The Rocky Top crew works exclusively on 70 miles of the A.T. through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park following the ridge crest from Davenport Gap to Fontana Dam. The crew is sponsored jointly by the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, the National Park Service, and ATC.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Final Crew & the Great Pack-Out

The final Rocky Top crew session of 2015 has come and gone, capping off a very memorable, exciting, and productive season. With almost perfect weather, the crew had no problem completing a hefty load of work, beating the “step record” set two years ago, demonstrating their trail-building talents for a local news camera crew, and helping prepare tools and camp for the Great Pack-Out.
Long-time SWEAT, Rocky Top, and Konnarock volunteer, Sandy, joined the crew for his second consecutive week this season and Logan, our season-long crew member, returned for his fourth consecutive week. Artie, a crew leader and co-founding member of the Jolly Rovers Trail Crew, returned to Rocky Top for yet another session, offering expert rock work skills to aid and teach the crew.

Two new crew members joined us for this session – Kevin and Jamie. Kevin hailed from Connecticut and was working his way traveling south to Florida, but wanted to find ways to volunteer and learn more about trail building. Jamie, a recent thru-hiker of the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota, worked at one point for the Ice Age Trail Alliance in Wisconsin and wished to experience the environment of an Appalachian Trail Conservancy crew.

The crew set off up Snake Den Ridge Trail with the knowledge that colder weather was on the horizon. Indeed, the first two days the crew had very cool – but dry – days, which made for excellent working conditions. However, the first two nights also involved freezing temperatures, leading some to take the crew’s water filters inside their tents with them to keep them functioning for the rest of the week.

Conditions stayed warm and clear for the rest of the session, an unusual occurrence for the end of October on Rocky Top. The crew wasn’t complaining, obviously, and went on to do a healthy amount of work repairing the A.T.

Working beyond Old Black – Rocky Top’s goal for the season and 1.5 miles south of Inadu Knob – the crew was now doing log steps and waterbars that would benefit next year’s crew, allowing that group to begin their work farther down the stretch of trail in the future. After using up all the locust log material they could on the southern side of Old Black, the crew headed back towards their camp to work on a tricky section of bedrock in need of rock steps.

It was during this time that a news camera crew from Knoxville, led up Snake Den Ridge Trail by ATC’s Leanna Joyner, joined Rocky Top for an afternoon. The camera crew interviewed crew members and filmed the volunteers at work, trying to get a sense for what trail crew work and life is all about. Look out in early November for Channel 8 Knoxville’s story about Rocky Top!

All-in-all, the crew did an impressive amount of work, namely when it came to step-building. The crew broke the record of 30 steps, a number set two years ago when a crew of volunteers entered the park for a shortened session after the federal government shutdown. This week, the crew built seven rock steps and twenty-seven log steps – a total of 34 steps! Way to go Rocky Top crew!

When the crew wasn’t working, they shared other trail crew memories from years past, watched the late, timid sun rises greet them through brilliant fall colors, and hiked out to see the stars where satellite flares and Milky Way glows wowed them.

When it was time for the crew to leave, they worked on packing up their camp near Inadu Knob, consolidating tools and extra food in panniers and bundles suitable for hanging on the side of a horse. Rain barrels were dumped and cleaned out, tied and stored away for next year’s season. Pick heads and rockbars, were oiled and cached safely away. The morning of their departure, the crew began tearing down the final tarp over the kitchen and carrying down everything to the Snake Den Ridge Trail junction with the A.T. A few of the crew members said “goodbye” to their two-month home, now bare and mostly inconspicuous.

The Southern Appalachian Backcountry Horsemen and the Backcountry Horsemen of North Carolina provided six pack animals for the Great Pack-Out. Once everything had been weighed out appropriately at the junction, the packers came up in two groups of three to load up all of Rocky Top’s gear. Chris, ATC’s Trail Specialist, also came up to lend a hand and carry out a loaded-down freighter pack.

At the bottom of Snake Den in Cosby Campground, Great Smoky Mountains Backcountry Specialist Christine Hoyer managed parking lot space for the horse trailers and kept an eye on the pack-out communications. Rocky Top Camp Coordinator Meg Eversole provided local BBQ, green beans, and mac-and-cheese, among other food items for the end of season party. The crew ate their fill and reminisced about the week and the fun and success of the 2015 season.

