A Little Sluice of Heaven originated when Dana Murphy and I – on separate days, as it turns out – did the same hike only in different directions right around New Year’s Eve. She prefers uphill climbs, so she started at Kephart Prong just off U.S. 441 and climbed to the shelter. From there she took Grassy Branch to Dry Sluice, and that’s where things started to get icy. From the Dry Sluice intersection, it’s a rather gruelling 1.3-mile climb to the Appalachian Trail, which she followed past Charlies Bunion, ending up at Newfound Gap. The next day, I did the same, only in the opposite direction.
Winter hiking in the Smokies, especially in the high elevation, demands special care and special gear. If you get your shoes, cotton t-shirt and jeans wet in the summer in the lower elevations, you’re at risk for being labelled ‘Auqaman/Woman’ and laughed at by your more-prepared hiking buddies. If you do the same during the winter at any elevation in the Smokies, you’re at risk of acquiring an unwanted toe tag. No joke!
Winter hikers should be especially aware of hypothermia. The combination of rain, cold and wind is especially dangerous. At the park’s higher elevations, hypothermia can be a threat even during summer. To prevent hypothermia, carry reliable rain gear at all times. Layer clothing that provides warmth when wet. Be prepared for sudden weather changes, especially at the higher elevations. Stay dry.
Keeping warm and dry is the first step toward an enjoyable winter hiking experience in the Smokies. Next, you literally need to watch your step and take measures to secure your footing. What was a muddy, soft spot you hopped across in July transforms into a thick, solid ice flow that completely engulfs the same trail in January. I find it best to carbineer my micro-spikes to my pack in early December and leave them there through the first part of April. That way I don’t find myself wondering if I should continue down a trail covered by an ice flow and risk injury or turn around and head toward the outlets. That’s not a decision I’m comfortable making.
Other tips –Winter hiking requires you to carry the same gear as summer hiking, just more of some things. Drinking lots of water is always a good idea. As is an extra couple pairs of socks and a heat source, like dry matches or a lighter, should also be brought along. Finally, check at any of the park visitor centres for trail updates. They’ll know exactly which trails are covered in ice.