Spence Field Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter – 13.5 miles
It was cloudy and drizzling all day, so I decided not to push the 19 miles to Mt. Collins today. Set up my tent for the first time since before Blood Mountain. Didn’t end up needing to, but if my weather app is right, it won’t rain tomorrow until after 10am, so hopefully won’t have to take it down in the rain. Going to resupply in Gatlinburg tomorrow and hike on to the shelter that’s closest out of there.
I don’t remember much from hiking that day besides the constant drizzle of rain. Honestly would have preferred snow over rain. It was already cold and the snow wouldn’t seep into my clothes making me cold and wet like the rain. I do remember speaking with a female ranger(one of the only women I ran into with that position) who was doing trail maintenance and also asked to see my backpacking permit. It was from her that I found out about the blizzard that came through the Smokies the week before. It trapped some hikers in Gatlinburg and those stuck hiking in it were either post-holing through deep snow or sliding around on ice in their trail runners. That is not the kind of snow I would have preferred. The Smokies were kicking my butt so I stopped earlier than I originally planned. At this shelter, there was already a good mix of thru hikers and sections hikers so I decided to go ahead and set up my tent instead of taking the risk of having to set it up in the dark if the shelter ended up being full of section hikers. All of the shelters in the Smokies have a tarp covering the front to block out the wind along with a fire place. I was very thankful for whoever made the fire before I got to the shelter. I was able to dry my socks by the fire and write in my journal.
Fontana Dam Visitor Center to Spence Field Shelter – 17.4 miles
A bit cold and chilly, but overall not a bad hiking day. First day in the Smokies! Said goodbye to Grant and Graham this morning and got the 8:30am shuttle with Digs. Once we got to the climb at the beginning of the Smokies, Digs pulled out ahead and I have not seen him since. A ranger took a picture and a video of me playing my p-bone and said he will give it to the ATC. It would be cool if it got featured somewhere. Debating whether or not to pull a 20+ mile day tomorrow to get over Clingman’s Dome before the bad weather. We’ll see how my feet feel in the morning.
Normally I’m up and moving quickly in the morning, but this morning I was dragging. Not too much though because Digs and I needed to be out front to get on the shuttle by 8:30. Grant and Graham were staying for a few more hours to get their resupply boxes from the post office and planned on stopping at the only campsite without a shelter in the Smokies so I was likely not going to see them again after that morning. We said our goodbyes and then Digs and I headed out. On the shuttle, we passed by Pappy! We drove right by him so I missed my chance to meet him unfortunately. If you don’t know who he is, look him up! He is 87 years old and was attempting to set the record for the oldest person to thru hike the AT. That title is currently held by an 82 year old man who thru hiked in 2017. Pappy has also already Triple Crowned which means he has hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. I hope I can still hike like him by the time I’m 87.
Before getting to the Smokies, the trail goes right over the Fontana Dam. It was a really cool to walk the full length of it and hard not to stop every step to take pictures. On the other side, we followed a gravel road that eventually brought us to a box that said, “A.T. THRU HIKERS DEPOSIT PERMITS HERE.” Officially made it to the Smokies! Digs and I take out our permits that we bought and printed out in Franklin, NC, put them in the box, and continued hiking. The trail went immediately uphill so I lost sight of Digs quickly. He said earlier that he wasn’t sure where he would stop for the night, just that he wanted to get as close to Newfound Gap as he could. That was the last time I saw him. He wasn’t at the shelter 17 miles in that I stopped at so he had pushed forward and probable made it to town the next day.
I took a lunch break at the first shelter that I came to at the end of the first long climb of the Smokies. There were a few other hikers there and a ranger. The ranger warns us that there is a lot of bear activity at this shelter so it is closed, meaning that no one can camp there for the night. Eventually he noticed my pBone strapped to the back of my pack so I take it out to play some for him and the other hikers there. He even took a picture and video to show his coworkers and to send to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It was very cold and windy that day so I didn’t stop for food for very long. I originally planned to stop at Russell Field Shelter for the night, but I felt good enough to push another 3 miles to the Spence Field Shelter making it a 17 miles day. I was wiped when I got there and my feet were not happy with me. I didn’t have any blisters though so I was happy.
