Last Thursday morning a buddy that I have been talking to for the last several months about backpacking made his way to my house around 8 am. He was finally getting out for his first hike, and it looked like things were going to be memorable! The weather was looking great, albeit a bit nippy, and since the leaves have all fallen from the trees, there would be views along the entire trail. As well, we were starting out on top of Max Patch, one of the most beautiful area’s that I have been to on the AT so far, and we were finishing up in Hot Springs, a great little trail town where we were guaranteed a warm, delicious, celebratory breakfast at the famous Smoky Mountain Diner!
For me, this is a continuation of my AT section hike… slowly ticking off another small piece of the trail here and there… After completing this hike, I have now completed the AT all the way from Amicalola Falls to Hot Springs, or 274.4 miles! And yeah, it is only a small portion of the entire length of the trail (~12.5%), but I’ll get there… 🙂
So, Tim and I got on the road around 8 am (CST) Thursday morning, and by 4 pm (EST) we had arrived in Hot Springs. We drove straight up to the Laughing Heart Hostel, where we were to meet Chris & Blake, who had arrived shortly before us. We found them waiting inside the bunk house at the hostel. After coming in and looking around, Tim and I went back out to my car and grabbed our packs and carried them back into the bunk house.
After sorting our stuff inside the bunk house and paying our way, we all bundled up and walked into town. We headed straight for the Bluff Mountain Outfitters and spent almost an hour looking through gear… and of course, a few purchases were made! Tim picked some better fitting boots out for the hike, and Chris found a very fairly priced Lightheart Gear SoLong 6 shelter, which he had actually been looking at for a while (he is 6’5″ so has been having a hard time finding a tent that worked well for him).
After leaving the outfitters, we went back to the hostel to practice setting up the SoLong 6 tent. Once Chris was sure that the tent was all there, and we were familiar with the set-up, we packed it back up, and carried it back into the bunk house. (Based on the weather forecast, we felt it was a safe bet not to worry about seam sealing it at the moment.) Now it was time to eat…
We walked back into town and made our way right across the street from the outfitters and into The Spring Creek Tavern (where we again found the staff, and some customers, from the outfitters). I had a bacon cheeseburger, home cut fries and a few beers… I tried the Catawba White Zombie White Ale, a Triple C White Blaze Spiced Winter Ale, and finished it off with my first ever, PBR… We all had a great time at the Tavern, and I highly recommend stopping by there if in the area (besides, being on the AT, everyone needs to drink a Whiteblaze beer!) Anyway, after we finished eating and drinking, we headed back to the hostel and got settled in for the night.
The next morning we were up bright and early. We quickly got our hiking clothes on and walked back into town, this time via the AT though, to the Smoky Mountain Diner, and had a quick breakfast. After finishing up with breakfast, we walked back to the hostel, retrieved our packs from the bunk house, loaded them up in the back of Chris’ truck, then began trying to navigate our way to the top of Max Patch…
After a few wrong turns, we found our way to the top of Max Patch around 9 am. There was a bit of snow still lingering in the shadows, and while it was calm and not all that cold in the parking lot below Max Patch, once we made our way to the top, we quickly found it was a bit windy, and a bit colder! Due to the conditions, and despite the beautiful days, we didn’t linger long on the top of the bald. After a few photo’s, we began making our way north along the AT…
We soon made it into the tree line on the north side of Max Patch, however, with temps in the mid teens, and the wind, it was still quite a bit cold. As well, once we made it into the tree line, we immediately missed the trail veering off to the right, and followed another trail heading straight. The area just into the tree line is a large campsite, and with the ground completely covered in snow, it was easy to follow the wrong trail. The good thing is that we didn’t get far before realizing it and turning around to find the actual trail!
Once we started descending from Max Patch a bit more, the wind began dying down, and as we warmed up a little, we began loosening up. We found that the trail was covered in anywhere between an inch or 2 of snow for the most part, and the streams were also mostly frozen. So, while it was cold, it was also quite beautiful… it was a great time to be on the trail!
At around 2 miles in, we came to the Roaring Forks Shelter and pulled in. Flurries were falling from the sky, and the wind was still coming and going, depending on which side of the mountain we were on. So, we threw our packs off inside the shelter and dug out some snacks. After eating a few snacks, taking a few photos as well as some video, and trying to warm up our fingers a bit, we threw our packs back on, and continued north on the trail…
On this day, we were only going 6.7 miles from the summit of Max Patch, to Walnut Mountain Shelter. As well, most of the hike was downhill, except for a short climb up to the top of Walnut Mountain. However, with the snow covering the ground/trail, the low temperatures and the constant wind, it made the few miles a bit longer than normal, but still not bad. A couple of hours later we found ourselves already climbing to the top of Walnut Mountain, which we found was an open bald on top with some good views!
