Thursday, March 29, 2012

Many miles

Easy trail (except for the short struggle up the south side of Albert Mountain) made for a relatively easy 25 miles today. Both fog and the geography made for limited photo opportunities, so I'm showing just the one - the afternoon view from the fire tower atop Albert Mountain (see, the struggle was worth it!)

And, for a change, I'm cutting and pasting my rather verbose entry in my personal journal for today, because today the words are worth more than the pictures:


I headed out from Rock Gap fifteen minutes before sunrise, at 7:20 and hiked the fairly short leg north. As I crossed the highway at Wallace Gap my two day hiker friends, who have been hiking south using their two vehicles, came by after dropping one vehicle off at Rock Gap. Today they’re hiking from Wayah Gap (where I had noted their vehicle yesterday but never saw them) to here, so I won’t see them on the trail today either, but I suspect we’ll cross paths again farther south.

I hiked on up to my turn-around point on the ridge of Rocky Cove Knob, just 2.2 miles in all, and then headed back to Rock Gap. I passed a handful of NoBo hikers on the way, and at Rock Gap there were no fewer than eleven thru hikers gathered there waiting for a shuttle to Franklin. One of them made overtures to me: “Are you going to Franklin?” to which I snapped “I’m not going anywhere, I’m hiking.” This kind of thing is what I dreaded, but in this case it wasn’t a big deal. I talked to a few others there when I noticed a car with MD plates, asking if it belonged to any of them. One older guy said it belonged to a red haired young woman who had taken off hiking south, so I asked for more description, hoping to meet her at some point along the way.

I wasted no time with a quick restock, wished the crowd good luck and headed south on the long leg of the day. I reached the Rock Gap Shelter, which is just a quarter mile away at about 9:30 where I met the last two to leave, packing up and talking with one another. One was a middle aged woman named “Blessed Child” and the other was a hiker (can’t recall his trail name unless it’s ‘UK hiker’) from Bristol, England – but he’s not a football fan at all. They both headed out and I wrote in the register and then left.

As I was coming back to the trail the red headed woman was coming down, headed back to her car. I said I knew she was from MD and we struck up a conversation. She’s ‘Gingersnap’ who is a park ranger/law enforcement student at a govt. installation in Franklin. She graduates May 9th and still doesn’t have any job lined up. She thru-hiked the AT last year and was out leaving ‘trail magic’ (food) on up the trail a ways – turned out to be a half mile up from the shelter. She wants to hike the Pacific Crest Trail next, but needs to work for a while first in order to save enough money to do that. She was very talkative and seemed to enjoy our conversation, but we both had places to go (she had class), so we cut it off and headed our separate ways. I learned that she’s on Trail Journals when I got to her elaborate bear-proof hoist at a switchback. There was a sign there written by her. I arrived there just as Johannes from Munich, Germany arrived, so we chatted as we pulled down the container of brownies and sweet bread. There was a log book there too, which we both signed. I couldn’t resist taking a brownie – really delicious home baked goodness.

It was already apparent that the hiker count was going to be huge today. One of the eleven at the parking lot said that 200 people had signed in at Springer on March 15th alone (obviously he must have been one of them). In the end my rough count (lost track of the exact number) was 63 north-going hikers!

I hiked ten miles south in cloudy, foggy weather with a tiny bit of drizzle and one shower serious enough to make me put on my poncho. The hike was largely on very smooth footing with very gradual slopes – good for making fast time. The only exception was the ascent and descent of Albert Mountain, which has a fire tower on top (stairway open but hatch to the observation level locked). It was totally socked in with fog so I didn’t even bother climbing it. Fortunately the weather improved and I got quite good views from there on the way back. Beyond that there wasn’t much but easy trail without views until my turn-around point at a heavily used 25 foot side trail to a vista at a rock outcrop on the ridge of Little Ridgepole Mountain.

On the way back I found the crowd at the Big Spring Shelter just north of Albert Mountain was prodigious—a veritable tent city. That shelter is the closest to a ‘shack’ that I’ve seen – cheap looking particle board, etc.

I checked Gingersnap’s trail magic box and found it well picked through, but still some sweet cakes left. Back at the parking lot I made an attempt to hike to the now dead, but formerly second largest Tulip Poplar in the east (or something like that), but the trail was descending into a hollow and seemed very long (0.7 miles to the dead tree as I learned later), so I gave up and turned around.

