Our last update was from Standing Bear Farm. We had planned to hike out on Sunday, but I fell victim to a bottomless coffee pot and Gavin settled in by a fireplace with a quilt and a cat. Added to the less than optimal weather, we decided to stay a second night. Standing Bear was a great place to meet people and visit, and the hospitality was incredible. It was great to be indoors, especially with really low temperatures predicted. Our cabin was equipped with a gas fireplace which was great, except that there was a fine line between low and hades. Since Gavin and I were in the loft, we benefited most from the heat. Actually, Gavin fell right to sleep, but I lay on the bed in my skivies until after midnight trying to figure out how to fall asleep in the sweltering heat. Eventually, I had to get up and go outside to the privy, and a few minutes after, one of our cabin-mates did as well. I asked when she returned if we could please turn off the heat. I guess I could have just done it, but I didn’t want the other two folks to think I was trying to freeze them out. At any rate, we did turn the heater off and it started to cool down almost immediately. The cabin was built over the creek that runs through the hostel, and I noticed the next morning that there were places where you could see daylight between the floorboards. Around 4:30, I woke up again, this time wrapped up in my quilt trying to decide whether to risk climbing down the ladder and making noise trying to turn the heater back on. Again, fate was on my side because Jazz Hands got up and turned it on just before I was going to trek down. She was able to set the temperature to low instead of hades, and we slept well the rest of the night.
Now to get back to the week in question. On Monday we hiked out of Standing Bear about 11:00. Though we had planned a shorter day of 6.9 miles to Groundhog Creek Shelter, what we didn’t plan on was climbing 3,000 feet to the top of Snowbird Mountain in the first five miles. It was a really hard start to getting started again. We were able to have a nice lunch at the top of the mountain and we were both grateful that the rest of the day’s journey was downhill.
Part of the way up Snowbird, we met up with Wednesday, a hiker friend we’ve crossed paths with several times since our second week on the trail. She and Gavin hiked together most of the way up Snowbird, but she left ahead of us from our lunch break. We caught back up with her just before we arrived at the shelter. There we met two section hikers who had pitched their tent in the shelter. At least they were gracious enough to point out several tent sites nearby. Gavin was a bit disappointed because he prefers to stay in the shelters, but he made the best of the situation. I found a flat spot and set up my tent. A little later on, Wednesday and I were talking, and we decided that if it was us in their position, we’d like to be told that it is a major breech of shelter etiquette to put your tent inside. She broke the news, and they were glad to have learned. They pulled the tent out and set it up nearby and Gavin immediately moved in. Not much later, a couple from Germany, now known as Hansel and Gretel, came to the shelter to claim a spot for the night. I hope we didn’t offend the section hikers, but it is kind of crazy to fill up an entire 6-person shelter with a 2-person tent.
I would like to say we were up and out early the next morning, but that never happens. We had planned our first long day that week so that we could get on in to Hot Springs. It seems that no matter where we start, we wind up walking uphill for the first part of our day. It was no different on Tuesday. We climbed steadily to the peak of Max Patch, the first large bald on our trip. The weather was much the same as it was when we climbed Clingman’s Dome- not quite socked in, but cloudy nonetheless. We also experienced some blowing snow on the trip up, and the summit was windy and cold. We did take the time just off the peak to have lunch and talk with a few day hikers. We thought that the rest of the day would be downhill, but that would only have been the case if we were stopping at Roaring Fork Shelter. We did drop by for a rest, but we continued on to Walnut Mountain Shelter to finish a 13.1-mile day. Beth told me on the phone that night that I now qualify for a half-marathon sticker.
The water source at Walnut Mtn. Shelter was quite a distance away, so we were thankful to have enough left from our hike to make our supper. After a long day, I was glad to retire to the solitude of my tent. It was a good decision, because I learned the next morning that there was a huge snorer in the shelter. While Gavin was waking, I headed down to the water source and was able to harvest just enough to make my coffee. Fortunately, Gavin had enough water left to start our hike for the day and make it to a nearby stream on the trail so we set out. Once again, after a brief descent, we had quite a climb to make that morning. We were blessed that after clearing Bluff Mountain, the rest of our day was over fairly benign terrain past Deer Park Mountain Shelter to downtown Hot Springs. We settled into a hotel room at the Alpine Lodge to end a second 13.1-mile day. It is nice to be off our feet.
We have been quite comfortable in our room, though it was only after I had paid for the lodging that I learned that there is no WiFi here. I was able to edit some videos last night, and the library a few blocks down the street has great service. I’m sure I was able to get two, and maybe three, uploaded to be released over the next few days. We spent a bit of time today exploring the downtown area which, honestly, didn’t take too long. We have eaten well, and we have relaxed in the room. I spent a bit of time this afternoon planning our days for the coming week or so. We are hoping to be able to make it to Erwin, TN by Friday. I am proud to say that we don’t have any 13-mile days coming up in the next week!
On Friday, it was time to head back out on the trail, but we were moving slowly. We got out of the hotel around 10:00 to go back up to the restaurant for breakfast. Again, it was quite a treat. We saw several hikers there, many of whom were just getting into town. After returning to the hotel, we got our bags organized and set off down the street at noon. We took a brief break at the Visitor’s Center to take advantage of the WiFi and order some shoes, and we were on our way.
The trail out of town crosses the French Broad River and then cuts upstream, paralleling the river for a ways. Then it zig-zags up the mountain face, providing better and better views of the town and the river the higher we climbed.
