Appalachian Trail: Fontana Dam to Hot Springs
Day 23 - Fontana Dam Shelter to Mollie's Ridge Shelter.
12.1 miles. 37,268 steps. 485 flights of stairs climbed. 4,029 calories burned.
First day in the Smoky Mountains! The AT thru-hiker permit allowed us to stay for up to 7 nights in the park, but stealth camping is not allowed. In fact camping is only allowed if shelters are full, and then you're meant to camp next to the shelter. So we had to carefully plan our itinerary for the next week.
The climb up into the mountains went on for 4 miles. Despite my sore and swollen ankle I managed this well and enjoyed most of the day. The sun helped alot!
The first campsite in the Smokies was closed due to 'aggressive bear activity'. We had been told that bears had been ripping peoples tents open to get food and had stolen a couple of backpacks. This is why we hang bear bags, so there is nothing in the tent that smells enticing. Unfortunately these 'aggressive' bears will get moved away from their homes, tagged and then put down if they ever get caught again. We have met a few people who don't hang their food and it has really irritated us. As we have been told many times, a fed bear is a dead bear!
Just before lunch we found another fire tower. This one didn't excite me, it terrified me! It was really tall and involved climbing a metal staircase that had huge gaps between the railings with ridiculously high winds blowing through. The room at the top had a wooden floor which was rotting away and little rattly windows that didn't close. It didn't feel safe at all and my fight or flight system kicked in, telling me to get down and run away. Getting back down was worse than going up and I had to keep stopping to let the wind stop. Chris was remarkably calm given that he's the one usually afraid of heights.
The rest of the day was uneventful and the shelter was full, so we were allowed to camp. Shelters are usually noisy and full of mice. We much prefer our tent!
Best part of the day - before we entered the Smokies we got to cross over Fontana Dam. We've never walked across a dam before so that was pretty cool! It had awesome views down the river too.
Worst part - by the time we got to the shelter my ankle had swollen so much that I couldn't get my camp shoes on. Ibuprofen helped alot.
Day 24 - Mollie's Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter.
12.2 miles. 38,963 steps. 395 flights of stairs climbed. 4,073 calories burned.
The first half of the day was definitely easier than the second. The second half involved climbing up and over Thunderhead Mountain. Loose shingles do not make for a comfortable decent! By the time we got to the shelter our ankles were very sore and my legs were seizing up.
During the walk we spotted a few deer. One wandered past us through a meadow when we had stopped for lunch. It looked at us for a while, but didn't speed up.
Best part of the day - the views from Thunderhead Mountain were pretty incredible.
Worst part - the last climb up to the shelter made my legs feel wobbly. We had used up all our energy and were desperate to eat then lie down.
Day 25 - Derrick Knob Shelter to Double Spring Shelter.
7.4 miles. Fitbit died so we lost the rest of the data.
Really heavy rain all night and all morning. We had heard the temperature was going to drop below freezing later in the day, so we planned a short day to try and get into a shelter.
We slept in and tried to pack everything we could in the tent to keep it dry. Luckily the rain eased off a little once we started walking, although it never fully stopped. The wind remained high all day.
The last mile was horrendous. There was a downpour and we got completely drenched. By the time we reached the shelter, we were freezing and soaked through. I didn't care that there were people there, I stripped off my wet clothes and got dressed into dry camp clothes. A guy called Sparrow who we had met a few times, had gotten the fire going and made space for us to hang our wet clothes over it. We put our boots next to the fire in the hopes they'd dry out by morning.
The temperature started to drop rapidly and we all got into our sleeping bags. There weren't many of us in the shelter. Chris and I, Sparrow, a girl called Reggie, Booga Bear, Yaa and two section hikers.
Best part of the day - eating dinner by the fire. It was nice to be warm.
Worst part - the last hour of the hike was awful. I had wet mud sloshing around in my boots and my feet went numb.
Day 26 - Double Spring Shelter to Newfound Gap.
10.5 miles. 35,209 steps. 282 flights of stairs climbed. 3,642 calories burned.
Woke up after a bad nights sleep and the sounds of people snoring, to 5 inches of snow outside. I needed to go out to use the privy and it was so cold! On my way back I went to get our food bag from the bear cables and it was frozen solid. I had to breathe on the clip to defrost it before I could get the bag off.
All the clothes we had been trying to dry had frozen solid. Our boots were still wet, but at least hadn't frozen. Our backpacks were also frozen. We decided that as we should be in town later that evening, we would just wear our dry camp clothes and insulated layers. Normally it's best not to hike in insulated jackets as they get sweaty and damp inside, ruining the insulation later in the evening. Today we had no other option. It was far too cold for wet and frozen clothing.
The walk was horrible. The beauty of the snow soon wore off as we got colder and colder, but we hiked as fast as we could to get to town. We didn't even stop to filter water because we were both too cold. We were running out of food too, as we had planned to resupply in Gatlinburg the next day.
As we reached Newfound Gap where we were hoping to hitch a ride to Gatlinburg, we were met with a very worrying sight. No cars and two stranded hikers. The road was closed. Apparently it had been closed since the following night, but no-one had thought to warn the hikers.