I need to mention that both yesterday and today, while on the trail I picked up hiking sticks and worked them on rocks I passed in order to smooth and improve the handles. Today’s stick was slender (easily broken) but very comfortable. I developed a kink in my neck a few days ago which bothers me on ascending unless I hold my left hand up in the air, so I tried using a stick just to prop up the hand (originally the stick from yesterday was just to help me get across a precarious log at a stream crossing, but it turned out to have a quite comfortable tilted handle, so I kept it and found that it did help with the kink if I didn’t use it to support my weight other than just the weight of the arm itself.) Today I deliberately sought out a stick with a similar handle-shaped kink and found quite a good one fairly quickly. Both are freshly dead birch sticks. Tomorrow I may try taking one of my Leki poles instead, though I’ve saved both sticks.

I was back at the start at 7:15PM and headed out before changing in order to check out the Forest Service road to Deep Gap – my parking area for the next leg. As expected (based on the phone calls made by my two day-hiker friends a few days ago) the road was gated – may not be open until April 1st or shortly before that. Deep Gap road is the only access to a very long remote stretch of trail. I need to park there and hike ten miles of trail on each side of it. So I’ll have to defer those two legs –the last two in NC. So tomorrow I’ll move to Georgia.


Yep-Georgia! Last state south. I can almost smell Springer from here! More to come ...


Here's where I hiked, plotted on a map. And with it is a link to two dozen photos documenting the hike:

AT Day 75 - Albert Mountain at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Toes in the grass

Finally ... another grassy bald to traverse. This is Siler Bald, not to be confused with Silers Bald in Smoky Mountain Park. The AT passes through the lower end of the open area, so you have to take the quarter mile side trip up through the meadow to the summit - well worth the effort on a clear day.

The day (Wednesday March 21st) didn't start out clear. I started it with a return trip to Wayah Bald from the south side. Unfortunately it was foggy there, so no repeat of yesterday's fine views. The folks who visited Wayah this afternoon, though, had all the great viewing I had from Siler. I looked back with a telephoto shot, just to check on them.

Once it cleared up (before noon) the day was warm yet refreshing up at these altitudes, and with no threat of rain. I hiked a total of 25 miles but they seemed like easy miles. There were long stretches of very gentle grades, and lots of pleasant smooth pathway. I accomplished everything in under twelve hours, all in daylight.

The hike took me past Winding Stair Gap, where the AT goes out of its way (with footbridge included) to give you a front row seat view of this nice waterfall. I don't usually stop when I'm eating, but here I made an exception, lingering and soaking up the soothing rush of the water. I studied the different parts of it - how the water first glides, then plunges in separate cascades which merge in quick little pools, gather together and plunge again in a single unified climax. It seemed a perfect waterfall - just the way I'd design one as a water feature for my dream home.


Here's the map of today's route, with link to more photos:

AT Day 74 - Siler Bald at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

600 miles

I haven't been keeping close track of my progress lately, but I found this cool AT distance calculator web site, and checked this evening. I passed the 600 mile mark today (Tuesday 20 March - the first day of spring). That's 1200 miles of hiking for me since I'm religiously passing every white blaze both ways. And that's more than a quarter of my journey. I'm feeling strong and healthy (knock on wood), so maybe, just maybe I'll actually do this thing.

Today's leg took me over three balds, the most renown of which is Wayah Bald. And frankly I was expecting a vast, broad open field like Big Bald or Max Patch. But ... no bald ... nothing! Just a wonderful masonry observation tower sticking up out of the woods. Wayah Bald is not bald? This ranks up there with learning that Santa Claus doesn't exist. (Well, actually I passed a full-white-bearded hiker and his wife first thing this morning. His trail name is ... you guessed it ... Santa.)

It was a summery day, complete with some humidity, but the haze didn't obstruct the view enough to complain about.

The other two balds had no grassy clearings. But Rocky Bald ... I suppose the equivalent of skull bone ... had views from its bare-bedrock south slope.

In the above you can see Cold Spring Bald at left and Wayah Bald in the distance at center. Cold Spring Bald did offer one vista from a rock outcrop on its north side. So I did not feel completely deprived or deceived by the fare that the AT served me today.

