Day 22: A Quick Stop at Standing Bear Hostel

Packing Up Wet

Rain drops started tapping on the tent fly just before 4:00 am. Around 4:15, I took advantage of a brief lull to add a few drops of my own to the landscape before climbing back in to my nice, warm, dry sleeping bag while I waited for the sunrise. The rain and I both drifted in and out until about 6:15. By then, it was both light enough to see and dry enough to pack up without getting totally soaked. I could hear Buff rustling in his tent a few feet away and knew he was itching to get moving too.

Buff’s brother planned to pick him up at the Standing Bear Hostel on the other side of I-40, just 10.8 miles away. Buff had had enough of the Smoky’s cold and rain, and was longing for Arizona’s desert climate. Yestereday, his wife had texted that Phoenix hit 97F. Hmm, I’ll take a little more cold, rain, and green mountains, please. We packed our wet tents quickly and headed out just after 8:00 am into a cold, foggy, drizzle.

The Davenport Zoo

Once again, the rain prevented us from taking breaks, although we did stop in at the Davenport Gap Shelter, the last one in the Smokies to be enclosed in chain link fencing. I’d thought the fencing was meant to keep the bears out, but a sign in the shelter said the fences were intended to keep the wild hogs at bay. Either way, I could imagine bears and hogs lined up outside the fence, pointing and staring at the humans, and wondering whether the inhabitants would get more active at feeding time.

From Davenport Gap Shelter, we only had a mile or so before we passed the permit box that marked the official end of the GSMNP. After that, we had a short walk through the dense jungle foliage of the Pigeon River Valley. Poison ivy dominated the trailside and had me scratching phantom itches until I climbed a thousand feet up the other side of the valley.

Standing Bear Hostel

Much of the trail talk since entering the Smokies centered around whether to stop at the Standing Bear Hostel for the night, for a quick resupply, or avoid it altogether. Depending on who you listened to, Standing Bear is either the best, funkiest, most hip hostel on the trail, or the maw of Dante’s inferno. It’s advocates tend to identify as hiker trash, who relish being dirty in most senses of that word. It’s detractors tend to be, well, people with sticks up their butt. You know, people like me.

I’d heard stories and read online comments about rampant drug use, all-night parties, hook up culture, unsanitary conditions, out-of-date resupply stock, crowds, Norovirus outbreaks, and a host of other rumors. And just as many negative comments about the people who made the first kind of comments.

So, of course, I needed to see for myself. And I needed a few resupply items before heading off to Hot Springs. Plus, Siri can find Standing Bear Hostel, making it a good place for Buff to meet his brother.

The Best of Standing Bear Hostel

As we walked up the side road to the hostel, a police cruiser passed us and turned in to the parking lot. Uh oh, I thought, this is going to be a repeat of the Rock Gap drug bust. (Which, by the way, is still being talked about daily on the trail. Backpacker Magazine and several other outlets carried stories about it. And it turns out, almost everyone I’ve talked to was there just moments before the cops showed up. Huh.) But instead, the Deputy was there to help a elderly woman we’d met on the Pigeon River Bridge who had troubles possibly related to dementia. The hostel’s owners had taken her in until an ambulance arrived as I was leaving.

And that’s the best of Standing Bear. I think they honestly want to help people be comfortable, as well as to live their alternative lifestyle. They hand you a clipboard with a blank piece of paper and tell you to record whatever you buy, and then ask you to pay on the way out. In cash. You know, so they can report receipts accurately to the IRS.

If that’s your vibe, you like to party, you miss the 60’s, and you’re not particularly fastidious, you’ll probably get a kick out of the hostel. You might even get stuck there for an extended stay. A fair number of hikers we’d been keeping pace with disappeared after stopping there.

Also on the plus side, we met Survivor, Wheels, and Machina at the driveway as they packed up to leave. I’d thought they’d be days ahead of us, as they’d planned to be in Hot Springs today. But they’d been slowed down by the rain and had stopped for lunch and resupply. We seem to be fated to hike together.

The Worst of Standing Bear Hostel

I arrived with an open mind, as I’m naturally skeptical of online reviews (as you should be of this one). But it didn’t take long to make up my mind. Standing Bear is not my vibe.

I found it to be chaotic, disorganized, dirty, loud, smelly, and crowded. The resupply food was meagre, old, and probably, in need of a visit by the County Health Inspector. The next day, when I pulled out the PayDay bar I bought, it was crispy (not gooey) and smelled of cigarettes. I ate it anyways. My hiker hunger has fully kicked in.

The construction looked like something I’d built as a 13-year old without my dad’s help, or perhaps something my neighbor built while high. I’m not sure I’d want to stay there in a stiff wind, though the air quality might be better.

Enough said. Standing Bear is not for everyone, but it has its fans. I guess there’s something for everyone along the trail.

Back on the Trail

Buff gave me his leftovers in lieu of a full resupply, enough to get me to Hot Springs. Then we said our goodbyes. I headed back to the trail, and he went back to Gatlinburg for the night, each of us happy with our choice. I started out with a 2,500-foot climb to Snowbird Peak, a lovely bald with near-360-degree views. Despite being pretty gassed already and having a full pack again, I somehow managed 2.5 mph up the hill. Maybe I’m finally getting my trail legs.

I intended to camp in a little clearing just beyond the peak, but ran into Survivor’s crew near the summit, who convinced me to stay with them at Groundhog Creek Shelter four miles ahead. I finished with a 17.6-mile day and more than 5,000 feet of descent. But no knee problems.

On the hike down from Snowbird Peak, Survivor continued to pester me about telling him “The Incident” story. After they pulled ahead of me, I decided that, what the heck, I might as well tell him. Who am I to deny fate. But we got to the shelter, we went our separate ways for the evening, and the moment passed.

Alas, a missed opportunity for him.

Wrap Up

I not only completed the Smokies today, I wrapped up the first of the nine FarOut trail maps, another milestone. Today also marks the beginning of my third week of hiking.

I also started backpacking alone again. This time, I felt different. Was it the milestones I’d passed? The freedom of walking alone? Being free of the GSMNP regulations? I can’t say. But it does feel new, fresh, and full of possibilities.

It was also my last shelter stay. After what happened that night, I’m done with shelter life. But that’s a story for another day.

Daily Stat’s:

  • Start: Cosby Gap Shelter (Mile 231.1)
  • End: Groundhog Creek Shelter (Mile 248.7)
  • Weather: Rain, fog, and cold in the morning. Puffy clouds, cold, and windy in the afternoon.
  • Earworm: Rise up like eagles (see meditation)
  • Meditation: Is. 40:31
  • Plant of the Day: Fire Pink (awesome!)
  • Best Thing: Snowbird Peak
  • Worst Thing: Goodbye to Buff

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Comments 3

  • Kelli Ramey : May 3rd

    Wow…..and you will return home disliking Appalachia because of a huge group of”tourists”who are hiking north or south through a very very tiny part of it.
    I hope not.
    I looked up your books and you seem a very caring, educated and concerned man. I’d wished for you to enjoy our mountains.
    Rabun County Lover

    • Jon : May 3rd

      Ah, but I do love the mountains. And the people I’ve met in the towns along the way. The southern AT has been fantastic! It’s just the shelters and some of the hiking crowd that aren’t my cup of tea. Stayed tuned for tomorrow’s (Day 24) post…you’ll find that more appreciative of what I’m seeing. It’s a journey. Thanks for reading.

  • thetentman : May 4th

    So you got a stick up your butt. Sit carefully and be careful.



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