Trip Report: Neels Gap to Unicoi Gap

As can be read in my previous post, I recently packed my pack and took off for a nice 4 day getaway on the Appalachian Trail. When I left I felt that I had high ambitions as far as distance that I planned to cover; as well, I had something new to learn by walking alone. Then of course, there was the sense of accomplishment by finishing my first entire state on the AT. So, to get this trip report rolling, I will start off with my arrival at Neels Gap…

We arrived at Neels Gap around 8:05 am last Thursday, and by we, I mean my wife, my 2 children and myself. We all drove up the night before and stayed in Blairsville GA and then awoke early for breakfast at the local Waffle House and then headed on down to the famous Mountain Crossings.

When we arrived, we parked beneath a tree in which a multitude of both boots and shoes dangled from its limbs, some obviously worn more than others. I jumped out of the truck and finished putting the last few little items inside my SMD Swift backpack. Once I was sure all was together I headed towards 2 guys sitting on the trail under the only roof to be found on the trail. After I introduced myself, the gentleman standing to my left introduced himself as “Pirate” (which is a well-known character in Winton Porters book Just Passin Thru). After the feeling of meeting a celebrity had passed me ( 🙂 ) I inquired as to bears and food bags as well as water sources. They told me that the bears weren’t as much of an issue as they were a couple of months ago, but to still take care when dealing with my smellables. As for the water, they said it was trickling, and some places better than others. Next I asked what time the store opened and they said they would open the doors at 8:30. So, I went back to spend time with the family until the store opened.

Once the store opened we walked in and I handled a few Western Mountaineering bags and then simply browsed through the store. After drooling over a few items I rounded up the family and we walked back out of the store. The time had drawn near…

My son asked if they could walk a few steps down the trail with me, so a few minutes after 9 we all headed up the trail. Once we were far enough for the store to be out of sight I snapped a few pictures of us all together and then we went our separate ways…I started my hike with a new kick in my step. This was my first solo hike. The wilderness was mine to experience on my own, and my pace was mine to set, both in how fast or slow I went as well as when I went. I was a bit nervous about all of this but I soon became wrapped up in hiking my own hike…

It was a nice sunshiny day with occasional big puffy white clouds casually drifting by and depending on which side of the mountain I was on I sometimes had a good breeze. I saw squirrels that were brave enough to be just a few feet away from me, as well, I heard chipmunks scampering about all along the trails, and very rarely getting a glimpse of one. And of course, the birds were chirping… All of this mixed with a few occasional mountain valley views was quite relaxing.I met a few hikers heading southbound, mostly in groups. We would exchange trail conditions or just simply say hi and keep hiking. However, early on in my hike I came across a solo hiker by the name of “Crash”. He was solo hiking from Virginia and was finishing up just on the other side of Blood Mountain. He had started a section hike with his grandpa and had been on the trail for 2 months, however, his grandpa had to leave the trail so he was finishing this section up by himself. We talked for a while and he told me to keep my eyes open for a hiker that was ahead of me. He showed me a picture of him that he had taken in which he was decked out in some old military uniform, complete with a pistol and a few large knives at his side… I said thanks and we went our way…

As the day moved on I found that the water was indeed trickling, but that was ok. Early in my hike I didn’t need to gulp water down so I made my 32 oz Gatorade last me until lunch. I stopped at Hogpen Gap and refilled my water bottle and had a quick lunch. I noticed I had reception on my phone so I decided to check in with the family to see how they were doing. After about 45 minutes, I decided to pack back up and continue on. I was just a few miles from Low Gap Shelter which was my destination for the night.

Once I finished lunch and started hiking on things changed a little. As I would come to a view or something interesting, there was no one there with me to share it with. I would stop and take pictures or do a little video, but it wasn’t the same. So, I started stopping less and hiking more.

