Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We awoke feeling cold and tired. The temperatures had plummeted overnight and we had woken frequently in response to the cold winds blowing into the shelter. We had seen a weather forecast showing a cold front coming during our time in the Smokies. This is when all those layers we had been carrying for weeks would finally be needed.
We couldn’t even get out of our sleeping bags to make breakfast so we propped ourselves up against the shelter wall and made hot coffee. Taking our gloves off for even a few minutes was painful to our fingers. Luckily we had been carrying around a half dozen packs of hand warmers for months. These would prove to be a lifesaver. Packing up our gear took even longer because a few minutes of exposed fingers needed a few minutes to recover with hands back in pockets or big bulky gloves to recover. Finally with our gear packed and all our clothing layers on we continued onward through SMNP.
The ground had a layer of frost but not much snow. There was ice but not enough that microspikes were necessary. The SMNP portion of the AT is mostly a beautiful tree clad ridge walk with some small to moderate climbs. Once you reach these high elevations you don’t leave them for miles.
We were in constant movement as stopping for more than a few minutes to rest started to make us uncomfortably cold. We cruised the 20 miles making good time. We stopped at Charlie’s Bunion, the acclaimed best view in the park. We took a few minutes to take in the views of the vast wilderness surrounding us.
We came flying into our shelter for the night and immediately jumped into our sleeping bags. The temps were starting to drop as darkness fell. We put on more socks and down jackets hoping for a better night’s sleep tonight. Surprisingly, a little after sunset, a family came into the shelter for the night. They were very nice but we were surprised anyone would choose to be camping in temps that were at least in the teens. After a quick dinner we burrowed into our sleeping bags for the night.
We slept better with all our layers on even though we were nearly at 6000 feet and with lower temperatures. We were lucky the wind wasn’t hitting us as much as it had our first night. Similar to the previous morning, we propped ourselves against the shelter wall to eat breakfast and drink gloriously hot coffee from the comfort of our sleeping bags. The morning was clear and color filled the sky as the sun rose. Unfortunately the bright sun didn’t bring rising temperatures and the time spent packing up was painfully slow again.
We were impressed with the family’s high spirits after the cold night, especially the young kids. They originally had planned to stay one more night but unsurprisingly decided to end their trip early. They did kindly offer us their leftover food which we gratefully accepted. Our first trail magic in the Smokies!
Around 9AM we finally left the shelter making our way towards Newfound Gap. The trail was incredibly icy in sections which was even more challenging with heavy packs and cold, stiff joints. We both took several falls but survived with no major injuries. Just before Newfound Gap, a 2010 thru-hiker (Thin Mint) was out for a day hike and providing the SOBOs with trail magic. We enjoyed chatting with her and appreciated the fresh fruit, chips, and candy.
When we arrived at the Newfound Gap parking we posted up in the sunshine trying our best to warm up while enjoying our snacks. It was surprising to see the number of people out on a day with temperatures staying below freezing but then again this is SMNP on a weekend. Several people stopped to talk with us and we appreciated their kind words and encouragement.
We enjoyed our time in the sun but we still had a lot of miles left for the day including our climb to highest point on the AT, Clingmans Dome. Newfound Gap also marks the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. We’ll still cross over the state line a few more times but due to the official border crossing we are finally in our thirteenth state, North Carolina!
We appreciated the big climb up to Clingmans Dome as it helped keep our body temperatures up. At 6,643 feet this is the highest point on the AT. An observation tower provides incredible 360 degree views from the tree-clad summit. It allows all visitors of the park to get some of the best views of the park. However we couldn’t stop for long because once we stopped moving we could feel the chilly temperatures taking hold of us. We enjoyed the views but continued moving to stay warm.
We rolled into shelter a little before sunset and scrambled to find firewood. All shelters in SMNP have a fireplace inside. We decided a fire was needed this time to help us warm up after a long day of almost constant movement. A section hiker from Atlanta showed up half frozen and we shared our fire with him. It was fun chatting and he provided us with several recommendations for the few days will we likely spend in Atlanta (closest major city) after the trail.
The fire lulled us into a false sense of comfort as stepping away for a few minutes reminded us of how cold it still is. We crawled into our sleeping bags and enjoyed the last few hours in the comfort of the warm fire radiating into the shelter.
This was easily our coldest night on trail with temperatures dropping into the single digits. We did not have a restful night as the limits of our 15 degree bags were pushed and we often woke up shivering in our bags. Even having the smallest bit of our faces exposed was painful so we buried ourselves in our sleeping bags. Not sure how we didn’t suffocate.
The morning was just as brutal as the night. Keeping the tradition alive, we continued eating breakfast from inside our bags and slowly packing up our gear. We have never been so happy to have hand warmers.
Luckily the temperature did rise to just around 32 degrees, downright balmy at this point. Our water bottles even started to melt a little. We had been keeping a couple bottles in our sleeping bags with us so they didn’t completely freeze overnight. The ones that didn’t make it into our bags have been ice blocks for the past few days.
A few miles after leaving the shelter, another major milestone. We have now hiked 2000 miles from Mount Katahdin! We’re officially 2000 milers. An amazing accomplishment in it’s own right.
It was warm enough to stop for lunch at one of the shelters. We met another SOBO, Wildchild who had overtaken us that morning. We laughed about how challenging the past few days had been and like us Wildchild hasn’t had the guts to change out of his hiking clothes yet. Although he has us beat, it’s been 7 days since he changed his clothes and only 4 for us. It’s just been unbearably cold and the clothes you started hiking in just are the clothes that you remain in…another good hiker trash moment. He told us there is a large bubble of SOBOs lingering behind us and we recognized several names. Ironically he didn’t want to be impacted by the cold temperatures of a late December end date so he picked it up and pushed on. It was interesting to have news as we hadn’t seen any other thru-hikers in days.
Even though it was warmer than the past few days we kept moving to keep ourselves warm. Unfortunately several of the piped springs had frozen so to get water we had break through some ice and scoop from the streams. We’re also tracking a storm system that is making its way across the country and will likely impact the area starting on Thursday.
The Great Smoky Mountains, although freezing, have been incredibly beautiful in only a way that cold weather can reveal. The crisp air coupled with silence and stillness has been enjoyable. We arrived at our next shelter just before sunset. The purple haze on the horizon coupled with yellow, orange, and pink skies were soothing. Temperatures were in the mid-twenties which forced us to eat dinner from our sleeping bags yet again but this is much more comfortable than single digits.
We enjoyed sunrise from the comfort our sleeping bags! This shelter is positioned perfectly allowing for great views and minimal wind gusts. It is already starting to feel warmer and temperatures are expected to get into the mid-forties. This feels more like what we expected November to feel like even at elevation. We are so relieved the cold stretch is finally behind us.
We set out feeling cheerful and we even opted to skip the hand warmers today. The views were just as beautiful as always.
We descended down to Fontana Dam, marking our exit from SMNP. Eric remembers this climb going North in 2011 being one of the first few brutal climbs NOBOs faced. The trail crosses over this massive dam and through a camping area. Down the road was a marina for Fontana Lake. We were able to stop in a grab a snack! During the colder days we didn’t have time to eat as much so we are definitely making up for it now! Also another fun wildlife spotting (one of Hayley’s favorites) a little possum who played possum, forcing us to step off trail to pass him.
We finished the day with more amazing colors in the sky and a nice fire to keep us warm. The air doesn’t have that bitter cold feel so we know the worst of it is over. We also can’t believe the Smokies are now behind us. The harsh temperatures made it feel like a blur of beautiful views and a constant battle with the elements. We are just grateful there hasn’t been any rain.
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