I was woken up even earlier than usual, at 6 am, by the sound of someone closing the bunk room door. I wasn’t too miffed though because the night had been a little restless and stuffy. I quickly threw my gear in my pack, grabbed a quick breakfast (a pop tart, a hamburger bun, and coffee, all part of a balanced diet?), and grabbed the shuttle back to the trail.
Due to my short day yesterday my legs weren’t feeling sore when I woke up, but upon hitting that first climb my calves were screaming at me like never before, probably because I forgot to stretch-oops. I popped some vitamin I (ibuprofen for the non-hikers) and by the time the next big uphill hit, they felt fine. Luckily so far on the trail, when one part of my legs starts to get sore on an uphill there’s always a downhill coming up where that muscle can loosen up, and then by the next uphill something different starts to get sore, and the cycle continues. Maybe that’s one reason to be grateful for all the ups and downs on the AT, plenty of opportunities for all your leg muscles to work, but also to have breaks.
Just about three miles before the NC border I ran into more trail magic, laid out on a table by a couple of families. I filled up my water and grabbed an apple from the big spread they had laid out, and thanked them before continuing up. Soon enough the GA/NC border sign came up, and I paused to take pictures, and sat for a few minutes by the sign.
Crossing the border back into NC
Even though it’s not as impressive as someone from New York or Pennsylvania, I’d managed to walk back home, and I was feeling a little proud of it. I paused again just a couple minutes later after coming up to the Bly gap tree. This gnarled old oak is the most photographed tree on the AT for a reason, and someone told me that’s it’s bent the way it is because Native Americans shaped it to use it as a land mark and point to nearby water, very cool.
Me in a tree
Immediately after this though, North Carolina decided to fully introduce herself, and boy was it a rude introduction. Those first couple miles in North Carolina were some of the steepest I’d encountered on trail so far, and everyone I saw was huffing and puffing their way slowly up the hills.
I made it to the shelter I’d planned on staying at by 2 pm, but since it was so early I decided to keep going, and made it another 4 miles to Deep Gap, where there was a lovely camping area with a few other hikers already set up. A day hiker wandered through a couple times and then came over admitting she was lost. We tried to help her charge her phone and show her the easiest way to hike out to a road, but she decided to hike up to the next shelter to try and wait out the night. I think she’s going to have a very cold night.
It was very windy last night, which meant I got to play my least favorite night time game: Is That Leaves Moving In The Wind, Or Is There A Bear? (Which also comes in the variety: Is That A Soft Breeze, Or Is Something Sniffing My Tent?!). After waking up in the morning one of the other campers told me that during the night while I was sleeping a couple of forest service trucks had come up the road and there had been a lot of talking, presumably related to getting the lost day hiker out of the woods. I’m glad she made it out safely and didn’t have to stay out all night without a sleeping bag.
I started up Standing Indian Mountain with no issues, and it turned out to be one of my favorite climbs so far. It was a long uphill but the trail never got too steep, the hearty breeze kept me cool, and the views were amazing at the top.
Here’s a pretty panoramic shot from the top of Standing Indian Mountain
North Carolina actually seemed to be trying to act a little nicer today after the bad first impression yesterday, and the rest of the morning was spent on easy terrain, which made it easy to hike quickly. So quickly in fact that I made it to the camp site I’d intended to stay at by 1:30, much too early to stop, so I kept on going like yesterday. The Albert Mountain climb was very steep with some rock scrambles, but I took my time and soon made it up to the top and saw the first fire tower on trail for us northbound hikers. The wind was even crazier on the fire tower, and I only stopped briefly for a couple photos before getting down. Albert Mountain is also just about at the 100 mile mark, and after just a couple more minutes of hiking I spotted the arrangement of sticks on the ground letting me know that I’d officially made it 100 miles!
The first 100 miles are done!
Only gotta do that distance around 21 more times to get to Katahdin, and at my current pace it’ll take a little over 7 months…. I hope I get a bit faster soon. The rest of the day was a nice downhill hike to the Long Branch Shelter, my first shelter stay of the trail so far. Soon enough a few more groups of hikers came in, and we settled down to the distant sound of the wind in the trees and the much closer squeaking of mice in the shelter.
I woke up around 6 am and tried to quietly get my gear together without waking up the other people in the shelter. There were only 7 miles between me and Winding Stair Gap where I was going to get to Franklin, NC to resupply and spend the night to avoid a thunderstorm. The miles were slightly hilly, and I experienced my first rain shower on trail while hiking up the last ascent before reaching the gap.
The town of Franklin was super hiker friendly, with the outfitter Outdoor 76 being a thru hiker mecca in the town. I resupplied there and grabbed a donut from the shop next door and then headed to the motel. The big thunderstorm that was forecasted didn’t seem to materialize instead just turning into a few hours of afternoon rain, which made my choice to stay in town feel a little lame-oh well.
I was up early as usual and packed up my gear before grabbing a big breakfast at Ms Lois’ diner down the street, and boy was it tasty. I hopped on the town shuttle and was back at Winding Stair Gap by 9:30, ready to put in a full day come rain or shine. Even though I had done a relatively small 7 miles into town yesterday and relaxed the rest of the day, my legs and feet bothered me more than they had on any previous day, and I struggled going up Siler and Wayah balds, but the views from the top were worth the struggle.