A big thanks goes out to the volunteer horsemen who made the Great Pack-Out possible, as well as the rest of the Rocky Top season possible. We couldn’t have done it without you! Thanks to Meg for her management of Soak Ash and great meals all season long – both at base camp and in the field. Thanks to Christine for her support through the Park Service and for joining us out on crew for multiple work days this year. And thanks to Chris for all his support through ATC, coming out to work and visit with the crew all season long, and for helping us get everything down the mountain!
And last, but certainly not least, thank you 2015 Rocky Top volunteers! You certainly made this a special season for all the staff on crew this year. Thanks to your good attitudes and hard work we met our goal (and then some) for the season. We welcome your return next year – be sure to tell all your friends!

Until next time, Rocky Top Trail Crew – we’ll see ya on the trail!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Friends of the Forest Preserve (and Other Friends) Crew

Session Four of Rocky Top consisted of mostly first-time volunteers, including a trail corps group with the Friends of the Forest Preserve. Based out of the Chicago area, the corps came to the Great Smoky Mountains to learn more about trail work through the Rocky Top program. Others in the group included long-time Konnarock and Rocky Top volunteer, Sandy, our multi-week volunteer this season, Logan, and two other new crew members, Barbara and Thomas.

After another successful climb up Snake Den Ridge Trail – along the way, the autumn colors now starting to appear in full – the crew set up tents, unpackaged gear and food carried up by the horse packers, and opened camp up for the fourth session of the season.

The Southern Appalachian Backcountry Horsemen volunteered their time to pack up the resupply for the crew this week. Many thanks go out to the two riders who offered their time to help make Rocky Top possible this session!

This week the crew continued to work towards Old Black, their 1.5-mile goal south of camp. Putting in log steps was the first priority, but more log waterbars were put in as they were needed to buffer those put in during the first session. The crew was lucky to have good weather for most of the week, which made the work go easily for the first half of the session.

On day three Sandy was able to hike up and join the crew for the remainder of the week. Flooding down in South Carolina had made it impossible for him to arrive any earlier, but we’re glad he was able to come for the majority of the work as he’s always a knowledgeable asset to any trail crew.

When the crew wasn’t working, they played the card game Werewolf and caught the sunrise near Inadu Knob. A few also went to Deer Creek Gap after dark in order to take in a clear night sky. The volunteers saw spectacular views of Jupiter and the Milky Way thanks to the absence of light pollution.

The second half of the week was a bit tougher, weather-wise. The temperatures dropped and the rain came. The crew worked through a constant sprinkle on day five and then had to work only a half day on day six due heavier rain and cooler temps. Throughout the bad weather, however, the crew was able to push past Old Black and begin working beyond the goal for the year. Mostly the crew prepared log material for the next week’s work, as there was so much excess water that holes dug for steps and waterbars began filling up.

On day seven, the crew had a visitor come into camp. A lost hunting dog wandered into the group’s site, looking like it had not eaten in days. Thankfully one on the crew, Barbara, was a veterinarian, and she helped nurse the dog back to health by dislodging a stick from its mouth and feeding it in slow intervals.

Since the crew was hiking out the next day, they radioed the park dispatch and set up a meeting time for the dog’s owner at Cosby Campground. The next morning the crew hiked down, finishing off another successful session of Rocky Top.

Good luck everyone with the Friends of the Forest Preserve – Zach, Clare, Ebony, Abel, Princen, Maryam, and Devon – with the rest of your crew season and thanks for choosing Rocky Top as a training destination! 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Alumni Crew

This session of Rocky Top consisted of mostly volunteers who were returning crew members – three, Logan, Constantin, and Jan, had been on crew the prior week and another, Shane, an alum who was back at Rocky Top for his third season. Randy, a Smoky Mountain Hiking Club member and former S.W.E.A.T. crew volunteer, joined Rocky Top for the first time, but rounded out the crew with his prior years of trail maintenance experience.

Good weather and speedy hiking saw the crew reach their campsite right around lunchtime. Climbing up Snake Den Ridge trail to the A.T. – around six miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain – all in one morning was quite the feat! The crew had plenty of time to get camp ready and to do a tool and safety demonstration before the day was done.

