GSMNP Take Two

Day 20: Fontana Dam Shelter to Russell Field Shelter (15.1 miles)

This is an exciting portion of the trail to do. I decided mid-pandemic that I was going to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, and was pretty sure 2023 was the year. In May of 2021 I gathered the gear I thought I would need and proceeded to field test it in Great Smokey Mountain National Park. It was a successful test because the park threw all the terrible weather conditions it could at me, from snowstorms to lightning storms with hail, and my gear kept me warm and mostly dry.

So two years later as I prepare to enter the park again, the forecast is for five days of sun and clear skies. I feel truly blessed (and laiden with a few pounds more gear than I really need). I take the earliest shuttle from the inn back to Fontana Dam Shelter and hike down to the dam where I meet up with Swayze and after a brief visit to the visitor center and a nice chat with the volunteers there, I walk across the dam and enter the park.

The first step is to place the bottom half of my thru hiker permit in the hiker box at the beginning. The park charges thru hikers $40 for a permit. My understanding is that you put half in the box on the way in and half in the box on the way out. They check these against each other to make sure no one disappears in the park. While in GSMNP all hikers must stay in the designated campsites or shelters. These all have bear cables, making hanging your food much easier. This is important because the park has a fairly large black bear population, and being the most visited national park in the country, people can be careless with food and then bears learn that they might be able to find food near humans. The forest service will try to relocate problem bears, but most of the time, a fed bear is a dead bear. So precautions are taken as much as possible.

The ascent into the park is long and arduous, and a 15 mile day mostly uphill takes a lot out of me. However, the weather is perfect, the views from the fire tower on the way up are spectacular, and extra beauty is added to the entire walk as tiny white flowers line the way as soon as we get to elevation.

Arriving at the shelter around 5:00 pm gave me plenty of time to get set up with my tent, have some dinner, and enjoy some time around the fire. By random chance, the campsite was all men tonight, something I have not seen before. There were about a dozen of us ranging from 20 to 51 (I was the oldest) and predictably, if you remove all women the maturity level decreases dramatically, and hilarity ensued. I turned in late for me, around 9:15, and sleep didn’t take long to come.

Day 21: Russell Field Shelter to Siler’s Bald Shelter (14.7 miles)

The walk today was a bit tough and included the portion I did two years ago when I field tested my gear and got caught in a thunderstorm. That was one of the most terrifying days of my life. The weather was bad enough that multiple tornados touched down in the park during the storm and two of the ladies hiking around us were indirectly struck by lightning. It was very interesting to look at all the same terrain in beautiful weather. I could still identify it from moments that occurred then, but now nature was beautiful instead of actively trying to kill me.

The day wrapped up with a lovely evening at the shelter with a very different crew. There was a nice mix of men and women. I built a fire in the shelter fireplace and Swayze and I collected enough wood to last much of the night. We hung around talking and joking. A fellow NJ hiker trail-named Slim Pickens actually brought an acoustic guitar with him and played blues while we did yoga stretches by the fire. The night wrapped up perfectly with a beautiful rendition of Planet Caravan (Black Sabbath)

Added note to the day – woke up hungry again at 12:30 a.m. This is becoming a regular thing. I believe what they call hiker hunger is beginning to set in. After all, I’m consuming 3000 calories a day at best and probably burning closer to 6000. This is only going to get worse.

Day 22: Siler’s Bald Shelter to Icewater Shelter (15.3 miles)

An amazing day. The basic landmarks were that I reached 200 miles of trail and the highest point on the AT, Clingmans Dome at 6612′. There were many tourists and it was anticlimactic. That was until I walked back into the forest and began to descend.

It was like walking through the realms of fairy. I really felt connected to Spirit and the Divine as I walked. I spoke to the fae and to Titania and Oberon and gave them thanks for safe passage through their realms.