Wowza another gorgeous view brought to you by Siler Bald
Because of some very cold weather coming up I needed to make it to Fontana Village 55 miles away in less than 4 days, which was going to require me to do around 14 miles every day. Because of this, even though I felt ready to stop at the shelter by mile 10, I pushed another 5 miles in the rain and made it to Cold Creek Shelter. This shelter is one of the oldest on the AT, with room for about four people comfortably. Luckily there were only three of us and we were able to spread out our gear a bit to drip dry as much as possible overnight. The rain tapping on the roof of the shelter was loud but soothing and drowned out some of the typical air mattresses and sleeping bag rustlings.
This was my earliest wake up so far, although not necessarily by choice. One of the other hikers in the shelter had warned me that he was planning to get up early, so I wasn’t worried when he started getting ready at 5 am, but I was certainly awake after his first few rustlings. Nothing to do but to get ready for the day and move northward. It was still very drizzly and gray out, so I donned my damp rain gear and set out with a goal of reaching the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) 11.5 miles away for lunch. Due to the rain from the last day the leaves and roots were slippery and I had to pay more attention than normal just to keep my footing. The trail meandered along a lot of open ridges but due to the fog I didn’t get a single view, still a misty day can provide its own pretty views.
Misty days are still pretty out here.
I didn’t bother climbing the Wesser Bald tower because I’m sure the swirling fog I’d see from the top looked the same as what I saw of it from the bottom. Although most of the morning was spent descending, which I’m usually faster at than ascending, the ruggedness and severity of the elevation was such that I felt like I was crawling down the mountainside. At the very top of the descent, the pitch was so extreme that I was a little uneasy, it would’ve been very easy to slip on the wet rocks and the fall would’ve almost certainly led to an injury. Luckily it was about a quarter mile past this extreme section where I took my fall, my feet sliding out from under me after stepping on some slippery roots, but no harm done. After picking myself back up, I continued downward and finally made it to the NOC a little after 12:30. I made a bee-line for the first restaurant I saw and ordered a burger, which I polished off so quickly that I’d finished it by the time the waitress came by to ask how it was tasting- obviously it tasted great.
After lunch I printed out my permit for the Smokies, an upcoming section of trail which requires a permit, and started making my way up from the NOC. Maybe due to my early morning and full belly, I was feeling very tired and sluggish, and I only made it about halfway up the climb before petering out by a stealth camp site along the trail.
It was a surprisingly chilly night, and I was glad to get up around 6 am, and start hiking by 7. I quickly warmed up while continuing up the steep climb up from the NOC, and I didn’t finish climbing until almost 3 hours later when I finally made it to Cheoah Bald. I was feeling slightly uncomfortable most of the day with various parts of my feet and legs aching, one of my pack straps rubbing my neck when it hadn’t done that before, a variety of temperatures making me put on and take off my jacket often, and more small complaints. These were all minor discomforts but all together made the day feel a little bit harder. Luckily after the big climb in the morning the rest of the day was slightly easier, and after having a late lunch I found the energy to push past the shelter I was planning on staying at and made it another three miles to Cody Gap.
Lunch: a tortilla with summer sausage, mustard, and gold fish. All the necessary food groups right?
After another early start I was back on the trail with only about 8 miles to go until getting to the Fontana AT crossing and the Fontana Village Resort, which was my destination for the next two nights. The miles went pretty quickly, and I really enjoyed watching the constantly shifting morning fog blowing up from the valleys and getting dispelled by the sun and breeze on the higher ridges I was walking along.
Foggy mornings win for giving the best views
I realized that if I pushed myself a little bit I might be able to make the 11:30 am shuttle from the trail head to the resort, so I put on some music and started hauling myself up the last climb of the day and down the long, but not super steep, decent to the road. I made great time and made it down to the trailhead by 11:15, only to realize by reading the posted schedule that someone had copied the shuttle times down wrong into FarOut (the AT navigation app) and that I had just missed the 11:10 shuttle, damn. I consoled myself by walking down to the Fontana marina and grabbing some snacks and a free thru hiker popsicle to enjoy while waiting for the next shuttle. Once I made it to the hotel I enjoyed a nice pulled pork sandwich lunch, laundry, shower, and relaxing evening in a bed.
You may say, “Wait, this day should be in the week 3 post!”, and to that I say: This is my blog, and week two can have eight days if I feel like it! Right now I’m still at the Fontana Village Resort, making it my first full zero day (a day in which I hike zero miles). The temperature is currently 23 degrees and a couple inches of snow have already fallen, but up in the Smokies the low for tonight is 7 degrees and 3-8 inches of snow in total have accumulated, so I’m pretty glad to be staying inside today. I think 80% of the people staying at the resort are other thru hikers also stuck here due to the weather. It’s pretty easy to identify another hiker as we’re all wandering around the lobby, ogling the food in the stores, and doing laundry. I don’t think I’m the only one getting antsier but also more nervous about the upcoming miles as the day goes on. There’s going to be a good bit of snow and ice on the trail over the next couple days, but I’m feeling ready to start tackling it. Tomorrow once the temperatures rise a bit I’ll finally be heading into the Smokies.