Last Tuesday night I pulled up into the Newfound Gap parking area around 10 PM. My backpack was all packed up, propped up in the back seat. Beside that was a duffel bag with clean clothes for after my hike, and next to that, a blanket and a pillow. I had decided to simply sleep in my car that night, which would save money on a hotel room (especially since it would have only been for a mere 5 – 6 hour stay), and would easily allow me a bright and early start on my hike the next morning.
After getting everything ready to simply grab the next morning, I slid over to the passenger seat in my car, kicked the seat back, threw the pillow under my head and draped the blanket over me. I attempted to get a few hours of shut-eye over the course of the next few hours… and I have got to say, it wasn’t too bad. Definitely not a night in my warm, comfy, bed at home, but better than I anticipated.
I woke up a few times throughout the night due to cars coming and going, but what finally stirred me for good was the sound of a bus pulling up, and then a growing sound that turned out to be a rather large group of gathering hikers. They had their head lamps on, shining them this way and that… and I heard the clickety-clack of their trekking pole tips banging against the paved parking area and sidewalks. This is when I knew it was time to rise…
I threw the blanket off of me, slid my shoes on and hopped out of the car. I grabbed my pack out and leaned it against my car, along with my own set of trekking poles. Then I threw the blanket and pillow on the back seat, locked my car’s doors, and pocketed my key in a side zip cargo pocket on my pants. After re-checking everything, I threw my pack on my back, made a few minor adjustments, grabbed my trekking poles and set off… around the large group of excited voices!
Someone in the group asked me if we were all ready, to which I replied, “I don’t know… I don’t think I am part of your group, but I could be wrong…” A laugh came from the crowd, and then they immediately started following in behind me…
I took off. I tried to stay in front of the crowd, however, over the next hour I could still hear voices not too far behind me on occasion. I was hoping to be able to find an open spot to catch the sun coming up over the mountains, however, by the time I found that spot, the sun had already completely risen over the mountain tops, but I still managed to get the photo at the top of this post!
While taking my first set of photo’s, I heard a couple of voices pass behind me on the trail. I counted 3 different voices, and then my surroundings feel silent again. So, I decided to get back on the trail, and continue heading north… at my own pace!
Being that I have hiked this short section about 4 or 5 times prior to this hike, hiking through this section again brought back a few fond memories… Then, before I knew it, I was at the junction of the Boulevard Trail (which leads to the famous Mt LeConte) and the AT. I stopped for a moment and started down the trail… thinking back to the previous times I had hiked these trails, and then continued north on the AT.
Just 0.3 short miles farther along the trail, I arrived at Icewater Springs Shelter, which is a great shelter to catch an amazing sunrise. There were a few other hikers in the shelter, packing their own gear into their own packs. I did a little video, took a couple of snaps with my camera, and said hi to the other hikers. After a brief conversation with them, I learned that 4 of them were heading to Tricorner Knob shelter that night, which was the same shelter I was heading to for the night. After saying my good byes, and I’ll see ya later’s, I continued north on the trail.
Within another mile I came to one of the most famous spots in the Smokies, Charlie’s Bunion. As I got closer and closer to the Bunion, I started hearing voices again… So, I decided that I would try to quickly get in and out of the Bunion area. As I made my way to the actual Bunion, I surprisingly found it to be completely vacant! So, I quickly climbed to the first knob and took some more photo’s, and a little video too. After spending a few minutes taking in God’s creation, I jumped back down, and then headed back towards the AT.
After reconnecting with the AT, I continued north…
Shortly after, I arrived at the junction of the Dry Sluice trail and the AT. Several years ago, I did a hike with a few other friends that carried me right up to this spot, but then we headed down the Dry Sluice Trail rather than continuing up the AT. What this means is that from this spot on the AT, all the way to Tricorner Knob, was unhiked trail for me! This was the first few steps I took on this hike on new ground!
