Starting on the Snowy, Smoky Mountains (3/16, 3/17, 3/18)
Day 19, 3/16: Fontana Dam -> Russell Field shelter (15.7 miles)
JAM and I were up bright and early to get the first shuttle out of the hotel. Grievance was getting a rental car to go to Knoxville so he slept in. Out in the common area 30 minutes before the first shuttle, there were already eager hikers waiting. I called Louis one last time before the shuttle and that made me miss him more than I did already.
We headed outside in the freezing cold, which actually felt nice because we were all hot in our hiking gear. The short 3 mile shuttle to the marina didn’t take long, and before we knew it we were back on the trail! It felt good to be back after such a long and unexpected hiatus.
The 2 or so miles to the shelter breezed by, and we road walked past Fontana dam to the start of the Smokies. The dam was huge and an awesome site to walk across. At the start of the Smokies I expected a big, inviting sign welcoming you, but instead there was a small brown sign you see on the side of the road. I took a picture anyways. We put the bottom half of our Smokies permits in the designated box and without any fanfare started hiking the Smokies.
The elevation quickly increased. Less than a mile into it, there was lots of snow on the ground. The temperature was chilly but not terrible, and the sun was shining. However, when the wind would even lightly blow, the temperature instantly and angrily dropped. My gloves were packed away in the bottom of my clothes bag and I didn’t want to stop to retrieve them, so my hands stayed cold and wind burnt.
The snow wasn’t terrible to walk on, but a few icy patches were slippery. The forest was beautiful covered in snow and ice, but as it started melting, it pelted small ice sickles from the treetops.
I made it to the first shelter around 3, and with daylight savings time giving me an extra hour, I decided to hike the 3 mile to the next shelter. I met Engine, Caboose, and Captain, so we hung out and ate dinner. The shelters in the Smokies are stone with fireplaces inside, and fires were already crackling inside and in the outside fire pit, which was good because the temperature dropped quickly. Tomorrow is calling for rain but warmer temperatures, so hopefully the snow will melt.
Day 20, 3/17: Russell Field shelter -> Derrick knob shelter (8.9 miles)
It was really difficult to get out my sleeping bag this morning. Everything was super toasty and the morning air was quite the opposite. Caboose and Engine were up before anyone, packed, and hit the trail before we were even up and moving. I slowly got my stuff together and hit the trail around 8. Last night, the group was planning to do a very long 14.6 so I was trying to hustle.
Hiking this morning was without a doubt the hardest and worst experience of my hiking so far. The snow that melted into slush yesterday froze overnight. Walking on the uneven ice made my feet ache, and trying to catch myself from slipping every few seconds made my knees hurt. After 3 or 4 miles with the increased elevation came lots more snow on the ground. What before was a couple inches turned into a couple feet. Luckily the trail was trampled down enough to make it walkable, but the packed snow was uneven, so it felt like constantly walking on tree roots all day.
The downhills were so steep and slippery that I lost count of the number of times I fell. I would try and shuffle down the hills because picking my feet up to step was a sure way to fall. Shuffling would turn into sliding, which would turn into falling on my butt, which would turn into sliding on my butt halfway down the mountain. The first time I slide down the mountain I tried to stop it with my hiking poles to no avail, so subsequent slides I just sat, defeated, and waited to hit a rock or a root to slow me down.
The uphills were just as slippery, so I was taking 2 steps and falling back 1. The whole process was exhausting, physically and mentally. I was constantly doing the calculations to see if I could make it to the shelter we planned in the morning, and it wasn’t looking promising. As time ticked on and my miles ticked on slower, I decided to stay at the nearer shelter 9 miles away instead of the 14+ miler. I would catch up with the rest of the crew later, because I didn’t have another 5-6 miles in me to push on.
I was surprised to find the whole crew at the 9 mile shelter when I arrived. I had been hiking alone all day, and I hadn’t considered they had a difficult time with the terrain as well. It was relieving to see them and swap stories about how awful today had been.
I arrived at the shelter fairly early, so I had plenty of time to make dinner, get water, and hang my bear bag. As I tucked into my sleeping bag around 7 pm, 4 more tired hikers trickled in and decided to sleep on the shelter floor because the shelter was full. I was really glad I didn’t push onto the next shelter because that would have been me. Tomorrow can only get better from here. It’s calling for rain tomorrow so I really hope the snow melts and the terrain gets easier.
