The Smoky Mountains section of the trail was the most beautiful terrain I have ever hiked through (and this is coming from someone who lives in the Blue Mountains and has spent a lot of time hiking in Tasmania). Each day walking through these mountains was more spectacular than the last. I don’t know if the photos I’ve taken can possibly do it justice, but I’ll share a few of the highlights.
First things first, some details about passage through the Smokies. There is a permit system in place for thru-hikers, whereby entry costs you $20 and you get 8 days from point of entry to make your way through the national park. You are required to stay in or around shelters (in them if there is space available, or in the vicinity of a shelter in a tent if they are full), unlike other sections of the trail where you can pitch pretty much anywhere you can find a level bit of space. If a section hiker/weekender arrives at a shelter with a reservation, the last thru-hiker to have arrived has to vacate the space to make room (they have a different booking system – we get a very good deal at $20 – it works out to be about $3 a day for a thru-hiker to stay in the park). The Smoky Mountains NP is the most visited NP in the United States, so these regulations mean that while the shelters themselves can get quite congested during peak season, the rest of the park remains pristine, despite the amount of foot traffic it receives. The only thing about the permit system I would do differently would be to add an option of paying a little more for an extra couple of days in the NP in order to allow time for some of the side trails.For the six nights I was in the park, I stayed in the following shelters/tent sites/towns:
- Mollies Ridge – 12 miles – tent
- Derrick Knob – 12 miles – shelter
- Double Spring Gap – 7.5 miles – shelter
- Gatlinburg – 11 miles – town visit (resupply, washing, bed)
- Peck’s Corner – 10 miles – tent
- Cosby Knob – 13 miles – shelter
- Davenport Gap (lodging Knoxville) – 8 miles
You bond quite strongly with your fellow hikers through the Smokies. Could be something to do with the close quarters of those shelters 😉. Or the fact that you’re in pretty remote wilderness together, with the possibility of bears around every corner (no bear sightings yet). Or the commiseration over aching and swollen feet and joints. Or the shared ascents to breathtaking views. Some combination of all these factors allows for kinship ties to form quickly and easily and keeps you alert to the wellbeing and safe passage of your new family. Word travels quickly up and down the trail, by foot and mouth (not that kind!), via shelter register entries, and through online journalling in all its forms. Mobile tech means we have ever improved means of tracking each other’s progress.
Our third day in the Smokies was a short 7.5 mile hike to Double Spring Gap, where we all sheltered from the storm. No one hiked a long day that day. It was crazy weather, arriving a little after lunch and lasting through the night. I learned of the benefits of shelters that night. But having been in my sleeping bag since 2pm, I was ready to hike again by midnight…
Clingman’s was completely covered in fog when we climbed the tower in the morning, so we drove up for another (more successful) attempt after the day’s hiking was done. Quite a climb from the carpark. Poor Wes did it twice that day. There was a family running up the steep incline, with the youngest periodically collapsing into a wailing mess, then regrouping for another sprint. We were having a good laugh with her parents who had a remarkable talent for humouring her lows and encouraging her highs, cajoling her up the path in stopstart increments, and informing us at one point that she was on about her 14th wind. Despite our own steady pace, and her numerous refusals to continue, she beat us to the top. We high-fived her heroic effort (I high-fived all four kids, one of whom was dressed as Batman: “go team!”) snapped a couple of chilly pics, admired the distant mountains in all four directions and descended once again.
Wes took my photo at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line while at Newfound Gap, (I have now hiked in three states, though I will continue to weave in and out of TN & NC for a couple more weeks, with a further stretch in the north-eastern corner of TN before entering Virginia).
After our successful quest for views at Clingman’s Dome, we headed to Gatlinburg where I checked into my hotel, then out for dinner at the Trout Lodge (I’ve gone pescetarian for the duration of the hike), in operation since 1975, and proudly claiming to still have people working there that had been serving since the 80s (no exaggeration. Seriously, Wes can vouch for this). We dined on catfish (Suttree style!), hush puppies and housemade coleslaw. Ah, southern food! Delicious!
