I was picked up at 7:00 a.m. at the Hike Inn by Andrea, a friend of Nancy’s who helps shuttle hikers. She dropped me off at Yellow Creek Mountain Road and I was hiking by 7:15. As I walked I thought of Jeff’s advice about bear avoidance and practiced barking like a hound dog for a while as I walked. I quickly covered the seven miles to Lake Fontana, crossed the Fontana Dam, and entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Entering the Smokies the weather was beautiful and I knew from watching the local news in my room at The Hike Inn that the forecast for the next four days was good. So I planned to try to get through the Smokies in four days. There was a lot of climbing that first day – Fontana Dam is at 1700′ and Spence Field Shelter, where I would spend the first night, is at 4921′. I stopped at Shuckstack fire tower, climbed it and got an incredible view of Fontana Lake. I hoped to meet back up with Pig Pen so I passed two shelters and finally found him at the Spence Field Shelter. It was a long day with a little over 24 miles of hiking. Just before dark, Hurricane from New Zealand came walking in to camp. I had not seen him in over a week and it was good to be able to hike with him again.
The second day in the Smokies was a great day for views, beginning with Rocky Top (yes, THE Rocky Top) and ending with Clingman’s Dome – the highest point on the AT at 6655′. Leaving Clingman’s Dome we began a descent and got into some really bad trail conditions with snow and ice left over from a big snowstorm the previous week. It was slow going with lots of slipping and sliding and a couple of near falls. We finally made it to Mount Collins Shelter to spend the night. It was a wet and muddy campsite and people were pretty worn out from walking in the ice, snow and mud.
The third day Hurricane and Pig Pen got off a little earlier than I did since I was tenting and they stayed in the shelter. (It takes longer to pack up a tent, especially if it’s wet.) The trail was still very bad, alternating between snow and ice, mud, and rocks with snowmelt turning the trail into a small stream. I caught up to Pig Pen when he stopped along the trail to cook up some oatmeal for breakfast.
We hiked together off and on throughout the day. Pig Pen graduated from Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia last December and was a cross country runner in college, so he is super fit and can hike really fast when he wants to. I usually lag behind him but catch up when he takes breaks. Today the scenic highlight was at Charlie’s Bunyon, my favorite spot in the Smokies. It’s a unique rock pinnacle that you can climb for terrific views all around. We ended up doing another 20 mile day and stopped at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. Other hikers there told us that Hurricane had continued on to the next shelter but 20 was enough for us that day. I decided to stay in the shelter there since it was really muddy and there were no good tent sites available. (I don’t sleep as well in the shelters but sometimes the conditions just aren’t good for tenting.)
The fourth and final day in the Smokies started out with the trail conditions still bad but they improved after about two hours as we descended out of the highest part of the Smokies. We exited through the northern part of the Smokies at about 2:30 and crossed the Pigeon River, crossed under I-40 and continued on to the Standing Bear Farm Hostel. There we met the manager, Rocket, who took us to the small commissary and showed us how to purchase items. I bought enough trail food for the next two days of hiking to Hot Springs, North Carolina and some snacks to eat immediately – two packs of Little Debbie chocolate and peanut bars, a can of Stax potato chips, a Snickers bar, a Powerade, and a V-8. (I didn’t eat the Snickers and packed it for later.) We hung around the hostel for about two hours, aired out our feet and talked to other hikers who were staying there. Then we took off at 5:30 to hike two miles to another campsite. Standing Bear charged $15 to stay in the bunk room or to tent. I didn’t want to pay that much to tent and Pig Pen was happy to get a couple miles closer to Hot Springs where his girlfriend will meet him, so we hiked for 45 minutes up 2000′ of a steep mountain to a beautiful campsite squeezed between two creeks. I’m listening to the flow of the stream a few feet away as I’m writing this post.
Yay, I’ve finally caught up with my blog! Today we’re going to do another 20 or so miles and camp again, then get to Hot Springs on Thursday. It’s supposed to be one of the best towns on the AT. I plan to spend the night in a hostel there and rest my body a bit. I’ve done a lot of 20’s and I could use the rest.
I’ll include some of my favorite photos of the Smokies below and hopefully I’ll get a good enough cell signal to send this out today. Here are photos of Pig Pen, Hurricane, my feet at Charlie’s Bunyon, snow on the trail, and my campsite last night.