Now about the population on the trail. It's exploding. Today my hiker count approached 40. Of course I didn't have in-depth conversations with most of these, but everyone I did ask was indeed a NoBo thru-hiker. Modest young 'Bootstrap' confessed that he wasn't comfortable calling himself a thru-hiker since he's only reached the 120 mile mark. He's been on the trail for twelve days. Freshly retired 65 year old 'Bird Man' from Jackson, Tennessee has been plugging along since March 1st. He has a good attitude and the patience of Job. His knees aren't strong, but I give him a good shot at making it a long way. Katahdin may be snowed in by the time he gets that far, but 'Bird Man' won't quit easy - long as his knees hold up. When he told me his trail name he raised his arms and his smiling eyes lifted skyward, ready to fly to the top of the next mountain--no knees necessary. I laughed - I had to tell him about my little AT themed poem - a 'fourteener' (same form as the subtitle of this blog). I wrote it on the occasion of photographing a little bluebird sitting on a post with a white blaze and posted it here back on December 12th, but will repeat it since it made us both smile.

I cannot fly
like this small guy,
who soars upon the gale.

But that's no shake -
I'd rather take
the Appalachian Trail.

The hiker count was 21 yesterday, 15 the day before, and around 10 for a few days before that. The March madness had begun.

Other random highlights of the day: additions to my 'green tunnel' and 'AT logo/white blaze' photo collections, and after I finished hiking I passed a flock of wild turkeys and a 'spring is bustin' out all over' scene at a beautiful farm, both on Tellico Road. (Be sure not to miss the Monarch Butterfly on the flowers at far right).

It was a great 20 miles, and I can't wait to get up and go see what tomorrow and the next 600 miles will offer. This life suits me.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Another 'hairy' bald

I guess they named the balds in this area a long time ago. There are a lot of them. Since being named, many have reverted to forest, likely for the first time since the last ice age.

Balds are beautiful. The sense of expansive space they give you when standing on top of a good grassy one can't be beat. Standing on a tree infested 'hairy' bald does you no good at all ... unless there happens to be an observation tower.

Wesser Bald, my primary destination today (Monday March 19th) has just such a tower. And although there was a touch of summer haze, you could still see Fontana Lake and Clingman's Dome.

The rest of today was getting there and getting back. The climb to Wesser Bald from the Nantahala River covers 2800 vertical feet in about five miles. But a 500 foot chunk of that is accomplished very quickly, on a ridge scramble called the 'Jump Off' - twin brother to the 'Jump Up' to Swim Bald on the other side of the river. At right is the view from a rock outcrop near the top of the Jump Off. The trail follows the ridge shown, and the closer-in part not shown because it's so steep.

Weather was an issue - it was too hot to hike comfortably, even up at 4500 feet. But the above-80 temperatures are making for a quick transition through spring. Red buds are blooming, and along the trail, the wildflowers are springing up in profusion.

It won't be long before we hikers find ourselves deep in the 'green tunnel' again. It will be a welcome change.


Here's a map of today's route with link to more photos:

AT Day 72 - Wesser Bald at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Swim Bald ...

... isn't bald. Hasn't been for decades, or longer. It's all wooded. But it was a fascinating hike.

Today (Sunday March 18th) was summer-hot. I took a short hike, not starting until 12:45PM, and covering a bit over 13 miles, nearly all of which was the 3000 foot climb from the Natahala River Gorge (The famous Natahala Outdoor Center complex in Wesser, NC) to Swim Bald. About 2000 feet up, at a very rocky and steep section of trail called the "Jump-Up", the trail takes you to a couple of superb vistas that look back down on the river. This is my 'vista pick' photo du jour

The N.O.C. is a compact little hub of civilization, mostly centered on river rafting and kayaking in the Nantahala River gorge. It has a small general store, a big outfitter, and two competing restaurants on either side of the footbridge over which the AT crosses the river. In today's warm weather, and being a weekend, the place was hopping.

UP on the trail I passed two gentlemen without backpacks who are roughly my age, and who, it turns out are doing just what I'm doing (working their way south by day hikes). Except they are using two cars and only hiking each stretch of trail one way. Also, they are not averse to occasionally spending an overnight on the trail. The opening of our conversation was a little awkward:

"Maintainer?" Harry asks as we approach each other

"Pardon me?" I responded

"Oh ... are you hiking?"

"Uh, yes, I'm definitely hiking." I smiled.

And then the exchange got much more coherent and very cordial. Very pleasant guys.