The next few hours of hiking was great. There were lots of places that I had some awesome views… sometimes from between the trees, and on occasion, at a nice little clearing on the side of the trail. As well, it was along this area that I caught up to the few folks that had passed me by earlier on the trail that morning. We each said hi to one another, and I asked where they were heading. They explained that they were actually a group of day hikers from the Knoxville area that meet up every Wednesday for a hike. On this day they were doing a 26 mile hike from Newfound Gap, all the way to the Cosby campground! Shortly after, we each headed farther north along the trail, at first as a small group, but over time we eventually spread back out.
As we neared the trail the went to Pecks Corner Shelter, I was looking for a little water. I had started with two 20 oz SoBe Life Water’s, and had about 1 full bottle left. Unfortunately, there was no good water to be had at the trail head (despite what the map said), and I wasn’t to thrilled about hiking another 0.8 miles (round trip) to collect some more. So, I threw off my pack, and pulled out some bars for lunch, and sparingly sipped from my water bottle. Tricorner Knob Shelter was only another 5 miles down the trail, and the water source there was reliable, so I wasn’t too concerned.
After a few minutes, I slung my pack back on, said bye to the few other new faces that had stopped in for a lunch break, and then headed north on the trail again. The trail carried me over Mt Sequoyah, and then Mt Chapman, before dumping me out onto the short side trail that led to the Tricorner Knob Shelter.
I walked into the shelter at 12:50 pm… quite a bit early considering the skies wouldn’t turn dark for another 7 hours or so… but, this was my destination for the night. There were 3 others inside the shelter when I walked into the shelter, however, after a quick conversation with them, I realized that they had all simply stopped in for a lunch break. This meant that I was the first one in the shelter for the night, so I quickly picked the spot that I wanted, and started spreading out my gear…
About 15 minutes later, the 3 others that had been in the shelter had already left, so I finished unpacking in silence. It didn’t take me long to get everything all sorted out (one of the benefits of “UL” backpacking), and then I headed over and collected some water. I quickly filtered water into my two 20 oz bottles, and immediately chugged one, and then sipped the other. After a bit, I refilled both bottles, and then collected a little more water so that I could cook my dinner later that night, and then top off the bottles again.
Then, I waited.
About 3:30 pm, the hikers that I had briefly met that morning at Icewater Springs shelter began showing up. And just as I did… they claimed a spot, and then began their own camp chores. After talking with the group for a bit longer, I learned that they were actually 2 groups (1 of 3, and 1 of 1) that met a few days earlier, and were now hiking together. (This is the cool thing about meeting folks on the trail!) Pippin had started as a solo hiker, and Gadget, Preacher, and Sawmill all started together. Both groups had planned to hike NOBO from Fontana Dam (the southern edge of the Smokies on the AT) to Davenport Gap (the northern edge of the Smokies on the AT), so this made it easy for them to all decide to hike together as one group.
It didn’t take me long to realize that this was a great group of guys, and I was thrilled to be sharing a shelter with them that night! As we all continued to settle into the shelter, the skies slowly began to turn dark. Some of us began hunting for some dry wood to make a fire later in the night, while others finished getting settled in. Then, as normal, one by one, we each started preparing either a warm drink, or our dinners for the night.
In the midst of our rummaging, another hiker, by the name of Kool91, hiked into the shelter. She had started at Newfound Gap a few hours after I did that same morning. We all gave her a warm welcome, and the same as the rest of us, she claimed a spot and started spreading out. Then, just before the last light of the day had been driven from the sky, 2 more hikers hiked into the shelter.
Once night had officially arrived, a few of the other hikers began to get the fire going. Soon after, there was a nice, warm, glow that crackled and popped, while red-hot embers floated above the fire, and out the chimney. Standing outside looking at the shelter, light by the moon and the stars, and watching the smoke pour out of the chimney top was mesmerizing….
Being that I didn’t get the best sleep the night before, I quickly crawled inside my warm sleeping bag, crammed my ear plugs in my ear canals, and listened to a hum of conversation… and then drifted off to sleep, rather quickly might I add.
