March 22 – zero day
March 23 – I couldn’t have asked for a better first day in the smokies. I woke up early and scarfed down the three boiled eggs I had made the night before and got everything packed up. Me, Dosu, and Gadget were off by about 8. The first part of our day consisted of a road walk over Fontana Dam. The clouds hung low and fog made the lake look extremely ominous. We couldn’t even see the mountains that were so clearly visible the night before.
After crossing the dam, there stood the sign informing us we were entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. After a bit more road walking, the trail veered off and once again we were in the woods. Upon entering and throughout the day, there were numerous signs warning hikers about extreme bear activity in nearly every single part of the park. One of the shelters was even closed due to this. They say that around 700 bears live in the park, and it’s one of the most common places to see one throughout the entire trail. Still we pressed on, and were greeted with a big climb up to Shuckstack Fire Tower. Within twenty minutes, we ran into four deer foraging right along the trail, completely unconcerned with us. As we headed up, the clouds began to fall beneath us and the sky above us became bluer by the minute. Eventually we rose above them and the beauty of the smokies began to show themselves. At one point the trail followed an exposed ridgeline and shortly after, we arrived at the fire tower. It was a sketchy one to climb, but the 360 degree view from the top was absolutely phenomenal. White puffy clouds filled the valleys and the grandiose peaks of the smokies stood tall above them. Fontana Lake sparkled in the rising sun and I couldn’t help but to be speechless. How can one possibly use words to describe a scene like this?
The rest of the day was a roller coaster, but no major climbs or descents. I took it easy and coasted the last ten miles to Russell Field Shelter, enjoying the new ecosystem of the park. It really does seem like a perfect place for a bear to live, I half expected to see one around every turn. While in the park, hikers are required to stay in the shelters, but at least they’re high class ones here. Walls of stone and interior fire places. For the next twenty miles the trail will slowly lead up to clingman’s dome, and after that will coast at around 6000 feet until a long descent into Davenport gap. It should only get better from here.
March 24 – I woke up early this morning so I would be ready to go as soon as the sun came up. We planned to hike almost 17 miles to Double Spring Gap Shelter in order to be able to wake up early tomorrow and night hike 3 miles to catch the sunrise from Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT.
My day started off hiking through a 4000 foot high meadow, surrounded by views of the mountains behind and beside me. Tunnels of rhododendron weaved through some parts, only to open up and become nothing but grass again. Eventually, I reached Rocky Top, with amazing 360 degree views. I could see the trail weaving through the meadows I had just come from along with the backdrop of Shuckstack fire tower and Fontana Dam from the day before. I sat up there for at least an hour and then headed on along an exposed ridgeline until once again the trail withdrew back into the trees.
Thick grass continues to line the trail throughout the forest. Eventually Dosu and Gadget caught up with me and we began the climb up to Double Spring Gap. The trail finally began to ascend up to the higher elevation that the smokies are known for. For the first time we passed through a pine forest, which Dosu said looked a lot like his home in New Hampshire.
Once at the shelter, it turned out that everyone there planned to hike to Clingman’s for sunrise. It’s going to be an early morning, but should be more than worth it.
March 25 – The day started early and when we woke up the wind outside was howling. Eight of us quickly packed up and set off into the dark to hike the 3 miles to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT and also the 200 mile mark. As we rose in elevation the wind only became stronger and the fog thicker until we were standing atop the dome. Gusts were up to at least 40 miles an hour and it didn’t look like there was any real chance of a view. Still we endured the bitter temperatures in hopes that the fog would clear out but no such luck was to be had. Still it was a good head start to our day and a morning that surely won’t be forgotten.
After heading down from Clingman’s the trail winded through forests of pine cloaked with the thick fog we’ve become so accustomed to. It was six miles to Newfound Gap, the only road crossing throughout the entire 76 miles of the trail through the smokies. As we hiked on, the sun finally rose above the clouds and the sky once again became blue. At Newfound Gap, a sign informed us that we were now in Tennessee, although that really means nothing because for the next 200 miles or so the trail will still be snaking in and out of North Carolina.
Dosu, gadget, and I decided to hitch into Gatlinburg to hit up Shoneys and what a great decision it was. A lot of people have warned us to steer clear of Gatlinburg because it’s such a tourist trap but honestly it was fun to be there. It’s basically like a redneck Las Vegas up in the mountains. We ate our fair share and made a beeline back to the trail, trying not to get sucked into the mini golf and lazer tag.
