I’ve always admired those endurance athletes that live in towns where they can walk out of their front door and link a long day in the mountains without so much as cranking their car. The concept of leaving out of the comfort of your residence and connecting to the peacefulness of nature is something that tugs at my soul. It’s simple. It’s pure. It’s adventure in its most authentic form.

Like how Anton could strap on a pair of shoes in his living room and be up on the Flatirons in no time…

Or how Kilian can stroll out of his house in Norway and take a tour of the mountains of the Romsdal Fjord…

Well I don’t live in Boulder and I sure as hell don’t live in Norway, so my “out the door” adventure is far less grandiose. One of the dreams is to someday live in a place like that, but for the time being, I try to incorporate these types of raw adventures into my own running lifestyle whenever possible.

My mountain running perspective really started to gravitate towards these types of adventures back in 2014 when Mountain magazine published an article about a local duo and their passion for adventure. Honestly, I still read the article “Happy Sisyphus” numerous times a year to keep me grounded and my soul aligned with my outlook on adventure. Hell, it even was the complete inspiration behind my most recent lower back tattoo.

Sam and Brock (pic: Mountain Mag)
Sam and Brock (pic: Mountain Mag)

I wasn’t really upset at all that Cruel Jewel got canceled this year. It’s just a race and it’ll be there next year if I want to continue that pursuit. I’ve actually been wanting to start concentrating more on shorter ultras anyways so it just may have been a blessing in disguise! Though the worry of being completely trashed and spending weeks recovering was gone, the lil part of me that had been training his ass off for the past few months was a bit disheartened. Kati could see the internal struggle of me wanting to run something longer that wasn’t local so she urged me to get up in the mountains and link a long route just for fun. So I spent my lunch break on Thursday route planning on the back of receipts.

I drove up Friday morning and arrived around lunch time. I initially had planned to head out of Kephart Prong trail head, but the trail head was PACKED. Unlike the hordes of people who were parking, hopping cones and trail barriers on the closed Alum Cave and Chimney Top trails, I didn’t want to be (or even appear to be) an entitled douche and park in an none designated area, so I headed back up to Newfound Gap and scored a spot.

After a lil turkey wrap, I grabbed an 8oz soft flask and headed northbound along the AT. The weather was insanely perfect! Moving through the mountains shirtless with just a pair of shorts is always incredibly freeing, but doing so in the mountains I love after a long Smoky Mountain dry-spell was on a completely different level of freedom. After a mile or so I took a right on Sweat Heifer and ran into a stubborn grouse.

Sweat Heifer was an incredibly beautiful trail.

After a handful of miles and 2000ft descent, I passed the shelter and started the 4 mile climb back up to the AT.

The climb up Grassy Branch was steady and relaxed until I saw my first ever wild pigs! I heard a rustling sound below me on the trail and automatically assumed it was a bear, but to my surprise it was 2 pigs nosing around. They froze the moment they saw me and bolted the second I started moving again. I saw some horseback riders shortly after connecting onto Dry Sluice.

Once on the AT, I made a quick stop at the real Charlies Bunion and scrambled down a bit to get a better view of the Tourist Bunion (aka the Charlies Bunion everyone hikes out to). I wanted to get a better perspective of the ridge leading up to the Tourist Bunion. Though my Big Bulgin Birthday Bunion adventure where I bushwhacked and climbed the Bunion was months ago, the memories of that day still come to mind in such clarity.

I made the quick trip to see the Tourist Bunion…

And to the Jump Offs before heading back to Newfound Gap.

Before leaving NFG, I hid a liter of water under some branches at the edge of the parking lot. I knew there was a possibility that someone would see it and throw it away, but figured I’d at least attempt to stash enough to fill my soft flasks to save me a filtering since I’d be passing through NFG on Saturday. After checking into Belle Air motel, I made my way downtown to grab some whiskey and a big cheeseburger.

That 3:30am Saturday alarm came early bruh… especially since that’s really 2:30am Alabama Roll Tide time. Despite not having any time restraints or even time goals for the loop, I still wanted to be up on Myrtle Point for the sunrise. The sun was set to rise at around 6:30am, so I figured a 4am departure would allow enough time to cover the 10 or so miles needed to reach the peak right as the sun crept over the horizon.

I walked out of my hotel room right at 4am and stood in the middle of a completely empty street.

I had to run the road for about a mile before entering the park and diving onto the Twin Creeks Trail.

The single track trail gradual meanders uphill running parallel to Cherokee Orchard Road. I almost decided to just stay on the road until I reached Rainbow Falls but glad I didn’t.

I hopped back on the road for 3/4 mile to get to the Rainbow Falls trail and started the ascent. The morning was abnormally clear and the city lights were brighter than I’ve seen them before.

Once you pass the falls, Rainbow is delightful in the dark. A brilliant burnt orange started piercing the sky as I started the switchback up to the lodge and the sky was completely illuminated by the time I started the climb to LeConte’s summit.

I had missed the sun breaking the horizon by maybe 5 minutes, but the sun blazed brilliantly for me as I headed out towards Myrtle Point.