I woke up a few times in the night, once to pee of course, but was able to drift back to sleep rather quickly each time. Then around 6:15 am I heard some of the others moving around. I took this as my cue, reached up and twisted the valve on my NeoAir. The air gushed out of the pad from the weight of my body resting on top of it. As I felt myself lying on the hard, wooded floor of the top bunk int he shelter, I raised up, and began my morning camp chores: get dressed, eat, and then pack everything back up.
Just before I left the shelter, I asked everyone to get together for a group shot in front of the shelter, then told everyone that I would see them down the trail, and hiked back around the shelter, up to the AT, and then began heading north again.
This section of the trail, all the way to Low Gap, was not new trail for me. But, it was still just as beautiful as I had remembered it from before…. maybe even more so since my feet were currently pounding down the trail again. The morning was a little cool, and the sun was shining bright, just over the mountains to the east of me… It was a perfect morning to be on the trail… and I felt good!
Before I left, I had entertained the idea of possibly trying to find a path to the summit of Mt Guyot (the second tallest mountain in the park, by only about 22 feet!) and making my way up. However, after skirting around the mountain, I was not able to find a place I was sure enough about, so I decided to simply take in its beauty from the trail, and continue on up the trail.
After about an hour, I was stopped on the trail, taking in some views, and of course snapping a few photo’s, when Kool91 had caught up to me. She had left the shelter about 10 minutes or so after I did that morning. We talked for a bit, took one last look at the views before us, and then began hiking down the trail together.
Kool91 and I ended up hiking almost the rest of the day together. We talked about our jobs, the trail, friends, family, society, and of course food… amongst many other things. I found it to be quite pleasant having someone else to talk with, that shared many of the same interests as I, and also kept up pretty much the same pace as I did. On occasion, we would come to another nice view, and we would stop and soak it up as much as possible. The day continued to grow into an even more perfect day to be on the trail… although, all the down hill from Mt Guyot made the hiking easy, and fast!
A couple of hours later we came to the side trail that led to Cosby Knob shelter. We stopped here for a bit, and soon after the rest of the group from the shelter the night before caught up with us. We all talked for a bit, and then Pippin continued to push on. Kool91 and I followed along shortly after.
Soon after, we came to the intersection of the side trail to the Mt Cammarer fire tower, and the AT. We had all agreed to stop in at the fire tower for a quick lunch, not to mention, the astounding views that everyone raves about. The trail to the fire tower is another 0.6 miles (1 way), and has a little up and down, but nothing like what we had climbed the day before, nor had descended earlier that morning. Needless to say, it didn’t take very long at all to arrive at the fire tower, and once we did… well, it was definitely worth it! The skies were clear, and we could see for what seemed like forever… all the way into the flat lands! The view from the fire tower was indeed, one of the best that I have seen…. and I highly suggest anyone in the area to make sure and stop by if they can!
Once everyone arrived at the fire tower and had taken in the views, we all found a spot in the rocks to have a seat for a bit and eat a little lunch, and even put a little more tape on some feet. Some day hikers had also came up to the fire tower while we were there, and they happily agreed to take another group shot of us all! (Photo provided by Kool91.)
After we had some food in our bellies and had taken a moment to relax, Kool91 and I hauled our packs back on and started back down the side trail to the AT. Just as quick as we had made it to the fire tower, we had made it back to the super highway, and continued north bound. The Davenport Gap Shelter was only a few more miles away, and was my stop for the day. Unfortunately, Kool91 and the others were hiking out that night, so it was also almost time for me to say good-bye to my newfound friends.
Around 3:45 pm Kool91 and I walked into the dark, Davenport Gap shelter. Once here, she began collecting a little more water to finish the trail. I dug inside my pack and pulled my head lamp out and went into the shelter, and then began to prepare my spot, again, on the top bunk of the shelter. Soon after, Kool91 said her good byes, hauled her pack back on, and headed back to the trail to catch up with the rest of her group. From here on, I was alone…
To pass the time, I finished unpacking my pack and sorting through my gear, and reorganizing my food. Once I finished this, I collected some more water, topped off my bottles, drank some more water, and then topped them off again, and refilled my dirty water bottle. Once this was done, I began walking around the shelter, collecting some fire wood, and then piling it inside the shelter near the fire place. The day was now a bit warm, and I wasn’t expecting a cool night, however, poking a fire sure was fun to do, and was a great way to pass some time once night fell.
