A 196 Mile Appalachian Trail Section Hike in May: Damascus to Hot Springs, Part 1
“It’s that way, do you recognize it?”
The friendly shuttle driver who had picked me up in Kingsport, TN pointed me in the direction of the trailhead as he dropped me off in front of the library in Damascus, VA. I’d been there once before, during Trail Days 2019. This time, it was May 7, 2023, and so quiet it was barely recognizable. The last time I sat on the steps of that library there were mobs of hikers lounging everywhere and the sounds of a drum circle in the distance at one of the largest festivals celebrating the Appalachian Trail.
I had the time of my life, but this is sort of a “What happens in Damascus stays in Damascus” situation. I love the memories for what they are, and I wanted to keep them perfectly preserved in their little box rather than awaken them by wandering back up and down the quiet streets myself that day.
Trail days 2023 would be happening in a few weeks, and I was beginning my hike in Damascus on May 7 specifically to walk southbound and away from trail days, not into it. I was there to complete one of two Appalachian Trail sections I had left, this one being the approximately 196 miles between Hot Springs, NC and Damascus, VA. I just wanted to hike, and I presumed that the best way to get some quiet time during one of the busiest times on the Appalachian Trail would be to do the opposite of what the majority of other people were doing.
There would have been a time when I would not have had the confidence to do this. I know that if you’re reading this and haven’t hiked on the Appalachian Trail before, that might not make any sense. What’s the difference? You’re hiking alone on a trail either way, right?
Well, sort of. Yes, I’m heading out there alone on a hike either way, but there are a lot of people out there hiking on this part of the trail at that time of year, specifically hikers who started at the southern end of the trail and are walking north with the goal of completing the entire trail without stopping. Hiking with the flow of traffic vs. against the flow of traffic are two different experiences.
When hiking in the same direction as the bubble (the term for the large amount of northbound hikers on this part of the trail at that time of year), which I’ve experienced before, you start to see the same faces repeatedly, and get to know people as you’re bouncing in and out of each other’s hikes, heading in the same direction. When going the opposite direction, that camaraderie doesn’t exist in quite the same fashion.
I met a ton of wonderful people, but because I was going south while the majority of people were going north, I didn’t get to know anyone past one or two days at a time. It was a more “solo” experience, because my decisions about how far to hike or how to plan my resupply options were pretty much my own without being heavily influenced by the decisions other people around me were making.
Section hiking provides a way to hike the Appalachian Trail in many different ways, and now I can cross “hike SOBO through the NOBO bubble” off my list that I didn’t even know I had. I truly had no idea if this was going to be an enjoyable or unenjoyable experience, but fortunately I can say five stars, 10/10, A+, would recommend. If you’re planning a section hike and want to be social yet independent, consider hiking a section this way!
Day 1: Damascus, VA to McQueens Knob Shelter
I was no more than one minute into my hike, as I walked away from the town library and entered the woods, when two hikers appeared from coming the other direction and promptly told me about how several hikers’ food bags were broken into by black bears at the shelter the night before, and then showed me one of their trowels that had been in their ursack (a type of food storage bag) that now had teeth marks on it.
Not even one minute in, and my set plans for the evening were now still pending. This is how the trail works, I shouldn’t have expected anything less. My plan for that first day was to hike ten miles to Abingdon Gap shelter. This seemed like a reasonable distance for me for the first day of my hike, and I probably wouldn’t have even wanted to go that far if it weren’t for the fact that prior to the shelter there was an eight-mile stretch without any water sources.
But I had no interest in spending the first night of my hike where groups of hikers regularly sleep after a night when food bags were broken into. The bears would certainly be back, and although not super thrilled to camp alone in an area where bears were active, I’d actually likely be better off camping on my own at a spot less frequented by groups and storing my food well. Bears would be after the main attraction, the groups of food bags hanging in places where they’d found them before.
Upon reaching Abingdon Gap shelter, I trudged down to the creek to fill my water bottles, made small talk with some of the hikers already set up to sleep in the shelter for the night, and pressed on feeling thankful that I’d already taken some opportunities in the past to break myself out of my fear of camping alone because there was a point in time when I wouldn’t have even considered it an option.
About a mile later, I came up to McQueens Knob Shelter. I’d seen this one in the guide, and had heard that this was an unmaintained shelter originally built in 1934. Most Appalachian Trail shelters have room for five hikers minimum to sleep side by side, with many shelters fitting at least double that, and are maintained by local volunteers.
This shelter was only large enough for one or maybe two people if willing to cuddle, smelled like a mixture of old wood and trash, and wasn’t quite level. The sky was nearing dusk, and it was supposed to rain that night.