“Watching the sunrise from Myrtle Point through morning dew…”

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t alone at the top. There was a group of guys that had ran up Rainbow as well. I stopped briefly to soak in the beautiful sunrise before heading back down towards Boulevard. I will never tire of running through the woods with the morning sun breaking through the trees…

Myrtle Point

I’d still claim Alum Cave trail as my favorite way to get up/down LeConte, but Boulevard is a close second. It’s such a pretty trail! I had only sucked down one 8oz soft flask of water by the time I hit the Appalachian Trail. I was running conservatively and relaxed, but even so, I typically can go a fairly long time without much water. Since there’s not many spots to refill water between NFG and Clingmans Dome and I didn’t want to kill my water supply without fully knowing if my stashed water would still be available. I arrived at NFG (mile 17.5ish) around 8:15am(ish) to a fairly still empty parking lot. I was happy to find my stashed water still waiting for me. Mother nature even decided to keep it slightly chilled!

Back in 2015, I attempted a similar GatlinDome concept. I had planned to run from the Motel 6 all the way to Clingmans by linking Gatlinburg Trail > Old Sugarlands > Bullhead > AT. From the moment I left the hotel room, the purist in me was extremely bothered by the idea that I would have to hit Clingmans and then return to NFG since the road was closed. It felt impure and dirty. Thankfully the chap that I came to the mountains with met me at NFG with donuts and whiskey…. which made the decision to bail super easy. Basically whiskey and donuts saved me from impurity…


The next patch of trail just isn’t my favorite. Roughly 8 miles separates NFG and Clingmans Dome and I just can’t seem to ever get into that section. Litrully, the only good part about this section is of course the Road Prong sign.

After a few negative thoughts and memories from the area, I eventually surfaced at the dome. I met 2 girls that had made the trip up Noland Divide from Bryson City. We spoke briefly before I walked up the long platform with a hiker who had stayed at Mount Collins shelter the night before. It’d been years since I’de been to the dome itself! I had endless views!

After the dome, it was practically all downhill. Seriously… out of the 44 miles / 10k feet of climbing that the route has… the first 25 miles has 9k of that climbing!

From the dome, I had a 2 mile segment along the AT before my next trail connection. Unlike the NFG > Clingmans section, this section never disappoints!

AT loooking NB towards Clingmans

Goshen Prong is kinda divided into 2 sections. The first 4.5 miles or so is basically a long descent and the last 3.5 miles are flatter along the river. The temps started rising the further I dropped down off the AT. I started hearing the rushing water of the river below so I started polishing off the 3 8oz soft flasks that I had packed for the day. I stopped around mile 30ish to filter and refill at a small branch along the descent.

When I reached the bottom of the descent and the trail started to flatten, Matty Fierce’s words rattled through my head. Since the river was so loud and it easily drowns out the surrounding noises, he advised me to be a bit more cautious since the bears liked the area. I be damned if I didn’t run up on a bear lackadaisically meandering.

Since I was in no rush and the bear was blocking the only way out, I just sat back and observed from a safe distance. He took his sweet little time slowly grazing. After about 10 minutes, the bear finally started up the ridge.

I grabbed a pair of rocks out of the river and banged them loudly as I ran through the section where the bear ascended. The trail was overgrown for the next mile so I proceeded to be this lonely, weird dude making loud banging noises with river rocks while running through thick vegetation.

The trail cleared up completely when I hit Little River Trail.

I followed this trail for roughly a mile before climbing up Husky Gap Trail. Though the first 2 miles of Husky aren’t steep, they felt steep after a 9 mile descent. I really enjoyed this little trail. It had great single track and a quick view of LeConte.

I popped out onto an extremely busy 441. Thankfully the shoulder was wide and tame enough to allow me to keep pace as the cars whizzed by.

Sugarlands Visitor Center was a welcomed site. I hit the crushed gravel of the Gatlinburg Trail and cruised into a hot, bustling downtown area.

The last 3/4 of a mile were spent dodging tourists and listening to Kid Rock blaring from the multitude of Jeeps cruising the strip. It’s such a weird feeling entering back into “normalcy” after such a colossal and organic journey through the mountains. I waited peacefully in the crowd of people waiting on the street light.

The last little bit was an uphill stretch back to my motel. When I caught wind of the BBQ joint on the street, I knew exactly what I was ordering to-go for dinner. 10hrs47mins and 44 miles I wrapped up a long day out in my favorite mountains. Since I kept the outing steady and comfortable, I didn’t feel overworked or exhausted. I felt refreshed and happily spent.

I took a quick shower, poured a whiskey drink and took a quick nap before strolling down the road to grab some BBQ. After dinner, I road over to Pigeon Forge to hang out with Ash. Dan and the kids for a bit. It’d been months since we’ve hung out, so Ash and I decided to head out to Cades Cove to run/walk an 8.5 mile loop around the cove. The road loop was closed to traffic, but there were still folks out star gazing. I’d never been out to Cades at night. It was so peaceful!

I wanted to get up early and get another summit in, but decided I wanted to sleep in and have a lazier morning. I left the motel a little after 9am and drove out towards Rainbow Falls trailhead. The amount of cars and people in the area were an easy deterrent and helped the decision to just go ahead and head on back to Alabama. I’m glad I went back early because I got to wrap up a wonderful outdoorsy weekend with a hike at Shaol Creek with my Dark Princess.

I’m thankful I got the chance to spend some solo time in the mountains. I don’t crave big solo adventures often, but every now and then my soul needs that alone time to reset.

Now that this quarantine is slowly lifting and things are starting to open back up… I’m looking forward to planning some summer adventures with friends again. As soon as we get that “ok”… it’s game on!

3 thoughts on “GatlinDome

  1. This is beautiful post Zach. I envy your ability to take such adventures, but thank you for sharing it. Your writing style is wonderful. Happy trails.


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