In September 2009 I took my first steps on the Appalachian Trail. It was only a few months before this time that I realized that “backpacking” was even a thing, and that there was such a thing as the Appalachian Trail. Once I saw it though, it stuck in me, and it pulled at me. In September I took those first steps beneath the arch in Amicalola Falls State Park. Now, 8 years and 469 miles down the trail later, I finally walked beneath the arch welcoming me to Damascus, VA!
Now some may say that took a long time, and yes, it did take me a long time. I am generally a weekend hiker, and just for me to get to this point for this past hike, I had to drive 930 miles, or almost 18 hours. Due to the long distance away as well as my work and family time, it has taken me a long time to get this far north, however, I have hiked multiple sections between these points several times. I have done Georgia almost 3 full times now, and many other sections as many times… I enjoy getting out for a hike, but I push myself to go the distance to stand on the AT when I can, and sometimes that means doing parts I have already done, again. But that is all fine and dandy with me… 🙂
Earlier this year I was talking with my buddy Benny Braden about wanting to finish the trail from Dennis Cove Rd (at Kincora Hostel, Bob People’s place) and finally get into Virginia. However, I didn’t want to have to take more than a day off work to do so (I am saving time up for another hike in December, and then the JMT next summer). So I planned to do the 50 miles in 2 days. So this is what we planned for…
… And finally the time came! Besides myself and Benny, my son and one of his friends, as well as my other good buddy Craig Smith made up our weekend crew. We had originally all planed to meet at the library in Damascus, where we would leave/stage our vehicles. So, after leaving work a little early last Thursday, I rushed home, ate a sandwich and then my son, his friend and myself loaded up our stuff into my car and we took off!
Once we got on the road I called Benny and we decided to meet up near Knoxville for some dinner, and then we could follow each other the rest of the way. Some time later we pulled up at a Five Guys Burgers & Fries where Benny was waiting on us… it was also drizzling rain just a bit… We were hoping that the forecast would change for the better before we started out hike!
After filling our bellies we got started on the last bit out our drive. A couple of hours later Benny called me and told me that we weren’t too far from Craig and that he was going to wait on us near one of our final exits so that we could all drive into Damascus together.
We all arrived at the library around 10 pm. I headed to the local Food City to *ahem* … take care of some business, and also picked up a couple of beers too. Once returning, Craig, Benny and myself drank a couple of beers and caught up with each other, and I also walked to the famous Arch and got all giddy about finally being there… but I hadn’t earned it yet, so I made my way back to the car and tried to get some sleep.
About 4:15 the next morning we “woke up” and started getting ready to drive towards Dennis Cove Rd and begin our hike. On the way there we stopped in at a McDonald’s in Hampton and had some breakfast. This was the same McDonalds that Bob Peoples almost left one of my other buddies Jeff Benefield at on a previous hike!
By the time we go to the trail head it was just after 6 am. We quickly threw on our packs, checked for keys, and started down the trail! I was finally going to finish up Tennessee!
One of my most anticipated parts of this hike would be a mere 1.2 miles into our hike… I was excited to finally get to see Laurel Falls with my own eyes, however, I did wish it would have been towards the middle of a hot day, rather than at 7 am! Don’t get me wrong though… either way, I was excited about finally being there! And as it turned out, that first mile before getting there was a very pleasant walk… Walking between crumbling rock walls, following alongside bubbling streams and crossing over these wooden bridges actually reminded me a lot of the Fiery Gizzard Trail that we hiked a few months back. It was beautiful!
We soon made it to Laurel Falls, and it was amazing! Especially since it was flowing a bit more than normal due to all the rain in the area prior to our arrival. It was amazing! And even though we were planning to cover 25 miles that day, and thus far had less than 1.5 miles in, we still stopped to enjoy the moment. Of course the boys had to get their feet wet too… but that was ok… I may have encouraged it some, and they would easily walk them dry soon enough!
If I could have sat there for half a day or more, I would have, but we did have to keep moving, so we did…
Leaving the Falls, the trail skirted the stream for a little ways, at one point walking over rocks right alongside the stream! It was a short section, but a fun section to walk along. I also noticed some dog prints, as well as shoe/boot prints and even some hand prints… They were actually hard, like they were pushed into cement as it were drying…
The trail soon enough led us a little ways away from the stream, and back on the beaten path. The trail was outlined by blooming rhododendron/mountain laurels, and a couple of times went over a bridge as it crossed the stream. We also passed Waycaster Spring, which was actually marked with a wooden sign.
