We have to admit we crossed into Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) with a grudge. Without our dogs for the first time on the trail, and paying $40 for our “backcountry permits” that required we stay in poorly dispersed shelters along the trail was not exactly a winning combination. In turn, we cranked out the mileage – covering roughly 75 miles in five days*!
*Correction, it was more like four days – three full and two halves! Brent wanted to make sure I was clear on that – haha!
The toughest moment on the trail thus far came when Curtis, the boys sitter for the week, rolled up to the Fontana Marina trail crossing. The four of us piled into his Subaru and traveled the two miles up to Fontana Village Resort, where final goodbyes were exchanged, tears were fought, and Lewis wailed and whined as they drove away without us. The good news was we were at a resort that doesn’t allow dogs but is kind enough to offer a significantly discounted rate to thru-hikers. So, we took advantage of the situation, showered multiple times, and ate from an extravagant breakfast buffet before hitting the trail.
Leaving Fontana Dam and entering GSMNP was a whole lot of what we had already seen, and we joked often that we “expected the Smoky’s to be a little smokier than this!” Down the trail we would soon encounter just that, but beforehand the weather had to change to wind and rain; ultimately driving us into a shelter for the night. It was our first experience staying in a shelter, nearly 200 miles in the trail, and we weren’t exactly looking forward to it. Luckily, a familiar face, ‘Ace’ was there, and quickly made room for us on the bottom bunk next to her. We survived it and were happy the next morning when we weren’t packing up a wet tent. Between the snoring strangers and visiting rodents we’re not eager to do it again anytime soon.
The further we hiked into the park the more beautiful the terrain and views became. Towards the center is Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point we’ll cross on the Appalachian Trail at 6,655 feet above sea level. The weather was ideal when we reached it and we were able to take in grand views in every direction, especially of the smoke billowing in from the east. The northern end of the park was even more impressive. The trail would weave into dark, dense, lush forest one mile, to an exposed rocky face complete with incredible views the next. Not only the views, but the intense scent from the spruce trees was so refreshing and memorable. We recently learned that GSMNP has more varieties of trees than all of Europe. With the inspiration of reuniting with our boys we achieved our first 20+ mile day while in GSMNP. Afterwards, at camp that night, we consumed three separate dinners and an Aleve for dessert!
Overall the Smoky’s were enjoyable but disaster did strike at one point. While taking a rest at Newfound Gap our hiking stick (which we have named NoBo, short for Northbound) went missing. We were both devastated by the discovery, and thought the worst as dozens of tourists came and went in their cars. After frantically searching for it we had to move on, hiking three miles uphill in silence and with great distance from one another. Sure, it was just a hiking stick not something we relied on heavily like our water purifier but it is what it symbolized that was so upsetting. We were randomly gifted it, by someone who only knew us a few brief moments and had entrusted us to take it the length of the entire trail. By the time we reached camp for the night both of our spirits seemed beyond repair until we spotted NoBo, laying there amongst a pile of trekking poles. Luck was on our side, that a hiker instead of a tourist picked it up, certain he’d find it’s rightful owner heading north somewhere down the trail. We both agree, that was probably the best trail magic we’ve received yet.
Additionally, it was impossible not to notice there was a general sense of urgency amongst Thru-Hikers to put this leg of the AT behind them. We thought we would be alone in our desire to move through GSMNP quickly, knowing we could be with our dogs on the other end as soon as our feet would allow. Some blamed the regulations that came with the park, others feared bad weather, but most, as well as ourselves, felt the weight of what finishing the GSMNP leg of the AT signified: we northbound thru-hikers were now over 10% done with the trail.
We descended out of the park to a pile of trail magic: sodas and assorted packages of treats. Pausing only briefly to consume what we’d been anonymously gifted, we speed hiked the three additional miles past the park to where our boys had been staying. The reunion made all the soreness and long days put in worth it, even if peeing all over us is the boys idea of showing how much we were missed. We both are relieved knowing they won’t be leaving our sides again until the final day of hiking the trail, when we enter Baxter State Park in Maine and climb up Mount Katahdin.
Below is all the pictures we are able to share for now – watch for a follow up post of more GSMNP photos to come.