The Smokies have some very specific rules for anyone who is backpacking there. Section hikers are not allowed to set up a tent or hammock anywhere in the park and instead have to reserve a spot in a shelter for each night they plan on being there. Thru hikers are also told not to set up their tents and to sleep in the shelter provided at each campsite only if it isn’t full. With their rules, section hikers have first claim to any spots in the shelter so if it is full of section and thru hikers and more section hikers come in at night, the thru hikers would have to give up their spots in the shelter and only then would be able to set up their own tents. I almost had to do that this night. The shelter had 1 or 2 spots left for other hikers, but a group of at least 10 section hikers walk up and upon seeing that the shelter was basically full, they hike away. They end up coming back and set up their tents because they did not want to ask any thru hikers to give up their spot in the shelter and I was very grateful for that.
Rangers and ridge runners would stop hikers in the park to check for their permits. Thankfully, that night none showed up so the section hikers made it through the night in their tents and the rest of us in the shelter.
The weather was really nice today. Kinda upset I didn’t hike, but also glad I got 1 more day with these guys before we go our separate ways. Grant and Graham won’t hike as far as Digs and me tomorrow and Digs gets off the trail on Wednesday. I’m hoping to get through the Smokies as quickly as I can to get through the bad weather.
It ended up being a very nice, sunny day today when I thought it would be raining. I very much would have liked to have been hiking, but I was more than happy to spend another day with Graham, Grant, and Digs before we all hiked off at different times and paces. The general store at Fontana Dam did not have much in the way of a resupply, but I got enough to most likely get me through the Smokies which was all I was worried about. I heard a lot of bad things about a town called Gatlinburg halfway through the Smokies. Mainly that it is crowded with tourists and a hikers nightmare, so I wanted to avoid it if I could.
While I was resupplying I was able to do my laundry. There were lots of hikers who were staying in the Fontana Dam Shelter doing laundry too so there was a line, but none of us had anywhere to go that day so I got some ice cream and made myself comfortable. Back at the lodge, Graham, Grant, and Digs were laying out on the deck on the 2nd floor. I wanted a nap so I went to our room and slept for a while and joined them later at the restaurant and bar for drinks and dinner.
All day, we were making our way through my mom’s trail magic. We split up what we wanted to hike out with and snacked on everything else throughout the day. This was a nice and very relaxing zero day made 100 times better by my mom – trail name ‘Italian Ice.’ Even though I didn’t get to hike with her, I was still happy to have seen her and I know we all appreciated her trail magic and generosity.
Sassafras Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Visitor Center – 22.3 miles
Tried waking up a bit earlier than usual since today was an extra long day to meet up with mom at Fontana Dam. Said bye to dad as he started hiking back to his car and I got started by 7:40am. It was mostly downhill, but parts were so slippery with snow, ice, and/or mud that I couldn’t hike very quickly. On good spots, I tried to half jog to make up for other slow miles. I convinced Grant and Graham to go for 22 miles to stay in the 4-person room my mom already paid for. Took them about 10 minutes to go from maybe to yes. Digs was further ahead so I sent him a text and he replied this morning while he was in town. Ended up crossing a road at the same time as Digs got dropped off from his resupply. All the guys made it before I did. Grant 2 hours before anyone because he ran down the mountain and Graham and Digs 30 minutes to an hour before. My last mile was met with a thunderstorm and hail. Worth it for a shower and a hot meal with mom and the guys. This lodge is nice! Taking a zero tomorrow to avoid the cold day of rain ahead and to do some laundry. Almost time to start the Smokies!