It wasn’t much past the springs that we began our first real climb of the day, and of the entire trip, up to Pond Flats. It was approximately 1700+ feet in about 2.5 miles, so not bad, but was definitely our morning wake-up! But we were still fresh, and had quite a bit of spring in our step, so we bounced right up that mountain… and filled up our water bottles!
We didn’t spend much time on the top of Pond Flats and was quickly headed back down… Over the next 3.5 miles we dropped every bit of elevation we had gained on the previous 2.5 miles! However, this was another exciting time too… we were now nearing Watauga Lake, and the Watauga Dam. This place sounded like it would be fun, but is also notorious for being closed down due to bear activity! As soon as we were back at our starting elevation, we were dumped out onto a road, which we briefly followed, and then crossed over. This is when we found ourselves staring at the lake!
We quickly headed towards a picnic table under a bit of shade and slung our packs off. Sure, it was still early in the morning, and we had only covered about 9 miles, but we were excited to see the lake and a place to relax for a bit… with a view at that!
We made use of the restroom at the lake, and then the boys jumped in the lake. Me, Benny and Craig sat at the picnic table eating some snacks and watching the geese get closer, and closer, and closer to us… Next thing we knew, a couple of them were at our feet… begging for some food!
After we had our snacks, we pulled our socks and shoes off and sat with our feet in the water… This was very relaxing, and made me look forward to all the lakes that we will see while on the JMT next summer! 🙂
We actually sat at the lake for right at an hour! The boys finally got out of the water and began drying out while eating some of their snacks as well. Craig went ahead and got a head start while me, Benny and the boys finished rounding our things up. On the way out we noticed a water spigot so we decided to top our water bottles off here. While I was helping the boys Benny went ahead and started up the trail too. A couple of miles later, we all met up at the short side trail leading to the Watauga Lake Shelter. And sure enough, not only this shelter, but a 4 mile radius was closed to camping due to bear activity! We didn’t have the time to linger long anyway, so we continued on… getting ready to walk out at the dam! And while we never saw any bears, we did start to see signs of them on the trail… lol!
About a mile later the trail made its way onto a paved road that quickly led us to the dam. We again stopped at the dam and took a small break. In retrospect, this was one of our only good open views we had on this section of trail. While here though, Benny and I followed Craig in laying on the warm asphalt… the heat from the asphalt felt good pressed against our shoulder, back and leg muscles. From here, the trail continued to follow the road up the mountain on the opposite side of the dam. Once we neared the “top” the trail cut back into the woods, and of course, it kept climbing. It was at this point, our second big climb of the day would start…
The trail climbed… slowly, but surely, it climbed. We hadn’t filled our water bottles since first coming to the lake, about 5 miles back. The heat began to hit us hard and we were starting to get a little tired. When we finally came upon another small water source, we drank our fill, and then topped our water bottles back off. By this time we had put in 16 miles for the day, and considering all the long breaks we had taken along the way, it was starting to get a little late too… at least considering we still wanted to cover 9 more miles. So, we decided to make our way to a “piped spring” another 5.5 miles farther and make our dinner and decide if we wanted to keep going, or stay there for the night.
1.7 miles later we arrived at the Vandeventer shelter. It’s a small shelter that is listed to sleep 6, and it looked like there were at least 6 folks there! There was even a decent view behind the shelter! We stopped in and spoke with a few of them for a bit, and then pushed on. We still had another few miles to go to finally have dinner, and then to decide where we wanted to stop for the night!
