It's great to have hiking friends who will call you up on Friday afternoon and say, "Hey, what are you doing this weekend?". Such is my friend Mark who loves to take off for some intense hiking. It's cool because he really doesn't care where we go, just that we get away and spend some time decompressing in the wilderness. So it's usually up to me to figure out where we should go and fill him in on the details while we're driving there. This past weekend would be no different.
I'd been wanting to do the Spence Field-Russell Field loop hike in the Smokies for a long, long time. Although it's a bit early I was hoping there might be some mountain laurel and flame azaleas in bloom, if we were lucky. So I checked out the new backcountry reservation web page and found the the Spence Field AT shelter still had a couple of spaces open for Saturday night so it was easy enough to get the permit and we were good to go.
We took off from my place in Columbia and headed for the park which is about a 4 hour drive door to door and the weather was looking good although heavy storms were forecast for Sunday afternoon. For this hike you park at the Cades Cove lot by the ranger station and walk down to the picnic grounds and find the trailhead in the back for Anthony Creek. Elevation at the trailhead is about 2000 feet and we would hike a little over 3 miles before connecting with the Bote Mountain trail at 3700 feet. We decided to hike up to Spence Field and back in a clockwise circuit since the hike up is a little shorter this way and we would have more time to hang out before sunset at the shelter. The Anthony Creek trail is definitely a nice hike with creek views and crossings and cove hardwoods along the way. Once we picked up the Bote Mountain trail it was almost another two miles and 1500 feet of elevation gain to reach the AT.
After a slow and steady climb we finally reached Spence Field and unloaded our gear into the shelter for the night and began the usual meet and greet with the other hikers who would be there for the night. Great group of folks and we had a lot of fun swapping stories and information about hikes in the park. Spence field is easily now one of my favorite spots in the park. It's a typical high mountain bald with tall grasses, flame azalea and just a unique look and feel. Was glad to be able to photograph in the fading evening light. Unique experience that I won't soon forget.
Was a wonderful night at the shelter with a small fire glowing and a cool mountain breeze blowing, just ideal really. We got up early the next morning and began the journey down the AT toward Russell Field just after sunrise. It's a great 3 mile stretch along the AT without much elevation gain or loss. We arrived at the Russell Field shelter and headed down the trail for the return trip. Hiking along the high ridge below Russell Field, we must have walked a mile or two through a canopy of mountain laurel blooming overhead with flame azaleas dotting the forests around us. Seemed like there was no one else around and we had this magical place all to ourselves for quite a while. Really a little too windy to photograph but that was ok, the scenery was just amazing. The hike down Russell Field back to Cades Cove was a little less interesting once we dropped below the high ridge but we weren't about to complain one bit after what we had already experienced. Just a fantastic couple of days hiking in the backcountry of the Smokies with the Mountain Laurel and Flame Azalea in full display.