AT Update: On the Edge of the Smokies

Day 14:

Today was a fun day because we had no plans. Well, we had “plans,” but they were pretty loose with the details. First things first, we needed to find our ride. Bun’s husband (who I’m not gonna name because I forgot to ask if he was ok with that) was coming to pick us up around 10:00, so down to the road we went, and waited. And waited. And waited. Turns out, he went to the wrong gap. It’s a really easy mistake to make, but difficult to fix, because of the limited cell service.

Eventually, someone headed to town came up, and Bun hitched a ride to the other gap to go find him and come back. Lindsey, Heimlich, and I waited. And waited. Aaaaaaaand waited. We were there for so long that Ms. Janet showed up out of nowhere, so we managed to get a little trail magic before getting into town. Right after that, Bun came back. Her husband had waited for us at the other gap, and when we weren’t there he started walking down the trail, without his phone of course. So she had to run down the trail and find him. But with that all sorted, we piled into his truck, and went off to the campground.

Good news! My box was at the campsite! Bad news! Lindsey’s wasn’t, and there wasn’t enough stuff there to resupply for enough days, so we really did have to go into town. That’s ok, we could make a fun day of it. So we got dropped at a cafe, said goodbye to Bun, her husband, and Heimlich. This was Bun’s last day on trail, so we won’t see her for a while, but hopefully up the road she can come out to meet us. After that, we wandered over to Outdoor 76 to drop our stuff and check out the resupply situation. They’re a really great outfitter, and are super helpful for thru-hikers, with a whole area downstairs to drop packs, charge electronics, and do laundry. We dropped our stuff, and walked over to the supermarket for resupply.

On our way out of Ingles, we got some good news; Rusty (Betsy) was in town! We had somehow caught up to her, so we got lunch at a brewery and hung out for a while. It was really nice to see her again, and we decided to camp in the same spot tonight. We’ll probably be together for the next few days, at least I hope we will. We went back to the outfitter to pack in our stuff, and catch the shuttle back to the gap.

Well, at least we thought we were gonna catch a shuttle. But it turns out I can’t read, and I thought the shuttle left at 3:45 when it actually left at 3:00. So bad news is we missed it. The good news is that it doesn’t run on Saturdays anyway, so yeah. That was fun. But it’s ok, the outdoor 76 people gave us a list of other people in the area who provided shuttles, and we managed to catch a ride within five minutes back to the gap. When we were back, we set off to finally do some hiking for the day. Crazy, I know. But we still had about five miles to crank out before sunset. The hiking was way more uphill than I think we bargained for, and we were very full from the town food. Eventually it leveled out, but we seemed to be going on forever. About three times we thought we should be at the campsite by now, but we didn’t get there.

By 5:00, we were starting to get worried. About 30 seconds before we really started to panic, we turned a corner and saw Rusty’s tent set up. Thank god. So, we got our stuff set up and ate dinner. It’s only the three of us, so it feels a teeny bit sketchy what with bears and such, but our food is well stashed, so I think we’ll be ok. I guess we’ll find out in the morning.

It was really nice to get a quick little dip into town today. Honestly, I kind of wish we could’ve gone further without getting off trail, but I think we made the best of it anyway. We still got some good miles in, and we’re going at a good pace now, so I think we’re still on a really good track. Plus with the difficult past couple days, it was nice for there to be a shorter day. I was sad to see Bun leave, but it’s nice to be back with Rusty. I hope Emma and Meg are ok. I haven’t heard from them. Carmen too. We saw her this morning, but nothing since. It’s a weird feeling to walk away (literally) from people without knowing if/when you’ll see them again. It’s supposed to be warm tonight, so fingers crossed for a good night sleep.

Quote of the day: “I am so extremely team oxford comma.”

How many owls would you have to see before you got suspicious?: “Together? Probably like three. In a row? Like five? That’s an owl gang.”

Day 15:

Ladies and gentlemen, we are firmly in bald country. What’s a bald? It the top of a mountain. Why is it called a bald? I don’t really know? I think cause there’s no trees? But all the balds we saw today had a good amount of trees. Oh well 🤷‍♂️. We woke up around 7:30 and had time for a nice hot breakfast (which has been a rarity recently) before getting under way. The morning was a pretty easy walk, although it was uphill, it wasn’t very steep. We slowly, slowly climbed up to the top of Siler Bald, about three miles past our campsite. We didn’t go up to the top because it was a long uphill away from the trail, and screw that. We had more miles to do, and boy oh boy did we have more hills to climb.

Us rn

On the way down from Siler Bald we found something really, really cool. We were just walking along a random little ridge, me in front and Lindsey a little way behind. I hear her shout “oh my god!” from around a corner, so I run back to check out what’s going on. And what did she find? Chestnut burrs!!! She had found two flowering American Chestnuts! Now you may be asking yourself “why is that so cool?” And if you don’t want to hear me nerd out about trees for a sec, skip the next paragraph.