On the crew’s second day, they worked on log steps and replaced an old softwood waterbar with a locust log. Christine Hoyer, the park’s backcountry specialist, came out today to work with the crew. All together, the crew was able to finish eight log steps, putting them on track for an impressive amount of completed work for the week.

Two volunteers with the Backcountry Horsemen of North Carolina brought up the resupply of food for the week today as well. A third of the crew went back to help unload and pack away the goodies in camp. Thanks BHNC for the resupply!

With the rain barrels almost empty, the crew hoped for rain to come over the next several days. The rain surely would come – more so than the crew could have expected.

The crew’s third day was a complete rain-out. With high winds, low temps, and constant rain, the crew avoided potential hypothermia and stayed in camp, making sure their rain barrels were in the best position to catch as much water as possible.

The group told stories, read, and filtered water. The rain never seemed to let up.

Thankfully, the crew’s water reserves were overflowing, allowing that concern to finally be laid to rest. The crew went to sleep anxious to get back to work on the trail. Hopefully the morning would bring better weather and a chance to get active again.

The next day the crew got back to business. While it was still quite windy, the rain had seemed to let up. The crew continued to install log steps southward back to Old Black. The group put in seven steps and made crush and fill to harden a wet area of the trail being held up by old CCC crib wall.
Day five the crew worked on another turnpike – the fourth of the season! This structure was needed near Deer Creek Gap where session one’s turnpike had been installed. A new muddy spot had developed since early September and it was time to help lift the trail up out of the muck with logs and rock.

The view from the gap was sporadically sunny, with clouds whipping overhead and bouts of mist coming and going. Still, the weather held up and it was another successful day of work. Towards the end of the day, turnpike finished, the crew continued south and began work on three more log steps before heading back to camp.

Seven more log steps were completed the next day, even with some rainfall coming and going. The crew worked quickly with skill and determination. By this point all of its individual members were old hands at installing steps, but they also knew that the next two days were expected to be heavy with rainfall.

The second-to-last day, the crew decided to come out early. Amidst the cold rain, the only work the crew was able to accomplish was cleaning a few drainages north of Deer Creek Gap. The rain was good for one thing – seeing how water traveled down the trail and where drainages were working or not working. By mid-morning, the rainfall was so bad that the crew was already heading down Snake Den Ridge Trail, done for the week.

Thanks session three for a great week of work, despite the wet and cold weather! Special thanks to Jan and Constantin for their two weeks of crew work and thank you Christine Hoyer as well for coming out to lend a hand!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The European Crew

Session Two Crew

Day 1: Session Two of the 2015 season, in contrast to the prior session, was filled to the brim with volunteers! Eleven volunteers, most of them hailing from across the Atlantic, joined the crew in the backcountry helping to build new trail structures.

Day One of the session saw the U.K.-hailing Essex Boys and Girls Club members – Lauren, Amber, Ellie, Luke, Callum, and Simon – their two expedition leaders, Graham and Juliet, a young man from Germany, Constantin, a 2015 thru-hiker from Ohio, Jan, and a young man from North Carolina who had hiked through the Smokies on the A.T., Logan, all hike up Snake Den Ridge Trail to the Rocky Top camp near Inadu Knob. With all of their hiking experience (the Essex group had hiked through the Smokies as well the week prior) the group tackled this challenge with ease.
The crew opened up camp for full operation once they arrived, putting tents up, replacing the bear fence battery, digging a new privy (a quite large one for the big group size), and getting dishware out for the ensuing dinner. With a total of thirteen people on crew, counting the two crew leaders, Rocky Top camp was abuzz with activity, a veritable hive of preparation.


Day 2:  The crew began the work week with building two turnpikes – a raised walkway made of logs and rock in order to allow for traversal over poorly-draining, muddy areas. Each turnpike was over twenty feet long with over eight cubic feet of crush. After the first turnpike was done, crew members began working on waterbars and drains. The crew worked through intermittent rain and cool weather, but stayed warm by swinging picks and hammers.
Three volunteers with the Smoky Mountain Trail Riders brought up a food and propane resupply for the crew. A few crew volunteers took time during the afternoon to help unload and store the supplies at camp.
Later that day crew began the trend of playing the card game Werewolf each evening to pass the time. In their downtime, the crew also played charades and debated the pronunciation of certain words in the English vocabulary.


