Appalachian Trail – Part 2
Day 1 – Wednesday 5/2/18
Start: Winding Stairs Gap MM 109.2
Ending: Wayah Crest Trailhead MM 115.3
Trail Miles Hiked: 6.1
My son, Derick, and I started our 2nd section hike of the AT today. The day started by getting up at 4 am and catching an Uber to the airport. Our first flight was from Tulsa to Chicago and although it left on time it was about 25 minutes late arriving at the gate in Chicago. We moved quickly through the airport and got to our 2nd flight as they were halfway through boarding. Upon arrival In Knoxville TN we rented a car from Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Knoxville and dropped it off in Franklin TN. The rental was about $100 which is about what a shuttle would cost but we had flexibility to stop and get lunch, cooking fuel, and Subway Sandwiches for dinner. The best part is that Enterprise drove us out to the Winding Stairs Gap Trailhead when we got to Franklin as part of their service.
We got on the trail about 3:30 and made good time reaching Siler Bald, covering over 4 miles and 1,300 feet in elevation gain in less than 2 hours. We continued down the trail, refilled our water and camped at the Wayah Crest Trailhead. This is a nice site with 3 picnic tables, a couple fire rings, and spaces for several tents. After eating our Subway Sandwiches we drank some blueberry tea, hung our bear bags and retired to our tent for the night.
Day 2 – Thursday 5/3/18
Starting: Wayah Crest Trailhead MM 115.3
Ending: Wesser Bald Shelter MM 131.1
Trail Miles Hiked: 15.8
We started off early this morning leaving camp at about 5:45 and had made the 5 miles to Wayah Bald by about 8:30. Wayah Bald has a nice Rock lookout tower with display boards showing the mountains you could see from there. We saw Albert Mountain and Standing Indian Mountain that we climbed during our trip last year as well as Siler Bald that we had been at just yesterday afternoon. We could also see some of the places we were headed to like Clingmans dome. After taking in the view we started down the trail and stopped at Wayah Bald Shelter for our mid-morning snack. After a quick rest and snack break we hiked down the trail about 1 mile and stopped to take a couple pictures at Lick Log Gap. We continued downhill to Burningtown Gap which is known for frequent trail magic, but we had no such luck today. We started heading back uphill and stopped for lunch at Cold Spring Shelter. While there we let our feet dry out, and refilled our water bottles before continuing the climb to the Wesser Bald lookout tower. The last 200 feet of this climb was very steep and we dragged into the clearing at the top where the lookout tower was. Our plan was to stay and sleep on the tower tonight, but after fighting off the swarm of knats on the top of the Bald we decided to hike the mile to the Wesser Bald Shelter for the night. Once there we discovered the shelter was not only full, all the flat tent sites had been taken. We found a small flat spot near the trail and setup our tent for the night. The other hikers retired to there tents before dark and we followed suite eventually dosing off for the night.
Day 3 – Friday 5/4/18
Starting: Wesser Bald Shelter MM 131.1
Ending: Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) MM 137.1
Trail Miles Hiked: 6 (Nero Day)
We started off early again this morning, hitting the trail at about 5:45. We arrived at The NOC at 8:15 and found some nice Adirondack Chairs near the river and just soaked in the beauty of this place. Since we were so early we decided to stop into The Rivers End, a restaurant which sits right on the river, and grab some breakfast and coffee. After breakfast we visited to local general store and picked up some groceries for our next couple of days hiking. They directed us to the activity center where we were able to get 2 tickets for a guided whitewater rafting trip this afternoon. They were also able to direct us to the laundry mat so we could wash our hiking clothes. While waiting for our clothes we saw a lady we had met at Wesser Bald Shelter and asked if she would like to join us for lunch. We all three were craving hamburgers and ordered hamburgers and fries. After lunch we spent some time sitting on the bank of the river watching some kayakers playing in the water. At 2:00 we went to meet up for our whitewater rafting trip. After a short lesson on what to do if we had an “out-of-boat experience” we were shuttled upstream about 8 miles to begin our trip. As Derick and I helped our guide carry the raft to the river, he asked us if we wanted a normal ride or did we want a more adventurous ride. Of course, we picked the adventurous ride. Once in the raft he had us immediately start practicing spinning the raft. As we went down the river he took several opportunities to have us spin the the raft down some rapids and even off some rocks. At one place he challenged us to beat a river record of spinning the raft 9 times between 2 points. We didn’t beat it, but we tied it. The last set of rapids was Nantahala Falls which has a 5 foot drop. We again spun the raft twice before hitting the falls and splashed our way down. We ended wet but thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. After rafting we checked into our room and grabbed some pizza for dinner. We hung around the river for awhile before returning to our room to call it a night.