Chestnuts used to dominate the entire east coast, and grew to massive size (like, think redwood size), until a blight infection from eastern Europe caused them to become functionally extinct. They do technically survive in their root systems underground, but they rarely can send up more than a sapling before it gets killed off by blight. It’s really, really rare to see a sexually mature chestnut tree. And it is one of the biggest disappointments of my life that I won’t get to walk through a mature chestnut forest. So for us to find not one but TWO trees that were dropping seeds was really really cool. Technically (although Lindsey’s much more of a downer about this than I am), as long as they can flower they could develop resistance to the blight, which would let them regrow and come back into the ecosystem. I do hope to see a fully fully mature one some day. There are a few out there, but they are hard to find and even harder to get access to. But hopefully one day.

Ok, need rant over. A few hours after that we started our big challenge for the day; climbing Wayah Bald. This is the tallest bald on the AT, and it gets pretty steep at points, so we were a little nervous. But, we did get some trail magic to send us off. The lady was trying to bring teens who had left the church back into it, and she figured giving out candy was a good way to do that. I don’t think I was her target audience, but her candy was good. The climb took us a couple of hours. About 1.5 miles from the top, we met a couple of people who told us there was a buffet at the summit. I didn’t believe them, but we pressed on anyway. It got really really steep right at the end, but we started to hear voices. This isn’t uncommon at the top of a hill, especially when a bunch of hikers pile up, but everyone sounded far too happy for a normal gathering. Turns out, we had trail magic at the top too! And boy oh boy was it a good one. Breakfast burritos, soup, snacks, drinks, it was amazing. We hung out there for a WHILE. And the view from the top of the bald was also really really cool. We could see for miles around, as far back as Albert mountain (20ish miles behind us), and as far up as Clingmans dome (spoiler for the smokies!!!)

View from the top of Wayah Bald

After our trail magic, we headed up to our campsite for the day. Now, here’s where things got interesting. Where we had decided to camp was about four miles straight downhill from Wayah. When we got there, we saw that there was no one at our campsite. So now we had a choice to make. Do we camp by ourselves in bear country, or do we hike another 3.5 miles uphill to the next shelter, where some of our friends were staying? After five minutes of rest, we decided to press on. It was gonna make our day 15 miles, which is a lot, but seemed worth it at that moment. We had to go music mode for this one, but we made it in the end. We cooked dinner, had a couple of beers we had picked up from trail magic, and got ready for sleep. It was a long day, but a very fun one.

The weather has been really nice the past couple days. This was the first day I didn’t struggle to get out of my sleeping bag in the morning. It was good to start the day on a good note. The rest of the day was pretty good. I think I’m really getting into the rhythm of this. Mentally I felt pretty good today too. Frisbee on my mind a lot for some reason. I’m a little sad to be missing this season, but oh well. There are other summers. I also got to talk to my dad and brothers for a while, so that was really, really nice. Tomorrow should also be a good day, we’re going down into a good outfitter, and meeting Lindsey’s parents the day after. All good things for the next couple days.

Quote of the day: “I got an egg in my body, and I’m gonna lay it!”

How many owls would you have to see before you got suspicious?:

Day 16:

Todays forecast: mid 50s with 100% chance of walking in a cloud. I overslept a little bit, so we were a little late getting out of here. Whoops 😬. We also started off by walking about a quarter mile in the wrong direction. So yeah, tough morning. But we were walking literally through mist and clouds for pretty much the entire morning. It was a really cool the real feeling. I’m sure we passed some pretty views, but we couldn’t see them. We also saw another chestnut! It was really cool.

Our hike this morning

We had one really big climb for the day, which we started around 10:00. Compared to the climbs yesterday, it wasn’t all that bad, but after putting 15 miles on our legs, I think we were both feeling it a little bit. We took it pretty slow, and a few people we knew passed us on the way up, so it was nice to see some familiar faces. At the top of the mountain there was a really cool wooden watch tower with a 360 view of all the mountains. We could see back a good chunk of what we had climbed in NC so far, and waaaaaaay off in the distance, we could see the Smokies. They’re getting much closer now, and I’m starting to get excited. And a little nervous. I suspect we will get our asses kicked a little bit. But it should be fun.

This is supposedly a cool view

After hanging out at the tower for a while, and electrolyting up, we started our down climb toward the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). Now you may be thinking, “Oh, down! So easy!” I’m not gonna lie, I was too. But oh no, not this down. This down was STEEP. And NARROW. I’m talking like having to sit and slide down boulders, and if you step wrong, bye-bye. It was quite difficult, and more than a little freaky. I was glad we had stopped for lunch before we went down, because I was exhausted by the end of it. But don’t worry, we only had like four more miles to go. And all downhill, but the easy kind this time.