Day 3: The crew finished off the second turnpike and began in earnest to install more waterbars back towards camp. The crew worked on a number of log waterbars, worked on a stone waterbar and stone step where a natural seep was discovered, and towards the end of the day, began working south again towards Old Black. This second sweep of the 1.5-mile goal would include putting in log steps where large drop-offs occurred or where the trail was so badly cupped, the water had to be slowed down.

Day 4: Day Four saw the crew well into their new agenda of step-building, working steadily in the drier and warmer weather. A few of the crew began a rock cribbing and step project, adding in three rock steps and adding a number of new tiers to original cribbing below the trail to hold in all the crush and fill.

A few of the crew began another trend for this week – going out to the eastern face of Inadu Knob to watch the sunrise each clear morning. A mainstay hobby for Rocky Toppers over the last couple of years, this week’s sunrises offered vibrant colors over North Carolina.

Day 5 through Day 8: The crew continued to work on the rock crib project and on installing more wood steps towards Old Black. By the end of the work week, the crew had also began and finished a wood cribbing and step project in order to get over a number of rock fins protruding into the trail.

The European Crew finished with one of the strongest showings of total trail work ever done at Rocky Top.
A proper big thanks goes out to the Essex Boys and Girls Club – Graham, Juliet, Amber, Ellie, Lauren, Luke, Callum and Simon – and to Constantin, Jan, and Logan for one of the hungriest, most hilarious, and most industrial crews we’ve ever seen!
Rocky Top looks forward to welcoming the Essex group back again next year for more trail work. Stay classy!


Friday, September 11, 2015

The Great Pack-In and the Three Trail Musketeers!

Session One Crew

Day Zero & Day One

Day one of the first Rocky Top crew session of the season was actually the second day of the “Great Pack-In,” an event where various horsemen packers contribute to getting Rocky Top’s tools, gear and food up to the crew’s campsite near the Appalachian Trail and Snake Den Ridge Trail intersection in the park. The day before, or “Day Zero,” a set of five horsemen packers took up roughly half the gear for the crew, with the remainder going up alongside the Rocky Top crew as they hiked up to the A.T. on day one of the session.

The participating volunteer groups for the Great Pack-In were the Southern Appalachian Backcountry Horsemen, the Backcountry Horsemen of North Carolina, and the Smoky Mountain Trail Riders – a total of ten volunteers helped carry all of Rocky Top’s tools and gear up for the season, as well as its food supplies for the first week. Thank you to everyone who volunteered for this first session!

The Rocky Top crew itself began with a very small crew – only one volunteer, Lenni, made it out for session one – but the crew would go on to more than make up for its size through its quality and quantity of completed work.

Pack horse at Cosby
For the trail crew, day one consisted of hiking up Snake Den Ridge Trail from Cosby Campground to the A.T. and then to Inadu Knob. All told, this hike is six miles long and gains over 3500 feet of elevation. With tents riding up on the horses, the crew had relatively light packs to carry up and was lucky enough to have perfect weather for the duration of the steep climb.

Once the crew of three – one volunteer, one crew leader, and one assistant crew leader – arrived at the top, they met with the horsemen who were letting their steeds rest before heading down. After a brief and thankful exchange, the crew got to work setting up camp – putting the food away in bear-proof containers, setting up a kitchen area, digging a trench privy, changing out the bear-fence battery (the crew leaders had set up an electric fence a few days earlier for Day Zero’s gear to hang out in), and setting up tents. The crew also noticed that their rain barrels were pretty much empty. There had been almost no rain the week prior.

Day one ended with the crew heading to bed, knowing tomorrow would mean a trip down to the spring on Snake Den, about a mile from camp. All were excited though for the beginning of a trail crew session and for kicking off the entire fall season.