Needing the loo and hoping to find some running water, I headed to the bathroom. There was no running water, which was annoying. As I came out of the bathroom I could hear Chris chatting to people in the men's. It turned out that several other thru-hikers were stranded without food and had hidden in there for warmth. We joined them and made the decision to sleep there. The next shelter was too far and we were hoping the road would reopen the next day.
More and more hikers joined us until there were 12 in total. We shared food and boiled snow to get water. Eventually, we blew up our sleeping pads and arranged ourselves around the urinals so we could all fit in to sleep.
Best part of the day - the snow looked beautiful for about 10 minutes. Then it became a drag.
Worst part - the cold.
Day 27 - Newfound Gap to Gatlinburg.
One of the hikers in the bathroom with us snored SO loudly all night. It sounded like a growling bear. No one else slept apart from him.
One of the girls who was attempting an ultralight triple crown of America's three long distance hikes, the AT, PCT and CDT, ran out to speak to the rangers at the car park. They told her the road would reopen in a couple of hours, so we killed some time by boiling snow and brewing coffee. It made the bathrooms smell alot nicer.
We realised the road had opened when a day hiker came into the bathroom and did a double-take as he spotted us all on the floor. We ran out to be greated by a free shuttle into Gatlinburg. It was wonderful. I had never felt so excited to get to town.
Gatlinburg was amazing. A weird bubble of tourist attractions, restaurants, shops and wooden chalets. As we got off the shuttle we bumped into Yelp, Sunshine, her new friend Forgiven, Fuego & Squeak, Dragon & Annie, Pistol & Pinch, Not My Truck and loads more people we had met along the way. It seemed that everyone else had been stuck off the trail while we were stuck on it.
We decided to share a hotel with Yelp and got a great deal. Sunshine and Forgiven joined us for lunch and then showed us around. We found out that Sunshine's sister Sketti had gone home following a really bad asthma attack, which was a shame. She was such a lovely girl! I showered, did laundry and then we washed everything in the bathtub in our room.
That evening we met up with the others and all went to dinner at Bennets BBQ. It was tasty, but the portion was way too big for me!
Best part of the day - absolutely loved being in Gatlinburg. Although it's a weird tourist vortex, its so cute and has some great sweet shops!
Worst part - not having enough money to shop for sweets. It would be way too easy to blow our budget here.
Day 28 - Gatlinburg to Icewater Spring Shelter.
3.1 miles. 25,300 steps. 166 flights of stairs climbed. 3,441 calories burned.
Yelp, Chris and I were up really early as we had planned to meet the others for an early breakfast. Everyone else had been drinking moonshine the day before though so were not on schedule. This didn't bother us at it gave us more time to pack and use the wifi. Eventually everyone arrived at our motel and we headed out for breakfast. We went back to Bennet's BBQ for their breakfast buffet. It was awesome. Waffles, biscuits, BBQ meats, eggs, pancakes and lots of fresh fruit.
We agreed with the group that we would all head to Ice Water Spring Shelter to stay. For Chris and I, that meant hiking just over 3 miles from Newfound Gap, which had been our plan anyway as we needed to resupply. Some of the group had to return to Clingman's Dome and hike from there though, so set of earlier to get a 7 mile start. With our time left in Gatlinburg, we went to the Nantahala Outdoor Centre (which had a swing bridge and climbing wall!), got the tourist trolley to Food City for our resupply, and went to the Post Office to send some post cards.
It's illegal to hitch hike from within Gatlinburg, but 100 yards up the road its OK. It took us about 30 minutes to hitch a lift back to Newfound Gap. It was weird returning to the gap to see that all the snow had melted and the car park was full of people. The hike was all uphill to the shelter and was a little tiring with a full load of food. The shelter was completely full when we arrived and there were barely any spaces to camp. Dragon and Annie were there already and had bagged spaces in the shelter. We sat next to Anne and Wizard on the grass and spread our stuff out next to them to save some tent space. It was really hot and sunny so a lot of people were picnicking on the grass. After about 30 minutes, Yelp, Sunshine and Forgiven arrived. Fuego and Squeak didn't arrive for another hour; they were obviously quite hungover.
Best part of the day - breakfast was amazing. The food was delicious and it was nice to spend time with everyone again.
Worst part - hitch hiking. It feels so awkward and after 20 minutes we were starting to wonder how much longer we would have to wait.
Day 29 - Icewater Spring Shelter to Tricorner Shelter.
12.8 miles. 38,465 steps. 358 flights of stairs climbed. 4,060 calories burned.
The walking was fairly easy today, remaining at high elevation and passing along mountain ridges. However Chris and I had an argument, which left us both in a bad mood and talking about quiting. After a couple of hours of silent hiking we made up and arrived at camp earlier than usual. It appears I'm much quicker when angry.
At camp we didn't socialise with anyone else, we just put our tent up, made cups of tea and listened to a podcast. The temperature had dropped dramatically during the day and we wore everything we had to bed to keep ourselves warm.
Best part of the day - we started at Charlie's Bunion, which is a really cool rock that hangs over a huge drop. We climbed up to take pictures, but didn't stay for long because it was quite windy and lots of people were fighting for space.
