I hiked without my pack today, a luxury. Sly (yes, I got in a car with a guy named Sly!) gave me a shuttle to Allen Gap along with two young men. They were hiking north and I was hiking back to the hostel. It was 14.5 miles, a huge day for me. But the sky was sunny, the air temperature warm enough that I didn’t need a jacket after the first couple of miles, though I did hike in snow most of the day.
then I walked the length of Broad Street in Hot Springs (which is the actual trail) and back to the hostel.
So far, this is my favorite trail town. I’d consider moving here to retire someday, just to stay near to the trail. Despite the snow overnight, it turned into a beautiful day, sunny but windy. Better tomorrow. So I’ve arranged a slack pack of 14.5 miles (Allen Gap south back to the hostel). That’s big miles for me but we are starting early and I won’t be carrying much. Plus I’ll get to sleep in a bed for another night.
Today I went to an impromptu church service, checked out the town, made a few purchases at the outfitters……and the really good news: I got to weigh myself. I’ve lost EIGHT pounds. Yup. That’s the AT diet plan.
As I type this, I’m at Laughing Heart Hostel in a Hot Springs. Today was heavy rain, but thankfully the worst of it came after I arrived at 2p. I’ll be taking a zero day here tomorrow and am grateful to be showered with laundry done.
Wednesday March 26 Standing Bear hostel 240.2 to Groundhog Creek Shelter 247.7
Flash and the Princesses dropped me off north of the Smokies at Standing Bear Hostel. Road closures through the center of the Smokies make it impossible to hike my plan through the Smokies and I’m just not willing to wait out the weather another day. I’m a hiker and hikers HIKE!
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Standing Bear Hostel: Box of goodies from my mother and niece. Adia had decorated a shoe box for me and she and Grammie had filled it with goodies. I ate the thin mints right away! Then I ate Reese’s for a snack that day. Shared zucchini bread with other hikers who were staying at the hostel. They were all quite jealous of my largess. Adia also made a lovely card for me AND included a four leaf clover which I will carry with me the rest of the way.
Standing Bear Hostel was fairly new when I came through a decade ago. Still owned by Curtis, but Rocket told me he has managed it for the last 3 years. They have a bunk house, private cabins, kitchen, laundry, shower and a small resupply store.
At the hostel: Facts was here (last time I saw him I identified him as a young Jewish man who tried too hard. Turns out he’s Protestant, son of a preacher. Oophs!) and Red Beard (we are both from Atlanta), Snorlax. The manager, Rocket, is a very thin, hard looking man, though he spoke kindly to me. The young men inside were thrilled with the availability of marijuana and the hostel has just also gotten a liquor license. Clearly not my kinda place. But I talked to others later who stayed there and found the place charming. No matter, I needed to move on and become a hiker again, regardless the amenities. It was only 10:30a and I needed to move. But there was also an amazing amount of snow ahead of me.
The hike to the next shelter was just over 7 miles, but the first 5 miles were up to a bald with an FFA tower, Snowbird Mt, 245.2. (From 1700 feet to 4300). It was a nice grassy bald, with posts lining the way, painted with the AT white blaze. Much more snow over the area than I’d expected, about an inch to three inches. The temperature did not get above freezing and the sky was partly cloudy, so there was little melting, except a bit on the trail where people were walking. So by 2p there mud to avoid. After the bald, the hike was straight down to Deep Gap. There must be a dozen valleys named a Deep Gap and the AT seems to plunge down through all off them. There are also too many places called “sassafras.”
I’m slow. Very, very slow. I hiked just short of a mile an hour (counting breaks). It was like starting the hike all over again. Wet, cold weather made it hard to take a break. Nowhere to sit that’s dry. And the wind is blowing so you can’t stop for long without getting cold.
I finally made it to Groundhog Creek Shelter. For an hour I was the only one at the shelter, an ancient stone structure that really needs attention. Then Bean Dip joined me (Australian, fast hiker) If I’d known she was coming I’d have stayed inside shelter, but I already had a tent set up. Bean Dip also brought me my bandana, which I’d dropped on the trail! She is excited about her mother coming to hike with her soon, though she plans to make several gear changes after her mom leaves, including a smaller tent and stove.
Very cold night. It had not gotten above freezing all day. Bean Dip updated me on several people. Radar and NORDO had passed me. Turkey Buzzard/Mickey has dropped out (she says this is his 3rd attempt, but it seems to me that his only issue is an oversized pack. A good outfitters could solve that in a couple hours!)