It was a little after noon by the time we got to the bald, and despite the finger numbing cold, the blazing sun allowed us to hang out on top of the bald for a while, yet still remain comfortable. But, we weren’t quite to our destination for the day just yet, and according to the little MapDana Elevation Profile map I was carrying, the shelter was supposed to be just over the summit… and sure enough it was. As we continued down the trail on the north side of the mountain, we immediately saw the shelter nestled below!
Before dropping my pack, I began looking around for a place to set up our tents. The winds were howling on this side of the mountain, but I was still determined to find a good spot to set up our tents… I walked below the shelter to another open bald, which turned out to be covered in clumpy bits of grass, not to mention lots of briars. This wasn’t any good… So, I ventured above the shelter, where I found a good spot, however, after talking with the rest of the group we all decided that the shelter may be a better option just to get out of the wind. So, the shelter it was… We headed back towards the shelter, dropped our packs, and started unpacking!
After we finished getting our stuff all laid out, we began discussing/comparing gear, collecting fire wood, filling up our water bladders and getting settled in for the night. As the sun was drawing nearer it’s time to set behind the mountains, Chris started working on getting the fire going, while the rest of us started working on our dinners.
After we finished eating, we all hung our food bags, and hung out around the fire, trying our best to stay warm. As night fell upon us, the temps continued to dip… from the 20’s and into the teens… However, we had drug up quite a bit of good fire wood, and Chris did an excellent job at keeping the fire going strong. Hiker midnight came and went. We were all having a great time by the fire, staring up into the starry sky, talking about hiking, life, children, families, and of course, gear… Eventually, we decided it was time to let the fire die down, and we crawled into our cold sleeping bags soon after…
The next morning when we woke up we checked the thermometer and saw that the current temperature was 8 F, however, at some point in the night/morning, inside the shelter, the temperature dropped as low as 6 F! We aren’t sure what the temps were outside the shelter, in the blowing winds, but even at 6 F, it was the lowest temperature any of us had spent the night outside in… including Tim, which was his first night on the trail ever! (What a way to welcome him to the trail, huh?) Anyway, we had all slept a little rough throughout the night, although, I think that we all stayed rather warm, which was great.
After lying around for a bit, we decided we had better go ahead and get up and get moving. As expected, we found our water bottles were all frozen, except for one bottle that Tim had stored inside a reflection cozy. But, as cold as it was, none of us were that interested in going to collect more water, let alone cooking, so we simply packed out packs back up and tried our best to keep warm. The temps were supposed to get to the mid 30’s that day, and it was supposed to be nice and sunny all day long, so we got on the trail with hopes of warming up.
Being that the temperatures still hadn’t reached freezing, let alone exceeded freezing, the snow covering the trail was still as powdery as it could have been. The mountains were absolutely beautiful though… and to make them better, the outline of the trails were evident just beneath the unbroken powder… The skies were definitely clear, and the sun was shooting up into the sky quick. It was a great morning to be on the trail… even though it was still pretty darn cold!
We had planed to hike a total of 9.9 miles on this day, from Walnut Mtn Shelter to Deer Park Mtn Shelter. We began the day by descending Walnut Mtn to the gap, then immediately began the 1000′ ascent to the top of Bluff Mountain. This was our last, and only, real climb on the entire trip. However, we found the climb to be rather easy and pleasant.
We crossed a few springs & streams along the way and refilled some of our water bottles as best that we could while keeping our digits warm.
Soon after we found ourselves on the top of Bluff Mountain. There was a nice campsite we found at the top, although, in the cold, windy conditions at the moment, it maybe wasn’t the best spot to stop… Either way though, it wasn’t an option as our goal was another few miles down the trail. Anyway, we dropped our packs for a bit, looked around, and enjoyed the sun shining down on us.
After our quick break, we hauled our packs back on and started down the north side of Bluff Mountain. Unfortunately though, we immediately left the warmth of the sun as we found ourselves hiking in the shade of the mountain… and to make things worse, we couldn’t get out of the shade for several miles and a few hours. We had left the shelter that morning excited that the day was going to be sunny and looked forward to hiking in it for the day, instead though, we found ourselves in the cool shade of the mountain, with the wind blowing even colder air from the snow that we were walking over… But we pushed on, and we were still happy as could be to simply be there…
As we continued to hike on, we came across more frozen streams, and since the trees were baron of their leaves, we were lucky enough to be able to gaze upon the mountains surrounding us every time we lifted our heads up from the trail!
We descended just over 2000 feet coming down from Bluff Mountain, from which point it was a few more miles to our destination for the night. There were several small climbs, but for the most part, the trail was still mostly down hill. The good thing though was that sometime after Garenflo Gap, we made our way back into the sunlight again… and while it wasn’t constant, we were happy for the moments that we found we could see our shadows hiking along next to us!