I glanced at the shelter, then back down the trail as I scratched out any thoughts of how this unmaintained 1934 shelter could be considered creepy, then back again while I forcefully replaced the doubts about the acceptability of sleeping there with warm thoughts that there would literally be a piece of history over my head keeping me dry. Nothing in the guide said anything about not being allowed to sleep there, so I shrugged and headed to roll out my sleeping bag.
A lizard scurried out of the fire pit as I began playing around with some cotton balls soaked in vaseline that I brought, and to my surprise in the dampness, a fire started without much effort. Fires comfort me when I camp alone, but this time it was just a replacement for febreeze. I hoped that smoke from the fire pit would help cover up that trashy smell in the shelter, and I’m pretty sure that the amount of smoke I breathed in as I encouraged it to waft in the direction of the shelter that evening was enough to discredit a few non-smoking years of my life.
I fell asleep easier than I thought I would that night, but only as easy as is possible after hearing stories of bears in the area breaking into food bags, not to mention a group of black bears I saw way off in the distance as I was coming up the trail that first day. I still knew that where I was sleeping wasn’t frequented by hikers nearly as much as the shelter I had passed a mile north which meant that it wouldn’t be frequented by bears looking for food as often either, and playing some music from my phone as the fire dwindled gave me just enough of a false sense of security to drift off.
With that first night behind me, I was officially back. It always feels so good to be back on the AT, even while my body is very much in that adjustment phase that doesn’t physically feel so great.
Day 2: McQueens Knob Shelter to some stealth site somewhere
The next day was mostly misty and overcast, and must have been a nice temperature because if it hadn’t been, it would stick out in my memory as a tougher day. This part of the trail was uneventful and for that reason, lovely. It was calm hiking, gradual ups and downs inside the green tunnel, the perfect little stretch of trail to start off a hike with. It felt tough on my city legs, but I knew that over the course of a few days it would gradually break me into the tougher parts of the trail that were to come on this hike.
I camped at a perfect little site that night, my favorite kind for camping alone. Rather than being in the middle of big open woods, it was a little clearing surrounded by thick trees and brush that felt like they were blanketing me, a mental protection in the same way you’d pull the covers over your head to hide from what could be lurking in a dark bedroom.
Day 3: Some stealth campsite somewhere to 1.5 miles past Vandeventer Shelter
After another peaceful, uneventful day of hiking, it turned out that the previous campsite would be a stark contrast to the third night, in which my camp spot felt very exposed. I had completed my third day of hiking in exactly enough time for the tiredness, dampness and dirty-ness to set in, but not enough time for my body to be in the groove.
The site I chose was at a water source right on the trail, maybe a mile or two after I passed Vandeventer Shelter. There were still a few hours of daylight, so several hikers passed through while I took some time to stretch and chat before setting up. Once the evening began to set in, things just seemed to take on a different tone, a lonelier one.
Although my camp spot was still wooded in, there was a lot of space between my tent and the surrounding trees, almost as if to taunt my awareness that this hike was really just me and myself so far despite the frequent conversations I had with people passing in the other direction. My appetite was struggling as I forced down some form of cold-soaked food that I didn’t really want to eat but knew I had to.
Then, completely unforecasted, a downpour. I sensed one was coming but thought I was crazy after checking the weather repeatedly to reassure myself that I was still looking at the right day that showed a zero percent chance of rain. I was still sitting on a log outside of my tent, and propped open my umbrella. I figured I’d sit under the umbrella to ride it out, because the rain was coming down so hard that in the seconds it would take me to unzip my tent and get in, I’d get soaked.
Well, the rain went on and on, and I gradually started to get chillier. With the bit of service I had, I checked the radar again, and it was as if this rain was originating from my pinpointed location. Turns out this little pop up deluge would be the topic of conversation with several hikers I met the next day. I finally decided I had to make a break for my tent, and just like that, I was huddled inside, trying to dry whatever just got wet and thinking through which camp chores I hadn’t completed yet that needed to take place outside the tent.
I’d been letting a friend know where I was each day when I had service, and upon describing my camp spot he texted me back saying “Oh good, I’m glad you’re past Vandeventer Shelter! Someone was killed there.”
I had no idea. I had chosen not to camp there because despite the shelter having a pretty view when I walked by it, there were a lot of people already attempting to camp around the shelter with very little space left and it just felt claustrophobic. Suddenly, being within a mile or two of the shelter but alone and learning of this incident that took place in the past felt more uneasy to me than had I been stuffed into one of the tent spots with all of the people at that shelter. I wasn’t actually worried that anything would happen to me, and if anything, the murder that took place in 1975 is very sad. But let’s be honest, it’s like watching a horror movie that isn’t scary until you get into bed and turn the lights out that night. Somehow, some way, I slept. Sort of.