At 2:30 in the afternoon I arrived at the shelter. As I walked in I met a young guy hiking out and heading to Unicoi Gap. I was impressed as this was almost 9 miles away, although I was already seriously considering heading to the next shelter, a little over 7 miles down the trail myself. We talked and he informed me of which trail was better to take to get water from and I showed him my maps so he could get an idea of how much father he had to go. Then he headed on down the trail…I headed down the short trail and refilled my water, then came back up and sat at the picnic table. I made a video and began treating the water. I pulled my map out and decided that I didn’t want to sit at the shelter by myself for another 6 hours before the sun even began to go down and decided to go for the next shelter down the trail! At this point, I had hiked 10.8 miles and was about to add-on another 7.2 miles for a total of 18 miles. I didn’t expect to do this much on the first day, but I felt like I had it in me and I didn’t want to sit there alone, so I went for it.

The next part of the trail was actually pretty flat. This made the hike quite simple and I booked it. However, at this time, I was also trying to find ways to keep my mind off of not having someone else with me. At the last-minute before I left the house, I grabbed my iPod, and at this time I was glad I did. At 1.6 oz, it was definitely a luxury item, but at the time, it made being by myself a little easier. I kept the volume down to a minimum, meaning I could still hear my surroundings, however, in the background I was singing along…

Eventually I caught up to the guy I met at Low Gap Shelter and passed him. I must admit, this made my day. I had always been the one to get passed…and now I was hiking past others. This made me think that Ron had named his pack correctly… the Swift…

I came to the intersection at Chattahoochee Gap and it took me a minute to figure out which trail was the AT. Once I realized which one I took off, knowing that the climb up Blue Mountain was coming up, as well as the shelter, and this time my real final destination for the day.Considering my mileage for the first day, I started feeling it as I began climbing Blue Mountain. But that was ok because I knew that while it was a steep climb, it would be relatively short and on top of that, my “home” was on top of it. Once near the top I met the last hiker I would meet for the day. I asked about the shelter and the water and he informed me that the shelter was just up the trail and that there was some water coming out of a piece of PVC pipe just a few feet up from where we were. Sounded good to me!

The spring was indeed just a few feet from us, so I decided to go ahead and refill all of my water at that time. This way if there was not good water at the shelter I wouldn’t have to hike back for more water. So, after filling up I pulled my pack back on and began looking for the shelter. About a quarter of a mile past the spring I came across a blue blazed trail that lead off the trail and a sign which stated that water was down the blue blazed trail and the shelter was on down the main trail…also, it looked like the sign had recently taken a beating…or a chewing… (Now though, I looks like the sign states that both the shelter and the water was down the blue blazed trail…)So I kept going…and going…and going…and nothing. Finally I started feeling tired and not so sure that I hadn’t passed the shelter already somehow, but I refused to turn back. I did keep in mind though that if I started going down hill at a good rate I had definitely passed it and I would soon arrive at Unicoi Gap.

About this time is when I had a little wake up call! As I was walking along I suddenly heard something in front of me. As I looked up I noticed a large black bear shoot out across the trail about 60 feet in front of me! It happened so fast, I really didn’t process it until the bear was a good distance away from me. I stood there thinking, “Did that really just happen?” and I knew it did because I could still hear the bear running through the woods and I could still see a black blur making its way farther away from me. Then it hit me, take a picture…but doh! it was way too late for that. So, what then…make noise…haha… so I did…not that it mattered, he (or she) was gone! I stood there in shock for about 20 seconds. Then I realized it was time to move on. The show was over. So I did.

Seeing the bear made me think that the shelter was probably somewhere near, so I made sure to keep my eyes wide, but I still never found the shelter. Then next thing I knew, I was heading down hill, and fast. The shelter was gone, and Unicoi Gap some 20.2 miles from where I started at Neels Gap was my new destination. As I headed down hill, I looked for a place to make camp for the night rather than stay at the Gap, but there was none to be found. The trail, and the mountain, was all down hill at this point…

I crossed the road at Unicoi Gap a few minutes after 7 pm and immediately scoped the area out. The climb out of Unicoi was more than I wanted for the night and I still needed to cook diner and get everything settled. I sat on a log at the edge of the woods and made my MH Lasagna meal and once I was done with that I pulled my sleeping gear out of my pack and loaded everything else back in.