Day 4 – Saturday 5/5/18
Starting: Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) MM 137.1
Ending: Brown Fork Gap Shelter MM 152.8
Trail Miles Hiked: 15.7
With a hostel bed to sleep in and plans to get breakfast at the NOC, we slept in this morning, packed up, and headed to The Rivers End at about 8:00 to get some breakfast. We ate a hearty breakfast knowing that the climb out from the NOC was going to be 3330 ft. of elevation gain. The trail started skirting the mountains for awhile before beginning the steady climb over the next 6 miles. About 2 miles into the hike we came to grassy bald and had some great views out over the forest. After almost 3,000 ft. of climbing, we made it to Sassafras Gap Shelter and stopped there to eat lunch. After lunch a short uphill push brought us to the top of the Mountain, Cheoah Bald, from here it would be all downhill to Brown Fork Gap Shelter, our target for the night. We hiked downward for about 6 miles and arrived at Stecoah Gap in the late afternoon. We visited with some other hikers and rested for a short while on some picnic tables. However, the hikers soon turned the discussion to the trail ahead and “Jacob’s Ladder”. What? I thought it was all downhill to the shelter. Somehow “Jacob’s Ladder” didn’t sound fun after hiking over 13 miles already. It appears that Jacob’s Ladder is a 1/2 mile stretch of trail that climbs 600 ft. – a rather steep climb at the end of the day. Nonetheless, we donned our packs, said goodbye to the other hikers and headed toward Jacob’s Ladder. Being tired when we got there didn’t help, but I finished it by walking 50 -75 steps then resting until I finally got to the top. The last 3/4 mile to the shelter was fairly flat and we got there with a couple hours of daylight to spare. To our surprise, as we approached the shelter we noticed that a family with a toddler had set up a tent inside, the tent taking up half the shelter. There was no other hikers at the shelter, but a couple had set up tents in a ravine down by the water source. Knowing that the forecast called for rain overnight we decided to just take a spot on the other half of the shelter and hope the child was quiet overnight. As it turned out the toddler was perfectly quiet, but his father snored like a freight train all night. However to validate our decision to sleep in the shelter a strong thunderstorm came through about 3 am, with lots of lightning, thunder and a very heavy rain. We were nice and dry in the shelter despite the insistent snoring.
Day 5 – Sunday 5/6/18
Starting: Brown Fork Gap Shelter MM 152.8
Ending: “Fontana Hilton” Shelter MM 165.6
Trail Miles Hiked: 12.8
We were up early (since we couldn’t sleep with the snoring and the thunder), packed up and hit the trail right at dawn. We had 11.6 miles to hike to the Fontana Dam road crossing to catch a shuttle into Fontana Village for resupply and laundry. If we hurried we could eat lunch at the Village as well. The trail had little elevation change for the first 9 miles and then began a descent down toward the lake. As we descended we could see the lake through the trees and it teased us for the last 2 miles. We made good time and ended up at the road about 12:30. As we were trying to find a cell phone signal to call the Village for a shuttle, the shuttle showed up dropping some hikers off. We jumped aboard and after a quick drive to Fontana Village, we were able to get us some real food. After lunch we did a little sightseeing at an old settlers cabin that had been restored and headed to the store for resupply. The Fontana Village store definitely caters to hikers and had lots of good options for trail food and of course – beer. The laundry was just down from the store and after changing into our rain gear and sleepwear, we got a load started in the laundry and plugged up the electronics to recharge. As the clothes washed, we packed up our food and drank our beer. We met two thru hikers here and offered them a beer while we all waited on our clothes to wash. After we finished our laundry we thought we might as well go back and eat a real dinner before heading out to the “Fontana Hilton” for the night. We just finished our dinner when the shuttle showed up and we quickly jumped on board and it took us back to the road we left from. A short 1.2 mile hike through the woods brought us to the Fontana Dam Shelter – also known as the “Fontana Hilton”. This is a large double decker shelter with room to sleep about 30 people. It is part of the Fontana Dam Park and has a nice terraced area around the shelter with great views of the lake and a shower house up the hill. We visited with some of the other hikers there, hung our bear bags (which became a comic event of its own), and took a shower before hitting the sleeping bags for the night.