About 7:30 we made it to the spot we were pushing to. Craig was still a little ways behind us, so we collected some water and started making our dinner. The boys were both eating Pepperoni Pasta Salad and I was eating Cheesy Beans & Rice. Both dishes required a bit of time to prepare, so we needed to get them going. Craig made it into camp about 10 minutes after 8 and by this time we were finishing up our dinners. While he was eating Benny and I tried to get a satellite image to see what the night would look like. Initially we were supposed to get rain all weekend, but so far that day, it had been right the opposite. The night didn’t look as promising… the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy was nearly on top of us…
Around 8:45 we made the decision to set up camp where we were. With the storm moving in, and not knowing how far we would have to hike to find another good campsite, we felt it was the best bet. This meant we would need to make up the miles the next day that we didn’t do this day though. This translated to putting in a 29 mile day (more than any of us, except Benny, had done so far) we felt it was a safe bet as most of the rest of the hike consisted of mostly ridge-walking. By the time I had the boys set-up and was making the last few adjustments to my tarp and hanging the food, I started feeling rain drops moving in…
Over the next few hours we got hit hard! Thankfully there was no thunder or lightening, however, it made up for it simply with rain and wind! The air was saturated, and the wind made sure to blow it all under my tarp… between this and the eyes I caught staring back at us when turning my headlamp on during the night, I was lucky I got any sleep at all… I remember looking at my watch and seeing 2 am… It was one of the longest nights I have had on the trail… and again, it was in a hammock…
I must have dozed off at some point because I came to just after 4 am and looked at my phone. I noticed the time and just went ahead and shut off my 4:15 alarm. Thankfully the wind had now died down and the rain was just drips of water falling from the leaves in the trees. I crawled out of my hammock and found my way through all the fog and mist to our bear lines. I pulled them down, rolled up the bear lines and delivered food to everyone’s tent. I then shook the boy’s tent and told them to start getting ready. We wanted to be on the trail by 5 am due to the amount of miles we had to hike that day…
As it turned out, it was right at 5:45 before we finally started down the trail. According to the forecast, the sun was supposed to be out between 9 and 10 am, so we took advantage of the cool morning and high-tailed it down the trail! It took us 1 hour and 10 minutes to make it 3 miles down the trail, which put us at Iron Mtn Shelter, the spot that we initially planned to stop at the night before.
Then, another 30 minutes or so and we were another mile and a half down the trail, standing at the Grindstaff Monument.
We were making good time, and decided to keep it up. We did have a “long” way to go, and the morning was initially shaping up nicely… A few miles down the trail though, that started to change! By the time we came to Shady Valley, 7.6 miles in for the day, the rain started falling! What?!?
After the road crossing at Shady Valley, the next half mile of trail is very nice. So nice that it is actually wheelchair accessible! It gradually climbs up a small hill in a field, offering 360* views. It passes by an old truck in a field, and then an old barn with a huge AT sign in bright white. Shortly after this, we passed through another gate, this time letting us into a field with cattle grazing… There were some nice looking (man-made) rock formations white the famous white blaze leading the way, right through the middle of the grazing cattle… as well as cow patties!
Thankfully the rain that started earlier was a quick shower, however, but the time we were drawing nearer the wood line on the other side of the field, the rain was starting back. This time though, it was no shower. The drops grew larger and more fierce. The boys and I pushed on hard to the next shelter, Double Springs Shelter, 3 miles farther. Once we got here we ducked inside to get out of the rain, have a snack, and then waited for Benny and Craig to show up.
A couple of minutes after we arrived, Benny and Craig appeared. Benny decided to keep going due to some heel pain he was experiencing (he wore a new shoe on this hike). After Craig took a few minutes we followed down the trail as well. The rain had eased up greatly, and was now mostly water falling from the leaves in the trees again. On occasion it would pick up a bit, but not too bad… Still, with the sudden change in weather, as well as how tired we all were and the miles we had already put in for the day, we were starting to get a little bummed out…
By the time we made it to US421, I could tell that my son’s friend was having a hard time. To be fair though, this was his second hike ever, the first was simply a 1.2 mile hike to Wayah Shelter a few years ago. However, the entire time we had been on this hike thus far, both the boys were leading the way, at a good pace. They were both killing it, and I kind of felt like we were holding them back! They were easily maneuvering the trails, talking and having a good time at the same time! At 14 miles in on day 2 though, it seems to have caught up with him…
When we arrived at the road crossing, he simply sat on the ground. He was rubbing at his ankles. I could tell he was trying to be tough and not letting on, but I could see it in his face too, his ankles were sore (which can be expected after hiking 35 miles in such a short time frame!) There were 2 other lady hikers at the road crossing too who showed concern for him as well. We ended up giving him a couple of ibuprofen as well as some Aleve, and after a 30 minute or so rest, we decided to continue on.
Thankfully, while we were resting, the sun actually did begin to break through the clouds! I think that the sunlight actually helped perk up everyone’s spirits, and a couple of miles down the trail later, we were all pushing on as we were that morning!