I headed down a trail and found a branch suitable to hang my pack with everything inside it from. After about 6 throws with my rock bag I hit home and then hoisted my pack up in the trees and tied off the other end of the line. Then I went and made my bed for the night…I decided not to use my tarp for fear of drawing more attention to myself. Considering I was basically on the road, I didn’t want to do that. So, I made my bed behind an information sign at the edge of the woods. After doing this I pulled my phone out and called home to let my family know I was still ok, as well as make sure that they had made it home safe as well.

This is when it hit me. As much as I enjoyed being out, it wasn’t the same for me without someone to share it with. This along with the fact that I was already nervous about being out there by myself and now the fact that I was sleeping near a road kind of did me in. I told my wife that I was done and she could come and get me the next day.

This was a hard choice for me to make. I had been planning this hike for the last 2 months and I was super excited to head out. As well, I was pretty stoked about the mileage I accomplished my first day out. But I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy it if I made myself do it.

So, night rolled around and I tried to get some sleep. However, Unicoi Gap is a busy place. Lots of traffic all night long, as well as a few that stop in… I awoke from a brief doze off around 2:30 am to 2 cars that pulled in. It was 2 older kids and I laid there hoping that they didn’t notice me. They hung around for about 30 minutes before leaving. Needless to say, I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep that night.

The next morning, I ate some of my breakfast and debated hiking on to Dicks Creek Gap. However, I quickly decided against it. So, I packed up and started the long (9 mile) road hike into Helen GA.

I left Unicoi Gap about 7:40 am. I was thankful that much of the road hike was down hill, but I kept waiting for it to start going back up. Thankfully it never really did. But I will say, those 9 miles into Helen were a long 9 miles. The road was still quite busy, but I never “asked for a ride.” Then about 3 hours later I came upon a gas station. I went in and bought a Coke and asked how much farther Helen was. The clerk told me it wasn’t much farther. So, I drank some of the Coke and then stowed the rest in the side pocket of my pack and hiked on some more. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later I passed the sign that welcomed me to Helen!I stumbled into the first hotel that I came to which happened to be the Hafbrau Riverfront Hotel and asked when the earliest I could check into a room was. The lady behind the desk happily checked me in right then and there! Then I headed to my room and went through my pack, throwing away the trash and reorganizing everything.

After a shower I put on the cleanest clothes I had and headed into town to eat some lunch. After lunch I went back to the hotel and got some rest before my wife made it in. Once she made it in we went to Paul’s on the river and had a dinner date and then called it a night.The next day we hung around the town for a while longer and then piled up in the truck and headed back home.

In the end, I am a little disappointed that I didn’t finish my hike like I planned, but I definitely learned that I still need to get a little more comfy out on the trail before I plan any more big solo hikes. I also learned that I am very happy with my pack weight. It allowed me to cover almost twice the amount of miles that I initially planned, so that is a major plus. But anyway, I will get out there some more and continue to learn…

So, I will go ahead and end this rather long trip report with some videos that I shot while on the trail…

Thanks for reading!

~Stick~

About Stick

My blog is essentially a record of my hiking career. Through it, I, and others, can see how I have evolved from a heavy weight backpacker, to a smarter, more efficient, lightweight backpacker. Through the use of video, still photos, and of course writing, one can see my progression, as well as check out some of the places I hike, and not to mention some cool, lightweight gear options. For me, my blog is a journal, but for others, I hope that it is an interactive learning tool to aid them in their own progression towards lightweight backpacking.
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11 Responses to Trip Report: Neels Gap to Unicoi Gap

  1. Pingback: April 2016 AT Section Hike: Unicoi Gap (GA) to Deep Gap (NC) | Stick's Blog

  2. Bluesman says:

    Hey stick,
    Sorry your solo was a bummer! I too have burned up the miles really fast because it gets lonely out there when there is no one to share your enthusiasm with. You begin to question why you are even out there and not with your family. next thing i know I’m hiking even faster to get home. My last 3 solo trips were section hikes that I have averaged 19 miles a day just to get home early. My wife would then notice that I seemed different after these trips than other hikes with friends or family. I dislike solo now and have been waiting for friends or family to go.

    If interested in picking up where you left off, I have hiked this section several times and would like to try out some of my new lightweight gear to. We can compare notes and cover miles at the same time. If your game, my availability for July is the 22nd, 23rd, 24th & 25th if need be.