One final view from the trail: this 'waterfall' is a trail-side spring. Fresh, cold water comes gushing out of the mountain and off this rock face. Just stick your water bottle in the flow and it's full in no-time. Best spring I've passed to date. It doesn't hurt that we've had a lot of rain lately, but this looks like a permanent water source. They all should be this convenient (no bending over, kinking up this old hiker's knees and back). Oh, shut up, old man, and hike :-)


Here's the route shown on a map with link to many more photos:

AT Day 71 - Swim Bald at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Quick summary of a short hike

Hiked thirteen miles from Stecoah Gap, skirting the shores of an ocean of morning fog, to Sassafras Gap Shelter and back today (Friday March 16th). I started early, hoping to finish before the weather turned stormy, but still got hit by a shower - not too long, not too much.

The one outstanding feature of this 6.5 miles of trail is Cheoah Bald. It's a little thing. Don't blink as you reach the summit, because the next step is back down and back into the woods. Most of the open area is on the south facing slope and off the trail a bit. But there are outstanding views east and south from the summit. And There's one rock outcrop in the woods that provides an excellent view west toward Fontana Lake and the Smokies.

If every 6.5 miles of trail had a highlight like this I'd be a happy non-camper ;-)


Here's a map of today's walk, with link to more photos:

AT Day 70 - Cheoah Bald at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Friday, March 23, 2012

A spot of magic

The seven miles of trail between Yellow Creek Gap and Stecoah Gap traverse typical second-growth hardwood forest - the kind of setting you find along hundreds of miles of Appalachian Trail. Then, suddenly - nay, magically - this bit of trail appears:

From this 'Magical Ridgetop Cloud Garden' you are granted grand views of the Mountain Creek valley to the southeast and of the Smokies and Fontana Lake to the northwest.

To reach this magical spot, you have to ascend through a steep, rocky portal within dense thickets of rhododendron. To leave it, you have to ascend through a steep, rocky portal. Yes, it is up on both sides (southbound) - clear confirmation of the magic qualities of this special little spot.

The rest of the day's hike (Thursday March 15th) seemed far from magical. There were no views and very little to distinguish this bit of trail from the rest of the mid-Atlantic. And yet ...

There *was* more magic - the kind of magic that can conjure a northbound thru-hiker here, exactly 10.6 miles south of Fontana Dam, whom you've already met on the trail exactly 194 miles north of Fontana Dam. Surely this is the same concentrated magic that produced the ridgetop cloud garden.

This is 'Meats', as in 'I eat a lotta ...'. He's from Johnson City, TN. And on the morning of Thursday, February 23rd, about 8AM he was heading north from Cherry Gap Shelter, where he had spent a rainy night. He was out on a 3 day training hike, getting ready for his thru-hike. He passed a scraggly-bearded old guy named 'Seeks It' and thought no more about it ... until today.

Meats has been on his thru-hike for just 8 days. He's averaging about fifteen miles a day, with a couple of 20-milers thrown in. He's a strong, fit hiker, and a real pleasure to know. I wish (as always) that I had more time to get his 'back story'. And I surely hope we can meet for that 'third time's the charm' somewhere up north. Maybe then we will have a chance for longer discussion. Surely the potent magic of this place will assure that.

I was only on the trail from 11AM to 5:30PM, but my NoBo tally (surely all thru-hikers) for today was 12. Gone are the days when I would hike for more than a week without meeting another human being on the trail. I like this kind of magic :-)


Here's my route plotted on a map using the data taken by my GPS. The link takes you to a lot more photos.

AT Day 69 - the magical Cloud Garden at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Familiar surroundings

After the high mountain spruce-moss ecosystems of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, today's hike (Tuesday 13 March, 2012) brought me back to lower elevations and the familiar mixed hardwood forest. It was as comfortable as an old glove, and the weather turned downright summery after a foggy morning.

Southbound from Fontana the trail climbs side-slope, bringing you into view of the river below Fontana Dam and of the Dam itself. After a 2000 foot climb to the ridge called Bee Cove Lead, the views of the Dam and lake continue. These view are almost continuous, but always obscured by trees - in summer there may be little to see. Never does the trail come to a decent viewpoint, though I found myself begging for one. Then, very abruptly, the AT plunges down off the south side of the ridge, and says good bye to Fontana Lake forever. For the NoBo thru-hiker this sudden first view of the lake and dam (albeit shrouded by trees) has to feel like a landmark moment.

