Week 8: The Smokies

Bald Mountain Shelter > Double Spring Gap Shelter

Days 50-56

Week 8 AT miles: 132.2

Total AT miles: 836.7

I decided to stock up on food in Hot Springs and push through all the way to Yellow Creek Gap. A number of past and current AT hikers had recommended that I skip the main hostel between Hot Springs and the Smokies, and the alternative wouldn’t open for the season for another week. Since the substantial elevation change in the Smokies and the requirement that hikers not camp between shelters meant that my mileage would be limited to around 20 miles per day, I was looking at a 6-day food carry, my longest so far.

To fit that much food in my bear canister I had to plan to cook (or really just rehydrate) a meal a day. As I mentioned several weeks ago, I’d completely failed at making myself cook dinner after a long day of hiking or stopping midday to cook lunch, so I decided to give breakfast a try. Given that after hundreds of miles on trail it was still taking me 1.5-2 hours every morning to get packed up and start hiking, I figured cooking and eating breakfast wasn’t likely to make me much slower.

The experiment has been a success! I’ve been eating dinner-type foods as a hot breakfast in bed almost every morning since leaving Hot Springs.

View of trees and mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Day 50: Bald Mountain Shelter > Jerry’s Cabin Shelter

25.6 miles (5778 ft up, 6703 ft down)

As the hiker I shared a shelter with last night had predicted, there were indeed a bunch more NOBOs right behind him. I passed six thru-hikers over the course of the day, plus a dayhiker who will be starting his NOBO thru-hike in early March.

I started the day with beautiful views from the summit of Bald Mountain, which I had all but finished climbing to reach the shelter the night before. After experiencing the Grayson Highlands from deep within the clouds and the Roan Highlands on an overcast day, it was great to be on a bald in sunny weather. The nice weather also inspired me to take my first sit-down lunch break since hiding from the rain in Thomas Knob Shelter.

Three thru-hikers were already in the shelter when I arrived shortly after dark. They warmly welcomed me and made sure I had plenty of space to set up. Despite the all the space, I struggled figuring out how to adapt my evening routine to a nearly full shelter. You would never have thought I’ve been doing this for a month and a half — trying to set up in a few foot wide rectangle was very different from having the whole shelter, or at least half of it, to myself.

Fortunately these three hikers were great and well worth squeezing in with. Two were lovely young German guys who recognized me from this blog (a first!) and were getting started on their Calendar-Year Triple Crown attempt. When they asked about my daily mileage, I said it varied so far from 4 to 30 miles per day. And when I returned the question, they just said “26,” which I found hilariously precise.

Even more exciting, after a month and a half of hiking and meeting 20+ male thru-hikers, was sharing the shelter with the first other female thru-hiker I’ve encountered on the trail. She was very cool and we had a nice chat after the guys left well before dawn.

Grassy summit with view of other mountains in the distance

Sunny view from Bald Mountain

Day 51: Jerry’s Cabin Shelter > Hot Springs, NC

26.8 miles (4836 ft up, 7651 ft down)

Today was a good chunk of miles, but once I had my reservation at Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn and a plan to zero tomorrow, I was like a horse to the barn and made great time, arriving well before dark.

I’d heard from the German guys that a section of trail was closed two days ago for a prescribed burn, so I wasn’t surprised to pick up a strong fire smell during the latter part of the day. At first there was just a narrow charred strip along the trail, but I eventually came to an entire hillside that had been burned and was still smoldering in some spots. (I learned later in Hot Springs that the burn had actually been postponed to yesterday so was even fresher than I thought.)

Most of the day was on pretty smooth rolling trail, except for the very steep final descent to the French Broad River and Hot Springs. As I got closer to the river, I had the disorienting experience of realizing that it was flowing in the opposite direction of what I’d been picturing. I think I just imagined it going in the same direction as the text labeling it on the map!

View of a wide river with small rapids

French Broad River, flowing in an unexpected direction

Day 52: Zero in Hot Springs

0 AT miles + 2 town miles

I had a wonderful, relaxing zero day in Hot Springs. Fortunately all the spots I wanted or needed to visit were within a third of a mile stretch, so although I ended up doing three laps of the main drag, the bonus miles were minimal.

Staying at Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn was the highlight of my visit. I would highly recommend this gem of the Appalachian Trail to anyone who’s looking for a restful stay in Hot Springs. Hikers are provided with private rooms in a beautiful pre-Civil War house furnished with antiques and heated by a wood stove. And for the cost of your average bunk in a hostel.

This egalitarian repurposing of a building originally constructed as a private summer home seems like a lovely embodiment of the early lofty ideals of the Appalachian Trail. If you’re up for a long read, check out Benton MacKaye’s proposal, An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning (1921), with a fascinating introduction explaining the historical context.

Fancy old house

Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn (zoom in for porch kitty)

Day 53: Hot Springs > Roaring Fork Shelter

17.9 miles (5820 ft up, 3143 ft down)

As usual I got a slow start leaving town, which was only made slower by the rain. When I couldn’t find any more reasons to delay, I set off under my poncho and walked a short stretch of sidewalk before climbing back up into the woods. Happily the rain tapered off after an hour or so, and I was able to hike the rest of the day with only my pack covered by the poncho.