    I know this might seem like it’s coming from left field, but it’s your call. I’m not a big fan of hiking in the summer and to be quite honest, It’s been many years that I’ve done it. The humidity is killer.
    On the plus side, the gear needed will be less than 3 season gear= ultralight weight(maybe, still tweeking?)

    Anyway, no pressure. Await your reply.

    Happy trails,
    Scott

    Like

    • Stick says:

      Scott,

      Thanks for stopping by an commenting. As well, thanks for the offer! While I would love to take you up on it, at this time I cannot. That is a week that I am on call at the hospital (I am on every other week) and the next week is my wife’s B-day so I had better not swap it around. Maybe sometime latter this year though? I would love to try to get out on a Friday through Sunday morning. I know it is not much, but at least it is getting out!

      ~Stick!

      Like

  3. Tony says:

    Very interesting trip report, Stick. Good for you for articulating what many wouldn’t be brave enough to admit – hiking alone can be very lonely, and it can be scary too! Anyone who tells you different is just trying to be tough. I went camping over the last weekend and came back a day early cause I missed my family.

    And while it may well turn out that solo hiking is not for you, I would just mention that solitude is something that requires practice, for a lot of reasons. It can be difficult being alone with yourself. I don’t mean this in a negative way at all. I just mean, maybe try it a little more and see what comes. Solitude can be very informative.

    And yes, the bears could generally care less about us! I had my first bear encounter last October in King’s Canyon National Park – very similar to yours – over before I even knew what was happening. But it was such a thrill.

    Tony

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    • Stick says:

      Tony,

      Thanks for stopping by. And I must say, thanks for a well-said comment. I do plan on trying solo more. I definitely do not plan to stop enjoying the sport just because I found out that going solo is not as easy as I had imagined and hoped for. I will try some overnight trips on my own and see how it grows on me. But I still plan for hikes with my wife, son and friends.

      ~Stick~

      Like

  4. Mike Mathisen says:

    Enjoyed the write up and video. I prefer the company of others when backpacking too. Maybe I am saying that because I’m to chicken to try a solo hike, that’s probably it. Anyway congratulations on your first 20 mile day that’s something to be proud of!

    Like

    • Stick says:

      Mike,

      Thanks for stopping by and replying. I agree with you, it is great to be with others when hiking. I find that it is more enjoyable to share the views and hanging out with others. However, I would be hard pressed to find a hiking partner that wouldn’t mind doing that many miles a day… 🙂

      ~Stick~

      Like

  5. Raul Perez says:

    Maybe too much too soon. I started my solo treks as overnights and then progressed the days from there. I will tell you this my friend… day 3 you really start missing the family. I know I do. I miss the noise in the house of my boy playing and my woman yelling at me from the kitchen LOL. I know I can never do a thru hike so I keep my hikes with 2 week max times. I’d just miss them way too much.

    If you ever want to hike NY I’ll be your shadow. Just holla.

    Like

    • Stick says:

      Raul,

      You are probably right. I am going to try to get out more by myself, but I guess it will take time. Until then I will try to plan multiday trips with others. And I hear ya on missing the family. As much as I hate to say it, the thru may have to be put off for quite a while…maybe though I can grow to be able to do like you mention and do a couple of weeks at a time. Hey, if I could push out 20 miles on my first day, maybe I could cover a good amount even for 2 weeks…

      If I am ever up your way I will get in touch with ya. Thanks.

      ~Stick~

      Like

  6. skolbe says:

    Looks like a good learning experience. Any suggestions for hiking sections for transportation back to the start of your hike?

    Like

    • Stick says:

      skolbe,

      Transportation back is always a big concern for me, as is for anyone I would imagine. Unless I can prearrange a ride with other hikers I may be hiking with, I try to plan loops. Or I cough up the dough and pay for a shuttle, although I try to avoid shuttles just because I hate spending the extra $$$. For this trip, my wife was dropping me off and picking me back up, so even though I left the trail early, it did not cost us any extra $$ because we had already budgeted for the trip back. It just came earlier than expected…

      ~Stick~

      Like

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