Mon 31 May 2010
Appalachian Trail Trip
I had been dreaming of hiking the Appalachian Trail for some time. Even as a youth in Boy Scouts, I knew of the AT and thought it would be great to hike some portion of it. Finally, I was able to spend a week on the trail and cover the first 85 miles or so. I am certainly ready to do more in the future if possible. For this trip, it was Jana and I and our son, Nate. In the future, we may take the whole family!
After much anticipation and planning, we met Ron and Meriam, who would shuttle us to Springer Mountain. Ron has been a great friend for many years, and graciously agreed to give up most of his day to get us to the start of the AT. We drove to where USFS 42 crosses the AT at mile 0.9. We were dropped off about 5 PM on Monday the 24th and started hiking to the official start of the AT. We enjoyed the view from the top of Springer, took some photos, and turned around to start our 85 mile section hike. The trail was in good shape, and we had a good pace. Those first few miles had a good grade with few rocks. I ate a Coffee House bar as part of my BackpackGearTest.org testing sequence of the Olympic Granola bars. We stopped at mile 5.1 to see Long Creek Falls at around 7:50 PM, having covered a total of 6 miles in about 3 hours. We decided to camp not far from the falls. We decided to take the Tarptent, since it would hold all 3 of us on the trip. I was also testing a ULA Ohm backpack and Bridgedale bamboo socks. We had Ramen noodles for dinner, which rehydrate rather quickly. Although it had rained hard when driving to the trail, we did not get any rain while hiking or during the night. We camped by ourselves among the giant hemlock trees. I have read a lot about the AT, so I did have some idea of the level of difficulty. Here on day 1, it was actually easier than I had expected, but I knew the trail would not be this easy for long.
We awoke the next morning, Tuesday May 25th, at about 6:15 AM. The temperature was as low as 60 that night. I ate a Honey Almond bar for breakfast, along with our Starbucks Via coffee – great stuff for backpacking. We packed up and left by 7:50 PM. We visited Hawk Mountain Shelter for a quick picture, and then continued hiking. We also ran across an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake that morning as it was crossing the trail. We had lunch at Justus Creek, and enjoyed nice views from Ramrock Mountain. We crossed the highway at Woody Gap and took a quick break there. We filled up on water and there were some decent bathrooms at the highway crossing. We started our steep climb up and over Big Cedar Mountain. We took a blue blaze trail to a fantastic overlook with a large rock area, a fire ring, and plenty of grass for a tent site. Side trails from the AT are marked with blue blazes, while the AT itself it marked with white blazes. It did not appear that this area had gotten much use, even though it was not far from the main trail. We arrived at the overlook about 6:30 PM around mile 21.3 and decided that was enough for the day, having hike 16.2 miles. We saw about 10 people that day. Most would briefly say hello as we passed, but a few would stop for a moment to chat. There was nearly a full moon, giving us wonderful light for the evening. Most interesting however, was the arrival of two dogs, both spaniels. They ran around camp and checked us out. One wore a collar, but neither had tags. We kept expecting an owner to arrive to claim them, but they seemed content to stay at our campsite. The were well-mannered, and laid down in the grass near our tent to sleep for the night. Sometime during the night, the dogs awoke and started barking. They seemed to chase after something in the woods, and the next morning, both were gone, perhaps having protected us from some unknown animal.
Our plan for Wednesday May 26th was to hike to Neels Gap. We had arranged for a cabin there, knowing that we could easily cover the 30 or so miles from Springer in just over two days. It was a great night last night, with the temperature down to about 60 degrees. We stopped at Jarrard Gap for water at a spring. No camping was allowed in the area from Jarrard to Neels Gaps due to bear activity. It was a big climb up Blood Mountain, but we were treated to a lot of rhododendrons that still had some blooms on them. We enjoyed fabulous views from a large rock on top of Blood Mountain where we also ate lunch. We pulled out our map and compass and were pretty sure that we could identify Springer in the distance. We arrived at Neels Gap about 1:40 PM after hiking the 9.4 miles from our last camp, having left at 7:30 AM. My snacks today were Lemon Chamomile and Mocha Mint granola bars. We took the trail from near the Mountain Crossings parking lot through the woods to Blood Mountain Cabins. We rented the chipmunk cabin that had two beds, a bathroom, and a kitchen. We walked back to the Walasi-Yi at Mountain Crossings to resupply our food and for ice cream! It was good stuff, especially after the 80 degree day. We walked back to the cabins to purchase soda, snacks, and frozen pizza for dinner that night. The food and shower were very refreshing.