Later, I got myself cleaned up, and changed into my sleeping clothes, and then prepared and ate my dinner. After cleaning everything up and then securing it in my bear canister, I grabbed my phone and sat in front of the shelter and pressed the call button next to my wife’s name. Surprisingly, I immediately heard a ringing noise! I did not expect such good cellular service, however, here it was… God had provided again! For the next hour or so, I sat there, talking with my wife on the phone… and watching the darkness settle over the woods before me.
Just as darkness was beginning to really take a hold, I saw a bouncing head lamp… and then I heard laughter… My first thought was “Yeah! I have company!” But then I thought “Oh no… what if it is a bunch of kids wanting to party?!” Once I say a string of headlamps drawing closer, I told my wife that I was going to let her go, but would give her a call back later…
A few minutes later, 5 ladies marched into the shelter, full of laughter, and giddy voices! We all said hi to one another, and then they began to decide where they would sleep. They all claimed spots along the bottom bunk in the shelter, and began laying out air pads and sleeping bags. They seemed like a fun group of ladies, and I was glad that they were there.
Once darkness had officially set in again, I went about making a fire. Again, not for warmth, but for a little dancing light, and a bit of entertainment… The fire ate the dry wood I had collected up fairly quickly, although, some of the bigger logs were a little damp. This allowed them to begin drying out a bit themselves, and then slowed down the fire a bit. As the fire was finally burning down, we had all already retreated to our sleeping bags, and some of us were already drifting off… by the time there was no light from the fire, I too had fell asleep…
As usual, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that I needed to pee… again. So, I hopped down, fumbled with the loud chain that secured the door on the chain link fence on the front of the shelter, which I am sure awoke everyone in the shelter, and then stepped out into the dark woods… and relieved myself. After making even more noise trying to secure the chain back around the metal door, I finally crawled back into my sleeping bag, and drifted back off to sleep…
I awoke around 6 am the next morning, and again, went through the same process as I did the morning before. Let the air out of my pad, pee (yeah… again), eat, change clothes, pack things up, said my goodbyes, and then continued north, farther along the trail.
About 25 minutes later, I had hiked into Davenport Gap, which was the official end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! I had finally finished the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies! Woohoo… 🙂
At the gap, my buddy Craig was waiting on me. He had parked his car in Hot Springs, about 36 miles north of here, where we planed to finish our hike. As well, I spotted a bag of biscuits laying on a rock near him. I shook his hand, then quickly dug a chicken biscuit out of the bag and chowed down. It was awesome…
After finishing our biscuits, I snapped a few pictures of the old State Line marker, and then we headed farther down the trail. I40 was soon approaching, and then it was going to be a day full of uphill… And unfortunately, a storm was moving in. We were expecting the rain to start as early as 9 am, and would likely last until the next morning… Despite this, we hiked up the trail with smiles on our faces, and began catching up with each other about our daily lives…
Before we knew it, the trail dumped us out at the paved road which led to the bridge crossing over the Pigeon River. After crossing the river, we continued up the paved road, crossing beneath I40 (which was cool to me) and then walked up a gravel road a short distance, until the trail cut back into the wooded area. We were immediately faced with a rock staircase…
The clouds continued to move in, although, on occasion, we would see a sucker hole, and smile at the possibility of the clouds just moving out, and giving way to a sunny sky. Of course that never happened though… We moved up towards Snowbird mountain a bit slower than we had intended, and after only a few miles, we started to rethink our itinerary. Craig was not moving as fast as he had in the past, and I began doing the math in my head… at the rate we were going, we wouldn’t arrive at our destination for that night until well after dark… and with the storm moving in, that wasn’t a sound idea to either of us. After a little discussion, we decided to call the Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hot Springs and see about arranging a shuttle for the next afternoon at Max Patch. Thankfully, we were able to get cell service, make the call, and the arrangements!
