The plan for our annual Martin Luther King Jr. day hike was to revisit the trail to Rocky Top & Thunderhead. This is the summit we’ve attempted 4 times, only succeeding twice. Our failure isn’t Into Thin Air-eqsue, but more a comedy of errors.

After reviewing the weather report Sunday evening – temperatures in the teens and wind chills in the negatives, the crew got together to revamp the plan. While none of us are strangers to cold temperatures, we didn’t want to do something stupid. One couple decided to bail, but the rest of us soldiered on.

Instead of the 12-mile difficult hike we had planned, we tackled an 8.5-mile moderate hike. The shorter distance meant the start time could be a bit later in the day, giving the air a chance to warm up a bit. Assuming all went as planned, we’d also have time to hit up the Mexican restaurant on the way out of the park.

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Rich Mountain Loop Trail begins at the entrance to Cades Cove Loop Road. Being able to park just before the entrance saved us the extra time driving around the loop. We layered up and hit the trail.

The first mile of the trail is fairly flat and easy, leading up to the John Oliver cabin. Jay had given me a new day pack, complete with hydration bladder for Christmas. I spent this easy mile trying to prime the tube as well as learning exactly how to use the mouth piece.


As we ate lunch at the top, I had to choose between warm fingers and being able to eat lunch. Food always comes first. Unfortunately, my fingers got so cold they were painful so I grew concerned. The single-use heat packs didn’t seem to be air activated as promised, but I put them in my gloves anyway.

Patience may be a fruit of the spirit, but it’s not very ripe within me. They were working properly, they just didn’t provide instant heat as I would have liked. A friend brought a compact portable stove, enabling me to enjoy raspberry hot cocoa to warm my insides.

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Since this trail is a loop, with no real destination the purpose of this hike was to get out into nature and enjoy it with friends. While I missed a few friends who typically go with us, between the snow and the company I didn’t mind a lack of “wow” factor on the hike itself.

True to form, I slid in mud several times on the hike down. Thankfully I limited falling to just once. I have about a nickel-sized bruise, and my legs were so cold they didn’t hurt when I fell. No blood no foul, as my dad likes to say.

Official stats: 8.5 miles hiked in 4 hours and 7 minutes (not including breaks)

Hikers present: Brooke, Jay, Gretchen, Jerry, Johnny

Trail rating: 7 out of 10 hiking poles