It didn’t take us very long to make it from Garenflo Gap to Deer park Mountain Shelter, however, the shelter was actually 0.2 miles off the trail. We saw the shelter off the side of the trail after coming around a small mountain, and by the time we came across the side trail that led us to the shelter, we also found a great campsite right off the trail. As well, the sign for water was directing us to the opposite side of the trail as the shelter, which also happened to be closer to the great campsite we found… so it was settled, we immediately dropped our packs and began setting up our shelters! I will admit, I was quite excited that we weren’t staying in the shelter again and were setting up our tents instead!
After setting up my tent, I was excited and full of energy! I immediately followed the trail to scout out our water source, then started dragging as much wood as I could gather in my arms back to our campsite for another fire that night. When I got back to the camp, I told the rest of the group that there were 2 other, large campsites between where we were camped and the water source, both of which were equally as nice. But, we were already set up, so we stuck around… Besides, after laying in my tent, I found that my sleeping setup was in a perfectly flat spot… much better than the floor that was slight tilted in the shelter the night before!
After we were all setup Blake headed down to the water source to collect some water that wasn’t frozen, and Chris and I continued to drag up fire wood. Tim spent a little longer getting all of his gear laid out and tending to some of his own business.
While collecting more firewood, Chris yelled out for us to come and check out something that he had found. He was only about 50 feet away from our campsite, so I followed the AT a little farther north and found him on a small side trail off the AT. What he found was a grave yard… and sure enough, our campsite was easily seen right through the trees… (insert Halloween music here…)
As it turns out, it appeared to be a husband and wife grave site… What was weird though was that it was out in the middle of nowhere… We were still just over 3 miles from Hot Springs, and about the same distance from Garenflo Gap in the other direction. Being that the graves had been there since 1940 though, we could only assume that maybe it was someone who had once lived in the area. Either way, it was definitely an interesting find.
So, Chris and I finished collecting fire wood, then went about filling up our own water bottles. Blake had also finished clearing some of the frozen water from his bladders and had went back to finish getting his tent in order, and then also helped collect more fire wood. Once everyone had finished most of their camp chores, we decided that we would use the bear cables at the shelter to hang our food for the night. At this point, I started making a hot Chai Tea Latte, and then immediately started preparing my meal for the night… Cesar’s Pad Thai! (And I have got to say, this is currently my most favorite trail meal… love it!)
As night fell upon us again, for the last time on our hike, Chris again stoked a fire, and then began preparing his own meal. Being that we were all somewhat enthralled with our own meals, we all randomly threw in small pieces of wood here and there to keep the fire going until we could really focus our attention to it. Yet thankfully, the temps were hovering just over 20 F, so while it was still cold, it wasn’t quite as bad as it was the night before. Not to mention, being in the midst of the trees, we were shielded from the occasional winds rather well. With another clear night, it was looking to be another beautiful night!
After hanging our food bags on the bear cables at the shelter, and making a few trips to the privy at the shelter, we all began relaxing around the fire for one more night. Again, hiker midnight came and went, and we still sat around the fire, however, eventually, I decided I was ready to turn in. The temperature had stuck around 22 F, and between that and the fire, the night was actually a bit warm. So, after agreeing that we would be on the trail by 8 am the next morning, I ventured off and crawled into my warm bed for the night…
I didn’t fall asleep very fast, but I was much more relaxed and comfortable laying there that night than I was the night before. Then, I eventually did pass out…
And the next thing I remember was someone yelling my name. I immediately rose up and realized that it was day light… a lot. And not only this, when I finally peeled the hoods off of my face, I realized that everyone else was already up… and even getting ready to pack up their tents already! I slept great… but I was immediately up and ready!
I quickly went about my morning chores… I popped the deflate valve on my new Exped SynMat UL7 pad, changed into my hiking clothes, then started sorting everything on my kilt laid right outside my tent. It was no record, but it didn’t take me long at all to have my pack all packed up and ready to go!
We weren’t on the trail by 8 am, but we were on the trail by around 8:20 am, which was fine by me. Despite waking up so fast and getting a move on so quickly, I still felt refreshed, although I was a bit disappointed that the hike was now almost over. We only had 3.2 more miles to go… I wanted at least another day. But this wasn’t an option… so we made our way down the trail with thoughts of another most awesome breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner… This was plenty to keep us moving at a good pace…
Then, about an hour and a half later, we were standing at the monument in the parking lot at Hot Springs…
After taking a few photos at the finish of our hike, Chris and Blake hiked down to the diner while Tim and I walked to my car. I quickly changed clothes and then we drove down to the diner to meet up with the others for a much deserved, hot breakfast…
So now I wait… until my next hike…
Thanks for stopping by!