The Smokies and a Whole Lot More

Beauty On the Way to the Smokies

If I have a sense of “ownership” of any part of the AT, it is the Great Smoky Mountains. As we hiked the rest of northern GA and into North Carolina my anticipation was focused on reaching the Smokes. Not only have I spent many happy vacations in those mountains, my son Scott’s ashes were sprinkled in a waterfall within the in park, so it has a special place in my heart.
As a lifetime member of the Great Smoky Mountain Association (now named Smokies Life), I enjoy following what is happening at the park, and I particularly enjoy attending the Wildflower Pilgrimage in the spring, and the Member’s Weekend in late summer.  I can’t wait to reach “my park.”

Meanwhile, I don’t want to ignore the beautiful mountains we hiked on our way there!  We live in such a beautiful country, I find it mind-boggling.

Wayah Bald

Wayah Bald

Meantime, we found ourselves passing a couple important milestones. First, we left Georgia behind for North Carolina.

State #2 North Carolina (Day 10)

The second milestone was more literal: we completed our first hundred miles. While it is important to remember the point is the journey, not the destination, these milestones make us feel like “real” through hikers. Besides,I’ve never hiked a hundred miles before!

Milestone #2: 100 Miles Down on Day 12!


The Natahala Outdoor Center is another iconic location on the AT. We hiked to the NOC on Day 15. It was a beautiful day and an even more beautiful hike. Mountain scenes were breathtaking to both sides of our path most of the day.

More and different wildflowers are appearing, and the trees are beginning to bud. I am excited to see these signs of spring, but I am sad to realize that so on our amazing view a will be obscured.

On our way to the  OC, we finished the last couple miles in the dark. CC was in front and I kept expecting her to stop for us to put on headlamps, but apparently she is a nocturnal creature. We reached a rather treacherous water crossing and she just kept on going. I had to stop and put on my light. Ah, blessed light!

We obviously got there late. However, even though they were still open, we didn’t stop. I didn’t really need anything, but of course I would have liked to go through the Outfitter. It probably saved me a quite a bit of $$ that we skipped it!


Into the Mists

The following day, we hiked in the most marvelous mists.

On we hiked, finally making it to Fontana Dam at the southern end of the Smokies. However, the weather was BAD, with predicted rain and snow, winds with gusts over 75, and low temps in the 20s. The weather was better to the north, so we skipped the Smokies and hiked the section between Davenport Gap (north edge of Smokies) and Hot Springs. 

Max Patch

I had to explain this sign too many times!

One of the iconic spots along the AT is a bald north of the Smokies known as Max Patch. It has been so popular both with AT hikers and locals that it had to be closed to camping to let the flora recover.

Max Patch

The weather was supposed to be poor (rainy, poor visibility) but when we reached the bald, it was not raining and although it was overcast and windy. I had the feeling like we were in the Scottish Highlands. It was by far the most amazing thing I had seen to date, and I sprinkled some of Scott’s ashes from the top.

Finally, the Smokies

The weather finally improved, and we were able to head to the Smokies. Meanwhile, Heather came up to help us with logistics. It was great to have her, and we enjoyed staying in the LeConte Motor Lodge in Gatlinburg. Yes, Gatlinburg is a tourist trap, but we love it, and CC had never been to the “Redneck Riviera” before. It was a joy just watching her react to all the absurdity. 

The Northern Smokies

We started hiking the Smokies from the middle, at Newfound Gap, and headed towards the north. This was a particular attempt to hike more downhill than up. Unfortunately, I do better going uphill! But to make things much worse, we didn’t reach the departure point until 3:00 with a 12 mile hike to get to the planned shelter. We had a pickup plan with Heather in 3 days, and no way to relay a change of plans.

Gadget Girl, a recent addition to our group, hiked on with me while CC waited for TM to take care of some business. The weather was better, but still cold and windy. We finally made it to the shelter at around 10pm. It was late, so we couldn’t bother the shelter even if we wanted to, which left me trying to find a tent spot without shining a bright light or making inordinate noise.

My knees were killing me and I could barely get around on the unlevel surface. I managed to get down to the designated tent area, and promptly got my feet twisted around each other. The result was a silly fall right next to a tent with someone sleeping in it. They didn’t seem to notice, but I must have hit my sore knee on a rock. This was the beginning of a lot of trouble with my right knee.

I did find a tent spot but my fingers were so cold I had trouble putting up my tent…I couldn’t latch the parts together. When I finally had it constructed, I warmed up with some hot food and apple cider. My “zero bag” (sleeping bag temp rating) turned out to be a good choice. I was warm all night!

The next day was better, but we didn’t hear from CC/TM. We thought we would need to set up a separate pickup for them, but on day 3 they hiked over 20 miles to reach the spot right on time. At this point we had not hiked over 12 miles at a time!

The north Smokies were beautiful, but hard to enjoy between my knee and the rush we were forced to be in.

More Weather

The weather turned again, and it was a good time for us to take a couple “zeros” with Heather. We tried to find salamanders at Chimney Tops (none to be found) and walked the strip a bit. This gave my knee some time to recover for the next phase of the Smokies.

Clingman’s Dome to Newfound Gap

The only part of the Smokies that can be slack packed is the stretch between Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome.

Clingman’s Dome is the highest point along the AT. It was a cloudy day but a beautiful hike. We didn’t climb the tower due to poor visibility.

South Smokies

After yet more weather (snow) we were finally ready to hike the south Smokies. We started at Clingman’s Dome made it to the top of the tower. It was magical!

View from Clingman’s Dome Tower

We were a bit worried about the snow on the trail, but it was actually nice, making the trail sort of spongy and covering the rocks and roots that normally make the path more difficult.

The second day started out with the most brutal 4 miles I had encountered up till now. We were traveling mainly downhill, over rocks and some ice. It was steep and it was relentless. We stopped for lunch with another 8 miles to go. There was a closer shelter, and I thought we should target it. My knees both hurt from the extended downhill, and I was exhausted. My hiking buddies disagreed. I was unhappy.

Yet, the next eight miles were not difficult at all. There were easy ups and downs, and beautiful scenery. Someday I will learn not to worry so much!


The third day was magical in more ways than one. As the snow was falling, the flowers continued to bloom in all their majesty.

The weather was partly cloudy, but this worked out for us because the thin cloud cover blocked just enough of the sun to make us able to see the eclipse!

Partial Eclipse of the Sun, photo courtesy  of Cindy Eddo

Finally, we made it back to Fontana Dam and the end of the Smokies. It was both breath-taking and rugged, and definitely the hardest hiking we had done so far.

Next: Hot Springs to Damascus


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