherokee in North Carolina at 3pm. There was no way we could make the time, for we had more than an hour's drive away and we still had to grab lunch. When we managed to catch them on the phone, thanks to hopeless AT&T service in the mountains, it turned out that they were late too. We should have known considering whose friends they are. So we stopped for a delicious Mexican lunch at a local restaurant before heading to Cherokee.

Much of that evening went away in banter and catching up with Arun's friends Reshmi,Vishu and their spouses. They had a 3 hour drive ahead of them, so they left at around 8pm. Too tired to venture out for dinner, we ordered pizza and ate it while watching Shrek 2.

We began our drive back home pretty early on Sunday. But our feet were itching for some action to break the monotony of the drive. So we decided to take a detour through a scenic highway called Blue Ridge Parkway which promised wonderful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After taking a 30 mile detour and navigating through remote rural roads, we were extremely excited to find Blue Ridge Parkway. There it was right in front of us, like a shiny temptress in white. Yes! It was completely covered with snow. But there was no sign saying it was closed and there was a single car track leading into it. That spark of hope was enough for us. We took the plunge and drove the reluctant car into the snow, careful not to veer away from what seemed like the road. Only to find a sign saying the road was closed, hidden a quarter of a mile away from the entrance. Here's what the place looked like. Don't blame us for trying.

Snowed down Blue Ridge Parkway, spot the road if you can!

That wraps up the trip! Here were are, back in Philly. And here's 2009, coming to an end. Looking back, it's been a wonderful year of travel. Arun and I have etched our myriad memories in this blog which has become as much a part of our journeys as maps, hotels and cars. We want to thank all you lovely readers for egging us on with our crazy plans and for enduring and encouraging our uber-long posts. Here's to 2010! We hope it holds even more travel, photography and writing. Happy New Year everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Havasu Hike (Part II) - A night, a beast and the hike back

Sometimes you cannot help succumbing to the sheer joy of procrastination. I promise I have absolutely no nobler reason for waiting so long to write this post. Now that we are getting ready for our hiking trip to the Smoky Mountains for Christmas, this is my last chance to tell the world boastful tales of our bravery and smartness. So here we go...

Read about
26 & 27 November here.

28 November
It's 4am in the morning. Arun and I are fast asleep, warm and cozy
within our sleeping bags, numerous layers of clothes and 2 pairs of socks each. I suddenly heard something creeping by the side of our tent. I listened closer thinking it might just be leaves rustling in the wind. The rustle turned to footsteps slowly beginning to circle the tent. By now even the last trace of grogginess had gone from my head. I woke Arun up, quietly, lest the thing outside gets scared of movement within the tent. It turned out that Arun was awake and listening too. We quickly signaled to each other not to talk and grabbed the flashlight we had handily placed by our heads. At that precise moment the creature outside struck my side of the tent with its paw. Our hearts jumped and both of us felt a crazy adrenaline rush and we spoke in whispers as to what to do. We quickly waved the flashlight across the tent a couple of times. The animal outside must have gotten scared of the light. It silently slunk away. Arun and I burst out laughing in relief and excitement. We were more intent on discussing what animal it could have been rather than worrying about what it could have done. It could have been a hedgehog or a small boar. Nothing larger than a fox, we decided.

We were so excited that an animal actually struck our tent that we could not go back to sleep for over an hour. Finally we decided that we had to put the episode behind us and go to sleep, for we had to hike back out 10 miles
come morning. Just when we drifting back to sleep, Thud!!! Something fell on top of our tent. We realized that it had to be the bag of food we'd tied on a tree branch above us. We thought the animal had come back for revenge after all and waited for it to approach the tent, regretting not tying the food higher and further away from our tent. But there was nothing except silence. We opened the inner wall of the tent and stealthily peered out through the mesh the served as a window. Much to our relief, we found that the bag had ripped and fallen down due to the wind and weight of the food. No animal this time. Much laughter and banter followed ensuring we didn't sleep again that night.

We had decided not to hike back with our 30 pound backpacks, one of our wiser decisions really. So we handed them over to a native of Supai village who would take it back to the trail head on a pack horse. We improvised a knapsack out of the bag holding one of our sleeping bags, tossed our remaining food and water in it and set off on a mile-long hike to Mooney Falls. The hike was mostly flat except for the last bit where we had to scramble along the cliff face a little to get to the place from which we could face the falls from the front. We got a brilliant top view of the falls, more pristine blue waters, more breathtaking panoramic views. We had read that people could die trying to get to the bottom of the 200ft high Mooney Falls where one needs to climb down an iron ladder and go through a cave. We decided we'd like to live and ate candy bars instead before we hiked back to the campsite.
Here's one of the great shots Arun got.

Mooney Falls

At this point Arun was feeling rather desolate about not capturing the front view of Havasu Falls. So we stopped at Havasu on our way back. Arun, being Arun, jumped on rocks and tread some water and performed varied acrobatics for about an hour until he got this picture.

Havasu Falls - Front View

We then stopped at Supai Village 2 miles down the way to get some lunch. The Indians surprised us with one of the best veggie burgers we've had in this country. After stuffing our faces in the name of getting the essential carbs we continued the hike, not heeding our sore muscles and
trying hard not to think about the 8 long miles that lay ahead. We made a quick detour to the 100-footer falls which we missed during our hike down because it was kind of hidden away from the main trial.

100-footer Falls

By the time we left the 100-footer we had about 7 miles to go and only 3 hours of daylight left. The canyon can be whole different place in the night and it is easy to lose one's way. We did not savor the idea of hiking in the night. So we hurried, stopping only when our legs threatened to go on strike if we didn't. When we were taking one of our reluctant breaks and guessing that we had 4 more miles left to go, the Indian returning after dropping off our bags greeted us on the way and shouted "2 more miles!". We could not believe our ears. Were we really that fast? Was it the absent backpacks? Nevertheless, this news gave us renewed energy and we practically hopped and skipped the next mile till the last mile of switchbacks were in sight.