It was a very cold morning – as usual – so I did not get moving as quickly as I had wanted to. I saw Graham leave about 30 minutes before I got started hiking. I didn’t see Grant at all that morning and I thought he was still in his tent sleeping. I found out later that he woke up much earlier and was out hiking before I even woke up. I made sure to send out a text to all of them describing what my mom’s mini van looked like since it seemed like everyone would get there before me. After my dad and I finished our breakfast and packed our packs, we hiked the .1 mile back to the trail and headed our separate ways.
Today was very cold and wet. At some point, I got a response from Digs so all 4 of us would be sharing the room! In between trying to run down the mountain and balancing on a mixture of ice and mud, I called my mom to fill her in on where everyone is and what time I would most likely make it to Fontana Dam. Not long after that, I came to a road crossing with a small parking lot and a picnic table so I took my pack off for a few minutes before heading up the next section called Jacob’s Ladder. As I got started and was about to cross the road, a car stops in the parking lot and I see Digs jumping out. Could not have timed that better even if we had tried. We started up Jacob’s Ladder together and it did not take long for him to pull ahead of me. It. Was. Steep. But we made it and kept on going. About a mile after the end of the Ladder was a shelter where I took a quick 15 minute stop to use the privy and eat a fast lunch while Digs kept hiking on. After that, I did my best to keep moving without stopping except to lean over and get my pack weight off my hips and shoulders for a brief few seconds. At Cable Gap Shelter 8 miles from Fontana Dam, my feet were killing me. I took my pack off and lied down with my feet up the side of the shelter. I stayed like this for a solid 2 minutes before starting the final long and steep descent to Fontana Dam.
I don’t remember much of the hike after that besides my feet just hurting and my mind constantly thinking about the hotel room and my mom and her warm car waiting to pick me up. What I do remember really well is the last mile before reaching the Visitor’s Center. I had service so I called mom and told her I was a mile away. She took Grant to the Fontana Dam Lodge 2 hours earlier and Digs and Graham reached the car 30 minutes earlier. All day, I could see storm clouds rolling in and they finally reached me. It started pouring down rain, there was thunder and lightning, and I was running to get out of it as quickly as I could. 0.2 mile from my moms car, I could feel small pieces of hail hitting the back of my neck. That was the first time I had ever been hailed on without any kind of cover…It would not be my last.
Finally made it and got in the van as quickly as I could. My mom had Gatorade and lots of snacks for all of us. When we got to the Lodge, I took a shower quickly and was able to sit down at the restaurant with my mom and catch up while the guys took their showers. We weren’t able to order anything until all of us were seated so by the time the last of us was clean and at the table, we were ready to order. The food disappeared very quickly. My mom only drove up for the day so after we finished eating, we said goodbye, she started her drive back home, and we quickly fell asleep. I wasn’t planning on taking a zero day the next day, but after my first 20+ mile day and finding out Grant and Graham had already reserved the room for another night, I decided to take a rest day before heading into the Smokies.
A Rufus Morgan Shelter to Sassafras Gap Shelter – 7.9 miles
Woke up after sunrise. Waited around for a few hours for my dad who got there at 12pm. Got lunch – pizza and sweet tea – and set off hiking the 6.9 miles to the shelter. Very slow going with my dad but somehow there was space in the shelter for both of us. Nice fire before a cold night, but it’s not supposed to get below freezing, so hopefully not too cold tonight.
Slept in this morning since I had some time to kill before my dad would get to the NOC(Nantahala Outdoor Center) and the A Rufus Shelter was only a 1 mile hike to the NOC. Still was up and moving before Racheal and Braden, but that was no surprise. Love you guys! Had a very nice morning stroll to get to the NOC. I don’t remember what time I managed to get there, but not much was open yet because in the real world it was still early. No problem. I found a plug outside and hung out there until the one general store opened. The shelves were pretty empty, so there was not a lot to choose from but I was able to scrounge up enough food variety to get me to Fontana Dam in 2-3 days. Out of all my resupplies on the AT, this was one of the very few without a lot of choices. That’s not really a problem anywhere – in my experience – on the AT.
