Fontana to Hot Springs
Hey everybody! We made it through the Smokies… and STILL no bear sightings!! Here’s a day-by-day for the last 10 days or so.
Day 20 – Fontana Village
We had originally planned to stay in Fontana Village all day and then walk out to the Fontana Hilton Shelter at the end of the day, but instead, six of us ended up sharing a room that Hot Hands had reserved. It might not be any more comfortable sleeping on the floor of the hotel room, but we are warm and dry. And get a second good breakfast before heading back out on trail tomorrow!
Day 21 – Fontana Village to Mollies Ridge Shelter
Today was a rough day, both physically and mentally. My family had some bad events going on today so my mind wandered a lot, especially since I was the only one not there. We ate breakfast at the Village one last time, then caught the first shuttle back to the trail and were hiking by 9. We hiked to the famed “Fontana Hilton”, which was nice but not what I expected. Then we hiked to and across the Fontana Dam. I’m not sure I’ve ever been on a dam of this size before, so it was a unique experience for me. Kamikaze and I took our time at the dam, but everyone else hiked on. Leaving the dam, we entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was a lot of uphill after the dam, so we weren’t real fast but the weather was decent and some of the views were spectacular. I hiked most of the day with Kamikaze, which always provides some interesting conversations. We met up with most of the group at Shuckstack Fire Tower (Mile 170.7) and took a good 45 minute lunch there, getting some amazing views from the top of the tower. We got to camp a little after 6… A little late for us, but there was still room in the shelter so not too had.
Day 22 – Mollies Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter
Today was a miserable day, no denying it. We woke up to bitter cold, rain, wind and fog. Dense fog, limiting your view to just 30-40 feet. I’m sure we passed some great views but the fog hemmed us in so tightly that there was nothing to see, which makes the climbs seem so much worse. There’s just no “payoff” for the effort. We got to camp about 4:30, wet, cold and exhausted. It was even a struggle to cook dinner. The shelter was fairly full, but I managed to wiggle into a spot. I was in my sleeping bag by 6:30 and was able to warm up before falling asleep. Small miracles.
Day 23 – Derrick Knob Shelter to Clingmans Dome
Today started cold and foggy again, so we were all a little slow to get moving. But before we hit the trail, the skies had started to clear and the sun was coming out. Our tentative plan had been to hike the 7.5 miles to Double Spring Gap Shelter, get some rest and tackle Clingmans Dome in the morning, but with the much improved weather, Kamikaze, Hot Hands and I decided to push the extra mileage for Clingmans Dome today. The beginning of the hike wasn’t too bad and we made really good time to Double Spring Gap Shelter, where we got water and took a quick snack break. And used the privy. You don’t realize the comfort of an actual privy until you have to use a “privy area” (aka a minefield of cat holes) for two days. We passed a Ridge Runner on the way up to Clingmans who told us the weather was perfect for the Dome. He also gave us a weather report that included very cold temps overnight, with winds and snow possible. We reached the top of the Dome, took lots of pics and had a conversation about the weather. It was still about 4 miles to the next shelter, or we could pay a shuttle to take us to Gatlinburg, for a warm meal, hot shower, and comfortable bed. We opted for town. While walking to the parking lot, we ran into Trolley and Bookie who were headed back up the mountain. They told us to just ask around in the parking lot to get a ride, which we did and found a nice family to take us to town. Kamikaze had to sit in the back with packs but somehow we all fit! Dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery, phone calls home, a long shower and a good nights sleep. Sure glad we chose to come to town.
Day 24 – Clingmans Dome to Newfound Gap
After a leisurely breakfast in Gatlinburg, we received a call from our shuttle driver saying we needed to be ready an hour earlier than expected. We rushed back, packed up and ran to the van, but we made it. We were on the trail by about 10:45, and the day was a beautiful day to be hiking – mid 50s, sunny and a slight breeze. Given that most of the trail was downhill, we made decent time for a long while, but fatigue set in about half way to Newfound Gap and we struggled to climb up to the Gap. When we got there, we debated our options – 3 more miles to the shelter, or another night in town… And town won out. It was probably a good choice as a few of the hikers in our group are nursing some sore muscles and joints, so they were able to ice them. Thankfully, we found Ed and Pat Carter, who had space in their minivan and then Kathy, the mother of 2014 thru hiker “Crop Dust”, who offered the five of us rides to Gatlinburg, which was amazing. Three jumped into the minivan and two of us into Kathy’s car. We quickly checked into the hotel, then grabbed dinner at a pizza place. A heated discussion at dinner about current events ruined the mood for a while but I refused to let it ruin my night. Returning to the hotel, a hot shower and some journaling made for a restful evening.