Thursday March 27 Groundhog Creek Shelter 247.7 to Roaring Forks Shelter 255.9
My tent was quite damp in the morning and it took me far too long to get going due to cold. Once again I threw up some of breakfast. Is this going to be every day? Also found a pair of socks that I thought Bean Dip had left (they weren’t hers).
Still hiking in snow most of the day and there are some places that someone, maybe 2 days ago, postholed through more than a foot of it. Their foot steps are frozen into the drifts. Whoever they were, I am grateful to them, though they have much longer legs than I. Very windy all day. Too cold to stop and rest for more than a minute at a time. Wore my rain jacket most of the day to cut the wind, adding my rain pants before lunch.
I was not prepared for the height of Max Patch Bald, 254.1, nor the wind. I had been walking up hill almost since I left Groundhog Creek Shelter and needed a break, but the climb was relentless, alternating between mud and deep snow. My hiking pole got stuck in one snow drift and I lost the cap to my pole. (I had a spare). When I got to the top I was able to lie down on my ground cloth and rest. As long as I stayed low I could avoid the wind and soak in a bit of sun. After walking in trees, the bald feels dizzying, wide and high. It’s like the opening scene of the Sound of Music where Julie Andrews sings, “The hills are alive……
It was dry most of the way to Max Patch, so as soon as I saw water I stopped. I met Jeff, who thru hiked 3 years ago. He will be working for the park service this summer in the Smokies. I wish him well.
From the bald it is down hill for several miles, but the temperature had at least inched over freezing. With the melting snow the whole trail was mud. Such a mess and my new shoes are not waterproof. I moved so slowly trying to keep my feet dry. I’d wanted to push past to the next shelter, but at 5pm, tired and muddy, I was the first to stop at Roaring Forks. A squirrel was scolding me from the shelter and I wasn’t sure I was welcome. Shortly after, Hopper and Bismarck came in. Then Grasshopper and Jump Up came. The four of them had stayed in a cabin at Standing Bear the night before. The first couple are very experienced AT hikers, but this was the longest day for the second couple. We all stayed in the shelter since rain was forecast. Right at dusk, Wrong Leg (a strong hiker with a British accent) came and filled the shelter. Jump up gave me the bandana that had been lost in the laundry at Top of Georgia hostel! He’d been carrying it all that time. Their bandana didn’t return from the laundry either, and were given mine.
No rain overnight, though it was forecast, and the temperature was mercifully above freezing, though the mud was a serious problem in the shelter area.
Friday, March 28 Roaring Forks shelter 255.9 to Dirt road 265.4
I woke in the dark hours to the sound of scurrying mice. It’s the thing I like least about the shelters and why I usually camp in my tent. But the mice didn’t seem to have done any harm. No rain overnight, but the gray skies look like I should get a move on! I added my pack cover and put my rain jacket and pants where I could get to them easily.
I started the morning 18 miles from Hot Springs and wanted to at least halve that distance today. I was the first out of the shelter at 8:15a though of course I knew everyone would pass me by lunch. We all took a break at Walnut Mt Shelter, 260.8. That had been my goal the night before, but it was such an exposed, windy spot I was glad I didn’t. Also there were 10 people, including Bean Dip, in that tiny space, according to the log. It must have been miserable. I drank the last of my water and intended to fill it, but found the trail to the stream a muddy mess. I decided to hike on to better, easier water.
A couple miles later I was getting water at a small spring and met No Poles, who hiked the AT last year. He was complaining at how slow he was, but I’m jealous of his daily distance. 10 miles is still a big day for me.
Much of the day was windy and my rain jacket went off and on. The skies threatened rain all day, but didn’t.
I really wanted to make it to the bottom of the mountain I’m on, another mile to an actual campsite, but my feet ached and when the trail crossed an old, flat road bed, I called it a day. I’m about 8 and a half miles from Hot Springs, mostly downhill. I am ready for a hot shower and laundry. I took a Baby Wipes bath, the best a camper can do!
Most hikers could have made it to Hot Spring in 3 days. It will take me 4. I am just not as strong a hiker. My short little legs just don’t move so quickly. I hope I’ll be able to increase my speed and miles very soon. While I try to remember it’s still early days, I am disappointed by my slowness.
Best things seen today: I saw tiny white and pink flowers, Spring Beauties, a sure sign of spring, which I’m longing for. Also the first leaves of Virginia Water Leaf. I heard an owl when I first stopped to set up camp and woodpeckers are constant much of the day.
