Days 18-20 NOC to Fontana

We left the NOC with an annoyingly expensive resupply in our packs and bellies full of breakfast, ready to take on the longest climb yet. We felt great for the first two miles… the last four kicked our butts. If the climb wasn’t so dang long it would have been awesome. We had views across to the ridge we came down the day before and even got some peeks back at the NOC. We went through rhododendron, hopped across mossy rocks, and enjoyed the sunshine from a rocky outcropping.

We made it to Sassafras Gap shelter around 3:30 where we stopped for a late lunch and an assessment of our ability to push on four more miles. Some tuna, combos, a Nuun tablet, and fun conversation with the folks already there lifted our spirits and gave us the energy to push on.

We immediately started another 1.5-mile climb to the top of Cheoah Bald. This climb just about did Mirage in. We made it to the top, eventually, and boy was it worth it. It was about five o’clock, and the light was becoming golden. The view was amazing, according to our guide app it’s the best view until the smokies.

A few section hikers were there with teeny tiny packs. They were doing their annual section in which they “hike fast and make fun of each other.” They were doing what we did in almost a week over like three days. They ran off and we slowly made our way downhill to the campsite, loving the golden light and views from the ridge along the way.

In the morning we made our way down to Stecoah Gap where we hit our 4th/5th trail magic of the trip.

There were two couples set up at the gap, yes that’s a grill down there! They were generously slinging hamburgers, chili dogs, freshly made to order turkey sandwiches, homemade banana pudding, coffee, and all kinds of sodas and more. It was amazing. We chatted mostly with Steve and Sharon, we had Roanoke and Richmond in common. They started doing trail magic in Roanoke in 2013 when they came across a hiker on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now they come out to Stecoah Gap every weekend!

The fuel from all that food (and the honeybuns we had for breakfast, our first so far) was just what we needed to get over Jacob’s Ladder- a super steep climb just after the gap. We huffed and puffed our way up. We cruised most of the rest of the day and stopped for a long break at a gap with some good sitting logs and sunshine. We used the good cell service there for some logistical work. Bryce wants to try adding more straps to his quilt system and we are having them sent to our friend Dylan because he’s joining us at Max Patch for the hike into Hot Springs. We also chatted more with Oats, another Richmonder! We out here!

We camped that night with the same folks from the night before and had a pretty fun dinner. Bryce got to play chess for the second night in a row. In the morning we had a ridge walk with views down to Fontana Lake and Dam. We made it down to the Marina around noon. At the road, we saw a sign advertising cold beers and a view, so of course, we went in for the offer. We overpaid for resupply food and then finished out the last mile to the Fontana Hilton. It was a beautiful mile with the lake down to our right and the ridge of the Smokies above it almost the whole time.

The Fontana shelter is nicknamed the Fontana Hilton because it is: a) HUGE, sleeps 24! Most shelters max out at 14! And b) has an actual bathroom with running water and showers!! We quickly snagged a primo tent site (where we are writing this blog from now) next to a picnic table and took showers + rinsed some essential clothing, racing to make it up to the parking lot for the shuttle at 2:30. We made it up in time but the shuttle didn’t actually show until maybe 3:15. It’s a very loosely goosey service from the resort down the road. We finished resupplying, got our mail (most importantly we are reunited with Bryce’s phone which got lost in Hot Dog’s car last weekend…), and ate a delicious dinner at the restaurant with our bar mate and new friend Kenny Boy.

Back at the shelter we’ve been chatting with new friends and enjoying a fire. Someone brought a handle of Tito’s here so there is still a bit of a wild party going on. This is the first time we’ve had folks around us up past nine p.m.

In the morning we will walk across Fontana Dam and into the Smokies! We are nervous and excited. The Smokies are beautiful but have tricky weather and there is a lot of rain in the forecast. Send us warm sunny thoughts, please!

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