I Have No Idea What State I’m In
The past week 11 days have been filled with a whole lot of hiking, and not a whole lot of rest. Consequently, my body is now exhausted, and I am very happy to be sitting in a comfy bed in town next to a giant box of pizza.
The theme of the week has definitely been bears. With tons of bear stories floating around the Smokies, and a few of the shelters even closing due to aggressive bear activity, my time in the park was interesting to say the least. I made it out though, and am now walking the 175 mile stretch of the AT that follows the NC/ TN state line. This means that at any given time I could have my left foot in Tennessee, and my right foot in North Carolina. This also means that I can never really tell which state I am hiking in, which keeps it interesting.
I have also been officially given a trail name! I am now known as “NoNa” to all of my hiking buddies. (Short for “No Name”)
Without further ado, here is a play by play of all of my adventures from the past 11 days!
Day 15: We woke up in Franklin, NC and caught the first shuttle back to the trail. We immediately started climbing our first of two mountains over 5,000 feet, which was Siler Bald. This view was easily the best we have seen the entire trip. The summit of the mountain was an extra half mile up a narrow trail, but being able to stand on a bald mountain with the 360 degree view was worth it. After Siler Bald, we climbed up to Wayae Bald, which also had an insane view. The climb was really long, and somewhat challenging, but was entirely worth it in the end. We camped at the Wayae Bald Shelter and were exhausted after a tough day with lots of climbing.
Day 16: 16 miles on day 16! We climbed three more of the North Carolina balds today. The best was by far Rocky Bald. We took a blue blazed trail to reach the summit, and had to climb over some massive rocks to get there (hence the name of the mountain). The day was full of tough climbs and some really long / hard downhills. With sore feet and tired legs from such a long day, we arrived at camp a little late. We still got a flat campsite right next to a really pretty creek though, so it was the perfect way to end the day! It was also the first night that I wasn’t shivering cold, so I was pretty happy about that.
Day 17: One of the main things I have noticed about North Carolina is how many spiders there are! Woke up to a brown recluse spider on my tent, which was kind of scary but pretty cool. Today we started by walking an easy mile to the NOC (Natahala Outdoor Center). The NOC is essentially a rafting center on the Natahala River, and the trail walks straight through it. We walked around a little and took advantage of the opportunity to get a good breakfast. We have both noticed that when we have a good breakfast we feel fantastic throughout the day and don’t have to stop as frequently for breaks. A good breakfast with eggs and bacon is hard to find out on the trail, so when you have the option you simply have no choice but to take advantage of it. After we had breakfast with a few of our trail friends, we started what is considered one of the toughest climbs on the trail: the climb out of NOC. Basically we climbed straight up a mountain for the entire day. No downhills, no flat terrain. Just straight climbing for about 6 hours. There was a little bit of rain during the climb and instead of getting all of our gear perpetually soaked like last week, we hung out under some thick trees until the storm passed. For the most part, we felt great during the climb, and decided to camp at Rufus Morgan shelter. Today was definitely a lower mile day due to the late start out of NOC and the tough climb, but it was good weather (for the most part), all the mountain laurels are blooming, and I got an very cheesy omelette this morning so it was a great day.
Day 18: We woke up and immediately climbed up to Cheoah Bald, which was absolutely beautiful! We continued down the trail for a while until a huge storm rolled in. A lot of powerful thunder and lighting made for some pretty extreme conditions on top of the ridge line. We took cover under some overhanging rocks to try to wait the storm out, but when that didn’t work we just set up our tents as quickly as possible and stayed dry for the rest of the night. What I noticed about rain is that not only do you get soaked to the bone when hiking in it, but you get so dirty. Everything from your boots, your legs, and your pack get covered in mud, which results in almost everything you own being covered in mud. You just have to be patient and wait for everything to slowly dry so that you can (somewhat) clean it off.
Day 19: We attempted to dry out some of our stuff by hanging it on the back of our packs as we walked, which actually worked pretty well. So with our packs looking like a clothes line, we hiked to Fontana Dam. This day was bittersweet: Lake Fontana is considered a big mile marker on the trail since it is not only a gorgeous lake, but it is the last stop before entering the Smokies. However, this was my dad’s last day on the trail! I really enjoyed hiking with him for the time that he was there, and it will be hard to find a replacement hiking buddy as good as him. However, he hiked over 175 miles in three weeks (on his first backpacking trip ever!!) which I consider a huge accomplishment. I am so proud of him for sticking through the heavy pack and all the rain!
Day 20: And just like that, I found a new hiking partner! I started the climb into Great Smokey Mountain National Park (GSMNP) with a girl named Jess (trail name: Flames). Since we dropped so much elevation hiking down to Fontana Dam, we had to gain it all back while climbing into the Smokies. The climb was pretty cool. We saw a doe, which puts the wildlife count at 1 deer, 1 owl, 6 snakes, 1 wild turkey, and 1,000 flies/ misquotes. I have actually been surprised at the lack of wildlife I have seen so far on the trip, but I am hoping to see more throughout the upcoming states. GSMNP is tricky because they are having a problem with aggressive bear activity. Apparently there was a low acorn crop last year, so the bears haven’t had too much food to eat since coming out of hibernation. The park is home to one of the most dense black bear populations in the county, so with all the hungry bears there is a bit of chaos throughout the shelters in the park. Anyway the highlight of the day was climbing to Shuckstack, which was a rickety old lookout tower on top of the first mountain on the south end of the park. REALLY awesome views of the Smokies and Lake Fontana. My first day without my dad being there was a little bit weird, but I’m sure he will join me on another section of the trail!
