Smoky Mountain Rain – Ronnie Milsap
North Carolina, Part Two
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the first point on the trail where there are more regulations than what I have become accustomed to.
Here are a few of the differences:
- A permit that costs $20 is required for thru-hikers.
- You are only permitted eight nights total in the park.
- You must sleep in the designated shelters along the trail.
- If the shelter is full thru-hikers must give space to section hikers and then pitch a tent outside the shelter.
- No food in the shelters (generally a good idea but we don’t always follow this rule, especially in bad weather).
This trip is best split into days for reasons that shall soon become apparent.
Day One: Sunshine
As we left the Fontana Dam Hilton shelter there was a sense of excitement. We had been staring at these mountains since the previous afternoon and it was time to conquer them. The first few miles were on the road, including walking over the dam itself. The views of the space below the dam where power is generated was contrasted against the full lake on the other side.
Entering the Smoky Mountains
We stopped at the obligatory national park sign and took some pictures. Faces full of smiles in excitement for this next stage in our challenges. The road became gravel as we approached the trailhead and we came to the thru-hiker permit box.
You place half of the printed permit into the overflowing box and keep the other half on you. The idea is you deposit this when you leave. This way the park knows who has come and gone. If you fall down a mountainside they may eventually look at permits on either end and try to come find you. This is most likely so they can issue a fine for overstaying.
The Most Rickety Fire Tower on Trail?
From the park entrance I was first faced with a 2,000-foot ascent in 3.5 miles to the first place of interest. This is the fire tower at Shuckstack. This is 0.1 miles off the trail, but well worth the straight up climb. The fire tower affords you the first views of the Smokies and the mountains in which you have hiked to reach Fontana. This fire tower was stable to climb, with a hut on top that looked very suspect. I remained on the top step as firmer ground than that in the hut.
I decided I had earned my lunch and watched as other hikers battled with fears of structurally suspect fire towers to reach the summits. One of these was Montana Jesus, who I ended up seeing a lot through the Smokies. I also chatted with a local gentleman who was out for a day hike. The park attracts a lot of footfall throughout all times of year.
At one point I turned a corner and was greeted with the most breathtaking view so far on trail. There were carpets of spring beauties covering the forest floor.
They are small and delicate white flowers, often with faint pink lines coming from the center of the petals. These are my favorite flowers on trail. They are so small and insignificant, but together they make a powerful announcement that spring is here.
The remainder of the day was spent in the warm sunshine with gentle breezes that cool the hot and weary hiker. There were a few ups and downs, but the day was finished at Mollies Ridge Shelter, approximately 2,800 feet above Fontana Dam. This was a long day of uphill and the shelter was a warm welcome. Puma, Spirit, Chevrolegs, and Journeyman were also camping at this shelter, among others.
The shelters are made of stone on three sides and have an open front. In the winter and spring this is covered by a tarp sheet to keep you dry and warm. Some of the shelters have privies. Others just have toilet areas. This lead to everyone playing Battleshits. B3—sorry, you hit a battleshit. Many people follow the Leave No Trace principle and dig a cathole to bury their business. Other people put a rock on top of their turd mound. You don’t enter the fields when you’re half asleep here.
Journeyman has hiked the Smokies a lot and knew he could set up his tent before the shelter was full. His instinct was right as we had a full shelter of 12 people over two stories in the shelter. It was an early night after dinner and stretching.
Day Two: Windy (with Sunshine)
I slept well and woke up to another clear sky day. I packed up and hit the trail. The general trend in the Smokies is that you go up and down a lot, but progressively get higher toward the highest point on trail. There were lots of uphill sections to work your legs.
I took a few breaks to chat with Chevrolegs, who was worried he’d left his hiking shirt behind, and also Journeyman, who was just enjoying the day. People can become stressed on trail when everything you own is carefully selected and carried on your person at all times. Chevrolegs found his shirt and that instantly put him back in a positive hiking mind-set.
Rocky Top and Thunder Mountain
I summited Rocky Top and was quickly joined by Spirit and Puma. The views were perfect, but it was also super windy. I nearly lost my balance at one point, but regained my footing. I am yet to fully fall over on trail, but know it is an inevitability.
From Rocky Top it is a short hike to Thunderhead Mountain, where we were afforded more spectacular views. We then re-entered the wooded area to make our way to Derrick Knob Shelter.
Another evening of eating ramen, chatting to familiar and new faces ensued. Expedia caught up to her group after pulling off a mammoth day of hiking and they were very happy to see her. The shelter was full of people, including several people I’d chatted with during the day.
We were expecting rain the next day. Unfortunately, the shelter leaked. The shelters are made of stone, with corrugated roofs. In the Smokies the shelters are generally very good. The rain was so hard that Coyote, on the top berth, got wet.
She woke up and in her sleepy state assumed it was time to hike so got dressed and ready. She then realized it was 2 a.m., so made herself comfortable and slept on the bench.
The water dripped down to the lower bunk where it started to splash a section hiker and me. I put my sleeping bag away and turned to my side out of reach of the water drops. It was a long night. It was also an experience that I will remember for a long time and can talk about with other hikers to no end.
Day Three: So Much Rain
When I finally decided to get up the rain was falling steadily. I ate and put on my damp hiking clothes. There’s no point in putting off hiking in the rain. You are going to get wet – the AT is known for being wet.
