Backpacking the “Little Smokies” (Part 1)

In his book, “Backpack Loops and Long Day Trail Hikes in Southern Ohio” Robert Ruchhoft describes the very first hill of the Shawnee State Forest Backpack Trail, North Loop as a “lung buster.”  He continues with, “If you suffered real agony, feeling that this climb has pushed you over your level of endurance and you wished to God you were someplace else you’re probably not ready for this trail.” While there are several options for backpacking within a couple hours drive of Cincinnati, this could well be the most challenging.

“Sounds like fun,” was the consensus as Bill, a former co-worker and fellow hiking enthusiast, and I discussed trying this hike. About two hours east of Cincinnati, the area is nicknamed the “Little Smokies of Ohio” with good reason. Though not as tall as the famous mountains to the south, the hills have the same rugged beauty. This trail in Shawnee would also prove as difficult as any I’ve encountered in or around the namesake National Park.

Arriving at the trailhead on a Friday afternoon, we were prepared for 3 days of hiking with nighttime temperatures predicted to drop to the upper 30’s. Bill, a big fan of ultralight equipment, was carrying a pack weighing 20 pounds, plus two liters of water. I, on the other hand, apparently enjoy suffering and carried a pack that came in on the north side of 30 pounds, plus water, Gatorade and a huge bag of trail mix, or gorp. (I may have also had a flask.)

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Despite my initial disbelief, the guidebook was indeed correct with the first “lung buster” hill climbing 300 feet in under a half mile. Looking ahead, there were multiple hills with descriptions that included words such as: very strenuous, arduous, struggle, exhaustive frustration, and other equally positive terms. However, it was a beautiful day and with most of the leaves on the ground, the views were amazing.

The leaves did hide the trail though, so keeping an eye out for the orange blazes painted on the trees was necessary. Also essential were walking sticks. With the steepness of the trail and the leaf covering, a third point of contact with the ground was often crucial. Without sticks, that third point would have certainly been a body part other than feet; most likely my back or face.

After four hours of walking through a gorgeous late fall afternoon and up a couple of “epic” climbs, we covered the six miles to Camp 1, which consists of a drinking water source, latrine and a couple relatively flat areas to pitch tents. We had just enough time before dark to set up camp and gather some firewood.  After a dinner of delicious freeze-dried beef stew and my daily allotment of nearly a pound of gorp, I settled in by the fire with some fortified hot chocolate. The temperature was dropping fast and it would be another 13 hours till sunrise. (To be continued.)

Backpacking tip #117  When setting your tent up under an oak tree, be sure to remove all the acorns from where you intent to lay. Cracking nuts with your hips and shoulder blades through the night tends to produce a less restful sleep.

Can’t wait to read Part 2? Click here!