Once we had confirmed our new itinerary, we both hiked a bit more relaxed. Now, we had decided to stay at the Groundhog Creek Shelter that night, which was about another 3 miles from where we then stood. Soon after, we found ourselves hiking out of the trees, and onto the top of Snowbird Mountain! Then, just after a few more steps onto the cleared mountain top, the rain started coming down!
We rushed over the top of the mountain, and thankfully, we were soon back into the wooded area. This helped a little with the rain fall, but it still came down. Luckily though, the showers came and went. I had been using my umbrella all morning, just in case, and in these cases, it was a much appreciated option. The ground quickly became wet, with bits of muddy area’s here and there, but thankfully, it didn’t rain enough for the trails to become actual streams… as they usually do with much rain at all…
Around 3 pm we rounded the corner at Deep Gap, which was also where the side trail to the Groundhog Creek shelter was supposed to be. To the left of the trail, we noticed a rough-looking campsite, and a trail leading behind the campsite. With no instructions on the trail sign, we decided to follow it and see if it led to the shelter…. After a bit, it dumped us onto an old roadbed. Things didn’t look good… we headed down the road in one direction, full of hope, but not really expecting this to be the way.
I glanced at my map again, and then it hit me… the shelters are drawn to the left or right side of the trail, to indicate which side they were on. The Groundhog Creek shelter was drawn on the right side, and this trail had taken us to the left. I yelled for Craig, and then explained this to him. So, we headed back down the old road, found the old trail, and then headed back towards the AT. Once back on the AT, I hiked north a couple of hundred feet farther, and then saw the sign that indicated that the shelter was just a little farther up… We hiked into the shelter around 3:20 pm.
Craig had packed his hammock set up in his backpack, and after a quick look at the tiny shelter, decided that he was going to hang between 2 trees. As he set out to find his spot, I began unpacking my pack and claiming what appeared to be the flattest looking spot on the bowed shelter floor. After realizing that my large NeoAir pad was the exact width of the shelter floor, I decided to simply lay my pad long ways. As well, I decided to go ahead and grab the ZPacks Hexanet inner and suspend it from the rafters at the top of the shelter. This allowed me to actually be enclosed inside my bug netting for the night (which was a good thing as there were a number of large spiders, millipedes, and other critters crawling out of the cracks within the shelter walls).
Almost as soon as we had finished getting our gear situated, Craig decided to lay down in his hammock. We talked briefly, and the next thing I heard was snoring… So, I headed to the water source, filled my water, and began finishing up my camp chores. The clouds had actually started to part ways a little bit, and on occasion, we would see spots all throughout the forest floor, lit up by sunlight, but then, out of no where, the rain would come again. It did this for the rest of the day.
Later that day, I used my water filter to take a “sink bath”, and wow, did it make me feel better! I actually felt quite good. Some time later, Craig woke up from his nap, and then we sat around the shelter talking some more. As night once again began to settle in, we began cooking our dinners, and preparing for the night. After eating, Craig noticed that not only did he have cell service on his phone, but actually had LTE! I checked my phone, and found that I also had 3G (not quite LTE, but still pretty good!) Then, he reminded me that with my new iPhone 6, I could FaceTime… And I did. I FaceTime’d my wife, some of my friends, and my son. Of course though, I only got through to my wife and one of my friends, but it was so cool that I was able to use it to walk all over the shelter area and show my wife and friend (who has never been hiking) what the shelter looked like, what a bear cable was, how we had to hike down side trails to get water… and even the inside of the privy! It was a great end to a good day…
By 9 pm we had both retreated back to our own beds for the night. I sat up and went through some of the photo’s I had taken over the course of the last few days, and laid there, thinking that this was now my last night out. The trip wasn’t going to end where I had originally planned, but it had been great so far! I had finally finished the trail through the Smokies, and currently, have hike the entire trail, all the way from Amicalola Falls visitor center, to the very point at which I currently laid, about 250+ consecutive miles! And the next day we would finish on top of Max Patch… a most beautiful area, complete with unobstructed 360 degree views!
