Since my last update from Fontana Village, we’ve traveled just over 100 miles through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the first true “trail town” on our journey, Hot Springs, North Carolina. I call Hot Springs a true trail town because the Appalachian Trail actually runs down main street through the town, with AT logos embedded in the sidewalk for almost a mile from the south end of town to the north. Here’s a day-by-day recap of what we’ve been through over the past week.
Day 16: Fontana Village, NC to Spence Field Shelter (18.5 miles)
This day was one of the most exciting on trail yet, as we woke up to cold but clear and sunny weather and prepared to enter the infamous Smoky Mountain National Park. While many day hikers laud the park as a beautiful place to visit, many AT thru-hikers know the Smokies as a place of cold, wind, rain, and snow. The ground down near Fontana Dam — the entrance to the park — was largely bare of snow, but as we climbed the 2,000+ feet up the ridgeline into the park, snow accumulated and temperatures dropped accordingly. We didn’t get too many views for the day, but the weather was excellent and the snow didn’t pose too much of an issue for walking. We made the 18.5 mile trek in good time, and found the Spence Field shelter conveniently located and met a great group of hikers also staying the night.
Day 17: Spence Field Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter (13.5 miles)
While we were hopeful for a comfortable Smokies traverse after day one, day two made sure we knew we weren’t getting out of that park easily. Temps warmed from the previous day, turning the comfortable snow into a mushy, slushy mess on the trail. Our feet got plenty wet, but the worst of it was the fact that every uphill step you took would send you sliding back half a step, making any climb feel twice as difficult. After much frustration and seemingly endless miles with minimal views, we finally reached the Double Spring Gap shelter in the afternoon and gladly retired for the day.
Day 18: Double Spring Gap Shelter to Icewater Spring Shelter (13.4 miles)
Rain poured from the skies while we slept the previous night, posing even more challenges on the trail on Smokies day three. Our day began with a long, slushy ascent to the top of Clingman’s Dome — the highest point on the AT at 6,643 feet — where we found no views, being socked in even from the top of the observation tower. As soon as we began to descend Clingman’s, the trail turned into a veritable stream, soaking us even further than we thought possible and making for a slippery descent into Newfound Gap. We stopped for lunch at Newfound, which was flooded with tourists, many of whom stopped to ask us questions, take pictures, or just stare and crinkle their noses at our thru-hiker stench. After lunch we cruised the three miles from Newfound to Icewater up a beautiful sidehill ascent, and found that Icewater was one of the nicest shelters in the park that we had seen. According to the ATC ridgerunner staffing the shelter, the sunrise from our location was not to be beat. We went to bed pleased and set alarms to catch the sunrise the next morning.
Day 19: Icewater Spring Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter (19.8 miles)
We woke up early this morning to catch a sunrise that never was, as clouds rolled in overnight and limited visibility to maybe 100 feet. Temperatures also dropped significantly, and the trail that was a stream the day before became solid ice, making our morning a slow and delicate one. This day was supposed to offer the most views in the entire park, but once again clouds obscured anything except the trees next to us. We stopped for lunch in the early afternoon at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, and the weather began to improve after that. The trail became less icy, the sun began to shine, and we even got a lovely view from a bare section of the ridgeline before Camel Gap. We made it into Cosby Knob by dinner time, and the low elevation of the shelter made for a very enjoyable evening. We met a section hiker named Jim who tipped us off to a nice fire tower 0.6 miles off-trail that we should see the next day. We were skeptical of walking an extra 1.2 miles. but decided to sleep on it and decide in the morning.
