Over the long weekend of June 17 – 20, 2010, Kelly Pipes, Hank Perkins and Bob Laney backpacked the Appalachian Trail in the southwestern half of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, from the dam at Lake Fontana to US 441 at Newfound Gap. Thanks to Kelly and Hank for planning the trip. I invited myself to tag along as training for a trip we all are taking with several other guys to Glacier National Park this coming September.
We covered about 41 miles, averaging a little under 14 miles / day. We went from southwest to northeast, which is more uphill than downhill. Our net altitude gain was about 3,400 feet. But the total altitude gain (the amount climbed, counting all the down hills and going back up again), according to Hank’s GPS altimeter, was a whopping 11,500 feet. I thought we had it rough, covering that distance and altitude over three full days. Then a few weeks later I ran into Dwight Levi, who had just made the same trip a week or so after we did, with Stan Treski, another hike fanatic, and they covered it in TWO days! Those guys are tough!
Anyway, late Thursday evening (nearly midnight) we ran our shuttle, leaving Kelly’s SUV at Newfound Gap trail end while we carpooled in Hank’s Jeep to the trailhead. Hank is the highway GPS guru and did all our road navigating. We stayed at the Fontana Dam shelter on the A. T. for what was left of Thursday night.
Friday morning we were up before dawn and had a nice breakfast at the picnic tables overlooking the dam upper parking lot. About sunrise we crossed the dam and looked down the vertiginously steep western side of the dam to the river downstream. Then we headed up into the green hills of the Smokies. The weather was uncharacteristically dry: a few quick thunder showers on two mid-afternoons. Still, the southern Appalachian mountains had their way with the dampness – we were in fog or haze a number of times, and the humidity felt like it was near 100% the whole trip.
We soon started seeing wildlife, including woodpeckers, frogs, squirrels, rabbits, deer and many butterflies. The wild flowers were also in peak form. The mountain laurel and rhododendron were in full bloom. The flame azalea was as thick and bright as I have seen anywhere in my life.
Did I mention wildlife? After lunch on Friday, when we approached the Mollies Ridge Shelter, Hank alertly spotted a black bear. It was wandering the grounds under the steel food hanging cables, where somebody had left some peanut butter suspended a frustrating 15 feet in the air. I stayed in the rear. Hank and Kelly bravely moved to various vantage points and took some close up photos. Eventually all four of us moved on our separate ways.
All day Friday was mostly steady climbing. That evening we made it to Russell Field Shelter, where the spent the night with a northbound A. T. through-hiker (going from Georgia to Maine in one long trip), and several southbound multi-day hikers. They were all nice guys and interesting conversationalists. We traded stories about gear and food preferences, prior trips, future trips, politics and weather.
Saturday morning we traversed the famous Spence Field - a long, grassy bald on the crest of the Smokey Mountains that is being slowly reclaimed by small trees, brush and flowers. Then we climbed an equally famous mountain, Rocky Top, Tennessee. For the name sake of a popular country song, it was disappointingly small and easy to traverse. Kelly and Hank are map and GPS experts. They frequently consulted their paper and electronic data to keep us on track. Not only could they tell where we had been, and where we were supposed to go, but magically, they could tell how far and how much up or downhill from where we were at the moment to the end of that segment. After a long, tough slog (for me… not for Kelly and Hank) we finally made it to our Saturday night resting place at Silers Bald Shelter.
We were beginning to get into the A T. through-hike culture. We saw and talked to several persons we had met or heard about along the way. Some items, like white gas stoves, ThermaRest sleeping pads and feather weight tents, are ubiquitous. But each hiker has his or her own unique combination of slightly oddball, personalized gear. You’ll see umbrellas, little wood burning stoves, signs about the coming Doom and plastic chairs. Hank and I made our standard freeze dried dinners with boiling water. Kelly had energy food packets and power bars. We checked the maps for the trail tomorrow. Then we hit the sleeping bags before full dark.
Sunday was another early start that was mostly consumed from start of hiking until noon with climbing the long, high mountain ridges to Clingmans Dome. The Dome at 6,643 feet altitude is the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail, and thus obviously the high spot on our trip.
After a windy, chilly lunch break in the observation tower, we set out to finish the trip. After a couple of miles, the trail swung adjacent to the public road. By that point my left calf was giving me fits. It was not fully cramped, but for two days it felt like it was trying to do so and hurt like heck. I bushwhacked though the trees down to the road and finished the trip with a seven mile hike on pavement. Kelly and Hank climbed several more small mountains and finished the hike on the trail.
We emerged from the mostly wooded, cool, shaded and empty A. T. into the asphalt, blasting hot, brightly sunny and packed crowded parking lot where US Highway 441 crosses the NC / Tennessee state line at Newfound Gap. Kelly car pooled us back to Hank’s Jeep at the Dam and we headed home. It was a great trip and a good time was had by all.