Southbound, the trail follows a spur ridge briefly then switches back and descends side hill via a long traverse to Cable Gap Shelter a vintage 1939 shelter made of huge logs. There I met four hikers stopped for lunch: a father-son team out for a three day trip - the father was carrying the same model GPS as mine, so we compared notes - and a young thru-hiker named 'Drop Out' and his erstwhile hiking buddy who was headed only as far as Hot Springs. The conversation with these two lasted quite a while. Mostly we shared our experiences with trail the other had not yet traveled. They were fun to chat with.

From the shelter it's just a hop and a skip to Yellow Creek Gap. I went a half mile beyond that landmark, turning around at a saddle after a steep climb. The full afternoon heat bore down on my return journey - it got close to 80 degrees! The bugs are out, the buds are swelling, and back in civilization the forsythia are in full bloom. Judging from the long term forecast, it may be a quick spring. The upcoming weather pattern looks like a July pattern - I think I've seen the last of the snow and ice, and good riddance!


Here's a map with today's route and a link to more photos:

AT Day 68 - Bee Cove Lead at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fontana, end to end

is only two and a half miles (parking area to parking area). But that was enough today (Monday, March 12th). Mostly it was a rest day. The high mountains were deep in fog and heavy drizzle all day. Down low it was mild and cloudy, no rain until late afternoon. A good day for a five mile stroll.

The 'Fontana Hilton' is a special shelter, not so much because of its size or construction - there are many better and bigger - but because of its setting, because of the well-stocked 'trail magic' box inside, and because of what's a hundred yards down the trail: a rest room with heat, electric light, and a shower with hot water. This is hiker Nirvana.

As I was leaving the 'Hilton' headed southbound I passed three guys ... said 'hi' ... and went on. But I began to ponder those faces. I had seen them before. And then it struck me. Facebook! These are the three characters who call themselves 'Northbound 2012, amateur sports team'.

Update - I stopped in at the 'Hilton' early the following morning before hiking and had a brief chat with the team. Nothing in-depth, but at least we got the chance to connect. Best of luck, guys!


Here's the 'track' of today's little hike. The link takes you to a slide show with many more photos.
AT Day 67 - Fontana Dam at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Smoky Mtn Park - the easy end

There is no such thing as an easy 32-mile hike, particularly when it involves several thousand feet of climbing. But of the four such day hikes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, today's (Wed. March 14th) through the southern/western section was by far the easiest. It was also the least 'scenic', offering extensive views only from the Shuckstack Firetower. This view of Fontana Lake under morning fog is the pick for today's headline photo:

Why do I call it 'easy'? The trail was smoother under foot here than anywhere else in the park, and for the most part the grade was modest by comparison to other sections. And finally, the highest elevation reached here was barely above 5000 feet (on Mt. Squires) - by far the lowest high-point of any of the Smoky Mountain Park day hikes.

The weather didn't hurt - it was truly summer-like, with temperatures well into the 70's, puffy clouds, and even some humidity. I went through more water today than I have in any previous hike this year.

And one last summary note: the thru-hikers are getting thick. Every day there's a new batch entering the park. Today's crop numbered 10 by my late afternoon-early evening survey, including my friend from yesterday, 'Drop Out', who, with his buddy who was hiking to Hot Springs and with a new companion, was doing the same leg as me, all the way from Fontana to Spence Field Shelter - 15.9 miles one way. Most of the thru-hikers settled for the ten miles from Fontana to the huge Mollie's Ridge Shelter. There the crop included four women.

Now lets share a little more detail. The Shuckstack Ridge fire tower is not for anyone with even a hint of acrophobia. I admit my blood pressure was up a bit as I ascended those rickety, heavily weathered oak steps. But if you can manage it, the view from the tiny observation room at the top is spectacular - well worth the rattled nerves on a clear day.

Here's Fontana Dam from that 'nosebleed' vantage point:

A friend from the wildlife community was waiting for me when I reached the rocky summit where the fire tower perches. He was kind enough to pose. Not so for *my first bear*, who turned and showed me his fleeing hind quarters later in the day up on Doe Knob.

Speaking of Doe Knob, I found a most interesting birch there, with wide-splayed above-ground roots, hollow in the middle, creating a space large enough for one person to sleep in. I called it 'TeePee Tree', and I couldn't resist taking on my erstwhile role as 'AT logo Phantom'. This is the result: 'AT Tree'.

