WEEK # 5
3/20 – 3/28 Great Smokies to Hot Springs, NC and Erwin, TN
“Week” 5 for convenience (and logic – although convincing some that nine days is a week as logical may be problematic) covers nine days – the first days out of the Great Smokies and the time in and around two trail towns – Hot Springs, NC and Erwin, TN. The fact that one town is in NC and one is in TN is a remainder as to how the AT runs right along the border between the two states for hundreds of miles. A thru-hiker may at any given time have his or her left foot in Tennessee while the right foot is in North Carolina.
After a very long descent out of the Smokies, most hikers find themselves at Standing Bear Farm, a hostel for AT hikers. It’s an “iconic” place on the Trail, but an eclectic place as well. The collection of buildings known as Standing Bear hostel offers basically bunks in one building and queen-sized beds in a cabin. There is laundry, sometimes. There are showers, sometimes.
There is a place for resupply, as well as for pizza and beer. “Hawk” greeted and oriented each hiker. My resupply box was promptly delivered to me and I enjoyed pizza and a beer with Scars, Professor, Izzie and Fin (f/k/a “Hans & Franz”). While perhaps not immaculate, I was glad to have a roof over head in the cabin because it rained hard all night.,
Day 25 (3/20)
Initially there was a long difficult climb up to Snowbird Mtn, which has a large grassy bald (with an FAA tower). The view back to the Smokies here is awesome – 180 degrees. My view this day was partially obscured by an ever-increasing cloud cover. I did a podcast interview with Mighty Blue from this summit.
I ran into Sam, an actor from Harrisonburg, VA on the summit, We hiked and lunched together. We then attacked a long, unexpectedly difficult climb out of Deep Gap and then out of Brown Gap toward Max Patch and ultimately, Roaring Fork shelter.
I tired from the climbs. I had enough time to reach Roaring Fork (which would have been a 15.2- mile day), but weather started to set in late afternoon – it was potentially dangerous to try to go over Max Patch in such a situation. So I quickly set up shelter at an emergency stealth site as the rain increased. I was later joined by two older, section hikers I had met earlier in the day.
I settled into my tent. I was very comfortable. The rain and evening came.
Day 26 (3/21)
I woke up to 4 or 5 inches of snow on the ground and covering my tent. Before the snow we had rain and then sleet overnight, so my rain fly was coated in ice. I packed up and headed out (no motion or sound from the other two tents). The first “highlight” was Max Patch – among the more famous places on the AT. The weather was still challenging with strong winds and snow still falling – actually, the conditions were blizzard like. It was far from ideal weather to cross an open bald where the wind gusts got to almost 50 MPH, but I really had no where else to go so I forged ahead. It was stark, windy, and very cold with heavy snow blowing horizontally. Visibility was only a few hundred feet so with my head down I pressed on, stepping through 6 or 8 inches of snow and following whiteblazed
posts, I eventually made my way to and across the famous bald.
After Max Patch I gained the cover of trees, although the wind and snow continued at a significant pace. I was able to move relatively quickly to Roaring Fork Shelter, where I had planned to camp the night before. I saw Finnegan there as well as three spring college women heading southbound, eager to get to their cars at Max Patch. From Roaring Fork the trail descended to Lemon Gap, 3 and 1/2 miles way. That trail was covered with 8 inches of snow, but was a pleasant walk through rhododendron as well as along and crossing many streams that were never out of earshot.
A steep climb up Walnut Mountain, made considerably harder by the accumulating snow, brought me to a shelter after a mile and a half climb. It was decision time for me. I had decided to my make my way here and then, depending on the time, the progress I had made, the weather, and how I felt, I would stay at the Walnut Mountain Shelter for the night or I would move on.
It was 1-1:30 pm. I couldn’t face lying in the shelter for 18 hours, especially with the wind seemingly whipping over the ridge upon which the 5-person shelter sat. As I snacked on GORP I weighed my options – none of which were great: the next shelter was “a bridge too far” (10 miles, more than I thought I could possibly go), waiting in the shelter might make subsequent days more difficult (potentially stranding me in the woods), and I would have to find a tenting site in 10 inches of snow.
When I left the shelter at 1:30 I knew I would have to find a tent site that night, but I was eager to get off the cold windy ridge and get some miles closer to Hot Springs. I thought it would be more hospitable at lower elevations, but to do that I had to get over Bluff Mountain.
The descent from Walnut Mountain was relatively fast as the grade allowed me to move quickly – I was almost skiing down the trail. Then came the ascent of Bluff, which was tough enough without the wind, cold and snow. With almost a half of a mile to go to the summit, the trail was obliterated by the blowing wind and accumulating drifts. As I tried to continue the climb I was plowing through drifts on the trail at or above my knees. I knew that after I summited Bluff I needed to get to a lower elevation and find a tenting spot.
