Before dawn this morning we said our goodbyes to Willett. He was picked up to be kenneled while we move through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We packed up and followed the trail across the top of Fontana Dam. Yes, I’m wearing tights. They cut down on chafing.
As we ascended into the park, we came across a couple of very tame deer, the first that we have seen.
The terrain and trees have a different quality here. The trees are twisted, covered in lichen and often have dramatic hollows. Anne had to be goaded into posing with this specimen, as she suspected that it was occupied by creatures.
The park is much more regulated than any stretch we have hiked yet. We have to carry a “backcountry permit” and are required to sleep in the shelters. It is forbidden to use tents except in specific circumstances when the shelter is full of non-thruhikers. There are warnings of bear activity and hanging our food and even toiletries is required. These rules are meant to preserve the wilderness, but oddly, this section of the trail allows horses. We haven’t seen any but we have been dodging their traces on the trail all day.
Luckily, the shelters here are very nice. They are constructed of stone and even have fireplaces, which we took advantage of. It was great to warm up with our fellow hikers, out of the wind and cold.
The morning brought heavy, wet fog, typical for the Smokies and I suppose how they got their name. We got our first view of Rocky Top as the rising sun dispersed the clouds.
The view from the summit of Rocky Top, as the weather got better for views and hiking. We heard however that rain and freezing temperatures were forecasted for later this week, so we have extended our daily mileage to hopefully escape the worst of it and get back to Willett a day sooner.
A stone on top of Thunderhead Mountain engraved by early hikers.
Today we climbed Clingmans Dome, above 6,600 feet and the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. As we got higher the forests transitioned to evergreens and patches of snow were sometimes in the trail.
We climbed a lookout tower at the top. The panoramic view was incredible.
The descent was very wet and treacherous and we were exhausted and nearly out of daylight when we arrived at the next shelter. It was already over capacity, so we were able to tent nearby, which we were grateful for because twenty hikers in a small space creates a really ripe smell.
The weather today was ideal, and the twenty mile stretch of trail we covered was varied and beautiful. We started in a dark and damp pine forest and filled our water bottles from this perfect cold spring, which gushed from a cracked rock.
There were a number of huge trees that lost their grip on the earth near the trail.
We heard the Smokies have an unbelievable diversity of fungi, but it may have been too early to see much of it.
We reached a major road crossing at Newfound Gap, which was bustling with sightseers from nearby Gatlinburg. The Tennessee – North Carolina state line is here, but we have been nearly following it for days on this section of the trail. A former thruhiker was waiting at the parking area here with fresh apples and sodas for hungry hikers.
We hiked up the way to Charlie’s Bunion, a rocky outcrop with great views.
In the afternoon we left behind the damp forest and came to a drier, scrubby region with a clean piney scent in the air. Views were abundant as we walked along rocky spines and ridges. The shelter was packed with hikers again, and we tented our last night in the park. Tomorrow we hope to finish eighteen miles before the rains start.
The day started overcast and we were excited to leave behind the Smokies, get back to Willett and mostly not get wet, so we hiked quickly. We paused for a few snacks and lunch, but not many photos. The terrain was mostly easy and we spent many miles in gentle descent. The woods returned to the character it had before we reached higher climes.
A few miles before we reached the hostel that was boarding Willett, the trail followed a stream. In one place, half a hollow log was channeling the water over a falls.
Willett was overjoyed to see us when we arrived. We all celebrated with frozen pizza and box wine. I wish I could convey how wonderful it was.
We were happy to be under a roof when torrential rain and lightning started moments later. Unfortunately, we slept poorly, having tried to hand wash our stinky clothes and finding the old fashioned wringer and an aging dryer inadequate to dry them before bedtime. Our next stop is Hot Springs, NC, where we are hoping for a hot shower, clean clothes and a good night’s sleep