Day 21: Today we climbed up to Clingman’s Dome which was amazing. It is the highest point on the AT at 6,000 feet up. After taking in the views, Flames and I then walked to the Mt. Collins shelter where we hung out with some fellow hikers, as well as some section hikers who work for the FBI, which was really interesting. Usually when arriving at camp, I pitch my tent in the area surrounding the shelter. However, due to all the bear activity in GSMNP, you are mandated to sleep in the shelters which means I was lucky enough to sleep alongside a bunch of mice and some snoring hikers. All in all it wasn’t awful though. The mice mainly stayed in the opposite side of the shelter from me, and with all the people in the shelter it was easy to stay warm at the high elevations.
Day 22: We hiked about 15 miles from the Mt. Collins shelter to Peck’s Corner Shelter. The first four or so miles felt like we were in a fairy tale forest with how beautiful the pine forest of the smokies are. Everything was a vibrant green, and there was a slight fog surrounding the trees. The hike wasn’t too tough, and the views we saw that day were breathtaking. We climbed Charlie’s Bunion, as well as so many other beautiful overlooks in the Smokies. There was even a little bit of rain so we got to see just how the Smoky Mountains got their name with all the low laying clouds that settle after the storms.
Day 23: We started our morning with a lot of excitement. We had been camping with the guys from the FBI for a few days at this point, and this morning a bear decided to steal one of their pack’s. Scott had put his bag down outside while using the privy, and as he came out, he saw a bear dragging it up the mountain. You could hear the bear ripping apart his bag to get to the food from the shelter. The two waited for the bear to finish, and retrieved his pack which was actually still in decent shape. Unfortunately though, he lost all of his food, and a few pieces of nice gear. After the bear excitement, we all hiked about 12 miles. We stopped at Tricorner shelter for lunch, but after reading a few entries in the shelter log book we decided to press on. Apparently a bear had actually entered the shelter 4 times that morning in search of food while people were still getting ready for the day. Still on edge about all the bear activity, we arrived at Cosby Knob shelter to find a full shelter. The full shelter meant that I actually got to set up my tent in the park which was really nice. Not too long after we arrived, the National Park Service came to the shelter and announced that they had plans to trap the bear that had been terrorizing this particular shelter and put a tracking collar on it. We all watched as they set a few traps with cans of sardines as the bait.
Day 24: We all woke up and immediately wondered what happened with the traps. It seemed as though the bear didn’t visit the shelter last night which was halfway a disappointment, and halfway a relief. As we were about to start our hike for the day however, the bear set off the trap! Everyone who was still left at the shelter got to watch as the rangers tranquilized the bear and took blood / fur samples. We learned so much about black bears from the rangers while they did their work. After the rangers finished and the bear left the area, we headed out towards our final stretch of the Smokies. We were both slow and sluggish since the past few days were pretty rough. So, we decided to stay in a hostel that was along the trail and treat ourselves to some pizza after another tough day of hiking.
Day 25: We hung out with some trail friends this morning and we all got a late start on the day. We all had a shorter day planned, however the mountains decided to go hard on us. We climbed up to Snowbird Bald which featured a 4.5 mile uphill climb. The view from the top was awesome though since we got to gaze at a rainstorm over the smokies. It wasn’t too long before that rain decided to come our way as we got caught in our 7th day of afternoon thunderstorms. The rain didn’t last for more than two hours, so we had time to dry our stuff out a little bit at the shelter at the end of the day.
Day 26: Today was exciting because we got to climb Max Patch Bald! This is one of the more iconic places on the AT, and I have been dreaming of visiting this mountain for years. Of course, as with all cool locations, we had a really tough first half of the day to get up there. The mountain was amazing at the top though – it is completely bald and has little yellow flowers covering the top. You are also greeted with 360 degree views of the Smokies and the surrounding mountains. A group of us spent close to an hour laying in the grass and taking in the views. After an equally as tough climb down the mountain, our spirits were getting somewhat low. I was exhausted from almost 11 days without a zero, and I was craving town food to the max. As luck would have it, that’s when we ran into some trail magic! A former thru hiker was giving away chips, ice cream, cookies, and juice at Lemon Gap. It really lifted everyone’s spirits and made the downpour that came immediately after not too bad. An EMT who happened to be in the parking lot who was going to Hot Springs, NC offered us a ride to the hostel to escape the storm. We graciously accepted and spent the night in Laughing Heart Hostel, which is run by the nicest people in the world.
And that’s about it for this week! I am loving every second of this adventure so far and I can’t wait to see what the northern states have to order. My feet officially feel great, my muscles feel strong, and my entire body feels so happy.
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Total Miles Hiked: 273.7
Miles To Go: 1915.4
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