The approach to Hot Springs from the south is definitely gentler and friendlier to the knees than from the north. I had the usual long climb back up to the ridge whenever the trail leaves town. But instead of the steep rocky switchbacks with a perilous drop on my way into town, these were smooth and gradual with no prospect of falling off a cliff and into the river.

I passed at least 5 NOBOs within the first couple of miles, presumably having camped close to maximize their time in town, but only saw 3 the whole rest of the day. It has been interesting how there seem to be clusters of hikers and then larger gaps, even though the hikers in the cluster often aren’t aware that there are others close ahead of or behind them.

When I saw I’d arrive at Roaring Fork Shelter well before dark, I was tempted to push on to the next one but would have arrived around 9:30pm. I didn’t want to start this stretch through the Smokies tired or miss seeing Max Patch in daylight, so I was able to convince myself to call it a day. Taking my time with the evening routine and still getting to bed by 7:45 was very nice, and I resolved yet again to try to stop hiking a bit earlier.

View of distant mountains through leafless trees

Beautiful view that will vanish once the trees leaf out

Day 54: Roaring Fork Shelter > Davenport Gap Shelter

19 miles (4330 ft up, 5778 ft down)

I heard from the kids at the shelter that Max Patch was super windy so bundled up before starting the two mile walk to the famous bald. Despite the ominous forecast for the day, I was optimistic and left the poncho in my backpack. The snow waited until I was in the full blast of the gusts on Max Patch, at which point I had the exciting challenge of putting on my poncho while the wind tried to yank it out of my hands.

The snow and later rain continued on and off throughout the day. Most of the snow fell in the form of what looked like tiny snowballs. The trail was smooth and would have been fast in dry conditions, but the layers of snow over leaves over mud were very slick. Anytime I got going too fast a startling slide would slow me back down. I only passed two NOBOs the whole day, so I imagine some were hunkered down to wait out the weather.

In the afternoon I finally crossed into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d been hearing about the challenging conditions, especially the big elevation changes and icy trails, and was eager to get started on this section that had been looming ahead of me. Amazingly for mountains named for their perpetual fog and clouds, the next two days were forecast to be clear and sunny.

View of grassy bald with mountains in the distance

On the way up Max Patch just before the snow

Day 55: Davenport Gap Shelter > Peck’s Corner Shelter

21.5 miles (6778 ft up, 4026 ft down)

What a glorious day in the Smokies!

Not long after hitting the trail I followed a blue blaze out to the historic Mt Cammerer Lookout Tower. I ditched my pack at the turn-off and had a nice trot along the ridge to the summit, eating some morning snacks as I went. The lookout provided cloudless views in every direction.

On a more practical note, the lookout also provided an enclosed space protected from the wind with a strong cell signal. I was happy for the warmish sunny spot to make a couple of phone calls, send a few texts, and complete assorted internet chores.

The beautiful views continued throughout the day. Some clouds formed in the afternoon, but they were high above the distant mountains. Although the numbers show a lot of elevation gain, the climbs were gentle and spread out enough that I didn’t realize it until I went to fill out my spreadsheet in the evening. Or I was just so cheerful about the nice weather that I didn’t notice.

Old glass enclosed lookout tower

Mt Cammerer Lookout Tower

Day 56: Peck’s Corner Shelter > Double Spring Gap Shelter

21.4 miles (5466 ft up, 5249 ft down)

Another clear day with lots of beautiful views!

The trail around the aptly named Icewater Spring Shelter and on the way up to Clingman’s Dome was covered in ice, but overall there was more dry trail and fewer snow patches than yesterday. Everything has been melting in the warm sunny conditions.

The section of the AT between Newfound Gap and Charlie’s Bunion is very popular with dayhikers, and I saw way more people on trail than I have any other day. Those easy four miles took me over two hours to hike because I was treated as a celebrity by almost every group I passed. Everyone had lots of questions about my hike, and they were amazed that I’d walked over 800 miles (a question I was able to answer because I calculated it last night after someone asked me yesterday). Their excitement was contagious and I felt energized and extremely lucky to be on this adventure.

When I got to the big parking lot at Newfound Gap, I was happy to get to pee in a flush toilet and dispose of my trash from the past two days, but there was something much better waiting. As I got my pack situated for the next stretch of trail, a woman asked if I was thru-hiking and invited me to join her and her husband in their RV for lunch! They’ve been on a road trip along the east coast, stopping at various spots on the AT to offer some trail magic. The meal and conversation were wonderful — definitely kindred spirits.

I used my spikes for the second time of the day for the hike up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT. I passed a few descending dayhikers who were managing the ice in their sneakers, but the spikes enabled me to move at much closer to normal hiking pace. I had the viewing tower at the top to myself and got to enjoy 360° views with just a few wispy clouds.

View of trees, mountains, and a ramp

View from Clingman’s Dome

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