Steph’s AT Hike Days 14-20: Franklin, NC, to Fontana Dam
Days 14 and 15: Franklin, NC, 0.0 Miles
After wildly rough weather the previous night, and in an attempt to help out my feet, I made the decision to take two zero days. I stayed in the town of Franklin, NC. It was a nice hiker-friendly town, and even had public transport to and from nearby trailheads. I visited a laid back local brewery called the Lazy Hiker and spent Saturday evening hanging out there with new trail friends.
Day 16: Winding Stair Gap to Wayah Bald Shelter, 11.0 Miles
Italian Jim was my driver this morning. He picked me up at the hotel and drove me about 15 miles back to where I’d left the trail a few days before. Jim was raised in Italy, but spent most of his adult life living and working in Chicago. His daughter is a hiker and that’s what got him involved with shuttling AT hikers around. I enjoyed my visit with Jim so much I made him take a picture with me 🙂 Before he dropped me off Jim gifted me two pieces of fresh fruit so I’d have some healthy snacks for the day.
It felt so great to be back out on the trail after two days spent mostly holed up in a hotel room. I taped up my feet, and wore my new hiking shoes. Coupled with cutting back on my daily miles, these things make up my new plan to combat foot pain. Even after only one day I notice a slight improvement, which is a huge relief.
Upon arriving at Siler Bald I found a quiet, sunny spot on a hill and spent an hour at lunchtime just lying in the grass and soaking up the rays. Then it was back to the AT, with a steep section up to the top of Wayah Bald where I came across a stone Forest Service tower built in 1935. The view from the tower was so worth the climb to get there!
I stopped at Wayah Bald Shelter at dinner time to visit with other hikers and eat my evening’s meal of couscous. It’s my fave trail dinner so far, especially the spicy Mediterranean flavor with hot sauce packets. It’s easy to make and to switch up the spice profiles and add other ingredients such as a pouch of chicken, a package of tuna, sliced almonds, pine nuts, golden raisins… pretty much endless possibilities exist here. But the hot sauce is the key ingredient!
Someone got a nice campfire going, which warmed us all up before we went to bed. Today was a great day on the AT.
Day 17: Wayah Bald Shelter to Wesser Bald Shelter, 10.6 Miles
Last night’s sky was totally clear with no forecast for rain, so I slept without the tarp over my hammock. The stars were so bright and beautiful that I’ll definitely do the same thing tomorrow night if the forecast says no rain. I got a later start this morning, and spent a long time sitting around drinking coffee and chatting with fellow AT hikers. It was close to 10 a.m. when I started my hiking for the day. Around midday I stopped to eat and relax at the top of Rocky Bald, where there were fantastic views to the east.
By the end of lunchtime I noticed it was getting hazy, and as I headed down toward Tellico Gap I could smell burning wood. Off to the west the mountain landscape was obscured by a moderate amount of smoke. I had seen Forest Service signs alerting hikers of prescribed burns in the area so I assumed that’s what was going on.
In the late afternoon I ascended Wesser Bald, atop of which sits a giant platform observation tower. A steep climb up two flights of stairs led me to a square wooden platform with 360-degree views. I sat up there for at least 15 minutes, just trying to be really in the moment, taking in the beauty surrounding me.
Tonight’s camp spot is located just before Wesser Bald Shelter, in a really beautiful open wooded area. Since the shelter had bear cables available, I didn’t have to hang my food at this location. There are seven or eight other hikers camped nearby, and again someone made a nice big campfire during dinner. Tomorrow’s hike will be a shorter day, and almost exclusively downhill. I’ll be ending at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Day 18: Wesser Bald Shelter to Nantahala Outdoor Center, 6.8 Miles
This morning’s downhill trek to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) felt great, due in large part to the continued lessening of pain in my feet. There were several exposed, rocky sections that afforded me expansive views that were a bit challenging to navigate.
Upon arriving at the NOC, I picked up a package my husband had mailed to me. Inside I found my requested items, plus special surprise candy and snacks. Yes! I was so excited to have my favorites from home; it felt like Christmas. Seems crazy but is so true.
I relaxed all afternoon next to the Nantahala River with about a dozen other AT hikers. We sat in the water to cool off and soak our hiking-weary bodies, and had such a great time just sitting around visiting that afternoon soon turned into evening.
A short hike down a side trail led our group to “Hobo Island,” an unofficial camping spot where AT hikers camp out next to the river. The river in this section is incredible and the rushing water made for a great backdrop to lull me to sleep.
Day 19: Near the NOC to Sassafras Gap, 7.4 Miles
I didn’t leave the vicinity of the NOC until after lunch since their restaurant was open. As you can see from all the packs lined up outside, it’s a popular lunch stop for hikers.
With the overnight forecast showing up to an inch of rain, I stopped at Sassafras Gap to stay in the shelter there. Many others had the same idea, and it was a packed house!
One of the benefits of hanging around shelters during dinner time is being able to chat with other hikers. Much useful trail intel is exchanged, and it’s easy to pick up on tips and tricks and new trail recipes. Case in point: the carb-loaded hiker meal known as a ramen bomb.
Making a ramen bomb requires only three steps, plus boiling water:
- Make a package of ramen noodles (pick your poison—any flavor will do).
- Make a packet of instant mashed potatoes.
- Mix the two together. Voila!
- Optional mix-ins: chicken, tuna, cheese, or hot sauce of choice.
I eat so many things on the trail that I never eat at home and this is definitely one of them.
A highlight of today was getting to hang out with Raven, a half German Shepherd, half Golden Retriever who’s hiking the AT with her human. I miss my own pup so much that I take every opportunity to get doggie snuggles whenever I come across them.
Day 20: Sassafras Gap to near Walker Gap, 18.2 Miles
I just finished my biggest mileage day so far on the AT! It started wet and foggy, but ended sunny and warm. I’d originally planned to stop at Cody Gap and make my camp there. However, when I crossed the gap in late afternoon I still felt strong physically, albeit tired and cranky. So I whipped up a quick snack (pepperoni wrapped in a flour tortilla can taste so amazing) and continued on.
I think part of the reason for my higher mileage today is my desire to reach Fontana Dam as soon as I can. Having a much longer day on the trail today means a short hike for me tomorrow. The shelter at Fontana is one of the largest of the AT shelters. Because of its size and the fact it has nearby showers and laundry facilities available for hikers, it’s been dubbed the Fontana Hilton. A shower will certainly be high on my priority list for tomorrow!
All along the trail today I came across such a wide variety of wildflowers. I made it a point to capture as many different ones as I could, although during a few lung-burning climbs I didn’t stop for photo ops.
Tomorrow I’m getting a shuttle from Fontana Dam up to Davenport Gap to meet my brother. He’s going to be hiking with me next week and I am beyond thrilled to have him join me on the trail! Stay tuned for more tales from the AT coming soon.
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