Trail Update: Holy Smokes!
Day 16- entered the Smokies
Russell Field Shelter
Miles: 13.9/mm: 179.8
Mood: 2 smileys
Day of Eric’s trail name, Rico suave
Derick Knob Shelter
Miles: 9.2/mm: 189
Mood: straight face (with cringing eyes closed)
Mt. Collins Shelter
Miles: 13.8/mm: 202.8
Mood: 2 smileys
Miles: 20.1/mm: 222.9
Mood: 3.5 smileys
Day 20- exited Smokies
Standing Bear Hostel
Miles: 18.4/mm: 241.3
Mood: 3 smileys
As a thru hiker, you’re subjected to a lot of advice, warnings, facts, and other bits of information about the Smokies. For days leading up to entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP), the Smokies are all the talk. Here are some of the things we heard:
– It’s going to be snowy
– PRINT YOUR PERMIT
– You’re going to get kicked out of a shelter by a section hiker, probably at 9 p.m., in the rain (explanation below)
– It’s the hardest terrain you’ve encountered
– The first day of the Smokies is incredibly hard
– The Smokies suck
– You won’t see any views; it will be so cloudy
– The weather is completely unpredictable
– Lightning storms
– Don’t go into Gatlinburg for a resupply; it’s hard to get to and expensive
– Don’t run out of food or you’ll have to go into Gatlinburg
Needless to say, given all the talk, our nerves and anxiety were pretty high as we began our ascent the first day. Luckily, we had a gorgeous, sunny day, which was quite the departure from the dreary, rainy weather of the previous few days. However, the rain had left its mark. The trail was horrifically muddy and slippery; no shoe was dry by the end of the day. The climb up into the Smokies was tough, long, and just as steep as you might imagine, but we did it in pretty good time and in fairly high spirits. We originally planned on doing 13 miles the first day, but the ranger at the first shelter advised us to continue to the next one two miles up. He suspected that the first shelter might fill up with section hikers, and consequently, it was all but certain we would have to tent.
This is where I’ll pause to try to quickly explain the way the permitting/shelter situation plays out in the Smokies. As a rule, all hikers in the GSMNP must stay in shelters; in short, there is no camping along the trail. Shelters—three-sided lean-to’s built to cover a sleeping platform–are spread out every few miles or so along the AT throughout the park. As AT thru-hikers, we purchased a thru-hiking permit, giving us access to any shelter throughout our hike. However, there is a second type of permit that all other hikers buy. Those permits require hikers, known as section hikers, to designate which shelters they will stay at, on which nights. This also gives them priority at shelters. That being said, this is how it works. As a thru-hiker, you get to a shelter. There are a few section hikers who have reservations there, and then some fellow thru-hikers. Thru-hikers can and must take a spot in the shelter until it fills up. Once, and only once, it fills up can thru-hikers tent. If you’re the 12th out of 12 hikers to get to a 12-person capacity shelter, you are required to stay in the shelter; other thru-hikers arriving after you must tent. Unfortunately, being the last to take a spot in a shelter also means that you are the first to get booted if a section hiker then shows up. Confused? Seem backwards? Yep, and then some! As a thru-hiker, it’s a huge frustration knowing that at any time, especially after a long day of hiking, you may be forced to give up your sheltered spot, necessitating the setting up of your tent and relocating for the duration.
Now, back to our Smoky experience. The first night we were able to keep our spots in the shelter, together with the crew we’d been with since the NOC– Paddington, who we’ve been with since day 2, Lightning, Tarp Man, and Bonobo.
This day was momentous because Eric got his trail name–courtesy of fellow hiker, Lightning! Lightning commented that Eric’s hair always has a freshly-combed look, like Rico Suave…. and the name stuck. Picture below of Rico’s locks for proof, though both of us think it’s getting a little long now.
We were all bracing ourselves for what we knew would be a horrendous second day in the Smokies, and that it was! We woke up to whipping winds and close-to-freezing temperatures. Knowing that we had budgeted a certain amount of food, we were determined not to be thrown off schedule by a forced trip to Gatlinburg. Hence, we packed up and decided to do a “short” 9-mile day. It was hands down, the most brutal 9 miles I’ve ever hiked… which may not be saying much, considering my short-lived hiking career, but it was definitely something. We were still climbing uphill that day, and over bald mountains, so we were virtually unprotected from the elements, such as wind whipping so hard that every time I lifted my hiking pole, it flew behind me. Furthering our misery, blowing, freezing rain made visibility incredibly low.
A candid side note on rain gear: it’s total shit. A myth. Rain gear does not keep you dry. It may keep you from becoming hypothermic, but it will not keep you dry. End of story.