The rest of the way was pretty standard for us. Steady downs, winding roads, and mostly dead forest. Things are just barely starting to bud, I can’t wait til everything flowers. But it was a nice walk, and it was beautiful outside. We met up with our friend the Doctors for the last mile or so of our approach to the shelter, and it was very nice to need out with them about various things, from plants to a snake we saw to pretty much everything else. They’re very nice. But they ended up pushing on to the NOC, and we stopped at a shelter a half mile or so back. It’s supposed to be a beautiful night, so we decided to just hang out here and not spend the money on a hostel.

We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out around camp, just chatting with people who came through. Will passed by, it was nice to see him for a minute. Dave came a few minutes behind, but he decided to stay at the shelter with us, so we’ve got a familiar face here. Rusty also showed up right after dinner, she had set up camp here but gone ahead to check out the NOC, which was apparently really cool. We’ll pass through there tomorrow, I’m pretty excited for it. We’re also meeting Lindsey’s parents, and are gonna do some slack packing (backpacking but leaving some of our stuff behind to be picked up later) with them. Exciting stuff!

Today was a pretty good day all around. I think I’ve been feeling a little pressure that each day should be this amazing wonderful big thing, but the reality is that’s not always the case. Don’t get me wrong, this whole thing is fantastic, and amazing journey so far, but some days are really just walking through the woods. As fun as it is, it’s not always blow-your-mind cool. And I’m trying to allow it to be both of those things without adding pressure in. Me and Lindsey are also trying out trail names (tbd if we’re gonna keep them), which is kinda cool, but I feel a little weird about the idea of trail names. I don’t know if I’m that different of a person out here. And I don’t know if I want to be. But we’ll see.

Quote of the day: “I love the taste of leaf piss in the morning.”

How many owls would you have to see before you got suspicious?: “I don’t get suspicious of owls. I see like an infinite number.”

Day 17:

Ladies and gentlemen, we cheated today. I didn’t think we were going to be, but we did. We woke up at around 8:00 and left camp around 8:15. We only had a half mile hike to the NOC, which we got done in about 20 minutes (in tevas, neither of us wanted to out on real shoes). The NOC wasn’t open yet, but Lindsey’s parents were there waiting for us with bananas and protein bars and plenty of smiles. It was nice to see them. And here’s where the cheating comes in.

We did what’s called slack packing. Basically, you leave most of your stuff with someone and take a day pack with only what you need for that day. Later, someone will pick you up, you stay the night at a hotel, and get dropped off where you were picked up the next day. Now for a lot of people, slack packing doesn’t feel like cheating. And to be honest, I didn’t think it would either. Here’s the reason I really think it felt like cheating. The climb out of the NOC is notoriously difficult. Starting at a little over 1,700 feet, we climbed all the way to Cheoah bald, at just above 5,000 feet. I’ll let you do the math on that one.

So yeah, it was supposed to be a really tough day. And it was, even with the lighter packs. The climb went up and up and up. It took us about four hours to finally get to the top. Up there, we had lunch and sat resting for a while. We were supposed to have a cool view, but it was too cloudy, so we didn’t see anything. The climb down was much easier and pretty uneventful, other than Lindsey slipping and falling twice. Oh, and we stopped to swing on a vine, which felt pretty cool.

Our beautiful lunch view

When we got to the gap, there were a bunch of old people waiting there, which was terrifying, but we got picked up and headed to the hotel. We took showers, changed to clean clothes, and went for dinner (mexican food, duh). It was delicious, we demolished it. After that I made a quick stop at Ingles to supply for the smokies. I basically picked up ten days’ worth of stuff, so I should be good all the way through. It’ll be interesting though, the weather I think is gonna be our biggest challenge. Supposedly they had 65mph winds last week, so that’ll be fun. But yeah, exciting stuff.

I spent a lot of time listening to audiobooks today. I really needed the distraction. I didn’t sleep well, and bad sleep plus physically difficult is a bad combo. But we got through it. Feeling much more refreshed now after a shower and real food. The weather is going to be interesting the next few days, and that’s even before we get to the smokies. Excited to sleep through a snow storm apparently. Yeah, we’ll see how well that goes.

Quote of the day: “Oh god, I hope they don’t observe me.”

No new faces, so no owl question. People are a little spread out now, so it may get harder, unfortunately.

Day 18:

Sleeping in a hotel while it storms was a beautiful experience. I got a solid amount of sleep and almost missed breakfast. But I got down just in time and ate probably more than I should’ve before going upstairs to finish packing. We took our time this morning and got moving around like 10:30. It would’ve been a little estilista, but I forgot to print out my backcountry pass for the smokies, so I had to go back and do that.

