The Great Smoky Mountains
We leave Fontana Village early in the morning via the shuttle back to the trailhead. We unload out of the van and start to walk across the dam at Fontana. Just on the other side, we come to a sign “Great Smoky Mountains National Park” and snap a quick picture. We have wanted to hike the Smokies for years. We have a decent climb out of Fontana ahead of us. This is how it usually works, all the towns and highways are low so you go way down to get in and climb way up to get out. There is a metal box at the bottom of the trail to deposit our permits for the Smokies as we enter the park.
The Smokies are known for its black bear population. As an A.T. thru-hiker, we are restricted to camping in designated shelters and campsites. One of these campsites is already closed due to a bear encounter. The bear went from tent to tent looking for food and ripped up one tent in the process. The park officially closed the site for use in an effort to catch the problem bear and prevent any more possible incidents. As we hike up the steep trail we see Carl, an ATC Ridgerunner, and ask if they have caught the bear. Carl tells us that they have not. This closure simply means that we have to hike farther to the next available shelter.
Most shelters on the A.T. thus far have been pretty simple. Three walls, an elevated wooden floor, and some hooks outside to hang up your food bags in the trees outside. The first shelter we came to was full already. The hikers on this trail seem different than the PCT in that they start hiking later and end hiking earlier. A lot of the hikers do this to ensure they have a spot at the shelter, and then they will not have to push on. We hike on to the Mollie’s Ridge Shelter, resting for a bit, but decide it is too early to stop so we push on. We stop at Spence Field Shelter, which puts us at about 18 miles for the day.
The shelter is nice. It is a double-decker made of rock walls and has a fireplace built in. The large open side has been covered with a tarp. There are people there already, but there is still plenty of room for us. Stretch picks out a couple of spots and fills our sleep pads and unrolls our sleeping quilts, while I go get water and start cooking dinner.
The group at this shelter seems good. We got a mix of some section hikers and a few thru-hikers. We meet Louis from Canada. He is 62, has completed 4 Iron Man events, and is a strong hiker. Louis reminds me of Mick the trainer from Rocky, mainly because of his voice and small stature, but he does not act old and crusty. This guy is crushing 20 miles a day on the trail. We also meet Pete, a young man with a degree in mechanical engineering from Chicago. There is a woman, Mimsy, who is from Michigan and hiking with her son. Additionally, there’s a father-son team from Kentucky and a few others. Everyone at this shelter seems really nice and social. We are all chatting about the incoming storm for tonight.
Just as expected, a storm breaks out late. The roof is making tons of noise as the rain comes down and the sky is lit up by all the lightning. The shelter does pretty well at keeping us dry and warm. One fella had a small amount of water drip on his sleeping bag but no big deal. Actually, the loudest thing all night was the father-son team from Kentucky. It turns out they snore loudly. It’s a good thing we brought our earplugs with us.
We pack up rapidly at first light. After a sleepless night, energy levels are low, and the hiking feels sluggish. The storm breaks, but a thick smoke hangs on the mountains. We can see nothing but the trail and nearby trees. The cold seeps into our bones. We don’t want to stop hiking even for a meal because the frigid air brings shivering and chattering.
We hike at a fast pace to attempt warmth. As we climb, we de-layer. As we descend, we re-layer. The pattern continues this way all day. It’s odd because you’re hot, but you’re cold. You just can’t win, always on the edge of achieving a comfortable temperature, but never quite reaching it. In the mid-afternoon, the weather clears. We arrive at Double Spring Gap Shelter just a few miles south of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the trail.
Double Spring Gap Shelter is a special marker for us because it was here 2 years ago that Rambo and I met our first thru-hikers. We saw some dirty, smelly hikers here who told us about the Appalachian Trail and their adventures thus far. One thru-hiker had spent a morning hiding in a fire tower from a stalker black bear. The other advised me to cut off all my hair if I did a thru-hike so that the mice in the shelter wouldn’t nest in it. While any sane person would have thought that thru-hiking sounded crazy, we couldn’t wait to join this adventurous culture.
We hike the last couple of miles up to Clingman’s. The weather is gorgeous with visibility for miles. Despite the crowds, we find a moment with the views before continuing down the trail to the Mt. Collins Shelter, making about 19 miles for the day. The night is bitterly cold. There is a man with sleep apnea, and he sounds like he is choking to death. I turn on my MP3 player to drown out the hideous sound. Sleep didn’t happen, instead, we laid in our bags, trying not to freeze until morning came, and we could resume our hike.
Oops! We forgot to sleep with our water filter, and it’s frozen solid. I don’t want giardia, so we hike ( sometimes running) as fast as our legs will carry us to Newfound Gap for the free 1st Baptist Church shuttle to Gatlinburg, which leaves at 10 a.m. sharp. We make it just in time. The drive down is quintessentially the Smokies with beautiful streams and rolling, dramatic green hills.
Gatlinburg is a mess. It’s spring break. Tourists have choked the streets, and they walk at a snail’s pace. We hotel up and try to find a water filter. The NOC has overpriced filters, so we opt to rehab ours. It works sort-of. We decimate the griddle cakes at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. Then we obliterate a 16″ pizza at Best Italian before blogging and passing out in an exhausted heap.
In the morning, the shuttle picks us up and carries us up the mountain. There’s a traffic jam on the scenic highway. A mother bear and two cubs are causing a scene, and people have ceased to obey the traffic laws. Finally, we reach Newfound Gap just as it begins to sleet. We gear up and hack out 17 miles. The views are incredible today as we hike on the high, skinny ridge to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. The hikers at the shelter have a fire going, and it’s heavenly. It begins to rain and doesn’t let up all night. We stay warm. There is no snoring. We sleep. It’s glorious.
The trail is a gushing creek. It flows from the previous night’s deluge. All day we slog downhill in the cold. The mist is covering the mountains and blocking views of anything. I step on a rock and crash to the ground in an epic fall. Nothing hurts, but my trek pole is bent. I think it broke my fall and saved my ass.
It is 18 miles of mud. Our pants are caked with leaves and dirt. We hike with Onefoot, Navster, Wiley, and Savage. Passing Davenport Gap, we leave the Smokies behind. Onefoot yells out to the Smokies “You tried to kill me! I have no food and no toilet paper, but I have survived!!” We giggle and hoot and holler all the way to Standing Bear Farm Hostel.
The hostel is full, and it’s supposed to snow tonight. We pay $30 to camp on the wrap-around porch. I’m disappointed there is no room for us but too tired to hike any farther. Pete loans us his North Face tent, so we can stay warm. He has a bunk inside. Surprisingly, we sleep really well. In the a.m., the snow has dusted the mountains. We hike out into the cold morning and look back at the Smokies. The forest is transformed in a lovely way. Snow clings to everything, making each plant a living sculpture of white beauty.
- Bring earplugs. If you snore loudly, bring some for everyone else.
- Store your food and scented items responsibly on bear cables, in boxes or canisters, or by correctly hanging from a tree. Do not cook in your tent, especially in the Smokies.
- Check weather reports at www.atweather.org for each shelter. Come prepared for the weather.
In the Spring of 2018, we set out to thru-hike the A.T. To hear our full story, click here.
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