Come Rain or Snow (Day 17-21)

The Great and Powerful Smokies (or is it Smokeys?)

Great Smoky Mountain National Park felt like a huge milestone. Maybe it was hitting the 200 mile mark or hiking up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT. Whatever it was, it felt good to be there. The Smokies certainly held some uncertainties, despite the excitement. The trail rides the border between Tennessee and North Carolina which also sits along a ridge line of the Smoky Mountains, some of the highest mountains in the Appalachian Range. With much of the mountain range sitting above 5,000 ft, the weather can be fairly unpredictable and snow can make an appearance even into late April and early May. I had spent a small amount of time in the Smokies on a camping road trip a few years back and I remember thinking how green and lush it was. While that may not have been the same scene I approached when I entered the Smokies, things really started to bloom by my departure.

The Smoky Mountains are well known for their biodiversity and, of course, their dense black bear population. Bears?! Everyone’s favorite warning before entering the Smokies. “Make sure you’re bear aware!” I was so convinced I’d see a bear upon entering the park that I must’ve spent half the hike on my first day just scanning the forest. Unfortunately (but maybe fortunately), I didn’t see one bear during my time in this park. Unless of course you count the drawings of them at every shelter sign that says “Be Bear Aware”. It is highly encouraged to stay at or tent around the designated shelters in the park and each shelter has established bear cables to hang your food at the end of the day. This makes staying in the park nearly idiot-proof when it comes to food safety and bears. I say nearly because unfortunately, many people still leave trash and crumbs behind at these shelters making it more dangerous for the rest of us to be able to enjoy them.

Sunset at Silers Bald Shelter (shelter not pictured)

I could go off on a tangent about the amount of silly trash left behind that can very easily be carried out but I’ll keep it short: Pack in what you pack out! Okay, back to the shelters. Along the AT, there are countless shelters or lean-to’s that people can stay in, especially on bad weather days. They’re usually made of wood or stone and have 3 walls with an overhanging roof. A few even have a fireplace built into one of the stone walls. I have yet to actually stay inside a shelter on my hike (my tent has become my little hideaway) but I have enjoyed a few great fires inside them on freezing cold nights. One chilly night in particular, which happened to be my first night in the Smokies, about 15 of us stayed at and around Mollies Ridge Shelter. When I arrived around 6pm after hiking 16 miles from Fontana Dam, a fire was already blazing in the shelter in anticipation of the cold, windy night ahead. As you can imagine, this ignited pure joy in almost everyone who hikes in that night.

“Chickadee” roasting some marshmallows over the shelter fire

Weather, shmeather

Although some nights were at or below freezing, we managed to escape the Smokies without any seriously dangerous conditions. Nature even decided to grace us with a display of Carolina springbeauties covering the forest floor a few miles before the first shelter. This blanket of white and green was a pleasant surprise in contrast to what had been, for the first 100+ miles, a brown, desolate backdrop. Finally, the first signs of spring and warm weather! I could feel the shift in my own mentality as these small but mighty flowers began appearing more and more on trail.

Spurts of white and green peaking through the barren brown

Hello down there!

As spring began bursting through, the trail turned into a sea of mossy trees and young budding plants. I felt like I was transported into the Pacific Northwest as the spruce trees began to loom over the trail and the smell of pine filled my nostrils. As the trail winded through this temperate rainforest, a new landmark lay ahead. Clingman’s Dome sits at 6,643’ and has been deemed the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. Wait what?! You mean the White Mountains don’t have it beat? Yep, that’s right. This mountain in western North Carolina not only serves as the highest point on trail but also marks mile 200 for thru-hikers. Another accomplishment! We were blessed with blue skies and warm(ish) temperatures on our Clingman’s day. 360 degree views of the mountains we had walked through and the trail that lay ahead of us was quite the gift as we walked some extra steps up the spaceship-esque lookout tower.

Peep the snack in my hand. Priorities.
Spruce trees and moss galore

Gatlinburg

As I hiked down from Clingman’s and eventually into Newfound Gap, I had no idea the cultural experience that lay ahead. If you’re familiar with the national park, you may know that Gatlinburg, TN sits just beyond the park boundaries. Gatlinburg is like the Jersey Shore boardwalk on steroids. After being on trail for almost three weeks and having only stopped in small trail towns, Gatlinburg was overwhelming to say the least. My trail buddies and I were very generously and selflessly offered a ride from U-Turn, a former AT hiker, who happened to be handing out trail magic the day we needed to head into Gatlinburg. I honestly don’t know how we would’ve survived in Gatlinburg without U-Turn carting us around from the trail to our hotel then to the grocery store and back. This woman deserves an award, especially after the traffic she had to sit through!

I wish somebody could have taped the five of us hikers walking around the grocery store absolutely wiped, sweaty and hungry looking like zombies while the entire population of Gatlinburg tourists bought their groceries for the week. I’m not kidding, this grocery store was more packed than a Target on Black Friday. Okay, I’ve never been to a Target on Black Friday but I imagine it’s as wild as this place was. Here I am, loading my cart up with tuna packets, tortillas, and ramen while the rest of the town is buying Easter brunch. Oh, did I mention it was Easter weekend? No wonder the place was a madhouse! I can’t speak for the rest of the town at all, aside from the strip we drove down, but I bet there are some people really enjoying themselves in good ‘ole Gatlinburg, TN.

We got out of Gatlinburg as quickly as we arrived, of course after enjoying a few burgers and beers. I even managed to make it to church on Easter Sunday (yes, Mom and Dad, I made it) which I think was really helpful in re-grounding me after the stress of the resupply. With our food bags full and our packs heavy yet again, we got in some easy and really beautiful miles on Easter Sunday, heading towards the eastern end of the park.

A photo depicting the resupply struggle on our hotel room floor
Easter lunch on trail including some candy from Chickadee’s mom!

Onward and upward

The rest of the Smokies gave us misty, foggy mornings followed by warm, sunny afternoons. A few new friends (including a fellow Trek blogger, s/o Hummingbird!) and a furry friend (a golden-doodle named Micah) were made along the way. I completed my biggest mileage day yet on the way out of the park which also included an incredible dip in the Pigeon River. The days were getting warmer (so I thought) and the miles were getting just a little bit easier. As I said goodbye to the great and powerful Smokies, I felt like one big check mark could be placed on my AT itinerary and damn, what a good feeling that was!

2,000 more to go!

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