Lenni digs for a waterbar
Day Two

The crew awoke to a cool and foggy morning and gathered all their water bottles, two 6-gallon jugs, and two freighter packs and headed down to the spring. While playing word games, the crew filled up all their bottles and both jugs, hoping to cut the number of spring-trips down to as few as possible if the next seven days decided to stay dry. Then the crew – now unofficially dubbed the “Three Musketeers” – managed the short but intense hike back to camp to begin filtering water. Once the three arrived at their destination, one thing was on each of their minds – water conservation for the week. “Let’s do that as few times as we need to,” someone offered.

Once enough water was filtered to fill personal bottles for the work day, the three set off to the top of Old Black, about a mile and a half south of camp. The project goal for the season would be to finish the trail work needed on this stretch of the A.T., beginning with priority needs first and foremost. With water-fetching having taken up most of the morning, the crew spent half a day installing water bars and grade dips. Near the end of the day, the three took assessment of the trail work needed along the way back to camp, marking priority needs with flagging as they went.

Installing a waterbar

Day Three

The Musketeers had their first full work day, stopping at Deer Creek Gap on the way to work in order to stretch and tell safety tips and jokes – a ritual they would do each work morning from thereon out. It was a clear and sunny work day. This was great for digging more water bars and grade dips, but poor for rain barrel reserves. The crew had a satisfying if not tiring day and headed back to camp where they played the card game “spades” after dinner, something they would come back to again later in the week.

View from deer Gap

Day Four

Today was the crew’s “hump day” since, at its end, they would have four more days left of their eight-day session. Chris, the Trail Specialist for the southern regional office of the ATC, joined the crew for some water bar-installation and came bearing a few of the biggest Fuji apples the crew had ever seen. Thanks Chris!

Chris camped out with the crew that night with the intent of hiking past Old Black in the morning, assessing the work for future years’ crews as he went. The crew played more word games to past the time and reveled at the addition of a fourth helping hand when it came time to do dishes.

Breaking rocks!

Day Five

Cloudy skies teased rain during the middle of the week, but alas, none was to be had. With Chris hiking out past Old Black for the day, the crew worked on putting in more water bars, grade dips, and some much-needed log steps. The Musketeers found this day one of the more exhausting.

Back in camp, it was a very early turn-in after dinner. By 7 PM the crew was back in their tents, listening for signs of rain. A pattering of rain drops began for about ten minutes, but then petered out. It was almost guaranteed now that the crew would need one more trip to the spring before they headed out.

Pounding stakes!

Day Six

Today the crew worked on a muddy area near Deer Creek Gap, installing about 20 feet of log turnpike. Once the logs were cut and more or less laid in place, the brunt of the work amounted to removing excess mud from the middle of the turnpike and finding enough rock to crush and fill in where the muddy path used to be. Locating and digging up rock, rotating to crushing that rock with sledge hammers, and then going off to find more rock was fun but exhausting work. The crew worked on the turnpike while enjoying the shade of a few trees, watching as Deer Creek Gap was lit up by rays of sunlight all day.

Back at camp and after dinner, the crew played more spades. This time they relaxed next to a nice camp fire, one they made especially for their backcountry location by building a dirt mound on top of a fire blanket and then adding their kindling on top of the mound. Knowing they would have to hike down to the spring again in the morning, the crew enjoyed the peaceful allure and warmth of the fire.

Day Seven

This was the day the Musketeers finished the turnpike! Before that though, the crew did another hike down to the spring, taking this time only the two 6-gallon jugs to fill for the last two days. The crew found this trip much more manageable.

After hours of work, the crew had finally crushed and filled enough rock to adequately harden the tread surface of the turnpike. Now hikers would have a mud-free area to walk. The 20-foot-plus section of turnpike would now encourage hiking straight through the trail, rather than around, mitigating any undesirable widening of the trail itself.

Christine Hoyer, the park’s Backcountry Management Specialist, came to join the crew later in the day. She worked with the crew on widening drainages north of Deer Creek Gap and taking off a built-up grassy berm on the downside edge of the trail. Berms build up over time on trails and trap any water from draining off its edge. “Knocking off the berm” helps encourage future water drainage off, rather than down, the trail.

Christine came back to camp with the crew to spend the night and hike out with the crew the next morning. The three took inventory of food and gear needed for the next week and began to prep the campsite for the crew’s off days.

... and after!
Before the turnpike...