While our spirits were perked, the rest of the day seemed longer than it actually was… well, the miles anyway. When looking at the map, and trying to compare it to what we had been hiking, and preparing for what was to come, it seemed very drawn out. The climb up to McQueen Knob was elusive, and while I thought we were there at one point, some ways down the trail later made me realize that we weren’t… but we were then! After finally making our way over McQueen Knob, immediately down the trail was a large tree that blocked the trail. This obviously happened the night before, and after making our way around it, we happened upon the old McQueen Knob shelter. It was small, but a neat find!
This shelter wasn’t even marked on my map though, and we were ready to hit Abingdon Gap Shelter, which marked 19 miles for the day, and left us with only 10! Thankfully, it didn’t take us much longer to make it to this shelter though. Benny arrived before us. While Micah’s spirits were up, he was still babying his ankles a little and hiking slower, so I hung back with them. Craig was a little ways behind us. When we arrived at the shelter, Benny had already slung his pack off and was resting, and we did the same. A few minutes later Craig pulled in and did the same as well.
After 10 minutes or so we started slowly getting back up. I told Micah to go on ahead and we would catch up. My son and I started down the trail at a pretty swift pace, expecting to run into Micah soon, but around every bend, he was not to be seen. I knew his ankles were still hurting him, and started getting worried that either he, or us, had taken the wrong trail… so after passing another white blaze and confirming we were still on the trail, my son and I started running down the trail. A couple of minutes later we caught up to him… Obviously the medicine had started working, and he was back to at least 100%! LOL…
We had seen a number of deer on the trail up to this point, and just after we finally caught up to Micah we noticed a large black snake laid across the trail. We stopped and watched it for a while. Finally it moved up one side of the bank and we waited for Benny and Craig to catch up to warn them, just in case it decided to come back out to the trail. Once they caught up, we kept going…
When looking at my elevation profile map, there was a small hump coming up about the size of the tip of my thumb. It spanned 3 miles and was no more than 250 feet of elevation change, however, for some reason those 3 miles seemed to be the longest miles of the trip! I didn’t think we were ever going to get to the top of that tiny humor, and when I thought we were there, the AT came through and said: “Not-uh… this isn’t the top!” Eventually we did make it, and by this time, we were starting to wear out again… But this time we had gone approximately 23.5 miles, and had 5.5 more to go!
As we finally started descending that tiny thumb-sized hump, we had determined that it was all downhill from here… but as anyone who has hiked the AT knows, there is no such thing! What we did know for sure though was that the TN/VA line was quickly approaching, and this was something I have waited a long time to see!
Me and the boys arrived at the star line first, followed by Benny, and then Craig. We took some time here to take pictures, and a small break, but then pushed on. We had 3.4 miles to go from here, and we were ready to be done. We were ready to go and get something to eat!
We let Craig take the lead from this point so that we could stay together as a group better. As we neared a water source coming up, the boys took off ahead to refill a water bottle. Once we caught up to them, I stopped and stayed with the boys until they were done (the water source was way down the side of a very steep hill…) and then we caught back up with Benny and Craig closer to the bottom of the trail. Just before we came out Craig pulled aside and told us to go on and he would be there soon, so I followed the boys out. A little after 8 pm my trail shoes finally crossed under the famous arch standing in Damascus!
After Benny and Craig showed up we again took more photo’s, and this is where we had to part ways. Craig’s 1 year wedding anniversary was the next day, and he still had a 5 hour drive to get home, so Benny went ahead and gave Craig a ride back to his truck so he could drive home that night. The boys and I stopped in at Bobo McFarland’s for some burgers, pizza, and I had a celebratory beer! I hate that Benny and Craig couldn’t make it with us, but there is no way I would have kept Craig from being home for his 1 year anniversary! I am just excited that they both got to join me as I finally finished up my 3rd state, TN!
So, now after hiking 469 miles of the Appalachian Trail, I am finally into Virginia. Virginia itself is a fourth of the entire trail, and considering how far away it is from me, and my schedule, I figure it will take a few years for me to make my way through it… but I will keep chipping away at it! For now, I am just excited that I finally hit such a big milestone along the AT, and even more so that I was able to do it with my son, and 2 really good friends! I’ll never forget this hike!
Until next time… thanks for stopping by!