The trail condition was also horrendous. Poles and soles alike were sinking deep into mud, and in places where the mud was saturated, the trail had turned into a small but well-flowing river. There was no option but to forge ahead, thoroughly soaking our feet and shoes every step of the way.
Sound fun? It wasn’t—in any way, shape, or form. You can imagine our relief when the next shelter appeared, a sure sign that our day was done, our hopes of drying off and warming up yet alive. Our relief was short lived. We walked into the already very full shelter and quickly realized that we would be facing a night out in the rain. A moment later, we were overwhelmed with how amazing it is to have friends on the trail. Paddington and Bonobo, who had gotten to the shelter much earlier than we had, safely securing their spots for the night, scrunched together and offered to let Eric and I squeeze into about a half a spot. Thus rescued from a night of rain, wind, cold, and wetness, we were unspeakably grateful.
The remainder of the day, we stayed in the shelter and watched as thru-hiker after thru-hiker trudged in with the hope of a spot, only to be dejected upon finding out that the shelter was full. Their misery was shared by the last few thru-hikers who had acquired spots. They knew that section hikers were behind them, and it was only a matter of time before they would be required to vacate their spots and join the ranks of those now doomed to share the soggy, cold fate of tenting in the rain.
Two thru-hikers were unfortunately booted from the shelter that night by section hikers who got in late and didn’t have tents. Apparently the GSMNP tells section hikers not to carry tents so that they have to stay in shelters. That night, a wicked storm with deafening thunder and bright-as-day lightning raged outside. We were so incredibly thankful for our spot “inside”, as tight as it was. Safe to say, after this experience, we wanted more than anything to get the hell out of the Smokies.
The next day was beautiful as we climbed to Clingsmans Dome, the highest point on the AT. As we continued to ascend, the terrain changed to a rocky deciduous forest, which was a nice change of scenery. That night, we camped in our tent willingly, only to wake up to frozen socks and shoes, icicles hanging from the trees. The Smokies strike again.
Point confirmed: we were so over the unpredictable weather, shitty trail conditions, and treacherous climbs. Looking at the map and assessing our endurance, we knew that if we did a 20-mile day followed by a 19-mile day, we could get out of the Smokies in 5 days, a somewhat ambitious, but definitely doable, feat.
This is where our Smoky experience takes a turn for the great. I realize that our Smoky experience is a tale of two hikes, which I think is quite appropriate and a poetic nod to the Great Smoky Mountains.
We set out that morning and sprint hiked just to keep our toes and hands from freezing. When we got to Newfound Gap, four miles into the day, the sun was coming out, and we were greeted with pure trail magic in the parking lot! Thank-you to the “sassy chicks with hiking sticks” who supplied us with Coke, Powerade, and Honey Buns–and most importantly, lifted our spirits.
This particular day was honestly my favorite day of hiking so far. Although the wind was still biting, the sun was shining, the sky was clear, and we hiked along the ridge, guaranteeing views virtually the whole day. Combine that with moderate climbs and descents terrain-wise, and we were happily trucking along, thankful for the much needed beautiful day. The deciduous forest filled the air with the sweet smell of pine and Spring. It’s amazing what a few hours of sun can do for the soul. We were on top of the ridge, with mountains on every side, our spirits high, our energy sustained by the gorgeous views and welcomed sunshine.
We were still uncertain if we could make 20 miles that day, but we were incredibly surprised and happy when we hit the 15-mile mark faster than we thought. The adrenaline of knowing we were just five miles away from our goal provided the motivation needed for the rest of the day.
The next day aka “the day we got the hell out of the Smokies,” we ran, almost literally, downhill out of the park. Because it was downhill, and that is our strong suit, we made a quick and gleeful descent the 19 miles to Standing Bear Hostel, the first sign of post-Smoky civilization, and the first place to resupply food. We were also reunited with Paddington and Bonobo, who had pushed on farther than we had the first couple of days in. Were we ever glad to see them!!
Standing Bear is modest in design, but has everything you could possibly want coming out of an intense five days of Smoky hiking– hot showers, frozen pizzas, and, most importantly, beer. We tented that night on the property and dreamed of Hot Springs, just two days away…..
Here’s a quick recap, based on what we heard about the Smokies versus what we experienced:
– Had a close call with getting kicked out of the shelter, but were ultimately spared
– The weather is, in fact, crazy
– The first half of the Smokies are hard climbs, the rest is fairly moderate
– Personally, I think the climb out of the NOC was harder than anything we faced in the Smokies
– The trail condition is pretty bad
– We made it through without having to stop in Gatlinburg
And best of all:
– We survived and are still hiking.
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