A 196 Mile Appalachian Trail Section Hike in May: Damascus to Hot Springs, Part 3
This is part 3 of a 196 mile Appalachian Trail section hike. You can read:
Part 1 here.
Part 2 here.
Day 6: Some Stealth Site Somewhere to Campsite Near Mountaineer Falls
I began packing up camp while still mulling over the events of the previous night and whether they were real or imagined, when a woman came hiking by who looked to be about the same age as me (32). Like many of the hikers I met, she was a northbound thru-hiker, and had camped by herself the previous night a couple miles south of where I was.
I told her the story about the crashing sounds in the woods the night before and the friendly hiker who appeared and then disappeared, and that led us into a conversation about how she had been somewhat getting the heebie-jeebies during this section of trail. She felt like she wasn’t seeing a lot of other hikers, and there were stories about hikers being disrupted at night by people coming up some of the ATV trails in the area and from the sounds of it, being pranked.
I assured her that because I was hiking south, I was passing a lot of hikers every day and she was far from alone. But when hiking with the flow of traffic as she was, a strange thing can happen, where it’s possible to go nearly the entire day without seeing anyone. The whole time, everyone else could be just an hour ahead or behind.
She also noted that it seemed like a lot of the hikers around her were slack-packing this section, which is where hikers will spend a day hiking without their full pack. This probably contributed to the more “alone” hiking she was experiencing. Hikers leave their packs at a certain location, get a ride up the trail, and then hike back to the starting point. Then the next day they’ll get a ride back to the place they left off and continue hiking.
Having done this on three separate days throughout all of my time on the Appalachian Trail, I can say that it’s a great way to change up a long hike when things get monotonous. The challenge is just as difficult, but different, because instead of hiking less miles with more weight, hikers hike more miles with less weight. I’m not someone who prefers to do this very often (hence only three times), but some people like to, and I could see why this section of trail lent itself to hikers wanting to slack-pack a day here or there. The location of road crossings would make this possible, and they’d be encountering some of the more exposed parts of trail where hikers would need to set themselves up in such a way that they’d make it to these places when the weather was clear.
Anyway, I felt like the nice morning talk we had was comforting to both of us, but before too long we parted ways, and she became one of the many hikers I met during this section whose trail name I don’t remember, but wish I could have gotten to know her over the course of a few more days.
The rest of the hiking day was the first of this section where the weather made things more challenging than they had been. Before the morning was over, I was nearly at the top of all of the uphill hiking I had started the day prior, and the rest of the day was full of tiny little ups and downs that seemed like whoever designed this part of the trail just hit copy and paste for a while over the terrain.
I hadn’t anticipated that because of this, the trail was extremely wooded-in with trees that had tons of low, thick branches, knee-high plants, and rhododendron trees. I quickly became aware that this landscape seemed to capture all of the heat and humidity, rather than being broken up by sparser trees that tend to come with room for a breeze after areas of trail that have longer climbs.
It felt like hiking through a sauna and I really needed to open the door to let some cooler air in, but couldn’t. My stomach started to grumble uncomfortably, and I had to dash off down a slope that luckily had an area a little clearer of the thick brush, and immediately dig my hole in the ground toilet to relieve my stomachache. My body definitely wasn’t used to this humidity yet, and the little incident wore me out enough that I followed it up with a half-hour break to drink water and put some gas in the tank with whatever snacks I had on hand that day.
I could tell that most of the other hikers I passed were feeling it too, and one of them joked about how he was impressed that I was wearing long sleeves and leggings. No matter how hot it became, I’ve begun to learn that I feel freer in the woods hiking covered, because I don’t get as many bug bites or scratches from the landscape and feel better knowing I’m attempting to protect myself slightly better from ticks. Fortunately, the thin merino wool shirt I had finally purchased was pretty breathable.
Then, at a crossing of forest service road 293, I came upon my first trail magic! A woman who’s name I would learn was Marlene, also known as “Emoji”, had her trunk open full of snacks, and a few camp chairs set up for hikers to sit and rest. I think I startled her a little bit when I came from the opposite direction of the mostly northbound thru-hikers she had been seeing. Her generosity couldn’t have come at a better time, as I downed the Gatorade she handed me, along with a bag of chips. She left me with a beautiful poem, which seemed to be her little personal touch to her trail magic setup.
It started to drizzle as I put my pack on to continue on hiking, and for once, I was so thankful for it. I was hoping it would cool the air a little bit, and cool the air it did when it turned into a downpour followed by a few hours of heavy rain.
It wasn’t long before my shoes were soaked and sloshing through mud and wet leaves. My umbrella kept bumping up against the thick forest growth, but I was so thankful to have it. What could have turned into a miserably wet experience actually felt manageable by being able to keep my head and shoulders from getting drenched. I felt like I was the only one on the trail for a little while, until the rain let up and I came up to Mountaineer Falls Shelter.
