Since leaving Fontana…
Day 24: Fontana Dam to Mollies Ridge Shelter, 11 miles (entering the Smokies).
Day 25: Mollies Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter, 12 miles.
Day 26: Derrick Knob Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter, 7.2 miles.
Day 27: Double Spring Gap Shelter to Icewater Spring Shelter, 13.8 miles.
Day 28: Icewater Spring Shelter to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, 12.6 miles.
Day 29: Tri-Corner Knob Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter, 7.7 miles.
Day 30: Cosby Knob Shelter to Standing Bear Farm, 10.7 miles (leaving the Smokies).
Day 31: Standing Bear Farm to Roaring Fork Shelter, 15.1 miles.
Day 32: Roaring Fork Shelter to Hot Springs, 18 miles.
Last time I wrote here was on the eve of climbing way up into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is home to the Appalachian Trail for a little over 70 miles. Most people out here had been talking about the Smokies for a couple weeks, with a mixture of excitement and dread…and it lived up to both.
The snow finally stopped the night we were at Fontana, so after walking across Fontana Dam I entered the park under mostly clear skies and comfortable temperatures. The patches of snow started increasing as I got higher, but it stayed nice–warm enough that the ice on the trees was falling on me (stabbing me, really) all day. But once I was up high enough, things changed quickly. I rounded a corner and all of a sudden I was plowing through knee-high snow drifts, trying to follow the path of someone who had gone in front of me…someone who must have been much taller, since I kept coming way short of the footsteps. Come to think of it, maybe I was following a Sasquatch.
That sudden change in terrain became a theme for much of the Smokies: alternating between deep snow drifts, solid sheets of ice, and rivers of mud. Some days I walked alone, other days I stuck with my little hiker family all day for morale’s sake…it was good to be in it together, slipping and falling, laughing about how miserable we were. For one stretch, J-Rex was walking behind me and started rating my slides, with the twists and leg kicks to try and keep my balance, like she was an ice skating judge.
But no matter how difficult it got or how painful it was, at the end of every day we were in awe of what we had seen. The views were stunning, the skies stayed mostly clear, and the shelters were warm. I have more thoughts about the shelter experience, but I think that deserves its own post a little later.
We even started seeing little flowers at parts, and tiny blossoms on certain trees. Being outside to watch spring start breaking through, one step at a time, has been an amazing new experience. There were tons and tons of pine trees, too, and that’s probably my favorite smell in the world. When I needed a smile I would stop and stare, then breathe in as deeply as I could.
The trail through the Smokies zigzags between North Carolina and Tennessee, to the point that most of the time I had no idea which state I was in. Double Spring Gap Shelter actually has a water source on both sides, so you can choose which state you want to drink from.
About halfway through, after Clingmans Dome (the highest elevation on the whole trail, with the spaceship-looking tower above), the trail crosses a huge parking lot right on the state line with a monument, some cool rock croppings, and a few trailheads for people out enjoying the Smokies for a day. It’s so much fun, with our packs and odors, to meet people who have never heard of the Appalachian Trail before and can’t believe that we hiked from Georgia and are planning to walk to Maine. We answer a lot of the same questions, but it’s a blast. (And just in case my ego was getting too big from those conversations, that spot also had the first sign since the very beginning that shows mileage to Mount Katahdin, the end of the trail in Maine. It’s quite humbling to think I’ve gone 274 miles so far with about 1,912 miles to go.)
The last day or two in the park, and for the next couple days, we were dodging rain the whole time. We were incredibly fortunate in that none of the all-day downpours and thunderstorms that were forecast actually caught us, but it was still enough to up the misery factor. I hit my biggest motivation wall the last day in the park, when I stayed in my sleeping bag until almost 11, staring at the cold, thick fog outside the shelter. I think I was angry at myself for that, because I ended up making my fastest time yet the rest of that day.
The first night out of the Smokies, I split a cabin with the group at Standing Bear Farm, where we re-supplied for the next three days into Hot Springs. Then those three days turned into two after we did 15 miles one day and 18 the next to get into town. Personally, I pushed through that 18 because I was exhausted, in every sense of the word, and getting in a day early meant I could take two days off and still leave town when I was planning. The Smokies were literally life-changing, and I’m so pleased about finishing that section, but they kicked my butt and I need the rest.
Besides not having a signal to call anybody, Hot Springs is my favorite town stop so far. It’s beautiful and tiny, the trail runs right through it on the one main road, everything is within half a mile, mountains are all around, and a wide, flat river winds through town. I love it.
A wonderful family friend is driving in for a visit tomorrow, since that was the original planned day off, and my neck is in crazy pain (my gut is slowly disappearing, which means my pack doesn’t fit tight enough anymore, so it’s sagging way too much these days). All that means one more day off, so another post coming tomorrow. I’ll tell you some stories about shelter life and whatever else I can think of.
Thanks for reading!