Day 20: Cosby Knob Shelter to Groundhog Creek Shelter (17.6 miles)
We finally got the sunrise we had been waiting for at Cosby Knob, as the clear morning sky revealed bright orange skies over the northern Smokies from the front porch of the shelter. Pleased by the (finally) nice morning weather, Yogi, Go-Far and I decided we would definitely visit the fire tower that Jim had told us about. It turned out to be a fantastic decision, as we got what turned out to be the best views in the Smokies from the Mt. Cammerer lookout tower. From Mt. Cammerer, we backtracked to the AT, then descended 5.2 miles into Davenport Gap, and unmarked dirt road that denotes the northern boundary of GSMNP. Despite the decent weather of the last few days, we were very happy to be out of the Smokies, and hopefully into some better weather. From Davenport, we hiked about 3 miles to a hostel called Standing Bear Farm, where we stopped for a resupply, phone charge, and hot pizza. We hung out at Standing Bear for about three and a half hours before moving on, planning to camp two miles up the trail. However, when we came to our planned campsite. we found room for maybe one or two tents. Needing to pitch four shelters to fit our group, we decided to move on, climbing all the way up to Snowbird Mountain and down to Groundhog Creek for the night, adding an unplanned 4.9 miles to our day. However, Snowbird had a beautiful summit, and we met a great group of hikers at the shelter, so we were actually pretty happy to have made the extra miles.
Day 21: Groundhog Creek Shelter to Walnut Mountain Shelter (13.1 miles)
After a few long days, we decided to take a shorter day today. We began with the climb from Groundhog up to Max Patch, a 4,600’+ bald in North Carolina that is known as one of the most beautiful places on-trail. The climb was a pain in the ass, however, as we climbed steeply in the beginning and then had to go over seemingly endless PUDs (pointless up and downs) before finally getting to the base of the bald. It ended up being well worth it, however, as the Patch was breathtaking even with very overcast skies. We spent some time up at the top of the bald, then moved on down towards Lemon Gap. The four-ish miles down from Max Patch were terribly easy, slowly winding down to the base of Walnut Mountain. We climbed Walnut in no time at all, and found the summit to be a large grassy meadow, offering little views but great scenery. The shelter was just 100 yards past the summit, but incredibly small and rickety. so we decided to pitch our tents just up the hill despite forecasts of rain overnight. The rain did come, and came hard. but thankfully the lightning never got close enough to pose a threat and my LightHeart Gear tent stayed dry as a desert inside.
Day 22: Walnut Mountain Shelter to Hot Springs. NC (13.1 miles)
Today’s hike was as bland as they come, with no scenery to offer for the first 12 miles of walking. However, once we reached the hill overlooking Hot Springs. we got a great view down into the valley over the small town we would call home for the next day-and-a-half. We arrived in town before 1pm, and immediately stopped at “The Restaurant” for lunch. After burgers, fries, and all the coffee we could drink, we headed down the main street and checked into our cabin, which might have been 100 square feet in size, but actually fit the five of us (Bird. Farley. Yogi, Go-Far and I) comfortably. We then went back to The Restaurant for dinner (I had two meals…) and on the way back dropped into the Spring Creek Tavern for a pitcher of beer. Satisfied, we went back to the cabin and promptly fell asleep, knowing for the first time in weeks that we didn’t have to saddle up our packs the next day.
Day 23: Hot Springs, NC to Hot Springs, NC (0 miles)
As I write this, Yogi and I are currently enjoying our first “Zero Day” on-trail, as Go-Far took a day in Fontana and Bird & Farley plan to hike out a few miles this evening. We went back to The Restaurant AGAIN for breakfast, resupplied at the Dollar General, and cleaned our clothes at the coin laundromat in town. This afternoon, we have a 1-hour mineral bath hot tub reserved at the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, something we’ve been looking forward to since we made reservations earlier last week. We plan to pull three twenty-mile days between here and Erwin, Tennessee (the next town we pass), so this day of rest should do us all well.
Tomorrow morning, we leave Hot Springs and head back out on-trail, hopefully powered up by hot food, showers, hot tub soaks, and a day off for our legs. The days are getting warmer and longer, so we are excited to start hiking bigger miles as we push on to Virginia over the next few weeks. Hopefully, I’ll be back sometime in the next week or so and be able to post another update.
Thanks for reading and happy hiking.