We squinted in disbelief when we caught sight of a couple approaching us. It was almost 4pm and they were barely beginning their hike. Apparently they had lost their way and driven around all day to get to the trail head. We told them a little bit about the trail, warned them about hiking in the night, sincerely wished them luck and moved on. We hope they made it to the camp safely. The switchbacks that took us 20 minutes on our way down took more than an hour to climb. We ran to our car at the trail head, psyched that we had hiked 20 miles in 2 days. This was our first time doing such a long hike and camping in the US. It is one of best trips we've done so far. And it only left us wanting more.

29 & 30 November
Oh yes, our trip didn't end with the hike. Normal people would be too tired to do anything more. But we don't claim to be normal at all. We explored a little more of the Flagstaff and Phoenix areas over the next 2 days. In the interest of not boring our dwindling reader base with details, here are the most interesting pictures. Wikipedia to the rescue if you insist on knowing more.

Sunset Crater, Arizona

Wukaki Remains, Arizona

Giant Cactus on Apache Trail, Arizona

Do watch out for our post on the Smokies trip which will round off 2009 for this blog. Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Havasu Hike (Part I ) - The hike down

Arun and I hiked the Havasu Canyon for Thanksgiving weekend this year. It was 10 miles one way. We camped the night there. So we carried a tent, sleeping bags, food, water and everything else we needed. Because it was our first time backpacking, we (micro)planned, bought gear and packed for almost a month leading up to the trip. Here's a day by day account of the trip.

Upto 25 November
Countless visits to numerous stores and hours spent online before we bought backpacks, a tent, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, water bladders, a Swiss knife and a zillion other things. Lists made, blogs read, hours of obsessing over details and you know the drill...

26 November - Thanksgiving
We flew into Phoenix. Alternately one could fly into Vegas or Flagstaff. We kind of knew that Arizona goes to sleep at sundown, but nothing had prepared us for the deserted streets and the miles of shut stores and restaurants we encountered. The locals we spoke to told us it was worse because it was Thanksgiving day. And we had planned to buy food for the hike in Phoenix because we couldn't fly with it. So after a hopeless search for open stores, we bought chocolates, energy bars, bread, cheese and anything else we could find at a gas station's convenience store. We were almost reconciled to the idea of bananas and ice cream for dinner when we spotted a TGIF with the "Open till 2am" sign on. It was a sight for sore eyes and more so for growling stomachs. After fueling up on pasta and fajitas and delicious red velvet cake, we hit the road for Flagstaff where we stayed the night before the hike.

27 November - Hike down
The trail head at Hualapai Hilltop was a 4 hour drive from Flagstaff. So we left after breakfast at around 8am. Thanks to the liberal speed limits, we began our hike at 11.30am. As we were about to begin we met a group of four guys (and their dog Sammy) with whom we would cross paths numerous times during our hike down. The hike started with a mile of switchbacks or hairpin bends rapidly descending 1000 ft into the canyon. 200ft into the hike we had to take off our jackets despite the cool sub-40 deg temperature, for we were literally melting under our 30 pound backpacks. The descent was done in 25mins and we had 9 miles of a fairly flat hike ahead of us.


Although both of us have been to the Grand Canyon before, the constant change in terrain within the canyon was something we did not suspect based on our view from the top. The switchbacks were carved out on the rock face had a white sandy surface. Deeper into the canyon we walked along miles of what must have once been a riverbed, now just gravel, lined with large hard rock at times and with dry bushes and cacti at others. The constant presence of the towering canyon walls on either side had a humbling effect on us. Every now and then we would see lush green plants, some even had traces of fall colors. We walked past small caves and partially enclosed hollows in which our voices suddenly echoed.

The silence was hard to miss and probably one of our favorite aspects of the hike. Apart from a couple of trains of pack horses and the occasional group of hikers making their way back to civilization, the whoosh of the wind and a bird's rare twitter were all that punctuated the silence that reigned the canyon. We hiked for 4 hours, talking about this and that, lapsing into our respective brooding worlds and stopping only to eat (we discovered that after 3 miles with a 30 pound backpack, even a cold Subway sandwich will taste like heaven!) or drink water before we reached Supai village, a tribal Indian settlement, where we stopped for coffee, a bite to eat and to pay the camping fee.

By then our feet were nearly dead and refused to walk the last 2 miles to the campground. We trudged along, cranky and complaining, when we came to the first of the 4 waterfalls. Our misery began to fade. Arun grabbed his camera and ran down 50ft to get a better view. I spent the time listening to a couple of women who did the hike every year tell me that these falls had not existed before the flash flood of August 2008. I was amazed at the terrifying force of water, the same fluid we have managed to domesticate, even abuse, in every way we can.

New Navajo Falls

We then walked on, the roar of water getting louder all the while. We were suddenly looking at Havasu Falls. This is when we realized this hike was worth every sore muscle, our screaming joints and whining shoulders. We stood in the spray, astonished by the sheer blue of the water, drinking in the idyllic setting. It was like nothing we'd ever seen before.

Havasu Falls from the top

Havasu Falls

By the time we set up camp and cleaned up it was dark although it was just 6.30pm. So we set up the picnic table and had a candlelight dinner of cheese and peanut butter jelly sandwiches, Oreo cookies and chocolates for dessert. By then the temperature had dropped well below 30 deg. So we layered up, got into our tent and talked a little about how great the hike had been before we fell asleep to the lullaby of the creek running by the side of our tent.

What's camping without a little adventure?! Our tryst with the beast - coming soon in Part II...