On our way out along the river, we met Elvis, who had decided to start hiking from Hot Springs. He was sitting by his pack snacking and asked if he could join us. We said sure, and watched him “pack up.” It was immediately evident that he was a complete newbie. The first clue was the huge Stanley thermos stuck in his pack. The second clue was that he didn’t securely fasten his hip belt. For those who don’t hike, the hip belt is the most important part of the pack: it should cinch down above your iliac crest (hip bones) and should carry the majority of the weight. The shoulder straps are only there to stabilize the load and keep it from pulling you backward. We helped him make a few adjustments to his pack and we were off.
We hiked a little over eight miles to a campsite that was near a fire tower. I hiked well ahead of Gavin and Elvis, and eventually, Gavin passed him by. We arrived at the campsite before 6:00 and began setting up our tents. We were there with Seth and Brooks and Seth’s dog Zaffer. Though we had seen them at Standing Bear, we hadn’t really met them or talked to them much, but they were good company.
As we were finishing our supper, Elvis staggered into the campsite. He set about pitching his tent and immediately ran into an issue: he had never put his tent up before, so he didn’t know how. Brooks and I tried to help him get his ground sheet attached and left him to finish. Before long, it was apparent that the rain fly he had was nothing more than a 4’ x 6’ square tarp, which was not the correct fly for his tent. Knowing that there was a chance of rain that night, I helped him rig the tarp between two trees and his trekking poles to keep him from drowning if it came a downpour. Thankfully it didn’t rain and he survived the night.
We set out the next morning with our sights on Little Laurel Shelter, 11.3 miles ahead. Seth and Brooks went ahead of us, and Gavin, Elvis, and I left together. As is usual, I hiked on ahead of Gavin. I’m not sure if Gavin was self-conscious of passing Elvis, or if he thought Elvis needed a friend, but the two of them hiked together for a while. Eventually we came to a road crossing where I waited a few minutes on them. The other two guys had crossed the road and were resting and snacking on the other side, so we all pulled up for a few minutes. Seth and Brooks were looking for hostel options and Elvis decided he would check out opportunities for work-for-stay. Apparently he was able to find something, because we all made it to Little Laurel without him that evening.
Our original plan for Sunday was to stop at Jerry Cabin Shelter, a little over 7 miles away. Unfortunately, that would leave us a 10-mile trip on Monday to Laurel Hostel and it was supposed to be raining. After looking at the elevation profile of the trail we (I) decided that we should push on to Flint Mountain Shelter, 14.1 miles ahead, so that we didn’t have to hike so much in the rain Monday.
The trail Sunday wasn’t too tough for most of the day, but we did have some great views. We passed a section hiker fairly early on who advised us to take the “bad weather trail” around Big Firescald Knob. We opted for the white-blazed trail and even though some of the rock scrambles were tough, the views were among the best we’ve seen. Near the summit was Howard’s Rock, a precipice large enough to spread out and eat lunch on, and the view from there was phenomenal. Gavin and I both agreed that unless the weather is a full-on lightening storm, taking the side trail around Firescald Knob would be a huge mistake!
From Firescald to Jerry Cabin was mostly downhill and we crossed a big milestone: 300 miles! We stopped there briefly to rest and then continued on up the trail. We had a small climb to Big Butt Mountain, which also involved some rock scrambling. Once, I had to pass my trekking poles down to Gavin so I could use my hands to climb down one particularly tricky section. Though the views weren’t quite as exquisite as the ones from Firescald, we were again glad we didn’t take the “bad weather trail” around this peak.
With Big Butt Mtn. behind us, the rest of the trip in the afternoon was a gradual downhill until just at the end. Then it turned into a knee-straining downhill. It was one of the most strenuous descents we have had since the 4-mile section just before the NOC. Just after that, we had a slight uphill section of less than a mile to the shelter. After bragging all afternoon how great the trail was and how wonderful the weather had been, about 0.2 miles from the shelter it started drizzling. We made it there quickly and began unpacking our stuff to set up for the night. Seth, Brooks, Zaffer, and the two of us had the shelter to ourselves that night and it was very peaceful. The shelter opened to the east and a sunrise viewing was briefly mentioned, but we all decided quickly that that was highly unlikely.
One highlight of the Flint Mountain Shelter was a bit of trail magic we encountered there. A man and his wife who are trail volunteers with the Carolina Mountain Club came by to check out the trail and see if the privy needed attention. His wife brought with her some individual bags of chips and a box of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies. Needless to say, they didn’t last long with hungry hikers nearby.
This morning we got up and out more quickly than usual and hiked the three miles down to Rector Laurel Rd. where the Laurel hostel is. I can really tell that Gavin and I are getting faster, especially on level trail or gradual downhill sections. We covered the distance in just over an hour. We were blessed that the rain that was forecast held off until about an hour after we arrived at the hostel.
The Laurel Hostel is mentioned in AWOL’s guide, but there is little said in Guthook about the place. Upon arrival, I realize that once again, we may not have chosen the optimal place to stay for the night, but the shower was great and our laundry is done. The living quarters are not optimal, but it is no worse than staying in a shelter. Later this afternoon, we are going to get a shuttle into town to resupply (at $15/head). Live and learn, I suppose. I expect this will be a cash only deal, so I’ll have to remember to get some when I buy groceries. Tomorrow morning, we’re back on the trail, heading for Erwin by the weekend.
As always, we appreciate you for taking the time to read about our trip. We never cease to be amazed at the kindness of both our friends, and more surprisingly, the many folks whom we don’t know at all who are following along. We have received generous offers of Trail Magic all along the trail and we are most thankful for it. Again, thanks, and remember to just keep taking the Next Step!