Worst part - today was the first time I wanted to quit. It didn't last long though.
Day 30 - Tricorner shelter to 'cascade and camping'.
17.2 miles. 46,536 steps. 205 flights of stairs climbed. 4,218 calories burned.
Woke up freezing cold. Putting the tent away was horrible. Everything was frozen, including the baby wipes that had been next to my head.
Hiking across sheets of ice and frozen streams was really challenging and we both skidded several times. Chris started sliding in front of me and I suddenly halted, but didn't stop. I slid forwards trying to use my poles to maintain balance, but they slid too and I ended up falling straight onto both knees. Luckily I didn't injure myself, just some bruises. As we descended in elevation, everything melted and it got a lot warmer. We caught up with Fuego & Squeak, Yelp, Dragon & Annie, and all hiked together for the last half of the day.
We descended for over 6 miles and hiked really fast to finally get out of the Smoky Mountains. As soon as we left the Smokies the terrain drastically changed and it felt like we were on a new hike. The trail turned dry and dusty with little round bushes, then became greener and more tropical-looking again. We eventually arrived at an area where we could all stealth camp next to some water cascades. It was a beautiful spot.
Best part of the day - leaving the Smokies and suddenly being surrounded by greenery and lots of purple flowers.
Worst part - the first hour of the day was well below freezing and my hands were hurting as I packed up.
Day 31 - 'cascade and camping' to Brown Gap.
11.2 miles. 39,776 steps. 454 flights of stairs climbed. 4,680 calories burned.
Didn't get to sleep particularly early because Fuego and Dragon were talking by the fire for a while and my muscles were aching, which kept my mind occupied.
Quick resupply at Standing Bear Hostel. They had alot of snacks, but most had dairy in so there wasn't much I could eat. The hostel was beautiful, but there was a weird hippy-vibe and lots of people smoking cannabis around a fire at 10am. There had been a hiker party the night before and everyone seemed to be hanging around still. We got going as quickly as possible as we knew there was alot of climbing to do.
Straight after the hostel the climb began. 4,500ft, the equivalent of climbing Mount Snowdon several in a row. It was tough. I have no idea how people would hike that on a hangover. Lunch was spent by a pretty water source and then we hiked with Yelp, Fuego & Squeak, Dragon & Annie, Sunshine and Forgiven for most of the afternoon. They wanted to camp on Max Patch, but we didn't want to camp with the bubble and thought it would be too windy on a mountain top. Chris and I decided to stop at Brown Gap and camp down below the road. It was a little creepy.
Best part of the day - we received two lots of trail magic today! Once on top of Snowbird Mountain (a couple giving out drinks and crisps), and then a mum and her two daughters giving out lunch bags at Brown Gap. They were waiting for the dad and son to hike past and gave me a vegan bag with fresh strawberries and carrots in. It was amazing. I had been talking about having cravings for fresh carrots only an hour before.
Worst part - the climbing was intense and there was barely any shade all day.
Day 32 - Brown Gap to Kale Gap.
10.3 miles. 34,534 steps. 278 flights of stairs climbed. 3,773 calories burned.
Last night was scary. We heard a man come to his car, drive a tiny way, stop and then rummage around for ages in his boot. Eventually he left, then returned an hour or two later and set up camp. We had been listening to a Podcast about serial killers, which made us paranoid. It was also a creepy looking area and there were loads of critters wandering around our tent in the night. Probably mice.
Awoke properly at sunrise and drank the cold brew coffee that Chris had made overnight, it was delicious! Then we packed up and hiked to the summit of Max Patch. It was a beautiful mountain with a grassy top, but it was windy and cold. We were glad we didn't camp there.
Hiked fairly fast and didn't see anyone else all day. Stealth camped again.
Best part of the day - waking up to birdsong that sounded like a radio being tuned. Very sci-fi sounding. It was really cool!
Worst part - nothing particularly bad happened, but we didn't get as far as we'd planned because Chris's feet were hurting.
Day 33 - Kale Gap to Hot Springs.
12.3 miles. 35,093 steps. 262 flights of stairs climbed. 4,297 calories burned.
High winds kept waking us up last night. We could hear trees creaking and cracking nearby. It was raining and horrible in the morning. We had planned to hike to within a mile of Hot Springs, then get a full day there tomorrow. But we were cold and wet, so hiked quickly to get to the hostel. We paid to camp in the Laughing Heart Hostel's grounds as it meant we could shower and use the kitchen. Wizard & Anne, Booga Bear and Yaa were also staying there.
We cooked fajitas in the kitchen and chilled with the other hikers in the evening. We also popped over the road to the cabin where Yelp, Fuego & Squeak, Dragon & Annie were staying to say hi, but didn't stay for long. They'd been in a slightly funny mood with us because we didn't want to share the cabin with them. We'd explained that we couldn't afford it, but they don't seem to understand how small out budget is. It was a really nice evening though and they'd found a couple of girls from New York to stay in their spare room.
Best part of the day - hanging out with some really cool people in the evening and being able to cook fresh food!
Worst part - the weather was rubbish all day.
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