Backpacking The Great Smoky Mountains: Nov. 2009

With the boat in storage until May 2010, our adventures are now land based. Our first trip consists of backpacking the entire 78 miles of the Appalachian Trail through the Smoky Mountains.

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For those not familiar with the Appalachian Trail (AT), it is a continuous, marked footpath which extends almost 2200 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia in the south to Katahdin, Maine. Each year there are over 1000 hikers who hike the entire trail along with many section hikers like us who use this fabulous trail system for day and overnight hikes. We are fortunate to live within a few hours of the trail and have hiked most of the AT in Georgia. Below is a daily log of our most recent hike.

Day One: Fontana Dam to Mollies Ridge Shelter- Tuesday Nov. 3rd

We arrived in the Smoky Mountains yesterday and left our car at Clingmans Dome which is the half way point for our hiking trip. At the south end of the park is a small motel with eight rooms called The Hike Inn. The owners, Jeff and Nancy, offer shuttle services for hikers. Nancy met us at Clingmans Dome and shuttled us to their motel where we spent the night. This morning, Nancy’s husband, Jeff, shuttled us to our starting point at Fontana Dam which is only a few miles from their motel.

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We arrived to Fontana Dam at 7:20 AM this morning to begin our trip. It is a beautiful day to begin our hike with not a cloud in the sky. We say goodbye to Jeff and walk the footpath across the Dam.

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It isn’t long before we begin our long ascent up Shuckstack Mountain. We can already feel the weight of our heavy backpacks. Jeff’s backpack weighs over 60 pounds.

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My pack weights around 40 pounds. We expect this to be one of our hardest days as we have over 4000 feet to climb before reaching our shelter for the evening. Just an hour into our hike, we are joined by a park ranger. We learn that he has been hiking along this section for the past few days in search of plants not indigenous to this area. As we are hiking, he mentions that he saw two bears in this area yesterday. No sooner does he say this, do we come around a bend in the trail and see a large black bear feeding just a few hundred feet off the trail. The bear looks up at us as we come to a complete halt. He doesn’t seem at all afraid of us and resumes feeding. We continue down the trail getting even closer to the bear. This is a really big bear.

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He looks up once again and tilts his nose into the air seeming to smell our scent. He then resumes his business of finding food. After snapping a few pictures, we politely leave Mr. Bear alone and continue slowly plodding our way up the mountain. During the day, we pass five thru-hikers who are hiking the entire trail from Maine to Georgia. They started at Katahdin in June and are less than a month away from finishing their hike.

After seven hours of hiking, we reach our stop for the evening, Mollies Ridge Shelter. Most shelters along the AT are three sided structures with a wooden platform inside for sleeping. Tent camping is not allowed inside the Smoky Mountains and a back country permit is required to stay at each shelter. At times it can be difficult to get reservations at these shelters as they usually only hold 12 people. Usually three spots are reserved for thru hikers as they are not required to make advance reservations at these shelters.

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This shelter is very nice with both a lower and upper bunk for sleeping. There is a tarp over the front to block the wind. A water source is near by. The park has posted a sign here warning that bears are active in this area. Several years ago, most of the shelters had metal fences around each shelter to keep the bears out. The park has since removed most of these fences. It seems that people were feeding the bears though the chain link fences thus creating even more problems with the bears.

Our first task when arriving at a shelter is to collect and filter water for our evening dinner. While Jeff is doing this, I set up our sleeping bags in the shelter. We are soon enjoying a great dinner of creamy potato soup and then butter herb pasta with tuna. Desert is a Milky Way and Reece Cup candy bar along with hot chocolate. We are joined this evening by a thru hiker whose trail name is Nexus. Most thru hikers use trail names in place of their regular names while hiking on the AT. We enjoy a pleasant evening listing to the trials and tribulations of Nexus’s thru hike. Today was his 2000th mile. We are all in bed by 6:00 PM.