AT the end of my outward leg, I reached Spence Field, which really is a field (unlike Russell Field a few miles further south). It was a nice diversion from the endless deciduous hardwoods of today's walk. I did not see a single spruce all day - just not high enough elevation in this section of the park.

Finally, here's a massive photogenic root system of an overturned hollow behemoth - this structure is taller than me, and a person can easily lie inside that hollow space - one more 'emergency shelter' provided by mother nature.

So there you have it, the final, southernmost day-hike through the Smokies and the last touch of Tennessee. Now it's on into North Carolina and the great Nantahala National Forest.


Here's a map showing my route today. The link takes you to many more photos:

AT Day 66 - Shuckstack Fire Tower at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gardens and grass

Today (St. Patty's Day, March 17th*) found me doing my longest hike yet - 34 miles in one mega-trek through Smoky Mountain Park. To get it done I hit the trail at 4:10AM. I was back 'home' at 9PM.

And from all the vast array of sights and experiences, the above photo is my pick as the best moment. It is taken looking south (trail south) toward Spence Field from the open ridge below Rocky Top. To me this spot is one of the prettiest natural gardens I've passed along the trail. It is what it's all about for me (Fellowship with the Wilderness).

This third of the four 30+ mile mega-day-hikes had a character that was distinct from the other two: it was grassy ridge hiking. The section out of Davenport Gap featured well-groomed horse trail and the delightful mossy spruce walk above 6300 feet yet nearly level around Mount Guyot. The second big hike, North out of Newfound Gap featured the spectacular knife-edge rocky ridges and connecting 'suspension bridges'. The shorter leg between Newfound Gap and Clingmans highlighted the trail builders art through some extensive boggy deep-woods areas. And now this.

The grassy ridges begin almost immediately as you descend southbound from Clingmans Dome. They continue over Clingman's little twin, Mt. Buckley, and then begin sputtering out as you get to Siler's Bald. Crazy how all these open grassy ridges aren't called balds, and then when you get to Siler's Bald, you can barely find a single patch of open grassy terrain (there was exactly one postage-stamp-sized, Blackberry-overgrown 'bald area', and it wasn't on the summit.

From Siler's Bald Shelter south for many miles there's a different character to the trail - uncountable ups and downs, often surprisingly steep, usually short. The biggest of these, Cold Spring Knob (or Mountain) is the first climb anywhere in my experience that I'd call truly pointless (If there is a point in climbing it, somebody needs to clue me in). The map shows that a side-hill trail around the south flank of Cold Spring Knob would actually be shorter than the existing trail, and it could be nearly level. Cold Spring Mountain has *no spring*. It has no view, either from the top or anywhere along the slopes. It has no unusual geography, geology, flora or fauna - in summary, no point. Worst of all, there are mud wallows on the way up the north slope--places where if you stay on the trail but try to avoid the mud, you'll fail because you will slip sideways into it. Note to the trail planners: Eighty six this useless stretch of trail, or let the horses have it and put a no-horses AT reroute cleanly around this mountain. Strangely the next little knob north (from Buckeye Gap) has just such a reroute in place, so this change, southward from Buckeye Gap or the Miry Ridge Trail, seems a natural next step.

Okay, I'm off my soapbox now. All these uncountable ups and downs including Cold Spring Mtn took me to the low point of today's walk -- low in so many ways: elevation, mood, weather. At about 4400 feet the ups begin to exceed the downs, the rain started to fall in earnest, and I began to wonder whether I was going to make it back to my vehicle, given that I'd be hiking nearly 20 miles with wet feet (a sure formula for blisters).

Then came the first climb with a real point - and a serious climb it was, up from the excellent spring (a fine reason for a 'down') to the vista atop Thunderhead Mountain and the beginning (on its south side) of several more miles of grassy ridge walking, including Rocky Top, a popular day-hike destination for visitors up from Cades Cove camping area on the Tennessee side of the park.

Rocky Top transitions into Spence Field somewhere in the vicinity of the photo at the top. And somewhere in this area, the rain stopped too, and never returned. Time to change into dry socks and 'hang' the wet ones off my backpack to (successfully) dry and change back into once my nicely breathable trail-runner shoes dried thoroughly. I was back on high ground and loving it.

Yes, it was a trudge to get back through all those ups and downs. I was trying to hurry in order to get photos of Double Springs and Silers Bald shelters before dark (which I did**) and to see some of the scenery that I missed in the early morning. This sunset shot is the pick of the 'panoramic vista' photos for the day.