I made good time descending, but the snow and wind continued. Accumulations were now around 10 inches. My guide suggested a couple of sites but I missed them or wasn’t convinced they would be the best option. I was coming down the mountain but not finding a solution. Finally, I realized that I would come to a road. Perhaps there would be a reasonable tenting spot even if near the road. Then I thought I might be able to get a shuttle if I was at a road crossing.
I got picked up by John, the shuttle driver – a trail angel even though I was paying him. Suddenly an amazingly difficult and challenging (and nearly frightening) day concluded with a room at the Mountain Magnolia Inn.
After a shuttle by Yaya, I started hiking at 8:45. The morning was beautiful – what a difference 12 hours makes.
The first mile was easy, but I had to remove my Microspikes because underfoot was too soft – clumping up in my spikes. Sun and increasing warmth softened the trail. Beautiful modest walk through snow covered trees with reasonably good views of surrounding mountains. I arrived at the shelter (halfway point) right at 10:30, which was followed by the only real climb of the day. Then downhill into Hot Springs. The rest of day was in town and back at Elmers Sunnybank Inn. I saw Scars at the library. I did some trustee work and planning for trip to Erwin.
Enjoyed communal, vegetarian dinner with Elmer, Matt, Peaks, Ladybug and Stickers. Dinner topic: if you could, which of man’s technologies would you eliminate?
Day 28 — 3/23
Zero day in Hot Springs, NC. I mailed a package of food to Erwin, finished some trustee work, prepared fedex package and attended to journaling. I planned next five days food and mileage objectives. I enjoyed a “pool” at Hot Springs resort – naturally hot, mineral baths and then ran into Turbo and the Professor, separately.
Day 29 – 3/24
Out by 7:10 am. I left Hot Springs in the predawn light. Rain was falling lightly and the air was chilly. The hike north along the French Broad River and the climb up above the river must be particularly pretty on a sunny day, with beautiful views from Lovers Leap and similar rock outcropping’s back down at Hot Springs and out towards Bluff Mountain and the surrounding hills.
The rest of the early morning the trail was relatively smooth and rolling, taking the hiker through hardwood forest with Rhododendrum plants, which included a hike around a “boxed pond” and across a small meadow as it worked its way north.
I took a mini-lunch break at 11. And, before I knew it I had completed the day’s harder climbs more easily than expected. I arrived at Spring Mtn shelter by 1 – 1:30. The Professor was there. Apparently, he had left hot springs 10 minutes before me and I was five minutes back all morning. I ate the rest of my lunch and headed off – as usual, too cold to sit and talk. The Professor decided to stay for the night. I decided to get more miles in, especially as the bitter cold seemed to be setting in.
The afternoon was fairly easy hiking, mostly modest downs and a few shorter uphill runs. The trail was generally good, but sometimes slippery mud and/or snow. Weather was colder than morning. Precipitation was an ever changing mixture of cold wind, light rain, sleet, rain, wind, and flurries, but with a brightening sky – yet, we never saw the sun.
Tried to call Cheryl and then MIghty Blue, but didn’t connect. Overall, a very cold day. I finished hike about 4:00 and got a short shuttle to Hemlock Hollow Hostel. There was a pretty good crowd there, all younger hikers – only a couple I’d seen before. There was a nice, relaxed atmosphere there with attentive operators.
I was particularly chilled, but eventually warmed up – so grateful to be inside. I had a small, private cabin (no bathroom) with one queen. The Wifi was only in the office/store. With the cold and wet, I stayed in my cabin and dined on Trailtopia. Before I went to bed, it started raining very hard and seemed to continue most of the night, including some significant thunder and lightening.
Day 30 – 3/25
When I arrived at the shelter at the end of the day, I described the day to a fellow thru-hiker there as having four parts:
– very pleasant yet grey morning: excellent trail that brought us up in elevation in a remarkably easy (I suggested easier than ever, but maybe I just felt strong that morning). A bunch of us had a snack at the first shelter, which was just three miles into the day
– Part two was after most of the days vertical climb and we crossed over to a more sunexposed ridge and the trail became nothing but an ever changing mixture of snow, ice, deep mud or running water (from the snow melt and prior evenings torrential rain, much of the trail was now just streams of water following gravity and the path of least resistance. It was impossible to keep your feet dry
– Midday we hit section three – a high, rock ridge/ledge that went on for 2.5 miles. Typically this would have been a fun challenge working our way through modest ups and down through rock outcroppings highlighted by great views, but with the visibility near zero and the rock ledges covered by snow and ice, the going was both slow and precarious. An alternative route is offered for “bad weather,” which in hindsight I wish I took. With the views eliminated, the only thing left of this section would be the fun of navigating the rock formations, but the snow/ice eliminated the fun from my perspective, leaving just a difficult ordeal.