The trail slowly left the realms of fairy and back to regular trail and eventually spilled out into Newfound Gap and a slew of tourists. After lunch on the lawn and the obligatory photo of the sign marking passage into my third state, Tennessee, I hiked another three miles to the next shelter. There were more tents and people here than I’ve seen since the first day at Springer Mountain Shelter. Guess there’s still a lot of us giving this a try. Hopefully we all spread out a bit through Virginia.

Day 23: Icewater Shelter to Tri-Corner Shelter (12.6 miles)

A much needed shorter day. As usual for GSMNP, the scenery was amazing as I walked a slightly shorter day. After three consecutive 15 mi days, it felt good to do a few less and be done by mid afternoon. I climbed into the tent early, and hopefully will sleep long and hard. Tomorrow is my longest day yet.

Day 24: Tri-Corner Shelter to Standing Bear Farm (18.1 miles + 1.2 side trail to Mt. Cammerer)

Today was a big day mileage-wise and landmark-wise. Did a total of 19.3 miles and actually felt pretty good at the end of the day, though I was happy to be done walking. The hiking was rather pleasant with just a few climbs including the spectacular side trail for Mt. Cammerer where I lunched on tuna wraps.

I also completed the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, dropped the second half of my permit in the box, and then walked a couple hundred yards down to Davidson Gap Road where someone was serving trail magic of hotdogs and PBR. After enjoying the break, I continued an additional three miles to Standing Bear Farm Hostel.

Standing Bear is iconic enough that the first section of the FarOut App that most people use to navigate the AT is labeled Springer to Standing Bear. For $25 you get a bunk with clean linens, use of the shower, kitchen, and a place to charge your devices. They also serve hot dinner and hot breakfast for a fee, and have a resupply shed plus beer and frozen pizzas. The scene around the fire was interesting to say the least. There was almost a constant joint being passed around, and a few of the folks seemed to have gotten stuck there since they will allow work-for-stay.

I had a resupply box sent to me there which gave enough food for the next four days of trail, plus some lovely extra treats including a box of girl scout cookies which did not last long. It also included a box of Guinness Mac-n-Cheese, which became breakfast the next day.

All in all this was a great way to wrap up what seems like the first section of my hike. The next section is Standing Bear to Damascus, VA. I’m beginning to feel my trail legs and 15+ mile days should be the norm moving forward.

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Comments 6

  • Angela : Apr 16th

    Glad to hear everything is going well, and that the resupply treats were a hit !

  • Pete : Apr 16th

    Awesome journal of your trip thus far! My dad used to hike the AT in sections. He always tried to get me to come, but things like “Don’t forget your -30° sleeping bag,” always deterred me from joining in on the adventure.

    Safe travels my friend, you can do eet!

  • DSabrina : Apr 17th

    I love your writing style. It’s really easy to follow your trip because of the way you’re writing. The photos are great, and give me a sense of the places that you’re talking about.

    I also love the way you’re talking about cultural things: the mix of genders in the evenings and how that affects interaction, you’re ongoing relationship to the land and your spirituality, and your ongoing yoga practice. Getting a peek into these things adds richness to your account.

    I’m excited, too, to learn new and fascinating details about the trail: when hiker hunger sets in and what it’s like, what the hostels offer, and other details that through-hikers know that the rest of us don’t.

    Thank you so much for creating such a beautiful and rich account of your experience. It’s a delight to read when you’re curious about the trail.

  • Bobby : Apr 17th

    I envy you brother . I have section hiked the AT in Georgia, the Smokies, Whites and Katahdin . I live in the NC smokies and love the trail in the park . Your weather couldn’t have been better . last week or the week before it was rain and cold at 42 in the valleys . At elevation that’s hypothermia weather . Good luck and here is to you going to Maine .

  • Denis Lenihan : Apr 17th

    Keep up the good work Mike!

  • Marty Kasdan : Apr 19th

    Have loved reading about the trail and the challenges, niceties and the way of life which is so different from our everyday of living. Continued good weather, good friends and keeping up your mileage at an easy but good amount of hiking.


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