Day Eight

The hike out! Camp is always abuzz the morning of day eight – people are excited to have finished a crew week and are looking forward to the return journey. The crew packed up all their belongings, put up tents and any remaining food supplies into rain- and bear-safe containers and, finally, replaced the bear fence battery and turned on the electric current for their days off.

Goodbye Rocky Top camp! See you on Session 2.

Thank you Chris and Christine for coming out to work with the crew this week! And a very special thank you to Lenni, our volunteer who took the weight of an entire crew on her shoulders and did so amazingly well! We hope to see on crew again. Go Three Musketeers!

Love the Smoky Mountains!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Ultimate Post-Thru-Hike Reentry Program

Rocky Top Trail Crew members show their enthusiasm along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokies//Text by Leanna Joyner, Trail Resources manager
Near the end of a thru-hike, or just afterwards, there’s a flood of mixed emotions: pride, elation, and for some, there’s confusion about what comes next. The camaraderie, present-moment focus, the healthy physical exertion, and time outdoors doesn’t have to conclude when your hike finishes.
Several thru-hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) are already planning to join the Rocky Top Trail Crew once their hike ends. Rocky Top Trail Crew enables hikers to experience the Great Smoky Mountains from a different perspective by working and camping on the Trail during 8-day sessions.
Here are the top 10 reasons why a hitch on crew is the perfect transition into life after the trail.
  1. Retrace part of your hike: The Smokies are beautiful, but early spring thru-hike starts often means missing the views and expansive perspective gained from some of the highest and most remote sections of the entire A.T. You’ll get to return to the Smokies in time to see the fall colors in their full effect in September and October and squeeze out the very last bit of good weather before the snow flies and puts the Trail to bed for the winter.
  1. Camaraderie: Live and work with the salt of the earth. Whether reuniting with Trail friends or other volunteers on the crew, you’ll forge the kind of memorable relationships that will last a long time.
  1. “Repair the Rut”: If you ever found yourself frustrated with a trench of trail, this is your chance to make it better for those who come behind you. Be part of improving the type of trail conditions you were annoyed by the most.
  1. Get a behind the scenes look at the management of the A.T.: The Trail doesn’t just exist. It’s constantly evolving and shifting, and it requires a host of management partners, from volunteers, to Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) staff, and land management agencies. Get a glimpse of how all the pieces and partners fit together by being a valuable piece of the puzzle to protect the A.T.
  1. Learn new skills: By the end of your hike, you’ve stepped over, on, or around thousands of steps or waterbars. They are the corrective action for the number one enemy of the trail: water. These erosion control features repair entrenched trail by slowing the flow of water or by getting off the trail. Learn the “how” and the “why” behind these structures. You’ll know it well enough by the end that you can teach someone else.
  1. Continue your outdoor experience: If your experience hiking this year makes you feel like you may only ever want to live and work in the backcountry, trail crew provides a great job skill training opportunity and resume builder. Add conservation, natural resource protection, and teamwork to your skill set as you ease your way back into the workforce.
  1. Get all you can eat without tacking on those post-trail pounds: Keep your trail physique and gain upper body strength and conditioning while enjoying all the food you can eat. Did we mention you don’t even have to carry that food up the mountain to the backcountry site? Our equestrian volunteer and partners help us carry some of the heaviest equipment and supplies to the worksite on this rare horse-accessible portion of the A.T.
  1. Put your worrying mind at ease: With your backpack on, your focus is solely on the trail ahead. On crew, you can focus just on the task at hand: crushing this rock, lopping this brush, or placing the most perfect stone step. With concerted focus, your mind releases unnecessary chatter and your body produces measurable results.
  1. It feels good to give back: Altruism releases all kinds of fabulous feelings. Bring yourself and your contributions of sweat and effort to Rocky Top Trail Crew to leave a lasting impact. Plus, you’ll be delighted to plan a return visit long into the future.
  1. Earn a free t-shirt: While no one on crew cares a bit if you’re stinky as you work alongside them in your hiking gear, at the end of your crew session, you’ll appreciate having a fresh t-shirt to slip on. You’ll walk away with a t-shirt in acknowledgement of your effort and making you as a great guardian of the A.T.