And so when I faced the thousand foot climb at the very end of a hard day, and as darkness descended, I felt truly bone-tired. That term is *so* apt. Muscles get tired quicker, but if you haven't actually injured them (running injures muscle cells), and if you keep them fed with sugars and oxygen, they find a way to push on. Blood, heart, lungs, mind (if you keep a positive attitude), can keep plugging along too. But when the weariness reaches the core of your bones, the very rock (literally) on which your strength relies, then you know it has been a hard day.

Every year at the Iron Man Triathlon the TV coverage features some 'also-ran' trying to beat the midnight cut-off, tottering, stumbling, weaving side to side toward the finish line in the dark, eyes dazed, falling flat on their face and being pulled up by onlookers and urged onward, struggling a few more steps and toppling over again. It's at once heart-rending and pathetic. Well, I was nowhere near to being in that kind of shape. But then I didn't swim 2.5 miles and bike 100 miles before doing this hike. Yes, that last half mile down the paved trail from the Observation tower to the parking lot seemed like it would never end. But it did. And then I slept.

*Note: This hike was taken out of north-to-south sequence because Clingman's Dome access road just opened yesterday. As a convenience for those following the trail documentation, I'm posting the hikes in trail succession (north to south), not in chronological order.

**Second note - personal in nature and a bit whiny: It was about 5:30AM when I passed Double Springs Shelter the first time. The trail goes right past the building. There was somebody snoring so loudly inside that I’m sure it was annoying everybody else, even the people in the tents nearby.

Personal opinion: there are so many reasons why I don’t want to "camp-out" as part of an AT hiking experience. I've hiked areas of Colorado where if you want to experience certain amazing places, an overnight camping trip is the only way. Not so on the AT, as I'm proving. And on the AT I want nothing to do with crowded-shelter issues such as snoring, smelly bodies, noise, hiker-to-hiker spread of germs, concentrations of parasite bears, mice and bugs, and the general social annoyances and disturbances from other campers all crowded unnaturally close together (like the worst of city life).

Who in their right mind would seek to spend a night in a drafty, crowded lean-to with a dozen smelly strangers? The homeless have it better under a bridge! No ... I would absolutely shrivel if forced to stay at shelters, and I have no great desire to spend nights in a tent (which is only allowed around shelters in Smoky Mountain Park anyway).

To put it bluntly, the classic AT thru-hike experience is one I would loathe. The popular sticker says the AT is “a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness, not fellowship with a bunch of other hikers, each of whom brings their outside-world baggage into the wilderness and puts it on display at the expense (or pleasure) of everyone else. But that pleasure is much more easily obtained without hiking, in an endless variety of other activities and venues. So for me, and for *my* hike, I'd rather leave the human entanglements far behind. And that's the trail's intended purpose - otherwise why is the AT Conservancy spending mega-bucks protecting and buffering the trail from encroaching 'civilization'?

In summary, the AT is my Walden Pond. "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." - Henry David Thoreau


Here's a map of the route of today's mega-hike. Embedded are a lot of photos - just follow the link.

AT Day 65 - Rocky Top at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sunday, March 18, 2012

... and to top it all off

... the wind was calm. High mountain calm is rare. Today (Sunday March 11th) was the second calm day in a row. And east of the Mississippi, you don't get any higher than this observation deck:

This is the classic 1950's-style architectural icon atop 6643' Clingman's Dome. The access road isn't open yet, and it was late enough that the other hikers had gone. I had the entire place to myself - that alone is an experience that can't be topped.

And, of course, there was the unlimited visibility. It was better than in the annotated display boards. Here ... look for yourself, first to the east:

And to the north:


and West:

The hike in and out was sixteen miles of mostly well-groomed trail - only rare pockets of the kind of out-of-control wash-away ruts I hiked yesterday. The trail maintainers have been hard at work. To paraphrase the inscription on Christopher Wren's grave: "If you seek their monument, look about you."

Yes, there were lots of ups and downs, and it was made tougher because I was trying to do it on what was supposed to be a rest day after 32 miles yesterday. But tomorrow's weather was forecast to be miserable, so today was the day to do this: to stand on top of the Appalachian Mountains.


Here is the map of today's route, with link to many more photos:

AT Day 64 - Clingmans Dome at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Knoxville, Tennessee