I woke up early after a long and kind of chilly night. A light dusting of snow covered the ground and a cold wind made it hard to take off my warm sleep clothes and put on my slightly damp hiking clothes again. I got on trail about 20 minutes after getting out of my sleeping bag because it was too cold to hang around to eat breakfast sitting down. The first climb up Big Butt mountain (lol) got my blood moving and I started warming up a bit after a few minutes. There was an eight mile nice gradual descent during most of the morning which made it easy to walk fast and didn’t take very much effort.
A light dusting of snow over a field
Toward the bottom of this section I found some trail magic and grabbed an apple and some snacks, but the wind was still blowing hard and it was too cold to sit around for long so I kept going. The wind started really picking up as the afternoon went on, and I would get chilled quickly when I paused or wasn’t going uphill, which led to me zipping and unzipping my jacket at least 20 times over the course of the day. The lows for the night were predicted to be around 22, so I reserved a bunk at the Nature’s Inn hostel near Sam’s Gap, 18 miles away from the shelter where I started the day, which I reached a little less than 9 hours after I started hiking. There were a bunch of familiar faces at the hostel, and I grabbed a pizza and chatted with them for a while. Due to a last minute cancellation, I was the only one in the second bunk room (no listening to snoring for me!), which made up for the very cold shower that I had to take after the hot water ran low.
I slept warmly in the bunk house, and was up and back on trail by around 8:45. I could see the open top of Big Bald from far away and spent the first few hours of the day climbing up to the top where I got 360 views of the area.
The view from the top of Big Bald
The rest of the day wasn’t super remarkable, and I spent a lot of the time listening to an audiobook while I hiked. My feet were feeling sore late in the afternoon, and as much as I would’ve liked to be able to push and make it 24 miles into Erwin, TN to avoid camping in the cold night that was coming up, I knew that distance wasn’t in the cards so I set up my tent at No Business shelter when I arrived. I ate a quick dinner and quickly got under my quilt for the evening to try and stay warm.
After sticking a couple hand-warmers I’m my armpits and wearing all of my clothes to bed, my night was chilly but manageable. I packed everything up and started down the trail to Erwin. My original plan in Hot Springs had been to spend a night in Erwin, but after staying at a hostel to escape the cold the night before I wasn’t sure if I still needed to and couldn’t make up my mind as I walked along. The trail seemed very similar to how it had looked during the descent into Hot Springs; generally trending down but with multiple unnecessary (in my opinion) hills along the descent. There was even a similar rocky cliff view of the river and town from above during the last bit of the descent that was so similar that I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the two views if I was given photos of them. I paused at Uncle Johnny’s hostel to grab a bite to eat and decide on the rest of my day. In the end my tired body made the decision to stay, so after just 6.5 miles I got a hotel room. I did the typical town chores and looked at the elevation for the next few days before calling it an early night, hoping to feel more rested in the morning.
The nearo in the hotel did me good, and I woke up feeling pretty refreshed. I packed and was back on trail before 10, thanks to a generous ride from someone I’d met at Uncle Johnny’s hostel the day before. Like most towns, Erwin was at much lower elevation than the surrounding mountains, so I had a large climb to get through. It started out steep but became less so a couple miles out of town, and I was able to keep a pretty good pace. Sadly, a couple miles into my day I realized that one of my camp shoes had fallen off my pack, leaving me with just one, next town day I guess I’ll buy another pair. I bumped into some nice trail magic and conversation around lunch time, and really enjoyed some brownies, banana bread, and hot tea. After this trail magic I kept climbing up to Beauty Spot, a large bald with a good view of Erwin and the surrounding mountains.
The views from Beauty Spot
The climb continued up Unaka mountain, which was covered in a mossy spruce forest at the top which was a cool change of scenery. I arrived at the shelter if intended to stay at around 5:30 but felt good enough to keep going and made it another two miles before stealth camping on a very windy hill side. I banked some dead leaves along the bottom edge of my tent to try and insulate myself and fell asleep to the rippling of my tent in the wind.
I didn’t sleep very well after a night of not being able to get comfortable and listening to the clatter of tree branches in the wind, and I got going still feeling kind of tired. The first part of the day was a series of ups and downs that didn’t feel necessary and all looked similar, and paired with the tiredness made me feel grouchy. After lunch I had one of the last super long ascents for a while; a 5 mile climb up to Roan High Knob. At first I was still feeling tired in the climb, but about halfway up I started feeling more energetic. Towards the top there were still large slabs of ice frozen on the trail despite the warm temperatures, and I took care to avoid them.
Very icy above 6k ft even when the weather is warm
At the top I paused to look at the Roan high knob shelter, the highest on the AT and unique due to having four walls and a door.
