A chill air swept in overnight making us very glad to have a warm bunk at Uncle Johnny’s Hostel. It’s always hard leaving the comforts of town and we spent the morning drinking coffee contemplating our plan for the next few days. Wet and cold weather is in the forecast but there was nothing to be done for it. We just had to get going and face it.
We climbed out of Erwin and enjoyed some views of the Nolichucky River. The temperature is much cooler now. Our stretch of unseasonably warm weather is likely over. Aside from the initial river view, this section had limited views to offer. We traversed Little Bald, which is tree clad, so not sure how this is considered a bald, maybe the trees regrew after it was named? Or maybe the person that named it had a sense of humor. Shortly after we rolled into the shelter for the night. This one has a privy which means we are the North Carolina side of trail. Tennessee is known for not having privies on trail.
The temperature continued to drop. It is going to be a very cold night. Backtrack showed up a little later under headlight. We had a good time chatting and planning our next moves for hurricane Nicole.
A dense fog rolled in over night, trapping moisture in the trees. It wasn’t raining but we could hear tree rain pelting the roof with each wind gust. This will be our first time hiking cold and wet in a long time.
We traversed Big Bald, an actual bald, in fog and heavy winds. The fog lifted at times but was mostly a viewless day. Our thoughts have been focused on preparing for what is now the tropical rainstorm (Nicole) that is still on track to impact this area later tonight and throughout tomorrow.
We stopped at the shelter a little short of our planned day. This shelter is very sturdy and is designated as a weather shelter. If needed we might zero here depending on how harsh the the storm is. Backtrack showed up and we gathered a bunch of wood and enjoyed a nice fire before the rain.
Rain came in spurts overnight but never seemed dangerously heavy. The winds were calmer than expected. Also with the tropical rainstorm came tropical temperatures…well tropical for hikers in high peaks. We could feel the warm moisture with temps quickly rising to mid 50s. We set out in the warm light rain in t-shirts and shorts. A few miles into our hike the heavy stuff started but this didn’t stop Hayley from showing off her big butt on the summit of Big Butt. We laughed at our humor and the humor of whoever named this oddly shaped rock.
Our laughter died quickly when the rain increased and completely soaked us. We decided to stop after hiking less than 7 miles to the next shelter, Jerry’s cabin. This stone shelter is much better for waiting out the storm. It has a fireplace and big common area under the roof. In between spurts of rain, we all (Backtrack also bailed out after 7 miles) gathered firewood, and were able to get a fire going.
The warmth of the fire was very welcoming and allowed the opportunity to get our clothes from soaking to just damp. Since we ended our day before noon, the only thing to do to pass the time was eat and that is exactly what we did. Backtrack got creative and made a roasting stick for us to melt cheese into tortilla wraps with Old Bay seasoning. Not bad!
We kept the fire going well into the night while the rains pounded the shelter walls. We are happy to be dry and warm but the weather has slowed our progress. Temperatures are expected to drop below freezing tomorrow once the tropical storm passes through the area. We went to sleep knowing tomorrow will be challenging.
The rains continued through the night along with heavier winds. Backtrack even heard a large tree fall somewhere nearby. We slept through it. As the tropical rainstorm moves past the area, the back end of system brought more tropical temperatures. We enjoyed the warmer weather and the colors of the sunrise. However knowing that freezing temperatures are in the forecast we needed to make some moves.
After a discussion, we feel our two best options would be:
Option 1: Camp at Rich Mountain Fire Tower. The mileage is right and we could escape the rain for a few hours in the tower if needed.
Option 2: Spring Mountain Shelter. If wet and cold weather makes hiking on too challenging this would be our bailout option.
We set out feeling good with our plan. Along the rocky ridgeline we enjoyed the warmth of the sunshine burning off the cloud cover. We sat for a minute soaking up the rays and the views. However we may have lollygagged a little too long for second breakfast. This will likely impact us later but we couldn’t pass up the sun.
Around 11AM the fog started to roll in along with some light mist. Not too bad and nothing that worried us. We crossed a dirt road and noticed a sign saying homemade cookies and water just a short distance down the road. We definitely never turn down food, so we strolled up to the property and chatted with the owners who were sitting on their porch. They are originally from Ohio and very nice! They haven’t been getting many thru-hikers this time of year and gave us each 2 cookies. We enjoyed the trail magic but noticed that Backtrack didn’t sign the log. He must have pushed on, his loss!
We opted not to fill our water bottles at the trail magic as we both still had a full liter. Once we left the fog thickened, the rain started, and the temperature started to drop. A few miles later we arrived at Spring Mountain Shelter. We were thankful to get out the elements but this shelter was in terrible shape with several floor boards missing. It would be challenging to sleep in this shelter.
After warming up as best we could, we set off to Rich Mountain which is about 2.5 miles away. We didn’t fill up at the stream that was .1 from the shelter because there is spring on the trail .4 from we’re we plan to camp. Which proved to be another mistake.
The rain continued to fall and temperatures continued to drop. When we arrived at the spring around 3:45PM, we were surprised to find just a small dirt filled puddle even after nearly 36 hours of rain. Wet and cold, we both just looked at each other thinking the same thing. It’s only 8.5 miles to the town of Hot Springs so that is what we decided to do. As thru-hikers, we need to be adaptive to the changing scenarios and sometimes you just have to dig deep.
Thankfully the rain lightened up but the fog remained thick and the sun sets before 5:30PM. Night hiking in these conditions was challenging but luckily the terrain wasn’t too technical and we thanked the south again for their use of switchbacks.
Around 6:30PM we could see the town lights in the distance. With each sighting Hayley would shout “Oh town, you beautiful son of a b*tch!”. We also laughed at each spring we passed (at least two) that was flowing steadily. Our decision to hike on to town might not have come to fruition if we had gotten water earlier. The bad spring was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
We hiked along the roaring rapids of the French Broad River. It was likely running several feet above average with all the rain. It would have been an amazing site had it not been so dark, cold and foggy. Finally we emerged from the trees into the small hiker town that was bumping on a rainy night. Even in the cold misting rain people were out and about on a saturday night. We hustled through the town to the Dollar General on the outskirts and grabbed some beer and hot pockets. The cold was creeping into our bones and we couldn’t stop shivering in our wet clothes.
We arrived at Laughing Heart Hostel and checked in quickly and were given the rundown and tour. We immediately showered and felt so relieved to be out of the elements. We were happy to see we had the bunkhouse to ourselves and we had control of the thermostat. We turned the dial to 80 degrees to dry our gear and stay warm. All of our poor decisions made earlier in the day ultimately led us here. Once showered and in some dry loaner clothes, we enjoyed our beer and hot pockets, laughing at our miserable marathon hike. We knew we certainly made the right decision to push on. Definitely the best worst case scenario and we are thankful for the luck we did have.
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