Day 25 – Newfound Gap to Pecks Corner Shelter
We had prearranged for an early shuttle back to the trail. The weather was decent and we made ok time, plus there were lots of views along the way. At one point, Kamikaze lost her balance and fell pretty bad. Bad enough that had she not grabbed a branch for a brief moment, Older Dog and I might not have been able to jump down and grab her before she kept tumbling down the embankment! She got up laughing and said she was ok, but we noticed she was walking a little slower than normal. We took a little break at Charlie’s Bunion to take some pictures of the view, and I think that helped her some. Overall, the day had a good mix of ups and downs, so the day wasn’t overly monotonous, but in general, I’m ready to be done with the Smokies. They’ve become a little too much of the same thing and it’s time for a change. We got to camp to find an empty shelter, but it filled fast. We cooked dinner as the cold set in and quickly jumped into sleeping bags to stay warm. I’ve also started to notice that there is a rift
going through the “trail family” which is causing some tensions. It might be time to stretch the legs a little after the Smokies.
Day 26 – Pecks Corner Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter
We woke to a bitter cold day, so everyone was a little slow to get moving. But once in trail, the cold was offset by the tough climbs. Thankfully there were a few good views, although it was a hazy day so I’m sure the pictures won’t do it justice. Somewhere around Eagle Rocks, there was a great view and Older Dog leaned over to get a better angle for his picture. Never lean over a straight-down cliff, because when you lose your balance and grab for a tree to regain it, you drop your camera over the edge. We tried to snag it with a trekking pole and a carabiner but it was too far gone. He just shrugged his shoulders and marched on… I’m sure someone will find it a few years from now and enjoy all his photos! Shortly after this, we came across some plane wreckage. Not that there was a ton of it left, but still an interesting diversion. About an hour before we got to the shelter, it started raining. And then sleeting. Yes, solid water. Ouch. We rushed to get to the shelter and arrived to find a Ridge Runner there. She asked to see our permits, and was constantly jotting notes, but otherwise, she was very anti-social and a little bitchy. Not exactly what I would’ve expected from an “ambassador of the trail”. With the sleet came a cold wind and a thick fog, so once dinner was cooked and eaten, we climbed into sleeping bags and chatted until dark.
Day 27 – Cosby Knob Shelter to Green Corner Rd (Standing Bear Hostel)
I woke up today and thought my eyes were foggy, until I realized a thick fog was surrounding the whole camp along with some bitter temperatures. Everyone was super slow to get out of their sleeping bags but once I did, I was very motivated to pack up and get going. The sleet had continued all night but seemed to have stopped by morning. Unfortunately, the fog made the trees drop as if it was still raining. After an initial climb up Mt Cammerer (lung buster!) most of the day was downhill, which kept the pace pretty quick. A couple hours into the hike, and about a thousand feet lower, the sun came out, the air warmed, and it turned into an amazing day to be hiking. My mood soared as we exited the Smokies and continued on. We crossed Stateline Branch Stream numerous times and the trail ran alongside it for a long time, which gave numerous breathtaking views. Definitely my favorite stream so far. We got to the hostel about 1:30 and got checked in, showered, fed, laundered, fed again and then socialized for the afternoon. Quite a nice relaxing afternoon. Standing Bear Farm is not the most advanced hostel, but the bed is clean and dry, the resupply store well-stocked, and the help entertaining, albeit rude… Especially if you are a single woman. Just be prepared for rustic. I’ve noticed recently that I’m not getting as tired or winded as I was at the beginning but I still wouldn’t say I have my trail legs. Oh, the bunkhouse scale says I’ve lost 30 pounds already. Sure hope the hiker hunger kicks in soon!
Day 28 – Green Corner Rd (Standing Bear Hostel) to Max Patch
What a beautiful day. I got on trail by 8, thanks to a loud-mouthed rooster that decided 1:35am was when everyone should be awake. Not the best sleep but the day was amazingly fantastic. The sun was shining. It was warm with a cool breeze. The birds were alive with song. And I felt strong and full of life. It was an amazing day to hike. The climb out of the hostel was rough, though, so the pace was still average! At the top of the hill, 4 miles later, there was an amazing grassy area with great views and lots of hikers took advantage of the spot for a quick break. The original plan had been to camp at Brown Gap, but the day was going so well that a large group of us decided to push up Max Patch and camp on the summit. What an amazing experience! First, I got a little trail magic in the form of candy from Little Bear (2013) and his wife Katy. Then while we were all huddled together cooking dinner, Sawyer (2012) and his wife Barbara walked up and offered sandwich wraps, sodas, cookies, candy, and powder drink mixes. They sat and talked with us until after sunset and even packed out our trash! Amazing trail angels. After dinner, we watched the most beautiful sunset I think I’ve ever seen. It literally brought a tear to my eye just observing the beauty of the world. I am so thankful for days like today. The general consensus was that days like today and views like those from Max Patch are what make this whole trip worth the effort.