This was a pretty cool looking shelter, one that had two levels. There was a group of three or four hikers with their things splayed out, shirts off, attempting to recover from the mini monsoon. The upper half of my body was damp but significantly dryer than theirs, and one of the hikers said to one of his friends “Oh, she has an umbrella.”
We laughed about it a little bit as I told them that an umbrella would change their life. I thought that it would be really nice to sleep in a shelter that night and call my day finished, but I felt a little too much anxiety about having no clue who or how many people could show up, and also the fact that there was no privy.
In fact, there are no privies anywhere on this portion of the trail in Tennessee, which is a small detail that impacts the hike in a big way. At group camp areas like shelters, it means everyone is doing their business in the woods instead of a concentrated area, and I don’t like the idea of walking through a minefield to relieve myself. There were also talks of the norovirus spreading around on this area of the trail, and I really didn’t want to catch it, all the more reason to continue camping by myself at smaller tent sites.
I pressed on just slightly farther down the trail and came to a tenting area that was still close to the shelter, but far enough that no one was there yet, and it was unlikely to attract as many hikers as the tentsite at the shelter would.
That night, it wound up just being me and one other hiker, trail name “Here and There”. It was the perfect amount of people, in my book. He was a thru-hiker, and although our conversation mostly took place from about 20 feet away from our respective tents as we each did our camp chores hidden from more drizzle that began, I learned a lot about his life and he was so interesting to talk to.
He was carrying a foraging bag with him and taught me that Greenbrier shoots are edible.
“Wait, you mean those thorny plans that are everywhere along the trail?” I said.
It just never fails, I’m always realizing how much is around me and how little I actually know about it.
He offered to let me try one that he had gathered, but I have rule for myself where I don’t generally try new things while I’m out camping. I don’t trust my stomach.
The night ended with a much-needed peaceful sleep, knowing I wasn’t alone but wasn’t feeling crowded around other people either.
Day 7: Campsite Near Mountaineer Falls to Mountain Harbour B&B
This would be a shorter hiking day, but gosh it was just so hot. About four miles in, I came up to the side trail to Jones Falls, a spectacular waterfall that was big and gushing, but also easy to get close to. There were a lot of other hikers around, stopping to take in some of the cooler air at the tiny area next to the falls. I splashed my face with water, not wanting to leave, and probably wouldn’t have for a while if I were the only one there. It felt like one of those places though where a lot of hikers were globbing up at once because this was such a nice little reprieve, that I should keep it moving or I’d feel awkward taking up one of the few easy spots to reach my hands into the falls.
As tends to happen, my mind over the next three miles beat the heat of the sun by bouncing back and forth between a few different options of where I could end my day. This part of the trail seemed to follow a knee-high meadow, where the trees were maybe 10 – 20 feet away on either side, so shade was minimal. It had only been 2.5 hiking days since my last resupply at Boots Off Hostel, and this is how the trail works. Depending on where the stop-off options are, sometimes I’ll hike for five or so days without stopping to resupply, and sometimes it may only be one or two nights. Everyone I passed talked about Mountain Harbor B&B, within walking distance of the trail. Although it is a “B&B”, hikers generally stay in the hiker bunkhouse, or pitch a tent in the tenting area. This place supposedly had the best breakfast on the Appalachian Trail.
But I didn’t want to go, because I knew that with that would come a small crowd. So I set my sights on the other walking-distance option: The Refuge Hostel, about a mile sooner. It seemed like the smaller and quieter option.
Well, I missed the turn. After so much contemplation. This sounds like nothing from the point of a bystander reading words, but in the mind of a hiker, hot and sweat-drenched and dirty and thirsty and hungry and finally having made a decision, it feels insanely frustrating, even though my mind still holds an awareness that it’s not really a big deal.
I had been looking out for the little turnoff after reading the directions in the guide, but still managed to miss it. By the time I realized it, I was a few tenths of a mile down a relatively steep hill, where I stopped and stared back up, and spent a few minutes contemplating if it was worth it to backtrack. That’s how tired I felt.
So on I went to Mountain Harbor B&B. There were just as many people there as I figured there would be, the tenting area next to the little creek by the road almost full despite being early afternoon. I poked my head in the walk-in-closet sized store at the resupply options and wasn’t seeing what I hoped for. Well, I could head out to the road and try to hitchhike to the Dollar General in the town of Roan Mountain. I asked if I could pay just to do laundry and shower, and then move on to try to get to the Dollar General before heading out in the evening.
This might have been very ideal in an off-season time of year, but this was the thru-hiker bubble. The line for laundry was going to take a while, and same with the shower. And I really did not want to end the day without those two things. So I paid my $10 for a spot in the tenting area, and as always seems to happen, it was the right choice to stay.
You can read part 4 here!
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