Miles Hiked: 10
Feet Climbed: 4300
Hiking time: 7 hours
Elevation at Mollies Ridge Shelter: 4300

Day 2: Mollies Ridge Shelter to Spence Field Shelter- Wed. Nov. 4th

Today is our shortest hiking day with only 6.5 miles to our next shelter. After a quick breakfast of hot chocolate and Cliff bars, we are underway by 9:00 AM. My feet are already suffering from blisters and I am now hiking in running shoes instead of my hiking boots. It is another warm day with temperatures reaching the mid 60’s. After three miles of hiking, we come to Russell Field. This shelter is closed due to aggressive bear activity.

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The hiking today is fairly easy and we reach Spence Field Shelter around 1:00 PM, just in time for a great hot lunch of tortilla soup.

This is another very nice shelter situated in a clearing with mountains surrounding us on all sides. We again find the water source very close. This shelter also has a privy which is always an added bonus.

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The park is conducting research on the effectiveness of this privy. There is a floor mat which counts the number of people who use these facilities. The study is also analyzing how efficiently the waist is decomposed.

While reading the trail journal for this shelter, we learn that the bears have been very active here. Two hikers, Momma Monkey and Baby Monkey, stayed here last night and saw a mother bear with her cub. Their log says that the baby bear took a nap just feet from the shelter. On another night this week, a hiker had his cook pot stolen during the night by a bear. All shelters in the Smokies have bear cables for hanging food at night. I think tonight, we will also hang our packs on these bear cables.

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This evening we are joined by three section hikers. For dinner we have mashed potatoes and beef jerky followed by a Reece Cup and Milky Way for desert.

Miles Hiked: 6.5
Feet Climbed: 1400
Hiking Time: 4 hours
Elevation at Spence Field Shelter: 4910

Day 3: Spence Field to Silers Bald- Thursday Nov. 5th

We are up at 7:00 AM for a long day of hiking. Frost is on the ground this morning. We are still not very efficient at packing and don’t break camp until 8:30. It is another beautiful day for hiking. We have really been fortunate with the weather this week.

We have some really crazy ups and downs all day long. We climb one really steep mountain only to go straight down and then right back up another mountain. This continues all day.

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It is an extremely tough day of hiking. Our hard efforts are rewarded with some beautiful views from the mountain tops.

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There is lots of bear scat along the trails but we never see any of the bears.

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At one point, we have a great view of Clingmans Dome. It is hard to believe we will be hiking there tomorrow. After 6.2 miles, we stop for lunch at Derrick Knob Shelter. Peanut butter sandwiches never tasted so good.

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We continue plodding up one mountain after another for the rest of the day. After eight hours of hiking we finally reach Silers Bald. It was a very hard day and we are both really tired. My feet are aching.

Momma Monkey, Baby Monkey, and two thru hikers are here. We have been following both Momma and Baby Monkey in the trail logs for the last few days. It is great to finally catch up with them. Baby Monkey gives us the trail name “The Adventurers”. She is in 3rd grade and has lots of energy even after hiking all day.

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Dinner tonight is pasta with broccoli and chicken and then beef stew. Milky Ways are for desert. It is dark by 6:00 PM. The stars are magnificent tonight but unfortunately it is too cold to spend too much time outside. We are in bed by 7:30 PM.

Miles Hiked: 11.5
Feet Climbed: 3980
Feet Descended: 3490
Hiking Time: 8 ½ hours
Elevation at Silers Bald: 5460

Day 4: Silers Bald to Mt. Collins- Friday Nov. 6th

There is frost on the ground again this morning. It was below freezing last night but we stayed warm in the shelter. Our sleeping bags are rated to -15 degrees and kept us nice and toasty throughout the chilly night. Luckily, there were no signs of mice or bear during the night. Shelters are usually overrun with mice. It is unpleasant to say the least when a mice crawls over you while sleeping. We are always very careful to hang all of our food on the bear cables before going to bed. The park service seems to be doing a great job with keeping the mice to a minimum at the shelters in the Smokies.

