My Journey Through The North Carolina/Tennessee Portion Of The Appalachian Trail

I entered North Carolina on March 20. My first border crossing really made the hike start to feel real.

I walked with Aaron, who I mentioned in my last post, a little, but after a few days in North Carolina, I got ahead of him, and I haven’t seen him since.

Being Kidnapped

A couple days into the state, I got to the Nanhatala Outdoor Center, which the trail runs right through. I thought it was a really cool spot that I’d love to return to again some day. They had a slalom kayaking course and a scenic train ride through the smoky mountains.

It was there I reunited with Jennifer and Angela. If you read my previous post, you’ll know I hiked with these two ladies a little in Georgia.

Jennifer’s parents were joining them, though they didn’t hike themselves. They brought a camper van and we’re driving alongside the trail, meeting Jennifer and Angela at road crossings along the trail to pick them up, feed them and allow them to sleep in the camper van.

We ended up hiking together for a bit. The two joked that I was gonna be part of their tramily (Tramily is short for “trail family,” hiker lingo for a group of people you hike with.) whether I liked it or not. They were also a little bit older than me, so they joked that I was their “kidnapped child.” They were kind enough to invite me to come with them and sleep on the couch of the campervan for several nights.

Over the next bit I learned just how interesting these two ladies were. Angela was a black belt in karate and an annual Burning Man attendee. Jennifer had an inspiring story. The two of them planned to thru-hike the trail in 2023, but unfortunately Jennifer was run over by a drunk driver just before their hike, leaving her with several cracked vertebrae, a cracked rib and forcing doctors to remove her spleen and part of her pancreas. She’d spent the past year recovering and building back her strength. (I wrote more extensively about her story in another post here.) Still, she was a ball of positive energy and a delight to hike with.

I also got to know Angela’s parents, Gary and Sheila. Gary was the absolute man, and Sheila had such a lovely presence. The two were wonderful. Each afternoon after we finished hiking, they’d meet the three of us at a road crossing, we’d get whatever resupply we’d need and then we’d find somewhere to park the campervan and set up for the night. They cooked dinner each night and kindly included me in that.

We parked the camper van in state parks, public forest service spots and one night I was surprised to find that they decided to rent a cabin at Fontana Village Resort, and a couch in that cabin had a pull-out bed that they allowed me to sleep on. I was overwhelmed by how kind these folks were to me.

Into The Smokies

The morning we woke up in the cabin, the forecast was anticipating rain. At the same time, Angela and Jennifer were feeling real tired, so the two of them decided they wanted to take the day off of hiking. However, I decided I’d keep going, so I returned to the trail that day. I was disappointed to be seperated from Jennifer and Angela, and although, we didn’t get to hike together super long, I loved being in a temporary tramily with them (Although, the term tramily makes me cringe, lol.).

That morning I entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

The expected rain came. And it came hard.

Walking into the national park, I’d experienced my toughest day thus far. If you know anything about the Smoky Mountains, you’ll know they’re extremely windy. That wind, combined with the heavy rain and a cold temperature made for an extremely tough day.

Being blasted by that cold rain really got to me. I was slipping in the mud, feeling the brunt of the weather and all around not having a great time.

I decided to cut my day earlier than I had originally planned and holed up in Mollie’s Bridge Shelter (If you’re familiar with the Appalachian Trail, you likely already know, but strewn about the trail are basic shelters, essentially three walls and a roof, for hikers to sleep in lieu of their tents.) for the evening. I was not alone. During poor weather, the shelters can, for obvious reasons, get crowded.

I met some other super nice hikers in the shelter and we all commiserated together about the struggles of the day.

However, the next day I learned a lesson, I’d already learned a couple times and would learn many more times on the trail. To quote a favorite poem of mine by Rainer Maria Rilke: “No feeling is final.” In other words, this rough day would pass and better days would follow.

Now that I’m done being pretentious and quoting poetry, I can’t wait to tell you how beautiful the Smoky Mountains were. After a really rough day, I woke up and started hiking to find the best views of the hike so far. The following days were filled with absolutely majestic sights.

The Smokies also included Clingman’s Dome, one of the most famous spots on the Appalachian Trail and the highest elevation on the entire trail. That being said, I though Clingman’s Dome was nice, but there were better views in other parts of the Smoky Mountains. The park was just filled with wonderful views.

The park was also filled with heavy winds. The winds, combined with the high elevation of the area made the park a very cold place to be. There were a couple more moments during my time in the park that the cold was getting to me (particularly in my fingers).

There was one morning in particular I was really losing the mental battle. Although, I kept walking, and a man came up to me with his two kids.

“Are you a thru-hiker?” He asked. After I told him I was, he gushed about how cool it was that I was walking all the way from Georgia to Maine, and kept asking me questions about the logistics, the challenges and other aspects of thru-hiking. Then he asked if I’d take a photo with him and his son.

It was a nice reminder that what I was doing was really cool and special. It was a good pick-me-up at a time I was struggling a little bit.

I made it through the National Park in five days. During that time I hit the North Carolina-Tennessee border, but I never got too far into Tennessee. If you’re familiar with the trail, you’ll know that the trail zig-zags back and forth between the two states for hundreds of miles. Most of the time I didn’t actually know which state I was in.

A couple nice hostel stays

Soon after leaving the national park, I arrived at Standing Bear Farm. Standing Bear Farm is a working farm right off the trail near Hartford, Tennessee, but it’s also a hostel that caters to thru-hikers.

Along the trail, I heard a lot about Standing Bear. It has a reputation as a party hostel. The way people described it, you’d think it was a seedy or sketchy place, but that wasn’t my experience at all.