Now Gatlinburg was a shock to my system when I drove up from the city 3 years ago, so imagine the jolt I received arriving after four days in the backcountry. Think Vegas in a peaceful mountain setting. Good grief, sensory overload. Wes says he can remember when it was a sweet little sleepy town. It is a place of crazy contrasts now. Let’s just say I was relieved to get my butt back on the trail.
I virtually ran up the trail from Newfound Gap to Charlie’s Bunyon. Not sure how much of that was the three cups of coffee I’d consumed for breakfast, how much was the result of the previous day’s slackpack, and how much was the acquisition of ‘trail legs’, but it was a strange sensation, cruising past dayhikers whilst carrying a 35 pound pack!
The stretch from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap has been my favourite of the trail so far. Charlie’s Bunyon was awe-inspiring and the ‘sawteeth’ that followed was a totally unexpected miles-long stretch of knife edge, the trail literally traversing the very top of an incredibly narrow ridge-line, with unhindered views to the mountains of North Carolina on the right and Tennessee on the left. You wouldn’t want to be up there in high winds, that’s for sure. At Charlie’s Bunyon, a mother was saying to her husband and son: “I don’t want either of you going any closer to that edge!” Now where have I heard that sentiment before?! 😉 (I think that poor mother would have had several heart attacks in the 6 mile stretch from Charlie’s Bunyon to Peck’s Corner shelter, had she kept on hiking!) But I was loving it. I still can’t get the grin off my face! I don’t know if I’ve ever been quite that on top of the world before.
It was so cold overnight that the trail actually froze. All those little streams that usually run down sections of trail had become treacherous skating slip’n’slides. Thank goodness for those trekking poles I picked up in Franklin (message for Stitch: I am fully convinced now of the awesomeness of the poles)! It was too cold even to snow (ok, I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it certainly felt like it). Met a gent at Cosby Knob shelter who carries a thermometer and he said he measured 27F (-3C) without windchill (and the windchill factor was significant) overnight. I was thankful for every item of clothing I had with me, and even more thankful for the 5F rated sleeping bag my parents gave me for my birthday last year. I stayed warm through the night, only realising how cold it was when I emerged from my iced-up tent in the morning.
The final night at Cosby Knob was chilly, but nothing like the previous eve, so I was pleasantly surprised when I hit the trail a little after 7am (with sunrise at approx 7:15) and discovered I could actually function without gloves. I came across Conductor at the top of the last climb before the descent to Davenport Gap, and we chatted the whole way down. Having someone to chat with makes descending so much less painful on the joints! Conductor was a hiker who had been consistently one day ahead of me up until Fontana. His was a name I kept seeing and hearing, and which generated much speculation as to its possible meanings. Was he a train conductor? A music conductor? A lightning rod? A heat conductor? You can imagine my delight when I finally met him and was able to ask him in person. As it turns out, it was none of the above, but the fact that he carries a stick in order to wave away the (numerous) spider webs that crisscross the path. I witnessed this entertaining phenomenon all the way down the hill to Davenport Gap, where I was met by Wes (my knight in shining armour!), who presented me with an apple (best apple I think I have ever eaten!) and subsequently drove me into Knoxville, to my hotel and lunch at The Tomato Head. Bread! Fresh ingredients! Coffee! Heaven!
Have I mentioned how much I love this city?!! I have to go over the final proofs for the McCarthy collection and finalise the index while I am here, then I think my bookish responsibilities will be complete and I’ll be able to focus primarily on the hike. I am super excited to be back in Suttree country, and to be able to share a beer with Wes and with Jack Neely (whose book about the history of Knoxville’s Market Square I picked up yesterday from Union Ave books upon Wes’s recommendation). They had copies of Suttree on display as you walked in the bookstore door. Nothing like a city that takes pride in their awesome author. Warm fuzzies!