After resupplying, I got a text from my dad that he was running late because of traffic, so I ended up sitting by the river in a nice wooden lounge chair while I waited. I had the complete collection of the Sherlock Holmes books on my phone, so I had plenty to keep me busy. He arrived just in time for the restaurants there to open up for lunch at 11am so we went to the River’s End and dug in. Pizza is something I almost always got in town and if sweet tea was an option, I would most likely get that too. The most southern thing about me is my love for sweet tea. No matter where I move to, that will never change.
After eating, we started our 6 mile ascent towards Sassafras Gap Shelter. This climb is one hated by all NOBOs. It’s not particularly steep compared to the entire AT, but it is 6 miles straight of just uphill so there was a lot of bonding of our shared hatred of this climb. It was a slower climb too with my dad with me, but we still made it before dark and thankfully to a fire already made.
One of my biggest pet peeves on the AT was hikers in a shelter saying that there isn’t enough space for another person when there is. That’s exactly what happened when we got there. The 2nd floor of the shelter was very much full, but when I looked at the bottom floor, there was a good amount of space between everyone’ sleeping pads. I was able to get other hikers to move their pads over and move some myself and make space for my dad and I. You learn to sleep shoulder to shoulder with other hikers in a shelter. I honestly preferred that when it was colder out and that night was cold.
After setting up our pads and sleeping bags we made our dinners and joined some other hikers by the fire. I spoke with my mom earlier and she said she would be able to drive to Fontana Dam the next day and even reserve a 4 person room for me and 3 other hikers at the Fontana Dam Lodge if we could make it there. That would require me to do my first 20+ mile day and I was down to do it and I knew exactly who to share that room with. Graham and Grant were at this shelter and I was able to convince them very quickly to agree to get there tomorrow. Digs hiked past this shelter, so I sent him a text and hopefully he would have enough service somewhere to see it. I wasn’t sure if he would see it or not because his phone rarely got service on the trail.
It was a pretty cold night and with the fire dying down and having to hike 22 miles the next day, I headed to bed to get a good nights rest. I was ready to take on tomorrow!
Wayah Bald Shelter to A Rufus Morgan Shelter – 15.5 miles
A cold but sunny morning. Hiked with Digs for a part of the day when I could keep up with him. By 12, I could tell the snow was melting and turning into a muddy mush that caused me to fall once and slip a lot. At the shelter, I was the only one except for Super English and Beans who decided to both set up their hammocks. A few hours later, Rachael and Braden showed up, so I didn’t get the shelter all to myself. I was still able to get a p-bone practice session in before they got here. Meeting up with Dad at the NOC tomorrow.
This morning was just as cold as the night before but with the sun rising, it ended up being a beautiful day of hiking. This day had the most snow that I hiked in on the entire AT. The beginning of the day a few other hikers started before me and broke the trail so in the deeper snow, I just had to step in their footprints. By the time I got to Cold Spring Shelter about 5 miles in, it was still very cold and I found Super English sitting at the shelter. He offered to make me some tea and I happily accepted. We were joined by a few others – bonding over our shared cold and miserable night – before I started hiking again. Not too long after that, Digs had caught up to me and we hiked together for a little while.
Up at the top of the mountain, the views were beautiful. There were no clouds in the sky and the ice and snow on the trees were reflecting the sunlight. I remember one view in particular that I made sure to stop at and get a picture where all you could see was a white covered landscape. All the trees were covered in ice and it made a view that I did not see very often growing up in South Carolina.
The descent down towards the NOC had me sliding all over the place. It was midday and the sun had warmed things up significantly. I don’t know how Digs was able to hike so fast without falling. I had 1 hard fall on my side in the mud before slowing down my pace to avoid any more bad falls. After 5 miles of that downhill, I made it to the A. Rufus Morgan Shelter. Beans and Super English were also there, but they were both planning on setting up their hammocks so I had the shelter to myself. The shelter was a little ways off the trail so I got some alone time with my pBone there before Racheal and Braden showed up to also stay at the shelter.