Day 6 – Monday 5/7/18
Starting: “Fontana Hilton” Shelter MM 165.6
Ending: Russell Field Shelter MM 180.1
Trail Miles Hiked: 14.5
We were up early this morning so we could see the sun rise over the lake. We packed up in the dark, retrieved our food bags, and moved up to the upper picnic area to organize or food. A quick walk around the lake brought us to the Fontana Dam Vistor’s Center where we looked around briefly and began walking across the Dam just as the fog began rolling up the face of the Dam and curling over the top. we reached a small overlook on the other side of the Dam just in time to catch the sunrise over the lake. A thru-hiker caught up with us here and we walked together down the trail as we entered the Smoky Mountains National Park. Today was another climb as we had over 2,000 ft of elevation to conquer over the next 3.7 miles. We progressed rapidly up the trail knowing that the Shuckstack fire tower would afford us great views at the top. Shuckstack was .1 miles off the trail and we left our packs at the bottom of the trail and finished the climb to the fire tower. The views from the top were great. We climbed back down, grabbed a snack when we got to our bags, and proceeded down the trail. Shortly after beginning on the trail a bear and a her cub were spotted in the trees. The bear ran away, but the cub ran a short distance and climbed several feet up a tree. I guess he thought he was hiding, but was in clear view to us. We watched for awhile and then decided to move along before “mama” came back. About a mile down the trail we ran across a ridge runner posting a sign about bear activity in the area. We mentioned the bear we saw near Shuckstack and he said the bears liked to hang out near there because hikers would leave there packs unattended at the spur and hike up to tower. Ooops!!. We failed to mention that we did that. Back on the trail we continued on and stopped at Mollies Ridge Shelter for lunch and to rest our feet. Back on the trail we only had 3 miles to go to get to Russell Field Shelter. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and through the afternoon many of the hikers we had talked to the night before arrived to stay there as well. The shelters in the Smoky Mountains National Park are all double deckers with room for about 12-14 hikers. We grabbed a spot and everyone who wanted to sleep in the shelter had room tonight.
Day 7 – Tuesday 5/8/18
Starting: Russell Field Shelter MM 180.1
Ending: Silers Bald Shelter MM 195.1
Trail Miles Hiked: 15.0
Today’s hike is mostly on top of the ridgeline bouncing back and forth between North Carolina and Tennessee. We passed through a place called Rocky Top, but there was a nice carpet of green under the trees there so I’m really not sure if it was all that rocky. There was a short climb up Thunderhead Mountain which had good views of the Smoky Mountains. We pushed our way through lunch today and ended up at the Silers Bald shelter by early afternoon. As the afternoon progressed several other hikers arrived and the shelter was pretty full by nightfall. Everyone ate, discussed their plans for tomorrow and were in bed by hiker’s midnight (9:00 pm) getting rest for the 1,200 foot climb in the morning to Clingmans Dome.