The Climb to Clingmans Dome
As I left the shelter I had a goal for the day in mind: Today is the day I summit Clingmans Dome. This is not only over 6,000 feet, but also the highest point on the trail. The trail was wet, slippery, and your energy is taken from you by the soft mud. I got to Silers Bald Shelter for a break from the rain. I made some ramen to warm myself through and spoke with a ridge runner who was in the shelter.
She mentioned that the Newfound Gap road was closed due to weather. I hoped this would change for tomorrow as I needed to go to Gatlinburg to resupply. Puma, Expedia, Chevrolegs, and Spirit also showed up and began making some food. I said that I hoped to see them later and headed back out into the rain.
After passing a second shelter the forest changed almost instantly to evergreen. Spruces and moss-covered rocks were a welcome change of scenery that distracted me from hiking through the Appalachian River, formerly known as the trail.
A long climb ensued until I finally reached Clingmans Dome. The weather had made a harder climb than I was expecting, but it was still a fantastic experience. The highest point on trail is also the 200-mile marker. Again, I had no view.
I continued to the Mount Collins Shelter to end my day. Some shelters are on trail, others are a slight detour. This was 0.5 miles from the trail. Normally I avoid shelters that are far from trail as the miles quickly add up. I didn’t want to be out in the weather any longer so sucked it up and hiked off trail.
Community Morale Boost
I was greeted by Nightwalker and Scarecrow, who had set up their hammocks in the shelter. They were waiting out the weather to be picked up by a family member for a resupply. I dried off while chatting to the guys about our hikes. Then the hail, thunder, and lightning came.
I was extremely happy to have avoided that. Four other hikers showed up during the next few hours. Some were thru-hikers and others were section hiking. Jamison, who was section hiking, spoke of waking up in his tent the night before between two literal torrents of water. I have seen video footage and the rain lower on the Smokies trails was flowing very heavily.
I didn’t see Expedia, Puma, Spirit, and Chevrolegs again, but heard they had arrived to Cherokee to resupply, rest, and recover from the tolls of the day.
We all enjoyed a dry evening, although it was cold. We were even expecting some snow.
Day Four: Winter Wonderland
It snowed. I woke like a child on Christmas to see the pine forests and forest floor blanketed in snow. The air was silent, less the sound of nearby flowing water. I dressed and headed on to the trail to head to Newfound Gap.
Newfound Gap Dilemma
I walked for a while with Tangent, who I met the previous evening, and we spoke about how much we were loving the peaceful day. We reached Newfound Gap and took the obligatory photo with the sign.
I called the backcountry office and received the problematic news that the road was closed still. They advised that if we wanted to get down to Gatlinburg to either walk 15 miles (not on trail) or stay in the bathroom until the road opened. I was not going to wait there as I had little food and I wasn’t going to walk 15 miles off trail.
I ate lunch in the bathroom and spoke with Tangent and Dave, who had arrived first. Tortuga arrived and we gave him the news. He decided to walk to town, and generously he gave some rice to me that he didn’t want. I now had just enough food to continue my hike so pushed on.
The snow started again and I pushed on toward Peck Corner Shelter. This meant a 15.4-mile day plus an extra mile of side trails. It’s more than I wanted to do at this time in my hike, but I didn’t have the food to take an extra day hiking. I went for water at Icewater Spring Shelter, and met a full bachelor party.
They were providing for hikers and themselves with a full kitchen and whiskey operation. Montana Jesus was in there taking a zero and we caught up. They offered to feed me, and I declined stating that it was very kind, but I am vegan. One guy called Doc saved the day by giving me some vegan meal replacements that he usually had for lunch. When you are in need the trail provides and I was extremely grateful for this.
I arrived at the shelter and got warm around a fire that a family of section hikers on Easter break had prepared. They were a spirited group and this really helped to improve the morale of the incoming thru-hikers, including Tangent and Dave.
Day Five: Sun, Snow, Snowmelt
I had a modest breakfast and headed out for a 12.9-mile day. There were still plenty of uphills, but it was clear that I was heading out from the Smokies with a general decline. It had snowed again and this time the trail wasn’t visible for the snow. It is important at times like this to focus on the gap between the trees. I managed to stay on trail and was happy to see that the clouds were parting for clear blue skies.
All the Weather at Once
This led to high spirits and singing along the trail. As it warmed further the snow began to melt and fall from the trees. This had a strange effect as you were pelted with snow, snowmelt, and gleaming sunshine.
I arrived to Cosby Knob Shelter and was very happy that Rev shared a Clif bar with me. Montana Jesus and Fisher also joined us at the shelter and we enjoyed feeling dry and somewhat warmer at a lower elevation.
Day Six: Sunshine
Fisher and I hiked together throughout our remaining eight miles of the Smokies and on to the Standing Bear Campground. We were afforded stunning views.
We were also lucky to see waterfalls that flowed beautifully with the snowmelt that was making its way down the mountain.
It’s a Jersey Thing
Fisher is from my spiritual US home of New Jersey. Not only that, he is only a town over from the town where my summer camp is located. We spoke about Jersey, yoga, and the mind-set of hiking. He has left a huge impact on me from our short time hiking together.
We found a creek and decided the importance of enjoying the moment. We went for a dip in water that can only be described as refreshing. Others would say freezing. It was wonderful to dry off in the sun and then head together to a point for resupply, hanging out, and laughter. We met the other hikers from the previous days that had also survived the Smokies and caught up on all our crazy adventures.
Growth and Learning to Love it All
This section of the trail tested me more than any to this point, but it helped me to grow and thrive. I’m a badass and if I got through the Smokies there’s no reason I won’t be at Katahdin in no time at all.
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