At some point that afternoon, I realized that I did not have my Jet Boil. I thought that I must have left it at the last shelter I stayed in or someone might have accidentally put it in with their stuff. I had no idea so I thought I was going to have to buy a new cooking system once I got to the NOC the next day. Later that afternoon, Lose/Fast/Square – who also stayed at the shelter the night before – came hiking south from the NOC and said he was looking for me. He found my Jet Boil in his pack and said it was all the way down at the bottom. It wasn’t until he was in his hostel room unpacking his things that he realized he had it. Thankfully he was nice enough to hike a mile backwards to the shelter I was staying at to return it to me. I still got to eat my ramen that night!
Winding Stair Gap to Wayah Bald Shelter – 11 miles
Last free pancake and bacon breakfast in Franklin before heading back to the trail. Took the 9am shuttle to Winding Stair Gap and went on. It was snowing when I woke up and did not let up until close to dark. Windy all day also. Hiking in the snow and wind is very slow going. It was all around a very cold day and night. Four guys from the shelter even called a shuttle to pick them up at the Wayah Bald a mile back because they couldn’t take the cold. When I got to the shelter, I got in my sleeping bag and did not leave until morning.
The minute I woke up this morning, it was already snowing and it would not stop snowing all day. After another delicious breakfast – this time with my hiking friends who were able to wake up this morning not hungover – I wanted to head to the trail asap. The snowing started off very mild, but it had already picked up by the time I got on the shuttle at 9 to be taken to the trail and there was a light covering of snow on the ground. It was fine with me at that point since I had not seen any snow like that on the trail yet so I was enjoying it. As the day went on, the harder the snow came down and the more I realized that I could not stop moving without freezing my ass off. I stopped once to get of picture of me in the snow(picture below) and that was it. My most vivid memory of hiking that day was when the wind would change directions and blow the snow directly into my face and I just had to take it. You learn to “Embrace the suck” very quickly out there.
I did not realize it that day, but I have sectioned hiked from Winding Stair Gap to the NOC once before. The big difference was when I sectioned hiked it, it was the middle of summer so the grass was green, there was no precipitation of any kind, and I got a beautiful view on top of the tower on Wayah Bald. When I got there on my thru hike, I had already been hiking in the snow for a few hours and the top of Wayah Bald was completely unrecognizable. I didn’t even stop, I just kept moving to get to the shelter as quickly as I could. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that I had hiked there before.
Once at the shelter, I was happy to find a spot for myself so that I did not have to set up my tent. I got everything I needed out and set up quickly and grabbed a few snacks from my food bag to eat while I was in my sleeping bag. It was so cold that day that even taking the few minutes to cook some ramen wasn’t worth it to get my arms out of my sleeping bag. An 18-year-old there – Beans – had a gallon sized bag completely filled with candy so he was passing that around the shelter because it weighed too much and wanted us to eat the weight away. After maybe 2 or 3 hours, a few of the guys also crammed into the shelter decided that it was way too cold for them, so one of them called Ron from Baltimore Jack’s Hostel to see if he would drive up to Wayah Bald to pick them up. He said that he could do that, but because of bad road conditions he charged them almost $200, but these guys did not hesitate and agreed to that immediately.
This day and night was very much the coldest day/night I had on the Appalachian Trail. Any time I’ve talked to other hikers about this day, they know exactly what day I am referring too. This was when a snow storm went through the Smokies and trapped hikers in Gatlinburg for days because cars could not get back up to Newfound Gap to get them back to the trail. I would get to the Smokies a week later. Thankfully there was no blizzard while I was hiking through there. This is one of those days that I would never want to go through again, but I look back on fondly and remember the people that I spent hours with in the shelter. All of us in our sleeping bags, only getting out to pee when it hurts to hold it in any longer, sharing and passing around our food that did not need to be cooked, and trying to fall asleep at 6pm because we had already been crammed into the shelter for 4 hours.