Trail Update- Great Smokey Mountain National Park

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is awe inspiring and one of the toughest challenges on the Appalachian Trail. For me on this thru hike, the Smokies proved to be both a physical and mental challenge one that I have never experienced until passing thru. In 6 days, I was a bystander to four different seasons that seemed to have passed.

Day 1 Through the Smokies- Fontana to Mollies Ridge

Upon entering the Smokies, I was graced with sunshine and mild temperatures. Of course we have to keep in mind that Fontana Dam is at a lower elevation than all of the Smoky Mountains. It is a long hike up, and as I ascended up to Mollie’s Ridge the weather got increasingly cold and rain started to come down. The weather outlook was not good, so the goal was to get to the shelter before the nasty thunderstorms came rolling in. Forecast called for 1-2 inches of rain and winds that were going to gust up to 45 miles per hour. As I approached the shelter, the weather started to roll in and after being in the shelter for an hour or so the storm came in a fury. Luckily we got the tarp up, but that tarp was so loud as it flapped back and forth during the night. The winds were constant until early in the morning. Not a lot of sleep was had this night.

Day 2- Mollie’s Ridge to Derrick Knob

This day was all rain, all day. The wind was down, but the rain was constant. It seems that the trail on the Smoky Mountains has been unchanged for decades. I equate it to a well worn wagon road from the turn on the 20th century. Those old wagon routes have been in use for centuries, they are worn into the ground well, leaving depressions in the land that are very low below grade. The AT on the Smokies is the same, and when it rains in these well worn trails they fill up and become swamps. The depressed trail is just holding the water.

I must have slipped half a dozen times in the mud, just to get back up and do it again. It was relentless. The sun did come out briefly for maybe an hour at the end of our day, but it was not to be for longer than that. The low for the night was going to drop to 26 degrees and possibly snow over night. That could mean nice and iced trails to hike on the next day.

Day 3- Derrick Knob to Mt. Collin’s Shelter

Woke up to snow covering the ground. Temperatures were very cold overnight and throughout the morning, making hiking a little more difficult than normal.

I passed the 200 mile mark today around Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point on the entire trail at 6,600’. Which means it is all down hill from here to Katahdin! This part of the hike, coming down from Clingman’s was the hardest part of the hike today. Not because of terrain, but the entire trail was a sheet of ice. It was flat out dangerous going down this stretch to the shelter and I fell a couple of times slipping on the ice.

It is also tough because it seems all of the shelters except 2 are at an elevation of 4,000’ or higher. The winds and weather are more severe at these elevations. Also being in mountains means that the sun doesn’t touch everywhere when it does come out, leaving ice to hang around for days. This was the case for the trail to Mt. Collin’s. The trail was covered by pine trees, which do not let in a lot of light so the trail was even icy the next day coming out.

Day 4- Mt. Collin’s to Icewater Spring

This was a cold morning. The low last night was 18 with a windchill of 1 degree. Rough start to the morning. On this day our goal was to get to New Found Gap for a small resupply to finish out the Smoky Mountains. Getting into New Found Gap was interesting. This day was a nicer day, especially when we got to the gap. Sun was out and it was warmer. Since this was on a Saturday, there were day hikers and tourists everywhere. We instantly became celebrities with people asking us so many questions and wanting to take photos with us!

The resupply came from another hikers friends and boss. It was so nice. They not only brought our resupply, but they brought a surprise of Chic-Fil-A and pastries! It was so good and such a welcomed sight. Once we spent the entire afternoon eating nuggets and soaking up some sun, we got a move onto Icewater. There was of course a bunch more ice that had to be navigated over on the way, but got there in time to get a good spot in the shelter and watch the sunset.

Day 5- Icewater to Tri Corner Knob

I got a slow start to the day this morning, I was the last one to wake up. I really got some good sleep last night. Some of the best sleep I have gotten on the trail to date. I did miss the sunrise that was going to be absolutely beautiful to watch. The mountain Icewater is on has a bald area facing the ridge to the east, so it was going to be beautiful to see on a clear morning. But it is fine, I would get the next one later on the last night in the Smokies.

Everything that may have thawed in yesterday’s warm spell has refrozen again on the trail, making the trails a sheet of ice again. This made for an interesting hike out and onto the next sleeping location. All this ice and bad weather had me second guessing a lot what I am doing and why. I find myself missing my family more and more each day that passes.

I also got the chance to go to Charlie’s Bunion on this day. This is a really cool rock formation that overs so many great views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. It is off on a little side trail, but it is one that was definitely worth the short detour.

Day 6- Tricorner to Mt. Cammerer Lookout Tower

Instead of going to Davenport Gap shelter, we took a little detour and decided to sleep in the Mt. Cammerer lookout tower. The lookout tower was built in 1939 and gives 360 degree views of the Smokey Mountains and the valley below. It was used as a fire tower to watch for smoke in the mountains and direct fireman to where’s the blaze was happening.

It is a really cool tower and the goal for being there was to be able to see the sunset and the sunrise from the same place. The views did not disappoint. The sunset and the sunrise were beautiful as well, but the camera on my phone did not do the views during sunset and sunrise justice.

The best view though was at night. The moon looked like a Cheshire Cat smile and the stars were absolutely beautiful. It was also beautiful to look at the two different sides of the ridge. The Smoky Mountain side was nothing but darkness, the opposite of the ridge was filled with little lights that mirrored the stars above. From the lookout tower in the morning, it was a short hike out of the Smokies to the I-40 crossing.

Reflecting on the Smokies

For the first two thirds of my time in the Smokies I was cursing the Smokies. This section of the trail was a big fear of mine. The weather is so unpredictable at those elevations, and it will change by the minute. I worried that wasn’t prepared enough for this change.

After passing through the Smokies with all the bad weather, I do not think I would want to change a thing. The Smokies tested me in ways I could not have imagined and I am better now for having gone through it. I know what I am capable of and what my limitations are. As much as I cursed my time while going through the Smokies, looking back I loved every minute of my experience there. I lived through all four seasons in just six days in the Smokies. It was a tremendous experience and I glad it happened to me.

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Comments 4

  • Steve Dailey : Mar 19th

    Thanks you for taking the time to share your journey. Safe travels.

  • Cathy M : Mar 19th

    Love the honest updates!!! I am really happy for you and your strength both physically and mentally. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”


  • Thaddeus Smith : Mar 20th

    I always wonder every year when I am day hiking on the AT during this time why almost every thru hiker doesn’t bring the spikes that go over your shoes. I bought mine for twenty dollars and trail ice becomes easier to walk on than the actual trail.

  • Jim Harner : Apr 20th

    Haven’t seen any postings lately. Hope you are OK. If you are up through Harpers Ferry give me a shout if you need anything, I’m only 6 miles off trail.


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