Trail Update #4: the week I re-evaluated my relationship with the Smokies

3 Nights in Gatlinburg

When last we left off, the crew had just rolled into Gatlinburg for a much needed zero. We had hiked 3 days and 40-ish miles in the Smokies, and thought we had seen it all: sun, torrential rain, thunderstorms, lightning, 4,000-ft climbs, the highest point on the trail, and so much mud. We hadn’t. More on that later.

I was super happy to get into town – I got awesome care packages at the NOC outpost, took a shower, did laundry, and ate a giant pizza at Mellow Mushroom. (Well, to be fair, half that night, half the next day.)

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Getting clean, getting fed, getting internet, and sleeping in a comfy bed are all the GREATEST when you haven’t had them in a while. But those highs don’t last and you kinda just want to get back into the woods and get going again!

However, we ended up staying three nights in Gatlinburg: the first two planned (for our zero) and the third after going back and forth for hours on whether we should stay in town to avoid a big snowstorm supposedly raging on the mountain. It’s a tough call to make – you aren’t out here to avoid all the bad weather, but you want to be responsible and not put yourself in harm’s way (or undue discomfort) unnecessarily. We ended up deciding to stay the extra day, but it turned out we wouldn’t have been able to get back to the trail anyhow: GSMNP had closed the road and hikers were getting pulled off the trail and shuttled into town.

What do you do when you’re unexpectedly in town longer than planned, and you get kinda bored? If you’re us, it’s this…

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And then this… 😱😮😇

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(Pro tip: lines don’t come exactly straight in Gatlinburg, apparently. 🤣😂)

2 1.5 Miserable Days

We hitched back to Newfound Gap on Saturday morning and got back on the trail for two 15-ish mile days. There had definitely been a snowstorm! It was a winter wonderland, and very pretty, but also cold and the trail was solid ice for the first couple hours. Then the sun came out and it was solid slush, mud and water for the next six, which meant soaking wet feet and shoes. Hold that thought. In the Smokies (unlike everywhere else so far), there is no backcountry camping other than at designated shelters and campsites. The shelters usually hold only about 10-16 people, and section hikers get priority over thru-hikers for shelter spots. On good weather days it doesn’t really matter – if the shelter fills up you just pitch your tent outside of it, which many people prefer anyway. On bad weather days, though, this kind of pits the thru-hikers against each other racing for the shelter spots, and crossing our fingers that no section-hikers show up to kick us out. On Saturday it meant rolling into the shelter with 30 other thru-hikers who had also been stuck in town and were itching to get back on the trail, and, since the shelter was full, pitching my tent on a hillside in the snow. Add back in the soaking wet feet and shoes (which were frozen shoes the next morning) and it was just a recipe for shivering all night, complete misery, and my own personal hell as I really really don’t like being cold (or, as it turns out, sleeping on snow).

The next morning we all shoved our feet into frozen shoes and pretty much everybody was determined to get the heck out of the Smokies. Over the course of the last two days, we probably walked 20 miles on snow, solid ice or icy slush. It’s hard on your ankles and knees, it’s frustrating because it’s super slow going, and it’s kinda scary! But we made it, and I’m now writing from a campsite 2 miles outside of the park and I couldn’t be happier to be done and out! We descended about 4,000 feet today, so not only was the hiking not as physically strenuous for much of the day, but it turned out to be warm and sunny and there is not a lick of snow down here. Last night I went to bed in shorts, leggings, my rain pants, camp socks, a tank, a long-sleeve thermal base layer, my hooded fleece (with the hood pulled up), a hat, gloves, and my puffy coat wrapped around my feet inside my sleeping bag. Today I came into camp in a tank and shorts! This park is a funny place, and we all agree your experience (as a hiker) is completely weather-dependent. If you’re reading this from the trail and you’re behind me, heed the advice: don’t get rid of your winter clothes before the Smokies!! ❄️❄️❄️

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1 Valuable Lesson

I was laying in my tent last night being so miserable and hating my situation, but I knew that it would be better in the morning, and better tomorrow, and it wouldn’t always be so cold and I wouldn’t always be so unhappy. And now, a day later, I’m warm and snuggled into my tent at a beautiful campsite near a babbling stream with Dan (pending: Slim Shady), Wes (pending: Hulk), Piper, Mainer, and Sir-Poops-a-Lot. There are even more flowers and signs of spring than just 4 days ago, and we have a short(er) day of hiking to look forward to tomorrow. Some days are hard, but they don’t – and won’t – last forever. I probably wouldn’t have appreciated the warmth and flowers and greenery and even bugs that I saw today quite as much had it not been for being trapped in the snow all day yesterday. And even though it’s not an experience I really want to repeat any time soon, hiking the high ridges of the Smokies in the snow gave me some of the most amazing and postcard-worthy views of the park and the valleys below.

Also, at no point yet have I wanted to stop hiking the trail, even when I had to sleep on snow 😤😡, and for that I’m very thankful.

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Oh, and Jif Cookies and Cream Hazelnut spread exists in the world! So basically life is awesome.

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Happy hiking and more to come…

-s

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