Day 21, 3/18: Derrick knob shelter -> Mt Collins shelter (mile 13.5)
Last night everyone in the shelter was woken up by a huge thunderstorm and torrential rain and hail. I was really thankful to be cozy in the shelter and not be outside in my tent. The shelters in the Smokies are stone with 3 sides, and they hang big tarps on the open side, so it’s mostly enclosed from wind and rain. Everyone ooed and ahhed together over the powerful thunderstorm that sounded like it was right over us, then we went back to sleep.
I woke up early before anyone else and packed everything up. It was tricky because there were hikers on every surface, so I had to tiptoe around. My new method for packing everything in my pack is rolling all my sleeping gear together after deflating my sleeping pad, and shoving it unceremoniously into my pack. Then I shove my clothes bag beside it, tent/food pot on top, and close it. Food bag gets strapped to the outside of my pack because it’s usually wet and I want the inside of my pack dry. Having a waterproof pack is handy, because other hikers using pack covers always seem to have wet packs at the end of a rainy day.
Captain was up with me and we chatted while we packed up outside. I took off, trying to get an early start so I wouldn’t be the last one in the shelter tonight. The past few days I feel like I’m moving through molasses with the combination of the cold weather, full food bag, and extra 5 lbs winter gear I added. Today I was more mentally prepared and in a better mood to hike. A lot of the snow melted in the rain last night so it wasn’t icy, but the trail was a sloshy mess. I attempted to walk around it at first but after 5 minutes it was evident that my shoes were getting drenched, so I sloshed through it. I have on waterproof socks, so even when my shoes get drenched I still have dry toes. Keeping dry feet is essential to keeping the calluses we worked so hard to develop early on.
Around 4 miles in, I paused to eat a snack and Engine, Caboose, and Earlybird came around the corner. Earlybird had a gift for me: my headlamp! It must have dropped out of my jacket pocket when I put it in my pack. That would’ve been a bad surprise to find when I needed it tonight.
We hiked together for the rest of the morning. Caboose’s pace is perfect for me to follow and feel like I’m pushing myself. When I hike alone I hike slower than when I’m trying to keep up with a group. Earlybird stopped at one of the shelters to eat lunch and Caboose, Engine, and I hiked towards Clingmans Dome. It was beautiful and sunny out. As the elevation increased, the trees changed to firs and it smelled deliciously like Christmas, but also strangely a little like marijuana. We hiked through forests that looked like they were pulled straight out of a storybook. We kept our eyes peeled for bears but alas, no sightings. I stopped to put on sunscreen and eat a snack and they continued on.
Right before the summit of Clingmans Dome (the highest point on the AT), the weather changed quickly and dramatically. The temperature felt like it dropped 10 degrees, the sun was replaced by fog and clouds, and the wind threatened to carry me away. I arrived at the top and climbed the concrete tower, avoiding ice patches, hoping for a tiny glimpse of the view (on a clear day you can see several states away). I got nothing but fog, wind, and bitter cold. I was nervous to take out my phone to snap a picture because the wind was so strong, so I got my picture of the fog and left the tower in a hurry.
The 4 miles to the shelter were slushy and wet. The melting snow made a flowing creek where the trail should be. Occasionally there were options to walk around on the bank, but most of the time the only way down was through the water. I had to play limbo with a few downed trees and try not to fall in the water at the same time. I was on bear lookout duty trying to listen/look for any evidence of their presence, when I turned the corner and came face to face with a tall middle aged day hiker wearing a black fleece jacket. I just about jumped out of my skin.
The last mile going to the shelter, instead of slush, the water was shaded enough that it froze over. Except it didn’t look like normal ice, so walking downhill became a game of guessing which parts were ice and trying not to fall on the rocks. I did my fair share of falling yesterday and I wasn’t keen on repeating the process.
I arrived at the shelter and found Caboose and Engine settling in. Not long after I got in, the others trickled in: Earlybird, Captain, T-Rex, Rash, Piñata, Beetle, Friendly Ghost, Tiptoe, Molasses, and JAM. Earlybird and I got water which was painfully far away and took more sloshing through snow, but having company was nice. Misery always loves company.
After everyone settled in, a group of 8 college students on spring break showed up. We were terrified they had a day hiker’s reservation and could kick us out of the shelter, so we waited quietly and listened. Luckily, they decided to tent and weren’t interested in the shelter. Tomorrow’s weather is supposed to be cold but sunny. It’s supposed to get below freezing tonight so the slush will unfortunately freeze over. A lot of hikers are going into Gatlinburg tomorrow and I think Caboose and Engine are trying to pull big miles tomorrow, so unfortunately our awesome little crew will get split up.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.