– Part 4: I arrived at Jerry Cabin shelter at 2 pm, much later than expected. It was a potential stop for the day and a couple of guys I was with made that decision. I wanted to tent, but everything was still snow-covered (not that that hasn’t stopped me before) and I really wanted to get some more miles in. I decided to push on another 6 miles despite the hour, hoping for brightening sky and better tenting at lower elevations. Thankfully I was rewarded with both even though the late afternoon hike was mostly a never ending, boring, but gradual descent. I arrived at Flint Mounain shelter a little after 6 pm. There were good tenting sites around a busy
shelter. Milder temperatures allowed some socializing over my Beef Stroganoff and vegetables.
Day 31 – 3/26
The busy shelter site emptied early as most were planning to do a big 19-mile day to next shelter – most hoping and trying to get into Erwin (TN) in 4 days from Hot Springs, rather than the 5 days most of us had to take. I was much later leaving than most days with only Techno still in camp when I left a little after 8 am. The early part of the day was gently downhill and easy through two gaps. I had early lunch (tortilla and peanut butter) sitting on the steps to a farm fence style. Then I began the BIG climb of the day to Lick Rock. The weather was cold and overcast. The climb seemed particularly hard this day. There were no views or other unique highlights. I finally made it to Hogback Ridge shelter (after 8.8 miles). I had not made good time. All the hikers were ahead of me except Techno, who decided to stay at the shelter. I decided to move along, keep making some miles and look for a tent site late in the day.
My lower back was hurting so I weighed options and realized I could get to my Erwin hostel by way of a gap that was up ahead. It was far from my most pleasant day on the trail and heading into town felt right mentally and physically, although it also feels like I’m taking an easy way out.
Peggy with Cantarroso Farm picked me up. I was happy to have a roof and a bed. Peggy, her (husband Mike, and two other hikers invited me to dinner. I enjoyed spaghetti and meatballs, salad and wine at Primo’s. After a hard day and a belly full of pasta, I fell right to sleep upon return to my mini cabin.
Day 32 – 3/27
I was out hiking by 8:15. The day was grey, cold and breezy, but a very easy start all the way to Low Gap. The climb from there to the day’s primary destination – Big Bald – proved much easier than the map suggested. Although the morning stayed overcast (and clouds set in on the mountain), the hike was remarkably pleasant – especially when contrasted with the day before.
(I had another morale boost.)
Before I knew it I had climbed the three miles to Big Bald, which was a very large bald – meaning it was a massive, grassed meadow on the top of the mountain, at 5,516 feet. Unfortunately, the clouds remained close and the wind blew fiercely. The sun seemed to want to break through, but no luck. Despite the lack of views and the weather, I enjoyed the “tour” around the bald created by the route taken by the AT across it.
Coming off of the summit the trail descended gently on a good footpath all the way to Bald Mountain shelter and beyond. I caught a few minutes with Cheryl on the phone before we lost reception. The descent was fast due to good conditions and modest downhills. Halfway down the sun came out from time to time and the surrounding mountains began to reveal themselves.
Later in the afternoon the temperature rose with the sun. I ran into Ladybug & Stickers (from dinner at Elmer’s) as well as Easily Forgotten & Bunny Tracks. I met Mike at Spivey Gap, but before that ran into Traveler (Will), who was waiting on a shuttle
from Uncle Johnny’s – he had hurt his knee badly. I had a relaxing evening in my cabin with Trailtopia for dinner, time for journaling and a call home to Cheryl.
Day 33 – 3/28
START: Spivey Gap (Cantarroso Farm – hostel) / Mile 332.7
END: Erwin, TN (Cantarroso Farm – hostel) / Mile 343.8
I was out hiking by 8:00. The morning was mild and the sun was rising to what appeared it would be a beautiful day. The initial hike was gently uphill, following a lovely mountain stream. It then proceeded gently through a hardwood forest accentuated with rhododendron plants. I was quickly hiking in such shorts and a top and I was hiking quickly. There was nothing particular of note, but it did feel like perhaps spring was finally coming.
I joined Eddie and Rumi at the shelter (after about 4 miles) for an early lunch. I met Crafty there, who has been following the RTK and MB podcasts. (He was well informed of my activities and progress.)
The four of us made in down the long, relatively easy descent into Erwin. I mailed my Microspikes at Uncle Johnny’s. Mike from Cantarroso picked us (Eddie and Rumi were staying in the cabin next to mine) up.
I had a relaxing afternoon of writing, enjoying the river view on the property, doing an interview with MB, getting my laundry done, and planning for my next two weeks.
I had Trailtopia for dinner. Fell asleep, then called Cheryl – we were both too sleepy.
Last modified: April 4, 2018