Straddling the Border: The Highlights Reel
The last few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind and a delight. I can’t believe it has been this long since I’ve written. But rest assured, I’m still on trail and still thriving (albeit with some aches and pains). In fact, I’ve fallen even more in love with trail life since I’ve last written.
Coming out of the Smokies, a large storm system, dubbed Winter Storm Xanto even though it was clearly supposed to be spring already, was sweeping the nation. It was set to hit Colorado, Minnesota, New England, and yes, even the Southeast. The weather forecast called for two inches of rain one day, then freezing temperature and snow the next. I can handle a little rain. I can handle a little snow. But in all truth, I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to cold and felt I’d already been through enough winter weather on the trail at that point.
So, what did I do? Called in reinforcements! Jessica, one of my college roommates, who happens to be an amazing person and still one of my best friends in the world, lives in Asheville, only about an hour from the northern border of the Smokies. At only a day’s notice, she swooped in to rescue Ibex and me from the mountains as we descended out of the park (unfortunately, we didn’t have the space for the entire tramily, so they retired to Standing Bear Hostel while we went off on our side adventure). We then spent two glorious days playing tourist in Asheville as we waited out the storm, visiting the most popular brunch location in town (Biscuit Head – well worth the 45-minute wait to get in), buying a way-too-big resupply at Trader Joe’s, playing vintage video games at the Pinball Museum, checking out the local brewery scene, taking a much-needed yoga class, and, as a special throwback to the college years, going bowling, complete with pitchers of beer. It was a ridiculously fun couple of days, sweeter still by the fact that it did indeed snow and I didn’t have to tent in it. I highly recommend a visit to Asheville if you’re in the area. Also, if you’re lucky enough to have a friend as great as Jessica, nurture that friendship, baby!
But, alas, after two fantastic days away from the woods, we were absolutely itching to get back to them. Town days are great, but the call of the wild is strong. Jessica dropped us back at the edge of the Smokies, well-rested, well-fed, and happy. Then we continued on.
Though I won’t go into daily details on the last couple weeks, for it would make for a much too long post, I will tell you that the AT straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee from the Smokies almost until Damascus, Va. It’s not an easy section of trail by any means, but it is an incredible stretch of trail. From rugged blue mountains to rushing waterfalls to crystal clear creeks to golden meadows to vibrant wildflowers to brilliant green flora, there is so much to experience and enjoy.
Certainly, not every day in these two gorgeous states was easy or perfect. But everyday had something to offer. Among my favorites places here were:
1. The Great Smoky Mountains. I know my entire last post was dedicated to this brilliant park, but it bears mentioning again. This place is incredible. Go see it (and support our national parks – we’re lucky to have them).
2. Max Patch. Jessica told me before dropping us back off at the trail that Max Patch is her favorite local picnic spot. I can certainly see why. Though it was a bit of a climb to get here, we lucked out with perfect weather so we really got to take advantage of this highland meadow with 360 degree mountain views. We found a nice sunny spot out of the wind for lunch then had a barefoot photo shoot before marching on. It was lovely.
3. The Roan Highlands. I cannot say enough great things about the Roan Highlands. Ibex and I both agreed that hiking through here felt like being in New Zealand. The scenery was just spectacular. With its spruce forests, grassy balds, golden meadows, and double trail magic in one day, this was easily one of the best parts of the trail so far. Full disclosure: it was also exhausting. But totally worth it. To treat ourselves for the effort, we stopped at Mountain Harbor Hostel on the way out, which is rumored to have the best breakfast on the trail. It was a lovely little property with a rustic barn, creek to ice my swollen feet, several friendly resident dogs, and an on-site food truck. I was not disappointed, with the hostel or the breakfast. (Dreaming about it still, in fact).
4. Laurel Falls. The terrain between Roan and Hampton was a huge treat. It housed several waterfalls, including Laurel Falls, as well as several creeks, meadows, and a river. The wildflowers were starting to come out in full bloom as we passed by, and several species of butterflies decided to make an appearance. It felt like spring had finally decided to arrive during this stretch, and I couldn’t be happier for it. And to top it off, I wasn’t completely exhausted by this section of trail – bonus!
I was sad to say goodbye to this amazing section of trail and two states, which I’d grown a bit attached to. But I’ve now reached Virginia, a huge milestone and neighbor state from my Washington, D.C., years, and I’m so excited to get to know it better, starting with the wild ponies of the Grayson Highlands.
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Food. (Why would you not photograph the best breakfast on the trail?!)