We left Blood Mountain Cabins on Thursday morning May 27th around 6:45 AM. We knew this would be a longer day, so we started early. We finished off our cold pizza for breakfast on the way back to the AT. We passed a couple of tents at Bull Gap, and had a good pace starting out that morning. We ate lunch at Low Gap Shelter around 12:45 PM, and had more good hiking after lunch. The trail was a bit more rocky as we neared Blue Mountain. We had planned to camp beyond Unicoi Gap, but did not see any mention of decent campsites close by. We called the Best Western in Helen, which was listed in the AT Companion as possibly having a free shuttle. They quoted a $45 / night hiker rate along with a free shuttle, so we opted to do that. We arrived at the highway at 5:50 PM, having covered 20.2 miles that day. We were picked up at Unicoi Gap – watch out crossing the highway there, it can be dangerous! Carol even brought us bottles of water when she came to pick us up. The room and motel were very nice. We showered, washed clothes, and Nate enjoyed the pool. We went ahead and made our Ramen noodle dinner in the hotel microwave, since we had carried the food with us. We walked around town for German food and chocolate. Helen is a Bavarian style town, and is certainly reminiscent of a town in the Alps. It turns out that the town was not German styled at all until the late 60s or so, when the town voted to change their entire look in order to attract tourism and business. It seems to have worked for them.
Friday was a leisurely morning. Carol could not take us back to the trail until 10:30 or so. We decided not to get a taxi and just wait for her to be available. We were back on the trail around 10:45 AM. We passed a ‘ridgerunner’ who told us to avoid Tray Mountain shelter due to a moocher he had run into earlier. From the AT Conservancy website: “Ridgerunners and caretakers are generally seasonal employees assigned to hike and camp along high-use sections of the A.T. or to remain at heavily used overnight sites. The ridgerunner and caretaker program helps promote a quality recreational trail experience by talking to visitors about the A.T. and its intended primitive experience, its location, regulations, and traditions, as well as ways they can minimize their impact on the Trail.” Tray Mountain was quite overgrown and not what we expected. We did have lunch up on Tray Mountain, just past the summit. The views there were minimal. Our knees were feeling weary, probably due to the big miles and climbs of the day before. It was a tough day emotionally as well, but those are to be expected on an extended hike. We passed about 12 boys and a few adult leaders near Dicks Creek Gap. We stopped around 7:15 PM for the night near Moreland Gap. We covered 15.4 miles in about 8.5 hours. There was some lightning to the east, but nothing too close yet. There were a lot of fireflies out for the first time on our trip, and they were very enjoyable to watch as it got dark.
We woke up Saturday, May 29th to a temperature of about 58 degrees. This was going to be our last day of hiking, as Ron would pick us up at Deep Gap later today. We did get some rain the previous night, but it was no longer raining when we got up at 6 AM. We were packed and gone by 7:05, even after breakfast and coffee, so we were getting quicker. I used a light load towel to dry the tent before packing it away, and this worked quite well. It was foggy and damp when we left. We filled up with water at a stream just below our camp on the AT. I had a Coffee Mocha bar for my morning snack. We crossed US 76 at Dicks Creek, and there were a lot of cars there in the parking lot already. The skies did start to clear as we hiked that morning. We crossed the NC/GA state line and continued on to Bly Gap for lunch. We had lunch near the gnarled oak tree – you will know it when you see it. We did pass a scout troop from Georgia that were out hiking to get ready for Philmont. The climb north out of Bly Gap was very tough, perhaps the toughest climb so far on the trail. It was also a tougher afternoon than we had expected, as the trail was very rocky for much of the time. We met Ron at Deep Gap at 4:35 PM, which was still about on schedule. We covered 17 miles this last day in about 9 hours – still a good pace for us.
We made a stop on the way back to Knoxville for dinner, and enjoyed visiting with Ron and family during the couple of hours driving back. We all did well, although it was painful at times on the legs and knees. A very big thank you to my wonderful wife Jana, who was such a good sport in coming along for this AT hike. She is awesome!
I would like to return to the trail in the future. As long as we avoid 20+ mile days, at least on these shorter trips, I think we would be less fatigued. The trail was similar to what I had expected. After hiking the Ouachita and Ozark mountains in Arkansas, we had a good feel for what the trail would be like. Although the climbs were sometimes longer on the AT, the vistas and trail quality were quite similar. I did enjoy the fact that nearly every stream had a log or bridge to cross on, unlike the Arkansas trails. This kept us from having to take off shoes or get them wet when crossing. For more information on the trail, visit the AT Conservancy website.