Day 4: 1.5 miles past Vandeventer Shelter to Boots Off Hostel & Campground
Maybe I didn’t actually sleep that much despite the soothing sounds of a creek close to my tent, because I lazily lingered at camp until late in the morning, only putting a pep in my step when I started to see too many hikers passing and stopping at the water source who had probably already been hiking for a few hours. I was talking to one of them when he kindly warned me that if I wanted to fill up my water bottles, I should do it right away because there was a very large group behind him that was about to stop for a water break.
A few minutes later, a large family rounded the corner and spread out for a break near the water where I had just finished packing up my tent minutes before, and I imagined a scenario where I had slept in longer than I already managed to and had to emerge from my tent to try to find a bathroom spot among a large group of people. Whew, it was a gentle warning from the future saying “you got off easy this time, but beware of choosing camp spots exposed next to a trail water source if you’re going to sleep through the morning!”
I got to talking to some of the hikers, and it turns out that they were a family of 16 attempting a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I hadn’t heard their story prior to this or known that I was going to meet them, so as I was talking to them, they were just a friendly family on a hike, the kids excited to chat and the mother of the group telling me a little bit about the two dogs they had with them. It was neat to read about their story later in a few places online.
When I finally got myself going, I was motivated by the fact that eight miles later I’d be stopping at Boots Off Hostel near Hampton, TN for the night. I was very ready for a break. But first, I got to pass by Watauga Dam. I remember back when I was researching the trail for the first time, I heard so much about Fontana Dam, a milestone that hikers reach before entering the Smokies. For some reason, Watauga Dam didn’t ring a bell as something I knew to look forward to, but it was just as gorgeous.
It broke up the green tunnel into something exciting, but I didn’t linger at the view long and crossed the dam swiftly because the pavement exacerbated a stifling hot and sunny day. I did meet a woman and her dog named Zoby out for a walk, and we wound up having a really enjoyable conversation. She was a former AT thru hiker, trail name Monarch, and joked that I was going the wrong way when we came up on each other. I seemed to get that a lot on this hike. Her dog Zoby even wrote a book about their travels on the Appalachian Trail together, which I hope to read soon, and want to pass the word along!
I finally reached the near-ending point of my day, right near a day-use area at Watauga Lake. If I had been with people, I would have loved to hang out for a couple hours and take a dip in the lake as I saw a group of thru hikers doing. It wasn’t on the agenda for me by myself though, and I was simply excited to head straight to the bathrooms next to the parking lot to use a toilet and wash my hands in an actual sink.
If I ever hike this part of the trail again, I now know that there is a clean bathroom, trash cans, and outlets right at Watauga Lake, and it would then be easy to walk to Boots Off hostel, purchase a few days of food from the little resupply selection they had available, and continue on without having to pay for anywhere to stay for the night. But I had been so hot and tired that day that I had already paid $15 to reserve a tent site, which turned out to be one of the nicer tenting areas I’ve ever seen at a hostel.
Boots Off Hostel & Campground
Reaching Boots Off Hostel, just a five minute walk from the trail, felt like sweet relief and an accomplishment all in one. The first resupply point of a hike feels like the first little milestone. I was intimidated by the amount of people there at first, but quickly eased in because it truly felt like everything happened for a reason. As I was waiting in line at the desk to check in, I kept looking at the woman working and thinking “I feel like I know her.” Then finally, it clicked when it was my turn in line. We recognized each other. She was Lucky Moon! My friend and I met her on a section hike in Shenandoah National Park in 2022, and we had split a shuttle to a hostel one night. I was elated to see someone I had met previously on the trail, which is one of the coolest things about returning to the trail for multiple years.
My anxiety eased further as I set up my tent and started to have a conversation with the couple camped across from me. Their names were Babe and Dung Beetle, and I had a really nice night getting to chat with them on and off, as they made me feel like I had a mini group of friends in the sea of probably 15-plus people at the hostel.
With a load of clean laundry and a frozen breakfast sandwich for dinner to top it all off, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be, which is one of the most beautiful parts about spending time on the Appalachian Trail.
To Dung Beetle, Babe, Monarch, Lucky Moon, and some of the other hikers that I got to have great conversations with in those four days – if you somehow ever happen to stumble upon this, thank you! While the interactions might have been short, and even if you don’t remember, those interactions are a lot of what made this section hike what it was for me.
You can read part 2 here!
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.