At most, I stared only a few inches in front of my feet as I moved slowly up the rocky trail. Each step required full focus in order to convince myself to keep going up, up, up. The initial excitement of this trail running challenge faded almost instantly when my labored breathing and pounding heart rate quickly surpassed the pace of my running. One thing was clear—this trail was determined to defeat me within the first mile.
In a casual conversation around a hiker hostel campfire the night before, I’d mentioned my plan to run the Mount Cammerer loop. Slightly less than 16 miles in length, the counterclockwise loop was a challenge I’d wanted to undertake for some time. My contribution to the conversation felt slightly less impressive given that I was sitting with a group of thru-hikers currently tackling the Appalachian Trail. These seasoned, gritty trekkers seemed quite interested in my pursuit though, clearly a result of the respect all trail lovers have for any worthwhile adventure. As I retired to my rustic accommodations for the evening, I felt an increased excitement for the following day’s journey.
I chose a rather easy start/finish spot for my run—Cosby Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This section of the park is perfect for anyone wanting to experience the beauty without the hassle of the crowds. Tent and RV camping are offered at this entrance, and the area feels secluded yet safe. The campgrounds have several trails to choose from with a variety of distances and difficulty levels. My adventure began on the Low Gap Trail, which has a trailhead right at the parking lot.
The first quarter-mile was easy single track running that lulled me into a sense of wonderment as I looked around in all directions at the abundant rhododendron plants. Crossing a wooden footbridge over a storybook-like creek, I passed some day hikers taking advantage of the beautiful morning in the woods. Within a matter of minutes though, things took a turn in a more challenging direction. What had started out as a pretty good running pace was suddenly reduced to what felt like a crawl.
The Low Gap Trail takes you up to an intersection with the famed Appalachian Trail. When looking at it on a map, you don’t get a realistic feel for what this initial short trail experience will be. All I saw when I first researched the entire loop was that Low Gap Trail would only be 2.8 miles long before meeting the AT. What I was now experiencing in real life was the 2,000 feet of elevation gain that occurs in that slightly less than three mile “run.” The trail was testing my athletic ability and it was winning.
I love a good challenge (it’s why I was doing the run in the first place) but this loop adventure was doing everything it could to defeat me in the first hour. On a ridgeline, I finally met the Appalachian Trail and could put the Low Gap Trail in my rearview. Several hikers were resting at the intersection and seemed surprised to see me slowly run up. I struggled to respond to the questions they asked as my breath had staged a mutiny on my body about a mile earlier. After some nodding and one-word answers, I turned to see that the AT was continuing the ascending trend! Onward and upward!
In a matter of minutes, the trail was traversing the ridgeline and the trees gave way to stunning views of nearly all of Cocke County, Tennessee. White blazes on the trees, the infamous markers of the AT, began to pass at a faster rate as the trail leveled out and running became more effortless. The trail weaves in and out of the Tennessee/North Carolina border for about two miles and around every turn I was sure that I was about to see the iconic Mt. Cammerer Firetower looming over me.
I finally came to a sign indicating that I’d need to take a spur trail to the tower and would thus have to come back down to this same spot to get on the AT to continue the loop. This trail only went about a half mile to the tower and it was well worth it! Like a boxer in the late rounds, the firetower has taken a beating from the weather over the years but it still stands as a marvel to each person able to reach it. Chipped paint and warped floorboards add to the allure of the building as you take in the 360-degree views from the wraparound deck. Built in 1930 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it has seen generations of adventure seekers arrive at its nearly 5,000 foot summit.
I spent about 30 minutes taking in the views and eating some much-needed calories before heading back down to the loop. Once I was back at the loop, I was met by more thru hikers on their way to Maine. At only 230 miles into their journey, it was clear their adventure was long from being over. Mine was one-third of the way done but it had felt like 230 miles for me at some points. I proceeded to descend down the AT on what felt like the staircase for giants. The stone steps were just far enough apart to make running at a consistent pace very difficult. Thick mud from a recent storm created an additional obstacle between each step. But I was descending instead of climbing and that felt like a small victory.
Somewhere around mile 8.5, I left the Appalachian Trail and turned onto the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail. Though I had seen countless hikers for the past couple of hours, from this point on until I got to my car I didn’t see a single person. It was like having two completely different running experiences in one trip. This trail felt isolated and slightly eerie, and I loved it. I was finally feeling like I could run more than power hike. The trail winds around the side of the mountain range and slowly drops a couple thousand feet. This was a manageable and enjoyable downhill that almost made me forget the first two uphill miles of the adventure that nearly brought me to my knees.
Back at the car, my 15.5-mile adventure was coming to a bittersweet end. I’d accomplished what I set out to do but I was feeling a sense of sadness that it was over. A short drive to Adventure Distilling Company for a taste of the local moonshine and a well-earned rest was the perfect end to the long weekend. My legs ached but the satisfaction made it all well worth it.
Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.