AT - Great Smoky Mtn National Park
We were highly impressed with the service provided by Jeff. Not only did he drive like we were wealthy patrons attending a high-end affair, but he did some serious educating as we drove. “Wild hogs? 415-500 pounds?,” Brian and I asked. “Yes, ma’am,” explained Jeff. He even had pictures of some of the beasts. “And don’t hike at night,” he was quick to inform us, “because if you scare up the hogs, you’ll regret it.” After 2 hours of stories and pleasantries, Jeff’s wife, Nancy, replaced him as driver and drove us the remaining few miles to Fontana Dam. Both Jeff and Nancy were very kind, professional, and service-oriented. We would highly recommend their shuttle service or hotel to any hiker (The Hike Inn).
We began hiking at the dam around 11:00 a.m. With 16 miles to our first stop at Spence Field Shelter, we filled our water bottles and headed off down the trail. The trees that lined the road after crossing the dam radiated with all colors imaginable. It was almost as if God had spilled random buckets of the most brilliantly colored fall paint and it had rained down on these trees. My favorite leaves were some of the maple leaves; one tree was entirely green except for about 15-20 of the leaves, which looked like their tips had been dipped in roasted-red pepper paint. Quite an inspiring start to the trip.
Not only was the surrounding beauty motivating, but the trail was almost like a freeway. We ran into few rocks the first day and the climbs were gradual allowing us to ascend at a good clip. Although we made good time the first day, we had a lot of miles to cover before dark, which set in at about 6 p.m., so we stopped only periodically and for short intervals. Along the trail we ran across a rafter (a word specifically referring to a large group of turkeys) of ten or fifteen turkeys. They scurried across the path; we stopped and enjoyed the parade. Surprisingly, we only ran into one hiker the entire first day. And when we finally arrived at Spence Field Shelter (at 6 o’clock on the nose), there was not another soul around. This was a bit surprising as the shelter supposedly only had one free spot when we called to make reservations. Apparently many hikers cancelled at the last minute or changed plans. Regardless, we settled in for the night.
One of the most interesting aspects of camping in the late fall is the lack of daylight. Normally in the summer we would arrive at camp around 7:30 and have a few hours before darkness set in. Not in the fall. Each night, we arrived at the shelters as the last of the sun’s rays were slipping from the sky. This made for an extremely long evening. Although it took a few hours to make dinner, get water, and prepare for the upcoming day, we were still in bed by about 8:00 or 8:30 every night. I found myself waking up wondering when in the world it was going to get light; the darkness seemed interminable at times.
Back to the first night. When we arrived, we needed to find the water source. Some of the previous shelters we had passed had dry water sources or sources that had been demolished by horses that had been tied too close to the source and had stepped on the pipe. So, we were hopeful that this source would still be in good condition. It was. But what a change from the water out west! The water trickled from a pipe sticking out of the ground and a small puddle, about 2 feet by 1 foot, was beneath the pipe. Filtering, in the traditional sense, would have been impossible, so we put our cook pot under the trickle, waited for it to fill up, and filtered out of our pot. This worked quite well and we were able to obtain sufficient water. After filtering our water and cooking dinner, we headed off to bed. Throughout the night, we heard scurrying in the tarp hanging in the front of the shelter. Perhaps mice were delivering nesting materials throughout the night. Regardless, it was strange to hear the pitter patter of little feet; we never did see any of these critters, however.
The next morning we headed off towards Clingman’s Dome and our final destination, Mount Collins shelter. Strangely, this section of trail was considerably more challenging than the first day. We found ourselves hiking up and down extremely steep sections of trail almost continuously. Additionally, the clouds became increasingly dense throughout the day and views were few and far between. The 20 miles we had to cover went by slowly. When we finally reached the summit of Clingman’s Dome (4:45 p.m.) it was completely fogged in and night was fast approaching. Hoping to make good time on the descent, we realized the five miles to Mount Collins shelter were going to take longer than we’d hoped as the downhill was steep, rocky, and slippery. Like the rest of the trail that day, the last section had brutal ups and downs, which made our progress slower than we would have liked. We ended up pulling out the headlight at about 6:00 and hiking the remaining mile or two in the dark. Mount Collins shelter was certainly a welcome sight, as was the fire in the fireplace started by two through-hikers staying at the shelter.
