I decided to take another nero day (almost zero milage day) and rest my knee a little. The forecast was calling for temperatures in the teens and snow on the mountain. We decided to slackpack (hiking with just snacks and water in a day pack) from Rock Gap to Winding Stair. It was only about 4 miles and without the packs we covered it in an hour. The rest of the day we just hung around and rested up.
Day 13: Winding Stair to Wayah Shelter
Born and raised in the south, hiking in the snow is something that I have never done before. It is probably one of the most beautiful experiences that I have ever had. It had snowed about 2 inches the night before and the mountains were like a winter wonderland. We took a side trail up to Siler Bald for our lunch break and had some amazing 360° views. We could see all the way to the Smokies which were blanketed in snow. A pretty amazing day. Once the sun set the temperatures dropped into the low teens. I was wearing everything that I had in my sleeping bag and was still cold. I even brought my water filter into my sleeping bag with me, but it still somehow froze. It was a long night.
There was still snow on the ground when we woke up, but the temperatures were supposed to warm up throughout the day. It was a long 15 miles to our next stopping point with a huge downhill into the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We ended up catching up to Tree Bird and Burl who had hiked out of Franklin the day it snowed. The highlight of the day was Wesser Firetower which offered us some more incredible views with clear skys. After that we shot straight down into the NOC. It was so much downhill that my good knee started to hurt.
Day 15 Rufus Morgan Shelter to Sassafras Shelter
That morning we hiked a mile down into the NOC and got an amazing breakfast. We definitely needed the energy for the huge climb out of the valley that we were about to do. It was all uphill for 7.7 miles. I was doing pretty good for most of the day and definitely felt like I was getting my trail legs. Until, I hit the last mile or so when the mountain decided to go vertical. We had some beautiful views, but I was almost too exhausted to enjoy them. Even though it was a relatively low mileage day, it felt like we had done 15.
Another gorgeous day on the Appalachian Trail. The view from Cheoah Bald was absolutely incredible, and it was really interesting to be able to look back and see all the mountains that I had been climbing over. I hiked mostly alone all day and took it really slow. My left knee was really bothering me on the downhills, but I toughed it out. We hit our first trail magic of North Carolina from former 2013 Thru Hikers Bamboo and Morning Kid. nothing like a delicious chili dog and PBR. After that we climbed up Jacobs Ladder which was an insane climb with non existent switch backs. I had to take a breather at Brown Fork Gap Shelter before continuing on to Cody Gap. Ended up camping with Butter and his dog Duck, Burl, Tree Beard, and Cyclopse.
Day 17: Cody Gap to Fontana Hilton
The hike into Fontana was pretty uneventful. The last downhill into Fontana was killer on my knees, but I knew that there was beer waiting for me at the bottom so I pushed through. When I got to Fontana we went up to the village to do some laundry, refuel, and pick up a package that my Mom had sent me. It ended up being a 14lb package. I took what I could use and carry, but had put a lot of stuff into the Hiker Box at the lodge. After that I got a shuttle back down to the shelter and enjoyed a few drinks with some new faces.
First day in the Great Smoky Mountains! It was all uphill as we climbed up to the ridge. The Appalachian Trail basically follows the ridge line of the Smokies and the border between NC/TN. Tennessee is typically everything on the left side of the trail and North Carolina is everything on the right. The first day in the Smokies was unfortunately uneventful besides Shuckstack firetower which was pretty sketchy with rotting floor boards. Made it to the shelter around 2:30 and rested my knee the rest of the day.
Day 19: Mollies Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter
Today was a pretty awesome day. My knees hurt, but I didn't even care. The forest changed dramatically from yesterday. It had an air of mystery about it. The views from Rocky Top and Thunderhead mountains were absolutely incredible. Nice and open balds with views for miles and miles. In the Smokies we are required to stay in the shelters because of bears. However, non thru hikers are allowed to make reservations and if they show up the thru hikers need to get out of the shelter and tent. The shelter was absolutely packed with thru hikers that night. We were all settled in when a group of six section hikers showed up. We packed about 10 people on the bottom and made room for them on the top bunk, the shelter is only supposed to hold 12. After we made room the section hikers decided they were going to push onto the next shelter. We warned them of nasty storms that were about to roll in, but they pushed on regardless.
Day 20: Derrick Knob Shelter to Mt Collins Shelter
The morning started off pretty wild. At 7 this morning people from one shelter behind us came running into our shelter saying that one of the section hikers came to their shelter at 4 am showing signs of hypothermia and had become separated from the other hikers. We gave them our water, a stove, and some dry clothes. They notified the park service and a search party was sent out. They ended up locating the hikers and had to airlift two of them off of the mountain and to the hospital, one was in critical condition. After that the rest of the day was pretty awesome. The views were expansive and the forest had changed again as we made our way higher in elevation. It smelt like Christmas all morning with all of the conifer trees. The fog lifted off of the top of Clingmans Dome (the highest point on the AT) as I began my climb up. The trees were caked in windswept ice from the storm and it was amazing. Pretty crazy to have a day go from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Day 21: Mt Collins Shelter To Newfound Gap
Hiked 5 miles from the shelter into the gap to meet my parents. It was awesome to see them. They took some hiker friends and myself down into Gatlinburg for some R&R. They are bona-fide Trail Angels now. They ended up getting a hotel room for two nights for myself and 3 other hikers. I am truly blessed to have such amazing parents. Tree Beard and Burl were absolutely blown away with the magic. It was really good to be able to spend some time with my family.
Day 22: Gatlinburg, TN
After some not so hard convincing from my parents I decided to take a zero today. Spent most of the day walking around town taking in the immense culture shock. To put it lightly, this is an interesting place to people watch. Tomorrow I will hitch a ride back to Newfound Gap and continue on my way north.