I finally drifted off to sleep a couple of hours later, and was awoke to the sound of rain on the tin roof soon after. Then of course, at some point throughout the night, I again had to get up to go pee. At this time, I found that the night was entirely dark… darker than I have remembered any other night being. I couldn’t even see my hand right in front of my face… it was as if my eyes were still closed. I fumbled around and found my headlamp, turned it on, then stumbled out into the dark night to relieve myself. To be honest, it was so dark, it was kind of eery… so, I did my business, the quickly made my way back to my warm sleeping bag.
That night, with the windchill, the expected temps were 19 F on top of Max Patch, which was only 6 miles north of us. However, even at 10 PM that night, the temps were still just above 60 F in the Groundhog Creek shelter (according to my watch, lying next to me on the shelter floor). However, by 7 am the next morning, my watch read 43 F. The night had finally turned a bit cool as the morning drew nearer, but still not quite as cold as was expected just a few miles north of us.
Once Craig had finished packing up, we set off up the trail just after 8:30 am. Since we only had to hike just over 7 miles that day, we decided to get a little later start than originally planned. The morning skies were quickly giving way to a clear, bright blue sky. But, despite the sunny skies, the farther north we headed, the cooler the temperatures dropped. Of course, the farther north we headed, the higher we climbed too…
We found ourselves at the base of Max Patch around 11 am. According to my watch (which I had placed on my sternum strap to get a more accurate ambient temperature reading), the temperatures were going between 32 & 33 F! As well, the higher we climbed, the nearer we got to the top of the bald known as Max Patch, the stronger the winds grew! By the time I finished climbing the last few wooden steps which led to the back side of the bald, I was filled with adrenaline!
Immediately, I began to notice that Max Patch was going to be a busy place… I saw families having what looked like picnic’s, and even what I thought to be kites soaring in the skies. Then of course, there were groups walking back and forth randomly on the top of the bald. Once the trail led me to the front side of the bald, I saw that the parking lot at the base of the mountain was filled! And not just the parking lot, but cars were also parked along the sides of the road as well. But hey, this is a popular spot… and for good reason… it was BEAUTIFUL!
I continued faster and faster toward the marker at the top of the bald. I weaved around people, and finally found myself staring down at the marker! Officially, my hike was done. I was excited, and yet, a bit sad. However, at the moment, I just wanted to spin around in circles and let the surrounding views fill my head…
While taking some photo’s I was approached by one of the guys that were flying what I thought were kites from a distance, however, as it turned out, they were gliders (something like electric air planes). He asked me if my name was Stick, and I said “Yup!” He said that he recognized my backpack, and then realized that it was me. He said that he had watched many of my videos, and enjoyed them. After talking for a bit longer, and getting him to take my picture of me leaning against the marker on top of Max Patch, he headed back to his group to fly his gliders around some more.
By this time, Craig had made his way up to the bald and we were both taking photo’s. Of course, the temperatures were still right at freezing, but the wind was much stronger up here. So, we both dug our down layers out of our packs and put them on. After taking in the views for a bit longer, we decided to give a call to the Outfitters again to let them know that we were now here. After making contact with them, we decided to go ahead and head down to the parking lot to wait on our ride…
By 1:30-ish that afternoon, we were in a car and headed back to Hot Springs to get Craig’s car, and then finish making our own way back to our homes…
So, now I have completed the entire section of the Appalachian Trail from Amicalola Falls Visitor Center, all the way to Max Patch (and some parts between these points, more than once, or even twice), or right at 260 miles! I now need to connect the section between Max Patch and Iron Mountain, which is another 109 miles. This will then put me up to US19, and a total of about 400 miles…
So, until then, thanks so much for taking the time and stopping by , I appreciate it!