We ended up getting a ride back to the gap from a section hiker named trail burner. Thank you so much for the ride if you’re reading this, it would’ve been a long and hot walk otherwise! Back at Newfound we were greeted with some trail magic consisting of donuts and Cadbury creme eggs, and of course we indulged a little even though we had just eaten the entire buffet at Shoneys. How does one turn down free Krispy Kreme? Eventually we were back on trail and strolled the three miles to Icewater shelter. After setting up we decided to hike a mile up the trail to Charlie’s Bunion because rain was threatening the chances of a view tomorrow. We cooked dinner and watched the sunset from there with two other section hikers who were staying at the shelter as well. It was a great way to end one of the best days I’ve had on the trail so far. Every day the bond between me and my fellow thru hikers grows stronger and more stories write themselves. It is truly all about the journey out here on the Appalachian Trail.
March 26 – Today we hiked through what is in my opinion the most beautiful section of the AT through the great smoky national park. We slept in a little because we would only be going twelve miles today, and despite a dreary forecast the sky remained blue as it has for the whole duration of our trek in the park. This is truly good luck, as the smokies are notorious for cold, wet, and extremely unpredictable conditions.
The day consisted of walking along a narrow and rocky ridgeline, at times nothing but sheer cliffs of either side. Christmas trees continues to thrive at the high elevation we were on, throughout the whole day the trail never dropped below 5500 feet. Views of North Carolina to the east and Tennessee to the west were scattered all along the trail, it was the most scenic section in the 200+ miles of the trail so far.
After an easy day, we made it to tri corner knob shelter. My guide book says that this is the most remote shelter in the smokies, and I believe it to be the nicest as well. We’re nestled in the middle of a pine forest, with a piped stream only ten yards away.
Snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, so we’ll be doing a 19 mile day out of the smokies to escape the high elevation. The plan is to stay at Standing Bear Farm, one of the most well known hostels along the trail. Ready for some real food and the package waiting for me there.
March 27 – I spoke too soon when I said we made it through the smokies without any precipitation. The first words that came out of my mouth when I walked out of the shelter were “HOLY SHIT IT’S SNOWING”. My food bag as well as its contents were a block of ice, but a frozen snickers is better than no snickers.
By the time I was packed up and on the trail, the snow was starting to stick. Walking through the pine forests really made it a winter wonderland, it seemed like Santa’s elves we’re going to jump out at me around every corner. As the day went on, the snow only got heavier and the accumulation on the ground higher.
Halfway through our day we stopped for lunch at one of the shelters and were surprised to see mouse, typo, and lifeboy there as well. They’re three guys we’ve been hiking with who just so happen to be from Richmond as well. Even poppins and stote caught up after a week of not seeing them. There’s no keeping track of those girls, they are way too fast for me to even try keeping up.
After our break, we had seven miles and a 5000 foot descent to get out of the smokies. The snow was really coming down now, and about two years inches of it covered the mountains we trekked upon.
Once I saw the first sign for davenport gap, the northern boundary of the smokies, excitement filled my body and I raced down the final descent. As the trail lowered in elevation, the pine forests were again replaced by thickets of rhododendron, and the snow to freezing rain. At davenport gap, poppins, stote, and I were greeted with blue skies and the best trail magic I’ve received so far. They literally had EVERYTHING, including extra so hikers didn’t have to resupply at the hostel. Things like this always make even the worst days amazing, it really restores your faith in humanity.
Once out of the smokies, it was three miles to standing near farm. This place is really cool, it’s definitely one of the most unique hostels I’ve seen on the trail yet. It’s an old farm back in the middle of Cherokee National Forest. They’ve got bunks, cabins, treehouses, resupply, a kitchen, laundry, and the hottest shower I’ve had since before I started in Georgia. Unfortunately, they were completely booked up, so I’m currently sleeping on the porch in my sleeping bag. Oh well, I’ve got an outlet, I’m cleaner than I was an hour ago, and most importantly the smokies are south of me. 240 miles down. For the next 150 or so miles the trail will follow the Tennessee and North Carolina border before completely entering Tennessee for good. It’s only a matter of time before I’m back in my neck of the woods.. Virginia here I come.