Day 29 – Max Patch to Deer Park Mountain Shelter
We all work up early to see the sunrise. And it was amazing. Not as good as the sunset, but still amazing. It was hard to get motivated to start hiking, with such a beautiful morning, but eventually, we started down the mountain. And down we went… Forever. It was quite a long day with so much downhill, but I walked with Trail Chef for a long part of the day, with Kamikaze following behind, and we had some good conversations. For some reason, though, I couldn’t get into “the groove” of things today, and had a hard time focusing on the day, so it felt a little rougher than normal. Last night’s “backrub train” on Max Patch, while feeling amazing at the time, seemed to have loosened up the knots in my back just enough to cause some considerable discomfort today. But all was not negative – when we got to Lemon Gap, I decided to take a 10 minute pack-off break, to rest. A few others joined me. Not 5 minutes later, 4 SUVs pulled up with a bunch of people (who turned out to be previous thru hikers), a young man jumped out and yelled over “I have trail magic, don’t leave!”. Sodas, water, fresh brewed coffee, apples, oranges, bananas, candy, and some pasta sides and mashed potatoes. Heaven in a cooler, I tell you. It was the perfect pick-me-up at that moment. To make tomorrow a nero-day, we decided to push a little farther and stretch our mileage to the longest day yet. There was a large sigh of relief (mostly from me) when the shelter sign came into view, that’s for certain! Part of our group decided to push the extra 3 miles into Hot Springs, but I was already in camp, tent up and filtering water when they passed by, so about half of the “normal pod” decided to just stay the night at the shelter… and I am so glad I did! After dinner, it was still comfortable outside, so 5 or 6 of us sat around chatting, petting Bookie’s pup Star, and had a great time. It offered me a chance to get to know a few of the other members of our group whom I hadn’t really talked to much before, and I can already see a few new friendships forming from that single night of conversation and laughter. Not to mention, it was the first night on trail where I almost didn’t need a sleeping bag! The weather was great.
Day 30 – Deer Park Mountain Shelter to Hot Springs
After a decent night’s sleep, we all woke up and packed quickly, with plans to be in town for breakfast. While there was an initial steep uphill, the remainder was “mostly downhill” – a running joke out here. But a little over an hour later, we were walking into “quaint” Hot Springs, North Carolina. To say the town is small is an understatement – the only stop light is the blinky lights over the train tracks – but it has a few B&B’s, hostels, a Dollar General and outfitter for resupplying… and of course, the Hot Springs Resort and Spa. After getting breakfast (priority #1) and trying to find an inexpensive motel, a group of us decided to stay at the Spring Brook Cottages. They weren’t in the informational section of the AWOL Book, but they are shown on the map there – and I HIGHLY recommend it!!! Beautiful “duplex” style cabins, that look like regular houses, with a shared front porch, and a private rear porch, with a small kitchenette and a regular hotel-style room. Worth every cent… and just as cheap as the motel in town. We quickly took care of showering (priority #2), laundry (priority #3), lunch (priority #4) and resupplying (priority #5), so that we could enjoy the evening. Today happens to be Bookie’s birthday, so a large group of us gathered at the local Mexican restaurant for dinner (priority #6) to celebrate. Thankfully our moods were high, because the quality of service was not high. But we made the best of it. As we were finishing up, we happened to look outside and saw the famous “Miss Janet” pull up with her new van! So we rushed to pay and get outside to say hi and ask a few questions. Afterwards, we all went our separate ways and enjoyed a relaxing evening of phone calls, junk food and solitude.
Day 31 – Hot Springs to… back to bed
Lest you think something was amiss here, we actually planned a full zero day in Hot Springs. We all wanted an extra day to let the legs (mostly ankles and knees) recover from the Smokies and to let the R&R rejuvenate some of the moods. Breakfast, blog posts, some are headed to the Resort to soak in the hot springs, a small group borrowed a car (talk about trail magic!) to drive to Asheville, and me, I’m just planning to relax and read a book. All day, if I have to.
I’m looking forward to what the trail has to offer in the upcoming weeks. I will keep you posted, as long as I can find internet somewhere – which is nearly as hard as spotting a bear apparently! Keep it safe, everyone, and remember to Spin the Compass!
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Hey Jason! I sure am enjoying sharing your journey with you! Your writing is almost exceptional! 😉 Stay safe and well and keep writing! Kip
Jason, beautiful writing, love the humanity of the trail. Gerard Blake
Jason, Keep going buddy, I love your writing, it is so interesting, thanks for blogging this, what an inspiration you are!!