We say goodbye to Momma Monkey and Baby Monkey and are on the trail by 8:30. We are gradually becoming more efficient at packing up each morning. Just up the hill from the shelter, we reach the crest of Silers Bald with an elevation of 5607 feet. From here we have some great views of both Mt. LeConte and Clingmans Dome.

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High mountains are visible in all directions. The trail then enters a forested area of beech trees where we once again see lots of bear scat. Just after passing the Double Springs Gap shelter, we again climb to the top of Mt. Buckley at 6582 feet. Mt. LeConte is very prominent from here.

We reach Clingmans Dome at 11:30. This is both the highest point in the Smoky Mountains and also of the entire Appalachian Trail with an altitude of 6643 feet. Our car was left here for two reasons. One, we need to resupply our food. It was just too much weight to carry eight days of food in our packs. The other reason for leaving our car here was that if needed we could easily come off the trail at the ½ way point without additional shuttles. When we started our hike, we weren’t 100 % convinced that we were in physical shape to hike the entire Smokies. We have had only one month to prepare for this hike and we weren’t’ sure our bodies were ready for this challenge. Also, my feet were already suffering from blisters even before beginning our hike. As we resupply our packs with another 20 pounds of food, it is very tempting to just hop in the car and enjoy a nice meal and comfortable warm bed down in Gatlinburg. We resist the temptation, and are soon heading back to the trail.

As we hike along the ½ mile paved trail from the Clingmans Dome parking lot up to the observation tower, we get lots of looks from the throng of people who are out for the day just hiking the ½ mile from their car to the observation tower.

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We feel like wild animals in a zoo with all the people watching us. We are very much out of place with our heavy packs and stinky smells from not having bathed in several days. Everyone asks us the same questions such as: How much does your pack weigh? Where are you going? Are you going to spend the night up there?. Several people ask to take our pictures. Do we really look that strange? We are relieved to soon reach the AT and leave civilization behind once again.

It is mostly downhill for the remainder of the day. We soon reach the trail junction for the Mount Collins Shelter. To reach this shelter we must hike another ½ mile off of the AT. We arrive at the shelter to find it completely empty.

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This shelter has just been renovated and is very nice. Posted on the outside is another warning of bears being in the area. After collecting and purifying water from the nearby stream, we enjoy another great dinner.

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Tonight we have navy bean soup for starters and then red beans and rice. Our standard desert of a Reeces Cup and Milky Way follow along with hot chocolate. We retreat to our sleeping bags soon afterwards. Once the sun goes down the temperatures really drop.

Around 7:30 PM we hear hikers approaching in the dark. They poke their head into the shelter and we say hello. The next thing we know they are gone. It seems that they have decided to set up their tents nearby in the woods. I guess they didn’t want to disturb us. Tent camping is illegal here in the park and I wonder if they know that. The park service is trying very hard to eliminate direct contact with hikers and bears. It is comforting to have other people in the area. Let’s just hope a ranger doesn’t see them as he will make them move.

Miles Hiked: 9.5
Feet Climbed: 2710
Feet Descended: 2290
Time Hiking: 7.5 hours
Elevation at Mt. Collins Shelter: 5840

Day 5 Mt. Collins to Ice Water Shelter- Sat. Nov. 7th:

Today we have a short hiking day of only about 8 miles. While packing up camp, we enjoy a simple breakfast of pop tarts, oatmeal, and hot chocolate.

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As we are leaving camp, we pass the tent hikers that came in after dark last night. They got a late start yesterday and hiked from Clingmans Dome in the dark. They did not want to disturb us so they decided to set up their tents not realizing that it was illegal.

We continue downhill for most of the morning. There are no views today as the trail stays within the confines of the interior forest.

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Many of the tall trees have been blown down in what must have been some very strong winds. These massive trees have been completely uprooted.

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It looks like pick up sticks with the trees all jumbled amongst the forest.

