Let’s see…where did we leave off? We left the B&B in Robbinsville and finally had a beautiful day to hike, starting with a six hundred foot climb in less than half a mile called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (think the bipedal version of Lombard Street in San Fransisco). The next day was rainy and we needed to catch the shuttle to Fontana Lodge to check for Shane’s package, which had not yet arrived. Well we were already there, and they had a restaurant, so of course we stayed for lunch. And then we overheard some other hikers discussing an upcoming storm with supposed gale force winds and golf ball-sized hail. Well we were already there, and they had cheap rates for thru hikers! We got a room in the lodge, which was fancy by our standards, and waited out the storm.
The next day we crossed Fontana Dam and officially entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which includes a 75 mile section of the AT that requires a permit and must be completed within 8 days. There’s only one official camp site within this area, and otherwise hikers are required to stay in shelters. You are only allowed to set up your tent if the shelter is full, which it always was, with one exception. At Spence Field Shelter we arrived before the shelter was full, and slept in it with about ten other people, side by side in our sleeping bags on two levels of wooden bunks like we were kids at summer camp.
Back when the AT was less popular than it is today, I imagine most people slept in the shelters along the way. I’ve read that some hikers did not even carry tents because they could always rely on sleeping in a shelter. These days that is no longer the case. Every shelter we’ve been to has been full, with many people setting up tents where there didn’t used to be campsites. Sleeping in shelters is more convenient than tenting because you don’t have to pack up much in the mornings, and if it rains, you don’t get wet! Some shelters, especially in the smokies where it’s usually cold, even have fireplaces built in and tarps hung as a fourth wall, which is cozy. It’s a more social atmosphere than tenting, which some people enjoy. However, more people in a tight space also means more noise, which is why I prefer to sleep in my tent. During our one night in the shelter I woke up every time someone snored, rolled over, or got up in the middle of the night. Plus, shelters have a reputation for attracting mice that may chew on your gear, and we even passed one infested with five- to six-foot long black snakes writhing beneath the floor of the shelter, presumably feeding on those very mice.
Hikers seem to be divided into two camps (pun intended): those who prefer tenting and those who prefer shelters, if they can get into a site early enough to claim a place in one. Regardless of preference, hikers this year are acknowledging one thing in common: shelters and campsites are consistently filled beyond capacity. Bear bag lines are weighed down with hundreds of pounds of food, likely putting them within reach of most bears. Privies are filling too quickly to compost properly. When good tent spaces are taken, tents are put up in new, virgin areas, mashing down grasses and wildflowers to make room for more people. Even in the backcountry, there is still overcrowding. There are many volunteers who work hard to make these sites and the trail safe and comfortable places for hikers, and I’m sure they too are perplexed by this dilemma. Of course it’s great that so many people are showing an increased interest in the parks, the trail, and in appreciating nature in general, but when does the influx of visitors impede the wildness of the wilderness?
GSMNP is the most visited of all national parks, so it makes sense that there are more regulations here than for any other portion of the AT. Shelters had signs saying bears had caused injuries and death in this area, so we made sure to follow all of the guidelines designating where we could cook and eat, so as not to leave any traces or smells of food near our tent. We also saw lots of signs saying ‘keep bears wild’ because the issue with bear attacks is not that black bears are vicious human-seeking creatures by nature. Rather, humans have entered their habitats so often and left so much trash and food waste that the bears have learned that humans are a source of food. I learned a lot about the parks system and about the effects of human interference while in the smokies, which has made me really appreciate Leave No Trace practices and efforts by park employees and volunteers to keep the parks wild.
We really did have a wonderful time in the Smokies. The park is actually considered a temperate rainforest and averages 55 inches of rain annually, but fortunately we did not see any! We had great weather the entire time, cold but bright and sunny, which allowed us to experience the best views of the mountains. We hiked through pine forests and grassy balds, and experienced the peak of wildflower season. At first glance it appeared as though a light dusting of snow covered the forest floor, but upon closer examination, one could see that thousands of tiny white and pink striped wild flowers, called spring beauties, were blooming in unison. There were trillium in varying shades of pink, white, and wine red, yellow buttercups, violet dwarf irises, pink lady slippers, and tiny bluets everywhere, blanketing the ground. Spring had sprung in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Shortly after entering the park, we summited Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in elevation on the entire trail, at 6,655 feet. We arrived from the trail while tourists walked the paved approach from the parking lot huffing and puffing about how steep it was. If only they knew!
At Newfound Gap we were greeted with trail magic in the form of sandwiches and a ride into Gatlinburg from some very kind ladies from Noah’s Ark Widow’s Ministry. The town was much different than I recalled from my childhood. It was almost as if the boardwalk from Myrtle Beach had been plucked from the beach and nestled between the Smokies instead. It was the antithesis of the trail: swarms of tourists crowding the sidewalks, t-shirt shops, bars blaring country music, candy stores, moonshine tasting tours, putt-putt courses, and about two hundred places where you could have your photo taken while wearing old-fashioned clothes and poised with a plastic revolver in front of a saloon backdrop. It was overwhelming after having been in the woods for so long. The only trees visible from the main strip were miles off in the distance. Where were the chipmunks and the wildflowers? Didn’t people visit this area to see the scenery? The raw beauty of the mountains seemed to be lost on the tourists.
The one thing we could not find in Gatlinburg was a grocery store to resupply. We ended up having to take the last trolley of the evening (yes, they also have trolleys) to a store miles away and walking back to our hotel after dark and carrying arm loads of food for the upcoming week of hiking. When all was said and done, we’d probably walked over ten miles throughout the day. So much for our Nero day. We were more exhausted than when we’d arrived in town, and decided to stay another night for only our second actual zero day of the entire trip.
The second day was much more relaxing than the first. We showed a breakfast buffet who was boss (is four plates of biscuits and gravy too many?) and even caved in to the tourist atmosphere and played mini golf alongside the visitors. We only got a few sideways glances at our hobo-esque baggy, permanently dirt-stained hiking clothes.
Back on the trail, we prepared to amp up our mileage, traveling out of the smokies and nearly 70 miles in the next five days. We had increased our daily average to 14 miles per day, which was a big improvement from the 8 we averaged in our first couple of weeks.
On our way to Max Patch we ran into trail magic from a blues band called The Accomplices, comprised of some thru hikers from 2008. They were visiting the upcoming trail town of Hot Springs, NC for a music festival and had food and beer from their hometown of Savannah. It was a grand party, where we stayed for over an hour catching up with hikers, eating, drinking, and listening to the band play. Then on to Max Patch, which is a grassy bald with a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains. It would’ve been a beautiful place to camp for the night, but we decided to push onward a few more miles so that we could make it into Hot Springs a day ahead of schedule.
And here we are! We were lucky to get a room at Laughing Heart Hostel, considering most every place was booked on account of the music festival. For those of you keeping track, we’ve now hiked 274.4 miles, which leaves only 1914.8 to go!