Smoky Mountain Summits On The Air

Bob K0NR operating 70 cm FM from Brasstown Bald

Joyce/K0JJW and I were getting prepared for a trip to Gatlinburg, TN in August with some of her family. Gatlinburg is the gateway town to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding area. I had hiked and camped in the Smokies years ago and this was a great opportunity to visit that area again. Of course, we needed to get in a little Summits On The Air (SOTA) action during this trip.

We decided to pick out some easy-to-access summits in the area so we could weave them into the trip without too much disruption. My first step was to consult the SOTA database for potential summits in Tennessee and North Carolina, looking at the summits with the most activations. This is usually a good indication of easy access and not too difficult of a climb. I did pick out two iconic summits to activate: Clingmans Dome (this highest summit in the national park) and Mount Mitchell (the highest summit east of the Mississippi river in the US). After checking the various trip reports logged on the SOTA web site, I created a list of potential target summits. Clingmans Dome and Mount Mitchell were Must Do but any other summits would be more opportunistic based on available time and location.

We are using VHF/UHF for SOTA activations and opted for a basic FM station for this trip: a pair of Yaesu FT-1D handhelds, a couple of vertical antennas and a 3-element Arrow yagi antenna for 2 meters. I debated about whether to bring along the yagi but the split-boom design fits into my luggage without any problem. In the end, I am glad we had the yagi as several of the contacts would have been missed without it.

Greentop

Use of two handheld radios on Greentop to mitigate strong RF interference

Greentop (W4T/SU-076) was our first summit…basically a driveup mountain with radio towers and a lookout tower on top. I noticed quite a bit of interference on the 2 meter band, something I’ve encountered in previous activations near transmitter sites. It turns out that putting a more effective antenna on an HT (such as a half-wave vertical) couples more of the interference into the receiver and degrades its performance. On the other hand, the standard rubber duck antenna picks up less of the interference and performs better then the “good” antenna. After I realized this was happening, I tried using two HTs with reasonable results: one radio with a rubber duck was used for receive on 146.52 MHz while another radio with a half-wave antenna was used for transmitting. The net result was reasonable performance that allowed us to make contacts on 2m fm.

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome (W4C/WM-001) is a popular tourist spot in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Parking is a challenge and there are quite a few people on the short trail to the summit.

W2SE and WI2W on Clingmans Dome

Although it sits right on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, it is in the W4C (Carolinas) Association for SOTA purposes. As I approached the summit, I saw a fishing pole sticking up in the air. I thought “huh, I wonder what the rangers are demonstrating today.” Followed by “Hey, wait a minute, that looks like a SOTA activation.” Sure enough, I met W2SE and WI2W setting up on 20m CW. Joyce and I headed to the observation tower and worked 2m from up there. There were quite a few people on the observation tower so I considered just operating from down below. I decided to leave the yagi in the backpack and just use the half-wave vertical. We fit right in with the chaos of tourists on the tower.

The observation tower on Clingmans Dome

Mount Mitchell

Summit sign for Mount Mitchell

At 6684 feet in elevation, Mount Mitchell (W4C/CM-001) is the highest point in the USA east of Mississippi River. (Interesting perspective: our house in Colorado is 800 feet higher than this summit.) We started with just the 2m vertical but switched to using the yagi when we had trouble copying a few stations. It definitely made a difference…probably 6 dB or so. When signals are near the FM threshold, this can pull them out of the noise.

One of the highlights on Mitchell was working Kevin/K4KPK on Walnut Mountain, summit to summit. Kevin is very active in SOTA and has contributed many SOTA summit guides in the area. I made good use of these reports when planning our trip. He is also the top activator in the W4G association, a Mountain Goat approaching 2000 points.

Richland Balsam and Waterrock Knob

Joyce K0JJW at the summit sign on Richland Balsam

We discovered a number of summits right along the Blue Ridge Parkway and we ended up working these two: Richland Balsam (W4C/WM-003) and Waterrock Knob (W4C/WM-004). Another flashback for us was driving sections of the parkway, which is a lovely drive (typically 45 MPH speed limit) that winds through the mountains. It has been years since we’ve been on that road. This route is something I’d like to explore further on a future trip as you could spend a week wandering along the parkway and knocking out summits.

We worked Pat/KI4SVM on 2m fm from Watterock. I recognized his callsign from the trip reports he has submitted to the SOTA web site. Later, I looked up his SOTA score and found that he is a double Mountain Goat (> 2000 activation points) and the highest scoring activator in the W4C association.

Brasstown Bald

The Mountain Explorer Award is a SOTA award for activating in different SOTA Associations (regions). Activating in Tennessee (W4T association) and North Carolina (W4C association) got my total to 6. Joyce pointed out that we might be able to also hit Georgia on the trip, so we added Brasstown Bald (W4G/NG-001) to the list. This is the highest summit in Georgia, so it rounded out our collection of state high spots for TN, NC and GA.

Brasstown Bald is an easy hike up summit with a significant observation tower on top, including a visitors center. This is another location where we experienced interference from radio gear on the summit, so we chose our position carefully and used the 2m yagi to point away from the interference sources.

Bob K0NR holding the 2m yagi while Joyce K0JJW works the radio.

This trip worked out really well. We managed to activate 6 summits for a total of 58 points, operate from three new SOTA associations (W4T, W4C and W4G), enjoy some really nice hikes and see some great scenery. I was a little concerned whether we would find enough random activity on 2m fm for our SOTA activations but it all worked out. Actually, there were a few times that 146.52 MHz was busy and we had to standby to make a call. Some of our contacts were less than 25 miles but many covered 100 miles or more. Yes, the 3-element yagi made a difference.

If you are in the Gatlinburg area, it certainly makes sense to try a few SOTA activations. I am also thinking about a return trip to enjoy the area more fully including some longer hikes. We really liked hiking the trails and summits there. The elevation is lower than Colorado (read: you have oxygen to breath), the forests have lots of deciduous trees (not just evergreens) and the trails are less rocky. I am sure we will be back.

73, Bob K0NR

3 Replies to “Smoky Mountain Summits On The Air”

  1. Congrats Bob, on enjoying a good family get-together and getting some good activations in, along the way. Sounds like a great trip! I’d like to spend some time along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and maybe take a page out of your play-book/blog! Thanks. Mike, KEØGZT

  2. Hey Bob, sounds like y’all had a great weekend. My wife Mary Catherine (KI4HHI) and I recently started doing SOTA together too. We activated Blood Mountain (GA) and Levelland Mountain (GA) on Sunday. We’ve been to Clingman’s Dome, Brasstown Bald, and Mt. Mitchell many times, but now we’ll have to go back and do a SOTA activation.

    Hopefully we’ll work you guys soon too.

    73, Joe KI4ASK

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