Saturday, March 29 Dirt road 265.4 to Hot Springs (Laughing Heart hostel) 273.9
Well that was an odd night. About midnight I woke to the sound of a tractor and headlights blazing on my tent. I could hear two men talking from the vehicle, wondering who would be camping here. I suspect they had only seen the tent because of the reflective tape on the stakes and lines. Frankly, I was frightened. I could hear them talking, but could not make out what they were saying. They didn’t get off the tractor and I didn’t get out of the tent. Eventually they backed down and turned around. My heart had just about settled back to a more normal rhythm when they came back. This time they didn’t come nearly so close, but they sat there illuminating my tent for what seemed like an eternity. Then they finally backed up and drove off. I was frightened as it was obvious that there were at least 2 of them and just one of me. The only “protection” I carry is pepper spray. Later at the hostel people suggested that the men on the tractor had a still in the back woods.
It was sprinkling when I woke up, but I managed to get my food bag down between showers and most of the tent packed up before it began to rain hard. By the second mile of the hike I was simply too warm to hike with a rain jacket. This is the first day that it was warm enough to hike in short sleeves. Spring is coming! And I saw other evidence of it too. One bloodroot just about to pop into bloom. The very first blush of a redbud. A tiny snake that I narrowly missed with my hiking stick.
Though the 8.5 miles was mostly down hill, it was still difficult and my feet are quite sore. While it’s clear that this shoe/insole combination is superior to the one I started with, there is no padding and my feet hurt every evening. My keg muscles recover overnight and my knees have no pain at all, but the ache on the bottom of my feet sometimes keep me from falling asleep. I hope that they will toughen up and also that I will continue to lose weight, making it less weight on them overall. I wonder how much weight I’ve lost. Perhaps 6 pounds?
It sprinkled off and on all day, but I mostly chose just to be wet. It began raining harder on the switch back decent of the final mountain. I could see the French Broad River and Hot Springs below more than 2 miles before I arrived. Cities look so peaceful, clean and organized from that height. I’ve found that when you can hear traffic noises, you are about a half mile from the road.
Laughing Heart Hostel is located on the edge of the AT parking lot as you drop into town. Very convenient. It’s run by former thru hikers Chuck Norris (he does look surprisingly like the actor) and Tigger. It’s got about 12 hikers tonight (most in private rooms) plus a few past thru hikers who promise trail magic tonight. I’m in the bunk room with 5 other young men including Goat, Money Maker (he’s raised over $5 thousand for a charity on this hike), and Snorlax,
The Princesses are here. They’ve been to Damascus, VA to drop off some resupply boxes. They were going to hike today, but wanted to avoid the downpour. Maybe they will hike tomorrow. I hope their return to hiking is better than mine. I feel as if I’m breaking in my trail legs all over again! This section felt like I was starting the trail from the beginning.
I’m feeling better. Finally. Now if the weather would just cooperate! It’s been a rough month, weather wise. Hard to imagine it is spring outside. As I write this I’m in a hotel room with the Princesses (Flash, Noodle, Valley Girl and her dog Jake) waiting out a snow storm in the Smokies. Not sure I will be able to get back on the trail tomorrow as planned. In the meantime, I’ve recovered from my virus (Valley Girl is not recovered yet).
Saturday March 22 Burningtown Gap to NOC
We slack packed to the NOC while Flash shuttled the car ahead. The last several miles downhill, but huge blocks of stone “steps.” Clearly for a giant to use. I scooted down on my butt most of the way.
We met with Craftsman (This is his second attempt. He hikes with a kilt and a throwing hatchet, but his pack is tiny), Davinci, Movin’ On, Thin Mint (from Maine. We were FB friends, but this is the first time we’ve met in real life.) and Random Man.
We were going to drive on from the NOC but more and more people we knew kept coming so we just couldn’t leave. Ate at the River’s End restaurant, along the Natahala. We watched the US open Kayak trials while Dining.
We’d decided not to stay at the hostel at NOC, but to drive on to Fontana Dam and set up the tents. We helped Fresh Ground with the Leap Frog cafe. Fresh Ground is a section hiker who started feeding hikers last year with the help of his trusty rescue dog, Dottie. He started at Woody Gap and moved to Fontana about 10 days ago, feeding all the hikers who come by. As many as can do help, donate, get water, cook or wash up. No idea how he affords to take so much time off, but he seems to really take joy in it. He accepts donations, but only uses the money for food, not his own expenses. Fresh Ground is a special Trail Angel.
The shelter at Fontana Dam is referred to as the Fontana Hilton because there is a a bath house with running water and shower. It’s also a large shelter with lots of room and a fire pit.
Flash spent much of the afternoon and evening shuttling hikers to the General store, laundry and post office. The rest of the group spent the evening at the shelter and ate at the Leap Frog Cafe. I was suddenly exhausted and took a two hour nap in my tent Instead of socializing. Still had no trouble sleeping that night, so I guess I needed it.