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The trail parallels the road and we can hear lots of cars just through the woods. We cross the main road at Newfound Gap and are again overwhelmed with people in the parking lot. All of the weekend warriors are out enjoying the great views of the gap here at the TN/NC border. We again feel very out of place and quickly retreat to the trail.

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We continue to pass many of the weekenders hiking along the trail. Most hike from the parking lot for only a mile or two before returning back to their car.

The trail continues uphill through the hardwood forest for the remainder of the afternoon.

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I guess this is our pay back for the down hills we had this morning. We reach our home for the evening, Ice Water Springs Shelter, at 1:00 PM. This shelter has some magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.

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Several southbound thru hikers stop here for lunch before continuing on. It is a nice warm day outside. We spend the remainder of the afternoon chatting with some of the hikers as they stop by for a rest before continuing on to their stop for the evening. Most of the thru hikers are doing 20+ mile days and don’t stop until dark. One other thru hiker, Cave Man, along with four section hikers from Kentucky join us for the evening. Dinner tonight is beef jerky and Spanish rice followed by a Reece Cup and Milky Way along with hot chocolate.

Miles Hiked: 8 miles
Feet Climbed: 1870
Feet Descended: 1760
Time Hiking: 5 hours
Elevation at Ice Water Shelter: 5910

Day 6 Ice Water to Tri Corner Shelter- Sunday Nov. 8th:

Today is our longest day of the trip with 12.5 miles ahead of us. In order to get an early start, we decide not to heat water for breakfast this morning. Energy bars along the trail will have to do. We are underway by 7:30AM. Just one mile outside camp, we reach Charlies Bunion. This is a popular hiking destination with magnificent views from the precipitous peak. It is another warm day with temperatures in the low 70’s. Who would have thought we would be hiking in shorts through the Smokies in November. This section of the trail continues to amaze us with its fantastic vistas.

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Around every corner is another stunning view of the Smoky Mountains. There are lots of ridge walks with views of the mountains on both sides. This is by far our most scenic day of this trip.

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Our plan was to have lunch at Pecks Corner Shelter. We reach the junction for the shelter only to discover that Pecks Shelter is ½ mile hike off of the main trail. If this wasn’t such a long day we might not mind hiking the extra mile round trip. With another six miles to go, we opt to have lunch here along the trail and bypass going to the shelter. We are both low on water and had planed on getting some at the shelter. Hopefully, we can find another water source along the trail.

After a lunch of power bars, we continue on. Our feet are feeling the effects of the multiple days of hiking. Our last climb of the day is Mt. Chapman at 6250 feet. The legs are tired and we have really slowed down trudging up this mountain. Out of water, we continue to look for a spring but never see any near the trail. We are very happy to finally reach our shelter, Tri Corner Knob. It took us 7 ½ hours to hike this section. Cave Man, the thru hiker who was with us last night, hiked this section in six hours. This just shows how conditioned these thru hikers are. Another hiker, Dan from Florida, is already here.

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This shelter is very interesting. A resident guinea fowl lives here.

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Several hikers have named him Ricardo. He is a beggar for sure. Ricardo constantly follows us around looking for handouts. We were also warned earlier today by some hikers that the bears were very active at this shelter. It seems that for the last two evenings the bears have been trying to get in the shelter at night. Last night, the hikers were up all night throwing rocks at the bears. The previous night, a bear stole one of the hiker’s packs. He then promptly took the pack up on the shelter roof where he proceeded to rip it into shreds. I was really glad when we arrived to see another hiker here. It would be a little nerve wracking to spend the night here alone. Safety in numbers I guess.

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Several other thru hikers, Country Runner, Ms. Jelly Bean, and Fleeger join us this evening along with three other section hikers. Dinner tonight is Tortilla soup followed by mashed potatoes with chicken. Dinner is finished by our standard desert of a Reece Cup and Milky Way candy bar along with hot chocolate.

After hanging our packs, we decide to fasten the wind tarp which covers the front of the shelter just in case bears try to get in. It seemed to work as the bears never showed up during the night.