Once we left the hotel, we drove over to Bryson City to walk around a little bit and hang out for the rest of the morning. It’s a really cute little town, but there isn’t a whole lot to do there. We got lunch at a little diner, it was nice to get some last real food before we hopped back on the road. We also got milkshakes, which me and Lindsey have been talking about for weeks (we regretted that once we started hiking again). We drove back to the gap from yesterday a little while after lunch. There were no old people this time, which was nice, but it was WINDY. We had to change a little bit before we left, and we almost lost several clothes to the wind and a cliff. Naturally, we bundled up edite we got te road.

Of course, as soon as we started hiking, the wind went away, and we started sweating. We dropped a layer and kept moving. We had only planned on going like two miles to the shelter. We got to a point where it looked like the shelter might be, and I went down to take a look. Me going alone, BIG mistake. to me it looked like the trail went down to water and then off a cliff, but APPARENTLY that’s where the shelter was, and we missed it. We didn’t realize until we were about two miles pat it, so we pressed on to the next camp site. So yeah, we accidentally did too many miles again. But it makes our next couple days easier. Tomorrow we’re into Fontana, and the day after we start the Smokies!!!

It’s been mentally weird the past few days. Maybe it’s just how much we’ve been in town. But I just feel really… apathetic? Like I’m not having a BAD time, but I don’t really feel like I’m having a GOOD time right now? But I can’t figure out why. It’s weird. I don’t want to stop, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do if the feeling doesn’t go away. I know I would feel worse if I stop, but I don’t know what I need to feel better. It’s quite annoying. Hopefully I can figure it out soon.

Quote of the day: “It’s sunny, there’s no clouds in the sky…. of course it’s snowing!!!”

I’m gonna stop putting the owl question in unless I get a chance to ask someone new. Hopefully I find new people soon.

Day 19:

It was again, cold as shit last night. And snowy. Like the type of snow that feels like rocks and slams your tent. Cold night, but I slept ok. We woke up with a nice dusting of snow on the ground, while the wind was still whipping. We snacked on some bars and got moving, it’s the best way to get warm. It was gonna be a relatively easy day, only ten or so miles mostly flat and downhill.

It was a pretty nice hike in the morning. We’re crossing Fontana Dam today, and we could see it for miles as we slowly wound down the mountain. We did throw around lots of dam jokes (shoutout Rick Riordan for most of ’em). As we manage to do almost every time it’s cold, we went quicker than we meant to. We reached the gap we were heading to by 12:00 and waited about 20 minutes for the shuttle into town.

“Town” is a strong word, it’s really just a lodge and a general store. I picked up one of my packages, but unfortunately my second one hadn’t gotten there yet. So that was a little terrifying, the idea of heading into the Smokies with not enough food. But fortunately, the general store had enough, so I could resupply if I needed too. But fortunately the box got here in time. I’ve got about 50 pounds of food in my back at the moment, but we’re supplied for the next week, so that’ll be fun.

The last miles or so of the day we did after twin. It was a beautiful hike, right along a lake. It reminds me a lot of lake Sabago, which I grew up hiking and kayaking around. Nice little remnant of childhood I guess. And the trees are way greener down here than up on the mountain, so it feels much more like spring.

A view of the lake

We’re staying at a place called the “Fontana Hilton,” which is a shelter, but apparently it’s got running water and showers, so very fancy stuff. On the other hand, it’s gonna be insanely cold for the next two days, so you win some you lose some. I’ll survive, but it’s not gonna be the most comfortable, especially heading up into the mountains. But who knows, the weather can change on a dime up there, so fingers crossed it’ll stay clear.

I felt a lot better today. I think I maybe just needed some good sleep. I wouldn’t say I was super excited, it’s hard to be when it’s 30 and windy pretty much the whole day, but definitely better than yesterday. Fingers crossed it keeps getting better. I’m super excited for the smokies, I think it’ll be a ton of fun. It’ll for sure be the most out there stuff we’ve done so far, both in terms of the weather and the fact that there’s just like…. nothing out there. Especially if the way to Gatlinburg stays closed, we’re pretty much on our own for a week. On the bright side, we met up with pretty much our whole crew here, so We should be togetherish heading in. I think it’ll be good.

Quote of the day: “Dibs on his thighs!”

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 2

  • Richard : Apr 4th

    I am enjoying your posts. Thank you for mentioning the Chestnut trees. I am one of many people who hope we can bring them back. It must have been a different forest, when they were here.

  • Jenny : Apr 5th

    I, too, appreciate your shout out to the American Chestnut. I hike in the Shenandoah often and see the saplings- hoping for their return.


What Do You Think?