That night we realized what great facilities the shelters were. The wind was quite persistent all night and successfully delivered a deluge at about 5:00 a.m. What a beautiful feeling! We were camping in the middle of a rainstorm, but had the luxury of starting off the day completely dry. We felt extremely spoiled. And when we set off with our umbrellas at about 7:30 the 3rd morning, the other folks at the shelter expressed their envy.
Day 3. Final destination: Tricorner Nob. After walking almost entirely in the clouds the previous day, we were ready for some views. The terrain we covered the third day didn’t let us down all day. After setting off from Mount Collins shelter in a slight drizzle, we wondered if the clouds would break later in the day. The beginning section of trail was extremely smooth and either flat or downhill for a good bit of the way to Newfound Gap. We made excellent time, especially knowing that when we arrived at the Gap we would be able to use the restroom in a “true” bathroom. However, when we arrived at Newfound Gap we were disappointed to find that the water had run out; in other words, there were no toilets and no water sources to fill our empty bottles. We had shared a substantial portion of our water that morning with the through hikers in the shelter since we knew we would be able to fill up at the Gap. Despite the required change in plans, we were able to make it to the next shelter past the gap and filled up our bottles there. When we arrived at Icewater Spring shelter, we stopped and cooked our extra dinner (black beans and rice) and enjoyed a longer-than-normal break. It was quite chilly and windy and clouds still blocked the sun’s penetrating, warm rays. After a bit more hiking, we arrived at a knife edge ridge. Although the sky was still overcast, we were able to gain a sense of the severity of the cliff’s slope. Trees at the top of the ridge towered overhead and those just a few feet off of the ridge were considerably shorter, allowing for excellent, virtually treeless views off both sides of the ridge. We walked along this ridge for a few hours and after the first thirty minutes the clouds rapidly blew away, allowing the sun to defrost our numb fingers. We felt extremely privileged to have such a long stretch of trail with amazing vistas. Eventually we descended the ridge and picked up our pace for the final miles of the day. As the sun slipped over the Earth’s horizon we arrived at the shelter to find a large group of guys and one AT through hiker. The AT through hiker, known by his fellow hikers as “High Mountain,” had quite a dinner concoction. Since Brian and I had dried our own food, we were eager to explore new ideas for future long hikes. We ended up tasting his “gruel” and wrote down the recipe. Brian has already purchased most of the ingredients to try cooking it at home. Regardless of his excellent recipes, High Mountain had another distinctive feature. Throughout the night Brian and I periodically heard very loud farting. Perhaps the excellent gruel concoction was the culprit? If so, I think we’ll stick with our own dried foods.
That evening we not only cooked our dinner, but we cooked our breakfast for the following morning, so that we could get a section of our hike done before breakfast. This allowed us to break up the day into manageable segments. We hiked from about 7:00 until 9:30, primarily heading downhill. We decided to hike the extra 0.6 miles up to Mt. Camerrer, which was an excellent decision. On the way to the restored fire tower, we met up with a park volunteer, the only quasi-park employee we’d seen the entire trip. He shared some great park history and general information with us. We continued on to the fire tower, which was quite a bit nicer than we had imagined. The base was made of solid stone and had a nice wooden stairway up to the larger watch room, which was completely surrounded by windows. It’s amazing the building was in such excellent condition considering its location atop an exposed mountain, likely subject to extreme winds. While eating our lunch we chatted with some of the through hikers who had also decided to veer off the AT; their endurance, both mental and physical, made an impression on me. Although they were, in our opinion, definitely carrying too much weight, they were still covering fairly decent mileage and were still generally enjoying hiking every day. I’m not sure I would feel the same way at the end of a four or five month trek.
After leaving the fire tower we hiked down, down, and down some more. The lower our elevation became, the louder our hiking since the leaves were still covering the trail. By the time we were almost back to our car, we found ourselves stopping periodically to enjoy a silent, non leaf-crushing moment. It was also refreshing to finally walk beside a beautiful stream with deep swimming holes. I realized how much I missed the abundance of water along the ridge-following AT. Finally, we made it back to our car, packed up, and headed off to the Dillard House for a family style dinner.
Overall impressions? Pleasantly surprised…not sure I’d do the whole AT…liked the shelters better than we thought we would, especially in the rain…ready for a shower after no bathing water for four days…a great time!
-- Molly & Brian Lawrence