Total Miles Hiked: 12.5
Total Feet Climbed: 2780
Total Feet Descended: 2810
Total Hiking Time: 7 ½ hours
Elevation at Tri Corner Shelter: 5780

Day 7: Tri Corner to Cosby Knob Shelter- Monday Nov. 9th:

Everyone is up very early this morning. The thru hikers have a 20+ mile day and are eager to get underway at first light. We heat some water for hot chocolate before getting underway at 7:30 AM. The guinea foul has returned and is again begging for food. It is still warm but the clouds are starting to roll in. I think our nice weather is getting ready to change.

We are both feeling pretty good today. The legs and feet are now used to the daily hiking. When we first started our hike, we were not to sure about finishing. Now we both feel pretty confident about that. It is a good feeling to have most of the hard stuff behind us. We have a long climb up Mt. Guyot. The elevation at the top is 6360 feet. This is the highest point in the Eastern part of the Smokies along the AT. As we are heading down the mountain, we pass pieces of what appears to be a plane wreck in the woods just off the trail.

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As we descend into lower elevations, we see lots of ferns and mountain laurel along the trail. The forest growth has changed from coniferous to deciduous. We hike the entire trail without passing a single hiker. Where has everyone gone?

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We reach the Cosby Knob shelter around noon to find it completely empty. This is another nice shelter with a privy and water source only 100 feet from the shelter.

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We have a different lunch today of oatmeal and hot chocolate. It tastes really good.

The clouds continue to build during the day. Rain is on the way. Two thru hikers stop for lunch followed by three section hikers who are staying overnight. A group of six arrives at 5:00 PM. They were planning on having dinner here and then continuing on to the next shelter. By continuing, they would be hiking until at least 10:00 PM. We can’t believe they are thinking about going on. This is the first backpacking trip ever for two of these hikers. All of them look really tired except the leader who wants to push on. At some point he realizes that continuing is not a good choice. The group decides to stay here. By dark, we have 13 people in a shelter meant for 12. It is full at the Inn tonight!

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We enjoy one of our best dinners on the trail tonight of Teriyaki Rice with tuna followed by a Reece Cup and Moon Pie. It was really tasty or maybe we were just really hungry.

Total Miles Hiked: 7.6
Total Feet Climbed: 1110
Total Feet Descended: 2200
Total Hiking Time: 4 hours 20 min.
Elevation at Cosby Knob Shelter: 4620

Day 8: Cosby Knob Shelter to Davenport Gap- Tuesday Nov. 10th

Rain, Rain, and more Rain. Those are the words for today. It started raining around 2:00 AM this morning and the rain continues all day long. This rain is the outer band from tropical storm Ida. We don’t bother heating water for breakfast and are underway by 7:30 AM. Just out of camp, we descend 750 feet to Low Gap only to climb those 750 feet back up Mt. Cammerer. Here we take the mile side trail out to the Mt. Cammerer tower. We must negotiate several rock scrambles to reach the tower. The rocks are extremely slick from the rain and we must be very careful not to twist an ankle. This historic stone tower offers 360 degree views of the Smoky Mountains on a clear day. Today we can not see a thing. The clouds have us completely socked in. We do enjoy a few minutes of relief from the pouring rain inside the tower before continuing on. From here it is downhill the remaining five miles to Davenport Gap. Good friends, Phillip and Catherine, are here to shuttle us back to our car. They surprise us with a mug of hot soup which hits the spot. After shuttling us to our car we enjoy a great meal with Phillip and Catherine at a local Italian restaurant in Gatlinburg.

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Total Miles Hiked: 8.50
Total Feet Climbed: 1180
Total Feet Descended: 3850
Total Hiking Time: 5 ½ hours
Elevation at Davenport Gap: 2050

This was a fantastic trip. We had exceptional weather almost every day except for rain the last day. Even in the rain, The Smokies hold their own beauty. It is bitter sweet to be leaving the trail. Maybe someday we will be one of those thru hikers. For now we will resume training for our next adventure, Everest Base Camp in April 2010.

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