I loved Standing Bear. It had such a pleasant farm atmosphere, and yes, people were sitting out by the fire drinking beers and having a good time, but there was no obligation to join in. If you wanted to head to the bunkroom and go to bed, there was nothing stopping you.

I really enjoyed having a couple beers, talking with other hikers and I even played a couple folks in some chess.

At the hostel I met some cool hikers, including two other young hikers: Gourmet, an electrician from Tennessee that I’d met earlier in Smoky Mountain National Park, and Special K, a nurse from Wisconsin that was moving along the trail faster than anyone else I met (Gourmet and Special K were their trail names, nicknames given to them by other hikers; on the trail, everyone goes by their trail names and by this point, almost everyone had been given a trail name already.).

I also met Pink, who was working at the hostel in exchange for room and board. Pink was a true and proud vagabond. He comes to the trail every year to “hike” north. This year, he got to Amicalola Falls, hiked up the approach trail to Springer Mountain, the starting point of the trail for northbound hikers, and immediately went to the nearest parking lot to hitch a ride 30 miles up to Neel Gap where he worked-for-stay at a hostel there. He’s been hitch-hiking up the trail since, partying with whatever hikers he meets at the various hostels. He called the Appalachian Trail “a single-file party from Georgia to Maine.”

After staying at Standing Bear, I hiked just two days to Hot Springs, North Carolina, one of the few towns that the trail runs directly through, which I’d heard was a really cool trail town. I heard correctly.

In Hot Springs, I stayed at the Hostel at Laughing Heart Lodge, which was another great spot.

When I got there, I was pleased to find that Special K and Gourmet were also there. I also ran into Plantasia, a gal from New York, and Pig Pen, a gal from Ontario, both hikers I’d met in the shelter after that rough rainy day in the Smokies. They were hiking with Sweet Stuff, a recent Clemson University grad.

That night we all went to a really awesome pizza spot in Hot Springs.

Another hiker staying at the hostel named Sweet Potato was a yoga instructor off trail, and she was kind enough to do a yoga session for the other guests. I joined in and it felt glorious to stretch out all my muscles after all this hiking. It was also so pleasant to be surrounded by beautiful mountains while doing it.

I got a trail name

Just after I left Hot Springs, I was finally given a trail name. I was sitting with a couple hikers at camp, and one hiker said I should be “Captain Red Beard” because I have a red beard. However, when I told them I was color blind, a hiker named Happy Feet said I should be “Green Bead” (She also dropped the “Captain.”) and I really liked that one so that became my name from then on. Since that point, I really haven’t introduced myself as Will, just Green Beard.

Some challenging weather

The morning after I got my trail name, we got some heavy rain, but the rain didn’t come close to what was yet to come.

The night after that, I woke up to the noise of what I thought was a tree branch falling on my tent. “I’m glad that wasn’t a bigger branch,” I thought before reaching up to feel it.

At that point, I realized it wasn’t a tree branch, but rather a pack of snow. I looked to the side of my tent to see several inches of thick snow.

“Well, here we go,” I thought.

It was cold, very cold. I got a really slow start to the morning, which I attribute to the morale blow from the snow.

However, once I started walking, I loved it. The mountains were beautiful in the snow and it was just so pleasant.

I ended up hiking a bit with K.P. and Birddog, two hikers I’d met in Hot Springs, for a bit.

That night had less precipitation, but was much colder. Sleeping in it was so tough, the hardest sleep I’ve had on the whole trip.

After two more days of hiking in that, I needed a mental break, so I did a short day ahead of Irwin, Tennessee, and stayed at Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and Outfitter.

My first time hitchhiking

While at Uncle Johnny’s, I decided to get some pizza in town, which was a short ways away, and I needed to resupply my food. Along the Appalachian Trail, hitch hiking is very common. Hikers need to get into towns down the road from the trail often, but don’t have a car, so they stick out a thumb and wait on the kindness of strangers.

I knew this was common along the trail, and I planned to do it. I’d heard drivers near the trail are very used to it and often happy to give hikers rides. And that turned out to be very true in my case. The first driver I saw, a forest service employee driving a pick-up truck, stopped to give me a ride within a minute.

After devouring an ungodly amount of pizza, I asked the cashier at the Pizza Plus I was eating at for directions to the Walgreens and Food City grocery store. In an unexpectedly kind twist, he told me he was about to deliver a pizza that direction and said I should just come with him, so I did.

After resupplying, I again stuck my thumb out to get back to my hostel, and it took slightly longer than before, but I quickly got a ride. When I got in the man’s car, I learned it was the town manager who was driving me. He told me a bit about the town. I’m actually a former local government newspaper reporter, and I previously worked in a small Missouri town not unlike Irwin—plus, I’m a bit of a geek—so we chatted a bit about municipal government and small town politics.

He and everyone I ran into in Irwin were very kind.

Marathoning into Damascas

After I got out of Irwin, I pushed through a rainstorm and hiked a few more days until I got to Iron Mountain Shelter. Iron Mountain Shelter is 26 miles away from Damascas, Virginia and the terrain out of Tennessee and into the fourth state on the Appalachian Trail is comparably easy, so it’s a tradition to walk a marathon into the town.

Birddog, Plantasia, Pig Pen and Sweet Stuff were also at the shelter that night, so I ended up walking into Virginia with them on April 13.

Some highlights from North Carolina/Tennessee I haven’t mentioned in this post include Max Patch, a mountain with such a pleasant, grassy summit; wonderful views of the Nanhatala and French Broad rivers; and beautiful waterfalls, including Mountaineer Falls and Laurel Falls.A photo of a waterfall.

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Comments 1

  • Jingle bells : May 11th

    Enjoyed this summary. Thanks for sharing your adventure.


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