Sunday March 23 zero day
The rain came in overnight so we had wet tents to pack up. I ate eggs and fried potatoes at the shelter while Flash shuttled 3 car loads of hikers. The weather forecast looks a bit improved for the next three days, but still a rain/snow/freezing mix predicted for the Smokies.
We plan to continue to heal and wait out the weather at an inexpensive campground a bit north of here. If this forecast is accurate I plan to have the Princesses drop me off in the Smokeys to continue my hike north After the weather passes. I like their plan of skipping the section, going to Hot Springs, NC and hiking to their end point in Virginia. They would then back track in the car and hike south through the Smokes. I’d go with them but am concerned I’ll have an expensive shuttle back to mid Virginia. Or will bypass the entire section.
Our drive takes us through the Tail of The Dragon, a winding 20 mile section of two lane blacktop popular with motorcycles. By noon we were in thick fog driving 20mph. It was a difficult drive.
We finally got to the Sevierville/Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area. First stop Taco Bell! Driving through this tourist area is amusing. Wax museums, dinner shows, speed parks, restaurants, hotels, miniature golf…nothing like the AT!
There has been a surprising amount of drama on the trail and I’m happy to report that with my various illnesses I’ve missed most of it. I am shocked at the amount of drugs on the trail and we discussed it at length During the drive. My knowledge of this world is nil. My drug of choice chocolate. Of course hikers that drink and drug get weeded out quickly, but they are often not safe to be around and if they get in health distress or bad weather, you might be stuck caring for them or at least dealing with them. There were some questionable characters between Hiawassee and Franklin, too. They said they were hikers, but appeared to be homeless, taking advantage of the free hiker boxes (where people drop off unneeded food and gear) and trail magic (usually free food). Most had no tent, no stove, cotton clothing and didn’t seem to be concerned about a next destination. They always needed money/a ride/a place to stay while they waited for a “resupply box” that “should have arrived by now.”
We stopped at a Good Will for cheap towels to use in camp. We set up camp, take showers and do laundry. I’m continuing to take vitamins and feel better each day.
Monday March 24 zero day in campground neat Gatlinburg.
Flash left early this morning to drive back to the trail to take 2 hikers to the airport, leaving the rest of us in camp for most of the day. It was a cold night and I’m grateful for the warm sleeping bag, clean body and clean clothes to stay snuggled into. The camp manager came by and it seems we are breaking the rules with three tents at a site. Only 2 are allowed. Since Flash is not here and it’s obvious a decision has to be made immediately, I agree to rent a site and move my tent.
When Flash came back we all piled into the car and went to a muffler shop to check out an odd noise. A $20 weld fixed it. Then I went to the GSMNP Backcountry office to register for shelters for the Smokies. Flash is picking up Hog Driver at Newfound Gap, so that’s where she will let me out. You are required to stay in shelters in the Smokies and register/pay a backcountry fee for each. I got the last spot in Ice Water Shelter for Wednesday night and will be in 2 more after, then walk out of the park.
We built a fire and had s’mores. By 9p I went to my tent to sleep. That’s an hour past Hiker midnight !
Tuesday March 25 zero, Gatlinburg.
A bit of rain overnight, but it didn’t last long. Sunny by the time we got out of bed so the tents were dry by the time we pack up and take showers. But we watch the sky turn overcast, the wind increase and the temperature drops. You can feel the snow on its way. Someone from the trail texted it was 12 degrees and 4 inches of snow on Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the Smokies). Worse tonight. We drive into town and can see the mountains in the distance getting snow already. The road into the Smokies is closed already. A few hikers had to be rescued yesterday, though it doesn’t sound like they were AT hikers since they weren’t prepared to stay out overnight.
If the road doesn’t open tomorrow, my plans may have to change. There will be no way to get to Newfound Gap to drop me off, no way to pick up Hog Driver. (We’ve texted him, but have not heard his situation) We could wait it out or if it’s better at lower elevations, I may have Flash drop me at Davenport Gap, the north edge of the Smokies and bypass them entirely. Trail Weather Drama!
It snows all afternoon. No accumulation here in the lowlands, yet, but expect the mountains are bad plus windy. On a clear day, you can see the mountains from here. It’s not clear at all and we can’t see a thing. Just going to do laundry, stick to our nice warm room and wait to see what the weather does. Worried for the AT hikers we saw leaving Fontana Dam a couple days ago. There are 76 miles of the AT through the Smokies and they simply aren’t out of the park yet. If they didn’t get off the trail by yesterday afternoon they are stuck there.