English Idiom: "A walk in the park" means "an easy undertaking".
This is the Appalachian National Scenic Iceway. This is your walk in the park.
Before I go on, let me just say that today, Saturday March 10th, was a memorable day, both because of its unforgettable positive experiences and because of the grueling length and trail conditions. I'm going to get the negatives out of the way first, so skip over it or bear with me.
For a stretch of about three miles north from Newfound Gap to Charles Bunion, this 'walk in the park' was more challenging than any section of trail I've yet hiked. It rained an inch and a half yesterday. Then it froze. The trail through this section is over-used and uncharacteristically poorly tended anyway. Even when dry and ice free it is a serious obstacle course. There are three-foot-deep rutted, rooty, muddy sections. There are rocky scrambles where no good foothold presents itself, or if one does, it is slick with white ice - which in the light of a headlamp (my return trip was after dark) looks just like dry white rock. And then there are the places where the trail pretends it's a stream bed, some places frozen with black ice, others still soggy and flowing over the trail daring you to find a way to avoid getting wet.
The challenge was the variability of the challenges - rocks, water, ice, roots, mud and some three-foot vertical steps up out of eroded washouts, all coming together, in varying combinations, and unceasing for miles. Now compound this with the fact that I had to walk this both ways, one of which was, as I said, after dark. In the dark I had to pause with each step, study the next foot placement, place the foot, and repeat. Wow - it took a long time to get back to Newfound Gap. Today's 32 mile trek began at 6:10AM and ended at 11PM.
But the bad stuff was at the beginning and the end. The vast middle portion was pure idyll - warm air, calm winds, better trail, infinite vistas, absolutely astounding ridge-crest geography, and a chance to meet some genuinely great people.
I first met these guys at Icewater Spring Shelter at 7:45AM. They offered me some coffee. They went out of their way to be inclusive. Little wonder that they chose to hike together although each of them began their thru-hike alone. They had already gelled as a team. I was on my way before they were packed up, promising to meet them again on my return trip.
As it turned out, they caught up with me just as I was at my turn-around point at Tricorner Knob Shelter. They all came in together for their lunch break - not straggling in one at a time. This spoke volumes about their chemistry. I spent half an hour that I didn't really have talking with them. Naturally they wanted to get to know me and it was four vs. one, so I didn't gather as much of their individual stories as I wish I could have.
Working left to right, 'Green Bean' is from Connecticut, 'Moses' is from Texas, 'Spoon' is from Indiana (if my memory is intact), and 'Huckleberry' is a local boy from Boone, NC. They all have similar motivations, age, and ambitions, as far as I can tell. This hike is a hiatus before each of them heads to graduate school. They make a great team and I wish them well. I told them I hope to see them as they pass me up north somewhere later in the year. I look forward to that day, and to hearing of their ongoing adventures.
Now to the scenery. What can I say? Superlatives describe the weather - I cannot conceive of how it could be more ideal. Air so still that, when standing on a precipice above a vast amphitheater-like valley dropping half a mile below you, all you could hear were the distant waterfalls. Sky so deep blue that all traces of "Smoky" had vanished from the mountains. Temperature at midday - well just look at what the four above are wearing.
I took dozens of photos of the various vistas and closer-in settings. Here are some of my faves:
I tried to get shots that capture the amazing knife-edge ridges that connect the various high points, but the photos don't do justice to that feeling that you're almost on a suspension bridge. "You just had to be there" is true for many of these experiences. Vastness does not photograph well, nor does the sound of distant waterfalls.
Yes, this was one majestic walk in the park.
Here's the complete track, showing the out-and-back route of today's hike. Embedded in the link are many more photos:
AT 063 - Charlie's Bunion and the Smokies at EveryTrail
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