The highest shelter on the trail at 6270 ft
Due to my second wind I decided not to stay at the shelter and to push another 5 miles, making it a 20 mile day. After making my way down from the shelter, I walked through a crowded parking area and across some really lovely balds with nice views of the surrounding area.
Amazing views from the Roan Highlands
I’d love to go back in the future, but maybe not on a day with a high wind advisory, because at some points I was having trouble walking in a straight line due to the strong gusts. After only seeing a couple thru hikers during the day I figured the Stan Murray shelter wouldn’t be crowded, but when I got there the shelter was full with a bunch of hikers already renting in the area. The weather for the night was going to be high winds (gusts of up to 55 mph) and rain storms, so I unhappily set up my tent, and in the process ripped my shorts straight across the butt. There’s another thing to replace on my next town day. In the high winds my tent felt like someone was standing outside and shaking it as hard as they could. I used my bear hang paracord to tie out the side facing the wind, which left me sleeping with my food, but a little more confident that my tent would make it through the night. Even so before I went to sleep one of my stakes was ripped out of the ground, making me have to jump out and jam it back in. Fingers crossed that the weather doesn’t get any worse, but I’m predicting another poor nights sleep.
Most of the night felt like trying to sleep while being in a rocket launch; my tent shook constantly and the wind roared overhead all night. Even inside the tent there was a strong breeze, and I woke up to my face covered in a fine grit many times throughout the night. After 4 am the rain started, so then it was like a rocket launch with a fire hose added, but amazingly I stayed dry and the tent didn’t collapse on me. I got ready in my tent as much as possible before putting on my rain gear, tossing everything outside, and taking the tent down. I set off, slipping in the now muddy trail, and soon went above the tree line and was exposed to the full force of the winds, which hadn’t died down much over night. The low hanging clouds and fog raced over the grassy balds and I paused going up Little Hump Mountain to take photos of the drifting clouds and the derelict Overmountain shelter in the distance.
You can barely see the barn-like Overmountain shelter on the hillside
As I continued up the winds started getting stronger, and it was difficult to walk in a straight line as I struggled to find traction on the muddy trail going up the hillside. The wind kept roaring and the mist obscured the hillside ahead, so the ascent up Hump Mountain felt very long and I became frustrated with the continuing strong winds that I’d already dealt with plenty over the last couple days. As I finally started the descent and made it below the tree line the wind quieted within a few feet of entering the trees, and I had an easier time navigating the trail. The rest of the day was mostly downhill, and I enjoyed seeing a good number of spring flowers blooming as I got lower in elevation. A little after exiting the Roan Highlands I passed the sign saying I was officially done with North Carolina, and I only have about 70 miles of Tennessee left until I hit Virginia.
Finally out of NC
The last mile of the day was through a nice field that had multiple small groups of deer, and I watched them as I passed. As the trail turned away from the field and went back in the woods, I kept walking uphill through the field, headed toward the Refuge Hostel, located at the top of the field and then just down a gravel road from the trail. after two nights in a row of poor sleep, and having all my gear soaked from the rain, I definitely needed a hostel night. The hostel was lovely, and there were only two other hikers staying, giving us all plenty of room to dry out our wet gear, get a good nights sleep, and prepare for the next section of trail.
I woke up feeling nice and rested and ready to push 17 miles to the Moreland Gap shelter. There were some light snow flurries as I left the hostel, but soon the weather warmed and the trail sloped from grassy fields down to a wide river, providing very nice views and pretty easy miles. I passed the 400 mile mark just before getting to see Jones Falls, and another hundred miles followed by a waterfall put me in a good mood.
400 miles down
Eventually I started going uphill again but in undulating waves that provided some downhill to balance out the uphill. I crossed many small creeks throughout the hike which added to the fun and easy feel of the day. I made it to the shelter around 4:30 but felt like I could push another couple miles to another campsite. A couple other hikers, New Shoes and Leap Frog, were planning on pushing to the next shelter, and they inspired me to want to go even further, although I set my sights on the Kincora Hiker Hostel another 7 miles from the shelter. After sharing my idea they changed their plans to join me, and we hiked the last miles of the day together. This made my day 23.7 miles, my new longest day. The last mile my feet were definitely aching, but we all made it to the hostel and settled in. Kincora Hiker Hostel isn’t the most glamorous (or even clean) hostel on the trail, but the owner Bob Peoples was incredibly kind, giving us a jar of Alfredo sauce from his pantry that we cooked up with a bunch of spaghetti, and shared amazing stories about his past hikes with us while we ate and got ready for bed.
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