Amicalola Falls to Hot Springs – Update #1
My name is Vince and I like hiking really far. Born and raised near Cleveland, OH, I grew up hiking in my backyard, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. When I was 12, I went for my first long hike with my dad in the Grayson Highlands of Virginia. The 50 miles we walked changed my life and ultimately led to my knowledge of the Appalachian Trail and my decision to thru-hike. I’m a college student with a summer break, a backpack, and wanderlust.
I started my hike with the 8.5 mile Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park. My dad drove me to the visitors center from the nearby hotel we stayed in the night before. I registered and was given a 2019 thru-hiker tag to attach to my backpack. I was an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker now. My dad and I walked up the many stairs to the top of the massive waterfall and that was where he left me. I continued alone and summited Springer Mountain a few hours later. With the approach completed, I snapped a picture of the plaque and took my first steps on the AT. I set up my tent for the night at the Hawk Mountain Campsite a few hours later. The next morning I hit the trail at dawn with a plan to make it to Neel Gap. I arrived at Jarrard Gap, five miles from Neel, at 3 p.m. when something occurred to me. The store at Neel Gap might have ice cream and it closed at 5 p.m. I booked up the mountain, marveled at the incredible Georgia landscape visible from the top, and ran down the other side. At 4:50 p.m. I walked into the store and opened the freezer. There was no ice cream, but a microwaveable cheeseburger and a frozen Snickers bar made me just as happy. I stayed that night in the hostel and took a shower. Only two days in; I felt I hardly deserved it.
Rain and Franklin
A few days later I crossed the border into North Carolina and met Pistol, a college student with the same August deadline. We hiked together for the rest of the day. When we set off the next morning, it was pouring and impossible to stay dry. Luckily, that was the day we hit Winding Stair Gap, the best place to catch a ride to Franklin, NC. We happened to meet a shuttle driver at the trailhead and I made my first town stop. Pistol and I stayed at the Gooder Grove hostel, where we met two more college guys, Flash and Garrett, who was later given the trail name Dog Treat. I resupplied at Walmart and felt very out of place. With our clothes dry and food bags full, the group of us caught a ride back to the trail in the morning and set off into the rain once again.
Night Hiking and Cowboy Camping
The following morning the rain had stopped and we hiked into the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a white water rafting outfitter with a general store, restaurant, and laundry mat. The weather forecast looked great so we dried our wet clothes once and for all and started the monster climb up to Cheoah Bald. At the top we were rewarded with an awesome view and started kicking around an idea to hike all the way to Fontana Dam, supposedly the nicest shelter on the trail. It would be our longest day yet at 35 miles. We hiked till sunset and walked into the night, only two usable headlamps between the four of us. Around 11:30 p.m. we emerged from the woods and walked out on the Fontana Marina, lit up and eerily quiet at night. We pushed on to the shelter and arrived just after midnight. Completely exhausted and not wanting to wake anyone up, we lay down on the ground, looked up at the stars, and fell asleep.
Fontana Dam is on the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains, a beautiful park and section of trail. We hitched in and out of Fontana Village to resupply, walked over the tallest dam east of the Mississippi, and entered the Smokies. The first day we climbed a fire tower for a stunning 360-degree view. We passed Clingmans Dome, the highest point on trail, and took a trip into Gatlinburg on the second day. The third day consisted of beautiful ridge walks. Dog Treat and Flash were separated from me and Pistol due to mild injuries. The Smokies were behind me, but most of the trail was still ahead.
Max Patch and Hot Springs
The next day started with a brutal climb up Snowbird Mountain and ended on top of Max Patch, a grassy, rounded mountaintop with a view of Tennessee from one side and North Carolina from the other. A popular place to picnic, tent camp, and watch the sunset, there was a parking lot nearby and lots of people. Pistol and I laid out our sleeping bags in the grass and watched the sun set as we fell asleep. In the morning we turned around and watched the sun rise and light up the landscape. My time on Max Patch was beautiful and it was a night I will never forget. Early that afternoon, we entered Hot Springs, NC, the first town that the Appalachian Trail runs straight through. I got my first real meal at the Smoky Mountain Diner and bought three days worth of food at Dollar General. Not wanting to pay for a hostel, Pistol and I slept on the riverbank just outside of town.
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