Day 8 – Wednesday 5/9/18
Starting: Silers Bald Shelter MM 195.1
Ending: Icewater Spring Shelter MM 210.4
Trail Miles Hiked: 15.3
We started off early this morning in order to get to Clingman’s Dome before the tourist crowd arrived. The trial started off uphill as we began our climb up to Clingman’s Dome. As we were climbing the mountain we got glimpses of the surrounding mountains through the trees. About halfway up Mt. Buckley we startled a deer eating grass near the trail. After a short sprint she realized we weren’t going to hurt her and she went back to eating as we walked by. As we gained elevation we reached a point on the trail where the forest suddenly turned from a deciduous forest to an evergreen forest with a thick mossy under-story. We also began walking into the clouds which hung over the mountains and it created a surreal feel to the forest. As we approached Clingmans Dome the tower was engulfed in the clouds. So much for our great views of the Smoky Mountains from there today. We took a few minutes to rest, decide if we thought the fog would lift soon or not, and finally decided to continue on down the trail. And by “down” the trail I really mean down. The next 7 miles would be a 1,600′ elevation drop to Newfound Gap. The trail started off pretty steep but eventually leveled off to a more gradual descent as it continued through the forest. Once at Newfound Gap we took some time to eat Lunch and rest on the grass near the parking lot. We tried to look wore out and hungry hoping for some trail magic, but to no avail. The closest we got was another hiker offering some toilet paper to anyone who needed it. After our break we jumped back on the trail to head toward Icewater Spring Shelter. This is the same trail that many day hikers use to get to Charlie’s Bunion (a rock formation, not a foot deformity). There was a lot of foot traffic on this trail, but we made it to the Icewater Spring Shelter by mid-afternoon. We anticipated this shelter would be full tonight since it was so close to a popular trailhead and set up our tent in an area below the shelter. There was a large group of hikers that ended up at this shelter for the night and tents and hammocks were set up all around the area. On the way into the shelter we had seen the spur trail to the jump-off which we had heard about from a hiker last year on the AT. He said it was a “don’t miss” view so we took off a little before sun sunset to get there and watch the sun go down. It was a nice hike up to the jump-off, but unfortunately it was not situated to see the sunset which was disappearing behind the mountain behind us. The view from there was great though and we were excited about the views we would have from Charlie’s Bunion in the morning. After returning to the shelter is was already getting dark and the shelter had very few hikers for the night so we decided to break down our tent and sleep in the shelter in order to get a quicker start in the morning.
Day 9 – Thursday 5/10/18
Starting: Icewater Spring Shelter MM 210.4
Ending: Tri-Corner Knob Shelter MM 223
Trail Miles Hiked: 12.6
We were up early and got on the trail before dawn. We wanted to get to Charlies Bunion to see the the sun rise over the Smoky Mountains. Charlies Bunion was a little over a mile away and we got there as the sun was coming up over the mountains highlighting the clouds that hung in the air over the mountains. After taking in the sights we were back on the trail. The trail was up and down through the day with a nice overlook area at Eagle Rocks. We ended up at the Tri-Corner Knob shelter shortly after noon. With the whole afternoon available we could have made it to the next shelter – Crosby Knob – but it had been shut down due to bear activity in the area. the next shelter after that would have been another 15 miles away. Due to the closing of Crosby Knob the group at Tri-Corner Knob was just as big as the night before if not bigger. The shelter filled up pretty quick but we staked our claim to a spot in the shelter early in the afternoon. Since there was so much time at the shelter this afternoon it was interesting to see the different types of hikers on the trail. There were section hikers out for a long weekend. They had a full multi-course meal for dinner and full array of hygiene products like soap, shampoo, and deodorant to clean up with before retiring for the night. The thru hikers had broken up into small groups based on relationships they had developed along the trail. The shelter was a mixture of these groups and many were sleeping in tents in the area around the shelter. Although not a hard day everyone was still ready to climb into the sleeping bags at night and the shelter was quiet (except for the snoring) well before 9:00 tonight.
Day 10 – Friday 5/11/18
Starting: Tri-Corner Knob Shelter MM 223
Ending: Pigeon River Bridge MM 239.2
Trail Miles Hiked: 16.2
Due to some pain in my left ankle we made plans to get off the trail when we got to I-40. We were up early in order to catch a ride into Newport TN where we could rent a car. The trail started off by going uphill for about a mile before beginning the long gradual decline to the Pigeon River, a 4,900 ft descent. We were able to get one last overlook photo as we began the descent. We passed the Crosby Knob Shelter where there was a posting that it was closed due to bear activity. As we continued down the mountain the trail got easier and easier until we finally reached Davenport Gap. The trail crosses the road here right on the Tennessee / North Carolina border and the road is paved in Tennessee, but dirt in North Carolina. The trail took a slight upturn on the other side of the road before continuing down to the pigeon river. During this descent the trail crossed a creek several times, once right below a waterfall. Once out of the woods the trail proceeded down the road to the Pigeon River Bridge. We found a rock there to rest on while we waited for our ride to take us into Newport. This section of the trail through the Smoky Mountains was full of incredible views , some awesome forest, and times spent with fellow hikers enjoying the time there. This was a wonderful section of the Appalachian Trail and I am looking forward to our next section in 2019.